Irish handle Northwestern test, unbeaten pressure, improve to 9-0
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The stakes were very different Saturday at Ryan Field.
For Northwestern, it was a rare nonconference game in November in which it could take a shot at a big upset while knowing its Big Ten prospects were looking bright.
Unbeaten Notre Dame knew a misstep in its first trip to Evanston since 1976 would jeopardize its quest for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
The Irish held on for a 31-21 victory after the Wildcats clawed their way back to 24-21 after falling behind 24-7.
Notre Dame improved to 9-0. Ranked fourth in the first CFP poll released last week, the Irish seem poised to move up to No. 3 this week in the wake of No. 1 Alabama’s 29-0 shutout of No. 3 LSU.
‘‘With the experience we have, it is easier,’’ Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love said of the pressure. ‘‘It’s just a bunch of seniors that are leading us in not feeling that [unbeaten] pressure. It’s a great feeling. It seems like Michigan was so long ago. The next step is 10-0, then 11-0. It’s just one game at a time.’’
The Irish head into the final month of the season bucking a troubling late-season trend. Since playing Alabama in the BCS championship game after the 2012 season, they are 5-11 against Power Five schools in November. Their 41-8 blowout loss last November at Miami that knocked them out of the playoff hunt was especially devastating.
‘‘They’ve been down this road a bit,’’ Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘We’re not last year’s team. It’s a different group of guys out front. I have to remind them of that.’’
NU fell to 5-4. Before the kickoff, though, the Wildcats got a big victory. Purdue’s 38-36 squeaker over Iowa means NU can win the Big Ten West even if it comes up short next Saturday in Iowa City.
‘‘Best atmosphere I’ve ever played in at Ryan Field,’’ Wildcats guard Tommy Doles said. ‘‘We were really excited about this game, so it’s very disappointing. But all our goals are ahead of us. We set out to win the West, and that’s what we plan to do.’’
NU (5-1) has a two-game lead in conference play over Iowa (3-3) and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against Purdue (4-2) and Wisconsin (4-2). So it basically has a two-game lead in the West with three games left.
The Wildcats also play at Minnesota on Nov. 17 before finishing at home Nov. 24 against Illinois.
If NU reaches the Big Ten championship game, it would be its first appearance. In the first four seasons of the current division alignment, Wisconsin won the West three times and Iowa once.
The Irish and Wildcats settled nothing in the first half. They were locked in a 7-7 tie punctuated by missed opportunities.
NU donned its 1962 throwback uniforms for the game, a salute to the last Wildcats team to beat Notre Dame in Evanston. NU had won the last two games between the schools, but both of those — a 43-40 victory in 2014 and a 17-15 victory in 1995 — had come in South Bend, Indiana.
In between 1962 and 1995, the Irish had won 14 consecutive games in the series. They also had been so impressed with the 1962 Wildcats that they hired away NU’s coach, Ara Parseghian.
Notre Dame broke the logjam midway through the third quarter, taking a 14-7 lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ian Book to Miles Boykin, who used his 6-4 frame and his agility to outduel the Wildcats’ secondary. The pass came one play after the Irish tried a flea-flicker that didn’t fool NU.
After stuffing the Wildcats, Notre Dame then took charge by going ahead 21-7 on a six-play, 98-yard drive. With the Irish stuck on the 2-yard line after a strong NU punt, Book connected with Chase Claypool for 31 yards.
Book then connected with Michael Young, who was open on a deep ball, for a 47-yard touchdown with 2:33 left in the third quarter. Book passed for 343 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 56 yards and another.
But the Wildcats, who were outgained 464 yards to 141, refused to go quietly. NU closed to 24-14 on a 27-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson to receiver Riley Lees with 11:16 left.
The Wildcats then struck again, scoring on a one-yard sneak by Thorson with 7:05 left that left them down 24-21. Cameron Ruiz blocked a Notre Dame punt to set up the 17-yard scoring drive.
Book, however, settled the issue by answering with a 23-yard run around left end that put the Irish in charge 31-21 with 2:45 left.
‘‘It’s a pretty awesome feeling,’’ Book said. ‘‘It’s hard to win in November.’’
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