SOUTH BEND — It was an ideal opening drive for No. 9 Notre Dame.
Fighting Irish starting quarterback Jack Coan looked ready to play despite an ankle injury and the offense was clicking. Notre Dame was sitting at the Cincinnati six-yard line after marching 11 plays down the field when Coan’s beautifully manufactured drive crumbled.
An ill-advised throw — his only one of the drive — was picked off by Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner near the goal line and returned to the five-yard line.
That turnover was one of three for Notre Dame on Saturday that forced the Irish into playing catch-up for a majority of the game. Trailing by 17 in the second half, Notre Dame fought back to within four, but the Bearcats would score a game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth to go up 24-13 and hand the Irish their first loss of the season. The loss also snapped the program’s 26-game home winning streak.
“We didn’t take care of the basics (Saturday),” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “All we needed to do was be efficient in the basics, and we weren’t. We turned the football over on offense and didn’t cover very well on defense. We didn’t coach very well and we didn’t play very well. Cincinnati was the better football team (Saturday).”
Coan’s interception was bad and likely cost his team points. Notre Dame’s defense, though, was up to the challenge of keeping Cincinnati off of the scoreboard as well. Cincinnati starting quarterback Desmond Ridder and the Bearcat offense looked uncomfortable for a lot of the first half, in large part to how well Notre Dame’s defensive line played.
Ridder’s accuracy suffered early because of the pressure players like Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola put on the veteran quarterback, starting the game just 5-of-12 passing.
The first quarter was scoreless, but Notre Dame’s second turnover of the game changed the entire feeling of the game. After freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner was hit as he threw, a wobbly pass went straight up into the air and into the arms of Cincinnati’s Deshawn Pace. Pace would return it to the Notre Dame six-yard line to put his offense in business.
A few plays later, a perfectly-executed play-action pass from Ridder to tight end Leonard Taylor in the back of the end zone put the Bearcats up 7-0 early in the second quarter.
That momentum carried on through the rest of the second quarter for the Bearcats as they’d go on to outscore the Irish 10-0 and bring a 17-0 lead into the locker room.
Offensively for Notre Dame, a rhythm of any kind was hard to find during the first 30 minutes of play. The Irish manufactured just 144 yards of total offense during that span, going 3-for-10 on third down and punting the ball five times.
Late in the third quarter, the Bearcats looked ready to deliver a knockout blow to the Irish after driving deep into Notre Dame territory. Still down 17, Foskey made a play that single-handedly kept his team in the game, coming around the corner and stripping Ridder of the ball as the right-hander wound up to throw. The fumble was scooped up by linebacker Drew White and returned inside the Cincinnati 40-yard line.
That’s when the offense started to gain some much-needed momentum. Behind the play of backup quarterback Drew Pyne — who replaced Coan at the start of the second half — Notre Dame cut the Bearcat lead to 10 on a three-yard touchdown run by running back Kyren Williams.
The Bearcats kept the door open with a couple of missed field goals by kicker Cole Smith during the fourth quarter, which allowed the Irish to cut the lead even smaller.
An eight-play, 80-yard drive that Notre Dame had to have got the Irish to within four. Pyne looked the part of starting quarterback during the march downfield, finishing it off with a perfectly-placed ball to wide receiver Braden Lenzy for a 32-yard touchdown.
“It was unbelievable,” said Pyne of the touchdown. “Braden works so hard in practice. He’s really fast, and he does stuff like that every single day in practice. … It was really awesome to see him finally come down with one.”
The Notre Dame defense, who had come up big when it was needed the most, had to get one more stop to give the Irish an opportunity to win the game. Instead, the Cincinnati offense had an answer.
Ridder and the Bearcats worked efficiently and effectively, scoring on a six-play, 75-yard drive that milked the clock to just over five minutes remaining. On what was a first and goal from the ND 6, Ridder bounced outside toward the left side of the end zone and scampered in to ice the game.
The loss is a frustrating one for the Irish, but the players and coaches realize they have to put it behind them quickly. A road trip to Blacksburg, Virginia is next on the schedule for Notre Dame.
“It’s the 24-hour rule,” White said. “It’s the same as a win. We’ve had a lot of wins. We celebrate them for 24 hours and we get back to work. That’s exactly how we’re going to handle this. Coming in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we’re going to be ready. We have to be ready for Virginia Tech, because it’s going to be a big game. They’re going to try to beat us too. We can’t let one game define the rest of our season.”