Cincinnati seized its opportunity on Saturday.
Last season, the Bearcats had an undefeated regular season but weren’t even close to cracking the College Football Playoff field. This year, it looks like the Bearcats will have a shot.
No. 7 Cincinnati marched into South Bend and knocked off No. 9 Notre Dame, winning 24-13 to improve to 4-0 heading into conference play. With so much fluctuation in rankings in the early going of the 2021 season, back-to-back wins over Indiana and Notre Dame should give the Bearcats the top-tier staying power they desperately needed last year.
And as long as they keep winning, the Bearcats will remain in the CFP conversation as the season progresses.
There wasn’t much offense early in this one, but the Bearcats forced three first-half Notre Dame turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble on a kickoff return — to both keep the Irish out of the end zone and establish a 17-0 lead they would not relinquish.
Things would get dicey down the stretch, but senior quarterback Desmond Ridder made the plays necessary to ensure a victory for his team.
Cincinnati built that lead by first picking off Notre Dame near the goal line on its first drive and then doing it again on the Irish’s fourth drive. The second interception came deep in Notre Dame territory. Three plays later, Ridder hit Leonard Taylor from a yard out to give the Bearcats a 7-0 lead.
Notre Dame then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, allowing the Bearcats to tack on a short field goal. And just before halftime, Ridder found Tre Tucker for a 27-yard score to give the Bearcats a 17-0 lead at the break.
In the second half, Cincinnati missed two short field goals and fumbled, allowing Notre Dame to hang around. The Irish got a spark from Drew Pyne, the third QB they played on Saturday, and his touchdown pass to Braden Lenzy cut Cincinnati’s lead to 17-13 with 8:20 to play.
But Ridder and the Bearcats would not wilt. Ridder threw an absolute dime to Taylor for a 36-yard gain and later put the finishing touches on the victory with a six-yard rushing score with 5:08 to go.
Ridder finished the day with 297 passing yards, 26 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. While Taylor and Tucker both made big plays, Alec Pierce was the leading receiver. He posted six catches for 144 yards in the win.
What’s next for Cincinnati?
Just win, baby. That’s going to be the mindset moving forward for the Bearcats.
As a member of a Group of Five conference (for now), Cincinnati is going to have to go undefeated to have any shot at the four-team playoff. And the Bearcats will likely be best served winning these upcoming games in convincing fashion.
That march through the American Athletic Conference begins on a short turnaround with Temple — fresh off an upset win over Memphis — visiting Nippert Stadium on Friday night. The following week will be a visit from UCF, a team that’s always dangerous even with QB Dillon Gabriel injured.
Later on, Cincinnati has Navy and Tulane on the road, Tulsa at home, South Florida on the road, SMU at home and East Carolina on the road.
A CFP berth is no sure thing even with an undefeated season. The CFP selection committee gave the Bearcats such little respect last year. It’s going to be an ongoing storyline as the season progresses.
This year, however, Cincinnati has road wins over Indiana, a Big Ten team and mighty Notre Dame under its belt. Those can only help the Bearcats’ cause.