No. 4 Notre Dame will visit Ryan Field on Saturday to reprise a rivalry that dates back to 1889. NU has taken the past two matchups, in 1995 and 2014. This Fighting Irish team is undefeated and gunning for a spot in the College Football Playoff. We got the breakdown on Notre Dame from Pat Sullivan, an editor at SBNation.com’s Notre Dame site, One Foot Down.
Inside NU: How did switching to Ian Book at quarterback change what this offense can do?
Pat Sullivan: It really opened things up for the Irish offense. As good as Brandon Wimbush was as a runner, a scrambler, and at occasionally throwing perfect deep balls, he was incredibly inconsistent on short-to-medium passes. Thus, if the ND running game was shut down by an opponent, it became a pretty tall order for the Irish to pick up yardage needed to get first downs and extend drives.
With Book, his accuracy and consistency and decision making as a passer completely reversed that. All of a sudden, ND is completing ~75% of their passes and stringing together methodical drives with precision, and receivers like Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and Chase Claypool look much more like the players everyone thought they could be. Furthermore, as Book completes more and more of these non-deep balls, it opens things up for the running game as well, allowing the ND offensive line to clear some paths for what has shaped into a very formidable Notre Dame backfield.
Book isn’t perfect -- he misses a lot on long throws, makes occasional mental mistakes that lead to interceptions, and the offense does sometimes sputter, as we saw against Pittsburgh a few weeks back. But overall, the dude is leading the country in completion percentage and has reinvigorated a passing offense that was stagnant and uninspiring before he took over. He doesn’t quite bring the same athleticism and speed that Wimbush did, but he’s mobile enough to extend plays when the pocket breaks down and keep defenses honest by picking up some first downs with his feet. He’s just been a revelation overall, and has transformed this team for the better.
INU: Notre Dame has a deep group of talented running backs. What does each guy bring to the table?
PS: Let’s start with Dexter Williams, who is easily ND’s most talented and dangerous running back. Dex was suspended for the first four games of the season by head coach Brian Kelly for unannounced reasons, but ever since he’s returned to the field he has been the bonafide star back that Irish fans always hoped he would be, considering the brief flashes of talent they’d seen in his first three years as he languished behind more experienced guys.
Williams has run for 512 yards and seven touchdowns in the four games he’s played in, and more importantly is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and has already shown incredible home run ability -- especially on his first carry of the season against Stanford and also on his 97-yard touchdown run that shifted all momentum to ND against Virginia Tech. Williams is the real deal, and as long as the ND offensive line gives him a sliver of daylight, he WILL pick up some large chunks of yards during this game.
Jafar Armstrong is the next guy I want to mention. He’s a sophomore who was converted from wide receiver over the offseason due to depth concerns at running back (Williams’ suspension, Josh Adams leaving for the NFL, Dion McIntosh and CJ Holmes being dismissed from the team). Armstrong has been pretty great from the beginning, serving as a speedy change-of-pace back and a great receiver out of the backfield/slot. He scored a couple touchdowns against Michigan in the opener, played well in the next three games, but then missed Stanford, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh due to a knee infection. Now, Armstrong is back (had 116 combined rushing and receiving yards to go along with a TD last weekend) and adds another dynamic piece to offensive coordinator Chip Long’s squad.
Finally, I want to mention Tony Jones Jr., who often doesn’t get a ton of praise because he’s not a home run threat, but who has 326 yards and three TDs this year while picking up five yards per carry. He’s a bowling ball of a back who is surprisingly nimble and has decent hands for the passing game, giving Book yet another reliable receiver and a guy who can pick up short yardage first downs.
Obviously it all comes down to the ND offensive line’s ability to execute against the Northwestern front seven, but if they do, watch for this trio to have a FIELD DAY at the second level.
What does the Notre Dame defense do best? Who are some names to look out for?
Simply put: this Clark Lea-coached defense excels most at bottling up the run and rushing the passer.
That isn’t to say that the secondary is bad at all (it’s actually been quite good, led by All-American candidate CB Julian Love and Navy-transfer safety Alohi Gilman), but the front seven is definitely the most important part of the defense. It all starts with DT Jerry Tillery and LB Te’von Coney -- two guys who dipped their toes into the NFL Draft waters before deciding to return for their senior seasons.
