Both teams still chasing that division title...
Another week of Big Ten football is in the books, and this was the first opportunity to see a full slate of six conference games. Those full slates will resume in two weeks after the last few teams take a bye, but it will be hard to match how even the games looked on paper coming into this weekend. Everybody had something to play for, even if it was just to stay out of the basement of the standings.
Speaking of the basement, Purdue and Illinois appear to be headed there together following their losses to previously-winless (in conference play) Minnesota and Indiana, respectively. Neither game was particularly close, although Indiana sweated it out until the fourth quarter as usual.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nebraska and Ohio State took control of their respective divisions with wins over the top competitors Michigan and Penn State. Although a rematch of the blowout in Columbus from early October is not possible thanks to Ohio State's ineligibility, these two teams have distanced themselves from the pack and hold their own destiny in the division championship chase.
Michigan State and Wisconsin treated us to another "thriller" in overtime, but it looked just like the other ugly Michigan State games in conference play. Northwestern kept a hex on Iowa and proved that the Wildcats may be one of the best teams in the Big Ten this season despite two conference losses.
So what did we learn from these results? Let's take a look at 10 things (plus a bonus at the end):
Ohio State had some serious doubters (myself included) following a lackluster two weeks since beating Nebraska. The Buckeyes failed to play any defense at Indiana and almost blew an 18-point lead with five minutes to go against the Hoosiers, then followed that up with another clunker against Purdue.
However, the Buckeyes were still winning these games, so you knew they had a chance going to a hostile State College to play the Big Ten's hottest team.
Turns out that Ohio State was just fooling us the past two weeks. The Buckeyes played solid defense and forced Penn State to be completely one-dimensional with only 32 rushing yards on 28 attempts.
Although the benefits of this were not readily seen in a 7-7 first half (Penn State's only score was a punt block for touchdown), it was evident that Penn State did not have the horses to keep up once the Buckeye offense got going in the second half.
Speaking of that offense, Braxton Miller appears to be fine following the hit that sent him to the hospital against Purdue. Miller ran the ball 25 times and looked good doing it, despite only ending up with 134 yards. Ohio State just wore down Penn State, especially on the lines, much like Nebraska back in early October.
So in other words, as long as Ohio State is motivated to show up, they will crush the opposition. I suppose that makes this week's home game against Illinois a trap, right? No?
Michigan and Wisconsin had each gotten off to a roll in conference play thanks to a rekindled offense. For Michigan, Al Borges had fully embraced the Denard Robinson game plan, and it was working to perfection, as teams like Illinois and Purdue could not hope to contain Robinson in the running game and the passing game.
For Wisconsin, Matt Canada had finally earned some fan respect after the running game blossomed again and freshman quarterback Joel Stave showed signs of development.
But then it all came crashing down on both coaching units on Saturday.
Stave was hurt early in the third quarter of a game where Michigan State had completely shut down the Badgers running attack. Danny O'Brien did not impress with 5-of-11 passing for a paltry 44 yards in the second half, and Wisconsin just simply did not move the ball at all with O'Brien without receiving help from the Michigan State defense or special teams. If nothing else, this confirms the decision to go with Stave a few weeks ago.
Robinson hurt himself near the end of the second quarter, with Michigan driving for what would be a field goal to cut the Nebraska lead to 7-6. Freshman backup Russell Bellomy came in and had incompletions on his first 10 pass attempts.
Nebraska brought blitzes that were not used at all against Robinson, and Bellomy did not have the running ability or field awareness to make Nebraska pay for those risks. Michigan's only good drive in the second half was aided by 45 yards of penalties on Nebraska.
There is no word yet on how serious the injuries are to both quarterbacks, but it is painfully clear that both teams will not be doing much without the starter. If these teams are to salvage any hope of a Rose Bowl from Nebraska (who has beaten both of these teams), then the starters must be healthy.
Michigan State did not start conference play well, stumbling to home losses against Ohio State and Iowa as well as the first loss to Michigan in five seasons. In addition, these losses were largely painful to watch as Michigan State dominated defensively and held each of these teams below 20 points, yet lost in these ugly games anyway.
That took the luster off the rematch from last season's Big Ten Championship between the Badgers and the Spartans. With Wisconsin rolling again and having the 21-game home winning streak, this seemed to be in the bag for Wisconsin. Michigan State was headed to 4-5 and possibly missing a bowl.
But then Michigan State finally stole one of these ugly games on Saturday. The Spartans held Wisconsin to 19 yards of rushing, an appalling number for any team, let alone the best rushing attack in the Big Ten.
Andrew Maxwell finally came up with the big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime that had eluded him all game against the Badgers, as well as in other close ugly losses from the past month.
