Big Ten

Reports: New contract extensions for Chris Collins, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern

Reports: New contract extensions for Chris Collins, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern

It's not difficult to argue that Northwestern's highest-profile programs are in the best shape they've ever been in.

So it should come with little surprise that both head basketball coach Chris Collins and head football coach Pat Fitzgerald are reportedly receiving new contract extensions. Big ones.

A pair of separate ESPN reports Monday evening describe that the Cats' coaches have agreed to extensions that will keep them in Evanston for quite some time.

According to ESPN's Jeff Goodman, Collins and Northwestern have agreed to what Goodman describes as a "lengthy" contract extension, one impressive enough that the reporter suggests only an "elite" head-coaching job could pry Collins away from the Wildcats.

"Northwestern's Chris Collins has agreed to a lengthy contract extension, source told ESPN," Goodman reported Monday afternoon. "Would likely take an elite college or NBA job for him to leave Evanston."

The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein added that Collins' contract will run through the 2024-25 season.

Then there's the tweet from ESPN's Brett McMurphy, reporting that Fitzgerald will be sticking with the Cats for the next decade.

ESPN's Adam Rittenberg added that Fitzgerald's contract will run through the 2026 season.

In basketball, a contract bump is no shock considering Collins just accomplished what no one before him ever did in getting Northwestern to the NCAA tournament. The Cats recorded a program-record 24 wins, scored big wins at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan, reached the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament and defeated Vanderbilt for the school's first-ever NCAA tournament victory.

Collins' work in his four seasons has been nothing short of remarkable, taking a perennial Big Ten basement-dweller of a program, bringing in the highest-rated recruits the school has ever seen and turning the Cats into a winning program in the league.

And that ascension could very well reach more new highs next season. Four of the team's five starters from this past season are returning — senior guard Bryant McIntosh, senior guard Scottie Lindsey, junior forward Vic Law and junior center Dererk Pardon — plus the team gets back an injured starter from the 2015-16 campaign in sharpshooter Aaron Falzon, not to mention several returning reserves.

On the gridiron, Fitzgerald has enjoyed perhaps more success than any Northwestern head football coach ever has, the head man for two of the four 10-win seasons in school history. In his 11 seasons, he's won 77 games and taken the Cats to seven bowl games, winning two of the last three of those postseason appearances, two of the three bowl wins Northwestern has ever had.

And just like Collins, Fitzgerald could be on the cusp of one of his most successful seasons. Running back Justin Jackson returns for his senior season this fall after leading the Big Ten in rushing last year, and junior-to-be Clayton Thorson looked much improved in his second season. The Cats are riding high this offseason after scoring a big 31-24 win over Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl and could be one of the top teams in the Big Ten West in 2017.

Both programs are also getting brand-new facilities, with football getting a sparkling new facility on the lakefront and basketball getting a completely renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.

These are big times for Northwestern athletics.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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USA TODAY

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.