After a wild fourth quarter against Wisconsin last week Notre Dame is riding high into a home matchup with Cincinnati. The Bearcats enter South Bend as the slight favorite, bringing an experienced quarterback and a strong defensive line. The schedule opens up for the Irish after Saturday, making this defense of the home win streak especially important.
We have talked at length about Jack Coan’s inability to avoid pressure and sacks at length and the stats here speak for themselves so we won’t fully harp on it again, but it is especially key this weekend. Coan’s lower body injury could perhaps make him even less mobile, and according to Pro Football Focus Cincinnati is the 2nd best team in the country at generating pressure. The pass rush is a key reason why Cincinnati is allowing the seventh lowest EPA/Pass in the country, although they are buoyed significantly by 3rd Down as their Early Down EPA/Pass Allowed is -0.03. The offensive line will need to have to be on their A-Game, but it will be up to Rees and whoever is under center Saturday to avoid converting pressures into extra sacks. We’re not going to pick a side in the quarterback battle without knowing Coan’s health, but if Coan starts and finds himself suffocated in a collapsing pocket early, the team may have no choice but to turn to Drew Pyne and his increased mobility.
Avery Davis continues to pace the pass catchers in efficiency and could be in the best position to take advantage of his matchup. Arquon Bush has been the Bearcats’ primary Slot Cornerback and he has the 2nd lowest PFF Coverage Grade on the team at 63.7 (60 is replacement level).
An easy way to combat pressure is to get the ball out earlier than normal. Coan and Tommy Rees would be well served to get Michael Mayer and the running backs involved on short routes to keep the defense from bringing constant pressure. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have been better as receivers than we expected and have higher Success Rates when targeted than Kevin Austin and Mayer. We wouldn’t recommend building the passing game around throwing many screens and swing passes but utilizing them in the quick passing game and as outlets under pressure will be important.
Avery Davis could also be an X-Factor in this game. He comes into it as the most efficient Irish pass catcher, averaging over 1 EPA/Target and an absurd 67% Success Rate. It also just so happens that Cincinnati’s primary slot corner, Arquon Bush, has the 2nd lowest PFF Coverage Grade among the Bearcats Linebackers and Defensive Backs at 63.7. The other CBs and LBs all grade in the 70s or above, meaning the Running Backs, Austin, Lenzy, and Mayer will have more difficult matchups on a play-by-play basis. And with Cincinnati playing Man Coverage on just under 50% of their snaps, Davis could be in line for a good day.
Cincinnati also brings the 11th ranked rushing defense by PFF and allows the 6th lowest EPA/Rush. It could be another long day for the ground game with the offensive line’s struggles in run blocking. The Irish are struggling on early downs at -0.16 EPA/early down rush, and are a putrid -0.48 in crucial third down situations, combining to have the 118th ranked rushing offense out of 130. Tommy Rees has done a good job of leaning on the pass game this year when he’s needed to, he’ll likely need to do this again Saturday.
Marcus Freeman’s defense has been a revelation in recent weeks, bouncing back from a weak Florida State game to put together three strong weeks in a row. It was great to see the defense adjust from its usual light fronts to load the box and stifle Wisconsin’s offense.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Freeman keys in on the run or pass this week, since there’s an argument to be made for both. Jerome Ford is averaging a spectacular 0.40 EPA/rush with a 52% success rate. Desmond Ridder is no slouch rushing too, averaging 0.26 EPA/rush with a 60% success rate, although it appears Cincinnati has cut back on his number of rushes the last two years. The Bearcats can pound the rock better than Wisconsin, so holding Ford down to a manageable 0.1 EPA/rush or less needs to be a priority.
On the flip side, Alec Pierce might be the 2nd best wide receiver the Irish have faced this year after Purdue’s David Bell. After two slow games, Pierce caught 5 passes for 80 and a touchdown last week against Indiana after a strong showing in an injury shortened 2020 campaign. Despite his lack of traditional counting stats this season, his 0.48 EPATtarget makes him a threat, with Jadon Thompson and former Notre Dame receiver Michael Young as competent complementary pieces.
The success of these receivers hinges on Desmond Ridder, who has regressed a bit since last year EPA/Pass-wise and is leading a perfectly average Cincinnati passing offense. It will be interesting to see if Cincinnati goes for broke and turns Desmond Ridder loose with vertical passing. Ridder is completing 53.8% of deep passes, but just 40.9% of passes between 10-19 yards. These are both small sample sizes which likely explains why he’s completing more passes throwing deeper, but it shows he’s capable of beating the Irish deep if they commit too much to stopping Jerome Ford.
Jack: If I were to give the play I’m most confident in it would definitely be the under on points, but since we typically pick the spread I’m going to fade the Irish for the first time this year and take Cincinnati to win (please don’t throw things at me). The pass rush is too much for this offensive line, and whoever the quarterback is may have a hard time hanging in the pocket. If the Irish do win I think it will be low scoring, but ultimately I think the Cincinnati offense will put enough points on the board to get this done.
Cooper: I’m going to have to agree with Jack and it has to do entirely with the sacks I think Jack Coan will take. When we take out sacks Notre Dame has one of the best passing offenses in the country, throwing for over 0.3 EPA/Pass. But with Coan’s injury likely adding to his issues in the pocket, I think Cincinnati’s pass rush is going to be too much to handle for Coan and they could have a field day even if the Offensive Line plays well. If for some reason Drew Pyne starts, I would take the Irish, but if Coan’s under center I think Notre Dame will end up with their first loss of the 2021 campaign.