Monday, December 16, 2013
2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap
By Adam Rittenberg
The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.
History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.
But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.
Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.
Michigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.
The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.
There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.
Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.
Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.
But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.
Time for some superlatives ...
Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.
Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.
Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.
Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.
Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.
Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.