Opponent outlook: Will Northwestern win streak continue against Irish?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Northwestern could be the most up-and-down team in college football.

The Wildcats fell to lowly Duke and Akron in back-to-back weeks and barely defeated 1-7 Rutgers. Yet, head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s squad also defeated Michigan State, Wisconsin and nearly upset No. 5 Michigan.

Four consecutive wins has Northwestern (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) in control of its destiny in the Big Ten West — a division in which it has sole possession of first place.

Northwestern’s solid, improving run defense, top NFL prospect in quarterback Clayton Thorson and revamped running game should mitigate future blunders. But can they continue their run and pull off victories over teams like No. 3 Notre Dame?

We caught up with Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com for more insight on Northwestern.

Why is Northwestern so inconsistent? Do you think they will win the Big Ten West?

Vaccher: “Fitzgerald talked about this issue after the Wisconsin game on Saturday, saying that it took some time early in the season to develop younger talent on the bench to push starters who were underperforming. ‘Now, the depth is starting to improve. If a guy makes a mistake now, we are able to take him out and use the best motivator in the world — the bench,’ he said. That’s as good a reason as I’ve heard, so I’ll go with that.

“The Big Ten West is right there for the taking.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue all suffered their second league loss last week, so Northwestern is in the driver’s seat. The question, then, is which Northwestern team will show up for those last three conference games – at Iowa and Minnesota, and home against Illinois.”

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher, was suffocated by Northwestern’s defense. He ran for just 46 yards on 11 carries and fumbled twice. What is this run defense capable of?

Vaccher: “There’s no question that the strength of the Northwestern defense is the front seven. They have a very stout defensive line, anchored on the ends by Joe Gaziano, an NFL talent on one side, and Samdup Miller, a sophomore on the rise, on the other. They keep offensive linemen from getting to the second level, where fast and physical linebackers like Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher, who are No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in tackles, are there to clean things up.”

What impact did the retirement of running back Jeremy Larkin (cervical stenosis) have? Does freshman Isaiah Bowser appear to be the long-term guy?

Vaccher: “The loss of Larkin was a devastating blow for the Wildcats. He was the most dynamic weapon for an offense that has often sputtered this season. In the first three games after Larkin’s retirement the Wildcats ran for 68 yards. That’s total yards, in three games combined.

“But the Wildcats seem to have found something in Bowser these last two games. We shrugged off his 108-yard performance against Rutgers, the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. But last week’s 116-yard performance against Wisconsin opened some eyes. A bigger, power back, Bowser hits the line of scrimmage hard and has shown the ability to move the pile, whether there is a hole there or not. Fitzgerald wouldn’t call him the starter moving forward — senior Solomon Vault should return from injury this week — but he has definitely earned his share of carries.”

Where do you see Thorson getting drafted and how has his stock changed this season?

Vaccher: “Thorson has had an up-and-down season — not unusual for a player coming off ACL surgery just seven months before the season-opening kickoff. He is completing 60.7 percent of his passes and has thrown just as many touchdowns as interceptions (10).

“He has all the tools — he’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he has a plus arm, he’s athletic and he’s smart. Give him a clean pocket and he can be as good as any quarterback in the nation. But when he’s pressured, his mechanics sometime breaks down and he will make some questionable decisions. I think Thorson will get drafted, but I personally doubt it will be the first round.”

Sophomore kicker Drew Luckenbaugh suffering a lower-body injury during warmups last Saturday, forcing the Wildcats to do something peculiar. Staffers had to retrieve injured backup Charlie Kuhbander’s pads — which were a mile away at the Walter Athletics Center — so he could kick. Will Northwestern’s kicking situation be back to normal against Notre Dame?

Vaccher: “At this point, we don’t really know what the kicking depth chart will look like for Saturday. It will probably come down to how serious Luckenbaugh’s injury is and whether or not it’s worse than Kuhbander’s. Because of the injuries, Northwestern has understandably shied away from field goals this season, with only one attempt beyond 40 yards (Kuhbander made it).

“The two kickers are a combined 6-for-10 on the year and Fitzgerald has repeatedly gone for it on fourth down instead of kicking a long field goal — or even an intermediate one, for that matter.”

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

WHEN: Saturday, 7:15 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

TV: ESPN 

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 8