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Big Ten Digest: Jenga!

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

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I’ve got to hand it to them. It was so nice of the men’s basketball teams at Michigan and Illinois to agree to play in an exhibition this game weekend at the Big House.


You mean those weren’t the basketball teams out there this Saturday? It was two football teams who played a game that finished with a score of 67-65? Oh. Well, then. I guess that changes things.

In all seriousness, I am actually quite pleased with how that game turned out. Of course, this is mainly because it lets me write amusing things in my Digest, but it’s also because this weekend looked to have a real dearth of excitement going in. Oh sure, Penn State was trying for bowl eligibility and JoePa’s 400th win, but beyond that, the only "exciting" game on Saturday’s slate was the battle between Illinois and Michigan for a trip to a mediocre bowl game. There were no major rivalry games, no games that looked to have conference title implications, in short, nothing that would actually make me want to tune in my TV if I wasn’t the obsessive college football fan that I am. If you took one look at week ten’s game slate and decided you’d rather spend your Saturday cleaning your gutters and changing your oil from 10W/40 to 5W/30 I really wouldn’t have blamed you.

Fortunately for us all, week eleven offers a much better set of games, just in time for the return of normal November temperatures to the Midwest… Hope you got your oil changed.


News Update:

Joe Paterno hit his 400th win at Penn State with the Nittany Lions’ victory over Northwestern. Congrats to Joe — they just don’t make coaches as classy as him anymore!

Michigan and Illinois shattered an in-conference record for highest scoring game with their combined 132 points at the end of Michigan’s thrilling 3OT win over Illinois.

With their victories over the weekend, both Michigan and Penn State made it to six victories and bowl eligibility. The Big Ten now has seven bowl eligible teams, with Illinois just on the cusp at five wins. Purdue, Indiana, and Minneosta round out the conference, and though it’s still possible for the first two to get to six victories, it’s becoming less and less likely.

The Big Ten has eight bowl tie-ins this year, the most for the conference ever. If Illinois makes it to bowl eligibility before the end of the season and one of the Big Ten teams is selected for an at-large BCS bowl game then the conference will also have teams playing in seven other bowls: the Rose Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl, Insight Bowl, Texas Bowl, and the Dallas Football Classic. For the conference to fill all eight of its tie-in games however, Purdue or Indiana would have to make it to six wins and snag the conference’s slot in the Pizza Pizza Bowl.


Rankings Update:

No major shifts in the conference rankings this week, as all of the ranked teams who were in action won their games. Losses in other conferences moved all the Big Ten teams up a few places, and reigning BCS leader Oregon stayed on top of it all with a .9638 average.


Was: No. 15 in the AP poll, No. 16 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 16 in the BCS (.4291)

Now: No. 13 in the AP poll, No. 13 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 13 in the BCS (.5223)

Michigan State:

Was: No. 16 in the AP poll, No. 15 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 14 in the BCS (.5136)

Now: No. 10 in the AP poll, No. 10 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 11 in the BCS (.6180)

Ohio State:

Was: No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 8 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 11 in the BCS (.6127)

Now: No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 7 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 9 in the BCS (.6613)


Was: No. 7 in the AP poll, No. 7 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 9 in the BCS (.6740)

Now: No. 6 in the AP poll, No. 5 in the Coaches’ poll, and No. 7 in the BCS (.7349)


Week Ten Recap:

Big 10 Conference Standings

(updated 11.7.2010 at 1:45 AM CDT)

Week ten provided precious little in the entertainment department, with most games turning out exactly as we expected them to… well, except for Michigan and Illinois.

No. 16 Iowa at Indiana (Iowa, 18-13):

What exactly is it about the Hawkeyes when they play the Hoosiers? Somehow they always seem to get just the right break at just the right time. Of course, some Hoosier fans out there might say they also happen to get just the right call at the right time, but I digress. No matter which interpretation you believe, the Iowa-Indiana match-ups have been very entertaining of late. Believe it or not, until the very waning minutes of the 4th quarter, the Hoosiers were winning this game, 13-12. Yes, that’s right, the Hoosier defense somehow was stopping the same Iowa offense that rolled over Michigan State just a week prior. I know, I can’t explain it either. But then Ricky Stanzi connected on a late TD to Marvin McNutt, and Ben Chappell’s last gasp pass to Damarlo Belcher was dropped in the end zone. Better luck next year, Hoosiers…

Minnesota at No. 14 Michigan State (MSU, 31-8):

Do I really need to write about this game? I mean, I know it happened, but what is there to say? Yeah, in fact, I think you can just look at the score and imagine all the things that I would normally put in this paragraph. Really, it’s kinder to Gopher fans this way. I’m doing a public service to the state of Minnesota, ‘cause I’m just nice like that.

