Campus Check In: Northwestern won’t let the start get away this time

EVANSTON  -It was an ice cold start to the month of September for Pat Fitzgerald on Friday.

 

As part of a promotion for the start of the season, the coach handed out ice cream to fans outside the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Streeterville on Friday. It comes just over 24 hours away from the Wildcats’ season opener against Nevada at 2:30 PM at Ryan Field.

He hopes that ice cream he was handing out will be the coldest his team will be for the next few weeks. After all, that wasn’t the case last season and nearly dereailed what was eventually a 7-6 season with a Pinstripe Bowl victory.

Maybe then the team can live up to higher-than-usual expectations – ones that have the Wildcats as a dark horse contender for Big Ten West division title – and don’t think the team hasn’t been thinking about that from the time preseason workouts began.

Losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State wiped out the team’s momentum from a ten-win campaign in 2015. Luckily they rallied back to finish the regular season 6-4 to get a bowl game, but they’re not interested in taking that path again.

“We changed up how we worked out,” said defensive lineman and captain Tyler Lancaster. “There was a lot of adversity that came at us especially at practice lately – making us run at random times in practice. We weren’t ready for that last year. It was a slow start and we just thought we were going to walk in and just take it away.

“No, wow we’ve got to play like it’s our Super Bowl understand we’ve got to play it like it’s our Super Bowl and we understand that with how hard we’ve been working.”

ILLINOIS

CHAMPAIGN – With much lesser expectations and perhaps less hoopla than a year ago, Lovie Smith begins his second season with Illinois on Saturday.

The former Bears coach’s appearance on the sideline was enough to create some good will for a program that endured a brutal 2015. After a three-win campaign in 2016, however, reality has set in for the program.

For Smith, it’s down to the long work of rebuilding the program with his first recruiting class and a young team void of a number of their key starters for a year ago. Expect a lot of youth on the field in the opener at Memorial Stadium against Ball State at 11 AM on Saturday and most of the rest of the season.

“We like the class that we signed. And, now we’ve had a chance to see them. Everybody has  to have a starting spot, first game and all of that. We believe we have some guys that are ready to take that step,” said Smith. “They stepped in right away with us. Yes, you’d like to have guys that have played an awful lot, but it’s the best players [who play].

“For us, our best players are a lot of our younger players and we’re going to let them to go immediately.”

One veteran is back for the Illini – and it’s been a long time coming. That’s receiver Mike Dudek – who lost all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to knee injuries. It was a shame considering his breakout freshman season where he had 76 catches, 1,038 yards and six touchdowns.

“We’ve taken our time with him, slowing working him into it. At the end of training camp, he was doing pretty much what everyone else was. He’s healthy and excited to go,” said Smith of Dudek. “Think about having to sit, and watch, for two years. I couldn’t be happier for anyone else on the team more so than Mike to have an opportunity to play.”

NOTRE DAME

SOUTH BEND – Is it win or else for Brian Kelly?

Probably.

Even with a long tenure in South Bend, one that enters its eighth season in 2017, the coach is still without a national title and finished with four wins last season. That hasn’t cut it at Notre Dame and another bad season will further push the administration and an impatient fan base toward a change.

Don’t think Kelly, who replaced a decent amount of his staff from last year and his been critical of himself in interviews, doesn’t understand that completely.

“I’ve always felt like there’s an expectation that you have to have being the head coach at Notre Dame. It’s God, country and Notre Dame. That’s a pretty high bar. You should live up to that bar,” said Kelly when asked about pressure entering the season, which opens with Temple on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium at 2:30 PM. ” I didn’t live up to that bar, so I think as the head coach at Notre Dame, every year is the same way: you’ve got to live up to that high bar, and this year is no different.

“We come into this year, our mission is to win the national championship. That’s a pretty high bar. So I think you feel that every single year.”

He’ll pin his hopes on a first-time starting quarterback in Brandon Wimbush, who won the job for the current Cleveland Browns starter DeShone Kizer. It’s been two years since he took the field for mop-up time against UMass and Pittsburgh that season, but his teammates are keeping his nerves in check before his true debut against the Owls.

“Everybody makes it really easy, and for a quarterback, that’s huge, especially in your first year starting and going out there to play. So I think that makes it easy on me,” said Wimbush. “I’m able to relax, and those guys, they may answer questions that I have, and I’m able to answer questions that they have, and it just keeps my mind really composed, and I think I just have a great supporting cast around me to keep my head kind of on the same plane.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS

DEKALB – Weekday nights with a national spotlight has worked out well a number of times over the past 15 years of Huskie football.

Many, in fact, were comparing their Friday night season opener with one of the biggest wins in program history. In 2003, Northern Illinois kicked off their campaign with an upset win over Maryland in DeKalb that caught the attention of the college football world.

Such a chance presented itself 14 years later as Rod Carey’s team welcomed the ACC’s Boston College Eagles to Huskie Stadium. Instead, for a second-straight year, NIU started their season with heartbreak.

A back-and-forth game saw Boston College convert a pair of fourth-down conversions to get the go-ahead field goal with just over two minutes to go. The Huskies got their chance to tie but Christian Hagan’s 39-yard field goal bounced off the goalpost to give the Eagles a 23-20 win.

This difficult defeat follows the 2016 season opening heartbreak at Wyoming, where a lightening-delayed game was lost by NIU in triple overtime.

Quarterback Ryan Graham finished 15-of-38 passing for 190 yards and two touchdowns compared to an interception. He also rushed for a team-high 99 yards on the game as well, His touchdown pass to Shane Wimann in the third quarter and a 21-yard field goal by Hagan in the fourth helped the Huskies erase a ten-point deficit.