The Notre Dame Fighting Irish start off October with an even bigger challenge than last week as they host the high-powered Cincinnati Bearcats. That means that Irish head Brian Kelly won’t have time to renew acquaintances he established during his four-year tenure as head coach of the Bearcats from 2006-09.
Cincinnati is coming off a bye week and brings a spotless 3-0 mark with them. Bearcats head coach Luke Fickel is in his fifth season at Cincy and has compiled a 38-14 record during that span and 34-6 after a bumpy first season. Fickel’s team is averaging 43 points a game this season, which will put major pressure on the Notre Dame defensive unit.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch in this important clash:
QB Jack Coan vs. Cincinnati Defense
Right now, Coan is expected back behind center after being forced out of the Wisconsin game with an ankle injury. Keeping him upright has been a problem so far with a line that’s given up 20 sacks. He’s got multiple receiving threats at his disposal, but would truly be aided by a consistent running attack that was MIA on Saturday.
In Cincinnati’s first two games, the Bearcat defense had few problems against the likes of Miami of Ohio and Murray State. However, they found themselves trailing 14-0 before coming back for a 38-24 win. Two Hoosier turnovers in the red zone helped stop any upset hopes and shows that like the Irish, Cincinnati can deliver defensively when it counts.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Desmond Ritter
Over the past two games, Irish defenders have only given up one touchdown in each contest as well as a pair of field goals. That’s a welcome improvement from a late slide against Florida State and a shaky effort against Toledo, but in this particular case, keeping the Bearcats offense off the field as much as possible is perhaps the best strategy.
That assessment is because Ritter is one of the top signal-callers at the collegiate level and can be deadly through the air and by using his legs. He’s already thrown seven touchdown passes this season and has 64 for his career, with his mobility having resulted in 24 touchdowns on the ground. In short, he’s the best quarterback this Irish defense has faced this season.
LT Michael Carmody vs. DE Myjai Sanders
Carmody has been out since spraining his ankle against Toledo and would be a welcome sight if he’s able to return. He was held out against Wisconsin, but freshman Tosh Baker struggled with the Badger defenders and allowed a blindside hit on Drew Pyne that resulted in a turnover. That sort of mistake can’t happen against the player the caliber of Sanders, so the hope is that Carmody takes the field again.
Sanders is expected to be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft after two outstanding seasons with Cincinnati. While his numbers are down this year, that’s more a testament to teams avoiding him than any decline in effort. He plays the run well and is an explosive pass rusher from the blind side, a Notre Dame flaw against Wisconsin that resulted in a turnover.
CB Clarence Lewis vs. WR Alec Pierce
Lewis was good enough to start as a freshman last season and put together an effective year. He then collected his first interception in this year’s opener against Florida State. However, he was overshadowed in the Wisconsin victory by fellow corner Cam Hart and needs to refine his technique not only in this game but in the weeks ahead.
Pierce presents a big target at 6-feet-4 and is presently the leading receiver on a team that’s had 14 different players collect at least one reception. He missed a portion of last season with a knee injury but is back to being a favorite target of Ritter. The combination of his speed and route running make him a potential threat.
WR Kevin Austin vs. CB Ahmad Gardner
Among the talented wideouts on the Irish, Austin leads the team with 14 catches on the year, including three scores. Two of those touchdowns came against Wisconsin and came after a rough game against Purdue that included multiple drops. Against Gardner, Austin needs to make the types of grabs he did against the Badgers, which included a juggling catch and a shoestring effort.
Gardner is another possible first-rounder in next year’s draft, bringing good size (six-foot-two) and athleticism to the field. While his speed isn’t ideal, he makes up for it with good closing speed and can also deliver some solid hits. That potential draft status is something that can be enhanced against the Irish, so he should offer Austin a stiff challenge on throws his way.