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Head to Head: Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati

| Friday, October 1, 2021

Notre Dame Passing

Before answering who has the edge in this department, the better question may be who is doing the passing for the Irish? It feels almost certain that a bare minimum of two signal-callers will drop back to pass, but with Drew Pyne’s fantastic effort at Wisconsin, there’s now a third man in consideration for snaps. However, the Bearcats have featured a fantastic pass defense, regardless of who is under center for the Irish. Cincinnati is giving up 157 yards through the air per game, and they’ve notched six interceptions while allowing just two touchdown passes. The Irish have tossed just a pair of picks on the year — both from graduate transfer Jack Coan — and avoided major mistakes. However, their boom-or-bust passing attack has seen them stall out frequently, reaching the red zone an abysmal 2.25 times per game. This one feels like an area of concern for Notre Dame. 

EDGE: Cincinnati

Notre Dame Rushing 

Once again, Notre Dame struggled to do much of anything on the ground last weekend. The Irish took a lot of sacks which did affect their net yardage, but Kyren Williams didn’t break off a run longer than 7 yards and gained just 33 on the day. The Irish have struggled to run all season outside of a few big gainers from Williams. Can they penetrate a Cincinnati defense that has given up no more than 80 yards to an opposing rusher? While the Bearcats have impressed at times, they’ve also surrendered a few big runs, which is Williams’ strength. If he can break off 1-2 runs of 20+ yards, then it could spark a few key drives and negate what could be an otherwise sluggish day on the ground.  

EDGE: Even

Notre Dame Offensive Coaching

Tommy Rees has demonstrated some more creativity in his play calling this season, but it has come at the expense of consistency. The Irish rank 123rd in the country in red-zone trips (nine) on the year, making their 35 points a game a near miracle. Three defense and special teams touchdowns aided an otherwise struggling offense against Wisconsin, after sluggish efforts versus Toledo and Purdue. Can Rees find a way to balance some more creative play calling on offense while helping the Irish establish some time of possession and extended drives? If not, his counterpart Mike Tressel may be ready to pounce.

Tressel came to the Bearcats from Michigan State and he’s led a very impressive defense thus far in 2021. The Bearcats have notched six interceptions in three games and allowed just 15 points per game. He’s been virtually seamless in taking over for Marcus Freeman, utilizing his prior experience as a Power-5 defensive coordinator with the Spartans. 

EDGE: Cincinnati

Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams

Special teams made it very clear what they could do against Wisconsin. When given the space, Chris Tyree took off downfield for a touchdown on a kick return. Kyren Williams got slightly tripped up on a few punt returns that could’ve been big runs, if not potential scores. Against a worse defense, they would’ve been. John Doerer missed one field goal but more than made up for it in consistent PATs. And last but not least, Jay Bramblett not only punted the longest Notre Dame punt in about 20 years but on top of that, he faked a return to his role as a high school quarterback. 

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cincinnati Passing

Cincinnati is averaging 43 points per game, but they’ve also been noticeably sloppy considering the quality of their competition. The Bearcats’ best win is an Indiana squad that appears incredibly overrated. Beyond that, they’ve victimized Miami of Ohio and Murray State. Despite the lackluster schedule, the Bearcats have turned the ball over six times. For all his pregame bluster, Desmond Ridder is averaging under 250 yards passing and has been picked off twice. Against a far superior defense that has forced 11 turnovers, including 9 interceptions – with a fantastic pass rush to boot – Ridder may struggle to generate production against Notre Dame. 

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cincinnati Rushing

Cincinnati’s ground attack has not been the most fearsome this season. Jerome Ford is a solid running back, but he doesn’t feel better than Wisconsin’s Chez Mellusi, who gained 54 yards behind a much stronger offensive line. The Irish’s defensive line has most certainly been a strength in most facets of the game. A strong pass rush has been complemented by a vastly improved run defense in recent weeks, and the Irish look fully capable of stifling Cincinnati on the ground.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cincinnati Offensive Coaching

This coordinator standoff is a battle of coaches facing their former schools. Marcus Freeman, of course, came to the Irish from Cincinnati this past offseason. Mike Denbrock coached on the Irish staff from 2002-2004 and then from 2010-2016 before heading to the Bearcats. Freeman’s defense has been much improved over the final two weeks, and it’s really good when you take out a couple of poor fourth quarters in the first two games. Excluding fourth quarters against Toledo and Notre Dame, the Irish have given up points at 15.7 points per game clip. The Bearcats’ offense has been solid against poor competition, but the turnovers are a concern, and Denbrock’s brief track record as an offensive coordinator with the Irish against better defenses was less than impressive. Advantage to the younger, up-and-coming coach who has looked very good after some early-season adjustments. 

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cincinnati Offensive Special Teams

Notre Dame has been very solid on special teams this season, both in kick and punt coverage. However, Tre Tucker has averaged 33 yards per kick return, but that’s the biggest positive from the Bearcats’ special teams. They’re 16-17 on extra-point attempts and 1-3 on field goals, while doing very little in the punt return game. If the Irish can get this game to come down to special teams, they should feel very good about their chances.

EDGE: Notre Dame

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