Monday, December 5, 2011
Weekend rewind: Big Ten
By Brian Bennett
Let's review Week 14 in the Big Ten. If you don't know what the team of the week and the game of the week were, then I can't help you.
Biggest play: Russell Wilson's 36-yard prayer was answered by Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-six from the Michigan State 43 with about four minutes left in the Big Ten title game. Duckworth had two defenders around him but still managed to come down with the ball. Duckworth had only 12 catches in the regular season but hauled in three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the championship game.
Biggest call: Obviously, the 5-yard running-into-the-punter penalty on Isaiah Lewis that gave Wisconsin a first down and allowed the Badgers to go into the victory formation. Adam Rittenberg broke it all down here. What really stings for Michigan State is that Keshawn Martin returned the punt all the way inside the Wisconsin 5, though we'll never know if that return plays out the same way without Wisconsin players seeing the flag on the carpet.
The question of the season: Where would the Badgers be without quarterback Russell Wilson?
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said it was his call to go after the punt, a totally understandable decision given the Badgers' problems with punt protection this year. But Wisconsin was also punting from its own 26 with 1:57 left, and the Spartans had their most dangerous player ready for the return. Even if Martin doesn't get much yardage, he caught Brad Nortman's punt on his own 34. Michigan State would have needed to go about 30 yards with no timeouts left to get in position for a long field goal try. There's no guarantee of that happening, but Kirk Cousins and the offense had moved the ball well all night.
It's a play that will haunt the Spartans all offseason. And it's another reason why I'm glad I'm not a coach.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Russell Wilson. The Wisconsin quarterback capped a spectacular season by earning Big Ten championship game MVP honors. Once again, he showed great poise in a crucial spot, completing 12 of his 15 passes in the second half for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Where would the Badgers be without him?
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen. The sophomore had a career-high three sacks, four tackles for loss and nine total tackles in an impressive performance. He should enter 2012 as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nortman. He was big in flipping field position for Wisconsin, averaging 45 yards on five punts, including a 54-yarder. And his little extra acting on the penalty sure didn't hurt.
Best bowl matchup: Wisconsin vs. Oregon. These are two teams that are talented enough to be playing for the national title and have to be considered the best two-loss teams in America. Both have ridiculous offenses, including two of the top running backs in the country in LaMichael James and Montee Ball. The news conferences with Bret Bielema and Chip Kelly alone make it worth going to Pasadena.
Best non-BCS bowl matchup: Nebraska vs. South Carolina. A sneaky good game between the 9-3 Huskers and the 10-2 Gamecocks. Both teams have flaws -- Nebraska's defense doesn't always show up, and South Carolina's offense is likewise inconsistent at best -- but both also have a lot of athletes and speed. The Cornhuskers can prove their worth to the Big Ten by beating an SEC team.
Dumbest matchup: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech. The Hokies in a BCS game? Really? They beat no one of value in the nonconference schedule and were blown out twice by the best team they played, Clemson. Virginia Tech never wins BCS games unless it can play a mediocre Big East team. The Allstate Sugar Bowl had a chance to match Michigan up with Boise State or Kansas State or Baylor to create some buzz but chose to go with a game few will care about.
Best bet-the-over game: Northwestern vs. Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Both teams have excellent quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill for Texas A&M and Dan Persa for the Wildcats -- and bad defenses. Whatever the over/under will be is probably not enough.
Toughest matchup: Iowa vs. Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes did not prove this year that they could beat top-flight competition, especially away from home. They could have a very difficult time against the Sooners, who were overrated all year but still have a ton of talent. Iowa's best hope is that Oklahoma -- which was in the mix for a BCS bowl -- isn't motivated for this one.
Luckiest bowl team: Illinois. You could make a strong case for the Illini not going to a bowl, with their six-game losing streak, disinterested fans and unsettled coaching situation. Despite not getting included in the Big Ten's bowl lineup, Illinois will go to San Francisco to play a highly-beatable, 6-7 UCLA team. While it's very questionable how many Illinois fans will make the long trip out West for this game, would you rather be in San Francisco on New Year's Eve playing a Pac-12 team or be in Detroit on Dec. 27 against Western Michigan like Purdue?
Best quote to remember: "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Just keep repeating Clint Eastwood's line in "Unforgiven" whenever you complain about bowls. Did Michigan deserve a BCS bid over Michigan State, who finished ahead of the Wolverines in the Legends Division and thumped their rivals by two touchdowns? No. Did a 9-3 Penn State team deserve to slide all the way down to the TicketCity Bowl? Of course not. Did 6-6 Ohio State, which lost to Penn State, deserve to go to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl? Heck no.
Always keep in mind that the BCS is set up only to pit the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams (and it doesn't even get that right every time). Virtually every other bowl is an exhibition game put on by a city to boost tourism. That's it. Nothing more. It's preposterous that schools allow their most valuable property -- the postseason -- to be run by some chamber of commerce in a distant city and will eagerly agree to outrageous ticket guarantees that amount to little more than blackmail.
But that's the system we have. And deserve's got nothin' to do with it.