CHAMPAIGN – A year ago, the difference between the teams was apparent, even if the final score was closer than many would have anticipated.
With a Big Ten Championship berth already clinched with the West Division championship, Northwestern sat their starters for part of the fourth quarter against an Illinois team that had won just two conference games up till that point. The week before, they’d been shutout by Iowa 63-0, while at the same time the Wildcats had won six-straight Big Ten.
Northwestern held on for the 24-16 win as they headed to a conference title game in Indianapolis and eventually a Holiday Bowl victory. Illinois was out of a bowl for a fourth-consecutive year after finishing 4-8 in the fourth year under Lovie Smith.
In 2019, things have changed just a bit.
Boosted by a strong second half of the season, Illinois enters the final game of the season against the Wildcats in Champaign Saturday morning at 11 AM with a 6-5 record. They clinched bowl eligibility with a four-game winning streak from mid-October through November and now look to improve their bowl destination in their final game of the season.
Seventeen Illinois seniors will get one last chance to add another victory to this turnaround season at Memorial Stadium in which they ended a five-year postseason drought.
“It comes down to one game. You have one game to play your best ball and leave, and in this case, for them to finish on a high note,” said Smith. “I don’t know what their motivation is. I just know what ours is. It’s to have an opportunity to win seven games, to beat our rival and to get another streak going.”
As for Northwestern, it’s a chance to play spoiler in a disappointing 2-9 season where the inability to find a quarterback has caused struggles from day one. After winning seven games in the Big Ten last season, the Wildcats have yet to get one in 2019, and now have just one shot left to break through in the conference this season.
“This is a game, again, you go back to when we were struggling way back in the past, this was a ‘throw the records out’ game,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald of this Saturday’s game. “When maybe they’ve had some lean years, it’s been the same way on their end. So, it’s a great rivalry that’s built on respect.”
NOTRE DAME: A Goal For 12 Years
SOUTH BEND – It’s been a while since they’ve traveled to Palo Alto and come out with a victory.
Not since 2007 has Notre Dame traveled to face Stanford on the road and come out with a victory, and that was in a season in which the Irish won just three games. In 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017, the Irish faced the Cardinal on the road and came out on the losing end.
The first loss in that string got Charlie Weis fired. The last two knocked Notre Dame out of contention for the College Football Playoff, and that was especially true in 2015 when they entered with just a single loss.
That’s not on the line for Notre Dame in 2019, but there is still bowl destination and the chance for a program accomplishment beyond just ending the losing streak at Stanford Stadium. For the first time since the 1991, 1992, and 1993 seasons, the Irish can win ten games for a third-straight year, marking just the second time that’s happened in the proud history of Notre Dame football.
“I think that’s what everybody’s trying to build consistency within their program that where’s the bar, where do you set the bar relative to expectations and what are your standards.And so our standards here are to clearly we don’t play in a conference. So we set high standards for the kind of play that we want from our football team each and every year,” said Kelly of the chance for three-straight ten-win seasons. “And we don’t put a number on it. We simply say that we want to graduate champions. And we want champion performances from our football team in our program each and every year.
What that looks like sometimes we don’t have control over that. We don’t have any control what bowl game we go to per se. We don’t have control over who the top four teams would be even if we felt like we had a championship football team. So, it’s building a standard and what that expectation should look like in terms of how your team plays week in, week out.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Playing Spoilers Well
DEKALB – Most times in the final week of the season, usually in the middle of the week, Northern Illinois is playing to finish strong before a bowl game or clinch a spot in the Mid-American Conference Title Game.
This year that wouldn’t be the case as they entered their season finale with a 4-7 record, but they did a good job of playing spoilers.
Facing a Western Michigan team looking clinch a MAC West title, the Huskies scored a 17-10 win in DeKalb on Tuesday to deny the Broncos a spot in the conference title game and finish with a 5-7 record. Tyrice Richie had a 71-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from Marcus Childers to help NIU to a 10-0 halftime lead, and after WMU responded with a third quarter score, the quarterback had another TD pass to Mitchell Brinkman to put it out of reach.
The Huskies finish their first year under Thomas Hammock 5-7 with a 4-4 conference record.