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And In That Corner … The Northwestern Wildcats, Big Ten West leaders


Before No. 4 Notre Dame faces Chicago’s Big Ten team, let’s turn to Jonah Dylan, the managing editor of The Daily Northwestern, for some insights into one of the more confounding teams Pat Fitzgerald has put together:

DF: Let’s start with the micro … Northwestern’s offense is, well, bad. It averages 24.3 points per game, good for No. 102 in the country, tied with Pittsburgh and just three spots ahead of Ball State’s 23.8. Two factors stand out to explain the offense’s struggles, and the first would be the health of senior quarterback Clayton Thorson. He tore his ACL on Dec. 29 and played in this year’s opener Aug. 30. Did he come back too soon? Is he fully healthy by now?

JD: Thorson was back on the field just over seven months after his surgery, which is pretty crazy by any metric. He was on a snap count for his first couple games back while he split time at quarterback with T.J. Green, which was a weird situation for the whole team. Now, though, he appears to be fully healthy. He’s run less than in previous seasons, but that’s actually helped him become a better pocket passer and the passing game is operating at a higher level than it has in recent years.

A four-year starter, quarterback Clayton Thorson appears to finally be healthy again after tearing his ACL in the Music City Bowl in December. In the past quite a dual-threat, Thorson has relied on his arm more often, and more effectively, this season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Even with an improving Thorson, Northwestern cannot run the ball. If adjusting the stats for the 19 sacks allowed at a loss of 128 yards, the Wildcats have rushed for 107.1 yards per game and 3.25 yards per rush. The loss of sophomore Jeremy Larkin after three games certainly plays a part in that struggle, but even with him the offense never averaged more than 4.0 yards per rush. What has held back the ground game?

Well, the easiest answer is injuries. After Larkin’s medical retirement, Solomon Vault and John Moten were expected to lead the backfield, but both have dealt with injuries for extended time this season. Pat Fitzgerald also had to think about the new redshirt rule with freshmen Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, so they didn’t play much at the beginning of the season. All this led to a running game that never really had a chance to get going, at least in the early part of the season.

The last two weeks featured the emergence of freshman Bowser. The running attack is not yet efficient, but the Wildcats did lean on it to the tune of 47 and 49 carries at Rutgers and against Wisconsin. Is Bowser the real deal or is this simply acquiescing to the necessity of quantity?

Bowser looks like the real deal, and you really only need to look at last week to see it. While Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor struggled in his worst game of the season, Bowser thrived, carrying the ball 34 times for 117 yards. He brings something different to the table than other NU backs with his downhill running style, which has been especially important at the end of close games when the Wildcats need to salt away a victory. All indications are he’ll be the featured back moving forward.

I mention the running game so extensively because Notre Dame has forced teams to give up on it, and at that point, the Irish defensive line pins its ears back and chases the quarterback. Each week junior end Julian Okwara seems to spend most of his time in the second half in the backfield. Do you expect the ratio shift toward handing off to continue this week, or might Okwara & Co. get 65 chances at Thorson, like Nebraska did?

There’s no question that Fitzgerald wants to run the ball. But at the same time, NU’s biggest strength is that it has a quarterback who can play at an elite level on any given Saturday. I don’t expect the Wildcats to have much success running the ball early, and Thorson will probably have to throw it a lot. Okwara and the Notre Dame front will get plenty of chances to go after Thorson, but he’ll also get plenty of chances to go after the Irish secondary.

Northwestern’s defense is worthwhile, but also not elite by any measure. Giving up 4.31 yards per rush will not get the job done, nor will allowing 62.6 percent of passes to be completed, especially when about to face the nation’s leader in completion rate. Yet, if I am going to defer to any piece of the Wildcats, it is Pat Fitzgerald’s defense. Am I giving it/him too much credit?

Northwestern’s defense needs to be getting a lot more credit. The defensive front — Northwestern’s best position group — shut down Taylor and the Wisconsin offensive line, which is littered with All-Americans. The defense is playing much better as of late, and really has played well throughout the season.

