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Tag:What I Learned
Posted on: November 27, 2011 3:47 am
Edited on: November 27, 2011 6:19 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 13



Posted by Adam Jacobi

A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.

WINNER: Wisconsin's lust for revenge

The two heart-breaking losses Wisconsin absorbed in the middle of what was supposed to be a special season have never really let the Badgers go. Oh, the Badgers got over them, to be sure; they won their next four Big Ten games by an average score of 44-14, and of those only the 28-17 win over Illinois was even halfway competitive. And yet, Wisconsin has struggled in vain to so much as crack the Top 15 of the polls, as its only win against a ranked opponent all year was a 48-17 dismantling of then-No. 8 Nebraska in Week 5. That's it.

Or, that was it until Saturday, anyway, when Wisconsin officially ended Penn State's conference title aspirations (and the Nittany Lions' stint in the Top 25) with a 45-7 shellacking. Wisconsin's now the (sigh) Leaders Division winner and all set for the Big Ten Championship Game next Saturday. And wouldn't you know it, Michigan State -- the team that dealt Wisconsin its first, most crushing loss will be waiting in Indianapolis for the Badgers.

And there's probably no team Bret Bielema and his Badgers would rather face.

The first meeting of the two teams was an outright classic, with Wisconsin going up 14-0 early before a Montee Ball injury derailed the Badgers' offense to the point that MSU was able to open up a 31-17 lead. But it wasn't until a deflected Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins found its way into the arms of Keith Nichol and Nichol twisted the ball across the plane while being tackled that the Spartans could sew up the victory. It was as slim a margin of victory could be in regulation, and it doomed Wisconsin's highest aspirations for the season. What more could you ask for after a game like that than a rematch? And if there must be a rematch, why not do it with everything in the Big Ten on the line? This week should be great.  

LOSER: The so, so, so fired Ron Zook

Ron Zook's Illinois squad just put the finishing touches on a 6-6 campaign, one that would probably be a little more palatable if it hadn't finished in six straight losses where a formerly formidable offense just plain cratered. The last effort that'll likely be on Ron Zook's resume is a 27-7 throttling at the hands of a Minnesota program that hadn't beaten a Big Ten opponent by that many points since it beat Indiana 63-26... in 2006, when Glen Mason was still at the helm. We'll have more on the Gopher revival in a bit, but suffice it to say that Zook is going to be fired very, very soon. 

There's no up side for this Illinois team's collapse. Nathan Scheelhaase has gone from a future first-team All-Big Ten quarterback to a potential second-team quarterback for the Illini in 2012. A.J. Jenkins scored zero touchdowns in the last six games after a scintillating first half of the season. The Illinois rush defense -- ranked second in the Big Ten -- ceded 248 yards to Minnesota, which was a season high for the Gophers. Whitney Mercilus was a terror all year long, racking up 9.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles, but now there's almost no chance he'll be back in 2012. So what is there to look forward to with this team in 2012 regardless of who's coach? And the fact that such a question is being asked in a coach's seventh year in a program probably means he won't be around for an eighth.

WINNER: Michigan Men (even when they're not)

Much was made about Brady Hoke's ties to the Michigan program when he was hired after the 2010 season, with the phrase "Michigan Man" bandied about liberally. And to be sure, that's exactly what Hoke is -- right down to his insistence on calling Ohio State "Ohio" and never wearing red.

But when it came to hiring coordinators, Hoke wasn't dumb enough to limit himself to fellow Michigan Men. Offensive coordinator Al Borges is, if anything, a "Chico State Man," graduating from there in 1981 and spending the next 30 years bouncing around various schools as offensive coordinator (usually on the west coast, and never at Michigan). Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spent five years at Michigan back in the '90s, sure, but he also spent more time than that at Notre Dame. -- and did so more recently than his first Michigan stint. Is Mattison a Michigan Man? A Notre Dame Man? Both? He couldn't be both, could he? Anyway, all told, only three of Hoke's nine assistants have any prior ties to the program.

And yet, the difference in quality between last year's team and this year's is inestimable. The Michigan defense has gone from putrid to passable in just one season, and while it's not a championship-caliber unit just yet, it is good enough to get the Wolverines to 10-2 in the regular season and in immediate division contention -- back where the Big Ten figured Michigan would be when these division lines were drawn in the first place. And oh yes, there is that 40-34 victory over Ohio State that the Wolverines clawed for this year, their first over OSU in almost a decade.

LOSER: Will Hagerup

Welp, guess I'm just gonna punt this here ball away, just gonna do my job as punteWHAT AWWW HAMBURGERS OHHHHH NOOOOO

WINNER: Montee Ball's Heisman campaign

Montee Ball's probably not going to win the Heisman this year. That honor will probably go to someone in the trio of Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, or Trent Richardson. But at the very least, Ball probably bought* himself a ticket today with a 156-yard, four touchdown effort that pushed his season numbers to 248 carries, 1622 yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, 17 catches, 248 receiving yards, and five more receiving touchdowns. He also threw a 25-yard touchdown to Russell Wilson against Indiana (which doesn't count for Ball in total touchdowns, only Wilson), a sure sign that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was very bored that day.

