CAMPUS CHECK IN: State rivals meet again going in opposite directions

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EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 26: Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) runs with the ball in the 2nd quarter during a Big Ten football game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Northwestern Wildcats on November 26, 2016, at Ryan Field in Evanston, IL. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – While it may be important to the players, coaches, and fans to a degree, many times the squads have met as polar opposites. It’s not because they’re rivals, either.

On more than one occasion, Northwestern has entered their game with Illinois playing better than their opponent with more on the line. Sometimes it’s the Illini that have more on the line than the Wildcats.

This week, it’s the first option. The Wildcats have been one of the hotter teams in the FCS with six-straight victories and they have their eyes on a January 1st bowl game. Meanwhile Illinois is stumbling through a brutal rebuilding season with over 20 true freshman hitting the field at some point this season.

Still, it’s not hard for Pat Fitzgerald to fire up for the rivalry. He’s been apart of it as a player, assistant, and now head coach since 2006, some he’s ready to battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

“I know both programs have a ton of respect for each other. I know some of the rivalries are a little bit different from that. I don’t think it diminishes from it, I think it’s something that I think both schools should take pride in,” said Fitzgerald of the rivalry with Illinois. “The fact that we respect each other so well. Usually you just throw the records out and it’s a heck of a competition.”

Whether that will be the case this season seems unlikely. The Illini have lost nine-straight games and eight in the Big Ten conferences as Lovie Smith endures what essentially is a first season in his second campaign in Champaign.

A win over the Wildcats won’t save the season, but it would salvage a little pride for the program after a difficult 2017 season. It’s one in which Smith has yet to see his team’s attitude waiver even as the losses pile up.

“We can’t complain about the effort we’ve gotten throughout. The story has been, not been able to finish football games. We’ve started fast, but haven’t been able to finish strong, but the effort has been there,” said Smith. “Taking the last game away, we’ve had an opportunity, so, as a coach, that’s what you want to see.

“You want to see your team keep fighting. You like to see big steps, but we’ve taken small steps throughout. It all comes out to this game. There’s one more, no tomorrow.”

NOTRE DAME: Another Season’s Finish against the Cardinal

SOUTH BEND – In a sometimes successful, sometimes rocky tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly has a number of streaks both positive and negative.

One of the latter he can take care of this week to end what has been a very successful 2017 season.

Three other times since he arrived in South Bend, he’s seen a season end with a loss to Stanford. It happened in 2011, 2013, and in 2015 – with the last time knocking Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff competition.

It’s no easier in 2017 as Stanford comes into the game ranked 22nd in the country having won seven of their last eight games, including a win over then No. 9 Stanford. It’s also the first road game for Notre Dame since their debacle at Miami, hence a little more caution playing in hostile environments for the team.

“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do: Turn the football over. And we fed that atmosphere at Miami, turning the football over. You’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them that extra momentum at home, similar to what we fed — USC gives us a free possession on a punt, and it just gives you that energy,” said Kelly.  “You can’t turn the football over. You’ve got to play mistake free and eliminate big plays. It’s not really rocket science. You guys follow it pretty closely. You just have to play poised and disciplined on the road. If you do that, you’ve got a fair shot of winning those games.

“They’ll be close and hard-fought, and last time we were there, we lost the game at the end, 38-36, whatever it was. We lost by a field goal.”

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