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Rapid reaction: Northwestern’s comeback bid falls short in 31-21 loss to Notre Dame

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The Wildcats came close.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — Close, but no cigar for Northwestern.

The Northwestern Wildcats (5-4, 5-1 B1G) tried their best to spoil Notre Dame’s (9-0) undefeated season. However, a strong second half from Ian Book and the Notre Dame passing attack combined with injuries to Northwestern’s secondary turned a competitive game into a 31-21 victory for the Irish.

But, for a while, things were going well! Northwestern arguably played Notre Dame to a 7-7 draw in the first half. Northwestern couldn’t capitalize on a few opportunities, though, and Notre Dame switched to another gear the Wildcats could not match. The Northwestern offense averaged an inefficient 3.6 yards per play and Thorson only threw for 141 yards through the air. Notre Dame had 464 yards of offense to Northwestern’s 244. It was a good effort from the Wildcats, but Notre Dame was just better.

The first quarter started brightly for Northwestern as Blake Gallagher recovered a fumble from Ian Book. But Northwestern’s kicking issues returned with a vengeance as Charlie Kuhbander missed a field goal wide right. Book bounced back from the fumble to marshal a touchdown drive to make it 7-0. Notre Dame’s next drive, helped along by a narrow spot on fourth-and-1, ended with a missed 44-yard field goal from Justin Yoon.

Northwestern took advantage immediately. After driving down the field, Northwestern was forced to go for it on fourth-and-five from the Notre Dame 21, when Skowronek made a brilliant one-handed grab on the play and secured a Northwestern first down. Clayton Thorson sneaked it in for a score to tie the game at 7-7. Notre Dame punted on the next drive, handing Northwestern a chance to take the lead at halftime. The two teams traded punts, and the half ended as Thorson took a sack on a Hail Mary attempt.

The Irish took command on their first drive of the second half. Behind several chunk plays and a fourth-down conversion through the air, Notre Dame took scored a 20-yard touchdown on a beautiful pitch-and-catch from Ian Book to Miles Boykin.

Northwestern’s next drive went nowhere, but Jake Collins’ punt pinned Notre Dame at its own 2. Notre Dame quickly completed a pass downfield to Claypool to get out of a jam. A few minutes later, Book completed a 47-yard touchdown pass to Michael Young to take an unassailable 21-7 lead. At this point, the proceedings looked reminiscent of Northwestern’s early-season struggles in the second halves of games. Injuries to Jared McGee and Trae Williams left holes all over the secondary, and Book exploited them mercilessly.

After another fruitless Northwestern series, Notre Dame’s passing attack produced another big completion to Finke to set up a field goal, making it 24-7 with 13 minutes remaining. Northwestern then put together its first good drive of the second half, scoring on a strike to Riley Lees to make it 24-14.

Northwestern’s defense came up with a huge turnover when Cameron Ruiz blocked a Notre Dame punt. After a few hairy moments near the goal line, Thorson eked out a QB sneak to make it 24-21. But the Fighting Irish showed why they are National Championship contenders on their next drive. Notre Dame produced a 10-play, 89-yard drive that ended with a 23-yard Book touchdown run that all but sealed the game.

Strangely enough, Northwestern will go winless in non-conference play but still has a major leg up in the Big Ten West. Purdue defeated Iowa 38-36, meaning Northwestern just needs to win two of its final three games to win the Big Ten West.