Analyzing the three contenders in Big Ten West: Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin
The schedule-makers set up the ideal November for the Big Ten West.
Three ranked teams sit atop the division. And all of them will face off this month to determine a winner, starting at 3 p.m. Saturday when No. 18 Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) visits No. 16 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) in a game televised on Fox. The Hawkeyes host No. 13 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0) the following Saturday. The Badgers travel to Minneapolis for the Nov. 30 season finale.
If any team sweeps the other two, it will almost certainly land in Indianapolis for the Dec. 7 Big Ten title game. What will it take? The Des Moines Register turned to former Ohio State star linebacker and current Big Ten Network analyst Joshua Perry for insight on all three teams, and who he sees eventually emerging on top.
Iowa: 'You know what you're going to get'
Perry is impressed with the consistency the Hawkeyes have shown. Their two losses were by 12 total points against ranked Big Ten East teams Michigan and Penn State.
“Sometimes the games aren’t sexy, but it’s good ball,” Perry said.
WHAT IOWA DOES WELL: “You talk about a team that plays complementary football, I think that’s exactly what it is. You know what you’re going to get. I think they’ve been very good on defense. I think they’ve been OK on offense. Their kicker can go out there and nail field goals all day long,” Perry said.
The Hawkeyes are third in the nation in scoring defense at 10.1 points per game. Junior Keith Duncan is tied for first in the country with 19 successful field goals, on 22 attempts. That is one reason Iowa leads the league in red zone conversions, scoring on 26 of 27 trips. Quarterback Nate Stanley leads the Big Ten with 1,950 passing yards.
IOWA’S BIGGEST WEAKNESS: “The thing that does worry you is, if they get in a game with another team that is good defensively, do they have the firepower to create explosive plays running the ball?” Perry wondered.
The Hawkeyes are averaging only 98 rushing yards per game against Big Ten competition. The interior of its offensive line has been an issue much of the season. None of its three running backs — Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Tyler Goodson — have gained more than 68 yards in a Big Ten game. Iowa enters November needing a breakout performance from that group.
Minnesota: 'They've got a unique ability to win'
The Gophers have won 10 games in a row, their longest streak since 1939-42, when they were victorious in 18 straight.
“If you want to talk about the hot hand, it’s got to be Minnesota. They’ve got a lot of young guys on their team. I don’t think those guys know any better,” Perry said. “(Coach) P.J. (Fleck) is a guy who’s going to be able to manipulate the mentality of his team to buy in to that confidence.”
WHAT MINNESOTA DOES WELL: “They’ve got a unique ability to win, especially early on when they were squeaking out games. But lately they’ve been blowing these games out. I think it probably comes down to a quarterback (Tanner Morgan) that makes few mistakes. A running game that has really taken off. An offensive line that’s improved dramatically,” Perry said.
And then there’s a wide receiver tandem that could be the Big Ten’s best. Tyler Johnson has 43 catches and seven touchdowns. Rashod Bateman has 31 and six.
“They’re consistently making plays every single week,” Perry said.
MINNESOTA’S BIGGEST WEAKNESS: “Their defense hasn’t been great. They’ve been good lately. I think part of that is some of the offenses they’ve been playing. I think they’re susceptible to some big plays. The last few games they’ve been able to get some interceptions, and having (safety) Antoine Winfield Jr. back there definitely changes the game because he can take the ball away at any point. But there’s still some questions there, and defense typically wins the Big Ten West,” Perry said.
The Gophers rank fourth in the Big Ten by allowing conference opponents to gain only 272 yards per game. But that statistic is perhaps skewed by the fact that Minnesota’s five Big Ten wins have come against teams that are a combined 8-22 in league games. The Gophers do lead the Big Ten with 11 interceptions, five of them by Winfield. But they face unbeaten Penn State on Saturday. That game will be telling.
Wisconsin: 'A hard hat, lunch pail, blue collar mentality'
The Badgers are pummeling opponents in home games by an average score of 41-6. But they dropped back-to-back road games at Illinois and Ohio State before using a bye week to try to regroup.
“They’ve got kind of a hard hat, lunch pail, blue collar mentality over there. Their guys don’t give a damn who’s making the play, which is really important. So they’ve been able to get guys to play above what they typically would be able to do,” Perry said.
WHAT WISCONSIN DOES WELL: “The defensive side of the ball has been amazing at times this year. Going in to the Illinois game, they had as many touchdowns that they scored defensively as they allowed. And I don’t care who you’re playing, that’s a ridiculous statistic,” Perry said.
The Badgers lead the nation in total defense, allowing only 223.5 yards per game. They have blanked four opponents this season. But that group was dented in a 38-7 loss to the Buckeyes. Perry believes that game is an outlier. And the 24-23 setback at Illinois was more a matter of an offense that turned the ball over and forced the defense to contend with short fields.
“They’ve just dropped a couple games and you don’t know what their locker room is truly feeling right now. And that becomes a challenge trying to judge the mentality of a locker room,” Perry said.
WISCONSIN’S BIGGEST WEAKNESS: “I question their true ability to push the ball the ball down the field in the passing game. I don’t think they ask (quarterback) Jack (Coan) to do that. That makes it easier to take (running back) Jonathan Taylor out of the game plan. I think part of it is the defensive lines they’ve played have really athletic players and not space eaters necessarily, so their offensive line has had to block moving targets. Ohio State specifically played a ton of man-to-man knowing that they have the defensive backs to put guys on islands and dedicate that extra player to the run game,” Perry said.
Coan has completed 75.4 percent of his passes to rank third nationally. But he has eclipsed the 200-yard mark just once against a Big Ten opponent and has only three touchdown passes in those five games.
“If I had to put my money down on one of those teams, I probably would pick Wisconsin because they seem like they’ve got the ability to get their defense back in line,” Perry concluded.
“And the fact that they can run the ball successfully means they probably make less mistakes on offense. And I think that will help them win some games.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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