On a rainy October afternoon, No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) and No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) faced off aiming to maintain their undefeated seasons. Notre Dame lost not only their perfect record, but also their streak of 26 consecutive wins at home. To add to the burden, former head coach Brian Kelly spent the four years prior to his time at Notre Dame coaching the Bearcats. Newly appointed head coach Marcus Freeman also coached as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati for four years before being hired by Notre Dame.
This was no small feat for Cincinnati, as the win against a top-10 team put them on the map for an eventual playoff spot. The Bearcats established their edge early on in the matchup, preventing any advances made by Notre Dame for the duration of the first half, and the game remained scoreless until the second quarter. A key drive at the end of the first half saw Cincinnati drive 80 yards in just over a minute to take a 17-0 lead, leaving things looking grim for the Irish. After a slow first half, Kelly made the decision to replace Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan with Tyler Buchner.
Notre Dame fought back with a minute to spare in the third quarter, courtesy of running back Kyren Williams and third-string freshman quarterback Drew Pyne. Pyne took Buchner’s place on the field and Williams ran it in for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game. Pyne’s success persisted, as he was able to find wide receiver Braden Lenzy for a 32-yard touchdown pass, decreasing the deficit to 17-13.
Notre Dame put up a fair fight playing catchup, but the straw that broke the camel’s back came from Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who, days leading up to the game, stated that the infamous loud cheers of Irish fans at Notre Dame Stadium “shouldn’t be loud for too long.” Ridder ran for a six-yard score with five minutes left in the fourth quarter for his third touchdown of the game and gave Cincinnati a 24-13 lead. Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell soon thereafter coined the term “The Ridder Factor” to describe the quarterback’s persistent success.
With their long-held home-game winning streak soiled, the Irish feared that the loss would be accompanied by an additional hefty price tag: a jeopardized spot in the playoffs. Notre Dame dropped five spots in the rankings, settling in at No. 14. Nearly halfway through their 2021 season, the Fighting Irish would not face off against any other ranked teams. Meanwhile, this was the marquee win that Cincinnati used to successfully make their case to the College Football Playoff committee and become the first ever Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff.