Notre Dame beat Northwestern, 31-21. To paraphrase our old friend Dory, “Just keep winning, just keep winning, just keep winning, winning, winning…”

This game shifted back and forth a few times, seemingly at random. One minute it was a dogfight. Then it was a ND blowout in the making. Then it was a slog. Then it was a blowout again. Then it was infuriating. Then it was comfortable. Then it was over.

The worst-case scenario for tonight, given Northwestern’s offense, was something like what we saw in the Pitt game: Annoying offense does just enough to keep ND from blowing them out while catching enough breaks and playing tough enough defense to do the same on the other end. That’s what we got most of the game, but slightly less heart-wrenching, because it didn’t really ever feel like the Irish were in danger of losing the game. Ian Book finally iced it late in the fourth quarter with a terrifically executed bootleg touchdown run.

ND is 9-0, with a win over 8-1 and #5 Michigan and a 10-point win over Northwestern in which they never trailed, unlike UM’s 3-point win in the same stadium in which they were down 17. Hold on, let me embed this Tweet just to make sure the message gets through…

Anyway, let’s go over some keys to the game.

Those who do, run; those who can’t, pass

Ideally, ND would be able to run the ball over everyone (or at least most teams) at will. Ideally, they’d have most of Alabama’s offensive linemen on their team. We don’t live in that world, though, so there will be too many games like Saturday’s in which running between the tackles is inexplicably impossible, even against a less-talented team.

The Irish ran for three yards per carry, and without Ian Book, the average was a lot lower. (Here I give some credit to the staff; if ND couldn’t run any other way, they found a different way to get some ground yards, and Book was efficient there on a few keepers prior to the bootleg).

So ND instead took it to the air, most notably on the 98-yard TD drive that saw Book drop back twice in his own end zone, the second time finding Chase Claypool with a beautiful long throw. (That led to a gorgeous deep ball to Michael Young for 6 later in the drive. Box-stacking defenses, take note.)

And instead of running it up the middle, the Irish ran some quick throws with Book, mostly to great effect. Simply put, Book was tremendous in this game. He got away with what would’ve been one horrendous interception, but beyond that it was another near-flawless day (over 10 yards per attempt, 3 total TD, no turnovers) in a season full of them for the junior.

Another solid night on defense

Northwestern came into the game with a very bad offense, particularly on the ground. And mostly, ND’s defense performed accordingly.  The Wildcats had a knack for coming up with key conversions at inopportune times, but ultimately, the numbers show a great ND defense that allowed barely four yards per play. The Wildcats scored their second-half points on a deep pass on which Clayton Thorson abused freshman Houston Griffith, and on a short field after a blocked punt (special teams tonight, woof).

ND was consistently able to create pressure on Thorson without having to bring blitzes (actually, what few blitzes they did call didn’t seem to work). Julian Okwara in particular was an animal, treating his opposite number Blake Hance like merely a tackling dummy.

Killer instinct?

Let’s preface this by saying no one can complain about 9-0 without coming off ridiculous. That being said, you wonder about this team’s ability to put away opponents. The Irish have had openings to pull away from just about every foe against whom they’ve played a close game, including tonight. Those final blows haven’t come consistently. They’ve occurred (hi, Stanford and Va Tech), but not as often as you’d like to see.

Pete Sampson made the interesting point that the Irish didn’t seem the same for a while on offense after Miles Boykin was whistled for what looked to all the world like a regular old attempt to get loose on a route (it wasn’t, but it looked like it), except the ball was thrown in that area so obviously you have to call OPI on ND because reasons. Like the Irish were annoyed they had to keep playing. It seemed apt.

Then, ND went kind of vanilla up 21-7, kicked a field goal, and the Wildcats quickly responded with a TD, and the dogfight was back on. You don’t want to empty the clip in a game you’re confident you’ll win, but it’d be nice to alleviate some reflux from ND fans’ chests late in some of these games.

One week closer

Syracuse in a de facto (travel-wise, anyway) road game is looking like the biggest test of the season since Michigan. That’s not even remotely sarcastic. They’re ranked in the top 20. They don’t have any particularly impressive wins – their biggest win is probably the close loss to Clemson, which looks better every week – but, like the Irish, they’ve largely ‘just kept winning’. And the Dino Babers system is another off-kilter one to prepare for.

Should ND get past the ‘can we just go home already’ Florida State team, I’ll probably be spending the following week scared to death of Syracuse. Wonders never cease. That said, it will be a major resume-building opportunity as the Orange merely have a scrimmage against Louisville next week before facing the Irish.

My snide Tweet above aside, ND is very much in command of where it ends up, even more so now that every SEC team has 2 losses but Georgia, who’s got a pretty good chance of picking one up in Atlanta Dec. 1. The roller-coaster ride continues.

(Photo credit: South Bend Tribune)