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Pregame Six Pack: Wildcats in the winter

Michigan v Notre Dame

Michigan v Notre Dame

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It’s a winter wonderland in South Bend. As an early snow covers the Midwest before the middle of November, it’s a wonderful reminder that FieldTurf has been installed in Notre Dame Stadium, allowing Saturday afternoon’s game to look more like football than broomball, as it has in the past.

That’s not a consolation prize for those of you out shoveling the driveway this week. But it will likely make the quality of the football a lot better on Saturday. And after playing one of their sloppiest games of recent memory last weekend in Tempe, the Irish can use any help they can get.

Also likely supplying some help is Northwestern. After having the Wildcats program playing some of their best football in over a decade, Pat Fitzgerald’s team has struggled through two sub-par seasons, practically in a freefall since last season’s tight loss to Ohio State.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

Northwestern enters Saturday 3-6 and losers of 13 of their last 17 games. And outside of their surprising upset win over Wisconsin this fall, the Wildcats have beaten just Illinois, Penn State and Western Illinois since beating Maine last September.

Still, in the first matchup between these two programs since Northwestern pulled off a shocking upset in 1995, on a wintery weekend in South Bend, anything can happen.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.



We’ll find out Saturday, but a big question remains: Just how bad is Northwestern?

There’s no snark in that question, as the Wildcats have put together a season that sometimes defies logic. For as bad as Northwestern has looked at times (“Embrace the suck,” Fitzgerald quipped), the Wildcats have two impressive victories over Wisconsin and Penn State (the Badgers more so than the Nittany Lions), and have lost four one-score games. A program that built a reputation for winning the close ones is now losing them.

The biggest culprit for those struggles? The offense. While the defense has played mostly good football, the offense has hit rock bottom this year. Behind a struggling line, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian hasn’t been able to stay healthy or be productive. And a lack of big-play threats has put the offense into a pretty damning statistical black hole.

Scoring Offense: 18.0 per game (122nd) Total Offense: 322.7 yards per game (117th) Rushing Offense: 109.9 yards per game (114th) Passing Offense: 212.8 yards per game (84th) Yards Per Play: 4.24 yards per play (125th) Yards Per Carry: 2.88 yards per carry (123rd)

Notre Dame fans expecting those numbers to turn into an easy Saturday, pump the brakes. We’ve had countless weekends over the past few years where one-way battles turned into slugfests. And the fact that Northwestern was able to beat Wisconsin, a team that still could turn out to be the best in the Big Ten, means there’s some fight in this team.

After failing to play big against Arizona State, Tarean Folston has another opportunity to shine.

Last Saturday wasn’t the breakout performance I expected from Tarean Folston. While the Arizona State ground game was able to make its mark, Notre Dame’s wasn’t. Sure, a lot of that was because the Irish found themselves in a 31-3 hole after eight chaotic minutes of football. But Folston was kept off the field in favor of Cam McDaniel because of the senior’s pass-blocking prowess, a skill that often times comes down to effort.

Earlier this week, Kelly talked about Folston needing to up his game in that facet to become a complete back. The sophomore running back was clearly listening.

“They understand. They hear what we say. They listen to my press conference, too,” Kelly said on Thursday. “They hear me say Folston needs to be a complete back. He had it written on his tape on his wrist this week, ‘I need to be a complete back.’

“He was focused on blitz pick up. When it was blitz pick up drill he was wanting to be in there proving that he can be... Folston knows what he’s doing. This was more of a kick in the butt with him.”

On a Saturday where snow is still in the forecast, hopefully pass blocking isn’t the priority for the Irish running backs. Running the football should be.

So after a brief hiccup in his production, we’ll see if Folston returns to being the team’s featured back, and providing the production that made it an easy decision.

With their final month of college football in front of them, Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do what it takes to help the Irish secondary.

The back end of the Irish defense looked really young last week against Arizona State. With sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler playing cornerback, along with sophomore Max Redfield and junior Elijah Shumate playing safety, there wasn’t much experience on the field against the Sun Devils and their playmaking wide receiving corps.

But it looks like veterans Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do their best to return to the field this week, with both fifth-year seniors hoping to contribute in a limited fashion as they battle injuries.

Riggs sat out last weekend with a “stress reaction,” a foot injury that made matching up with All-American candidate Jaelen Strong a tough task. Riggs will be back on the field this weekend, working his way through the pain taking limited snaps.

“He’s gonna play. He’s not gonna play the whole game,” Kelly said. “But he’ll be able to contribute and play some. He practiced this week. We’re not gonna put so many snaps on him that we lose him next week. We’ll be smart with him.”

Also doing his best to get back on the field is Collinsworth. The fifth-year senior captain has only been able to make an impact in the locker room this year, with knee and shoulder injuries robbing him of his starting job just 48 hours before the season was set to begin.

Collinsworth is medically available, though how long his shoulder will last remains to be seen. That’s a big reason why Kelly isn’t willing to play him on special teams.

“I’m not going to lose him on special teams. Not in this situation,” Kelly said. “Here’s a kid, he’s given us everything to even get back out there. I’m not going to lose him on special teams.”

Ultimately, it’ll come down to Collinsworth being able to provide Shumate or Redfield a breather, or finding a situation where he’ll be able to succeed -- perhaps along the goaline.

“I think just a coaching decision, he’s not holding himself back,” Kelly said. “He’s practicing. He’s able to play if we decide to play him. There’s no holding back on his part. He wants to get back in the game.”

After watching USC’s offense last night throw the football all over Cal, taking it easy on Riggs’ foot until Thanksgiving weekend would be wise. And if Collinsworth is able to help communicate and keep the Irish defense in the right position, giving him some snaps at safety would be well worth it.

