- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let's look back at Week 3 before gearing up for a riveting slate of games Saturday in the Big Ten (sarcasm, people).
Team of the Week: Michigan State. After suffering a series of close losses in the past three years, Michigan State finally turned the tables -- against one of its top rivals, no less. A seesaw game featured some offensive fireworks on both sides, and for certain stretches, Michigan State achieved the type of offensive balance that could make it very dangerous when Big Ten play rolls around. But the Spartans once again seemed to wilt in the clutch as quarterback Kirk Cousins took some costly sacks. Notre Dame regained the momentum late in regulation and in overtime, but Michigan State changed everything with a gutsy fake field goal call that resulted in the game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass. Although coach Mark Dantonio's health setback put the celebration on pause, Michigan State has an opportunity to build off this win.
Best game: Notre Dame at Michigan State. The game featured four lead changes, 938 yards, 65 points and the most memorable play of the young college football season, as punter/holder Aaron Bates found tight end Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown on the fake field goal try in overtime. Quarterbacks Cousins and Dayne Crist both had their moments, as did receivers Michael Floyd and B.J. Cunningham. Just a very entertaining game between rivals. Honorable mentions go to Wisconsin-Arizona State, which featured several wild special-teams plays, and Iowa-Arizona, which featured a furious Hawkeyes rally from a 27-7 halftime deficit and an Arizona counterpunch in the clutch.
Biggest play: Isn't it obvious by now? No one expected the fake field goal, especially from a typically conservative coach like Dantonio. It was the right call at the right time and Bates, a former high school quarterback, deserves credit for going to his second read after Le'Veon Bell was covered. If Michigan State goes on to have a big season, we'll all point to this play. Wisconsin also received two huge special-teams plays from safeties Shelton Johnson and Jay Valai. Johnson tripped up Arizona State kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks at the 1-yard line as the second quarter clock expired, saving six points and a huge momentum swing going into halftime. The 5-foot-9 Valai showed off his hops by blocking the potential game-tying PAT attempt with 4:09 left as Wisconsin won 20-19.
Specialist spotlight: Bates had a huge night against Notre Dame, and his game-winning pass to Gantt overshadowed his prowess as a punter, as he averaged 45.4 yards on eight punts. Illinois punter Anthony Santella leads the nation in punting average (48.9 ypg) after averaging 48.7 yards per boot on Saturday against Northern Illinois. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts against Rice, and Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman averaged 43 yards on four punts and had one downed inside the 5-yard line against Arizona State.
Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):
Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks: Kendricks knew he'd have to step up Saturday as Wisconsin played without two of its top receivers (Nick Toon and David Gilreath). The senior tight end looked like a wide receiver again as he hauled in seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, even though he was interfered with in the end zone. He shares the game ball with quarterback Scott Tolzien (19-25 passing, 246 yards, 1 TD).
Michigan RB Michael Shaw: Denard Robinson didn't have to do it all against UMass as Shaw racked up career highs in both rushing yards (126) and touchdowns (3) on only 12 carries. He shares the game ball with Robinson, who had another big day, and receiver Darryl Stonum (3 receptions, 121 yards, 2 TDs).
Ohio State LB Ross Homan: Homan has carried over his stellar play from 2009 and continues to become one of the league's top defensive playmakers. The senior had seven solo tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Ohio. Kudos also go to fellow Buckeyes defender Tyler Moeller, who recorded his first career interception, a forced fumble and 1.5 tackles for loss.
Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Bell is the early leader for Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording his second 100-yard rushing performance in his first three collegiate games. The big man rumbled for 114 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Notre Dame. He shares the game ball with receiver B.J. Cunningham (7 receptions, 101 yards, TD) and fellow back Edwin Baker (14 carries, 90 rush yards, TD).
