CHAMPAIGN – For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, the arrival of November brings hope for better things.
That wasn’t really the case for Illinois in their first three seasons, even if they were technically alive to reach a bowl game. The rebuilding Illini didn’t have much momentum heading into November, and the team has won only two games in the month under Smith.
But thanks to a shocking upset of then No. 6 Wisconsin and then a strong win over Purdue last week, Illinois enters the final month of the regular season with a legitimate shot to reach six wins. With Rutgers and Northwestern left on the schedule and already at four wins, there is hope that the program’s five-year bowl drought can end.
The struggling Scarlet Knights come to Champaign this Saturday as the third game in what Smith declared the team’s “Second Half” following the loss to Michigan. Certainly, that comparison has motivated the team, which is 2-0 on the back half of their schedule.
“I just try to make a comparison to a football game. If you’re behind at the half, what has been decided? Nothing really, it’s how you perform in the second half of the game and it’s how you perform in the second half of the season,” said Smith. “Our players are buying in to that. It also helps when you come out in the third quarter and play well right away and get some momentum going. And that’s where we are.
“All we have accomplished so far is that we have momentum in the second half, and we need to ride this momentum.”
NORTHWESTERN: The QB Question Continues
EVANSTON – Things are vastly different this November for Northwestern, where making a bowl game would take a final month to remember.
At 1-6 on the season, the Wildcats would have to run the table to qualify for a fifth-straight postseason game. That, however, is far from Pat Fitzgerald’s mind at the moment as he continues to search for answers with his struggling offense.
It begins with the quarterback position, which remains in flux after the first two months of the season. This week in the Chicago Tribune, Teddy Greenstein reported that quarterback Hunter Johnson has been away from the team to be with his mother who is battling breast cancer in the Indianapolis area. He’d also suffered a knee injury against Wisconsin on September 28th which had limited him at the beginning of the month.
With TJ Green out for the season with a foot injury suffered in the opener at Stanford, Aidan Smith has taken the majority of snaps for Northwestern. He’ll do so this Saturday night against an Indiana team that’s off to a strong 6-2 start.
Smith, like the rest of the offense, has had his struggles this season, completing 47.8 percent of his 115 pass attempts for 453 yards with a touchdown compared to six interceptions.
As the final five games approach, Pat Fitzgerald is trying to give encouragement to the quarterbacks and an offense as a whole in hopes of a turnaround.
“I know everybody’s frustrated; I’m more frustrated than anybody. I used that, instead of being negative, I use that as being motivation,” said Fitzgerald of the quarterbacks. “Just try to work even harder, even smarter to try to give the guys as much as I can give. Trying to meet with more guys one-on-one then maybe I have in the past to really do nothing more than just encourage them. Just try to raise their confidence.”
NOTRE DAME: With the Playoff Gone…
SOUTH BEND – The odds were likely against Notre Dame to make a second-straight College Football Playoff with a loss already in the books. Even if they’d run the table, they’d still have to leap a few teams in order to get to the “Final Four” again.
A loss to Michigan last Saturday – especially a bad one – takes them out of the running for sure.
Now Brian Kelly’s Irish look ahead to the final four games of their season, starting with Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Stadium. Four wins gives them an outside shot at a “New Year’s Six” bowl game, but for now Kelly wants the team to refocus after a terrible night in Ann Arbor.
The Irish gained just 180 total yards as Ian Book (73 passing yards) struggled and was pulled late in favor of Phil Jurkovec when the game was out of reach. Kelly said there will be no quarterback switch for the game against the Hokies, but did hope his team would change back to what they were doing before last week.
“I think that we got away from our identity. Our identity is to be gritty,” said Kelly. “Our identity is to play smart. Our identity is to be locked in. We were not. We got to get back to our identity.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Can They Make A Run?
DEKALB – If Thomas Hammock wants to take his first Northern Illinois team to the Mid-American Conference title game, then they’ll have some work to do in their final four games of the season.
Right now they are a game back of Ball State in the MAC West standings with a loss to the Cardinals earlier in the season. Getting back to the starts this Saturday against Central Michigan, who is a half-game ahead of the Huskies in the standings with a 3-2 conference record.
NIU got back to even in the conference last Saturday with a convincing 49-0 homecoming win over Akron in DeKalb.