Notre Dame Football Primer: Northwestern Week ’18

The Fighting Irish will make the short trip to Evanston, Illinois this Saturday. This will be the first visit to Northwestern for Notre Dame since 1976. Notre Dame will almost certainly be ranked #3 in the country when the first College Football Playoff Rankings come out on Tuesday. With only 4 wins separating the Fighting Irish from their first playoff berth, they will have a tough matchup against a hot Northwestern team that is leading the Big Ten West.

Essential Game Info:

  • Game Time: November 3rd at 7:15 ET on ESPN
  • Location: Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois
  • Matchup: Notre Dame is 37-9-2 all-time against the Northwestern Wildcats (last meeting 2014: Northwestern won 43 to 40 in overtime)
  • Current Odds: Notre Dame -8.0

Evanston Weather Forecast

The current forecast for GameDay shows a 10% chance of rain with a high of 47 degrees and a low of 40. Below is a look at the next 5 days leading up to the game (this will automatically update to be the most recent 5 days throughout the week).

[wunderground location=”Evanston, IL” numdays=”5″ layout=”simple”]

Northwestern Details:

  • Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
  • Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald
  • 2018 Record: 5-3
  • 2017 Record: 10-3

Northwestern Storylines:

Northwestern’s rollercoaster season. The Wildcats lost to Duke, Akron, and Michigan; all at home early in the season. Since then, they have beaten Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Wisconsin. Overall the Wildcats are just 5-3 but 5-1 in the Big Ten. They are the current favorites to win the Big Ten West Division. Even more impress, Pat Fitzgerald is 12-1 in his last 13 Big Ten games, truly remarkable.

Passing Attack vs. Running Game. It’s no secret that the Wildcats are a passing team. Northwestern is only averaging 2.6 yards per carry on the ground. Their quarterbacks have totaled 356 passing attempts this season, almost all from Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats have relied almost solely on the passing game this season. It will be interesting to see how Northwestern tries to attack this vaunted Irish Defense.

Key Players for Saturday. Clayton Thorson has gone 193 for 318 attempts (60.7%), for 2,072 passing yards, with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passing ability has undoubtedly been the key to their offense as their run game has struggled all season. His main targets have been Flynn Nagel, Bennett Skowronek, and Cameron Green.

Flynn Nagel is a tremendous receiver with 59 receptions on the season for 711 yards and 2 touchdowns. Skowronek has 33 receptions for 410 yards and 1 touchdown. While Cameron Green has 36 receptions for 315 yards and 3 touchdowns. To put that into perspective, Notre Dame only has one receiver that is over 30+ receptions (Miles Boykin with 36).

The key running back for the Wildcats is Isaiah Bowser. Bowser has 60 attempts for 227 yards and 3 touchdowns. Jeremy Larkin retired from football earlier this year and had 72 carries for 346 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns at the time.

Notre Dame Storylines:

Dynamic Duo of Ian Book and Dexter Williams. Ian Book continues to have the highest completion percentage in the entire country at 76.5%. Although it seems the few times that he isn’t accurate, they turn into interceptions. He will need to clean that up but Book still went 27 for 33 through the air against Navy. Along with 6 rushes for 50 rushing yards, another outstanding game from the Irish quarterback.

Dexter Williams had another strong performance with 23 rushing attempts for 142 yards and 3 touchdowns. This combination of passing and running has been hard for defenses to stop. Jafar Armstrong burst back on to the scene with 52 rushing yards and 64 receiving yards. He certainly will be a key part of the offense down the stretch. This Notre Dame Offense on the road, against a disciplined Northwestern team will be exciting to watch.

Notre Dame Defense needs to travel. As the saying goes, winning on the road takes a strong defense and Clark Lea’s Defense is elite. The Notre Dame Defense is complete from the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. Te’von Coney has been great this entire season, last week against the Midshipmen he had 14 tackles. Aholi Gilman has been terrific as well, he had 7 tackles last week against Navy.

Those are just a few key players,  but everyone on Defense has had a great season.

Drue Tranquill Update. After watching the Navy player roll on top of Drue Tranquill’s leg, I thought his season was over. As he was carted off the field, Notre Dame fans expected the worst. Amazingly, Tranquill only has a sprained ankle and will be back at some point for Notre Dame. There is a chance he plays this weekend according to Coach Kelly, but I would doubt it.

