In a game where momentum seemed to shift back and forth, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were able to remain undefeated with a 31-21 road win over the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday night. Those swings saw the Irish dominate the first and third quarters, while the Wildcats controlled the second and made things uncomfortable in the final quarter. In the latter case, they managed to get within a field goal with seven minutes left after Notre Dame had looked to have salted the contest away.
Irish fans might have been excused if they had a sense of deja vu from last week after Notre Dame fumbled in enemy territory on the opening drive of the game. Like the Navy game, the Irish defense kept Northwestern off the scoreboard and then controlled the remainder of the period before things got interesting.
Below are some of the key factors in the game:
Second Half Book
Ian Book managed to throw for 107 yards in the first half, though the bulk of that came during the first quarter. He also narrowly missed giving Northwestern the chance to take a halftime lead on an ill-advised throw that was nearly picked off. Once he came back on the field for the second half, he underwent a dramatic shift.
During the third, Book hit on 11 of 14 for 195 yards and two touchdowns, with the signal caller getting 170 of those yards on the two scoring drives. He finished with 343 yards and also managed to tie Dexter Williams in rushing yardage with 56 yards, the last 23 coming on a clever bootleg that put the game away.
The Irish appeared to be thriving offensively until their third drive of the game stalled out because of a pair of penalties that ultimately turned a potential touchdown into a big zero. The first came on first-and-goal at the Northwestern five when Robert Hainsey once again fell victim to a false start that moved the ball back to the 10. Far more costly was Miles Boykin then getting flagged for offensive interference, which moved things back to the 25 and resulted in Justin Yoon’s 44-yard missed field goal attempt.
Pass interference on the defensive side also proved to be costly, when Jalen Elliott was whistled in the end zone. That gave the Wildcats the ball at the Irish two and only required a pair of plays to knot the score at seven apiece. That helped put a cap on an 18-play drive that consumed close to nine minutes on the clock.
Running When It Counts
For only the second time in his five games in 2018, Dexter Williams was kept under 100 yards on the ground, finishing with 56 for the game. With Book enjoying a strong second half, the running game was largely ignored, but Williams’ 19-yard run with just under five minutes left in the contest put the Irish into Wildcat territory and led to Book’s clincher. That was the senior’s longest run of the night.
Okwara on Fire
Continuing to build on what’s turned out to be an outstanding season, defensive lineman Julian Okwara picked up two of the five Notre Dame sacks on the evening. The most important of this pair came on Northwestern’s first drive to open the third quarter that had them facing third-and-eight at the Irish 46. Okwara relentlessly pursued Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson and forced a punt. While Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem have deeservedly got plenty of attention on the Irish line, Okwara has become a consistent presence as well.
Everyone Into the Claypool
In the season’s first eight games, Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool had been a reliable, if not spectacular, part of the team’s passing attack. Against Northwestern, he began the focal point of the team’s passing attack by finishing the night with eight catches for 130 yards.
Five of those grabs for Claypool were for double-digits in yardage, with his last on the night helping to give Notre Dame some breathing room on their clinching drive. Two others were part of the important first drive of the second half, with the Irish deadlocked in a tied battle at the time.
The Florida State Seminoles come to South Bend for the Irish’s first home game in nearly a month and their last of the year. FSU will be entering the game with a 4-5 record on the year and looking to shore up a porous defense. In their past two contests, the Seminole defense has allowed 106 points, though both losses came against ranked opponents, including Clemson.
Florida State has a 6-2 advantage in this series that began in 1981, though this is their first time on Irish turf since 2003. Notre Dame will be looking to put an end to their three-game losing streak in this matchup, with their last battle in 2014 bringing back bad memories. That’s because they entered that clash with a 6-0 record before losing at Tallahassee and dropping five of their next six.