In an otherwise forgettable non-conference campaign, only three Big Ten programs finished unscathed. National analysts deservedly has battered the league for its failures, including four losses to non-BCS opponents.
But two teams have emerged as feel-good stories entering the Big Ten's first weekend of league action. Minnesota and Northwestern (and Ohio State) each are 4-0 and have won games in impressive fashion. The Gophers, which have exceeded their win total in each of the last two seasons, beat Syracuse 17-10 on Saturday. It's Minnesota first 4-0 start since 2008 and first five-game winning streak since 2004-05.
The Gophers forced four turnovers and didn't commit one. It was a dominant effort, with the Orange scoring their only touchdown in the game's final minute and a holding call bringing back a Minnesota touchdown pass.
"Theyíve got a good football team, but I think our kids just riled up and played hard," Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill said. "We had chances, we had a couple missed field goals, had a touchdown called back. Sometimes you come apart when you donít capitalize on those things, but our kids just kept playing. I think thatís one thing weíre doing right now. I donít think they pay attention to the scoreboard."
Kill, who is in his second season, has instilled discipline and focus to a program that recently lacked those qualities. The Gophers have thrown nine touchdowns and only two interceptions this year. Sophomore Max Shortell started his first game Saturday and was 16-of-30 for 231 yards. Shortell replaced MarQueis Gray, who was out after suffering an ankle injury the previous week.
"We didnít hold back on the game plan," Kill said. "A young quarterback, here they come, and he did a great job of getting the ball out for the most part. We put him in some bad situations on third and long but when we were able to run the ball and do a good job at the line of scrimmage. He got us in the right play and threw the ball at the right time. I thought he did a real good job of managing the ball and again, he didnít turn it over."
Like Minnesota, Northwestern has taken care of the ball offensively en route to a perfect start. The Wildcats have thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Northwestern has scored on 16-of-18 red-zone situations and hit all nine field-goal attempts.
Northwestern is the only Big Ten squad to beat three BCS teams this year. Saturday, the Wildcats beat FCS newcomer South Dakota 38-7.
"We're very thankful to have the kind of schedule that we've had," Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Running back Venric Mark has become Northwestern's latest all-purpose threat, rushing for 399 yards and churning 75 yards receiving. He also is a dangerous special teams weapon, averaging 30.6 per punt return and 17.4 on kick returns.
"Venric is playing at a very high level," Fitzgerald said. "I think whether he'd be able to run the ball between the tackles has been a question from some of the experts. He's proven, in the last four weeks, that he can. He has great speed and great vision and the way that he's gone about his business in these first four weeks has been outstanding. The heavy lifting starts now with the Big Ten play."
The league's other programs are more established than Minnesota and Northwestern but all have been exposed at some point. Nebraska (3-1), which decimated Idaho State 73-7 Saturday, gave up 653 yards in a six-point loss at UCLA two weeks ago. Wisconsin (3-1) improved under new starting quarterback Joel Stave in a 37-26 win against UTEP but there still are questions for what the Badgers can do against better competition.
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball left the game with a head injury but backups James White and Melvin Gordon produced in Ball's absence. Gordon rushed for a team-high 112 yards and added a score, while White ran for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
"I think we got cleaner on offense as far as what we wanted to do, game plan, pregame, by that I mean not pregame today but during the course of the week came up with numbers that we would want to get Montee and Melvin and James all involved," Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said.
Michigan State limped through a 23-7 win against Eastern Michigan. The Spartans apparently are still reeling from their 20-3 loss to Notre Dame a week ago. An agitated Coach Mark Dantonio spoke for only three minutes and retorted "next question" multiple times during his post-game news conference.
"We need to play more consistently," Dantonio said. "Players make plays, plays don't make players. We need to be more consistent in what we are doing and play better."
Michigan threw five first-half interceptions in a 13-6 loss at Notre Dame. The Wolverines' six turnovers negated a solid defensive effort, holding the Fighting Irish to 145 yards. Iowa gave up an onside kick with 45 seconds left and lost 32-31 to Central Michigan on a last-second 47-yard field goal. Ohio State fell behind 9-0 and didn't put UAB away 29-15 until 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard Braxton Miller run.
STARS OF THE WEEK
Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the Spartans' otherwise unimpressive win against Eastern Michigan. Iowa running back Mark Weisman ran for 217 yards and three touchdowns. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin completed 23-of-35 passes for 312 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 14 yards and two TDs in the Nittany Lions' 24-13 win against Temple.
Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead returned from a knee injury to rush for 119 yards and two scores in a 73-7 win against Idaho State. Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis caught six passes for 147 yards and a score in his return from a chest injury. Michigan's Denard Robinson threw four interceptions and was sacked three times in a loss to Notre Dame. Ohio State blocked an extra point and UAB blocked a punt for a touchdown in the Buckeyes' 29-15 win. Illinois gave up six turnovers in a 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech. Minnesota forced four turnovers and committed none in a 17-10 win against Syracuse. Northwestern's Venric Mark rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 win against South Dakota.
1. Ohio State 4-0
- Hardly impressive thus far, but surviving without a loss is worth something in today's Big Ten
2. Michigan State 3-1
- Got stinker out of the way before league opener against Ohio STate
3. Nebraska 3-1
- Does a 73-7 win tell us anything about the Cornhuskers? We'll find out next week
4. Northwestern 4-0
- Wildcats have real shot at 7-0 start, possible championship season
5. Minnesota 4-0
- Gophers already exceeded win total from last two seasons
6. Purdue 2-1
- Win against Marshall next week means Boilermakers can make move up league charts
7. Michigan 2-2
- Losses expose flaws but both were against top-10 competition
8. Wisconsin 3-1
- Trip to Nebraska provides true barometer for Badgers
9. Iowa 2-2
- A setback but not a fatal blow if team can make improvements
10. Penn State 2-2
- Defense will keep Nittany Lions in games against most teams
11. Illinois 2-2
- Interesting to see what handshakes will be like between Tim Beckman and Bill O'Brien this week
12. Indiana 2-1
- Hoosiers get chance to show improvement this week against Northwestern
Minnesota 4-0 0-0
Northwestern 4-0 0-0
Michigan State 3-1 0-0
Nebraska 3-1 0-0
Iowa 2-2 0-0
Michigan 2-2 0-0
Ohio State 4-0 0-0
Wisconsin 3-1 0-0
Indiana 2-1 0-0
Purdue 2-1 0-0
Illinois 2-2 0-0
Penn State 2-2 0-0
Central Michigan 32, Iowa 31
Minnesota 17, Syracuse 10
Wisconsin 37, UTEP 26
Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6
Nebraska 73, Idaho State 7
Michigan State 23, Eastern Michigan 7
Ohio State 29, UAB 15
Louisiana Tech 52, Illinois 24
Penn State 24, Temple 13
Northwestern 38, South Dakota 7
Purdue, Indiana idle
Minnesota at Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN2
Penn State at Illinois, 11 a.m, ESPN
Indiana at Northwestern 11 a.m., BTN
Marshall at Purdue, 2:30 p.m., BTN
Ohio State at Michigan State, 2:30 p.m., ABCWisconsin at Nebraska, 7 p.m., ABC