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Despite losing to Notre Dame, the weekend was a net positive for Northwestern

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The Wildcats wanted a win over the Irish, but didn’t need one.

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

EVANSTON, Ill. — Losing any game is disappointing. And, in a vacuum, losing to Notre Dame, a team that claims to own your backyard, is particularly disappointing, especially when you have a chance to win.

Northwestern didn’t lose to Notre Dame in a vacuum, though. It lost after Purdue dispatched Iowa in West Lafayette, effectively knocking the Hawkeyes out of the Big Ten West race and handing Northwestern what amounts to a two-game lead in the division.

“We were really excited for this game, so very disappointed,” said senior offensive lineman Tommy Doles said after Northwestern’s 31-21 loss to Notre Dame Saturday. “But all our goals are still ahead of us; we set out to win the West this year and that’s what we’re planning to do.”

Saturday’s matchup against Notre Dame was undoubtedly a big game. The highest-ranked team to play in Evanston since 2013, the Fighting Irish brought primetime hype to a game that actually drew a lot of students away from their residential tailgates. Doles called the crowd the best atmosphere of his career. In some ways, the matchup that pitted an ascending division contender against a college football playoff contender lived up to the hype. In some ways, it didn’t.

Playing as a 10-point underdog, Northwestern hung around. The Wildcats played the Irish to a draw in the first half, including a stretch in the second quarter when they looked like the better team. And, when Notre Dame looked to be comfortably in front in the fourth quarter, Cam Ruiz darted into the backfield to block a punt and keep the home team firmly in the game. Fitzgerald said his team stole the design that spurred the block from another team. Isaiah Bowser also looked strong once again at running back, rushing for 93 hard-earned yards against a talented front seven.

In reality, Northwestern was not the better team Saturday. Notre Dame out-gained Northwestern 464-249 (that’s 6.3 yards per play for ND and 3.6 for NU). Brian Kelly’s team recorded five sacks, compared to zero for Pat Fitzgerald’s. Irish quarterback Ian Book threw for 343 yards, while NU quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for just 141. Vegas set the line at 10 points, and that was the ultimate difference between the teams.

As Doles said, Northwestern’s main goal this season was to win the West. In pursuit of that goal, the most important part of Saturday’s game was getting out healthy, seeing as the game didn’t count toward NU’s division record. Jared McGee and Trae Williams went out with injuries, and it’s unclear what their statuses are.

Still, the most important development of the weekend was Purdue’s win. Now, Northwestern just needs to take two of its final three to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, which is remarkable for a team with an 0-3 non-conference record and a loss to Akron. NU will play an Iowa team with little to play for division-wise next week, before playing Minnesota and Illinois, which have both struggled for large stretches this season. Nothing is a given, but that’s a pretty darn good spot to be in.

Per playoffstatus.com, Northwestern’s chances to win the Big Ten West jumped from 50 percent before the weekend to 74 percent afterward.

Fitzgerald mentioned self-inflicted wounds after the game, both in scheme and execution. Doles bemoaned his team’s failure to deliver on the pregame hype and excitement that surrounded the game. Clayton Thorson said the team feels it could’ve played better. These things happen when you play a top five team.

Next week is the one that really counts, though.

“We’re going to learn our lessons from this game and then put it away really fast,” Doles said, “because we have a big one coming up next week.”