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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Ask Observer Sports: Breaking down Notre Dame’s 2014 collapse against Northwestern

We asked you to Ask The Observer Sports Department and you responded with the request: “Northwestern @ Notre Dame 2014 Football Breakdown”. That game was a heartbreaking loss for a Notre Dame team that had started 6-0 before stumbling down the stretch to a 7-5 record. A bowl game win over LSU salvaged some optimism for the program’s future, but that loss to Northwestern was a shocking result that contributed to one of the more appalling stretches of Irish football in the Brian Kelly era.

Key takeaways

The Irish had a young defense in 2014, and that proved to be their undoing. Plus, a mistake-prone offense ruined a lot of big chances to put the game away. They committed four turnovers, fumbling three times, twice within the Northwestern five-yard line. Another came at the Northwestern 31 with a chance to run out the clock, and the lone interception was thrown at the Northwestern 28. While the Irish forced four turnovers of their own, missing so many chances in plus opportunity cost them at least a couple of touchdowns.

On defense, big plays and poorly-timed penalties haunted the Irish. They committed key penalties on multiple Northwestern drives and were gashed by a few 40+ yard runs, timely quarterback runs and a few big passing plays.

Special teams miscues also cost the Irish in the vicinity of 10 points against Northwestern. Two missed field goals, a missed PAT that turned into a Northwestern safety and a failed conversion on a questionable decision to go for two points all became key points that doomed the Irish in a three-point, overtime loss.

Flaws hidden by a 6-0 start featuring five victories over unranked teams and only one true road game — which included two one-possession games — became apparent down the stretch for Notre Dame, and the Irish delivered a collapse for the ages against Northwestern at Notre Dame Stadium.

Lead up to the game

Notre Dame entered the game on the heels of a crushing loss to Arizona State. After starting 6-0, Notre Dame stumbled at then-No. 2 Florida State, 31-27, after the still-controversial offensive pass interference call took away a game-winning touchdown pass. Playoff hopes remained afloat for the Irish, but two weeks later, Notre Dame fell in ugly fashion, 55-31 to No. 9 Arizona State. That left the Irish with two losses in three games and ranked 18th in the country. The ceiling of their 2014 team dropped to a New Year’s Six Bowl at best, but that would require winning out.

Northwestern entered as one of the coldest teams in the country. They had lost four straight games and scored no more than 29 points in any game. During their skid, they hadn’t exceeded 17 points. The Wildcats entered Notre Dame Stadium with a 3-6 record. They looked ill-equipped to face an angry Irish team that riding a seven-game home winning streak.

Notre Dame was led in 2014 by Everett Golson, the quarterback who brought the Irish back to the national championship in the 2012-13 season. However, his 2014 campaign was a rocky one, with Golson throwing 29 touchdown passes but also 14 interceptions. The Irish were led by running back Tarean Folston and wide receiver Will Fuller, each over 1,000 all-purpose yards. Their defense generated a lot of turnovers, notching 16 interceptions on the year, but also struggled to stop their opponents without those turnovers, allowing over 29 points per contest. Safety Matthias Farley tied for the team lead in both sacks (3.5) and interceptions (four).

Irish started fast

Before the game, head coach Brian Kelly told NBC sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen that he expected Golson to play well, despite throwing four interceptions at Arizona State. Kelly noted they would let him be aggressive and get off to a good start. He also said that it was important for his young defense to continue to grow each game. Facing the ice-cold Wildcats offense seemed like the perfect recipe for accomplishing as much.

The hope for defensive improvement was ultimately in vain, but Golson did come out aggressive. He threw on the first three plays. After a pair of incompletions, Golson fired a 14-yard third-down pass under pressure from his blind side. On the ensuing play, Golson called his own number and showed impressive burst to run 61 yards for the score. A strong offensive start for the Irish against a weak Northwestern offense was part of the recipe for an easy win, and Golson delivered.

However, the first sign of things going wrong happened on Northwestern’s first possession. On paper, the Irish should have dominated the Wildcats, but that didn’t happen early. Northwestern marched 74 yards on nine plays for a touchdown. They moved the chains via a pair of solid third-down conversions. Then, at midfield, the Irish’s struggling rush defense struck again. Northwestern dominated at the line, and one offensive lineman absolutely obliterated freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan downfield, keying a 44-yard run. From there, an Irish penalty gave Northwestern multiple chances from inside the six-yard line and they converted easily. Poor situational defense, a bad penalty and failing to prevent big plays. Trends that often hurt young defenses hurt Notre Dame on that first drive.

The Irish needed some veteran leadership from the defense, which they got on the next drive. A pair of fifth-years in Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth combined for a scoop-and-score touchdown. However, the PAT was blocked and returned for a safety, cutting the Notre Dame lead to 13-9.

