CINCINNATI (AP) — A national television audience for the home opener against a Power Five team with a deep tradition. This is about as good as it gets for the Cincinnati Bearcats, who are trying to build upon their resurgent season.
"There's more anxiety in week one than in any week," coach Luke Fickell said. "I know for me, I didn't sleep last night and I probably won't sleep again tonight. Just the anxiety of week one, rolling that thing out there and getting started is so big."
Yes, they're sleepless in Cincinnati as UCLA comes to town.
The Bearcats are coming off an 11-2 season that got them back in the Top 25 for several weeks. It all started with a 26-17 win at UCLA last season, the Bruins' first game under coach Chip Kelly.
Fickell was hired from Ohio State to dig out the program two years ago. He returns more than 85 percent of the roster that won 11 games, including the quarterback/running back tandem of sophomore Desmond Ridder and junior Michael Warren II.
The Bearcats know that Thursday night represents a chance to get some attention.
"The starts of all years are big," Fickell said. "With the stage we're put on, it's even bigger. I told these guys the other day this is what we wanted, so we can't be shy."
UCLA is looking to improve on its 3-8 inaugural season under Kelly, who returned to college coaching after four seasons in the NFL. The Bruins also have a young team — 53.3 percent of roster is comprised of true or redshirt freshmen, the highest percentage in Power Five programs.
The Bruins return a quarterback/running back tandem with sophomore Dorian Thompson-Robinson and senior Joshua Kelley. Thompson-Robinson has shown improvement after growing through a hurried first season.
"He is so much more comfortable," Kelly said. "Most freshmen don't play unless they enroll early, and he didn't enroll early. And he played in our opening game. He literally had three weeks of camp and then playing in a game. Credit to him last year on how well he was able to play."
Some things to watch at Nippert Stadium:
SECOND TIME AROUND
Thompson-Robinson completed 15 of 25 passes for only 117 yards in the opening loss to the Bearcats last season. He's watched video of that game several times preparing for the rematch.
"I was young and inexperienced," he said. "Looking now this team is a lot different. I was a little nervous and excited. This year I will be more cool, calm and collected."
UCLA hasn't played a game in Ohio since Sept. 11, 1999, a 42-20 loss at Ohio State. Fickell was a graduate assistant on that Buckeye team. The Bruins are 1-2-1 all-time in Ohio.
THE BIG STAGE
This is Cincinnati's 19th Thursday night game, its first since a game against Austin Peay in 2017. The stakes are much higher, and Fickell knows that his team's composure will be tested.
"The talk is about how you handle your emotions," Fickell said. "That's the thing we have to see. There's nothing like the bright lights."
ON THE LINE
Cincinnati lost three starters from a line that anchored the American Athletic's top defense. In the Bearcats' opening win last season at UCLA, Kelley was held to 20 yards on six carries. The Bruins need a big game from their senior running back, who averaged 113 yards (fourth in the Pac-12) and had six 100-yard games last season.
HOME SWEET HOME
Cincinnati's two losses last season were on the road — at Temple and at UCF. The Bearcats were 6-0 at home, though there were no games of this magnitude.
"I'm excited to see what Nippert Stadium is going to be like," Fickell said. "I've never seen it at night in prime time, what it can really be like."
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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