CAMPUS CHECK IN: Can the Illini break through at Soldier Field?

CHAMPAIGN, IL - SEPTEMBER 01: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Illinois Fighting Illini and members of the Illinois Fighting Illini sing the school alma mater following the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Memorial Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – For their close proximity to the venue, you would think they’d be there more.

But when it comes to Fighting Illini football and Soldier Field, it has only been a limited engagement.

Just three times  – 1994, 2013, and 2015 – has Illinois played a game at the Chicago football venue, a bit surprising considering its less that two hours away from the Champaign campus.

There is another thing too – the Illini have yet to win there.

In 1994, Illinois lost to Washington State 10-9. In 2013 they dropped the game to Washington 34-24, and then two years later to Northwestern 24-14. The Illini have won at Wrigley Field in 2010, and took their last four games against the University of Chicago in games played in the Windy City, but they’ve yet to win a game at Soldier Field.

They’ll get another chance to do so on Saturday as they travel back to Chicago to face South Florida Saturday at 2:30 PM. It won’t be easy for the Illini to break through at Soldier Field considering the Bulls are the favorites after two strong games to start the season. Meanwhile Illinois starting quarterback AJ Bush along with receiver Ricky Smalling are questionable for the contest, with talented rookie Edwin Carter is out for the year with a knee injury.

Plus the status for a number of suspended players remain up in the air for a team that struggled all the way to be Kent State and didn’t pull away until the second half against Western Illinois last week.

Some of this might not be a surprise to some, since the rebuild of the program continues, and even Smith acknowledged the group has a way to go to put it all together.

“We finish well. I have learned we have not played a full game yet. Hopefully this week we will peak at the right time, starting off right away,” said Smith. “What we learned offensively is that we can move the ball. I think everything we want to be as a football team, we have seen signs of but need to be able to put that together.”

NORTHWESTERN: Fitz is no fan of RPOs

EVANSTON  – Run-Pass Options are the latest new trend in football, and it’s worked out well for a number of teams.

The Eagles used a lot of that to win their franchise’s first Super Bowl this past February. Matt Nagy was hired as the Bears head coach partly because of his success in running these particular plays, which are designed fo a quarterback to either keep the ball or throw it.

It’s fun for an offense, but it certainly isn’t for defenses. For Pat Fitzgerald, it’s even worse, considering his career as a standout linebacker for Northwestern along with his continued defensive work as head coach with the Wildcats since 2006.

During his news conference before the team’s game against Akron, which comes after a 21-7 loss to Duke in the season opener, the questions about RPOs was presented to Fitzgerald, he had a memorable statement.

“It’s communism.” said Fitzgerald. “RPO is the purest form of communism.”

This might seem a bit harsh for a simple offensive system, but Fitzgerald takes issue with offensive lineman’s ability to be downfield during an RPO since a quarterback can run or throw. If a signal caller makes a throw down field, the lineman has to stay at or behind the line of scrimmage or else it’s a penalty. In this offensive formation, some leeway is given to those lineman to get a little down the field before it is called.

Hence the issue for Fitzgerald.

“I don’t understand how offensive lineman can be downfield,” said Fitzgerald to Northwestern WGN-AM color commentator Ted Albrect, who asked the question on RPOs. “When you and I played, when you tripped and fell down, it was an illegal man downfield. Now if you’re just an uncovered lineman and you go 2.3 downfield, it’s not a penalty. But if you go three it is – and nobody can see it until after the ball’s thrown.

“Again, it’s the rules, you can complain all you want. If I want to get it fixed I could beg to get on the rules committee. It’s the most en vogue change in football that if you’re a purest of football, it’s not the game.”

NOTRE DAME: A Look in the Mirror

SOUTH BEND – Sometimes you can prepare for it as much as you want, and it still kinda happens.

That’s about the scenario that played out for Notre Dame last Saturday after a win over then No. 14 Michigan, when they faced MAC opponent Ball State at home.

The first drive was great, but the Irish had trouble putting the Cardinals away. They’d build a 24-6 lead but couldn’t close things out, allowing Ball State to get within eight points before time finally ran out.

In the end, all was well. Notre Dame improved to 2-0 on Sunday and held steady for the victory. But the inability to pull away, at times sloppy play that included three interceptions from quarterback Brandon Wimbush, made this win a little encouraging than the week before.

For a third time to start the season, the Irish will play at Notre Dame, this time against Vanderbilt for the first time since 1996 Saturday afternoon. By no means was Brian Kelly terribly negative about the victory, but he admits to taking a look at a few things in preparations to prevent any sort of letdown this week.

Like I said, what we did well is we won the game. What we need to do better is prepare better. Our preparation has to be better. I’ve got to prepare them better. We’ve got to coach better,” said Kelly. “Our guys know that what we’ve learned from last week is that we got to be locked in on our process. If we’re not locked in our process, this is a difficult game. You can get beat any week. This is a good opponent coming in to Notre Dame stadium. We’ll have to play well.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Return to the MAC

DEKALB – Rod Carey’s team has endured a difficult introduction to the 2018 season.

To open their campaign, Northern Illinois had to travel to Big Ten opponent Iowa. Then in Week 2, it was a home match-up with Pac 12 Utah. While they are struggling a bit at the moment, ACC opponent Florida State awaits on the road in a week.

But at least for this Saturday, the Huskies’ schedule will feel a bit like normal.

That’s because they’ll open the 2018 Mid-American Conference season against Central Michigan at home, a much more familiar opponent who visits DeKalb at 2:30 PM on Saturday.

Yet recent results shows that it’s not much of a break lately for Northern Illinois, who has endured some bad luck against the Chippewas the past few years. The Huskies have lost the last four meetings against their rivals and haven’t won at home since 2012.