Cincinnati likely to give USF biggest test of season

Senior linebacker Antonio Grier (5) leads USF in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and interceptions. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

From senior quarterback Desmond Ridder to junior cornerback Ahmad Gardner, the Cincinnati Bearcats have NFL talent littered all over their roster.

Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, offers the Bulls what is likely to be their most difficult test this season.

In order for the Bulls to defeat the Bearcats, it starts with containing Ridder, whom coach Jeff Scott called one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

“You hear coaches talk about the ‘it’ factor, right? … [Well] he has it,” Scott said in a press conference Tuesday. “If you just turn on the video and watch it, he’s like a coach on the field. He’s instinctual … In this day and age of RPOs and read plays and all that, [you’ve got] a guy back there that can dissect what’s going on pre-snap and then post-snap.

“I think he’s probably a 4.5, at least a 4.5 in the [40-yard dash], I mean he can run. He’s the second-leading rusher on their team, and then [he] obviously throws it very well. He’s [one of the] new-age quarterbacks that you’re seeing be successful at the NFL level too. These guys that can throw it but are also instinctual [and] can run.”

Ridder isn’t the only offensive Bearcat who is one of the top players in the nation at his respective position. Junior running back Jerome Ford ranks in the top 20 in rushing yards with 888 and is tied in third for most rushing touchdowns in the country with 15.

Ford is a former four-star recruit out of Armwood High School in Tampa, just 11 miles southeast of USF. After originally committing to Alabama and playing two seasons with the Crimson Tide, Ford entered the transfer portal and joined Cincinnati in 2020.

“He’s a special player … It’s a reminder of the talent that’s here in the Bay area, and knowing that once we get this thing set up, we’re kind of getting our foundation established, these are the top players we need to keep right here in the Bay area. I think this signing class is giving us the opportunity to do that with some players,” Scott said.

“There’s no doubt, he’s a special player. Not just for our league, when you look across the whole country he’s No. 2 in the country in touchdown runs … He’s done it against everybody he’s played. He’s definitely a big part of what they do offensively, hopefully in the future we’ll be an attractive option for the many talented young men like himself that are in this area.”

Not to be outdone by the offense, Cincinnati’s defense has a number of playmakers as well, namely in Gardner.

Gardner has quickly turned himself into a defensive back opposing offensive coordinators must game-plan for. In his two seasons with the Bearcats, Gardner has collected a pair of First Team All-AAC selections and a First Team All-American selection last year by the Football Writers Association of America.

“Gardner is a projected first-round draft pick,” Scott said. “I don’t know if he’s given up one or two completions in his career, maybe. An unbelievable stat.”

Despite going up against an incredibly talented opponent, Scott wants his team to look at this game as a chance to show what it can do in front of a large audience.

“[Cincinnati] is a big, big challenge, but again like we’ve been talking about, a huge opportunity,” Scott said. 

“Based on the AP Poll, this is the highest-ranked team that we’ve ever played at home [Raymond James Stadium] … They’ve done an incredible job recruiting, you just kind of look at where they were three or four years ago to where they are now.”

Kickoff for the Bulls and Bearcats is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.