Just Keep Winning: Northwestern Instant Reaction

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)

By |2018-11-03T23:41:16+00:00November 3rd, 2018|Football|47 Comments

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juiceboxIrishchamp23GoldenIsThyFameClearwallAaron Recent comment authors
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nd09hls12
nd09hls12

I think the most recent S&P+ ranking is more or less right: we’re about the 6th-best team in the country, but in terms of overall quality we’re still closer to the 21st-best team in the country than the 2nd-best team in the country. And that’s pretty good! We shouldn’t undersell that. But also, the games can be difficult to watch in the moment.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

FWIW, the rankings factoring in yesterday’s games have us still at 6th, but it has us now closer to the #24 team (Texas A&M) than the #2 team (Clemson, duh). Still feels right.

8FP
8FP

I really don’t understand why the offensive line isn’t better. We seem to be great at preparing guys for the NFL without ever putting it all together while they’re at ND. Under Heistand it seemed like things always started out shaky and steadily improved over the course of the season and then finally towards the end of the year the line is playing up to their recruiting pedigree. This year it seems like we just have a pretty mediocre O line. As far as I can tell ND recruits OL as well as just about anyone else in the country. It would be great to see Kelly go out and try really hard to bring in some kind of top notch OL coach and not just skate by with Jeff Quinn who happened to be lying around. Way too much blue chip OL talent on this roster to be getting stonewalled and regularly penetrated by mediocre defensive fronts.

Orlok
Orlok

They’re super inexperienced. This reminds me of the 2016 line. Inexperienced and not a weakness but definitely not a strength.

Orlok
Orlok

Why the minus? They’re solid in pass protection but weak in run game. I think they’ll be good next year. I’m open to persuasion, so speak up and give me the other side.

Also, at least in the first half, Northwestern was in man coverage with a single safety. You don’t generally run into that.

KG
KG

And in the second half we figured it out and made them pay through the air. I know we roll our eyes sometimes at BK’s “take what the defense gives us” stuff but sometimes the defense makes the choice easy and you make them pay.

kiwifan
kiwifan

I too think they’re better at pass pro then run blocking. Our tackles are not a strength, and we’ll get exposed in the playoffs by our Oline.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

That could be, but just to throw this in there, for what it’s worth I saw on Pro Football Focus that they had Hainsey graded out as the 5th best player on the entire team (which I believe was before the most recent game).

I think the problem is more the interior especially in light of the loss of Bars. They ask the guards to pull a lot in the run game and Kraemer hasn’t done well. Ruhland has seemed OK there but isn’t close to a Quenton Nelson or a Bars type of athlete or blocker.

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

Where is this on PFF?

KG
KG

We had what many outsiders consider the best offensive line coach in any level of football in Harry Hiestand and 2 first round picks, one of them a generational player in Q Nelson. I don’t really care who you bring in as offensive line coach, the line was going to take a step back. That was a major reason I saw 2-4 losses on the schedule. Quinn by all accounts is a good offensive line coach–not Hiestand, but no one is.

The other thing to consider is that even with Hiestand and Nelson/Glinch or the Martins, ND got stonewalled then too. The way the run game is played now has changed. I think I heard the same thing on both the PAPN podcast with Bill C and the Irish Illustrated guys, that it feels like run games are “bad” because runners get stuffed more often, but the averages (rush yards, etc. per game, per play, yada yada) are the same. It’s a combination of the way both offenses and defenses have evolved in recent years, where it’s more about creating space for big plays than simply line push for 3-4 yards. Likewise, the D is trying to get behind the line for TFLs, but gets burned on the aggressiveness.The result is you get more stuffs, but also when you hit a hole you’re more likely to get to the second level and rip off a big gain. Last year it drove me nuts that we had an all-time great line and yet I never felt we could just get 3 yards on 3rd and 2 or whatever, but I never understood it until hearing the stats guys talk about it.

Coyote1985
Coyote1985

PAPN podcast?

Aaron
Aaron

It’s called Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, hosted by Bill Connelly (a stats super-nerd) and Steven Godfrey, an FSU/CFB writer. It’s an SB Nation podcast. Pretty good stuff!

KG
KG

Godfrey’s not FSU, you’re thinking of Bud Elliot, who does FSU and recruiting for SBN. Godfrey went to Ole Miss and writes/makes TV shows about the shady side of recruiting and boosters. But to add, Bill Connelly is the guy who invented and runs the S&P+ stats and rankings system.

