Posted by Adam Jacobi
A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.
B1G B1G B1G WINNER: Chaos
How much wilder is the Big Ten after this 10th week of play than before? Consider, now, that four of the six Legends Division teams are still in plausible contention for that crown, or that Penn State could still find itself at 6-2 (or worse) in the conference, setting off a similar scramble in the Leaders Division. This year, Minnesota has beaten Iowa, Purdue has beaten Illinois, and now Northwestern has beaten Nebraska in Lincoln. Did you see that one coming? Yes? Liar.
Sure, some might note that the ACC already tried having everybody in the conference go 6-2 or worse, and the result is a shambolic title race -- and a sham BCS bowl participant. And yes, generally, it's better to have a conference champion in the BCS' Top 12, where they'd be eligible to participate in a BCS bowl even without the conference title, but still: a little madness never hurt anybody, and what better way to demonstrate to the Big Ten faithful how much drama a division race can add to a season?
LOSER: Penn State
This was supposed to be a peaceful week off for Joe Paterno and Penn State, who would be watching gleefully as losses by Nebraska and Michigan would leave PSU as the only one-loss team in the conference. Instead, nobody in State College is talking football today; instead, it's the litany of serious crimes facing Jerry Sandusky -- and what role PSU brass may have played in keeping Sandusky's alleged crimes under wraps.
We're not going to comment on Sandusky's charges; we trust our readers to form their own opinions at this point. We'll just say that it's beyond depressing that Penn State is 8-1 (5-0), Joe Paterno is the Division I's winningest coach of all time, and the Penn State president still needs to be issuing statements assuring people that his athletic director and treasurer didn't try to cover up a serial child molester in violation of Pennsylvania state law. But alas: here it is, and here we are. Ugh; back to football.
WINNER: Michigan State's division title hopes
On its face, Michigan State's performance today was, if anything, lackluster; the Spartans let lowly Minnesota take a lead into the fourth quarter in a game in East Lansing, and MSU only won by 7 points after letting Minnesota drive into Spartan territory in the game's final seconds. And yet, Michigan State still won, and that gives the Spartans sole possession of first place in the Legends Division after Michigan and Nebraska both dropped contests Saturday. Unlike every other contender in the conference, MSU has no games against ranked opponents left; there are, however, road tests at Iowa and Northwestern looming, so it's not exactly time to start booking hotel rooms in Pasadena quite yet. Still, this is as commanding a position as anybody's held in this division thus far.
LOSER: Michigan's division title hopes
It's getting to be difficult to imagine a scenario in which Michigan plays for the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis this December. The Wolverines dropped to 3-2 in the league, and while that's still just a game off the lead with three games yet to play, it's to whom Michigan has lost that should prove most problematic for the Wolverines. Iowa and Michigan State both hold head-to-head tiebreakers over Michigan and a non-division loss, so really, the only way Michigan takes this division is by winning it outright. There is a plausible path to that: MSU loses to Iowa and Northwestern, Iowa loses to Nebraska, and Nebraska loses to Michigan. But that's about it.
WINNER: Iowa's offensive stars
Iowa's numbers on offense weren't spectacular in the Hawkeyes' 24-16 win over Michigan; 302 total yards and 15 first downs were all the Hawkeyes managed in 56 offensive plays. Not bad, no, but not spectacular. Nonetheless, there were some very familiar faces responsible for the lion's share of that production -- Marcus Coker had 132 yards and two scores, James Vandenberg was 14-21 for 171 yards and a score, and Marvin McNutt (seen at right, divorcing J.T. Floyd from his helmet) caught nine passes, a career high, for 101 yards. Overall, that's a pattern that has put several Hawkeyes among the league leaders with three games left in the regular season.
Coker leads all Big Ten rushers with 1101 yards on the season; Montee Ball is a close second with 1076. In receiving, McNutt trails only A.J. Jenkins (1030 yards) with 959 yards, and his nine receiving touchdowns lead the league. Meanwhile, Vandenberg is third in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, with a 154.83 rating and 18 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Officially, Vandenberg is second only to I-A leader Russell Wilson in the NCAA's eyes, as Dan Persa hasn't played in 75% of Northwestern's games yet, but that doesn't seem totally fair to Persa, who meets the other qualification of 15 pass attempts per game even counting the games he missed. We see you, Dan.
LOSER: Any notion of Rex Burkhead as a Heisman candidate
For a little while, Rex Burkhead was starting to gain steam as a potential darkhorse candidate -- not a potential winner, but certainly someone that might at least score a free trip to New York in December. Nebraska would have to win out as a one-loss Big Ten champion, though, and Burkhead would have to keep coming up as big as he has all season long. Do all that, and it might be good enough to get some major national attention.
Well, that clearly didn't happen. Nebraska's rushing attack was bottled up by Northwestern, of all defenses; the Wildcats had been ranked 95th nationwide coming into Saturday's contest, ceding 194 rushing yards per game. And yet, Nebraska managed only 122 yards on the ground in the 28-25 loss, and Burkhead was particularly ineffective: 22 rushes, 69 yards, one score, and one costly fumble inside Northwestern's 5-yard line. Worse, only three of those 22 rushes gained first downs, while Burkhead converted for a score or first down on only two of six rushes on 3rd and 4th down. That? That's not good.
WINNER: Kain Colter
Say this about Pat Fitzgerald: he doesn't much care for traditional labels on players. How else to explain Kain Colter, who for the last four weeks has averaged 55 yards rushing, 55 yards passing, and 71 yards receiving per game in a QB/WR hybrid role in support of Dan Persa? This week, Colter's versatility was especially useful, as Persa would leave the game at the half after sustaining a shoulder injury; Colter responded by scoring three touchdowns in the second half of Northwestern's upset victory.
Colter and Persa had seen their roles increasingly specialized coming into this week's action, with Persa taking the lion's share of the passing duties and Colter rushing far more often. Indeed, even though he only played a half, Persa threw 14 passes in this week's game; Colter, meanwhile, threw six. So there still isn't a ton of trust from Pat Fitzgerald in Colter's throwing ability yet. At the same time, this platoon seems awfully similar to 2009, when Persa was primarily a rushing threat in relief of Mike Kafka. That clearly didn't hamper Persa's prospects as a thrower down the road, and the current setup shouldn't be construed as a permanent indictment of Colter's passing ability.
LOSER: Denard Robinson's legs
Last year, in the Gator Bowl blowout that would seal Rich Rodriguez's fate with Michigan, the Wolverines tried to go for it on five fourth downs. In each one, a pass play was called for Denard Robinson; in each one, Michigan failed to convert, as the pass fell harmlessly incomplete on each attempt. This week, Robinson had led Michigan to Iowa's 3-yard line with under 20 seconds to play and a first and goal. This time around, Brady Hoke called four straight passes for Robinson; in each one, Michigan failed to score, as the pass fell harmlessly incomplete on each attempt.
This is not to argue that Robinson should never pass or anything of that sort. It's just that Robinson is at his most dangerous on the move, and when a drive or a game's on the line, by and large, it's not smart to have him stand still and look to pass. Junior Hemingway came awfully close to making a great catch on 2nd down and Roy Roundtree may have had a legitimate gripe for pass interference on 4th down (though it was far less obvious in real time), but still: Denard Robinson is the most dynamic runner in the Big Ten; why not try a run-pass option? With deep apologies to ZZ Top, Robinson has legs, and he knows how to use them. Give him a chance to do that!