Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell says victory at Notre Dame is ‘a big step’ for team’s playoff profile

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

But coach Luke Fickell believed his team had one more step to take. To really be a top 10 program, Cincinnati had 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.

Cincinnati left the field on Saturday afternoon without questioning his status, having survived Notre Dame 24-13 in front of a crowd with a vocal group of Bearcats fans, which quarterback Desmond Ridder said sounded “like a home game.”

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

“We’ve been quite successful in recent years, but we haven’t beaten a top-10 program or a top-five program,” Fickell said. “To do that on the road today is a big step for us. It’s going to involve some other things that we have to be able to handle, maybe some exposure of some of the things that our kids can handle. But all they can do so far have received, they have done very, very well [handling], and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Fickell referred to an increased discussion about Cincinnati’s playoff profile, which he said was “for” [the media] to go on and get the ball going.” But Cincinnati wasn’t shy about recognizing the importance of back-to-back road races against the top-20 preseason opponents in Indiana and Notre Dame.

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

“We’re definitely getting the respect now, especially if we get on the road here and get a top-10 win,” said defensive side Malik Vann. “I don’t think too many people can say or criticize us.”

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

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

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

Vann and the Cincinnati defense forced three times in the first half to launch a slow charge, which had a drive of over 18 yards only late in the second quarter. Faced with former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who fills the same role at Notre Dame, Cincinnati had eight pass breakups, seven tackles for losses, two sacks and four quarterback rushes.

“[We] showed that we are still the same defense, or [Freeman is] make the call or not,” said Vann. “We just wanted to come out here and show on a national scale that our defense can play with anyone. [and] our team can play with anyone in the country and we did that 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. He led an 80-yard scoring drive before halftime and productive drives throughout the third quarter and fourth, but two missed field goals and a fumble from Knight kept Notre Dame in the game.

Cincinnati led just 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 it continues to amaze me. Obviously we lost momentum and the [missed] field goals didn’t help. That’s part of playing on the road, and we had to find a way to get back.”

Knight found Alec Pierce to be the top wide receiver for 144 yards six times, and tight end Leonard Taylor had 70 receiving yards and a touchdown. The senior quarterback thrived on the deep ball, completing 6 of 9 attempts on passes 15 yards or longer for 201 yards and a touchdown.

“He can’t do anything,” Fickell said of Knight.

Noting the pressure Cincinnati faced with the trips to Indiana and Notre Dame, Ridder said the wins were “a burden 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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