Three keys, prediction: No. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats hit the road to face Indiana

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

The University of Cincinnati football team outscored its first two opponents by a combined margin of 91-21. But despite the two convincing victories, the No. 8-ranked (Associated Press/Coaches) Bearcats have yet to put together a complete game.

Cincinnati started strong against the rival Miami RedHawks in the season-opener, only to surrender two late scores and lose the shutout.

The Bearcats dominated FCS opponent Murray State in the second half last week, but sputtered to a 7-7 tie against the Racers at halftime.

Cincinnati senior quarterback Desmond Ridder knows if they're going to defeat Indiana (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) on Saturday and improve to 3-0, the Bearcats are going to have to start fast and finish strong.

More:Scouting report: No. 8 Cincinnati set to face Indiana Hoosiers for first time since 2000

"We just obviously started out the Murray State game slow. I guess guys weren't playing to their expectations or level," Ridder said. "But coming up for the rest of the year on, these two out-of-conference games and then the whole conference schedule, we know that we have to be on our whole game and play all four quarters."

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) sets up a play before the snap in the second quarter of the NCAA American Athletic Conference football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the East Carolina Pirates at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. The Bearcats led 35-10 at halftime.

3 keys to victory for the Bearcats

1. Stay composed: Cincinnati's camp in August consisted of some of the most intense practices of many of the players' football careers.

The days were hot, long and arduous. But all of it was in preparation for the stretch that begins Saturday at noon.

The Bearcats have back-to-back non-conference road games (with a bye week in between) at Big Ten foe Indiana and at defending College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame.

More:Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell emphatically quiets chatter linking him to USC vacancy

The fate of Cincinnati's season rests largely in the results of these next two contests. The Bearcats will need to keep their composure, stay focused on the moment and not get wrapped up in the noise outside of the program or the noise inside of Indiana's sold-out Memorial Stadium.

"Offensively, we just haven't been in that situation in a long while," UC coach Luke Fickell said. "We're making checks and things like that, even the cadence. I don't know exactly how bad (the crowd noise) could be, but we know it's going to be somewhat of an effect. It's something we haven't seen in a year and a half. These are things you always have to prepare yourself for."

Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter of the NCAA American Athletic Conference Championship game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

2. Give the ball to Jerome Ford: The junior running back has 234 yards and four touchdowns through the first two games. Ford had a career-high 18 carries last week.

With Ford averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season, it's time for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to let the 5-foot-11, 220-pound back carry the load.

"When we can run it, I think it's going to open up a lot of other opportunities for Des in the passing game," Fickell said.

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) hands the ball off to Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) in the fourth quarter during an NCAA college football game against the Army Black Knights, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won 24-10.

It will also allow Cincinnati to control the clock and keep that explosive Indiana offense on the sideline. Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. put up 491 yards and five touchdowns against then-No. 3-ranked Ohio State last season.

3. A special day on special teams: The Bearcats have been in cruise control for much of the season. Because of that, they haven't needed to rely heavily on their special teams.

That could change Saturday.

More:UC notebook: Opposing offenses playing Keep Away from Cincinnati edge rusher Myjai Sanders

"When you go on the road, there's a lot of things you've got to be able to do, and it starts with special teams," Fickell said. "Everybody talks offense and defense, but the reality is the thing that ties everybody together is special teams. Incredible momentum changes and the battle of field position is done on special teams."

A return touchdown, a blocked punt or field goal, or a good/bad day for kicker Cole Smith could be the difference between a win or a loss. Cincinnati will need to make sure its third phase is sharp and buttoned up. There can't be any mistakes on special teams.

Cincinnati Bearcats place kicker Cole Smith (17) kicks the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter during the American Athletic Conference championship football game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 27-24.

How to watch

Time: Noon on Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind.

TV: Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Dusty Dvoracek (analyst) and Tom Luginbill (sideline) will have the call on ESPN.

Radio: Dan Hoard (play-by-play), Jim Kelly Jr. (analyst) and Mo Egger (host/engineer) will have the UC radio network call on WLW-AM (700), Sirius 211, XM 202 and Internet 970. 

Live stream: WatchESPN.com

Betting line: UC was a 3.5-point favorite 24 hours before kickoff. 

Series history: Indiana leads 9-3-2.

Prediction

The Hoosiers need a win Saturday after getting blown out at Iowa in their season-opener. But Cincinnati needs a win if it's going to have any shot at climbing up the polls and being one of the top four teams to earn an invitation to the College Football Playoff party at the end of the season. The stakes will be high against Indiana, and the Bearcats will answer the bell. UC wins, 31-17.