EVANSTON – In a season in which there have been a few more bad moments than good, Pat Fitzgerald had a chance to celebrate the latter a little bit more the past two weeks.
Following his Northwestern team’s 38-31 win on the road at Iowa, the Wildcats had the benefit of going on the bye. For two weeks they got to think about winning a game for an extended period of time instead of a loss, something appreciated by a team that was upset by Western Michigan and Illinois at home to start the season.
While he did take some time out of the off week to attend the Cubs’ first NLDS game at Wrigley Field, Fitzgerald let it be known that the excursion came after a long week of practice for him and the Wildcats.
“We worked very hard last week. It was not a ‘Kum Ba Yah,’ roast marshmallows practices,” said Fitzgerald of the bye week. “Hopefully the guys took the fundamental work and bring it to this week. So I think it is important that we improve.
“Obviously it’s critically important now as you get into the meat of Big Ten season.”
Fitzgerald didn’t specify a specific area of improvement for the Wildcats, choosing to give a broad range of aspects he’d like to see his team improve on before their road game Saturday at 2:30 PM against Michigan State. At least the team across from him is thinking the same after the Spartans have sputtered to three-consecutive losses including a 17-point loss to visiting BYU last week.
With his own team at 2-3, however, Fitzgerald isn’t too worried about the struggles of the Big Ten opponent up north.
“I wouldn’t call it emergency, but we’re doing some surgery on this team right now,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re not where we need to be and that is on me as the coach.”
ILLINOIS: Lovie is not ‘Lax’
CHAMPAIGN – Rarely emotional on the sidelines or news conferences, Lovie Smith broke from his usual demeanor during his meeting with the media on Monday on the Illinois campus.
Asked by a reporter is he was being too ‘lax’ with his team so far in the 2016 season, the normally mild-mannered coach rebutted with some fire.
“Ask me that question again. Are you freaking kidding? Have I been too relaxed with our football team?,” said Smith. “I’m freaking going out there every day and letting them go out and do what they want to do? Absolutely not.
“I’m not going to give that question an answer. Lax with the football team? Are you freaking lax with your job? I’m not either. Thank you.”
He has no reason to be – especially after the team dropped their fourth-consecutive game on Saturday during an afternoon where they played the rare role of favorites. Twelve penalties cost the Illini 125 yards, a game-winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation bounced off the upright, then a turnover in overtime led to the game-winning field goal.
A 44-41 loss to a struggling Purdue team is the fourth-straight loss for Smith who is continually reminded of the rebuilding job around his Illinois program as the season progresses. At least another good shot at a Big Ten win comes this week as the Illini travel to struggling Rutgers on Saturday at 11 AM fresh off the Scarlet Knights’ 78-0 loss to Michigan.
Backup quarterback Chayce Crouch could end up getting the start at quarterback should Wes Lunt remains out with an unspecified injury. Crouch relieved Lunt against Purdue and was 10-of-14 for 142 yards but did have the overtime fumble that led to the game-winning Boilermakers’ field goal. Smith was non-committal when asked if Lunt would return in time for Saturday.
“We’re very confident in what we can do with Chayce running offense. We got a chance to see it in living color. As I said, I really like what he was able to do. If Wes can’t go, of course, the backup plan is pretty good,” said Smith. “Wes is our starter; Chayce is our backup right now. We feel really good about both of them. Wes was playing good football before he got hurt.”
NOTRE DAME: The Heat is on?
SOUTH BEND – For arguably the first time in his Notre Dame career, the heat is on Brian Kelly.
That’s what happens when you go from a national title contender to a 2-4 squad in just a season. His Irish team lost their opener in which they allowed 50 points and it has all been downhill from there. A loss to Michigan State that looks a lot worse now after the Spartans’ struggles was followed by a loss to Duke and the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Last week the Irish lost to North Carolina State in a hurricane in Raleigh in an effort as ugly as the weather. The 10-3 defeat continues to increase the scrutiny on the coach and per a report in the Chicago Tribune that says his style has ‘Lost the Team.’
A number of player refuted that claim this week and so did Kelly, who vows to continue trying to do what he feels is best for his Irish team as they host a struggling Stanford squad at Notre Dame Stadium this week.
“I’m just coaching. I’ve got a great relationship with my players. I’m just coaching. I’m being Brian Kelly,” said the coach, who has been at Notre Dame since 2010. “If people have a problem with that, then they’re not going to be friends orphans of Notre Dame football. I can’t help that. I don’t feel like I’m crossing a line. I think I’m being who I am. I’m being direct. I’m handling the situation as it hits me. I guess that’s the best I can say.
“I’m just going to be who I am. If I feel like there is a matter that needs to be attended to, I need to handle it right away.”
NIU: No Travel Necessary
DEKALB – In what has been a rare rough season for Rod Carey at Northern Illinois, this month gives the Huskies a chance to heal up a little bit.
Not that the competition gets a whole lot easier over the next four weeks but at least the team won’t have to play a true road game for the next month.
Central Michigan comes to Huskie Stadium this Saturday for a 2:30 PM game and then Buffalo visits the following Saturday. Then a ten-day gap between games is ahead for NIU as they start the mid-week portion of their schedule against Bowling Green on Tuesday, November 1st.
The fourth and final game of that stretch is not in DeKalb but not far away either. The Huskies and Toledo will take part in the first football game in the history of Progressive Rate Field on Wednesday, November 9th.
“I mean that’s good. I know we’ve got this one at home, which is good to be home,” said Carey of the stretch. “So it would be nice not to be on the road. So this one would be good to get in front of our home fans.”
They will need some good vibes from them if they hope to keep their hopes for a ninth-consecutive bowl game alive. At 1-5 there is little margin for error for NIU can only take one more loss in their final six games in order to just qualify for the postseason.
“We live one week lives. This is all we have this week in front of us,” said Carey. “Certainly can’t go any further than that. This is a good team that we’re facing.”