Football: With nothing to lose, Cats prepare for challenge in No. 4 Notre Dame

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Football: With nothing to lose, Cats prepare for challenge in No. 4 Notre Dame

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian runs into the end zone in the 2014 game at Notre Dame. The Wildcats face a tough test against the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian runs into the end zone in the 2014 game at Notre Dame. The Wildcats face a tough test against the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian runs into the end zone in the 2014 game at Notre Dame. The Wildcats face a tough test against the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian runs into the end zone in the 2014 game at Notre Dame. The Wildcats face a tough test against the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Ella Brockway, Reporter

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When Northwestern’s 2018 schedule was announced over a year ago, few could have predicted where the Wildcats sit now: Preparing to welcome No. 4 Notre Dame for a primetime game, riding a four-game win streak and sitting atop the Big Ten West.

The fate of NU’s season isn’t contingent on any result against the Fighting Irish (8-0), as a Nov. 10 trip to No. 16 Iowa that will likely determine the divisional champion looms large on the horizon. But the Cats (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) are still embracing the challenge to take on one of the nation’s best on their home turf.

“We do have nothing to lose, but we have a great opportunity to showcase our program in primetime against the No. 3 team in the country,” senior guard J.B. Butler said Monday. “You can play loose and have fun because it doesn’t really impact the Big Ten at all, but it’s still a meaningful game for us, and it’s going to be a great time.”

Collecting the program’s first win over a top-5 team since 1959 will be far from an easy task for the Cats. Quarterback Ian Book, who took over as the starter in the Fighting Irish’s third game of the season, has thrown for 1,481 yards and 13 touchdowns so far, and has the country’s best completion rate at 76.5 percent.

Notre Dame’s run game — ranked 46th in the nation — isn’t a calling card, but Book has collected more than 30 rushing yards in four of his last six games. NU’s defense struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks earlier this season, such as Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Akron’s Kato Nelson, and stopping Book in both the air and on the ground will be a priority.

“We’ve just got to play our game and out-physical them,” sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher said this week. “They’re a solid team all the way across the board, and we’ve just got to make more plays than them.”

On the opposite side, coach Pat Fitzgerald said Notre Dame’s defensive front is the best the Cats have faced since their 20-17 loss to Michigan on Sept. 29. The Fighting Irish’s pass defense is one of their biggest strengths, holding opposing offenses to just 5.5 average yards per pass play this season.

Notre Dame is ranked sixth in the country in Defensive S&P+, an advanced metric that attempts to holistically measure a defense’s performance. NU has played two other teams with top-20 S&P+ ranked defenses this year with vastly different end results. In a win over Michigan State (ranked 14th), Cats quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Against top-ranked Michigan — whose only loss this season came to the Fighting Irish in Week One — Thorson managed only sixteen completions and was sacked six times.

While one team has nothing to lose in this game, the other has almost everything. With a win over NU on Saturday, Notre Dame’s chances of making the four-team College Football Playoff jump from 50 percent to 61 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s latest projections. With a loss, that likelihood falls to 23 percent.

All the Cats can do, they emphasized this week, is welcome the opportunity and focus on bettering themselves.

“You control what you can control,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not where we want to be as a football team and we just gotta keep getting better… We can’t have self-inflicted wounds like we’ve had in past games if we expect to be competitive in this game.”

Email: ellabrockway2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ellabrockway

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