Posted on: November 13, 2011 5:15 am
Posted by Adam Jacobi
A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.
WINNERS: Nebraska and Penn State
It's hard to know what to say about the Nebraska-Penn State game. It was obviously important strictly from a football sense, as it might well be the exact same matchup that we'll see for the inaugural Big Ten Championship in December. It proved that Penn State's defense couldn't just plain win every game by itself if the Nittany Lion offense was struggling. It even marked a decent enough debut performance for Tom Bradley as a D-I head coach, even though his team eventually fell short.
It's just that today, nobody believed what happened on that field was the most important thing going on. Not with the headlines bringing terrible news about the victims of Jerry Sandusky on a daily basis (today being no exception, sadly). Not with the scandal costing Joe Paterno his job after an unbelievable 46 years atop the program.
The reminders that this was about more than football came even on gameday, with the constant reminders from announcers, the blue-out engineered by the Penn State fans, and the remarkable scene of both teams meeting each other at midfield for a pregame prayer (shown above). Even when the game was on the line late in the fourth quarter, Penn State fans exhorted their team to victory by chanting the name of the coach wasn't there anymore -- Joe Paterno.
The chants did not propel Penn State to the comeback win, of course -- chants rarely do -- but they did underscore just how deeply intertwined Paterno is with the program. If a man embodies a football program as completely as Paterno did with PSU, then his bosses inform everybody that he doesn't anymore, how are fans supposed to react? Take some time to answer that. Take a few days. Everyone in Happy Valley's had at least that long, and nobody seems to have a good answer yet. Is there even one to be found?
LOSERS: Michigan State, Purdue, and Northwestern
Michigan State whipped Iowa at Kinnick. Purdue managed a huge overtime win against Ohio State. Northwestern fried Rice (sorry) (not actually sorry). All three wins were immensely consequential as the postseason goes (more on all that later) ... and just about nobody watched, thanks to the Nebraska-Penn State game dominating the common fan's attention. To be sure, that's where most eyes should have been trained, but fans of these three squads have the right to feel a little ignored and annoyed all the same; again, this was a big win for all three teams!
WINNER: Michigan State's division title chances
LOSERS: Iowa and Michigan's division title chances
With this win, Michigan State has effectively dispatched two of the three teams it was competing with for the Legends Division crown. At three losses, Iowa's out of the running; the division's competitive, but it's not that competitive, and Iowa cannot surpass MSU now. Michigan can pass MSU in the standings, technically -- it's just going to take Spartan losses to Indiana and Northwestern in the coming weeks. We're prepared to assume MSU wins at least one of the two.
That just leaves Nebraska as a potential spoiler to the Sparty Party, and aside from one game, the Huskers are playing what's easily their best football of the season. But that one game, the terrible, terrible home loss to Northwestern last week, is likely going to doom Nebraska unless the 'Cats (hey, them again) want to play spoiler one more time. It's not out of the question; Northwestern is typically a beast in November under Pat Fitzgerald. But considering what MSU did to the Iowa secondary this week and what Northwestern's secondary has suffered through, it might be too much to ask the Wildcats to pull one more upset.
WINNER: The Michigan State ground game
Coming into the week, the Spartans were the worst rushing team in the Big Ten. There are plenty of factors going into that: a retooling offensive line, a brand new offensive coordinator and system, and a schedule full of tough defenses, for three examples. But still, no matter how valid the explanations are, at the end of the day you need an effective running game if you're going to keep the ball on the ground 30+ times a game, otherwise those sticks just aren't moving very often.
So it was heartening to see the Spartans rush for 155 yards -- 25 yards above their season average, and 35 yards above their conference average -- in Saturday's 37-21 win at Iowa. Le'Veon Bell in particular was a beast between the tackles, running for 112 yards with one particularly demoralizing 25-yard score late in the first half (shown above at right). No, it's not like MSU put up 250 yards or otherwise let Kirk Cousins take the day off or anything -- it wasn't that big of a day on the ground -- but after three straight games of scarecely topping 100 yards for the day, 155 yards on 39 carries is a message that Sparty's rushing attack might be living up to its potential at the most important part of the season.
