Probably the last opponent a struggling Navy football team wants to face next is unbeaten and second-ranked Cincinnati.
Making the challenge even tougher is the Bearcats are on a mission to become the first Group of Five conference program to qualify for the College Football Playoff. Coach Luke Fickell’s team has performed at a high level every weekend with no letdowns thus far.
Cincinnati (6-0) has dominated all comers to date, winning its six games by an average margin of almost 30 points. The Bearcats have outscored their last two opponents — American Athletic Conference rivals Temple and Central Florida — 108-24.
Cincinnati’s closest game was a 24-13 victory over then-No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Cincy also owns an impressive win against Indiana of the Big Ten.
Navy saw Cincinnati in 2018 when Fickell was just getting the program cranked up. Quarterback Desmond Ridder threw three touchdown passes while defensive tackle Cortez Broughton (Kansas City Chiefs) anchored a dominant defense as the Bearcats pounded the Midshipmen, 42-0.
Fickell, who was hired in December 2016, directed a dramatic turnaround as the Bearcats rebounded from a 4-8 record in 2017 to post the third 11-win season in program history the following year. Cincinnati has compiled an overall record of 37-6 since the start of 2018.
“Coach Fickell has done a great job of building this program from the ground up. Not only are they recruiting good players, they are developing them as well,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “You can tell the players believe in what they’re doing. Just tough, hard-nosed kids that buy into what they’re doing.
“It’s just a good football team in all phases. They don’t have any weaknesses with their program.”
Ridder directs a balanced offense that ranks sixth nationally in scoring with 43 points per game. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior from Louisville has completed 108 of 168 passes (65%) for 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback is a Heisman Trophy candidate and projects as an early-round NFL draft pick.
“Ridder does everything well. He’s got a big arm and is very athletic. He fits perfectly with the system they run,” Niumatalolo said. “With his skill set and the weapons around him, it’s the perfect offense.”
Senior wide receiver Alec Pierce (6-3, 213) is the top target and has 22 receptions for 406 yards and two touchdowns. Notre Dame transfer Michael Young Jr. and 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Leonard Taylor both have 16 catches.
In the backfield, Jerome Ford has rushed for 709 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Alabama transfer was named AAC Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 189 yards and four touchdowns against Central Florida. It was the second straight week the 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior established a career high for rushing.
“They definitely can run the ball because their offensive line is huge,” Niumatalolo said. “They have the ability to hit you in the mouth physically with big offensive linemen and really good backs.”
Cincinnati may be even better defensively than offensively. The Bearcats rank ninth nationally in scoring defense and 18th in total defense, only giving up 15.8 points and 306.2 yards per game. Cincy leads the country in red zone defense and stands second in turnover margin.
Sophomore linebacker Deshawn Pace leads the team with 39 tackles (3 ½ for loss) and has two interceptions. Linebacker Darrian Beavers, a Connecticut transfer, has 36 tackles and 3 ½ sacks. Junior cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is being touted as an All-American candidate.
After watching tape of the Bearcats’ defense, Niumatalolo said that it “sometimes looks like they’re playing with 13 guys.”
“They’ve done a really good job of flying to the ball and being super-aggressive. Defensively, you can tell there’s a big emphasis on playing with great effort,” Niumatalolo said. “They’ve got speed everywhere, are really athletic and run to the ball. Those are bad combinations to have when you’re going against a defense.”
Cincinnati is as a 27 ½ point favorite over Navy, which is coming off a 35-17 loss to Memphis on Thursday night. Playing a weeknight game enabled Niumatalolo to give the players a long weekend off while giving the coaching staff more time to prepare for arguably the best team the Mids will meet all season.
The Midshipmen can reflect on some of its own history going into this formidable matchup. In 2016 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Navy knocked off Houston 46-40 when it was ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll.
In 1984, Navy shocked second-ranked South Carolina, which came to Annapolis with a 9-0 record. The Midshipmen were 3-5-1 and without star tailback Napoleon McCallum or starting quarterback Bill Byrne. Backup quarterback Bobby Misch and backup tailback Rich Clouse led the offense, while the defense forced five turnovers as Navy notched a 38-21 upset that cost South Carolina a berth in the Orange Bowl and a chance at the national championship.
“It’s a great opportunity to have the No. 2 team in the country coming into our house. We recognize, too, that they’re a really good team, so we have to prepare well and play well to have a chance,” Niumatalolo said. “Hopefully, we play well. This isn’t just to show well and be a tough opponent. We’re coming to win. We have to be the best we can to do that.”
Navy starting quarterback Tai Lavatai left the Memphis game late in the second half, but Niumatalolo said Monday he expects the signal-caller to be able to play against Cincinnati.
NO. 2 CINCINNATI@NAVY
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1430 AM, 1090 AM
Line: Cincinnati by 27 ½