Campus Check In: It’s Senior Day for Northwestern and Notre Dame

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 11: Justin Jackson #21 of the Northwestern Wildcats runs against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ryan Field on November 11, 2017 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

EVANSTON – When the final home game arrives for every team in the country, the stories of the seniors tend to take over.

Northwestern is no exception.

There’s Tyler Lancaster, one of the few if not the only defensive lineman in the country wearing the No. 1. He was a highly-rated offensive lineman Plainfield East but switched to the defensive line upon arriving in Evanston.

Lancaster’s thrived in that position, rising up the ranks with his play and leadership to earn the coveted number given to one deserving senior every year by head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“He’s just I mean worked from a lot of adversity throughout his career like a lot especially early on a lot of adversity, and he just worked through that and always had a positive attitude,” said senior running back Justin Jackson of Lancaster. “Always just been a great teammate, so I think it was pretty obvious.”

So is the running back’s legacy at Northwestern, where he will go down as one of the finest to ever play the position in program history. Jackson’s 4,973 yards are a program record that grows with every yard he gains. With a decent performance this weekend in the home finale against Minnesota putting him over the 5,000 mark for his career.

If any senior on this Northwestern team will be celebrated in the home finale at Ryan Field at 11 AM Saturday, it will be Jackson. Praise has been rained down on him by Fitzgerald and his teammates through the year as he surpassed Damien Anderson’s program record for rushing.

If he gains 156  in the final two games – and with 84.4 yard per game average it’s quite possible – Jackson will gain 1,000 on the ground in all four of his seasons at Northwestern.

That’s on his mind, sure, but so is the makeup of this particular group. A 7-3 and riding a five-game winning streak, this group is playing as well as any down the stretch of a season in Jackson along with Fitzgerald’s era of the team.

“I’ve been a part of four teams here and yeah, I definitely grew to like this, as close as we’ve been, and I think he’s shown it on the field,” said Jackson of the 2017 squad. “Like you know, we had a tough start, but like we all believed in each other and every single time we go out there on Saturday, like we all have that belief in each other like on the same side of the ball, and I think that’s helped elevate our team.”

NOTRE DAME: The Week After

SOUTH BEND – This could have been the next step for a team the school has been waiting for since 1988.  Twenty-six seniors were hoping to emerge from the iconic tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium and take another step toward the school’s 12th national championship.

Sixth minutes in Miami Gardens changed those hopes.

A 41-8 loss to then No. 7 Miami handed the Irish a humbling 2nd loss of the season and made their hopes for the College Football Playoffs quite slim. While not impossible for the Irish – who ended up 8th in the latest poll – a ten-win season and “New Year’s Six” bowl is a more realistic goal at this point.

A win over Navy on Saturday gets them halfway to that goal, with another game left against No. 22 Stanford following on the road to end the regular season.

“Really all we can focus on is winning these next two games, and whether the teams lose for us to get back in the playoffs, I don’t know. I can’t really have the foresight of that,” said senior linebacker Drue Tranquill. “But I know Notre Dame hasn’t won a New Year’s Six bowl in 20 something odd years. And so we have to win these next two games and we’ll definitely be in a New Year’s Six bowl.

“But whether that’s the playoffs, I guess we’ll figure out these next two weeks.”

Still the focus is now for senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who’ll likely be a Top 15 pick in this spring’s NFL Draft. As much as winning is good for now to keep those “New Year’s Six” and possible National Championship hopes alive, he’s concerned with the legacy this team will leave behind as well.

“I don’t know how much it’s shifted. I think that whether it’s this year or not, I think that the goal is still to win a National Championship. And if I can do my part and if it’s not this year and going to the next year and years to come, if I can kind of try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well,” said McGlinchey. “But you know, there’s a lot of pride and tradition here to maintain and be dominant. And that’s what we’re going to try and do these next two weeks.”

ILLINOIS: A Classroom in the ‘Shoe

CHAMPAIGN – There are still a few weeks until final exams at the University of Illinois, but in the crash course of college football, a major test is ahead for the Illini.

Rest assured, this one is going to be a brutal one.

Lovie Smith takes his team with 22 true freshman seeing the field, along with 16 that have rotated in and out of the starting lineup, to Ohio Stadium this Saturday. They’ll face ninth-ranked Ohio State in front of a national television audience at 3 PM, going toe-to-toe with a team that is on a course to win the Big Ten East.

To have any hope of climibing into the national championship race, the Buckeyes will need decisive victories along with some help from other teams. The idea of mercy against a young team simply won’t exist.

Smith knows this as he bring his team to Columbus having lost eight-straight games. Some fans of the Illini are bracing for yet another afternoon in a major rebuilding season, but the coach expects a level of anticipation with his team.

“I think the guys are looking for a great opportunity. Where we are in our season, two games left to go, and, of course, you play your rival the last game of the season,” said Smith. “But, you’re last road game is playing against a team like this? Our freshmen have been in a lot of first half situations this year that were exciting for them and I know it’ll be the same for them on Saturday.

“It’s more about looking forward to the opportunity more than anything.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Keep Hope Alive

DEKALB – In keeping with the theme of a few local teams, the Huskies are keeping hope alive as they head toward the end of the season.

Still, they’re going to need a bit of help if they hope to make their way to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit on December 2nd.

After a win over Western Michigan at home Wednesday 35-31, they remained in a first place tie with Toledo in the MAC West Division. Unfortunately their one loss is to the team whom they are tied with Toledo, so they’ll need a win over Central Michigan on the road next Friday along with a Rockets’ loss to the Broncos.

Either way, the Huskies are all but assured of heading to a 13th game thanks to their 8-3 record. It did take a fourth-quarter rally to pull it off, however, Northern Illinois got a 26-yard touchdown throw from Marcus Childers to Mitchell Brinkman with 6:20 left to secure the victory.