For the 17th time, the Cincinnati Bearcats will play the Ohio State Buckeyes in football. What makes this contest so intriguing is the return of longtime Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell to Ohio Stadium as the head coach for the Bearcats.
Fickell is well-respected by the Ohio State community. A former three-time heavyweight state champion wrestler who featured a 106-0 record at Columbus DeSales High School, Fickell started 50 consecutive games for the Buckeyes at nose guard from 1993-96. Fickell began his college coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State under former head coach John Cooper in 1999, then served two years as an assistant at Akron from 2000-01.
Returning to Columbus in 2002, Fickell began his climb in the college ranks under former head coaches Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, serving as the special teams coordinator (2002-03), then progressing to linebackers coach (2004-10; '12-16). Fickell also served as the co-defensive coordinator from 2005-16, with the notable exception of the '11 season. It was during that season that Fickell served as Ohio State's interim head coach, after the firing of Tressel, and it was Fickell's commitment to his alma mater during the trying 6-7 season that earned him the respect of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. On Fickell, Smith has stated, "He's the embodiment of everything that we want to develop in our student-athletes across every single sport... High values, good character, driven, has a purpose in life, family man, father, husband. If I could take every athlete and say 'OK, I want to make you Luke,' we'd be fine."
Fickell has methodically built Cincinnati into a very competitive team, progressing from 4-8 in 2017 to an impressive 11-2 record last season that featured a 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. Coming off a 24-14 season-opening home win over UCLA that was not nearly as close as the score indicates, Fickell has his sights set on defeating Ohio State in Columbus for the first time in the series; the last Cincinnati win over Ohio State (24-0) was in 1897, and in Cincinnati. On playing Ohio State, Fickell stated, "It's like playing against your brother... That's a big-time deal. I'm a competitor, so there's no one I'd want to beat up more than my brother. I mean, holy cow, there’s no one I'd want to play harder against."
Also at 1-0, Ohio State is coming off a 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic that was initially dominant, yet had its share of lulls and sputtering throughout much of the game. After the first quarter, Ohio State led Florida Atlantic 28-0, and it appeared that the rout was on. For the remaining three quarters, Florida Atlantic actually outscored Ohio State 21-17, which led first-year head coach Ryan Day to make these remarks after the game: "Looking at it here, it was 28-0 and there was 6:50 to go in the first quarter... I don't know if I've ever been part of a game like that. It was kind of strange that we came out to such a quick lead and maybe we took a deep breath there, I'm not sure. But we can't let that happen. We've got to keep the pedal to the metal and keep going."
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -17
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
The Bearcats are led by sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder, who is coming off a very efficient performance against UCLA. Ridder completed 18-of-26 passes for 242 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Cincinnati often rolled Ridder out on bootlegs, which allowed him to add 34 rushing yards on nine carries. Look for Ohio State's linebackers to spy on Ridder, in an effort to negate Ridder's effectiveness in keeping drives alive. Michael Warren II, the 2016 Ohio Mr. Football award winner (more on that below), led the Bearcats' rushing attack with 26 carries for 92 yards (3.5 yards per carry), while also adding three receptions for 27 yards. After watching Cincinnati rush for 175 yards against UCLA, Ohio State will probably crowd the line to try and get the Bearcats into long-yardage situations for down and distance. The Buckeyes were quite effective against the run versus Florida Atlantic, allowing only 22 yards on the ground. Cincinnati will be another matter, and a good test for how improved Ohio State is on the defensive side of the ball.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Quarterback Justin Fields could not have scripted a better beginning for his Ohio State debut. Completing 18-of-25 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns, Fields also added a 51-yard touchdown run about two minutes into the game against Florida Atlantic.
A popular target for Fields was sophomore tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Ruckert is a mismatch for opposing defenses in the passing game. Ruckert had four receptions for 38 yards and two touchdowns in his first start last week against Florida Atlantic. No matter how Cincinnati chooses to defend Ruckert, look for Luke Fickell and his defensive coordinator, former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman, to also stack the line against Ohio State. Junior running back J.K. Dobbins is coming off a 21-carry, 91-yard, one-touchdown performance against Florida Atlantic, and the Bearcats were able to stymie UCLA's running game for only 62 yards. Fickell and Freeman will try to confuse the inexperienced Fields with blitzes that could lead to Ohio State turnovers.
While the national oddsmakers believe Ohio State will win this game comfortably, longtime Buckeye fans have been feeling uneasy about this game all offseason. The ghosts of the 2002 close call vs. Cincinnati linger, and Fickell was an assistant coach on that Ohio State team. Fickell and Freeman have developed Cincinnati into a very competitive team defensively, as evidenced by the strong opener against UCLA, and nothing would make them happier than to upset the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium. With a roster full of Ohio kids like Michael Warren II who did not receive scholarship offers from the Buckeyes, this game is tailor-made to go deep into the fourth quarter, making Ohio State fans understandably nervous. Ohio State did itself no favors by taking the foot off the gas against Florida Atlantic, and this is a game that will better gauge how Ohio State will fare as the Buckeyes get closer to Big Ten play. Ohio State wins late in the fourth quarter, and Fickell leaves disappointed but proud that the Bearcats gave Ohio State all that it could handle.