Week twelve in an on-going series on the teams of the Big Ten conference...
So the other day I was standing on an El platform in Chicago, waiting to take the red line on my way to the Northwestern-Iowa game. As I looked around, I noticed that the leaves were brown, the sky was a hazy shade of winter, and I thought about how I'd be so much warmer if I was in L.A.
Okay, I didn't actually think about any of that. Really, I was thinking about hot dogs.
But do you know who almost certainly was thinking about how warmer the general L.A. region would be right about now? Bret Bielema, Jim Tressel, and Mark Dantonio.
When we writers talk about the current situation of the Big Ten conference, we tend to talk about the chase for the conference championship, the top spot amongst the eleven teams. Really, it's not at all about that. Oh sure, a conference championship is nice - better solo than shared - but, if no Big Ten team is in the national championship running, then what the whole thing is really about is a trip to California. To Pasadena, and the Rose Bowl. The Granddaddy of ‘em all.
The Rose Bowl is what everyone wants. It's the ultimate prize. A different BCS bowl game is fine, to be sure, but it's not the Rose Bowl. After all, just think about how Michigan State fans will be feeling if their team manages to take one-third of the conference championship only to end up in... the Capital One bowl. Hooray.
Going into last weekend, there were four teams looking towards California, with Iowa skating on extremely thin ice. It really would have taken chaos in the rest of the conference for the Hawkeyes to end up in Pasadena in January, but they still had an outside shot. And then Northwestern happened. Just like Northwestern has happened so often to them. Now? Barring an asteroid, there's no chance for a BCS bowl, and even the Cap One bowl is going to be difficult. Outback bowl, anyone?
Though much of the excitement this weekend is going to revolve around the fates of the remaining three who are vying for California, there is also quite a bit of excitement in the middle tier, as football returns to Wrigley Field. In one corner, we have the 7-3 Wildcats who are looking to match their 2009 season. In the other, a 5-5 Illini team that is, inexplicably, still searching for bowl eligibility. The entirety of the state of Illinois will be watching.
Oh, and ESPN College Gameday will be there.
Looking to lock it down: This weekend marks the first time that any of Michigan State, Ohio State, or Wisconsin could clinch a share of the Big Ten championship... but only if two of the others lose. Ohio State is looking for its sixth straight share of a championship, while Sparty and Wisconsin are looking for their first championship share since the 1990s. Is it likely that a clinch will happen this weekend? No, but weirder shit has happened this year. Like Illinois. Losing to Minnesota. At home.
ESPN comes to the slow states: The ESPN Gameday show will invade Wrigleyville in Chicago in advance of the Northwestern-Illini game. Between the show and the general chaos of Wrigleyville whenever there is a reason to justify drinking, it's going to be quite the wild Saturday morning. I'll be there, will you?
Iowa's loss to Northwestern over the weekend dropped them significantly in the rankings, though losses by teams behind them ensured they still have a spot in the top 25. Meanwhile Northwestern's win nudged them back into contention in one poll. Very little changed in the rest of the conference. Oregon is still atop the BCS standings with a .9753 average.
Was: No. 13 in the AP poll, No. 13 in the Coaches' poll, No. 13 in the BCS (.5223)
Now: No. 21 in the AP poll, No. 20 in the Coaches' poll, No. 20 in the BCS (.2190)
Was: No. 10 in the AP poll, No. 10 in the Coaches' poll, No. 11 in the BCS (.6180)
Now: No. 11 in the AP poll, No. 11 in the Coaches' poll, No. 12 in the BCS (.6066)
Now: No. 25 in the Coaches' poll
Was: No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 7 in the Coaches' poll, No. 9 in the BCS (.6613)
Now: No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 7 in the Coaches' poll, No. 9 in the BCS (.6674)
Was: No. 6 in the AP poll, No. 5 in the Coaches' poll, No. 7 in the BCS (.7349)
Now: No. 6 in the AP poll, No. 5 in the Coaches' poll, No. 7 in the BCS (.7258)
Week Eleven Recap:
Big 10 Conference Standings
(updated 11.14.2010 at 12:44 AM CST)
|Ohio St. Buckeyes||5||1||9||1|
|Michigan St. Spartans||5||1||9||1|
|Penn St. Nittany Lions||3||3||6||4|
|Illinois Fighting Illini||3||4||5||5|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||1||6||2||9|
Week eleven saw another upset of Iowa, a whopper of a Wisconsin game, and a shocking loss by the Illini.
