Sunday, November 20, 2011
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Lessons learned from the penultimate week of the regular season in the Big Ten:
1. Michigan State is on a mission: The Spartans became the first team to clinch a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game by whipping struggling Indiana 55-3. Mark Dantonio's team has been focused and explosive since an Oct. 29 loss at Nebraska, averaging 41 points per game in three straight wins. Granted, those performances came against three shaky defenses in Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana. But Michigan State doesn't need a ton of offense to win when its defense plays at its best, and if Kirk Cousins continues to manage the game well at quarterback, the Spartans will be tough to beat. While Dantonio won't let his team simply sleepwalk through next week's now-meaningless game at Northwestern, his staff can start to peek ahead and prepare for either Penn State or Wisconsin, who will have to play a knock-down, drag-out, high-stakes game in Madison. The road is set up nicely for the Spartans to make their first Rose Bowl since 1988. At least they know it's all in their hands.
Brady Hoke has the Wolverines well positioned for a BCS bowl berth.
2. The Brady Hoke era is a smash hit so far: The one thing missing from Michigan's résumé was a marquee win. The Wolverines got one, at least as far as the 2011 Big Ten season goes, by crushing Nebraska 45-17 on Saturday. Not only are the Wolverines 9-2, but they've stayed strong throughout the season, and their defensive improvement can no longer be considered merely a fluke or the result of a weak schedule. Hoke's first season has a good chance of ending in a BCS bowl with an at-large bid if he can engineer a streak-busting win over Ohio State next week. After losses by Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Oregon over the weekend, a 10-2 Maize and Blue would be virtually assured of going to the Allstate Sugar or Tostitos Fiesta bowl, as those games would love to see the hungry Michigan fans fill up their city's hotel rooms. Even if not, this season has been an unqualified success.
3. Penn State's coaches are playing it bold: Rather than go into a shell during a time of crisis, Penn State's coaches are pushing the envelope. Penn State incorporated an effective Wildcat package into its offense Saturday with Curtis Drake and Bill Belton and had tremendous success in racking up 239 rush yards on 39 carries. Interim coach Tom Bradley also went for a fourth-and-goal at the Ohio State 1-yard line rather than take a two-score lead. Despite coaches changing responsibilities, numerous off-field distractions and an uncertain future, the Penn State staff produced an innovative, aggressive game plan against Ohio State. Bradley and his assistants will need an even better plan this week at Wisconsin as Penn State plays for a Leaders division title. The coaches say they still have some more tricks up their sleeves, and after Saturday, we'd better believe them.
4. Ron Zook is in big trouble: Saturday's game against Wisconsin had the feel of a circle-the-wagons game for Illinois. Zook walked out of his news conference earlier in the week when asked about his future, and his team came out with a lot of energy early on Senior Day, desperate to snap a four-game losing streak. The Illini led 17-7 at halftime and looked to have the Badgers on the ropes. But much like its season as a whole, Illinois collapsed in the second half, getting outscored 21-0 for a 28-17 loss. A sloppy four-turnover day didn't do much to inspire confidence, and the Illini must win at Minnesota next week to avoid going from 6-0 to 6-6. New athletic director Mike Thomas might not have made up his mind on Zook's future job status yet, but this latest setback certainly didn't help Zook's cause.
5. Iowa and Northwestern are in good bowl shape: With a potential 10 bowl-eligible teams and no guarantee of a second BCS bid, the Big Ten might be seeking a home for some of its schools this postseason. Iowa and Northwestern should feel good about bowling somewhere. The Hawkeyes secured their seventh win of the season with a strong offensive showing at Purdue in a 31-21 win. Iowa will have a chance next week at Nebraska if James Vandenberg, Marvin McNutt and Marcus Coker continue to produce yards and touchdowns, but even a 7-5 Hawkeyes club will be attractive to bowls because of its fan base. Northwestern beat Minnesota to clinch bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season. With four straight wins and a marketable player in Dan Persa, the Wildcats should get an invite no matter what happens next week against Michigan State. The two teams that might need to worry are Illinois, which has no momentum or fan enthusiasm at all, and Purdue, which still must beat Indiana next week just to get to 6-6. The Boilermakers haven't won back-to-back games all season and lost on Senior Day in a mistake-filled performance.