Big Ten Football: Best Finishes of 2011
The Big Ten was no stranger to suspense and drama this year. From Denard Robinson's late game heroics, Russell Wilson's ability to drag his team back from the dead in tight games, and then those other teams' ability to throw the perfect pass for the win, there were quite a few great endings (depending on your rooting interest).
Time now to look back on the ten best finishes of the 2011 season. There is no criteria for this list other than drama. Some games feature teams coming up just short. Some games end on field goals or on missed field goals. Some games just ended a second too soon.
Drama doesn't require a flurry of points or a last second finish. It just keeps you glued to your seat.
Here are ten games that kept me and fans all over the country glued to our seats last fall.
10. Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38
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The Rose Bowl was a great game all around. The teams combined for well over 1000 yards and 80 points. The lightning-quick spread option offense of Oregon sliced up the Wisconsin defense while the bruising pro-style attack the Badgers employ simply ran right over Oregon for most of the game.
It was late in the contest, however, that the defenses found a way to make an impact. With around seven minutes to go, Oregon kicked a field goal to go ahead by a touchdown, but Wisconsin answered right back by moving into Oregon territory on a long pass to Jared Abbrederis. But before Abbrederis could get out of bounds, the ball was knocked from his hands only to sit inches from the sideline until Oregon was able to cover it up.
The Ducks then used six plays to kill nearly four minutes off the clock, leaving Wisconsin with only 23 seconds after a punt to the Badger 13-yard line. With two long passes Russell Wilson was able to move the Badgers to Oregon's 25, but without a timeout all Wisconsin could hope to do was get a play off. Russell Wilson spiked the ball instead, and time ran out giving Oregon the win and depriving Wisconsin, and fans everywhere, a chance to see one more play for a tie game.
9. Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39
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While it didn't quite live up to the billing of the first matchup, the Big Ten title game had plenty of late fireworks.
The majority of the game played out the same way as the first matchup between these two teams. Wisconsin's offense moved the ball with much success early in the game on the way to a two-score lead that wouldn't survive once Michigan State's defense clamped down and the offense started to wake up. The third quarter was a stalemate and Wisconsin entered the fourth quarter down eight points.
That's when Russell Wilson took the gloves off for a second time. He led the Badgers on consecutive touchdown drives to take a three-point lead with four minutes to play. Michigan State had a chance on offense but was forced to punt after a three-and-out. The Spartan defense then did exactly what it needed to do: It forced a Wisconsin punt. Unfortunately, the punt return that Keshawn Martin returned near the goal line was waived off after a roughing the kicker penalty on Isaiah Lewis. Wisconsin would then wind out the clock.
8. Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 in Triple OT
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This game was a back-and-forth slug fest between two powerful defenses that featured no shortage of drama.
Early on, the game was all Bulldogs as Georgia jumped out to a 16-0 lead by halftime and looked comfortably in control. However, Michigan State's defense woke up in the third quarter and the offense started to move the ball. The final quarter would see Michigan State take its first lead only to relinquish it to Georgia less than two minutes later. However, Michigan State was able to score with under 30 seconds to go to force overtime.
Just as quick as the Spartans had climbed back into the game, it seemed they had lost it. On the second play of overtime, Kirk Cousins threw an interception. Needing only a field goal to win, Mark Richt eschewed any offensive aggression and played for the long, game-winning field goal. The football gods laughed at his cowardice and ensured the field goal was no good.
Both teams traded missed field goals in the second overtime, and Michigan State's field goal in the third would ultimately be the difference as Georgia's tying field-goal attempt was blocked.
7. Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20 in OT
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The Big Ten's bowl heroics didn't end with Michigan State's win on January 2nd. The next night Michigan was able to secure a win in the Sugar Bowl against all reasonable odds.
The Wolverines were badly outgained in the game but survived thanks to red zone defense, forced turnovers that were converted to points and a few big plays on offense. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, moved the ball well between the 20's while playing lights-out defense against Denard Robinson.
Early in the fourth quarter Virginia Tech was able to score a touchdown after a long drive, and the ensuing two-point conversion tied the game. Michigan was able to force a fumble in Hokie territory that led to a go-ahead field goal. Virginia Tech then tied the game on a last-second field goal and the teams went to overtime.
Once in overtime Virginia Tech moved the ball well, but a touchdown pass was correctly called back on instant replay, and the Hokies had to settle for a field-goal attempt. Justin Myer was 80 percent on kicks for the day, but missed the one that really counted which set Michigan up with the chance to win the game. Three plays later Brenden Gibbons hit the game-winning field goal (for brunette girls everywhere), and Michigan got the Big Ten's BCS bowl win for the season.
6. Minnesota 22, Iowa 21
It is important to remember just how hopeless Minnesota was at the point in the season that it beat Iowa. The Gophers were coming off humiliating losses to Michigan and Purdue, and were being compared to some of the all-time worst teams in college football. Head coach Jerry Kill had multiple seizure problems—one such episode happened in the waning moments of a non-conference loss. Things were bad.
That is perhaps what made this victory even sweeter. After playing solidly for most of the game but still unable to pull close, Minnesota entered the fourth quarter having to watch Iowa extend the lead to 11 with a touchdown. What followed was an incredible comeback.
Quarterback MarQueis Gray was able to lead the Gophers 80 yards to score a touchdown, but the two- point conversion was missed, momentarily slowing Minnesota's momentum. The Gophers would get it back with a surprise onside kick that set up a second touchdown drive and a one-point lead. Iowa got the ball back with three minutes remaining but was unable to move the ball, and Minnesota escaped with the win.
