Tomorrow evening, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will continue to play football sports against the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston, looking to keep their surprising run going for at least another week.
If the above is surprising to you, perhaps you should open another tab and do a little research on the 2018 NCAA college football season so far. Otherwise, you’re reading this article because you’re looking to understand how the Wildcats match up with the #4 team in the country.
Honestly, I think this could be an interesting game. Notre Dame has 4 games remaining in the 2018 season, and besides a game against the currently-19th-ranked Syracuse Orange in a couple weeks, the Wildcats likely present the greatest remaining challenge for ND.
Northwestern comes into this game with a 5-3 record, but they’ve won 4 straight after starting the season 1-3, including losses to Duke and Akron. Now, the Wildcats have wins at Michigan State and against Wisconsin, and sit alone in first place in the Big Ten West, needing only to defeat Iowa next week to secure a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
The Fighting Irish, meanwhile, come into this one sporting an 8-0 record, hot off a 44-22 win over Navy that was dominant but somehow not entirely satisfying, as the Irish couldn’t completely put the Midshipmen away and the starters had to play the entire game. Nevertheless, ND comes into this one as the #4 team in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the year, and looks to move up this week with a quality win and with the loser of the Alabama-LSU game dropping out of the top 4.
With all that said, let’s dive into the matchups to understand the key players and aspects of the game to watch, among...other things.
Here. We. Go.
Northwestern Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Northwestern offense is nothing to write home about. Ranked 105th in the S&P+ and 86th in ESPN.com’s offensive efficiency metric, the Wildcats aren’t exactly a fantastic offensive squad. NU IS 27th in passing yards per game, however, thanks to talented-but-inconsistent QB Clayton Thorson.
Thorson has thrown for 2,072 yards and 10 TDs this season, but he’s also only completed 61% of his passes and thrown 10 interceptions. While capable of carving up opposing defenses, Thorson’s one performance against a defense on ND’s level (vs. Michigan’s #1 S&P+ defense — Notre Dame is #6 in S&P+) was just 174 yards on 16-for-27 passing. Put simply, the guy can be shut down by a good defense that gets pressure and can take away the running game (like many college QBs).
Notre Dame is absolutely a defense that can do that. Their pass rushing trio of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and Daelin Hayes is borderline unblockable — especially Okwara and Kareem. Expect to see those guys, along with DT Jerry Tillery in the middle, constantly in Thorson’s face in the backfield, coming up with a few sacks and forcing rushed/mistaken throws.
If, however, NU’s offensive line are able to give Thorson a little time, he will look to connect with a number of solid receivers, led by WR Flynn Nagel. Nagel has 59 catches for 711 yards and 2 TD and will look to find separation and similar success against a tough ND secondary led by All-American candidate Julian Love.
Nagel will be joined by guys like Bennett Skowronek (33 rec, 410 yds, 1 TD), Cameron Green (36 rec, 315 yds, 3 TD), and Kyric McGowan (6 rec, 170 yds, 2 TD), but with Love, Troy Pride Jr., Jalen Elliott, and Alohi Gilman roaming in the secondary, it should be interesting to see how many turnovers they can come up with in this one, considering Thorson’s propensity to turn the ball over and considering the Notre Dame defensive line’s ability to pressure the QB.
The other aspect of the Northwestern offense to watch for is the running game, which features Isaiah Bowser, who took over as starter after Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire for health reasons. Bowser has been solid so far, running for 227 yards and 3 TD, but with just 3.8 yards per carry, he isn’t exactly the most efficient option for Northwestern.
Knowing Notre Dame’s ability to swallow up opposing rushing offenses, look for Bowser to maybe have a few decent runs, but for guys like Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, Te’von Coney, and Asmar Bilal to do a good job containing and stuffing Bowser for little gain on most plays. Furthermore, if Drue Tranquill’s sprained ankle is healed enough for him to play, he will obviously factor into stopping the run as well, considering his sure-tackling nature and speed at linebacker.
Overall, Northwestern has some talented weapons who could do some damage, but Clark Lea’s defense has been excellent for 8 straight games — it’s unlikely that Thorson and co. light them up in any way, so I don’t think it will be an incredibly high-scoring game for the Wildcats.
Offensive Wildcat to Watch
WR Flynn Nagel
I think Isaiah Bowser will mostly be shut down tomorrow, and Clayton Thorson will have his moments, but also his missteps. So, I think the key for Northwestern is having enough big plays through the air to keep the chains moving, put up points, and keep the ND offense off the field. Nagel is the guy who has to BRING IT for Northwestern to do so.
