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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

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The Battle for Chicago! Just kidding there was never a battle.

Jonathan Daniel

northwestern helmet

Northwestern (+17.5) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 37-8-2 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's game against the Northwestern Wildcats.

5 Factoids

  • Touchdowns

Northwestern was poised to have a strong offense this year but things haven't exactly gone to plan. They lost leading receiver Christian Jones for the season due to injury and had former all-Big Ten running back/return man Venric Mark transfer in the middle of fall camp. After running a two quarterback system last season, the Wildcats have handed over the keys completely to Trevor Siemian who has struggled making plays. Through week 11 Northwestern has only scored 19 touchdowns in 9 games and are averaging a paltry 18 points per game--second worst among major conference teams behind only Wake Forest. For his part, Siemian has thrown only 16 touchdown passes on his last 628 attempts since the beginning of 2013.

  • Run the Ball?

With the dual-threat ability of now departed quarterback Kain Colter the Wildcats were able to be fairly effective in running the ball in Mick McCall's plodding run-first spread offense last year. For the fourth straight year Northwestern was able to rush for at least 2,000 yards. However, this season the run game has completely crumbled. The Wildcats are sitting at just 989 rushing yards (115th nationally) and 2.88 yards per carry (123rd nationally). That rushing average has been killed by 29 sacks surrendered but still neither of Northwestern's two primary running backs are over 4.3 yards per carry while last years leading rusher Treyvon Green has seen his carries (and playing time) plummet as his rushing average is down nearly 2 full yards per carry.

  • Don't Beat Yourself

With Notre Dame's turnover problems hitting depressing levels last weekend I should point out that Northwestern protects the ball very well. The Wildcats have only turned it over 12 times (8 interceptions, 4 fumbles) which is second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State's 10 turnovers. Following last week's debacle, the Irish now have 19 turnovers on the season with a -2 turnover differential.

  • Pitchforks

Notre Dame just got done playing the Devil with a trident but some pitchforks are being wielded at 10-year Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. Back in 2012 it looked like the Wildcats were about to go on a historic run. They'd just won 10 games for the first time since 1995, picked up their first bowl win since 1948, and recruiting was looking quite solid. Since then Northwestern is 8-13 overall and just 3-11 within Big Ten play.

  • Discipline

Notre Dame has played the 1st (Navy), 4th (Michigan), and 9th (Arizona State) least penalized teams so far this season. Both the Irish and Northwestern come into this weekend also playing very disciplined football. Notre Dame sits at 17th nationally with 39.3 penalty yards per game while Northwestern is 31st nationally with 43.6 penalty yards per game.

4 Players to Watch

  • RB Justin Jackson

A true freshman out of Carol Stream outside of Chicago, Justin Jackson was one of the biggest recruits of the Fitzgerald era and is now the top tailback on the team. Senior Treyvon Green has made 7 starts overall in 2014 but Jackson has earned 2 starts and has been getting about 80% of the carries since the week 3. Through 9 games Jackson has 761 yards (4.35 per carry) and 5 touchdowns as well as 17 catches for 137 yards and 1 score.

  • WR Tony Jones

Northwestern has a nice collection of receivers even with the loss of Christian Jones. Former 5-star recruit and USC transfer Kyle Prater is finally living up to some of the hype as he's leading the Wildcats with 37 receptions and 372 yards. Another transfer, Miles Shuler from Rutgers, is in his first season with NW and caught 23 passes in the first 7 games before missing the last two with a concussion. He's not expected to play this weekend. Fifth-year senior Tony Jones also missed a couple games with a leg injury but caught 7 passes last week against Michigan. Over his last 19 games, Jones has amassed 80 receptions, 868 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

  • DE Dean Lowry

The junior from Rockford, Illinois is making his 18th career start this weekend and has been a productive player in Evanston the past two seasons. He's a versatile end who even moved inside for one start this season. Since last year Lowry has 61 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, and an impressive 9 passes broken up. We'll see if he copies Arizona State and is able to bat some balls down on Golson.

  • CB Nick VanHoose

VanHoose is a redshirt junior from Urbana, Ohio in between Columbus and the Indiana border. The veteran will be making his 32nd career start on Saturday and has good size at 6-0, 190 pounds. He only has 5 interceptions throughout his career but a total of 25 pass break ups is outstanding.

3 Concerns

  • Northwestern's Super Bowl

Pat Fitzgerald has been known to get in some jabs at Notre Dame's expense over the years and don't forget he was the consensus All-American linebacker for the Wildcats when they upset Notre Dame in 1995. These two programs haven't played since then so you know Fitzgerald has had this game circled on his calendar since it was announced over 3 years ago.

We often talk about how programs like Purdue and Navy punch above their weight when they play Notre Dame. Well, on Saturday the Wildcats are going to be bringing almost 20 years worth of spite, jealousy, and rage.

  • Playing Conservatively

Following's last weekend's loss in Tempe a thousand cries flooded the internet that Everett Golson is either asked to do too much or trying to do too much on his own within the Irish offense. With the game time temperatures projected to fall into the low 30's I can see Brian Kelly leaning heavily on the run game and taking a load off of Golson this week.

Something similar to the gameplan against BYU last year where the Irish ran almost 65% of the time makes sense to me. Now, I'm not saying this is a bad idea but playing conservatively and grinding Northwestern down on the ground could make things a little more tighter than playing more aggressively with Golson. God forbid there are a couple turnovers with this conservative gameplan.

