We had our first, full six-game conference day on Saturday, and half of those games came down to the absolute wire.
If you're not at the top end of the Big Ten (hello, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State) or the bottom (sorry, Purdue), chances are you're going to find yourself in a very tight game in November. That's why execution at the end of halves and end of games is so big, and why some of what we saw Saturday was troubling.
Take Illinois, for example. The Illini moved the ball almost at will at Penn State and had several chances to grab a lead. At the end of the first half, coach Tim Beckman's team displayed atrocious clock-management skills after getting a first-and-goal opportunity. Illinois would have gone to halftime with no points had Penn State not committed a personal-foul penalty with no time left that led to a field goal. The Illini would eventually lose when Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception on the first play of their overtime possession.
Indiana's transgression was even worse. The Hoosiers had the ball on the Minnesota 9-yard line, trailing 42-39, in the final minute. They then called for a swing pass to running back Tevin Coleman that Nate Sudfeld appeared to deliver a little early. Coleman hadn't yet turned around for the ball and was still behind Sudfeld, making it a lateral. Coleman didn't catch the ball and didn't immediately realize it was live, while the Gophers scooped it up to save the win.
IU coach Kevin Wilson said the swing pass was "not an ideal call." Uh, yeah. It wasn't going to result in a touchdown, and the risk of a backward pass made it a curious choice. Wilson also made another questionable decision earlier, going for the two-point conversion after the Hoosiers had scored to take a 39-35 lead. He explained his reasoning later that Indiana would have a chance to remain tied by blocking a PAT in the event Minnesota scored a touchdown. But what are the odds of that? Had Wilson simply kicked the extra point for the 40-35 lead, the Hoosiers could have later kicked a short field goal for the win.
And then there was the ending of the Northwestern-Nebraska game. By now, you know what happened, with the Huskers winning on a play they call "Geronimo." Ron Kellogg III heaved the ball about 55 yards in the air, where it was tipped by a Northwestern defender into the waiting arms of Jordan Westerkamp.
A crazy fluke of a play? OK, maybe. But the Wildcats -- who say they practice against the Hail Mary every Thursday -- made the unpardonable mistake of not accounting for the deepest receiver in the end zone.
"You can never let someone get behind the pile," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "That's pretty much it."
Northwestern could have avoided the pain of the play if, after reaching the Nebraska 1-yard line on second down in the final two minutes, it had scored a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal.
It's the little things at the end of halves and games that could decide the outcome of some more November Saturdays.
Take that and rewind it back:
Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans bullied, battered and bruised Michigan in one of the most impressive defensive performances we've seen in a while. They should be favored in their final three games, even though the next two (at Nebraska and at Northwestern) are on the road. Michigan State fans might actually root for Michigan this week, because a Wolverines' victory over Nebraska this week would give Mark Dantonio's team a two-game lead over everybody in the Legends Division.
Worst hangover: Michigan. This may be a literal, physical hangover for the Wolverines, who were beaten up all day in East Lansing. Devin Gardner looked shell-shocked as his jersey was covered with mud after taking so many hits. At least this week's game is at home. Brady Hoke is just 5-7 in true road games in three years.
Best play: Nothing more needs to be said about Westerkamp's Hail Mary catch. Just enjoy the video again.
Biggest unsung play: The Westerkamp catch would never have happened if not for Ameer Abdullah's heroics earlier on the final Nebraska drive. The Huskers faced fourth-and-15 when Kellogg scrambled and threw a dump-off pass to his running back. Abdullah caught the ball at the 34-yard line and needed to get just past the 39 for a first down. Two Northwestern defenders barreled in on him. But Abdullah shook off a tackle at the 36, got hit near the 38 and then lunged forward with the ball to just cross the first-down marker. Abdullah has left no doubt this season who Nebraska's best player is.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Penn State's Bill Belton ran for 201 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries versus Illinois. All that was nearly forgotten when he fumbled near the goal line late in the fourth quarter. But all was forgiven as the Nittany Lions came back to win in OT.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): We could pick just about every Michigan State defender here. We'll single out linebacker Denicos Allen, who had nine tackles, two sacks and another tackle for loss. Allen is having a tremendous season and putting himself in the conversation for first-team All-Big Ten honors at the league's deepest position.
Big Men on Campus (Special teams): Michigan State's Michael Geiger drilled all three of his field goal attempts in a game where offense was at a premium for three quarters, and punter Mike Sadler helped keep Michigan pinned in bad field position by averaging 40.8 yards on five kicks. The Wolverines started three of their drives from the 10-yard line or worse. No surprise there. Michigan State leads the country in punts downed inside the opponent 10, with 15.
A rule that needs review: Wisconsin's Jack Russell appeared to make a 54-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but Iowa had called a timeout just before the snap. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to call two more timeouts in a row, and Russell would finally miss the attempt after several minutes of waiting. Credit Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz for using the ploy, since there is no sense in saving first-half timeouts. But can anyone argue this is good for the game? I don't think teams should be allowed to call more than two consecutive timeouts without a play happening. It disrupts the flow of the game and certainly doesn't embody the spirit of sportsmanship and collegiality the Big Ten claims to prioritize.
Again, that's not a criticism of Ferentz, just the rule. (And am I the only one who thinks of this when discussing whether to put Jack Russell in a timeout situation? Yeah, I probably am).
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):
After holding Michigan to minus-48 rushing yards on Saturday, Michigan State's defensive numbers have gone from outstanding to other-worldly. The Spartans are now allowing an average of just 43 rushing yards per game. The next best team in the FBS is Louisville at 82 yards per game. MSU is also giving up just 1.61 yards per rush attempt, which is a full yard lower than any other team in the country. Opponents are gaining zero or negative yardage on 36.5 percent of their attempts against the Spartans, also the highest number in the land, and only 22.7 percent of rushes versus that defense have gone for 5 yards or more. We could go on and on, but you get the point.
With its 56-0 win over Purdue following a 63-point effort versus Penn State, Ohio State registered its third back-to-back 50-plus point performance in two seasons under Urban Meyer. The program did that only four times total in the previous 122 seasons. The offense has been incredibly productive, as 38.4 percent of the Buckeyes' plays have gone for either a first down or a touchdown and 53.9 percent of those plays have gone for at least 5 yards. That latter figure is the highest in the FBS.
Do bye weeks help? Wisconsin would say yes. The Badgers have won last their past seven games following a bye week, including Saturday's win over Iowa. All of those victories have come by at least 19 points.
Penn State's Allen Robinson now ranks second in the nation in receiving yards per game, at 130.4. He trails only Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who is averaging 149.3 yards per game. What might hurt Robinson come awards time is that he has only six touchdown catches. Cooks, by comparison, has 14. (And remember that Robinson missed half of the season opener because of a suspension).
Since October began, Michigan is averaging just 2.69 yards per rush attempt, which is 116th out of 123 teams in that span. (Purdue is dead last at 1.45 yards per attempt). In that same time period, the Wolverines have 63 rushes for zero or negative yards, more than any other FBS team.