Now Michigan State heads into a game against new division leader Nebraska with a lot more confidence. A win this weekend would certainly quell the concerns about Michigan State's future, although this season will still be seen as a lost opportunity to do something far greater in East Lansing.
It was easy to buy into what Bill O'Brien was doing at Penn State after the last five weeks. If it weren't for having one of the worst kickers in all of college football (Division I or otherwise), Penn State would have been 6-1 and nationally ranked heading into the "Ineligibowl" against Ohio State.
Still, a five-game winning streak and impressive wins over Northwestern and Iowa had us believing that this season could be one last magical ride before the NCAA sanctions really hit the program. Ohio State looked like a wounded and vulnerable team heading into State College. All bets looked to be on Penn State staying on the roll.
Vegas apparently disagreed, making Ohio State a three-point favorite to start betting lines this week. The money was so strong on Penn State that the line shifted quickly to make the Nittany Lions a 3-to-4 point favorite by Saturday. But remember this, football fans: Who pays for all the glitz and glamour of Vegas? Dumb bettors, that's who.
That truth played out again on Saturday, as Ohio State proved it had the better star in Braxton Miller, the better run defense and the deeper team. Penn State is simply not very deep, although the starters have played ridiculously well so far this season.
The Nittany Lions will still have a good year and will take away some of the pain that the community and the university must feel over the next decade. However, it is clear that this team is only really good because the competition level is low in the Big Ten this season.
More good play from the Illini
In a brilliant piece back in September, our own Adam Jacobi discussed how Indiana could make the Rose Bowl. He has been lovingly referring to this possibility as "The Darkest Timeline" for the Big Ten. After all, Indiana is in the conference just to pull up the basketball to elite status, right?
If Kevin Wilson has any say about it, Indiana will not be just a basketball school. A first important step was taken on Saturday as Wilson got his first conference win in 12 tries.
Indiana has been painfully close to many more wins this season, including against Michigan State and Ohio State. But the Hoosiers just were never able to get over the hump until Saturday.
Now, the Illini are almost assuredly the worst major-conference team in college football this season, and the competition is not close even if Purdue wants it to be. But finally winning a game and finding out that the offense works even better with quarterback Nate Sudfeld could make all the difference in turning this season around in Bloomington.
Indiana has two home games coming up against a struggling Iowa team and then Wisconsin, which could conceivably not have Joel Stave as mentioned earlier.
Although it is still a longshot, Indiana would lead the Leaders division (by a tiebreaker over Wisconsin) if they can win both of these games and get to 3-3, 5-5 on the season. That would put serious pressure on a Wisconsin team that has to finish with Ohio State and Penn State.
Shocking as it is, Indiana has a ton to play for, but it must start with a win this weekend against Iowa. After all, who doesn't want to see the video-game score that Nebraska and Indiana would put up in Indianapolis?
Quick: Name the best two scoring defenses in the Big Ten conference. Here's a hint—they both hail from the great state of Michigan.
Michigan State is only giving up 15 points per game, which ranks 10th nationally. Michigan is only slightly worse at 17.3 points per game, good enough for 14th nationally. Both of these teams are a nasty assignment for any offensive coordinator to figure out, as has been proven time and again each weekend of the season.
However, that great defense alone does not appear adequate to win championships. Michigan learned this in a painful way Saturday against Nebraska, as Denard Robinson took the total offense to the sideline with him when he got injured. Michigan played very well to keep Nebraska to 23 points, but that was not enough to win.
Similarly, Michigan State has struggled all season to put up any kind of competent offense. Despite the win against Wisconsin this weekend, the Spartans are effectively out of the conference-championship race, even though a win against Nebraska could make it closer this weekend.
Meanwhile, the teams that are likely going to win these divisions are not nearly as dominant on defense.
Ohio State ranks 50th with 24.1 points given up per game, while Nebraska is similar at 55th nationally (25.4 points per game). Wisconsin is two games back in the standings but their dominant defense (17th nationally) will benefit from the ineligibility of PSU and OSU, so at least one good defense should make it to Indianapolis.
However, the days of winning titles with defense and not much offense have gone by the wayside.
If we name the one trait the top teams in the Big Ten do have in common this season, it is a dynamic quarterback who can punish a defense for blitzing and not keeping an eye on the running game.
Braxton Miller, Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez are the stars of the league, and it is no mistake that those teams have lost to nobody except themselves in conference play (Michigan to Nebraska, Nebraska to Ohio State).
Northwestern had one of those guys coming into the season in Kain Colter. Colter had played all over the field in his first two seasons in Evanston, but he seemed poised to be the quarterback heading into 2012 and his junior season.
