5 Things To Watch

Northwestern: Five Things To Watch

It’s November — and that means the college football season is becoming serious business.

The first release Tuesday of the College Football Playoff standings said as much. And, as Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted this week, his team has been here before. So pardon his players if their presence in the No. 4 slot in the initial release did not set off fireworks.

Of greater consideration is this week’s foe, a Northwestern unit that is peaking based on four consecutive Big Ten victories.

Here’s what to consider in advance of that Irish matchup with the Wildcats:

Us versus them. If there’s a matchup to watch closely Saturday night, it’s between the Irish defense and Northwestern’s offense. Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson is thoroughly capable of throwing the ball 65 times for 450 yards. In fact, he did that against Nebraska three Saturdays back (actually 455 yards). He’s not invincible, given his 11 interceptions versus his 10 touchdown passes. So leave him alone to throw on his timetable at Notre Dame’s peril. If the Irish can’t disrupt the Northwestern passing game, the ‘Cats are perfectly likely to put up a bunch of points (they currently average 25.1 per game).

Don’t sleep on the run. Northwestern comes in ranked 126th nationally in rushing at 91.1 yards per game. But don’t be deceived. The ‘Cats lost stalwart back Jeremy Larkin after four games — and interestingly he remains the leading Northwestern rusher by 119 yards. But rookie Isaiah Bowser has come into his own (he had 117 yards versus Wisconsin), Solomon Vault provides a veteran, physical presence — and the ‘Cats are coming off their best ground effort of the year at 182 yards last weekend against Wisconsin.

Will this be the week? There’s nothing coaches appreciate more than consistency — the idea that they know what to expect on a week-to-week basis from any given player. That’s why Irish quarterback Ian Book’s act has played so well over the last five Irish games (and victories). So, will Northwestern be the team to find a way to alter Book’s record-breaking completion percentage numbers? And, if so, how will Notre Dame respond?

Rushing upside. About a year ago this time Notre Dame’s run game peaked. Standout Josh Adams didn’t look like the same back for most of November that he had in running his way into the Heisman conversation in October. The opposite seems to be happening in 2018. Dexter Williams looked as impressive last week as he has all year. Jafar Armstrong is back healthy again and he has developed into as much of a pass-catching weapon as a run threat. Throw in Tony Jones Jr. and that aspect of the Irish offense appears to be growing. And it will be tested big-time Saturday night with the ‘Cats already this season holding three opponents under 100 ground yards (97 by Duke, 90 by Akron, 96 by Michigan State).

It’s late in the year. After eight games, everybody (on both rosters) is a bit banged up, a little fatigued — even after the Irish open date on Oct. 20. So, which team Saturday can muster enough crucial plays to prosper? Both these groups are on highs right now. And the Irish have had to play their way through the loss of captain and veteran offensive lineman Alex Bars, while also seeing linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill leave the field a week ago against Navy (his status to be determined for action in Evanston). If Notre Dame plans to keep its fortunes on an uptick, it must put any and all of those ailments in its back pocket and play on.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.