Any mention of Notre Dame meeting Northwestern in football immediately conjures up a cloud of nostalgia.
That’s mainly because these teams have played only once in the past 22 seasons, despite 48 overall meetings. Among Big Ten foes, only Michigan State and Purdue have appeared more times on Notre Dame football slates.
Start with Ara Parseghian, who was so good at what he did in Evanston — including four straight wins over the Irish (1959-62) — that Notre Dame hired him for what became an 11-year run in South Bend with two consensus national titles.
Throw in current Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who helped his Northwestern team defeat the Irish in his playing days at linebacker in 1995. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year that same season.
Don’t forget that these teams met 20 straight years from 1929-48 — with Notre Dame later winning 14 straight matchups until that Wildcat win in 1995 at Notre Dame Stadium.
But, hey, don’t get hooked on all those memories — because the present has seldom been better in South Bend and Evanston.
Notre Dame is riding high at 8-0, ranked third in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls and fourth in the initial College Football Playoff standings this week.
Northwestern, rebounding impressively from an early three-game losing streak, has responded with four straight Big Ten wins — including triumphs over 20th-rated Michigan State and 20th-ranked Wisconsin. The ‘Cats’ votes this week left them 27th in the AP poll and 31st by the coaches.
The Irish have won nine games in a row overall. The ‘Cats have won 12 of their last 13 in the Big Ten.
It’s great to be an Irish or a Wildcat fan these days.
Notre Dame has a four-game November stretch run in its bid for a CFP slot. Northwestern controls its own destiny in the Big Ten West Division — with league games left versus Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
The most intriguing aspect of Notre Dame’s finishing schedule is that four of the final five Irish assignments come away from Notre Dame Stadium.
Brian Kelly’s squad got that sequence off to a more than solid start last weekend with a dominating 44-22 triumph over Navy where the Irish broke out to a 27-0 halftime lead.
“We started off very well,” agreed Kelly. “We had a great plan against Navy, which required a sense of urgency on offense, although it didn’t start that way with the fumble. But we certainly had an attention to detail on defense. We held them to under 75 yards in total offense in the first half, and we were able to put 27 points on the board.
“What we need to do better is to maintain that intensity through four quarters when we play a team like the Naval Academy. We probably need to do a better job coaching and stay the heck out of the way. We tried to shut them out — we probably should have spent more time on adjustments that they were going to make. So we learned a pretty good lesson there in the second half.
“What we learned about our team is we’re capable of handling any kind of circumstances, that our team had a great attitude going out to the West Coast. We played with great energy and enthusiasm, handling the elements and the prep for Navy coming out of a bye week.
“I thought our kids did a great job. They were able to handle any of the things that were going to be thrown their way.”
So the Irish bring their own bottle of momentum into this week’s test (7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN) — and it’ll be matched by Northwestern’s own enthusiasm based on its perfect October.
“Northwestern is a team that doesn’t get the recognition that they deserve,” says Kelly. “They are 12-1 in their last 13 games in the Big Ten — I think that says it all in terms of what they’ve been able to accomplish over a long period of time, winning in a really, really good conference.
“They’ve played very well against great competition. They got off to a 17-0 lead over Michigan — they really had a chance to win that football game. They beat the 20th-ranked team in the country in Wisconsin and won fairly handily. This is a team that certainly plays to the level of the competition, and they play very well.
“They found ways to win on the road against Rutgers and found a way to win late in the game against Nebraska. This will be a great test for us going on the road.
“(Quarterback) Clayton Thorson is the central figure on offense. He’s an NFL talent with a great arm, and he can fit it into tight windows. He’s really the guy. They haven’t had luck at the running back position because of a host of injuries, so they’ve had to rely on his arm. (He has started 47 consecutive games, second among Football Bowl Subdivision players.)
“They’ve got a stable of receivers. Finn Nagel is a guy they like getting the football to. He’s a really accomplished receiver. (He has caught passes in 26 straight games, second-longest streak in the Big Ten.)
“Defensively, they are very, very stingy. I really like (defensive tackle) Jordan Thompson, a kid we recruited out of Cincinnati. Paddy Fisher is one of the rangier linebackers you’re going to find. They have a really good front seven. It’s very difficult to run the football on them.
“They’ve made it difficult for a lot of teams to put points on the board, so it’s going to be a heck of a football game.
“Our guys are going to have to play with great energy, with a great sense of understanding the moment, because Northwestern is certainly going to be ready for this football game.”