No. 13 Iowa at Northwestern (Northwestern, 21-17):
In most upsets of this type, I'd write a paragraph about how unexpected this victory was. How nobody saw it coming. But, I can't do that here. Why? Because plenty of people saw it coming, including yours truly. For whatever reason, over the last decade Northwestern has simply had the Hawkeyes' number, winning five of the previous six meetings between the teams. No one seems to be able to explain these defeats, especially since all too often they seem so unlikely while the game is in progress.
Saturday was no exception to this. I attended this game, and though the Wildcats led going into halftime, an upset did not actually seem likely until the latter half of the fourth quarter. At that point, Ricky Stanzi threw an interception, the Wildcats scored two quick touchdowns on drives that went most of the field, and the feelings of the Iowa fans and team seemed to fall somewhere between a desire to jump into the Skokie River and a despondent, "Here we go again..."
The big news out of this game of course was the devastating injury to the Wildcat offense. Quarterback Dan Persa, who pretty much has been the ‘Cats offense, tore his Achilles shortly after throwing the winning touchdown. Persa had surgery on Saturday evening and will be out for the rest of the season, returning for his senior year next year. Beyond being a blow to the ‘Cats season, this injury is a real shame for Dan Persa who will have to miss playing in the bowl game that he surely deserves. Persa will be replaced by red-shirt freshman Evan Watkins at quarterback, and it's anyone's guess as to how the Northwestern offense rebounds from this one.
Indiana at No. 7 Wisconsin (Wisconsin, 83-20):
Uh, wow. I said last week that I expected the Badgers to win big over the Hoosiers at Camp Randall, but I never expected this level of devastation. Not only was the final result in this game good enough for the most points by an FBS team this season, but also set the record for most points scored in a Big Ten game since 1950. Oh, and the last time a Wisconsin team scored 83 points? The men's basketball team, February 13th of 2009, against, of all teams, the Hoosiers. Yikes.
This game has produced a lot of discussion within the fans of the conference. Most recognize that the reason Wisconsin kept putting up points was because of a desire to keep Ohio State from leapfrogging them in the BCS polls, as final BCS rank will determine who gets a ticket to Pasadena in the event of a three-way tie between Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Between this victory and Iowa's loss to Northwestern (thereby weakening any argument Ohio State will have should they beat Iowa this weekend), it seems unlikely that Ohio State will finish ahead of Wisconsin if the teams end with identical records. Mission accomplished, then?
There is, of course, a dissenting viewpoint. Others are decrying the "running up the score" supposedly perpetrated by the Badger offense. My response to this is that, while perhaps the Wisky starters could have been pulled sooner in this game, at some point the burden falls on the Indiana team to actually tackle somebody. It takes two to tango, after all.
Minnesota at Illinois (Minnesota, 38-34):
Okay, I give up. I really do. Two weeks ago I write nice things about the Illini only to see them mock my kindness by dropping a very winnable game to the Wolverines in three overtimes. The next week, I decided that the loss was surely on me, that perhaps Illinois only performs well in the face of my hatred. So, I resolved to never write a kind word about them in this column again. Clearly, I thought, the combination of that and the fact that they were playing Minnesota would see the Illini gain bowl eligibility. And yet... nope. Minnesota actually pulled out a win.
I just... don't get this team. I really don't. Where has their defense gone? This can't all be because of the influence of the Zooker, can it? In a situation where you have your opponent at third and ten on his own twenty, with just over two minutes left, HOW do you leave a hole in the middle so open that even a relatively immobile quarterback like Adam Weber can scramble right on through? Is this a scheme failure on the part of the coordinator? Or an execution failure on the part of a defense that was, until recently, the best part of this surprising Illini team? Congrats to Gopher fans on the upset, and, sorry, Illini fans, I don't even have it in me to say nasty things. You've left me speechless.
Michigan at Purdue (Michigan, 27-16):
Well, apparently Denard Robinson is human after all. Robinson committed four turnovers in this game (2 INTs, 2 fumbles) and yet somehow Michigan still managed to outlast a depleted Boilermaker squad. Really, it's just more of the same from Purdue this season. The injuries have taken too much of a toll for them to play an entire game, though holding the Wolverines to 27 points is rather impressive none the less. The one bright spot for Purdue in this game was the play of defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who forced two fumbles during the game and in so doing set both Purdue and Big Ten records in career fumbles forced, at 14. Michigan continues its march to a mediocre bowl game, and Purdue, well, doesn't. The Boilermakers are pretty much out of the bowl race at this point, unless they can somehow find a way to ruin Sparty's Pasadena hopes.
