Wha Happened? Week Four Around The Big Ten

 Wha Happened? is the weekly round-up of the rest of the games that were in the Big Ten -- you know, the ones that were going on while you were shotgunning that beer, or watching Iowa, or sleeping off that early-morning tailgating.  Who won?  Who lost?  Who made us quiver with fear?  Who made us laugh hysterically?  In short... Wha Happened?  Now with new-and-improved performance ranking system!

We're suspending the win/place/show rankings for Big Ten performances this week, because frankly when Temple is the best team anyone in the Big Ten plays, no one deserves to win, place, or show.  So we're going to dip into our bag of rhetorical cliches and pull out the good old report card gimmick. 

But first, on the heels of the most lackluster slate of Big Ten games in recent memory, a few words.  Look, if you're here reading this, you probably enjoy the Big Ten to some extent.  You take an interest in it and pay attention to even the games that don't involve your favorite team, whether it's to laugh at the misfortune for your team's rivals, scout your team's upcoming opponents, or just because you enjoy the uniforms or styles of play.  But for all that built-in affection, it's hard to get worked up about a Big Ten slate as dreadful as this past weekend's action; whenever Penn State-Temple is the most intriguing game on the docket, something has gone horribly wrong.  Regardless of the negative implications a schedule like that has with fans of other leagues or national pundits, it's bad simply because its undeniable lameness turns off the Big Ten's own fans.  But there are a few potential solutions... 

1) Schedule more compelling non-conference match-ups.
If teams don't schedule dreadful teams like Eastern Michigan or Austin Peay, we won't have to sit through those terrible games when they come up on the schedule.  Mind you, this is easier said than done; most Big Ten teams are already adhering to a 1 BCS/2 mid-major/1 FCS scheduling formula (the only exception this year: Indiana, who loaded up with three mid-majors and one FCS team) and for economic reasons, they're aren't too willing to upset that apple cart.

2) Step in and alter the current schedules.
Two weeks ago, we were treated to a gluttonous buffet of high-profile intersectional games involving Big Ten squads, including Ohio State-Miami, Penn State-Alabama, Michigan-Notre Dame, and Iowa-Iowa State.  That made for one gloriously overstuffed Saturday of interesting action... but it also meant that we were left famished by the drought of interesting games on display this past weekend.  Why not step in and move one of those games from 9/11/10 to 9/25/10?  Do that and a game that could have been overshadowed on the earlier date gets more time in the spotlight and the earlier games get more room to breathe and generate discussion.  Sadly, while Delany's pimp hand is strong, it's probably not that strong.  There would be some daunting logistical implications for all the other games and teams affected by such a move.  Short of some considerable financial incentive from the likes of ESPN/ABC, this sort of move just isn't very practical.

3) Play conference games earlier.
FOTP Bama Hawkeye espoused this notion last week over at Off-Tackle Empire and there's definitely some merit to it.  Only one other conference waits as long as the Big Ten to start conference play -- the Big East, and we probably don't need to be taking too many pointers from the worst of the AQ leagues.  Hell, poor Georgia's already played (and lost) three conference games and it's technically not even October yet.  It's not as though Big Ten teams have never played non-conference games after September, either; the unbalanced nature of having eleven teams means it's happened often in years when the Big Ten didn't have bye weeks.  Hell, in three of the past four years Iowa's played a non-conference game later than September and after they've begun playing conference games. 

Granted, from an Iowa perspective this sort of move isn't ideal; Ferentz's NFL-like approach treats non-conference games like NFL preseason games with the goal of improving as the season goes along and the games begin to matter more (at least in terms of contending for a Big Ten championship).  If we start playing games that "matter" earlier than usual, that sort of approach will need to get adjusted.  Then again, Ferentz has shown himself to be slightly more malleable than he gets credit for when it comes to game preparation; he altered the schedule for the increase in night games we had a year ago and he famously changed up bowl preparation after getting smoked by USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl.

 So let's join the rest of the college football world and play some conference games in September -- anything to spare us another weekend like the past one.  On to the grades...