So that makes 34 total touchdowns on the season for Ball, a mark that only Barry Sanders has bested with his other-worldly 39 scores in 1988 (which doesn't even count his five touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl, as bowl games weren't counted in official statistics back then). And Ball isn't just pushing scores in from a yard out, either; nine of his 25 rushing touchdowns have come from more than five yards out, and his 6.75-yard rushing average was fourth in the FBS among 1000-yard rushers coming into Saturday's action. Ball isn't a touchdown machine, he's an everything machine, and now that it's been him front and center in Wisconsin's push to Indianapolis, voters are likely to take notice.

*Metaphorically speaking, NCAA! We never meant to imply that Ball or anybody around him has ever so much has handled a dollar bill. We understand that the sanctity of this game can only be achieved if everybody involved is dead broke and rejects capitalism outright, and we assure you that Ball has not been tainted by the immoral slime of legal tender. They're student-athletes, not money-recipient-athletes. We get it. 

LOSER: The "Heroes Game"


What seemed like an intriguing new rivalry -- Iowa vs. Nebraska, every year, with the Missouri River set to be the most hotly contested border waterway since the Rhine. Whereas the French had the mighty but tragically immobile Maginot Line to protect themselves, though, Iowa's line just plain couldn't stop anyone coming right up the middle, either on Saturday or all year long. Rex Burkhead set a Nebraska record with 38 carries, and his 160 yards and a touchdown wore down the Iowa defense to the point of surrender. 20-7 was the final, and it really wasn't that close.

Next year's game might be more competitive simply because it's in Iowa City, but the 2012 Hawkeyes probably won't be any better than this year's iteration, and if this rivalry starts off lopsided it'll be hard to get the fanbases worked into the lather necessary for a lasting rivalry. Nebraska's never going to get tired of 13-point wins that are more one-sided than the final score indicates, of course, but the Huskers aren't really going to care about beating Iowa until they can't take it for granted anymore.

WINNER: Jerry Kill, eh?

It looks like everything Jerry Kill's been telling his team since he inherited it last December might yet be sinking in. After a 1-6 (0-3) start to the season where none of the Gophers' conference losses were even competitive, Minnesota turned the boat around in a big way with a 22-21 comeback win over Iowa. After that, Minnesota looked like a different team, hanging tough with Michigan State and Northwestern in losses and at the very least losing to Wisconsin by a smaller margin than Penn State just did. And now, the Gophers have closed the season out with the aforementioned 27-7 drubbing of listless Illinois. MarQueis Gray rushed for 167 yards, threw for 85 more, and accounted for all three of the Gopher's touchdowns in the victory without turning the ball over.

This Gopher team has a long way to go in order to start hanging with its Legends Division rivals on a weekly basis. The lines are a mess, there's a dearth of experience on both sides of the ball, and Kill isn't drawing high-quality recruits yet. He's got a complete overhaul on his hands, and those don't happen in a year at a school like Minnesota. But there's two ways to overhaul a program: spend four years recruiting "your" players into the system, or change the program's culture so substantially that the old coach's players buy in and become "your" players. Kill seems to be on that path, and that bodes well. Doesn't seem like something we thought we'd be saying just a couple months ago, when Kill was talking about needing to "babysit" his players and losing every game by 30 or so, but here we are.

LOSER: Michigan's classless fans

Look at them, rushing the field and celebrating after Michigan beats a 6-6 team. Act like you've been there, guys, right? The nerve of it all!

We're kidding, of course, because the cathartic value of a win like that, erasing eight years of misery and futility hard-wired into to Michigan's identity as a football program, would be off the charts even if Ohio State were coming into the game 0-11. But we're still talking about a bowl team here in OSU, and one that gave Michigan all sorts of fits over the course of the game. You have our full blessing on this field-storming, Michigan. And if anyone says otherwise, well, haters gonna hate. Feels nice to have haters again, doesn't it?



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Posted on: November 20, 2011 4:19 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 12



Posted by Adam Jacobi

A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.

WINNER: Michigan in the trenches

In the biggest "statement game" of Michigan's season, the Wolverines welcomed Nebraska to the Big House with a 45-17 butt-kicking. The game had been tied 10-10 midway through the second quarter, then Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint -- seen above -- simply took over the game (with Nebraska's complicity; more on that in a second), especially on the ground.

Before the Nebraska field goal by kicker Brett Maher tied the game at 10, Michigan had thrown the ball on nine of 25 plays. Afterwards? 10 throws on 55 plays. The difference was that offensive coordinator Al Borges was able to put his trust in the offensive line to give Toussaint rushing lanes and Robinson the time to scramble and improvise. The result was 186 rushing yards after that 10-10 tie, and 238 as a whole. 

LOSER: Nebraska's special teams

Of course, we would be remiss in not pointing out that the reason that Michigan stayed so run-heavy in the second half was because Nebraska's defense just plain couldn't get off the field -- and the Husker special teams had a lot to do with that. Kenny Bell and Tim Marlowe each fumbled second-half kickoffs, and Nebraska also allowed a fake field goal to be converted on 4th and 1 at the 5-yard line and committed a costly roughing the punter penalty in the 4th quarter. All in all, the four miscues would eventually lead to 21 points for the Wolverines, and the worst part for Nebraska is that it could have been worse; Marlowe's fumbled return only led to a missed field goal.

