Northwestern eyes big goals, Illinois faces big question
CHICAGO (AP) There weren't any major goals in reach to motivate No. 17 Northwestern the past two seasons - certainly not like this.
The Wildcats will try to tie a school record for wins and strengthen their case for a prestigious bowl when they face Illinois at Soldier Field on Saturday in a game that could have major implications on the uncertain future of Fighting Illini interim coach Bill Cubit.
For Northwestern, it's quite a change after back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
The Wildcats (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten, No. 16 CFP) come into this game with a chance to join the 1903, 1995 and 2012 teams with a program-best 10 wins. Beat Illinois (5-6, 2-5) and win a bowl game, and the Wildcats will stand all alone.
''Sure, it would be great,'' receiver Austin Carr said. ''We want to be the best team in Northwestern history and we want to keep winning. But our eyes are on (beating Illinois) right now.''
The Wildcats rebounded from back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa with four tight victories, including a 13-7 win at Wisconsin last week that tied them for second with the Badgers in the Big Ten West.
Now, they're about to face an Illini team that entered the season on a tumultuous note after Tim Beckman's firing. It comes into this game with a big question looming about Cubit's future, but also with a chance to become bowl-eligible.
Some other things to know as Northwestern chases history and Illinois goes for .500:
CHANGE COMING?: Cubit didn't hesitate when asked what next year would be like for Illinois if he is brought back.
''Better,'' he said. ''I believe that.''
The question is whether interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk feels the same way. That answer should come soon, particularly if the Illini lose Saturday.
The fact that Illinois even has a chance at a bowl is no small accomplishment given the turmoil that engulfed the program. Cubit took over after Beckman was fired a week before the season following an investigation that found he tried to influence medical decisions and pressure players to play with injuries.
Things were looking good for Cubit and the Illini after a 4-1 start. But since beating Nebraska to cap that run, they have dropped five of six.
''Do I think I could really help this place? Yes,'' Cubit said. ''But I'm not the one making the decision. If they let me make the decision, I could do that in a few seconds. But that's not the way it is.''
KEEPING IT CLOSE: Northwestern has been piling up wins. It just hasn't been running away with them.
The past four games have been decided by a total of 17 points and all but two of their wins were by 10 or less.
''It's just the practice and the mentality,'' defensive end Deonte Gibson said. ''You give us one more play, we'll succeed. That's the mentality we've built on defense. We'll continue to work through that in practice.''
DAD'S A WILDCAT: Illinois senior guard Teddy Karras has deep football roots. He's the seventh family member to play in the Big Ten.
That includes his father, Ted Karras Jr., a four-year starter at Northwestern.
''Not many people know, that's where I wanted to go,'' the younger Karras said this week. ''They never called, so I just moved on.''
On Saturday, he and his dad will share the field for Illinois' senior day, and in the hyper-competitive Karras family, there's no guarantee dad will be wearing orange and blue.
''I hope he doesn't wear his Northwestern letterman's jacket,'' the younger Karras said.
GROUND GAINS: The Wildcats are fourth in the Big Ten in rushing and last in passing, meaning they need to run the ball effectively if they're going to move it at all. They're about to face a team that has allowed a combined 538 yards rushing and six touchdowns the past two games against Ohio State and Minnesota. That would appear to bode well for the Wildcats' Justin Jackson, the Big Ten's third-leading rusher.
NOT CONVERTING: A big problem for Illinois is its trouble converting scoring opportunities. The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in red zone efficiency, having scored on 28 of 38 trips inside the 20 (19 touchdowns, nine field goals).