Penn State at No. 9 Ohio State (OSU, 38-14):
This game is, much like Penn State's against Northwestern, a tale of two halves. Except this time it was Penn State who rolled through the first half only to completely fall apart in the second. At the start of this game, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin looked to be in control, as the Nittany Lions put up two touchdowns on the Buckeyes. The defense also looked in sync, holding OSU to just three points.
In the second half? The Buckeyes, in another parallel to the Northwestern-PSU game earlier this year, put up 35 unanswered points. Fourteen of these came off of two McGloin interceptions. While the game turned out sour overall, Nittany Lions fans should comfort themselves with this bit of trivia: the two touchdown passes that McGloin threw in the first half were the first Penn State had thrown in Ohio Stadium since they joined the Big Ten in 1993. Whoa.
BONUS: Kansas at No. 8 Nebraska (Nebraska, 20-3):
Perhaps the only surprise in this game is the score. Twenty points? Really? That's all, Nebraska? You're going to have to do better than that if you want to hang with the top tier of the Big Ten. Taylor Martinez returned under center for the Huskers, and though he had a really average day at 167 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT, he looked relatively mobile, which will be key for Nebraska as they head into the Big 12 championship game (assuming they clinch the Big 12 North this weekend at Texas A&M or the next at Colorado) and a potential BCS bowl game after that. I think it's likely they clinch this weekend, but if not they'll definitely do so at Colorado.
Week Twelve Preview:
Week twelve brings us two major events: the showdown between Northwestern and Illinois at Wrigley Field, and a suddenly less important game between Iowa and Ohio State. Northwestern and Illinois will be fun if just for the spectacle, while the Iowa and Ohio State game will only be entertaining if the Hawkeyes can pick themselves up and take out their frustration on the Buckeyes.
Penn State at Indiana (11:00 A.M., Big Ten Network):
Well, this is it for the Hoosiers. At 4-6 they absolutely must win this game to even qualify for a bowl game this season. Lose and it's to the couch with the queso bowl for them. Penn State, while already bowl eligible, is trying to do whatever it can to claw its way up the Big Ten pecking order. The interesting thing about this game? It's actually at a neutral site, just like the Northwestern - Illinois game. This game will take place at FedEx Field in Landover, MD - also known as the home of the Washington Redskins. Why is a Big Ten game being played in Maryland? I wish I could tell you. Though it's not technically a home game for either team, the large alumni population of PSU in the Eastern Seaboard will probably mean the crowd will mostly be of the blue and white persuasion. This game should end up a victory for Penn State... unless they let the Ohio State game get to them.
Purdue at No. 12 Michigan State (11:00 A.M., Big Ten Network):
Well, Sparty is back in action this week as the Boilermakers travel up to East Lansing. Michigan State actually finds itself in a really odd situation bowl wise. Though they led the conference standings for much of the year, they may actually miss out on a BCS bowl even if they win out. Due to the odd Big Ten tiebreaker rules, if Sparty finishes in a 3-way tie with Wisconsin and Ohio State, it's likely they get snubbed for a BCS game and find themselves battling the SEEEEEEEEC in the Capital One bowl. And if they drop this game to Purdue? It's likely that they will find themselves battling the SEEEEEEEEC in the Capital One bowl. It's a rather damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Still, because either a Wisconsin or Ohio State loss is still a possibility, their BCS hopes are best kept alive with a victory here.
Much like their Hoosier brothers to the south-ish, the Boilermakers find themselves in a do or die situation. Win here and the faint hope of six victories and bowl eligibility is still alive. Don't... and Danny Hope and his team will also be consuming queso on the couch, joining Minnesota, and possibly Indiana. I hear Goldy has been keeping it nice and toasty warm... actually... because of that they might want to bring some of that pet urine-be-gone stuff with them when they end up there. Or at least sniff the cushions before they sit down.
No. 7 Wisconsin at Michigan (11:00 A.M., ESPN/ESPN3):
On paper, this game looks like a cake walk for the Badgers. Have you seen what they've been doing to suspect defenses lately? And yet... Bucky hasn't won a game in the Big House since 1994. Seriously. Now for much of that time, Michigan had a superior team, which probably has a decent amount to do with the drought, and yet, there's always something a bit nerve wracking for Badger fans about a game at Michigan. Especially since the last time the Badgers played in the Big House, Blue engineered a ridiculous comeback from being 19 points down to hand the No. 9 ranked Wisconsin team a terrible loss. I think the Badgers ultimately win out because of their depth and the strength of their defense, which can stiffen when it needs to. Look for the Michigan D to come back to earth after its surprising game against Purdue this past weekend. In other words, look for them to give up a lot of points.
Illinois at Northwestern (2:30 P.M., ESPNU):
I'm not sure that enough can be said about how awesome this game is going to be. I mean, it's at Wrigley Field, which hasn't hosted a football game since the 1970s! And ESPN is coming to Wrigleyville that morning! More so than the other neutral site game this week, this game is really going to be a showcase for these two teams and the conference in general.
Of course, what the result of the eventual action on the field will be is... undetermined. Illinois has looked well, pretty much like crap, defensively in the last two weeks. Northwestern has turned in one epic collapse and one emotional upset over Iowa. Of course, the key problem for the Wildcats is that Dan Persa is no longer available, having ruptured his Achilles. The Northwestern offense will thus be depending on a red-shirt freshman who hasn't really run any actual plays in game time. Though this would seem to swing the game definitively in favor of Illinois, I'm not so sure. While Wildcat fans have no idea what they'll get out of Watkins, neither does Illinois. How do you game plan for a player who you've never really seen before?
If Watkins can make the throws he needs to and the O-Line can summon up the ability to give any kind of protection to him, I think Northwestern pulls out a close victory. If not? Look for Illinois to finally become bowl eligible at six wins...
No. 9 Ohio State at No. 20 Iowa (2:30 P.M., ABC):
The other Big Ten afternoon game became markedly less important after last weekend's Hawkeye upset. Before, this game looked to be a battle to see if Iowa could stay on the fringes of a BCS game and in the conference championship hunt. Now? Iowa finds itself attempting to play spoiler. Truth be told, there's little for Iowa to gain from a victory here except for satisfaction and a modicum of respect. The Hawkeyes currently are looking at the Outback bowl, and even a victory over the Buckeyes wouldn't necessarily change things unless Wisconsin or Michigan State also loses a few more, as a two-loss Ohio State still probably gets a better bowl selection than a three-loss Iowa team, even with a head-to-head victory for the Hawkeyes. Still, you never know, and a win here for Iowa would definitely be big.
The question remains then, can they do it? Well, I think so, but a few things will need to happen. First, the team has to come out and play with the same drive they've played with for much of the season. Yes, a BCS game is pretty much out the window, but that doesn't mean they should roll over and die. Second, Ricky Stanzi has to return to 2010 form, instead of the 2009 version that was on showcase in Evanston this past Saturday. Third, the Iowa defense has got to harass Terrelle Pryor and force him into making the mistakes that he's made on the road this year. Iowa gets a bit of a break by having this game at Kinnick, but it's still going to take a strong performance for them to play spoiler.
BONUS: No. 8 Nebraska at No. 19 Texas A&M (7:00 P.M., ABC/ESPN3):
Finally, another Nebraska game that will be on TV in Big Ten country. The big news about this game, as mentioned above, is that if Nebraska wins, they clinch the Big 12 North and a ticket to the Big 12 championship, likely against Oklahoma or Okie State. The Aggies are on a four game win streak, including impressive wins at Baylor and against Texas Tech and Oklahoma. All of this has come since they made a change at quarterback to Ryan Tannehill, and they've averaged almost 500 yards of offense in those past four games. That's crazy.
Of course Nebraska's defense has been no slouch this year, and they are particularly strong in the secondary. Now that quarterback Taylor Martinez is healthy again, I generally give the edge here to the Huskers. The one X factor is the necessity of a win here. Much like the South Carolina - Arkansas game from a few weeks ago, only one team actually needs a victory to stay in the race for its divisional crown, and that's the Aggies, so perhaps they'll be more motivated than Nebraska will.
Most likely rout: Purdue at No. 12 Michigan State. Normally I'd give this one to the Hoosiers, but I think they come out fired up after their embarrassment against Wisconsin. So, this time it goes to the other team from Indiana.
Most likely upset: No. 20 Iowa vs. No. 9 Ohio State. Never underestimate the power of a pissed off Hawkeye team (see: aftermath of their loss against Wisconsin).
Best game to watch: If you can find the Northwestern - Illinois game on TV, do so. Else, tune in to the game at Kinnick.
Big Ten player of the week: Ricky Stanzi, qb, Iowa. I think he comes back from his icky game in Evanston and makes some big plays when necessary to DJK and McNutt.