All in all, that's a level of generosity that cost Nebraska the opportunity to even make a game of it against Michigan, and while those miscues are more an aberration than a trend that needs to be remedied, they still led to a costly third loss for Nebraska -- one that could very welll keep the Huskers out of the top tier of the Big Ten's non-BCS bowls.

WINNER: Michigan State

Coming into this week, Michigan State needed a win over Indiana and a Michigan win over Nebraska to sew up the Legends division. Michigan, of course, played its part. And good heavens, did Michigan State ever put an exclamation point on its division title, slamming Indiana 55-3 in a contest that probably violated an international statute of warfare or 12. Geneva is unamused by this use of Keshawn Martin on helpless Hoosiers, Sparty.

So while it's a little misleading to say MSU is playing its best football of the season just three weeks after being drubbed 24-3 by Nebraska (and two weeks after beating Minnesota by only a touchdown), it is safe to say the Spartans are looking capable of bringing a dangerous team to Indianapolis in December. The Capital One Bowl brass is probably the happiest of anyone to see this bumplet of success from East Lansing as the Spartans prepare for the championship; MSU lost 49-7 to Alabama in that bowl just last season, and bowl reps usually don't need much of a reason not to bring a team back for a second year in a row. 

LOSER: Ohio State's momentum

QB Braxton Miller is improving week to week, RB Boom Herron is healthy and putting up big numbers in the terrifying Buckeye ground game, and now WR DeVier Posey's back and making big plays from the word go. So why's Ohio State on a two-game losing streak and in real danger of going .500 on the year?

It's a legitimate question, and one that a simple answer of "because Luke Fickell isn't good enough" doesn't adequately answer. Perhaps some of it is Fickell's inexperience as head coach, but he also had to deal with a slew of suspensions and the loss of a quarterback -- a loss that Ohio State just plain wasn't prepared to address this season. Braxton Miller may be showing flashes of greatness now, but in September, he could barely outplay Joe Bauserman. Things were not good.

Still, losses to Purdue and a reeling Penn State team are probably enough to convince Ohio State brass that no matter how unlikely the problems of 2011 are to repeat in 2012, the program needs a more experienced coach at the helm. And that's probably the correct call. But you've got to think that if Fickell gets replaced, he'll look back at these last two weeks and think about how close he was to delivering a solid season -- and earning the head coaching job long term.

WINNER: The rest of Penn State's season

No, Penn State didn't gain any ground in the Leaders Division race; that situation continues to come down to next week's Penn State-Wisconsin game, and it wouldn't have mattered if the Nittany Lions came into that one with a one-game lead or a tie. But strictly from the perspective of returning to normal, Penn State gained a huge victory by hanging on to win at Ohio State. PSU never threatened to score after being stuffed on a goal line stand midway through the third quarter, and all the Buckeyes needed to do in the second half was score seven points to take the lead. That, clearly, didn't happen; Linebacker U stood tall on defense and kept the Buckeyes from taking a single snap in field goal range after halftime, and the second half shutout preserved a 20-14 victory.

In terms of what the win represents to Penn State, division ramifications aside, it's huge. Even leaving out the emotional impact of the football program on the fanbase -- that's a can of worms best kept shut -- there's basically no way Penn State could have taken two straight losses to lower-ranked opponents, then walked into Camp Randall (where the Badgers have outscored their opponents by an average score of 52-12 this year) and come away with a win -- especially not with an interim head coach on the sidelines, forced to argue against all evidence that the world is not caving in on the program in a tailspin. But with this win, that tailspin's not happening, and Penn State can take a deep breath and begin preparation for the Badgers.

LOSER: Wisconsin's what could have been

In case you hadn't noticed, the Top 10 was basically incinerated this week, starting with Iowa State's shocking upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State on Friday and continuing on through Baylor's 45-38 stunner vs. Oklahoma late Saturday night. No, Wisconsin doesn't have anything to do with those games, but therein lies the problem. Just one month ago, Wisconsin was 6-0, ranked fourth in the nation, and rolling through its competition. Then two Hail Mary losses demolished Wisconsin's national standing, and the Badgers are still ranked 17th and unlikely to move much higher after a lackluster 28-17 win over Illinois.

It's a shame, because Wisconsin's got the talent to hang with just about anybody in the nation, and this sudden swarm of chaos in the Top 10 would have been the perfect way for the Badgers to start sneaking up toward the Top 5 even with one loss; they'd quite assuredly be ranked second if undefeated. But alas, Kirk Cousins and Braxton Miller had other ideas for the fate of Wisconsin's season, and as a result a team that looked like a very strong BCS contender will likely walk into the Rose Bowl as a borderline Top 10 team instead.

WINNER: Marvin McNutt

It's getting difficult to find a way in which Marvin McNutt isn't the best receiver Iowa's ever had. McNutt owns career marks in yards, touchdowns, and receptions at Iowa, and he just added the single-season touchdown mark to his single-season yardage mark today in a nine-catch, 151-yard, two-touchdown effort. McNutt made multiple highlight-reel catches in the game, including this juggling wonder that basically sealed Iowa's 31-21 victory over Purdue. It's a crying shame that McNutt, who's putting up these numbers in a non-pass-wacky offense, isn't being considered for the Biletnikoff Award, because he's been nearly unguardable this season.

