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.


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

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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)

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Buffalo 12/28/14 12:00 PM
New England
Cleveland 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Dallas 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville 12/28/14 12:00 PM
San Diego 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia 12/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Carolina 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Detroit 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Oakland 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Arizona 12/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Cincinnati 12/28/14 7:30 PM
Brooklyn 109 FINAL
Boston 107
Cleveland 98 FINAL
Orlando 89
Indiana 109 FINAL
Detroit 119
Milwaukee 107 FINAL
Atlanta 77
Houston 117 FINAL
Memphis 111
San Antonio 90 FINAL
New Orleans 97
Charlotte 75 FINAL
Oklahoma City 98
LA Lakers 98 FINAL
Dallas 102
Minnesota 96 4th Qtr 2:04
Denver 98
Philadelphia 51 3rd Qtr
Portland 61
Phoenix 59 3rd Qtr
Sacramento 56
Illinois 18 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 35
Rutgers 40 FINAL
North Carolina 21
NC State 34 4th Qtr 11:01
UCF 20
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
(15) Arizona State 12/27/14 1:10 PM
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 2:30 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
(19) Auburn 1/1/15 11:00 AM
(17) Wisconsin
(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Houston 1/2/15 11:00 AM
Iowa 1/2/15 2:20 PM
(11) Kansas State 1/2/15 5:45 PM
(14) UCLA
Washington 1/2/15 9:15 PM
Oklahoma State
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters


Gophers Football 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 pmX34-24
Jan 1 - vs. Missouri noon




question of the day

Poll: What's your favorite Gophers football uniform colors?

Weekly Question