CAMPUS CHECK-IN: The Illini could use a repeat of their 2018 success against the Gophers

CHAMPAIGN, IL - SEPTEMBER 21: Ricky Smalling #4 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs the ball as Dicaprio Bootle #23 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers looks to make the stop at Memorial Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

CHAMPAIGN – After three-and-a-half years, Illinois fans are still waiting for a breakthrough with their football team.

The first two seasons were a struggle, as expected. There was one more win in 2018, but inconsistency plagued the defense, causing some worry as to which direction the program is going.

So far in 2019, there is still plenty of questions about Lovie Smith has his football team. Two non-conference wins to start the year were followed by a loss to Eastern Michigan prior to the Big Ten opener against Nebraska.

Against the Huskers, under the lights of Memorial Stadium, the Illini dropped a 14-point second half lead in a 42-38 defeat in which they allowed 674 yards. At 2-2, Illinois will face an uphill battle to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.

Following a week off, Smith and the Illini travel to Minnesota to face the Gophers, and they could really use an effort like they got last season. In a surprise effort, Illinois dominated the visiting team at Memorial Stadium in a 55-31 victory in what would be their last win of the season.

Getting that in Minneapolis won’t be easy this weekend as Minnesota hosts the Illini a perfect 4-0 on the season, including a Big Ten opener win against Purdue last week. They haven’t been dominating – winning all their games by seven points or less – but they are just two wins from a bowl game, a position Smith wishes his team was in at the moment.

Four of the Illini’s eight games are against ranked opponents, so getting a win Saturday would really help their postseason efforts. They’ve had two weeks to think about it since they were on the bye, making the team more anxious to hit the field.

“You really can’t wait to get back to game weekend and that where we are right now. We are getting ready to play a team who is undefeated so that gets your attention itself,” said Smith. “Again we need to get back on the football field and play. As we look at what we have done so far, there’s some things we like and of course some things we don’t like, it’s as simple as that. It’s just about going forward.”

NORTHWESTERN: Still in Search of an Offensive Fix

EVANSTON – If only they could have gotten just a little bit of offense, and Pat Fitzgerald’s team might have been on the verge of a massive upset.

Their defense “contained” Jonathan Taylor, allowing him just 119 yards and a touchdown at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin’s offense got just 243 yards and that rushing score on the afternoon.

But the Northwestern offense just can’t get it together, and it led to another defeat in 2019. The Wildcats gained just 253 yards as both quarterbacks continued to struggle, and the Badgers defense’s two touchdowns made up the difference in a 24-15 victory.

Northwestern is now 128th in points per game in FBS (15.5) and 121st in passing yards per contest (141.5) as a quarterback question continues to plague Fitzgerald this season. Hunter Johnson nor Aidan Smith have been able to provide the needed spark to get their offense going.

On top of that, leading receiver Bennett Skowronek underwent surgery and will be out around a month.

It’s just more bad news for an offense that’s struggling to find confidence as they head to Lincoln to face Nebraska this weekend. It’s a tough spot for Fitzgerald, who has an offense trying to build their esteem but can’t get enough going to make it work.

“It’s ‘Chicken or Egg’ right? It’s confidence or execution. It’s the same thing,” said Fitzgerald. “I think we’ve got some guys that are very confident, I really do, on offense. I also think they’re pretty pissed off, to be honest with you. I think they’re getting frustrated with the play of our offense. They’re taking it to heart. They’re taking pride in the way we prepare, and they’re holding their teammates accountable to bring them along.

“The excuse of being young is over; you’re a month into the season. So obviously there has to be another level of consistency and execution and play, and then I think confidence comes.”

NOTRE DAME: Focus on the Streak

SOUTH BEND – After two-consecutive weeks of facing ranked opponents, Notre Dame fans don’t have a major opponent to look forward to this Saturday.

Mid-American Conference opponent Bowling Green comes to South Bend as a heavy underdog to the 3-1 Irish, who won’t have quite the buildup as they did the last two weeks. The contest against the Falcons isn’t like the road match-up against No. 3 Georgia or even a game against No. 18 Virginia.

But one thing Brian Kelly’s team can increase is their current home winning streak, which sits at 13 games. It’s the longest since the team won 19-in-a-row from 1987-1990, and is a major reason why Notre Dame has been in the Top Ten the last two seasons.

“I think we have a great routine. We love playing in front of our fans; our students in particular are there. And it’s been a mantra of ours in our off-season to protect our house,” said Kelly of the success at home. “We feel as though it’s part of what we do in our workouts in the summer. We rally around that, we workout in the stadium, we run the stairs. It’s something that’s very, very important to us.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Strictly MAC Until The End

DEKALB – A long stretch of games against Power 5 conferences has come to an end for the Huskies, and now the work begins towards defending their MAC title.

After a close 24-18 loss on the road to SEC opponent Vanderbilt last Saturday that dropped them to 1-3 on the season, Northern Illinois now plays their final eight games against conference opponents, starting Saturday at home against Ball State.

Over the last decade, it’s been all success for the Huskies against the Cardinals as they’ve won the last ten games played against their conference foe.

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