Week three of the conference season is in the books and while there is still a lot of football left to be played, the conference picture is finally starting to take some form. Some early front runners in the race to Indy have started to emerge while other teams have seen their dreams of getting to the Big Ten title game take a serious hit.
Wisconsin vs Purdue
This game was the defacto Leader’s division championship game and while the winner isn’t guaranteed a trip to Indy, they have a huge advantage. Purdue jumped out to an early lead, scoring a touchdown in the first 9 seconds of the game but from that point on it was all Wisconsin as the Badgers rode their running backs to a 38-14 victory.
The past few weeks have seen some signs of improvement from Wisconsin and the Badger offense finally got clicking in this game as they piled up 645 yards of offense. The Badgers did most of their damage on the ground as Montee Ball finally looked like the Heisman Trophy contender he was supposed to be as he ran for a career-high 247 yards while average 8.5 yards per carry and finding the endzone 3 times. Fellow runningback James White also got in on the act, picking up 124 yards and one touchdown. The Badger defense also did their job, holding Purdue to only 248 yards and forcing a turnover. Despite their ugly start to the season, Wisconsin now is suddenly looking like the Big Ten contender that they were always supposed to be, with a 2-1 conference record that puts them at the top of the bowl eligible Leaders division teams.
The Boilermakers continue their slide, after struggling defensively against Marshall two weeks ago, Purdue has now lost two in a row. The Boilermaker quarterback situation is still a mess with Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve, and Rob Henry all seeing time today and none of them looking good. Purdue had a bit of life from the running game with both Akeen Hunt and Akeem Shavers each averaging more than 5 yards per carry but the Boilermaker defense isn’t playing well enough to allow them to stick to the running game. At 0-2 in the Big Ten, Purdue still can make it to Indy but they need to immediately turn things around now, next week’s game at OSU will make or break the Boilermakers’ season.
Northwestern vs Minnesota
Up until last week this game looked like it would be a matchup between two surprisingly undefeated teams. Then both the Wildcats and the Gophers lost and suddenly this game became about the Big Ten’s two biggest surprises trying to keep their dreams of a conference title alive. Northwestern jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and then stretched that to 21-10 at the half. A Minnesota field goal in the third quarter made it a one score game but neither team would score again and the pretty kitties would hold on for a 21-13 win.
Northwestern’s offense wasn’t particularly good, only managing 273 yards but they were efficient. The dual quarterback system that the Wildcats have used all season came in handy, pocket quarterback Trevor Siemian struggled but mobile option Kain Colter had a solid workman-like day, going a perfect 9 or 9 for 54 yards through the air and pick up 26 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The real star for Northwestern was running back Venric Mark who averaged over 9 yards per carry while rushing for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns. After struggling last week, the Wildcat defense looked good in this one, forcing three turnovers. The win qualified the pretty kitties for a bowl game and at 2-1, Northwestern controls their destiny in the conference.
Minnesota saw the return of quarterback MarQueis Gray from injury and he didn’t look too rusty, going 7 of 11 passing for 66 yards and an interception while rushing for 86 yards and a touchdown on 9 carries. Golden Gopher backup quarterback Max Shortell also saw action but didn’t look that good in going 9 of 19 for 103 yards. The biggest problem for Minnesota was their inability to hold onto the ball as the Gophers fumbled 7 times, losing 2 of them. The loss drops the Gophers to 0-2 in the conference and all but eliminates them from title consideration, next week’s trip to Wisconsin will most likely continue their losing streak.
Iowa vs Michigan State
Recent years have seen some thrilling games between Iowa and MSU and this one was just as close, even though it wasn’t as entertaining, a fact evidenced by the large number of empty seats at Spartan Stadium. MSU jumped out to an early 10-0 lead but Iowa trimmed that to 10-3 by halftime. The two teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter before Iowa drove to tie the game at 13 with less than two minutes in regulation, sending the game into overtime. Each team hit a field goal in the first overtime. In the second overtime Iowa was held to a field goal and MSU had a chance to win it but fell short when Andrew Maxwell’s pass was intercepted, giving the Hawkeyes a 19-16 win.
The Iowa offense struggled to move the ball all day, only gaining 257 yards but they did just enough, making the plays down the stretch. Former walk-on running back Mark Weisman continued his campaign for a spot on the All-Big Ten team, rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown. After losing to Central Michigan earlier in the year it is a surprise that Iowa is 2-0 in the Big Ten and at the top of the Legends Division. Despite that, the Hawkeyes have yet to look impressive, next week’s game against Penn State will give Iowa a chance to show that they are improving and maybe lessen a little of the pressure on Kirk Ferentz.
The Michigan State offense continues to struggle thanks to uninspiring play calling that is fairly easy to game plan for. Runningback Le’Veon Bell continues to be a stud as he picked up 140 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries today. Unfortunately Bell doesn’t get any help from the passing game where, after showing signs of improvement last week, the Spartan receivers regressed to being unable to catch, resulting in quarterback Andrew Maxwell going 12 of 31 for 179 yards and an interception. The MSU defense continues to play great, and they did hold Iowa to well under 300 yards, but the Spartan offense couldn’t stay on the field long enough and the defense eventually wore down. At 1-2 in the conference, MSU’s dreams of returning to Indy are pretty much gone and the Spartans are in desperate need of a passing game if they want to get to a bowl game in a warm weather location.
#25 Michigan vs Illinois
Not every Big Ten game today could be close or won by the away team and Michigan vs Illinois made sure of that as the Wolverines trounced the Illini 45-0.
Despite briefly injurying his thumb in the first quarter, Denard Robinson returned to the game and as normal, provided most of the Wolverine offense. Shoelace went an efficient 7 of 11 threw the air for 159 yards and two touchdowns and he added another pair of scores on the ground while rushing for 128 yards. Overall the Michigan offense looked as potent as ever while picking up over 500 yards and establishing themselves as the front-runners to win the Legends Division. Next week sees Michigan take on Michigan State in a rivalry game that the Wolverines have lost the past three years.
Illini fans have to be missing Ron Zook at this point, there is a surprising thought, as Illinois has struggled on offense and been unable to stop any opponent with a pulse. The Illini have given up over 40 points three times this season and over 30 points two other times. Illinois gets a much needed bye week next week but that probably won’t help much.