No. 3 Cincinnati faces dual challenge of big heads, UCF

10/12/2021 8:44:33 PM EST

The national recognition for Cincinnati's football program is at an all-time high.

Coach Luke Fickell just hopes his Bearcats don't get too big-headed.

Cincinnati holds its highest ranking in program history at No. 3 heading into its Saturday afternoon home game against American Athletic Conference opponent UCF.

"For us as a team and as a program, it's really about how are we going to handle this attention and things that are going on," Fickell said. "We can't bury our head in the sand.

"They can't be like me because they're not. Meaning, they still have to go to class and be in the community and live on their phones at times. ... It will be a big deal for us to continue to handle some of the attention, some of the buzz."

Following impressive road triumphs over Indiana and Notre Dame, the Bearcats (5-0, 1-0 AAC) opened conference play last week by crushing Temple 52-3.

Quarterback Desmond Ridder threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns, while top back Jerome Ford rushed for 149 yards on just 15 carries with two for scores.

Cincinnati's defense held the opposition to 14 or fewer points for the fourth time this season.

Ridder has completed 65.5 percent of his passes, including 12 touchdowns, with just two interceptions. Ford is averaging 6.3 yards and has reached the end zone eight times.

Cincinnati will be shooting for its 24th consecutive home victory, the second longest streak in the country, behind only Clemson's 31-game streak.

"The recognition they deserve and that they're getting is awesome," Fickell said of his players. "It's something we've had in the past couple of years but nothing quite like this. So it's a time for us to continue to grow maturity-wise and be able to handle it."

UCF (3-2, 1-1) will try to pull the upset with a true freshman at quarterback. Mikey Keene recorded his first win in the Knights' 20-16 victory over East Carolina on Saturday. Keene completed 23-of-35 passes for 194 yards.

"For young quarterbacks, a lot of times there's more pressure at home than there is on the road," coach Gus Malzahn said. "So, I was real excited the way he handled himself. He'd like to have that one throw back (an interception) but he made some really good throws. I thought he managed the game well."

Keene threw two touchdown passes in his first start on Oct. 2, a 34-30 loss to Navy. He was thrust into the lineup when Dillon Gabriel suffered a fractured clavicle against Louisville on Sept. 17. The team's top running back, Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser, sustained a knee injury in the same game and has yet to return to action.

Malzahn, the former Auburn coach, is no stranger to coaching against highly rated teams. He rates the current Bearcats on par with some of the Southeastern Conference powers he faced over his years with the Tigers.

"I've been fortunate to play against some really, really good defenses and I think you can put their guys in the same category. And some really good offenses, and you can put those guys in that same category, too," he said. "It's a big challenge but we're looking forward to it."

The teams have split their six meetings since joining the conference, though the Bearcats have won the last two by three points apiece.

Ridder still hasn't forgotten UCF's 25-point victory over his team in 2018, 38-13 back when it was the Knights who were riding high en route to a 12-0 regular season.

"UCF, I feel like, has always been a big rivalry for us," he said. "There's still a lot of bad blood and a lot of bad taste in our mouths."

--Field Level Media

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