CAMPUS CHECK IN: For once, the Illini are the favorites

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LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 01: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini looks over the field against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Illinois 31-16. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – For a program that has struggled for the past few years, this week brings a rare opportunity for Illinois.

The chance to be a favorite.

It won’t happen much for Lovie Smith this season as he continues to slowly build the Illini program after a messy three years under Tim Beckman and an interim year with Bill Cubit. But facing a Purdue team that’s been trapped in their own rebuild for three years gives Illinois a solid opportunity at Memorial Stadium to get their first Big Ten victory on Saturday.

“You look at their record, and I’m talking last game, you look at their scores and that’s not what you see early on and we’re just getting to the heart of our true game plan,” said Smith, showing respect for the opponent. “It’s a big game for us again; they’re a capable team, very impressed with their offensive line. It’s a Big Ten game with history and that’s all you really need to know.”

Indeed the Illini are playing for the Cannon Trophy this week against the last Big Ten opponent they beat. Purdue has a pair of non-conference wins but their Big Ten debut was ugly. Maryland piled up 400 yards of rushing in a 50-7 stomping of the Boilermakers that have some wondering if it sealed the fate of embattled coach Darrell Hazell.

The coach has won just four games against FCS opponents since he took over in 2013.

Meanwhile this week Smith’s rebuilding efforts got a boost from a facilities standpoint as athletic director Josh Whitman announced an expansion of the south endzone of Memorial Stadium. The $132 million dollar project – funded by private donations and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics general account – will add a new locker room and football offices in the south endzone along with bigger permanent stands.

“I think it was important 15-20 years ago, I think it’s just as important now,” said Smith on the effects of the renovation on recruits. “Just like our uniforms and everything you do. Just like I stated here, that’s all a part of the overall plan; the commitment that you have for your program. I think it’s very important.”


EVANSTON – A rough start to the 2016 season is getting a bit better for Northwestern as the calendar turns from September to October.

After dropping their first two games of the year to Western Michigan and Illinois State the Wildcats have won two of their last three games, including a 38-31 win over Iowa last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Pat Fitzgerald had to be pleased with  his offense as the produced their best performance of the season in Iowa City. The unit had balance – 164 passing yards and 198 yards rushing – as they put up a season-high in points.

Northwestern has the bye week to heal up before they travel to Michigan State next Saturday for a 2:30 PM contest with the struggling Spartans who have lost two games in a row.

NOTRE DAME: Brian Kelly the Weatherman

SOUTH BEND – For the first month-and-a-half of the season Brian Kelly has had his hands full.

First he went with two quarterbacks and switched back to one. His team lost three of their first four games and he fired his defensive coordinator after the Irish allowed over 30 points in all three losses.

Now the head coach has to play weatherman.

This Saturday’s game at North Carolina State could be in jeopardy with Hurricane Matthew threatening the eastern part of the state this weekend. The current track has shifted so that it may trail away from North Carolina but Kelly and the staff could take no chances.

“We’ve given them a window that we’re available to play this game from 12:00 until noon on Sunday,” said Kelly. “We feel like anything after noon on Sunday starts to encroach on our ability to prepare for Stanford.

“So there is quite a bit of flexibility. We feel like we’ve secured accommodations and flights and such to leave a big window of availability to play this game.”

As of Thursday there was no indication the game wouldn’t start at noon on Saturday. Either way the Irish could have to prepare for rainy conditions for their game against the Wolfpack which could cause issues with the offense. Notre Dame had issues last year when they played in the rain at Clemson when the lost by two to the Tigers but Kelly isn’t worried.

“We are very good at moving the ball and throwing the football in most conditions, unless the wind becomes, you know, at a point where the ball just can’t be moved through the air,” said Kelly of playing in wet conditions. “Then we get into formations that we already have in our system and we’ll employ those.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: The Good and the Bad

DEKALB – Over the past decade it has been a rare day where Northern Illinois can’t wait to get out of September.

But indeed a new month brought some needed luck to a struggling Huskies team.

After four losses to start the season Northern Illinois finally got their first win of the season in their first game of the Mid-American Conference schedule against Ball State in Muncie. Quarterback Anthony Maddie, making his first start of the season, gained 298 yards through the air and 160 on the ground to make up for three offensive turnovers and get the 31-24 triumph.

“Thought the guys executed better, thought we played well,” said head coach Rod Carey of the effort. “Three turnovers still, got to eliminate that as well. I thought we left some execution in all three phases of the game out there on the field, but overall you go on the road in conference and get a win, that’s a good win anytime you’re on the road.”

Here’s the problem: The Huskies have to go right back on the road to face the best team in the MAC.

Western Michigan is up next at 5:30 PM on Saturday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo. The Broncos have not only won all five of their games so far but have defeated two Big Ten teams (Illinois and Northwestern) and won all but one of their games by 18-or-more points. P.J. Fleck, a former NIU receiver, has his team on the cusp of being ranked and provides the best challenge to Carey’s team so far this season.

“I think they have all been good. I really do, I really do,” said Carey when asked if it was the best Western Michigan team he has faced in his tenure in DeKalb. “They’ve all been good and this would fit right in that category. They are a good football team”