It’s becoming quite clear for the Gophers: Now is the time

Almost every Big Ten team stumbled during nonconference play. If Minnesota wants a title, it’s certainly there for the taking.

Aaron Blake

Mike Nugent’s larger-than-average leg has saved Ohio State from disaster two weeks in a row. Michigan saved Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham’s job for another year with a 28-20 loss to the Irish last Saturday. Wisconsin saved its top-25 status with a fourth-quarter comeback and a 9-7 victory this Saturday at Arizona.

For Iowa, however, little could be salvaged. The Hawkeyes laid the egg of nonconference eggs Saturday at Arizona State, dropping a 44-7 decision that would have been 44-0 were it not for an 83-yard punt return by never-say-die Walner Belleus, with 30 seconds remaining in the game.

When Minnesota tailback Laurence Maroney was told the final tally from Tempe, Ariz., his eyes got wide and he noted aptly, “Oooh.”

It was unclear whether he was drooling.

Far be it from Gophers coach Glen Mason to (publicly) acknowledge the struggles of conference foes before the Big Ten season even starts. But the vulnerability demonstrated by the conference elite in the first weeks of the 2004 campaign has to be encouraging, exciting or, at the very least, eye-opening.

“It’s open,” Maroney said of the Big Ten title race. “We know there’s not a team in the Big Ten that’s just unbeatable. Purdue’s looking good, but we know we have a team that can compete.”

Purdue is, in fact, the only Big Ten team that looks competent enough to win a title through the first three weeks. Kyle Orton and the Boilermakers have played two games against average competition that resulted in 50-plus-point lashings.

The preseason conference favorite Wolverines followed up their heartbreaking performance against the Irish by almost losing to San

Diego State, escaping with a 24-21 win at home in Ann Arbor, Mich. Only two misses on long second-half field goals by the Aztecs’

Garrett Palmer could keep Michigan from falling to 1-2.

The Buckeyes, the other Big Ten front-runners, have clung to the leg of kicker Nugent like a bunch of obnoxious 2-year-olds. His 54-yard field goal with zeroes across the clock prevented last weekend’s game with Marshall from going to overtime, and his five field goals – including three of more than 45 yards – made up for a Buckeyes offense that only found the end zone once but won ugly 22-14 Saturday at North Carolina State.

Michigan State has officially resigned itself to the lower tier of the Big Ten with a 1-2 start that includes a season-opening loss to Big East (ahem) powerhouse Rutgers. And Penn State is still reeling in the post-Joe Paterno era (that’s right, a grumpy imposter has been impersonating Paterno for several years now).

What does it all mean for the Gophers? Well, Purdue and Ohio State have to be considered the favorites for the Big Ten title, when the conference season opens Saturday.

They also happen to be the two conference foes the Gophers don’t play this season.

For the second straight year, Minnesota avoids the 2002 national champion Buckeyes and a Boilermakers team they haven’t beaten since the Jim Wacker administration.

That means only three games aren’t virtual shoe-ins at this point: Oct. 9 at Michigan, Nov. 6 at Wisconsin and Nov. 13 against Iowa.

Next year, Minnesota will avoid Northwestern, which was 4-4 in conference play a year ago, and Illinois – last season’s official reason for the Big Ten to return to its numerical namesake number of teams at a sparkling 0-8.

So if the Gophers have any designs on a Big Ten title in the next few years, they better start right Saturday when they play host to the Wildcats.

They have the tools, they have the schedule and they have the bumbling competition. This might be their only bona fide Big Ten title opportunity for several years.

They just need to make sure their eyes are open so they can see that.