Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell makes his return to Ohio Stadium on Saturday. But while Fickell’s deep connection to the Ohio State program has inevitably received the most attention, Fickell has attempted to downplay its significance at every turn, instead focusing on the task at hand for his team.
During his weekly press conference earlier this week, Fickell called Saturday’s game “a great opportunity for us to challenge ourselves and measure us” as individual players and as an entire program against a top-five ranked team.
Fickell, who is in his third season at the helm for Cincinnati, said his team’s preparation for the game hasn’t been so much about playing Ohio State in particular as it has been about handling a larger stage in general, something he said his team didn’t respond well to last season.
There are bound to be unique emotions for Fickell, who has played a role in so many great memories in Ohio State’s storied history, but those are all very much secondary to Fickell’s number one objective: playing well and winning the game.
“When you’re a competitor, it doesn’t really matter,” Fickell said of those emotions. “There’ll be no feelings. I’ve said it before, if all of the sudden you had the opportunity to play your brother — yeah, you love him to death and want nothing but the best for him — but at that moment, you’ve got no love lost for him … I think when you compete, you detach your emotions.”
Fickell and the Bearcats are coming off an 11-2 season a year ago and opened up their 2019 season with a 24-14 win over UCLA last Thursday to move to 1-0. Here is a look at what the Buckeyes can expect to see from the Bearcats when they meet at noon on Saturday.
The Cincinnati offense is led by the return of its top two playmakers from a year ago in redshirt sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder and junior running back Michael Warren II. The duo combined to pace an offense that averaged more than 450 yards and 35 points per game a season ago.
As a redshirt freshman last season, Ridder replaced Hayden Moore early in the Bearcats’ season-opening win at UCLA. Ridder never relinquished his hold on the starting job, starting the final 11 games of the regular season and amassing 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 62.4 percent of his attempts.
While Ridder’s arm talent and 6-foot-4 frame make it easy to label him the prototypical pocket-passing quarterback, he showed a knack for escaping the pocket and hurting defenses with his mobility last season as well. He churned out 583 yards on the ground last season, including six games where he totaled at least 60 yards rushing, and added five rushing touchdowns.
Perhaps most impressive during Ridder’s redshirt freshman season, which ended with American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors, was that he mostly avoided costly mistakes; Ridder threw just five interceptions a season ago.
Last week, Ridder completed 18 of his 26 attempts for 242 yards and two touchdowns. He threw one costly interception on the UCLA goal line that was nearly returned for a touchdown. Ridder added 34 yards rushing on nine carries.
Warren took over as the Bearcats’ featured back last season after Gerrid Doaks, who was the team’s leading rusher in 2017, was forced to miss the entire season with a groin injury. Warren didn’t disappoint, rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. He added 25 catches for 232 yards and a score in the passing game.
Warren carried the ball 26 times for 92 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win. He also caught three passes for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Doaks made his return last week and carried 10 times for 53 yards, but he left the game in the fourth quarter due to a knee injury. His status for Saturday appears to be in doubt, although no official determination has been given. Should Doaks be unable to go, the backup carries behind Warren will likely go to freshman Ryan Montgomery, who logged the first and only carry of his college career a week ago.
Sophomore Tavion Thomas, who ran for 500 yards and six touchdowns last season, missed last week’s game due to a team suspension that cost him practice time during camp. While Thomas has returned to practicing with the team, he is not expected to be available for Saturday’s contest.
The Bearcats lost their top pass-catcher from last season in Kahlil Lewis, who totaled 782 yards receiving on 56 catches in his senior season. However, the Bearcats return their next five highest producers in the passing game, led by senior tight end Josiah Deguara.
Deguara caught 38 passes a year ago for 468 yards and five touchdowns. He picked up right where he left off last year, hauling in four passes for 53 yards and a score a week ago.
Receivers Rashad Madaris and Jayson Jackson are the top two returnees from a year ago, statistically, combining for 49 catches, 750 yards, and five touchdowns in 2018. Jackson recorded three catches for 36 yards last week, and Medaris added two catches for 23 yards.
However, it was two sophomores in 6-foot-3 Alec Pierce and 6-foot Trent Cloud who were the talk of the preseason at the position. Both topped the week one depth chart outside, and Pierce caught the first two passes of his career against UCLA, totaling 59 yards.
Thomas Geddis provides ideal size on the outside for the Bearcats at 6-foot-2. He gives the offense a nice compliment to Madaris and Jackson, who are both under 6-foot. Geddis recorded 20 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown last season. He caught three passes for 25 yards in last week’s win.
Upfront, Cincinnati lost a first-team All-Conference performer in tackle Dino Boyd but returns three starters from a year ago in right tackle Chris Ferguson, right guard Morgan James, and center Jakari Robinson. Ferguson and James both started the entire season for the Bearcats, while Robinson started six games after being pressed into action after second-team All-Conference center Garrett Campbell was injured.
