Friends, we’re coming up on the home stretch.
66.66666666666666666666667% of the season is complete, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are 8-0 and are ranked #4 in the country after last night’s initial 2018 College Football Playoff committee rankings.
Now, the Irish face down a 4-game stretch that, in the preseason, seemed somewhat daunting for reasons that are now the opposite. A November tilt against the Florida State Seminoles and a season finale at the USC Trojans seemed like the dangerous games that could lead to ND losses, but with how the 2018 season has shaped up, road/neutral games against the Northwestern Wildcats and Syracuse Orange actually look to be the toughest remaining tests for the Irish.
This Saturday, ND faces one of those two, traveling to Evanston to take on a 5-3 Northwestern team hot off an annihilation of the Wisconsin Badgers that vaulted them into first place in the Big Ten West. Now, the Wildcats hope to continue that momentum and add a huge resume-building win to their belt by taking down a top-4 team.
ND, meanwhile, just finished handling the Navy Midshipmen in San Diego, but not without some typical struggles putting away a triple option opponent, and also not without an injury to a key player (Drue Tranquill sprained his ankle when a Navy player rolled up on it in the 2nd half).
So, how will the two teams match up? Will the Wildcats’ offense hold up against the Irish defense? What should we expect from Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson? And is Pat Fitzgerald good at karaoke?
Fear not, reader who is asking the exact right questions for this article. I spoke to Davis Rich of Inside NU to get more info on the Wildcats, and also was able to get some input from a Northwestern-alum friend, Sean Oliver, and my regular panel of College Football Fan-Experts (Serglock Holmes and Hux, back at it again).
Let’s dive in and stop wasting time, because time is money and money is power and power is pizza and pizza is knowledge.
1. Northwestern had a ROUGH 1-3 start to the year. How have the Wildcats been able to turn it around and seize first place in the Big Ten West, and what does it say about the team and coaching staff that they’ve been able to right the ship and compete for a conference title after losing to teams like Duke and Akron?
Davis Rich: During its three-game losing streak, Northwestern had this nasty habit of not scoring in the second half. NU took halftime leads in three of its first four games, but the offense could only muster 13 points in the second half (all against Akron).
Clayton Thorson wasn’t at full strength, either. You have to give credit to the Wildcats for not rolling over. The players have talked about how the team continued to believe in itself after the 1-3 start, and Fitz said NU’s competitive depth has improved as the season progresses — the Wildcats have freshman or sophomore contributors at running back, wide receiver, linebacker, and safety. This team, especially the defense, is getting better as the year progresses, which bodes well for NU’s Big Ten West aspirations.
2. QB Clayton Thorson is clearly a talented QB, but he also has some turnover issues (TD:INT ratio is 1:1) and can be inconsistent in his performance. What kind of QB should the ND defense expect to see Saturday evening, and how can he be stopped?
Davis Rich: Thorson shared snaps with backup TJ Green for the first three games of the year as he got to full strength following his ACL injury last December. A four-year starter, Thorson doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions (his interceptions numbers are a bit inflated by tipped passes), but he’s not the type of quarterback to throw his receivers open or consistently make jaw-dropping throws.
He’s best in the short and intermediate passing game, and as he’s gotten healthy we’ve seen Northwestern get creative to try to move the pocket around for No. 18. To stop him, make him feel the pressure. A lot of Thorson’s turnovers and misfires have come when he feels the heat. If he’s uncomfortable in the pocket, it could be a long night for NU.
3. Northwestern’s skill players on offense look to be pretty deep, with a lot of guys contributing throughout the season. Walk me through the most dangerous backs and receivers that Thorsen has to work with and whom the ND defense should game plan for specifically.
Davis Rich: Isaiah Bowser, a freshman, is Northwestern’s new No. 1 back after Jeremy Larkin had to suddenly and tragically retire due to a cervical stenosis diagnosis. Bowser has gone over 100 yards in each of the past two games and is a powerful downhill runner.
Flynn Nagel is NU’s best receiver — he put up 220 yards and two touchdowns against Nebraska and leads the team with 711 yards on the year. Bennett Skowronek is NU’s deep-ball threat and superback (tight end) Cam Green is a former wide receiver with great hands and route running ability.
4. How’s Northwestern’s offensive line, and how do you think they’ll hold up against a very good Irish pass rush?
Davis Rich: This has been a big source of contention amongst Wildcat fans because it always feels like offensive line is a weak spot for NU. In the run game, it often feels like NU backs gain yardage in spite of the offense line, but it looked like the Wildcats abandoned their zone blocking scheme in favor of a downhill attack last week, which worked pretty well.
In terms of pass blocking, Thorson got sacked a lot in the season’s first four games, but the line has been solid since then. There has been some shuffling at left guard, but right tackle Rashawn Slater is very good. Facing ND’s defensive line will certainly be a test, however.
5. The Wildcat defense looks like another solid, but not unbeatable, Pat Fitzgerald defense (39th in S&P+). What are the strengths and weaknesses of that group, and who are the names to know? How do you think they match up with ND’s offense?
