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Conference Corner: Northwestern breaks Wisconsin’s hold on the West, looks to avoid tiebreakers

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Four Big Ten West teams entered Week 9 with one conference loss. Naturally, the lowest-ranked S&P+ survived the weekend to sit alone atop the standings.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern defies analytics.

Four teams in the Big Ten West entered Week 9 with only one conference loss. Three of those teams — No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 24 Iowa and No. 30 Purdue — rank in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ Top-30.

The Wildcats? All the way down to No. 64. Losses to Akron will do that to you.

Naturally, they broke the computers, blowing out the Badgers 31-17 at home to sit alone atop the divisional standings with three conference games left.

Last week, Pat Fitzgerald needed a fourth quarter comeback to edge Rutgers 18-15. To repeat: 18 points against the same Scarlet Knights that ceded 55 to Big 12 bottom-dweller Kansas.

The Clayton Thorson-led offense understandably floundered towards the bottom of most national rankings.

On Saturday in Evanston, that same offense bludgeoned the Wisconsin front for 182 yards on 49 carries (3.7 YPC). Even weirder, backup running back Isaiah Bowser shouldered the load with 34 totes for 117 yards and a score. This ground attack ranked No. 110 entering Saturday.

One more oddity: Pat Fitzgerald and company nursed a 21-point fourth quarter lead despite three interceptions from Thorson.

How does a plodding offense that turns the ball over comfortably spring the upset? In the mold of their mercurial head coach, the answer is defense.

The No. 28 unit nationally stifled Jonathan Taylor to 46 yards on 11 carries, ending his streak of 100-yard rushing games at eight. Also, they caught a break by facing Badger backup quarterback Jack Coan.

All this and the win didn’t crack the Wildcats into the top-25 polls this week. The numbers still hate them. They likely don’t care, because they have a stranglehold on a berth to Indianapolis.

After hosting No. 3 Notre Dame next Saturday, they visit Iowa. After that, they end the year at Minnesota and home against rival Illinois.

Protein coach is happy with that slate.

The best chance to unseat the Purple is the Hawkeyes. They need to sweep in November, including a road trek to West Lafayette, but the tiebreakers favor them. After head to head, overall record decides the divisional champion.

Assuming the ‘Cats drop two between the Irish and Hawkeyes, they would finish 7-5 (7-2). Iowa would edge them at 10-2 (7-2) in that scenario.

Barring chaos, wounded Wisconsin is dead in the water, as Paul Chryst would also have to navigate deadly roads to Purdue and Penn State.

Next game for Northwestern (5-3, 5-1) against No. 3 Notre Dame (7:15 p.m., ESPN)

Next game for Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2) against Rutgers (noon, BTN)

NO. 17 PENN STATE 30, NO. 18 IOWA 24

This game had everything Big Ten football should promise. Two safeties. A fake punt in the red zone where the punter drops a dime to an eligible lineman downfield for a touchdown. Farm boy tight ends hurdling defenders.

Also, assistants preventing James Franklin from calling a timeout...AFTER a change in possession.

Putting aside tomfoolery that defines the Midwest, this game was won behind center. Hawkeye quarterback Nate Stanley fought a hand injury, which left him incapable of hitting the broadside of a barn.

He completed 18-of-49 passes for 205 yards and two interceptions. He blew a wide-open toss to T.J. Hockenson in the first half, and botched an audible to turn it over late at the Nittany Lions’ three-yard line.

For Penn State, Trace McSorley helmed a second-half surge on a balky knee. His 51-yard burst for six gave the Nittany Lions the lead for good.

Take away that run, and the PSU run game produced only 67 yards on 34 carries. Through the air, he connected on just 11-of-25 throws for 167 yards, one touchdown and a pick-six that kept Iowa afloat late.

James Franklin’s over-reliance on his quarterback, mentioned last week, almost cost him dearly Saturday. Without a consistent second threat — Miles Sanders mustered 62 yards on 17 totes — Michigan’s defense could punch him out for good.

