Big Ten Digest: Ridin' Solo

EVANSTON IL - OCTOBER 23: B.J. Cunningham #3.of the Michigan State Spartans gets a hug from teammate Mark Dell #2 after catching a touchdown pass against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on October 23 2010 in Evanston Illinois. Michigan State defeated Northwestern 35-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Week nine in an on-going series on the teams of the Big Ten conference...

Well, it's official Big Ten fans. This is the year of the Spartan. It seems that 2010 has tapped Michigan State to be the team of destiny. How do I know this? Because teams don't ordinarily go into a road game undefeated, with a huge target on their backs, and then get outplayed for 58 out of 60 minutes, and somehow still come away with a victory. And cover the spread, no less.

That kind of thing doesn't happen to a team without at least a little bit of cosmic fortune. Last year, Iowa had those games. Despite often playing near the edge they managed to pull out improbable victories and ride to a 9-0 record until their undefeated season was shattered by Northwestern. We all know that in the end things didn't exactly work out for the 2009 Hawkeyes - while they went to (and won) a BCS bowl, they narrowly missed out on the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Will the same thing happen to Michigan State this year? It's quite possible, but if it does, it will be this coming weekend with the road game at Kinnick that does it. Though Iowa's loss to Wisconsin has pretty much eliminated them from Big Ten championship consideration, they still have the capacity to spoil Sparty's season this weekend. This game is perhaps the most important remaining on the schedule. If Sparty goes into Kinnick and hands the Hawkeyes a third loss, then the conference championship and a trip to at least Pasadena is pretty much theirs for the taking. If Iowa plays the spoiler? Then all hell breaks loose. Hang on, because it's about to get bumpy.

 

News Update:

With their victory at Northwestern this past weekend, Michigan State became the eighth Big Ten team since 2000 to open the year with an 8-0 record. Of the previous seven teams to achieve this mark, six advanced to BCS bowls and four won at least a share of the conference championship. Guess things are looking up for Sparty from here on out.

Though all teams who were targeting bowl eligibility this past weekend lost or were idle, the hunt continues again in week nine. Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern all stand at 5-2 with one more victory needed to qualify for a bowl game in the post season. Can any of them make it there this weekend? Read on to find out.

 

Rankings Watch:

The narrow loss by Iowa at home and Michigan State's come from behind victory have produced a bit of movement amongst the teams of the Big Ten in week nine's rankings. Wisconsin has jumped ahead of Ohio State and is now the second highest ranked team in the conference. Meanwhile, outside of the conference, the No. 1 ranked team in the country fell for the third week in a row as Oklahoma lost on the road to Mizzou. As a result, the top of the BCS standings has been reclaimed by the SEC, with undefeated Auburn leading the ranking at No. 1 with a .9371 average.

Iowa:

Was: No. 13 in the AP poll, No. 12 in the Coaches' poll, No. 15 in the BCS standings

Now: No. 18 in the AP poll, No. 19 in the Coaches' poll, No. 18 in the BCS standings (.2834)

Michigan State:

Was: No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 8 in the Coaches' poll, No. 7 in the BCS standings

Now: No. 5 in the AP poll, No. 5 in the Coaches' poll, No. 5 in the BCS standings (.8387)

Ohio State:

Was: No. 11 in the AP poll, No. 10 in the Coaches' poll, No. 10 in the BCS standings

Now: No. 10 in the AP poll, No. 10 in the Coaches' poll, No. 11 in the BCS standings (.6356)

Wisconsin:

Was: No. 10 in the AP poll, No. 11 in the Coaches' poll, No. 13 in the BCS standings

Now: No. 9 in the AP poll, No. 9 in the Coaches' poll, No. 10 in the BCS standings (.6584)

 

Week Eight Recap:

 


Big 10 Conference Standings

(updated 10.24.2010 at 1:58 AM CDT)


 

Week eight saw Michigan State narrowly preserve their unbeaten record while in Evanston, and an absolutely fantastic game between top teams Wisconsin and Iowa. Ohio State dominated in a revenge game against Purdue, while a new coach seemed to have little impact on the struggles of the Golden Gophers.

