Sunday, October 27, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 9
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
1. Ohio State can win with style points: We knew the Buckeyes had it in them, but they hadn't put together a truly dominant performance in Big Ten play until Saturday night against Penn State. Ohio State produced the best first half in the Urban Meyer era, racking up 42 points, 414 yards, 20 first downs and two takeaways. Quarterback Braxton Miller is looking more like the guy we expected would contend for the Heisman Trophy before the season, displaying pinpoint accuracy with his passing and supplementing it with big runs. Running back Carlos Hyde remains a force, and the defense, while not dominant, is making enough plays in each game. Ohio State can't do anything about the league in which it plays. It can't add two or three good nonconference opponents to the schedule. But the Buckeyes can handle their business against unranked opponents and earn some style points from those who overlook them in the national championship discussion. Despite 20 straight wins, Ohio State still will need Alabama, Oregon and/or Florida State to start losing, and it also must continue to win with some flair. Saturday night marked a good step, as the Buckeyes solidified their place in the title talk. Ohio State can take another in the next two weeks against Purdue and Illinois.
Jeremy Langford had his third consecutive 100-yard game as the Spartans stayed unbeaten in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State has a leg up in the Legends: There is one team left in the Legends Division that has yet to suffer a conference loss. Hint: It wears green. Michigan State overcame some sloppy early play to blow away Illinois 42-3 on Saturday. The 7-1 Spartans have unquestionably benefited from a soft early Big Ten slate (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois). There are some challenges ahead, beginning this week against Michigan at Spartan Stadium, but the remaining schedule isn't overly taxing. Michigan State's defense turned in its usual dominant performance in Champaign, including a goal-line stuff from its own 1-yard line. As for the offense? Well, the Spartans were able to pound the ball on the ground (admittedly, that's not too hard against Illinois) for nearly 270 yards, with Jeremy Langford going for 104 of those plus two touchdowns. Connor Cook made some first-half mistakes but also delivered on some key third-down throws and finished 15-of-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He set a school record for completion percentage in a game. Most importantly, the offense gained some confidence heading into Michigan week. The big game in East Lansing will go a long way toward determining which Legends team winds up in Indianapolis.
3. Minnesota is one of the best stories in the Big Ten and the nation: How many teams could have withstood their coach taking a leave of absence in the middle of the season? The Gophers are not just surviving but thriving since Jerry Kill decided to focus on his epilepsy treatment. They followed up a win at Northwestern with Saturday's 34-23 upset of No. 25 Nebraska, fulfilling Kill's goal of getting a breakthrough Big Ten win this season. It marked Minnesota's first win against Nebraska since 1960. Acting coach Tracy Claeys has done a great job of guiding the team, while Kill -- who sat in the coaches' booth Saturday -- continues to provide an inspirational presence. Minnesota isn't overly blessed with top-notch talent, especially in the passing game, as it completed just eight attempts versus the Huskers. But the team is starting to do the two most important things in the Big Ten: run the ball and stop the run. The Gophers are bowl eligible for the second straight year and one of the best stories in college football.
4. More uncomfortable times await Nebraska, Northwestern: It wasn't long ago that the Nov. 2 game between Northwestern and Nebraska looked like a heavyweight showdown. Now it looks like a matchup of two desperate, flawed teams. The Huskers had been feasting on inferior competition since the UCLA loss and took a quick 10-0 lead at Minnesota. Then the wheels came off, and Nebraska's defense proved that it hasn't really gotten much better as the Gophers ran over and around the Blackshirts the rest of the day. Taylor Martinez was rusty, as you'd expect after a six-week layoff with a foot injury, and with the quarterback not able to run much, the offense was limited in its options. This has to qualify as one of the worst losses in the Bo Pelini era, and another week of uncomfortable questions is coming in Lincoln. Meanwhile, this is shaping up as a lost year for Northwestern, which fell to 0-4 since "GameDay" arrived in Evanston. The Wildcats got Kain Colter back and outrushed Iowa by nearly 100 yards but made too many mistakes in their 17-10 overtime loss. Two fumbles in Iowa territory -- the second coming late in the game, one play after a needless penalty pushed back a drive that had reached the Iowa 30 -- proved too much to overcome. Coach Pat Fitzgerald declined to call a timeout in the final couple of minutes in regulation to give his team a chance to win it. In a very brief postgame news conference, Fitzgerald said the wind at Kinnick Stadium was going to make it tough for Northwestern to kick a field goal, but it was still an oddly conservative choice. "We suck right now," was Colter's take on an offense that has gone into hibernation. Both Nebraska and Northwestern have all kinds of issues heading into next week.
5. Don't sleep on Iowa: The Hawkeyes are most likely going back to a bowl game this year, with five wins banked and a game remaining with Purdue. But just making the postseason might not be the limit for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz's team went toe to toe with Ohio State in Week 8 and followed it up with Saturday's win over Northwestern, a program that has given them trouble in recent years. Iowa's offense got shut down in the second half, but Jake Rudock made a great throw under heavy pressure to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime for the winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes' defense is playing at a high level and got standout games from linebackers Anthony Hitchens and James Morris and freshman cornerback Desmond King, among others. In addition, one of the best offensive lines in the league will give Iowa a chance in all of its remaining games; Wisconsin and Michigan still have to come to Kinnick Stadium, and Nebraska did not show it could stop a power running game on Saturday. Last year's 4-8 fiasco is firmly in the rearview mirror, and Iowa at the very least will be a major spoiler in the Legends race.