By Jack McKessy
Northwestern and Notre Dame have a football history that dates back to November 14, 1889, when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Northwestern Purple in Evanston, 9-0. Since then, the two teams have met 47 more times. Northwestern has won nine of those games.
However, the last two meetings (both in South Bend) have gone well for the Wildcats. In 1995, they broke Notre Dame’s 14-game winning streak dating back to 1965, defeating the then-ranked No. 8 Fighting Irish 17-15. In 2014, ‘Cats kicker Jack Mitchell hit a last-minute 45-yard field goal in regulation to send the game to overtime, followed by a 41-yard game-winner in overtime to earn a 43-40 victory over No. 18 Notre Dame.
Coach Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish look for redemption as the rivalry returns to Evanston for the first time since 1976. Let’s see what it might look like:
Notre Dame Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
After a 10-3 season–including their win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl–Notre Dame’s offense looks quite different from the way it did last year. Their two biggest losses? Two top-10 picks in the NFL Draft: offensive guard Quenton Nelson to the Colts with the sixth overall pick and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey to the 49ers with the ninth. Pairing those two departures with starting running back Josh Adams, the Irish run game will be significantly weaker in 2018.
As a result, quarterback Brandon Wimbush will need to step up in a big way after a mediocre first season as the starter for the Fighting Irish. Wimbush finished last season with a 49.5 completion percentage, throwing for 16 touchdowns (as well as 14 rushing) and six interceptions. Wimbush lost his top target from last season, Equanimeous St. Brown, and he will have to hope other veteran receivers like Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin step up. Notre Dame receivers dropped about 9.3% of targets last season, and with Claypool and Boykin both standing at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, they will have major height advantages over opposing cornerbacks all season.
Head-to-head, Northwestern matches up well against Notre Dame’s weakened rushing attack. Their four-man front will miss defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster, but Joe Gaziano, Samdup Miller and Jordan Thompson are all returning starters with solid numbers from 2017. The defensive line will have an essential role not only shutting down the run game, but also putting pressure on Wimbush in the backfield. The Wildcats’ secondary lost big impact-makers Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro following their graduations, and the defensive line must do all they can to knock Wimbush off his rhythm before he can get the ball out.
The Northwestern secondary in 2018 does feature returning starters Montre Hartage, Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo, whose roles will be accentuated after the departures of both starting safeties.
As Notre Dame lines up against Northwestern’s defense, they will likely attack the air far more than the ground in Week 10.
Northwestern Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
There’s a reason Notre Dame is favored in every game this fall despite offensive losses. Notre Dame’s defense is virtually all returners. With last year’s pass defense among the best in the nation, as well as the return of their top three tacklers on the line, the Irish look to improve even further.
Notre Dame’s defensive line features big-name returning starters Daelin Hayes, Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner, who combined for 19 tackles for losses, 9.5 sacks and a forced fumble. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern’s offensive line are all returning starters minus year’s center Brad North. The veteran vs. veteran matchups at the line of scrimmage could make the Wildcat run game interesting, especially with redshirt sophomore Jeremy Larkin stepping into a starting role for the first time. Veteran Irish linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill also will return, Tranquill as a defensive captain yet again this season.
The Irish starting secondary will be led by junior cornerback Julian Love, who in his sophomore season totaled 20 passes defended, plus three interceptions, two of which returned for touchdowns. Senior Shaun Crawford also returns after a season with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. What the Irish have in cornerbacks, they lack in safeties. The three veteran starters, senior Nick Coleman and juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, recorded a combined five passes defended and zero interceptions. One thing to look for will be the Wildcats’ passing attack taking advantages of height mismatches, especially with Bennett Skowronek. Skowronek, 6 feet, 4 inches, has a four-inch height advantage over every safety, as well as five inches over Love and seven inches over Crawford.
The Wildcats will definitely have their work cut out for them, but Northwestern does have a higher number of offensive starters returning than Notre Dame, which could tip the balance in their favor. The ‘Cats will likely stick to their running game for the most part, putting their faith in a seasoned offensive line and high-potential Jeremy Larkin coming out from Justin Jackson’s shadow. Northwestern’s senior gunslinger Clayton Thorson will likely also try to exploit height mismatches with Bennett Skowronek in the passing game.
Notre Dame football under Coach Brian Kelly has a history of struggling in November.
Though the Wildcats are big underdogs in the Week 10 matchup, a win is by no means impossible. If Northwestern can take advantage of weaknesses in the Irish offense and come off a big win at home against Wisconsin in Week Nine, the Wildcats could catch Notre Dame off guard for a third straight matchup.