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Playoff Implications on the Line – Cincinnati vs. Notre Dame Preview

The 2021 edition of the Shamrock Series surely did not disappoint as the Irish, with a great deal of help from a stellar defensive performance, took down the Wisconsin Badgers 41-13.  This was the first game since 2005 in which Notre Dame scored on offense, defense, and special teams and the points were absolutely necessary.  Simply looking at the final score, you may not think so, but keep in mind that the Irish were down 13-10 in the fourth quarter of that game. 

When looking at the statistical breakdown of Saturday’s matchup, Wisconsin actually won in four major categories: total yards (314 to 242), passing yards (240 to 239), rushing yards (74 to 3) and yards per play (4.6 to 3.5), yet the 31 points that the Irish were able to put on the board in the fourth quarter crumbled the Wisconsin psyche and gave head coach Brian Kelly his 106th win at Notre Dame.  The Irish offense was held in check but did seem to find a spark when Drew Pyne replaced Jack Coan at quarterback.  Pyne finished the game completing six of his eight pass attempts for 81 yards and a touchdown and showed an incredible amount of poise and moxie when he was called upon.

At this point, I think that Notre Dame’s offensive line is what it is, and Pyne’s mobility proved to be a successful trait.  Do I think that Coan was pressing, trying to put a bit extra into the game going up against his former team?  Yes, but his lack of mobility is clearly a detriment with the way this offensive line is performing.  That leaves a rather large questions in my mind of who should be starting and taking reps at quarterback for the Irish and at this point, I don’t have a solid answer.  Does the mobility that Pyne and Buchner provide outweigh Coan’s experience and arm strength?  Is a less than 100% healthy Coan still the more valuable option at this point?  These are questions that are above my paygrade and for the coaching staff to figure out and with a top-10 matchup looming against Cincinnati, it’s a rather inopportune time to be searching for these answers.  But let’s take a look ahead at what the Irish are up against this weekend.

Saturday will feature Notre Dame’s first matchup against the Bearcats of Cincinnati since Brian Kelly has been the Irish head coach.  The Irish and the Bearcats have a lot of overlap in the coaching department between Kelly, Freeman, Denbrock, and others – providing a great deal of familiarity between the two programs.  The Bearcats come into Saturday’s showdown with a 3-0 record coming off a bye week and ranked 7th in the nation.  They are, without a doubt, a very talented team with weapons on both sides of the ball.

Throughout their first three games of the 2021 campaign, Cincinnati is averaging 43 points per game behind senior quarterback Desmond Ridder.  Ridder is a true dual threat quarterback and isn’t afraid to take deep shots or get out of the pocket and pick up yards on the ground.  Ridder is joined in the backfield by junior running back Jerome Ford who is a transfer from Alabama and has already racked up six touchdowns this year in a very balanced offensive attack from the Bearcats.  The Irish will look to shut down the run game and force the Bearcats to have to pass for their yardage.  I think that Ridder will be the best quarterback that the Irish face all year and he will be looking to make a splash on Saturday.  Ridder was told by former Notre Dame offensive coordinator and current Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock that Notre Dame Stadium will be loud on Saturday, in which Ridder responded, “I told him it shouldn’t be loud for too long.”  Ridder’s best targets in the passing game have been Tyler Scott and Alec Pierce – a lanky playmaker that Kelly compared to Ben Skowronek. 

With the way that Marcus Freeman has the Notre Dame defense playing, I do expect Cincinnati to put points on the board, but I have full confidence that it will be less than their 43 points per game average.  The Bearcats will be looking to get Ridder out of the pocket and taking deep shots down the field and I hope that the Irish can mitigate the damage with the use of a quarterback spy.  This would have been a fantastic gameplan if we could go back in time and have the likes of Jaylon Smith or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah roaming the middle of the field for the Irish.  With that being said, Notre Dame’s third down defense has been incredible throughout the year and was able to hold the Badgers to only 1 of 14 third down conversions last week. The Bearcats offense has been relatively slow starting this year and if Notre Dame can diminish their will early, getting in the backfield and forcing mistakes and off-time throws, I will feel a lot better about the Irish’s chances of winning.

Looking at the Cincinnati defense, they have only totaled four sacks through their first three games but are very good in pass protection.  When it comes to stopping the run, I don’t expect the Bearcats to have as much success as Wisconsin did, however the Irish run game has been sub-par throughout the first four games simply because of the lack of push and protection from the Notre Dame offensive line.  With the talent, speed, and playmaking ability that Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree bring, I would love to see them get more involved with some screen passes, getting the ball out of Coan’s hands quicker and forcing the Bearcats defense to have to make plays in space.  We saw evidence of this in Tyree’s kick return touchdown last week – his speed is incredible and needs to be utilized more.

When it comes to the passing game, for Notre Dame to have success, we need to see the accuracy from Coan that we saw in the season opener against Florida State.  Coan has seemed to regress since game one and with a very talented Cincinnati defense, this is not the time to take another step backwards.  Avery Davis has emerged as a true threat in the slot, Kevin Austin had a bounce back game after an abysmal performance against Purdue, and Michael Mayer continues to draw multiple defenders to stop him in the passing game.  I like Mayer’s matchup against the Cincinnati defense this week and hope that Tommy Rees can scheme up some plays to continue to get these three producing.  On the other hand, I have not been impressed with the performances from Braden Lenzy, the effort and focus does not seem to be there like it has been in years passed and there would be no better time than Saturday for that spark to get ignited again.  When it comes down to it, the overall talent on Notre Dame’s roster is greater than what will be lined up against them on the field.  I think the game will hinge on what team can break a few big plays and what type of performance we see from the Irish offensive line.  It’s a tall task, but I am going to predict that the Irish will improve to 5-0 with a 27-20 victory on Saturday. 

Go Irish.  Beat Bearcats.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Florida State: 0-4 overall, lost to Louisville 31-23 

Toledo: 2-2 overall, beat Ball State 22-12

Purdue: 3-1 overall, beat Illinois 13-9

Wisconsin: 1-2 overall, lost to Notre Dame 41-13

Cincinnati: 3-0 overall, coming off bye week, currently ranked #7

Virginia Tech: 3-1 overall, beat Richmond 21-10

USC: 2-2 overall, lost to Oregon State 45-27

North Carolina: 2-2 overall, lost to Georgia Tech 45-22

Navy: 0-3 overall, lost to Houston 28-20

Virginia: 3-2 overall, beat Miami (FL) 30-28

Georgia Tech: 2-2 overall, beat North Carolina 45-22 

Stanford: 2-2 overall, lost to UCLA 35-24