Campus Check In: For Illinois and Northwestern, it has been an adventure

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 28: at Soldier Field on November 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 28: at Soldier Field on November 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

EVANSTON – Starting 0-2, then going over .500, then falling back under again.

No wonder Pat Fitzgerald is referencing children’s books when trying to find a good way to tell the story of his 2016 Northwestern team. Frankly, it’s quite fitting for his group.

“It’s been a ‘Choose your own adventure book,'” said Fitzgerald of his Wildcats. “I pretty much have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, maybe even Chapter 3 which are the first three days of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then come the weekend, I kinda got to Chapter 5 for a win and I go onto Chapter 6 for a loss.

“So we’ve just got to get our minds right.”

If they want to go to a bowl game they’d better.

The teeter-totter season has produced a 5-6 record through 11 games with the Wildcats on a bit of a downturn over the past month after three-straight wins in October. Close losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin plus a win at Purdue were encouraging, but a rough afternoon at Minnesota in a 29-12 defeat last week have Northwestern on the brink of missing a bowl after a ten-win season a year ago.

A rivalry game awaits against an Illinois team that’s struggled to just three wins in the first year of the Lovie Smith era. Don’t think the players don’t understand that choosing “Chapter 5” is going to be quite important for the Wildcats.

“We have to play like dogs, your know, with our backs against the wall,” said junior defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster. “That’s when we come out and show who we really are. This is a big game, this is our championship.”

ILLINOIS: The Fight For Four

CHAMPAIGN – As their opponents fight to play another day, all Illinois has to fight for is an extra addition to the trophy case.

At 3-8, Smith’s first season with the Illini ends win or lose on Saturday at Ryan Field. But don’t exactly rule out the power of a fourth victory, according to the first-year head coach.

“It would do quite a bit. For the morale, of course. We talk a lot about finishing. You remember the last thing that you do, simple as that,” said Smith. “This is a taste that we will have for a while and we want to transition right into recruiting the right way on a high.”

But how will those prospective players look on an Illini program that has just three-or-four wins this past season?  With a long-term contract in place, Smith hopes the recruits will be persuaded by their pitch for the future.

“That is what we are selling. It is our first year. You know in your first year, you would like to win every game. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. Now where we are, it is about our future,” said Smith. “You have to look at our future and whether you believe we are headed in the right direction and whether you want to be a part of us winning games in the future.

“I think a lot of prospects can see themselves in our program, starting with the Chicago area.”

NOTRE DAME: Kelly Stands Up For His Program

SOUTH BEND – In just three months, he’s gone from a coach of a team looking like a playoff contender to a bit embattled.

As if slipping to 4-7 on the season weren’t bad enough for Brian Kelly, the NCAA came calling on Tuesday with some more bad news in an already rough 2016 season.

Due to academic misconduct by a former student trainer, the Irish have been ordered to vacate wins during the 2012 and 2013 season. That’s 21 victories off the books – including the ones in the run to the BCS National Championship game in 2012 – along with a year of probation.

While his team still has one more game left against USC this weekend in Los Angeles, Kelly has spent most of the week on the defensive following the punishment.

“It’s never happened before, in the history of the NCAA. A penalty has never been issued in this fashion before,” said Kelly. “I think that qualifies for being — first of all, it was discretionary. This was a discretionary action by the committee. That’s number one.

“Number two, it was student on student cheating. There was nobody implicated. The NCAA agreed across the board with that finding. And it was clearly excessive.”

The coach defended his actions a number of times during the news conference on campus on Tuesday. He was quick to praise the actions of the university and support staff in response to the actions by the student trainer along with his confidence that he’ll return to South Bend in 2017.

With the porous record and this punishment handed down, some speculation has started about Kelly not returning to the Irish next season.

“I have no reason to believe that I’m not. No one — like I said, I mean, I think you guys are confusing this statement with the win-loss record. A win-loss record is always under scrutiny at Notre Dame, and it should be. That’s part of it,” said Kelly when asked if he believed he would be back next year. “But this matter here has been a long-standing matter that the University has handled, handled in a positive way relative to how we handled it internally. Everybody has felt that — every support staff member has represented Notre Dame in a positive way.

“Today’s statement should be a validation that my collateral responsibilities at Notre Dame as the head coach are outstanding. However, he’s got to win more football games. And so that hasn’t changed. We’re still 4-7. So if you want me to answer you the question on 4-7, I think every football coach that’s 4-7 has got to win more football games.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Navigating Thanksgiving

DEKALB – Being in the Mid-American Conference means getting used to a non-traditional schedule.

Northern Illinois has dealt with that the past few years as the conference has moved games to midweek in hopes of getting more national exposure on television.

Friday presents another traditional quirk for the Huskies as they play the day after Thanksgiving – nine days after their victory over Eastern Michigan. Rod Carey’s will go for their fifth victory – and an outside shot at a bowl game – at Kent State the day after the holiday, which makes for a bit of a creative schedule to the week.

“We’re going to have practice tomorrow. Tomorrow night after practice, we’re going to come out and celebrate Thanksgiving with the coaches’ families and players and all of us right here. Wednesday morning we don’t have class so we’re going to come back and practice. Then we’ll release the guys that can get home around noon,” said Carey. “Let them get home and our guys that can’t go home, some will go with them, some will go with the coaches. Thursday, Thanksgiving, when we come back in, we want to be in normal routine.

“We want to be in that routine of here we go, we’re ready to go traveling. Get to the hotel and have a nice meal there too.”