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Northwestern, Illinois face defining games against big-name foes

Maine v Northwestern

Maine v Northwestern

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:26AM

Northern Illinois and Notre Dame had early defining moments last week. Now it’s time for Northwestern and Illinois to take their turns.

NU’s prime-time date Saturday against No. 4 Ohio State is its biggest game since Pat Fitzgerald became coach in 2006. In a measure of its magnitude, ESPN is bringing its pregame ‘‘GameDay’’ show to Evanston.

A victory would put the No. 16 Wildcats (4-0) in their brightest spotlight since their magical run to the Rose Bowl in 1995. But considering they travel to Wisconsin for their next game, momentum could shift quickly.

To keep the euphoria going, NU will need to slow a Buckeyes offense that’s scoring early and often. Despite playing without Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller for most of the way so far, Ohio State is averaging 48.2 points, sixth in the country. The Wildcats haven’t seen anything like that, and they rank 87th in total defense, allowing 426.8 yards a game.

NU’s offense, which is putting up 41.3 points a game, will need to keep rolling against the stoutest defense it has seen.

For Illinois, the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Only a true Orange and Blue believer would expect a victory in the Illini’s first meeting against Nebraska since 1986.

But Illinois doesn’t have to win. Progress is second-year coach Tim Beckman’s most important mission, and a competitive showing — much like the one the Illini delivered against No. 15 Washington on Sept. 14 at Soldier Field — would accomplish that.

Then again, Illinois isn’t going out there to lose. Whether Nebraska’s offense will run Illinois’ wobbly defense off the field is a huge question, but the Illini’s attack has been solid so far. And the Cornhuskers’ defense has been torched for 52 points a game in its last three meetings against BCS conference opponents (Wisconsin, Georgia and UCLA).

Meanwhile, Northern Illinois raised its under-the-radar profile only slightly despite an impressive 55-24 victory at Purdue. Even with a 4-0 start that also includes a victory at Iowa, the Huskies remain 26th in the Associated Press media poll. They did break into the coaches’ poll at No. 23.

NIU will try to keep rolling in the Mid-American Conference on Saturday at Kent State.

What happens at Notre Dame is an open question. Coming off their second loss, a 35-21 defeat to Oklahoma, the Irish now must run the table to stay positioned for a BCS bowl. That won’t be easy.
They face a tough battle against
No. 22 Arizona State on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, and have a season-ending trip to No. 5 Stanford.

One website has Notre Dame filling an empty Big 12 slot and playing Iowa in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. That, of course, is a shot in the dark at this point, but you get the idea of the danger zone the Irish have entered.

Compare Notre Dame with Wisconsin, another capable two-loss team that already has played two quality opponents. While the Irish’s prospects are subject to loopholes in conference tie-ins with bowls, the Badgers could play their way into the Outback Bowl or Capital One Bowl, which would have their fans excited by a Florida excursion.

And, like Notre Dame, Wisconsin still can play its way into big stuff by running the table.

A second-tier bowl in Dallas won’t do much for the Irish’s fan base — or for Notre Dame’s bank account. But that’s why they’re called defining moments.

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