The focus in the Big Ten is in the East.
That’s nothing new. After all, when programs like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan are battling on a yearly basis for the division title and a chance to reach the Big Ten Championship game, it makes sense that plenty of attention will be paid to that side of things.
Of course, there is another division in the Big Ten. Not that there’s been much debate as to which team rules that side of the ledger.
That team, clearly, is Wisconsin, which has been to the conference title game four times — more than any team in the Big Ten — and it looks like 2017 will be no different as the Badgers just keep humming along, running over the rest of the teams in the West.
The latest was Nebraska on Saturday. The Cornhuskers had designs on competing for the division this season, and even after a tumultuous nonconference portion of the season that resulted in the dismissal of their athletic director, they had won their first two Big Ten games and looked to make a statement against the visiting Badgers.
Well, so much for that.
The only statement made was by Wisconsin, and that is if you have any thought of winning the West, you’ll have to take it from the Badgers.
Nebraska never really had a shot at the Badgers chewed up the Huskers for 353 yards on the ground behind a banged up offensive line. Running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 249 yards and two touchdowns to lead the way as Wisconsin won’t likely again be tested until sometime next month.
“The guys give me so much confidence,” Taylor said of his big numbers. “The O-line, the receivers, they always give me so much confidence knowing that they have my back. All I know is I have to do my job and trust that those guys will do theirs, that's one thing that Coach Paul Chryst talks about a lot, trust the man next to you, and that's how everything comes together.”
The Badgers are doing that and remain unbeaten while sitting near the top five in the national rankings. If they keep playing like they are, there seems to be no doubt they’ll be in Indianapolis for the conference title game.
Who they face will be up for grabs and will get plenty of attention over the next few weeks. In the meantime, Wisconsin will be content to roll through its schedule, keep getting better each week and see if it can’t win a third championship game and find a way into the playoffs.
“It’s big,” linebacker Garret Dooley said. “They were 2-0 in Big Ten play, obviously they were in first place and to just come in and to have a great environment like this and be able to handle them and get that win, it’s huge.
“Obviously, god-forbid we have a loss, we do have the tiebreaker with Nebraska. We just have to keep taking it week-by-week so we can achieve our goal at the end of the season.”
It took about a half for Iowa to get rolling, but once the Hawkeyes came to life, they dominated Illinois in a 45-16 victory behind 247 passing yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Nate Stanley.
And it was desperately needed as the Hawkeyes were coming off two straight tough losses — on the final play to Penn State and by a touchdown on the road last week to Michigan State.
For a team that expected to push for the West Division title, it was hardly the start that was expected. But now it seems the explosive second half might have righted the ship.
“It was really a welcomed win for us and a decisive win for our football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It was all of these, so it didn't come easy, and we didn't expect it to. Illinois came in prepared to play a really good football game, and I thought they really fought hard.
“Just very proud of our guys. I thought it was a real team effort, and right along those lines, we played a lot of good complementary football out there, and end of the first half certainly getting the spark.”
That spark was an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown by Brandon Snyder, and it signified a revival for the Hawkeyes. How they respond from here will ultimately tell the story.
They’ll need help. Iowa will get its shot at Wisconsin in a few weeks, but it will need the Badgers to lose somewhere else, too, if a division title is still possible. Oh, and Iowa can’t afford another loss.
It’s a lot to ask, but the way Iowa played in the second half on Saturday, it appears it’s up for the challenge.
■ So much for my pick of Northwestern to win the Big Ten West. The Wildcats are now 0-2 in the conference after getting nearly blanked at home by Penn State. No shame in losing to the Nittany Lions, but the Northwestern looks like a team desperate to keep the season from spiraling out of control.
■ Quietly, Ohio State is busy dismantling teams. After scoring more than 50 points in each of the last two games, the Buckeyes scored 62 in beating Maryland. There hasn’t been much attention on Ohio State since the loss to Oklahoma, but get ready for a doozy in a couple weeks against Penn State.
■ Jeff Brohm continues to have Purdue heading in the right direction. The Boilermakers overcame a 14-6 halftime deficit to Minnesota, outscoring the Gophers 25-3 in the second half. Purdue might not win the West, but it looks like a bowl game is possible.