After four weeks of ‘preseason’ play, the ‘real’ season started in the Big Ten this week as the conference teams faced off to begin their run for the first ever Big Ten championship game. After weeks of playing mostly cupcakes, this week gave us our first real chance to see just how the conference stacks up and some things about this year’s pecking order have already become very clear.
Saturday began with (1-4, 0-1) Minnesota facing (5-0, 1-0) Michigan for the Little Brown Jug, which the Wolverines kept as they crushed the Golden Gophers 58-0. The result in this one is not much of a surprise as Minnesota lost to a I-AA opponent just last week and did not have an offense that could really test to see just how good the Michigan defense is this year. The surprise of this game was the solid passing performance of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson who was 15 of 19 through the air for 169 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions while adding another touchdown on the ground. Robinson normally struggles with his passing, making up for it with his feet, but today he looked like an actual quarterback. This is likely more of a reflection of how bad Minnesota’s defense is, but if this indicates an improvement on the part of Shoelaces, then the rest of the Big Ten needs to take notice, and be fairly concerned. Michigan is now 5-0 and ranked 12th in the AP poll. Fast starts for the Wolverines has happened the past couple years but have not led to success in conference play, we will have to see if the same holds true this season.
Another early game on Saturday saw (4-1, 1-0) Penn State struggle to a 16-10 victory over (1-4, 0-1) Indiana to keep the Nitany Lions unbeaten streak against the Hoosiers alive. Matt McGloin started the game but was replaced by Rob Bolden only to return to the game and throw a 74-yard touchdown pass and lead the Nitany Lions to a field goal. Obviously the qb situation in Happy Valley is still not settled to Joe Paterno’s liking but the past two weeks have shown that McGloin is the better choice right now. Overall the Nitany Lion offense is still very much a work in progress and they will likely struggle against better defenses in the conference. The Penn State defense is better than their offense but has not faced a good opposing offense other than Alabama so time will tell if they are good enough to keep Penn State in games. Indiana’s offense also struggled in this game and while they have shown signs of life this season, do not look nearly consistent enough to threaten many teams in the Big Ten.
The most entertaining Big Ten game of the week saw (5-0, 1-0) Illinois edge (2-2, 0-1) Northwestern 38-35 to claim the Land of Lincoln trophy. Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa returned for the first time since tearing his achilles last season and threw 4 touchdown passes to put Northwestern up 28-10 midway through the third quarter. Unfortunately Persa left the game after possibly re-aggravating the injury and seemed to take the Wildcat’s heart with him, the Illini took the opportunity and scored 21 straight to take a 31-28 lead. The Wildcats retook the lead with a touchdown with just under two minutes remaining but could not stop the Illini from marching down the field and scoring the game winning touchdown. This thriller boasts several positives and several warnings for each team. After looking impressive for the first four games of the season, the Illinois defense suddenly looked vulnerable when facing an elite level quarterback. Fortunately for the Illini they have a good qb of their own as Nathan Scheelhaase (that is a fun name to spell) was an impressive 21 of 32 for 392 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Northwestern looks like they could be a contender in the conference with Dan Persa at the helm but the lingering effects of his injury are a major cause for concern. A bigger cause for concern is the collapse by the pretty kitty defense late in the game, possibly showing a lack of mental toughness as the wheels fell off following Persa leaving the game.
The most hyped game of the week saw (4-1, 0-1) Nebraska travel to (5-0, 1-0) Wisconsin for a matchup of two top ten teams and the first ever Big Ten game for Nebraska. The Badgers did not give the Cornhuskers a warm welcome, it was more of a pantsing, as Wisconsin rolled to a 48-17 victory. Coming into this game I thought that the Nebraska defense would do well against the pass but would struggle against a physical running attack; I was half right as the Cornhusker defense struggled across the board, allowing almost 500 yards of Badger offense. Russell Wilson continued his impressive season as the Wisconsin quarterback, going 14 of 20 for 255 yards and two touchdowns while still not throwing an interception this season (I’m sort of trying to jinx him by point that out). The star of the game was Badger running back Montee Ball whose 30 carries netted him 151 yards and 4 touchdowns. On the other side of the ball the Wisconsin defense gave up two scores before clamping down and forcing three interceptions. Wisconsin showed that they are not only the class of the Big Ten this season but they are a legitimate national title contender. Conversely Nebraska showed that they will not come in and bully the existing conference members and that Taylor Martinez can be rattled by good defensive pressure.
Purdue was the only Big Ten member who played a non-conference foe this week, Iowa had off, as the Boilermakers fell 38-10 to Notre Dame in yet another racial stereotype rivalry game against a Big Ten team. The Purdue defense was awful, giving up 551 yards and not forcing any turnovers. The Boilermake offense was almost as bad, struggling to amass 276 yards with their only touchdown coming in garbage time. Purdue is probably the third worst team in the conference but have a good chance of earning two conference victories as they will face Minnesota and Indiana this season.
After one week of Big Ten play some things are very clear. Wisconsin is the easy favorite to win the conference and head to the Rose Bowl while Purdue, Minnesota, and Indiana will fight have no hope of a bowl and will fight it out for the conference basement. Nebraska may still be the second best team in the conference but Michigan State has a defense that could be good enough to get them into that spot if they can figure out their offense and Illinois is a major dark horse contender and Michigan may also be able to contend. Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern are more likely to play the role of spoiler than end up in Indy in December.