For those looking for close and competitive games in college football, the Big Ten has a plethora ready and waiting if this weekend is any indication. Out of six games involving conference teams, four of them ended with overtime or a win by fewer than three points.
Perhaps this should have been expected considering that many of the top teams in the conference were facing the one team that has really had their number over the past few seasons. Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan escaped the previous problems against Northwestern, Purdue and Michigan State, but only barely. Penn State exorcised its demons against Iowa in much more convincing fashion, though.
Every week has lessons to be learned though, and Week 8 is full of those lessons. Let's take a look at what we learned from this past weekend of Big Ten football.
Cool Helmets NW, but not good enough
After suffering through some brutal conference schedules in the first few weeks of conference play, the major battles are beginning to play out with more regularity. Thanks to some big-time performances by the top teams in the conference, next week sets up as a critical turning point in the conference race as most teams reach the halfway point.
In the Legends Division, Iowa and Northwestern appear to be fading out of the race while Michigan State is likely done following a 1-3 start. That leaves Michigan at 3-0 and Nebraska at 2-1, and these two teams will do battle in Lincoln next weekend.
Michigan could be a full two games clear in the conference standings with a win, while Nebraska will be back at the top with a home victory. This could very well be the best defense Nebraska has faced all season, and it will be interesting to see if Taylor Martinez and company can still put up 30-plus points against the Wolverines.
In the Leaders Division, the "Ineligi-Bowl" just keeps getting better and better every week.
Ohio State comes in at 4-0 in conference play, although those wins have been far from impressive other than the home win over Nebraska. Penn State struggled for a spell against Northwestern, but the huge win in Iowa City proves that this is the hottest and most improved team in the league so far this year.
Although neither of these teams will be headed to Indianapolis or the postseason, this is an opportunity to take a big lead in the division title chase. Both these games should produce a lot of points and a lot of intrigue.
Who will be the leader in the clubhouse for both divisions? We will know this time next week.
So close, yet again Boilermakers
This is a lesson that has taken some weeks to sink in, but no lead seems safe in the fourth quarter anymore in Big Ten play. A full 60-minute effort is required to come down with wins, and there were three more shining examples of this rule on Saturday.
Ohio State looked dead-to-rights at home after falling behind by eight, losing their starting quarterback, and throwing an interception with four minutes to play. But Purdue could not pick up a first down, and the Buckeyes were able to score the touchdown and two-point conversion required to force overtime with a few seconds left, then won in overtime.
Indiana held a nine-point lead late against Navy, but it all slipped away from the Hoosiers once again. Just like against Michigan State two weeks ago, the Hoosiers could not close out the game in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska trailed by two touchdowns with eight minutes to play, and Northwestern had multiple opportunities to put the game away. However, this year Nebraska was able to make all the plays necessary to erase the deficit and win by one.
These examples just add to others from previous weeks like the Penn State come-from-behind win against Northwestern and Indiana's near comeback last weekend against Ohio State.
The teams at the top of the standings have been able to make the big plays late to hold onto leads or complete comebacks, and that will need to continue to win a conference title.
Until the clock hits zero, hope cannot be lost.
One Win: That's All We Need!
While watching the Penn State domination of Iowa during Saturday night football, the Big Ten Network was frequently promoting the schedule that the network has for next weekend. It is a "doozy" of a doubleheader, which just happens to feature all four of the 0-3 teams in the conference.
Yikes. Headline: Someone must win (really, they must)!
The more interesting of the two games is Purdue at Minnesota. Both teams have serious aspirations for bowl eligibility, but the continued losses in conference play make this nearly a must-win for both. Considering how well Purdue played on the road at Notre Dame and at Ohio State, going out to TCF Bank Stadium should be no problem.
But Minnesota plays rock-solid defense, and that might be bad news for an inconsistent Purdue offense.
Meanwhile, Indiana has the best shot at a conference win against struggling Illinois in Champaign. The Illini have had a bye week to get healthy and prepare for this game, but both the offense and the defense have been putrid in Tim Beckman's first season.
