10 Things We Learned About the Big Ten in Week 12
The penultimate week of Big Ten regular season play brought a few good competitive games, but not a lot of surprises. The best five teams in the conference continued to distance themselves from the pack as Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State all racked up victories.
Purdue also joined the fun with a second-straight win in a row, but it happened against Illinois, so that kind of counts as half a victory these days. Still, half a victory might be enough to save Danny Hope's job if Purdue can follow that performance up with a sixth win against rival Indiana this week.
The same three teams are still in the mix for the conference championship, as Wisconsin had already clinched the trip to Indianapolis thanks to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for post-season play. While all cards point to a Nebraska-Wisconsin rematch, there's always hope as long as there are games left to play for Michigan. Just ask Notre Dame, Alabama, and Georgia.
Before we get to the lovely hate that is rivalry week, let's take a look at the lessons from this past weekend in Big Ten football.
1. Ohio State Can Still Win Championships with Defense
Go back to Friday. If you offered a Wisconsin fan the opportunity to see the Badgers hold Ohio State to 236 yards of total offense, the Wisconsin fan would take that for sure, right? Well, that's just what happened including an overtime period, but Wisconsin still lost.
The Buckeye defense that had been gashed in some other games this season stood up again against a run-heavy offense and shut the Badgers down when it counted.
This game was classic Tresselball: gain a quick lead of 14 points with special teams play, then call a ridiculously conservative game plan the rest of the game, and assume the defense will get the job done. Even with Urban Meyer at the helm, this plan worked, probably thanks to having four good linebackers healthy and playing for the first time all season.
Of course, it also helps when John Simon comes up with a monster game on the defensive line. Simon had four sacks and affected countless plays by bringing pressure and knocking down passes at the line. It actually brought shades of Ohio State's last game in Madison, which was lost thanks to a heroic effort by another great defensive lineman, J.J. Watt for Wisconsin.
Ohio State may not win a AP National Championship or a Heisman Trophy, but the one title (Leaders Division) that was out there has been won in dominating fashion by sweeping the five division foes. It's not much hardware, but that and a win over Michigan would be enough to keep Ohio State fans happy heading into Christmas and the long winter.
2. Montee Ball Will Have to Break the Career Touchdown Record in State College
At this point, I'm sure Wisconsin fans are rapidly clicking through these painful pictures and statements regarding the loss to Ohio State, but at least the fans did get to celebrate Montee Ball tying the NCAA record for total touchdowns in a career with his 78th against the Buckeyes.
It was really a heroic effort for Ball, who ran for 191 yards against a Buckeyes defense that had prided itself on completely shutting out Le'Veon Bell and other strong running backs, including Ball in last year's game. By joining Travis Prentice from Miami (Ohio) with 78 touchdowns, Ball could find his way to New York in another seemingly weak Heisman field.
Seventeen touchdowns in 2012 is nowhere near the 39 touchdowns from a season ago, but this offense has taken a long time to find a groove without some starting offensive linemen or a solid quarterback from a year ago. In view of this, Ball leading his team back to a possible third straight Rose Bowl appearance and breaking the career touchdown record (which will happen, barring injury), that should be enough to get him into the Heisman conversation.
If nothing else, he outshined Braxton Miller on this night. His fumble at the goal line late in the game did not knock Wisconsin out, but it may have been a whole different game if Wisconsin ties with a few minutes to go instead of a few seconds. But the season goals are still available, and Wisconsin fans should enjoy the ride, especially if the going is getting no easier against Ohio State in the future.
3. A Year after Having 10 Bowl Teams, the Big Ten May Only Have 5
With the exception of Indiana and Minnesota, each dealing with first-year head coaches, all teams went to a bowl game last season. One may debate the merits of Ohio State's Gator Bowl appearance in view of what could have been this season, but that cannot be controlled now.
There is now a serious risk with three teams at 4-7 or worse, two teams at 5-6 (Purdue and Michigan State), and two teams banned from postseason play, that the Big Ten may only fill five bowl slots this season.
Although the cards are not falling as well as possible so far to get two BCS berths, that could still happen. That would put these five teams at pretty massive matchup disadvantages. But even without that double dose of BCS pain, having only five teams practicing in December and playing on the big bowl stage is not good for the conference.
Of course, if all these teams are going to lose anyway, maybe it is for the better. Michigan State plays Minnesota, and Purdue plays Indiana, so the sixth wins are there for the taking to fill all the Big Ten conference bowl tie-ins (except the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl).
