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Campus Check In: Surprising Illini face biggest test yet

CHAMPAIGN, IL - SEPTEMBER 09: Illinois running back Kendrick Foster (22) runs the ball during a non-conference college football game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, September 09, 2017, at Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL. Illinois won, 20-7. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – Modest expectations for Lovie Smith’s team in 2017 might have been somewhere around 3-to-4 wins.

Not that Illinois fans are particularly pessimistic, but a daunting task of rebuilding the program was inevitably going to take a little bit of time. Only this year have any of the second-year head coach’s recruits had a chance to hit the field. Keeping reasonable expectations, it seems, it the sensible thing to do as Smith tries to retool the program.

We’ll, if 3-or-4 wins was the goal, Illinois is either 50 percent or 66 percent there.

In what was a minor upset in itself – considering the Illini were a seven-point underdog – the Illini defense set the tone for a 20-7 victory over Western Kentucky at Memorial Stadium to improve to 2-0 on the season. Freshman Mike Epstein paced the offense with 111 yards on 21 carries and the young defense held a high-powered Hilltoppers offense to just 244 yards.

Youth, for one day, came through for Illinois in a surprise victory.

“It’s been documented how many young players we’re playing. Right now, I think I count 12 that have a significant role with our football team each time we play,” said Smith. “It says a lot, and they get better and better each time we play. It was good getting that win.”

Because getting another one is going to be a major, major task. Smith returns to his last coaching home – Raymond James Stadium in Tampa – to face No. 22 USF on Friday night at 6 PM. After having their game with UConn cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, the Bulls return to the field for the first time in two weeks after a 2-0 start to the season.

Senior quarterback Quinton Flowers leads a strong USF offense against that same young Illini defense that had success a week ago in Champaign. This week, that challenge gets stepped up quite a bit.

“It seemed like that win was three years ago,” said Smith, who got one less day to prepare for his toughest test of the season to date.

NORTHWESTERN: Bedeviled

EVANSTON – Inside of Wallace Wade Stadium last Saturday afternoon, Pat Fitzgerald didn’t mince words when it came to his team’s forgettable afternoon at Duke.

“They obviously wanted it more than we did,” said the Northwestern head coach after a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of the Blue Devils. “We were out-coached, out-executed and outplayed.”

Indeed it was a performance that featured everything the WIldcats weren’t supposed to be in 2017. Clayton Thornson threw a pair of interceptions, Justin Jackson was limited to seven carries due to being a bit “beat up” according to Fitzgerald, and the defense surrendered 538 yards. It’s not exactly what people were expecting out of a darkhorse Big Ten West Division championship contender.

They have a good chance to get themselves righted this week at home when the lights come on at Ryan Field on Saturday. In comes Bowling Green to Evanston, and they’ve endured quite a bad start to the season. A loss to Michigan State in the opener was followed by a home loss to FCS opponent South Dakota 35-27.

NOTRE DAME: Believing in their Bounce Back

SOUTH BEND – Despite a vow of change, it looked like 2016 all over again last week at Notre Dame Stadium.

Once again, the Irish had a strong effort against No. 15 Georgia but yet again it wasn’t enough in a one-point loss to the Bulldogs. Vowing to be a bit calmer this season, Brian Kelly had a tense exchange with a reporter after the game when asked about how the team might bounce back differently this year after a difficult loss and whether it could have a negative “Snowball” effect on the team.

“It’s not going to snowball,” snapped Kelly. “Next question.”

It earned the slightly embattled coach some more criticism as his team faced more questions heading into their third game of the season at Boston College at 2:30 PM on Saturday. It was a fair inquiry, considering a close loss to open the 2016 season at Texas led to a series of close losses the rest of the year in a 4-8 campaign.

Once again, Kelly was asked about the possibility of his team falling into the same trap again a season later. While regretting some of his comments on the same question on Saturday, he did double down on the faith he has in this teams.

“I really like our team. I think it’s a totally different scenario. I know that question was asked after the press conference, and I probably could have handled it a little bit better. But in the heat of the moment, my thoughts were on the game itself,” said Kelly on Tuesday. “I stay in the present. In the present, I really like the way our team is put together. I don’t think much about last year. I think about how our team played on Saturday. So my vision and my eyes are on how that team showed grit and toughness, didn’t back off.

“I just loved our sideline. Being able to walk up and down the sideline and sense, you know, their fight, how they felt about the game. Just a different feeling for me, and one where at the time it’s hard to articulate those thoughts and feelings right after a game. But staying in the present, my eyes and what I hear and what I see, it’s just a different team.”

NIU: Red Alert

DEKALB – As they get ready to leave home for the first time this season, Rod Carey’s team is headed to a major sea of red.

After a solid 38-19 win over Eastern Illinois last Saturday, Northern Illinois heads towards Lincoln for their first road game of the season at Nebraska.

It marks the third time that the Huskies have traveled into the red-clad Memorial Stadium, doing so back when the team was in the Big 8 conference. Both games weren’t close – with the Huskers winning the 1989 game 48-17 and then 60-14 the following season.

While the game is one of those scheduled by the school as a “money game,” it never hurts for a team to get a taste of a major crowd early in the season.

“Now, from our side of it, the competitive side of it, who doesn’t want to go play Nebraska?,” said Carey. “Like I just said, it’s one of the blue-blood programs in the nation, and a great environment. Those are awesome games to play in.”