Big Ten Football: What We Learned During Week 9

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IOctober 27, 2013

Oct 26, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) hands the ball off during the first half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

College football provided a ton of drama in Week 9. Unfortunately, not a lot of it came from Big Ten Country as really only one game was all that close. 

Ohio State planted its flag in a big way against Penn State to end the night, but that wasn't the biggest story of the day as Nebraska lost to Minnesota in stunning fashion.

With just four games on tap in Week 9, there sure was a lot to take away from the small sample size.

So, after nine weeks of action, what have we learned about the Big Ten? 


Michigan State Is in the Driver's Seat in Legends Division and Can Thank a Favorable Schedule For That

Clearly the Spartans are in the driver's seat in the Legends Division with a 4-0 start to Big Ten play, but I'm still hesitant to declare this race over for a couple of reasons. 

Oct 26, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Jeremy Langford (33) runs the ball during the second half against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Michigan State won 42-3. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Spor

First, Michigan State owns just one slightly impressive win, beating Iowa in Iowa City to open Big Ten play. 

Outside of that, the Spartans have feasted on the three worst scoring defenses in the Big Ten in Indiana (12th), Purdue (11th) and Illinois (10th) over the last three weeks. 

Up next are the real tests for Michigan State, who play Michigan and Nebraska over the next two weeks. Win those games and the division race is over.

The other reason I'm hesitant to declare this race over? 

We've seen too much craziness happen already in the division to really know what will go down in the final month. 

Does Michigan State versus Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship look inevitable? At this point it does, but counting out the Wolverines or the Cornhuskers isn't a good decision just yet. 

One thing is for certain, though: Michigan State's defense has proved its worthiness every week this season, and now it's time to see its offense look good against some better-than-terrible defenses. 

If it can win next week, consider me sold, though. 


Northwestern Can't Get Out of Its Own Way

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Saturday was a great example of how you can play well enough to win a football game and still lose. 

Northwestern outdid the host Hawkeyes in total yards (329-305) and ran for 225 yards, while holding the powerful Iowa ground game to just 136 yards. 

The Wildcats also went a very respectable 8-of-15 on third-down conversions, while holding Iowa to under 50 percent (6-of-14) in that category. 

All of that evidence should've been enough for any team to win a low-scoring affair, but not Northwestern and not this year. 

Instead Northwestern had two big fumbles in key spots and five penalties for 55 yards. 

Four of those five penalties wiped out nice results on the previous play, but none of them were bigger than a 15-yard penalty for illegal blocking on what was a 30-yard gain by running back Stephen Buckley.

Instead of having the ball at the Iowa 30-yard line, Northwestern was 1st-and-25 at the Iowa 45-yard line. 

The calamity of errors was capped off on that 1st-and-25 play as running back Mike Trumpy fumbled and Iowa recovered with just 3:14 remaining in regulation. 

Finally, in overtime, Kain Colter took a sack on 4th-and-8 at the Iowa 28-yard line to end the game. 

That's how you lose a game you should've won, and that's how you go from contender to 0-4 in Big Ten play. 


Nebraska's Backup Quarterback Isn't the Answer; Better Coaching Decisions Are

Everyone's favorite player when things are going wrong is the backup quarterback. 

He holds all the magic cards that will make everything all better, and following Nebraska's bad 34-23 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, some in the Husker faithful began clamoring for Tommy Armstrong Jr. to replace Taylor Martinez on a full-time basis. 

Now, it's one thing to call for it when Martinez isn't fully healthy, but thinking Armstrong Jr. is the cure-all for what is going on in Lincoln is a step too far. 

It's amazing how some will completely overlook the fact that Armstrong Jr. went all of 6-of-18 for a grand total of 43 yards passing and added just five yards on four carries on the ground—against Purdue. 

You know, one of the worst, if not the actual worst defenses in the Big Ten. 

Minnesota's defense is not Purdue, and that was proven on Saturday.

Oct 26, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez (3) scrambles out of the pocket in the second quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

If Martinez wasn't fully healthy or capable of doing what he does best (run the football) on a consistent basis, then why did Tim Beck and Bo Pelini allow him on the field?

That's not on T-Magic; that's on the coaching staff. 

So is having a defense that looked unprepared and lost against a team that everyone watching in the stands, on the sidelines and at home knew would be running the football like crazy. 

Yet the Huskers defense appeared to be the only ones that didn't get that memo, giving up 271 yards on the ground and 430 yards overall. 

Was it Taylor Martinez's fault the defense gave up nearly eight yards a pop to Minnesota on first downs in the game? 

Things didn't change at the half either for the Huskers defense, and that's on the coaching staff and John Papuchis, the defensive coordinator, specifically. 

Martinez was asked to do a designed run exactly once, gaining 35 yards in the process, and he was responsible for one of the two touchdowns the Huskers had on the day as well. 

Was he great? No, but replacing T-Magic with Armstrong Jr. wasn't going to be the magic pill that cured Nebraska from the horror of losing to, gasp, Minnesota, and it won't be the magic pill that makes the defense play better or the coaches call a better game either.


Christian Hackenberg Finally Looked Like a Freshman 

It was bound to happen at some point, but Christian Hackenberg looked like a freshman quarterback for the first time all season on Saturday night in the Horseshoe. 

He was just 12-of-23 passing for 123 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. Additionally, Hackenberg had four rushes for minus-21 yards on the day.

However, it wasn't all on him either as his offensive line let him down and Hackenberg ended the game with his shoulder wrapped and being iced down. 

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If that isn't a sign of a defensive line winning the line of scrimmage one too many times, I don't know what is. 

Those four rushes for minus-21 yards? That was the sack total by Ohio State in this game. 

Perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising, though, as the Buckeyes did come in with 16 sacks, good for second in the conference. Of course, they now have 20 and lead the Big Ten in that category after the game on Saturday. 

However, sacks don't tell the whole story. 

What does is the fact that Hackenberg was off from the very get-go against the Buckeyes and never got into a rhythm.

Penn State looked like it would answer Ohio State's first drive touchdown, but Hackenberg threw a terrible pass that was picked off by Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown in the end zone.

He wasn't the same after that drive, totaling just 86 yards on just nine more completions in the game.

Penn State can't afford for Hackenberg to have a bad game because it can't completely count on its run game to win it a football game either.

The good news is Hackenberg and the offensive line have a chance to rebound next week against a bad Illini defense.  


Braxton Miller is Back...and Better Than Ever Before

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Ohio State rolled Penn State on Saturday, but the most impressive part was seeing Braxton Miller put on a complete show and make a statement. 

That statement? "I'm back." 

It's clear that Miller returned maybe a week too soon after a knee injury earlier this season, especially after seeing the way he did in the Nittany Lions on Saturday night. 

Not only did Miller have a career high in passing yards (252), but he was also doing it by being mobile and making good decisions out of the pocket at times as well. He added 68 yards on 11 carries in just over three quarters of work too. 

Of course, anytime you have a five-touchdown day as a quarterback, you are doing something right, but the point is that this is the type of performance people have been expecting from Miller. 

It sure makes you wonder what we would've seen from him had he been healthy all season long. 

The difference apparently is that Miller is completely confident in not only his body, but his mind too. 

"I just love where Braxton's at right now," head coach Urban Meyer told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "I love the fact that he's acting like a quarterback. I'm not disrespecting Braxton. You guys know I love that guy. But I felt like he was an athlete playing quarterback a year ago. I feel like he's a quarterback that's a really good athlete now."

If that holds out the rest of the season, Miller and Carlos Hyde (who's on pace to be Meyer's first 1,000-yard back) could form the scariest one-two punch in college football.


*Andy Coppens is the lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.


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