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Notre Dame Football

Scouting Report | Cincinnati

September 29, 2021
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There’s enough storylines for this game to fill 30 minutes of talk on College Gameday.

A top-10 matchup. A long home winning streak for Notre Dame. A potential College Football Playoff eliminator for both programs. Those are three big ones right there.

That would normally be enough to fuel discussion about this game, but then there’s Marcus Freeman and Mike Mickens coaching against their old team, Mike Denbrock and Michael Young returning to Notre Dame, and Brian Kelly facing the program he left for Notre Dame for the first time so there is plenty of sidebars that add intrigue to the game.

Push all of that aside for a second and focus on Cincinnati being the toughest opponent Notre Dame has faced this season. That’s what matters more than anything.

Luke Fickell has the Bearcats as strong as they’ve ever been with multiple NFL prospects on both sides of the ball. They’re ranked 11th in F+ (SP+ and FEI combined ranking).

Injuries

They appear to be coming into this game with a mostly healthy roster.

Offense

Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock runs their offense and he’s led them to a slow and steady build. They’re 29th in F+ and average 6.78 yards per play.

Expected strengths

We have to start with the quarterback. Desmond Ridder is a dual-threat who can produce big plays with his legs and has the arm to make throws at any area of the field. Taking out sacks, he’s rushed for 8 yards per carry in their three games, but hasn’t run too often.

I’d expect him to be used more on designed runs in this game and scramble more often.

He’s been more accurate with the deep ball this season compared to last year and that has opened up a new element to their offense. He has some targets who can make plays there with Tyler Scott and Jadon Thompson. Notre Dame fans also know that Young is capable of making plays down the field as well.

They’ve been awesome in the red zone this season (4th in touchdown efficiency). A huge reason why they won the Indiana game was them scoring four touchdowns on five chances in the red zone compared to Indiana blowing chances at getting six.

Alabama transfer Jerome Ford was the number two back last season and broke a 79-yard run against Georgia. He’s averaging 6.0 YPC this season and is a tough player to tackle. He’s averaging over 4 YPC after contact.

Potential Weaknesses

Ridder is ranked in top-25 in passing efficiency and is averaging 9.0 yards per attempt, but those numbers are misleading. He’s been below average vs top-40 defenses. Indiana (53rd in F+) held him to 5.8 YPA and 55% completions as a passer.

Though Ford is a dangerous back, the 5.0 YPC for the offense as a whole is misleading. They only had 130 and 118 yards vs Murray State and Indiana.

They’ve turned the ball over six times this season and the offensive line is the weakest part of the offense. Notre Dame should have the advantage up front and it’s easily the best defensive line they have faced in 2021. When Ridder is pressured, his mechanics can get sloppy.

They’re 85th in 3rd down conversion percentage and struggled to convert against Indiana. The Irish have been very good at stopping teams on 3rd down and this could be a significant factor in the game.

Scheme

They’re not an uptempo team. They’re only averaging 66 plays per game. This isn’t a heavy play-action team and it’s about an even split with run-pass ratio.

They will have designed runs with Ridder and run zone-read. They have two solid tight ends and are often in 12 personnel, but this isn’t anything close to Wisconsin out of that formation where Notre Dame will match with a 4-4. I think Notre Dame will play base against them the majority of the game and mostly likely Nickel rather than Dime on 3rd down.

Denbrock tries to give Ridder a lot of layups with getting the ball out quickly. They are trying to take advantage of easy reads so he can get the ball out in rhythm because he’s not someone who is going to sit and process things in the pocket.

They’re more likely to take deep shots in the middle of the field, but they may not do that as much if Kyle Hamilton is playing as a deep defender.

Key Players

QB Desmond Ridder - Heading into the season he’s had 61 runs of over 10-yards in his career. Containing him as a runner will be critical.

RB Jerome Ford - His 17 forced missed tackles come on only 50 rushing attempts.

WR Michael Young - He led the team in receptions last season (29) and is has remained a good blocker.

WR Alec Pierce - A big target (6’3” 213) who can win jump balls, he had a great game against Indiana with five catches for 86-yards.

Key for Notre Dame

Rattle Ritter

Ritter has strengths that are tough to deal with, but when he’s put in obvious passing situations, he can struggle. He’s completed less than 50% of his throws on 3rd down this season and he can be more worried about getting the ball out than moving the sticks.