LOSER: The Ron Zook Experience
Remember when Ron Zook was proving everybody wrong about Illinois and, by extension, himself? Remember thinking that if you give any coach (Zook included) a dynamic quarterback, a top-level receiver, and a world-crushing defense, you'd get 9-10 wins, and that Zook was over halfway there? Remember? Those sure were nice days.
Then the losses started piling up, and they've shown no signs of abating -- quite the opposite, really. And now one can't help but think that this monumental collapse is going to mean the end for Zook. In all likelihood, Wisconsin's going to push the Illini's losing streak to five games next Saturday, and now even a road trip to Minnesota doesn't seem like a sure thing. No, the Gophers aren't good yet, despite beating Iowa and hanging with MSU. But they're at the least interested in playing well, and that's a sentiment that seems hard to come by in Champaign these days.
WINNER: Bowl eligibility
Two teams we didn't expect to see on the brink of bowl eligibility are Northwestern and Purdue, two teams that struggled mightily in the early conference season but that have logged important upset victories in recent weeks -- Northwestern over Nebraska last week, and now Purdue salvaging a regulation tie with OSU by blocking a last-minute extra point, then finishing the Buckeyes off in overtime.
So assuming that Northwestern can beat Minnesota at home and Purdue can win at Indiana, there'll be an astonishing 10 bowl-eligible teams out of 12 in the B1G. If that's the case, it would be appropriate that the conference is based out of Chicago, because Oprah Winfrey is too, and she says you get bowl eligibility! You get bowl eligibility! Everybody gets bowl eligibility! And if the Big Ten had 10 bowl tie-ins, well, that would automatically make 10 bowls very happy hosts and 10 teams very happy guests, would it not?
LOSER: Well, probably Northwestern or Purdue
Of course, the Big Ten does not have 10 bowl tie-ins, so if the conference has that many bowl-eligible teams this season, someone's going to be left out of the Big Ten bowl lineup. Even assuming two BCS teams come from the Big Ten (a travesty if ever there was one, this year), the most teams the conference can assuredly accommodate is nine. So depending on which bowls take which schools, we're going to be looking at one or two Big Ten teams stuck at six wins and hoping a mid-major bowl has a spot free.
Knowing how bowls make their selections, and thinking about how the standings are likely to shake out by the end of the season, it seems rather clear that Northwestern and Purdue are not only the most likely six-win teams in the conference, they're also the two least desirable potential bowl teams for a committee making its selection. Neither travels particularly well or grabs great ratings, and with Dan Persa still not 100%, both teams are badly lacking a high-profile player that casual fans would make time to watch.
We hope both teams can find their way into bowls, and not just because we're bitter Big Ten partisans to the very end -- it's that it'd be great to see them both make one last push for a bowl victory and a happy ending to the season. Dan Persa has obviously not had the senior campaign he or anybody else wanted, but considering his issues are related to rehab and chronic injuries, it seems like a late December Persa would probably be the best-healed Persa we've seen all season. Considering what he was doing on a football season pre-injury, the closest he can come to that, the pre-injury form, would be nice to see one last time.
Meanwhile, Purdue has scrapped and clawed hard to get to .500 on the season at this point. It was easy to dismiss the Boilermakers after they dropped a game at Rice early on, and the 62-17 whipping Wisconsin handed them seemed to underscore how far away they is from respectability. And yet, Purdue held off a furious rally to beat Illinois back when that still meant something, and a home game against Iowa might be an opportunity for a tone-setting win. Purdue didn't lose to Rice or Penn State by very much -- both games went down to the final possession -- so it's really not far from a 7-3 record right now. If the Boilers can get to a bowl game and come away with a win, it'll be a welcome end to a season that looked bleak at numerous times. How can you not want that?
Tags: Adam Jacobi, Big Ten, Dan Persa, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Oprah Winfrey, Pat Fitzgerald, Penn State, Purdue, Rice, Ron Zook, Tom Bradley, Week 11, What I Learned, Winners and Losers, Wisconsin