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Big Ten Digest: The End Is Nigh

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

Happy Thanksgiving Big Ten fans! Thanksgiving is definitely up there on my list of favorite holidays. Why? It's a holiday that's all about eating and watching football. It really can't get much better than that in my mind.

And you know what's even better than getting to watch college football on a three day stretch from Thursday-Saturday? Well, it's that we find ourselves with an intense title race in the Big Ten. It's come down to the wire, and fans of Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State are wondering who will come out on top, and who will be left out of the BCS. It's sort of like musical chairs. With football teams.

Whoa. That's a lot of chairs.


News Update:

As of last week, Denard Robinson has officially broken the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback. The fact that he broke the record isn't all that surprising. What is surprising is that he's managed to stay healthy long enough to get here.

Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee (seriously, that's his name?) made news this week when he said that he doesn't think either Boise State or TCU deserves to be in the BCS title game even if they go undefeated - because their strength of schedule simply isn't as strong as those of the teams playing in the power conferences. I think he has a point, but I really hope the Big Ten doesn't get embarrassed against one or both of those schools in a bowl game this year... Sometimes things have a way of coming back to haunt you.


Rankings Watch:

As has become all too common, the very week after clawing their way back into the rankings, the Northwestern Wildcats dropped a winnable game and fell out of the rankings entirely. Pat Fitzgerald is now 1-7 in the week after Northwestern breaks into the polls, a dismal record if there ever was one. The top teams in the BCS standings were all out of action this past weekend, so no movement occurred. Oregon is still atop the pile with a .9764 average.


Was: No. 21 in the AP Poll, No. 20 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 20 in the BCS (.2190)

Now: No. 24 in the AP Poll, No. 24 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 24 in the BCS (.0899)

Michigan State:

Was: No. 11 in the AP Poll, No. 11 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 12 in the BCS (.6066)

Now: No. 11 in the AP Poll, No. 10 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 10 in the BCS (.6063)


Was: No. 25 in the Coaches' Poll

Now: Unranked

Ohio State:

Was: No. 8 in the AP Poll, No. 7 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 9 in the BCS (.6674)

Now: No. 8 in the AP Poll, No. 7 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 8 in the BCS (.7148)


Was: No. 6 in the AP Poll, No. 5 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 7 in the BCS (.7258)

Now: No. 5 in the AP Poll, No. 5 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 7 in the BCS (.7688)


Week 12 Recap:

Big 10 Conference Standings

(updated 11.21.2010 at 1:38 AM CST)

The big stories out of week twelve were the Badgers search for their first victory in the Big House since 1994, a clash between the Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes in Kinnick, and a football game held at a baseball field.

Penn State at Indiana (PSU, 41-24):

Well, that's it for Indiana. With this loss, they are officially going to be sitting on the couch with the Queso bowl. Though this game was held at FedEx Field in Maryland, home of the Washington Redskins, the neutral location did not seem to help the Hoosiers out. This loss is the 14th for the Hoosiers against Penn State, whom they have never beaten. Matt McGloin had a great day, throwing for 315 yards and two TDs, while Ben Chappell had a day that, for him, was towards the lower side - only 235 yards, two TDs, and one INT. Like so many games that Indiana has played this season, they were actually in this one for the majority of play... they tied the game in the third quarter, and had they not had a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against them by James Van Fleet, perhaps they could have hung on. That score seemed to break them, though, as Penn State's last ten points went unanswered. The only good news for Hoosier fans right now is that basketball season is well underway in the Big Ten...

Purdue at No. 12 Michigan State (MSU, 35-31):

Oh, Purdue. Where do I even begin? Much like their Hoosier brothers, Purdue needed this game to go to a bowl game this season. (Yes, there is a possibility that there will not be enough teams with 6-6 records to fill all of the 70 bowl slots in the college football world, but even were the bowl committees forced to reach down into the ranks of five win teams, Purdue/Indiana probably wouldn't be that high on the list...) And for so much of the game, it looked like Purdue was going to pull off one of the bigger upsets of the season. Michigan State looked pretty much flat from the start of the game, even though they were the first team to score. Purdue managed to take a touchdown lead on an interception return in the middle of the first quarter, and, due to a failed PAT by MSU and late touchdown pass by Rob Henry, wouldn't cough it up until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. But, cough it up they did, and so Purdue's season, which looked promising this summer, ends bowl-less and injury riddled...

No. 7 Wisconsin at Michigan (Wisconsin, 48-28):

Many Badger fans were nervous going into this game. They knew that Wisconsin hadn't won in the Big House since 1994, and visions of the epic 2008 upset, in which the Wolverines came back from a 19 point deficit, were fresh in their minds. Though this game is what pushed Denard Robinson over the edge in the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback, it was mostly all Bucky. At least, the first half was. On the strength of runs by James White and Montee Ball, Wisconsin hung 24 unanswered points on Michigan heading into halftime. Of course, as is predictable with Wisconsin this year, the Wolverines came out in the third quarter and quickly put up two scores to cut the lead to ten. Wisconsin didn't reel for too long, though, and the teams essentially traded scores from that point forward. The most interesting stat from this game? The number of Wisconsin pass attempts in the second half. After figuring out that the Michigan defense essentially was butter to a hot knife against the run, the Badgers attempted only a single pass in the entire second half of the game. Given what happened to Northwestern this past weekend, Wildcat fans looking at this game should be very nervous indeed.

