For the first time since 1975, the Notre Dame football schedule has a road game at Northwestern’s Ryan Field scheduled. While Notre Dame holds a commanding 36-9-2 lead in the series, they’ll be seeking to stop a two-game losing streak, with their last meeting taking place in 2014.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald is hoping that last year’s 10-3 record will lay the groundwork for a berth in this year’s Big Ten title game. While a number of assistant coaching changes have taken place, the good news is that many of the major cogs in the machine are back.[Related: Read up on Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents in our on-going series of posts on opponent previews]
Northwestern Offense: The Question Behind Center
The major focus of concern during the summer will be the continued comeback of quarterback Clayton Thorson, who’s still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s bowl game. The hope is that he’ll be available by the opener against Purdue, especially after throwing for over 2,800 yards last season.
At running back, the baton has been passed to Jeremy Larkin, whose 503 yards supplemented the 1,300 yards gained by the departed Justin Jackson. The fact that Larkin can deliver strong bursts of speed could help blunt the impact of losing the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Among the receivers, the good news for Northwestern is that both of their top receivers are back in Flynn Nagel and Ben Skowronek. This pair combined for 93 receptions last season that was good for over 1,00 yards and seven touchdowns. At tight end, Cameron Green is now the main target after 20 receptions last season for the former wideout.
On the offensive line, four starters are back after finding their groove in the latter portion of the 2017 season. The hope is that the performances of this unit are a starting point and now tha apex of their potential. While Tommy Doles received some postseason awards recognition at right guard, the player that will likely emerge as the focal point is Rashawn Slater, who started all but one of last year’s games as a true freshman.
Northwestern Defense: Health is the Key
Possessing a sturdy wall against opposing runners up front, the Wildcats will have three key players on the line. In the middle, Jordan Thompson will need to fill the hole left by Tyler Lancaster, with only a small margin of error available because of the depth in this area. On the ends, Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano are another duo that keeps passers on their toes after combining for 14.5 sacks last year.
When it comes to the linebackers, the need to stay healthy for the starters is important because of the lack of depth. The two cornerstones are Nate Hall, who had five sacks and paced the team with 16.5 tackles-for-loss, and Paddy Fisher, who has big-play potential.
On the injury front in the secondary, this area could use the return three players who can help make up for the absence of both of last year’s starting safeties. Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo combined for 45 tackles, with Mayo delivering a pick-six along the way. The main man to watch here will be cornerback Montre Hartage, who ended the year with 57 tackles, a pair of interceptions and six pass deflections.
Northwestern Special Teams: A Mixed Bag
The Wildcats have a placekicker in Charlie Kuhbander who can handle the job, though his leg strength remains a major question mark. At punter, Jake Collins is expected to handle duties after transferring from Western Kentucky. Northwestern gets a major weapon back on the kick return unit in Solomon Vault, who has shown he can find the end zone, with four career scores. On the punt return side, there’s less enthusiasm.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Northwestern
That 2014 meeting on the Notre Dame football schedule was a wild, 43-40, overtime heartbreaker. Notre Dame held a 40-29 lead with 10 minutes left in regulation, but Northwestern extended the game on a field goal with 19 seconds remaining. Then, after Kyle Brindza missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, the Wildcats won it on a 41-yard effort. Everett Golson threw for 287 and three scores, all of them going to Will Fuller.