LOSER: Anyone who felt like paying attention to more than two or three Big Ten games this week

We understand that networks have their reasons for wanting certain games at certain times, and that it's going to be difficult to drum up support for 'Cats-Gophers as anything but an early kickoff. We get that. We also realize that there's a very good reason for the Big Ten to not allow night games in November, since the Midwest is a cold, inhospitable prison of a region once the sun goes down this time of year. But when the Big Ten ends up with five of its six games all taking place at the same time, something's clearly out of whack, and it makes it extremely difficult for the most passionate fans of the conference to enjoy very much of it.

That all said, it's also a credit to the conference that it has a media presence robust enough to get all five of those games televised live (and in HD!), and without having to resort to an online video service (pay-per-view or otherwise) or ESPN GamePlan. Sure, it took two Big Ten Network overflow channels to make it happen, and not everybody has those extra channels, but as other major conferences struggle to get every game on TV even when there aren't many other conference games going on, it's nice to see the Big Ten at least up to this task.

Posted on: November 13, 2011 5:15 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 11



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? 
Posted on: November 6, 2011 4:15 am
Edited on: November 6, 2011 12:04 pm
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 10



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!

Posted on: October 23, 2011 6:57 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 8



Posted by Adam Jacobi

A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.

WINNER: The fans at Spartan Stadium

The scene in East Lansing Saturday night was Big Ten football at its best: a packed house under the lights, a national audience, and two highly-ranked programs duking it out for all 60 minutes. The end of the Wisconsin-Michigan State game was phenomenal beyond comparison, of course, but even without the miracle touchdown from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol to finish the game off it was still probably the best of the year in the Big Ten. This time, there was no collapse, no widespread ineptitude, nothing but a mighty good football game.

So being that the fans at Spartan stadium were nice and loud (and probably, ahem, well-lubricated by the time of the late kickoff) and they got to see such a stellar effort by both sides, the myriad big plays by MSU -- including the blocked punt for a touchdown being celebrated above -- and the astonishing game-winning play, yes, they are all the winners here. I've personally been part of a home crowd who saw a game anywhere close to that once: Purdue at Iowa, 2002. That was an incredible, euphoric experience, and Saturday's MSU win hit those notes of amazement even better than the 2002 game did. Sparty fans, you don't need to be told this, but you just witnessed a game for the ages. Treasure it.  

LOSER: Russell Wilson's Heisman campaign

For the first half of the season, Russell Wilson looked like a great quarterback making fools of bad defenses (Nebraska included). His yards per throw not only led the NCAA, it was a full yard ahead of the pace to set a new FBS record, at 12.16. Wilson was a legitimate Heisman contender, and hey, with what Wisconsin was doing to everybody on its schedule, why not?

Unfortunately, on Saturday, Wilson looked like a quarterback who hadn't played a good defense all year, playing a good defense. The end result was several ill-advised throws, two picks, an intentional grounding call for a safety, and easily the worst start of his brief Badger career: 14-21, 223 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs (Yes, that is his worst start. Like we said, bad defenses). Now, Wilson did engineer four touchdown drives, so it's not as if he was beaten into submission all night, but the offense completely fell apart when Montee Bell was on the sidelines, leading one to wonder if the key to keeping the Badger offense rolling has never actually been Wilson to begin with. 

WINNER: Keith Nichol

Keith Nichol, seen at right with a very good reason to smile, hasn't had very many opportunities to be a hero in his college career, though it seemed at the start that he'd have chances at every turn; he was originally recruited by Bob Stoops to be a quarterback for Oklahoma, and he only went to MSU because of the emergence of one Sam Bradford down there. Once Nichol transferred to Michigan State, he split time in a QB platoon with Kirk Cousins at the beginning of 2009 before Cousins was named the full-time starter.

Now, there are plenty of quarterbacks who would have simply transferred to an FCS school in search of immediate playing time at that point, and nobody would have begrudged Nichol if that was the path he had chosen. Instead, a spate of WR suspensions going into the 2009 Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech prompted Nichol to switch to wideout, and while he hasn't set the world on fire there, he has at least remained a productive 4th option for Cousins -- and a loyal teammate to the rest of the program. It takes a lot of maturity to catch passes from the guy who beat you out for a starting role at QB, and if that doesn't sound true, try beign forced into a different job at work and taking orders from the person who took the job you wanted. Right. Not fun.

So, seeing Nichol go through the first 59 minutes and 59 seconds of the game without a catch, only to become the hero on the last play like that? That's not only a joy, it's a testament to program stability. Does a hypothetical freshman backup wideout in Nichol's stead know to be in that position to look for a deflection? Does that hypothetical WR also have the will to push the ball across the plane against multiple tacklers? Neither is a given, but we do know the answer is yes for Nichol. The phrase "couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy" is trite to the point that it's usually used sarcastically, but it absolutely applies here.

LOSER: Ron Zook, again

Forget the 21-14 final score of the Illinois-Purdue game, please, because it paints a very inaccurate picture of how close the contest really was. The Boilermakers ran out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, and Illinois never touched the ball again after bringing the game to 21-14. Despite the large lead Purdue rang up in the win, we'll refrain from saying the game "didn't feel like an upset," because it absolutely did; Illinois had scoring chances but blew them, while Caleb TerBush and the rest of the Purdue offense just flailed ineffectually in the second half and got a win to show for it anyway. 

