Irish seeks better defensive play vs. Northwestern
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) The best thing Notre Dame's defense might have going for it this week is that it faces Northwestern. Then again, the best thing the Wildcats might have going for them on offense is that they face the Fighting Irish.
The 15th-ranked Irish (7-2) are struggling with a defense that has a freshman middle linebacker starting his second game and has five sophomore starters. The Irish have given up at least 30 points for four straight games, just the third time that's happened in Notre Dame history. That's an average of 42 points a game. That includes 55 points last week against Arizona State, tying for the fourth most points given up by the Irish.
''We understood coming into this year that we were a developmental group,'' Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith said ''We're so young and really just trying to get better. We're not surprised by the outcomes of the last four or five games of teams scoring 30 points. It's just about how can eliminate that?''
The Wildcats (3-6) are struggling offensively. They rank 119th in the nation out of 125 teams at 18 points a game and they've scored just 16 points in the past two game combined. Northwestern is 114th in the nation in total offense at 322.7 yards a game, but have averaged just 282 yards in losing their last four. The Wildcats have been troubled by breakdowns, penalties and an offensive line that is blocking poorly.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the line has talent but hasn't been able to get it together.
''They have individual areas they all need to improve. Some guys it's between their ears with self-confidence. With some guys it's strength. With some guys it's carrying over what we do in practice. With some guys it's maturity and actually getting into the fight and practice and competing to win a job so we can have a true competition,'' he said.
Fitzgerald believes he has players who have more talent than some previous lines he's coach but they lack toughness and make too many mistakes.
''We have way too many one-man breakdowns, where four guys operate and one guy breaks down,'' he said. ''It's disheartening for our quarterback.''
Other things to know about Northwestern vs. Notre Dame:
GOOD, BAD AND UGLY: Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson threw for a career-high 446 yards against Arizona State, but also had five turnovers, including two interceptions for defensive touchdowns. Kelly said he's pleased with how Golson responded in practice this week. ''He took control this week at practice. He was vocal. He was a guy I hadn't seen before.''
DECISIVE TURNOVERS: Northwestern is 3-0 when it has the advantage in turnovers, forcing four turnovers against Western Illinois, two against Penn State and four against Wisconsin. Golson has committed 17 turnovers in the past six games.
DANGEROUS THINKING: Kelly said freshman middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, who got his first start against Arizona State because of a season-ending injury to Joe Schmidt, played too tentatively last week. ''It's the old, `When you think, you stink,'' Kelly said. ''He was thinking way too much, and that's not going to happen each and every week. As he gets more accustomed to what's going on out there, he will be able to react.''
OUT OF CONTENTION: Although Notre Dame has virtually no chance to earn a playoff berth, Irish players say they aren't expecting a letdown. They say trying get to a top bowl game isn't a factor, either. ''There's plenty to play for,'' tailback Cam McDaniel said. ''You play for the pride of Notre Dame football. You play to compete. If you're here, you're a competitor and want to win. So to me, that's not going to be much of an issue for our guys.''
SNOW DAY?: South Bend received 12.3 inches of snow Thursday, the fourth snowiest November day ever. More snow fell Friday and there's a chance of snow again Saturday. Notre Dame is 13-1-3 in games where it snows, with the lone loss coming to Indianapolis Artillery in 1895. The Irish practiced in the snow Thursday.