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Why Northwestern’s a smart spread pick against Notre Dame, with upset potential

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If Northwestern sprinkles some of its underdog magic on the Irish, things start to get interesting.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats host No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday night in a game that looks a lot more intriguing in Week 10 than it did at the start of the season.

The Fighting Irish are undefeated and in line for a Playoff bid. Northwestern’s 5-3 and sitting solo atop the Big Ten West in one of the weirdest developments of a weird season.

The Wildcats are 9.5-point underdogs at home. S&P+ projects a 13-point margin for the Irish, giving NU just a 22 percent chance to win. But there’s historical reason to think the Cats have a chance to be competitive, and certainly to cover the spread. That goes beyond their last meeting in 2014, when Northwestern won 43-40 as a 17-point dog.

Northwestern wins about one home game per year when it’s an underdog, including a couple recent ones with similar spreads to this one.

Here’s a look at Northwestern’s wins as a home dog since 2012:

  • Beat Wisconsin in Week 9 as a 4.5-point underdog
  • Beat Michigan State 39-31 in 2017 at home as a 1.5-point underdog
  • Beat Penn State 23-21 in 2015 at home as a 2.5-point underdog
  • Beat Stanford 16-6 at home in 2015 as a 10-point dog
  • Beat Wisconsin 20-14 at home in 2014 as a 7.5-point dog
  • Beat Vanderbilt 23-13 at home in 2012 as a 3-point underdog

Northwestern’s been an impressive underdog in general.

This game’s at home, but they’ve also won 10 of their last 20 games as road underdogs, including when they:

  • Beat Michigan State 29-29 in 2018 as a 10.5-point underdog
  • Beat Michigan State 54-40 in 2016 as a 6.5-point underdog
  • Beat Iowa 38-31 in 2016 as a 11.5-point underdog
  • Beat Wisconsin 13-7 in 2015 as a 12-point underdog
  • Beat Nebraska 30-28 in 2015 as a 7-point underdog
  • Beat Duke 19-10 in 2015 as a 3.5-point underdog

Over the years, Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have consistently won games they shouldn’t have won. They’ve been really good at pulling rabbits out of their hats, and it’s easy to see how that might translate to the Wildcats beating Vegas spreads.

These two teams don’t play each other that often, but this game should have some extra juice that might make it more interesting.

Notre Dame’s 37-9-2 all-time against NU and a better team. It’s a huge game for the Irish, trying to lock in a Playoff berth. It’s not the biggest standings game for NU, given that it doesn’t count toward the Big Ten race. But it’s still a chance for Fitzgerald’s program to build national respect as it makes a long-shot conference charge.

You could find betting trends to back up an argument for either team to do well. Northwestern’s 5-0 against the spread in its last five November games, and the Irish are 7-20 ATS in theirs. On another hand, ND’s 4-0 ATS in its last four true road games and 4-1 in its last five overall. That’s part of a 5-3 ATS record in 2018, compared to NU’s 4-3 with one push.

But expect Northwestern to make an extra huge deal out of this game. For one thing, it should be an emotional atmosphere in Evanston, given the Irish’s high ranking and that it’s a night kickoff. For another, Fitzgerald’s likely to get his guys revved up. When the Irish were struggling in 2009, Fitzgerald, a former Northwestern linebacker, took a shot:

“Even though we’re similar academically, we’re in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame. We’ve been consistently winning since 1995. They’re still saying they can do it, but we’re doing it.”

One of the most unforgettable Northwestern upsets over ND came in 1995, when the Wildcats were 27-point underdogs, and won 17-15 in South Bend.

Fitzgerald was on that Wildcat team. Northwestern went on to play in the Rose Bowl that year. 2018 Northwestern isn’t as big of an underdog, but maybe it’ll find similar magic.

Maybe more practically, Northwestern has a few football things going for it that could help it stay close against the Irish.

It’s probably going to be a defensive game. Both teams’ defenses are better than the offenses, and despite their reputations as plodding, mashing offenses, both are squarely in the upper half of FBS in Adjusted Pace. There shouldn’t be that many points in the first place.

More specifically, Northwestern has a strong enough run defense (No. 31 in S&P+, led by a mix of impressive sophomores and steady seniors) to muck things up for a while against a pretty mediocre Irish ground game. If Ian Book doesn’t have a huge game, why shouldn’t it be close?

Northwestern probably won’t win, but you could do worse if you’re looking for a potential upset in Week 10. Or if you’re betting on the underdog.