  • Turnovers

Remember when Notre Dame hadn't thrown an interception through week 3 and led the country in turnover margin? Good times. The Irish have forced at least one turnover in every game this season and have already matched last years 17 turnovers gained in just 9 games so they have that going for them. However, after that +8 turnover margin to begin 2014 the Irish have been -10 in that category over the last 6 games and haven't had a positive ratio since the Purdue game.

2 Sides of the Line

Northwestern has nice depth and experience on their offensive line. Starting on the left side 5th-year senior Paul Jorgensen (6-6, 315) has started over the last two years and switched from right tackle before this season. Redshirt junior Geoff Mogus (6-5, 305) missed one game last year but otherwise has started at left guard since the beginning of 2013. In the middle is two-time captain and 4-year starter in 5th-year senior Brandon Vitabile (6-3, 310) who anchors the entire line.

At right guard redshirt sophomore Ian Park (6-4, 290) started the first 8 games in 2013 but since has been passed by redshirt junior Matt Frazier (6-4, 295) who has started the past 13 games for the Wildcats. At right tackle senior Jack Konopka (6-5, 300) has seen some time and started every game at left tackle last season, and every game at right tackle in 2012. This season redshirt sophomore Eric Olson (6-6, 285) made the first 8 starts but was replaced last week by Konopka against Michigan.

On defense 5th-year senior tackle Sean McEvilly (6-5, 300) started the last 10 games of 2012 and the first 3 of 2013 before going down with a foot injury last year. He injured the same foot in fall camp, is out for the whole season, and was granted a 6th-year of eligibility back in October. On the interior another 5th-year senior Chance Carter (6-3, 295) made all 12 starts last season but has only made 3 starts in 2014 while missing last week's game with a leg injury. He's been limited to 11 tackles and 1 sack this season.

Also at tackle is redshirt sophomore Greg Kuhar (6-3, 310) who has made 8 starts this season with 28 tackles and 2 TFL. Making 5 starts this year is redshirt junior C.J. Robbins (6-5, 295) with 9 tackles and 1 TFL. Also adding depth is redshirt sophomore Connor Mahoney (6-4, 290) who has 9 tackles and 0.5 TFL in 2014.

In addition to Dean Lowry (6-6, 280) mentioned above the Wildcats have received 6 starts from redshirt junior Max Chapman (6-3, 265) at defensive end who has totaled 11 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. Redshirt junior Deonte Gibson (6-3, 270) has made 9 career starts and has the same stat line in 2014 as Chapman.

Providing depth is redshirt sophomore and former Irish recruiting target Ifeadi Odenigbo (6-3, 240) who has been a solid third down pass rusher in his young career totaling 9.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks since 2013. True freshman Xavier Washington (6-1, 235) is also in the rotation with 11 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks, as well.

1 Prediction

One of the reasons why Northwestern was a sleeper pick to make some noise in the Big Ten was that they were bringing back a lot of players (18 starters projected back for 2014) and they lost a bunch of close games in 2013. When I looked at the Wildcats back in June I thought their biggest strength was all of this returning experience but their biggest weakness was quarterback play.

Well, the experience has been diminished as Northwestern has suffered several key personnel losses and the quarterback play has not improved. Siemian's 5.5 yards per attempt is pretty much the worst in the country among full-time starters, his accuracy is worse than last year, his touchdown to attempts ratio has nosedived from 1 TD per every 26.9 throws to a score per every 66.4 throws, and Northwestern is last in the country with only 3 passing plays of 30+ yards.

Their offense just can't get anything going so much so that they haven't gained 400 yards in any one game this season. Granted, their schedule is pretty solid (10 Power 5 teams, Northern Illinois, FCS) but still. The only game they've gained over 5 yards per play was against Wisconsin which is nothing but strange. They've now lost 4 straight games and over their last 3 contests are averaging just 3.2 yards per play. I'm piling on now but their 4.24 YPP through last weekend is 124th nationally.

Football Outsiders' Advanced Stats for Week 12

STAT IRISH CATS
S&P 24 69
S&P Offense 17 89
S&P Defense 39 50
FEI 24 63
FEI Offense 30 61
FEI Defense 21 47
GE 24 88
F/+ 22 67

So, even if the Irish defense is banged up and relying too heavily on young players this shouldn't be a game where Northwestern is able to do a whole lot with the ball.

On the other side of the ball I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Northwestern and their defense. The Wildcats are giving up 5.23 yards per play which is one spot ahead of Notre Dame in the national rankings. Their 22.3 points per game surrendered is 2 points fewer than the Irish, too. Even Notre Dame's edge in the overall advanced defensive stats isn't by all that much.

If Notre Dame was still in the hunt for the playoffs and coming off a big win against Arizona State I think there'd be some let down factors at work this Saturday. Coming off a loss I expect the Irish to go into business mode and be ready, especially after last weekend's poor first half.

I touched on it above but I think we'll see a very run-heavy gameplan from Notre Dame to get Golson some rest and re-gain some of his confidence. The Irish started the season going 4-1 against the spread and have since gone 1-3 over the last 4 games. This isn't a program that routinely covers this type of spread so getting back to .500 on the season makes sense.

Most Notre Dame fans are expecting a solid blowout but I think Vegas has this in the right spot. Northwestern's decent defense and thirst for winning this game make it a little closer than we hope.

Notre Dame 31

Northwestern 14