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?
NOTE: Wha Happened? skipped last week to mourn the loss of the last remaining shreds of the Big Ten's dignity.
For the last year or so, I've used horse racing to structure this recurring post. WIN, PLACE, and SHOW were awarded to the Big Ten teams who recorded the best performances of the week; losers were singled out for shame in the SEND 'EM TO THE GLUE FACTORY section. But the sport of kings no longer seems like an apt comparison for a league as competitively barren as the Big Ten. Last week, for instance, half the league would have been sent to the glue factory. This week, the nominal league standard-bearer, Michigan State, would have joined them.
So we debut the DUMPSTER FIRE SCALE OF COMPETITIVE SUCKITUDE to properly quantify the pure shit-ness of our beloved conference. The scale ranks games from one dumpster fire (you won; you don't suck that bad after all!) to five dumpster fires (you should probably consider pulling a University of Chicago and giving up football). Given the shit-ness of, oh, the entire league this year, we're not going to pretend that any win deserves less than a dumpster fire. The league has embarrassed itself across the board over the first three weeks and nothing it can do until bowl season is going to erase that stain. (One possible exception: if Michigan beats Notre Dame this week.) In any event: bring on the dumpster fires!
Time to give the devil his due, right? Through three weeks the Big Ten has four BCS conference scalps on their wall. Northwestern -- yes, Northwestern -- has three of them: Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College. It's not exactly murderer's row, but neither were some of the BCS teams that have beaten B1G teams this year (Iowa State, Virginia, Oregon State). Wins are wins and wins over BCS competition have been in short supply for B1G teams this year. Kudos to the Wildcats for solving that particular riddle. They attempted to replicate Iowa's 2012 offensive gameplan in this game (kick #AllOfTheFieldGoals), but pulled it out anyway thanks to a surprisingly stingy defense. After getting smoked for 41 points by Syracuse at the beginning of the season, jNW has held back-to-back opponents to 13 points, a seriously impressive stat for a rebuilding defense.
NOTE: Circle October 13, 2012 on your calendar. On that day we could see 6-0 Northwestern head to TCF Bank Stadium to take on 5-0 Minnesota for pole position in the Legends Division title race. Before you start laughing, look at their schedules here and here. This is not a pants-on-head crazy suggestion. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some hot pokers that I need to shove into my eyeballs.
I considered dinging Ohio State for nearly blowing this game and allowing Cal to make a pair of comebacks late in the game, but an almost-loss is still an actual-win and those are hard enough to come by in the Big Ten this year, especially against BCS opponents. Braxton Miller continued to shine in Urban Meyer's offense (16/30, 249 passing yards, 4 TD/1 INT; 75 rushing yards, 1 TD on 12 carries) and WR Devin Smith proved to be the hero of the day for getting preposterously wide open (there wasn't a Cal player within ten yards of him) on the winning touchdown catch. The defense was surprisingly flimsy, though: they gave up 512 yards of offense to the Golden Bears, including 224 yards on the ground (160 of those came on four carries from Brendan Bigelow; maybe he should have gotten a few more touches).
Really, though, the game was lost for Cal when Jeff Tedford opted to attempt a 42-yard field goal on 4th and 1 from the OSU 25 with 4:20 remaining in the game. The momentum was with Cal, their running game had been doing well all day (see: stats up above), and their kicker had already missed two field goals earlier in the game. GO FOR IT.
NEBRASKA 42, ARKANSAS STATE 13 (NEB recap)
Kudos to the Blackshirts. A week after they were sliced, diced, and julienned by UCLA, the Nebraska defense rebounded to hold Arkansas State to just 286 yards and 13 points (and the lone Red Wolf touchdown came on a fumble return). Sure, it was "just" Arkansas State, but Gus Malzahn's boys had racked up 34 points and 530 yards against Oregon and 33 points and 619 yards against Memphs -- this is an offense with some serious pop. Home cookin' led to another solid passing day from Taylor Martinez (13/14, 180 yards, 2 TD/0 INT); at this rate, he's on pace to have even more schizophrenic home-road splits than James Vandenberg had last year. Ameer Abdullah ably replaced Rex Burkhead at RB for Nebraska, grinding out 167 yards and 2 TDs on 30 carries.
