CAMPUS CHECK IN: NIU’s MAC title game & rivalry weekend

AKRON, OH - NOVEMBER 01: Northern Illinois Huskies quarterback Marcus Childers (15) throws a pass during the first quarter of the college football game between the Northern Illinois Huskies and Akron Zips on November 1, 2018, at Summa Field at InfoCision Stadium in Akron, OH.(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEKALB – In the end, a trip to Detroit became possible for Rod Carey’s team thanks to Ball State’s defense.

In their game against Western Michigan on November 13th, the Cardinals turned back an overtime two-point attempt by the Broncos to win it 42-41. It gave Northern Illinois, who was playing the next night, the Mid-American Conference West Division championship since every team had three losses in the division and they had none.

Little did they know that the stop by Ball State was the reason the Huskies still have a shot for the MAC title this week.

Northern Illinois lost to Miami of Ohio the next night, then Western Michigan beat them on Tuesday night as they finished the conference season at 6-2. Had the Broncos converted that two-point play, they would have clinched the West Division with that win over the Huskies, but with one more loss, it’s Carey’s team that’s heading to Detroit.

On Friday they found out their opponent – and it’s the one they thought it would be since they clinched it a week-and-a-half ago.

Buffalo beat Bowling Green 44-14 to lock up the MAC East division with a 7-1 record, and will face the Huskies on November 30th for the conference crown. The Bulls have won six of their last seven games as the teams head to Detroit for the match-up.

NORTHWESTERN-ILLINOIS: It’s Trophy Time!

EVANSTON – Get the top hat ready for the Illini and the Wildcats.

The battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy commences Saturday afternoon as Northwestern hosts Illinois for the regular season finale for both teams at Ryan Field.

As it has been for the past two years, both teams are going in opposite directions as they head towards the match-up. Northwestern continues their recent trend of finishing seasons well – and have taken it to another level in 2018. Wins in seven of their last eight games have won them the Big Ten West Division and clinched a fourth-consecutive playoff berth.

A win over the Big Ten East champion (likely Michigan or Ohio State) and the Wildcats could be headed to their first Rose Bowl since 1995. Yet for Pat Fitzgerald, who took part in this game as both a player in the mid-1990s and now coach for Northwestern, this contest carries special meaning.

He also doesn’t take lightly the fact that the Illini will be finishing their season on Saturday, and their desire to pull the upset against the division champs.

“We’ve been on the tough end of this rivalry too at times. So I know the demeanor and the feelings that they’ll have coming up here,” said Fitzgerald. “This is a big rivalry game for both of us and this is the game that I talk about the most when we get together as a team when we talk about looking big picture and it’s a big deal.”

Illinois is starting to look at their own portrait of 2018 after yet another postseason-less season in Champaign. The wins have increased to four, but blowout losses in the conference have dampened any enthusiasm of perceived progress.

Lovie Smith certainly understands this as he prepares to finish his third season in Champaign.

“You look at the season, we have four wins this year, so that’s reality right now,” said Smith.  “We have an opportunity to finish with a good taste in our mouth. The state of the program is disappointing right now but we see brighter days ahead.”

NOTRE DAME: Their rivalry continues, too

SOUTH BEND – As the two Illinois schools renew their rivalry, so does a national championship contender on the West Coast.

For a 90th time, Notre Dame and USC will meet in football as the teams play in the LA Coliseum on Saturday evening. The Irish lead the series 47-37-5, including a win in South Bend in 2017.

Just like the Illini and the Wildcats, both these teams in the rivalry come in heading opposite directions. Notre Dame is just one win away from their first College Football Playoff berth in team history, while USC is coming off arguably their worst loss of the season, in need of a win to be bowl eligible.

Having participated in the rivalry since 2010, Irish coach Brian Kelly knows how to balance what’s at stake with the historic rivalry which will commence again in 2018.

“Our guys will stick with what they’ve been doing. We’ll spend time on our preparation this week, working on some things, particularly that we have to be better at,” said Kelly. “I mentioned the physicality, we have to clean up some of the penalties, have to be a little bit better in our white zone.

“Clearly we have things that we’ve got to work on as we prepare for this rivalry game, traveling trophy for the Shillelagh, something that our guys certainly want to keep, as well.