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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

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.