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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Fickell, Bearcats ready to prove themselves on national level against Irish

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said his team will be more than ready for a top-10 showdown when the Bearcats take the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman previously coached under Fickell at Cincinnati as the defensive coordinator from 2017-2020, and there will likely be plenty of narratives surrounding this leading up to the game. When Fickell was asked if he would have dinner with Freeman at some point, he said their relationship would not get in the way of him preparing and executing his game plan.

“With these Saturdays, there are only 12 guaranteed ones a year,” Fickell said. “You go about them the same way, whether it’s your brother you’re coaching against, your best friend, one of your former guys — no matter what it is, you respect the day and you respect the kids that prepared for it. There is plenty of time in the offseason to do things like that.”

Fickell downplayed the importance of familiarity on both sides of the football with Freeman potentially knowing the Bearcats’ offense and Fickell understanding Freeman’s defensive schemes.

“I think there will obviously be some familiarity on both sides of the ball in terms of things that we do and they do defensively, just by the nature of being around guys for a really long time,” Fickell said. “I think once the ball is kicked off, a lot of those things go away and come down to preparation and making adjustments.”

Fickell said he isn’t concerned about his players’ relationships with Freeman affecting their play during the game, but he did acknowledge it could be on their minds as they prepare for the game.

“Once the ball is kicked off, you don’t think about it until the game is over, but they are all things that distract us from things that we can do,” Fickell said.

Fickell gave credit to Notre Dame for finding ways to win close games, which he believes is a sign of a great football team.

“They’re a really good football team. I think one of the unique things is that they have been battle-tested,” Fickell said. “These guys have been tested each and every week. They’re used to it in the sense that they always get everybody’s best because of who they are. To see how they’ve won and what they’ve had to go through to win tells you that they are a good football team and a really good football program, and that’s how you grow going forward.”

Fickell noted that he has seen the Irish defense change since week one, as is expected with a new defensive coordinator.

“Defensively, I do continue seeing them to involve doing a little bit more every week based on the package that they got,” Fickell said.

Despite downplaying some of the personal aspects of the game, Fickell wasn’t shy in admitting that Saturday is a huge game for his program on the national level.

“It’s a big game anytime you play Notre Dame,” Fickell said. “Notre Dame is a top-five program. And it just happens to be a year where we are both good and ranked high. I think more than anything you have to go about the process of making sure you stay focused.”

Fickell discussed how his team’s 24-21 loss to Georgia in last year’s Peach Bowl was a good indicator of where his program was at, and this game will be another good indicator of where his program is on the national level.

“We’re playing one of the best teams in the country and that, to us, is a big deal,” Fickell said. “It is an ultimate measuring stick in all that we do.”

Fickell pointed to the bowl game against Georgia when asked if he was worried about the moment of a top-10 matchup.

“They did a great job playing against Georgia,” Fickell said. “The situation wasn’t overwhelming. The game wasn’t overwhelming.”

Although Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder made a statement earlier in the week about how he doesn’t expect the noise at Notre Dame Stadium to be a factor, Fickell talked about how his team has been preparing at practice for the crowd at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Everything we do is somewhat loud. We will do some of the same things. It more so was for the offense,” Fickell said. “Those are some things that we will be prepared for.”

The Cincinnati defense will be anchored by linebacker Deshawn Pace, who has recorded an outstanding 25 total tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery this year.

Fickell praised Pace’s ability at the linebacker position.

“He’s got a natural knack to find the football in that position specifically,” Fickell said. “Him and Ty [Van Fossen] being able to split some of the reps at that position is a unique thing. One of the unique things that Deshawn has done is, even if he’s taking only 50% of the reps, he’s done a good job of watching and understanding the reps that he’s not in there for.”

Despite the hype leading up to the game, Fickell knows the importance of making sure that his team doesn’t let the emotions of the week before the game affect his team come Saturday.

“Once the game is kicked off, you can’t let all the emotions of everything else that is going on affect you and how you go about things,” Fickell said. “What I mean by that is the emotions that affect you during the week that can drain you because you need to be at your best on Saturday.”

The Bearcats will arrive on Friday to take in the sights of Notre Dame Stadium ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

“We’ll arrive on Friday and go over to the stadium. We will have an opportunity to go in there and let them see the thing and take the pictures or whatever,” Fickell said. “When we go there on Saturday, we want them to be focused on the thing that they have to do.”

Fickell said Saturday’s game will be his biggest regular-season game as head coach at Cincinnati.

“With two top-10 teams, I don’t think we have been in this position yet. This is what you have dreamed of and this is what you want,” Fickell said. “This is what these guys have worked for in order to have the chance to play Notre Dame and have a matchup where you have two legitimate top-10 teams that a lot of people are excited about watching.”

Fickell said he has confidence in his team because of the ups and downs his players have been through and the experiences that his players share.

“I have the utmost confidence in these guys. They have been through a lot of battles together. We have some incredible leadership,” Fickell said. “We have had a lot of successes, but we have had a lot of failures too.”