For the first time in quite a few seasons, the Big Ten can take a look back at a season and feel a little bit of pride and hope. Not only did the Big Ten return two teams to the BCS this season, the Big Ten also managed to finally win itself a Rose Bowl thanks to Michigan State's heroics in Pasadena.
So if the conference had a good season, there certainly had to be some good moments for each of the 12 programs in the Big Ten, right?
While we're all getting geared up to shift focus to 2014 and how the Big Ten can build on 2013's successes, let's look back at the moments from each program that contributed to the Big Ten's biggest step forward in years.
If picking the best moment of a season for a team seems like an easy task, take a look at Purdue in 2013. There isn't much to work with. Purdue's lone win this past season came against FCS Indiana State.
For the record, Indiana State itself finished with a 1-11 record, so it's not like Purdue got a quality win over a top-notch North Dakota State-like FCS program.
But Purdue pounded the Sycamores, right?
Try again. The Boilermakers scratched their way to a 20-14 win. Heck, the Sycamores even out-gained the Boilermakers, 295-284. Passing yards? 256-150 in favor of Indiana State. The Sycamores even had the ball late in the final minute. In Purdue territory. With a chance to win.
That all ended with an interception by senior corner Ricardo Allen. That was his first pick of a 2013 season that saw him lead the Big Ten (along with Michigan's Blake Countess) with six total interceptions.
A very lonely bright spot in a season without many of them in West Lafayette.
Just when you were starting to believe Northwestern had turned a corner, the Wildcats go out and put together a 5-7 record. Given Northwestern's long history of being a Big Ten doormat, it says something about Pat Fitzgerald and the work he's done that we all were surprised by just how bad Northwestern was in 2013.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, though. After all, we're not talking about Purdue here (sorry, Boilers fans). The Wildcats did manage to post a 4-0 nonconference mark, reaching No. 16 in the AP Top 25 before that narrow, nail-biting defeat to then-No. 4 Ohio State on October 5.
It was in that game against the Buckeyes that Northwestern reached its peak in 2013. It's also the game where the wheels began to come off the Purple Cat Express.
Northwestern passed for an impressive 343 yards against the Buckeyes but was unable to break the 100-yard mark on the ground. Still, Northwestern held a 20-13 halftime lead—probably the highest moment for Northwestern in 2013—and a 23-20 lead entering the fourth quarter. But Ohio State was just a smidgen better late in the game, capitalizing when it mattered most.
The final six points were scored on the final play of the game when Ohio State recovered a fumble in the end zone during Northwestern's desperate last gasp.
Salt in the wound.
It's a good thing this isn't a list of worst moments of the season. We could fill page after page with gloomy forecasts and lowlights when it comes to Illinois football.
But there was one very good moment in the 2013 season for the Fighting Illini. On November 23, 2013, Illinois narrowly defeated the hapless Purdue Boilermakers, 20-16. What's so remarkable about that? It laid to rest one of the more dubious distinctions Illinois football had over the past few seasons: a 20-game losing streak in conference play. The last time Illinois had won a Big Ten game was on October 8, 2011 under head coach Ron Zook.
We're not about to go dumping praise on a team like Illinois. The Illini are bad, and their record over the past two seasons bears that out (6-18 overall, 1-15 in the Big Ten). But being 4-8 in 2013 is a positive step forward for a program that was 2-10 the prior season.
So there's that...
Can almost beating a team count as a high point? When you had a season like the one the folks in Ann Arbor just had, it sure can.
Michigan entered the 2013 season with lofty hopes and expectations to match. The Wolverines trounced Central Michigan in the opener before edging past rival Notre Dame, then the No. 14 team in the land.
But unconvincing—even fortuitous—victories against the likes of lowly Akron and pitiful Connecticut had Michigan steadily dropping in the polls despite the mounting win count. After easily dispatching what would turn out to be a pretty decent Minnesota team in Week 6, the Wolverines dropped their first game of the season at Penn State in four overtimes.
Just when you thought Michigan might rebound after an offensive explosion against Indiana the following week, the Wolverines were shown up and embarrassed by their apparently grown-up "little brother," Michigan State (MSU has won five of the last six meetings).