Meanwhile, Indiana has an offense that is a pleasure to watch. The Hoosiers should win comfortably, but the winds are always blowing in Champaign, and that could make the game close.
Two teams will finally get off the losing skid next weekend, and the basement will get lonely in a hurry.
Best QB in the Big Ten, Shockingly
Penn State lost the first two games of the season and struggled in all four non-conference games, but the improvement from week to week was apparent. That progress and improvement has continued throughout Big Ten play as well. After dispatching a weak Illinois team, Penn State struggled against a tough Northwestern defense for three quarters.
Then the suddenly-explosive Penn State offense got right back in gear, scoring 22 unanswered points to beat Northwestern and 38 more unanswered points to open the game in Iowa City this weekend. Penn State is dominating teams defensively (Iowa held to 209 yards) while also finding tons of openings for Matt McGloin to throw the ball.
With a running game beginning to develop against the strong Iowa defensive front, this Penn State teams looks like the real deal. Teams would have to be crazy to want to take on a team playing so effectively right now, but Ohio State will be the next to take on the task.
In a shocking reversal of the past few seasons, the offenses may be the stars in this year's game between OSU and PSU. However, only one of these teams has a defense that is playing well, and that could give Penn State the edge. This is a bad time to have to play the Nittany Lions...just ask Iowa.
The Fall Belongs to Ball, again
There are not too many teams that can claim three straight Rose Bowl appearances. Ohio State and Michigan each performed that feat in the 1970s, but it has not happened since then in the Big Ten (the Pac-12 has four teams that have performed the feat, but they have never had the rule preventing repeat appearances like the Big Ten did before the 1970s).
Thus, Wisconsin is once again in rarefied air just to have two appearances in a row, just like when Ron Dayne ran things in 1999 and 2000.
With all three other eligible teams in the Leaders Division sitting on 0-3 so far, the Badgers have all but clinched the return trip to Indianapolis with the 3-1 conference record. That provides a win-and-get-in scenario for Wisconsin to join those other great programs as the only ones making three straight appearances.
More importantly, Wisconsin has looked much more like a team that could actually win both a Big Ten Championship game and a Rose Bowl since conference play began.
Wisconsin nearly came out of Lincoln with a win to open conference play, and then Montee Ball and James White have run roughshod all over the likes of Purdue, Illinois, and Minnesota. Purdue and Minnesota actually play decent defense against the run up the middle, so these numbers are impressive.
Wisconsin has some big tests remaining, including a tough game against an angry and motivated defense Michigan State this weekend. But the Badgers finally look like a deserving division champion, which is good for the Big Ten.
Since the Drew Brees days in 2000, Purdue has been the biggest thorn in the side of Ohio State football.
There's always a perfect foil to dynasty-level teams, and Ohio State has dominated the series against every other Big Ten team during this period of dominance (Wisconsin and Penn State have also fared well, but both of those programs are much better than Purdue on a consistent basis).
Regardless of who the coach is, Purdue always seems to come up with a good game plan against the Buckeyes. This season, the weakness of the Buckeyes to tackle and pursue plays in the open field let Purdue exploit the quick boundary pass all afternoon.
But just like when Ohio State had an undefeated record in 2002, Purdue blew a seemingly unstoppable fourth-quarter lead to preserve the perfect record for the Buckeyes. With the notable exception of the 2000 season with Brees, Purdue has always had far less talent than the Buckeyes but nevertheless keeps these games close and highly uncomfortable.
In the last 11 games in the series, Purdue has won four (4-2 in West Lafayette) of the games, sent another three to overtime (two in Columbus) and forced Ohio State to come up with a miraculous comeback twice in 2002 and 2012. That is not what one would expect with the talent disparity.
Bottom line: The Buckeyes cannot overlook the Boilermakers, even when things are going in rapidly different directions like this season.
In building a 5-0 start, Northwestern found a way to play big when it mattered most in the fourth quarter. The team started to earn a reputation for being the best team (or most "clutch") in the nation by making plays to win late against Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Indiana.
