Football: Despite valiant effort and late comeback, Northwestern falls 31-21 to No. 4 Notre Dame

Clayton+Thorson+is+sacked.+The+senior+quarterback+and+the+Wildcats+struggled+to+establish+themselves+in+Saturday%27s+31-21+loss+to+Notre+Dame.

Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Clayton Thorson is sacked. The senior quarterback and the Wildcats struggled to establish themselves in Saturday’s 31-21 loss to Notre Dame.

Jonah Dylan, Managing Editor


Football


Were Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Notre Dame a boxing match, the Wildcats would at least get credit for their heart.

The No. 4 Fighting Irish (9-0) simply proved to be too much for NU (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) in a 31-21 win, but the Cats fought valiantly in front of 47,330 fans in a rare primetime game at Ryan Field.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was magnificent for the undefeated visitors from South Bend, passing for 343 yards and two touchdowns in a win that helped cement the Fighting Irish as bonafide College Football Playoff contenders.

“I felt like we could win the game the whole game. I still do. I just wish we didn’t play as poorly. I wish we didn’t coach as poorly,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’ve just got to find a way to coach these guys better. I’m proud of how they’ve been grinding, and they’ve been working their tails off, but we’ve got to play smarter, cleaner and execute better.”

It wasn’t always easy for Notre Dame. A botched handoff gave the Wildcats the ball in plus territory on their first drive, but a missed field goal from sophomore kicker Charlie Kuhbander left NU scoreless despite the positive starting field position.

The Fighting Irish still scored the first knockdown, covering 79 yards in 14 plays with ease. But a pass interference penalty derailed the next Notre Dame drive in the red zone, and a missed field goal left the Irish with nothing to show for their drive. NU promptly put together an impressively long drive, moving 73 yards with 18 plays in a drive that took nearly nine minutes, and the fight was even at the half.

The Cats hung in the game to start the second half, but the undefeated visitors simply had too much firepower. It came from the sophomore quarterback’s strong right arm, which found Miles Boykin for a 20-yard score to give Notre Dame a 14-7 lead. Then Book engineered a 98-yard drive that ended with a 49-yard pass to Michael Young, and it looked like NU might not beat the count.

But NU would not go quietly into the Evanston night. Thorson found sophomore receiver Riley Lees for a 27-yard touchdown, and a blocked punt by Cameron Ruiz gave the Cats the ball back in the red zone. A few plays later, Thorson muscled his way into the end zone on a fourth-down quarterback sneak for his second rushing touchdown of the day to bring his team within a field goal.

Up against the ropes for the first time, Notre Dame fought its way out of a dangerous spot. Facing fourth down deep in NU territory after a long drive, Book read the NU defense, faked a handoff and ran 23 yards past the NU student section and into the end zone. The referee had to step in at two minutes, 45 seconds of the final round and raise Notre Dame’s collective hand.

“I liked how we came back and kept going and kept fighting,” said senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who threw for just 141 yards. “I think there’s some good things to take away from this one and there are some things to learn from, because we let one get away. Good teams bounce back, and that’s what they did.”

The loss was certainly a setback for NU, but it won’t affect the Big Ten West race. No. 16 Iowa lost at Purdue earlier Saturday, so the Cats now need to go 2-1 in their final three games to earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship.

Despite the loss, senior guard Tommy Doles said he was impressed with NU’s crowd during the primetime game, and was hopeful about the rest of the Cats’ season.

“All our goals are ahead of us,” he said. “We set out this season to win the Big Ten West, and that’s what we plan to do.”

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