FOOTBALL

Five keys for Notre Dame at Northwestern: Let the new-look RB duo flourish

Staff reports
ND Insider

Here are five keys for AP No. 3/CFP No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) as it clashes with Northwestern (5-3) on Saturday.

MAKE THORSON UNCOMFORTABLE

Thorson has thrown at least two interceptions in half of his games, reaching 10 for the season. The Wildcats run 80 plays per game and could wear down a banged-up Notre Dame defense that struggles on third down. Notre Dame playing keep away offensively could mitigate fatigue. Its eighth-ranked pass efficiency defense will be the key, though, especially with questions surrounding cornerback Tony Pride Jr., linebacker Drue Tranquill and at nickel back.

LIMIT BOWSER, NAGEL

Running back Solomon Vault returns from injury, but freshman Isaiah Bowser has secured the featured role for now. Bowser ran a combined 58 times for 225 yards and three touchdowns in wins over Rutgers and Wisconsin — although they are the 115th and 76th run defenses, respectively. Senior Flynn Nagel is Thorson’s most popular target, catching at least three passes in each game this season. Should the Irish limit Bowser and Nagel, Thorson would be susceptible to more interceptions.

PLAY TO BOOK’S STRENGTHS

If the rankings hold, Northwestern’s No. 46 pass efficiency defense will be the best Ian Book will face in the regular season. Wake Forest (105), Stanford (72), Virginia Tech (82), Pittsburgh (93) and Navy (119th) posed little challenge to Book and other passing attacks. The short-passing game, involving tight ends, using his feet and methodically driving down the field has worked for Book. and it will keep Thorson and Co. off the field.

LET THE RB DUO FLOURISH

The Wildcat defense might not be elite on paper. But the group limited the nation’s leading rusher, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, to 11 rushes for 46 yards. Northwestern also held Michigan State to under 100 rushing yards. If Notre Dame does not establish the run, Book may struggle against the best defense he has faced. Fortunately for him, Jafar Armstrong and Dexter Williams shined in their debut as a duo against Navy last week. By honing in on the two’s varying skill sets, the Irish could keep the Wildcats on their toes.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

Under head coach Brian Kelly, the Irish are 5-6 against teams a week after facing a triple-option offense. Northwestern also might be the most unpredictable team in college football. The Wildcats fell to Duke, Akron and almost Rutgers but topped Michigan State, Wisconsin and nearly Michigan. Thorson is a top NFL prospect. Bowser has been productive but the sample size is not enough. No matter which Wildcat team shows up Saturday, the Irish must approach it as if they will face their best version.

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong runs the ball against Navy last Saturday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California.

NOTRE DAME (8-0) @ NORTHWESTERN (5-3)

At Ryan Field (47,130), Evanston, Ill.

Kickoff: 7:15 p.m. EDT

TV: ESPN

Series history: Notre Dame leads series 37-9-2

Betting line: Notre Dame by 9½