Those who thought the Big Ten West would be a three-team race between Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska might want to rethink things. It’s probably more wide open than that.
Northwestern and Iowa looked hungry to enter the division race in Week 1. Illinois pounded Kent State, next week’s Gophers opponent, 52-3, and Purdue even showed some things to build on in its loss to Marshall.
At the very least, four upcoming games for the Gophers suddenly look even tougher. A closer look, with the dates Minnesota will play each team:
At Northwestern (Oct. 11)
Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson completed only 50 percent of his passes but had no turnovers and ran for a 42-yard score in a 16-6 upset of No. 21 Stanford. Justin Jackson rushed for 134 yards against a tough Cardinal defense, and linebacker Anthony Walker earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Granted, the game started at 9 a.m. Pacific time, and Stanford’s offense looked asleep. Northwestern beat Wisconsin and Notre Dame last year and still finished 5-7 for the second straight year, but the Wildcats might have the depth to sustain a run this year.
“A year ago, I felt like I was handcuffed,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We didn’t have enough competitive depth.”
Still not convinced? Check back after Northwestern’s Sept. 19 game at Duke.
Purdue (Oct. 18)
Losing to a Conference USA team is hard for any Big Ten fan to accept, but Marshall was at home, coming off a 13-1 season.
Austin Appleby threw four interceptions, with two returned for touchdowns. But running behind Purdue’s veteran offensive line, D.J. Knox and Markell Jones averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry.
Purdue blew another fourth-quarter lead and still needs to prove it can finish. Remember, the Boilers led the Gophers by two points with five minutes remaining in last year’s 39-38 loss. But third-year coach Darrell Hazell noted bright spots against Marshall, such as Purdue’s zero penalties on 95 offensive plays.
“I thought our team probably played the best collectively as we played since we’ve been here as a staff,” he said.
Still not convinced? Check back after Purdue’s Sept. 19 game against Virginia Tech.
At Iowa (Nov. 14)
It wasn’t so much the final score — 31-14 — it was the way the Hawkeyes handled Illinois State, which lost last season’s FCS title game by two points against North Dakota State.
The Redbirds and Indiana transfer Tre Roberson were outgained 268-36 in the first half, with Drew Ott and the Iowa defense wreaking constant havoc. Quarterback C.J. Beathard showed off his strong arm, completing 62.5 percent, and LeShun Daniels rushed for 123 yards.
“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “There’s going to be ups and downs with our football team, and certainly our young players, but I thought they got off to a good start.”
Still not convinced? Check back after Saturday’s game at Iowa State.
Illinois (Nov. 21)
Maybe the opener said more about Kent State, which should be a Week 3 pushover for the Gophers. But after all the turmoil from the Tim Beckman firing, the Illini looked focused for interim coach Bill Cubit.
Defensive end Jihad Ward returned from knee surgery and notched one of the team’s 14 tackles for a loss. Wes Lunt threw for four scores in a little more than one half.
“He actually had five passes dropped, too, so he could have had unbelievable numbers,” Cubit said.
Still not convinced? Check back after Illinois’ Sept. 19 game at North Carolina.
BIG TEN SHORT TAKES
• Even before BYU’s Hail Mary triumph, Nebraska gave new coach Mike Riley causes for concern. The Huskers committed 12 penalties, and their top three tailbacks — Terrell Newby, Imani Cross and Mikale Wilbon — combined to average just 3.95 yards per carry. But BYU ranked 14th nationally in that category last year, allowing 3.28 yards per carry, and has seven starters back on defense. It’ll be interesting to see how much Riley’s team improves against South Alabama and Miami.
• Wisconsin’s Joel Stave threw tight spirals and completed 66.7 percent of his passes (26-for-39) against Alabama. But the Crimson Tide exposed the Badgers’ inexperienced offensive line, which includes two veterans — Tyler Marz and Dan Volz — and three question marks. Alabama’s front four could expose lots of teams, but O-line depth, usually a Badgers strength, has turned into a very real concern.
• The Big Ten’s respect level took more hits in Week 1 with Penn State’s loss to Temple and with Indiana barely holding off Southern Illinois, 48-47. Five games this week will continue to shape this story line, good or bad: Oregon at Michigan State, Oregon State at Michigan, Iowa at Iowa State, Washington State at Rutgers and Minnesota at Colorado State.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
1. Ohio State (1-0): For his next trick, Braxton Miller will kick off to himself and return it 100 yards for a score.
2. Michigan State (1-0): If Oregon wants a shootout, these Spartans are ready. See their 42-41 bowl win over Baylor.
3. Northwestern (1-0): Held then-No. 21 Stanford to 240 yards, just 3.87 per play, in a tone-setting win at Ryan Field.
4. Gophers (0-1): Seeking their biggest nonconference win of Jerry Kill’s tenure, Saturday at Colorado State.
5. Wisconsin (0-1): Injuries to Corey Clement and Michael Caputo gave the Badgers issues on both sides of the ball.
6. Nebraska (0-1): Tommy Armstrong was 24-for-41 for 319 yards against BYU, including 5-for-8 on third down.
7. Iowa (1-0): The Hawkeyes are mourning the death of two-time All-Big Ten safety Tyler Sash, at age 27.
8. Michigan (0-1): How long will Jim Harbaugh’s leash be for Jake Rudock, who threw three INTs in loss at Utah?
9. Rutgers (1-0): Big Ten’s leading returning WR Leonte Carroo had three catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns.
10. Maryland (1-0): Will Likely has more punt return yardage (233) than the rest of the Big Ten combined (223).
11. Illinois (1-0): Interim coach Bill Cubit was particularly impressed by his defensive line in rout of Kent State.
12. Penn State (0-1): Offensive line was a big question entering the year, and allowed 10 sacks in loss to Temple.
13. Purdue (0-1): Outgained Marshall 454-397, but Austin Appleby’s four interceptions proved too much.
14. Indiana (1-0): If Southern Illinois can put up 659 yards on this team, what about Ohio State on Oct. 3?