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No. 4 Notre Dame eyes Northwestern, not ratings

The Sports Xchange

October 30, 2018 at 7:22 pm.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly cares about plenty of things involving his program.

His players. His next opponent. His next wave of recruits. The alumni base.

But one thing Kelly decidedly does not care about is the first installment of the College Football Playoff rankings. He has more pressing concerns as No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) prepares to visit Northwestern (5-3) on Saturday night in Evanston, Ill.

“I want to pay attention to the last one,” Kelly said to reporters who asked about this week’s rankings. “That’s the one that really matters. Does this matter, this one? Do they put you in the playoffs for this one? I don’t think so.

“As I told our team, this one doesn’t really matter. We’ve been down this road before. We’ve been selected for this one, but it doesn’t get you anything. For us, the one that we’re interested in, the one that we’ll watch, probably we’ll watch it as a team, is the last one. That’s the one that we want to focus on. That’s the one we’ll pay attention to.”

Both teams are playing well as they enter the prime-time contest. The Fighting Irish are coming off a 44-22 victory over Navy, and the Wildcats have won four straight after a resounding 31-17 win over then-No. 19 Wisconsin.

Northwestern has won 12 of its past 13 games in the Big Ten — a statistic that has drawn Notre Dame’s attention. This week’s meeting represents an unusual high-stakes, nonconference showdown in the season’s second half.

“It’s unique, isn’t it?” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said to reporters this week. “My time here, this is as unique of an opportunity probably that we’ve had to play an outstanding football team, and (we) have a huge challenge in front of us.

“It’s pretty rare, but what a great opportunity. We’ve got nothing to lose, so our guys are going to prepare really well and be excited for the challenge and be excited for the opportunity. I’ve got a ton of respect for Brian Kelly, I’ve known him for a long time. A lot of guys on that staff, they do an outstanding job.”

Some key players have made their jobs easier. Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book has 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Running back Dexter Williams has seven scores and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Miles Boykin has six touchdown catches.

Notre Dame has talented players on defense, too, and that group will be tested by Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. The pro-style signal-caller has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, although he also has 10 interceptions.

Flynn Nagel is the Wildcats’ top receiving target with 711 yards and two touchdowns. Injuries have hindered the backfield, with freshman Isaiah Bowser (227 yards, 3 TDs) recently embracing a bigger role.

This is the first meeting between the teams at Ryan Field since Sept. 25, 1976, when Notre Dame cruised to a 48-0 win. Northwestern has won the past two matchups at Notre Dame Stadium, including a wild 43-40 overtime win on Nov. 15, 2014.

Kelly told his players to be ready for another challenge.

“We expect a tough game,” he said. “Our guys are prepared for it. They know going down there, it’s going to be a tough fight. We have a lot of respect for Northwestern, what they’ve accomplished. We know we have to play well. We’ve got to play with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm.

“We expect the atmosphere to be — that’s why they put these games on TV. They don’t put them on TV because there’s half full crowds and nobody cares. They know the environment is going to be really good.”