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DES MOINES, Iowa – One of the prevailing notions heading into the season was that the Big Ten East Division could end up being a lot better than the West.
It didn't look that way last weekend.
Northwestern buried Penn State as road underdogs. Minnesota did the same to reeling Michigan in Ann Arbor. Nebraska continued its unbeaten start with a rout of Illinois and Iowa won its second straight road game.
Though it was a small sample size, Saturday's performances were encouraging for the teams in the West.
"They won some big games on the road, some big games at home on our side. It's going to be a very interesting next eight or nine weeks as we go through this season to see who comes out of that side on top," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.
The biggest shocker from last week's results came out of State College.
Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) opened the year with losses to California and Northern Illinois and an underwhelming win over FCS school Western Illinois. But the Wildcats defense held Nittany Lions star Christian Hackenberg to just 216 yards passing on 45 tries, and Anthony Walker's 49-yard interception return broke open a game the Wildcats won 29-6.
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has tried to temper enthusiasm for his still-developing team, which hosts No. 17 Wisconsin (3-1) on Saturday in the Badgers' league opener. Wisconsin overcame a sluggish start to beat South Florida 27-10 last weekend.
"We're gaining. We're getting toward (turning) the corner but we're not quite there yet," Fitzgerald said.
Lost amid the uproar over Michigan's many issues was the performance of the Gophers. For the second week in a row, Minnesota's defense was the difference.
The Gophers (4-1, 1-0) held San Jose State scoreless for the final three quarters of a 24-7 win on Sept. 20, and they held Michigan to just 171 yards. Minnesota has a bye this week before hosting Northwestern.
"They're playing well right now and doing it with a lot of different people that are performing well. Certainly our secondary," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Nebraska is the only unbeaten team left in the Big Ten. If the Huskers are still undefeated after this weekend, they just might be the new league favorites regardless of division.
No. 19 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0) travels to 10th-ranked Michigan State in a matchup of the league's top two offenses. The Huskers will head to East Lansing on a roll, having dispatched the Illini 45-14 behind 208 yards from star back Ameer Abdullah.
Nebraska is in a much better spot now than it was at the end of Big Ten play a year ago, when it got drilled by the Hawkeyes at home.
"We're happy with where we are right now, 5-0 and starting Big Ten play the way we did," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
Iowa has yet to play like a contender. Yet the Hawkeyes are 4-1, and they're still in position to control the West title race.
Iowa fell behind 10-0 against the Boilermakers before scoring 24 unanswered points to close out their league opener. The Hawkeyes get a bye this week before hosting Indiana and traveling to Maryland, who could be a surprise contender in the East at 4-1 and 1-0 in the league.
The key for Iowa will be to try to keep up with Wisconsin and Nebraska until the middle of November, when it hosts both on back-to-back weeks to close out the regular season. The Hawkeyes have held two of their last four opponents without an offensive touchdown.
"One thing we knew this season coming in, that we were counting on was that we'd have good play up front, and we've seen that from all four starters," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's an area of strength for us."
As the calendar turns to October, two things have become clear about the Big Ten West.
It could be a lot more competitive than originally thought — and defense will be the key in deciding who wins the division crown and subsequent trip to the Big Ten title game.
Five West schools — Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska — are allowing fewer than 20 points a game. It's no coincidence that those are the five schools with the best shots at the West title.
Penn State is only East team that can say the same.
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