No. 7 Michigan State at Northwestern (MSU, 35-27)

The final score of this game suggests a game that was much less close than it was in reality. For 58 minutes, Northwestern managed to halt the MSU rushing attack and outplay Sparty. A late comeback involving yet another fake punt (this one named "mousetrap") saved the Spartans, however, as they took a one point lead on a tipped pass touchdown by B.J. Cunningham. After turning the ball over on downs on their next drive, Michigan State's Edwin Baker made the victory more convincing with a 25 yard touchdown run. Ultimately this game turned on mistakes by the Wildcats. Northwestern was penalized for 66 yards and turned the ball over twice. One of the turnovers was absolutely devastating, as it came on first and goal at the one yard line.

Though Kirk Cousins had a pedestrian first half, second half adjustments allowed him to finish the game with 329 passing yards and 3 TDs. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa had one of his worst games of the season, throwing for only 187 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. The take away from this game? Michigan State is a very beatable team, but Mark Dantonio will pull out all the stops to get a victory. Iowa knows they have the talent to take the Spartans down, but do they have the luck as well?

Penn State at Minnesota (PSU, 33-21)

Minnesota's horrid season continues as the Nittany Lions managed to get their first conference victory at The Bank. Despite firing Tim Brewster last week, the Gophers still couldn't quite get the job done. Adam Weber had a decent day, throwing for almost 300 yards with 3 touchdowns and an interception, and became just the fifth Big Ten quarterback to reach 10,000 career yards. Ultimately, though, it wasn't enough as the Gopher defense allowed 351 yards and four touchdowns to Penn State. The most news worthy item of the day was the injury to Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. Though Bolden was taken out for the second half, he is currently listed as "probable" for the upcoming Michigan game.

Purdue at No. 10 Ohio State (OSU, 49-0)

Ouch. Memo to teams playing Ohio State: hope that the Buckeyes don't lose the week before your game. Jim Tressel is currently 20-2 in games after the Buckeyes have suffered a loss. And if the beat down suffered by the Boilermakers is any indication, those victories aren't close affairs. Purdue was absolutely outclassed in this revenge game for OSU, being shutout and held to just 118 total yards. Despite throwing two interceptions, Terrelle Pryor managed to rack up 270 yards and three touchdowns. Though Purdue was 2-0 in the conference heading into this game, it's very clear that they are anything but a top tier team in the conference this year. The injuries they've sustained are just too significant to overcome. A bowl game would be the best outcome on the season for Purdue fans to hope for at this point.

Indiana at Illinois (Illinois, 43-13)

The fight for the Pizza Bowl... bowl... ended with Illinois showing that maybe Ron Zook isn't done quite yet. The Illini jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. Though Nathan Scheelhaase had a relatively mediocre day with 123 passing yards and two touchdowns, the Illinois defense came to the rescue, as they returned two Ben Chappell passes for touchdowns. Though the Indiana offense is one of the more electric in the conference, the defense has been what's held them back the entire season. Both teams now stand at 4-3, but Indiana has the harder road to bowl eligibility, playing Northwestern, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Purdue. Illinois finishes out their season with Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Fresno State. While it's possible that both teams end up bowl eligible, I'll be very surprised if it happens for more than just Illinois.

No. 13 Wisconsin at No. 15 Iowa (Wisconsin, 31-30)

The game of the week turned out to be the contest in Kinnick. Two evenly matched teams went in, and the Badgers emerged as one point victors. Though the Wisconsin victory wasn't in hand until a last minute touchdown drive, this game was decided much earlier by the Hawkeye special teams. Iowa had an extra point blocked, missed an easy field goal, and suffered other miscues that caused them to leave badly needed points off the board. Strange coaching decisions regarding the proper use of timeouts during Iowa's final drive sealed the Hawkeye fate. Barring complete chaos in the conference, this loss has almost certainly ensured Iowa will not claim a share of the conference championship this year. A BCS bowl is still within reach for the Hawkeyes, though to get their they'll have to start by taking revenge on the undefeated Spartans this weekend.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin kept their own BCS game hopes alive and managed to leapfrog Ohio State in the polls. Two back-to-back victories for the Badgers suggest that perhaps they are finally pulling things together as a team. Wisconsin goes into a bye week this weekend, which seems desperately needed as several players sustained injuries during the last two weeks - James White, Lance Kendricks, and Nick Toon are all in serious need of some R&R. Though the Badgers are idle this Saturday, you can bet the entirety of the state will be tuned to the Iowa game rooting for a victory by the team they just beat.