The game script continued to favor the Irish, as they earned a stop on downs on the ensuing Northwestern possession. Then, they blitzed the Wildcats’ defense for 64 yards in four plays, taking a 20-9 lead. The mood in Notre Dame stadium was energetic, and the Irish, after a sluggish defensive start, looked strong on both sides of the ball. 

What went wrong? 

In baseball, after a big inning, there’s something called a shutdown inning — holding an opponent scoreless after scoring a few runs of your own. Notre Dame, up 11 points with a hot offense, could have used a big shutdown possession from their defense after taking command. They forced a third and 10. Northwestern, showing little confidence in their offense, called for a draw play. But, the conservative play call resulted in a 45-yard run, gashing the heart of the Irish defense. Another third down conversion, and another 40+ yard rush. Northwestern gained another 25 yards on three rushes and eventually scored on a four-yard touchdown pass. Instead of a quick stop, Notre Dame allowed Northwestern to close within 20-16 in the opening seconds of the second quarter.

A punt and a turnover brought the Irish’s offensive momentum to a screeching halt. The turnover came via a Golson interception that was returned 65 yards. Northwestern needed one play to gain the remaining four yards and take a 23-20 lead. Suddenly, Northwestern, in just the first half, had nearly matched the most points they had scored all season. 

Although Notre Dame scored to take the lead, 27-23, heading into the locker room, the momentum felt decidedly against the Irish. Northwestern had again gashed the Irish defense with a big play, a 60-yard pass, but Notre Dame bailed themselves out with an interception. Even then, they followed up that burst of energy with a missed 38-yard field goal. Without special teams miscues, the Irish could have led by 10.

Second Half

To open the second half, the Irish allowed yet another explosive play. This time, it was a 29-yard pass from Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian. Siemian later ran for 16 yards to bring the Wildcats into the red zone. A sack halted the drive, but Northwestern still gained a field goal and held plenty of offensive confidence. Notre Dame failed to regain any momentum. They went three-and-out, but the Irish defense forced a fumble. Notre Dame took over at the Northwestern 21. After a 16-yard run, they promptly fumbled, their second turnover inside the Wildcats’ 30. 

Like in the first half, however, Notre Dame seemingly seized control. Nothing came of the Irish fumble, and Notre Dame scored on their next possession to take a 34-26 lead. More missed opportunities haunted the Irish, as they fumbled again inside the Northwestern five-yard line. However, the Wildcats couldn’t capitalize, and Notre Dame scored again. The Irish went for two points, a questionable decision at best. The Irish failed, allowing Northwestern to stay within eleven. Unforced errors — failed extra-point conversions, a missed field goal and two turnovers within five yards of the end zone — kept the game within striking distance.

Still, with barely six minutes remaining, all Notre Dame needed to do was not surrender a pair of scoring drives to a struggling Northwestern offense. Enter Notre Dame’s young defense. Notre Dame allowed a third-down conversion and then promptly committed a personal foul. Another big Siemian run, this one for 15 yards, brought Northwestern to the red zone, and they scored and converted a two-point conversion. With 4:10 remaining, Notre Dame led, 40-37. 

The Irish offense converted a pair of first downs, and Northwestern began burning timeouts. The Irish needed one first down to seal the result. Even if they didn’t get it, a couple of runs and a punt would have given Northwestern under 40 seconds to work with and likely a full field to drive to tie the game. 

Irish senior running back Cam McDaniel fumbles in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s 43-40 overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Observer File Photos)
Irish senior running back Cam McDaniel fumbles in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s 43-40 overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (Michael Yu | The Observer File Photos)

Instead, senior running back Cam McDaniel fumbled, and Northwestern drove 44 yards for the game-tying 45-yard field goal. In overtime, the two offenses combined to gain a single yard. The difference? Special teams, yet again. Notre Dame missed their field goal, and Northwestern made theirs, sealing the stunning 43-40 upset.

It was a collapse of the highest order for Notre Dame. While a road loss to a top-ten team, even a bad one, was somewhat forgivable, this game wasn’t. The season went down the drain, and Notre Dame couldn’t get itself out of a largely self-inflicted collapse. They lost to No. 24 Louisville at home the next week, and then they traveled to their unranked rivals at USC. The Trojans laughed the Irish out of the stadium en route to a 49-14 win, sending the spiraling boys in blue and gold to a 7-5 record. It was the only four-game losing stretch of the Brian Kelly era, a skid started at Arizona State but truly set in motion by a stunning loss to Northwestern.

2014 Observer Coverage

Notre Dame falls to Northwestern, 43-40, by Alex Carson

Missed opportunities doom Irish, by Mary Green