This is it for Minnesota — a two-game stretch that could define a season that is already the most successful in a decade.
After years of being relegated to also-ran status, the Gophers are playing meaningful Big Ten games in November.
Beat Wisconsin this week and, if Northwestern can upset Michigan State, the Gophers can play an even bigger game against the Spartans on Thanksgiving weekend for a chance to go to the conference title game.
Hold on, though. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill isn’t getting ahead of himself, not with the rivalry game to reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe next on the calendar. Wisconsin and Minnesota both are 8-2.
“Wisconsin has no weakness. Their defense is playing at very high level. Offense always has,” Kill said Tuesday. “Our job is to make sure (the players) take one day at a time.”
There’s no doubt Minnesota could make a statement by beating the Badgers. It’s the Big Ten’s spotlight game this weekend given that Ohio State and Michigan State each just need to win once over the next two weeks to clinch division titles. The Buckeyes host Indiana this weekend in their home finale.
Still, there’s plenty left to prove in the Big Ten.
Start with Ohio State, winners of 22 straight but ranked No. 3 in the latest BCS standings behind Alabama and Florida State, with Baylor creeping up from behind. Playing middling Indiana, which is coming off a 48-point loss to the Badgers, won’t help.
As far coach Urban Meyer is concerned, there’s nothing to talk about.
“It won’t even be addressed,” he said when asked if the BCS rankings would affect the Buckeyes’ approach. “We have too many things that we have to be working on and focused on.”
Speaking of the Hoosiers, the goal of getting to a bowl game remains alive, technically anyway. At 4-6, the Hoosiers need to win out to get to the six-victory plateau to qualify for the postseason. The annual rivalry game with struggling Purdue closes the regular season — but that’s after Ohio State.
As ugly as the game film might have been from the 51-3 defeat to the Badgers, coach Kevin Wilson went position-by-position in addressing shortcomings with players. They’ve moved on to preparing for the Buckeyes’ one-two backfield punch of quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.
The focus this week in part was regaining “a little bounce back in our step, flushing the funk out of team,” Wilson said.
Northwestern (4-6) faces the same challenge as Indiana, two games from qualifying for a bowl.
Winless in six Big Ten games this year, the Wildcats can turn around their fortunes — and give Minnesota the opening it needs in the Legends race — by upsetting Michigan State on Saturday. The Wildcats face Illinois the following week in Champaign.
Postseason play is out of the question for Penn State (6-4) because of NCAA sanctions. Coach Bill O’Brien has instilled an “every week-is-a-bowl game” mentality in Happy Valley.
But the Nittany Lions can put a tidy bow on an up-and-down season by beating Nebraska on Saturday to clinch a winning record in the final appearances at Beaver Stadium for standout seniors such as linebacker Glenn Carson and guard John Urschel.
“It would mean a whole lot to everyone here to send them out on a winning note,” O’Brien said. “This senior class stuck with this program and this university through a tough time.”
So did junior wideout Allen Robinson (120.4 yards a game), who has been a problem for secondaries all season, and would be eligible to forego his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
When asked how Robinson projects in the pros, O’Brien said he was focused on the Cornhuskers, and that those conversations would come later.
The Gophers know all about Robinson — they limited him to seven catches on 63 yards two weeks ago in a 24-10 win over Penn State to go to 8-2 on the season. Minnesota has eight wins for the first time since finishing 10-3 in 2003, the same year that the Gophers last had possession of the Axe.
Just a little more spice to this longtime Midwest border matchup.
“For me, the challenge is to make sure the young kids that don’t know about it … understand how important it is, and it is a culture,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “Because it is something that they’re going to remember forever.”
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