If the first three weeks of the college football season have taught us anything, it’s that the Big Ten championship race is more wide-open than a highway in the Midwest at midnight.
Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin all were deemed capable of making the trek to Indianapolis in December. Each school, though, has suffered a loss through the opening month of 2012, suggesting that these programs are possibly not what they’re cracked up to be.
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More Conference Notebooks
Big 12: Ash aims to make Texas a contender
Pac-12: Nunes needs no luck finding stride
SEC: Muschamp’s Gators toughen up
ACC: Boston College rewards Javorski
Big Ten: Northwestern as good as anyone
Big East: Pitt win resonates through conference
So with the heavyweights floundering, why can’t Northwestern be the team that goes to Indianapolis and wins the coveted trip to California?
After all, it has been the league’s most consistent squad through a trio of games, claiming three of the conferences four victories against BCS programs this season in triumphs against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College.
Wildcats’ head coach Pat Fitzgerald is excited with how his team has persevered through the first month of the season. He felt that his team was heading in the right direction, but still had a ways to go before being championship-ready.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re in no way, shape or form where we want to be yet, but we’ve gone 1-0 three times so far.”
Make no mistake, the Wildcats haven’t been rolling; their three victories were by a combined 20 points, and it took a last-minute touchdown to escape the season opener against the Orange. Injuries have also plagued the team as senior QB Kain Colter and junior RB Venric Mark have been banged up and forced to miss time.
That being said, the smallest school in the Big Ten has been consistent, a concept hard to find around the rest of the conference. And it’s that steady play that has put the Wildcats at the head of the conference heading into the final week of non-conference play. In such a crazy year, slow and steady might win the race to Indy.
“What I have learned is that there is so much more potential,” Fitzgerald said when asked about his team’s 3-0 start. “We’re excited for when that gets done and when we all click.”
• Sophomore QB Reilly O’Toole had a breakout game, starting in place for injured senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase who has missed the last two contests with a sprained ankle. O’Toole went 26 of 31 for 333 yards and five touchdowns in the Illini’s 44-0 romp against Charleston Southern. Scheelhaase is questionable for Saturday’s game against Louisiana Tech
• Illinois has two weeks to figure out who will be under center when it kickoffs conference play at home against Penn State. Scheelhasse’s health is imperative for Illinois as it tries to fight through what should be a wide-open Leaders division.
Next Game: vs. Louisiana Tech Sept. 22
• Sophomore QB Cameron Coffman was 24 of 35 for 251 yards and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut, but was knocked out of the game with a knee injury. Freshman Nate Sudfeld replaced him and threw a pair of touchdowns to rally Indiana to a late fourth-quarter lead, but they couldn’t hold it.
• The Hoosiers have now lost three consecutive meetings with Ball State, twice falling at home. The Cardinals have a 3-49 all-time record against BCS-conference schools, with each victory coming against Indiana.
Next Game: at Northwestern Sept. 29
• The Hawkeyes’ offense reached the end zone for the second time this season, and the first time since Week 1 at Northern Illinois. Each of their three touchdowns came via the ground, leaving senior QB James Vandenberg still without a touchdown pass in 2012.
• Starting tailback sophomore Damon Bullock and back-up freshman RB Greg Garmon both left the game due to injuries sustained within minutes of each other early in the second quarter. Walk-on sophomore FB Mark Weisman assumed ball-carrying duties by rushing for 113 yards and three touchdowns in Iowa’s 27-16 win. Bullock (back) and Garmon’s (elbow) statuses are yet to be determined for the weekend.
Next Game: vs. Central Michigan Sept. 22
No. 18 Michigan (2-1)
• QB Denard Robinson accumulated 365 all-purpose yards, passing John Navarre for second on the most yards gained in school history in the 63-13 rout of Massachusetts. Robinson trails Chad Henne by 90 yards, and can pass the former Michigan QB this week at Notre Dame.
• The Wolverines will attempt to beat the Fighting Irish for the fourth consecutive season and third consecutive time against current Notre Dame Head coach Brian Kelly when they visit South Bend this week. Michigan will then have a before opening Big Ten play at Purdue on Oct. 6.
