The first week of November brought a big chill to Big Ten country, but that did not stop the usual suspects at the top of the conference standings from staying hot. With Northwestern and Wisconsin taking a much-needed rest on a bye week, all of the teams above these middling teams (Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) won to extend the leads in both divisions.
The battle lines are drawn for the last three weeks. Five teams are still trying to reach six wins and four of those have a real shot, as only 3-6 Purdue seems like a total long shot for bowl eligibility. Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana and Wisconsin still have Rose Bowl dreams, so there are still a lot of important games in the final three weeks before Indianapolis.
What else did we learn from the five Big Ten conference games this weekend? Let's take a look:
Just ask Nebraska, the new kid on the block: Pass interference usually has to be pretty blatant in the Big Ten to get a call. The Big Ten officials have long let wideouts and defensive backs battle one another going down the field. Kenny Bell acknowledged this was what the Cornhusker receivers were used to after a season-and-a-half of Big Ten play.
Yet with the game on the line and Kenny Bell hand-fighting with Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard late in the fourth quarter this weekend, the official pulled out the flag for pass interference, giving Nebraska a first down and another shot at the end zone down 24-21. Taylor Martinez took full advantage of that shot by throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left to defeat the Spartans.
Meanwhile in Columbus, Ohio, Illinois and Ohio State also found themselves subject to some phantom pass interference calls throughout the game. Although those calls were not going to shift the outcome of a 30-point blowout, defenders clearly had to adjust to the tighter calls.
Will this be a trend going forward or a one-week occurrence? That question remains to be answered, but for one weekend, the Big Ten referees appear ready to crack down on the normally physical play on the boundaries of Big Ten football.
Nebraska needed a big comeback to survive yet again on the road in Big Ten play, but just like the Northwestern game, Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers made all the plays necessary against Michigan State. Nebraska took one of the best defenses in the country to the woodshed this weekend, gaining 473 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
That underscores once again just how good Nebraska is on offense in 2012. Nebraska is scoring 38 points per game, which only trails Ohio State (40 points per game) in the Big Ten. In fact, only Indiana joins these other two teams at scoring more than 30 points per game, but the Hoosiers are just as likely to give up that many points each weekend.
Nebraska holds a big margin over the Buckeyes and Hoosiers in yards per game, racking up over 487 yards of offense per weekend. More importantly, the Cornhuskers are doing it mostly with the running game, which wears down opponents over the course of a game. Therefore, maybe it should not be surprising that Nebraska has come back to win more often than not in Big Ten play.
Although the chance to stumble is still possible, this certainly looks like the year Nebraska does better than 5-3 or 6-3 in conference play. The Rose Bowl could be calling, and that would be fun if Oregon is the opponent.
With the division lead on the line last weekend in Lincoln, Michigan had to scramble when starting quarterback Denard Robinson went down with a nerve injury at the arm. Freshman Glenn Bellomy was given the opportunity to bring Michigan back, but he simply was not ready for the big time. Despite having another quarterback Devin Gardner with playing experience on the roster, Michigan stuck with Bellomy as the ship sunk last weekend.
With Robinson still on the mend this weekend, Michigan now turned to Gardner against Minnesota. Gardner did not look like someone who has spent all season at wide receiver, as he threw for two touchdowns and 234 yards and ran for another in a rout of the Golden Gophers. Gardner actually looked to be more accurate overall than Robinson normally is, although he does not bring the same rushing ability to the field.
Now the questions from a week ago are even louder in Ann Arbor, as Wolverines fans wonder why Gardner did not get a chance with Bellomy clearly struggling in Lincoln. That decision to stick with the freshman could very well haunt Brady Hoke in his quest to win a Big Ten title, as Michigan needs to rely on the likes of Iowa and Penn State to knock off Nebraska and get it back in the Legends Division lead.
Turns out Michigan is not completely awful without Denard Robinson, but it took a costly week to figure that out.
