With the conference season essentially half over, the Big Ten title picture is becoming a bit clearer. Five teams, not counting Ohio State and Penn State, have now been eliminated from any realistic chance at a trip to Indy and one more is now hanging by a thread. A new, interesting question is starting to emerge concerning just how many of their bowl tie-ins the Big Ten will be able to fill. Only two conference teams are currently eligible and another pair just need one more win to become eligible.
Minnesota vs Wisconsin
While this is technically a rivalry game, it has been more one-sided than the OSU-Michigan game during the Cooper years with Wisconsin absolutely owning Minnesota for as long as most people can remember. This year’s game got off to a promising start as both teams found the endzone in the opening eight minutes but the Golden Gophers missed the PAT and that set the tone for the rest of the game as the Badgers rolled for the last fifty-two minutes on the way to a 38-13 victory that gave them Paul Bunyan’s axe for the ninth straight year.
Wisconsin got back to their bread and butter of running the football behind the one-two punch of running backs James White and Montee Ball. White averaged 11.7 yards per carry while piling up 175 yards and 3 touchdowns while Ball added 166 yards and 2 touchdowns of his own. The Badger defense also did a good job, holding Minnesota to only 247 yards and coming up with a pair of interceptions. Wisconsin is now bowl eligible and essentially has the Leader’s division spot in Indy wrapped up and are once again looking like the favorites to take the division trophy.
Minnesota’s major story today was injuries. Third string quarterback Philip Nelson got the start for the Golden Gophers due to injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. Injuries among the Minnesota receivers forced Gray to ignore his injured ankle though and spend some time at receiver where he made three catches. Nelson struggled in his first start, going 13 of 24 for 149 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. After a promising start, Minnesota has completely fallen apart and considering their injury issues they will be lucky to get more than one more win this season.
Michigan State vs #23 Michigan
The second rivalry game of the day saw Michigan and Michigan State square off for the Paul Bunyan trophy; the Big Ten would like to thank Mrs. Bunyan for letting the conference raid her basement for rivalry trophies. Neither team played well on offense today and neither could score in the first quarter. Michigan finally put some points on the board in the second quarter as they hit a pair of field goals to go into the break up 6-0. MSU looked sharp on their first possession of the second half, driving down the field for the game’s first touchdown and a 7-6 lead. Both offenses stalled on their next possessions but then the Wolverines took advantage of an interception to get great field position and hit their third fg of the day to retake the lead. Mark Dantonio reminded everyone that he has the biggest balls in the Big Ten by running a fake punt on fourth and 10 in the next possession which got the MSU offense going. The Spartans would end up with a first and goal but had to settle for a field goal to go up 10-9. After stopping Michigan on the next possession, MSU got the ball back with three and a half minutes to go. The Spartans could only kill a minute of the clock and Michigan had enough time drive into field goal range where they hit their fourth of the day to give them a 12-10 victory, snapping MSU’s streak of four straight wins in the rivalry.
Michigan State was once again plagued by poor play calling that alternated between being overly conservative at times and downright stupid at other times. Despite the balls it took for Dantonio to call for the fake punt, he went too conservative at the end of that drive, opting for a field goal rather than going for it on fourth and goal from the one yard line. The bright spot for the MSU offense was that their receivers are getting better at catching the ball, making several great catches at key moments in this one today. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell continues to be inconsistent, making some nice passes but misfiring on other ones, including throwing one costly interception today. The Spartan defense continues to be one of the best in the Big Ten, keeping Michigan out of the endzone, but their offense just doesn’t do enough to get them victories against good opponents. This loss is the third conference loss for MSU, ending their chances of going to Indy and now MSU needs to focus on getting enough wins to get to a decent bowl game.
Michigan’s offense was also inconsistent in this one but they did just enough to get their field goal kicker into position to provide them points. Denard Robinson led the Wolverine attack, shocking I know, going 14 of 29 for 163 yards and an interception through the air and picking up 96 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Drew Dileo came up huge with 4 catches for 92 yards including a big reception in the closing seconds to put the Wolverines in field goal position. The Wolverine defense played one of their best games in this one, though it was aided by the Spartan offense struggling, but it still remains inconsistent. Michigan is undefeated in the conference and is in the driver’s seat for a trip to Indy with a one game lead on everyone else in the division.
Northwestern vs Nebraska
This game probably had the biggest Big Ten title game implications on the day, a strange thing to say about a game involving Northwestern. The first half was a back and forth affair with the teams trading leads with Northwestern eventually taking a 14-10 lead going into halftime. The Wildcats scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the second half to stretch their lead to 11. The Cornhuskers answered right back with a touchdown of their own but the two point conversion failed. Northwestern looked like they were in control of the game after a touchdown with nine minutes to go put them up by 12. Nebraska wasn’t done though, scoring a pair of touchdowns to take the lead with two and a half remaining; a failed two point conversion on the second score meant that Northwestern could win with a field goal. The Wildcats drove into field goal range but their last second field goal sailed just outside the right upright, giving Nebraska the 29-28 comeback win.
