Notre Dame is back in action tonight after making the quick trip to Evanston to face Northwestern in Ryan Field for the first time in over 40 years. The Irish checked in at #4 in the first playoff rankings earlier this week and will be looking to stay undefeated on the season and potentially move up in the rankings with a win since #1 Alabama plays #3 LSU today as well and one of them has to lose. Let’s take a look at what Notre Dame has to do to stay unbeaten.
What Worries Me This Week
Notre Dame playing without Drue Tranquill. On Thursday Brian Kelly wouldn’t rule out Drue Tranquill from playing this weekend, but at the same time it sure sounded like he was planning on not having his 5th year senior captain tonight. If Tranquill can’t play we will get a glimpse at how Notre Dame plans on answering one of the biggest questions they will have this off-season – how they plan on reshuffling their linebackers after Tevon Coney and Tranquill head to the NFL.
Against a fast pace offense like Northwestern, this could be a great time to get a look at Asmar Bilal at BUCK since conventional wisdom suggests that Bilal could transition to BUCK next year like Tranquill did last offseason. If that happens, Notre Dame could turn to Shayne Simon at the ROVER tonight. That combination could be something we see next year. If Bilal stays at ROVER, the Irish will likely use a combination of Drew White and Jordan Genmark-Heath to replace Tranquill.
However they replace Tranquill tonight, it will be players without a lot of experience. Getting experience against an uptempo offense like Northwestern’s isn’t necessarily an ideal situation.
Northwestern’s fast pace offense. I already touched on this, but Northwestern likes to play fast, just like Wake Forest did earlier this year. The Wildcat offense is going to try to run as many plays as possible tonight and offenses like that are always worrisome. Much like Navy’s offense, these kind of offenses can do damage IF they get off to a good start. And then even if they don’t, because they run so many plays, there is always the chance for them to score quick and get back into the game.
Notre Dame’s defense conceded a lot of yards and plays to Wake Forest earlier this season early on by keeping everything in front of them and it’s possible they do the same tonight. Unlike that game, it won’t be 90 degrees in Evanston tonight to wear down the defense even more. The Irish rotated a lot of players in and out last week too so the defense should still be fresh. If they do that, just prepare yourself to get frustrated because it’s never fun seeing an opponent move up and down the field even if they stall in the red-zone.
The worry here is that Northwestern doesn’t stall in the red-zone and makes this a game early. If the Irish defense lets Northwestern score early, it’ll give the Wildcats even more confidence. Which brings us to….
The “Super Bowl” factor for Northwestern. This game is Northwestern’s biggest game of the year – even bigger than whatever bowl game they end up making it to. They have a chance to upset a top 5 team at home for the first time since a guy named Ara Parseghian coached the Wildcats. For Notre Dame, this game isn’t even the biggest game of November. Syracuse is ranked higher, Florida State is still Florida State even if they are a dumpster fire right now, and the season finale against arch rival USC is always a big game.
Brian Kelly admitted earlier this week that it’s impossible for teams to play with the kind of energy Notre Dame had against Michigan and Stanford every week. It was an eerie warning from Kelly. If Notre Dame comes out and plays disinterested, Northwestern is good enough to beat Notre Dame. Michigan played disinterested against them earlier this season and the Wildcats held a 17-0 lead over them until Michigan finally woke up.
The Navy hangover. Notre Dame has not fared well in games the week after Navy under Brian Kelly just like a lot of teams suffer from a hangover following playing option teams. Brian Kelly was asked about this earlier this week and he said the Irish staff have a plan in place to avoid this. We’ll find out how good of a plan it was tonight.
What Doesn’t Worry Me
Turnovers from Ian Book. In the last two games Ian Book has been a little more careless with the football than we saw from him earlier this year. That will change tonight. I am expecting Notre Dame to rely on the ground game more than usual tonight and not ask Book to do too much. I know, I know you’re thinking, “has this guy forgot who the head coach is?” With Notre Dame having a full complement of running backs though, the Irish will look to play some keep away.
