Who, and What, to Watch?

O'Malley's weekly six-pack of questions attempts to paint a picture of Saturday's contest vs. Northwestern in snowy South Bend.

1.) Wither the Weather? Temperatures in the low 30s and the potential for a relatively slick field appear to be more of an issue this Saturday than falling snow, or worse, gusting winds. Brian Kelly's Irish are unofficially undefeated in relatively cold weather contests (Miami, Army, Utah 2010; BC 2011; Pittsburgh, BC, Wake Forest 2012; Navy, BYU 2013; Stanford 2014) and though the running game struggled last week in Tempe, it's shown enough over the previous month to suggest the Irish can control the football and move the chains without throwing the pigskin all over the field.

Still, cold is worse than crisp and slick worse than dry, and Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson has proven he can turn the ball over in any weather, and on both coasts. But little snow in the stands shouldn't matter to the team's triggerman that, when he's on his game, is among the best playmakers in football.

It's worth noting the team's new snapper-holder-kicker battery (Malik Zaire joins Scott Daly and Kyle Brindza) won't debut under ideal conditions.

2.) What If Golson Fumbles? Oddly phrased, but as noted in Thursday's podcast, if he does, I think Kelly should take action. Not all turnovers are created equally -- interceptions are often beyond a quarterback's control. Tipped passes, sometimes off a wide receiver's hands, or even the occasional shot downfield can end as a technical turnover credited to the quarterback without the lion's share of the blame resting on his shoulders.

If Golson is going to throw downfield, and throw the football 40 times each week, he's going to occasionally suffer an interception. (For example, 10-11 picks in a 475-pass season would hardly be a problem considering 34-35 touchdowns would likely be intermixed.)

But six fumbles lost through nine games is about five too many. And he's dropped three more. Nine! Nine? Nine fumbles in nine games?

With Notre Dame out of national title contention, another fumble -- especially if it occurs this week, seven days after the team's Keystone Kops routine in Tempe -- should send Golson to the bench. Perhaps for a series, perhaps for more.

The 2014 and 2015 Irish can never be great if their best player isn't held accountable for actions easily within his control.

3.) How Much Progress Can They Make? Notre Dame will start a true freshman linebacker (Nyles Morgan), a relative rookie cornerback (sophomore Devin Butler), and rely heavily upon a true freshman nose guard (Daniel Cage), defensive end (Andrew Trumbetti), dime linebacker (Drue Tranquill), and No. 2 tight end (redshirt-freshman Durham Smythe).

Weekly progress for this youth-filled squad remains the goal, because A.) xx freshmen, sophomores, and redshirt sophomores will return to start and/or play a larger role next fall, and B.) tougher tests await over the next two weeks.

"They are so engaged. They are so anxious," said Kelly of his young defenders. "It’s probably a poor analogy, they wanna do so well, they’re like hunting dogs. Just looking up at you, 'what can I do?' But they’re young. There’s mental errors and mistakes that we have to clean up every day with them. You ask coach (Brian) VanGorder and for him it’s great because you have such captive group that they just want to learn -- but there’s a lot of learning going on. Every day it’s something new for them."

And with each passing week, it seems the grind of a season takes an additional toll. 36 offensive points allowed to North Carolina, 31 to Florida State (a fine effort, comparatively speaking), 39 to Navy, 41 to Arizona State -- with both sudden change and red zone defenses performing far below the level of a major bowl team.

The Wildcats are far and away the worst offensive team the Irish face in the season's second half. It's time to get back on track, because the next two weeks bring an abundance of opposing skill position talent to the table.

4.) Will Game Pressure Present Late? If you're a Northwestern backer, would a 20-10 Irish lead entering the fourth quarter be an acceptable scenario? How about 24-13 with nine minutes remaining, Wildcats possessing the football? Both scenarios presented suggest a job well done for Pat Fitzgerald's squad -- both offer a chance to steal one in the end.

What if you're a Notre Dame fan? Feel a little uneasy with both? Or an Irish player, a freshman with additional game pressure upon him in a contest no reasonable oddsmaker, pundit, or prognosticator believes you should lose?

