Big Ten football: Illinois, Wisconsin and unease in the West

By Michael Cohen
FOX Sports College Football Writer

The race toward this year’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis is beginning to take shape as the college football season crosses its midway point.

Michigan’s thumping 41-17 win over Penn State cemented the Wolverines as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender for the second year running. And to reach that pinnacle, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team will more than likely need to upend bitter rival Ohio State in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999 and 2000.

As ever, the West resembles a choose-your-own-adventure book with several teams all believing they can make it to Lucas Oil Stadium in the absence of a clear favorite. Upstart Illinois climbed to No. 18 in the latest Associated Press poll after an impressive 6-1 start. Lurking behind head coach Bret Bielema’s team are Purdue (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten), Nebraska (3-4, 2-2 Big Ten) and a quartet of schools with one league win apiece.

Here are some of the storylines in the West:

Uneasy times at Wisconsin

Context: The shocking move to fire head coach Paul Chryst in early October thrust defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard into the interim role. In addition to righting the ship on the field, where Wisconsin has lost three of its last four games, Leonhard is tasked with keeping his grip on a 2023 recruiting class whose members know very little about the direction of the school they’ve committed to.

Quote: “We have to embrace the reality right now,” Leonhard said in his Monday news conference. “There is a lot of uncertainty, right? There’s uncertainty for the whole program, the staff, and we’re aware of that. We also have to try to continue to teach and educate the [recruits] on what this place has consistently been, right, from the culture, from the standards, from expectations, to our players and really what we provide, what the UW experience is all about. You’re trying to get them to understand how consistent that has been over time and how it will continue to be consistent while we’re trying to grow as a program and, in some cases, take things in a different direction.”

Analysis: Wisconsin’s 2023 recruiting class ranks 55th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. The Badgers have 13 verbal commitments in the current cycle, and all of them are three-star prospects. Leonhard and the remainder of Chryst’s assistants are in a difficult spot: They must guard against losing any of the players already committed while simultaneously pursuing new targets despite an inability to tell those prospects what the coaching staff will look like next season.

Five of Wisconsin’s commitments for ’23 are players from Illinois, by far the most of any state. Among them is interior offensive lineman Christopher Terek, the highest-rated prospect in the class and the No. 57 overall player at his position. Terek took official visits to Michigan, Iowa and Illinois before committing to Wisconsin, and it’s highly likely some of those schools are gauging the temperature given the situation in Madison. Of the top-five players in Wisconsin’s class, Terek is the only one who took official visits to other programs.

“It is uncertain on what the future and the direction of this program is going to be,” Leonhard said. “As soon as we find that out, we will push very hard to continue to recruit. I think we know the kids who are drawn to this place. We have a great class that is committed at this point, and you’re just trying to push them through the storm a little bit and continue to educate them on where we’re going as a program.”

On the mend at Minnesota

Context: The Gophers lost starting quarterback Tanner Morgan in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to Illinois. Morgan suffered a blow to the side of his helmet from edge rusher Gabe Jacas on a scramble in the open field. He was later carted to the locker room and transported to a local hospital.

Quote: “First of all, Tanner is doing very well,” head coach P.J. Fleck said in his Monday news conference. “Woke up on Sunday morning and surprisingly felt really good, which is great. He was evaluated at the medical center right after the game, which I know all of you saw. He was cleared by the medical teams and the medical staffs to be able to fly home with the team. We held the plane a little bit longer so he could finish up his testing. But that stuff is out of my hands. I just know he appreciates all the prayers, thoughts, support, text messages from everybody. I know we do as well as a team. … In terms of the quarterback situation, we have other quarterbacks that can play if he’s not able to go. But that’s not necessarily just ruled out yet. But I’m not the one in charge of all those decisions. That’s our medical team, and I know he’s in very, very good care and doing really well.”

Analysis: Despite the optics of what unfolded in Champaign on Saturday — a quarterback who looked wobbly after two earlier hits but remained in the game until a third blow sent him to the hospital — Fleck made it quite clear throughout his media session that Morgan could return for this week’s showdown with No. 16 Penn State. Fleck told reporters Morgan would attend the team’s forthcoming Tuesday practice but was uncertain if the sixth-year senior might participate.

