Charboneau: Wildcats, Hawkeyes surprise thus far

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

With so much attention in the Big Ten focused on the East, where the top two teams in the country happen to play, now seems like a good time to take a peek over at the West.

There’s little doubt the East is the powerhouse division with Ohio State and Michigan State ranked No. 1 and 2 in the nation. They’ll be tested, it appears, by a Michigan team that is coming on quickly and a Penn State team that is generally headed in the right direction.

The West, however, has been nothing more than an afterthought. But with nonconference play coming to a close, there are some intriguing story lines developing.

Many believed this could be the year Minnesota would break through and reach the Big Ten title game, but the Golden Gophers have been unimpressive. And Wisconsin, the one consistent performer in the West, started with a loss to Alabama and followed with three ho-hum wins over lesser opponents.

Nebraska was the other contender coming into the season and might still be a factor, but the Huskers have suffered heartbreaking losses to BYU and Miami (Fla.).

The surprises, so far, have absolutely been Northwestern and Iowa.

The Wildcats were coming off two straight 5-7 seasons that were known more for numerous injuries and off-field issues. However, Northwestern opened the season with one of the biggest upsets yet by beating Stanford and then winning on the road against Duke two weeks later.

The offense has been far from stellar, ranking 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (25 points), but the defense has been outstanding. The Wildcats lead the Big Ten by allowing only 8.8 points a game and are third in total defense (266 yards).

Considering Clayton Thorson threw three touchdown passes against Ball State and Justin Jackson ran for a career-high 184 yards, it looks like the offense is starting to come around and the Wildcats are back to being a major factor.

The same can be said for Iowa, which enters Big Ten play unbeaten for the first time since 2009.

Many questioned coach Kirk Ferentz when quarterback Jake Rudock transferred to Michigan, but junior C.J. Beathard has made that transition a smooth one.

Beathard leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (157.8) and is third in passing yards (240.5 yards). In a win over North Texas on Saturday, Beathard completed his first 15 passes and finished with 278 yards and two touchdowns.

And the Hawkeyes seem to have found their running back after Jordan Canzeri ran for 115 yards and four touchdowns.

Airing it out

With injuries mounting in the offensive backfield, it appears Penn State is discovering some success in its passing game, which becomes much easier when your quarterback isn’t flat on his back.

The offensive line has had its struggles, but the two sacks allowed against San Diego State were an improvement and Christian Hackenberg took advantage by throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns.

With running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch lost to injury for the time being, the passing game will need to continue to be efficient.

“Late in the game, we had to mix things up, get the ball down the field,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I think we can continue to be aggressive like that.”

Hoosier hoopla

Indiana is 4-0 for the first time since 1990 and has a five-game winning streak, its longest in 28 years.

Until the Hoosiers open Big Ten play at Ohio State next Saturday, they’ll relish the fact they are in a position they’ve rarely been.

It’s the sixth time in program history that the Hoosiers have opened a season with four consecutive wins and the five-game streak is their first since 1987.

“The cool thing about where we're at right now is that we're really not clicking at the level we know we can,” quarterback Nate Sudfeld said.

The offense is producing points while the defense has struggled. The Hoosiers had to hang on to beat Wake Forest by a touchdown after opening a 31-10 lead.

“It was a good win, but we made it hard at the end,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said.

“No game has been easy for us.”