Illinois at Michigan (Michigan, 67-65 3OT):

Okay, after watching this game, I’ve made a decision. I am never going to write another kind word about Illinois in this column again. Now wait just a minute. I know that sounds unfair, but really, i'm doing it out of kindness. It's for the Illini's own good. Last week was the one week I decided to write nice things about them, to talk up their stellar defense and how it would lead them to bowl eligibility in the Big House, and look what happened. So, from now on, I will only write very very bad things about the team from Champaign-Urbana. Utterly filthy things.

This game was… well it was a barn burner, to use a Midwestern term. Because, you know, those of us from the Midwest always have to have references to farms in our analogies. Er, anyway, the game. The evaluation of this game depends on which side you look at it from. I mean, on the one hand, this score is a completely predictable result for Michigan this year. Yes, Denard Robinson has been that good, and yes, their defense has been that bad. But for Illinois? Absolutely not. First of all, where exactly was that defense that had kept the Illini hanging right along side Ohio State earlier this year? That allowed them to hold Penn State to less than two TDs in Happy Valley? It’s like they didn’t even bother to make the trip.

The offense certainly did, however. Most people writing on this game are going to look at the 65 points Illinois put on the board and be convinced that the Illini have suddenly turned an offensive juggernaught. Will I say that? No. No, I won’t. Partly this is because of my new vow to never say anything nice about the Illini, and partly because of the reality of their opponent’s D. Do you know the fewest points that Michigan has allowed a team to put up on team this year? Go ahead, guess. I’ll wait. Done yet? Okay, here’s the answer: 28. Yes, that’s right, Michigan hasn’t had a game yet this year where they’ve allowed fewer than four TDs. So while it is nice that Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure continued to impress this weekend, I wouldn’t put too much stake in it. This game was so insane that I could devote two more full pages to its analysis, but I fear that the other schools will feel as though I’m neglecting them. So I’ll just offer these last few takeaways: Illinois is a team with a serious case of multiple personality disorder, Michigan’s defense is still horrible, and RichRod likely just saved his job for another year.

No. 9 Wisconsin at Purdue (Wisconsin, 34-13):

The final score of this game really doesn’t tell the full story. Though it looks as though the Badgers rolled right on through the Boilermakers for another victory, the Badgers were actually trailing the Boilermakers for the entirety of the first half. Wisconsin came off their bye week looking completely flat, and an inspired Boilermaker team seemed to be on the way to one of the bigger upsets in the conference this year. Then, Bret Bielema changed his jacket in the locker room, Montee Ball went into the game in place of a sluggish John Clay, and Purdue’s inconsistencies caught up to them. Quarterback Sean Robinson threw three interceptions in the second half, and Purdue also lost another turnover on a kickoff return. Both teams finished with the exact same yardage totals at 303, but it was ultimately those turnovers that cost Purdue this game, as Wisconisn would put up 28 points in the second half, and Purdue put up only three. Bowl eligibility is still a possibility for the team from West Lafayette, but it’s starting to look like a mirage.

Northwestern at Penn State (PSU, 35-21):

So last week I said that this game was "too close to call." I was right. Oh, yeah, Penn State won by two TDs, but much like the game above, the final score doesn’t tell the whole story. Northwestern absolutely dominated this game for the first half, racing out to a 21-0 lead heading into the final minute of the second quarter, until Matt McGloin led the Nittany Lions on a 91 yard scoring drive in under a minute. Then, the teams went into the locker rooms, switched uniforms, and returned to the field so that Joe Paterno could get his 400th win.

Er… what I mean to say is, Penn State came out of half-time fired up to win one for JoePa and Northwestern decided to lay down and die. There really aren’t enough terrible words in the English language for me to describe the second half performance of all of the Wildcats (with the exception of Dan Persa). Four straight drives for Penn State ending in a touchdown, after you had been able to keep them out of the end zone for 29 minutes? Come on. Suffice it to say that as a Wildcat fan, I was, and still am, downright embarrassed at the way this team took the field for the second half of the game in Happy Valley. I hope this team realizes how shameful this game was, because if they don’t, they won’t win another game this season.