Illinois at Northwestern (Illinois, 48-27):

Speaking of Northwestern... this was the major event of the week, a match-up between in-state rivals Illinois and Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Though much of the pre-game festivities, including a visit by ESPN's College Gameday, were executed well, the game was anything but, at least on the Wildcat side. Northwestern's defense looked outmatched all day, as they gave up more than 550 rushing yards to the Illini, most of them going to back Mikel Leshoure, who had a record setting day. Though the Wildcats managed to tie it late in the second quarter, Leshoure proved to be too much to handle ultimately. The loss of quarterback Dan Persa to a ruptured Achilles the week before also hurt the ‘Cats. Redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins looked less than sharp all day, though, given that he only had one week to prepare for being the starter, it's really not all that surprising. With this victory, Illinois gained bowl eligibility and became the Big Ten's eighth team to do so. At this point, it's now just a matter of jockeying between the Illini and the Wildcats to see who finishes the season with the better bowl ticket...

No. 9 Ohio State at No. 20 Iowa (OSU, 20-17):

Another big game, another disappointment for Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes matched up well with Ohio State for much of this game, when it came down to the end, they just couldn't sustain it. Ohio State was facing fourth and ten with only a short amount of time left in the fourth quarter. Get a stop, and it's likely that Iowa wins the game 17-13. Instead, Iowa allowed Terrelle Pryor to run for 14 yards and the first down. Just a few plays later and OSU scored the winning touchdown. This fourth quarter story is probably very familiar to Hawkeye fans. In all of the Hawkeye losses this season, the game winning score has come in the fourth quarter. I suppose that's not all that unusual for college football games, but at some point I imagine Iowa fans are going to be asking why their defense only seems to play well for 45 minutes...

BONUS: No. 8 Nebraska at No. 19 Texas A&M (TAMU, 9-6):

Well that was... unexpected. I wrote last week that I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Texas A&M pulled off the upset here, mainly because they were the team with more to play for. Nebraska had the Big 12 North title pretty much wrapped up (even with a loss here, they only need to beat Colorado to clinch), but for A&M to get a share of the Big 12 South title, they needed a win here. Still, I never expected to see a final score that had no touchdowns.  Not with quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Taylor Martinez in this game. Admittedly, Taylor Martinez wasn't exactly himself for much of this game. After sustaining an ankle injury late in the first quarter, he just didn't really look right. Given that he's a mobile quarterback like Denard Robinson, any injury that limits one of his threats can majorly alter his success elsewhere. Beyond Martinez's injury, it was turnovers and penalties that kept the Cornhuskers from winning this one. Still, even though the loss is disappointing, they can still wrap up the North this weekend and get a BCS bowl bid if they win the championship after that...


Week 13 Preview:

Well, this is it Big Ten fans. Not only are we saying goodbye to the regular season with this week, but also to the end of an era. Starting next year, we will have a championship game to look forward to at the end of the regular schedule. It is perhaps fitting, then, that in the last year without a championship game, we have three teams all vying for a share of the conference title. All three - Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin - are in action this weekend, and none of their opponents can be called cakewalks. Who stays alive and who falls? Tune in to find out...

Michigan at No. 8 Ohio State (11:00 A.M., ABC/ESPN3):

The return of "The Game" sees a defense-less Michigan team desperately looking to play spoiler against a Buckeye team that is once again trying to claim a conference championship. Though Ohio State has dominated this rivalry of late, this is one of those games where anything could happen. The Buckeyes certainly have the edge here, with the game in the ‘Shoe and a team that is actually functional both sides of the ball, but don't ever count out Blue in this game. Both sides are going to come into this game fired up, and there's no lack of desire for a win on either sideline. I think the key to this game is whether Ohio State can shut down Denard and the Michigan offense early. If they do, then the terrible state of the Michigan defense should be easy to pick apart for Pryor, who has played better at home than on the road this season. On the other hand, if the Wolverines can race out to a score or two early, that momentum may provide enough to edge Ohio State in the end. I'm still betting on OSU to win, though.

No. 10 Michigan State at Penn State (11:00 A.M., ESPN2/ESPN3):

The only one of the three conference title contenders to play their game on the road this week is the Spartans. Though that's unfortunate, what's perhaps more unfortunate is who their opponent is. Michigan State has not won in Happy Valley since Penn State joined the conference back in 1993. And, with Iowa's recent struggles and the Nittany Lions' successes, you know Penn State is going to be trying for eight wins and a better bowl game. Though Joe Paterno has said he'll return to coaching next year, I still expect to see a lot of energy out of Penn State in this game. I expect energy out of Michigan State too, of course, but we've seen them have serious issues against teams like Iowa and Purdue that make me wonder if their luck will run out this week. A win for Michigan State, though, gets them their first eleven win season, a share of the conference championship, and a chance at the Rose Bowl or a BCS bowl. Oh, and that hideous land grant trophy. If there wasn't a championship on the line here, I'd say that maybe MSU should consider throwing the game just to not have to keep that thing around...

