Football: Wildcats face uphill battle against star-studded Fighting Irish


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) and the Northwestern offense will need to seize every opportunity against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is the toughest team on the Wildcats’ schedule.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor


Northwestern hasn’t seen anything like Everett Golson this season.

Notre Dame’s dynamic quarterback is the key cog in the Fighting Irish’s offense and one of the top passers in the country, ranking 22nd nationally in yards per attempt with 8.3, 12th in touchdown passes with 24 and 13th in yards with 2,757.

Golson is a dangerous threat, but he’s also demonstrated he isn’t infallible in Notre Dame’s 55-31 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, a game in which he threw four interceptions.

“(The Sun Devils) created a lot of turnovers early,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “14 points off of pick-sixes was huge, and they had a couple other scores off those turnovers. That’s big. That’s always going to be critical in big games.”

Turning turnovers into points is something a stingy Wildcats passing defense, tied for 22nd nationally in interceptions with 11, will have to spark for NU to pull off an improbable upset.

Catching the plurality of the passes for Notre Dame is William Fuller, an imposing 6-foot-1 target who leads the team with 52 receptions and has grabbed 10 of Golson’s touchdown tosses.

Stopping Fuller will be a tall order for cornerbacks sophomore Matthew Harris and junior Nick VanHoose, but after last week’s performance against Michigan, the Cats seem more concerned with correcting their offense than shoring up their defense.

The offensive line in particular drew scorn after the disappointing game, and rightfully so. The unit surrendered six sacks and struggled to generate any running room for freshman running back Justin Jackson, who fought his way to just 38 yards on 17 carries.

“We just have to make it simpler on ourselves,” senior center Brandon Vitabile said. “You block this guy, you block that guy and handle it. Don’t try to be perfect and don’t try to solve rocket science.”

It remains to be seen how many plays the line will spend protecting redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Alviti instead of usual starter senior Trevor Siemian. Alviti made his NU debut against the Wolverines in a special option package but to little effect, running only three plays.

“There were some times where he got in the game a little bit, and that was good for him,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “We were trying to get him in a couple other times, but field position and stuff like that didn’t allude to doing so.”

Despite the limited reversion to a two-quarterback system, McCall insists the offense has not fundamentally changed over the course of the season and execution, not scheming, has been the Cats’ greatest difficulty.

“We just need to go out and execute,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve changed that much. We’ve got to get the guys in position to do the things they need to do, and go make some plays.”

Regardless of where fingers are pointed, NU will need everything it can squeeze out of its offense to put up points against a tough Fighting Irish defense.

Notre Dame looks lackluster in traditional defensive statistics because of the team’s tendency to get in high-scoring shootouts, but the Fighting Irish rank a healthy 24th in Football Outsider’s Defensive F/+, an all-encompassing metric that measures defensive efficiency.

“They’re athletic, they’re well coached,” Vitabile said. “They consistently get some of the top guys out of high school in the country. They’re going to play hard, and they have a lot of different packages that they bring out there.”

The biggest standout on Notre Dame’s defense is linebacker Jaylon Smith, a top recruit from 2012 who started every game in 2013 as a true freshman. Smith leads the defense with 67 tackles, 6.5 for loss and also has two sacks to his name.

Behind him is defensive back Matthias Farley, who has terrorized opposing quarterbacks this season. The rangy Farley is tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5 and in interceptions with three.

Perhaps the only consolation for Siemian is Farley’s inability to blitz and play pass coverage simultaneously. NU has a shot to win this game using the same formula Arizona State employed: force turnovers, take advantage of short fields and limit mistakes on offense.

But even that may not be enough against a squad as talented as the Fighting Irish.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote