Northwestern and Indiana are playing for B1G title game berths -- just like we drew it up
Maybe Northwestern and Indiana should add a 16th piece of hardware to the Big Ten’s list of rivalry trophies.
They could call it the Battle for the PPE Mask. Or the Little Takeout Box. Or just name it Lenny and feature a middle-aged guy working from his laptop on a couch.
It’s a week before Thanksgiving. Northwestern, which went 3-9 last year, is playing in a de facto Big Ten West championship game. No. 9 Indiana, which hasn’t been ranked this high since 1967, can wrest sole control of the East with a (monumental upset) win today.
The Wildcats haven’t won this conference outright since 1995. You have to go back 50 years further for the Hoosiers’ most recent undisputed B1G crown.
Nothing makes sense anymore. But sense isn’t really a thing in 2020.
And yet no matter what happens today, what the Little Private School that Could on Lake Michigan and the plucky, opportunistic football team in the heart of hoops country have accomplished is admirable. These are the kinds of places we could’ve expected to fold up, to use a pandemic-shortened season as nothing more than a developmental year in hopes of someday competing with the big boys.
Instead, Penn State is 0-4. Michigan and Michigan State are 1-3. In the West, Northwestern is ahead of Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and today’s foe in Wisconsin.
College football might not mean as much in Evanston and Bloomington as it does in State College or Ann Arbor. But don’t think for a second that automatically means these programs are willing to play second fiddle.
Not with the way Indiana quarterback Michael Penix has taken over the East so far this season. His 136.39 passer rating ranks 4th in the B1G, and his 85.7 grade from Pro Football Focus ranks 20th among all FBS quarterbacks.
He’s led the Hoosiers to victories over Penn State and Michigan and a 4-0 start. He’s also had help from a defense that has Tom Allen’s group plus-8 in turnover margin heading into its 12 p.m. ET tilt with No. 3-ranked Ohio State.
It’s the first top-1o matchup Indiana’s ever played in. A win for the 20.5-point underdogs would be the biggest in school history and rock the College Football Playoff vessel.
And yet those inside the four walls of Allen’s program don’t act surprised.
“It didn’t just happen out of nowhere,” Allen, in his 4th year at the helm, told 247Sports. “It’s been a slow build.”
Getting great athletes like Penix and a heavy concentration on recruiting the state of Florida, where Allen has deep ties, have the coach believing IU can be both a football and a basketball institution.
Before the season, Penix boldly proclaimed his team was going to “shock the world.” A win this afternoon would certainly qualify.
Not so much for Northwestern, which played for a B1G title just 2 years ago. But after a dismal 2019 and all the complications of COVID-19, few were picking the Wildcats to rebound as dramatically as they have.
As usual, they’ve done it with discipline and defense. Northwestern’s 14 points allowed per game have it 7th nationally and 2nd in the B1G behind Wisconsin, which has only played 2 games.
After a 43-3 blowout win over Maryland in Week 1 — which looks more impressive given the way the Terrapins have performed this fall — the Wildcats have come out on top in 3 straight one-possession games. They’ve allowed just 10 second-half points this year.
They’re likely in for another dogfight against a talented, deep, physical Badgers team just itching for more football after losing 2 games to the coronavirus.
“I think this group is pretty well battle-tested,” Fitzgerald.
Northwestern topping Wisconsin isn’t as far-fetched as an Indiana upset of national title hopeful Ohio State. But when we woke up this morning, there’s an on-paper chance of a Wildcat-Hoosier B1G championship game Dec. 19.
Just think about that for a second.
Beyond the immediate headlines, you can make a case this conference is getting deeper than ever. Jeff Brohm continues to impress at Purdue (2-2 after a tough loss Friday night), Minnesota proved it can turn in a periodic top-10 kind of year, and Nebraska has the resources to, perhaps, someday play like a blueblood again.
Northwestern will be a tough out as long as Fitzgerald is in charge, and after 14-plus years at his alma mater, it doesn’t appear he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
And if Allen can build on this year’s successes, watch out. You can almost see Indiana becoming the Kentucky of the Big Ten — an entertaining brand of football that can put a scare into even the most established titans of the sport.
Time will tell if this is sustainable. But in a year where everything is upside down, we might as well enjoy the ride.