Head to Head Matchups:

Notre Dame Offense vs. Northwestern Defense: The Notre Dame Offense has been elite since Ian Book took over, with may the exception of the Pittsburgh game. Pat Fitzgerald is notorious for having a gritty defense. This season the Wildcat Defense is only giving up 24 points per game. The Fighting Irish are averaging 34 points per game. Ian Book and Dexter Williams have been great together, I give the Irish the Advantage.

Advantage Notre Dame

Northwestern Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense: Heading into this matchup, Northwestern is averaging 25 points per game while the Notre Dame Defense is only giving up 19 points per game. Northwestern is totally centered on the passing game. The Irish have been good defensively against the air attack and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. I give the Irish the advantage.

Advantage Notre Dame

Special Teams: Justin Yoon will be back this Saturday against the Wildcats. He is 9 of 12 on the season. Northwestern’s kicker, Charlie Kuhbander, is only 3 for 6 on the season. The Irish have had their struggles on special teams all season in close games. Notre Dame has the advantage on Offense and Defense, their special teams just needs to not give up the big play. This matchup is even.


My Prediction:

I know the last time these teams meet was in 2014, but I would imagine the human nature of Brian Kelly would like this to be a revenge game. As Northwestern stole the game from the Irish in 2014, when the season was falling apart.

Nevertheless, this is a huge matchup for the Irish. Northwestern may as well be ranked; they are just outside “other’s receiving votes” in the AP Poll. Yes, the Wildcats lost to Akron and Duke, but they have bounced back. Pat Fitzgerald only lost to Michigan by 3 points, beat Michigan State on the road, and Wisconsin at home.

This will likely be a neutral-site type game for Notre Dame. As far as trap game, I don’t think so. If this was early in the season I could see this as a “trap game”, but the fact that Notre Dame is only 4 wins away from the Playoffs, Brian Kelly will have them focused. I think Northwestern will put up a good fight but Ian Book, Dexter Williams, and the Notre Dame pass rush will be keys to an Irish victory.

Prediction: Notre Dame 34 Northwestern 20

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  1. You’re a little behind in your intel. Larkin retired from football over a month ago after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

  2. I’m a little bit more cautious about calling the Irish elite in any category. On defense I think an argument could be made for sure, but I’m a tad more critical. They’ve stepped up when it mattered most, but I was a bit concerned about their 2nd half against Navy. I’d love to say they are elite but I’m just not quite there yet. I will say, however, I don’t cringe usually when we have to punt the ball. More times them not they’ll make the stop. I’d just like to see a bit more.

    As far as offense, I’d think it’d be a stretch to say they are elite. Since Book took over as QB they’ve had much stronger play, but Book still makes some mistakes and the O-line is still a work in progress. That keeps them out of the elite category for me.

    Now that being said, they don’t have to play at an elite level to win the next 4 games. They just have to be competent and take care of business. Do that and I think they can finish 12-0. We have the players that on paper can win out if they take care of business.

    The difference will come at playoff time if they get in. At that point they will have to play at an elite level to win. Playing competently will not be enough. They will have to have the game of their lives. Against Alabama they will have to be absolutely lights out on both sides of the ball.

    1. I agree ND is good offensively BUT I suggest that the offense gets more practice in sustaining drives and minimizing mistakes when they happen. So far the mistakes have not ruined ND’s chances but I want to see how they would stack up against an elite team’s defense. The ND defense is simply amazing but would like to see them to continue keeping their foot on the opponent’s neck. November is where ND usually ends their chances at a playoff slot but I’m confident that this is the year they win it all! Go Irish!!

      1. One thing I loved about the defense against LSU in the bowl game was that they did just that, kept their foot on against LSU. I see too many teams go prevent and suddenly the other team gets some momentum and the defense has a hard time getting back in rhythm. But in that game the defense kept it going and you could tell it was frustrating LSU’s offense. I think against Navy they let their foot off the gas and let Navy get some badly needed momentum, and then the defense lost its focus.

        I mean, it’s one thing if you are up 42-10 and there’s 2 minutes left. Then it’s more about making sure you avoid needless injuries and just avoid giving up big plays.

      2. Damian, I’m not so sure they let their foot off the gas defensively. I think there was one play on the first drive of the second half that gave Navy a spark, and ND was never going to be able to match them emotionally the rest of the game, due to the score. It was the Troy Pride Jr. wiff on the sideline that went for 50 yards. If he makes that play (a simple tackle), then Navy punts and likely only scores 7 or 14 points in garbage time.
        My point is that it was one play that resulted in the final score, and the queasy feeling we all had when Navy put up 22 points. I think the ND defense we saw in the first half is the defense we will see the rest of the way.

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