EVANSTON – The path to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis is remarkably clear – and even affords them a football “mulligan”.
Thanks to tie-breakers, all Northwestern has to do is win two of their final three games against Big Ten West opponents, and they’ll win the division for the first time in program history.
They’ll face No. 21 Iowa this weekend at Kinnick Stadium, then will likely be major favorites as they face Minnesota on the road then Illinois at home to finish the season.
Even a loss to the Hawkeyes won’t derail their hopes of a December game in Indianapolis.
It’s an exciting time around Pat Fitzgerald’s program as the Wildcats go for their first conference championship since the 2000 season. Yet the coach is trying to keep his players for getting too far ahead of themselves, or even to waste these moments in the spotlight.
Fitzgerald even took time as the week of preparation started to address his team about the need to appreciate what is left in a special season.
“When I talked to the squad this morning, I put a big graphic up behind me: ’20 Days.’ This squad is only guaranteed 20 days together and what we earn every day will hopefully prepare us for those three Saturdays that we have left collectively together.
“So you focus on the process and hopefully you go out and put a good week together of preparation.”
ILLINOIS: Dare to Bowl Dream?
CHAMPAIGN – For the first time in nearly a month, Illinois fans had something to feel good about.
Fifty-five reasons to be exact.
In quite a surprise for the fans in Champaign, the Illini completely dominated Minnesota 55-31 in a rare easy day for the home team at Memorial Stadium. The victory snapped a miserable three-game losing streak for the Illini in which they lost every game by 29 points, including a 63-33 defeat at the hands of Maryland where they allowed 712 yards.
At 4-5 on the season, many Illinois fans are wondering if the team has made true progress and whether they should think about a bowl game for the 2018 season. It won’t be easy, even if they do beat Nebraska this Saturday in Lincoln.
No. 21 Iowa awaits for the final home game the next week and then comes the season-ending trip to Northwestern, who likely will be playing for a Big Ten West championship.
Even with three-straight losses or wins to finish, the debate continues about the progress of the program. Lovie Smith had a lot of building to do when he took over in 2016, and progress has been slow. Naturally, the coach is trying to look at more than just the 9-24 record he’s accumulated so far.
“Records aside, we’re trending in the right direction, and we’ve been that way for a while. It’s good to get a win,” said Smith of the program’s progress. “As I talk about the process, that’s what we’re going through. Eventually, you get over the hump, and you start winning consistently. That’s what we’re going to do, try not to look in the past too much. It’s just about the future for us, and the future is very bright.”
NOTRE DAME: Not closing the “Book” yet
SOUTH BEND – He’s been one of the reasons that Notre Dame’s offense has taken off the past six games, but the Irish may have to do without him this week.
A rib injury suffered against Northwestern reportedly has already been ruled out for Saturday’s home finale against Florida State. That would put Brandon Wimbush back in the starting quarterback spot, one he lost after starting the season with three inconsistent games.
On Thursday, Brian Kelly wasn’t ready to rule Book out completely, listing him as day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Yet he did admit that Wimbush was taking a sizable about of reps with the first team.
Despite the injury, Book continued to play against Northwestern, throwing for 343 yards and two touchdowns while running in another in a 31-21 win. But after the game is when issues with Book surfaced, forcing Notre Dame to look at other quarterback options.
“We knew obviously that he was banged up during the game, and subsequent follow-ups on Sunday that we were going to have to keep an eye on him throughout the week,” said Kelly of Book.
If Wimbush starts, freshman Phil Jurkovec would serve as backup.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: The streak rolls on
DEKALB – They’ve had no trouble winning on the weekends in the Mid-America Conference, and now they’re continuing it during the mid-week portion of their schedule.
After beating Akron on the road last Thursday night, Northern Illinois came home on Wednesday 38-15. Sutton Smith’s blocked punt for a touchdown along with three total touchdowns from quarterback Marcus Childers turned the game into a rout in the second half as the Huskies go to 6-0 in the MAC.
It’s made clinching a West Division title quite simple for Rod Carey’s team: Simply win one of their final two games vs Miami-Ohio this Wednesday or at Western Michigan on November 20th, and they’ll clinch a spot in the MAC Championship in Detroit.