It’s paid off for both of them in a big way, as Coney has given scouts a full year of him starting and dominating to see his potential (he didn’t become a starter until part-way through the 2017 season, somehow), and Tillery has been an absolute menace in the middle, accumulating seven sacks and a ton of QB hurries as he constantly collapses the pocket. Both are essential to how the Irish stop the run, too, considering their strength and relative athleticism for their positions. Having linebackers like Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal back there also helps, as they add more speed and sure-tackling to the group.
On the edge of the ND defensive line is where you’ll find their junior pass rushing trio of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and Daelin Hayes. Kareem gets a lot of the stats and is a fantastic pass rusher, but the most unblockable guy of the three is likely Okwara. The dude is long, fast, athletic, and always seems to be in the QB’s face or running down a running back from the weak side. He’s the guy most likely to force Clayton Thorson into bad throws or into the arms of a teammate for a sack.
The Northwestern offensive line will absolutely have their work cut out for them on Saturday, but if they can find a way to slow down the pass rush and get Bowser into the second level on runs, maybe the Wildcats could do a little damage. Color me skeptical, though -- there’s a reason Notre Dame’s defense is 6th in the country in S&P+.
Notre Dame has had some trouble putting away inferior teams. How would you evaluate that claim. and what can Notre Dame do differently on Saturday?
I think it’s somewhat accurate, as made evident by the starters not getting rest at the end of the Navy game last week and from having to come from behind to beat Pittsburgh at home.
However, I would also like to point out that the games against Ball State and Vanderbilt earlier in the year were largely close because the Irish failed to execute on offense and score when they had the chances. Part of this was Wimbush being the QB, part of it was the offensive line figuring things out, and part of it was definitely not having Dexter Williams back there carrying the football for seven yards every time he touched it. I think a lot of what caused those early nail-biters has since been fixed, but obviously the Irish are still struggling a bit to find that killer instinct. However, the Stanford and Virginia Tech and Wake Forest games all show the Irish have it somewhere inside them -- hopefully they tap back into it this weekend.
It seems like a few ND players are banged up. What’s the status of guys like Drue Tranquill and Jafar Armstrong? Are there other key injuries?
Tranquill is definitely questionable with an ankle sprain. My gut says he won’t play on Saturday, but Brian Kelly, for what it’s worth, has been pretty positive about Tranquill and how he is already walking around without his boot (this seems ill-advised, but I’m no doctor). Tranquill is a huge part of the ND defense both in talent and in leadership, but the Irish survived without him against Navy, and I imagine a week of reps for guys like Drew White in practice this week can ensure Tranquill’s absence won’t hurt tooooo much. Maybe he will play, though, in which case he may be a bit hobbled but should still perform well, considering he has been playing with a broken hand since the 2nd quarter of the Stanford game.
As far as I know, Armstrong is now healthy. He had a very good game against Navy and I’ve heard nothing of him having setbacks, so as of now he should be good to go.
Another injury to watch develop as the week goes on: starting TE Alize Mack is going through concussion protocol, so Book might lose a big, athletic target on Saturday.
How is the fan base looking at this game? Are a lot of ND fans heading to Evanston for the game?
They’re looking at this as probably the second-toughest remaining game on the schedule after the neutral-site game against #19 Syracuse in a couple weeks.
I imagine there will be a fairly strong showing of ND fans at this one, considering Irish fans travel pretty well and even more so because there are a ton of ND alumni and fans in and around Chicago, so it makes sense for a lot of us to try to make it to this one, especially with an 8-0, No. 4 team to root for.
Who wins this game, why do they win, and what’s the score?
Notre Dame wins 40 to 23.
Since crushing Stanford and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks, the Irish have had a rough come-from-behind win against Pitt and a convincing but not awe-inspiring defeat of Navy. I think with four games left in the season, a 1-loss LSU team ranked above them as motivation, and just being due for another really good performance against a good-not-great opponent, the Irish take care of business on both sides.
Tillery, Coney, and Co. bottle up Bowser, Thorson makes mistakes facing the pressure of Okwara and Kareem, and Love and the secondary make enough plays to halt any momentum. Meanwhile, Book will do his 75% completion thing, Williams and Armstrong will break off some nice scampers, and ND wins what had been a somewhat close game by a few scores after extending the lead in the 4th.