Monday, October 24, 2011
Weekend rewind: Big Ten
By Brian Bennett
Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans earn this honor for the second straight week, and with good reason. They are now the Big Ten's top-ranked team after an earth-rattling victory over Wisconsin. Michigan State is unscathed through 75 percent of its October group of death and has to be considered a leading Rose Bowl contender.
Best game: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31. What else? Obscured by the game's final play was a very exciting 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter by Wisconsin. There were four total touchdowns in the fourth quarter, not to mention some huge special-teams plays by the Spartans. And of course, there was the ...
Kirk Cousins was all smiles after his game-winning touchdown pass.
Biggest play: Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol's game-winning Hail Mary receptionwith no time left on the clock. So much had to go right for that play to work. Kirk Cousins had to launch the ball into the end zone with his left foot standing on his own 45-yard line as a Wisconsin defender leaped toward him. The ball had to go right through the hands of Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis, who was playing defense because of his catching ability. Abbrederis appeared to mistime his jump just a bit but got his hand on the ball just enough to deflect it slightly.
Then the ball came right to B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State's best receiver, who was in position to make the play. But the deflection may have surprised him, and the ball bounced right off his face mask. (And had Cunningham or Nichol gone out of bounds? The referee had thrown his hat on the ground, indicating a receiver had left the field of play.) Yet somehow the carom straightened out perfectly to Nichol a couple of feet shy of the end zone. Nichol then had to wrestlethe ball over the goal line with two defenders wrapped around him. And finally, the replay officials had to have the courage to make the call that decided the game -- the right call, by the way. That's why "Rocket" will be talked about for decades in East Lansing, Madison and beyond.
Best call: Penn State finally starting Matt McGloin at quarterback at Northwestern. McGloin played very well in the first half and threw two touchdown passes as the Lions led 27-24 at halftime. Though he cooled off in the second half, Penn State couldn't afford to fall behind and give Northwestern confidence in a game that was ultimately decided by only 10 points.
Most questionable call(s): Bret Bielema's two timeouts in the final 42 seconds, which allowed Michigan State enough time to pull off the miracle. The first timeout was very understandable, as the Spartans had just fumbled and faced second-and-20 from their own 24. You have to make Michigan State put the ball in the air there and risk a turnover, or you can take more timeouts if they run the ball and try to get it back. The second timeout came after an 11-yard passand with 30 seconds left. If the philosophy was to put pressure on Michigan State on second down by calling timeout, thenyou might as well do the same thing on third down, right?
However, even if Wisconsin gets a stop there or if the Spartans merely run a safe running play, the Badgers' best options were (A) blocking the punt; (B) hoping Michigan State muffs the snap on the punt; or (C) getting the ball back with about 20 seconds left, probably deep in your own territory since you went for a punt block and not a return. The risks likely outweigh the rewards there. But the bottom line is that Wisconsin should have been able to knock away a Hail Mary pass that had to have everything go right (see above). And Bielema has always been a very aggressive coach, so the same fans who celebrate the 70-point games have to accept that aggression will backfire every now and then.
Big Men on Campus (Offense): Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt and Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. McNutt set the Iowa career record for touchdown receptions early in the win over Indiana, then added two more to pad his lead in the record book. Cousins had one of the best performances of his career in one of his team's biggest games. The senior went 22-of-31 for 290 yards and three touchdown passes, the last of which of course was the game winner.
Big Men on Campus (Defense): Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges and Purdue defensive lineman Kawann Short. Hodges had a career-high 14 tackles, plus 1.5 sacks and a 63-yard interception return to set up the game's final score in the Nittany Lions' 34-24 win at Northwestern. Short had 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks to lead Purdue’s defensive charge in a 21-14 victory over Illinois.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Michigan State's Kyler Elsworth. He blocked a punt in the final minute of the first half, which Michigan State recovered in the end zone for a 23-14 halftime lead. It was Michigan State’s first blocked punt that resulted in a touchdown since 2006.
Worst hangover: Illinois. While Wisconsin fans aren't feeling too good this week, either, at least the Badgers can still get to the Big Ten title game and possibly Pasadena. The Illini have seen a 6-0 start fade into two straight losses as their once-powerful offense has mustered just 21 points in eight quarters. The heart of their schedule still remains. Folks in Champaign were talking about a 10-win season and a possible BCS bowl. Now Illinois must right the ship quickly or risk this turning into another mediocre year.
Strangest moment: It's one thing when the fans in the stands and even the TV commentators don't understand a rule. It's much stranger when both veteran coaches are perplexed by a call that turns out to be correct.
That's what happened in the first quarter of the Nebraska-Minnesota game. The Huskers had a fourth-and-1 from the Gophers' 13-yard line when Taylor Martinez made a bad pitch to Aaron Green. The ball went off Green's hands and bounced forward to the 11. Minnesota celebrated, assuming -- like most people watching -- that a team can't benefit by advancing a fumble.
Ah, but it wasn't a fumble. Instead, it was technically a backwards pass. Rule 72-4A on page 72 of the NCAA rulebook says that when a backwards pass goes out of bounds between the goal lines, the ball belongs to the passing team at the out-of-bounds spot. That was news to a lot of people.
"I said, 'How can you reward a fumble?'" Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said, recalling his conversation with the head official. "He goes, 'You're right, Coach, but that's the rule.' And he's right."
"I actually didn't understand the rule myself," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I originally thought, probably like Coach Kill, that it was a fumble."
The play helped Nebraska, which went on to score a touchdown. Are there coaches out there now coming up with designed backward-pass fumbles?