While Book won’t be asked to do a ton, I do also expect Notre Dame to take more chances downfield this week. They have to start hitting on those passes down the stretch if they want this offense to fully evolve and to not just be a playoff contender, but a team that can do damage once there. Book hits a couple downfield early tonight.
Notre Dame’s reshuffled offensive line. Aaron Banks and Trevor Ruhland played well in their new positions last week but it was against Navy. The Midshipmen aren’t exactly known for their defense and they have one of the worst pass rushes in the country. The Northwestern defense isn’t a whole lot better. They only have 12 sacks on the season and rank only slightly better than Navy in terms of generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
This week will be a good test for the new look Notre Dame defense line though because Northwestern’s defensive front is not strong. It will give Banks and Ruhland – and possibly Tommy Kraemer if he gets worked back into the mix – a chance to get more comfortable in their new positions and allow their fellow linemates to get more comfortable with them.
With Northwestern’s offense looking to run a ton of plays, Notre Dame would be wise to use their offensive line to run the ball and control the clock to keep the Wildcat offense off the field.
Cole Kmet getting the start with Alize Mack out. Notre Dame will not have starting tight end Alize Mack this week after he suffered a concussion against Navy last weekend. With Mack out, Notre Dame turns to Cole Kmet as their top tight end and there is a good chance that we end up looking back at this game as the breakout performance of Kmet’s career. With Mack out for the second half last week, Kmet was targeted more than he ever has been and he ended up hauling in a career high four receptions for 31 yards. Had it not been for an errant pass from Ian Book, Kmet would have had over 60 and a touchdown as well.
Look for Notre Dame to test the Northwestern defense down the seam this week with Kmet. It was wide open all second half for the Irish last weekend, but they only connected on it once. Kmet could be in for a big night.
Place kicking now that Justin Yoon is back. Jonathan Doerer had a rough start to his place kicking career last weekend before settling in. The good news here is that Notre Dame won’t have to find out how if it was just a rough start or more indicative of his place kicking skills since Justin Yoon is back tonight. Brian Kelly said earlier this week that Yoon is back to 100% so look for Yoon to handle all place kicking duties this weekend. Now there could be some concern since Yoon wasn’t healthy enough to kick last weekend, but if Yoon wasn’t ready to play, he wouldn’t be playing.
Players to Watch
- Kevin Austin – We saw a glimpse of him with the ball in his hands last weekend, let’s hope we see that a little more this weekend.
- Aaron Banks – He makes his 2nd career start tonight. He was good in his debut last week, but he’s facing a better opponent than he did last week.
- Tommy Kraemer – He lost his lock on a starting spot earlier this year and barely played last weekend. Kraemer has a ton of talent, but his junior season has been a disappointment. If Notre Dame tries to go run heavy this weekend, Kraemer could get back into the mix.
- Daelin Hayes – He finally gets his first sack of the season tonight.
- Julian Love – This is a homecoming for Love and it’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen a huge, game swinging play from Love. That changes tonight.
- Jafar Armstrong – Last week we saw Armstrong return and make an impact in the passing game. This week we see him get going in the running game. We also got a glimpse of the Notre Dame offense with Armstrong and Dexter Williams on the field at the same time. We should see more of that this weekend.
It seems like every Notre Dame fan is terrified of this game and while I listed a lot in the “what worries me” section, for some odd reason, I am not as worried as most others. Maybe it’s because I am a bit preoccupied this week with that little marathon I have to run in the morning and my biggest concern is actually watching the game and then still getting enough sleep so that I am not exhausted for my 4:00 AM wake up tomorrow. Whatever the case, I am not overly concerned this week. That doesn’t mean that I am predicting a blowout, but I just think Notre Dame will control this one from start to finish.
Look for Notre Dame to run the ball a lot this weekend now that they have Jafar Armstrong and Dexter Williams back and healthy at the same time. We didn’t see a ton of it last weekend with Navy since it was Armstrong’s first game back, but we should see it more his weekend along with a few deep passes mixed in. Notre Dame’s defense will force Northwestern into some field goals early and then they will go into attack mode.
Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 13