As Pat Fitzgerald has upped the profile of his football program, Notre Dame and Northwestern have battled for more and more football players.

You’re likely to recognize more than a few names on Northwestern’s roster. And it’s not from watching the Wildcats on Saturdays. Rather, Notre Dame and Northwestern’s coaching staffs have done a fair bit a battling on the recruiting trail these past few years, with Pat Fitzgerald doing a nice job winning his fair share of battles.

While it’s not necessarily true that Kelly and his staff view Fitzgerald in the same way they see Brady Hoke (for now) and Urban Meyer, LakethePosts took a nice look at the past five recruiting classes and found quite a bit of overlap.

In the last five recruiting classes, there have been a total of 51 recruits (according to who committed to either Notre Dame or Northwestern while being courted by the other school. This includes both players who received offers from both school, or players who merely received interest from both schools. Of those 51, 35 committed to Notre Dame, of whom the average rivals star rating was 3.5. Northwestern took 16 with an average star rating of 3.1.

Credit the writer for including some obvious caveats that come with culling your data from a recruiting website. And as the Irish coaching staff have adjusted their offering process to stay up to pace with the demands of the recruiting world, it’s difficult to say with certainty that “Notre Dame lost out on Matt Alviti” or that the Irish simply moved on to a better prospect.

All that being said, with a handful of Chicagoland prospects on both rosters, and recruits (especially in the 2016 class) still considering both programs, this paragraph from LTP is especially true.

This is why the NU/ND game might mean more than just one win or one loss. If Pat Fitzgerald can find a way to knock off one of his chief recruiting rivals, he immediately has a new pitch. When you beat the guy you’re recruiting against, it gives you an awfully clear edge. Meanwhile, if Northwestern goes into South Bend and loses gets blown out (the line right now is ND by around 17), challenging Notre Dame gets a lot harder. Not only do you not have any concrete edges from an institutional standpoint, now you’ve gotten smashed in a head-to-head. If you’re 17 or 18 years old, it might be that much harder to turn down one of the most historic teams in sports in the Fighting Irish.

In a game that may be one of the less intriguing on the schedule, this is a storyline worth tracking.

Looking for something important? How about getting Notre Dame’s young defense back on track.

The stats listed above are a large indicator why we might expect better from Brian VanGorder’s young defense. If you’re looking to get your confidence back, no Power Five offense might be a better option than the one Northwestern is trotting out there right now.

With question marks at every position except maybe running back, where true freshman Justin Jackson is doing his best to keep the ground game afloat, the Irish defense should be able to right the ship after Notre Dame has given up 42 points a game over the last four weeks.

Yesterday, we talked about the struggles with Sudden Change defense and in the red zone. But after wondering if this group would lose confidence after a few bad outings, Kelly had nothing but good things to say about a young defense that desperately wants to improve.

“They are so engaged. They are so anxious. It’s probably a poor analogy, they wanna do so well they’re like hunting dogs. Just looking up at you, ‘What can I do?’” Kelly said Thursday.

“But they’re young. There’s mental errors and mistakes that we have to clean up every day with them. You ask Coach VanGorder and for him it’s great because you have such captive group that they just want to learn, but there’s a lot of learning going on. Every day it’s something new for them.”

That includes freshman Nyles Morgan, who’ll get a chance to find his footing against an offensive that’ll try to move quickly, but won’t much resemble the one he saw in Tempe. And after playing a poor game up front, don’t think Kelly’s comments earlier this week weren’t heard by the defensive line, who should have ample opportunities to get sacks against the Wildcat offensive line.

If the Irish want to win out, Everett Golson needs to take a big step forward.

As you might expect, all eyes were on Everett Golson this week after his five turnover game. And while we’ll find out tomorrow whether or not Golson has remedied his problems, he’s certainly impressed his head coach this week.

“I think what I’m most pleased with is we got great leadership from Everett this week,” Kelly said after recapping the week on Thursday. “He’s got an immense amount of pride and I really enjoyed coaching him this week. It was a fun week in the growth department from that perspective. Nobody likes to be that guy that is singled out for their play, but he’s the quarterback at Notre Dame and he embraces that and took control this week of practice.”

Golson said as much earlier this week, when he told the local media he wasn’t going to change his mentality. But he’ll need to change his habits if the Irish are going to win three-straight regular season games and finish with ten wins before a chance to win a bowl game.

Even with Northwestern this weekend and Louisville losing starting quarterback Will Gardner, the odds are against a clean finish. Football Outsiders views the Irish’s shot of winning out at just 10 percent, a surprisingly low number, but one that’s been radically effected by the turnovers.

On a wintery day, ball security will have to once again be the priority. And sometimes the biggest play Golson will make will be the one to check down and take something small. Golson admitted to relying on his athleticism too much to try and get out of trouble. Saturday he’ll have some short routes available against Northwestern, especially if the Wildcats decide to bring pressure.

Kelly talked about that part of Golson’s evolution, and how he’s looking to get more from his quarterback.

“When you have an athletic quarterback that knows he can make a play with his feet, dropping it down to the back is, ‘Well, I can do that,’” Kelly explained. “What we really want him to do is through his progression, utilize if you’re in trouble and you can’t get out of it with your feet, find out where you outlet is. We felt there were a couple instances where there was an impending crisis that he couldn’t get out of and he tried to get out of it.”

“I don’t want to change him, I want him to use his feet. I want him to try to get out of some things, but you can’t get out of everything. So I think the process there is, you can’t get out of everything, understand that. What you can’t get out of it, find your release and get the ball out. That’s gonna be a process.”