Big Ten schools finished the majority of their non-conference finales to mixed reviews Saturday.
Ohio State and Iowa combined to roll their opponents 135-3, Nebraska beat an FCS neighbor by 39 points and Penn State shut out Kent State 34-0. At night, tension mounted for Northwestern, which used two defensive touchdowns to put away Maine. Michigan rallied from a 14-point road deficit to nip UConn by three points. Michigan State and Indiana succumbed to high-major opponents. Minnesota was impressive in pounding San Jose State, and Wisconsin buried Purdue 41-10 in the league opener.
Every Big Ten squad has shown both weaknesses and strengths (except Purdue) during the first month of play. But starting this coming weekend, the season amps up to the figurative 11. There's only two games, but both will impact the bigger picture.
No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) and No. 23 Wisconsin (3-1), which have combined to win every Big Ten title since 2004 and compete in the last four Rose Bowls, meet Saturday night in Columbus with the Leaders Division title at stake. Yes, it's likely the winner can print their ticket (punching tickets is so 1950s) to the Big Ten title game in December. With Penn State ineligible and the trifecta of Indiana, Illinois and Purdue significantly behind both teams, the winner has a major edge on the divisional race.
The last two games between the teams were decided by either a miraculous last-second pass (2011) or in overtime (2012), both of which were won by Ohio State. Wisconsin plowed past Ohio State in 2010 en route to its first of three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances.
"Any Big Ten game is a serious game for us with our goals for the end of the season," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. "It's always a battle with (Wisconsin). They beat us a couple years ago when we were No. 1. We're ready for them."
"Excited about going in there," first-year Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen said. "I know it's a great stadium. But the fact that we've gone on the road once and traveled is big for us. I know that's a tough place to play, what have you, but our kids will still be prepared."
Iowa (3-1) and Minnesota (4-0) resume their border rivalry for the 107th meeting and both have eyes on competing in the balanced Legends Division. The Hawkeyes drilled the Gophers 31-13 last year at Kinnick Stadium.
"There will be a lot of motivation," Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill said. "That was last year, and this is this year, and we are playing at home. I know our home fans, for 365 days they wait for this opportunity. I would much rather play at home. There is nothing like playing at home and being able to take care of your home turf. Next week will be critical.”
The teams formerly met annually in late November (1983 through 2010) and Saturday's game will be the series' earliest meeting. Minnesota has won the last two games TCF Bank Stadium -- 27-24 in 2010 and 22-21 in 2011.
"We haven't done much up there in Minneapolis in a couple years, so we'll have a big challenge on our hands," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The rest of the league has plenty of questions, regardless of Saturday's results. Michigan State dropped its first game this season, 17-13 at No. 22 Notre Dame. Luck found the Fighting Irish in the way of four Michigan State pass interference penalties, including two on the game-winning drive. Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio was asked if he'd ever had that many pass interference calls against his defense in a game. He replied, "I've been coaching 30-plus years. No, never."
"We did what we had to do in terms of defensively, I felt, we played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said. "That's how they played the ball. Beyond that, I'm not going to have any comments on. That's for other people to comment on in private."
But the Spartans' real problems, once again, came on offense. A week after the Spartans exploded for 55 points under new quarterback Connor Cook, Michigan State managed just 135 yards in the air. The Spartans also amassed 135 yards in penalties.
Northwestern improved to 4-0 for the second straight season, but was sluggish offensively in a 35-21 win against FCS opponent Maine. The Wildcats recorded two interceptions for touchdowns, which proved as the final margin.
"It's obviously great to win the ball game, but we know we've got so much left in the tank, which at the same is pretty exciting to know that we're winning ball games, and for the second straight week, coming back from a ball game knowing we could have played better," Northwestern wide receiver Tony Jones said. "It just keeps us hungry, and we know the potential that this team has if we play to our capabilities."
Nebraska (3-1) shook off a week of distractions, which included a recorded two-year-old profane conversation by Coach Bo Pelini leaked to a website, and toppled South Dakota State 59-20. The Cornhuskers picked up more than 300 yards rushing and passing for the first time in school history. Backup quarterbacks Tommie Armstrong and Ron Kellogg each threw for more than 100 yards for Nebraska.
Still, Pelini wasn't happy with his defense, which gave up 227 yards rushing (6.0 yards per carry).
"In football, no one's going to give you anything," Pelini said. "You've got to take it. You've got to earn it. If you don't have that kind of approach, it's not going to work out well for you. Right now, that's how we're playing. We're not playing with a type of attitude that you need to take to the field defensively. There has to be a sense of urgency every time you line up. There has to be a sense of urgency. For some reason, that isn't the case right now. That's the first thing that we need to get fixed."
Iowa WR Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns, only the third Big Ten player to ever do so. Iowa teammate B.J. Lowery intercepted two passes for touchdowns as well. ... Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner rushed for 151 yards on 24 attempts and completed just five passes to keep the Gophers perfect. ... Ohio State backup quarterback Kenny Guiton tossed a school-record six touchdowns and has 10 in the last two weeks. ... Wisconsin's running tandem of James White (16 carries, 145 yards) and Melvin Gordon (16-147, 3 touchdowns) pulverized Purdue.
Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond had seven tackles, including two for loss. ... Northwestern linebacker Damien Proby and defensive lineman Dean Lowry each returned interceptions for touchdowns. ... Penn State running back Zach Zwinak rushed for 65 yards and three touchdowns. ... Nebraska running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby each rushed for two touchdowns. ... Indiana's Cody Latimer had eight catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. ... Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 120 yards and two TDs. ... Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen recorded his ninth career interception.
1. Ohio State (1) 4-0 0-0
2. Wisconsin (3) 3-1 1-0
3. Northwestern (4) 4-0 0-0
4. Michigan (2) 4-0 0-0
5A. Michigan State (5) 3-1 0-0
5B. Penn State (8) 3-1 0-0
5C. Minnesota (7) 4-0 0-0
5D. Nebraska (8) 3-1 0-0
5E. Iowa (10) 3-1 0-0
10. Indiana (6) 2-2 0-0
11. Illinois (11) 2-1 0-0
12. Purdue (12) 1-3 0-1