Notre Dame, Northwestern headed in right direction

Irish, Wildcats promise to make it a compelling season

Finally, I don't need an NBC promo to oversell me anything about Notre Dame football.

Nor do I need ESPN Classic to watch Notre Dame win a meaningful football game.

For the first time in years, the product on the field matches the hype — no small feat at a place with its own TV network — and Notre Dame football present elicits shades of its storied past. Put the blue-and-gold blinders back in the drawer next to the rosary and "Rudy" DVD. You don't need them to see how this Notre Dame team looks more legitimate and letdown-proof than any since the Holtz Era because of a fierce defense and formidable offensive line.

Notre Dame realistically could start the season 7-0 even with a difficult schedule that includes Miami and Stanford after Saturday's home game against Michigan.

About 115 miles west across Lake Michigan, Northwestern really should do the same.

The 3-0 Wildcats, the only college football team with wins over three BCS programs, play South Dakota at home Saturday before hosting Indiana and playing at Penn State and Minnesota.

Could this be the first season since 1995 Notre Dame and Northwestern each win at least nine games?

Autumn Saturdays in the pro sports-saturated market that is Chicago tend to be spent planning Bears tailgate parties or raking leaves. How refreshing to have two college football programs ignoring the Allen Pinkett recruiting handbook and demanding our attention with so many student-athletes who respect the left side of the hyphen. Leaders in academia such as Notre Dame and Northwestern starting strong suggests teams indeed can have good seasons without necessarily needing bad guys. Stanford, No. 9 after upsetting USC, offers more proof.

The other obvious trait Notre Dame and Northwestern share involves a rare but welcome reliance on a defense that responds to challenges.

In the days after Northwestern nearly blew a 22-point lead against Syracuse, coach Pat Fitzgerald vowed improvement based on better coverage technique. I scoffed, convinced defensive backs who played the football as poorly as Northwestern's did couldn't learn something so instinctive so quickly. Yet impressive defensive efforts against Vanderbilt and Boston College have demonstrated Northwestern's dedication to fundamentals just as Fitz promised.

Likewise, Notre Dame's defensive front seven has played as if it is hell-bent on establishing a new tradition. Not since 1988 — yes, it has been nearly a quarter-century since Notre Dame has won a national championship — has an Irish defense given up fewer points in the first three games than this one (30). It usually starts with nose guard Louis Nix and end Stephon Tuitt and often ends with linebacker Prince Shembo or Manti Te'o colliding with a running back. They get to the ball in bad moods. And they get to the ball quicker than any Notre Dame defense I can recall.

In the past, Notre Dame has struggled mightily trying to stop Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. But this defense, full of speedy, athletic types coach Brian Kelly recruited, barely resembles any from Notre Dame's recent past other than the gold helmets. The loss of injured safety Jamoris Slaughter hurts, but a secondary now with three converted offensive players as starters has proved to be resourceful. A fierce pass rush also lessens that liability.

Having a dominant defense also relieves the pressure on sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, a promising prospect still error-prone enough to make me wonder if steady Tommy Rees eventually might fit better as a game manager as the stakes increase.

Notre Dame thinks it can play in a BCS bowl. So does Northwestern, which doesn't play Wisconsin and Ohio State in a down year for the Big Ten.

I can't say either suggestion sounds outrageous. Nor have I seen any signs to suggest overconfidence will undermine either team — quite the contrary.

Fitzgerald greeted his Northwestern players Monday by staging competition for starting jobs at all but three positions on offense. Given the quality of opponents until Nebraska comes to Ryan Field on Oct. 20, the team that poses the biggest threat to Northwestern losing is Northwestern. Fitzgerald cannot say so, but his tough-love actions this week hint that he agrees.

Kelly took a similar approach coming off a road victory over Michigan State. In terms of style and substance, this W counted for more than just one win; as significant to Kelly's program as it was his team. More in tune with his environment in Year 3, Kelly quickly cautioned the Irish against getting caught up in the hype.

"We didn't give out any rings to anybody,'' Kelly said. "We have a long way to go.''

But, finally, it appears Notre Dame football found a map.

Northwestern seems headed in the same direction.

What a compelling season it promises to be if neither program loses its compass.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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