Burly, blue-collar Big Ten West is wide open

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2014 - 12:17 PM

Physical play, a strong running game and a stout defense likely will prevail in this wide-open division.

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Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff (68) looks to block Wisconsin linebacker Brendan Kelly, right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Photo: Charlie Neibergall, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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The Big Ten used this year’s additions of Rutgers and Maryland to restructure its football divisions, replacing the often-mocked Leaders and Legends titles with East and West.

Critics generally applauded the announced changes in April 2013, but the divisions appeared unbalanced. On paper, 16 months ago, the East looked considerably stronger than the West.

But that was before Iowa and Nebraska knocked off a reeling Michigan program last fall. That was before the Gophers and Nebraska defeated a Penn State squad still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And that was before quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, robbing Ohio State of the conference’s most important player.

The East might have the Big Ten’s best team, with Michigan State, but the West should have the best race with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, and yes, even the Gophers, believing they have a chance to reach Indianapolis for the conference title game.

“I think these things ebb and flow,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said in July. “Northwestern has been to a Rose Bowl. Wisconsin went to three or four in a row. Nebraska has won national championships. Iowa has played in very big games. Illinois has played in Rose Bowls and other major bowls.

“When I think about historic balance, I think that the teams will play out based on the quality of the players and quality of the coaches. And I’m not worried about that part of it.”

The Big Ten introduced a conference championship game in 2011, and Wisconsin won the first two. Michigan State knocked off Ohio State last year, playing a physical style similar to what Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota use, with an emphasis on defense and time of possession. Nebraska once perfected that style under Tom Osborne.

“The blue bloods [Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State] haven’t won a championship game yet, and the three teams that have won the championship all look like Neanderthal football,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “At least that’s what people want to call it. To me, it’s good football. They don’t turn it over, they run it, they pass it, and they score enough points to win and play defense. That’s what the game has always been about.”

Maybe that will be the West’s identity — Neanderthal football.

Wisconsin looks ready for it, at least offensively, with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement running behind a veteran offensive line. Gordon would have been one of the top running backs picked in the NFL draft but returned for his junior season, knowing he’ll get the bulk of the carries now that James White has graduated.

Badgers second-year coach Gary Andersen is ready to mix things up a bit, though, by picking Tanner McEvoy as the starting quarterback over Joel Stave. The 6-6 McEvoy is a dual-threat QB who overcame a wrist injury last year and wound up starting three games — at safety.

“I would say he’s an elite athlete,” Andersen said. “It allows you to do some things offensively to force defenses to understand that if you make a mistake, he’s more than willing to take off and make you pay.”

The bigger question for the Badgers is defense, where they need to replace eight starters, including standout middle linebacker Chris Borland. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his 3-4 system will get tested immediately, as Wisconsin opens Saturday against LSU in Houston.

Iowa needs to replace a trio of linebackers that started together for two years — James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. But the Hawkeyes should be tough in the trenches again, with experience returning on both lines, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a likely first-round NFL draft pick who returned for his senior season.

“I think [the West] is wide open,” Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. “I definitely think it has a lot of physical teams, and that’s what we pride ourselves on.”

Wisconsin and Iowa were picked first and second in the West, respectively, in Cleveland.com’s annual Big Ten sportswriters’ poll. Those teams were followed by Nebraska and Northwestern, two teams that took several roster hits during training camp.

Nebraska has two potential first-team All-Americas in running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory. But during fall camp, the Huskers suffered season-ending injuries to linebacker Michael Rose, defensive back Charles Jackson and backup running back Adam Taylor. In addition, safety LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season.

Northwestern thought it had exhausted its bad luck last year, but versatile running back Venric Mark transferred after getting suspended for the first two games. Wide receiver Christian Jones (knee) and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) also suffered season-ending injuries in August.

  • Gophers season opener

    6 p.m. Thursday vs. Eastern Illinois • TCF Bank Stadium

    TV: BTN (107.9-FM)

