This hasn’t been the season Wisconsin envisioned, but coach Paul Chryst remains curious to see where it all leads.
The Badgers take a 6-3 record to Penn State on Saturday, sitting one game behind a Northwestern team it lost to in a West Division race it was expected to win.
"I feel like this team is still trying to find its identity," Chryst said.
He likes the way Wisconsin prepares on a weekly basis and likes the make-up of the group he is working with, even if the Badgers haven’t had the kind of season they anticipated.
"Each season is an interesting time, and we’ve had our good moments, but every team wants to go undefeated, wants to do great things," Chryst said. "We’re not there, but we do have a group of players who want to work and improve and see where it leads."
Wisconsin plays its next two games on the road, following this week’s game at Penn State with a trip to Purdue before finishing the regular season at home against Minnesota.
The Badgers still cling to hopes of winning a third consecutive West Division title, something that will require not only Wisconsin to win out but will also need Northwestern to lose two of its final three games.
Linebacker T.J. Edwards said the margin for error has evaporated.
"I think every game is a must win at this point," he told the Wisconsin State Journal. "We’re at a point in time where it’s November football, and you have to play your best to make it happen down the road. We’re definitely going to need our best."
Nebraska homecoming: Saturday’s game at Nebraska is a homecoming of sorts for Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush.
The Fighting Illini graduate transfer from Virginia Tech started his collegiate career with the Cornhuskers, spending two seasons in a reserve role there before transferring to Iowa Western Community College.
"It’s a big week for A.J.," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "Any time you get to go back to a place where you have a history, it’s a big deal."
Bush moved back into the Illini lineup he moved out of earlier this season last week, orchestrating an offense that piled up 430 rushing yards in a rout of Minnesota.
He is expected to start in the 11 a.m. match-up with the Cornhuskers.
Making a move: P.J. Fleck could have waited until the end of the season to make a change in his coaching staff, but Saturday’s 55-31 loss at Illinois proved to be the last game for Minnesota defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
The move comes after the Golden Gophers gave up a combined 139 points and 1,789 yards in its most recent games against Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois.
Fleck fired Smith on Sunday and named defensive line coach Joe Rossi as the Golden Gophers’ defensive coordinator. Rossi will also assume Smith’s role as Minnesota’s linebackers coach.
"This is something I have been thinking about for a significant period of time," Fleck said. "It wasn’t an overnight thing, but once the decision was made, why not move forward? We have a big three-game stretch coming up."
Sitting at 4-5 on the season, the Gophers host Purdue on Saturday before hosting Northwestern and traveling to Wisconsin.
Smith has ties to the Iowa program, beginning his college coaching career by working as quality control and defensive graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes from 1999-2001 during Kirk Ferentz’s first three seasons at Iowa.
Narrow view: Michigan faces Rutgers and Indiana, teams with a combined 1-11 Big Ten record, before concluding the regular season at Ohio State.
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh suggests that looking a couple of weeks down the road wouldn’t be the wisest thing for his fourth-rated team, which is off to an 8-1 start including a 6-0 record in Big Ten games.
"It doesn’t seem like a good idea to look ahead," Harbaugh said.
Big-picture focus: Last weekend’s 36-31 loss at Ohio State leaves Nebraska at 2-7 and home for the holidays again this season.
That isn’t stopping the Cornhuskers from looking ahead as they prepare to finish out the 2018 season.
"We’ve improved a lot. We have a tough last stretch, but I think if this team can go 3-0 against some quality opponents like Illinois, Michigan State and Iowa, it will tell a story about (potential for) next season," linebacker Mohamed Barry said.
Coach Scott Frost is encouraging the Cornhuskers to take that approach and make the most of the games they have left following an 0-6 start to the season.
"Most teams that had the type of start to the season that we had would have shut it down by now, would have started infighting," Frost said. "This team, it just keeps getting better."