Daily Herald
Illini almost in must-win territory to make bowl
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 11/14/2008 2:59 PM

Here's a glance at Saturday's college football games involving Illinois, Northwestern and Notre Dame

Ohio State (8-2, 5-1) at Illinois (5-5)

When: 11 a.m. at Memorial Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: WIND 560-AM

Series: Ohio State leads 56-23-2.

Coaches: Jim Tressel (81-18, eighth year at OSU; 216-72-2 in 23rd year overall); Ron Zook (18-28, fourth year at Illinois; 41-42 in seventh year overall).

Players to watch: With RB Beanie Wells and freshman QB Terrelle Pryor feeding off each other, Ohio State has put up 45-point efforts in two of its last three games. Wells, despite missing three games with a bad toe, owns 814 yards and 6 scores this year with 2,999 yards and 28 scores for his career. Pryor has accounted for 1,526 total yards and 14 scores. MLB James Laurinaitis is having another All-American season with 101 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 2 INT.

This marks the final home game for 13 Illinois seniors, a group that experienced the best and worst of college football and includes C Ryan McDonald (46 career starts; 2 shy of the school record), DE Derek Walker (40 starts), MLB Brit Miller (35), LT Xavier Fulton (33), DT David Lindquist (25), DE Will Davis (19), LG Eric Block (10), WR Will Judson, OLB Rodney Pittman (7) and LB Sam Carson (4).

The skinny: This game is a tricky one for the Illini. On one hand, they need to win at least one of their final two games to become bowl-eligible. On the other hand, if they beat the Buckeyes and lose next week to Northwestern, then Tressel's guys won't get a BCS berth and that will deny the Illini the eighth Big Ten bowl slot necessary to sneak into the postseason.

Of course, that's a problem the Illini gladly will work around because they're desperately seeking an effort of which they can be proud. Turnovers (22, tied for third-most in the Big Ten), penalties (524 yards, third-most in the league) and an uneven running game (sixth with 169.7 ypg) have teamed up to keep Illinois from being all it can be.

Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Michigan (3-7, 2-4)

When: 11:02 a.m. at Michigan Stadium

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WGN 720-AM, WNUR 89.3-FM

Series: Michigan leads 52-14-2.

Coaches: Pat Fitzgerald (17-17, third year at NU); Rich Rodriguez (3-7 at Michigan, 63-32 in eighth year of Div. I-A)

Players to watch: Northwestern senior QB C.J. Bacher is listed as "probable" again, which means hard-running junior Mike Kafka should make his third consecutive start. He produced 300 rushing yards and 320 passing yards in the last two weeks. Sophomore RB Stephen Simmons (14 carries, 34 yards last week) gets his second career start.

Michigan's rotating QB situation has come back to Nick Sheridan, who clicked on 18 of 30 passes for 203 yards in last week's win at Minnesota. Brandon Minor, the Wolverines' best RB, might not play due to a bad shoulder, but freshmen Sam McGuffie (486 yards, 3 TDs) and Michael Shaw (23 carries, 157 yards) are decent alternatives. DE Brandon Graham leads a hard-charging line with 9 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss.

The skinny: For the first time since 1974, Michigan won't be a part of the bowl scene. That ends an astonishing streak, but NU coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his guys know it's not how these Wolverines are defined. Last week's 29-6 win at Minnesota (when the Wildcats escaped with a 21-14 win the week before) suggests Michigan continues to make big strides with its youthful offense. If Northwestern wins this game as well as its home finale with Illinois, it can do no worse than the Alamo Bowl and could be a legit candidate for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl.

Notre Dame (5-4) vs. Navy (6-3)

When: 11:11 a.m. at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore

TV: Channel 2

Radio: WLS 890-AM

Series: Notre Dame leads 70-10-1.

Coaches: Charlie Weis (27-19, fourth year at Notre Dame); Ken Niumatalolo (6-3, first year at Navy)

Players to watch: Notre Dame's successes and failures generally fluctuate with the touchdown-to-interception ratio for sophomore QB Jimmy Clausen. In the Irish's five wins, he owns 12 TDs vs. 5 INTs. In their four losses, he has 8 picks and 6 scores. Golden Tate (43 catches, 742 yards, 5 TDs) and Michael Floyd (46 catches, 702 yards, 7 TDs) both rank amongst the nation's Top 40 in receiving yards.

Navy rushing leader Shun White (834 yards, 6 TDs) has slowed considerably since hitting Towson for 348 yards in the season opener. Eric Kettani, who scored 2 TDs in last year's win against Notre Dame, owns 673 yards and 2 scores this year. QB Jarod Bryant (sprained shoulder) will be back after missing last week's win over Temple.

The skinny: Navy snapped a 43-game losing streak against the Irish with last year's 46-44 triple-overtime game in South Bend. The Midshipmen could well make it two straight wins in this game of remarkable contrasts. Navy ranks second in the nation in rushing (308.0 ypg) and figures to gash a middling Notre Dame run defense. Meanwhile, Notre Dame ranks 21st in passing yardage (259.4 ypg) and figures to go wild against a Navy unit that ranks 108th in pass-defense efficiency. An Irish win, with Syracuse next on the schedule, would go a long way toward ensuring a decent bowl. The Midshipmen already have earned a sixth consecutive bowl bid and have a shot to lead the nation in rushing for the fourth year in a row.