Larz

I’m likely in the minority in the ND Internet world, I actually think Quinn has done a good job. I expected many more struggles from the O-line this year. You don’t lose two guys like we lost and expect to get better. If you go back and look at the first two games of the year, the offensive line was atrocious, especially at the tackle position. Then watch the Vanderbilt game, there is a significant improvement and that trend has continued. I was skeptical coming into the season about the O line, but these guys have done a nice job and there is little question in my mind Quinn is getting everything he can out of them.

cwod
cwod

I agree. I think they’ve been better than I thought they’d be in protection.

I’m no expert, but the recent moves at LG/RG seem to be an improvement. I expected a bigger step back when Bars went down.

Also, Northwestern is pretty good up front! I watched them shut down Wisconsin on the ground. Almost no one does that.

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

I’m surprised no one mentioned the loss of Bars. So not only 2 first rounders but also our best remaining one and an all-american candidate. So at this point we lost our top 3 lineman from last year.

Cubfansince1957
Cubfansince1957

I wasn’t super frustrated with our level of play. Northwestern was completing passes by getting one-handed catches, or with defenders draped all over them. Only two of their drives really went for any distance, and they were shut down the rest of the time (they did get the gift of the ball deep in our territory to score their third TD). Our special teams played their customary awful, and the refs imposed a new rule that Northwestern couldn’t possibly ever commit any penalties (especially holding), which rule included penalizing ND liberally.

Despite all that going wrong, we beat them on the road by ten, including coming up with a brass balls 89 yard drive to put the game away late in the 4th. So, I think we did well.

I do think Pat Fitzgerald is an asshole for calling those two timeouts at the end of the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

ESPN’s coverage was awful. They rarely showed meaningful replays, and I would have liked to see replays of the false start penalties on Notre Dame (perhaps they weren’t showing them because of what they would show?).

Concrete Charlie
Concrete Charlie

They briefly showed a replay of the second call on Mustifer. Sure didn’t look like he flinched or moved the ball or anything.

KG
KG

The refs got the number wrong. It was Banks.

cwod
cwod

Hm. I thought it looked like Ruhland to me.

kiwifan
kiwifan

I thought so too.

KG
KG

Okay, I’m probably wrong. I thought I remembered them showing Banks right after that, while the announcers blabbered on about something else.

HolyCrossHog
HolyCrossHog

You didn’t like their deeply insightful commentary on the rain blurred skycam?

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I agree with this about the frustration not being (mostly) the result of ND’s play. I thought Notre Dame played pretty well, on the road and against a tough (if not very good) opponent.

I was more annoyed with the other aspects; the 8-0 edge in penalties, the targeting miss in the 1Q where their linebacker drilled Armstrong directly in the helmet, the one-handed 4th down catch, the kickoff out of bounds AGAIN. The repeated reviews for spot of the ball that the both called for. Getting a 1st/goal at the five and penalties taking them way back and missing a FG. That kind of stuff was aggravating.

Coyote1985
Coyote1985

I don’t have a problem with Fitzgerald calling the TOs. He’s trying to do whatever he can to win and score points. Crazy things happen on college football. If the situation was reversed, I would be pissed if Kelly didn’t do the same.

kiwifan
kiwifan

I think Fitzgerald would be a great coach at ND. He’s punching way above the talent level they have, is a great motivator and can deal with the academics. Doubt he’d ever leave his Alma Mater though

Clearwall
Clearwall

For a better and higher paying job with tons more resources and profile? He’d be a fool to pass up an offer

KG
KG

I think he’s in the perfect situation for both him and NW and he’d probably tank elsewhere, so I have to disagree with you. He’d be a fool to leave.

GoldenIsThyFame
GoldenIsThyFame

I might be in the minority, but I’m not sure Pat Fitzgerald is THAT good of a coach. I know he has at least a decent baseline level of competency, but his teams are extremely inconsistent and NW’s offense is almost always bad. This might just be a case of being him being comfortable at one place and knowing how to win just enough, which is why he’s able to survive losses to Akron and FCS teams.

Imagine how maddening it would be for ND fans to beat a top-five team impressively while turning around and losing to a bad MAC school the week after. That’s pretty much the Pat Fitzgerald experience.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I agree with this. I think Fitzgerald is perfect where he is- in a scrappy, tough, Big10 team that can take on that gritty underdog mentality. From his demeanor to strategy he very much looks like a linebacker turned coach, which of course is exactly what he is. Nothing wrong with staying true to that identity, I just don’t think he really has the ceiling to succeed in a huge program that is going to demand championship aspirations.

Maybe that outlook is just based on his deep roots and history at NW and he could grow into more, but it seems to me he is in the right place for him to do well there. Not really sure if that translates into a 4/5 star type atmosphere.

cwod
cwod

BK played linebacker in college! 🙂

I used to think Fitzgerald could be someone for ND to consider in the future, but I’ve been reading more and more about how he actually deeply hates Notre Dame. I believe it stems, in part, from his playing days, when ND didn’t offer him?

