Luke Fickell downplays emotion, location as Bearcats prep for Buckeyes

Luke Fickell is coming home Saturday.

The third-year head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats is a Columbus native and an Ohio State grad, but his connection to the school is even deeper than that.

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Before being named the 42nd UC football head coach in December 2016, he had spent 21 of his previous 25 years at Ohio State.

That began with a five-year tenure as a nose tackle and continued with 16 years on the coaching staff, including five years as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator.

Of course, most people reading this are probably already aware of that by now. It is all anyone has been talking about all week. Anyone except Fickell, that is.

Here are six things to know about the matchup between the fifth-ranked Buckeyes and the Bearcats that will kick off at noon at Ohio Stadium:

1. Fickell wants his team to treat this as any other big game — not an in-state rivalry.

“This is a different opportunity whether it is Ohio State or Oklahoma or Clemson,” Fickell told reporters in Cincinnati, emphasizing Ohio State’s ranking over its location.

The game is “an opportunity to play a top five team, to measure our program, to measure us as individuals, to measure us as an offense, defense and some of those units against some of the best.

“I think that’s the way we’ve kind of looked at it, the way we’ll talk about it today as a team and as a football program. That’s how I want those guys to focus on it. It’s nothing different than when you play against the very best. It doesn’t matter what the name is on their chest, and it’s not a rivalry game, but it’s our opportunity to challenge ourselves and measure ourselves.”

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The Bearcats have not beaten a ranked team since 2012 (No. 25 Virginia Tech), and their last win over a ranked opponent was 10 years ago when they knocked off No. 14 Pittsburgh 45-44 to cap off a 12-0 regular season.

Cincinnati last beat a top 10 team in 2006 when the Bearcats downed No. 7 Rutgers 30-11 at home.

2. He is downplaying the emotional aspect of the game for himself and his players.

“When you’re a competitor it doesn’t really matter,” said Fickell, who chose not to make his players available for interviews this week. “There’ll be no feelings. Like I’ve said before: If you have the opportunity to play your brother, yeah, you love him to death, but at that moment you’ve got no love lost for him. That’s why I say, ‘Do you detach your emotions?’ I think when you compete, you detach your emotions in a lot of things. This is one of them.”

He expects that to extend to Marcus Freeman, the Wayne grad who played at Ohio State and coordinates the Bearcat defense, as well as any Bearcat players who might have grown up cheering for the Buckeyes.

3. Ryan Day downplayed the connections between the programs, too.

The first-year head coach of the Buckeyes said he would not have in-depth discussions with his players about Fickell’s history with Ohio State or the historical aspects of a series that began 1893.

“I like to talk to the team about where we are,” Day said. “You don’t want to just fill their head full of nonsense, but at the same time I do think that they need to know where they are. There’s a lot that goes in their minds. There’s a lot on their phones and social media and everything that fills their brain. They have academics. They have all their stuff they are learning, and they have to game plan, but they also need to know the bigger picture.

“This week we have a team coming in with a chip on their shoulder and they want to prove something to us.”

4. Day sees the Bearcats as a well-coached team that plays with great discipline.

“They play hard,” he said. “You can tell that they are a veteran group in terms of they play with older guys. I don’t know how many of their guys have red-shirted, but there’s quite a few seniors and they’ve got some grad transfers and older guys that have played football there before. Any time you have older men in your program it matters.

“I think they are not going to give you a game. You have to go win the game and take it from them, and that’s on both sides of the ball. They are not going to give up a lot of big players, and they are also going to run the ball and not turn the ball over on offense.”

5. The Buckeyes are wary of dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, but running back Michael Warren II is the engine of the UC offense.

Ridder, a sophomore from Louisville, Ky., threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 34 yards last week as the Bearcats beat UCLA.

Warren ran for 92 yards and a touchdown, averaging 3.5 yards per carry with a grinding style that generally doesn’t see him go down on first contact.

“I think this style of back is somebody that gets stronger as the game goes on,” Day said. “So we need to get one guy has got to be there but two and three have to make sure to gang tackle him and get him on the ground.”

6. Ohio State will have more players available at defensive end.

Senior captain Jonathon Cooper remains out with a reported leg injury, but sophomore defensive ends Tyler Friday and Tyreke Smith were not on the “unavailable” list published by Ohio State on Friday morning after they missed the season-opening win over Florida Atlantic.

Friday is listed as the starter at defensive end opposite Chase Young.

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Smith and Javontae Jean-Baptiste are listed as Young’s backups while true freshman Zach Harrison is listed behind Friday.

With more ends available, Jashon Cornell was moved back to defensive tackle after starting last week at end.

Robert Landers, a fifth-year senior from Wayne, started at tackle last week but is listed with sophomore Tommy Togiai as co-backups to senior Davon Hamilton at nose tackle this week.


Cincinnati at Ohio State, Noon, ABC, 1410

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