CAMPUS CHECK IN: NIU wins and loses this week

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DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 26: Northern Illinois Huskies head coach Rod Carey looks on during the Quick Lane Bowl game between the Duke Blue Devils and the Northern Illinois Huskies on December 26, 2017 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Duke defeated Northern Illinois 36-14. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEKALB – It’s the best and the worst all in the course of 24 hours.

Here’s the good for Northern Illinois Football: They’ve won yet another Mid-American Conference division title.

This came after Ball State upset Western Michigan on Muncie Tuesday night, making it impossible for any team in the West Division to catch the Huskies. It’s their 11th division championship and their first since the 2015 season, and guarantees them a spot in the 2018 MAC Title Game at Ford Field in Detroit on November 30th.

Unfortunately, they won’t be able to do so as an undefeated team in the conference.

That’s because NIU lost to Miami (Ohio) 13-7 on Wednesday night in DeKalb – ending their chance for an undefeated season. Ja’don Rucker-Furlow’s interception touchdown off a throw from Marcus Childers proved to be the difference as the Huskies offense only scored one touchdown despite 369 yards.

Nine penalties doomed the Huskies, yet they still are in the championship game, not having to worry about a potential MAC West title game next Tuesday when the end the season at Western Michigan.

“We’ve done enough to win the MAC West. We’re 6-1 right now, but we’d sure like to be 7-0, but we’ve got the MAC West outright. We’re going to be playing for a championship and that’s great,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey. “That’s a credit to these guys and this team and we’re certainly excited about that. It’s just hard to talk about that right now because this is such a bad taste in your mouth.

“We need to get back to work tomorrow.”

NORTHWESTERN: Remember 2016

EVANSTON – Like Northern Illinois, the last two games of the season are meaningless from a standings standpoint for Northwestern.

Win or lose against Minnesota or Illinois, the Wildcats have their spot locked up in the Big Ten Championship Game thanks to winning the West last Saturday.

The message was made clear by Pat Fitzgerald this week that Northwestern will not a let up when it comes to resting players or intensity, starting this week against the Gophers in Minneapolis. Some of those players on the team might have a good reason why to keep their intensity up as they head north.

Two years ago, with a chance to clinch a bowl spot, the Wildcats had one of their worst performances of the season against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. After winning four of their last six games – with losses coming in close fashion to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 8 Wisconsin – the Wildcats fell behind quickly 15-0 and never recovered.

The 29-12 defeat kept Northwestern from clinching a bowl that day, forcing them into a must-win game against Illinois the next week. They would do so then beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl, yet the defeat still sticks with a few of the players.

Even though the Gophers have been up and down this season, they are coming off a surprising 41-10 domination of Purdue after getting blown out by Illinois the week before.

Now it’s Minnesota that has the chance to clinch a bowl at 5-5 on the season – and Fitzgerald talked about how impressed he was in the Gophers this week.

“There is definitely a difference in the way that they played from a passion standpoint two weeks ago compared to last week – and it’s obviously very impressive to watch against Purdue,” said Fitzgerald against the Gophers. “I thought their defense was outstanding. I thought they were flying around, they were playing fast, they were playing physical.”

NOTRE DAME: Kelly’s Yankee Stadium dilemma 

SOUTH BEND – It’s not the first time he’s walked onto the field with his Irish team right behind him.

Yet it’s always a little unusual for Brian Kelly.

It’s not because of the opponent or the layout of a football field on a baseball stadium, but it’s all about the team that plays in the venue which causes a minor problem for the Notre Dame coach.

You see Kelly is a Red Sox fan. The third-ranked Irish are heading into Yankee Stadium for a critical contest against No. 13 Syracuse on Saturday. Like the previous two times he took Notre Dame to the new version of the stadium (2010 vs Navy, 2013 Pinstripe Bowl vs Rutgers), the coach’s allegiance to his favorite baseball team was put to the test.

Yet this year, thanks to the Red Sox World Series title, it’s not too bad.

“We beat them at Yankee Stadium, you know? It has nothing to do with the football game though,” said Kelly. “We’ve already got that trophy. That’s put away. Great respect for the Yankees and the tradition.

“That’s why both these programs mirror each other so well. Great tradition, championships, that’s why we’re excited about being at Yankee Stadium.”

ILLINOIS: Quite a Four Years

CHAMPAIGN – Not all of them have been there the entire time, but some of the nine seniors have been through quite a time since the 2014 season.

It’s not been the greatest of situations, certainly.

They had Tim Beckman as the coach in 2014. A week before the 2015 season, he was fired after an investigation into player injury treatment. Bill Cubit stepped in, led the Illini to a 5-7 record, got a contract, then got let go in March when athletic director Josh Whitman took over.

Lovie Smith was hired, and a major rebuilding program began. The first two years of his era brought just five victories as the look of the program was changed.

Progress has been slow, with gains followed by setbacks, especially in the 2018 season. Illinois has two Big Ten wins, but in the four losses, they’ve allowed at least 46 points in those games, including two where their opponent put up over 60.

With four wins, a chance exists for the team to make a bowl game. It won’t be easy, with Senior Day against Iowa this Saturday, then Big Ten West champion Northwestern in Evanston on November 24th.

Should the Illini return to the top of the Big Ten, these nine players will be looked at fondly for their help in the process, and dealing with quite a bit of change. That fact hasn’t been lost on Smith.

“The impact on our team, it’s a big impact. Seniors that are leaving have excellent leadership on and off the football field,” said Smith of the seniors. “They’ve put their time in here building a program. Once you get to your senior year you’ve gone through an awful lot with sacrifice and hard work, and you want to finish it off the right way.”


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