Northwestern laments missed opportunities

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

EVANSTON, ILL. — Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald kept an eye on the television before clashing with Notre Dame on Saturday.

But once the Wildcats (5-4) fell to the No. 3 AP/No. 4 CFP Irish (9-0) 31-21 at Ryan Field, the Purdue-Iowa contest was the last thing on the head coach's mind.

“I’m not aware of our status,” said Fitzgerald of the Big Ten West race. “I do not care.”

The 38-36 Boilermaker victory only improved Northwestern’s Big Ten West chances. The Wildcats control their destiny with three conference games remaining. A win over Iowa next week almost secures the divisional title.

“Oh, that’s great,” said a sheepish Fitzgerald. “Good for (Purdue head coach) Jeff (Brohm). I’m fired up for him.”

It didn’t sound like it. 

The Wildcats squandered opportunities in what could have been their fifth consecutive victory — and first in non-conference action. Third quarter gaffes by the Wildcat defense produced a deficit too daunting to overcome. Northwestern’s attack struggled in pass-protection and stalled until the fourth quarter.

Irish quarterback Ian Book opened with his worst half of the season, going 7-of-15 for 107 yards. Tight coverage ceded the short, high-percentage throws with which Book develops rhythm.

ND altered its strategy in the second half, challenging Northwestern on the outside, particularly the wider side of the field. Book threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns on 11-for-14 passing in the third quarter. It was reminiscent of his Pittsburgh performance — a game in which Book struggled at times but finished with 10 straight completions to help clinch the victory.

“Yeah, he’s a good player,” said Travis Whillock, a sophomore safety. “But I think also, it just came down to breakdowns within our secondary.”

One of such breakdowns came on Book’s 47-yard touchdown pass, which gave the Irish a 21-7 advantage late in the third quarter. Chris Finke and Michael Young went vertical, and Book connected with the latter as he streaked past Wildcat defenders.

On the preceding possession, Miles Boykin hauled in a 20-yard touchdown on a similar vertical route. It was one of Book’s eight completions beyond 10 yards for the quarter. On the two drives, Book found Chase Claypool for connections of 13, nine, 31 and 14 yards.

The junior led all receivers with eight receptions for 130 yards.

“Same RPO’s they were throwing the whole game,” said Fitzgerald on Book's third quarter difference. “They threw a couple of quick outs and hitches, and it looked like we missed some tackles.

“His completion percentage is really high because he just takes what the defense gives him, which again, I thought I gave him an incredible compliment when I compared him to (former Northwestern quarterback) Dan Persa on Monday.”

Northwestern’s pair of dropped interceptions and allowing three fourth-down conversions also allowed Book to recover.

“Those are the types of plays you have to make — and there’s a lot of others — but those are the type of plays that when you have the opportunity, you have to capitalize,” Fitzgerald said. “And we weren’t able to do that tonight.”

The Irish entered the weekend boasting the nation’s eighth-best pass efficiency defense. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, a top NFL prospect, went 16-of-29 for 141 yards and a touchdown. 

“Their defensive line is really good,” Thorson said. “Those guys get pressure. Those defensive ends and (defensive tackle Jerry Tillery) are pretty special.”

Two sacks each from Te’von Coney and Daelin Hayes led the way in Notre Dame’s five-sack performance. The Irish also recorded six tackles for loss. A week removed from suffering a high ankle sprain at Navy, linebacker Drue Tranquill entered the game for critical plays, particularly third downs.

The senior amassed five tackles. Fill-in starter Jordan Genmark Heath was productive early and finished with six tackles.

“Whether that’s moving the pocket, whether that’s running a draw or whether that’s calling quicker passes, I think there’s a lot of different things we can do,” Thorson said. “I think our offensive line did a much better job in the fourth quarter of giving me some time where we can throw the ball down the field a little bit.”

Beyond progressing up front, Northwestern exploited ND's shaky play at nickel. Although in position to break it up, freshman Houston Griffith did not make a play on Thorson’s lone touchdown pass — a 27-yard score to Riley Lees.

“With our two-minute offense, we never feel like we are out of a game,” Thorson said.

Poor special teams plagued the Irish — which suffered five blunders on the night — paving the way for another Wildcat score. Senior Justin Yoon's 44-yard field goal miss, a kickoff out of bounds, an illegal formation and holding on special teams cost ND.

No gaffe hurt more than Northwestern’s blocked punt, though. Cameron Ruiz evaded ND junior Jalen Elliott, who left the line early, and junior safety Alohi Gilman, who was stationed on the outside. Five plays later, Thorson capitalized with a one-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown.

Book remained aggressive, finding Claypool on a 21-yard pass to begin the ensuing drive. Facing third-and-four at Northwestern's 23-yard line, Book kept a zone read, bounced to the outside and found the end zone.

It was that aggressive Book that turned around his biggest challenge of the year.

“I felt like we could win the game the whole game. I still do,” Fitzgerald said. “I just wish we didn’t play so poorly. I wish we didn’t coach so poorly.”

Yet, Northwestern's loss might not taste as sour by November’s conclusion.

“I’m very disappointed, but all of our goals are ahead of us,” said Tommy Doles, a senior offensive lineman. “We set out this year to win the (Big Ten) West, and that’s what we plan to do.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald shakes hands during the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.