B1G 2023 schedule brings challenges, quirks, unclear future

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Minnesota at Illinois
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MINNEAPOLIS – The Big Ten’s 2023 football schedule caused a big gulp for Gophers fans when it was finally unveiled last week.

The three crossover games against East Division foes assigned to Minnesota next fall? Michigan and Michigan State at home. Ohio State on the road.

That’ll be quite the test for the Gophers, who will be replacing sixth-year starters at both quarterback (Tanner Morgan) and tailback (Mohamed Ibrahim). This could also be the last time a Big Ten team ever receives such a daunting surprise, if the conference decides to follow the trend and ditch the two-division format once UCLA and USC arrive in 2024.

In that case, the Big Ten would likely designate up to three rivals for each program out of protection for the annual grudge matches – Michigan-Ohio State, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Indiana-Purdue and so on – that make up the rich history of the league.

Then teams would play the remaining opponents on an every-other-season basis to strike better competitive balance and maintain more scheduling consistency to thus avoid the post-expansion quirks like Purdue not visiting Michigan since, yes, 2011 or not playing at all since 2017. The Boilermakers, for the record, will play the Wolverines at the Big House next year.

“I think it’s less about the rivalries and more making sure that our players and our fans are able to step into every venue and able to experience the pageantry of Big Ten football and find a way to be able to put that into the schedule,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this summer at media day. “It’s going to be complicated.

“But when you look at it from a holistic standpoint, I hope that’s the experience of our Big Ten student-athletes. Being able to play a game in Piscataway, New Jersey, and going out and able to play a regular season game in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl and everything in between, nobody else will be able to say that.”

One of the many mantras and slogans employed by the Gophers under coach P.J. Fleck is the “one-game championship season” approach to each week, a preparatory view designed to eliminate distraction and focus on the present.

Fleck, predictably, responded with a smile but little else when the topic of future schedules – including his own team’s challenge next year – was raised at his news conference this week.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions right now and not much certainty about what the Big Ten will look like in terms of how many teams, divisions, pods,” Fleck said. “Nobody really knows. All we have to focus on is right now. I’m glad we’re in the Big Ten. I’m glad we’re at Minnesota.”

The soon-to-expand College Football Playoff will factor into what the league decides for a future format, with the addition of more schools always possible.

The Pac-12 ditched divisions prior to this season. The Big 12 recently announced it will stick with a single group when four new schools join next year. The ACC is doing away with its divisions in 2023 as well. The SEC still has East and West divisions for 2023, but Oklahoma and Texas are on the way with no guarantee of future geographical organization.

The Big Ten created divisions – the ill-fated Leaders and Legends groupings that prioritized competitive balance over geographical proximity – in 2011 when Nebraska became the 12th member. The entrance of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 triggered another realignment, resulting in the current East and West divisions.

Even after the ninth conference game was added to the schedules in 2016, there are four other schools that each team does not face in a given season – nowhere close to a round-robin format. The pandemic-shrunken 2020 schedule also threw a wrench into the system.

The finalization of the Big Ten’s new TV contracts were delayed by the UCLA-USC addition, too, which in turn pushed out the 2023 slate and the ultimate decision for Commissioner Kevin Warren on the fate of the divisions.

Not all the wrinkles were ironed out.

Penn State, strangely, will play its first conference game on the road for the eighth straight year and the 13th time in 14 seasons, and athletic director Patrick Kraft issued a statement about the school’s “incredibly frustrating and disappointing” feelings.

“When I arrived on campus, I shared with the conference staff my concerns and repeatedly referenced their failure to address this issue in the past. I have been in communication with Commissioner Warren and I am confident that this issue will be addressed moving forward,” said Kraft, who was hired earlier this year.

Chase Brown’s 180 yards, defense carry No. 24 Illinois past Minnesota

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Chase Brown just keeps impressing Illinois coach Bret Bielema.

“If there’s a better player in college football who has had an effect on his program,” Bielema said, “I’d like to know who it is.”

Brown rushed for 180 yards on a career-high 41 carries and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass to complement the No. 24 Illini’s strong defensive performance in a 26-14 victory over Minnesota.

