Sunday, October 25, 2009
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 8
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from the week that was in the Big Ten.
1. Magical Hawkeyes still alive in the national title hunt: It came down to the final play at Spartan Stadium, but Iowa once again found a way to win and continue its perfect season. For the seventh time in eight games, the Hawkeyes came from behind as junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi led a 10-play, 70-yard scoring drive in the final 1:37. The defense was once again masterful, as end Adrian Clayborn recorded three tackles for loss (two sacks) and a forced fumble. The Hawkeyes are 8-0 for the first time in team history and own the nation's second-longest win streak. Iowa's final three home games look very winnable, though the Hawkeyes might need at least a blowout or two after winning just one game this season by more than 11 points. Their quest for perfection likely comes down to an Nov. 14 trip to Ohio State.
2. League title race likely down to three: The Big Ten race could have gotten pretty wild had Michigan State and Michigan pulled off upsets on Saturday. But Iowa's win and dominant performances by both Penn State and Ohio State decrease the likelihood that a team with two losses in league play can win the championship. Iowa remains in the driver's seat, though Ohio State can claim its fifth consecutive Big Ten title by winning out. Penn State needs to win out and hope Iowa loses twice in the final four weeks. The two decisive games likely come Nov. 7 (Ohio State at Penn State) and Nov. 14 (Iowa at Ohio State).
3. Penn State looks legit: Penn State needed to prove it could win at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1996. The nation's second-ranked scoring defense needed to prove it could shut down an offense ranked better than 79th in the FBS. Lions players needed to prove to head coach Joe Paterno that his positive feelings about them were true. Check, check and check. Penn State crushed Michigan 35-10 on Saturday, ending its Big House curse in convincing fashion. Quarterback Daryll Clark has been brilliant since the Iowa loss on Sept. 26, and the defense held Michigan to season lows in both yards (250) and points. Penn State seems to be improving each week and could get back to a BCS bowl by winning out.
4. Northwestern never gives up: Things haven't been easy for Pat Fitzgerald's crew this year. They've been decimated by injuries on defense, struggled to generate a run game and looked downright messy at times. But the team hasn't lost its ability to respond, a program pillar implemented by the late head coach Randy Walker. Down 28-3 to Indiana on homecoming, Northwestern never quit and rallied for the biggest comeback in team history. A depleted defense stood tall in the final three quarters, quarterback Mike Kafka showed resiliency despite three interceptions and the special teams overcame two big miscues to make plays down the stretch. Several questionable coaching decisions by Indiana helped matters, but Northwestern took a big step closer to another bowl game.
5. Ron Zook will be back as Illinois' head coach: At least according to his boss, athletic director Ron Guenther, who said he won't fire Zook despite a disastrous season. The decision isn't sitting well with Illinois fans, who have seen their talent-stocked team tumble from the Rose Bowl in 2007 to the Big Ten basement this fall. Wins and losses matter, but so do other factors, namely problems with the university's administration following an admissions scandal. Guenther said changes would be made in the football program, putting Zook's assistants on notice. Illinois is 1-6 with all of its losses by double digits.