If you like Big Ten bowl teams, you must cheer for the Spartans and the Boilermakers. Shocking, but that's what it will take in Week 13 to reach a paltry seven bowl teams.
4. Northwestern Can Hold a Fourth Quarter Lead
Just like nearly every team that has played Michigan State this season, Northwestern got into an ugly defensive slug fest that had a baseball score of 6-5 at halftime. When Michigan State tied the game in the fourth quarter to erase a seven-point deficit, Northwestern fans had to be thinking "here we go again."
After all, the only thing keeping Northwestern from 11-0 is three double-digit leads lost in the fourth quarter of games against Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan. However, when the going gets tough against teams not in the top five-pack of teams (which includes Northwestern and Ohio State, which the Wildcats do not play in 2012), Northwestern has been able to come up with big plays.
It had not happened for a while, perhaps since non-conference play when the Cardiac Cats needed clutch plays on a weekly basis, but we were reminded that Northwestern can make a clutch play when Trevor Siemian found Dan Vitale on a 41-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal. Now that Northwestern has proven that it can happen in Big Ten play too, perhaps this team will become a true threat in the Legends Division in the future.
With what should be a free win against free-falling Illinois next weekend, Northwestern will be playing for 10 wins in bowl season. Pat Fitzgerald is coming up roses, no matter who he puts in at quarterback. This is one of the few great feel-good storylines from the 2012 Big Ten season.
5. Indiana Will Regret Losses to Ball State and Navy Throughout December
Sixteen times Indiana has taken a football team to play against Penn State, and 16 times the Hoosiers have been denied the victory.
Most of those games have not been close, including this past weekend in State College. Despite getting 454 passing yards from Cameron Coffman, Indiana lost by 23 and will not be going bowling thanks to a seventh loss.
While some of these losses have been respectable efforts against Ohio State and Michigan State (although that latter loss looks worse by the week), others have been the types of losses that keep decent teams like Indiana out of bowl season. The close losses to Ball State and Navy are just not acceptable for an offense this good.
As such, Indiana will be staying home rather than practicing throughout December. What could have been a big advantage over the rest of the division (Wisconsin excluded) and a stepping stone to a bright future will be a stumble and a lost opportunity. Those are the games that will haunt in a place like Bloomington, and those losses have to be removed in the future.
Otherwise, Indiana may lose the opportunity to see a great coach like Kevin Wilson get Bloomington talking about something other than basketball.
6. Michigan May Not Go to Indianapolis, but the BCS Is Still Possible
The prospects for a Big Ten Championship game appearance and a chance at the Rose Bowl are looking grim in Ann Arbor. Despite possibly ending up with an improved 7-1 conference record compared to 6-2 a season ago, Michigan would still not go to Indianapolis thanks to losing to another 7-1 team in the division (Michigan State last year, Nebraska this year).
That's a real shame considering Michigan had all kinds of momentum heading to Lincoln before Denard Robinson was injured. In view of Wisconsin struggling to make a respectable finish in the Leaders Division, it may have been more fair to have a Nebraska-Michigan rematch than a Nebraska-Wisconsin rematch in Indianapolis.
Michigan needs a Nebraska loss at 4-7 Iowa and a win at 11-0 Ohio State to make it to Indianapolis. Even though the Hawkeyes will probably provide no help, beating the Buckeyes will still have value thanks to the high ranking (in the AP poll) of the Buckeyes. Michigan sits at 19th in the BCS Standings and could certainly move up near 14th with a win this Saturday and a couple more losses from teams ahead of them.
If Michigan survives Saturday, we can take a look at what needs to happen this time next week. Right now, even with the BCS remaining a possibility, Michigan needs to focus on doing something nobody else has done this season: beat Ohio State.
7. Nebraska Still Has Tough Work to Get to Pasadena
Speaking of what might have been, Nebraska would probably love a chance to avenge the only conference loss of the season by playing the high-flying Ohio State Buckeyes in Indianapolis. As it stands, Nebraska will have to deal with Iowa on Saturday and then Wisconsin in Indianapolis to get to Pasadena.
Nebraska actually played in the Rose Bowl twice, including back in 2002 (the 2001 season's National Championship) thanks to the BCS system, but this would be the first opportunity to go as a Big Ten member. The Cornhuskers cannot afford to look forward to what looks like another tough battle against Oregon though, as there is work left to be done before then.
