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3 ways Northwestern can beat Notre Dame — and Notre Dame can beat Northwestern

TV/radio: 6:15 p.m. Saturday; ESPN, WGN-AM 720, WMVP-AM 1000.

Line: Notre Dame by 9½.

Records: Notre Dame 8-0, Northwestern 5-3.

3 ways Northwestern can beat Notre Dame

1. Learn from Pitt.

Notre Dame struggled to beat Pittsburgh two games ago. Perhaps the Irish players were groggy from midterm preparation, but you can’t dismiss Pitt’s defensive scheme. Guided by coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers loaded the box enough to limit Dexter Williams to 31 rushing yards on 13 carries. As a team the Irish managed just 80 yards on 38 carries. Ian Book completed 26 of 32 passes for 264 yards, yet the Irish were held to 19 points. So there’s a blueprint. And not only is NU coach Pat Fitzgerald friendly with Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator, he is tight with two Pitt assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Randy Bates, who worked under Fitzgerald for 12 seasons. There’s lots of solid intel for Fitzgerald to mine.

2. Get more from QB1.

Clayton Thorson overcame reconstructive knee surgery and excelled early in the season, even when he had to split game reps with backup TJ Green. He shredded Michigan State (31-for-47, 373 yards) and Nebraska (41-for-64, 455 yards). And since then … he has been a giant shrug emoji. He is telegraphing his throws, leading to interceptions. He is underthrowing receivers on the outside. He took an end-zone sack at Rutgers. He missed an open running back, Chad Hanaoka, on a fourth-and-2 against Wisconsin. Fitzgerald still has faith in him, saying: “I could nitpick every play of every player. I just don’t believe in doing that.” The pass rush will be intense Saturday and the windows will be tight. Thorson needs a strong game for the Wildcats to prevail.

3. Take from the ghosts.

Fitzgerald was not about to stroll down memory lane in his weekly media session, saying his recollection of the 1995 stunner in South Bend was that “it was really hot” and then “really cold” 19 years later when Northwestern thumped the Irish again. OK, but was there any common thread from the upsets? Wildcats players who, like Fitzgerald, got snubbed by the Irish on the recruiting trail? Northwestern should channel that vibe instead of ignoring that glorious — albeit two-game — past.

3 ways Notre Dame can beat Northwestern

1. Slow Clayton Thorson.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly referred to Thorson as an “NFL talent” and praised the quarterback’s “great arm.” Thorson has 2,072 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His top target, wide receiver Flynn Nagel, is ninth nationally in receptions (59). Northwestern is 26th in the nation in passing offense, averaging 280.1 yards. Notre Dame is 32nd in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (194.4). Expect the Irish to apply pressure. Northwestern has allowed 19 sacks. Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery has seven of Notre Dame’s 17 sacks.

2. The “next” players have to be ready.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill is listed as questionable after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter last week against Navy. The two-time captain is second on the team with 47 tackles. If he’s unavailable or limited, Jordan Genmark Heath, Drew White and Asmar Bilal are among the options to fill in. Tranquill’s isn’t the only significant injury. Tight end Alize Mack has been ruled out after going through the concussion protocol this week. There’s plenty of depth at the position with St. Viator’s Cole Kmet, Marist’s Nic Weishar and Brock Wright. Kmet, who has made four starts, had a season-high four catches for 31 yards against Navy.

3. Continue to find room running the ball.

Dexter Williams has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of his four games this season, including 142 yards and three touchdowns against Navy. Northwestern provides a good test. The Wildcats are 50th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 146 yards per game.

Teddy Greenstein’s pick:

Despite recent history in the series and Northwestern’s status as a dangerous underdog, I dig this Irish team.

Notre Dame 27, Northwestern 16.

LaMond Pope’s pick:

Notre Dame’s defense makes a big play late to hold off the Wildcats.

Notre Dame 24, Northwestern 17.

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

Twitter @lamondpope

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