It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that this Saturday's game is Ohio State versus the state of Ohio. There are 72 players on the Cincinnati roster from Ohio; 62 Buckeyes can say the same.
And, of course, the Bearcats are coached by a man with Ohio ties as deep as oak roots. Luke Fickell was a three-time, undefeated wrestling champion and football standout at Desales. He started 50 straight games as a nose guard at OSU. Later he would become an Akron assistant, a Buckeye staffer, Ohio State's interim coach, before finally taking over at UC. His resume might as well be printed on a pennant-shaped page, instead of the typical rectangle.
"Coach Fickell has done a very good job of building toughness in [Cincinnati's] program," said Ryan Day. "Tremendous amount of respect for him."
As tough as he is, though, Fickell admitted to once thinking it would be a good idea to cancel this game.
"Coach Meyer and I kind of said that, and it was probably more so just because of the situation," said Fickell. The situation being that Fickell was a former Buckeye, and then-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was a Cincinnati alum. "It was never really addressed much after that."
So as it stands, Fickell will indeed be bringing a team that returns 14 starters (eight offensive, seven defensive, three special teams players) from a 2018 season when they went an impressive 11-2.
That includes quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren II, who helped lead the Bearcats to a 24-14 season opening victory over UCLA; and in Jarrell White and Bryan Wright, two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. They nearly returned three of their best four tacklers, but defensive back James Wiggins was recently ruled out for the season with a knee injury.
The defense especially seems to have picked up where it left off. In 2018, they tied Michigan State in allowing just 17.2 points per game, ranking them eighth nationally in that category. Against the Bruins, they gave up just 218 yards, 62 on the ground, this despite the fact that they lost three of their starting defensive lineman from a year ago.
There was a similar makeover on the other side of the ball, but the players who will line up, up front Saturday are talented and large. The average starting offensive lineman for Cincinnati weighs 318 pounds.
Facing OSU will still be a big test for the Bearcats, though. They are just 2-14 against Ohio State all-time, with their only victories coming in 1896 and 1897. Ohio State has won 41 straight against in-state opponents. Plus, the Buckeyes have won 48 of their last 51 home games.
Saturday's matchup at the Shoe is a noon kickoff. Pregame will air on 105.7 The Brew starting at 9:00 a.m.
Other nuggets on this game:
- How prominently does the state feature in this week's contest? Cincinnati's game notes include the word Ohio 242 times in just 39 pages.
- Cincinnati features three players who transferred from Ohio State: wide receivers Blue Smith and Garyn Prater as well as defensive tackle Joe Schroer.
- Bearcats defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman played for the Buckeyes. Cincinnati also says special teams coordinator Brian Mason, running backs coach Doug Phillips, and safeties coach Jon Tenuta have all spent part of their coaching careers at OSU.
- The head of UC's strength program, Brady Collins, worked at Ohio State immediately prior to joining the Bearcats. Ohio State's strength guru Mickey Marotti was at Cincinnati for nine years, and his son, Mitch, is now a video and operations assistant for them.
- Coby Bryant, brother of former Buckeye and Cleveland Browns defensive back Christian Bryant, is a starting corner at Cincinnati.
- Ten Buckeyes are from the Cincinnati area, including Thayer Munford and Drue Chrismann.
- Bearcats starting right guard Morgan James is just three years younger than Buckeye wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, who is 32. James's was a hockey player. He didn't take up football until he joined UC as a walk-on.
- Desmond Ridder lost his voice against UCLA, forcing the UC to rely on silent counts in the second half.
Bonus: Hear Buckeye coach Ryan Day in his final meeting with the media before Saturday's game.