Big Ten continues physical play
CHICAGO (AP) — One division fancies itself as the home of the tradition-rich bluebloods.
The other, still seeking an identity of its own, may be best described as the home of the Big Ten’s black-and-blue bloods, where physical football will likely lead one team to Indianapolis and a date in the conference’s championship game.
“If you want to play real Big Ten football, the physical way it’s always been played, you probably look to the schools in the West,’’ Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. “That’s the way I see it, anyway. It’s going to be a real physical division.’’
It definitely will be a different division and the start of the Big Ten kickoff event Monday marked the dawn of a new era.
No more Legends. No more Leaders.
Simply East and West, based on true geography, will divide the expanded Big Ten which now counts Maryland and Rutgers among its 14 members.
Commissioner Jim Delany insists he is not concerned by any perception that the league’s new divisions lack competitive balance, although the tradition-rich East includes Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and defending champion Michigan State.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes have combined for 76 of the 85 Big Ten championships those four schools have won on the football field.
By comparison, Michigan and Ohio State’s trophy total is two more than the combined total of Big Ten championships in the sport won by the seven members of the new-look West.
Words like “daunting’’ and “challenging’’ were thrown around with ease by East coaches as they discussed the prospects of the series of annual heavyweight matches that await in their division.
“I think it’s a great competitive division,’’ Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said. “How it shakes out, we’ll find out. … At the end of the day, it’s what we all want to do, compete.’’
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said a check of recruiting rankings illustrates the depth of the strength in the East Division.
“The division is very strong,’’ Meyer said. “It’s going to be a tough run, a real challenge.’’
Meyer, whose team is regarded as the preseason pick in the East, isn’t the only coach preparing for a challenge.
While Michigan and Michigan State shift East this season, Wisconsin joins Purdue and Illinois in the West Division.
“The Iowa game last year was one of the most physical football games I have ever been associated with,’’ Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “Minnesota plays physical. Nebraska plays physical. I think it’s what the division will be known for, tough, physical football. I know that’s how we like to play and most of the others do as well.’’
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald pointed to 176 personal records his team has set during the offseason as part of the Wildcats’ renewed commitment to strength and Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said “there’s a different Boilermaker walking around’’ Purdue’s facilities because of offseason strength gains.
Building around the strength of returning running back Melvin Gordon, Andersen’s Badgers are mentioned as the preseason choice in the West but he doesn’t buy the notion that anything will come easily.
“You better be ready to strap it on and be ready every week in the Big Ten,’’ Andersen said.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill counts on that, pointing to the need for success against border rivals Wisconsin and Iowa as a necessity if the Golden Gophers hope to build on last year’s eight-win season.
“I think we understand for us to be successful in the Big Ten, we have to beat the border schools,’’ Kill said. “Wisconsin and Iowa are very well coached and have good players. When you get that done, beat those border schools, you’ve got a chance to compete for the Big Ten title.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz understands that as well.
Five of the Hawkeyes’ six division games are against programs located in states which share a border with Iowa.
“I think it’s a big thing for us, personally, all of us in the same division,’’ Ferentz said. “It’s been strange the last couple of years, not playing Wisconsin regularly and not playing Illinois since 2008. Those are good, traditional rivalries, hard-hitting rivalry games that matter to people in the states.’’
It’s the type of situation that Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff understands well.
“You like to play the people in your backyard because you know it’s going to be a battle and we like that,’’ Scherff said. “Physical football is what Iowa is all about and we want that type of game every week. That’s when we’re at our best.’’