Minnesota extends Fleck; Illinois, Indiana among teams to beat

Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana each are on some of their program’s best runs in the last decade right now, and all are shocking the Big Ten landscape.

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Minnesota extends Fleck; Illinois, Indiana among teams to beat

Minnesota head coach, P.J. Fleck, addresses the media during the Big Ten Football Media Day in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

Minnesota head coach, P.J. Fleck, addresses the media during the Big Ten Football Media Day in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

Katina Zentz

Minnesota head coach, P.J. Fleck, addresses the media during the Big Ten Football Media Day in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

Katina Zentz

Katina Zentz

Minnesota head coach, P.J. Fleck, addresses the media during the Big Ten Football Media Day in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

Pete Mills, Sports Reporter

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Among the best-performing teams in the Big Ten at the moment are three surprising names: Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota.

Indiana has notched seven wins already this season and is on the verge of the program’s first top-25 ranking of the 2000s, just as Illinois needs only one more win to book its first bowl game bid in five years. Meanwhile, Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time in nearly eight decades and has the chance to win the Big Ten West in the coming weeks.

Neither Illinois’ Lovie Smith, Indiana’s Tom Allen, or Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck have been head coaches in the Big Ten for more than four years, but each has their programs in good spots heading into the latter part of the 2019 season. 

Illini taste bowl eligibility

Smith is describing his program’s next few weeks as the most important since he’s been at the helm.

Illinois has won three-straight games, including a victory over a top-10 Wisconsin team just a few weeks ago. With a win this weekend, the program could qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2014 and earn its first four-game conference win streak since 2001. The importance of Saturday’s game against Michigan State is not being understated.

“This is the biggest game we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I told the team that today, and that will continue the be the message… The guys that have been around. They know that. I don’t have to tell them how big this game is.”

Illinois demolished Rutgers 38-10 in a convincing performance last weekend. Illini linebacker Dele Harding earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after the win, as he posted 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and a pick-six.

The Illini defense has given up a lot of points, but it leads the country in forcing turnovers and defensive scoring. The unit leads in the country in defensive touchdowns, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and ranks second in the nation in points off turnovers.

Indiana wins fourth-straight

Indiana only won two conference games a year ago, finishing sixth in the Big Ten East, but Allen has his program on one of its best runs in the last decade.

It’s 2019 now, and the Hoosiers already have seven wins heading into its second bye week after the team went undefeated through October. Most recently, Indiana dismantled Northwestern at home, 34-3, outgaining the Wildcats in total yards by 215.

Indiana’s lone two losses — to Ohio State on Sept. 14 and to Michigan State on Sept. 28 — are the team’s only blemishes heading into a tough ending of the season in which it faces Penn State, Michigan, and Purdue.

Its convincing win over Northwestern earned a lot of respect from voters in the AP Poll; the Hoosiers were the third team just outside of the AP Top-25 this week. Allen said a national ranking — which the program hasn’t had since 1994 — is certainly something the Hoosiers are keeping an eye on.

“Whatever we have done in the last nine games, we have obviously done a lot of positive things,” Allen said. “[We’ve] got a lot of things to keep getting better at, but that’s kind of where you want to be as a program.”

RELATED: Iowa defense continues prep for Wisconsin’s Taylor

Fleck extends contract with Minnesota

Just a few days ahead of No. 13 Minnesota’s bout with No. 5 Penn State, Fleck signed a seven-year contract extension.

“I’m thankful for the support of the university and our community,” Fleck said. “They’ve accepted Heather and I and our family with open arms, as well as our staff members. … This contract is really just a result of the tireless effort of so many people — it’s not just about the head coach.”

The contract keeps Fleck at Minnesota through the 2026 season. The Golden Gophers are 8-0 for the first time since 1941, and the team’s 10-game win streak is the third-longest in the nation.

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