Sunday, November 4, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 10
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
1. Nebraska remains in the Legends driver's seat: Nebraska survived its toughest remaining road test -- barely. The Huskers drove 80 yards in the final 80 seconds to score the winning touchdown and escape with a 28-24 victory at Michigan State. We've written in the past that Nebraska needed to win a crucial league game on the road to become a legitimate Big Ten power. Well, coming back from double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against both Northwestern and Michigan State was pretty good. Quarterback Taylor Martinez can be a frustrating player at times, but he also has been clutch several times this season. Bo Pelini's team still must deal with a very tough Penn State squad in Week 11. But the game is in Lincoln, where the Huskers play extremely well. If they can get through that one, all that's left between them and the Big Ten championship game are games against Minnesota at home and struggling Iowa on the road. Even in a wacky, unpredictable year for the conference, that's about as clear a path as any contender could hope for in the homestretch.
2. Indiana is a serious threat in the Leaders Division: Wisconsin comes to Bloomington next week, and it figures to be the biggest Big Ten game at Indiana since ... well, we can't really remember when. Even though the Hoosiers are just 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, they control their own destiny in the bizarro Leaders race after beating Iowa 24-21 at home Saturday. If they can defeat Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) next week, they'd pull even with the Badgers for the right to represent the eligible teams in Indianapolis. Sounds crazy, since before two weeks ago Indiana hadn't won a conference game since 2010, and before Saturday, hadn't won a league game at home since 2009. But the Hoosiers have one of the top offenses in the Big Ten, with a deep corps of skill players, and their defense has played better the past two weeks in consecutive league wins. Kevin Wilson's team finally has some momentum, and it's coming at just the right time.
Devin Gardner threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns in a rejuvenated Michigan offense.
3. Michigan's offense can survive -- and even thrive -- without Denard Robinson: The Wolverines had nothing offensively last week at Nebraska after Robinson, their senior quarterback, aggravated a nerve problem in his throwing elbow. Things looked bleak when Michigan ruled Robinson out minutes before Saturday's game at Minnesota, and the first quarter didn't do much to change anyone's view. But then quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback Devin Gardner kept a play alive with his legs and heaved a 45-yard touchdown strike to Drew Dileo midway through the second quarter. Suddenly a Michigan offense that went more than two games without a touchdown -- mostly with Robinson on the field -- caught fire behind Gardner and a rejuvenated passing attack. Gardner stepped up and received a lot of help from receivers such as Dileo, Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree in the 35-13 win. Gardner threw for 234 yards, or 100 yards more than Michigan had averaged in its previous five games when the offense looked to limit Robinson's exposure in the passing game. The Wolverines' attack was far more balanced and unpredictable on Saturday. And while the knee-jerk reaction from some fans will be that Gardner should start over even a healthy Robinson going forward, the truth is that Michigan needs both aspects of its offense to click for it to stay alive in the Legends Division race and reach its full potential.
4. The Big Ten's most disappointing teams have defined themselves: Three weeks remain in the regular season, but the epitaphs have been written for several of the Big Ten's most disappointing teams after Week 10. Michigan State's season continued to be defined by close losses, as the Spartans couldn't hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska. Mark Dantonio's team, which had been so good in close games the past few years, now has four conference losses by a total of 10 points. After sweeping its home schedule in each of the past two seasons, Michigan State now has four home losses, three in Big Ten play. Purdue's season will be defined by blowout losses. The Boilers have been torched in four of their five league games, three at Ross-Ade Stadium, where fans are showing their displeasure by not showing up. Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is in big, big trouble. Iowa's season has been defined by an ineffective offense. The Hawkeyes once again didn't have enough against Indiana, scoring only 14 offensive points. Illinois' season has been defined by utter misery. It continued in Columbus, as the Illini suffered their fifth loss by 28 points or more.
5. The Big Ten could have its smallest bowl contingent in recent memory: The Big Ten has had at least six bowl teams every season since 1998, when it had just five. After Week 10, the league could have a hard time sending half of its teams to the postseason. Ohio State and Penn State obviously would be going if eligible, but the Big Ten has only four eligible teams with six or more wins -- Northwestern, Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin -- with three weeks to play. Minnesota and Michigan State still need one more win -- the Spartans have only two games left -- and Iowa's and Purdue's bowl hopes took significant blows Saturday. The Hawkeyes need two more wins and still must visit Michigan and host Nebraska. Purdue must win out. Indiana has put itself in the bowl mix after winning consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 2007, but the Hoosiers still need two more wins (Wisconsin, at Penn State, at Purdue). The Big Ten is guaranteed a fifth bowl-eligible team as Michigan State visits Minnesota on Nov. 24, but beyond that, it's up in the air. Neither Purdue nor Iowa has the look of a bowl team, while Indiana has some tough work ahead.