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Chicago 17 FINAL
Detroit 34
Philadelphia 33 FINAL
Dallas 10
Seattle 19 FINAL
San Francisco 3
Cleveland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Buffalo
Washington 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Tennessee 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Houston
San Diego 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
NY Giants 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Cincinnati 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Oakland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis
New Orleans 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
Carolina 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Arizona 11/30/14 3:05 PM
Atlanta
New England 11/30/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Denver 11/30/14 7:30 PM
Kansas City
Miami 12/1/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
Edmonton 0 FINAL(OT)
Nashville 1
ULM 54 FINAL
Robert Morris 71
Santa Clara 57 FINAL
Tennessee 64
Oklahoma 59 FINAL
Butler 46
Austin Peay 79 FINAL
Brown 58
Princeton 56 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 62
Coastal Carolina 67 FINAL
Chattanooga 78
Kansas 76 FINAL
Rhode Island 60
Wisconsin 68 FINAL
Georgetown 65
FIU 53 FINAL
USC Upstate 68
Long Island 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 73
San Diego 71 FINAL
Xavier 82
Illinois 88 FINAL
Indiana State 62
Cal State Fullerton 67 FINAL
Wright State 62
Western Ky 62 FINAL
Saint Josephs 59
Michigan State 77 FINAL
Rider 45
UCLA 56 FINAL
North Carolina 78
Long Beach State 73 FINAL
Western Mich 55
Marquette 72 FINAL
Georgia Tech 70
Stephen F Austin 73 FINAL
Prairie View 61
UAB 47 FINAL
Florida 56
Rice 71 FINAL
Mercer 77
San Jose St 56 FINAL
Washington 78
Washington St 43 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 71
Baylor 71 FINAL
Memphis 47
LSU 23 FINAL
Texas A&M 17
(6) TCU 48 FINAL
Texas 10
Northern Ill 10:00 AM
Western Mich
Nebraska 11:00 AM
Iowa
Western Ky 11:00 AM
(19) Marshall
UCF 11:00 AM
So Florida
Houston 11:00 AM
SMU
Akron 12:00 PM
Kent State
Ball State 12:00 PM
Bowling Green
Buffalo 12:00 PM
Massachusetts
Toledo 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Arkansas 1:30 PM
(17) Missouri
Navy 2:00 PM
South Alabama
(13) Arizona State 2:30 PM
(12) Arizona
Stanford 2:30 PM
(9) UCLA
(21) Colorado State 2:30 PM
Air Force
Virginia 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
East Carolina 7:30 PM
Tulsa
North Texas 11/29/14 11:00 AM
TX-San Antonio
Old Dominion 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Fla Atlantic
(16) Georgia Tech 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(8) Georgia
Kentucky 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(24) Louisville
So Carolina 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(23) Clemson
West Virginia 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
Rice 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Louisiana Tech
Michigan 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(7) Ohio State
Purdue 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Indiana
Illinois 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Northwestern
Cincinnati 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Temple
NC State 11/29/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Syracuse 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Louisiana 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Troy
Utah 11/29/14 12:00 PM
Colorado
Texas State 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Idaho 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Appalachian St
Wyoming 11/29/14 2:00 PM
New Mexico
New Mexico St 11/29/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas State
UAB 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(4) Miss State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(18) Ole Miss
Notre Dame 11/29/14 2:30 PM
USC
(10) Michigan State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Penn State
(22) Minnesota 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(14) Wisconsin
(5) Baylor 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Texas Tech
Florida 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Rutgers 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Maryland
San Jose St 11/29/14 2:30 PM
San Diego St
Tennessee 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Kansas 11/29/14 3:00 PM
(11) Kansas State
Connecticut 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Memphis
BYU 11/29/14 3:30 PM
California
ULM 11/29/14 5:00 PM
Ga Southern
Middle Tennessee 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Fresno State
Wake Forest 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Duke
Pittsburgh 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Florida
(15) Auburn 11/29/14 6:45 PM
(2) Alabama
(3) Oregon 11/29/14 7:00 PM
Oregon State
Utah State 11/29/14 9:15 PM
(25) Boise State
Washington 11/29/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Nevada 11/29/14 9:30 PM
UNLV
UCF 12/4/14 6:30 PM
East Carolina
Hamilton 11/30/14 5:00 PM
Calgary
Hartford 43 FINAL
Furman 53
Clemson 77 FINAL
Ohio State 86
Idaho State 53 FINAL
San Diego State 68
East Carolina 58 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 69
Santa Clara 0 Cancelled
Texas-El Paso 0
Florida State 68 FINAL
Washington 80
Wichita State 39 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 56
Wisconsin 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 67
Kansas State 0 Cancelled
LSU 0
BYU 73 FINAL
BYU-Hawaii 52
Charlotte 58 FINAL
Montana 67
Illinois 77 FINAL
(9) Kentucky 71
Central Michigan 61 FINAL
Richmond 56
Oklahoma 68 FINAL
South Florida 83
Princeton 72 FINAL
Wake Forest 55
(19) Oregon State 85 FINAL
Butler 53
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Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.X24-7
Sep 27 - at Michigan 2:30 pmX30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 amX24-17
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 amX39-38
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 amX28-24
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa 11 amX51-14
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State 11 amX31-24
Nov 22 - at Nebraska 11 amX28-24
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin 2:30 pm

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