Before the 2013 Big Ten season, the Legends Division narrative featured four contenders and two pretenders.
Northwestern, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State were expected to compete for the divisional title, while Iowa and Minnesota were relegated to beg for scraps of attention.
Well, halfway through the league season, Minnesota has knocked off two of the contenders and sits at 6-2 overall. Iowa, which follows at 5-3, took out Northwestern 17-10 and already has topped its 2012 wins mark.
What’s up is down, and down is up in the final year of Legends and Leaders. Minnesota is the league’s best story so far. Coach Jerry Kill remains out while trying to control his epilepsy, and in his absence, the Gophers have rallied around interim coach Tracey Claeys. The Gophers knocked off Northwestern on the road last week and followed up with their first win against Nebraska (34-23) since 1960, ending a 16-game losing streak. Minnesota is bowl eligible for the second straight season.
“I think it would have been extremely difficult to come into the game (Saturday) 0-3 in the Big Ten and to have to play Nebraska,” Claeys said. “We kept telling the players that they are better than they think they are, and Northwestern brought out a little bit of confidence. This win will bring out a lot of confidence in us.”
Iowa needed overtime to stop Northwestern and snap a four-game Big Ten losing streak at Kinnick Stadium. The Wildcats gouged Iowa for 225 rushing yards, but it was 124 fewer than in last year’s Northwestern win. Iowa produced six sacks, the team’s best against an opponent since 2008.
“It was good for us,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in the victory locker room, and this one came hard. It’s part of winning in conference play. There’s nothing easy about it. That was evident (Saturday).”
While Minnesota and Iowa enjoyed their success, Northwestern and Nebraska now must regroup with their preseason goals either in tatters or on the brink. Northwestern has lost four straight in Big Ten play after opening the season 4-0. The Wildcats entered the league slate ranked No. 16 but the losses keep piling for a team that was 5 minutes, 3 seconds from an unbeaten record in 2012.
“We need to win football games, that’s the bottom line,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “So, yeah my job is on the line. I’ll answer that, I’ll answer that. Every game is critically important, so I’m not very happy right now.”
Nebraska allowed more than 195 yards rushing for the fifth time this season, and the Gophers pounded the Huskers for a season-high 271 rushing yards. When Nebraska needed a late-game stop, Minnesota ran the ball on seven of eight plays to punch in a touchdown and put the game out of reach.
“I’m disappointed how this football team took the field (Saturday),” Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said afterward. “It’s a team loss. We need to do some soul-searching. We didn’t have the type of approach we needed to have.”
Michigan State is the one Legends team that has justified its lofty preseason status. The Spartans dispatched Illinois 42-3, vaulting to 7-1 and 4-0 in league play. Michigan State doesn’t play Leaders Division powers Ohio State and Wisconsin this year, and could virtually sew up the divisional title with wins in its next two games against Michigan and Nebraska.
The Spartans boast the nation’s best defense and held the Fighting Illini to just 128 total yards, a season low for both teams.
“We’ve handled some adversity,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s the thing that is impressive to me. We’ve remained pretty resilient as a football team. We’ve played very well away from home really since 2010. You know our guys sort of come together, and we are confident when we go away. It talks to team chemistry, I think, and good things happen when you have team chemistry.”
Michigan didn’t play Saturday, and Dantonio wasn’t about to let his squad’s cross-state rival enter the players’ thoughts moments after the win, either.
“We’re 4-0 (in the Big Ten), which is where we wanted to be,” Dantonio said. “But we’ll worry about that (Sunday). All of our focus is really on the present. Let’s have a good time on the bus and plane ride home, and we’ll take care of business (Sunday).”
Minnesota QB Philip Nelson rushed for 55 yards and two scores and passed for 152 yards and another TD. … Ohio State QB Braxton Miller tossed for 252 yards and three TDs and rushed for 68 yards and two more scores. … Michigan State QB Connor Cook completed 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards and three TDs. … Iowa LB James Morris had eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and recovered a fumble.
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 165 yards on 19 carries. … Penn State WR Allen Robinson hauled in 12 passes for 173 yards, including a long-winding 65-yard touchdown. … Illinois punter Justin DeVernois punted five times for a 40.6 yard-per-punt average. … Northwestern QB Kain Colter completed 11 of 14 passes for 104 yards and rushed for another 60 yards.
What celebrity could post as a doppelganger for a current Big Ten coach?
1. Ohio State (1) 8-0 4-0
2. Wisconsin (2) 5-2 3-1
3. Michigan State (3A) 7-1 4-0
4. Michigan (5) 6-1 2-1
5. Iowa (6) 5-3 2-2
6. Minnesota (8) 6-2 2-2
7. Nebraska (3B) 5-2 2-1
8. Northwestern (9) 4-4 0-4
9. Indiana (10) 3-4 1-2
10. Penn State (7) 4-3 1-2
11. Illinois (11) 3-4 0-3
12. Purdue (12) 1-6 0-3
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