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With Three Weeks Left, The Big Ten West Is Still Up For Grabs

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A possible quarterback change for Iowa is just one of the many storylines that could help break the four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The race for the Big Ten East is receiving considerable media coverage, and with good reason. The divisional battle includes three Top Ten teams in Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, all of whom have a legitimate chance to reach the College Football Playoff should they win out. Yet the battle for the Big Ten West is shaping up to be just as chaotic. With three weeks remaining in conference play, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin currently hold a four-way tie for first place in the division, and the next three weeks will decide which of these teams earns a trip to Indianapolis and an opportunity to play for a Big Ten Championship.

Iowa, which appeared to be the prohibitive favorite halfway through the season, has ceded the potential tiebreaker for the division to both Purdue and Wisconsin by virtue of head-to-head losses against each team. Yet the Hawkeyes still have a path to Indianapolis: win the next three games and hope that Wisconsin and Purdue each suffer a loss during that same timespan. Iowa’s fate lies on a razor’s edge, but if the Hawkeyes can build off Saturday’s victory over Northwestern and get a little help from some of their Big Ten rivals, they could keep the dream of a conference championship alive.

Iowa’s championship aspirations would have been crushed with a loss to Northwestern this weekend, but the Hawkeyes showed several signs worthy of optimism in their 17-12 road win over the Wildcats. Tyler Goodson helped spark a long-dormant Iowa running game with 141 yards on the ground, while the team managed to average more yards per carry (4.9) than it has in any game since Week 3. Meanwhile, the Iowa defense resumed the disruptive play that made the Hawkeyes such a force to be reckoned with for much of the early season, forcing three interceptions and generating three sacks, five tackles for loss, and eight quarterback hurries. Both of these trends are highly encouraging after Iowa’s abominable performances in its prior two games, and they must continue if the Hawkeyes hope to make headway in the Big Ten West.

However, Iowa has one variable that, more than any other factors, will decide its fate for the remainder of the season: the starting quarterback. After benching Spencer Petras due to the lingering effects of the injury he suffered against Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes turned to backup Alex Padilla who provided a spark to the Iowa offense, completing 18-28 passes for 172 yards and no turnovers. Padilla showed greater mobility in the pocket and more ability to throw on the run than Petras has this season, which helped to jumpstart Iowa’s play-action and bootleg games that had basically been abandoned with Petras under center.

Furthermore, Padilla’s insertion into the game led to an uptick in targets to talented freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV, something which fans and analysts have been calling for since the early weeks of the 2021 campaign. Whether Iowa ultimately sticks with Padilla or goes back to Petras could change the character of Iowa’s offense dramatically and will clearly be one of the leading storylines in the weeks to come.

Still, Iowa’s performance against Northwestern also revealed several lingering concerns which could undermine its championship aspirations. Iowa’s offensive woes clearly extend beyond the quarterback position, as the Hawkeyes mustered only three second-half points, went 2-14 on third down, and became maddeningly conservative in their play calling after their early touchdown drives. Iowa’s offensive line, which has been a source of frustration all season long, surrendered seven tackles for loss despite having a better-than-average game. Iowa’s poor clock management and bizarre play calling choices near the end of the first half squandered an opportunity to score points before halftime, which was puzzling given the rhythm Iowa’s offense had shown in recent drives. Perhaps most inexplicable was the uncharacteristically poor tackling by Iowa’s defense, which whiffed on several Northwestern defenders in the open field and frequently found itself out of position and taking poor angles to the ballcarrier throughout the second half. Big Ten road wins against divisional opponents are always difficult to come by, but teams hoping to win the conference should be able to win games against sub-.500 teams by more than five points.

Each of Iowa’s remaining games are exceedingly winnable, but potential pitfalls remain in each contest. Minnesota has shown serious grit this season in weathering injuries to key players, and the Gophers’ performance against Purdue presents the model for how they could potentially knock of the Hawkeyes this week. However, the Hawkeyes benefit from playing the Gophers at home, and there are real reasons to be skeptical that a coach with an 0-5 record against Iowa and a team with losses to Bowling Green and Illinois can come into Iowa City and knock the Hawkeyes out of the divisional race. Illinois has been a disappointment for most of the season but has beaten two ranked teams this season and has a bye week to prepare for its game against Iowa. Nebraska is the ultimate wildcard in this equation; the Huskers are 3-7 but have been competitive in every game they have lost this season and seem due to eventually win one of these close contests by accident if nothing else. Nebraska has consistently played close games against Iowa under Scott Frost, and the Cornhusker coach will likely pull out all the stops this Black Friday in a desperate effort to save his job with a win over their rival.

If Iowa does manage to win out, can it count on losses from Purdue and Wisconsin? The Boilermakers will be underdogs on the road at Ohio State next weekend, but Jeff Brohm’s squad already has two wins against opponents ranked in the Top Five, so it is certainly possible that Purdue could pull the upset. If Purdue does beat Ohio State, they should cruise through their remaining games against Northwestern and Indiana. Wisconsin, meanwhile, plays both Northwestern and Nebraska at home before closing the season with a trip to Minnesota. The Gophers’ track record in this series has been abysmal of late (Minnesota has lost 16 of the last 17 battles for Paul Bunyan’s Axe), but unless the Huskers can discover the magic on the road against Wisconsin, Iowa may be forced to root for Minnesota to finally get the Badger off its back.

Iowa’s win over Northwestern kept its dream of a Big Ten Championship alive, but the Hawkeyes will need to play better than they did last Saturday if they hope to remain in the hunt for much longer. Is Padilla the answer to Iowa’s offensive woes? Can the Hawkeyes extend their lengthy winning streaks against Minnesota (six), Illinois (seven), and Nebraska (six) to finish the season 10-2? And can Iowa get a little help from its enemies in giving Purdue and Wisconsin the losses Iowa so desperately desires? If the first nine weeks of Big Ten West action are any indication, the final three should make for one wild ride.