Illinois should not have been so mentally flat coming into the game, though, especially coming right off a loss to Ohio State (who, like Michigan, was off this week) where the Illini handed the anemic OSU offense scoring chances in the second half time and time again. The mental errors need to be corrected coming off a game like that, not magnified. That is on Ron Zook and his coaching staff, 100%. And so even with Illinois at 6-2, it's that "2" that looms larger at this point in the season, and that threatens to balloon in a hurry if Zook doesn't get the team back on track. Otherwise, there's really no telling how much more patience the Illinois brass will have for him. 

WINNER: Marvin McNutt

Coming into this week's action against Indiana, Iowa WR Marvin McNutt just needed one TD to break the all-time Hawkeye receiving touchdown record of 21 that he shared with Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes. McNutt got that touchdown on Saturday. Then he got two more. In the first half. In related news, the Hawkeyes-Hoosiers game was not very close.

McNutt now has 41 catches for 757 yards and eight TDs in seven games thus far, all of which lead the team by substantial margins. If he keeps that pace up for the rest of the year, he would shatter Iowa single-season receiving records in both yardage and scoring -- and he would also set Iowa career marks in receptions and receiving yardage to go with his touchdown mark. So keep your eyes on No. 7, Iowa fans; he's probably the best wide receiver in school history.

LOSER:  PersaStrength

It would be inappropriate to lay the struggles of Northwestern at the feet of Dan Persa, since he's hardly the worst performer on the Wildcats; for one, Persa isn't responsible for the defense, which currently gives up about 250 yards of passing per game and can't crack the top 100 in FBS in pass efficiency defense.

That said, though, Persa is at least the most visible of the Wildcats, and is so by the direct actions of an athletic department that hyped him as "PersaStrong," even as he (understandably) struggled to recover from a severe Achilles injury. And the fact is, Persa's just not at the level he played at last season. His mobility is hampered to the point that he doesn't run designed rushes, and he doesn't have the same timing down with his receivers that he did last year. He also doesn't seem entirely recovered from that injury, though he's at least at the point in the process where it's going to take play on the field to get back to the "100%" of 2010 and not more time with team doctors.

All in all, though, Persa's barely even beating out Kain Colter for the starting QB role, and while we expect Persa to at least continue that mastery of the starting lineup, the fact that Colter's still getting snaps there every week demonstrates that even the Northwestern coaches don't fully trust Dan Persa's leg yet. And given that, it seems more than a little silly that he was the focus of a Heisman campaign coming into the season, doesn't it? 
Posted on: October 16, 2011 3:08 am
Edited on: October 16, 2011 3:08 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 7



Posted by Adam Jacobi


WINNER: The general order of the universe as we knew it in the spring. Michigan State beat Michigan, Ohio State beat Illinois, Wisconsin beat Indiana, Iowa beat Northwestern, and Penn State beat Purdue. All normal ideas for the casual Big Ten fan during the off-season, more or less. Yet those first two results are rather surprising, because it was Michigan and Illinois coming into the week undefeated and ranked 16th or higher, not MSU or OSU. On Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes looked like the teams we figured they'd be coming into the year, though, and in a way so did the Wolverines and the Illini. 

Michigan State's victory was the most impressive of the week (sorry, Wisconsin), because nobody has bottled up the Michigan offense like that this year (more on the particulars in a second). After Notre Dame thwacked the Spartans in Week 3, it was fair to wonder if Michigan was also about to run up 30+ points and shut down the MSU rushing attack. Neither happened, and the Spartans are now all of a sudden back in beautiful shape for the Big Ten Legends Division race -- just like we figured before the season. 

LOSER: Those do-everything quarterbacks I was so proud of last week. So, Taylor Martinez had the week off, so he's off the hook. Denard Robinson and Nathan Scheelhaase, though? Last week, the two QBs averaged 267 yards passing, 102 yards rushing, and four TDs in their team's victories. Extrapolate those types of numbers over 12 or 13 games, and you've got a Heisman finalist.

Extrapolating single games out for a year is stupid, though, because on Saturday, those numbers dropped substantially. Scheelhaase threw for 169 yards and rushed for 49 more, while Robinson's numbers were a dismal 9-24 for 123 yards passing (one TD) and 18 rushes for 42 yards (another TD). Not surprisingly, both QB's teams lost by double digits. It's certainly fine to have a do-everything quarterback helming your offense, but that just means it's imperative that that quarterback actually puts big numbers up; if he doesn't, that team's in real trouble.

WINNER: Illinois' pass defense. Wow, the Illini held Ohio State to 17 yards on Saturday! That's quite an accomplishment! Yep, 17 yards on 1-4 passing. But wait... if the Buckeyes only passed four times for the entire game, then that means... uh-oh.

LOSER: Illinois' rush defense. Oh, there's the rest of the story. Ohio State rushed 51 times to the four passes, totalling 211 yards on the ground, and Dan Herron led the way with 113 yards in his first game back from suspension. Honestly, Illinois' effort on defense wasn't bad, and holding OSU to 4.1 yards a pop on the ground isn't really cause for panic, but this was an Illini rush defense that had been ranked ninth in the nation coming into the week, averaging 2.3 yards per carry given up. The Illini front seven had a reputation to uphold, and it didn't do a great job of it. 