Next Game: at Notre Dame Sept. 22
No. 21 Michigan State (2-1)
• Junior QB Andrew Maxwell was bullied all night as the Notre Dame defense sacked him four times and broke up eight passes. Maxwell finished 23 of 45 passing for 187 yards and no touchdowns in the Spartans’ 20-3 home defeat.
• Michigan State’s 15-game home win streak was snapped, and the three-point output was the fewest the Spartans had scored against a non-conference opponent since 2003. Michigan State has two weeks to fix its offense before welcoming Ohio State to East Lansing on Sept. 29.
Next Game: vs. Eastern Michigan Sept. 22
• Senior QB MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain during the second quarter against Western Michigan last Saturday. QB Max Shortell excelled in relief, throwing for 188 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Gophers to a 28-23 victory.
• Sophomore tailback Donnell Kirkwood had a career-day, rushing for 110 yards on 23 carries as Minnesota moved to 3-0 for the first time in four years. The Gophers won three games in each of the last two seasons, and will look to surpass that mark Saturday under the lights against Syracuse.
Next Game: vs. Syracuse Sept. 22
No. 25 Nebraska (2-1)
• Junior QB Taylor Martinez was near-perfect, going 13 of 14 for 180 yards and a pair of scores in the 42-13 beat down of Arkansas State. Both touchdown passes were to WR Kenny Bell who had three catches for 71 yards on the day.
• The Cornhuskers racked up 527 yards of offense, including 347 via the ground game. Sophomore tailback Ameer Abdullah ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns as he continues to replace injured senior RB Rex Burkhead.
• Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini left in an ambulance at halftime after coming down with an illness on the sidelines during the contest. He returned to work Sunday.
Next Game: vs. Idaho State Sept. 22
• Northwestern had a balanced day of offense, racking up 293 rushing and 267 passing yards in the 22-13 victory against Boston College. The Wildcats also dominated the time of possession 35:56-24:04 but were held out of the end zone until the final two minutes.
• Junior RB Mike Trumpy carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards and one touchdown. The lone score came with 1:37 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. Junior kicker Jeff Budzien had given the Wildcats a 15-13 advantage by tying a school-record of five field goals until the decisive score.
Next Game: vs. South Dakota Sept. 22
No. 16 Ohio State (3-0)
• Sophomore QB Braxton Miller threw for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ 35-28 escape against Cal. The final score was a 72-yarder to senior WR Devin Smith with 3:26 remaining to lift Ohio State to victory.
• The Buckeye defense gave up 512 yards of total offense to the Bears and the team was dominated in time of possession 35:10-24:50. However, the defense sealed the game by forcing an interception in the waning moments to halt Cal’s late comeback attempt.
Next Game: vs. UAB Sept. 22
Penn State (1-2)
• Senior QB Matt McGloin threw for 231 yards and four touchdowns as the Lions got their first victory of the post-Joe Paterno era. Due to the NCAA sanctions, it was the school’s first official win since Nov. 22, 1997 vs. Wisconsin.
• Sophomore wide-receiver Allen Robinson ripped the midshipmen defense for 136 yards and three touchdowns on only five receptions. He became the fourth Penn State receiver to catch three scores in a game during the last decade.
Next Game: vs. Temple Sept. 22
• The Boilermakers gashed Eastern Michigan for 576 yards, 392 by way of rushing. Sophomore tailbacks Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom combined for 201 yards and two touchdowns on six carries, including an 87-yarder by Cottom.
• Senior QB Caleb TerBush started for the injured Robert Marve, who tore his ACL against Notre Dame on Sept. 8. TerBush will start under center the rest of the way as Purdue attempts to navigate through what should be a wild Leaders division race.
Next Game: vs. Marshall Sept. 29
• Head coach Bret Bielema benched starting junior QB Danny O’Brien at halftime and freshman Joel Stave was able to lead the Badgers to a 16-14 come-from-behind win against Utah State. O’Brien was 5 of 10 for 63 yards and no scores as the Wisconsin offense continued to struggle.
• Wisconsin was regarded as the favorite to run away with the Leaders division at the beginning of the season, but has since been exposed in back-to-back weeks by Oregon State and the Aggies. The Badgers must clean up their game before opening Big Ten play on Sept. 29 at Nebraska.
Next Game: vs. UTEP Sept. 22
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