A Big Ten Thanksgiving: What Every Team in the Conference Should Be Thankful for
'Tis the season to
watch football gorge yourself give thanks.
And Big Ten fans, a majority of them Midwesterners, pride themselves on being some of the most gracious people in America.
The cupboard might look bare for some beleaguered teams, but peer closer, and you'll see there was still plenty to appreciate from this season's conference action.
Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the things for which we can thank whomever it is we thank on Thursday.
Illinois Is Thankful for: Michigan
After beating only Illinois State, the Illini welcomed the Wolverines to Memorial Stadium in mid-October, where the Maize and Blue put on a clinic on what it means to roll over and die.
The Illini's running game destroyed the hapless Wolverines for 377 yards, winning 38-13, for Ron Zook's first Big Ten victory of 2009 and only his second on the year.
Sure, the Illini rolled over Minnesota the next week, but it was the Wolverines' ghastly performance against the Big Ten bottom-dwellers that provided all the momentum.
That's Zook's second pantsing of Rich Rodriguez, but don't call it a rivalry just yet. Michigan needs to win one first.
Northwestern Is Thankful for: Mike Kafka
Kafka, a senior, started the season rough but finished strong, putting up back-to-back 300 yard games and fielding a solid enough performance against Iowa to give the Wildcats three great victories in November.
Kafka is just shy of a 3,000-yard season with 12 touchdowns passing and seven more on the ground. His 26-of-40, 326-yard, two-touchdown effort against Wisconsin earned him Player of the Week honors for the last week of conference play.
Under Kafka's direction, Northwestern will post eight wins for the second consecutive year, which they hadn't accomplished since Pat Fitzgerald was winning the Lombardi Trophy as a linebacker.
Their fourth-place Big Ten finish should land them in a January bowl, possibly the Outback or Capital One Bowl, a huge accomplishment for a team that started the season 2-2 with a close win over Eastern Michigan and a loss to Syracuse.
Indiana Is Thankful for: The Indiana Basketball Team
Gosh, it sure didn't have to be this way.
The Hoosiers were 3-0 heading into the Big House and took the Wolverines to the wire. Ben Chappell looked improved, and Tandon Doss was catching everything thrown his way.
Then came startling losses to guileless Virginia and a blowout to the Buckeyes at home. Still alive, the Hoosiers beat Illinois but let Northwestern and Iowa slip through their fingers and couldn't overcome Wisconsin on homecoming.
Their upset bid at Nittany Lion Stadium falling short, the fans slept through the Old Oaken Bucket Rivalry and asked only that someone wake them when the basketball season started.
Which makes 2009, unfortunately, just like every other year.
Michigan Is Thankful for: Charlie Weis
Whenever Michigan's sister university loses, it always provides a soothing salve. That goes double for times of dire emergency.
The Irish ended up being the only semi-respectable skin on the Wolverines' 2009 wall, and that's thanks to Weis outcoaching himself by passing on second and third down instead of running the clock out with a 34-31 lead.
Thanks, Charlie Weis. We hope to see more of you next year.
Wisconsin Is Thankful for: John Clay
The Badgers were 6-1 when sophomore John Clay rushed for 100 or more yards, with the lone loss against Northwestern, where Clay ran for exactly 100 and the final score was 33-31.
Clay picked up right where P.J. Hill left off and even improved on the legacy of the bruising Badger back in a year when junior Scott Tolzien needed all the help he could get.
Clay, a unanimous All-Big Ten selection, will return next year as the conference's leading rusher after putting up 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year (with a game against Hawaii still to play).
In a year where all the gimmicks were getting exposed, Wisconsin's ground attack looked the truer side of brilliant.
Purdue Is Thankful for: Danny Hope
A 5-7 season still means his Boilers will miss a bowl, but Hope guided what should have been a flagging offense to close losses to Notre Dame and Oregon and wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and rival Indiana.
Hope molded Joey Elliott into a likely second-team All-Big Ten quarterback, junior Keith Smith into an 1,100-yard receiver and RB Ralph Bolden into the Big Ten's third overall rusher.
Word is he's not a bad recruiter either, so Boiler fans should be riding on more than just hope.
Minnesota Is Thankful for: TCF Stadium
After another year of just getting by, including sneaking past Air Force in the inaugural TCF Stadium game and surviving South Dakota State at home, Gophers fans will look to their outstanding new stadium for what to give thanks for.
It was another year where competency was the order of the day for Tim Brewster's young team.
Eric Decker went out early, and Adam Weber was his wildly inconsistent self.
But there were also good home wins over Michigan State and the arrival of MarQueis Gray, a star dual-threat QB who had to sit out a year for eligibility reasons, to hang the maroon and gold hat on for next year.
Michigan State Is Thankful for: Michigan
Mark Dantonio threw everything he and his coaching staff had (to the exclusion of all other preparation) at stopping the Wolverines for the first time in consecutive years since the Duffy Daugherty era.
It meant losing focus against Central Michigan and losing big to Wisconsin, but the Spartans were so well-prepared for Michigan's spread attack that the Wolverines, who had come out firing against all four of their previous opponents, were all but stymied for three-and-a-half quarters at Spartan Stadium.
There was still enough magic in Tate Forcier's arm to force overtime, but the damage had been done to a gassed Wolverine defense. Larry Caper slipped through a few tackles and iced it on a long run, and the Spartans beat the Wolverines in back-to-back years to bolster their claims for in-state dominance and all but unravel a promising season for the Maize n' Blue.
The Spartan faithful might eventually get tired of going 6-6, but if it includes a win over Michigan and a bowl game, that still sounds like a complete year for a team only recently returning to the postseason. A Big Ten title can't be far away.
Iowa Is Thankful for: The Iowa Coaching Staff
Kirk Ferentz and company really lived up to their (expensive) billing this year. Iowa's coaches had to overcome multiple injuries and line restructurings throughout their season on the brink.
First they lost Jewel Hampton, then OT Bryan Bulaga, RB Adam Robinson, RB Brandon Wegher, and finally, QB Ricky Stanzi, all of whom played crucial roles in getting Iowa just the points it needed to succeed.
Defensive coordinator Norm Parker deserves particular kudos for coaching one of the most complete and well-disciplined defenses in the country. The Hawkeye defense kept Iowa in the game against Ohio State and forced huge turnovers at Penn State while the offense found its footing.
Ohio State Is Thankful for: Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Saine, DeVier Posey...
...Jim Tressel, Ray Small, Ohio Stadium, Kurt Coleman, Rich Rodriguez, Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward, Joe Paterno and the Penn State offensive coaching staff, Chris Spielman, Justin Boren, Those Things That Pop Out And Tell You When The Turkey Is Ready, Ross Homan, Jeremy Boone, Doug Worthington, Mike Brewster, The ESPN Camera Guy Who Got Hit By The Sousaphone, Tate Forcier, Devin Barclay, Ray Small again, the Northwestern Wildcats, Brian Rolle, Chimdi Chekwa...
Penn State: Not Giving Thanks This Year
I was hard-pressed to come up with what the Nittany Lions could be thankful for. Turns out, so are they.
Yes, going 10-2 isn't enough if those two losses are by double digits to Iowa and Ohio State at home. There was no defining moment in their eyes.
They can look ahead to the non-conference game against Alabama in 2010, the maturation of dual-threat QB Kevin Newsome, and the explosive ability of Stephfon Green, but none of that is good enough.
Go ahead, bow your heads in prayer. When Penn State fans close their eyes, they try to visualize blocking Adrian Clayborn or tackling Ray Small on the punt return.