On the left side, the Bearcats have turned to a pair of redshirt freshmen in guard Jeremy Cooper and 6-foot-9 tackle Lorenz Mertz, both of whom made the first starts of their career last week.
As a unit, the offensive line had no issues protecting Ridder last week, allowing only one sack, although they figure to see increased opposition on Saturday.
Penalties were an issue, however, with the unit being tagged for six false start penalties while playing in front of a home crowd. In a game in which Cincinnati will need to play near flawlessly in order to give themselves a chance, penalties will be costly on Saturday.
As expected, a Fickell-coached team was stout defensively last season, finishing 11th in the country in total defense and allowing only 17 points a game, which ranked eighth in FBS. The unit got off to a strong start last week, holding UCLA to just 218 yards of total offense, including only 62 yards on the ground.
Along the defensive line, the Bearcats have had to replace two big-time performers in Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland, both of whom were seniors and All-Conference selections last season. The duo combined for 102 tackles and 11.5 sacks.
Junior Elijah Ponder and sophomore Jabari Taylor earned the starts last Thursday for what is perhaps the defense’s biggest question mark, although junior Curtis Brooks saw significant playing time as well and recorded a fumble recovery late in the game.
At defensive end, Cincinnati utilizes a hybrid linebacker and defensive end position, called the “Jack,” that will be manned by the Bearcats’ best returning pass rusher, Michael Pitts, a 6-foot-4, 255 lbs. junior. Pitts recorded 34 tackles last season, including 7.5 for loss, and four sacks. He notched his first sack of the 2019 season last week — the only sack of the game for the Bearcats — and added 1.5 tackles for loss.
Delaware native and Hayes alum Ethan Tucky will also see time at the Jack position. A junior, Tucky recorded 24 total tackles and two sacks a season ago. He recorded three total tackles and one for loss last week.
Sophomore defensive end Myjai Sanders made the first start of his career last week, taking over for the departed Kimoni Fitz, who had 4.5 sacks last season. Sophomore Malik Vann and senior Kevin Mouhon are also part of the rotation at defensive end. Each recorded a QB hurry in last week’s win.
The Bearcats feature solid returning experience at the linebacker position, led by middle linebacker Bryan Wright. At 6-foot-3, Wright came to Cincinnati as a defensive end but made the switch to linebacker two years ago. A solid mix of size and quickness, Wright was fourth on the team in tackles last season with 54 total stops. He added four sacks.
Joel Dublanko is listed as Wright’s backup but saw time last week, recording three tackles.
Senior Perry Young only played eight games a season ago due to a torn ACL but was still selected as a First-Team All-AAC performer after recording 45 tackles. As a sophomor in 2017, Young started 11 games and finished second on the team with 101 tackles.
Back and fully healthy, he should be a mainstay at weakside linebacker for the Bearcats this season. He recorded three total tackles, an interception, and two QB hurries last week against UCLA.
At strongside linebacker, Cincinnati has multiple players who contribute, led by Jarell White, who finished second on the team in tackles last season with 58 stops. However, Connecticut transfer Darrian Beavers topped the depth chart last week and tallied three tackles last week, as did White.
A pair of highly-talented safeties was expected to lead the Cincinnati secondary, led by future pro James Wiggins. The secondary was dealt a tough blow just days before their season opener when Wiggins, a junior, was lost for the season with a knee injury. He led the team with four interceptions and was third in tackles a season ago.
Sophomore Ja’von Hicks started in place of Wiggins last week and had an up-and-down performance, although he did have an interception and a fumble recovery. Redshirt sophomore Kyriq McDonald also saw playing time at safety.
At the other safety position, junior Darrick Forrest, a Columbus native, recorded 49 total tackles and one interception last season. He provides versatility and physicality as someone who can play in the box.
Cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Cam Jefferies provide valuable returning experience as second-year starters outside. The pair combined for three interceptions last season as part of a passing defense that gave up only 190 yards per game last season. Bryant had six tackles last week, including three solos, and a pass breakup.
Cincinnati features one of the best punters in all of college football in junior James Smith. Yet another elite punter to come from Nathan Chapman’s ProKick Australia program, Smith was a finalist last year for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s best punter.
Smith averaged 46.6 yards per punt, which ranked fourth in FBS. As a team, the Bearcats finished second in the country in net punting.
Placekicker Sam Crosa, a Columbus native, won the kicking job after coming to Cincinnati as a graduate transfer. Crosa was 10-14 on field goal attempts and missed two extra points last season at Western Illinois. Last week, he missed a 32-yard attempt but made a 44-yard attempt later in the game.
Montgomery served as the punt returner last week and had a 25-yard return. Tre Tucker, a true freshman receiver, served as the kick returner last week and had a 28-yard return.