Know Your Foe: Northwestern

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor for the Daily Northwestern, stops by to answer five questions regarding the hard-luck Northwestern Wildcats as they prepare to take on the Irish in South Bend.

Question: Notre Dame fans will see 3-6 record and a 16-point spread and assume this is a Northwestern team that should lose by a minimum of three touchdowns to their Irish. Is that off base? There's a preponderance of close losses on Wildcats slate to date -- is there evidence from those to suggest that if the visitors catch some breaks, it could be a fourth quarter game?

As well, Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked about the Wildcats defensive scheme (patient, bend-but-don't break) quite a bit Tuesday, comparing it to the one employed by Notre Dame prior to this fall. How has that approach fared vs. the better quarterbacks Northwestern has faced?

Joseph Diebold: I wouldn’t be surprised if the game is close in the fourth quarter, but I wouldn’t predict it either. This defense is for real, and even in its bad performances (giving up 48 points to Iowa excluded) it’s been let down by special teams miscues (a fumbled punt last week set up Michigan for its only touchdown) and the inability of the offense to sustain drives or flip field position. Add to that Notre Dame’s tendency to let inferior opponents hang around, and the recipe is there for a closer-than-expected game if Northwestern can move the ball at all.

However, the defense is a bit of a blank slate when it comes to facing good quarterbacks. Everett Golson is probably the best quarterback the defense will have faced, and certainly the most dynamic dual-threat. Christian Hackenberg couldn’t do much in Northwestern's 29-6 win in Happy Valley but his offensive line was a mess that day. Jared Goff played pretty well in Cal’s season-opening win but he didn’t light the world on fire.

Beyond that, nobody the Wildcats have faced under center really stands out. The secondary is probably Northwestern’s best unit on defense, and they’ve been opportunistic at times, so Golson will need to have better ball security than he’s shown in recent weeks if this game is going to be a blowout.

Question: Has there been a common denominator on either side of the ball when Northwestern has been at its best (beating Wisconsin, Penn State, perhaps the loss to Minnesota) this fall?

JD: The common denominator has been the defense carrying the team and the offense doing just enough to get by, with turnovers playing a huge role. Against Penn State, the defense was simply lights-out; even this offense couldn’t demonstrate enough ineptitude to lose a game where the defense only allowed six points. Against Wisconsin, they strung together just enough nice drives and were bailed out by terrible quarterback play from the Badgers (four interceptions, two in the end zone).

The defense wasn’t quite as good against Minnesota, but they responded well after giving up two early touchdowns and the offense managed its best drive of the season, a 97-yard march for a touchdown, to tie the game in the fourth quarter (naturally, they allowed the ensuing kickoff to be returned for the game-winning score). 

The biggest key for Northwestern is getting out to an early lead. Every team wants to get ahead early, of course, but this team’s strengths just aren’t well-suited to playing from behind. But if the offense can put together a couple solid early drives and the defense doesn’t get blown out of the water, they can start relying on the run game and get the pass rush working. That, and a few interceptions, are probably the recipe for success. 

Question: How do fans, and most importantly, the student-body in particular, feel about head coach Pat Fitzgerald? Does realism remain (he's doing well considering his recruiting restrictions/program's historical place in the sport), or does last year's rise to No. 16 in the polls and subsequent downward spiral since loom as a sticking point? In other words, is there a healthy dose of Northwestern fans that think they can do better?

JD: This is pretty much the question around this program right now. Fitzgerald is taking as much heat as he has in his nine years at the helm. Not only is Northwestern 3-13 in its last 16 FBS games, but if the Wildcats lose this weekend and slip up against either Purdue or Illinois, the team’s win total will have decreased in every season but one since 2008. Beyond that, NU is a national laughingstock right now, given the attention the team’s miserable 10-9 defeat to Michigan last weekend got. There is a feeling that after building some momentum, including the first bowl victory in 64 years in 2012-13, this is a program that has stagnated. A “Fire Fitz” sign even appeared in the student section during the Michigan game, although students in general tend to mostly be either ambivalent to football in general or supportive of Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald isn’t going anywhere. He’s a Northwestern legend from his time playing in Evanston and the face of the program, and his contract runs through 2020. He’s already the program’s all-time winningest coach. He has done wonders to improve recruiting, and with new facilities on the way that should continue to improve. He’s built up too much good will to throw away over two bad seasons. But he’s also set expectations very high for himself — many around the program have talked about the goal of competing for Big Ten championships year in and year out — and will be held to those. Many fans are at least hoping for a shakeup with some coordinators and/or position coaches (offensive line and wide receiver have been the major weak spots) after this season. 

