No. 7 Cincinnati logged one of the most impactful wins of the 2021 season on Saturday, going into South Bend, Indiana, and taking down No. 9 Notre Dame, 24-13. The win will go down as one of the biggest in program history for Cincinnati, which is now poised to make the one of the best arguments for a Group of Five team to earn a College Football Playoff spot after beating both the Fighting Irish and Indiana on the road in nonconference play.
Saturday, however, was not just about beefing up a profile for a late-season decision by the CFP Selection Committee. Beating Notre Dame, a program it had faced just once way back in 1900, on the road in a top-10 matchup is enough to warrant a much-deserved celebration for coach Luke Fickell's team.
The Bearcats established their edge early with a defense that forced turnovers and limited what Notre Dame could do. In the first half alone, Cincinnati intercepted starting quarterback Jack Coan and backup Tyler Buchner, forced a fumble on a kickoff return and didn't allow the Irish to get inside the 40-yard line following the first possession of the game. The 17-0 halftime deficit felt massive given Notre Dame's ineffectiveness on offense, but a proud team that has been in tough games in September wasn't done throwing punches.
It was the third quarterback of the game, Drew Pyne, who finally got Notre Dame on the board in the second half thanks to a short field set up by Drew White's long fumble return.
Still, two late touchdown drives weren't enough to shake the confidence of a Cincinnati offense that had moved the ball well since the start of the second quarter.
Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder finished with 297 yards on 19-of-32 passing with two touchdowns and 26 rushing yards, plus another score on the ground. The final margin could have been even more lopsided if not for two missed field goals from inside 40 yards. Ridder wasn't perfect, but when the team needed a play, he was able to stand in there and deliver under pressure.
After the game, Fickell acknowledged the impact that Brian Kelly had in his three years as Cincinnati's head coach and the role it played in laying the foundation for the program's current success.
"Coach [Brian] Kelly kind of set the standard here at UC, and we're trying to increase the standard." Fickell told NBC after the game. "We hadn't played four quarters yet this year, we had to play all four quarters today, we were a little shaky in the third [quarter]. They never quit, never faltered and I'm so proud of them."
Cincinnati has a short turnaround before its playoff campaign is back on the field next week at home against Temple, which precedes arguably the toughest test in conference play with UCF visiting Nippert Stadium on Oct. 16.
Here are three things to know about the game:
1. Notre Dame has some QB confusion
I'm not sure how Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will handle their three signal-callers moving forward, but the quick pull on Jack Coan for Tyler Buchner, as well as the halftime switch to Drew Pyne, suggests we are far from stable as it pertains to the quarterback position. Like Buchner, Pyne was able to provide a threat in the run game, but added a little bit more in the passing attack, though his team-high 143 yards passing also came at a 40% completion rate. Still, Pyne does get some credit in the quarterback battle for the way he guided the team back and into the end zone in the second half.
Neither of the three played in a way to "win" the job moving forward, but quarterback isn't the only issue for this team. The offensive line struggled to limit Cincinnati's pass rush and penetration -- the Bearcats got two sacks seven tackles for loss -- and the offense as a whole averaged just 4.6 yards per play. Some of that is a credit to a Cincinnati defense that sets the tone for the team's success, but it's also revealing as to where Notre Dame needs to improve moving forward.
2. Desmond Ridder is a winner
A small detail heading into Saturday's game was where Ridder sits in several different record books at both the school and national level. Saturday's win preserves his spot at No. 1 in terms of winning percentage among active quarterbacks at the FBS level with at least 10 starts. Ridder is now 34-5 as a starting quarterback, which is far from the all-time record of 50-3 set by former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, but still good enough to be the best among anyone at the FBS level right now.
"He's unbelievable," Fickell told NBC after the game. "You always have a chance when you've got a guy like Desmond Ridder. That kid I tell you what, he's a winner, and I'll take him everywhere I go."
3. The Fighting Irish must regroup quickly
Cincinnati is one of several teams to have an open week before playing Notre Dame. Wisconsin and Cincinnati were both coing off of a bye before their games with the Irish and next week's opponent, Virginia Tech, is off this week with plenty of time to prepare and build off lessons learned from Saturday's tape. Making matters even more concerning for Notre Dame is the game being on the road in Blacksburg, with "Enter Sandman" and all that Lane Stadium has to offer in a primetime kickoff. Notre Dame will finally get its own open week after that, but Oct. 9 agains the Hokies has now become extremely important to reverse the frustrations of Saturday's loss.