On Hope — Let It Fly!

Some days are just magic. The weather, the day’s events, the company — they all combine to create something less resembling an ordinary Saturday, and more a transcendent memory. If Saturday’s iconic home opener was any indication of the Bearcats’ season to come, the 2021 season should be one for the record books. And memory banks.

In his “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope wrote:

“Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar; Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore! What future bliss, he gives not thee to know, But gives that hope to be thy blessing now. Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home, Rests and expatriates in a life to come.”

The poet Pope, here, coins his most memorable line, “Hope springs eternal.” Before that famous phrase, Mr. Pope encourages readers to “Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar.” For those unfamiliar with bird anatomy, “pinions” are the outer part of a bird’s wing including the flight feathers. In other words, the poet advises a form of humble hope that takes flight with trembling wings.

No disrespect to Mr. Pope’s hope, but when it comes to the 2021 season — I’m going to part ways and advise we “Let It Fly!” No humble hope. No trembling wings. If Luke Fickell and this University of Cincinnati football team have earned anything the last several years, it is our unrestrained hope and unapologetic excitement. Saturday’s lopsided victory over our rival Redhawks only confirmed reason for bold optimism. First, let’s set the scene…

Clifton Crazy.

I’ve travelled far and wide to observe many of the more notable game day atmospheres college football boasts (Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA, etc.). Saturday’s crowd of Bearcats faithful outpaced just about every big game environment I’ve witnessed.

I drove into the sea of UC fans by way of Clifton Avenue. The fraternity house lawns along that street brimmed with students decked out in black and red, excitedly celebrating the start of the season. Music thumped, drinks were shared, and students beamed, appearing to have the time of their lives. I beamed, too, briefly recalling what it was like to be young. After parking, I made my way by foot, accompanied by an old business school professor pal, headed for the Republic of Cincinnati tailgate.

The Grid was electric. Tents and Bearcats flags dotted the horizon as grills smoked and coolers emptied and plastic tables displayed disappearing spreads. The mass of red-and-black-clad humanity stretched throughout Sigma Sigma Commons. Different tailgate playlists competed with each other while 40,000 people laughed, caught up, and dreamed about the season to come; the hoping aloud muffled the music. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” was relegated to background hums, subsumed by the constant refrain of, “We can beat Notre Dame in South Bend,” or, “I think we compete for the Big 12 Conference title immediately, so long as Fickell stays.”

Unacquainted with my seldom-referenced-sports-media activities as we made our way across The Grid, my friend laughed, “Why are these ‘randos’ sharing their Twitter names…do you have any clue who they are…and should I be calling you B. Fox instead of Brian?” Responding, because they enrich my life…yes, I almost always know who they are…and no, that’s only for the secret handshake Twitter mob. The family reunion was well underway (with many over-served) before kickoff.

I’ve covered countless Bearcats football games over the years, and I’ve never seen such a throng of enthusiastic people. Even if numerically smaller than a few other game day atmospheres, Saturday’s crowd was more colorful, collegial, and committed than all the rest, at least according to my extremely biased viewpoint.

Clifton Crams Nippert.

Just prior to kickoff, the tailgate tried to enter historic Nippert Stadium seemingly all at once. The lines to get in were densely populated with patrons, most very eager to get inside (read: annoyed by wait). Again, I can’t recall a crowd that large both tailgating and attending the game. Sure, the University has announced sell-outs in the past and there have been well-attended games. But nothing, as far as I can recall, compares to Saturday’s actual attendance.

Having undergone a pandemic year of unprecedented isolation, clearly there was pent up demand among the Bearcats faithful to gather in person. And gather they did. Luke Fickell’s experience of coaching an elite, but crowd-less, program during the 2020 season should now be a distant memory, replaced by Saturday’s capacity crowd screaming support from every bleacher inside Nippert Stadium.

