How does No. 9 Notre Dame beat No. 7 Cincinnati? By following these four keys to the game.
These keys to the game will likely decide if No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) can beat No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
Keep forcing turnovers
Notre Dame entered the week with more turnovers gained (12) than all but one team in the FBS (Oregon, 13). Those nine interceptions and three recovered fumbles are a big reason why the Irish have been able to stay undefeated despite shaky play through their first four games.
Cincinnati hasn’t been particularly exceptional in protecting the football in its first three games with five turnovers lost. The Bearcats were able to overcome an interception and fumble against its best opponent, Indiana, but Notre Dame will likely make Cincinnati pay if it decides to be charitable with possession. The Irish offense will welcome any extra drives against a tough defense.
Avoid taking losses
Notre Dame’s offense has been going backward far too frequently. In the first four games, Notre Dame has totaled 41 negative plays for a loss of 176 yards, excluding penalties and quarterback kneels. A season-high 13 negative plays came last week against Wisconsin.
The Irish need to avoid such setbacks against Cincinnati. Negative runs on first downs will only make the task of moving the ball against the Bearcats more difficult. Though Cincinnati has only recorded four sacks this season, Pro Football Focus has graded its pass-rush unit as the best in college football. That’s not good news for an offense that’s allowed 20 sacks.
Attack the middle of the field
There’s a reason why Cincinnati has the second-best defensive pass efficiency rating in the FBS. Notre Dame won’t face a better cornerback duo this season than Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. They could make it really difficult for Irish wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr. and Braden Lenzy to impact Saturday’s game.
That means Notre Dame’s offense should try to attack the middle of the field against Cincinnati’s defense. If Gardner and Bryant are blanketing the outside receivers, there should be opportunities for tight end Michael Mayer and slot receiver Avery Davis to exploit the linebackers and safeties. Running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree can help carry the passing game too.
Notre Dame can’t count on Cincinnati’s star quarterback playing as poorly as Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz. But the Irish can provide a relentless pass rush to try to disrupt any rhythm that Desmond Ridder tries to establish. Ridder makes the Cincinnati offense hum, so limiting him will be a priority.
Even after only tallying one sack against Wisconsin — albeit a big strip sack by defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola — the Irish were still tied for 14th nationally with 3.5 sacks per game this season. Notre Dame matching that average should go a long way in preventing the Bearcats from reaching its scoring average (43 points per game).
Ridder said earlier this week that Notre Dame Stadium shouldn’t be loud for too long on Saturday. The first sack of Ridder should put the Irish faithful into a frenzy.
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.