Iowa Tries to Capitalize on Another Gopher Miss | News, Sports, Jobs

In his usual optimistic way, Minnesota coach PJ Fleck tried to come to terms with how his team’s Big Ten title chances had slipped away.

“There are some things that we look back on and you’ll always circle a piece or two, but none of us wanted it to happen the way it happened, but it happened,” he said. “You have to be thankful for that. If you’re grateful for your life, you can’t choose what you’re grateful for.”

Minnesota is now out of contention for the conference championship game. The race for the Big Ten West lies with Iowa and Purdue, with Illinois also still having a slim chance. The Hawkeyes, bottom in the league in both passing and rushing, could secure a spot in the title game this week with a win over Nebraska. When that happens, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois — three teams that have never reached that championship game in Indianapolis — will miss a golden opportunity.

“In the West, everyone had a chance. It’s not just us,” Fleck said. “Every single team has had a chance at some point to win the West outright and run away with it. That’s what makes the West so competitive. The parity is pretty close between all the teams in this division.”

Fleck is right about that parity – especially this season – but still only four of the West’s seven teams have been there since the title game began in 2011. Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin have all featured for the past three seasons, and Nebraska has made it back. The league was broken up into Leaders and Legends divisions.

In this respect, the West is no different from the East, which is considered more top-heavy. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are the four teams from the east that made it to Indianapolis.

The conditions this year seemed promising for youngsters from the west. Nebraska’s program has stalled, and Wisconsin has had enough problems that coach Paul Chryst was fired in early October. Iowa’s offense was and still is a target of ridicule — but if the Hawkeyes win on Friday, they’ll be playing for the championship against the Michigan-Ohio State game winner. Just like last year.

“That’s our culture, man,” said quarterback Spencer Petras after Iowa beat Minnesota 13-10 for the fourth straight year. “It starts with our head coach, his leadership. I can’t say enough about our leaders on defense. In that Ohio State game, we put them in a lot of difficult situations and it would be easy for a unit to activate offense, right? But they didn’t.”

After losing to Ohio State 54-10, the Hawkeyes beat Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota to reach this point.

If Iowa loses to Nebraska, Purdue can reach the title game on Saturday with a win over rival Indiana. Iowa plays Friday, though Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm tries not to give it too much attention, at least publicly.

“I know it’s Friday. I don’t know when the game is. I’m sure when we’re out it’s going to show up on people’s phones, stuff like that,” he said. “But as you know, in a rivalry game that means a lot, we have a big one ahead of us so we just have to focus on that.”

Illinois needs both Iowa and Purdue to lose. If that happens, the Illini can make it to Indianapolis by beating Northwestern. Illinois did indeed beat both Iowa and Minnesota, but a three-game losing streak has left the Illini in need of help.

This season was still a big step forward for Illinois and coach Bret Bielema, but the road to the Big Ten title only gets harder after Southern California and UCLA join the league.

For Minnesota, this path will become more difficult even sooner. Next year, the Gophers’ schedule includes crossover games against Michigan and Ohio State from the East. So this season was possibly the division title shot they had to take.

“Disappointed, not discouraged. That’s how I would sum it up,” Fleck said after the loss to Iowa. “You know, I was told a long time ago: close gets you caught, almost gets you fired.”

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