Countdown to kickoff: Big Ten West at a glance
Earlier, I took a spin around the Big Ten East. Now, let’s take a look at the Big Ten West at a glance.
Top offensive player: RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern. He has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three years. Expect him to make it four for four in 2017 as he is on track to become NU’s all-time leading rusher. The 5-11, 193-pound Jackson enters the season with 4,129 yards on 855 carries with 30 TDs. Could he lead the Wildcats to the West title?
Top defensive player: LB Josey Jewell, Iowa. The 6-2, 236-pound senior is a classic middle linebacker who also happens to be one of the best leaders Kirk Ferentz ever has had. Jewell led the Hawkeyes with 124 tackles last year and will be part of an Iowa linebacking unit that will start three seniors and be the strength of the defense. Jewell may be the top defensive player in the conference.
Top game: Northwestern at Wisconsin, Sept. 30. This is the Big Ten opener for both teams. And it will go a long way in setting the table for pecking order in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin won last year vs. NU, but the Wildcats won two in a row before that. These teams are similar, as each can run the ball and has a nice defense. It may come down to which QB makes the most plays: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson or UW’s Alex Hornibrook.
Dark horse: Nebraska. This is Year Three for Mike Riley. Time for a breakthrough, right? The Huskers have a shiny new 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco, whose energy and mojo are infectious. And the offense finally will look like what Riley wants it to with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee at the controls. Riley wants to run the ball and have a West Coast-type of scheme. Don’t sleep on the Cornhuskers.
Breakout player: CB Nick Nelson, Wisconsin. A transfer from Hawaii, the 5-11, 204-pound Nelson may end up being the top cover man in the Big Ten. He is a physical corner who also can play the run. Nelson is a special talent for a special defense, which is on its third coordinator in three years with Jim Leonhard pushing the buttons. Oh, and Nelson also will impact as a punt return man. The guy is a stud who may play just one season in Madison before turning pro. Watch him while you can.
Important newcomer: Safety T.J. Jallow, Purdue. Keep an eye on this heavy-hitting JC transfer who will help set the tone for a Boilermaker defense that has some bite. The 6-2, 200-pound Jallow was on campus for spring ball and immediately turned heads with his aggressive style. Jallow–who played at “Last Chance U” East Mississippi CC–is a difference-maker for a Purdue defense that has a chance to be solid under coordinator Nick Holt.
Key player back from injury: WR Mikey Dudek, Illinois. No one in the Big Ten has had more bad luck than Dudek. Check this out: The last time he caught a pass, Tim Beckman was the Illini coach. Since then, Illinois is on its second coach. Dudek had a smashing debut in 2014, making 76 receptions for 1,038 yards with six TDs. But the 5-11, 186-pound junior hasn’t played since, as he subsequently tore ACLs in 2015 and 2016. Dudek was cleared in the spring but saw no contact and was treated gingerly in camp. Why risk it? The offense needs his playmaking ability.