The Notre Dame football team moved to 9-0 after a 31-21 victory over Northwestern Saturday night.
Notre Dame football fans have become accustomed to phrases such as “an ugly win is better than a pretty loss.” Notre Dame has had to survive its share of lackluster performances this season to stay undefeated. Many will lump its win over Northwestern into that category. While it is safe to say it wasn’t pretty, Notre Dame’s performance was satisfactory.
For the Irish, the only barometer is winning. There is no such thing as style points. While on the surface, the Irish were tied with a lesser opponent at halftime and had a 17-point second-half lead cut to 3 late in the 4th quarter, the eye test tells a different story.
And the story is this: Notre Dame dominated Northwestern in just about every facet of the game, but a handful of fluke plays allowed the Wildcats to stick around.
A deeper look at the box score tells the story. When Northwestern had the ball, Notre Dame’s defense came to play.
Northwestern possessed the ball 11 times (12, if you count the last play of the game after Notre Dame was forced to punt with 20 seconds left). Of those 11 possessions, the Wildcats only registered 15 first downs. Even then, Northwestern was able to gain more than 20 yards on a drive only 3 times.
On the night, Northwestern only amassed 249 total yards. Fourth-year quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 141 of those yards on 29 passing attempts. That’s less than 5 yards per passing attempt.
Finally, even taking away Thorson’s rushing numbers (-10 rushing yards on 11 attempts), Northwestern was only able to muster 4 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s passing attack continually took advantage of a vulnerable Northwestern secondary. Ian Book passed for 343 yards on 22-for-34 passing and 2 touchdowns. And while Northwestern often sold out to stop the run and sat on the short pass routes, Book was able to push the ball down the field to the likes of Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin, and Michael Young. The ability of Book to hit consistently in the vertical passing game is an improvement over recent weeks.
There certainly were some negatives: A botched handoff on Notre Dame’s first offensive possession flipped field position early. A blocked punt set up a short field for the Wildcats that eventually ended in a Northwestern touchdown. Conservative playcalling played a part in the Irish losing momentum and allowing a pesky Northwestern team getting back in the game.
While it was certainly not Notre Dame’s most crisp effort, it’s not as though the Irish failed to show their dominance in many facets of the game. In the end, a team that was favored to win by about 10 points by oddsmakers won a game by 10 points, on the road, against a team that has shown a propensity to play well against the nation’s most elite programs.