Northwestern’s two quarterback system appears to be slowing down as pocket pass Trevor Siemian was unimpressive, going 15 of 35 for 116 yards but he did come up with two touchdowns. Running qb Kain Colter didn’t do any better, only throwing 2 passes, one of which was complete, and only picking up 35 yards on the ground. Running back Venric Mark put up 117 yards on 16 carries but those numbers where inflated by an 80 yard touchdown run. The Cornhusker defense has been questionable this season so the fact that the Wildcats looked unimpressive on offense is a real danger sign. The Wildcat defense is also a question mark as they gave up over 500 yards, though they did force 3 turnovers. This loss is the second conference defeat for Northwestern and pretty much ends their dreams of getting to Indy. The next three weeks see the Pretty Kitties host Iowa and travel to Michigan and Michigan State in a stretch of games that will decide whether they will make a New Year’s Day bowl or not, I would expect them to go 2-1 in that stretch.
Nebraska’s offense looked impressive today, though three turnovers are troubling. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had a good day, going 27 of 39 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air while picking up 65 yards and another score on the ground. Running back Ameer Abdullah had a solid day with 102 yards on 19 carries but he did also have a fumble. The Cornhusker defense looked better than they have recently and that will be key if they want to get to Indy. Nebraska still has to play the toughest part of their schedule though with games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State in the next three weeks and then Iowa in the season-ender.
Indiana vs Navy
In the one non-conference matchup of the week, Indiana traveled to Annapolis looking to salvage their season. Things looked good early as the Hoosiers jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and went into halftime up 20-14. Navy took their first lead of the game with a touchdown midway through the third but a field goal and touchdown by Indiana put the Hoosiers in front 30-21 early in the fourth. The Midshipmen stormed back, hitting a field goal and then finding the endzone with two minutes to play to take the lead. Indiana’s final drive came up short as they fell to Navy 31-30 (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/td-interception-lift-navy-past-000155093–ncaaf.html).
The Indiana offense continued to look good, putting up over 414 yards but they were undone by two interceptions thrown by Cameron Coffman who was 25 of 37 for 244 yards but no touchdowns. The Hoosier defense struggled to stop the Navy ground game, giving up over 250 yards rushing but those two interceptions by Coffman were the difference in this close game. Indiana has looked better than expected on offense and has gotten good at getting in close games but they just cannot pull out the victory. Next week the Hoosiers host Illinois in what is most likely their only chance to get another win this season.
Penn State vs Iowa
Remember when Penn State was 0-2 at the start of the season and everyone had left them for dead? I remember it and I remember how after that start I had backed away a bit from my preseason projection that Penn State would be a force to be reckoned with in the conference this season. Now I wish that I hadn’t backed away from that prediction because after this game it is pretty clear that PSU is a force this season as the Nittany Lions scored the first 38 points on the way to a 38-14 beat down of Iowa, at Kinnick Stadium.
Penn State seamed to be excelling in all aspects of the game, rolling up over 500 yards of offense while giving up only 209 yards and forcing three turnovers; the one blemish for the Nittany Lions was that they lost two fumbles. Matt ‘Moxie’ McGloin kept his surprisingly strong season going as he went 26 of 38 for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Running back Zach Zwinak, who had been looking like an emerging star over the past month, had a disappointing day as he gained 52 yards on 16 carries. The PSU running game didn’t suffer though as running back Bill Belton had his best performance of the season, gaining 103 yards on 16 carries and finding the endzone three times. If it wasn’t for NCAA sanctions, the Leaders division would be shaping up for a hell of an ending as PSU has joined Wisconsin in shaking off early season issues and are now playing some great football. Next weekend’s game between Penn State and Ohio State could have gone a long way to determining who goes to Indy, instead it will just be a hell of a game between two teams that are still looking to win the division as that is the only trophy they can get this season.
After their win last week against Michigan State, Iowa looked to have maybe improved from their rough start to the season, where they lost to Iowa State and Central Michigan, and were possibly going to contend for a shot at Indy. Instead, while the Hawkeyes are still only one game behind Michigan in the Legends division, this weekend’s loss raises some serious questions about whether Iowa can compete with the conference leaders. The Hawkeyes didn’t get on the board until the fourth quarter, their leading running back had only 27 yards on the day, and James Vandenburg continues to disappoint as he went 17 of 36 for 189 yards, one touchdown, and 2 interceptions. The fact that this was a home loss, at night, only makes matters worse for Iowa and you have to wonder how much this will turn up the heat under Kirk Ferentz’s seat. Iowa travels to a reeling Northwestern next weekend in what will be a must win game if the Hawkeyes want to go to a decent bowl game this season; they’ll have to wait until the final two weeks of the season to see if they an realistically contend for a trip to Indy.