CAMPUS CHECK-IN: Irish enthusiasm comes alive with trip to “Death Valley”

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Notre Dame running CJ Prosise breaks a tackle in the Irish' 62-27 win over UMass.

SOUTH BEND – If the road to the national championship were divided into steps by hopeful Notre Dame fans, this would be considered a major turn on that journey.

Texas has tradition. Georgia Tech had some momentum. But Clemson is someone different.

They, like the Irish, are a national championship contender and came into the season as one of those teams on the shortlist to make the four-team playoff in Augusts. An October 4th meeting at Clemson Memorial Stadium (AKA Death Valley) was viewed as a moment for each team to prove they deserve to play some extra football in January.

That week has arrived-and neither squad has disappointed so far. Outside of a collection of season-ending injuries, Notre Dame has been solid in racing to a 4-0 record to start the season. The 12th-ranked Tigers have done the same in starting the year 3-0-getting there with a close win at Louisville two weeks ago.

“I would say just the competition. It just brings out the best in everybody,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. It brings out the best in the players and the coaches. I think that’s — everybody wants to be challenged. Everybody wants to get that opportunity to compete at the highest level, and this will be one of those opportunities.”

Last year a young Irish squad got that chance when they traveled to top-ranked Florida State in October. Kelly’s team was competitive and actually took the lead in the final seconds with a touchdown, but when it was called back they lost the game and so went their season. They lost four of their next five games after six-straight wins to open the season to finish 7-5.

A majority of those players are back for this major game under the lights on the road. Despite the loss and what happened after, Kelly believes a similar approach by this team heading into Clemson gives them a shot to keep their national title hopes alive.

“I thought our kids handled that very well. Didn’t have a lot of communication errors on the field. Just didn’t make a play or two maybe at the end that we needed to,” said Kelly of that Florida State game in 2014.  “I think we’ll continue in that same vein. Most of these kids played in that game. So I think we’ll have a lot of carry-over, and we’ll talk in terms of the same kind of environment, very similar, I believe, that we’ll talk about this week in terms of how we’ll need to prepare.”

NORTHWESTERN: Cat-ober? Not Lately

EVANSTON – When it comes to surprise teams in the Big Ten, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad might be right at the top.

Starting with their upset of then 21st-ranked Stanford in the opening week and continuing through their win over Ball State on Saturday, Northwestern has put themselves into the West Division title conversation with a 4-0 start to the season.

But some level-headed Wildcats fans know to curb their September enthusiasm. That’s because October is on the way-and it’s not exactly been the month of success lately for Northwestern.

Since 2011 Fitzgerald’s team is 4-12 in the month of October. Seasons that started with promise faded away in the middle of the fall-especially in 2012 when the Wildcats went from Big Ten title contenders to also-rans when they went 0-4 in the month.

Don’t think the team hasn’t thought about it as they once again start Big Ten play in the month of October with Minnesota at home on Saturday.

“At this point you understand your past, but you have to flush it, you’ve got to be ready to play now,” said senior defensive lineman Deonte Gibson of the normally treacherous month. “Everything that happened in prior years says that we’ll struggle in October. I don’t believe so. So we’ve just got to come ready for tomorrow, ready for the rest of the week, and so on and so forth, to prepare to win.”

One explanation for the slump is the fact that Northwestern classes begin at the end of September which is later than a majority of the schools the Wildcats face. The team began their normal class schedule just last week which means the amount of work for the players increases once October rolls along.

Offensive lineman Shane Mertz believes a strong veteran core in 2015 might help the Wildcats when it comes to knowing how to handle the extra load.

“I think the leadership on the team is excellent this year,” said Mertz when asked about October. “We’re holding each other accountable. It think that’s the biggest when it comes to the switch for us. We’re not in school in September and now we’re in school. It’s no excuse. It doesn’t change the fact that you should be watching just as much film if not more than you we’re in September.

“Holding each other accountable is what’s going to get us on the right track.”

If the players haven’t been doing that themselves as October approaches, Fitzgerald has been giving them some encouragement too.

“We talked to them a lot about it during the offseason and talked about it again last week. No excuses. I think I spoke about it last week on Monday that football cannot be an excuse for academic performance and vice versa. Our guys time managed pretty well last week I thought and I expect now that we are in to our routine-some semblance of normalcy, I think they’ll be fine. I think they’ll be ready to go.”

ILLINOIS: Challenges are abound for Illini in another Huskers Big Ten opener

CHAMPAIGN – For a third-straight year, the Illini will have to go through the Big Red to start in the black in the Big Ten season.

The last two times didn’t go so well for Illinois as the Cornhuskers dominated each-winning by a combined score of 84-33.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. will try to make it another long day for the Illini when they visit Champaign for their Big Ten opener at 2:30 PM Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Right now he leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (1,266), completions (89) and touchdowns (11) through the non-conference season and his performance has caught the eye of head coach Bill Cubit.

“Armstrong, I think, is really playing well; throwing the ball really well,” said Cubit. “They’ve got some wide outs that I think are pretty good players.”

The Illini didn’t exactly establish faith in the fanbase that they might be up for pulling the surprise on Saturday with a suspect finish to the non-conference season. After being humbled by North Carolina on the road Illinois needed a late 51-yard field goal to survive an upset big at the hands at Middle Tennessee.

In that game the Blue Raiders passes for 330 yards and had a chance to win the game with a field goal in the final seconds. The kick went wide giving the Illini a two-point win, but Cubit knows they will have to be better to knock off the Cornhuskers.

“Despite some of those things we didn’t play that well. We’re very fortunate,” said Cubit of the Middle Tennessee game. “That’s the landscape of college football. If you go down and just check the scores there’s probably about 10 of them who will hit you in the face and go ‘now how’d that ever happen?’ But that’s just the way the game is played and that’s why we play them.

“We’re happy with the win.”

Northern Illinois: Title defense and some revenge, too

DEKALB – They may only have a .500 record in their non-conference schedule, but the Huskies proved they are still going to be the one to beat in the MAC.

Northern Illinois had top-ranked Ohio State on the ropes in Columbus and were in the contest till the end against ACC opponent Boston College. In each of those games Rod Carey’s team came a possession short of a victory and perhaps a place back in the national rankings.

But the biggest season is now ahead for the Huskies as they being Mid-American Conference play at Central Michigan. It’s also a game that might give the NIU a bit of motivation if they look back a season.

Last year the Chippewas were the only team to beat Northern Illinois in the conference’s regular season and snapped the team’s 28-game home winning streak. In fact the last time that the Huskies lost on the road in the conference came in Mount Pleasant back in 2011. Since then NIU has won their last 15 MAC games on the road.