Notre Dame shows its mettle when it matters in 31-21 subduing of Northwestern

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EVANSTON, Ill. — It was a subdued stroll off the field for a Notre Dame football team showered with chants of “Let’s go Irish” and actual showers.

The businesslike reaction to an outcome that nudged the AP No. 3/CFP No. 4 Irish a step closer to both playoff reality and the first back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins in a quarter of a century seemed a normal reaction to, say, completing a calculus test.

Perhaps it’s because Notre Dame’s big picture still feels like a convoluted math problem after the Irish overcame both Big Ten West leader Northwestern and themselves in a 31-21 road test Saturday night at Ryan Field.

In stretches you could see the higher ceiling that still seems very real and attainable. In others you could see the warts that won’t yet go away.

In the critical moments, though, you could see the mental toughness that it will take for the 17th 9-0 Notre Dame football team in school history to evolve past the latter.

“They’ve been like that all year,” ND coach Brian Kelly said. “They play one play at a time. They don’t get too high. They don’t get too low.”

The mental edge that a playoff-aspiring Notre Dame team lost last November was most apparent Saturday night when the Irish needed it most, especially after Northwestern (5-4) blocked a punt with 8:57 left in the game, and cashed it in 112 seconds later on a fourth-down QB sneak by Clayton Thorson.

That TD closed the Northwestern deficit to 24-21, and had the Wildcats more than dreaming of their first win over an AP top five opponent since Irish coaching icon Ara Parseghian did it in back-to-back weeks to open the 1959 season when he was at Northwestern. He also took down his future employer later that season on the road in South Bend.

But the Irish offense answered with an 89-yard, 10-play drive, capped by an Ian Book 23-yard run on a misdirection play that pushed the Irish lead back to 10 with 2:45 left. The ND defense finished things off essentially, by turning Northwestern over on downs in its own territory on its ensuing possession.

Irish cornerback Julian Love tackled former summer Chicagoland 7-on-7 teammate Flynn Nagel a yard short of a first down on a fourth-down play.

Overall the ND defense held its third opponent of the season under 250 yards (249), recorded five sacks, limited the Wildcats to five third-down conversions in 15 attempts and 3.6 yards per play (tying a season best for the defense).

“When we were only up by three, everybody was pacing up and down the sideline, yelling to each other, motivating each other, ‘Let’s go,’'' Love said.

“Our defense is like waking a sleeping beast when games are close.”

The Irish defense also helped the Irish avert disaster in the opening moments of the game. Book fumbled after faking a handoff to running back Dexter Williams, and Northwestern’s Blake Gallagher recovered 35 yards from the Notre Dame end zone.

Six plays later, Drew Luckenbaugh missed a 39-yard field goal.

“Just a missed communication,” Book said. “It happens sometimes, but it sucks to start like that. Again, it’s something that you have go forget about and move on, and I think the whole team did that.”

Perhaps no one better than Book. Against the highest-rated pass-efficiency defense he’s been confronted with in seven career starts (46th nationally), the junior shook off a lethargic start and finished with a career-high 343 passing yards.

Book was at his best in the third quarter, when he completed 11-of-14 passes for 195 yards and two TDs as the Irish turned a 7-7 halftime tie into a 21-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

For the first time as a starter, Book did not complete 70 percent or more of his passes in a game, but at 64.7 percent (22 of 34), he wasn’t too far off.

“He made those adjustments,” Kelly said after Book’s 7-for-15 first-half showing. “It probably would have taken a film study to make those adjustments (earlier in the season), and then they probably would go into action the following week.

“He can make them at halftime. You could sit down, go over it with them, draw them up. He can see them clearly and then access those immediately in the third quarter.”

Junior Chase Claypool helped that process along with game-highs of eight receptions and 130 yards. Michael Young (47 yards) and Mikes Boykin (20 yards) had the TD receptions.

“Chase did awesome,” Book said. “I know how hard he works at practice. He was due for a big night tonight.”

Someone who seemingly wasn’t was linebacker Drue Tranquill, but he had one anyway.

A week after the grad senior captain suffered a high ankle sprain in a 44-22 win over Navy, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath started in his place. But Tranquill, ND’s second-leading tackler coming into the game, played inspired football in a limited role and made five tackles.

“I looked over and saw Drue next to me, and I was so confused,” Love said. “I thought he was hurt. But the type of competitor he is, he really wanted to lead this team and he did that. He really fought through a lot to be on the field today.”

Added Kelly, “We didn’t know exactly what he could do until pregame. He did a lot more than we thought he could do. He’s remarkable.”

What wasn’t so remarkable was a tepid Irish run game —121 yards on 40 carries (3.0) average; the ND run defense at times — freshman Isaiah Bowser amassed 93 yards on 23 carries; and special teams gaffes beyond just the blocked punt.

“We just have to be better with attention to detail,” Kelly said. “We’re putting our best players on the field, and they have to be better every single snap.”

But the mental capacity to get there, as well as smoothing out the other rough edges, seems to be there.

“Last year we were in the same position and we didn’t do a great job of staying focused,” said linebacker Te’von Coney, who had two sacks among his team-high 10 tackles. “We looked ahead, and it cost us.

“In the offseason, we trained to be more focused, and we are doing a great job of staying in the moment.”

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) inspired the Irish defense playing with a high ankle sprain in ND's 31-21 victory over Northwestern, Saturday night at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.