Campus Check In: A final push for bowl berths

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Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) aims for a receiver in the second quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Wisconsin won, 21-7. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

EVANSTON – After watching the first two games of the season, a chance to play an extra game in 2016 might have seemed unlikely for the team on the North Shore.

But a great October has put Northwestern in a position to qualify for the postseason for the second-consecutive season.

With a 4-5 record, the Wildcats need to win two of their final three games to qualify for a bowl game. The goal would seem within reach considering that two of the Wildcats’ final three opponents have just three wins on the season.

That includes the Wildcats’ opponent this Saturday, the Purdue Boilermakers. They’ve had a trying season in which they have just one conference win and had a midseason coaching change after the firing of Darrell Hazell in October.

After a meeting with Big Ten West leader Minnesota on the road on November 19th, Pat Fitzgerald’s team will face Illinois at home in the regular season finale. While two wins are certainly within reach, the Wildcats do feel plenty of urgency as they start their push towards a bowl game.

“Earlier in the year I talked about it after our slow start, we had two losses, we were 1-2 and then 1-3 with Nebraska and I said our backs were against the wall and our backs are against the wall again,” said senior defensive lineman C.J. Simmons. “We have three games, we need at least two more wins to make a bowl, three more wins to solidify a good bowl, any bowl.

“Our backs are against the wall, that sense of urgency needs to be raised on the defensive side of the ball. We need to fly around, our effort needs to go up, our playmaking needs to go up and we need to create turnovers for the offense so we can get points on the board and just get the thing rolling.”

ILLINOIS: Win Or Stay Home, Part I

CHAMPAIGN – Going into November many didn’t expect Lovie Smith’s team to be in a great position to play in a postseason bowl game considering the rebuild ahead.

But as the team heads for their final three games of the season there is still a chance they can get bowl eligible. It will, however, take a major upset to start things off.

The Illini head to Madison to face No. 8 Wisconsin at 2:30 PM. The Badgers come into the contest 7-2 and winners of three-straight games and sport the third-best defense in points against, allowing 13.8 points a game.

“We know we’re going to have to be at the top of our game,” said Smith of Wisconsin. “We’ll need to play better than we did this past week. We realize who we’re playing, but what an opportunity for our young football team to have a chance to play a great team like that, to have to go on the road and play a better game than we played this past week.”

Oddly enough, that was Illinois’ second win of the Big Ten season against a tumbling Michigan State team. Should the Illini knock off the Badgers, they would have to beat Iowa (5-4) at home then Northwestern (4-5) to stay bowl eligible.

NOTRE DAME: Win or Go Home, Part II

SOUTH BEND – This is the one team that many thought wouldn’t be facing a “Win or Stay Home” situation at the beginning of the season.

But a season of failed expectations and narrow defeats have put Notre Dame in that situation with three games left.

At 3-6, the Irish must beat Army in San Antonio in the Shamrock Series game this week then knock off Virginia Tech at home then USC on the road just to qualify for a postseason game.

It’s a far cry from their 10-2 season from a year ago in which they spent a good part of the second half of the season in the hunt for the national championship playoff.

Instead head coach Brian Kelly is left to think what might have been. All of the Irish’ losses this season have been by eight points or less – three of them coming by three points. Not that it makes things any better or the path to a bowl game an easier.

“Well, I mean we’re all going through a tough spot, but we’re persevering,” said Kelly of the team’s mindset heading into the final stretch of the season. “It’s not where anybody wants to be. But we’re handling the situation as best we can and we’re trying to make certain that everything that we do makes us stronger for right now and for the future.”

Northern Illinois: Not The Right Rate

DEKALB – Unlike the other three FBS teams in the state, the Huskies’ hopes for a bowl are likely dashed.

It came on a night when they made some Chicago history.

Northern Illinois took on Toledo Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field in the first football game in the venue’s 25-year history. For three quarters, the Huskies lived up to the big stage in one of their best games of the year, leading the Rockets 21-17 heading to the fourth.

But Toledo had the better finish, outscoring Northern Illinois 14-3 to become the first team to win a football game in the South Side baseball stadium.

“I know that there’s not one consistent thing. You can’t go ahead and say, ‘this is it.’ If we could’ve, we would’ve already done it and assessed it and the record would be different,” said Carey, whose team has struggled in the final 15 minutes during this 3-7 season. It’s been a few different things here and there that have come up in different situations. I also know those situations are similar to what we faced in the past in year’s previous and we’ve made those plays with some of the same guys that are playing now. I know we have the ability to make them.

“We just have to mind our Ps and Qs and pay attention to the moment and those situations a little better.”

Most likely Northern Illinois’ nine-year bowl streak will be snapped unless enough teams don’t get to 6-6 to fill the bowl schedule. Even then the Huskies would have to win their final two games against Eastern Michigan (6-4) and Kent State (3-7) just to reach 5-7.