Next game for Penn State (6-2, 3-2) at No. 5 Michigan (3:45 p.m., ESPN)

Next game for Iowa (6-2, 3-2) at Purdue (3:30 p.m., ESPN2)

MICHIGAN STATE 23, PURDUE 13

Last week was pretty humiliating for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans.

Right after relinquishing Paul Bunyan to hated Michigan, Dantonio, by his own doing, endured an entire week of reliving last Saturday’s pregame antics. He called BS on Jim Harbaugh, and later retreated by having God take care of his battles against the Wolverines.

Wednesday, Jim Delany slapped a $10,000 fine on the Spartan program, while reprimanding both sides. This particularly hurt Dantonio, who had set that money aside for Dave Warner’s future salary.

As if losing to its rival was enough, MSU endured a public relations mess only Dave Brandon would envy. Rule No. 1 in East Lansing: beware continued disrespect.

The Green and White bullied upstart Purdue by double-digits, riding backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s coattails in place of Brian Lewerke (collarbone). The blonde, long-locked freshman compiled 312 yards and two touchdowns on a 26-of-46 afternoon.

After bombing Ohio State in an emotional upset, the Boilermakers regressed to the mean. David Blough racked up three picks, while superstar receiver Rondale Moore tallied 11 catches for just 74 yards.

So credit to the Spartans for navigating their self-created crisis this week. Last note: No, Lombardi would not have beaten Michigan.

Next game for Michigan State (5-3, 3-2) at Maryland (noon, ESPN2)

Next game for Purdue against No. 19 Iowa (3:30 p.m., ESPN2)

NEBRASKA 45, BETHUNE-COOKMAN 9

**Game recap program running.**

Scott Frost win No. 2. Beat bad team.

Nothing to take from game.

NOTHING.

Next game for Nebraska (2-6, 1-4) at No. 11 Ohio State (noon, FOX)

MINNESOTA 38, INDIANA 31

Tom Allen has hung his hat on competent defense since he came to Bloomington. Even that is starting to fade.

The Hoosiers let the S&P No. 87 offense, led by backup quarterback Tanner Morgan, amass 482 total yards, including 302 through the air.

Gopher running back Shannon Brooks popped loose for 154 yards and a score, as well. If P.J. Fleck can find a replacement for Brooks, a senior, he has pieces for a consistent offense in 2019.

For the time being, Indiana now ranks No. 66 in S&P defense. In 2017, it ranked No. 26, and in 2016, No. 31.

The defensive regression and continued employment of Mike Debord may spell doom for Allen’s future. Once sitting at 4-1, his team likely will miss a bowl.

Indiana (4-5, 1-5) on bye.

Next game for Minnesota (4-4, 1-4) at Illinois (3:30 p.m., BTN)

MARYLAND 63, ILLINOIS 33

Don’t be fooled by the 33 points. The Illini started scoring in garbage time down 49-12 late in the third quarter.

The Terrapins responded to their 115-yard and no point performance against Iowa a week ago to obliterate Lovie Smith’s defense for 712 yards (!).

On the ground, everyone found success en route to 431 yards. Javion Leake lead all with five carries for 140 yards and three scores. While not necessary, Kasim Hill found success with his arm to the tune of 265 yards and three touchdowns.

Matt Canada’s offense has a consistency problem. One week, it blitzes a very good Texas defense for 34 points. A few weeks later, it fails to reach the end zone against Temple.

It puts up a nothing burger on the Hawkeyes, and then records a record day a week later — admittedly against an awful team.

With a tough November — MSU, OSU and at PSU — Canada needs the machine oiled and ready to drive. With Indiana on the docket, a bowl game is still well within reach.

Meanwhile in Champaign, Smith is continuing his audition for mall Santa.

Illinois v Maryland Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Next game for Maryland (5-3, 3-2) against Michigan State (noon, ESPN2)

Next game for Illinois (3-5, 1-4) against Minnesota (3:30 p.m., BTN)