“My policy — especially with quarterbacks or somebody who has played a ton of football — is you don’t have to practice throughout the week until you get to the end of the week,” Fleck said, “and then you have to be able to show that you can do something. But Tuesday, Wednesday, people always say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to practice by Wednesday or you’re probably not ready to play football.’ I agree with that depending on who it is. But I think it’s a case-to-case basis. We’ll see how he feels.”

Morgan was replaced by freshman Athan Kaliakmanis for the remainder of Saturday’s loss to Illinois. And while Kaliakmanis had already made four relief appearances for the Gophers this season, he’d attempted just five passes prior to being thrust into action over the weekend. The former four-star recruit from Antioch, Illinois, finished 2-for-6 for 17 yards and two interceptions against the Illini.

If Morgan is held out for this week’s game, Fleck said the coaching staff will choose between Kaliakmanis and redshirt junior Cole Kramer for the starting job. Kramer, who is more of a dual-threat option, has appeared in 14 games for the Gophers and runs the ball more than three times as often as he throws it. He had 36 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns in eight games last season.

“It’s one of those things when you look at them and I like ‘em both,” Fleck said. “Cole has got a lot more experience. But when you look at Athan, I mean, he’s really talented. Will he be able to process, bring it all in, go out there and execute? But those are the decisions we’ll make as we keep going forward. I’ll have confidence in whoever is out there, that’s for sure.”

Illinois controls action in win over Minnesota

RJ Young reacts to Illinois’ 26-14 victory over the Golden Gophers.

Springing a leak at Purdue

Context: Even though his team scored a 43-37 win against Nebraska over the weekend, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was peppered with questions Monday about how co-defensive coordinators Ron English (secondary) and Mark Hagen (defensive line) plan to address the porous pass coverage. The Boilermakers allowed quarterback Casey Thompson to throw for 354 yards and two touchdowns and now rank 91st nationally in pass defense at 248.4 yards per game.

Quote: “They’re all correctable things,” Brohm said of the coverage issues. “It was kind of a multitude of things. Our secondary didn’t respect the deep ball as much as they should. We were playing a little bit too tight, a little bit too flat-footed, didn’t give the proper cushion on numerous routes — not only at corner, but at safety as well. And then there was just a couple busts as well in the back end that hurt us. I would hope that we can correct that, yes, and I think we have experience back there at those positions.”

Analysis: Nebraska punished the Boilermakers with deep throws from Thompson targeting wide receivers who got behind the secondary for one reason or another. Thompson completed four of his eight passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield for 193 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, according to Pro Football Focus. His primary option was junior wideout Trey Palmer, the LSU transfer who caught seven passes for 237 yards and two scores. Palmer’s touchdowns against Purdue measured 37 yards and 72 yards.

Nebraska’s Trey Palmer wide open on long TD

Cornhuskers QB Casey Thompson connected with Trey Palmer on a 72-yard touchdown pass against Purdue.

Thompson’s success with the deep passing game probed a weakness that has bothered Purdue all season. The Boilermakers have allowed 14 pass plays of 30 yards or more (a number exceeded by 10 teams in FBS), eight passes of 40 yards or more (exceeded by only seven teams), five passes of 50 yards or more (exceeded by just four teams) and five passes of 60 yards or more (only Vanderbilt has been worse with six such plays).

At 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers control their own destiny in the Big Ten West. But it’s hard to imagine them reaching Indianapolis unless the pass coverage improves.

“You’ve got to man up,” Brohm said. “You’ve got to analyze it and watch it to identify what our players did wrong, and then you’ve got to identify what we coached wrong possibly or what we put in their head that made them think a certain thing that maybe wasn’t proper. And then you’ve got to look at the calls and [ask yourself] are these the best calls. So I do think it was a magnitude of all those things, which it normally is, and it’s gotta be your continued evaluation.”

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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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