Question: Irish fans are likely more familiar with former recruiting target Kyle Prater than they are NU's best player, running back Justin Jackson. What are Jackson's greatest strengths, and what else does Northwestern have on offense that could trouble the Irish defense?

JD: Jackson has been unquestionably the pleasant surprise of the season. The transfer of Venric Mark before the year left something of a void at running back and the freshman has snatched the carries away from Treyvon Green to the point where Green has been relegated to returning kickoffs. Michigan’s run defense limited Jackson to just 35 yards on 17 carries last week, but he’s still on pace to become just the second freshman ever at Northwestern to run for 1,000 yards. His biggest strength is probably his vision. He doesn’t have great top-end speed (his longest run of the season is just 27 yards, and the inability to get big plays has really hurt the offense as a whole), but he’s very shifty between the tackles and gets the most out of every run through a combination of finding the right holes and running tough. If he can’t find yards against Notre Dame’s defense, Northwestern doesn’t have much chance on Saturday.

As far as the rest of the offense, the cupboard is pretty bare, due to both injuries and poor play. The passing game has been a huge disappointment, and unfortunately for Northwestern, there isn’t just one problem spot. Quarterback Trevor Siemian hasn’t been able to make downfield throws with any consistency and he kills too many drives by holding the ball too long and taking sacks. The receivers have been plagued by drops and haven’t been able to get much separation (Prater has been the standout performer, but he is Northwestern’s leading receiver despite having fewer yards than three different Notre Dame players).

The offensive line hasn’t been able to protect Siemian consistently (115th in the country in sacks allowed), although they’ve been slightly better in the run game. That makes it tough for Northwestern to outperform expectations, because even great games or matchup advantages for one or two players can’t cover up holes elsewhere.

The one area where Northwestern might have some success is rolling Siemian out. His running isn’t going to have anyone confusing him for Golson, but he’s finally recovered from a nagging ankle injury suffered early in the season. The Wildcats had success on their last two drives against Michigan, driving 95 and 74 yards for two scores, getting Siemian out of the pocket to buy him a little more time to throw. I’m skeptical that will continue enough against the Fighting Irish for Northwestern to put up enough points (we all saw on the two-point conversion play what can happen when it goes wrong), but it offers a glimmer of optimism.

Question: Can Northwestern win this game the score gets into the low 30s? Do you like their chances if, conversely, the victor has no more than three touchdowns and perhaps a pair of field goals? Though the answer seems obvious, it's relevant to note that the Irish have had 43, 31, 39, and 55 points scored against them over the last four games (three defensive touchdowns included therein). 

JD: Northwestern hasn’t scored 30 points all season. They haven’t scored more than 24 without a defensive score. It’s safe to say there isn’t much confidence around Evanston in their ability to win a shootout. While Notre Dame’s defense isn’t great, it isn’t any worse than Iowa or Minnesota or the rest of the middle of the Big Ten, and the Wildcats haven’t managed any sustained offensive success against those squads. Notre Dame is significantly better defensively than Northern Illinois, and the Huskies held the Wildcats to 15 points.

Instead, Northwestern will try to ugly the game up, forcing turnovers and keeping Notre Dame to field goals if it can get into the red zone. They’ll pound the ball with Jackson and use the short passing game to try and string together first downs. Stranger things have happened, and the offense has shown the ability in previous years to put up more points, but if the Fighting Irish can get to 30 I think it’ll be a happy Saturday in South Bend.  


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