Big Ten Football: 5 Things We Still Can't Believe Actually Happened
If you haven't read Andy Staples' re-imagining of the college football landscape over the last eight years, please do so immediately; it's a piece that wonders what would have happened if QB Chris Leak had gained one more yard against LSU on a critical third down in a Florida-LSU showdown back in 2004.
The next eight years unfold wildly differently, right down to the conference and postseason landscapes, and it's a great read to boot. We won't spoil it all for you, but keep a look out for a brilliantly re-appropriated Jim Delany quote.
At any rate, everything proceeds quite logically. Too logically, in fact. College football is, if nothing else, a game where lunacy may not exactly reign (it's not like Arkansas State is making a magical title run now or ever), but it's lurking around every bend, waiting for its chance to strike and do something like send Illinois to the Rose Bowl.
So with that in mind, here are five things that actually happened in the Big Ten over those last eight years that utterly defy realism, the things that make college football what it is at its core: utterly unpredictable.
Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno's Swift Departures
Let's leave aside the comparisons of the circumstances surrounding the forced resignation of Jim Tressel and the firing of Joe Paterno. Obviously, they were both unique situations in their own way, and trying to draw comparisons and/or contrasts between the two would only invite hostility and controversy. That's not what we're going for here.
What is indisputable, however, is that these were the top two coaches in the Big Ten, each in their own way, and nobody was even close in third place. What Tressel was accomplishing on the sidelines was just about unprecedented in the Big Ten, but that's only because when Paterno was doing it, the Nittany Lions were still independent.
And just like that, both ran into major, career-altering scandals, and neither would coach another game after those scandals hit.
What made each scandal all the more shocking was each coach's sterling reputation; this wasn't Woody Hayes and a last straw, this was a beloved coach going down swiftly and permanently, something almost unheard of in the Big Ten. That it could happen twice in six months beggars belief.
Ron Zook and Juice Williams Went to the Rose Bowl
Ron Zook has spent nearly the entire last eight years as something of a punchline in college football—heck, Staples' piece revolves around Florida's 2004 collapse under Zook that led to his firing, and even in the new alternate Stapleverse, Zook still doesn't last in Gainesville through 2006.
But remember: In 2007, Zook took an Illinois team that had won all of two Big Ten games in the last four seasons (including a 1-15 conference record under Zook) and went 9-3 (6-2) out of nowhere, even upending Ohio State in the process and sneaking into the Rose Bowl with only of the lowest allowable BCS rankings.
Oh, and Zook's starting quarterback was sophomore Juice Williams, a man of great athleticism and transient accuracy.
Of course, order was restored to the college football world when Pete Carroll and USC annihilated the Illini in said Rose Bowl, 49-17. That part everybody could believe, and it was such a lopsided matchup that eventually the Rose Bowl had to stop letting in second-place Big Ten teams with otherwise insufficient BCS resumes. But still, for one magical year, Zook went to the Rose Bowl.
Ted Ginn Jr. Sprains Foot Celebrating TD Kick Return at 2007 BCS Championship
Time has treated both Ted Ginn Jr.'s reputation and Ohio State's performance at the 2007 BCS National Championship poorly, and not really undeservedly so; Ginn was a bust in the NFL when he couldn't translate his world-class speed into football acumen, and there's really no positive spin to be put on a 41-14 shellacking.
But for brief amounts of time, especially during the 2006 season, Ginn and Ohio State were utterly untouchable. Ohio State scorched its competition during the regular season and was a unanimous No. 1 going into the BCS National Championship Game, and Ginn was a First Team All-American as an all-purpose player and probably the most dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hand in college football that year.
So when the opening kick from Florida landed in Ginn's arms, it was hardly a surprise when he took off 92 yards for a touchdown and made it look easy in the process. Florida was officially on notice... at least for the three seconds between when Ginn crossed the goal line and when teammate Roy Hall dragged him down in the celebration, causing Ginn's foot to bend awkwardly.
The result was a sprained foot that took Ginn out for the game and persisted long enough that he couldn't participate in running drills at the NFL Combine.
Without Ginn on the field to spread the Florida defense, it was open season on Troy Smith, and Florida demolished Ohio State that night. But how different would that game have been if Roy Hall hadn't celebrated by taking Ginn down in a way that would have drawn a flag and maybe an ejection if he'd been wearing a Florida jersey? And who on earth would even believe such a thing would happen to Ginn in the first place?
Nothing's Coming Up Purdue
If anyone in the Big Ten gets to wonder what might have been since 2004, it's Purdue.
In 2004, Purdue started out the season under Kyle Orton 5-0, which doesn't sound really amazing until you realize it was the first time the Boilermakers had done so in nearly 60 years. In the process, Purdue had slapped Notre Dame 41-16 in Week 4 and risen as high as fifth (fifth!) in the AP poll going into a game with fellow unbeaten Wisconsin.
And then Purdue's heart was ripped out of its chest and beaten mercilessly for a month straight.
Against Wisconsin, Purdue took a 17-7 lead with 8:01 left to play when Kyle Orton scored on a quarterback keeper, only to see Wisconsin turn around and score a touchdown and force the Boilermakers to run out the clock. On a 3rd-and-3 with under 3:00 left to play, Orton kept the ball on a bootleg and dove for a first down, only to have the ball punched out and returned for a game-winning touchdown.
The next week at Michigan, Purdue gave up a late field goal to Garrett Rivas and gave the 16-14 lead to Michigan for the first time in the game, but had enough time for one last drive. On it, Dorien Bryant took a slant and was headed into Michigan territory before being upended and crushed by Michigan safety Ernest Shazor (seen above), fumbling and leading to a miraculously inbounds recovery by Wolverine CB Leon Hall. Ballgame.
The abuse didn't stop there.
Purdue faced Northwestern the next week and held the high-flying Wildcats to only one score in 59 minutes, taking a 10-7 lead late into the game. Of course, Noah Herron scored with 38 seconds left to give Northwestern a 13-10 lead, and a last-second Hail Mary from backup quarterback Brandon Kirsch to Taylor Stubblefield was knocked away.
By comparison, the ensuing loss to Iowa was downright tame; Purdue lost 23-21, but the score was only that close after a Purdue TD with under 30 seconds left; Purdue hadn't threatened to score in a one-possession game all afternoon long there.
Nonetheless, that was four losses in four weeks...by 10 points. Purdue went from a Rose Bowl favorite with a Heisman candidate at quarterback to a 4-4 Big Ten team in the most brutal of fashion, a tale of heartbreak someone wouldn't write for their own worst enemy. Purdue hasn't been ranked in the Top 10 since, and hasn't been ranked higher than 23rd since one magical week in 2007.
Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32
How unbelievable was this game? A I-AA (FCS) team had never beaten a Top 5 I-A (FBS) team before in history and probably won't again for a long, long time.
It's so unbelievable that Wayne Larrivee's call, "one of the greatest upsets in sports history," is delivered without irony and is completely true.
It's so unbelievable that in Staples' alternate reality, Michigan wins the game.
It's one of the most unbelievable things we've ever seen, ever.