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Northwestern holds off Illinois, Fitz rests starters to ready for Ohio State

Northwestern and Illinois were like two football programs passing in the night when the Wildcats held off the Illini 24-16, finishing their regular seasons on a gloomy Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston.

In an effort to stay healthy for the Big Ten championship game, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald held out some starters in the fourth quarter, including quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Isaiah Bowser. And Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t have put them back in if the game had gone to overtime.

Asked if that was the plan all along, Fitzgerald played coy.

“Oh, I’m never going to tell you that,’’ he said. “Let me clarify: Did you see the game? That was the plan. I felt like we could win with the personnel we had in the game.’’

Northwestern defensive lineman Joe Gaziano celebrates with teammates as he holds the Land of Lincoln Trophy after the Wildcats beat Illinois 24-16 on Saturday in Evanston. Nam Y. Huh/AP

Although Northwestern isn’t getting much love, it’s bound for its first appearance in the conference championship game, where it will face resurgent and 10th-ranked Ohio State, which embarrassed No. 4 Michigan 62-39.

Fitzgerald said he went over Ohio State tape last week and Michigan tape the week before that and came to the same conclusion. He didn’t want to play either team.

“It was a lose-lose from a talent standpoint, a coaching standpoint, a tradition standpoint,’’ he said. “But we have an unbelievable opportunity in front of us. I’m fired up to take the purple down to Indy. The goal every year is to win the Big Ten West. We’ve finally gotten over that hump. Now we’ve got a 60-minute opportunity to take this team to the Rose Bowl.’’

Win or lose in Indianapolis, a quality bowl trip awaits. After a 1-3 start, NU won seven of its last eight games, falling only to Notre Dame.

“I would hope we stop talking about that [1-3 start] at some point,’’ Fitzgerald said. “I wish the narrative would change to them going 15-1 in the Big Ten over the last 16 games and winning every game in the West.’’

NU also can take pride in handling Minnesota and Illinois after clinching its West title.

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The Illini (4-8, 2-7), on the other hand, have been to only one bowl since 2011, the year they fired Ron Zook, the first coach to put Illinois in back-to-back bowl games in two decades. Their lone post-Zook bowl trip was in 2014, the last season of Tim Beckman before he was dismissed for cause.

Lovie Smith is now 9-27 in three seasons in Champaign, including a 4-23 record in the Big Ten.

Some will grumble for change, but Smith will return in 2019, barring a major development. The theory is that Smith’s young recruits will grow up next year. The reality is that his $12 million buyout looms large. Even next year, the buyout would be $8 million after the fourth year of his six-year deal.

“Year 4, of course, is very important,’’ Smith said. “You start, you overhaul the program. When you start a new business, the last thing you see is profit. There’s some dark days. You look to the future. We’ll evaluate where we are right now. We haven’t won enough football games. You can’t do it all in one year. Each year you add more and more.’’

Down 24-9 early in the fourth quarter, Illinois  closed to 24-16 on an acrobatic 10-yard touchdown catch by Ricky Smalling with 7:57 left. After an NU three-and-out, Illinois put together another promising drive. But Wildcats linebacker Paddy Fisher snuffed the Illini’s upset hopes with an interception at the Northwestern 8-yard line with 3:34 left.

“Our guys fought right up until we couldn’t anymore,’’ Smith said.  “That’s what you want to see each weekend as a coach. We feel a lot better going into the offseason. We’ll have different results next year.’’

If Smith, whose Bears pedigree gave credibility to a tarnished program, is starting to wear out his welcome, Fitzgerald continues to be a perfect fit at Northwestern. The former Wildcats linebacker and assistant coach also is tracking for some very high ground.

Fitzgerald is 95-69 in 13 seasons at Northwestern, including a 56-51 Big Ten mark.

If anyone is going to join the 150-win club that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz joined by beating Illinois last week, it sure looks like Fitzgerald,  who will turn 44 next Sunday. He’s young enough to enter a select group of five Big Ten coaches who have won 150 games: Ferentz, Woody Hayes, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno.

In other words, it’s a very good and stable time at Northwestern. At Illinois, that’s not the case.

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