Maintaining a spotless mark two-thirds of the way into the 2018 college football season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish face an interesting clash on Saturday. For the first time since 1976, the Irish will travel to the campus of the 5-3 Northwestern Wildcats. In five previous matchups since that contest 42 years ago, the locale has either been South Bend or Chicago.
Northwestern is coming is coming off an upset win over Wisconsin to collect their fourth straight victory, but has dropped both of its games this year outside of Big Ten competition. Meanwhile, Notre Dame handled Navy and racked up nearly 600 yards of total offense in winning the game. A nearly-perfect first half gave way to a shaky second half start until the Irish put their game away and maintained their college football playoff hopes.
Against the Wildcats, the following battles will be ones to watch:
QB Ian Book vs. Northwestern Defense
Book continues to be precise with his throws this season, having completed nearly 77 percent of his mostly-intermediate attempts. Yet despite that level of accuracy, his six touchdown passes over the past three games have been countered by four interceptions. Forcing the ball into coverage has been the main flaw with respect to the latter problem, which hopefully can be cleaned up over the next month.
Northwestern defenders are vulnerable to both the pass and run, while seemingly having an all-or-nothing philosophy when it comes to forcing turnovers. After three picks in their opener at Purdue, the Wildcats have only managed three in the past 226 opposing attempts. Getting pressure on Book could work, but the team has compiled just 12 for the year in this category.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Clayton Thorson
With the exception of Navy’s second and third drives of the second half, which resulted in a pair of touchdowns, the Irish defense offered up another solid performance. Unlike last week, where the opposing running game was virtually the sole focus, defending against the pass figures to be the main challenge. The good news is that the Notre Dame pass rush remains in high gear.
Thorson is a four-year starter who offers the Wildcats a big presence behind center, standing 6-foot-4. He had a breakout campaign two years ago, but has had issues this season with his throws. His 10 touchdown passes have been matched by 10 picks, including three last week. Continuous pressure on him could result in a repeat performance.
RB Dexter Williams vs. ILB Blake Gallagher
Having cooled off in the scare against Pitt, there may have been some concern that a plan to shut down Williams had been discovered. That idea fell apart when he ran for 142 yards against Navy and also scored three touchdowns. For the first time this season, both Williams and Jafar Armstrong shared backfield duties, depth that may keep Williams fresh down the stretch.
Gallagher leads Northwestern in tackles, having reached double-digits five times this season. He’s also made four stops behind the line of scrimmage, so he figures to be active on Saturday. His main problem, which also goes for the entire Wildcat defense, is that even if Williams is held in check, the return of Armstrong showed that the Irish have multiple weapons in the backfield.
T Robert Hainsey vs. DE Joe Gaziano
Hainsey has played a part in helping up the holes for the Notre Dame running game and allowing Book enough time to get his passes off. Hainsey has struggled at times when it comes to pass protection, but those breakdowns haven’t been costly to the Irish cause. He figures to be the person that will have the most snaps against the Wildcats’ top pass rusher.
Gaziano enters this game with 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss as Northwestern’s strong-side end. That sack amount matches his output from two years ago, but is below the pace of last season, when he finished with nine quarterback takedowns. Still, he should be at an emotional peak for this game, so handling him could make Book’s day much easier.
CB Julian Love vs. WR Flynn Nagel
Love continues to be the glue of the Irish secondary, having collected a team-high 12 pass breakups. However, he’s hoping to wipe away the sting of getting uncharacteristically burned early in last week’s second half on a pass that eventually resulted in a Navy touchdown. Given his level of experience and ability to shake off such aberrations, he figures to be back on track in this game.
Nagel has been a steady target of Thorson’s over the past three years and leads the Wildcats this year with 59 grabs. In three games this year, he’s reached double-figures in catches, but has only reached the end zone twice. He’s one of a host of different options at Thorson’s disposal, yet figures to again be a prime target in this game.