In December of 2016, the Cincinnati Bearcats decided to take one of their bigger risks in recent program history with the head coach hiring of former Ohio State Buckeyes interim coach Luke Fickell.
A former Buckeye and NFL worthy player, Fickell’s young aspirations served as a bit of fresh air for a program looking to reach a level of success it hadn’t found since the departure of its former leader, Brian Kelly. He qualified as an ambitious alternative to the usual image of the college football coach, and yet, he simultaneously owned all the prerequisites to achieve success at a higher level thanks to time spent under the legendary Urban Meyer
On that very first press conference as the Bearcat head coach, Fickell took the podium and stated what was the seemingly obvious. “To the University of Cincinnati, to the city of Cincinnati, I’m not going to stand up here and promise you wins and championships,” he said. “But what I am going to promise you is that we’ll put a product on the field that you will be extremely proud to call your own.”
The Bearcats never quite did win a championship under Fickell — at least not yet — but they did fulfill his guarantee. A guarantee that saw them garner their biggest victory against college football’s most historically important program — Notre Dame — on the road in South Bend, Indiana.
“We’ve been pretty successful in the last few years, but we have not beat a top-10 program or a top-five program,” Fickell said after his team defeated the No. 9 Irish by a score of 24-13. “For us to do that today on the road is a big step for us. It’ll bring some other things that we’ve got to be able to handle, some maybe notoriety of some things that our kids will be able to handle. But everything that’s been thrown at them so far, they’ve done a really, really good job of [handling], and I would expect nothing less.”
Perhaps it was QB Desmond Ridder’s telling statement of how he would silence the Irish crowd. Maybe it was UC earning respect as a favorite in a top ten matchup on the road. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the sea of Bearcat faithful that occupied the nosebleeds after making the trek from across state lines, later cheering on Ridder as he swung the Bearcat flag in light of the postgame celebration. Regardless of the reason, though, this team was destined to win from the beginning of Saturday’s matchup.
The first quarter opened with a somewhat fitting stalemate in which neither team put points in the board. The Cincinnati defense, well, played like the Cincinnati defense and Notre Dame proved that their 13-point shutdown of Wisconsin last week qualified as no fluke.
It did not occur until 12:09 to go in the second quarter when points were scored. Ridder found a wide open Leonard Taylor in the back of the endzone on a third and goal from the one-yard line. The play was set up from a Deshaun Pace interception near the Irish’s own 35 thanks to the Bearcat pressure of ND signal-caller Drew Pyne. Pace took it to five, setting Ridder and co. up for an easy score.
Following the primary points of the duel, Notre Dame muffed the Alex Bales kickoff and the Bearcats (more specifically LB Wilson Huber) recovered at the Irish 17 and set up their offense with another perfect red-zone opportunity. The drive did stall out at the five, but Cole Smith knocked a 23-yarder through the uprights to give his team a double digit lead.
UC’s defense — as always — provided a few key late-half stops to give Ridder and his friends yet another crucial effort in expanding the advantage. The senior leader shotgunned a throw near midfield to a wide open Alec Pierce past the 30 to open up the march. On the following play, Ridder threw up a lob and Tre Tucker did the rest, evading the talented Kyle Hamilton while backing up into the endzone.
Halftime Score: Cincinnati 17, Notre Dame 0
The Bearcats opened up the third quarter doing what they did best: keeping the pressure on. Ridder found Pierce down the left sideline in light of a 50+ yard bomb in which the Bearcats receiver seemingly walked on top of a pair of defenders.
A few plays and incompletions later, however, created a forced field goal situation for Cinci. Cole Smith subsequently missed from 30 out, and the score remained 17-0.
UC’s second third quarter chance presented itself in the form of a fourth down defensive stop inside Bearcat territory. The Bearcats once again attempted to take advantage, garnering a drive that set the offense up inside the Irish 30. But a sick twist of fate finally took its toll on the Bearcats following the great field position set up. Notre Dame’s defensive line broke through a mostly sturdy offensive line and the result qualified pressure from all sides and an eventual strip sack of Ridder.
The ball was brought back inside Cinci territory, setting up the Irish with a worthwhile momentum changer. Drew Pyne wasted no time in making the Bearcats pay and his colleague — Kyren Williams — walked into the endzone on a first down and goal.
A missed wake up call off Williams’ touchdown served as basis for Notre Dame’s second score of the day. Cincinnati once again choked a missed opportunity for points, leaving ND territory after Cole Smith missed yet another FG from inside the 40.
Pyne simultaneously drove down the field again to pull within one possession for a newly revitalized 17-13 ball game. He put an exclamation point on the eight play, 80-yard crowd pleaser thanks to a 32-yard long bomb to WR Braden Lenzy. Bearcats 17, Irish 13.
The play would represent Notre Dame’s last points of the game.
Ridder dashed passed the goal line a few minutes later — precisely with 5:08 to go — to break the hearts of the 77,000 or so Irish faithful in the stands.
(Well, that is if you discount the vast sea of red that spread through the upper reaches of the crowd)
Cincinnati expanded their overcome-able lead to 11, and the game ended as quick as Notre Dame’s playoff hopes.
Final Score: Cincinnati 24, Notre Dame 13
Cincinnati Key Stat Leaders
Passing: QB Desmond Ridder, 19-32, 297 yards, two touchdowns
Rushing: RB Jerome Ford, 17 carries, 67 yards
Receiving: WR Alec Pierce, six receptions, 144 yards
Tackling: LB Ty Van Fossen, eight total tackles, eight solo tackles
Notre Dame Key Stat Leaders
Passing: QB Drew Pyne, 9-22, 143 yards, one touchdown
Rushing: RB Kyren Williams, 13 carries, 45 yards, one touchdown
Receiving: TE Michael Mayer, eight receptions, 93 yards
Tackling: LB JD Bertrand, six total tackles, four solo tackles, two assisted tackles
With the bulk of their crucial showdowns in the passenger’s seat, Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff hopes rest in the balance of one of the top 10’s easier remaining slates. The Bearcats are set to face off against Temple next week (talk about a difference in opponents) at home in what could very well be one of the program’s closest things standing to a bye week.
Temple enters this week at 3-2, having just knocked off Memphis in a total AAC stunner. The Owls also bolstered their resume with triumphs over Akron and Wagner to set themselves up with a 3-2.
Full remaining Cincinnati schedule:
Temple Owls, Friday, October 8th
UCF Knights, Saturday, October 16th
@ Navy Midshipmen, Saturday, October 23rd
@ Tulane Green Wave, Saturday, October 30th
Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Saturday, November 6th
@ USF Bulls, Friday, November 12th
SMU Mustangs, Saturday, November 20th
@ East Carolina Pirates, Saturday, November 27th