But then the fateful trip to State College happened.
Northwestern entered the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions in a relatively unfamiliar position with a comfortable 11-point lead. That lead dissipated with a 22-0 fourth quarter, and Northwestern simply could not come up with the big plays late. That process repeated itself when the Wildcats lost a 12-point lead late against Nebraska this weekend.
Thus, Northwestern is agonizingly close to 4-0 or 3-1 in conference play, which would put them on the national map as well as in the mix for a Big Ten championship. Instead, with the "clutch" plays from the first half of the season being exhausted now, Northwestern will struggle to get back in the Legends Division race, especially if Michigan wins next weekend.
If the past eight games are any indication, Northwestern will need to find the clutch again in order to take steps forward as a program from the seven-win season in 2011.
Helmets Pretty. Fumbles Ugly. Games Even Uglier.
Michigan State entered the season looking like a team just needing a moderately good offense to go to the Rose Bowl. Now that the Spartans stand at 4-4, it is clear that this offense has not panned out as Michigan State fans would have hoped.
The defense and special teams are great, but the offense just cannot generate points (105th in the nation with 21 points per game).
Despite losing four games, none of those losses have been impressive performances by the other team. In fact, none of the teams who have defeated the Spartans have scored more than 20 points!
Notre Dame had the widest winning margin at 20-3, but that lead was built on a couple coverage mistakes early before the game ground to a slog for the remainder.
Ohio State needed a late long touchdown pass to escape with a 17-16 win. Iowa looked awful on offense against Michigan State but prevailed by scoring only one touchdown and 19 points in a double-overtime game.
This week Michigan did not score a touchdown but still came out ahead on a last-second field goal 12-10.
Michigan State might be out of the mix for a conference title, and other teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska may defeat the Spartans. But you can guarantee they will not do it convincingly. At least one commentator has described Michigan State as Jim Tressel's dream of a team, and that means a lot of ugly wins and losses.
It may not be pretty, but it defines Michigan State in 2012.
When a team relies on a running quarterback, there is always the continuing risk of an injury thanks to the extra hits that the running quarterback will take. For example, Denard Robinson has made a habit out of missing drives and parts of games over his career at Michigan.
Outside a big hit received at Nebraska last season, Braxton Miller has been able to avoid the big injuries.
That's not to say Miller has avoided the brutal hits this season or the minor dings and injuries. However, each time Miller has been hit roughly or turned awkwardly, he has always come back on the next drive this season. Until today, when Miller was thrown to the ground head first on an important first-down run at the start of the fourth quarter.
This time, Miller had to be carried off the field and carted to the training room, and then to the hospital to check for a concussion or other ailments.
But just like in other times this season when it seemed improbable for Miller to come back, he has been reported as fine following this weekend's incident. No symptoms were seen at the hospital, and Miller walked out with a clean bill of health three hours later.
Oh, to be 20 years old and physically invincible again. Miller is a Heisman contender. and nothing seems to be able to derail him, no matter how much he runs like the leading running back of the Buckeyes. For the sake of compelling storylines and the Buckeye fanbase, we hope he stays invincible going forward.
Finally reaching the halfway point of the conference season next weekend, the better teams have distinguished themselves in the standings from the lesser teams.
But the pack of five teams at the top (Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin) and the pack of winless teams at the bottom (Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana) are not separated by that much when they meet on the field.
Ohio State has been lucky to escape with wins over Indiana and Purdue. Teams like Michigan State and Northwestern have been just as stymied by Minnesota and Indiana as they have been by the likes of Michigan and Nebraska. There is not much difference from top to bottom in the 2012 Big Ten conference.
That has led to a lot of close scores and a few unexpected results. Those should continue, even when some of these top teams go play the bottom tier of teams. Every week will be a battle for most teams, and the teams who end up in Indianapolis will have earned those spots the hard way.
This could also be called parity, but that is a dirty word in college football. So instead, we will focus on the positive aspects of the bottom tier improving and the top tier being a little off this season. More good football and fewer blowouts is a great thing for everyone.
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