Then the Northwestern coaches became enamored with sophomore Trevor Siemian and having Colter on the field at the same time as a skill-position athlete. But that neglects the fact that Colter cannot have as much effect on the game when he doesn't touch the ball on every snap, and Siemian has proven to be zero threat running the ball (25 yards on the season).
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Northwestern stuck with Siemian getting a high number of the snaps, and it worked against Indiana. However, Northwestern faltered when Siemian's passing game was shut down in the fourth quarter by Penn State and Nebraska, each of which overcame two-score deficits to win.
Those games may go differently if Colter is in there, making plays with his feet to keep drives alive and kill the clock against those teams.
After throwing for 80 and running for 166 against Iowa, Colter should be keeping the job from now on. Northwestern may have cost itself a Big Ten Championship berth by going away from him, but double-digit wins are still possible.
A Victorious Afternoon
When Minnesota used a lock-down defense to navigate cleanly through the non-conference schedule at 4-0, it looked like a lock that Minnesota would be heading to a bowl game for the first time under Jerry Kill (first since 2009).
However, the injuries began to pile up at the quarterback position and that left Minnesota with a third string freshman QB Philip Nelson and three straight losses in which the Gophers scored 13 each game.
Nelson found his groove in his second start, though, as Purdue let him rack up 246 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. This all but locks up a bowl berth at 5-3 thanks to having Illinois on the schedule in two weeks.
Even with that game on the road, Nelson and the Gophers should win the all-important sixth game and return to bowl play after a couple years away.
That likely bowl also takes the pressure off in the big three division games left against Michigan, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
While it seems like a long shot that Minnesota will win any of these games, the Gophers are good enough on defense to make them interesting in November. That is not something we have said for a long time about this program.
Put the champagne in the locker room for November 10. Minnesota will have something to really celebrate then, as the football program moves back to relevance in an improving Big Ten conference.
It looks like a hole, but don't trust it Denard
Bo Pelini had come under some serious heat this season for the defensive collapses on the road against UCLA and Ohio State.
It looked like Nebraska would lose the opportunity to play for a conference championship again because of defensive liabilities. Especially considering the Blackshirts' struggles against mobile quarterbacks, another game against Denard Robinson looked like the nightmare scenario heading into Saturday.
There is magic in those night games in Lincoln, though (just ask Ohio State in 2011 or Wisconsin this year), and that magic is not limited to T-Magic on the offensive side of the ball.
Pelini drew up a masterful scheme defensively to stop the Michigan offense. The Cornhuskers rushed three or four on each play and kept in deep coverage so that every play would stay in front of the defenders.
Robinson found some open targets on third down, but these gains would only be enough to move the chains and not much more. Michigan had to be incredibly methodical because Robinson could not break any big plays passing or with his feet.
Then, when Robinson went down, Nebraska switched to a blitz-heavy scheme immediately against the freshman backup Russell Bellomy. That stopped Michigan cold for the rest of the game.
It may have been textbook to switch to blitzes there, but the game plan up to that point was very different and was very effective. Nebraska won this game by making the adjustments to take full advantage of a weakened Wolverines squad.
Pelini and his defensive staff can still put together a good game plan, and they will need to continue to do so with no margin of error in November if the Cornhuskers want to get to Indianapolis.
Don't be sad, JoePa statue guy...there's still fun to be had in November!
Heading into this weekend, it looked like things could be all but wrapped up in both divisions, and Ohio State's perfect season looked to be on the brink heading to Penn State. That would have made November football largely irrelevant other than for pride in the Big Ten, which would have been unusual and sad.
However, that is not the case with OSU, Nebraska, and Michigan State winning this weekend.
The first interesting story has national appeal, and that is, how far can Ohio State and Braxton Miller go? Although there would have to be a 2007-level shake up in November for a 12-0 Ohio State team to leap over everyone else for an AP National Championship, the possibility is there with the Buckeyes sitting sixth in the rankings and 9-0 following this weekend.
Miller remains one of the consensus top Heisman candidates, and a perfect season could vault him to unexpected hardware should Kansas State and Collin Klein falter in November.
Another interesting story is figuring out who will actually be playing for the right to go to Pasadena in December. Wisconsin has only a 1.5 game lead on Indiana and must go to Bloomington in two weeks, which could determine the division leader if Indiana takes care of Iowa this weekend.
That race is not quite over, and neither is the race on the Legends side. Northwestern is one back in the loss column behind Nebraska and Michigan but could be right back in the mix if Nebraska falters down the stretch.
In addition, Minnesota and Indiana are fighting for the bowl berths that were missed a season ago, when the other 10 teams went to bowl games. Bowl season already looks like a disaster of mismatches waiting to happen against the SEC, but we can enjoy November and these storylines.
If we cheer and nobody is here, did it really happen?
Big Ten football in late November! Who wants some?