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Sports Saturday

Big Game Hunting: Notre Dame or Wisconsin? QB play will say it all at Soldier Field

Also: Illinois, Northwestern picks and a pair of prime-time “favorites.”

Purdue v Notre Dame
Kyren Williams and the Irish are a shaky 3-0.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The first college football game at Soldier Field was between Bourbonnais’ Viator College and Dubuque, Iowa’s Columbia College in 1924. It was scoreless, and Matt Nagy’s play-calling didn’t even have anything to do with it.

But 11 days later, the stadium hosted its first big game: Notre Dame — and its not-yet-nicknamed “Four Horsemen” — against Northwestern. The Fighting Irish won 13-6 on the way to a national championship, No. 1 of three for coach Knute Rockne.

What is this, a history lesson? Soldier Field is back in the big-college-game business, baby. No. 12 Notre Dame (+6½) at No. 18 Wisconsin (11 a.m., Fox-32) even has ESPN’s “College GameDay” outfit in town for the first meeting between the schools since 1964 and the Irish’s first game on the lakefront since they pounded Miami 41-3 in 2012.

The 2012 Irish team was unbeaten all the way until the national title game. This one — a shaky-as-can-be 3-0 — doesn’t appear to have that kind of staying power. But an upset of the Badgers would mean victory No. 106 at Notre Dame for coach Brian Kelly, who’s tied with Rockne for the most in school history.

Can it happen?

Of course it can.

The broadcast undoubtedly will be focused on the matchup of Irish quarterback Jack Coan — former Wisconsin starter and graduate — against his old team.

“It’s definitely going to be weird,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of my friends I’m playing against, guys I still talk to today.”

Guys like Graham Mertz, who watched from the sideline as a freshman as Coan and the Badgers made it to the Rose Bowl.

“Nothing but good things about that guy,” Mertz said. “He’s a great player, great teammate, great friend.”

But Mertz is the more interesting story. He arrived at Wisconsin as the school’s highest-rated quarterback recruit ever. So far, it’s not going so well.

Why is Wisconsin — technically the home team — a fairly heavy favorite? Notre Dame’s offensive line has pass-blocking problems that sound all the alarms against a ferocious Badgers defensive front. The Irish’s run defense has been unimpressive, too.

But, man, nothing in college football is as important as the quarterback — and Mertz has been stuck in neutral since his smash debut as a starter, a 20-for-21, five-touchdown gem in the 2020 opener. Is Mertz an NFL talent? That’s not the question anymore. Will Mertz last the season as the Badgers’ starter? That’s more on point. Irish, 21-17.

OTHER WEEK 3 PICKS

Ohio (+14½) at Northwestern (11 a.m., BTN): What was I saying about the importance of the quarterback? The Wildcats are back at the intersection of don’t-know and don’t-want-to-know, a terrible place to be. Is it Andrew Marty? Is it Ryan Hilinski? Is it back (again) to Hunter Johnson? Ugh. Defense wins it, 16-10.

Illinois (+11) at Purdue (2:30 p.m., ESPN): The Illini have lost four of the last five in the Purdue Cannon series, and you can make that five of six if they don’t get after it a whole lot harder than they have since the opener against Nebraska. Coach Bret Bielema would love to see his players compete as hard as the Boilermakers have thus far. Sheesh, even the trophy has the word “Purdue” in it. Boilers, 34-20.

No. 7 Texas A&M (-5½) at No. 16 Arkansas (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Arkansas officially is the home team at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but Texas A&M owns the joint. Should this rivalry game still be called the Southwest Classic if the Aggies beat the Razorbacks for the 10th year in a row? Woo! Pig! Upset!

Northern Illinois v Michigan
Corum keeps piling up the yards.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Rutgers (+20) at No. 19 Michigan (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Both teams are better than they were last season, when Michigan won a wild one 48-42. This one won’t be much like that one. Watch Blake Corum run the ball. Watch Aidan Hutchinson terrorize the quarterback. Watch the Wolverines win 37-14.

No. 9 Clemson (-10) at NC State (2:30 p.m., ESPN): Clemson’s offense is unrecognizable. Where’s the passing game? Where are the big plays? The defense is as good as any Dabo Swinney has had, though. The Wolfpack are 0-8 against the bullies of the ACC since 2011, when their QB was this really tall dude named Mike Glennon. Tigers, 20-13.

My favorite favorite: No. 20 Michigan State (-5) vs. Nebraska (6 p.m., FS1): Are we to believe the Huskers suddenly are good because they avoided getting blown out by Oklahoma? Give me the guys who went on the road and rag-dolled Northwestern and Miami.

My favorite underdog: West Virginia (+18) at No. 4 Oklahoma (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Maybe the Sooners have been saving everything for this prime-time ABC game and have a bunch of lightning strikes up their sleeves. We haven’t seen that customary brand of offense yet, though — and the Mountaineers can really bring it on “D.” Boomer in a close one.

Last week: 8-3 straight-up, 8-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 20-11 straight-up, 20-11 vs. the spread.