A-
#21 MICHIGAN 65, BOWLING GREEN 21 (coverage)
Through the first month of the season, we've had three main questions about Michigan: can they keep Denard Robinson healthy all year, will anyone on the Michigan offense step up to help Robinson, and can the Michigan defense stop anyone.  We have a few answers now.  For the third time in four games, Robinson left the game because of an injury and while the first two absences only caused him to miss a play, his injury yesterday in the first quarter kept him out for the rest of the game (though it didn't prevent him for racking up 189 yards of offense and a pair of touchdown runs in that limited action), though Rodriguez said he "could have played" if needed.  Still, while questions about Robinson's durability are (rightly) going to persist, Michigan did answer the "is there anyone else on that offense?" question, racking up over 500 yards of offense without including Robinson's 189 yards.  They had 466 yards on the ground and forgotten man Tate Forcier was an effective replacement for Robinson, going 12/12 for 110 yards and a touchdown.  As far as the defense... they stonewalled the Bowling Green rushing game (32 yards on 27 carries), but did give up 250 yards and a touchdown to Bowling Green.  Good thing they don't have to deal with a good passing offense next... what, Ben Chappell has the third-highest passer rating in the Big Ten, has completed over 70% of his passes, and thrown nine touchdowns to zero interceptions?  Oh.   Well, good luck with that one, horrible Michigan secondary.

B+
#2 OHIO STATE 73, EASTERN MICHIGAN 20 (coverage)
Normally, we'd have a little more love for a team that scores 70+ points, beats its opponent by 53 points, and racks up 645 yards of offense, but the Buckeyes are the honor student of the Big Ten class and they're held to a higher standard.  Giving up three scoring drives over 70 yards to Eastern Michigan?  Bad form -- you're better than that, OSU. Still, Ohio State gained 300+ yards passing and running and Pryor put up more excellent numbers: 20/26, 224 yards, 4/0 TD/INT; 7 rushes, 104 yards, 1 TD; and even one 20-yard touchdown catch because they were clearly just fucking around.  

B-
INDIANA 35, AKRON 20 (coverage)
Guess who's 3-0 and halfway to bowl eligibility?  Your mighty Indiana Hoosiers, of course, they of the incredibly pathetic non-conference schedule.  Then again, Minnesota's losses to South Dakota and Northern Illinois provide ample evidence that so-called "guaranteed" wins are anything but for the consistent Big Ten bottom-dwellers.  Ben Chappell was his usual effective self at QB for Indiana, going 23/33, for 342 yards, 4/0 TD/INT, and there was even a suggestion of a running game (Darius Willis went for 87 yards on 19 carries).  Their defense isn't going to scare anyone (least of all next week's opponent, Michigan), but their offense is potent enough to give them a puncher's chance in a shootout.

C
just NORTHWESTERN 30, CENTRAL MICHIGAN 25 (coverage)
PENN STATE 22, TEMPLE 13 (coverage)
Granted, jNW and Penn State played tougher-than-usual competition by the level of MACrificial lambs; both Central Michigan and Temple are expected to be among the top contenders for their respective division titles.  That said, they were MAC teams and even the best MAC teams aren't at the level of a Boise State or a TCU.  And Penn State and Northwestern are Big Ten teams expected to finish in the upper half of the division and be potential contenders for a top-three finish in the league; teams like that really shouldn't be trailing a MAC team for a half or be unable to score a touchdown for 3+ quarters or give the MAC team a one-score shot to win in the closing seconds.

Our Armani-garbed friends tried hard to screw up their 4-0 start against a Charmin-soft opening slate of opponents, letting Central Michgian's Ryan Radcliff dice them up to the tune of 29/43, 347 yards, 2/2 TD/INT, as part of 423 yards of total offense the mighty Chippewas racked up (just six fewer yards than jNW themselves amassed).  Dan Persa, the nation's top-rated passer, threw his first interception of the season but was otherwise solid, going 23/30 for 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  jNW also found a semblance of a running game between Jacob Schmidt and Mike Trumpy, who contributed 85 yards and two scores between them.

Meanwhile, Penn State finally found a running game (Evan Royster woke up from his month-long slumber and went for 187 yards on 26 carries) and showed off their predictably stout defense (they held Temple to 202 yards and forced four turnovers), which was good.  Less good was the fact that they had to settle for five field goals on their first five scoring drives and didn't take the lead for good until late in the third quarter.  Robert Bolden avoided any egregious gaffes, but he's still struggling to get the Penn State offense into the end zone.  Statistically, Penn State dominated everything about this game but the final score, but it seemed like a remarkably middling performance for most of the game.  If Temple had a halfway decent quarterback, they might have lodged their first win over Penn State in over half a century.

