Projecting Nerdy Slugfest Between Notre Dame and Northwestern

Rainman M.

Monday, October 29, 2018 1:06 PM UTC

Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 1:06 PM UTC

Northwestern hosts No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN. Even if the Irish don't lose focus like they did last week against Navy, they will be in for a tough battle.

Rainman's 2018 picks record on Notre Dame games: 3-5

No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) at Northwestern (5-3)Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)Free NCAAF Pick: Northwestern ATSBest Line Offered: Bookmaker

[/]{"component":"oddswidget", "eventId":3448233, "sportsbooksIds":[93,238,19,1275,999996], "LineTypeId":1, "PeriodTypeId":1}[/]

The spot speaks in Northwestern’s favor. The Wildcats play to the level of their opponent. They narrowly beat Rutgers and lost to Akron, but easily handled very physical and at least at some point highly ranked squads in Michigan State on the road and Wisconsin at home and nearly upset Michigan. They are 3-0 ATS as underdogs with two upset victories and almost a third as 14.5-point underdogs. Overall, they have won four in a row straight-up. Their current streak signifies a repetition of last year’s trajectory. In 2017, Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team started 2-3 SU before winning and covering their next seven games from mid-October through the end of the regular season. Once again, Northwestern is playing its best football.

Conversely, Notre Dame is on a two-game non-cover streak. This detail would mean nothing to me if there wasn’t some history that justified concern. Last year, the Irish under Brian Kelly were 0-4 ATS in November. The year before, the Irish were 1-3 ATS in November. The tendency goes on. Under Kelly, Notre Dame tends to fizzle out towards the end of the season. So bettors should look to bet against Notre Dame at this point of the season, especially when they’re facing an evidently tough Northwestern squad that will bring its best.

The Irish are one of the more run-heavy teams. They struggle to cover when they struggle to run the ball. In their last three non-covers last November, they failed to generate more than 163 rushing yards whereas they had been averaging upwards of 300 rushing yards per game on the season. This season, they don’t run as well because their quarterback is pass-first and because they’ve suffered meaningful downgrades both at running back and in their offensive line. They are 0-2 ATS when they run for fewer than 120 yards. Notre Dame’s predilection for the run makes them a favorable matchup for a physical Northwestern defense that is geared towards stopping the run. Northwestern’s run defense is well-tested against physical and solid rush attacks. It held Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor to 46 rush yards last week although he had produced more than 100 in every game. Likewise, it limited Michigan’s Karan Higdon to fewer than four yards per carry whereas he averages 5.4 on the season. That was Higdon’s second-worst performance in terms of yards per carry despite rushing it 30 times.

[/]{"component":"video", "type":"youtube", "url":"https://www.youtube.com/embed/et2VkkcJqT0", "videoSize":"Large" }[/]

Northwestern’s defensive success is predicated on the quality of its linebackers. Their linebackers compose an experienced group that returned five of seven starters from last season. As a first-year starter, middle linebacker Paddy Fisher made an immediate splash, leading the team with 111 tackles and achieving second-team Big 10 honors. Fisher has great instincts and game speed that allow him to make his presence felt from sideline to sideline. He also excels at locating running lanes and plugging in gaps to stuff the opposing runner. He had nine tackles for loss. He’s joined by senior Nate Hall, who led the team with 12 tackles for loss.

The linebackers get help from a defensive line that likewise returned significant experience. Joe Gaziano leads Northwestern in sacks. He accrued nine last year and was second-team Big 10. Once again he leads the line in tackles for loss. The defensive linemen are able to get pressure on a quarterback in a way that makes the linebackers do their job more easily. An example of their impact on a game came in the season opener against Purdue, where they helped secure the game in Northwestern’s favor through stops in key situations, like on third-and-11 for Purdue when, in its final drive, Purdue’s quarterback succumbed to the pressure that Northwestern’s defense mounted despite rushing only three men. The Irish have not seen anywhere close to this level of defensive quality since they faced Michigan in the season opener.

When Notre Dame struggles to score, its not likely to cover. Dating to last season, the Irish are 0-8 ATS when they are favored and score fewer than 30 points. Against its three toughest opponents spread-wise -- Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin -- Northwestern didn’t allow more than 20 points. Saturday night will constitute a great opportunity for a season-defining win from a program that deserves to be ranked and, also as Big 10 contenders, is looking to enter national conversation.

comment here