Sunday, November 3, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 10
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Lessons learned from a (finally) full day of conference action:
1. Mark Dantonio's Spartans own the state: The buzz around the Big Ten during the offseason was that Ohio State and Michigan soon would separate themselves, creating a Big 2-Little 10 dynamic in the conference. While both programs are recruiting at a nationally elite level, only Ohio State is translating the talent into tangible progress. Michigan fell to Michigan State on Saturday for the fifth time in six years, and the gulf between the two programs is unmistakable.
Connor Cook has stabilized the Spartans offense, making Michigan State a Big Ten title contender.
Michigan State appears on its way to a second Legends Division title in three seasons, showing that last season's struggles are the exception more than the rule under Dantonio. Much like his mentor Jim Tressel did at Ohio State, Dantonio is mastering Michigan right now. The Spartans' defense, elite for the past few years, has reached another level this season, and a dormant offense has awakened behind quarterback Connor Cook. Michigan State is in control of the Legends Division and appears to be on a collision course with Ohio State.
Michigan still can spoil the Buckeyes' national title hopes later this month, but the Wolverines continue to fall short of their self-imposed standard for success: a Big Ten championship.
2. Some programs just seem snake-bitten: We don't believe in curses or anything like that, but it sure seems like some programs are the victims of voodoo. How else to explain how Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern keep finding incredible ways to lose?
The Illini shot themselves in the foot over and over again at Penn State but still had the lead and the ball after a Bill Belton fumble near the Illinois goal line with 3:23 left. They lost in overtime.
Indiana, after trailing Minnesota 35-13, rallied to take a 39-35 lead. The Hoosiers then trailed 42-39 in the final minute and had the ball on the Gophers' 9-yard line. They tried a pass to running back Tevin Coleman, which ended up being a lateral that Coleman dropped and gave up on. Minnesota scooped the ball up to survive.
And Northwestern suffered the biggest heartbreaker, giving up a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp on the game's final play. Remember when Northwestern thrived in the clutch? Not anymore.
Learning to win is a skill, and Indiana and Illinois -- the latter of which has lost 18 straight Big Ten games -- still haven't mastered that. We thought Northwestern had, but the Wildcats have lost five straight games now and have been hit the hardest by injuries of any league team. Makes you almost believe in curses.
Jeff Heuerman had his best game of the season as Ohio State's offense dominated Purdue.
3. Ohio State is kicking things up a notch: OK, so it was only against Purdue, which looks like one of the worst Big Ten teams we've seen in the past several years. Still, it's impossible not to notice that Ohio State seems to have found another gear in the past couple of weeks. For the second straight week, the Buckeyes scored 42 points in the first half en route to a 56-0 trouncing of the Boilermakers. Urban Meyer's team has won its last two games by a combined score of 119-14.
Much of that can be credited to the improvement of Braxton Miller as a passer; he has thrown seven touchdown passes with only 10 incompletions his past two games. The defense has been stifling as well. Yes, the competition hasn't been stellar, but remember that Ohio State historically has had trouble against Purdue and hadn't really dominated anybody in the Big Ten. But this team appears to be hitting its stride now and making a statement to those who doubt it belongs in the national title discussion.
4. Wisconsin can win without its stars: When Wisconsin has had success this year, it usually has happened by riding stars like Melvin Gordon, Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers proved they're a complete team in a 28-9 win at Iowa.
Borland didn't play because of a bum hamstring. Gordon rushed for a season-low 62 yards. Abbrederis had only 30 receiving yards and left the game after catching a third-quarter touchdown pass. Still, Wisconsin's defense held the Hawkeyes to only 289 yards and no touchdowns, while the offense chipped away until breaking free late, thanks to senior James White's 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns. It was a defensive slog most of the afternoon, but a team like the Badgers with BCS bowl hopes has to win some games like that along the way.
Meanwhile, Iowa just wishes it had a few offensive stars. The Hawkeyes' defense is very good, but a complete lack of explosiveness on the other side of the ball ultimately limits this team's potential.
5. Minnesota is in the thick of the Legends Division race: We talked last week about Minnesota being a great story. The Gophers are more than that now. They've won three straight games to improve to 7-2 (3-2 conference). While they trail Michigan State by two games in the standings, they do play the Spartans in the final week of the season. Next week's home game against Penn State, which has played valiantly at home but very shaky on the road, is entirely winnable.
We're not saying Minnesota is going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. The Gophers still have some issues, and the team did not handle a huge lead at Indiana very well. But the mere fact that the Gophers are even still in the discussion for the division crown is a testament to what the players and coaching staff have accomplished under difficult circumstances.