CAMPUS CHECK IN: Brian Kelly wants more energy from the Irish

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 21: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during a game against the USC Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium on October 21, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won 49-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

SOUTH BEND – It’s a common thought around the nation when thinking about Notre Dame as they make the turn towards their second half of the season.

In the first half of their season, they knocked off ranked Michigan, Stanford, and Virginia Tech en route to a 6-0 start to the 2018 season. They’ve cracked into the Top 5 of the AP poll for the first time this season, and once again have their eyes on a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Excitement for the team is building in South Bend, and the schedule is favorable down the stretch. At the moment, none of their final six opponents are ranked, and the Irish have a bye week, so this provides as good of a chance as any for Brian Kelly to finally get a team into the FBS Final Four.

Yet the possibility of a letdown certainly exists, starting this week with 3-3 Pittsburgh, who knocked off Syracuse last week at home. Notre Dame fans might remember the Panthers nearly derailing the Irish’s run to the BCS National Championship game in 2012 before the Irish finally pulled it out in three overtimes.

Yet Kelly turned the question of a letdown into a challenge for his team this week, saying that it was his group that needed to find more energy as they got into Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday.

“I think we didn’t play with enough passion at times in that game. I think one of the things that we talked about is that wasn’t our best performance in a lot of ways, and we have to play with more energy,” said Kelly. “We have to play with more passion, and that is going to be the emphasis this week in terms of how we need to play against Pittsburgh.

“You know, this is really about going back to the practice field, having much more of a focus on how we prepare. We have a great deal of respect for Pittsburgh and how they’ll come out to play us. We know that this is a big game for them. But for us, it’s important that we play at a higher level this weekend.”

NORTHWESTERN: That’s More Like Clayton

EVANSTON  РIt was a performance that many saw happening from the beginning of the senior season for Clayton Thorson.

Because of a knee injury, such a game took a bit longer to come together than many would have thought for the Northwestern quarterback. But on Saturday, it finally happened.

With his knee ready to go after recovery from an ACL tear in the Music City Bowl, Thorson threw for a season-high 373 yards on 31-of-47 passing for three touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Thorson had a 145.2 passer rating and helped the Wildcats to an upset of then No. 21 Michigan State 29-19.

As the quarterback enters this Saturday’s game at Ryan Field against winless Nebraska, Fitzgerald believes he’s as close to his best as ever and praised him for his continued work to get healthy.

“I think he’s a warrior,” said Fitzgerald of Thorson. “With everything that he’s overcome this offseason, to get out there and play in the opener, to where he’s at today. The way he threw the ball today, he’s was driving off that surgical knee and I think he’s finally getting himself closer and closer to 100 percent and I think that gives him a lot of confidence.”

ILLINOIS: A loss of a safety before the hopes for a second-straight win

CHAMPAIGN – It was one of the more positive weeks for Illinois football in the Lovie Smith era as the team finally snapped a 700-day winless streak in the Big Ten.

But as the Illini prepared for Purdue, they got some bad news about one of their young stars, as safety Bennett Williams was dismissed from the team for rule violations.

Suspended for the first three games of the year, the freshman All-American only played in the Penn State game, where he was injured. He didn’t make the trip to Rutgers, where Illinois ended a 16-game Big Ten losing streak.

Still, the atmosphere around Champaign is rather positive as the Illini face the Boilermakers in what could be a critical match-up if Smith wants to make his first bowl game.

“I think we are getting better. We said that before we won the game this past week. We have so much farther to go, and I’m just looking forward to taking more steps this week,” said Smith. “If you watch that game, there was so much we left out there, and we are not a finished product by any means, but we have an opportunity, now that we’re healthy to take another step this week.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: The Roll Goes Into Homecoming

DEKALB – While the non-conference season was a difficult one to start the year, Northern Illinois continues to play well in conference.

A 24-16 win over Ball State last week in Muncie keeps the Huskies undefeated in the MAC as they get ready to face Ohio this weekend for homecoming.

Running back Tre Harbison led the way for Northern Illinois last week with a pair of touchdowns against the Cardinals.