What The Irish Learned

Northwestern: What The Irish Learned

Notre Dame’s unbeaten (9-0) football team, as expected, received all it could handle Saturday night in Evanston.

But a 24-point Irish second-half — paced by an exquisite final two periods of play by quarterback Ian Book — made the difference.

When Book is on his game — and the fact he continues to lead the nation in completion percentage suggests he has been most of the time — the Irish offense is a handful for an opposing defense.

Here’s what the Irish gained from their matchup with the Wildcats:

Adjustments. After Northwestern scored on an 18-play drive and dominated the second-period time of possession (11:57 for the Wildcats, with Notre Dame running only eight plays for 18 yards), there was not much question that the home team carried a good share of momentum into the 7-7 halftime discussion. At intermission Notre Dame had only 162 net yards. But credit Irish coach Brian Kelly and his coordinators for making major adjustments that paid huge third-period dividends. Northwestern’s three third-period possessions all produced punts — and a grand total of 32 combined yards. Meanwhile, Book took over the football game. He completed 11-of-14 third-period throws for 195 yards. Four plays into the final period the Irish led 24-7. Even after a blocked punt enabled the ‘Cats to pull within three points, Book’s third-down touchdown run (his longest of the year) with less than three minutes may qualify as Notre Dame’s most clutch play of the season to date — on his way to 399 combined rushing and passing yards.

It wasn’t perfect, but … Check out the final numbers on Notre Dame’s defensive effort against Northwestern:

  • The Irish held the Wildcats to four points fewer than their 25.1 average.
  • The Irish held the ‘Cats to 122 yards fewer than their season average.
  • Notre Dame held Northwestern and Clayton Thorson to their fewest passing yards of the season (141), matching the ‘Cats fewest pass attempts and completions of 2018 (both identical to Wildcat numbers versus Michigan).
  • The Irish allowed TD drives of 73 (second period) and 70 yards (fourth period) — but the 46 other Wildcat plays produced only 114 combined yards.

That was one impressive half. In the third and fourth periods combined in Evanston, Notre Dame accounted for 302 total yards. The Irish ran for 66 yards on 20 attempts, yet — more impressively — Book connected on 15-of-19 throws for 236 yards. It did not hurt that Chase Claypool had a career night with eight catches for 130 yards (six for 95 in the second half). That’s a good way to win a football game.

By the numbers. Here’s the latest on where the Irish stand in the NCAA’s strength of schedule numbers:

  • In terms of past opposition, Notre Dame stands 60th (40-32 versus FBS teams for .556). Among Irish 2018 foes, Stanford rates first, Vanderbilt eighth, Michigan 10th and Pittsburgh 11th.
  • In terns of future opposition, Notre Dame stands tied for 36th (16-11 for .593). This week’s foe, Florida State, is first (22-5 for .815).
  • In terms of cumulative opposition, the Irish stand 47th (56-43 for .566). The top 20 teams include Florida State (second), Stanford (fourth), Vanderbilt (12th), Wake Forest (14th), Pittsburgh (15th) and Michigan (19th).

The bottom line. From Brian Kelly, “It’s hard to win on the road against good competition, and that (Northwestern) is a good football team. Going on the road, winning against quality opposition, overcoming some adversity. You get a punt blocked against you, and that’s a big momentum swing. But our guys handled the moment — they handled the situation. We’ve had similar situations like this where we haven’t handled it quite as well. I just liked their grit, their resolve, the overall preparation and beating a team on the road that’s a pretty darned good football team.”

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.