Northwestern, Cincy and Fresno, oh my
Illinois junior defensive tackle Josh Brent is only human. He can’t keep thoughts of a bowl game out of his mind.
He’s also realistic. When the Illini host Northwestern in their final Big Ten game of the season on Saturday, they can’t afford a loss if they want to salvage a bowl bid.
With Illinois needing three wins in its last three football games to earn bowl eligibility, it’s a longshot for a team that already lost six of its first nine games, may head down the stretch with redshirt freshman quarterback Jacob Charest and must win back its fans.
“It’s human nature,” Brent said. “You’re going to think about it. We could easily lose these last three because we’re playing great teams. Northwestern just beat the No. 1 team in the conference. Cincinnati is a top five team. Fresno might have one of the hardest schedules in the country.”
So much for getting ahead of himself after Illinois (3-6, 2-5) won its last two games against struggling Michigan and middle-of-the-road Minnesota.
Northwestern (6-4, 3-3) has earned bowl eligibility for a school-record third consecutive season. Cincinnati climbed to No. 5 in all three of the major polls, eagerly seeking a second straight BCS bowl berth. Fresno State carries a five-game winning streak after losses to Wisconsin, Boise State and Cincinnati.
Winning back the trust of the fans might be more difficult. Every setback gives the critics more ammunition to call for a change. A loss to Northwestern would erase any public relations gains from back-to-back wins over major-college teams for the first time since 2007.
“The way people are bashing us, I don’t think we have many fans right now,” Brent said.
Illinois won’t count on a home-field advantage. The players will rally around each other, because the Illini feel like they can’t count on the crowd for support.
“We want to create our own energy, celebrate with players after big plays, get the sideline going, everybody feeding off each other’s play,” said running back Mikel Leshoure. “We don’t need everybody else, everybody in the stands.”
Charest is expected to take over the offense after senior Juice Williams suffered a sprained left ankle in the first quarter last weekend at Minnesota. Williams was still wearing a walking boot on Tuesday, Zook said, and his return seemed unlikely even though he threw passes at practice Wednesday.
After playing for the first time against Purdue, sitting during the Michigan game and taking over at Minnesota, Charest showed poise and the ability to move the ball through the air. Unlike the Illini’s other quarterbacks, Charest is more of a passer than a runner.
“I didn’t expect to come in there and complete as many passes downfield as I did,” he said. “That wasn’t too bad. I was kind of satisfied with myself, getting the ball to the playmakers that we have.
“I would say that with the rest of the (quarterbacks) if they have an opportunity to run, they’re probably going to run. It’s the opposite with me. If there’s any way possible to throw the ball, I want to throw it.”
That may give Northwestern the task of reworking its defense to stop a passer instead of a runner.
“I wish I saw more (of Charest),” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I only saw two games of his. He’s a talented young man. What great poise he showed last week. Juice goes down. Jacob stepped in and threw the ball well and managed the offense.”
Illini junior Eddie McGee will serve as the backup quarterback and also play receiver, Zook said.
“He will be all over the place,” Zook said. “He has to be able to play quarterback, and he has to be able to play receiver.”
John Supinie can be reachedat Johnsupinie@aol.com.