The only matchup between top-10 teams outside of the SEC is set for Saturday afternoon when the Cincinnati Bearcats take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for just the second time ever and the first time in 121 years. These two historic programs haven't met since 1900, the first of two seasons for Notre Dame head coach Pat O'Dea, who led the Irish to a 58-0 home win over the Bearcats as part of a four-game winning streak to open that season.
The Bearcats (3-0) enter Week 5 coming off a bye following three dominant wins, the most recent a 38-24 road victory in Bloomington against Indiana. The 24 points the Hoosiers scored were more than the 21 that the Bearcats had allowed in their first two games combined, with Miami (Ohio) tallying 14 and FCS opponent Murray State just seven. But Cincinnati's offense has been more than sufficient by picking up right where it left off in 2020 — when it scored 30 or more points in six of its eight regular-season wins — with 43 points per game, good for second in the AAC and eighth in the FBS.
The Fighting Irish (4-0) haven't been nearly as dominant in the early going as the Bearcats, but they have still taken care of business. Notre Dame picked up a bit of momentum two weeks ago during its own 14-point win over a Big Ten foe from the state of Indiana when it took down Purdue 27-13. The Fighting Irish doubled that margin last week in a 41-13 dismantling of Wisconsin in Chicago, on the strength of three non-offensive touchdowns — two pick-sixes and a kickoff return. That dominating win was head coach Brian Kelly's 106th all-time at Notre Dame, which passed legendary head coach Knute Rockne's 105 (1918-30) for first place in program history.
No. 7 Cincinnati at No. 9 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cincinnati -2.5
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Desmond Ridder finds himself etched squarely in Cincinnati record books with his stellar career, but he's certainly not done just yet. The 2020 AAC Offensive Player of the Year has guided the Bearcats to possess the conference's second-highest scoring offense at 43 points per game, trailing only UCF's 44.7. Ridder has thrown for seven touchdowns and rushed for two more in the three games so far, collecting one of each in the win at Indiana.
Ridder has had plenty of support in the backfield as well, led by well-traveled running back Jerome Ford who is in the midst of his second season with Cincinnati after spending 2018 and '19 with Alabama. Ford has rushed for 300 yards thus far, and his six touchdowns tie him with Memphis' Calvin Austin III for the high mark in the AAC entering Week 5.
The Bearcats' versatile offense will be up against a defense riding a sky-high wave of momentum after a performance for the ages in Chicago on Saturday. Cam Hart picked off a pair of Graham Mertz passes, becoming the second Irish player this season with two interceptions after Kyle Hamilton grabbed two in the season opener at Florida State. Not to be outdone, Jack Kiser and Drew White each pulled in an interception of their own and returned it for a touchdown, the first game in which Notre Dame returned two picks for a touchdown since 2002 against Stanford. While the Fighting Irish may not have been as stingy in the early going as had been the hope, their opportunistic and talented unit — which is tied for the FBS lead with nine interceptions and second nationally with 12 total takeaways — has been a welcome feather in the cap for new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who was formerly at Cincinnati.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Notre Dame's defense wasn't the only area where a Drew and a Jack were focal points on Saturday. When quarterback Jack Coan limped off the field in the third quarter, Drew Pyne stepped in and immediately righted the ship as the Irish had mustered just 10 points entering the final quarter. Coan was fully dressed for practice early in the week, but Kelly noted that Pyne would start — with freshman Tyler Buchner rotating in intermittently — should Coan be unable to play on Saturday.
Regardless of who starts under center, the Fighting Irish will need to step up in the run game to compete with the Bearcats' potent offense. Notre Dame has rushed for an FBS-worst 0.63 yards per rush before contact (next-worst Power 5 team: Washington, 1.13). Paced by Kyren Williams' 33 yards on 18 carries and Chris Tyree's two rushes for all of six yards, the Fighting Irish mustered just three yards on the ground against Wisconsin, becoming the first team since at least 2000 to win a game by 28 or more points with fewer than 10 rushing yards. Another expression of the Irish's struggles running the football: On Saturday against the Badgers, the Irish rushed for as many yards (three) as they scored non-offensive touchdowns, with one of those three being Tyree's kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame's ground game could have a chance to bounce back this weekend, as Cincinnati has been a little more generous to teams in that respect. The Bearcats are giving up 138 rushing yards per game, but that number is greatly influenced by holding FCS member Murray State to just 93 a couple of weeks ago — Miami (Ohio) and Indiana combined for 321 rushing yards. Still, the Irish ball carriers will have their work cut out for them against a defense that has allowed 1.69 yards per rush before contact — the 17th-best rate in the country — since the start of 2020.
Cincinnati has been even better against the pass, surrendering 160.7 yards per game through the air with six interceptions already. Whoever is at quarterback for Notre Dame will need to focus on getting the ball out quickly, as the offensive line — which employed its fourth different left tackle in as many games last week — has already surrendered 21 sacks, the second-most by any FBS team and only better than Akron's 22. That matchup will be intriguing as Cincinnati has struggled to cause much havoc in the backfield this season, with the Bearcats managing just four sacks in three games.
These two top-10 programs collide after superb fourth-quarter finishes to close out their most recent respective wins, momentum which will certainly be a crucial tool in this matchup. With plenty of support from Freeman, who joined the program after four years with these Bearcats, Kelly became the winningest head football coach in Notre Dame history last week against Wisconsin. A matchup against both Kelly's and Freeman's former team — which Kelly led to 34 wins and a perfect 12-0 regular season en route to earning National Coach of the Year honors in 2009 — represents Kelly's first opportunity to extend that record with Freeman at his side.
Prediction: Notre Dame 37, Cincinnati 33
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.