Defensive Irish to Watch
CB Julian Love
Thorson and the Northwestern offense have had decent success through the air this season. If NU hopes to be successful tomorrow, they’ll have to continue that trend. Love and the rest of the secondary will be key in making plays on the ball, as Thorson has already thrown 10 INTs and will certainly be prone to toss some risky passes with Okwara and Kareem in his face all evening. Look for Love to break up a few passes, and maybe even do his typical pick-six thing.
Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!
Best Names in the Game
1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
2. Northwestern LB Jango Glackin
3. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
4. Northwestern OL Payne He’Bert
5. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
6. Northwestern WR Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman
7. Northwestern LB Chee Anyanwu
8. Northwestern DL Samdup Miller
9. Northwestern WR Solomon Vault
10. Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal
Quick Power Ranking: Directions
T-2. North, East, West, Northwest(ern), Northeast, Southwest, South, Southeast
I Just Want to Find the Funniest Pics of Pat Fitzgerald that Getty and USA Today Have to Offer
Notre Dame Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
This is the matchup that will likely decide the game for both teams. Northwestern’s defense is 28th in the country in S&P+, while Notre Dame’s offense is 34th (and that’s including the first few games of the season).
The Wildcats’ front seven is their biggest strength, with guys like defensive end Joe Gaziano and LB Paddy Fisher (6 career FF) leading the way on a group that’s given up just ~20 points per game over the past 5 contests.
The group, however, isn’t particularly great against the run or the pass, and so if the Notre Dame offense brings their A-game, they will likely find some success against what has been billed as a bend, don’t break defense.
The Irish will certainly look to establish the run behind Dexter Williams (512 yds, 6.9 ypc, 7 TD), Jafar Armstrong (297 yds, 5.3 ypc, 6 TD), and Tony Jones Jr. (326 yds, 5 ypc, 3 TD), and if the ND offensive line can get a decent push against the Northwestern front (the defensive tackle spot has been a bit weak in 2018), the Irish should be able to really unleash those running backs into the second level and cause a lot of damage.
Meanwhile, Ian Book will look to continue his 75% passing against a Wildcats secondary that, although not elite, certainly has the talent and coaching to cause some trouble. The Wildcats have, for the most part, limited big plays through the air, and a lot of the credit for that can be attributed to cornerback Montre Hartage, who is getting NFL looks and has a Julian Love-esque penchant for breaking up passes.
Book will look to get Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke involved early and often — especially if TE Alize Mack is unable to play due to a concussion he sustained against Navy. That group, plus ever-dangerous young guys like Michael Young and Kevin Austin, will look to do what has become expected at this point and do a lot of damage on short-to-intermediate routes against a Wildcats defense that likely hasn’t seen this much passing/receiving talent yet this season.
Overall, I think Pat Fitzgerald’s defense will do their usual, tough, hard-nosed thing and slow down the Irish while limiting big plays, but as the game goes on, I think the ND offensive line will wear down the Northwestern defensive front, and guys like Dexter Williams and Jafar Armstrong will break off a few long runs that soften the defense and enable Book to find some open receivers and really move the ball down the field.
Defensive Wildcat to Watch
LB Paddy Fisher
The Wildcats NEED to shut down the Irish running game and force Ian Book to do it all (and then hope he makes a couple turnover-esque mistakes). Fisher is the leader on that unit and will need to play a great game for Northwestern to have a shot at shutting down the ND offense.
Offensive Irish to Watch
Notre Dame Offensive Line
I truly believe ND can crush Northwestern if their offensive line executes and creates big holes for Williams, Armstrong, and the rest of the backs in the Irish stable. Their ability to drive the Wildcats off the ball, as well as to protect Book from their pass rush — will be critical in establishing a strong lead early and stepping on the Wildcats’ throats in the second half.
Nothing at all really to see here. K Justin Yoon should be fully healthy for ND this week, while Northwestern kicker Charlie Kuhbander continues to battle through a torn muscle. If this comes down to kicking, these facts could matter, but I do not think this game will be that kind of game.
Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One
Notre Dame 40, Northwestern 23
Why: I think Notre Dame’s defense takes care of business in this one, and Ian Book and the offense will provide a steady stream of strong scoring drives that ends up putting the Wildcats away in the second half alongside some well-timed turnovers from the Northwestern offense. Irish roll in the end despite a tough game overall, moving to 9-0 on the season.