Sunday, November 13, 2011
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Wisconsin and Michigan State are on a collision course: Saturday cleared up the Big Ten division races considerably, as Michigan State took a huge step closer to Indianapolis and Wisconsin received a major boost. The Spartans won in Iowa City for the first time since 1989, snapping a seven-game slide, and becomes the only team in the Legends division to control its own fate. Michigan State can get to Indianapolis with two wins or a win and a Nebraska loss. Wisconsin, meanwhile, benefited from losses by both Penn State and Ohio State on Saturday. The Badgers once again control their own fate in the Leaders division heading into the final two weeks. Although Penn State holds the same distinction, the Lions must visit Ohio State and Wisconsin in their final two games.
With Rex Burkhead leading the way, Nebraska could make its first BCS appearance in a decade.
2. Nebraska is still alive for a BCS bid: One of the main reasons Nebraska's loss to Northwestern was so painful for Big Red fans -- besides the fact that it knocked the team out of first place in the Legends -- was because tough road games at Penn State and Michigan were up next. But the Huskers pulled off a 17-14 victory in State College under difficult circumstances, to set up a big showdown in Ann Arbor next week. Even if Michigan State goes on to Indianapolis, Nebraska would be in good shape for an at-large BCS bid if it won out and finished 10-2. In fact, that might be a better outcome than if the Huskers were to win the division but lose in the Big Ten title game. The losses by Boise State and Stanford on Saturday may have greatly enhanced the Big Ten's chances of getting an at-large BCS bid, and Nebraska's fan base will make it attractive to big bowls. If the Blackshirts defense can keep playing more like they did against Penn State than they did against Northwestern and Rex Burkhead continues leading the offensive charge, Bo Pelini's team could make its first BCS appearance in a decade.
3. Luke Fickell is back on the hot seat: Perhaps Fickell never left the hot seat, but he had helped his cause with three consecutive wins, highlighted by the Wisconsin triumph on Oct. 29. But Ohio State's loss Saturday at Purdue -- its second consecutive stumble in West Lafayette -- puts Fickell back in the crosshairs. The Buckeyes fell to 3-3 in Big Ten play and will have a tough time getting back in the Leaders division race with two weeks to play. Ohio State came out flat for the second consecutive week, falling behind 10-0 and 17-7. QB Braxton Miller nearly rescued the team again in the fourth quarter, but Purdue DT Bruce Gaston blocked a potential game-winning PAT try. It was a brutal way to lose, but Ohio State shouldn't have put itself in such a shaky position. After a brief reprieve, Fickell will be feeling the heat again this week.
4. Michigan's defense is carrying the team: Who would have thought this would be possible after watching the past three seasons in Ann Arbor? Michigan is leaning heavily on its defense right now and has for a good portion of the season. Mike Martin and the Wolverines held Illinois to minus-12 rush yards in the first half and just 37 for the game on 33 carries. The Michigan offense, meanwhile, is searching for greater consistency, especially from the quarterback position. The defense continued to bail out the offense at Illinois and bought enough time for the offense to get going. While Brady Hoke and his staff have to figure out what to do with Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, the coaches have undoubtedly make improvements on defense that should help Michigan reach a good bowl.
5. The bottom of the Big Ten's bowl picture is fuzzy: The race for the final few Big Ten bowl tie-ins got a lot more interesting Saturday. Purdue's upset of Ohio State moves Danny Hope's crew one win closer to becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. The Boilers could win out as they finish with Iowa and Indiana. Iowa, meanwhile, needs to avoid another late-season slide even though it already has reached the six-win plateau. The Hawkeyes, winless in Big Ten road games, finish at Purdue and at Nebraska. Northwestern won its third straight to return to the .500 mark. The Wildcats need only one more win to become bowl-eligible and finish with two home games (Minnesota, Michigan State). Illinois looked like a lock for a good bowl in early October after a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. But Ron Zook's crew continued its free-fall against Michigan and has dropped four straight.