Notre Dame (8-0) will attempt to maintain its tenuous hold on a postseason playoff spot on Saturday evening as the Fighting Irish battle Northwestern (5-3). Despite being ranked third in the AP and Coaches polls, the playoff committee saw fit to place them in the fourth position earlier this week when the initial rankings were released. The game is being played at Ryan Field near the Wildcat campus, and will be broadcast nationally by ESPN. Kickoff is scheduled at 7:15 pm Eastern time.
Northwestern has won its last four games since a narrow home loss to Michigan in late September, and made a strong statement in its 31-17 victory over Wisconsin last week. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is in his 13th season and is closing in on the 100-win milestone with a record of 92-67. The Wildcats have taken control of the Western Division of the Big-10 with a 5-1 mark, but do not view this non-conference tilt with Notre Dame as a distraction.
Fitzgerald said his team has an opportunity to gain national recognition without much downside risk. Offensive lineman J.B. Butler agreed, saying: “I think Fitz is right on that. There is nothing to lose, but it’s a great opportunity to showcase our program in prime time against the No. 3 team in the country. It’s a cool deal and I know it means a lot to a lot of the guys. That can be something we stress all week: You can play loose and have fun because it doesn’t impact the Big Ten.”
The Irish continue to be tested by various injuries to key performers. The latest player to join the ranks of the wounded is linebacker Drue Tranquill, who suffered a sprained ankle last week against Navy. Although he has not been ruled out for action on Saturday, the prudent move would be to rest him. The offensive line performed well last week with Aaron Banks and Trevor Ruhland getting most of the snaps at the guard spots, but will be tested more thoroughly this week against stronger competition. Starter Tommy Kraemer played sparingly but could join the rotation if needed.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NORTHWESTERN’S DEFENSE
As expected, Notre Dame ran the ball very well on Navy after a poor outing against Pitt raised concerns before the bye week. Guard Aaron Banks was particularly effective in his first career start. The Wildcats are effective in their 4-3 alignment with senior tackles Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt leading the charge. Sophomore linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher are far and away the leading tacklers, followed by safeties Jared McGee and J.R. Pace.
This defense is sound with no glaring weaknesses, although not on the same level as Notre Dame. The Irish have more sacks (17-12), quarterback hits (43-18), and tackles for loss (49-39). Neither team has forced many turnovers, with Notre Dame holding a slight 13-11 advantage. Balance is the key for the Irish attack, while Fitzgerald will focus on stopping the run and play tight coverage as Pittsburgh was able to do.
Kelly is aware of the formula teams are adopting to defeat his team. “We have to be able to be more effective at running the ball when teams know we’re going to run the football,” he said. “We’re not there yet.” The continued excellence of Dexter Williams and the return of Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones, Jr. to the lineup give Notre Dame sufficient weaponry to have success on the ground, but the linemen must be healthy enough to move people out of the way.
When Ian Book drops back to pass, he will face a secondary designed to prevent the big play. The safeties are solid as noted, while senior cornerback Montre Hartage has 17 pass breakups and is one of the best cover men in the Big-10. On the other side, junior Trae Williams has struggled. He was initially beaten out by freshman Greg Newsome, but returned to the starting role after Newsome went down with an injury against Michigan.
NORTHWESTERN’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The quest for a balanced offense at Northwestern suffered a blow earlier this season as star running back Jeremy Larkin retired from the sport due to cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck area. Four games later, Larkin is still the team’s leading rusher on the season as well as its leading scorer with five touchdowns. Isaiah Bowser is the primary replacement, with others such as Solomon Vault, a converted wide receiver, in the rotation.
The impact of Larkin’s injury is obvious from a statistical standpoint. Northwestern’s running game accounted for only 168 rushing yards combined in the three games following Larkin’s departure, although Bowser hit his stride last week against Wisconsin and ran for 117 yards. Nevertheless, The Wildcats have become more of a pass-heavy team, which as placed more of a burden on quarterback Clayton Thorson. The senior has been somewhat inconsistent this season, hitting 60% of his passes with ten touchdowns and ten interceptions.
Thorson is not especially mobile and has been hit or sacked quite a bit while in the pocket. Notre Dame’s pass rush will have a chance against a forward wall that can only be considered average. Seniors Blake Hance and Butler line up on the left side, and right guard Tommy Doles the only other senior. The Irish must prevail in this winnable battle in the trenches to take control of the game, while Jordan Genmark-Heath must hold up physically and mentally in place of Tranquill.
Northwestern will stick to short passes to move the chains. Receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek are possession type players rather than deep threats. Sophomore Kyric McGowan is the fastest of the group and will run the deep routes or a reverse, but he has only six receptions on the season. Tight end Cameron Green is the son of Notre Dame running back Mark Green of the 1988 championship team, and is a legitimate short yardage and red zone threat.
Both teams have place kickers that have missed time recently due to minor injury. Justin Yoon sat out the Navy game as Kelly correctly determined that field goals would not be a critical factor in the outcome. Yoon could play this week, and is likely to have his numbered called if the Irish find themselves in a tight contest.
Walk-on Drew Luckenbaugh is the new kicker for the Wildcats as of three weeks ago when Charlie Kuhbander was hurt. Luckenbaugh proceeded to kick the game winning field goal in overtime against Nebraska, and doubled down on the feat moments later when the first try was negated by a Cornhusker timeout. Luckenbaugh is listed as probable this week with an undisclosed injury, while Kuhbander remains unavailable. The Wildcat cover and return teams have had little impact to date, neither breaking any long returns nor allowing any.
Northwestern hadn’t accomplished much this season until beating Wisconsin last week, although the Badgers played without their starting quarterback and his replacement had not taken a snap all season. The Wildcats even managed a home loss to lowly Akron, but college football has taught us not to make assumptions based on such results. Fitzgerald is ultra confident and his swagger will motivate his players to elevate their performances.
Notre Dame did a great job last week in taking Navy out of the ballgame in the first 20 minutes. The Irish were fresh and ready to play, and that same mindset will be needed on Saturday. Northwestern’s defense is comparable in talent to Pittsburgh’s, and their respective coaching staffs are quite friendly. Kelly had an extended opportunity to analyze what went wrong against the Panthers and how they attacked his offense, so he should be prepared when he sees more of the same from Fitzgerald.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can the Irish offensive line open holes for Williams, Armstrong and Jones?
Will either defense be able to create turnovers leading to points?
Can either defensive line knock the quarterback out of his short passing rhythm?
Will the Irish match the intensity of the fired-up Wildcats?
Can Notre Dame overcome the absence of Tranquill at linebacker?
Which set of receivers will be able to get open against tight coverage?
Will Yoon or Luckenbaugh have a significant impact on the outcome?
Which team will be able to score touchdowns in the red zone?
The month of November has not been kind to Kelly and Notre Dame. In fact, the Irish are 9-12 over the past five years during November despite a 38-22 overall regular season record. In order to make this game a 60-minute war, the Wildcat defense must stuff Notre Dame’s ground attack and Thorson must have one of his very best games. Both are possible if the Irish are emotionally flat, because Northwestern will be flying high at kickoff. Still, the visitors appear to be strong enough to avoid the upset although the final score is likely to be much closer than hard core Irish fans expect.
NOTRE DAME 30 NORTHWESTERN 24