The Irish have not played in Evanston since 1976 and that suggests an extra level of excitement for Wildcat fans.
“Most of the time when we play on the road it’s a really good environment,” says Kelly. “We expect a tough game. Our guys are prepared for it. They know going up there, it’s going to be a tough fight.
“We have a lot of respect for Northwestern and what they’ve accomplished. We know we have to play well. We’ve got to play with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm. That’s why they put these games on TV. They don’t put them on TV because there are half-full crowds and nobody cares. They know the environment is going to be really good.”
Kelly and the Irish again will look to junior quarterback Ian Book, who continues to lead the country in completion percentage (.765, 130 of 170) and will be starting his sixth straight game.
“His success comes off understanding the offense and what we’re doing,” says Kelly. “His ability to understand the nuances of the offense — where you then gain an advantage tactically — allows for high completion percentage.
“He knows where the leverage points are within the offense that give you an advantage against the defense. He’s a really smart quarterback who understands where he has an advantage against the defense, and he takes advantage of it. Because he’s accurate as a thrower, he gets it to the receiver that has the best chance of being successful.”
Kelly understands Book’s counterpart, Thorson, will provide a huge challenge for the Irish defense.
“He knows the offense extremely well,” says Kelly. “He’s not afraid to put the ball in tight windows. He’ll fit some throws in there where you are just shaking your head. We’ve got to get pressure on him, so the pass rush is going to be really, really important to us Saturday. If you let him stand back there, he can make you look silly.”
Notre Dame’s head coach knows his Irish have another chance to prove themselves in November. A year ago, his team came off a similar successful October slate, only to fall twice on the road in the final three regular-season games. The Irish in that late 2017 stretch simply didn’t look like the same team that mostly waltzed through victories after an early one-point loss to Georgia.
“It’s a different team each year, right?” says Kelly. “I’m talking to different kids this year than I was last year. A lot of those guys went through it last year. They know the things that we can’t do.
“I think it’s much more about having a football team that’s experienced it and been through it and wants to get on the other side of it. They have a process that they know has gotten them here. They’ve won 18 games over the last two years and lost three. They know the process works.
“They’ve got four weeks, so they feel like if we just stay committed to our process, if we stay humble, if we really work on our recovery, be prepared for the next guy to step in, then they’ll be fine. Just the knowledge of going through it, having it in front of us before, not finishing it the right way, has been a great impetus for all our guys.”
Kelly suggested that Notre Dame’s presence in the initial CFP standings a year ago wasn’t necessarily routine for his players.
“It was a little new for us,” he says. “We had most of our guys committed to that process, but we didn’t have everybody fully committed to it. That’s natural. It was new to them.
“But this group knows that if they stay committed to it, they’ll have success. I think it’s just that second year with everybody fully committed to it that drives this a little bit differently.”
Here are more notes and quotes on the Notre Dame-Northwestern matchup:
- Northwestern is trying to defeat a team ranked in the top five for the first time since 1959.
- Notre Dame is 5-3 against ranked Northwestern squads (3-2 in Evanston), including wins in 1936 (when Northwestern was No. 1), 1938, 1941, 1943 and 1948, plus defeats in 1940, 1959 and 1962.
- The Irish are 12-0 against the ‘Cats when Notre Dame is ranked in the top five — with wins in 1938-41-43-46-47-48-66-68-71-74-92-94. The Irish were ranked No. 1 in those matchups in 1938, 1943, 1947 and 1974.
- Notre Dame is 18-4-1 against the Wildcats in Evanston — with Northwestern victories coming in 1901, 1940 (the ‘Cats were rated No. 10), 1960 and 1962 (the ‘Cats were No. 3).
- The Irish head into November in hopes of changing a recent string that has seen Notre Dame teams lose twice in that month each of the last five seasons.
- Northwestern has not played host to an opponent ranked in the top three in a dozen years (No. 1 Ohio State in 2006).
- Northwestern leads the conference in fewest penalties per game at 3.25.
- The Wildcats over one three-game stretch (Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska) ran for only a combined 68 yards, yet rebounded for a season-high 182 last Saturday versus Wisconsin (on a season-high 49 attempts).
- Thorson three times in 2018 has thrown at least 56 times and on four occasions has completed at least 31 passes (including 41 versus Nebraska on 65 attempts for 455 yards).
- The Northwestern athletics director is Jim Phillips, who was a senior associate athletics director at Notre Dame from 2000-04 and whose son Luke is a freshman member of the current Notre Dame cross country squad that recently won the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
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.