BONUS: Iowa State at No. 7 Nebraska (Nebraska, 31-30 OT):

So, last week I said that there was no way that Iowa State had another big upset in them after they had already taken down the Longhorns this season. I was right. Of course, the only reason I was right was because Iowa State’s coach decided to pretend he was Mark Dantonio during Iowa State’s overtime possession. Trailing by one, Iowa State could have opted for the easy extra point and sent this game to a second overtime. Instead? They decide to run a fake that everybody saw coming and go for the two point conversion and the win. They failed. Obviously. I really don’t know what they were thinking here. I’ve never really been a fan of running fakes in overtime at the college level, given that the rules are so generous, but I do understand the desire to get a dramatic win over a ranked team. I just think that in this game, the Iowa State coach, Paul Rhoads, let that desire blind him to the realities of the situation. When the other team sees the fake coming and when your holder can’t do better than a short floater of a pass that’s easy to intercept, it’s really not the most intelligent play call. Still, the Huskers are lucky that things turned out the way they did, or we could be talking about how yet another highly ranked team went down in ridiculous fashion this year.


Week Eleven Preview:

Though the games in week eleven look suspiciously similar to those of the week ten slate, don’t be fooled. This weekend contains a few match-ups between this year's top team’s and teams that have had them snake bitten. Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes travel to Evanston and attempt to avoid yet another Northwestern upset, while the Buckeyes are at home in the Shoe looking to avoid a repeat of 2008 against Penn State.

No. 13 Iowa at Northwestern (11:00 A.M., ESPN/ESPN3):

As mentioned above, this is a game that likely will make every Iowa fan nervous. And pissed off. But mostly nervous. For whatever reason, the Wildcats have had the Hawkeye’s number in recent years, with Northwestern owning a 4-2 record against Iowa since 2002 (they did not play in 2003 or 2004). Last year of course was perhaps the biggest of those upsets, as a 9-0 Iowa team found themselves dismantled by Northwestern at Kinnick. Of course, even with that loss Iowa managed to get themselves to a date with Georgia Tech in a BCS bowl game. If they lose again this year? They can pretty much kiss the BCS and a share of the conference crown good-bye.

So, who’s going to win? Well, I can’t really say. Iowa has the superior team this year by the numbers, but, in rivalries like this, where something always seems to go wrong for the Hawkeyes, how much faith can you really put in a conventional analysis? The only thing I can say for sure is that this game will be entertaining, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Indiana at No. 7 Wisconsin (11:00 A.M., ESPN2/ESPN3):

When I was first writing this article, I had the strangest feeling. I felt like I was missing something. So I went back and checked to make sure that I had included coverage of both Nebraska games -- as that's sometimes easy for me to overlook. Check. Did I include a rankings watch? Yep. News update? That too. So, puzzled as I was, I decided that my feeling must of just been a sign that law school had slowly started to drive me insane. Really, nothing unusual about that one.

And then it was drawn to my attention that I had forgotten to include a preview of the Wisconsin game. Er. Ooopsies. Not only is this a game involving the currently highest ranked team in the Big Ten, but I'm also a Wisconsin fan. So, yeah, kind of sad. I'm still going to blame law school, though, since it's convenient.

Anyway, this game. Well, it's at Camp Randall, which is already a strike against Indiana. Given how tough the Hoosiers played Iowa this past week in Bloomington, and how sluggish Bucky looked in West Lafayette, I think I would actually be nervous were this game taking place down near the quarry. But up in Madison? Not so much. In fact, I think the scare against Purdue has helped to make sure this game will be even more lopsided than one would normally expect. While I think that Ben Chappell might be able to exploit some of the weaknesses of the Wisconsin secondary if given time, I don't expect that the Indiana O-Line, who had trouble stopping the Northwestern front seven will be able to afford much protection for him against the bruisers of the Wisky line, especially considering the presence of J.J. Watt. I also think John Clay bounces back from a less than awesome performance against Purdue, so expect that Wisconsin wins this one and wins big.

