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Minnesota may be destined for something special

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

I haven't always been what would be called a big believer in Minnesota.

The Gophers have been a good story. A solid team, to be sure, with a coach that has been inspiring as he has slowly built Minnesota into a contender.

But even with the Gophers already headed to their third consecutive bowl game and a double-digit win season now a possibility — it would be the team's first since 2003 — the West was still about Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Until now.

That's because when Saturday rolls around and Minnesota travels to Wisconsin, it will be playing to win the division and grab a spot in the Big Ten championship game. The Gophers won't be the favorite, but you won't see me betting against them.

Why? Because after their win at Nebraska on Saturday, I'm starting to wonder if this team isn't destined for something special.

"Nebraska is a great team," coach Jerry Kill said. "To come in here is difficult, but our kids — I don't know. I'd like to tell you how and why, but they're a mentally tough group. We lose, in my opinion, one of the best backs in the nation (David Cobb), and our kids just stepped up."

They did that, and in the process, put the Cornhuskers out of their misery. And the way they did it was truly amazing.

With Cobb on the sidelines with a bum hamstring, the Gophers erased a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter to beat a ranked team on the road for the first time since beating No. 6 Ohio State in October 2000. It was the Gophers' second straight victory over Nebraska and the first win in eight trips to Lincoln, Nebraska.

And the clinching play was a beauty.

As Nebraska receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El looked like he was heading into the end zone with the winning score, cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun ripped the ball away from the Cornhuskers freshman, stunning the sellout crowd and icing the game for Minnesota.

"It just happened so fast," Boddy-Calhoun said. "I'm sticking a guy, and the next thing I know it's in his hands, then it's right there in front of me. The first thing I thought of was, 'Get the ball.' "

It was an impressive bounce-back for Minnesota, which lost at home last week to Ohio State, the team from the East that is waiting to find out who it will face in Indianapolis on Dec. 6.

And after pulling off the improbable win, the Gophers will get a chance to not only derail Wisconsin's hopes of reaching its third conference title game in four years, it will have a shot at bringing back Paul Bunyan's Axe.

Minnesota hasn't won the trophy since 2003 and has captured it just twice since 1995. But this time the trophy awarded to the Minnesota-Wisconsin winner comes with much more than pride.

It comes with a ticket to Indy.

"There won't be any motivational speeches," Kill said. "I think we all know we're battling for the Axe, we're battling for the championship, we're going to Madison. It doesn't get better than that."

And it might just get the Gophers a step closer to their first piece of a Big Ten title in a little less than 50 years.

Wisconsin ready

Wisconsin did its job Saturday, knocking Iowa out of the West division race and setting up next week's showdown with Minnesota.

"It feels good because everything is on the line next week," running back Melvin Gordon said. "Minnesota is going to give us their all and we're going to give them ours. We have to."

Gordon had another record day, but his single-game rushing record barely lasted a week as Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine ran for 427 yards in a win over Kansas, eclipsing the 408 that Gordon had last week against Nebraska.

But Gordon still ran for 200 yards against the Hawkeyes and became the 17th FBS player to go over 2,000 yards in a season. His 2,109 yards are 10th best all-time.

"That's disappointing, to have that," Gordon said of his record falling. "But congrats to that guy; that's really not easy to do."

What also won't be easy is reaching the conference title game. Minnesota has proven to be the real deal, beating Nebraska and coming within a touchdown of beating Ohio State.

"That's exactly what you want," quarterback Joel Stave said. "That's what you play the game for. That's what you spend all the time in the off-season working for is for games like this."

Bowl trip on the line

Somehow, some way, Northwestern and Illinois will play next week for a potential spot in a bowl game.

If ever there was an argument that too many bowl games exist, this might be it. Both teams are 5-6, have combined for five conference victories this season and rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in most categories.

Yet, when they square off next week in Evanston, one team will walk away with six wins.

"Our young men have persevered," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They've kept on battling, and obviously, our backs are against the wall one more time next Saturday."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

How Big Ten teams fared

East Division

Saturday's results; Next Saturday's games

Ohio State (7-0, 10-1) d. Indiana, 42-27; vs. Michigan, noon (ABC or ESPN)

Michigan State (6-1, 9-2) d. Rutgers, 45-3; at Penn State, 3:30 (ABC)

Maryland (4-3, 7-4) d. Michigan, 23-16; vs. Rutgers, 3:30 (ESPNU)

Michigan (3-4, 5-6) lost to Maryland, 23-16; at Ohio State, noon (ABC)

Penn State (2-5, 6-5) lost to Illinois, 16-14; vs. Michigan State, 3:30 (ABC)

Rutgers (2-5, 6-5) lost to Michigan State, 45-3; at Maryland, 3:30 (ESPNU)

Indiana (0-7, 3-8) lost to Ohio State, 42-27; vs. Purdue, noon (BTN)

West Division

Saturday's results; Next Saturday's games

Wisconsin (6-1, 9-2) d. Iowa, 26-24; vs. Wisconsin, 3:30 (BTN)

Minnesota (5-2, 8-3) d. Nebraska, 28-24; at Wisconsin, 3:30 (BTN)

Nebraska (4-3, 8-3) lost to Minnesota, 28-24; at Iowa, noon Fri. (ABC)

Iowa (4-3, 7-4) lost to Wisconsin, 26-24; vs. Nebraska, noon Fri. (ABC)

Northwestern (3-4, 5-6) d. Purdue, 38-14; vs. Illinois, noon (ESPNU)

Illinois (2-5, 5-6) d. Penn State, 16-14; at Northwestern, noon (ESPNU)

Purdue (1-6, 3-8) lost to Northwestern, 38-14; at Indiana, noon (BTN)