The Illini (6-1, 3-1) became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019 with their fifth straight win. They’ll go into their off week tied for first in the Big Ten West.

Brown has a lot to do with it. But he might have to take it easy for a bit after setting a Bowl Subdivision season high for single-game rushing attempts.

“(Ice) tub and tub again,” Brown said. “Just live in the training room for the next two weeks.”

Brown became the first player to go over 1,000 yards for the season. He has a nation-leading 1,059 after running for 1,005 last year. His average number of carries per game has increased from 17 last year to 27.

“It hurts,” he said, “but I just have got to take my recovery to a whole new level and just come back stronger. Use this bye week to get my body back and come back explosive against Nebraska.”

Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 127 yards, his nation-leading 14th straight 100-yard game and the bulk of the Gophers’ 180 total yards. It was the fewest yards against Illinois by an FBS opponent since at least 2000.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan, held to just 21 yards on 4-for-12 passing, left early in the fourth quarter after taking a hit to the head. Athan Kaliakmanis entered for the Gophers (4-2, 1-2) and was intercepted twice.

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito, back from an ankle injury that forced him out of last week’s game at Iowa in the first half, ran for a 5-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to put the Illini up 20-14. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown.

DeVito said the Illini haven’t reached their potential.

“We’re going bowling in October, and that’s a really good feeling,” DeVito said. “But I don’t think that’s the team’s goal. I think we want to go way past that. But it’s just another notch in our belt.”

Brown recorded his eighth straight 100-yard game and has 13 for his career, second most at Illinois behind Robert Holcombe’s 16 from 1994-97.

Bielema said Brown “takes incredibly good care of his body,” but promised he would have a light week after carrying the load against the Gophers.

“He won’t be doing much this week,” Bielema told reporters. “You guys could hang out with him for all I care.”

Brown got wide open on a wheel route for his 40-yard touchdown to finish Illinois’ nine-play, 75-yard drive to start the game. Fabrizio Pinton tacked on a 31-yard field goal to give the Illini a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Pinton connected from 23 yards in the third and from 30 yards in the fourth to extend Illinois’ lead.

Ibrahim was about all Minnesota had going offensively. The Gophers were just 2 of 7 on third downs and finished with their fewest yards since gaining 133 against Wisconsin in 2017.

No opponent had scored a touchdown at Memorial Stadium this season before Morgan’s 9-yard run in the middle of the second quarter. The play capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive the Gophers were unable to replicate the rest of the game.

Quentin Redding’s 92-yard return of the second-half kickoff set up Ibrahim’s 4-yard touchdown, which gave the Gophers a brief 14-13 lead.

HUMBLE HELPS

Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski said he expects he and his teammates to stay humble as winning raises their profile. That especially goes for Brown, who could start getting some Heisman Trophy buzz.

“That’s one thing I love about him,” Palczewski said. “All the guys, no one is really a diva. No one’s like, `Me, me, me.’ ”

BOUNCING BACK

The Gophers have dropped in the West standings, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bounce back in a wide-open division race.

“We have a chance to respond, learn from this game and move on for the next,” sixth-year center John Michael Schmitz said.

THE TAKEAWAY

Minnesota: Just as Ibrahim returns from an injury, Morgan exits. The extent of the sixth-year quarterback’s injury could factor heavily into how the Gophers finish.

Illinois: The Illini have won six straight home games, four in a row against Big Ten West opponents and are out to their best start since 2011. With DeVito healthy, the Illini could be favored in each remaining game except for a Nov. 19 trip to No. 5 Michigan.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

No. 19 Kansas’ loss to Oklahoma might allow the Illini to move up.

UP NEXT

Minnesota: A challenging trip to No. 10 Penn State.

Illinois: An open date precedes an Oct. 29 visit to Nebraska.

Spoilermakers: Purdue stifles No. 21 Minnesota for 20-10 win

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MINNEAPOLIS — Purdue has made a habit of these upsets of Top 25 teams under Jeff Brohm.

Toughing out this win at Minnesota was one of his proudest moments in six years as head coach.

Devin Mockobee rushed for 112 yards and a late touchdown to pad Purdue’s lead, and the Boilermakers’ defense fueled yet another takedown of a ranked opponent in a 20-10 victory over No. 21 Minnesota on Saturday.

