Notre Dame Football: Key Defensive Matchups vs. Northwestern

PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 20: Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats throws during the second quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on October 20, 2018 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
PISCATAWAY, NJ - OCTOBER 20: Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats throws during the second quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on October 20, 2018 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images) /

Notre Dame football enters the month of November undefeated and poised to break their November curse. Northwestern in Evanston on Saturday night is their first test.

The Notre Dame football team is back in the Midwest after a bye week and west coast trip to play Navy in San Diego. The Irish enter this game undefeated and ranked 4th in the initial College Football Playoff ranking, and the defense is a big reason why. It’s a night game, on the road in November, with a chance to only enhance the playoff stock in the eyes of the committee–there is no reason this team shouldn’t be motivated and ready to perform at a high level.

However, we know this is a Northwestern team that always plays the Irish tough, and has wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State. They also held a 17-0 lead at halftime in the Big House before ultimately falling to Michigan 20-17. The Wildcats will definitely be up for the test.

Northwestern sits atop the Big Ten West rankings with an impressive 5-1 record in conference and 5-3 record overall. The losses coming to Akron (what?), Duke, and obviously Michigan. They are the quintessential of playing up and down to your opponent, and I expect nothing less on Saturday night.

They rank 98th in the country in scoring offense. The positive is that they are 26th in passing offense. The bad is they are rank almost dead last in rushing offense (126 out of 129). This bodes extremely well for the Irish on paper.

Here are the key matchups for the Irish defense this weekend.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson vs. the ND Defense

It should come as no surprise that Thorson is the first matchup on this list. Going into last season, he was seen as a potential NFL first round draft pick. Unfortunately, for him and the Northwestern football program, he was sidelined with a torn ACL in the team’s bowl game. He elected to come back to Northwestern for his senior season, and so far it has been a mixed bag.

On one hand, he leads the 26th ranked passing offense to the tune of 280 yards a game through the air, but on the other, he has 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and his mobility in the pocket is clearly hobbled.

The Northwestern offense has been one-dimensional since the medical retirement of star running back Jeremy Larkin, and that plays into the strength of the Notre Dame defense–the pass rush. Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and company will be able to pin their ears back and focus on getting to Thorson. If the stats are any indication Thorson will likely throw for over 200 yards and a few touchdowns, but it will also come at the expense of a few turnovers in Notre Dame’s favor.

Flynn Nagel and the Wildcat Wide Receivers vs. the ND Secondary 

Nagel is a senior with a ton of experience and production. This year alone, he’s been on the receiving end of most of Thorson’s passes catching 59 balls for 711 yards in 8 games. That’s already an improvement on last year’s career high 48 catches and 489 yards. Outside of Nagel, they have two talented big targets with 36 (Cameron Green) and 33 catches (Ben Skowronek) respectively. Skowronek could provide a mismatch on the outside with his 6’4 211 pound frame while Green is a physical receiver/tight end hybrid that does most of his work in the middle of the field.

The safeties and linebacker will have their work cutout for them with Nagel and Green; therefore, it will be up to Julian Love and the corners to limit Skowronek. It’s also possible Love will be tasked with blanketing Nagel, but that is usually not the nature of the Irish defense.

Again, with this being a one-dimensional offense the Notre Dame secondary should be more than prepared to handle 50 throws on Saturday night, and the pass rush should help tremendously as well.

Running back Isaiah Bowser vs. the ND Front Seven 

Since taking over for Jeremy Larkin 4 games ago, Boswer has been less than impressive. He is averaging 3.8 yards per carry (exactly 1 yard less than Larkin’s average), and he offers nothing in the passing game–something Larkin was very successful at. With that said, Northwestern wants to run the ball to set up the pass, so you can expect a heavy dose of Bowser early on.

This really plays into Notre Dame’s defensive strengths as Coney, Tillery, Kareem etc. are exceptional against the run. A possible blessing in disguise with Tranquill either out or playing hobbled on his bum ankle. A combination of Jonathan Jones, Jordan Genmark-Heath, Bo Bauer and Drew White should have no issue handling Bowser and the Northwestern’s pedestrian rushing offense.

Beyond Bowser, it’s not much better. John Moten has missed the last two games with a leg injury and is questionable this week while Soloman Vault is averaging 1.4 yards per rush on 29 attempts. Heavy advantage to the Irish front seven.

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My final score prediction will come out on Friday’s prediction article, but on paper this is a game Notre Dame should win. However, it’s a road game and lousy weather is expected – factors that should be taken into account. Northwestern is also riding a 4-game win streak and feeling confident of late. Dominate against the run, and force Thorson into some poor throws, and the Irish leave Evanston 9-0.