WINNER: Somehow, inexplicably, Penn State. Penn State is 6-1 and on the verge of being in the Top 25. That is amazing news to anyone who has watched Penn State play, because the Nittany Lions are, at times, bafflingly bad on offense. The QB rotation between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden continues to confound PSU fans, the rushing game comes and goes, and Penn State has now beaten the foursome of Temple, Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue by a grand total of 25 points. This team should not be 6-1, but there's no "should" column next to wins and losses.

The latest victory is a 23-18 decision over hapless Purdue, a game that should have been tied in the 4th quarter at 20-all if Purdue hadn't missed a PAT then missed a 2-point conversion to make up for the missed kick. Now, to be fair, Purdue never led, PSU never let Purdue manage so much as a first down after the game was 20-18, and the game ended with Penn State up 5 and taking knees inside the Boilermaker 10 yard line, but it was still another ugly, wretched affair all around. And yet just like the 4-point win over Temple and the 6-point win over Indiana, Penn State just did all it needed for the victory, and nothing more. Hey, a win's a win.

LOSER: Mark Dantonio's reputation as a disciplinarian. It seems like every season, fans are treated to anecdotes about what a great coach Mark Dantonio is, and how high his standards of player discipline are. "Zero tolerance" are his words, not ours. And it also seems like every season, there's an instance of Dantonio basically punting on discipline with his star players, like with Chris L. Rucker rejoining the team immediately after serving an 8-day jail sentence, or B.J. Cunningham taking part in a massive brawl on campus and missing one game as a result.

With that in mind, then, it's really not surprising to see star DE Will Gholston allowed to stay in a game after he punched Michigan OL Taylor Lewan (who, to be fair, had been holding Gholston's head on the ground earlier in the play). It was Gholston's second personal foul of the afternoon, with the first being a combination of a late hit and a face mask on Denard Robinson. The Big Ten may very well intervene and keep Gholston out for next week's game against Wisconsin, but the fact that Dantonio kept Gholston in the game after both incidents speaks far, far louder than Dantonio's claims of "zero tolerance."

WINNER: The Iowa athletic department. Before today's game, the fans at Kinnick Stadium were all given two-sided cards for one of those old-fashioned card stunts. The end result was really, really cool, and don't be surprised to see more of this type of thing around college football stadiums nationwide in the next few years or so. 

LOSER: Iowa's Northwestern demons. For years, the Hawkeyes have struggled mightily against Northwestern, sometimes even at the expense of BCS bowl dreams.  All in all, coming into today, Iowa had lost five of its last six against the Wildcats -- and the last four losses featured double-digit Hawkeye leads.

So when Iowa ran up a 17-0 lead on Saturday, then watched the Wildcats string together drive after drive to tie the game up at 17-17, it was only natural for Hawkeye fans to think, "here we go again." Fortunately for the home crowd, Iowa responded with 17 straight points of its own, and held on for the 41-31 victory. The win pushes Iowa to 4-2 (1-1) on the year, and with Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska all looming on the schedule, this win was crucial to the Hawkeyes' hopes for securing another winning season.


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Posted on: October 9, 2011 5:00 am
 

Big Ten Winners and Losers: Week 6



Posted by Adam Jacobi


A handy recap of who really won and who really lost that you won't find in the box score.

WINNER: Nebraska's season

Ignore the fact that 4-2, all things considered, isn't a terrible record; for No. 14 Nebraska, dropping the Ohio State game would have been a backbreaker for a season that started with realistic Rose Bowl aspirations -- especially with OSU looking like an unusually easy victory coming into Saturday. Instead, the Buckeyes opened up a 27-6 lead and seemed to be putting the final nail in the coffin of Nebraska's reputation as a Big Ten contender before the Huskers pulled off their largest comeback in program history on the back of Rex Burkhead (pictured above, finding plenty of comfort in the middle of OSU's rush defense). Now the Huskers are 5-1, and more importantly, only have one loss on their Big Ten slate instead of starting out 0-2. This season still might not end up in the Rose Bowl -- in fact it probably won't -- but sheerly by dodging the bullet on Saturday, Nebraska was a big, big winner.

LOSER: Joe Bauserman, yet again

It's not entirely fair to pin Ohio State's collapse on Joe Bauserman; the backup QB came into the game in the second half cold, and Nebraska had already begun its fight back at that point. And yet, the score was 27-13 OSU when Bauserman came in for an injured Braxton Miller on a 3rd and 8, and the score was 34-27 Nebraska by the time Bauserman put the finishing touches on his 1-10, 17-yard, 1 INT magnum opus. In the last four weeks -- the only games in which OSU has faced BCS conference competition this season -- Bauserman's stats are a terrifying 12-40, 144 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. That's a 63.49 passer rating, which is reprehensible. Oh, and not only is Bauserman going to play for as long as Braxton Miller's hurt, he's also the quarterback Luke Fickell tabbed to start the season for the Buckeyes. Enjoy, OSU!

