CAMPUS CHECK IN: Northwestern turns it around in October to set up Big Ten West showdown

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)

EVANSTON – At the beginning of October, things didn’t look too good for Pat Fitzgerald’s team.

They blew a lead against Michigan, losing their third consecutive game to fall to 1-3 on the season. A year that appeared ripe for a breakthrough suddenly was slipping away.

By the end of the month, however, Northwestern now has their Big Ten Title Game destiny in their hands.

Thanks to three-straight conference wins, the Wildcats face No. 20 Wisconsin at Ryan Field with a shot to keep the lead in the Big Ten West. The scenario for a chance to play at Lucas Oil Stadium in December for a conference championship is now set: Win the final five games and they’re in.

Much easier said than done, of course, hence Pat Fitzgerald isn’t exactly putting the weight of the world on this game. In fact, he’s more worried about correcting the Wildcats’ own inconsistencies this week, which was evident last Saturday when they had to rally to beat last-place Rutgers on the road.

“We’re just really inconsistent,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re really inconsistent right now, especially on offense. The pedal’s down for me. That’s my job; I’ve got to get it fixed.”

Yet there is some excitement from the players for the contest – easily the biggest of the season to date for the Wildcats.

“We’re extremely excited for this, “said defensive lineman Joe Gaziano. “Us and Wisconsin are two of the top teams in the Big Ten West. You don’t want to say this is the¬†pivotal game in deciding the Big Ten West but it’s definitely a big factor in it.”

NOTRE DAME: The Stretch Run Begins

SOUTH BEND – For a tradition-rich program, 30 years is quite a long time.

That’s the National Championship drought for Notre Dame since their last title in 1988. There were close calls in 1989, 1993, and in 2012, but the Irish have yet to break through for the championship since.

This season presents a chance for the Irish to get their shot at the crown – and the path is direct.

If Brian Kelly’s team wins their last five games – all of which they’ll likely be favored – they’re likely getting one of the four College Football Playoff spots in December. That path starts this weekend as Notre Dame plays Navy in a neutral site game in San Diego, continuing a rivalry that’s featured 91 games since 1927.

Notre Dame is a favorite in the 92nd match-up and had two weeks to prepare for the Midshipmen (2-5) since they were on the bye last week. Kelly is well aware of the chatter around his team, which his players absorbed over the last two weeks, but he’s not concerned with any looking ahead as the stakes get higher with each week.

“I didn’t go in front of them and say, Did you guys watch the Ohio State-Purdue game? They all have phones, TVs. I’m sure they know.,” said Kelly. “They probably heard a million times when they went home how they didn’t play great against Pittsburgh.

“Look, it’s a one-week deal for us. We’re one day at a time, one practice at a time. They know where they are. They have to stay focused, stick with their process. I know you all hear that all the time. If you don’t have a process you can stick with, then you’re going to listen to all that stuff. But if you just stick with, you know, your preparation, what your process is, then you can focus on the moment and not worry about all that other stuff.”

ILLINOIS: If They’d Like to Get to a Bowl…..¬†

CHAMPAIGN – In a few ways, they’ve shown progress. In others, it looks more like the same old Illini.

That’s been the 2018 season for Illinois, their third under head coach Lovie Smith. At 3-4, they won they games which were expected before the season, been blown out in a few, and stayed competitive in others.

For fans to feel true progress, a strong finish to the season would certainly help – and this weekend provides an opportunity to do so.

The Illini travel to Maryland on Saturday to face a team that’s dealt with tragedy, an interim coach, and a roller-coaster season since the first week. Jordan McNair’s death led to an investigation that has head coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave. Matt Canada has taken over in the interim, and the Terrapins knocked off then-No. 23 Texas 34-29 in the opener, but have since gone 3-3.

Meanwhile, the Illini are coming off two blowout losses to Purdue and Wisconsin. Those were preceded by a near upset of South Florida, a competitive game till the fourth quarter against Penn State, then a win at Rutgers.

It’s left the Illini entering the final five games of their season with plenty to play for, yet like their opponent, there is no telling what may transpire.

“We have seven games that we’ve played, kind of see what we can be, and there are moments when we really play good football. But it’s about us being able to put everything together now,” said Smith. “This next game is about as important of a game as we’ve had, and if we can correct some of those things and play the way we’re capable of playing, which I think we can do, we’ll have some positive results.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Back to the Non-Conference

DEKALB – The Huskies’ 2018 season has been a tale of two parts of their schedule.

In the Mid-American Conference, they’re 4-0 and in the thick of the race for the West Division title. In the non-conference, they are 0-3 against formidable foes Iowa, Utah, and Florida State.

But there is one more game outside of the MAC for Northern Illinois this weekend, and it’s a trip out West.

Rod Carey’s team will face BYU in Provo at 2:30 PM Saturday, ending their non-conference schedule nearly a month after the loss to Florida State. The Cougars shocked many when they upset then-No. 6 Wisconsin in Madison, but have gone 2-2 since that victory.