For the first time since 1976, Notre Dame will go to Evanston, Illinois, to play Northwestern. In 1992 and in ’94, the Irish played the Wildcats at Soldier Field in Chicago, but the two academic powers have not battled on the Northwestern campus in 42 years.
Both programs face a very important month of November. Notre Dame was ranked No. 4 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and a loss in the final four games would mean the Irish would need a ton of help to get into the four-team tournament.
Northwestern won’t be contending for a playoff spot, but they are in control of the Big Ten West. A victory next week over Iowa would put them in the catbird’s seat with two conference games remaining.
First, though, it’s the Irish and that means plenty.
Notre Dame at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clayton Thorson
Northwestern ran for 182 yards against Wisconsin last week. Consider that some kind of miracle because when Jeremy Larkin retired from football, the Wildcats’ running game went away completely. Against Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska, the Cats combined for 68 rushing yards. Shockingly, they won two of those three games — and very nearly pulled off the sweep — thanks in large part to Thorson’s arm. His numbers aren’t spectacular, especially the 10 interceptions. But if Northwestern is going to pull off the upset, their quarterback is going to have to eliminate mistakes and make some big plays.
2. Northwestern offensive line vs. Notre Dame defensive line
If Thorson is going to be successful, his line will have to keep the Irish front at bay. Notre Dame has some athletes on the defensive line and at linebacker, and they know Thorson is going to throw and throw and throw. Their job is to make him uncomfortable, something they’ve done to other quarterbacks on several occasions this season. If the Northwestern blockers can open up a few running lanes like they did against the Badgers, it would benefit their talented signal-caller. But priority number one is to create a pocket from which Thorson can throw.
3. Notre Dame offensive balance
The Irish are 46th in rushing offense and 40th in passing offense, which combined equals out to 36th in total offense. Since Ian Book was named the starting quarterback, the passing attack has been consistent. The running game has been a bit up and down, however. They ran wild (272 yards) versus Stanford, had 167 the next week at Virginia Tech, and then managed a paltry 80 yards against a Pittsburgh defense that is 97th nationally against the run. Last week versus undersized Navy, Notre Dame bounced back with 254 yards on the ground. We can expect Book to be efficient once again, but if Dexter Williams and the running game gets cranked up, the Irish offense will be tough for Northwestern to stop.
Northwestern knows that their most important game of the year is next week at Iowa. A win over the Hawkeyes would virtually lock down the Big Ten West division title. But when Notre Dame comes to campus, it doesn’t matter what next week means. Pat Fitzgerald builds his team to perform best at the end of the year and that looks to be the case once again. Notre Dame, while 7-0, hasn’t been especially clean over the past two weeks. The Irish survived Pitt and had a sluggish second half against Navy defensively. But while like Navy, Northwestern does only one thing well on offense, their traditional offensive set is easier to replicate in practice. Notre Dame will shut down the Northwestern ground game and put all kinds of pressure on Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats will give the Irish offense some problems at times and Northwestern will go hard on every play. In a game that will be in doubt late, Notre Dame will remain unbeaten.
Prediction: Notre Dame 24, Northwestern 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.