Associated Press

No. 4 Notre Dame at Northwestern: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) vs. Northwestern (5-3).

WHAT? Shockingly enough, one of the tougher games on the Irish schedule no matter what view is taken. The Wildcats lead the Big Ten West and are essentially a win at Iowa away from securing a chance at the conference title. Northwestern is one of only four teams on Notre Dame’s schedule currently more than a game above .500. If deferring to advanced numbers, the Wildcats are considered the No. 64 team in the country, well ahead of previous Notre Dame headaches like Ball State (No. 120), Vanderbilt (74) and Pittsburgh (80).

WHEN? 7:15 ET. It seems logical to think this kick is staggered a bit to try to counteract the behemoth of a matchup on CBS featuring No. 1 Alabama at No. 3 LSU at 8 ET. If, somehow, the Irish have a three-possession lead at halftime, switching channels would be understandable.

WHERE? Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill., where Notre Dame has not visited since 1976. For those concerned, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday he has not noticed the crowned grass field to be in noteworthy poor condition as the calendar turns to November. Given his familiarity with shoddy fields in Midwestern winters, it would seem something Kelly would not shy away from critiquing such if applicable.

ESPN has the broadcast, meaning the Watch ESPN app is your friend.

WHY? This is the back end of a home-and-home deal which included Northwestern visiting South Bend in 2014 for a 43-40 victory.

ANOTHER READER QUESTION
While I would much rather you tell me that none of my November fears are justified and that everything’s going to be alright, I would rather know my enemy. So with that, what is the one issue on offense that can keep Notre Dame from a loss-free season? Same question for the defense. — Mark H.

This is not usually an optimistic space. Some see its author as a skeptic. The occasional response will include the word cynic. So when something is said like, “This defense might not have any fears this November aside from injury,” it should stand out. And really, if fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill can overcome both a high ankle sprain and a broken hand, then the Irish defense should be above reproach. Injuries exist, though. This is still football. Losing any starter from the defensive line would be a critical blow, as would, well, losing any defensive starter.

The depth is enough as depth, but there are few, if any, ready understudies.

Offensively, Notre Dame is about to see a step up in defenses. Let’s remove interpretation from the discussion and simply provide respected numbers. S&P+ rates Northwestern’s defense as No. 28 in the country, Florida State’s as No. 29 and USC’s as No. 40. (Syracuse is at No. 81.) In the five games since junior Ian Book took over as starting quarterback, the Irish have faced only one defense in the top 90, Stanford’s at No. 56.

Notre Dame may have no trouble with the Wildcats, but this is a significant increase in competition for Book & Co., and the response will be more telling than any trite answer provided here.

BUT REALLY, PAT FITZGERALD EXCELS IN THESE GAMES

BY HOW MUCH?
Despite the continued bylines on this site, your author is rarely correct. This past Sunday, though, I guessed the line for this game would favor Notre Dame by 10.5 points. … It opened at Irish by 7.5.

Then it ticked upward Monday.
Tuesday saw a steam to 9 or 9.5. And it held.
Thursday night brought 10.
Friday evening brought 10.5.

That same timeline saw the combined point total over/under fall from 53.5 to 52.5, a seemingly-small move but one with more significance than necessarily realized. The spread and over/under combine for a projected final score of Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 21.

Any more points would have required the Wildcats to score four times. That seems unlikely, even more unlikely than Northwestern managing three touchdowns, something done by only Wake Forest and Navy against the Irish this season. Both found the end zone a third time when the outcome was already settled.

That is to say, the Wildcats are probably not going to reach 21, but given the rise in opposing defensive talent, Notre Dame might not reach 31.

Notre Dame 27, Northwestern 17.
(7-1 in pick; 3-5 against the spread, 3-5 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
November awaits Notre Dame
As Playoff rankings debut, actual injuries should worry Notre Dame more
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Held up by the Big Ten pair
Notre Dame at No. 4 in only poll that matters
Notre Dame’s Playoff Possibilities: No. 3 or No. 4 hardly changes realities
And In That Corner … The Northwestern Wildcats, Big Ten West leaders
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense should match Northwestern’s tendencies
Friday at 4: Reviewing the ‘Counting Down the Irish’ expectations

OUTSIDE READING:
Homecoming: No. 3 Notre Dame CB Love eager for Northwestern
LSU’s money kicker: how a small college transfer raised $16,000 for his old school, Brian Kelly’s alma mater
JT Daniels returns to practice with a new play caller
Which college football coaches could make the jump to the NFL?
November is here. Now the college football season has really begun.
Inside Notre Dame Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale’s whirlwind life as a national celebrity