The Spartans' 29-6 drubbing of the Wolverines was a sign of things to come for both teams. That also means it was the beginning of the end for Michigan in 2013.
Michigan would win only once more all season, and even that win relied on a bit of good fortune, as the Wolverines pulled a suicide field goal as time expired against Northwestern to send the game to overtime.
So is it any wonder the then-No. 3 Buckeyes entered Michigan Stadium as massive favorites?
But the Wolverines proved, once again, that rivalry games aren't played on paper. Despite suffering a broken foot, quarterback Devin Gardner put up 451 passing yards and five combined touchdowns to give Michigan a shot to tie the game—or take the lead—with under a minute left.
Brady Hoke, in a bold move, opted for the two-point conversion to try to win the game in regulation. Gardner's pass fell incomplete, but Michigan had sent a loud signal to the rest of the Big Ten that the Wolverines were not about to go quietly.
That kind of grit will be needed in 2014 if Michigan is going to finally have that long-awaited turnaround season.
Looking back at the Hoosiers' season, it's difficult to come up with many bright spots. But Indiana does have a few wins to pick through, and at least one of them was against a team that met with its own version of moderate success.
The only teams Indiana managed to beat in 2013 were FCS Indiana State, Bowling Green State, Penn State, Illinois and Purdue.
Knocking off the Sycamores isn't much to write home about, and neither should be topping BGSU. Illinois and Purdue, as we've already seen, had absolutely abysmal seasons, so it has to be the Penn State game that stands out.
What's most impressive about this win isn't the 44 points Indiana scored on the Nittany Lions but rather the relatively scant 24 allowed by a defense that had struggled—to say the least—through most of 2013.
Kevin Wilson has his offense humming—there's little doubt about that. But the defense is just too terrible to put up much resistance against the more talented two-thirds of the conference. We are, after all, talking about an Indiana team that gave up a whopping 63 points and 751 offensive yards to an anemic Michigan offense.
Minnesota finishing with eight wins this season probably wasn't on anyone's list of "sure bets." But Jerry Kill's team not only won eight games, but they also did it with some wins over impressive competition.
Minnesota began 2013 with a 4-0 start, including a win over San Jose State—a team that was 11-2 a season ago. Minnesota also defeated then-No. 21 Nebraska in Minneapolis, earning the Gophers their first win over a ranked opponent since November 27, 2010 (a 27-24 win over then-No. 24 Iowa).
And all of this came after suffering losses to FCS teams in back-to-back seasons (2010 to South Dakota and 2011 to North Dakota State). The Gophers also earned back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since 2008 and 2009.
Minnesota may have fallen a couple of games short of winning its division, but the win against Nebraska certainly seems to show that the Golden Gophers have turned a corner.
A 7-5 record in 2013 isn't quite the shock 8-4 was a season ago, but it's still a far cry from the death throes we expected to be emanating from Penn State by now. A large part of that success is thanks to the now-departed Bill O'Brien, but we can't ignore the job being done by quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Penn State never had back-to-back losses in 2013. The Nittany Lions also put together a 2-1 record against ranked opponents, including handing then-No. 18 and undefeated Michigan its first loss in a thrilling quadruple-overtime game.
Teams that are banned from postseason play often view their final game of the regular season as the "bowl game." If that's true for Penn State, the Nittany Lions put together a pretty stellar performance for that "bowl." Penn State upset a heavily favored and potentially BCS-bound No. 14 Wisconsin at Camp Randall, which included an eye-popping 339 passing yards and four touchdowns from Hackenberg.
Excited for the future yet, Penn State fans? If not, you should be.
A cool, calm, collected guy Bo Pelini is not. But haven't we come to expect that from the head coach at Nebraska? Haven't we all come to expect repeated rants from him? Is him going off at the Nebraska fanbase's expense really all that unexpected?
Probably not. At least it shouldn't be by now. That doesn't mean it wasn't a real low point not only for Nebraska in 2013, but probably in the entire Pelini era as well.
As if to show the resiliency of the program, however, Pelini and Nebraska came out to rattle off a win the following Saturday (granted, against FCS South Dakota State) along with opening Big Ten play with a 4-1 mark.
Once again, Pelini's Huskers finished with four losses—as they have in each of his six seasons in Lincoln. But when faced with the real possibility of falling apart, Nebraska rallied to earn a Gator Bowl appearance against Georgia.
A game, incidentally, the Huskers won, bringing a much-needed win to that all-important Big Ten vs. SEC series.
So what's a better moment for Nebraska, the win against Georgia or the team's refusal to allow distractions in the heart of the season? Take your pick.
For Wisconsin fans who might have fretted over whether or not new head coach Gary Andersen could pick up where Bret Bielema left off, rest easy. Clearly, Wisconsin isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Except maybe up.
Andersen might just bring the kind of change Wisconsin needs: a reliable passing attack. For too long now, Wisconsin has relied heavily on the power run attacks. While that works against many Big Ten programs that are built the same way, the Badgers—and others around the Big Ten—have encountered difficulty in the nonconference schedule.
But the Badgers aren't too far off the mark. How can we tell? Wisconsin's three regular-season losses were by a combined 16 points, and the bowl loss—to a South Carolina team that finished No. 4 in both the final Coaches and AP polls—was a close game deep into the fourth quarter.
But the high-water mark of the 2013 season came on November 2 when Wisconsin invaded Kinnick Stadium at Iowa and left with the Heartland Trophy after a 28-9 drubbing of the Hawkeyes, who finished second in the Legends Division.
Wisconsin may not have made it four straight Big Ten titles this season, but the falloff for the Badgers was less than many expected.
When the 2013 season began, there wasn't much attention being paid to the Iowa Hawkeyes. After all, Iowa hadn't really been a threat in the Big Ten over recent years, and there wasn't an overwhelming reason to think that was going to change this season.
But as the season wore on, it became clear that Kirk Ferentz had once again worked overtime to rebuild a program that always seems to be just one step behind the top-tier teams in the Big Ten.
Losses to Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin seemed par for the course. But victories over Michigan and Nebraska over the final two weeks of the regular season put the Hawkeyes in second place in the Legends Division, behind only Michigan State.
For its reward, Iowa received a bid to play LSU in the Outback Bowl.
The Outback Bowl may have ended in a 21-14 loss for Iowa, but it also proved that teams like Iowa aren't all that far behind teams like LSU from the "almighty" SEC.
For that reason, Iowa's strong performance against the Tigers in the Outback Bowl is being named as the top moment for Iowa this past season, as it provides a strong stepping stone for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.
There's nothing better for an Ohio State fan than watching the Buckeyes defeat "that school up north." The 2013 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State was certainly much closer than the experts predicted, and those who put money on Michigan in Vegas probably took home a nice chunk of change.
But even though the Buckeyes didn't cover the spread, Ohio State still won the game and secured a Big Ten Championship Game that served as a play-in to the BCS National Championship Game for the Buckeyes (which, of course, they lost).
The final meaningful play of the game was Michigan's two-point conversion attempt in the game's waning seconds. It was an odd offensive play call that Ohio State defended perfectly, but that wasn't the greatest thing that stands out to us about this game.
For that, you need to look no further than Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. The two combined for a whopping 379 rushing yards against a pitiful performance from the Michigan defense. Miller also added 133 passing yards and had five combined touchdowns.
This one is pretty easy, isn't it? There's not much for a Big Ten program that can top winning a Rose Bowl Game.
We could just leave it at that, and most people would be OK with it, too. But we have to at least mention some of the other accomplishments of the Spartans this season.
Big Ten Championship Game victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State.
Absolutely thrashing archnemesis Michigan, 29-6.
Darqueze Dennard winning the Jim Thorpe Award on one of the nation's elite defensive units.
You get the idea: Michigan State had a heck of a season. And regardless of whether you wear green and white, maize and blue or scarlet and gray, you can certainly all agree that Michigan State's top moments of 2013 were not only positive for Spartan fans, but also showed the nation that there's growth happening in the Big Ten—a major positive for the conference as a whole.
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