EVANSTON – It took a little while, and a Big Ten Championship at this point would require some help, but right now the Wildcats are starting to become the team many expected them to be.
An upset of No. 16 Michigan State in a wild three-overtime game last Saturday has helped Northwestern to a 5-3 record after at trio of victories in a row. It hasn’t been perfect – the offense has had its issues in the scoring department the last two weeks – but a stout defense has the team entering November with more than pride to play for.
A win on Saturday at Nebraska and Northwestern is bowl-eligible for a third-straight season. Should they win out, they’ll be the fourth team in the Pat Fitzgerald era to win nine or more games.
Down two games to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West division with four to play and the head-to-head tie break going to the Badgers, a shot to get to Indianapolis is slim. Still Fitzgerald feels excitement for the home stretch for Northwestern, not only for this year but what could be ahead.
“I’m excited not only about the finish here in the last month, but also about where we’re going because we’ve got a lot of young guys that we’re playing right now. You’re looking at an end of the year looking back question, and I’m looking at right now,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ve got to find a way to go 1-0 and that’s my only focus right now, and try and get ready for tomorrow’s practice. How am I going to motivate the guys when I see them at 7:10, and I’ve got the team. Its that micro at this point of the year.
“You’re grinding through trying to win games, and dealing with girlfriends breaking up with guys, and midterms, and what’s the wind going to be like tomorrow at practice, can we put the lifts up. It’s really that mundane, the list of decisions that I’ve got to make on a daily basis that are much more important to me.”
NOTRE DAME: Keeping the Poll in Perspective
SOUTH BEND – If Brian Kelly had a vote – and he doesn’t anymore – he knows how his ballot would have looked for the first College Football Playoff poll.
It’s not really scientific, to be honest.
“I know Georgia is a really good team, and I know Notre Dame,” said Kelly. “So I’d have Georgia one, Notre Dame two, and then there’s no other teams. I think one and two.”
He wasn’t far off. The Bulldogs were slated No. 1 in the first poll with the Irish coming in No. 3. Alabama squeezes in between them with Clemson behind Notre Dame at No. 4.
The ranking was a surprise and it wasn’t for Kelly’s team. One could argue they are playing the best football of his tenure in South Bend, ripping off six-straight wins including a pair of blowouts of then No. 13 USC and No. 14 N.C. State.
Yet the ranking was met with perspective from the Irish – knowing that a sweep of their final four games is necessary to reach College Football’s Final Four. That starts against 5-3 Wake Forest at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday.
“Again, the hypotheticals for me, I try to stay in the moment. And we really don’t even worry about that. Winning is not even something that we think about,” said Kelly. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m honestly giving you the truth in this answer: We just want to dominate this weekend. If we do that, we’d like three more chances. And then at the end of the year, if they say that that’s one of the four best teams, that will be fine.”
The Irish players weren’t sweating the first poll either.
“Actually, I had flag football practice afterwards, then I had to study for a psych test,” said linebacker Nyles Morgan, who coaches a Flag Football team on campus. “I kind of missed it. I heard about it, yeah.”
ILLINOIS: The Process
CHAMPAIGN – It’s been used from coast-to-coast, sport-to-sport. Those in Philadelphia have made it a famous rallying cry for their rebuilding NBA franchise. One just paid off for the Major League Baseball team in Houston, as it did in Chicago in 2016.
“Trust The Process.” Illinois fans should too.
The number of true freshman that crack the Illini lineup grow by the week, getting a crash course in Big Ten play. Naturally the record reflects this, with Illinois losing all five of their Big Ten games in 2017 and six games overall. Once again they’ll be the underdog as they face a Purdue team that has played better than their 3-5 record in 2017 under first year head coach Jeff Brohm, but have last their last two games.
“As you’re trusting the process and you’re going through the process, you want to win every game. Most of the time it didn’t happen that way. You have to be realistic about where you are when you start and how long it will take when we get over the hump. You never know when that will be.
“But we just have to keep coming to work everyday – which we’re doing. We do trust the process.”
Northern Illinois: A First MAC Setback
TOLEDO – Already with a bowl-qualifying six victories on the year, Northern Illinois set their sights on competing for another MAC West championship a year after missing out on the postseason.
They rolled into their match-up against Toledo with a perfect 4-0 mark in the Mid-American Conference, facing the undefeated Rockets for a showdown for first place.
But it wasn’t the Huskies night in the Glass Bowl on Thursday as a second half lead evaporated down the stretch. After taking a 14-10 lead in the third period, Terry Swanson had a pair of rushing touchdowns for host Toledo, which ended up being the difference in a 27-17 win over Northern Illinois.
It drops the Huskies to 4-1 in the Mid-American conference, where they are now in second place a game behind the Rockets and one game ahead of Central Michigan.