Wisconsin can’t slip up in Minnesota
UW opened the month and the second half of Big Ten play with a 62-17 victory over Purdue on Saturday to move within two games out of first place in the Leaders Division with three games remaining.
The clearest path for UW (7-2, 3-2) to win the division and reach the Big Ten title game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis is this:
UW must win its final three games—at Minnesota, at Illinois and at home against Penn State. Penn State (8-1, 5-0) must stumble twice, and Ohio State (6-3, 3-2) must fall once.
UW’s next test comes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against host Minnesota (2-7, 1-4), which is playing better recently under coach Jerry Kill. The Gophers surprised Iowa, 22-21, on Oct. 29 in Minneapolis and Saturday battled host Michigan State before finally succumbing, 31-24.
Given the intensity of the rivalry, it is unlikely UW won’t be prepared for the Gophers. UW won the last seven meetings between the teams and hasn’t lost Paul Bunyan’s Axe since suffering a three-point loss at Minnesota in 2003.
“It’s special,” senior fullback Bradie Ewing said. “I don’t think you need to get anyone pumped up for this game. I think people know of the tradition in this game and with the Axe.”
Penn State, which had a bye last week, hosts Nebraska (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.
The Cornhuskers suffered a stunning 28-25 home loss to Northwestern last week. They have to win to stay in the hunt for the Legends Division title.
Penn State has relied on a stout defense to win its five league games by a combined 34 points.
It will be interesting to see whether the Penn State players and coaches become enveloped in the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky, the team’s former defensive coordinator.
Sandusky, who retired in 1999, was charged Saturday with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period. A grand jury charged athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the school’s vice president for finance and business, with perjury.
Can the Nittany Lions survive the ugly allegations and Nebraska? Then after facing the Cornhuskers, they have road games against Ohio State and UW.
The Buckeyes were sloppy in a 34-20 home victory over Indiana. They face an intriguing road test against Purdue this weekend. The Boilermakers upset the Buckeyes two seasons ago in West Lafayette, Ind.
“We could have definitely (done) a better job coming out with better energy and better pace,” said tailback Dan Herron, who rushed 14 times for 141 yards in the victory over the Hoosiers. “We finished the game, you know. It’s not how you start the game; it’s how you finish.”
If the Buckeyes get past the Boilermakers, they still must finish strong with a difficult home game against Penn State and a road test against rival Michigan.
The Wolverines have lost the last seven meetings against Ohio State, though the Buckeyes’ 37-7 victory last season was forfeited as part of the school’s self-imposed sanctions for NCAA violations.
Nevertheless, don’t be surprised to see first-year coach Brady Hoke lead the Wolverines to a victory in the regular-season finale Nov. 26 in Ann Arbor.
UW could be favored in all three of its games. Perhaps the best ally for UW was provided Saturday in the 45-point dismantling of Purdue.
Yes, the Boilermakers were banged up physically and struggling. But no team in the Big Ten needed a victory more than UW, which had suffered late-game road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State.
“It’s very important in terms of confidence,” redshirt junior center Peter Konz said. “You’re saying to yourself: ‘OK, you’ve lost two really close games. How are we going to be in this next game? Are we going to be dominant? Are we going to be slow?’
“You don’t really know, and you start to question your abilities. Seeing the way we handled that, it’ll carry through in the rest of the season. We know that we can bounce back after a little adversity.
“Now we’re completely focused on Minnesota.”