DAVID MERCER, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — The winners of both Big Ten divisions will be decided this weekend, but a few slots lower in the conference standings are three teams looking for tickets to the postseason.
Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern are all looking for their sixth wins and bowl eligibility. Lined up against them in those games are three teams — Purdue, Rutgers and Illinois, respectively — that won’t make bowls but with the opportunity to play spoiler.
Coaches said Tuesday that getting to six wins is a big deal for a team looking to build itself up, bigger than just the chance to play in a lower-tier bowl.
D.J. Durkin is in his first season at Maryland (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) and would love to get his young team the extra practices that come ahead of a bowl game. They allow key work on fundamentals.
“You get the extra practice those weeks, you can’t work on bowl prep every day,” he said. “It gets stale.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes that without the extra sessions almost a year ago before the Outback Bowl, this season’s team (5-6, 4-4) might not have the five wins it already has.
“I saw a return on that investment a year ago,” he said.
Coaches disagreed on the degree to which the chance to ruin someone else’s post-season hopes or shot at a title can motivate a team.
Rutgers coach Chris Ash, whose team (2-9, 0-8) will be trying to keep Maryland at home during bowl season, believes it can.
But Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said that whatever boost that idea might provide is quickly lost.
“I don’t think it sustains itself when you’re playing the game,” he said.
In the Big Ten East, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 8 Penn State are tied for first and all go into the weekend with a shot at a division title. But the West is up for grabs, too.
No. 5 Wisconsin, which hosts Minnesota, and No. 17 Nebraska, which plays at Iowa, are both still in the running for the West championship.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley believes that with newer coaches at his school, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and perhaps Purdue, the West will only become even more competitive.
“I see lots of teams rising and getting better and growing,” he said.
Minnesota players have been called for targeting seven times this season, including a pair of calls against safety Duke McGhee on tackles that knocked Northwestern receiver Austin Carr and Illinois receiver Malik Turner out of games. Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys says he does not worry his team is developing a reputation for rule-breaking hits.
“Not at all. There’s three of them or so, four of them, that, yeah, by the rules, that’s (a good call),” he said. “And the other ones, I don’t know how you avoid them. We practice the way you’re supposed to practice, lowering the target down.”
MAKING THE BIG TEN’S CASE
With Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin holding down top-five spots in the Top 25 and Penn State ranked eighth, the some Big Ten coaches are making a case that, this year, the conference really is the best in the country.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says such talk would have been easily dismissed by people outside the region just a few years ago.
When he was hired in 2012, “I was shocked at the disrespect on a national level for the Big Ten,” Meyer said.
Jim Harbaugh’s guarantee of victory over Ohio State before the teams met in 1986 worked out fine for the Wolverines. They beat the Buckeyes, 26-24, and got to the Rose Bowl, just as their cocky quarterback promised they would.
Harbaugh’s coach, Bo Schembechler, reportedly both cringed at the guarantee and loved that his quarterback was confident enough to deliver it.
With Ohio State on the schedule this week, Harbaugh the coach isn’t looking for any of his players to step out on that limb.
“Having done it, I don’t recommend it,” he said.
PITCHING A SHUTOUT
Iowa blanked Illinois on Saturday 28-0, just the fifth shutout in games between Big Ten teams this season (Rutgers was on the losing end of the other four). The shutout was the first in the Big Ten since 2009 for Iowa, and Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said such games are hard to come by, in part because of the desire to get backups on the field in blowouts.
“We did that about five weeks ago and gave up a bunch of points,” he said, referring to Iowa’s 49-35 win over Purdue. The Boilermakers scored 21 fourth-quarter points.
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