Davis Rich: Northwestern’s defense is a bend-don’t-break defense; they usually don’t force a lot of turnovers or create a ton of havoc.
The guys to know are Joe Gaziano, an excellent all-around defensive end, linebacker Paddy Fisher, who has forced six fumbles in his young career, and cornerback Montre Hartage, who broke up four passes last week and is getting NFL attention.
The weaknesses of the defense are probably at defensive tackle and the second cornerback spot. I think Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, but NU has done a good job of limiting the big play, at least through the air.
6. If you had to pick one X-factor each on offense, defense, and special teams — the guys whose performances are CRITICAL to Northwestern beating Notre Dame — who do you choose and why?
Davis Rich: I think on offense, it’s got to be Isaiah Bowser and the Northwestern run game. For several weeks after Larkin’s retirement, NU’s offense was one-dimensional because they couldn’t run the ball at all. Over the past two weeks, Bowser has been excellent, which means NU has been able to control the time of possession and work the defense with longer drives. I think NU will have to wear out Notre Dame and win ugly if it wants to win, so having a big game from Bowser is crucial.
On defense, I’d choose linebacker Nate Hall, who just returned from an injury. He piled up 16.5 TFLs in 2017 and NU needs him in the backfield to keep Notre Dame behind the sticks.
On special teams, I’ll go with punter Jake Collins. Field position is going to be critical in this game, and Collins has to have a good game to give Notre Dame long fields to work with.
7. Looking at this ND team, which players, if any, scare you the most?
Davis Rich: I think Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem come to mind. Northwestern has struggled to protect Clayton Thorson for stretches this season, and the offensive line has been up-and-down as a whole. If NU can’t contain the Notre Dame pass-rush, that could totally neutralize the Wildcats’ deep passing game and make the NU offense pretty one-dimensional.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT...AND ALSO A SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCE FROM SEAN OLIVER, A NORTHWESTERN ALUM/FORMER NORTHWESTERN PLAYER!!!!
First, let’s dive into the questions I asked Sean and his pithy, fantastic answers (for the most part).
Pat Rick: How much does this picture of Brian Kelly intimidate you?
Sean: More than ND’s fake #4 ranking (oooooh, burn)!
Pat Rick: If Pat Fitzgerald suited up for the Wildcats against ND, what’s his stat line look like?
Sean: 3 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack before leaving the game with a vocal cord injury because the man literally does not know how to speak in anything softer than an angry scream.
Pat Rick: Who would win in a fight, a Wildcat or a Leprechaun? For whichever one you chose to lose, how many clones of that mascot would it take to bring down the singular mascot that originally won (i.e. if you said a wildcat would beat a leprechaun, how many leprechauns would be needed to defeat one wildcat)?
Sean: A leprechaun. Duh, they’re magic. It would take infinity wildcats! The leprechaun could just keep turning them into magically delicious cereal.
Pat Rick: If Northwestern were one of the teams from Legends of the Hidden Temple, what would it be and why? What would Notre Dame be?
Sean: This is too old of a reference for me, sorry*
*Pat Rick Editor’s Note: I am sobbing about how old I apparently now am
Pat Rick: If you’re putting together a crew of 11 to pull off the heist of the century, which Northwestern players, coaches, or alumni will you select for your Ocean’s Eleven-esque team? Be sure to give your reasoning.
Sean: I would take 11 clones of Venric Mark, because who would ever catch them? Too fast to run down, too small to spot in a crowd. It’s the perfect crime.
Pat Rick: As a former Northwestern football player, what do you miss most and miss least about that life?
Sean: Most: Getting free stuff. Least: Having my ankles broken by Kain Colter every day.
Pat Rick: If Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald showed up at your home the week prior to the game and told you he was going to force you to play in the ND game for Northwestern, but you could choose your own position, what position would you choose and how well would you play (please provide stats)? Addendum: since you played college football, you are not allowed to choose a position you played in high school or college. That’s cheating. Pick something else.
Sean: I’d play outside linebacker and probably would have 0 tackles because I’m a corner and I don’t tackle. But I might have like 1 interception.
Pat Rick: Who would win in a karaoke contest — Pat Fitzgerald or Brian Kelly? Please tell me what song(s) each would sing and be very detailed about how charismatic and powerful their respective stage presences are.
Sean: It would have to be Brian Kelly, because I’m 100000% sure Fitz has no vocal cords left. The man literally yells 100% of the time. But if he could sing he would probably sing the Northwestern fight song. I don’t know what Brian Kelly would sing, probably something lame, like something by Journey
Pat Rick: Same question as the last one, but this time it’s a dance-off. Who has the sickest moves?
Sean: Gotta go with Fitz on this one.
Pat Rick: Northwestern stinks (out loud). This isn’t a question, I just wanted to say it.
Sean: Your school is in Indiana. You’re dismissed.
Pat Rick: Hypothetical: you pretend to be your roommate, who is a substitute teacher, and end up instructing a bunch of students on how to be in a rock band so that you can enter Battle of the Bands. If those students are the Northwestern football team, which players would be in the band and what respective roles would they have (e.g. who is the lead guitarist, who does vocals, who designs the graphics and light show behind the band, etc.)?
