Northwestern takes on its highest-ranked opponent this year in No. 3 Notre Dame Saturday night. The Irish are undefeated and have played a fairly tough schedule, with three wins over then-ranked opponents. However, just one of those teams, Michigan, is currently ranked. They likely cannot afford a loss and make the College Football Playoff, while the ‘Cats are playing with little to lose in a rare late-season, non-conference contest. Below are three key matchups that will help decide a rare primetime matchup at Ryan Field:
Miles Boykin vs Montre Hartage
The Irish are 8-0, but it has been almost a different season on offense since Ian Book took the starting quarterback job from Brandon Wimbush. The Irish rank No. 40 in passing offense, 13 spots behind Northwestern, but that number is misleading and skewed by Wimbush’s ineptitude — in Book’s five starts he has averaged 296 yards through the air. The biggest beneficiary of Book’s success is senior wide receiver Miles Boykin. Boykin is averaging 82 yards per game since Book won the starting job, and all six of his touchdowns this season have come in that span.
Boykin, a Chicagoland native, will likely line up across from Northwestern senior cornerback Montre Hartage. Hartage has just one interception this season but is NU’s top corner and has played strong as of late, especially against Wisconsin when he shut down the Badgers’ passing attack with four passes defended. The two seniors may go at it all night, with Book likely looking for his favorite target, Hartage will be called upon to stymie Notre Dame’s aerial attack.
Northwestern’s offensive line vs Notre Dame’s defensive line
Maligned for much of the season, Northwestern’s offensive line has now turned in two-straight stellar performances. Though Clayton Thorson’s statline was not sparkling, the men up front gave him time to throw, and they also cleared paths for Isaiah Bowser to run for 117 yards. This week’s opponent, however, poses a much tougher challenge than did the defensive lines of Rutgers and Wisconsin. Notre Dame’s defense is giving up just 194 yards through the air and 147 on the ground, and both numbers can be traced back to the men in the trenches. Seventeen sacks on the season for this unit may not seem like a lot, but considering the sure-handed tackling and the quarterback pressure it applies, Northwestern’s offensive line will be more than tested.
Impressive athletes like Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara have wreaked havoc on offensive lines and quarterbacks, forcing mistakes and inducing turnovers. Clayton Thorson has a propensity to turn the football over, and if the ‘Cats want to have any success running or throwing Saturday, the bodies up front better be ready for 60 minutes of war.
Pat Fitzgerald vs Brian Kelly
Two coaches who lead very different programs, Pat Fitzgerald and Brian Kelly have met just once before, in Northwestern’s 43-40 upset of No. 18 Notre Dame in 2014. That game, while an anomaly in many ways, signifies much of Brian Kelly’s tenure as head coach of the Irish. He’s had uber-talented teams that play some of the nation’s toughest schedules, but somewhere along the way they slip up and rarely reach the lofty expectations of a storied program.
Pat Fitzgerald, on the other hand, rarely faces the pressure that Kelly endures. He relishes the opportunity to be an underdog, and some of his teams’ best performances have come in games Northwestern isn’t given a chance. The more iconic footage of each coach seems to show an arms-crossed, displeased version of Kelly and a jubilant, arm-pumping Fitz. Yet here they both are: Notre Dame a clean 8-0, its College Football Playoff hopes hinging on every contest, and Northwestern a surging 5-3, out of any national conversation but eyeing its first-ever Big Ten Championship game appearance. The Ryan Field lights will be glimmering, and the mindset that each coach instills in his team and the key situational decisions made could decide who emerges victorious.