WINNER: Do-everything QBs in the Big Ten

Nathan Scheelhaase, Taylor Martinez, and Denard Robinson may all be vying for the Second Team All-Big Ten role behind Wisconsin dreamboat Russell Wilson, but all three QBs put on an absolute show on Saturday. Scheelhaase had 210 yards passing, 88 yards rushing, and 4 combined TDs for Illinois in a win at Indiana. Martinez had his best passing performance of the year against a tough Ohio State defense, going 16-22 for 192 yards passing and rushing for 102 more yards; he accounted for three of Nebraska's four TDs. Robinson's numbers were the gaudiest: 325 yards passing, 117 yards on 25 rushes, and four total TDs in Michigan's 42-24 win over Northwestern. Even Braxton Miller had 95 yards passing and 91 yards rushing before he was forced to leave the game. Conference play will sort out this hierarchy, but it's fantastic to see such a breadth of dynamic talent at QB.

LOSER: Timid 4th down playcallers

Indiana kicked a field goal on 4th and goal from the 3 with a 4-point deficit. Iowa punted from Penn State's 33-yard line down 6-3. Ohio State punted from Nebraska's 32-yard line with a late 27-20 lead. What do all these decisions have in common? They were all unnecessarily conservative, and they all backfired. Indiana immediately gave up a touchdown drive, Iowa's punt led to a 90-yard Penn State drive that mercifully ended in an end zone interception (but still wore down the Iowa defense), and Ohio State would never see its lead again after Nebraska responded with a touchdown drive. Yes, the field position is important, but the points battle is the real one that matters, and all three of these teams did themselves a disservice by not even attempting to maximize their opportunities.

WINNER: Penn State's defense

In a stat that will undoubtedly become a trivial relic by the end of the season, Iowa came into this week's game against Penn State with the Big Ten's most prolific passing attack, averaging 281 yards a game under QB James Vandenberg. Penn State bottled that attack up beautifully, limiting Vandenberg to 169 yards on 17/34 passing with two interceptions and a lost fumble on a sack. More importantly, the Nittany Lions allowed only a field goal in a 13-3 victory. delighting a partisan PSU crowd that was hungry for a Penn State win over the nemesis Hawkeyes.

LOSER: Rob Bolden Fan Club president Joe Paterno

There is truly no reason for Rob Bolden to be starting anymore, yet start he does, week in and week out. Bolden's passer efficiency is out of the NCAA's top 100; Matt McGloin's was 42nd nationwide coming into the game. McGloin was far better against Iowa, hitting pass after pass in tight windows while Bolden's best gains came on tipped balls -- his biggest completion ricocheted off of an unsuspecting referee's leg, for crying out loud. Nobody at Penn State outside of the coaching staff knows why Bolden plays so much, yet he does, and he's probably going to ride his 3/7, 31 yard performance to another starting week unless Joe Paterno puts an end to this farce of a quarterback battle and just gives the job to McGloin already.

WINNER: Ron Zook's mojo

Imagine, if you will: Team X is ranked and undefeated, and playing at outmatched-but-feisty Team Y. Team Y takes the opening kick to the house, then makes a stop and turns it into a field goal for a 10-0 lead. At this point, one would assume that if Team X had a good coach, he would have his charges weather this storm and not panic, and if Team X's coach was a raving lunatic, then this was an upset in the making. Well, Team X is obviously Illinois, Team Y is obviously Indiana, the Team X head coach is obviously Ron Zook, and his team responded admirably to the adversity by turning the game into a 41-20 rout. Illinois is now 6-0. It could be 9-0 heading into the Michigan game. Ron Zook is doing all this. This is the reality you must accept.

LOSER: Whoever had to watch Minnesota-Purdue

One Husker blogger tabbed this matchup "the game that fun forgot" on Saturday morning, and while that's not a fair assessment of a game that ends up featuing 62 points scored, it's not quite that far off from this game either. Now. Purdue is not good at football. Not even in a young and sneaky and what if they put it all together sense. Just not good. Purdue also opened up a 45-3 lead on Minnesota en route to a 45-17 win, and we're left to wonder just what level of football the Gophers actually belong in (hint: not FBS!). And yet, there were still only 589 total yards combined in this game; even the PSU-Iowa eye-clawer, by comparison, had 648 total yards from scrimmage. Purdue and Minnesota can't even put on a blowout correctly! Just a mess all the way through here, and there are probably plenty more such messes that await fans of both these teams this season.
Posted on: October 2, 2011 4:26 am
Edited on: October 2, 2011 12:07 pm
 

What I learned from the Big Ten (Oct. 1)



Posted by Adam Jacobi

1. Wisconsin should probably go undefeated this year. Seventh-ranked Wisconsin faced its first stiff test of the season, as No. 8 Nebraska came to town for a night game at Camp Randall in the Big Ten opener for both schools. Wisconsin treated Nebraska like just another speed bump, crushing the Huskers 48-17 in a game that saw the Badgers outscore Nebraska 41-3 in the last 33 minutes of play. It was equal parts savage, brilliant, and awe-inspiring -- the type of game that only great teams play.

Wisconsin's slate from here on out is heavy on intriguing road games, but if Nebraska can't even keep the game within 30 points, what hope would Ohio State or Illinois or anybody else left on the schedule have of winning a game against the Badgers? Russell Wilson can basically do whatever he wants on offense, and with a duo of tailbacks like Montee Ball and James White behind him, the Wisconsin attack is basically as complete as offenses can get.