The key to this game will be the play of the quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins is playing on an injured ankle, though he did manage to run for the winning score against Purdue. Meanwhile, the question for Penn State fans is which version of Matt McGloin they'll see... the one from the first half of the Ohio State game, or the one from the second? If it's the former, Penn State certainly gives Michigan State a fight, and might come out the victor after all. If it's the later... well, yeah. I'm going to go out on a limb and pick the upset here, though. Penn State in a narrow victory.

Indiana at Purdue (11:00 A.M., Big Ten Network):

Once upon a time (okay, before last week), this game looked like it might have bowl implications. Had either Indiana or Purdue pulled out a win, then this match-up could have represented a chance at six wins and a post-season slot. Now? It's just an in-state game against two teams who will be staying home this year. There's not much more to be said about this one... as I imagine fans of both teams are more interested in how their basketball match-up goes than in this game.

No. 24 Iowa at Minnesota (2:30 P.M., Big Ten Network):

Though this game might look insignificant at first, it really isn't. Well, at least not to Hawkeye fans. Though this game is against only Minnesota, you better believe the Hawkeyes want a win badly. If Iowa somehow loses here? It's not inconceivable that the entire state would disappear... sucked into a black hole of despair and rage. The good news for Iowa fans, of course, is that Iowa is clearly the superior team, and they've played really well this season when coming off a loss. The good news for Gopher fans? Well... uh... there really isn't any. I guess that this game is at home? Even then, given the way Iowa fans travel, I expect there to be a lot of black and gold in the stands at The Bank. Look for Iowa to win big here, to try to make a case for the Outback Bowl over Penn State.

Northwestern at No.  7 Wisconsin (2:30 P.M., ABC/ESPN/ESPN3):

The last big game of the Big Ten regular season sees the Wildcats travel up to Madison to play the Badgers at Camp Randall. By the start of this game, we should know how important it will be to Wisconsin's shot at a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win. If both Michigan State and Ohio State win in the morning, the Badgers will need a victory to secure either. If only MSU wins, then the Badgers need a victory to get a bid to a secondary BCS bowl. If only OSU wins, then a Badgers victory will secure a Rose Bowl bid, while a loss would likely mean a secondary BCS bowl. If both MSU and OSU lose? Then this game becomes less significant, as Bucky will likely have the Rose Bowl sewn up before even setting foot on the field.

What to look for in this game is whether Northwestern can somehow miraculously find a way to stop the Badgers run game. Given what Illinois and Mikel Leshoure did to them last weekend, this is not very likely. That's not the only thing the Wildcats need to do to somehow pull out a win here... they also need to have their O-line play well enough to stop the defense of the Badgers, and especially defensive end J.J. Watt, who will definitely be trying to harry Evan Watkins all day. This game probably would be a closer call for me if Dan Persa was still healthy, but after seeing the Wildcats at Wrigley, I'm calling this one for the Badgers. I don't think Wisconsin puts up 83 on Northwestern, but I do think they win comfortably.

BONUS: Colorado at No. 15 Nebraska (Friday, 2:30 P.M., ABC/ESPN3):

Well, at least this game does matter a bit now. With their loss against Texas A&M last week, Nebraska needs a win here to clinch the Big 12 North title. If they lose and Missouri beats Kansas, then the Tigers will be headed to the championship game instead. At stake for Colorado, meanwhile, is bowl eligibility. Though Taylor Martinez was hobbled in the Texas A&M game, he should start, and Nebraska does have backups Zac Lee and Cody Green ready to go should he not be able to play. Even though rusher Roy Helu, Jr. is banged up too, I don't see it being significant enough to allow Colorado to squeak out a victory here. I think Nebraska wins and punches a ticket to the Big 12 championship game.


Hilary's Picks:

Most likely rout: No. 24 Iowa at Minnesota. After what Iowa has been doing to teams they play the week after losing, I wouldn't want to be a Gopher fan this weekend.

Most likely upset: No. 10 Michigan State at Penn State. The Spartans haven't won in Happy Valley since 1993... sometimes you just have to go with history.

Best game to watch: Lucky for us, this Saturday has been designated "Big Ten championship Saturday" by ESPN and ABC. All three of the major conference games will be nationally broadcast, so you can switch back and forth between The Game and the match-up in Happy Valley in the morning, and then tune into Camp Randall in the afternoon. It should be a very exciting day!

Big Ten player of the week: James White and Montee Ball, RBs, Wisconsin. I think the duo runs all over the Wildcats and carries the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten crown.