Northwestern LB Quentin Davie: The senior leads the Big Ten in interceptions after recording his third -- a pick-six, no less -- in Saturday night's blowout win at Rice. Davie recorded a game-high 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a pass breakup. He shares the game ball with defensive linemen Vince Browne, Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo, who combined for 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Purdue WR Cortez Smith: The Boilers need a No. 1 receiver to emerge after losing Keith Smith, and Cortez Smith looks reads to fill the void. He recorded five receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Ball State. He'll share the game ball with defenders Gerald Gooden (5 tackles, forced fumble, pass breakup), Kawann Short (two pass breakups, blocked PAT) and Jason Werner (INT, 1 TFL).
How bizarre: The league-wide special teams struggles as well as a few odd highlights stood out in Week 3. Who can remember the last time the Big Ten had so many meltdowns with punting, kicking, kickoff coverage and punt coverage? Then again, the three biggest plays on Saturday came in the kicking game: Michigan State's game-winning fake field goal, Johnson's touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return and Valai's PAT block to preserve a 20-19 lead.
OK, moving on to Week 4. Do we have to? I know it's my job to get your excited for Big Ten football 24-7-365, but this week provides a major challenge, to say the least.
Northern Colorado (2-1) at Michigan State (3-0): Spartans offensive coordinator Don Treadwell takes over the head-coaching duties from Mark Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack following the Notre Dame win. The Spartans look for a more complete defensive performance before Wisconsin visits on Oct. 2.
Central Michigan (2-1) at Northwestern (3-0): Northwestern aims for its second perfect nonconference mark in the past three seasons after going 35 years with at least one non-league loss. Central Michigan should test Davie and the Wildcats' defense, which has forced nine turnovers in the first three games.
Bowling Green (1-2) at Michigan (3-0): The Wolverines' sputtering defense likely won't face Falcons starting quarterback Matt Schilz, who isn't expected to play because of a shoulder injury. Michigan's offense will light up the scoreboard, but the D has to get better before Big Ten play.
Austin Peay (2-1) at Wisconsin (3-0): Yawn. If Wisconsin can't dominate the Governors (ello, guvna!), Badgers fans should get worried. This provides a good chance for the Badgers to assess their depth on both sides of the ball.
Ball State (1-2) at Iowa (2-1): Although the Cardinals hung in there at Purdue, Iowa should have no trouble Saturday. The bigger question is whether the Hawkeyes can clean up their play in the kicking game, on the offensive line and in the secondary after the Arizona loss.
Toledo (2-1) at Purdue (2-1): Quarterback Robert Marve's left knee injury doesn't appear to be serious, and the Boilers need to get No. 9 through this game and into the bye week without further setbacks. Arizona shredded Toledo's defense in the season opener, and Purdue should have opportunities to further develop a receiving corps missing star Keith Smith.
Eastern Michigan (0-3) at Ohio State (3-0): The Buckeyes could score 70 in this one. I'm not kidding. Eastern Michigan has surrendered 111 points in its first three games.
Temple (3-0) at Penn State (2-1): This is the most interesting game in the Big Ten. Temple heads to State College with a ton of confidence as coach Al Golden might be auditioning for the Nittany Lions' faithful. Penn State's running back race now is open as slumping senior Evan Royster tries to hold off junior Stephfon Green and dynamic freshman Silas Redd. Should be a good one in Happy Valley.
Akron (0-3) at Indiana (2-0): Ben Chappell and the Hoosiers' offense likely will carve up another bad team Saturday, as Akron has been blown out by Syracuse and Kentucky and lost at home to Gardner-Webb (ouch). The bigger question is whether the Hoosiers' defense can shut down the Zips.
Northern Illinois (1-2) at Minnesota (1-2): It's must-win time for embattled coach Tim Brewster and his Golden Gophers, who performed a lot better Saturday against USC but still couldn't finish off a good team. Northern Illinois will test Minnesota's new-look defense with quarterback Chandler Harnish, and Minnesota needs to reignite the run game despite Duane Bennett's ankle issues.
Bye: Illinois (2-1)