By ERIC OLSON, Associated Press
For all the Big Ten bashing that's been going on the first month of the season, there are a couple feel-good stories playing out at Minnesota and Northwestern.
The Gophers and Wildcats — teams that typically fade from the conference spotlight in October — are celebrating 4-0 starts and aiming to remain relevant.
Ohio State also has won four straight, but that's no surprise. Minnesota already has won one more game than it did all last season and Northwestern owns three of the Big Ten's six wins over BCS-conference opponents and Notre Dame.
Minnesota is perfect through four games for the first time since 2008 and would be 5-0 for the first time since 2004 if it can beat Iowa on the road Saturday. The Gophers are 6-3 since beating the Hawkeyes last October.
"We're building a program," second-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "We're a little bit different than everybody else in the Big Ten. We're a long ways from where we want to be, but we are making some progress."
Minnesota got off to a quiet 3-0 start with wins over UNLV (triple overtime on the road), New Hampshire and Western Michigan. Last Saturday's 17-10 win over Syracuse — watched by the Gophers' first sellout crowd since the final game in 2010 — raised eyebrows.
Syracuse, which had been averaging 33 points a game, committed four turnovers and didn't score a touchdown until the last minute against a much-improved Gophers defense.
Max Shortell, who started in place of injured quarterback MarQueis Gray, completed five of his first six passes and threw for 231 yards. Kill said Shortell would start against Saturday as Gray continues to recover from a high sprain of his left ankle.
"We felt our team could be better because we're a little stronger and faster than we were a year ago and we have some continuity with our coaching staff," Kill said. "Our kids understand more what we need to do... The first four games we've been pleased with our effort, but we step into the Big Ten and we'll definitely have to find out how good we are this week."
Defending Legends Division champion Michigan State struggled to beat Minnesota 31-24 at home last season, and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio sensed then that the Gophers were a team on the rise.
"I felt coming into the season... they may be the surprise of the conference," Dantonio said.
Northwestern, fifth in Legends in the first year of divisional play and no higher than fourth overall in the Big Ten since 2000, is 4-0 for the third time in five years.
The Wildcats go into their Big Ten opener against Indiana at home with a better-than-expected rushing game that's averaging 221 yards.
Venric Mark, a converted receiver, and Mike Trumpy have combined to give Northwestern a 100-yard rusher in three straight games for the first time since a span over 2006-07.
"We've always been able to throw the ball effectively and efficiently here," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We've made a commitment here for a few years to be more efficient running the ball. We've gotten off to a good start."
The Wildcats' two quarterbacks, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, have combined to complete 69 percent of their passes with no interceptions. Colter has not been picked off in 137 pass attempts since the 2011 opener.
Northwestern opened with three straight wins over BCS opponents — Syracuse (road), Vanderbilt and Boston College — and last week scored on four of its first five possession to start a 38-7 win over FCS-level South Dakota.
"As we go into Big Ten play, we expect to win games and win the conference," Colter said. "We are not going to get too high when we have success. We are just going to keep doing what we've been doing."
Ohio State, with four wins in four home games, is right where everyone expected as it heads into conference play at Michigan State.
Quarterback Braxton Miller carried a disproportionate load the first two games, and coach Urban Meyer said the offense needs to become more diverse. The Buckeyes' defense ranks last in the Big Ten.
"That's very alarming," Meyer said. "That's not Ohio State defense over the last 10 years. Last year was not great, but the previous years were as good as there is in the country. That's something that has to change real fast."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.