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Illinois and Northwestern Overcome Early Struggles to Have a Shot at Bowl Game

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The Big Ten is setting up for a wild finish in the Big Ten West with Wisconsin and Minnesota doing battle for the division championship. The winning school will lay claim to Paul Bunyan’s Axe and represent the division in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis against Big Ten East champion Ohio State. The division will also feature a game with plenty of stakes on the line. Northwestern and Illinois will play for a chance to go to a bowl game.

After losing four straight games in Big Ten play, including blowout losses to Nebraska and Iowa and a nail-biter against Michigan, it seemed Northwestern was staring right down a year without a bowl game. But then a funny thing happened. A road game at Notre Dame stirred up the echoes of a previous upset in South Bend. Northwestern’s overtime win against the Irish kept the dream of a bowl game within reach, and a win against Purdue showed the Wildcats are on a mission to get back to the postseason.

Consider how Northwestern played into this position. The Wildcats have been riddled with injuries and lost Venric Mark before the start of the season. Northwestern was nearly left for dead after an 0-2 start to the season with home losses to California and Northern Illinois. But Northwestern went on the road and scored 29 points against a Penn State defense that has allowed 20 points in regulation just two other times this season. Northwestern took out Wisconsin at home, and the Badgers are on the verge of making a potential Big Ten Championship Game appearance. With their postseason fate back against a wall, Northwestern stunned Notre Dame with a late rally and overtime victory in South Bend. This is the story of a thrilling ride, if Pat Fitzgerald and get Northwestern one more win at home.

Illinois has also played itself into a winner-goes-bowling match-up. The Illini have done it in much less impressive fashion. Illinois is coming off a close win at home against Penn State to get to five wins. After a pair of blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa, Illinois slipped by Penn State at home this past weekend.

For Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, a win against Northwestern could be crucial. Though things still look like a massive work in progress at Illinois, getting Illinois to a bowl game could be enough to guarantee Tim Beckman’s job is safe for at least one more season. The pressure has been on Beckman to show some improvement with the program this season. The Big Ten results could still use some work, but getting to a postseason bowl game would be a clear step in the right direction or Beckman and Illinois. The Illini have already improved on the season win total each of the past two seasons under Beckman, and getting to a bowl game would be the next step in the process.

Sometimes you have to take them any way you can get them.

- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)