And, on a serious note, best wishes to Bo Pelini, who was taken to a hospital during the game on Saturday for tests. He was released and seems to be fine, but we wish him a full and speedy recovery to the sidelines. As much as we might like to crack jokes at his expense (and we do!), we certainly don't wish him (or any other Big Ten player or coach) any genuine physical harm.
PURDUE 54, EASTERN MICHIGAN 16 (PUR recap)
Say hello to your new Leaders division front-runners, at least among actual bowl-eligible Legends division teams. No Robert Marve? No problem, at least for one week. Caleb TerBush was decent (16/24, 158 yards, 2 TD/1 INT) in Marve's stead, but the real star of the Boilermaker offense was the running game, which gobbled up 392 yards and 6 TDs on 42 carries, an absurd 9.3 (!) yards per carry average. Akeem Hunt had 106 yards and a touchdown on four carries; Brandon Cottom bettered that by rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown on two carries. On the other hand, the immutable facts of life are death, taxes, and Eastern Michigan being terrible at football. In other words, don't read too much into this performance. But among teams that can actually represent the Rust Belt Division in the Big Ten title game, OMHR has looked by far the best so far.
ILLINOIS 44, CHARLESTON SOUTHERN 0
Illinois was without the services of QB Nathan Scheelhaase (still out with an ankle injury), but it didn't matter. Riley O'Toole had more than enough gumption (and passing acumen; he went 26/31 for 333 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception) to take down Charleston Southern, a bad I-AA team. They went 0-11 last year and got outscored by 253 points. This year they've already been beaten by 20+ points by The Citadel and Jacksonville. When other FCS teams use you as their punching bag...
#17 MICHIGAN 63, UMASS 13 (MICH recap)
The Michigan offense rolled (63 points, 585 yards) and the defense stiffened up in the second half (against an admittedly weak opponent) -- pretty much exactly what you want out of a game against an opponent of this caliber. (That's code for saying that UMass sucks.) The most notable thing about this game was flipping over in the third quarter and seeing Denard Robinson still in the game. Considering that Denard remains the alpha and omega of the Wolverine offense (he accounted for a staggering 101% of their total offense against Air Force last week), risking his health in a cakewalk game (and when Michigan already had a 30-point lead) seems a bit... reckless.
PENN STATE 34, NAVY 7 (PSU recap)
The headline story is, of course, Penn State getting their first win of the season (or, if you believe the NCAA record books, their first win since 1997) after a pair of brutal, hard-luck losses. The real story might be the decline of Navy, who has looked woefully overmatched in games against Notre Dame and Penn State this year. In hindsight, the considerable success Navy experienced under Paul Johnson (and in the early Ken Niamatalolo years) was probably a serious underrated accomplishment, especially given the substantial obstacles the Midshipmen have to overcome. In any event, Penn State: losers no more!
Matt McGloin had one of his better days (13/21, 231 yards, 4 TD/0 INT), and while the defense gave up 391 yards to the Middies (255 yards on the ground, natch), most of those yards didn't go amount to much, given that Navy only managed to put 7 points on the scoreboard. The running game struggled (Mike Zordich and Curtis Dukes combined for 97 yards on 22 carries), but Allen Robinson proved to be too much for Navy to handle in the passing game (5 catches, 136 yards, 2 TD). Robinson appears to be the only remotely explosive player Penn State has on offense, so they might want to consider wrapping him in bubble wrap between games.
MINNESOTA 28, WESTERN MICHIGAN 23 (MINN recap)
Northwestern is 3-0. Minnesota is 3-0. Dammit, the Mayans were right.
Minnesota struggled to put away Western Michigan, but there's not really much shame in that: the Broncos have been one of the MAC's most reliable giant-killers (a fact Iowa knows all too well) and they're one of the favorites to contend for the MAC title this year. The big story out of this game was the injury to Marquise Gray; he was knocked out of the game in the first half with what's being reported as a high-ankle sprain. Considering that his mobility is roughly 98% of what makes him a viable quarterback, anything that limits that is going to make it very difficult for Minnesota to play him. Gray's replacement, Max Shortell, is much less of a running threat at QB but a far better passer. His overall stats were solid (10/17, 188 yards, 3 TD/1 INT) and he displayed impressive touch on several passes and in some ways made me more nervous for the Iowa game in two weeks -- despite the fact that Gray engineered the win over Iowa last year.