So yes, Wisconsin should go undefeated this year. That would be quite welcome, especially if it ends in a game against whoever takes the SEC between LSU and Alabama. Would the SEC team win? Possibly. Plausibly. Probably. I'd sure like to see that determined on the field of play, and doubtless so would Wisconsin fans.

2. That team that just got wrecked by 31 points is still probably going to win its division. I don't know what's more infuriating -- that Nebraska has underperformed so badly in every game this season that they're probably just plain average as a whole, or that this average Nebraska team is still a favorite to win the Legends Division. Michigan's on a roll but has a nasty back half of the schedule, Michigan State has a brutal schedule and only managed 10 points against the Ohio State defense, Northwestern has major defensive issues to work out, Iowa struggles mightily against mobile quarterbacks while playing in a division full of them, and Minnesota... no.

Of course, the actual most likely result of this traffic jam of mediocrity is five teams tied at 4-4 and Minnesota eating paste at 0-8. This is the result I will be openly rooting for. because nothing would be funnier than Jim Delany taking a look at that situation, taking a look at Wisconsin, and then just canceling the First Ever Big Ten Championship Game and just handing the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin. And nobody would think that was the wrong thing to do.

3. Whatever you thought about the quarterback situation at Ohio State, I assure you, it's actually worse. Joe Bauserman was Ohio State's leading passer on Saturday, and if that doesn't sound troubling, please consider that Bauserman didn't enter the game until early in the fourth quarter, and he threw for all of 87 yards. Starter Braxton Miller, meanwhile, passed for 56 yards (not just on one drive, for the entire game), lost 27 on the ground, and led the OSU offense to all of six first downs in the first three quarters. The Buckeye faithful were booing early and often in this game, and while they generally weren't booing Miller himself, it certainly stands to reason that the mood at the 'Shoe would have been far more jovial if Terrelle Pryor had still been under center.

It didn't help that the Michigan State defensive front was teeing off on Miller, and generally overwhelming the Buckeye offensive line in the process, but it's just shocking that Ohio State could have such a dearth of production at the quarterback position like this. Miller's got talent, but is in no way game-ready, whereas Bauserman looks like someone who just doesn't belong on a two-deep of a BCS-level team. This is a personnel problem for Luke Fickell and Ohio State, and personnel problems like these don't generally solve themselves mid-season.

4. At this rate, Illinois might actually enjoy endgame pressure. Illinois is 5-0 for the first time in 60 years, and it's doing so at the expense of the cardiac health of Ron Zook and all the Illini fans. For the third straight week, Illinois won a game by three points, and for the third straight week, it needed to take the lead late in the fourth quarter and hang on for dear life. This week's victim was Northwestern, who capitalized on a Jason Ford fumble and drove for a go-ahead score with 75 seconds left ... only to see Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins drive the ball down the field with ease and punch the ball in for the game-winning score with 13 seconds left. 

It's too early to start making assumptions about Illinois' postseason fate as yet, because if the Illini keep getting into these 50-50 late-game situations, the odds are pretty low that they'll keep winning them consistently. And with games like home dates with Ohio State and Michigan -- not to mention a road match at Penn State -- still on the schedule, Illinois probably isn't even near done with the close contests yet this season. But perhaps it does, and perhaps the games won't be close, and perhaps Ron Zook -- he of the hottest seat in the Big Ten six weeks ago -- has another 10-win season up his sleeve just yet. Perhaps. We're at least on the right road for that to happen, at least.

5. Pssst... Michigan might be legitimate. Maybe. As long as Minnesota keeps proving itself to be far more MAC-worthy than BCS conference-caliber, it's going to be useless to read much into a team's performance beating the Gophers -- even the final score is 58-0. And yes, Michigan started 5-0 last year too and that season still ended with Rich Rodriguez fired. That's all true. The problem, though, is that Michigan started 5-0 in 1997 and it just so happened to finish 12-0 and win a national championship, and most teams that start 5-0 don't end up giving up the most points in program history and firing their coach.

So while it's easy to just say "But 2010" whenever someone mentions the fact that Michigan is still undefeated, there's one difference that's crucial to point out: the defense is showing up too. Last season, Michigan gave up over 25 points per game in its first five games. This year? 10.2. Yes, it's relevant that 31 points came against Notre Dame in a game the Wolverines had zero business winning and 20 came against tomato cans like Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, but consider that Michigan also spanked Western Michigan 34-10, and that's a Broncos team that came up just shy in a 23-20 loss at Illinois and just took a 38-31 win at Connecticut. So yes, given the context we've got, Michigan is not just pulling a 2010.

I still don't think Michigan survives that brutal November that awaits, and it's possible that with Dan Persa and Kirk Cousins looming as opposing quarterbacks in the next two games, Michigan might take a 5-2 (1-2) record into its bye week. But 6-1 (2-1) is more likely now, and being undefeated through seven games is definitely on the table. That's good news in Ann Arbor, especially when everyone else in the Legends division is staring at major problems that need fixing. But that's a topic best left for November; for now, Michigan would do well to focus on the next game in front of it.
 
 
 
 
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