Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Buckle up; it's going to be a wild second-half ride: Big Ten football isn't always pretty. Big 12 fans probably don't even recognize the low-scoring league play as the same sport they watch. But we can say this about the conference: It's not boring. A lack of separation between most of the teams means close games every week. In fact, three Big Ten games Saturday came down to the last or almost last snap: Michigan's 12-10 win over Michigan State, Nebraska's 29-28 squeaker over Northwestern and Ohio State's improbable 29-22 overtime comeback victory over Purdue. Indiana even went down to the wire in a 31-30 loss to Navy. This is likely what we can expect over the final month and a half of the season, with unpredictable results and an exciting league race, especially in the Legends Division. That might not be as thrilling as watching a national championship chase, but it will keep Big Ten fans' hearts pounding.
2. Ohio State is overdue for a loss: All credit to Urban Meyer's team for staging Holy Buckeye 2 -- pulling out a win over Purdue despite trailing by eight with a minute to go and backup Kenny Guiton in. Ohio State has shown terrific resolve this season in finding ways to win every week. But doing that for 12 weeks seems unlikely. The Buckeyes' over-reliance on Braxton Miller's brilliance very nearly cost them against a struggling Boilermakers squad. Luckily, Miller's injury does not appear to be as serious as it looked, although we don't know for sure what his status will be for this next game at Penn State. Still, he was mostly held in check when he was in the game, and the Buckeyes' offense stalled as a result. Any long-term injury likely will spell doom, even though Guiton has greatly improved. And while the Ohio State defense played better, it still gave up an 83-yard touchdown on the first play, allowed some long Purdue drives and is perilously thin. It seems like only a matter of time before all this catches up with the 8-0 Buckeyes in a loss. The only question is, which Big Ten team (or teams) is good enough to make them pay?
3. Collision courses set for Oct. 27: Saturday's results set up what looks like the best weekend of the Big Ten season. Michigan and Nebraska both showed grit to survive difficult tests, making their meeting in Lincoln a crucial one for the Legends Division race. With Iowa and Northwestern losing, the Wolverines and Huskers stand as the top two teams in the division, and they have an intriguing game on tap. Nebraska's high-scoring offense, which is even more potent at home, will try to top Michigan's rapidly improving defense. Denard Robinson versus Taylor Martinez is a marquee matchup. Neither Penn State nor Ohio State can make it to the Big Ten title game, but they can win the Leaders title and might just be the best two teams in the league, not just the division. They'll square off in State College in what should be a highly charged atmosphere. Add in the renewal of the recent rivalry between Wisconsin and Michigan State and a do-or-die Legends game between Northwestern and Iowa, and you can see why the Saturday before Halloween should be scary good.
4. Bill O'Brien might be national coach of the year: O'Brien has done a wonderful job under incredibly tough, unprecedented circumstances at Penn State. But he's not just a uniter; he's a heck of an X's and O's guy, too. Look what he did with two weeks to prepare for Iowa. The Nittany Lions came out and completely dismantled the Hawkeyes, racing out to a 31-0 lead en route to a 38-14 victory on the road. O'Brien has turned Matt McGloin into one of the very best quarterbacks in the Big Ten and made a Penn State offense that was stale for a long time into one of the most potent in the league. The Lions have won five straight games and are trending way upward. Other coaches, such as Duke's David Cutcliffe and Kansas State's Bill Snyder, will receive lots of support for the award. But none had to deal with as many different things as O'Brien has, which is why he'd get our vote as the national coach of the year.
5. The Indiana teams just can't put it all together: After flat-lining on its home field the previous two weeks, Purdue looked like a different team for the first 55 minutes or so against Ohio State. The Boilers' defense, which had surrendered 771 rush yards in losses to Michigan and Wisconsin, stepped up, and the Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) led big plays on offense and special teams. But Purdue somehow couldn't hold on to a 22-14 lead with Miller knocked out of the game, losing a great chance to get back in the Leaders Division race. For embattled Boilers coach Danny Hope, this could have been his third win against Ohio State in five seasons. But a Purdue team that always seems to make a few too many major mistakes had both an extra point and a field goal attempt blocked, threw an interception in the end zone, and should have been up by way more than six points at halftime. Although Purdue's schedule gets a bit easier the rest of the way, it's hard to see how the Boilers will recover from this. Meanwhile, Indiana seems to be playing horseshoes, hoping close is good enough. The Hoosiers have been right there in the fourth quarter of each of their past five games but have lost them all. Saturday's 31-30 defeat at Navy was their fourth loss by three points or fewer. What's worse is that they led 17-7 early and 30-21 in the fourth quarter but couldn't close out. Kevin Wilson's offense has scored at least 27 points in each of its past six games but has only a 2-5 record to show for it. Until Indiana can tighten up on defense and finish off games, it will continue to roost in the Big Ten cellar.