Sunday, October 28, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 9
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Lessons learned from Week 9 in the Big Ten:
1. The Big Ten is the league of second chances: Nebraska's season seemed headed down the tubes after it allowed 63 points to Ohio State on Oct. 6 in Columbus. The Huskers also were on life support down 12 points to Northwestern midway through the fourth quarter on Oct. 20. Look at them now: tied for the lead in the Legends division but holding tiebreakers against both of their top two challengers, Michigan and Northwestern. The Big Ten is a bad league in 2012, but it's also a league of second chances. Nebraska has capitalized on its new life but must keep it going this coming Saturday at Michigan State, which finally showed an offensive pulse in rallying past Wisconsin. Michigan and Wisconsin got knocked down after losing their starting quarterbacks, and it'll be challenging for both teams in the coming weeks. But to write anyone off -- aside from Illinois and Purdue -- seems silly in this silly league. Nebraska is control for now. Wisconsin's grasp on the Leaders division could be loosening a bit. Northwestern is still hanging around. So are others. Aside from Ohio State, every Big Ten team has been knocked to the mat a few times this season. But entering the season's most important month, most are still standing.
2. Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten: There was a shred of doubt about this, at least outside Columbus, as Ohio State came to State College, Pa., after two shaky wins against the Indiana schools and took on a red-hot Penn State team that had captured five wins in a row. But on a big stage in a hostile environment, Braxton Miller and the 9-0 Buckeyes made it clear that they're the best team in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State overcame a slow start and a special-teams miscue and took control thanks to Miller and a stout defense that received big plays from linebacker Ryan Shazier and others. Urban Meyer's team made its loudest statement of the season against a surging team playing before a raucous crowd. It's too bad the Buckeyes won't be playing in Indianapolis or Pasadena this season -- the OSU administration has itself to blame for that -- but the chase for a perfect regular season shifts into high gear. Ohio State should handle Illinois easily next week before closing the season with Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (home). The push for perfection and Miller's Heisman campaign should be fun to watch the rest of the way.
Montee Ball and heretofore-resurgent Wisconsin lost some luster Saturday but still look good for Indy.
3. Forget a marquee matchup in Indy: Hope had started to flicker lately that the Big Ten championship game could actually feature a pretty appealing matchup, thanks to Wisconsin's recent resurgence. Well, Michigan State put the brakes on that talk by going into Madison and winning in overtime while holding the Badgers to just one touchdown. Now 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference, Wisconsin doesn't deserve to be ranked, yet it still almost certainly will reach Indianapolis by default in the probation-riddled Leaders division. With reports that quarterback Joel Stave (collarbone) could be lost for the season, this team could struggle in its final three games at improving Indiana, versus Ohio State and at Penn State. In fact, it's not outrageous to suggest that Wisconsin could wind up 6-6 and make it to Indy. The Badgers may still finish strong, and they basically have a one-game season to go to the Rose Bowl. There just isn't much hope of the Big Ten title game staging a marquee matchup.
4. Northwestern needs to stay grounded: We have grown accustomed to Northwestern slinging the ball around the gridiron with quarterbacks like Dan Persa and Mike Kafka. But that's not the best formula for success with this year's team. The Wildcats are most dangerous when they have Kain Colter and Venric Mark in the backfield together running wild. Coach Pat Fitzgerald mostly ditched the quarterback rotation with Trevor Siemian and gave Colter the ball on Saturday against Iowa. Colter and Mark combined to run for 328 yards on 42 carries (7.8 yards per carry), while Mark became the school's first 1,000-yard back since 2006 in the process. Northwestern threw only 10 passes all day yet won 28-17 in a game that shouldn't have been that close. You wonder whether the Wildcats would have been able to close out Penn State and Nebraska in the fourth quarter if they had stayed committed to the ground attack with their best two athletes. No sense looking backward now, but Northwestern should continue what worked Saturday as it moves forward.
5. The arrow is pointed up for Indiana, Minnesota: No one can get too excited about a win over Illinois or Purdue these days. Still, Indiana's road win against the Illini and Minnesota's home domination of the Boilers could be turning points for the respective programs. Both teams identified freshman quarterbacks -- Indiana's Nate Sudfeld, Minnesota's Philip Nelson -- who spark the offense and spread the ball to talented receivers like Minnesota's A.J. Barker (135 receiving yards, 2 TDs against Purdue) and Indiana's triple threat of Kofi Hughes, Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn. Indiana has competed well all season, losing four of its games by four points or fewer, and might have just needed the experience of finishing out a win. The offense is legit: IU has scored at least 27 points in all six games versus FBS competition and has eclipsed 30 points five times. Minnesota's improvement on defense has been noticeable this season, and cornerback Michael Carter came up big against Purdue (pick-six, 6 PBUs). But Nelson provided the biggest boost, firing three first-half touchdown passes and completing 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards. Minnesota's offense finally started to score after putting up 13 points in each of its first three Big Ten games. Jerry Kill's squad is a win from bowl eligibility, while Kevin Wilson's team has a lot of work left. But the future of both programs looks promising.