Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Void at the top: Throughout the offseason and up until 8 p.m. Saturday, we insisted that Michigan State was the Big Ten's top team. That title is totally up for grabs after the Spartans were pushed around by Notre Dame in a 20-3 loss. Who's No. 1 now? Is it Ohio State, which is 3-0 but looked awfully shaky against Cal in a game it probably should have lost? Is it Michigan, which shouldn't be punished too heavily for losing to a potentially great Alabama team? How about Purdue, which played Notre Dame much tougher on the road than Michigan State did at home, or Nebraska, which bounced back from the UCLA loss to thump Arkansas State? Or maybe Michigan State just doesn't match up well with the Irish, since it got beat soundly in South Bend a year ago but still won the Legends Division. We can't discount Northwestern, which is 3-0 with wins over three BCS AQ teams, and, yes, Minnesota is also undefeated. Ohio State likely will be the league's top team in the Associated Press poll this week. But the truth is, there's a major power void at the top of the conference.
2. What now for Wisconsin? No Badgers assistants are likely to lose their jobs this week, but no one in the coaches' offices can feel too comfortable right now, either. Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after only two games in an attempt to fix a stalled running attack, but the Wisconsin ground game was still pedestrian against Utah State. Montee Ball ran for 139 yards but needed 37 handoffs to do so as the team averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. Bielema even benched quarterback Danny O'Brien, who completed just 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards. Wisconsin was extremely fortunate to escape with the 16-14 victory as the Aggies missed a 37-yard field goal in the closing seconds. A loss would have sent Badger Nation into full panic mode. But if the offense doesn't perform better than it has the first three weeks, Bielema's team will have a hard time winning many Big Ten games.
3. Purdue could be the best team in the Leaders Division: Danny Hope's Boilermakers are no longer just a sleeper team in a division that Wisconsin had been pegged to dominate. Purdue might be the best of the bunch in the Leaders, which isn't a huge compliment but an encouraging sign in West Lafayette. Ohio State barely escaped against Cal, Wisconsin is a shell of its former self, and Illinois, Penn State and Indiana all have some flaws. The Boilers are very strong defensively and might have the league's top defensive line, led by star tackle Kawann Short. They have some depth in the run game and a standout receiver in Antavian Edison. Although Caleb TerBush has his ups and downs at quarterback, Purdue could go a long way this season. Right now, the Boilers might be the team to beat in the quest to reach Indianapolis.
4. Not the same old Northwestern: The Wildcats played a truly odd game against Boston College. They piled up 560 yards, 34 first downs and 100 total offensive snaps, yet they didn't score their first touchdown until Mike Trumpy broke off a 27-yard run with 1:37 left. Still, the 22-13 win over the Eagles was in some way like last week's 23-13 triumph against Vanderbilt. Northwestern showed that its defense could hold down a respectable offense (BC came in averaging 33 points per game) and that it could grind out a game once it grabbed the lead. Those things haven't been common of late for Pat Fitzgerald's team, but this one seems to have good chemistry and grit, not to mention a bevy of offensive weapons. The Wildcats are off to a excellent start, and with South Dakota and Indiana at home in the next two games, they could easily finish September at 5-0.
5. Receivers are catching on: We've wondered for a while where the standout receivers were in this league outside of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis. With Abbrederis out of commission this week because of an injury, several wideouts made statements on Saturday. Ohio State's Devin Smith continued his flair for the dramatic with a 72-yard, game-winning catch against Cal, part of a 145-yard, two-touchdown day. Penn State's Allen Robinson caught three touchdown passes and had 136 yards. Nebraska's Kenny Bell also caught a pair of scores, including a 42-yarder. Minnesota's A.J. Barker torched Western Michigan for 101 yards and three touchdowns. Illinois' Ryan Lankford broke out with seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, albeit against Charleston Southern. Purdue's Edison is quietly putting together a strong season. Indiana's Cody Latimer had 115 yards and a pair of scores, including a 70-yarder late. Even Iowa, which struggled to throw the ball downfield in the first two weeks, got a 100-yard day from Kevonte Martin-Manley. Perhaps the new crop of Big Ten star receivers is starting to blossom.