If Notre Dame can get him to with four man pressure, it could be a rough day for Cincinnati’s offense.

Defense

Much like Wisconsin’s defense, this group is elite. They’re rated 6th in F+ and look to have not missed a beat from the group they were last season under new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.

They’re only giving up 4.15 YPP so yards and points could be scarce.

Expected strengths

This is a very fast group all over the board. They create a lot of Havoc (19.0%) and have forced the opposing offensive into 9 turnovers in three games (6 interceptions). They’re doing that while managing to not give up the explosive play. They’ve only given up six plays of 20-yards or more all year.

They’re 3rd in pass efficiency defense, are allowing only 5.0 YPA, and the run defense has been very good (3.48 YPC).

For most great defenses, it starts up front. This one is built up from the back end with corners as good as any Notre Dame will face.

Ahmad Gardner is a lockdown player and likely high pick in the next NFL Draft. He plays the boundary. Arquan Bush and Coby Bryant (yep, that’s his name) see more targets their way, but both are good in their own right.

Edge Myjai Sanders is going to be a problem. He’s super twitchy and long. Once he gets a beat on the cadence of a quarterback, he’s going to use that to dust his blocker off the ball. They are solid up front overall with DE Malik Vann, someone who is strong at the point of attack.

LB Darrian Beavers is a tremendous blitzer and Deshawn Pace has emerged as a highly productive player in their version of a Rover. Beavers is at least the equal of Jack Sanborn with how he can affect the game as a pass rusher. Both of these guys cover well too.

Ignore the sack numbers because the pressure percentage tells a different story. They had Indiana’s Michael Penix running for his life on many drop backs with pressure more than 50% of the time.

Potential Weaknesses

There isn’t a lot.

Both nose guards are quick, but not guys who are going to dominate at the point of attack. They can be run at.

Bush plays nickel for them and he’s not a great tackler. Getting Kyren Williams against him in the slot might not be a bad idea.

Sometimes they can get caught doing too much up in the front seven and if the ball is snapped early in the play clock, there could be big holes created up front.

Scheme

They’re still running that three down (Dollar) scheme that they were so successful with under Freeman. It’s obvious they have more of a comfort level with it because they are constantly shifting up front and the linebackers and defensive backs play around with showing blitz way more frequently.

They have been pretty consistent with their percentages of blitzing quarterbacks about ⅓ of the time (34% overall on the season), but it’s always about where the pressure is coming.

On a lot of plays LB Joel Dublanko is a de facto DT with the way they use him as a blitzer to plug holes.

They ask their corners to play a lot of man coverage. It’s even up from what they did last season with all three of their top guys close to 50% playing man to man. This can’t be a situation where Notre Dame throws up too many contested catch situations. They have to mix in several “man-beater” route combinations as well.

Key Players

LB Darrian Beavers - 10 pressures and wears a hoodie during games with his name on it. What a flex by him.

Edge Myjai Sanders - Notre Dame will have to pay extra attention to him as much as possible.

CB Ahmad Gardner - No player in college football has allowed a lower passer rating than him according to PFF.

LB Deshawn Pace - He leads the team in tackles and had nine solos against Indiana.

Key for Notre Dame

Don’t waste opportunities

The difference in the game with Indiana was how poorly the Hoosiers did in the red zone. They had six chances and ended up with only three touchdowns and no points on the other three trips.

When they’re in field goal range, they can’t take sacks to take those chances away. When they’re in the red zone, they need to make sure they are coming away with six as much as possible. Execution in that area of the field will be critical and checking in to the right play, like they did on their two touchdowns against Wisconsin, is going to be important.

Special Teams

K Cole Smith is only 1 for 3 in field goals this season and has missed an extra point. In what could be a close game, the kicking situation could be something to monitor.

Freshman P Mason Hunter has averaged 43 yards per punt.

Returner Tre Tucker took one back to the house against Indiana and Notre Dame shouldn’t give him any opportunities to do the same against them. If Jon Doerer can put it through the end zone, he needs to do it on every kick off.

Overview

I’d expect another low scoring game for most of it unless turnovers change that like they did against Wisconsin.

Cincinnati is talking a big game going into it and they know this is their shot to make a splash nationally so every gadget play in the playbook will likely be on the table for them.

Notre Dame’s skill players against Cincinnati’s secondary is the most important matchup to watch. Whoever wins that one will likely be the winner of this game.

 
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