Know Your Notre Dame Football Enemy: The Northwestern Wildcats

EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 02: Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats passes against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Ryan Field on September 2, 2017 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 02: Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats passes against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Ryan Field on September 2, 2017 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Notre Dame football team will travel to Evanston, Illinois in the first weekend of November to face Northwestern.

We are taking a look at all 12 teams on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule with the intent of familiarizing you with what the Irish are up against.

Next up: The Northwestern Wildcats

2017 Synopsis

Northwestern had an outstanding 2017 season. They won ten games, including eight-straight to close out the year. They won three consecutive overtime games in late October and early November against Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska. They capped off the year with a 24-23 win over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

Who did they lose?

The biggest loss on offense is all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson. He was a special talent who toted the rock for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017.

On defense, they lost arguably the most talented safety duo in the country in Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. They leave behind them a gaping hole in the Wildcat secondary. They also lost defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster — are rare athlete at the position.

Who do they return?

The Wildcats are in good shape, returning 13 of 22 starters from their 10-win campaign. The most important returner is obviously quarterback Clayton Thorson. He is gaining a lot of buzz from NFL Draft people, as he has the intelligence, arm strengh and mobility to succeed at the next level. In the meantime, he is coming back from an ACL tear. He will likley be ready to go when the Irish come to town.

Thorson will have his top-two receivers back in the fold as well. Ben Skowronek and Flynn Nagel combined for over 1,110 yards and seven scores a season ago. The Wildcats also return four starters on the offensive line.

Defensively, head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s club is loaded with star-power and future NFL players. Defensive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller are two of the finest pass-rushers in the country. Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall are in the conversation for best linebacking duo in the land, while cornerback Montre Hardage is a guy many expect to be taken in the early rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Why should Notre Dame be worried?

As you just read, the Wildcats have talent and experience — especially on defense. this could be a very difficult matchup for the Irish. If Clayton Thorson is at 100 percent, he is going to have time to get the ball off — and the Notre Dame secondary needs to be ready. His receivers are smart guys who know how to get open and rarely drop passes.

When the Irish have the ball, they’ll be up against as good of a front seven as they’ll face all season — and that includes the vaunted Michigan defense.

Why should Notre Dame not be worried?

The Irish are going to be one of the faster and more physical teams Northwestern faces all season. Even with the talent they have on defense, I’m not sure they have the depth to keep up with Notre Dame’s pace on offense for four quarters.

When Northwestern has the ball, Notre Dame has the talent in its secondary to force Thorson to tuck and run more than he wants to. If the Irish can make the Wildcat offense one-dimensional and force them to run, it shortens the game. That’s not how Northwestern wants this to go, especially at home. They win by scoring in the 30s and 40s.

Key Player for Northwestern

Clayton Thorson — It’s all on him in terms of consistently moving the chains and having the patience to find the open receiver. If he stays composed and is allowed to operate efficiently in the pocket, Northwestern has a very good chance of winning this game.

Next: The Irish Passing Attack Needs To Step Up

Key Player for Notre Dame

Khalid Kareem — The irish must get consistent pressure on Thorson. Kareem will likely be called upon to lead that charge. If he has a big game, Notre Dame’s defense is likely winning the battles they need to win in order for the Irish to come away victorious.