WISCONSIN 16, UTAH STATE 14 (WIS recap)
To be sure, this ain't your daddy's Utah State -- the Aggies were thisclose to beating Auburn on the Plains a year ago and knocked off in-state rival Utah in a Friday night thriller a week ago. And this definitely isn't last year's Wisconsin team. Still: without the aid of a dubious offensive pass interference call late in the game and a missed field goal, the Badgers would be sitting at 1-2 right now and Utah State would have two BCS scalps to show off this year. Through three weeks, Wisconsin's offense makes Iowa's offense look positively competent. Their latest ex-ACC transfer saviour at QB, Danny O'Brien, got benched at halftime of this game, making way for Joel Stave, who nominally led the Badgers to the comeback win (he went 2/6 for 15 yards; his most notable contributions were handing off to Montee Ball on the latter's 17-yard TD run and cheering on the momentum-warping punt return touchdown by Kenzel Doe). The offensive line continued to struggle to protect either quarterback or open holes for Ball, whose decision to return for his senior season could only look worse at this point if his ACLs spontaneously combusted. But other than that how was the play, Mr. Bielema?
Once is a happening, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a trend. Indiana's lost their last three straight games against the mighty Cardinals of Muncie, in 2008, 2011, and 2012. TRUE FACT: Indiana has beaten Purdue more recently (2010) than they have Ball State. Suffice to say, we really shouldn't be surprised when Indiana loses to Ball State in football. In fact, maybe the B1G needs to consider swapping out Indiana for Ball State; if nothing else think of all the free publicity we'd get on Letterman.
As far as the game itself, it managed the impressive feat of being both a stirring comeback AND a gut-punch defeat for the Hoosiers. Indiana entered the game short-handed, with star QB Tre Roberson ruled out for the year with a broken leg, and got even more short-handed during the game, as his replacement (Cameron Coffman) went down with an injury (hip pointer), leading to true freshman Nate Sudfeld stepping in to fill the gap. Indiana managed to dig themselves a 38-25 deficit and appeared well on their way to a demoralizing blowout loss... and then they managed to pull a comeback out of their asses (scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes to erase a 38-25 deficit) and take a 1-point lead with under a minute to go. But that stirring comeback turned into the aforementioned gut-punch defeat; their porous defense allowed Ball State to drive 44 yards in 49 seconds and kick the game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired. BRUTAL.
To those whom much is given, much is expected. In other words: expectations are a bitch. Michigan State had the toughest opponent of any B1G team this weekend in a Notre Dame team that's good (and might even be very good). The dismay is not so much that they lost, but that they were so comprehensively dismantled in the loss. After the first two weeks of the season, Sparty had been established as the B1G standard-bearer, the league's Rose Bowl favorite, and the conference's only (slim) hope at national title relevance. Notre Dame made them look like the long-lost fourth directional Michigan team.
Sparty mustered just three points all night (and those three came on a 50-yard Dan Conroy field goal) and were never in the Notre Dame red zone; the closest they got was the ND 26-yard line. They mustered just 237 yards, the offensive line got pushed around, Le'Veon Bell was bottled up (19 carries, 77 yards), and Andrew Maxwell was ineffective (23/45, 187 yards). The defense didn't play all that poorly -- they held ND to 20 points and 300 yards, which isn't terrible. They also were remarkably stingy on third down; the Irish converted only 1 of 14 third-down tries. Great defense is no help when the offense is this anemic, though. Hell, Purdue's offense scored 17 points on Notre Dame's defense -- in South Bend! -- just a week ago. And so the Big Ten's bellwether joined the ranks of the humiliated and shamed that comprise the rest of the league. So it goes.
NEXT WEEK: Notre Dame attempts to complete a hat trick of victories against B1G foes and Minnesota entertains Syracuse; the rest of the league takes on MACrifices and the like.