When Cincinnati had its back to the wall, it made the plays it needed.
No. 9 Notre Dame took eight plays to move 80 yards down the field and score a touchdown to pull within 17-13 with 8:20 left in the game. Notre Dame, after that touchdown, had outscored the No. 7 Bearcats 13-0 in the second half. For Cincinnati, playing on the road in perhaps the biggest game in program history, it needed to stand strong in the face of mounting pressure if it wanted to make a College Football Playoff statement.
And the Bearcats delivered. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Jerome Ford marched down the field, picking apart the Fighting Irish defense on six plays to move 75 yards and score a touchdown to push the lead to 24-13. The defense responded by forcing Notre Dame to turn the ball over on downs at the Cincinnati 49-yard line. Cincinnati wound the clock down and finished off the win on Saturday, making its statement that it deserves consideration for the College Football Playoff.
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Heading into the locker rooms at Notre Dame Stadium, it felt Cincinnati controlled the game. The Bearcats were leading 17-0 after scoring two touchdowns and kicking a field goal on three of its final four drives of the half.
But a change of quarterback helped flip the switch for the Fighting Irish. Jack Coan struggled to 14-of-22 passing with only 114 passing yards and a pick and Tyler Buchner went 0-for-2 with an interception. Drew Pyne gave some life to Notre Dame, finishing his game throwing for 143 yards with a touchdown, even if the accuracy wasn’t there at 9-of-22 passing. That touchdown pass, a 32-yard strike to Braden Lenzy, felt like a shift in momentum. In front of the home fans, Notre Dame was within a score for the first time since the first half. Cincinnati hadn’t scored in the second half.
Enter Ridder and the Bearcat offense. Ridder went for a five-yard pass and Ford rushed for 16 to move the ball up to near midfield. A penalty moved Cincinnati back five, but Ridder brought it back on a 6-yard pass and then a 36-yard pass to Leonard Taylor to put the Bearcats at the Fighting Irish 17-yard line.
Ford turned on the jets for an 11-yard rush to give the Bearcats another first down and set them up at the 6. Ridder finished the drive from there, scrambling out to the left and cutting inside the pylon for a touchdown to make it a two-possession game.
It was the type of finish the Bearcats needed to prove they are a playoff-caliber team. This was by far the biggest test Cincinnati faced this season, and without a win, its playoff hopes would be dashed. But now, it has the statement win it has needed in the past.
The Bearcats felt they made a case in the 2020 season with a 9-0 record — one of only three teams in the top 10 with an undefeated record. They finished the year ranked ninth by the College Football Playoff. It was the second-highest College Football Playoff ranking in its seven-year history, behind only No. 8 by 12-0 UCF in 2018.
The Bearcats didn’t finish the season with any ranked wins against Power Five opponents, but did come close to taking down No. 9 Georgia in a 24-21 Peach Bowl loss that went a long way toward proving that Cincinnati could hang with the traditional football powers.
Cincinnati wasn’t perfect by any means, and there were reasons to be concerned for the Bearcats’ future. Kicker Cole Smith missed field goal tries of 30 and 37 yards. The defense started to show some holes down the field when Pyne came in at quarterback for the Fighting Irish as he had five passes for more than 15 yards. The offense went just 2-for-11 on third down.
But the numbers still supported that this was a Cincinnati team that should have won the game. It outgained Notre Dame 386-341 in total yards, which included 297 passing yards from Ridder. It was disciplined, taking only five penalties for 25 yards compared to seven for 49 by Notre Dame.
The season isn’t over by any means. Cincinnati is now 4-0 and could face some challenges against SMU and whoever it faces in the AAC championship game. This is the win it’s been waiting for, however. Take care of business now, and it’s going to be very hard for the College Football Playoff to leave out the undefeated Bearcats with a top 10 win on their resume.
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