With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
Up next is a big one: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish will play at Ryan Field for the first time in over 40 years, and will provide a tough test for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats.
Returning production: 75 percent (54 percent on offense, 96 percent on defense)
2017 record: 10-3
Coach: Brian Kelly (Ninth season, 69-34— we’re counting vacated wins)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 13th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 24th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 27th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 7th
You may not have heard, but Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016. unfortunately, the Fighting Irish did manage to rebound in 2017, though after an impressive 8-1 start, the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance failed to materialize. Despite the ever-lofty dreams of the fanbase not coming fully to fruition, 2017 was an impressive bounce back year, and would have been considered a success at just about any program.
Initially, Notre Dame’s first three matchups seemed unimpressive. But sandwiched between blowout wins over middling Boston College and Temple squads, the Irish dropped a 20-19 home nail biter to Georgia. Of course, as the season went on, that loss turned from slightly embarrassing to one of the most impressive losses in college football. Meanwhile, Notre Dame kept the spotlight on that game, reeling off six consecutive blowout wins before beating Wake Forest by “just” 11.
After demolishing Boston College at their stadium, the Irish rolled into East Lansing to thump the Spartans by 20. Next came a 52-17 win over Miami (OH) and a 33-10 demolition of North Carolina before the bye week rolled around. But perpetually red-faced Brian Kelly and his boys weren’t done yet, putting up 49 and 35 on USC and NC State while holding each to 14 in two of their most impressive wins of the season. The aforementioned Wake Forest victory was all that separated the Irish a huge showdown with undefeated Miami (FL).
The Hurricanes, however, showed up, and brought their turnover chain with them. Starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush got picked twice and lost a fumble, backup Ian Book also threw an interception, and stud running back Josh Adams was held under two yards per carry. The Irish lost 41-8.
Still feeling the effects of their elimination from championship contention, the Fighting Irish edged Navy before getting blown out by Stanford. But like Northwestern, Notre Dame backdoored a ten win season thanks to an ugly Citrus Bowl win over LSU. It may have ended in disappointment, but 2017 brought Notre Dame and their coach (despite all the things his players supposedly did wrong) firmly back into the national conversation.
Brandon Wimbush, last year’s dual-threat starting quarterback, will return, but he’s facing a mostly-empty arsenal. After a phenomenal year, running back Josh Adams is off to the NFL along with Notre Dame’s top receiver (and name), Equanimous St. Brown. Meanwhile, prominent backup running back Deon McIntosh and third-leading receiver Kevin Stepherson, along with promising freshman back C.J. Holmes, were kicked off the team for violations of team rules after each was suspended for the Citrus Bowl.
Wimbush struggled at times to throw the ball last year, compiling an overall completion rate of 49.5 percent. Therefore, second year offensive coordinator Chip Long might opt for rising junior Ian Book at some point, or at least go to him in some pass-only situations. But the senior starter’s legs make him irresistible. Wimbush ran for 923 yards in 2017 on just 116 non-sack carries, averaging a cool eight yards per carry. And though he did fumble six times, the quarterback’s speed makes him difficult to contain, especially for a team with a history of underperformance against dual-threat QBs.
As mentioned above, must of the rest of last year’s explosiveness is gone. St. Brown and Adams were just about the only skill players to combine big plays with some level of consistency: Adams was a workhorse, toting the ball 206 times for 6.9 yards a pop, while St. Brown had 15.6 yards per catch on 33 catches. The talent below them, with young four-stars galore, isn’t the issue, but a player or two will have to actually step forwards.
The two best pass catching candidates are senior Alizé Mack and junior Chase Claypool. The former, a highly recruited tight end, missed 2016 for scholastic reasons and was used sparingly along with graduated senior Durham Smythe in 2017, but could break through in a more defined role. The latter, a receiver built like a tight end, was the most productive returning skill player, with 29 catches for 402 yards on just 45 targets. After some explosive plays down the stretch, junior Miles Boykin, who averaged 21.1 yards per catch for the whole season, could factor in as well.
On the running backs side, things are more up in the air. Tony Jones Jr. and Dexter Williams will be the only returning backs with a college carry. Williams put up 9.2 yards per carry in limited action last year, and the senior will be the favorite to start, but Jones Jr. figures to receive his share of the load as well.
The offensive line will be short two first round picks in Quentin Nelson, probably the best lineman in college football last year, and Mike McGlinchey, but two four year starters return alongside a true sophomore who started all 12 in 2017. The experience is there, but the Irish will still have significant holes to fill.
Under Long last year, Notre Dame loved to go for explosive plays. Their weapons will be much more questionable in 2017, but if they can get them firing behind what should be a solid line by Week 10, the Irish offense will be a force to be reckoned with.
Notre Dame breaks in a new defensive coordinator in Clark Lea, a disciple of the departed Mike Elko. Nothing will change for Notre Dame schematically, and Lea has another key institutional advantage — 96 percent of the production from last year’s defense returns. That’s the most returning production of the defensive side of the ball in the country.
Notre Dame was excellent at limiting big plays last season, finishing fifth in the country in IsoPPP+, and the Fighting Irish had top ten passing and rushing defenses. The Fighting Irish didn’t generate a ton of sacks or stuffs in the backfield, but that’s not super important when you allow just over 20 points per game.
An experienced defensive line returns five productive juniors and seniors, including 6-foot-6, 299-pound defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. The senior tallied 40.5 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year, and draws a lot of attention up front, to say the least.
Two-year captain Drue Tranquill is the heart of the defense at the buck spot; he and MIKE Te’von Coney return after tallying over 20 percent of Notre Dame’s tackles in 2017. Former four-star Asmar Bilal will slide into the third linebacker spot following a couple of graduations.
Notre Dame’s secondary is an embarrassment of riches. Cornerback Julian Love broke up 20 passes last season and intercepted three more. Safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott will have to fight for their jobs even though they are experienced seniors, because Navy transfer Aloha Gilman and impact 2018 recruit Houston Griffith are pushing for their jobs. The defensive backfield made a lot of plays last year, and there’s no reason for that to change.
Similarly, there’s no reason to expect anything less than an elite performance from Notre Dame’s defense in 2018. The Fighting Irish have the experience, the competitive depth and the coaching for another standout defensive season.
QB Brandon Wimbush
The 6-foot-1, 228 pound senior is explosive and incredibly difficult to get down, but his passing is the definition of a work in progress. There are good signs to be found, however. Despite his aforementioned atrocious 2017 completion percentage, Wimbush posted 16 passing touchdowns to just six interceptions. All signs point to the Irish offense continuing to take as many shots as possible, and if he can slow down the fumbles and sacks (8.3 percent sack rate behind a great offensive line) while completing just a few more high-percentage passes, Wimbush will be a net positive in a dynamic, difference-making package. Even without a ton of weapons, he’s a scary quarterback.
CB Julian Love
Love is a bit smaller at 5-foot-10, but he makes up for it with incredible ball skills and 4.4 speed. In addition to his 20 PBUs and three interceptions, Love had 56 tackles. He’s ranked right above Montre Hartage in Walter Camp’s 2019 NFL Draft corner rankings.
ROVER Asmar Bilal
Bilal is projected to slide into the rover position that Tranquill occupied last season. Tranquill was excellent as the rover, disrupting offenses and tallying 10.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Bilal has two years of backup experience, but he’ll have to prove himself at rover, because stud recruits Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Shayne Simon are right behind him.