Analysis: Nostalgia gets bumped for reality of what Cincinnati means for ND in big picture

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly gets vocal during historic win No. 106 at ND, a 41-13 takedown of Wisconsin, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“You come home as a parent and you’re going to tell your kids that they’re moving. And they love the friends and they love the community. And as we started to tell them, tears began to well up in their eyes.

“And (daughter) Gracie came up to me, grabbed me, hugged me and said, ‘Dad, I’m so happy for you. I know this has been your dream. And I’m sad for me, just for a little bit. Is that OK?’

“And I kissed her, and I said, ‘You know what, that’s what is so magical about this, is that my kids know that this was a dream for me.’” — Brian Kelly at his introductory press conference as Notre Dame head football coach, Dec. 11, 2009 

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly stepped into the modest reception area outside his new office at Notre Dame for the first time nearly 12 years ago and marveled at the plushness and additional square footage than what he was used to at the University of Cincinnati.

“I was ready to sit down at the reception area, because I thought that was the office,” the now 12th-year Irish head football coach said at the time. “It was beautiful. And they said, ‘No, Coach, it’s in here to the left.’ ”

What he saw next was a massive room, with its own balcony and private bathroom, each of which exceeded the dimensions of any of the offices he’d been assigned to along the way to ND — at UC, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State.

The expectations of him had grown too, exponentially. Overnight.

Yet in moving on from his three-year stint at Cincinnati, he left behind a 12-0 football team ranked No. 3 in the BCS and on a collision course with an Urban Meyer-coached Florida squad that had spent virtually the entire season at No. 1 until a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

It was also the end of driving his three children to school each day and the last time he could pop into the grocery store for a minute to pick up a gallon of milk without it becoming an awkwardly protracted process.

Perhaps if the Tommy Tuberville Era of UC football had persisted — yes, that Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama senator — Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium clash with the Bearcats (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC) would have a little more of a nostalgic feel for Kelly.

Instead, he and the AP No. 9 Irish (4-0) are facing a monster — part of Kelly’s own doing by building a foundation and tradition there with a 34-6 run, though largely the creation of sixth-year head coach Luke Fickell.

In fact, No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) opened as the Vegas favorite — 1 ½ points, a line that grew to 2 1/2 later on Sunday.

As alarming as that might feel for a fan base that watched its team bury previously ranked Wisconsin, 41-13, at Soldier Field in Chicago in a Saturday matinee, Cincinnati’s cachet heading into the second-ever football meeting with the Irish and first in 121 years is a boon.

As long as the Irish take care of business.

With former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s first Irish defense taking a serious evolutionary step this past Saturday against the Badgers, Notre Dame’s playoff aspirations suddenly seem real — despite lingering growing pains on offense.

Notre Dame’s Jayson Ademilola (57) celebrates during ND's 41-13 victory over Wisconsin, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

With, notably, USC (2-2) getting torched at home Saturday night by Oregon State (45-27), and North Carolina (2-2) cratering against a Georgia Tech team (45-22) that had lost to Northern Illinois, future Big 12 member Cincinnati is the only team on ND’s remaining schedule that has the potential to both derail its playoff trajectory AND to certify it.

The only other teams among the 12 Irish past and future opponents with a winning record are Purdue (3-1) and Virginia Tech (3-1), both currently unranked.

There’s a historic element too to the UC matchup. The Bearcats are just the third top 10 team (ranked at the time of the game) to visit Notre Dame Stadium during the Kelly Era, and the third in which the Irish were also ranked in the top 10.

The others: No. 8 ND routing No. 7 Stanford, 38-17, in 2018; and No. 4 Notre Dame’s 47-40 overtime upending of No. 1 Clemson last season.

There’s plenty of familiarity with each other’s playbooks and tendencies. Former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and ex-ND wide receiver Michael Young — No. 2 in receptions for the Bearcats — will return to South Bend on Saturday.

Freeman, Irish second-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and recruiting office wizard Chad Bowden (his actual title is senior analyst) all worked with Fickell at Cincinnati.

In terms of matchups, Freeman’s defense made massive leaps the past two weeks in the national defensive rankings. The Irish are currently among the top 25 FBS teams in third-down defense (25th), pass-efficiency defense (19th), sacks (14th) and takeaways (tied for second).

Tale of the Tape

Notre Dame’s offense isn’t in the top 25 in anything. And most alarming are the rankings out of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense (122nd), sacks allowed (128th) and total offense (90th).

Cincinnati brings the best pass-efficiency defense the Irish will see all season (3rd). Then Notre Dame won’t see anyone ranked higher than 73rd in that category until the regular-season finale at Stanford (33rd).

Following amassing a Kelly Era low net of three rushing yards against the nation’s No. 1 rush defense Saturday vs. Wisconsin, the Irish get the No. 66 rush defense this weekend, and only two ranked higher than 50 (No. 48 Navy, No. 33 Virginia) the rest of the way.

The Bearcats are the best statistically the Irish will face in their last eight regular-season games when it comes to total defense (28th), scoring defense (13th), red-zone defense (2nd), turnover margin (10th) and scoring offense (8th).

The good news? Cincinnati is tied for worst (with Navy) among all 12 Irish regular-season opponents in sacks (110th). 

“Last year, we knew what we had,” Kelly said Saturday. “We were a veteran team. We had some holes, right? We hunkered down. We put three tight ends on the field. This is what we were, and kind of lived with it.

“This (season), we’re trying to figure it out as we go. We're in no-back one play and then we score a touchdown. And the next time we’re in three tight ends. We're trying to cobble it out as we go.

“Three tackles later on the left side. We've gone through three quarterbacks this year. We'll keep the continuity the best we can, but we’ll be challenged again next week against a really good Cincinnati team. We'll figure it out again too.” 

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. CINCINNATI 

Who: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) vs. No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Cincinnati by 2 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI