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Undaunted by the magnitude of the matchup, Northwestern aims to give ND all it can handle

| Friday, November 2, 2018

With arguably its biggest matchup in recent program history on the horizon as Northwestern (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) prepares to host No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) on Saturday, head coach Pat Fitzgerald is intent on keeping his team focused.

Although Fitzgerald understands the gravity of this game for both teams’ postseason hopes as well as the Wildcat’s underdog status — Notre Dame is a nine-and-a-half point favorite on the road — he doesn’t seem daunted by the impending matchup.

“We’re gonna focus on us,” he said. “That’s what our week is all week, on us getting better. We’re playing an outstanding football team, they’re great in all three phases, they’ve got talent at every position.”

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish graduate student center and captain Sam Mustipher prepares to snap the ball during Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy on Saturday at SDCCU Stadium.

In his 13th season with the Wildcats, Fitzgerald has led the team to an 87-65 record with eight bowl games. With the Wildcats poised to post their best finish in years, a win over the Irish would solidify a ticket to their fourth-straight postseason appearance. 

Back-to-back losses to Duke and Akron at home in the beginning of the season never would have indicated the success the Wildcats would experience in conference play. With only three Big Ten regular-season matchups remaining in the season, Northwestern currently sits in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West, leading Wisconsin by two games. Their one loss came down the stretch against Michigan, who currently sits as the overall conference leader. Fitzgerald said the Wolverines posed many of the same challenges he expects to face against Brian Kelly’s team.

“Their front is outstanding … they’re very talented, they’re well-coordinated, they roll guys through,” Fitzgerald said. “The last front we saw like this was Michigan … we’ve known [junior cornerback] Julian Love since he was in high school, he’s an all American.”

For Northwestern’s senior offensive lineman J.B. Butler — a native of Plainfield, Illinois, outside of Chicago — this weekend is a family affair. Butler’s father hails from South Bend, and much of his family still calls St. Joseph County home. They’re all expected to travel to Evanston, Illinois, this weekend to watch Butler take on their hometown team for the first time in his career.

The two programs met regularly throughout much of the 20th century. However, the series was suspended in 1995 before being renewed for a 2014 matchup in Notre Dame Stadium, where Northwestern emerged with the 43-40 win in overtime. Butler, a high school senior at the time, said he remembers that game as one of the key moments in this rivalry. 

With the hype surrounding this game at its peak following the first week of the College Football Playoff predictions being released last Tuesday night, Butler feels there’s no need for the Wildcats to be intimidated by the Irish.

“They might have had some more stars next to their name coming out of high school, but you get to this level and it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

However, Butler also knows the tall task that lies ahead of them in bringing Notre Dame’s national championship aspirations to an end.

“They’re long and they’re athletic,” Butler said. “They’re really good pass rushers and they play hard. Nothing but good things to say about them. … I think it’s a good challenge for us.”

Sophomore defensive back Travis Whillock echoed Fitzgerald and Butler’s sentiments about the team’s mentality heading in the weekend’s matchup as he said the defense has prioritized improving tackling, running to the ball and trying to cause turnovers.

“It’s a chance for us to show who we are as a program … but trying to not get too caught up in it,” Whillock said. “It’s just one game, and we’re really looking forward to the matchup.”

Butler said the Wildcats are ready for the chance to topple the undefeated Irish on their home turf.

“Any time that we get to play a national-ranked team on primetime you’re gonna be up for it,” he said. “And I’m glad it’s at home this time and not there.”

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