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Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell says win over Notre Dame ‘a big step’ for team’s playoff profile

Written by on October 2, 2021

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Cincinnati came to Notre Dame with a 3-0 mark and a No. 7 ranking, having won 35 of its previous 41 games, stretching back to the start of the 2018 season. Many outside the program labeled the Bearcats as a College Football Playoff contender.

But coach Luke Fickell felt his team still had a step to take. To truly be a top-10 program, Cincinnati needed to beat one. Notre Dame was 47-8 since the start of the 2017 season with two CFP appearances and a 26-game home win streak.

Cincinnati left the field late Saturday afternoon with no doubt about its status, after outlasting Notre Dame 24-13 before a crowd that included a vocal group of Bearcats fans, whom quarterback Desmond Ridder said made it sound “like a home game.”

The Bearcats became the first Group of 5 team to record a road win against an AP top 10 opponent from the Power 5 in the CFP era.

“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. “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.”

Fickell was referring to increased discussion about Cincinnati’s playoff profile, which he said “was for [the media] to go ahead and get the ball going.” But Cincinnati hadn’t shied away from recognizing the importance of consecutive road games against preseason top-20 opponents in Indiana and Notre Dame.

After rallying to take down Indiana 38-24, Cincinnati never trailed against Notre Dame and led by 10 points or more for most of the game.

“We’re definitely getting the respect now, especially coming on the road here and getting a top 10 win,” defensive end Malik Vann said. “I don’t think there’s too much people can say or criticize about us.”

Cincinnati will head to the Big 12 in the coming years but remains part of the Group of 5, which has never produced a playoff team. The Bearcats went undefeated during the 2020 regular season but missed the playoff and faced Georgia in the Peach Bowl, a game they led most of the second half before falling in the closing seconds.

“We’re going to go out and play our game every Saturday or Friday, and put our best foot forward and our best game on film,” Ridder said. “At the end of the year, if we do that and we go undefeated and we play 12 or 11 perfect games, whatever it is, as good as we can, and they still don’t put us in there, that’s not our call. We don’t have the call to make the playoff.

“We’re just going to go and play our game the best we can, and hopefully by the end of the year they see that [and] they give us a chance.”

Vann and the Cincinnati defense forced three first-half turnovers to help spark a slow-starting offense, which didn’t have a drive longer than 18 yards until late in the second quarter. Facing former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who holds the same role at Notre Dame, Cincinnati had eight pass breakups, seven tackles for loss, two sacks and four quarterback hurries.

“[We] showed we’re still the same defense, whether [Freeman is] calling the shots or not,” Vann said. “We just wanted to come out here and show on a national scale that our defense can play with anybody in our team can play with anybody in the country and that’s what we did today.”

Ridder completed only five of his first 12 pass attempts to start the game but steadily improved, finishing with 297 pass yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He led an 80-yard scoring drive before halftime and productive drives throughout the third quarter and into the fourth, but two missed field goals and a Ridder fumble kept Notre Dame in the game.

Cincinnati led only 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter before Ridder responded with a six-play, 75-yard drive that he capped with a six-yard touchdown run.

“It’s called the Desmond Ridder factor,” Fickell said. “It just is what it is, and never ceases to amaze me. Obviously, we lost the momentum, and the [missed] field goals didn’t help. That’s a part of playing on the road, and we had to find a way to get back.”

Ridder found top wide receiver Alec Pierce six times for 144 yards, and tight end Leonard Taylor had 70 receiving yards and a touchdown. The senior quarterback thrived with the deep ball, completing six of nine attempts on passes of 15 yards or longer for 201 yards and a touchdown.

“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Fickell said of Ridder.

Ridder noted the pressure Cincinnati faced with the Indiana and Notre Dame trips and said the wins were “a weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders.”

“It’s a big win for us, it’s a big win for our program, our city and our community of Cincinnati,” Ridder said.

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