Ian Book faked a handoff and ran untouched around left end for the clinching touchdown with 2:45 remaining to secure a hard fought 31-21 victory for undefeated (9-0) Notre Dame. Book’s 23-yard score on a third down play removed the possibility of any last minute drama, as the Irish were nursing a three point lead and in danger of turning the ball back to Northwestern. The score capped an 89-yard drive that was sorely needed after the Wildcats erased most of a 24-7 deficit with two quick fourth quarter scores, the second of which was set up by a blocked punt. Book accounted for 399 total yards – 343 passing and 56 rushing, as he continued to write the story of this extraordinary season.
Notre Dame opened the game in the same manner as last week’s win over Navy – by turning the ball over on its opening possession. Once again, the Irish defense held and forced a field goal attempt, which Charlie Kuhbander promptly missed. Book then got the Irish moving with passes to tight end Cole Kmet, and Dexter Williams covered the final yard for an early 7-0 lead. After a three and out by Northwestern, Notre Dame quickly drove into scoring position once again. Things proceeded to unravel, however, as penalties pushed them back and Justin Yoon hooked a three point attempt.
This sequence energized the Wildcats, who caught fire with short passes by Clayton Thorson and hard running by Isaiah Bowser. Northwestern dominated the second period and Thorson’s quarterback sneak tied the game at seven midway through the period. Notre Dame’s offense staggered into the locker room looking battered and confused, but the defense kept things even.
The Irish began to get pressure on Thorson in the third quarter, and Book got hot as Brian Kelly dialed up a quick tempo aerial attack. The strategy paid off as Book hit Miles Boykin and Michael Young with scoring strikes just five minutes apart, the latter capping a 98-yard drive. Yoon added a 43-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to give the visitors what seemed like an insurmountable 24-7 advantage. Unfortunately, the offense went flat and the defense lost focus.
Thorson directed a touchdown march in less than two minutes after Yoon’s three pointer to pull Northwestern within ten points at 24-14. Notre Dame could not answer, and Tyler Newsome’s subsequent punt was cleanly blocked by Cameron Ruiz. The Cats took over at the Irish 17 and closed the gap to 24-21 on a quarterback sneak with 7:05 remaining. Kelly contested the call of a touchdown on this fourth down play, but it was allowed to stand.
A penalty on the kickoff return pinned the Irish deep in their own territory as the legion of Notre Dame fans in the crowd began to squirm, and my own profanity-laced tirades at my television shocked my unsuspecting neighbors. Book and Williams were up to the challenge, however, as each made clutch plays to fuel the Irish march to victory. Book’s scoring run came after a timeout on a third and four play, and it surprised not only the Wildcat defense but also devoted Irish fans who had not seen Book run this particular play all season.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame quesstions.
Can the Irish offensive line open holes for Williams, Armstrong and Jones? Not very well, as Notre Dame was stuffed several times by Northwestern and was held to 121 rush yards.
Will either defense be able to create turnovers leading to points? The Cats forced a fumble early but failed to capitalize, but their special teams set up a quick seven points to turn the affair into a nail-biter.
Can either defensive line knock the quarterback out of his short passing rhythm? Book was well-protected all evening, while the Irish pressure unsettled Thorson in the second half.
Will the Irish match the intensity of the fired-up Wildcats? Notre Dame nearly let the game get away from them with long stretches of uninspired performance, but leaders on the team rallied the troops at halftime and on the final scoring drive.
Can Notre Dame overcome the absence of Tranquill at linebacker? Tranquill was well enough to play on key third downs, but reserve Jordan Genmark-Heath did a credible job filling in for him.
Which set of receivers will be able to get open against tight coverage? Chase Claypool dominated with eight receptions and Boykin chipped in with four. Cameron Green acquitted himself quite well for Northwestern, although it took only 35 receiving yards for him to lead his team in this category.
Will Yoon or Luckenbaugh have a significant impact on the outcome? Kuhbander came off the injured list to replace Luckenbaugh, but both he and Yoom missed field goals in the first half. The bigger impact was attributable to the breakdown by Notre Dame’s punt team.
Which team will be able to score touchdowns in the red zone? The Irish had the lone red zone failure on the night, and it led to a clear momentum shift in Northwestern’s favor.
Notre Dame will play its final home game of the season next week in a prime time battle with Florida State. The 4-5 Seminoles have been roughed up quite frequently this year, most recently by Clemson and North Carolina State to the tune of a combined 106-38 score. As November rolls on and the weather becomes uncertain, it sure would be nice to see a return of the Irish running game.