Iowa has gone from ice cold to hot a couple of times this season, and the Iowa seniors would love to make their season end on a winning note by ruining the season for Nebraska. Wisconsin, even with a loss to Ohio State, has been playing much better than back in early October when these teams met the first time. Neither of these will be free wins.
Thus, Bo Pelini must keep the Cornhuskers focused on the task at hand. It has been a long drought since the last Nebraska conference title, and that drought needs to end to make the fans in Lincoln happy. Then they can worry about how to keep up with Oregon.
8. The Best Teams Overcome Injuries Well
This past week put three of the best five conference teams to the test with a major contributor going down early to injury. Penn State lost star LB Michael Mauti, Michigan would be without starting RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, and Northwestern lost RB Venric Mark. However, even with the depth issues for each of these teams at the relevant position, all three teams won.
That is a recurring theme from this season. With the notable exception of Michigan not overcoming the Denard Robinson injury against Nebraska, the best five teams in the conference have managed to win games without certain star players in key situations or for multiple games at a time.
Nebraska has played seemingly most of the season without bruising RB Rex Burkhead, but Ameer Abdullah and Taylor Martinez have not missed a beat.
Ohio State has had a rotating carousel of linebackers, including converted FB Zach Boren, as well as surviving Braxton Miller being sent to the hospital by Purdue and starting RB Jordan Hall being out most of the season.
Michigan has recovered well despite having to switch a receiver to quarterback and a quarterback to running back this month.
The best teams do not make excuses when major players go down. They put the next man in and step up to the challenge. This is really what separates these five teams from the rest of the conference in 2012.
9. Michigan-Ohio State Has Huge Implications Again
Since the huge battle between 11-0 teams in 2006, the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry has taken a bit of a backseat nationally thanks to struggles of one or the other team. Michigan faltered for multiple years under Rich Rodriguez, and then Ohio State was stumbling under Luke Fickell to a 6-7 finish a season ago.
Still, whenever these two teams get together, they will play as hard as possible against one another. With the big Ohio State winning streak gone in the series, the table is set for a "Woody vs. Bo" type of decade-long war between promising new coaches Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke. Plus, 2012 will mark the first time in many years that both teams have national goals on the line.
Ohio State sits at No. 4 in the AP Poll this week, now sitting behind only Notre Dame and two one-loss SEC teams that will play one another in the SEC Championship. While Notre Dame looks to be a big favorite against USC this week, there is no guarantee when dealing with undefeated seasons, as proven by Oregon and Kansas State this weekend. If the Irish fall, then Ohio State would garner serious consideration as the only undefeated team with a loss by the SEC champion in the BCS Championship.
Meanwhile, Michigan is sitting at No. 19 in the BCS Standings and has the ideal situation for a BCS at-large berth. The resume looks solid with losses to only Notre Dame (No. 1), Alabama, (No. 2), and Nebraska (probable Big Ten champion), and a rabid fanbase ready to fill another BCS bowl if given the opportunity. In order to make it a question for BCS bowl representatives on whether to invite Michigan, a win against the 11-0 Buckeyes is critical.
So much more than pride on the line this year. This is how Michigan vs. Ohio State should be, and no prospect of a rematch makes it even more special this year.
10. Apparently 12 Is Not the Right Number for the Big Ten
In addition to dealing with the game action on the field Saturday, the news began to break that Maryland and Rutgers are in serious negotiations to bring those two teams to the conference. Maryland is the deal maker or the deal breaker, as the Big Ten will likely stand pat if the Maryland board of regents chooses to stay in the ACC.
There are plenty of opinions on whether this is a good idea, including my own in this piece where I wonder what the extra motivation is to make this move right now. However, the mere fact that Maryland is being given the decision seems to indicate that Jim Delany is not happy with the Big Ten sitting at the current 12 teams.
There could be a silver lining. While the ugly uniform trends could be coming to the Midwest with these two teams, perhaps this is a chance for a do-over on the division names and who is in each division. Hopefully the SEC model of just sticking Missouri in the "east" because the division lines are well set after two decades won't happen after just two years of the Legends and Leaders.
Of course, the name change probably won't happen. This is all about money, in all likelihood, and it costs money to develop great division names and promotional campaigns like that. This will be a more interesting rivalry week thanks to things off the field. Go figure.
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