With Illinois and Purdue laying eggs, the B1G West is a big, wide-open mess
The Big Ten West is saving its biggest mess for last. Or next-to-last, anyway.
With 3 weeks remaining in the regular season of what is expected to be the penultimate season of B1G divisional play, 5 teams maintain a legitimate shot at representing the division in the Big Ten championship game. Illinois has a tenuous 1-game lead over Purdue, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Fighting Illini had complete control of their destiny heading into Saturday’s game against Michigan State, but could not handle that prosperity.
Illinois gained 441 yards against a Spartans defense that was missing 8 players suspended following last week’s postgame fracas at Michigan, but only managed to score 15 points. The Illini scored 1 touchdown (8 points) on 4 trips inside the red zone. It was the definition of not living up to the moment.
And surely the Illini took the field knowing the division was there for the taking, because Iowa had already finished mopping the floor with Purdue by the time their game started. Suddenly potent on both sides of the ball, the Hawkeyes steamrolled the Boilermakers 24-3 behind Kaleb Johnson’s 200 rushing yards.
Just a couple weeks ago, next week’s matchup between Illinois and Purdue looked destined to determine the division title. Or even stand out as a showdown between ranked teams that might bring College GameDay to Champaign.
Instead, it now serves more or less as an elimination game with the loser falling into the rest of the pack.
But will a team from that pack reach up to take the division?
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A surprising showdown Saturday
The Illinois-Purdue game still has title implications, but now it is joined by an unexpected undercard. The winner of Wisconsin’s game at Iowa will suddenly find itself in an ideal spot to win the West.
Even though the Badgers and Hawkeyes have combined for 8 B1G championship game appearances since 2011, it’s wild to contemplate that this year’s version of either team finds itself in position to continue that tradition.
Wisconsin seemingly punted on the current season when it fired coach Paul Chryst after its second straight 2-3 start. The remainder of 2022 was simply going to be a dress rehearsal determining whether Jim Leonhard would earn a promotion from interim to full-time head coach.
Punting was seemingly the only thing Iowa ever did when it wasn’t turning the ball over during a historically inept first half of the season. The Hawkeyes were on a pace to be one of the lowest-scoring Power 5 teams in the 21st century.
But the past 2 weeks, everything has suddenly clicked for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa has combined for 57 points in its past 2 wins. That’s the same number of points the Hawks scored in their first 4 Big Ten games put together. And 27 of those points came in a single game against Rutgers in which the defense scored 2 of the touchdowns.
The 33 points Iowa scored against Northwestern were treated with skepticism. The Wildcats are just that bad defensively.
But backing up that 398-yard performance with 376 against Purdue indicates that Brian Ferentz’s offense really is turning a corner. The Hawkeyes hadn’t gone over 375 yards in consecutive weeks since the first 2 games of 2019.
If Ferentz’s offense continues producing at this level and gets the Hawks to Indy, a lot of us will be eating crow.
The Purdue-Illinois swing
Both Wisconsin and Iowa should consider wearing Purdue t-shirts underneath their jerseys next week. Because if the Boilermakers beat Illinois, the winner of the Hawkeyes-Badgers game is suddenly in the pole position with 2 weeks remaining.
Illinois is still in the best spot to win the division thanks to tiebreaking scenarios. Both of Illinois’ losses have thus far come against East Division opponents, which helps in any multi-team tiebreaker.
Beyond that, the Illini have already beaten Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. A win over Purdue would all but put the icing on the cake barring a Week 13 disaster against Northwestern.
But if Purdue beats Illinois, everything is up for grabs.
Both Wisconsin and Iowa have tiebreakers on the Boilermakers. And with Illinois visiting Michigan the week after playing Purdue, the Illini could potentially find themselves in a 3-game losing streak that knocks them out of first place.
Should that scenario play out, there is potential for the West ending in a 3- or 4-way tie for the title.
It is, of course, a ridiculous outcome. But this is the Big Ten West — where the ridiculous should be the expected.