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Sunday, October 23, 2011
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 8

By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Russell Wilson
Wisconsin's bid for a national championship, along with Russell Wilson's Heisman hopes, were all dashed in the Badgers' loss to Michigan State.
1. The Big Ten isn't coming to the BCS title party -- again: No Big Ten team has won a national title since Ohio State upset Miami in 2002. The league hasn't participated in the BCS title game since 2007. That drought will continue. Wisconsin was the league's best championship hope as its last undefeated team heading into Week 8, but the Badgers lost to Michigan State 37-31 in a thriller. It was the type of loss -- complete with a Hail Mary ending -- some teams can overcome and still get back to the top, and Wisconsin could still avenge the defeat in a Big Ten title game rematch. But the reality is that the Badgers were only No. 6 in the first BCS standings anyway, and they've got too much competition nationally to make it to New Orleans for the title game. Michigan State fans can think about what might have been if the Spartans hadn't lost to Notre Dame earlier this season. But for 2011 -- again -- the Rose Bowl will be the ceiling for the Big Ten. (Oh, and the league isn't bringing home a Heisman Trophy, either, as Russell Wilson's candidacy sleeps with the fishes).

2. Michigan State-Nebraska is extra important: Michigan State has some serious mojo going after beating Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin in three consecutive games. The Spartans' tests aren't over, as they'll have to find a way to win a fourth-straight, high-stakes showdown in Week 9 at Nebraska. This one is arguably even more important than the Wisconsin game because it's a division matchup. If the Spartans can prevail in Lincoln, they will be the overwhelming favorites to win the Legends Division, since their remaining games (Minnesota, at Iowa, Indiana, at Northwestern) look very manageable. On the flip side, the Cornhuskers will gain the inside edge on the division crown if they can derail Michigan State's momentum.

3. Wisconsin isn't guaranteed to get to Indy: Sounds weird to say, because the Badgers were so dominant in the first half of the season that everyone penciled them into the Dec. 3 league championship game. But right now, Wisconsin doesn't even lead the Leaders. Your new first place team in that division is Penn State, which remains undefeated in conference play and is 7-1 overall after Saturday's win at Northwestern. Many people still doubt the Nittany Lions, but they keep on winning. The long-dormant offense is showing signs of life, with the offensive line getting more physical and Silas Redd putting together four consecutive games of at least 125 rushing yards. The Nittany Lions' schedule is tough the next four weeks, and they'll have to find a way to beat Wisconsin in the season finale at Madison. But now it's the Badgers who are playing catch up. Heck, even Ohio State isn't out of the picture yet. If the Buckeyes win out and get another loss from Penn State, they can make it to Indy.

4. Boilers, Illini headed in opposite directions: A Purdue team seemingly headed toward another bowl-less season showed life last week against Penn State and then took a big step Saturday by beating No. 23 Illinois. The Boilers have discovered their quarterback in Caleb TerBush, who leads an innovative offense, and their defense pressured Illinois all day. While the schedule gets much tougher in the coming weeks, Purdue shouldn't be overlooked. Two more wins and the Boilers should go bowling for the first time since 2007. Illinois, meanwhile, is backsliding after its best start since 1951. The Nathan Scheelhaase-led offense has produced just 21 points in the past two weeks, and things don't get much easier next week at Penn State. Could Illinois be headed for a second-half collapse? Stay tuned.

5. Some quarterback clarity emerges: About half the league has been juggling quarterbacks this season, but the position appeared to come into focus in Week 8. Matt McGloin finally got a start for Penn State after outplaying Rob Bolden for several weeks, and McGloin went the distance in the Lions' 34-24 win at Northwestern. It's hard to see how Joe Paterno goes back to Bolden as his starter now. Purdue also stuck with one guy, playing TerBush all the way against Illinois instead of splitting his reps with Robert Marve. TerBush led the Boilermakers to the 21-14 win and was very efficient. Indiana used its third different starting quarterback of the season while turning to true freshman Tre Roberson. While the Hoosiers lost again, Roberson showed promise and an ability to move the team on long drives with his arm and legs. Minnesota also played MarQueis Gray exclusively against Nebraska instead of trying Max Shortell, though the Gophers have far more problems than who's under center. Perhaps the quarterback questions at all three places will stop -- at least until the next bad performance.