The Irish thrived in the role of hunter en route to outstanding efforts vs. Michigan and Florida State. They likewise responded well the obvious challenge presented by peer program Stanford.

They've been less-than-impressive when their foe has far less to lose. Purdue hung tough, so too did Navy. North Carolina threatened victory.

Enter Northwestern and a Wildcats team that would sign up for a manageable 10-point margin and the football in its possession midway through the fourth quarter.

It's not an unlikely scenario, and would be one to further test the mettle of an Irish squad that's not been the same since it left a potential legacy win on the turf in Tallahassee.

5.) Will These Five Continue to Thrive? Andrew Trumbetti, Cam McDaniel, Cole Luke, Nick Martin, and Amir Carlisle

-- Trumbetti ranked among our top 10 players against Arizona State per a detailed film review (Premium, Click here.). He appears to have pushed through the rookie wall and ascended to 1A to junior Romeo Okwara's 1B as a defensive end tandem.

-- McDaniel was our no-doubt game MVP following the film review and I believe his playing time Saturday will illustrate that. Whether he starts or not, the senior has earned more carries this week after bailing out sophomore Tarean Folston and the Irish offense following a hideous first half in the desert.

-- Luke continues to evolve as a true sophomore, first-year starter. His matchups with FSU's Rashad Greene and ASU's Jaelen Strong will prepare him well for former five-star Kyle Prater and Northwestern's pedestrian passing game. But Louisville star and future first-round draft pick DeVante Parker loom, as does a crew from USC led by Nelson Agholor. More trial-by-fire awaits the blossoming Luke.

-- Senior captain Nick Martin has been Notre Dame's best offensive lineman over the last three games, wresting the mantle -- in that short span -- from the season's most consistent blocker, Ronnie Stanley. Martin has learned to play with torn ligaments in his thumb while moving positions -- he's back at a high level after a rough start.

-- Also returning to form is senior slot receiver Amir Carlisle, who either missed (one game) or was slowed greatly (four more) following a Game Three knee sprain suffered in Indianapolis.

"It was all physical, not really mental at all," Carlisle said of his recovery, "My knee felt great this week. I give glory to God and praise him for healing."

A healthy Carlisle adds a much-needed second slot option to augment rising junior C.J. Prosise.

6.) Patience: Tested? Or Prove to be a Virtue? Cover 4. Cover 2. Keep it in front of you. Don't get beaten deep. Drop 8.

That's Northwestern's defensive approach this fall and it falls in congress with the only thing that can keep the Irish offense in check Saturday afternoon.

Wait for Notre Dame to make a mistake, because it's not like we haven't see one before.

"They're a lot like we were defensively (2010-2013), where they don't give up the big play," said Kelly. "They are okay with you taking short hitches…they're okay with you screwing it up way before they do. You know what I mean?  (They risk) you're not going to be patient enough and take what you get, and you're going to make a mistake. They're very patient. They keep the ball in front, they stay over the top, and do a very good job of corralling things and rallying to the football. Very similar scheme, what we ran in the last couple of years and not giving up the big play defensively and banking on the fact that you won't be patient enough."

Common opinion posits Golson thrives as a playmaker, first looking downfield, then bailing and making plays with his feet. Indeed, that appears to be his strength at present. But multiple post-game conversations with him reveal an affinity for making it through his progressions, finding a third, fourth, or fifth option. In the rare occasions it happens, he seems to wear it as a badge of honor.

"You can ask (quarterbacks) coach (Matt) LaFleur about that, too," said Golson this week. "That gets him fired up."

Golson noted his approach Saturday (and always, he said) should be "more Drew Brees-like." In other words, take what they give you, but still dictate to the defense when doing so.

He'll have a chance to put that theory into action for more than 30 game minutes Saturday against the Wildcats, because the Irish will often possess the football.

Look for Notre Dame to win by a final score that impresses few nationally, but marks progress for a team with two more chances to move into major bowl contention in the weeks to follow. And look for at least one would-be touchdown to be left out there by a sloppy Irish offense, for at this point, you have to assume the old adage, "You are what you are" applies.

Notre Dame 27 Northwestern 13

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