PASS
WISCONSIN 70, AUSTIN PEAY 3 (coverage)
MICHIGAN STATE 45, NORTHERN COLORADO 7 (coverage)
We refuse to assess grades to teams for simply clubbing their baby seal opponents into a fine red paste. Wisconsin and Michigan State did precisely what they were supposed to do against I-AA competition, although Wisconsin admittedly did so with great gusto, putting up a 70-spot overall and 49 in the first half alone.  It was so gruesome that Wisconsin's third-string halfback (James White) racked up 145 yards and four touchdowns.  Sparty ran out to a 35-0 halftime lead before cruising to a 45-7 win; Kirk Cousins led the way by going 16/20 for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

F
TOLEDO 31, PURDUE 20 (coverage)
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 33, MINNESOTA 22 (coverage)
Well, someone has to sit at the bottom of the curve, right?  Purdue and Minnesota prevented the Big Ten from notching a perfect record in the Big Ten-MAC Challenge (or the Day of the MACKoning, as some corners of Blogfrica called it), likely cementing their position at the basement of the Big Ten (although the Fightin' Zookers may want to get in on that action, too).  While their stumbles were embarrassing for the conference as a whole, from a schadenfreude standpoint, it's tough to find fault with the LOLphers and OUR MOST HATED RIVAL coming up short against a pair of MAC squads.  

Of the two, Purdue's loss was a bit more explicable, considering that they lost Robert Marve to a likely season-ending knee injury in the first quarter; in case you've lost count, Purdue's now lost the services of their top quarterback (Marve), running back (Ralph Bolden), and wide receiver (Keith Smith), all to ACL injuries.  That's just cruel.  In that light, the offensive woes of the despised Boilermakers are fairly understandable (though they did pick up 220 yards on the ground), but giving up 31 points and four scoring drives of 45+ yards to a below-average MAC team is far less defensible. 

But Minnesota... oh, Minnesota.  At this point, their continued futility really shouldn't be able to surprise... but who really expects a Big Ten team, even one as perpetually hapless as Brewster's Minnesota squad, to be comprehensively outplayed by a MAC team?  A MAC team that was throttled by Iowa State and beaten by Illinois in the season's first three weeks, no less.  Laughing at Minnesota's misfortune hasn't gotten old -- it never gets old -- but we'd be lying if there wasn't a certain amount of melancholy setting in now, since we really might not have ol' Brewster to kick around for much longer.  Hell, at this rate we're not even certain he's still going to be in charge when Iowa christens Kinnick North 2.0 after Thanksgiving.  For the third straight game, the Gopher defense was gashed to shreds by its opponent -- NIU was the third team in a row to put up 30+ on the Gophers and they did most of their damage on the ground (297 rushing yards total, led by Chad Spann's 223 yards on just fifteen carries).  Adam Weber's passing stats look fine in the abstract -- 31/46, 373 yards, 2/1 TD/INT -- but many of those yards came in garbage time after the Gophers had gone down by two scores.  

Needless to say, optimism isn't exactly running high in the Twin Cities:

Startribpoll_medium

(via Star Tribune)

If Minnesota does exceed those rock-bottom expectations, they'll likely have to do so with wins on the road; their four Big Ten home games (beginning this coming Saturday against Northwestern) are against teams that are a combined 14-2 right now.  They do get fellow Big Ten cellar dwellers Purdue and Illinois on the schedule, so the situation isn't totally hopeless, but those games are on the road (to which the perpetually optimistic Tim Brewster would likely retort, "Hey, we're 1-0 away from TCF Bank Stadium this year!"), away from the supposedly-friendly confines of The Bank.  The specter of an 0-8 Big Ten record -- which would be Minnesota's second in Brewster's four-year tenure and surely his death knell -- seems like a distinct possibility for a team that can't stop the irrepressible offenses of South Dakota and Northern Illinois*.  

* - On the other hand, maybe the Gophers will be in the clear after this weekend's game against Northwestern; they're currently 0-3 against teams with directions in their name, but 1-0 against everyone else.  On second thought: nah.  

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