When comparing resumes in this BCS debate season, the teams struggling to keep above water at .500 are not usually the focus. However, it is just shocking that a defense as good as Michigan State is sitting at 5-5 heading into a bye week. It seems pretty safe to say with so many close painful losses that the Spartans are the best five-loss team in the country, not that it is much consolation to their fans.
The other types of major conference teams with five losses include Virginia Tech (train wreck this season), Maryland (starting a linebacker at quarterback), Pittsburgh, Syracuse (future proud branch of ACC basketball), Missouri and Utah (those new leagues aren't easy, are they?).
Even with Missouri and Pittsburgh making Top 10 teams sweat this weekend, would you really pick any of those teams against Michigan State right now? No, probably not.
The Spartans now face two weeks of preparation for a home game against Northwestern and a road game at Minnesota. Both of those teams are fighting for bowl positioning, so there will be no free win in the last two weeks. However, it would be shocking to see Michigan State lose both of those games.
With a full month of extra practice for the offense, Michigan State might be a real scary matchup for the types of bowl teams that play 6-6 opponents. For now, the Spartans will just have to be content with that in a largely disappointing season.
Back at the beginning of conference play, it was widely assumed that Wisconsin's most important league game this season would be the road trip to Purdue. However, Purdue folded like a house of cards once Big Ten play began and now sits at 0-5 in conference play, out of the race. Illinois has matched that 0-5 start as well.
So that leaves Indiana, who just happens to actually have wins in conference play for the first time in two seasons. The Hoosiers are on a two-game winning streak after coming very close to defeating Michigan State and Ohio State early in October. That leaves Wisconsin just one game ahead at 3-2 in the conference standings heading into this weekend in Bloomington.
As a result, Wisconsin's most important conference game is actually this weekend, as a loss to Indiana will put Wisconsin behind the eight-ball with two games to play. Both teams play at Penn State following this weekend, but Indiana still has Purdue on the schedule while Wisconsin must face 10-0 Ohio State. That means the winner of this game almost certainly ends up in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship.
It's a shocking big game, but one that we can enjoy as Indiana does not normally get this kind of spotlight. Both teams must capitalize on the opportunity left by Ohio State before the Buckeyes become eligible for the postseason again.
Last week it looked like Minnesota had turned the corner by scoring 44 points against Purdue. The streak of scoring 13 points in each Big Ten game before then and the three-game conference losing streak had finally come to an end.
As it turns out, that was just indicative of how bad Purdue is tanking in 2012. Minnesota managed to score 13 points in yet another loss this weekend, this time 35-13 to Michigan. For those keeping track at home, that's four losses in conference play and 13 points in every single loss. That type of offensive output is not going to get it done against any Big Ten team, even Michigan State.
Minnesota also scored 13 points in regulation in the opener against UNLV, which ended in triple overtime. Thus, the magic number seems to be 14 for Minnesota, as breaking past 13 has been what has won each of the five games so far this season. With 2-7 Illinois on the schedule next weekend, one would figure a sixth win will come, hopefully with more than 13 points.
Minnesota has a much better defense and is improving overall, but having to rely on freshman quarterback Philip Nelson is clearly taking its toll. Thirteen is no lucky number for the Golden Gophers, and it is a number that offense would like to break away from in the final three weeks of the season.
Although Iowa was not favored to beat Indiana, this is the type of game that Iowa normally won before 2012. This season, the likes of Central Michigan and Indiana are giving the Hawkeyes fits. If it weren't for two escape wins against Northern Illinois and Michigan State, the Hawkeyes would be sitting with six or seven losses already.
Iowa has now lost three in a row following a 2-0 conference start, and two more wins must come in the final three weeks to reach a bowl. The remaining schedule begins with Purdue at home, which should be chalked up as a win (even for a struggling Iowa squad), but then closes at Michigan and hosting Nebraska. Both of those teams are fighting for the Rose Bowl and neither looks like the kind of team Iowa can hang with right now.
