CCN preview: Notre Dame versus Northwestern

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By BRIAN HARTNETT AND ALEX PUTTERMAN
College Contributor Network

Northwestern and No. 18 Notre Dame will meet Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. The Wildcats (3-6, 2-4 Big 10) will look to snap a four-game losing streak, while the Irish (7-2) aim to bounce back from a 55-31 loss against Arizona State last weekend.

Northwestern contributor Alex Putterman and Notre Dame contributor Brian Hartnett recently did a question-and-answer exchange via email to preview Saturday's matchup.

Five questions with Alex Putterman

1. Other than the games against Nebraska and Iowa, all of Northwestern's losses have been one-score games. What sort of factors have hurt the Wildcats most down the stretch in these games?

Northwestern stays in games with its defense, which is pretty good but hardly historic or anything. So in a lot of these games it feels like the Wildcats are hanging around until the defense inevitably cracks. Against Northern Illinois that happened in the fourth quarter. Against Nebraska, it happened after halftime. Against Iowa, it happened immediately.

Against Michigan, the defense never really broke, but Northwestern lost anyway because the offense is that bad. It's funny that you point out how close these games have been. They haven't even felt that tight or dramatic to me because the idea of Northwestern coming back from any deficit can seem so far-fetched, given how difficult it is for the unit to score.

Then again, maybe I'm over-analyzing. Against Michigan, Trevor Siemian and company did orchestrate a game-tying drive, only to fail the two-point conversion and lose by a single point. Neither team deserved to win but either team could have. Sometimes that's how football goes.

2. Other than last weekend's game, freshman running back Justin Jackson has put together some nice stats. Has he become Northwestern's go-to player on offense?

Absolutely, almost by default. It's a pleasure watching Jackson run. He finds holes as soon as they open and drags defenders for extra yards on every run. This season has not gone well for Northwestern, but Jackson's emergence has been the massive silver lining.

The fact that Jackson is only a true freshman and already this good has everyone in Evanston beyond excited.

3. One thing that worries Notre Dame fans, particularly after last weekend, is Northwestern's ability to force turnovers. Who are some players to watch in the Northwestern secondary, and why have they been so effective?

Safety Ibraheim Campbell has 10 career interceptions, so he's definitely a guy to look out for. When he was hurt, his back-up Godwin Igwebuike managed three interceptions in one game against Wisconsin. Starting cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris have been pretty steady and have three picks between them.

Both of the Wildcats' big wins -- against Wisconsin and Penn State -- were fueled by interceptions, and forcing turnovers is pretty much the only way they can have a shot Saturday because the offense really can't score. It's a long shot, but there is precedent this season for Northwestern pulling off an upset by forcing turnovers.

4. Going through press conferences from the last week, Pat Fitzgerald seems to feel like the Northwestern offense's fourth-quarter performance against Michigan last weekend might be the spark needed for a turnaround. Did you see anything from Trevor Siemian or the Wildcats offensive line that provides hope for improved play over these next few games?

Honestly, the drive at the end of that game was nice, but we've seen so much poor play from Siemian, the offensive line and the receiving corps that one good drive won't change much for me. I know I sound relentlessly negative about Northwestern's offense, but that pessimism is the result of a whole lot of three-and-outs.

5. What is your score prediction for Saturday's game?

I'm predicting 27-17 Fighting Irish, which is a closer score than most of my colleagues are going with. The issues Notre Dame had last week against Arizona State, combined with the generally solid play from Northwestern's defense this season give me hope the Wildcats can hold Golson and company. But it would take a miracle (this kind of miracle) for Northwestern to pull off an upset.


Five questions with Brian Hartnett

1. Coming off of last week's loss, is the Notre Dame fan-base feeling like the the Irish were overrated before last week or that the Arizona State game was a blip? What's the general attitude?

There's definitely an atmosphere of disappointment, especially given the way last weekend's game played out, but I'm not sure the fan-base felt as though Notre Dame was overrated. The general feeling is that next season should be the right time for the Irish to contend for the national title -- 19 of the projected starters for Saturday's game have eligibility left, including Everett Golson. Fans have generally been pleased with the way this year's team has played, though it would look nice to have a quality win.

I think most Notre Dame fans saw the Arizona State game as one more hurdle in the development of a young team. It's probably also one they should have seen coming -- Notre Dame has had turnover problems since late September and while it didn't cost the Irish against teams like Syracuse or North Carolina, it was too much to overcome against a top-10 Sun Devils team. I will say, though, that a loss or two down the stretch, and there's still Louisville and USC left on the schedule, could put a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths.

2. I know the strength of this year's Notre Dame team is not its defense, but exactly how good or not good is that unit?

It's funny you mention this because through five games, Notre Dame was third nationally in scoring defense, and most people felt the defense might be comparable to the one from two seasons ago. Still, despite its recent struggles, the Notre Dame defense is a unit filled with a lot of potential. It's a very young unit -- sophomore Jaylon Smith has the second-most career starts of anyone on the defense -- and the Irish have had to plug in a number of freshmen early, giving quality snaps to guys who would normally sit out their first years.

The defense has had some injuries recently, and the loss of middle linebacker Joe Schmidt was huge, largely because he was the one responsible for setting the defense on nearly every play. Notre Dame also has a first-year defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, and he implemented a complex 4-3 scheme that emphasizes aggressiveness. Most Irish fans really like VanGorder, who has been the defensive coordinator for Georgia, Auburn and the Atlanta Falcons, among others, and they're excited to see what he can bring these next few years.

3. What are the residual effects of the cheating scandal that broke before the season, not just on the field but around the program? At Northwestern there's a fair amount of high-and-mightiness about the importance of academics, so I know something like that would incite quite the righteous fury here.

Notre Dame also has plenty of that high-and-mightiness when it comes to academics and its athletes, and I don't think people objected to the punishments handed down to four of the players (the fifth player being investigated, Eilar Hardy, returned to the team and played last weekend). However, in this case, I think most Notre Dame fans were upset at how long it took for the University to come to a decision -- the entire process took nearly two and a half months, and nearly everyone around the program, including Brian Kelly, was left in the dark on the proceedings.

I think most fans were frustrated that Notre Dame waited until halfway through the season to render decisions, whereas many other programs would have decided before the first game of the season. The loss of some of the players definitely hurt on the field -- the team really could have used cornerback KeiVarae Russell or receiver DaVaris Daniels during several big games.

4. As a very casual observer of Notre Dame, I don't know many details about individual players outside of Everett Golson. Give me a player or two with an interesting backstory.

Normally, I would give you the story of Schmidt, a preferred walk-on who rose through the ranks of special teams, earned a scholarship and became a defensive leader, but he's not playing Saturday.

Instead, I'll highlight cornerback Cody Riggs, one of the few Notre Dame players who will leave after this season. Riggs is the nephew of former Notre Dame receiver Bobby Brown, but he chose Florida over the Irish out of high school. Riggs started 26 games at Florida, and then with one year of eligibility left, chose this time to go to Notre Dame and enroll in its executive MBA program. He's done a pretty solid job thus far and helped anchor a secondary that's been without a few key players this season.

5. And, of course, what's your score prediction for Saturday?

I'm going with 35-14, Notre Dame, which is also closer than most of my colleagues predicted. I'm pessimistic about Notre Dame's ability to put away teams it should at home, and I could see it being a one- or two-score game going into the fourth quarter, especially with the weather conditions expected Saturday. Ultimately, however, I think Notre Dame's defense will get back on track (or at least Northwestern's offense will make it look like that's the case), and Golson will probably make a mistake or two, but still do enough to give the Irish some cushion at the end.


Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett

Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02
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