Sunday, October 24, 2010
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 8
By Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from another wild week in Big Ten football.
1. Michigan State is firmly in the driver's seat: Not only are the Spartans still the Big Ten's only undefeated team, but they're the only squad without a loss in league play. Michigan State's November schedule is manageable -- home games against Minnesota and Purdue, and a trip to Penn State. If the Spartans can survive another tough road game this week at Iowa, they have a very realistic shot of running the table. Mark Dantonio's team learned Saturday what it's like to play with a target on its back, and the Spartans still found a way to win after falling behind 17-0 early. If Michigan State drops a Big Ten game, the race gets complicated. But right now, the Spartans remain in control of their own destiny.
2. Wisconsin has taken the jump from good to great: After being the poster child for very good the last decade, Wisconsin has moved into the ranks of the elite with back-to-back victories against Ohio State and Iowa. You can no longer knock Bret Bielema for failing to win the big game -- home or on the road -- and the Badgers have the most manageable remaining schedule of any of the league's top four teams. Wisconsin overcame injuries to key offensive playmakers James White and Lance Kendricks and came up big multiple times in the clutch to rally past Iowa. The Badgers now become big Iowa fans this week as the Hawkeyes take on Michigan State.
3. Big Ten coaches are gamblers: Forget Chris Petersen, Chip Kelly and even Lucky Les, whose luck ran out Saturday. There are some risk-taking coaches in the Big Ten, too. Michigan State's Dantonio and Wisconsin's Bielema both rolled the dice with fake punts in the fourth quarters of games that their teams trailed, and both men hit the jackpot. It takes some bold moves to reach BCS bowls, and Dantonio has made two: "Little Giants" and now "Mousetrap." Bielema had an even gutsier call as he went for the fake on fourth-and-4 deep inside Wisconsin territory with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter.
4. The Vest is a master at revenge: You don't want to face Jim Tressel after Ohio State loses a game. Purdue learned this lesson the hard way Saturday, as Ohio State jumped ahead to a 42-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 49-0 win. The Buckeyes never gave the Boilers a chance at a second consecutive victory, holding Purdue to nine first downs and only 118 total yards. Ohio State is now 20-2 after losses under Tressel and hasn't dropped consecutive games since a three-game slide during the 2004 season, the last time the Buckeyes didn't win or share the Big Ten championship. Since 2004, the Buckeyes have won seven straight Big Ten games against teams that had beaten them in the previous meeting. By the way, Ohio State remains very much in the Big Ten title race.
5. Illinois could have big second half: Ron Zook's squad started a manageable second-half schedule on a good note, capitalizing on a flurry of Indiana mistakes in a 43-13 victory. The offense managed only 289 yards, but Illinois continued to come up big on both defense and special teams. Linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive tackle Corey Liuget are blossoming, and Indiana has turned the kicking game from a weakness into a strength, blocking two punts, one through the end zone for a safety. Illinois' remaining schedule includes no ranked teams, so eight or nine wins are certainly possible.