Indiana and Cincinnati programs find themselves in rarefied air heading into Saturday showdown
When Tom Allen and Luke Fickell took over the Indiana and Cincinnati football programs, respectively, it would have been impossible to predict their first meeting would have any major ramifications.
Indiana football was the Big Ten’s most consistent punchline.
Simply reaching a bowl game was pretty close the the expected ceiling — it had only happened twice in the 22 seasons prior to Allen’s unexpected installation as head coach for the abruptly dismissed Kevin Wilson in 2016. The Hoosiers still have fewer league titles than the University of Chicago, which dropped its program in 1939.
But at least the Hoosiers were laughingstocks in a Power 5 conference. For Cincinnati, such an outcome was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Once the Big East disintegrated in 2012, the path to what’s now known as a New Year’s 6 bowl game was all but cut off. The best Bearcats fans could hope for when Fickell was hired in 2017 was that he would be like Mark D’Antonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones before him — good enough to eventually get hired somewhere bigger.
Things have changed. Dramatically.
Under Allen, Indiana has reached 3 bowl games in 5 seasons. Fickell’s Bearcats are in even more rarified air. Cincinnati hasn’t lost in the regular season since the 2019 finale, a hot streak that’s helped the program gain enough gravitas to earn an invite to join the Big 12 in 2023.
While Indiana’s season-opening loss at Iowa takes some shine off this matchup, make no mistake. There isn’t a Week 3 matchup in the country with more at stake for the schools playing.
For the 8th-ranked Bearcats, it’s a game they must win and win impressively if they hope to crash the College Football Playoff. And for the Hoosiers, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that the program’s growth spurt under Allen is sustainable for the long haul.
Hoosiers are underdogs for a reason
An American Athletic Conference team coming to Memorial Stadium as a favorite is certainly a vestige of the bad old days of Indiana football. But in this bold new era, it’s not because the Hoosiers are lacking. The Bearcats are fully loaded.
Cincinnati returns the bulk of a defense that finished 8th nationally in points against, 10th in turnovers forced and 13th against the run last season. And the Bearcats are far from one-dimensional, averaging 37.5 points per game a year ago and 45.5 this season.
If the Hoosiers are to beat the Bearcats, it will likely require their best overall performance since last year’s 38-21 win over Michigan. So though it is an attainable goal, the following things need to go Indiana’s way for it to happen.
3 Keys to an Indiana win over Cincinnati
No Hoosiers’ turnovers
There is a chance that Indiana isn’t that much worse than Iowa. Really. If quarterback Michael Penix Jr. merely had an average showing against the Hawkeyes, the game probably would have been competitive well into the fourth quarter.
But that remains an exercise in hypotheticals, as Penix had a disastrous showing. A pick-6 on Indiana’s third offensive snap of the season created a 14-0 hole, and another near the end provided Iowa with an insurmountable 28-3 lead.
Indiana will meet a similar demise against a defense of Cincinnati’s caliber if it once again hands out freebies.
Make Cincinnati pay with Peyton
Ty Fryfogle remains Indiana’s top receiving threat, but Cincinnati is the rare team with a player who can slow him down in man-to-man coverage.
Bearcats cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner isn’t just a guy with the catchiest name in the country. He’s likely the best player in the entire AAC and a near-certain first-round draft pick this spring. And with 6 combined interceptions the previous 2 seasons and another last week, he is also capable of being the next player with a return touchdown if Penix throws a careless floater his direction.
Which means the Hoosiers would be wise to avoid him altogether by utilizing more of tight end Peyton Hendershot. The senior had a relatively quiet 2020 after bursting on the scene in 2019 with 7 games of at least 50 receiving yards.
Solid as it may be, Cincinnati’s defense doesn’t frequently see 6-foot-4, 250-pound targets with Hendershot’s playmaking ability. He may be the guy who makes the difference on Saturday.
Off-field distractions for Fickell
This element is completely out of Indiana’s control. But it could still theoretically prove to be an issue for Cincinnati.
On Monday, USC fired coach Clay Helton — a widely expected move following a loss to Stanford in which the Trojans clearly mailed it in early in the third quarter.
As it so happens, current USC athletic director Mike Bohn is the same person who hired Fickell at Cincinnati. Naturally, Fickell’s name is among the most widely speculated to be the Trojans’ next coach.
However, it’s highly unlikely that such a distraction actually factors into this week’s outcome. You don’t put together an undefeated regular season without minute attention to detail. And you don’t get the USC job if you stumble your way around at Cincinnati first. If Fickell does want the job, the best thing he can do is keep winning and worry about the rest come December.
In all likelihood, any side effects of the rumors are more likely to be felt by players worried that their coach might be heading to Los Angeles. But that still seems like a long shot.