CAMPUS CHECK IN: Playoff dreams for the Irish?
SOUTH BEND – Once they lost their second game of the year by a point at home to arguably their best opponent of the year. Already questions were being asked if this Notre Dame team was headed down the same path as the one that finished with four wins the year before.
In 2017, however, Brian Kelly’s group was resilient after a loss to Georgia in South Bend and ripped off four-straight wins before the bye week. In the process, the Irish have climbed back up to No. 13 in the rankings as positive vibes have returned to the Irish for the first time in two years.
Now the Irish enter a stretch in which four of their next six opponents are ranked – starting with No. 11 USC for a night game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday evening. It suddenly opens up the possibility that, with a bit of help, Kelly’s team could play their way back into the College Football Playoff conversation.
The coach, of course, wasn’t ready for that dialogue yet. Still he does recognize the importance of this weekend, both from a historical perspective and the consequences for this season.
“Like I said, I think it’s important that our players are aware of the game and the circumstances because that’s why they come here. It’s important not to just bury your head in the sand; be aware of it,” said Kelly of the USC game. “Having said that, that has no bearing on our preparation. It has no bearing on what we need to do relative to our habits and our traits.”
Neither does the help of Brandon Wimbush, who took the off week to heal up the ankle that kept him from starting the game against North Carolina two weeks ago.
“There are to questions about his health so I think we can put that to rest in terms of how he is. He’s 100 percent,” said Kelly of Wimbush. “There’s no health issues at all. I think he continues to grow and develop as a quarterback, in just his, really, his fifth start, right. He’ll go into his sixth start.”
NORTHWESTERN: JJ’s Record
EVANSTON – This may not end up being the Big Ten title season that Northwestern fans might have dreamed of, but one thing that everyone believed what happened came true last week in College Park.
All of it happened on a simple three-yard run in the first quarter.
But with that, running back Justin Jackson became the Wildcats’ All-Time leading rusher, surpassing Damien Anderson who had 4,485 yards in his time in Evanston. Not only did he beat that mark, but he already put some distance between himself and Anderson with a 171-yard performance in a 34-31 win over Maryland.
“He’s a great. He’s the ‘G.O.A.T, – the greatest of all time running the ball in our program,” said Fitzgerald of Jackson. “We’ve won a lot of football games because of him. It all starts up front. Our offensive line takes a beating, but it’s unbelievable, they just produced the all-time leading rusher in program history.”
Jackson is now up to 510 yards in 2017 with 4.7 yards per carry average and six touchdowns. He’ll try to add to his to his total against 4-2 Iowa at Ryan Field at 11 AM on Saturday.
ILLINOIS: Reality Sets In
CHAMPAIGN – Those who got up a bit early on Saturday morning in hopes of seeing something good got a rude awakening – at the hands of the Scarlet Knights nonetheless.
In one of the Big Ten games where Illinois was given a reasonable chance to win, Rutgers instead took advantage of the young team in their home stadium.
Instead the Illini turned it over three times, fell behind 21-10 in the first half and never recovered in a 35-24 defeat. That’s five-straight losses for Lovie Smith’s team who stars the youngest roster in FCS, and leaves many wondering if Illinois will be able to pick up a conference win in 2017.
The next try comes against a Minnesota, whom at least the Illini have some familiarity with even thought they’re in the first year of a new coaching regime. This is because Illinois faced P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan team early in the 2016 season. With many of the Gophers’ players returning from that squad as well, at least Smith knows what they are up against.
“Well, you know of course it’s the same personnel. A lot of the same personnel we played against last year. So we’re familiar with that. Also playing Western Michigan last year, we’re familiar with their schemes,” said Smith. “So we feel like we have a good game plan to go off. As I mentioned they’ve lost three games in a row. So they’re gonna search for answers too.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Finding Their Groove
DEKALB – After a season in which Northern Illinois wasn’t quite up to what they once were, things have returned to normal in DeKalb.
The Huskies are 2-0 in the conference after squeaking by Buffalo on the road 14-13 last Saturday. Their record is up to 4-2 on the season and can match their total from last year as they hit the road to face struggling Bowling Green at noon on Saturday.
Unlike the past, the Northern Illinois defense has been the story so far this season. They’re allowing just 16.7 points per game, which is tied for 12th-best in FBS.
“I think that they have had, minus a few days here and there, since fall camp they have had some really good prep days. For the most part, they have really pushed themselves and we have pushed them as a coaching staff,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey of the defense. “The hard thing to do is to go from good to great. That’s a lot harder than going from average to good. That takes a lot of attention to detail and being really focused on the job at hand. They’ve done that.
“Now the challenge is, now that they’ve done it, doesn’t all of a sudden mean they’re going to do it again.”
Carey also said at his weekly news conference that redshirt freshman Marcus Childers will likely get the start at quarterback.