5. Michigan 40, Ohio State 34
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It was fitting that the game in which Michigan was finally able to break the painful streak of losses to Ohio State would be a nail-biter.
The beleaguered Buckeye offense came out firing on all cylinders and rode that to a halftime lead. A lot of this success was directly attributable to Braxton Miller playing his best game of the season throwing for 236 yards and rushing for 96. However, at the end of the day it would be Denard Robinson's show as the junior quarterback passed for 166 yards with just three incompletions and rushed for another 170 yards, accounting for a total of five touchdowns.
Michigan took the lead in the third quarter and kept outpacing a strong Buckeye performance. Ohio State was able to cut the lead to three points at two separate times in the fourth quarter, but each time Michigan found a way to score.
On Michigan's final possession of the game, the Wolverines scored what looked to be the game-sealing touchdown, but the run by Fitzgerald Toussaint was ruled down at the 1-yard line, and the ensuing scoring play was then negated by penalties forcing the Wolverines to kick a field goal to extend the lead to just six. Ohio State got the ball back, but Michigan's defense tightened up and forced an interception to clinch the defining victory of Brady Hoke's first year as coach.
4. Illinois 38, Northwestern 35
Illinois and Northwestern opened up the Big Ten season in style with a noon game for the ages.
At one point, thanks to the arm of Dan Persa, the Wildcats had an 18-point lead and looked to be solidly in control of the game. But Persa had to leave the game when his Achilles heel began to bother him, and from there it was all about the Nathan Scheelhaase/A.J. Jenkins connection. The two would hook up on touchdown passes of 33 and 50 yards to pull the game within four points. A Donovonn Young rushing touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion would give the Illini the lead.
However, it would be short lived as Kain Colter led the Wildcats down the field with three minutes remaining to retake the lead on a touchdown run by Jacob Schmidt. Unfortunately, 75 seconds was too much time as Illinois was able to go 69 yards in six plays to regain the lead and steal the win.
It would be a good thing too. There weren't many happy times to follow in Champaign.
3. Ohio State 33, Wisconsin 29
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Two plays. That was seemingly all that separated Wisconsin from a chance to play for the national title. While the ending of the Michigan State game was tragic, the end of the Ohio State game was just perplexing.
Wisconsin had a hard time moving the ball for most of the early going of the game which allowed Ohio State to stay close and eventually take a lead in the third quarter. That's when things really took off.
The fourth quarter of the game would see 31 points scored—28 of them in the final six minutes. Ohio State struck first with a field goal to push the Buckeye lead to six, and then an Ohio State touchdown five minutes later would push the lead to 12 points after a failed two-point conversion.
It was then time for Russell Wilson to do what he did all season: scrape for a last-minute comeback. Wisconsin would score two touchdowns in the last five minutes—both passes to Jared Abbrederis—covering a total of 137 yards in less than two and a half minutes of game time to give the Badgers their first lead since halftime. But like so many other games, there was too much time on the clock.
With 1:18 left on the clock, Braxton Miller led Ohio State 52 yards for an improbable touchdown throw to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left to reclaim the lead. Wisconsin's last-ditch effort would end three plays and 20 seconds later, as would its BCS championship hopes and Russell Wilson's Heisman campaign.
2. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
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In the long history of Michigan Stadium there had never been a night game. After this game you can bet it won't be long before there is another.
The Wolverines spent most of the night looking like they hadn't gotten the memo that the game was at night. The Wolverine offense was ineffective on everything but a jump-ball heave to Junior Hemingway that finally got Michigan on the board.
By the end of the third quarter the score was 24-7, and most fans were simply praying for a merciful end rather than holding out hope for a miraculous comeback. But comeback the Wolverines did. Late in the third quarter it looked like Robinson would be taken down in the backfield, but he was able to stay on his feet long enough to hit Hemingway over the middle for a long gain and the first signs of life. Michigan would go on to score a touchdown on that drive and then another to pull within three points.
A Vincent Smith throwback screen would put the Wolverines up four points late, but Notre Dame answered with a quick and efficient touchdown drive to reclaim the lead. With less than 30 seconds on the clock, Denard Robinson went to work. After an incompletion he found a wide-open Jeremy Gallon who took the ball into the red zone. With eight seconds left and a chance to kick the tying field goal, Brady Hoke dialed up a pass play for the win. The back-shoulder fade to Roy Roundtree worked, and Michigan scored the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left to seal the third-straight, last-minute comeback victory over Notre Dame.
1. Michigan State 36, Wisconsin 30
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How do you one-up a 15-yard game-winning touchdown pass with two seconds left? Make it a Hail Mary.
This game needs no introduction to Big Ten fans. Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead, but Michigan State controlled the middle two quarters and looked to be in the driver's seat late until Russell Wilson put together a two touchdown comeback in the last nine minutes to tie the game.
With a minute and a half remaining, Michigan State got the ball and slowly worked its way downfield. Slow enough that at one point Bret Bielema called a timeout hoping to give his offense a chance to get the ball back with some time on the clock. Michigan State ended up converting a first down and sealing that timeout as the dagger.
With just a couple of seconds left and 44 yards to go, Michigan State dialed up a Hail Mary to the end zone. The ball was tipped backwards from the end zone and fell right in the hands of Keith Nichol who was able to push over the goal line (as called by the video review) for the game-winning touchdown and the best finish in the Big Ten in 2011.