Sunday, November 18, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12
By Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. There's no stopping Nebraska now: The Cornhuskers were absolutely dominant against Minnesota, racing out to a 38-0 lead before resting their starters in the fourth quarter. That was the kind of complete performance we've been looking for from Nebraska, and while the Gophers are not to be confused with one of the Big Ten's best teams, the fact that the offense limited mistakes and the first-string defense pitched a shutout shows that this team is on the upswing. With as bad as Iowa looked Saturday (and, for that matter, the previous four Saturdays), it would take something really absurd for Nebraska to lose in Iowa City on Black Friday. This team is heading to the Big Ten championship game to face a Wisconsin club it has already beaten, and if Taylor Martinez keeps leading the way he has, it will go on to the Rose Bowl. The Huskers' only losses this season were to 11-0 Ohio State and a UCLA squad that just beat USC to win the Pac-12 South. Not bad at all for Bo Pelini's team.
2. Ohio State is doing something special: There are two undefeated teams left in the country: Notre Dame and Ohio State. The losses by Kansas State and Oregon proved just how difficult it is to go through a season unscathed. The Buckeyes might not have played the strongest schedule in the country, but they still deserve praise for figuring out how to win every week. Saturday was a great example, as Braxton Miller had his first off game of the year, throwing for only 97 yards and rushing for just 48 against a stout Wisconsin defense. Ohio State mustered just one offensive touchdown in regulation on the road. But when overtime came, Miller worked some magic to help the Buckeyes escape for their 11th win of the year. That counts for something, on a day when other top Heisman Trophy candidates struggled and lost. The Buckeyes still must beat Michigan in the finale, which will be no easy task. But if so, they could find themselves as possibly the only undefeated team in the country when the dust clears. That would have Ohio State fans forever wondering what might have happened if the school had self-imposed a bowl ban last year. But there will be no doubt that it was a special, extremely rare accomplishment.
3. Michigan's future looks bright with Devin Gardner at QB: Denard Robinson has been the face of Michigan's program for the past two and a half seasons, and most figured the Wolverines would take a step back on offense after his graduation. The Wolverines couldn't do anything offensively against Nebraska after Robinson aggravated a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If only Devin Gardner had been ready to step in at Memorial Stadium. Gardner has been brilliant since moving into the starting role, and he turned in an unreal performance Saturday against Iowa. The junior accounted for six touchdowns, running for three and throwing for three, as the Wolverines routed the Hawkeyes to remain perfect at home for the second straight season. He led six consecutive touchdown drives midway through the game. Gardner's presence has allowed Michigan to maximize its talent at receiver, as Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree and Devin Funchess all contributed Saturday. Although Robinson, who started at tailback, is getting healthier, it's clear the future is now for the Michigan offense with Gardner, who provides the balance the Wolverines have been seeking. It'll be interesting to see how he performs this week against a much better defense in The Game, but the long-term outlook for Michigan's offense looks extremely bright, especially if Gardner gets another year of eligibility from the NCAA.
4. Northwestern has developed resiliency: After a heartbreaking loss on the road last week at Michigan, you could have understood if the Wildcats would have had a letdown at Michigan State on Saturday. And once Venric Mark and Kain Colter both left the game in the second half with injuries, the Wildcats had some major work cut out for them against an outstanding Spartans defense. Despite being outgained by more than 100 yards and scoring only one offensive touchdown, however, Northwestern showed major grit by pulling out a 23-20 road win. It did so by causing four turnovers and getting strong defensive performances from Ibraheim Campbell and David Nwabuisi. After all three of the Wildcats' difficult, come-from-ahead losses -- Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan -- they have followed it up with a win the next Saturday. For a young team to show that kind of resiliency is impressive. (Compare that to Michigan State, which just can't get over the hump on a weekly basis.) Instead of lamenting what might have been in those defeats, it's time to celebrate Pat Fitzgerald's bunch, which is a win over woeful Illinois away from a 9-3 season.
5. Home-field dominance no longer there for Badgers, Spartans: Wisconsin and Michigan State took steps toward college football's upper echelon the past two seasons thanks in large part to dominant play at home. The Badgers' success at Camp Randall Stadium is hardly new, yet Wisconsin entered the season on a 16-game home win streak, the second-longest in the country behind LSU. Michigan State, meanwhile, swept its home schedule in each of the past two seasons, including two wins against Wisconsin. But both teams have taken a step back this fall and stumbled where they've been at their best. Wisconsin couldn't translate yards into points against Ohio State and dropped its second consecutive home game for the first time since 2008. It's even worse for Michigan State, which fell 23-20 to Northwestern and went 0-4 in Big Ten home games for the first time since 2006, John L. Smith's final year as coach. At some point, you stop becoming the best [insert record] team in the country and you become a major disappointment. Michigan State deserves the label after making far too many mistakes at Spartan Stadium. While Michigan State and Wisconsin have lost their home dominance, Michigan has reclaimed it under Brady Hoke. The Wolverines have been perfect at the Big House in Hoke's first two seasons.