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

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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.

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Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.

Leftovers & Links: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr


The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2021, when running back Logan Diggs pondered a late LSU push before doubling down on his Notre Dame commitment. Before that, not since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
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Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

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