Defining Stretch Begins in Big Ten West

Whether on accident or by design, the Big Ten schedule makers have Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa, four teams all separated by one game in the West Division, playing each other in the final four weeks.

Now the real race begins.

Wisconsin cruised in its second road test in as many weeks, a 34-16 dismantling of Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium, to set up the highly anticipated conference game this weekend against No.11 Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium (2:30 p.m. on ABC).

“You sign up for college football to play in these type of games,” said senior tackle Rob Havenstein. “We’re really looking forward to it. Obviously it’s a big game. We’re going to continue to work throughout this week and keeping getting better and better.”

The Cornhuskers and Badgers, along with Minnesota, all enter the final three weeks of the regular season tied at 4-1 at the top of the West Division. Iowa is also lurking right behind at 3-2.

And in a delicious turn of events, all four teams controlled their own championship fate entering last weekend by playing one another in the month of November. Minnesota delivered the first punch with a 51-14 whipping over the Hawkeyes at home.

It’s a stretch run that has safety Michael Caputo calling each week a playoff game.

“It’s a single-round elimination,” he said. “It’s why we’ve kept our head and keep working.”

Wisconsin – which moved up three spots to No.22 in the Associated Press poll – avoided the so called “trap game” by rolling up 489 yards of total offense in its trouncing of Purdue, the Badgers’ ninth-straight win in the series.

The Cornhuskers are only the second ranked team on Wisconsin’s 2014 schedule (No.13 LSU in the season opener) and the start of the brutal closing stretch. The combined conference record of Wisconsin’s first five conference opponents is 9-19 (.321). In the final three weeks, UW’s opponents – vs Nebraska, at Iowa, vs Minnesota – are 11-4 (.733).

“It’s going to get harder, it’s going to get rough,” said tailback Melvin Gordon. “We’re going to have to play some ball and bow up, as Coach Andersen would say. It’s go time.”

Wisconsin isn’t alone in its tough closing stretch. After Nebraska’s trip to Madison, the Cornhuskers host Minnesota and play at Iowa the Friday after Thanksgiving. Iowa travels to Illinois before its back-to-back home games against UW and Nebraska.

Minnesota drew the short stick, as they are the only program of the four who has to play Ohio State, as the Gophers host the 5-0 Buckeyes before the back-to-back road games to Lincoln and Madison. Minnesota, which has beaten Iowa and Michigan in the same season for the first time since 1967, play three teams who are combined 13-2 (.867) in conference and 25-4 (.862) overall.

“The Big Ten has always been very wide open,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’ve had three Big Ten championship games and the “traditional favorites” haven’t won one yet. Michigan and Ohio State had 13 straight years of Rose Bowl dominance prior to 1982, yet they haven’t won a championship game in Indianapolis yet. There’s a lot of good football teams in our conference, and the strong shall survive.”

The first challenge facing Wisconsin – the Cornhuskers – are the toughest one on paper the Badgers will have seen this season. Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) rank 10th nationally in points (40.4) and rushing yards (280.7) and 16th in scoring defense (19.7).

“(Playing Nebraska) gives us another opportunity to make plays,” said cornerback Darius Hillary. “I’m definitely excited to go up against their offense. They have a high-powered offense and a pretty good defense. I’m ready right now to get back at it next Saturday.”

It will be the first meeting between the two programs since the 2012 Big Ten Championship game, contest remembered for Gordon running for 216 yards on nine carries (24.0 per game) and the staggering 70-31 final score that clinched UW’s third straight conference title and Rose Bowl appearance.

Gordon enters this weekend’s matchup first in the country in rushing yards (1,501), second in 14.0 points per game and motivated to win another title.

“It’s been a good year so far,” said Gordon. “We just want to keep it rolling and keep it locked up.”


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