Nippert absolutely pulsed with excitement from the kickoff through halftime. On the second play from scrimmage, Senior QB Desmond Ridder dropped back to pass, side-stepped pressure moving diagonally left, and launched a spiral through the air (some 55 yards) into the hands of Sophomore speedster WR Tyler Scott. Heisman-hopeful-Des hit him in stride; Nippert erupted.

The 81 yard touchdown completion only 45 seconds into the game set the tone. The Bearcats would score two more times in the first quarter, and add a couple more scores during the second. Up 35-0 at the half, the only questions that remained were when Ridder should be pulled and whether backup Freshman QB Evan Prater would look sharp.

Handling worse teams by big margins is what great programs do consistently. And that’s precisely what the Bearcats did without revealing too much of the playbook, or appearing to exert too much, physically. Only one starter (Jake Renfro – C) got dinged up.

By the end of the game, Des had thrown 4 touchdown passes (WR Tyler Scott for 81 yards, RB Ryan Montgomery for 8 yards, TE Josh Whyle for 23 yards, and TE Leonard Taylor for 8 yards) and rushed in another from 25 yards out. Alabama-transfer RB Jerome Ford carried his Peach Bowl momentum forward, leading all rushers with 12 carries for 121 yards and a score. On defense, LB Deshawn Pace recorded 2 solo tackles and 6 assists, while Senior DE Malik Vann notched 4 solo tackles and 2 assists. Senior DE Jabari Taylor added 4 solo tackles, including 1 sack and 2 tackles for loss. The final tally was: UC — 49 Miami — 14.

Cupcake — Hoosiers — Irish.

Looking ahead, the 1-0 Bearcats will get one more tune up game, next week against Murray State (3:30 PM) at Nippert, before a two game road swing into the Hoosier State. The first road contest on September 18th (Noon) features an Indiana University team that was unceremoniously dispatched by the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday, 34-6. IU’s quarterback, Michael Penix, Jr., struggled against the Hawkeyes, throwing 3 interceptions in the first half alone (2 returned for touchdowns) before being pulled by Hoosier Coach Tom Allen. Beyond the turnovers, the Hoosiers’ defense was particularly vulnerable to Iowa’s strong tight end play as TE Sam LaPorta hauled in five balls for 83 yards. Look for Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock and Passing Game Coordinator Gino Guidugli to get tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor involved early and often in Bloomington. The Hoosiers look to regroup against Idaho next week.

Following the IU game, the Bearcats get a week off before traveling to South Bend on October 2nd to face a Notre Dame team led by former UC Head Coach Brian Kelly and last season’s Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman. The Irish opened the season with an emotional overtime win against Florida State in Tallahassee. The Kelly-Freeman squad gets something of a break the next two weeks, playing at home against Toledo and Purdue, before traveling north to Camp Randall to face a hungry Wisconsin Badgers team on September 25th.

Notre Dame and the University of Cincinnati will play a lot of football between now and when the Irish catch the bus back from Madison. Will the Domers remain unbeaten? Will the Bearcats get over the top against Murray State and Indiana? If both teams win through September, the stage could be set for UC’s most important regular season road game since Brian Kelly led a 5th ranked Bearcats team into Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field in 2009.

Though there’s no guarantee the Bearcats won’t take their foot off the accelerator pedal against Murray State or Indiana, I do recall Luke Fickell’s track record for excellence, for not looking past opponents. I guess I just believe. And though UC may face long odds in a hostile, Rudy-drenched road environment in South Bend, I do recall how few imagined the Bearcats would dominate Georgia for 3.5 quarters in Atlanta’s Peach Bowl nine months ago. Again, I guess I just believe.

I know belief runs counter to the prevailing Cincinnati sports narrative of expecting letdowns. I get it, it’s childish. Many, fearing heartbreak, prefer to hedge. We’ve been disappointed so many times before. After Saturday’s experience, however, I’m asking you to simply believe what you saw, what you’ve seen the last several years.

Let it fly, dear friend! No humble hope. No trembling wings.

By Brian Fox

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