Head to Head: Northwestern vs. Notre Dame
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, November 13, 2014
Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has appeared in 42 games for the Wildcats, splitting time with Kain Colter in the last two seasons before taking over the job this year. Siemian’s statistics have dropped off slightly from last season; he has completed 57 percent of his passes and thrown five touchdowns to eight interceptions. Siemian is coming off his best performance of the season, in which he threw for 273 yards and completed over 65 percent of his passes in a 10-9 loss to Michigan.
Northwestern has had only one 100-plus yard receiving performance on the season. Junior superback Dan Vitale, a halfback/tight end hybrid, eclipsed the mark against Penn State. Senior Kyle Prater has been Northwestern’s most consistent receiver with 372 yards on the season. The Wildcats’ offensive line has struggled to protect Siemian, allowing 28 sacks through nine games.
Although Notre Dame’s secondary held Arizona State under its passing yards average, the Irish allowed several big-yardage plays. Still, it’s difficult to imagine Northwestern’s passing attack being able to exploit the Irish secondary, especially if graduate student cornerback Cody Riggs is back. Notre Dame’s defensive line also should be able to successfully pressure Siemian into some tough throws.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Northwestern’s rush attack has struggled to get going this season. The Wildcats rank 111th in the country with an average of 109 rushing yards per game. In addition, the Wildcats average only 2.9 rush yards per attempt.
There have been positive signs for the Wildcats recently, however, as freshman Justin Jackson has emerged to take the bulk of carries. Jackson has topped the 100-yard mark in three of his last five games, including a 162-yard effort against Wisconsin and a 128-yard performance against Nebraska.
Notre Dame’s run defense has dropped off in recent weeks, allowing 360 yards to Navy and 188 to Arizona State. But the Irish rush defense has been strong when it has needed to be, allowing only 50 yards to Florida State and 47 to Stanford. Even if juniors Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones are not fully healed from various injuries suffered over the last few weeks, the Irish should be able to stop an underwhelming Northwestern ground game.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
WILDCATS OFFENSIVE COACHING
Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall is in his seventh season and has had some good offenses, particularly the one that averaged over 31 points two seasons ago. Those offenses, however, came with all-conference quarterbacks in Colter and Dan Persa and a talented running back in Venric Mark.
McCall’s offense has looked much less stellar this year, ranking 119th in the nation in scoring. The Wildcats have scored 20 or more points in only four games this season.
Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense has allowed more than 30 points in the last four games. Regardless, his aggressive defense should be able to exploit Northwestern’s struggles in pass blocking and establishing a consistent run game.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
WILDCATS SPECIAL TEAMS
Sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell has connected on eight of his 10 field-goal attempts this season, and the two kicks he missed were his only attempts over 30 yards.
The Wildcats have struggled with punting, ranking119th nationally with a net average of 32 yards. Northwestern’s kickoff return unit ranks 91st nationally, but its punt return unit has averaged over 12 yards per return.
Notre Dame’s recent struggles haven’t hit the punt and kickoff return units, which both rank in the top half of teams nationally.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
Much attention has been focused on Irish senior quarterback Everett Golson after his five-turnover performance Saturday. Golson certainly had his struggles — and his six fumbles are cause for concern — but Saturday’s performance was far from solely his fault, as his offensive line failed to block; his receivers bobbled passes, and players were out of position.
Golson still managed to throw for a career-high 446 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona State, one week after he accounted for six touchdowns versus Navy. Sophomore receiver Will Fuller and senior receiver Amir Carlisle each had more than 90 yards against the Sun Devils.
Unfortunately for Golson, he’ll face a defense that has successfully forced turnovers. The Wildcats have intercepted 11 passes, good for 20th in the nation. Redshirt freshman cornerback Godwin Igwebuike leads the Northwestern secondary with three of these interceptions.
While it would be unlikely to Golson to replicate last Saturday’s performance, an aggressive, poised Northwestern secondary might not exactly be the remedy for him to get back to the level of some of his earlier performances.
After three consecutive strong efforts, including back-to-back games of more than 120 yards, Irish sophomore running back Tarean Folston struggled to find a rhythm against Arizona State, running for only 30 yards on 11 carries. Even with senior running back Cam McDaniel’s two touchdowns, Notre Dame had only 41 yards in the game.
The Irish have made improvements over the last month but have struggled to find consistent running lanes and currently rank 74th nationally in rushing offense. Although Folston has received the lion’s share of carries, Irish head coach Brian Kelly might play McDaniel more because he has had more success in pass blocking.
Northwestern’s rush defense has had its share of struggles recently, allowing nine touchdowns on the game in its last three games. In total, the Wildcats have allowed about 164 yards on the ground per game.
Saturday’s wintery weather might necessitate Notre Dame to more heavily utilize its running backs, but given the team’s track record, there’s no guarantee the Irish will be able to run it consistently.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Under the direction of Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, Notre Dame has put up nearly 35 points per game, the highest scoring average in the Kelly era. The Irish have accrued more than 400 yards in three of their last four games and still scored 27 points in the game they didn’t. Notre Dame has had turnover issues, but the Irish have the offensive weapons needed to put up points.
Under sixth-year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern has allowed slightly more than 22 points per game. But the Wildcats have struggled lately, giving up more than 35 points in two of their last three games.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
After its success to start the season, Notre Dame’s special teams unit has shown some regression to its level of play over the last few seasons.
Senior kicker Kyle Brindza has missed three field goals over the last two games, though he’s not fully to blame — junior holder Hunter Smith, who has since been replaced by sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire, mishandled a snap last weekend.
Northwestern excels in blocking field goals, ranking second nationally with five blocks on the season. The Wildcats might make it difficult for the Irish to get a clean attempt off Saturday.