Sunday, November 11, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Lessons learned from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
1. A Wisconsin-Nebraska title game looks very likely: Wisconsin and Nebraska opened the Big Ten season under the lights in Lincoln on Sept. 29. The Badgers and Huskers likely will close out the conference season Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Wisconsin punched its ticket for the Big Ten title game Saturday by crushing Indiana 62-14. Montee Ball and the Badgers rushed for a team-record 564 yards -- the highest total in Big Ten play since 1975 -- and completed a rough road back to Indy with a very easy final leg. Nebraska and Michigan remain tied atop the Legends division, but the Huskers' hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and took a big step toward Lucas Oil Stadium with another come-from-behind victory Saturday against Penn State. Nebraska once again overcame mistakes and turned in a big second half to remain perfect at home this season. If the Huskers take care of Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road, they'll head to Indianapolis, regardless of what Michigan does in its final two games. These two teams provided plenty of excitement in their first meeting, and it looks like they'll be reuniting in three weeks.
Pat Fitzgerald has seen his Northwestern squad blow double-digit leads in each of its three losses.
2. Northwestern's late-game problems are an epidemic: Northwestern still calls itself the "Cardiac Cats" and touts its long-term record in close games (32-13 in games decided by seven points or fewer since 2004), but blown leads have been a problem throughout Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, and they've been magnified this season. The Wildcats have squandered double-digit second-half leads in each of their three losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan). The most painful collapse arrived Saturday as Northwestern outplayed Michigan for most of the way but couldn't knock down a desperation pass to Roy Roundtree (or interfere with Roundtree, which might have been just as good) that set up the game-tying field goal. There have been different explanations for each blown lead -- not having top cornerback Nick VanHoose might have cost Northwestern two games -- but Fitzgerald's late-game strategy should be called into question. There have been too many games like this under his watch, and until something shifts, Northwestern won't get over the hump. This is a young Wildcats team that has overachieved to a degree, but the season will be one filled with missed opportunities.
3. Iowa is staring at a lost season: It has been a season of low points for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. The first arrived in Week 4, when they blew a late lead and fell to a woeful Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. The next came a month later, as Penn State turned a much-anticipated night game at Kinnick into an offensive and defensive clinic. More misery arrived the next two weeks, but Iowa managed to find a new low Saturday against a Purdue team that had dropped five straight and had been blown out four times in the Big Ten. Purdue gave Iowa opportunities with three turnovers, but the Hawkeyes couldn't cash in nearly enough, continuing a season-long theme, and lost 27-24. Iowa is plus-11 in turnover margin this season, among the national leaders, and sits at 4-6. That's very hard to do, and underscores Iowa's problems on offense. With upcoming games against Michigan (road) and Nebraska (home), Iowa is staring at a 4-8 season, which would be its worst under Ferentz since a 3-9 campaign in 2001. Tough times right now in Hawkeye Country.
4. The Big Ten's bowl contingent now could be growing: The Week 10 lessons noted that the Big Ten could have as few as five teams in the postseason this season, its lowest number since 1998. That still could be the case, but things changed a bit after Purdue scored an upset victory at Iowa and Minnesota ensured it will be bowling for the first times since 2009 after a victory at Illinois. As poorly as Purdue has played in the Big Ten, the Boilers still have a very realistic chance to get to 6-6, which is all you need this season in the Big Ten. Danny Hope's crew must beat Illinois on the road and Indiana at home, which doesn't seem overly daunting after the way the Hoosiers performed against Wisconsin. To their credit, the Boilers dominated Iowa at Kinnick Stadium and wouldn't have needed a last-second field goal to win if not for three turnovers. Perhaps Purdue can finish strong. Minnesota rode defense and Donnell Kirkwood to the six-win plateau, notching a crucial win before a tough closing stretch (at Nebraska, Michigan State). If Michigan State beats Northwestern on Saturday, five of the six Legends division teams will be bowling.
5. The Big Ten has an officiating problem: Crisis is probably too strong a word, but at the very least, the Big Ten has an image issue with its officiating after the past several weeks. Michigan State coaches and players were livid with some of the late-game calls in the loss against Nebraska, particularly a pass-interference penalty near the end zone at the end of the game. Michigan and Minnesota also griped about pass-interference interpretations, while Penn State has felt like it has gotten the short end of the stick a lot this year, especially with a lack of holding calls versus Ohio State. Frustrations boiled over for the Nittany Lions on a controversial fumble ruling late in Saturday's loss to Nebraska, which led quarterback Matt McGloin to suggest an officiating conspiracy against Penn State. That's taking things a little too far, but Big Ten officiating has some credibility issues right now. It would be nice if the league would issue some sort of statements about the most controversial calls, but the Big Ten prefers to handle such things in-house. The conference needs to make sure its officiating house is in order going forward.