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Northwestern keeps bowl hopes alive but loses QB Trevor Siemian

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With three weeks left in the season, the formula was simple for Northwestern: win out and become bowl-eligible.

Though the Wildcats have followed through so far, smashing Purdue 38-14 on Saturday after beating Notre Dame last week, the question of bowl eligibility became much more complicated.

Only 53 seconds into the second quarter, starting quarterback Trevor Siemian suffered a knee injury on a sneak on fourth-and-one. Siemian didn’t return to the game. Coach Pat Fitzgerald stopped short of ruling out Siemian for the regular-season finale at home against Illinois, but he said the injury looked “pretty serious.”

Junior Zack Oliver took the majority of the snaps after Siemian went down, with redshirt freshman Matt Alviti seeing some time. If Siemian can’t play next Saturday, Oliver would be the favorite to start.

“Zack has been preparing well,” Fitzgerald said. “He just needed some more experience, and he got it today. I think if this happened in the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t be good. But with the amount of experience Zack got, it gave him a lot of confidence.”

Oliver inherited a 21-0 lead thanks to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to Dan Vitale, a nine-yard touchdown run by Justin Jackson and a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tony Jones. But despite facing a porous Boilermakers defense, Oliver added only three points before halftime.

By the end of the game, though, Oliver looked like a different quarterback.

The offense clicked almost as it had under Siemian when Northwestern went on touchdown drives of 72 and 77 yards, the first of which ended on Oliver’s one-yard run with 14:06 to play.

“It took me a couple of plays just to get my self-confidence back and then came out in the second half and had great protection all day, receivers running great routes, and we did pretty well,” Oliver said.

But the question remains: Can Oliver, a career backup, lead his team for an entire game?

After all, the situation against Purdue was a bit different than what he’ll see against Illinois. Oliver came in under the cushiest of circumstances, enjoying a lead that appeared insurmountable for the Boilermakers.

And Illinois is coming off an emotional victory over Penn State with the same set of circumstances: win and become bowl-eligible.

Fitzgerald’s message to his players in Siemian’s absence didn’t change from any other time the Wildcats have lost a player to injury, which has happened plenty this year.

But it’s fair to wonder exactly how much of its offense Northwestern might have to change this week.

“You got to pick up the flag and move on and carry on,” Fitzgerald said. “And I thought our guys did a terrific job of that.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen