It's the time of year to give thanks. To think long and hard about the good fortune that has come your way and the good people who have made life a little easier the past year.
Let's look now at what each Big Ten team has to be thankful for as we stare down the last week of the season. Even the most hard luck teams in the conference have seen some positives this year.
Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays*, and football is the most American of sports**—a match made in heaven.
*(Well, short of Independence day, but Thanksgiving is older, so we'll roll with it.)
**(Sorry baseball fans.)
Thankful for: Jerry Kill
The Gophers haven't had much go right so far this year. The non-conference schedule included losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State, not to mention a rash of seizure scares for first-year coach Jerry Kill.
The Big Ten season wasn't much better. Minnesota started out with a string of losses that were so bad it led many to speculate if this was the worst Big Ten team ever. The first three conference games saw Minnesota lose by a combined score of 144-31.
However, Kill wouldn't let the team give up and it eventually paid off with a home win against Iowa in which the Gophers held the ball for more than 13 minutes of the final quarter, scored two touchdowns, recovered an onside kick and stopped Iowa's attempt at a game-winning drive in four plays.
Things haven't been very rosy in Minnesota for the last few years—hiring Tim Brewster tends to do that to a team—and instead of taking a step up from being middle of the pack, Minnesota finds itself firmly entrenched in the basement.
Hiring Kill now gives Minnesota some hope for the future. Kill has a history of turning around moribund programs with solid recruiting and a no nonsense attitude. After years of lofty promises under Brewster, this new approach should be music to Minnesota fans' ears.
Thankful for: A running game.
The Hoosier offense under Bill Lynch was pass first, second, third and then probably punt (unless the game was against Michigan).
It was an offense that would have been more at home in the wide open Big XII then the conference that prides itself on the age old philosophy of "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Lynch didn't last, and neither did his adherence to the concepts of spread passing. His replacement, oddly enough, comes from the wide open plains as the coordinator of one of the most pass-heavy teams in the nation, Oklahoma.
Kevin Wilson has moved Indiana back to a more balanced offense. Part of this is probably due to the fact that Indiana was breaking in a handful of new quarterbacks. However, an advantage to placing a bigger emphasis on the run game is that you, you know, actually develop a run game.
Last year Indiana was last in the Big Ten in total rush yards (by over 400 yards total, 1,204 to Minnesota's 10th place finish of 1,623), yards per game (110 ypg was good for 112th in the nation), and yards per carry (3.4, last in the Big Ten by 0.2). This year, Indiana has developed a solid rushing game with a per game average of 156 yards—good for 61st in the nation.
If you want to win in the Big Ten you have to run the ball. The Hoosiers are getting closer.
Thankful for: A reprieve from injury
There is bad luck, then there is the rash of knee injuries that hit Purdue a year ago.
There was first-string running back Ralph Bolden out with a torn ACL before the season began, top wide receiver Justin Siller was knocked out as well with a foot injury and then a couple games into the season Miami transfer and first-stringer Robert Marve also tore his ACL. All three were lost for the season as Purdue scrambled to find players to fill in for its top three position players.
The curse was so prevalent in West Lafayette that it even struck the basketball team; Robbie Hummel missed the season with, you guessed it, an ACL injury.
This year looked to be the same as last when Robert Henry, the quarterback who filled in for Marve last year and was ahead in the competition to start again this year, went down with an ACL injury before the season.
After that? A clean bill of health. Marve, Bolden and Siller have all been healthy through the season and have had a significant impact on the offense.
Thankful for: A reason to fire Ron Zook
Let's be honest, Ron Zook is good at a few things. The man can recruit very well, as is evidenced by the high level talent he has been able to lure to Champaign despite a string of disappointing seasons. Even Florida's first BCS National Championship under Meyer was won with a great deal of Zook recruits.
He is also good for unintentional humor. Whether it is forgetting the score or setting loose on the world pictures of him water skiing, we can all get a good hearty laugh at the Zooker's carefree attitude.
One thing he isn't good at: sustaining success. Zook's teams have finished all over the map. Some have been good enough to go to the Rose Bowl, some have struggled to pick up any wins in the Big Ten. The only constant? There is no constant. No correlation. Zook's teams don't grow or regress in any specific pattern. A Ron Zook team has just as good a chance to finish 9-3 as it does 6-6 or 3-9.
Why are Illinois fans thankful? This year's hot start followed by a five-game collapse of Zookian proportions is finally enough. It is time for the Ron Zook experiment to end. For the sake of everyone who still cares about Illinois football.
Thankful for: Dan Persa
The Wildcats haven't had the season that people expected. This was supposed to be a darkhorse Big Ten title contender led by a Heisman candidate. Instead, Northwestern lost five games in a row to the likes of Army, Illinois and Iowa.
During that losing streak it seemed like Dan Persa was the only thing working. He put up 331 yards against Michigan, four touchdowns on 10 completions against Illinois, and 294 yards against Penn State.
He did so well that eventually Northwestern started winning. The Wildcats have four straight victories, and in all but one, Persa has led the way. All of this despite being knocked out of games because of his lingering Achilles injury.
Persa is one of the top passers in the Big Ten right now and a big reason that the Wildcats are in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency rating.
Thankful for: The Big Three
Iowa's offense runs on three cylinders.
Marcus Coker is the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten and the 13th-leading rusher in the nation with 117 yards per game. He has 14 touchdowns—tied for second in the league—and with 263 carries is by far the biggest workhorse back in the conference.
James Vandenberg is second in the conference in pass efficiency and in the top 25 nationally. At 2,624 yards he has the most passing yards in the conference, and his 23/5 TD to INT ratio is second only to Russell Wilson in the conference.
Marvin McNutt is leading the conference in receiving yards with 1,240, touchdowns with 12, and is averaging almost 17 yards per catch. His 112 yards per game receiving is good for eighth in the country.
These three players are responsible for 87 percent of the team's rushing yards, 51 percent of the team's receiving yards and 99 percent of the teams passing yards.
Thankful for: Urban Meyer
Not much has went Ohio State's way in the past year. First news broke that a handful of players had traded memorabilia for tattoos. Then after those players were allowed to play in the bowl game, it was revealed that head coach Jim Tressel had known about the issue and had willingly covered it up. This led to Tressel's dismissal and the promotion of Luke Fickell.
From there the Buckeyes started the season out slow, got severely Bauserman'd and had additional suspensions levied for separate instances of NCAA rule breaking.
Now, Ohio State is 6-5 with one of the worst passing offenses in the nation at just 114 yards per game. Fickell is all but gone at the end of the season, and the NCAA looks more likely to impose harsher penalties after coming back with a second notice of allegations in response to this seasons violations.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. His name is Urban Meyer.
Meyer has his coaching roots in Ohio, would be an instant boost in recruiting and has the track record and respect to immediately steady the ship in Columbus. Meyer has yet to accept the job—and there are no guarantees that he would—but it seems like only a matter of time before he is head coach of Ohio State.
Just the thought of getting Meyer is enough to give Ohio State fans something to smile about.
Thankful for: Greg Mattison
There are few things worse than Michigan's defense in 2010. The evil that Greg Robinson unleashed on Michigan fans, in the form of a defense that couldn't cover or tackle, will haunt the dreams of those in Ann Arbor like the original Halloween movie haunted those who saw it in theaters.
It was so bad that Michigan fans just wanted the defense to be below average this year. Below. Average. The school that produced the only defensive player to win the Heisman, that has in recent years sent LaMarr Woodley, David Harris and Brandon Graham to the NFL was just hoping to field a defense that would be statistically better than what Northwestern is used to putting on the field.
Instead, Wolverine fans got the equivalent of 11 Christmas mornings. The defense isn't average or good. It has turned around to being one of the better defenses in the country. Consider:
- Last year Michigan's defense was 103rd in pass efficiency defense. This year: 28th nationally.
- Last year Michigan was in the bottom 20 in both total and scoring defense. This year: sixth in scoring defense and 14th in total defense.
- Last year Michigan gave up 188 yards per game on the ground. This year: 128 ypg.
All of this with largely the same players as last year. Only two starters graduated, and both have been replaced by true freshmen.
What Mattison has done to the Michigan defense is unquestionably the most impressive turnaround of the year.
Thankful for: A new home
Once the conference expansion train got rolling, things got out of control fast. Now the Big East is either going to be no more or both the words "Big" and "East" are going to be wildly inappropriate to describe the conference. The Big XII lost two strong members and teetered on the edge of oblivion before Texas said, "yeah brah, we'll hang out a little longer." Even the ACC got proactive and picked up a couple new members.
Nebraska doesn't have to worry about that. By moving into the Big Ten, Nebraska has been given a place in a financially stable league that blazed the trail of conference specific networking. Nebraska is surrounded by 11 fine educational and athletic institutions that just happen to care very deeply about football.
Finally, with the power and influence of the conference—as well as the huge alumni base that stretches all across the country—the Big Ten will be right at the front of college athletics for years to come.
Not a bad place to land, eh?
Thankful for: Its football team
This is a dark time for Penn State. A number of high-ranking administrators have been relieved of duty and legendary coach Joe Paterno has been dismissed because of the sexual abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
There are no silver linings. The athletic department and university turned a blind eye toward a sexual predator. There are no positives there.
The only thing Penn State fans have? The football team itself. The kids, some younger than Sandusky's oldest victims, who have shown up every day and worked hard to get this team that no one believed in to a showdown with Wisconsin for a place in the Big Ten championship game.
What was allowed to go on at Penn State by administrators and coaches is appalling, but the young men still taking the field every Saturday have shown all of us the true beauty in college athletics: a group coming together, working hard, and ultimately becoming bigger and accomplishing more than they ever could have been alone.
No matter the shame that those at the top have brought on the university, those players on the field should make every Penn State fan damn proud of what Penn State is at its best.
Thankful for: Russell Wilson
It isn't often that a college team can find itself a full-fledged free agent. It is even rarer that it works out (cough, Jeremiah Masoli, cough).
What Wisconsin got with the commitment of Russell Wilson this summer is the kind of quarterback who adds an entirely new dimension to an already dangerous offense while not taking anything off the table.
Wilson is deadly accurate. He is completing 74 percent of his passes while having the lowest interception percentage (1.3) in the conference.
Wilson is a big play waiting to happen. His yards per attempt average is best in the conference by two full yards, he has 26 passing touchdowns and 21 passes of 25 yards or longer.
Oh yeah, he can run too; to the tune of 289 yards and five touchdowns.
Mostly, Wilson puts his team in a position to win. Even in Wisconsin's two losses, Wilson has led late touchdown drives to tie or take the lead before seeing the defense surrender points and the game.
So be thankful, Badger fans. A player like Russell Wilson doesn't come on the market every year.
Thankful for: A dominant defense
Michigan State's defense is truly one of the country's best units. The Spartan defense is in the top five in four major defensive categories, and a disappointing 10th in the other.
Michigan State is holding opposing teams to 101 yards per game on the ground; first in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation. This is the worst of the five rankings.
- Fifth in the nation in pass efficiency defense (99.74) and scoring defense (15.27 ppg).
- Fourth in the nation in pass yards allowed (156 ypg).
- Third in the nation in total defense (257 ypg).
In those five categories there are a total of 13 teams that rank above the Spartans.
Michigan State's defense has done an incredible amount to lead the team to the first Big Ten championship game, and it is tough to bet against the unit going forward.