Sean: Guitarist: Jaylen Prater
Vocalists: Ian Park, Ibraheim Campbell, Austin Carr (all actually have great voices!)
Light show: Trevor Siemian… because he throws LASERS
Pat Rick: What scares you most about Notre Dame’s football team? About life in general?
Sean: ND Football: Nothing really, because this game literally has 0 implications for our season…still gonna be on top of the Big Ten West if we win or lose
Life: Someone finding my high school football picture of me getting Mossed for a touchdown**
**Pat Rick Editor’s Note: I have seen this picture once on Sean’s phone, but have not yet tracked it down online. Will update with that beautiful content if/when I find it
Pat Rick: If you could pick one player on the Northwestern team to grow 2 feet taller the night before the game, who would you choose (please be mindful that this overnight growth spurt would take some getting used to, making for an awkward, gangly performance in the first half of the game)?
Sean: I don’t know, probably an offensive lineman… they aren’t that coordinated anyway, but the reach would help (I’m kidding, o-lineman, please don’t get triggered)
Pat Rick: Give me a prediction for the game - preferably at least who wins and what the score is, but if there are any other predictions you want to make, even if not about the game at all, please be my guest.
Sean: I think this game will be a classic case of the Cardiac Cats giving us some semblance of hope by having the lead in the 3rd quarter, then Notre Dame will wake up and realize they are losing to a middling Big Ten team, say “AW HELL NAW,” and will come back to win by 11 points. ND 31, NU 20
Big thanks to Sean, even if him not knowing what Legends of the Hidden Temple is makes me feel hella old.
Now, let’s once again hear from our wonderful panel of College Football Fans.
Pat Rick: Gentlemen, please leave your Northwestern thoughts and feelings on my desk before EOD
Serglock Holmes: Debating if I even want to post Greeny memes because Rovell is just in a league of his own
Serglock Holmes: #JusticeForFurpaw
Serglock Holmes: Are we sure a lowly school like Notre Dame is up to the task against a school with such rich history?
Hux: Stepping Stone Job
Hux: One last thing. Gotta give a S/O to the GOAT of Northwestern sports: Evan mother-shut-your-mouth Eschmeyer
Aaaaand that was talking Northwestern with Serglock Holmes and Hux!
Now, back to the Q&A with Davis.
8. Notre Dame has a freshman RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Northwestern roster? Bonus points if there are any festive, spooky names.
Davis Rich: I’d say Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman is the most complicated name, but Jango Glackin is probably the coolest. That are the top two, in my estimation.
9. If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, and you can choose 4 current Northwestern players or coaches to form a Ghostbusters squad, who ya gonna call and why?
Davis Rich: First, I’m calling Pat Fitzgerald, because he’s experienced. He’s been in Evanston as both a student and a coach, so he knows the territory well. The other three would be Joe Gaziano (the team’s best pass-rusher, and nimble big guy), Cam Ruiz (probably the fastest player on the team) and Paddy Fisher (the team’s middle linebacker and one of the team’s hardest hitters).
10. Festive twist on one of my regular questions: Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Pat Fitzgerald, but this contest is Halloween/spooky-themed songs ONLY. What song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins the great Halloween Karaoke Battle of 2018?
Davis Rich: I don’t really know any Halloween songs, but I think Pat Fitzgerald probably takes the battle home. He’s much more friendly to the media than Brian Kelly, and is generally more fun and lighthearted. Brian Kelly could do some kind of heavy metal or hard rock to channel his anger maybe, but a Halloween karaoke battle doesn’t really have that kind of vibe, so advantage Fitz.
11. Anything else ND fans should know about Northwestern’s team, program, fans, traditions, etc.?
Davis Rich: Well, Northwestern has a pretty barren history, but the team is in a position to win the Big Ten West this season, which would be massive. Notre Dame is a huge game because it’s a top three team (AP Poll) in primetime, and it’s Notre Dame, but next week against Iowa is the more important game football-wise.
The fans tailgate in the lot west of the stadium, and the student tailgates are scattered throughout residential Evanston.
12. Prediction time: give me the final score, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Davis Rich: Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 24. Northwestern covers, and its defense keeps it in the game, but Notre Dame’s defense will prove too much to handle for NU’s offensive line. Plus, Northwestern saves some of its play-calls for next week against Iowa, when the game really counts.
I want to give a huge shout out to Davis for being a good sport with all my ridiculous questions, and urge you all to go to Inside NU to check out lots of great Northwestern content leading up to Saturday. Also, follow Inside NU on Twitter, and give my guy Davis a follow as well — they’re gonna be a great source for any and all hard-hitting Wildcat updates.
Finally, I want to give a special thanks to Sean for answering some very important questions for the halftime section, and also I of course want to again thank Serglock Holmes and Hux for bringing the heat in our GroupMe chat.
I will see you all on Friday for my game preview — Go Irish, Beat Darren Rovell!