 

Week Nine Preview:

Week nine opens with the same question that we've been asking since conference play started - can Sparty keep it going? MSU faces perhaps its toughest remaining game as they head to Kinnick to take on a revenge seeking Iowa squad. Meanwhile, Northwestern and Michigan look for bowl eligibility on the road at Indiana and Penn State, while Illinois looks to get that much closer as they host the Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium.

Northwestern at Indiana (11:00 A.M.)

Can the Wildcats bounce back from a devastating loss to secure bowl eligibility again this year? Probably. While Indiana has at times shown flashes of offensive brilliance, their defense has been rather abysmal. As long as the ‘Cats don't find themselves looking back at the mistakes they made against Michigan State, they should finally make it to bowl eligibility this weekend. Then again, a win here for the Hoosiers would mean they would need just one more victory to get to their first bowl game since 2007. Though neither team is in the conference championship hunt, there's still a lot on the line this weekend and it will definitely be a hard fought affair.

Purdue at Illinois (11:00 A.M., ESPN2/ESPN3)

Welcome to the battle for bowl eligibility... part two. Both the Boilermakers and the Illini find themselves sitting at 4-3 heading into this weekend. Illinois has been on an upward trajectory while Purdue has turned in a set of very uneven performances as of late. The Illini are definitely the favorites in this one, as it'll be a battle of a surging defense against an injury riddled offense. The Boilermakers could easily pull one out here, but I think that the Illini fans find themselves that much closer to a successful season by the end of Saturday.

No. 5 Michigan State at No. 18 Iowa (2:30 P.M., ABC/ESPN)

The game of the week is once again an afternoon affair in Iowa. Michigan State tries to keep their special season alive, and Iowa looks to take revenge after a demoralizing loss to the Badgers. There's no doubt that Iowa will be on the hunt in this one, and Spartan fans should start getting anxious as of oh... yesterday. Ultimately, this game comes down to execution. If Iowa can maintain its good play on offense, and decent play on defense while also tamping down on special teams mistakes, they will have a good shot of short circuiting Sparty's conference crown hopes. If they don't? Well, then the rest of the conference will be looking up at a 9-0 MSU squad with a very easy schedule. Though this is a game between Hawkeyes and Spartans, I expect many football viewers in Wisconsin and Ohio will also be watching this game and cheering for the upset on the part of Iowa. Though Sparty has been exceedingly lucky at all the right times this season, I think Iowa ends that streak here and pulls off a victory.

No. 11 Ohio State at Minnesota (7:00 P.M., ABC)

It's sort of depressing to think of going from what will be a great game between Iowa and MSU in the afternoon to... well, this. Does anyone seriously believe that Minnesota stands a chance in this game? I know OSU hasn't played particularly well on the road this year but, come on. I really would love to call the upset of the season here just so that Gopher fans have something to take away from the disaster that is 2010, but I'm not completely delusional. If you're looking to watch an absolute beat down, then this would be a good game to tune into in the evening. If you'd actually rather be excited by your football, then I'd change the channel.

Michigan at Penn State (7:00, ESPN/ESPN3)

While not exactly the best alternative to the ick above, the Michigan / Penn State game should actually be relatively entertaining. Rob Bolden will likely be back, but will it matter? Penn State just isn't having a good year this year. Most of us have been assuming that a bowl is in the Nittany Lions' future, but if they drop this one to Michigan, then staying at home on the couch becomes a real possibility for JoePa's team. I think Michigan manages a badly needed victory on the road and bowl eligibility this weekend, but I wouldn't be surprised if Penn State does manage to eke this one out. Either way, it's going to be a close game. No blowouts here.

 

Hilary's Picks:

Most likely rout: Ohio State at Minnesota. Ouch.

Most likely upset: Michigan State at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are out for blood and Michigan State has been looking sort of like a wounded animal the last few weeks. I think Iowa pulls a Northwestern in this one.

Best game to watch: There's no contest here. If you only watch one game this weekend, make sure it's the afternoon game between Iowa and Sparty.

Big Ten player of the week: Ricky Stanzi, quarterback, Iowa. Stanzi had a decent game against Wisconsin, but I think he has an even better one against Michigan State.

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