When you think of upstart, spoiler programs in the Big Ten and other major conferences, a few general characteristics come to mind. Maybe the team is very physical and super-responsible on the field like the Iowa Hawkeyes, who pistol-whipped Ohio State to drop the Buckeyes from the ranks of the unbeaten. Or maybe Mississippi State, a team without an elite passer that nevertheless moves the chains and plays tough defense.
You certainly don’t think of a surprise 5-and-3 squad turning it over left and right.
But Northwestern is winning in spite of QB Clayton Thorsen’s TD-to-INT ratio, which is currently at an even 10-10…an absolutely horrible number in modern football. Thorsen tossed 3 picks in last week’s 31-17 triumph over Wisconsin, and he’s certainly not making up for it in the ground game like Nick Fitzgerald of MSU. The slow-footed QB’s running stats are a big fat negative on the season.
It’s not as if the Wildcats have a crushing ground game to buoy Thorsen. The team is averaging a poor 2.6 yards per carry.
So how is Northwestern winning games against quality programs? The answer is that there’s no single formula. The ‘Cats are simply finding ways to scrape out victories on a weekly basis. Still, bettors are skeptical as a TD-margin on the opening point spread for Northwestern vs Notre Dame has expanded to 10 points with the action.
Who: Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Northwestern Wildcats
When: Saturday, November 3rd, 7:15 PM EST
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Lines: UND (-10) at NW (+10) / O/U Total: (53.5)
Saturday’s underdogs allowed a mediocre Michigan State offense 400+ combined yards on the following weekend, while the Northwestern run-blocking effort hit its low point against the Spartans. But somehow the Wildcats won by 10 points on the road, Thorsen coming alive with 3 touchdown passes.
Northwestern put out another uneven performance last weekend against ailing Wisconsin. The Badgers rushed for over 5 yards per carry while Thorson served-up gimmes to visiting DBs. But frosh running back Isaiah Bowser, whose family apparently took its surname from the Super Mario Brothers villain, had his 2nd 100-yard game in a row as the Wildcat defense did its own number on Wisconsin QB Jack Coan and a frustrated group of Badger receivers.
The program from Chicago might be the most unpredictable handicap in college football this season. They can run the ball, except when they can’t at all. They can pass, but often pass it right to the other team. Defense is hot and cold, and the special teams is led by a walk-on….who has connected on 4 out of 5 field goal attempts so far.
It’s one thing to prove the experts wrong, but another to prove them right and still win anyway.
However, unless the Wildcats can put it all together on all 3 units this weekend, they’re unlikely to challenge a #3 ranked powerhouse that may be under-valued thanks to a pair of closer-than-expected results over the last 2 weeks.
It’s important for bettors to know when to stop under-estimating a top team.
Personally, I thought Michigan was going to beat UND in Week 1. It didn’t happen – instead the Fighting Irish defense humiliated Jim Harbaugh’s souped-up 2018 offense as seniors Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney lived in the Wolverine backfield.
Then the Irish barely slipped past teams like Ball State and Vanderbilt for a couple weeks. Again, they were written off as an eventual loser who would fall to better competition. Instead, Notre Dame romped over Stanford and Virginia Tech. What junior QB Ian Book has taken away from the running game (coaches do not want him running as often or as aggressively as Brandon Wimbush) he adds with his passing arm. Kelly’s new starter behind center has hit some roadblocks against rivals Pittsburgh and Navy over the past 2 games, but he has also thrown just 12 incompletions on around 70 attempts over the last 8 quarters. His accuracy gives the offense a new dimension.
Finally, what about those final scores against Pitt and the Navy Midshipmen? Sure, the Irish let down in the 3rd quarter against the Middies, but the 44-22 tally was deceptive. Navy was playing for pride in the 2nd half after getting blown away in the 1st half.
Notre Dame has proven this year that close results against tough, if not elite Power-5 teams (and even the occasional mid-major) is not much to worry about. The point-scoring is ready to cycle upward again.
The point spread is too thin. Northwestern has found ways to hang around and win games, especially at home, but the Wildcats can’t do it against a well-balanced and more athletic team on a hot streak.
Expect the Irish to give their best effort and dismiss the ‘Cats by the 4th frame.
Take UND to cover (-10) points on Saturday night.