“It was a long week. I’m tired,” Brohm said. “Because you’ve got to prepare for these guys. They’re really sound. They normally don’t beat themselves.”

The Gophers made it a little easier on Purdue this time, from the missed tackles early and late to the turnovers in between.

Cam Allen had two of the career-high three interceptions of Tanner Morgan, one in the end zone in the second quarter and another in the closing stretch.

Quarterback Aidan O'Connell returned from a one-game absence for the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) and bounced back from two first-half interceptions to direct two drives for scores in the final 5 minutes.

“It was obviously frustrating. You never want to be on the sideline. It was hard to watch in practice and in the game last week, but I think it made me realize how much I do love my teammates,” said O’Connell, who went 27 for 40 for 199 yards.

The Spoilermakers is more like it. They beat No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State last season and three ranked teams in 2018. This time, they knocked off a Gophers team that outscored its first four opponents 183-24. The only other teams in the FBS that hadn’t trailed entering this week were Georgia and Washington.

“Everything’s still in front of us,” said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “We have to get better. Listen, nobody’s perfect. Even if you have a perfect record, you’re still not perfect.”

With star Mohamed Ibrahim held out after what appeared to be a minor ankle injury in Minnesota’s previous game, the Gophers (4-1, 1-1) were stifled on the ground. After so many shootouts between these teams over the years, defense ruled the day and the Boilermakers got the better of it to stop their four-game losing streak to Minnesota and spoil homecoming for the Gophers.

“There were too many times that push was going backwards, which we’re not used to,” Fleck said.

Bryce Williams, who led the Gophers with 35 yards on 11 rushes, scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game at 10 midway through the third quarter. After averaging 295 rushing yards over the first four games, the Gophers netted just 47 yards on 26 attempts.

“If there ain’t no gap, you can’t run through there, no matter who’s out there,” Boilermakers defensive tackle Branson Deen said.

O’CONNELL RETURNS

The Boilermakers had three turnovers and three three-and-outs over seven straight scoreless possessions until O’Connell found a rhythm on a 70-yard march midway through the fourth quarter that set up Mitchell Fineran’s field goal for a 13-10 lead with 4:57 left.

Charlie Jones, who had 41 catches and seven touchdowns over the first four games to lead the FBS, had six receptions for 55 yards. He caught a 28-yard pass on that drive to set the Boilermakers up to pull ahead. O’Connell was heavily padded, Brohm said, with what was reported as a rib injury.

“He’s a tough kid. He’s just a competitor,” Jones said. “If he was able to go he was going to go.”

SIGN HIM UP

With starter King Doerue out, Dylan Downing had 10 carries for 32 yards and a touchdown. Mockobee, a second-year walk-on delivered the kill shot by rumbling through the Gophers for a 68-yard gain inside the 4-minute mark to set up his score on the next play.

After Purdue lost leads to Penn State with 57 seconds left and to Syracuse with 7 seconds to go, the Boilermakers put this one away.

“We’ve been battle-tested, and I think today it showed that we’re ready for the test,” Deen said.

ROUGH START

Purdue has outscored opponents 47-3 in the first quarter. The Gophers started the game with a three-and-out, a tipped-pass interception near midfield and a failed fourth-and-1 run at their 29.

Morgan, who went 13 for 33 for 257 yards, had an 11-yard pass late in the second quarter bounce off the chest of Michael Brown-Stephens and into Allen’s arms in the end zone.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

After reappearing in the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time in nearly two years, the Gophers Will Likely fall out of the rankings.

THE TAKEAWAY

Purdue: There’s no reason to believe the Boilermakers won’t contend for the Big Ten West title, given their strengths, their schedule and the state of the division. When a reporter suggested as much to Brohm, he quipped, “I don’t even know any other scores, so I hope you’re right.”

Minnesota: The only problem with playing so well over the first third of the season was the lack of action in tense situations, particularly for the defense. With the lack of sustained drives by the offense, the defense couldn’t have been fresh down the stretch – and it showed.

UP NEXT

Purdue plays at Maryland next Saturday.

Minnesota has next week off and plays at Illinois on Oct. 15.