Coach Frost walks sideline during football game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Get Ready for a Wild, Wild (Big Ten) West Where Anyone is Vulnerable

November 01, 2020

What on Earth are we supposed to make of the West this season?

Through two weeks, we have some chaos.

We’ll start with Minnesota.

The Gophers opened their season with a 49-24 loss to Michigan. As an offense, Minnesota ran 16 more plays than the Wolverines but put up nearly 150 fewer yards. They got very little from the ground game despite 41 carries.

OK, most thought. Michigan might be pretty good.

Except the Wolverines turned around and lost to first-year coach Mel Tucker and Michigan State at home this week.

So what does that say of Minnesota? Well, following a 45-44 overtime loss to hapless Maryland Friday night, we should probably be questioning just how far the Gophers might fall this season after last year’s dream ride.

The Gophers fell down 21-7 in the first quarter Friday night, letting Taulia Tagovailoa look like his brother, Tua, as the Terp offense cut through the Gopher secondary like butter. Then for the second and third quarters, Maryland looked dreadful and Minnesota ripped off 31 unanswered points to take a 17-point lead into the fourth.

To lose in overtime on a missed extra point? Yikes. To be in overtime with a Maryland team which just last week had its doors blown off by Northwestern, 43-3? Double yikes.

Minnesota has given running back Mo Ibrahim 67 carries through two. He’s got 347 yards and six scores on those touches. As a team, the Gophers have run it 91 times and thrown it only 46. This has the look of a team that’s going to ground and pound.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan isn’t necessarily missing that big-play threat the Gophers had a season ago in the passing department—he’s already got seven 20-yard completions in two games—but the efficiency with which he’s moving the ball has dipped year-over-year.

It just doesn’t quite feel the same on that side of the ball. And any slippage from last season’s prolific pace is problematic because defensively right now the Gophers aren’t stopping a soul. Michigan and Maryland have hit for a combined 9.5 yards a play and run for 8.7 yards a carry.

Minnesota is 0-2.

The Illini are also 0-2, and they look helpless. Probably best to not spend too much time on them. Brandon Peters, the team’s starting quarterback, is out for 21 days after testing positive for COVID-19. Others have tested positive as well following their Week 1 game with Wisconsin. On the field, the offense was better against Purdue, but the defense has given up 76 points in two games.

Also 0-2: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Iowa had a 17-0 lead after one quarter of play against Northwestern on Saturday and then got blanked in the second half, eventually losing 21-20.

Quarterback Spencer Petras attempted 50 passes and threw three interceptions. That’s only the second time in the last five years the Hawkeyes have thrown the ball 50 times in a game (the other one was a loss to Penn State in 2018). And Petras threw it 39 times in the opener against Purdue.

We’ve seen Iowa in recent years get a little more pass-happy with Brian Ferentz at the controls of the offense, but, at the same time, Ferentz has had a quarterback in Nate Stanley he didn’t have to worry about. Stanley played a lot of ball for the Hawkeyes. He was a gamer.

Petras is a third-year sophomore and he’s still very green.

He hasn’t looked impressive. Maybe the jitter-bug feet and the downfield reading will improve as the season goes on, but Iowa doesn’t have a ton of time to waste, not with the winless start and all the big names still looming on the schedule. Northwestern and Purdue were supposed to be the gimmes. At least, that was the case if Iowa was to contend for the division crown.

Speaking of Purdue, are you buying the 2-0 start?

It may be too early to definitively say on that one, too. The Boilermakers are without their best offensive player in Rondale Moore, and their quarterback, Aidan O’Connell has at times looked really good—he was 29-for-35 for 376 yards against Illinois—and at times looked incredibly inaccurate.

They’ve won two tough, grind-it-out games, though. And I think folks around here know all too well how much those kinds of wins, no matter what they look like, can be worth.

Northwestern, the other 2-0 team from the West, has maybe looked… the… best of anyone on Nebraska’s side of the conference to start the year?

They’ve got two of the best defensive players in the league in Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, and they’ve got a run game with potential. The Wildcats have dialed up 113 rushing attempts in two games.

Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey threw it only 18 times against Iowa. Northwestern’s run game was terrible in 2018 and then showed signs of life in 2019. If it’s to the point again where the Wildcats can win games with running and defense, Ramsey is the perfect quarterback to have.

Who had Purdue and Northwestern sitting atop the West division table after the first two weeks?

Wisconsin might have been right there if not for this weekend’s cancellation.

With Barry Alvarez announcing on ESPN’s College GameDay Saturday morning additional positive COVID-19 tests within the program (10 staff members and 12 players have tested positive), the Badgers’ Big Ten West title hopes appear to be hanging by a thread.

Remember: to be eligible to play for the Big Ten championship, a team has to play in at least six games, or the rest of the league needs to average fewer than six games played. If Wisconsin can’t play that game against Purdue next week (and, given the situation, it seems like it shouldn’t), the Badgers would have to get through five straight weeks without a hiccup.

If they can play, and they face Purdue without quarterback Graham Mertz (out for 21 days after testing positive), would the Boilermakers win? The Badger rushing attack certainly isn’t what it has been, and that was to be expected following the departure of tailback Jonathan Taylor and turnover on the offensive line. You expected they’d work into form, though, because it’s Wisconsin and running it well is what Wisconsin does. But now the Badgers aren’t practicing. Hard to get better when you’re not on the field.

Which leads us to Nebraska.

Do we make anything of the fact that Nebraska’s offense had a better day against Ohio State than Penn State’s?

The Nittany Lions scored eight more points, but I think you can chalk that difference up to the presence of PSU wideout Jahan Dotson, who had eight catches for 144 yards and three scores.

(I won’t say Nebraska doesn’t have a wideout like that because I think it might have two. Nebraska was missing Omar Manning and it didn’t get Wan’Dale Robinson the ball nearly enough in its opener.)

Yet, the Huskers averaged 6.7 yards a play against the Buckeyes. Penn State was at 5.2. Nebraska ran for 6.9 yards a carry against the Buckeyes if you factor out sacks. Penn State ran for 3.0. Penn State was better throwing the ball. But can you actually say Nebraska was bad?

Ohio State is clearly the class of the Big Ten, and all we have to work off of from Nebraska in 2020 is against the absolute best of the best. Makes it hard to get an accurate picture.

Nebraska looked like the same old, mistake-prone team it’s been the last couple years for about half the game against Ohio State. The other half, it looked like a team that had taken that step forward everyone expected. It looked a team that could not only physically hold its own, but actually win some trench battles.

If Nebraska comes out next Saturday and beats Northwestern, all bets are off. The West is wide open.

Really, though, it kinda feels that way right now. Outside of the team playing in Columbus, it seems like anyone can win anywhere at any time.

For a team like Nebraska hoping to finally break out of the doldrums, that’s music to Big Red ears.

It’s about to get real weird.

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