Coyote1985
Coyote1985

Very good recap! Very frustrating game. But, like you said – just keep winning.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Great recap. I had already assumed it was going to be a close game. I think Northwestern is a pretty good football team. They might end up playing for the big ten championship. ND won, and in the second half, took the lead and never let it go.

Special teams is going to kill me.

Hitman
Hitman

Love the tweet, I am getting sick of hearing how Michigan is a “different” team than the one who lost to us. It’s like we haven’t improved at all since week 1.

I still fear a 1-loss Michigan team getting in over a 1-loss ND. Syracuse scares me.

KG
KG

Eye test and in S&P, Michigan is playing better football right now. Gun to my head, I think they’d beat us if we played again (on top of the fact that rematches always tend to go the other way unless there’s a big disparity between the teams). Head to head matters, but only so much. ND will be fine if we handle our business, because the game happened, we won, and the committee (if not Michigan fans) is smart enough to recognize that we’ve “improved” more dramatically than they have through the addition of Book and Dex.

I’ve said all along that we need to be undefeated to ever get into the playoff. 12-1 Michigan with a win over tOSU (who isn’t that good, but is a name brand) and a title game (even though it’ll probably be Purdue or Northwestern, which…lol) is going to get in over a 1-loss ND, given who we have remaining, and the “late loss is worse than an early loss” scenario. The solution? Beat the crap out of teams and we’re not having this concern.

MikeyB
MikeyB

They’re Michigan, so they’re going to have their traditional disaster against OSU and end with 2 losses anyway.

kiwifan
kiwifan

I don’t think they’d beat us. Our defense is as good as theirs, and with Book in our offense is much better. I’d actually like to play them again in the playoffs (unlikely as we’d have to be ranked 2 and 3) and I’d bet money on us.

Really don’t want Bama tho.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Our defense is not as good as their’s, either by the eye test or S&P+ (S&P+ has their defense as 4.4ppg better than ours, which is… a lot. Basically, the difference between #4 defense and #18). The difference is our offense might be better now with Book/Dex.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Ehh, I mean the stats and data of all season long is one thing, but we actually have seen a ND/UM game play out. The Notre Dame defense doesn’t have to be better than the UM defense, the ND defense has to beat the UM offene. And we saw clearly the ND front 7 was way better than the Michigan o-line. That was an overwhelming force in winning that game. Has that changed so drastically? Selling on that based on what actually transpired and the way the teams matched up.

The common opponent of NW also lends a little evidence that Michigan really isn’t some unstoppable monster. They’ve played well and improved and blew out Penn State in a game they had a lot of motivation for, but I think as we saw on 9/1, people’s idea of Michigan isn’t always what they show on the field.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

I was just taking issue with the statement that our defense is as good as theirs, which is pretty clearly not true based on all available data (again, four points on S&P+ is a lot). As good as our d-line was against their o-line, theirs would have been better, because theirs is better.

Our offense (with Book) is better than their offense, but their defense is better than our defense. I think a rematch would be a good game.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Gotcha. It’s certainly evenly matched, but I don’t see a need to wonder about a hypothetical rematch when we’ve seen matchup already pretty emphatically resolve the question. The Notre Dame defense held the Michigan offense to 10 points and controlled the game. No more reason to wonder what would happen when it already happened.

HolyCrossHog
HolyCrossHog

People forget that with the ball on their 28 we could’ve done a lot with 46 seconds and 2 timeouts left if we had to.

KG
KG

Also, at least we didn’t do this:
https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/1058755993327321089

comment image

(Click the Twitter link for another look)

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

Not yet anyway. Would anyone be surprised our backup kicker do that?

juicebox
juicebox

I think BK is a better coach than most ND fans think he is. But there is no denying his special teams have been bad. That is probably the single most consistent thing over his tenure. We even have a dedicated ST coach, who used to be a HC, and our ST still suck.

But at least we haven’t done this… yet.

Football was a verb
Football was a verb

The offense in the second half was a thing of beauty. The play calling is creative and the players are executing at a high level. If we can get just the running game going this offense will be hard to stop.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I was going to say something similar. The 2nd half adjustments, I don’t know if it’s Kelly, Long or Rees but whatever they do/say/plan at half really seems to resonate with Book. Several times Book has just OK in the first half but then plays lights out in the 3rd quarter. For all the complaints about the coaching staff not adjusting/developing/whatever with players and especially QB’s this is one tangible piece that they are doing well.

And that that zone-read play just doesn’t seem to work against even an average defense. I can’t imagine running that play 10 times against a Clemson/Bama level defense and expecting any sort of positive result.