CAMPUS CHECK-IN: Up-and-down Northwestern still seeking consistency in 2021

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EVANSTON – It’s a case where their inconsistency has been consistent in a season where they are playing a healthy amount of new players at a number of positions.

Northwestern lost their season opener to Michigan State, then won their second game against Indiana State. Since then they’ve lost a game, then won one, and have done so through their seventh week.

Last Saturday was on the bad side, as the Wildcats lost to sixth-ranked Michigan 33-7 as a strong effort in the first half faded in the second as they dropped to 3-4 on the season. So once again, Northwestern is looking to rebound a loss as they host Minnesota on Saturday at 2:30 PM at Ryan Field.

If the Wildcats can knock off the Gophers, who are currently tied for first in the Big Ten West with Iowa, it would be Pat Fitzgerald’s team’s biggest victory of the season while helping to boost their bowl hopes. Yet the coach is still more worried about his team playing with more consistency, which has been a struggle for a group that starts four sophomores on each side of the ball while also having a few first-time starters.

“My biggest issue with me as the head coach, we’re just not playing clean and consistent enough, and that starts and ends with me,” said Fitzgerald. “I’ve get to get our coaches to get our guys to be more efficient with everything we’re doing.”

ILLINOIS: THE GLOW OF AN UPSET

CHAMPAIGN – This week was quite a bit different than the ones that had occurred over the past month-and-a-half around Illinois football.

After losing five-of-six games, the Illini were showered with praise nationally after their record nine overtime victory over seventh-ranked Penn State in Happy Valley. Suddenly, Bret Bielema’s team finds themselves with some positive momentum as they host Rutgers this Saturday in Champaign.

In that contest, the Illini will take on the rare role as favorites since the Scarlet Knights come to town on a four-game losing streak. Head coach Bret Bielema said that he’s guarded a bit against a letdown after such a momentous win a week ago, but has seen his players handle it well so far.

“I like the response, I’ve really leaned heavily on our leadership, our ‘Illini Counsel,’ the guys I know that are thinking right, acting right, doing right, and we’ll see where it lands on Saturday,” said Bielema.

NOTRE DAME: RUSHING TO VICTORY

SOUTH BEND – One of the keys to success for Notre Dame in 2020 was to run the football, and the though would be that a similar formula would pay off in 2021 as well.

But with a new offensive line, it’s taken some time for the Irish to get their ground game rolling, but now it appears that might be starting to happen.

In wins over Virginia Tech and USC, the Irish combined to rush for 350 yards as their ground attack has helped to pace the offense to 63 combined points. That’s included a pair of strong performances by Kyren Williams, especially in the win over the Trojans last Saturday night.

After failing to rush over 100 yards in the first six games of the season, the sophomore got 138 and two touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The ground game is something that Williams believes is finding momentum as the Irish play another home night game this Saturday against North Carolina.

“It’s that mindset and that identity as an offense that we always knew we had, we just had to find it,” said Williams. “As you said, Virginia Tech and this game (USC), you can really see it start to come along, and you can see that guys are making blocks, pushing the line of scrimmage, making it easier for us as running backs to hit a hole and make explosive runs.”

Northern Illinois, who leads the MAC West with a 4-0 conference record, is now on a weekday schedule as they take a week-and-a-half off before facing East Division-leading Kent State on the road on Wednesday.

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