Shutting down the Notre Dame offense will be a tall task, and it’ll start with the guys up front.

Northwestern’s defense is led by linebacker Paddy Fisher, 42, and end Nate Hall, 32. Fisher has managed 61 tackles this season while Hall, despite missing three games, has 28 with 2.5 for loss. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly rattled off a number of Northwestern defenders he considered pending difficulties, including linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall, end Joe Gaziano and cornerback Montre Hartage. How does a collection of talent like that get gashed for 39 points by Akron? I suppose this is where I begin a turn toward the macro.

Let’s address the Akron game as a whole, because the Wildcats’ problems in that game have been amplified massively. First of all, Akron scored three defensive touchdowns, so it’s unfair to blame NU’s defense for the loss. Thorson simply did not play well and turned the ball over at an alarming rate en route to a complete collapse. And this is a defense with studs all over the field. Fisher was one of the best freshmen in the country a year ago. Gaziano is an All-Big Ten guy. Hartage is getting NFL draft buzz. They’ve been put in bad situations by their offense throughout the season, but as a whole Northwestern has been very good on the defensive side of the ball.

The other, “How in the world …” question that needs to be asked, and will be done so simply and bluntly, is, How in the world did Northwestern give up a 17-0 lead to Michigan without even turning over the ball? How deflating was that for the program?

I actually don’t think it was that deflating for the program, because it showed everyone they can compete with teams at the highest level. Northwestern had the same problem in almost every game at the beginning of the season — jumping out to early leads and then blowing them in the second half. That was the story against the Wolverines, who looked surprisingly mortal throughout most of the game. That game showed the Wildcats they can compete with anyone in the Big Ten.

Northwestern has rebounded well from that letdown, winning the last four to take control of the Big Ten West. Smoke and mirrors or viable conference contender?

As weird as it is to say, this is a team that could very well find itself in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. Northwestern will travel to Iowa City for a huge showdown with the Hawkeyes next Saturday in a game that will basically decide the Big Ten West. The 5-3 record doesn’t inspire much fear, but Northwestern is a legit Big Ten West contender in a down year for the divison.

Related, is there any chance Northwestern overlooks Notre Dame because of those Big Ten possibilities? That may sound foolish when discussing an opponent that is the No. 4 team in the country, but beating the Irish will not bring the Wildcats any closer to the Rose Bowl.

That’s absolutely a possibility. Northwestern has three losses and thus has no chance of making the College Football Playoff, so a non-conference game doesn’t do much to move the needle. The goal is to win the Big Ten West, and Notre Dame has nothing to do with that.

That’s not to say a win over the Irish wouldn’t be monumental for this program. Notre Dame is a perennial powerhouse and ranked No. 4 in the country, and a win would change the course of Northwestern’s program for years to come. There’s zero pressure on the Wildcats — no one expects them to win, and if they lose it doesn’t really matter — so it’ll be interesting to see how aggressive they are. I’m guessing Fitzgerald will make more than a few interesting fourth-down calls.

Irish fans certainly have not forgotten the last game against Northwestern, a 43-40 overtime Wildcats victory in 2014 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Before getting to an actual prediction, let’s include the catch-all of, have I missed anything, aside from neglecting to mention this is Notre Dame’s first trip to Evanston since 1976?

How about the last two times these teams have met? In 1995, Northwestern – which had won just three games a season prior — traveled to South Bend for a matchup with the Irish. A huge upset win catapulted the Wildcats to a historic Rose Bowl appearance in probably their most memorable season ever.

Then in 2014, 3-6 Northwestern returned to South Bend and stunned the Irish 43-40 in overtime of an instant classic (at least in these parts). So believe it or not, the Wildcats are actually riding a two-game win streak in this series.

And, a prediction?

This will be a close game. It’s always tough to beat a team playing at home, under the lights with nothing to lose. But Notre Dame has firepower that Northwestern doesn’t. 27-21 Irish.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.