Of course, maybe a game against Purdue will cure all ails, and Iowa has certainly bounced back and forth in the bowl projections throughout the season. But a loss to Iowa and two tough games remaining make it look like Iowa will be the only team in the Legends Division that stays home this Christmas. Kirk Ferentz has a lot of work to do to get Iowa back to relevant.
After suffering through a couple of quiet weeks with an injury against Purdue and a slow start against Penn State, Braxton Miller finds himself right back in the top of the Heisman Trophy discussion following the 52-22 win over Illinois.
Of course the Heisman trophy race is usually about one guy putting up ridiculous statistics, or everyone else falling out of the path of the winner. That latter path appears to be Miller's shot this year, as his numbers do not scream for attention like Robert Griffin III from 2011. Geno Smith looked to be a lock for the Heisman, but then the Big 12 figured West Virginia out and three straight losses later, he is out of the running.
Pre-season front-runner Matt Barkley just took on a third loss for USC and is quickly leaving the national consciousness. The only other contender that has been mentioned consistently in previous weeks is Collin Klein, and his team is undefeated and in the national championship chase. But Klein missed the last 25 minutes of this weekend's game against Oklahoma State and the extent of his injury is still unknown.
If Klein misses any further time, Kansas State may falter and drop him out of the Heisman race. That would leave Miller against the likes of Alabama QB A.J. McCarron and Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. Unless this is one of those seasons with the rare defensive player truly competing for the Heisman, Miller has to be considered a real top candidate now. With big games against Wisconsin and Michigan, he will at least be in New York for the ceremony in December.
Penn State recovered nicely from the loss to Ohio State, although that can be easy to do against a team like Purdue. Now the spotlight will be on the Nittany Lions again with games coming up against three teams fighting for their Rose Bowl lives: Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Nebraska has made a killing off second-half comebacks this season, while Penn State has generally started fast. Thus, it looks like it will be critical for Penn State to get out to a fast start and then ride that defense to hang on, if a victory is to happen. With all of Happy Valley rallying around this team, it would be a great send-off for the senior class to defeat two more Leaders Division teams on the way out.
The good news for Penn State: Each of these teams has serious issues on defense. Nebraska is likely to get into a shootout with a team like Penn State, although the Cornhuskers have proven they have a competent defensive backfield that can take on a passing attack like Matt McGloin will bring to Lincoln. Indiana has been awful on defense, and Wisconsin has been hot and cold on that side of the ball.
Thus, Penn State should continue to put up 25-plus points against each of these tough opponents, which will give the defense a real chance to win two or three of these games. If Penn State ends with eight wins this season, that will be a good sign that the right man was hired for the job. That should also make Bill O'Brien coach of the year in the conference, unless Urban Meyer takes OSU to 12-0.
There may not seem to be much to play for in 2012 for the Big Ten, but a couple of goals have been left within the rubble. The first is an AP National Championship, which is still possible for the only 10-0 team in the country Ohio State. The Buckeyes moved up to No. 5 in the rankings this week, trailing only undefeated Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame.
It seems likely that Alabama will not lose again, at least until the SEC Championship Game against Georgia or the BCS National Championship Game. The other three teams all still have major tests left and some serious question marks.
If all three lose in November, then Ohio State will only trail the SEC champion heading into bowl season (Georgia somehow pulled even with the Buckeyes this week, so it is clear there is still some pro-SEC bias).
If the SEC champion then loses the BCS championship to a team like Florida State, there is no guarantee that the Seminoles would jump over a 12-0 Buckeyes team in the AP poll, especially if the Buckeyes are the only remaining undefeated team. It's still very unlikely that this will happen, but the dream is still out there.
The other dream is achieving two BCS berths for the eighth consecutive season. As I wrote earlier in the weekend, the only way for this to happen is for Michigan and Nebraska to win out. Nebraska almost shot that right in the foot, but that pass interference we talked about back on slide one keeps this dream alive.
The rest of the country may howl if this latter goal occurs, but Big Ten fans travel like no other. That makes this conference very lucrative to bowl representatives.
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