Minnesota at Illinois (11:00 A.M., Big Ten Network):

Will this be the week? The week that the Golden Gophers come out all crazy eyed and get a big upset to console their fans? Okay, I guess "big" upset really isn’t the right word here. I mean, Illinois is no Michigan State or Ohio State. Still, with the way this season has been going, you better believe Gopher fans would love to have a Fighting Illini shaped trophy mounted on their wall. Again this week, though, as much as I want to say that Minnesota will go out there and pick up a victory, I just can’t. The team has too many problems to overcome and even an opponent like the Illinois will prove just too much of a challenge. Then again, If I said the Illini will get bowl eligibility this week I’d be breaking my rule from above, so instead I’ll say that there is absolutely no way they will win this game. Nope. Not gonna happen. Minnesota will win. Really. That’s not sarcasm. At all.

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

Once again, virtually all of the conference action is going on at 11:00 in the morning. Better make sure you didn’t forget to change your clocks. Except… if you did… then you’d just be up early, and not late… uhm… never mind. So, trying this again. Michigan is now bowl eligible. Purdue is holding on to a faint hope. Since their last three games consist of Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana, this is really the last gasp for the Boilermakers. If they get a win here, then all they need to do is to prevail in the in-state battle against the Hoosiers at the close of the season. I mean, even if they lose they could upset Michigan State, but since the Spartans will be playing for a trip to Pasadena, that’s not very likely.

So, one last chance for Purdue. All the marbles. Good news for Purdue is that a victory here is easily possible. Michigan really has no defense, as we’ve seen this season. And Denard Robinson, who was once again shaken up in the Illini game, is only an offensive force if he’s actually out on the field playing. Tate Forcier is a more than capable backup, but Wolverine fans have got to like their chances at a victory better with Denard under center. The key to this game for Danny Hope and Purdue? Come out fired up like they did against Wisconsin and sustain that energy through the entire game. Do that, and a bowl might yet still be in Purdue’s future.

Penn State at No. 9 Ohio State (2:30 P.M., ABC/ESPN/ESPN3):

Oooh boy. We have an interesting game here. A few weeks ago this looked like it’d be a cakewalk for the Buckeyes, but now? Not so much. Ohio State has been playing very well at home, but since the Nittany Lions have started Matt McGloin in place of Rob Bolden, they’ve actually looked decent. Of course, they did still allow Northwestern to put up 21 points on them in a quarter and a half in week ten, but they still snagged a victory in that game.

Ohio State actually finds themselves in a really difficult position. They need to win this game to keep in the conference and BCS hunt, but they also need to be healthy and fresh going into next week’s match-up against the Hawkeyes. Given that PSU has been on fire lately, that means that the Buckeyes have to come into this game like it’s the last game of the season. If they’re thinking about the implications of next week at Kinnick, then Penn State will be the one to ruin their Big Ten championship hopes, not Iowa. Of course, the question remaining is whether Penn State still has that same fire now that JoePa has secured his 400th win and the team has secured bowl eligibility. I think because of the nature of the opponent they do, but if they want to win they absolutely cannot let themselves get down early like they did against Northwestern. Unlike the Wildcats, the Buckeyes are not liable to roll over in the second half.

BONUS: Kansas at No. 8 Nebraska (6:00 P.M.)

Hmm. Kansas is 3-6 heading into this game, and 1-4 in conference. Basically, they’re the Minnesota of the Big 12. Or maybe that honor belongs to Colorado. No matter. A quick glance at this game would suggest that the Jayhawks have no chance here, but one should be wary of the letdown factor. Nebraska’s nail biter against Iowa State in overtime could have them come into this game a bit sleepy-eyed, and ripe for an upset. I really don’t think Kansas is talented enough to take down the Huskers, but stranger things have happened in 2010, so I wouldn’t write them off. At least not entirely. Mostly, but not entirely.


Hilary’s Picks:

Most likely rout: Minnesota at Illinois. I feel like I’ve put Minneosta in this category for much of the season. Sadly for Gopher fans, I’ve also been right for much of the season.

Most likely upset: SO… CONFLICTED. Ugh. Iowa at Northwestern? Penn State at Ohio State? Iowa at Northwestern? Penn State at Ohio State? I just can’t choose. You be the judge.

Best game to watch: The potential upsets are this week’s thrillers. Tune in to Iowa at Northwestern in the morning and follow it up with Penn State at Ohio State in the afternoon. Either of these games could end in a dramatic victory, and both are sure to be entertaining.

Big Ten player of the week: Matt McGloin, quarterback, Penn State. Perhaps I’m a week late on this selection, but I just have a funny feeling that his luck hasn’t yet run out…