South Bend, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - With an eye on bolstering their bowl stock and finishing the season strong, the 15th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to South Bend on Saturday afternoon.
Brian Kelly's Irish were their own worst enemy at Arizona State last weekend, as sloppy play and a solid Sun Devils squad handed Notre Dame its second loss of the season (55-31), effectively ending the team's bid at one of the coveted four playoff spots come season's end. Notre Dame will get an opportunity to climb a little higher in the standings, should the team win out against the likes of Northwestern, Louisville and USC.
Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats finally close out their non-conference schedule with this bout. Northwestern hasn't had much success both in and out of the Big Ten this season at a mere 3-6 overall (2-4 Big Ten) and enters this game with a four-game losing streak in tow, including last weekend's tough 10-9 loss to Michigan.
Fitzgerald is only concerned with one game at a time going forward.
"We don't need to worry about winning out, we need to worry about winning next week."
Notre Dame has dominated this series, holding a 37-8-2 advantage all-time. However, these two teams haven't met since 1995, a 17-15 Northwestern win in South Bend.
There haven't been a great deal of highlights on offense for Northwestern this season, as the team comes in averaging a mere 18.0 ppg, good for just 119th in the nation. Keeping senior quarterback Trevor Siemian upright has also been problematic, with NU allowing a whopping 29 sacks thus far.
To his credit has still completed 57.5 percent of his passes, for 1,837 yards, but he does have more interceptions (8) than TD passes (5). Kyle Prater (37 rec, 372 yds) and Dan Vitale (32 rec, 323 yds) have been the most reliable targets down the field, but no one on the roster has more than one TD reception.
NU's best offensive weapon is true freshman tailback Justin Jackson, who has three 100-yard games to his credit. Jackson has amassed 761 yards on the year, with five TDs on a healthy 4.3 yards per carry.
The Northwestern defense has done its job in keeping the team in a lot of games. The Wildcats are allowing just 22.3 ppg, including games in which the team held Penn State to six points, Wisconsin to 14 points and Michigan to nine.
Senior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo has been extremely active with a team-best 80 tackles. Senior safety Traveon Henry is a distant second with 6 1 total stops. Redshirt freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike (37 tackles) has shown flashes of strong play, leading the team with three interceptions.
Coach Kelly is wary of NU's solid defense.
"They have a sound scheme," said Kelly. "They do a very good job of, you know, just being in good position. They're never really out of position. I think they're, again, well coached, fundamentally sound, and they do a really good job of attacking the football. They play the ball very well. Their guys on the back end, their corners and safeties have very good ball skills, so they play the ball very well in the air."
Turning the ball over five times against Arizona State effectively did in the Irish, especially since two of those turnovers were interceptions returned for touchdowns. It certainly wasn't the kind of outing that Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson anticipated. Still, the Irish had their chances, overcoming a 31-point deficit to pull to within three points, before surrendering in the desert.
For Golson, he passed for 446 yards and two touchdowns, but the turnovers (four INTs, 1 fumble) were costly. On the season, Golson has been responsible for 17 turnovers, ending any Heisman hype following a strong start to the year. He is completing a solid 61.7 percent of his passes, for 2,757 yards, with 24 TDs against 11 interceptions.
Golson is not the only weapon on offense for the Irish, who average 461-4 yards per game. The aerial attack generates over 300 yards per game, with wideout Will Fuller emerging as the team's primary playmaker downfield, with 52 receptions, for 694 yards and 10 TDs.
The ground game lacks a workhorse back, but Tarean Folston (562 yards, 3 TDs) is effective.
The Notre Dame defense was strong in the early stages of the season, but has been much more generous of late. On the year, the Irish are now allowing 25.3 ppg and 365.0 yards per game, with the 55 points relinquished to ASU a season high.
The unit is led by strong linebacker play. Sophomore Jaylon Smith is the team's top defender, with 67 total tackles, 6.5 TFL and 2.0 sacks. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt (65 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF) had developed into a valuable starter in the linebacking corps as well, but an ankle injury will sideline him the remainder of the season.