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Wha Happened? Week Six Around The Big Ten

This was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Because the NCAA is stupid. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
This was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Because the NCAA is stupid. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Getty Images

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!

#17 MICHIGAN STATE 34, #18 MICHIGAN 17 (coverage)
Sparty picked up the only win by a Big Ten team over a ranked opponent yesterday and so they take "Win" honors for the second week in a row.  Indeed, it was Sparty's second-straight win over a ranked team, which gives them more wins over ranked opponents than anyone else in the league.  After being pegged as one of the trendiest dark horse challengers in the preseason, Michigan State's doing everything they can to live up to that billing and at this point you'd have to consider them one of the legitimate contenders to win the league -- especially since they skip out on Ohio State this year.  They essentially validated everything we'd been saying about them so far with their performance yesterday.  We said they had a balanced offense; they passed for 287 yards and ran for 249 yards.  We said they had a solid defense; they held Michigan to season lows in total offense (377 yards) and points (17).  We said they had good special teams; they didn't do anything exceptional, but Aaron Bates maintained a good average on his punts (45 ypk) and expertly flipped field position, while Dan Conroy converted all of his extra point and field goal attempts.  Sparty's looking very solid right now.

Meanwhile, we finally saw what happens when Michigan plays someone they can't just overpower in terms of raw talent (or at least just the presence of one Denard Robinson) and the answer was what we suspected: they struggle.  Denard was held to "just" 301 yards of total offense, but that's significant when he's such a massive part of the offense.  He got virtually no help from the running game (76 yards on 13 carries) and his receivers weren't sharp.  Throw in a trio of interceptions and a handful of other bad passes and it's hard not to conclude that at least some of the progress we saw from Robinson earlier in the season was the effect of playing frankly hideous pass defenses; against a  tough, physical defense that wasn't completely overwhelmed by Michigan's speed, they struggled mightily.  The Michigan defense was surprisingly stout in the early going (holding Sparty to zero points in the first quarter), but they quickly sprung some leaks (17 points in the second quarter) and seemed to get worn down as the second half progressed.  They are what we thought they were: pretty goddamn bad.

Halfway through the season, it might be time to re-evaluate some preseason beliefs, namely that Illinois was headed for yet another terrible season and that Penn State would simply reload and have yet another solid 8-10 win season.  Two weeks into the Big Ten slate, one of those teams might be headed to eight wins -- but it's probably not Penn State.  One of their problems is new (or at least an exacerbation of an older problem): their previously solid defense is devolving at an alarming rate, thanks mainly to a host of injuries.  I'll just let BSD lay out the grisly details

To recap just how bad the injuries are, the Penn State defense had to play the entire game without Jack Crawford, Mike Mauti, Gerald Hodges, and Bani Gbadyu due to injury. Sean Stanley and Derrick Thomas sat our their second straight game with suspensions. Additionally, Penn State lost Nick Sukay, Eric Latimore, Pete Massaro, and Andrew Dailey during the course of the game, with Sukay and Latimore going down in the first quarter and not returning. That, is a lot to overcome. By the end of the game I was scrambling to find a roster to figure out who these numbers were I hadn't seen all year.

Yeah, that's pretty bad.  There aren't many teams that have the depth to survive losses like that and as we found out yesterday -- Penn State isn't one of 'em.  But Penn State's other problems have been season-long issues, namely their atrocious red zone offense and their woeful offensive line.  Before Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel LeShoure took over in the second half and pounded the game away behind Scheelhaase's 15/19 passing (151 yards, 1/0 TD/INT) and their combined 180 yards on the ground, it was a close game -- and Penn State had golden opportunities to blow the game open thanks to Illinois' problematic punt returns (two lost fumbles). Gifted great field position, Penn State's offense went nowhere and they again settled for field goals.  Meanwhile, the offensive line continued to suck, failing to open up any holes on the ground (65 yards on 26 carries) and not doing much to protect Bob Bolden, either.  They are awful; they're like the 2007 Iowa offensive line -- but worse (at least in terms of run blocking).

Meanwhile, we'd be pretty remiss if we didn't doff our caps to the Fightin' Zookers who followed up a moral victory against Ohio State with an actual victory this week.  Toss in their salty showing against Mizzou in the season opener and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Illini... don't suck.  I know, I know, it's hard to believe -- there's no J Leman out there and Zook is, indeed, still the man under the headset -- but, hey, results are results.  They're 3-2, their defense looks exponentially tougher than the tissue-soft outfits they rolled out the past few years, and the offense looks remarkably competent when they can establish a good ground game with LeShoure.  All of a sudden, a bowl game doesn't seem like such a far-fetched notion.  Then again, it's still Illinois and Zook's still there, so we'll be keeping a wary eye on them, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What's more stunning: that Terrelle Pryor logged just three rushing attempts for -19 yards or that he went 24/30 for 334 yards and 3 touchdowns (with no interceptions)?  Wacky.  The evolution of Pryor-the-passer continues, although the fact that it happens against the dreadful Indiana defense should keep people from getting too out of hand.  If you wanted to quibble, you could knock Ohio State for going to sleep at halftime (they had a 35-0 lead and tacked on just a field goal in the second half), for getting penalized nine times for 105 yards, and for a fairly ho-hum day running the ball (130 yards and two scores on 32 carries), but hey: they choked the life out of Indiana's offense (210 yards, 3 interceptions) and they had the game well in hand after that 35-0 first half.  Their second half was barely different from Iowa's second half against Penn State a week ago; they may not do much for style points, but they get the job done.

#20 WISCONSIN 41, MINNESOTA 23 (coverage)
Yeah, yeah, Wisco manhandled the Gophers, dropped Tim Brewster to 0-10 in rivalry games, and kept Paul Bunyan's Axe for the seventh straight year.  They bounced back nicely after last week's disappointment against Michigan State and actually looked like the part of the Big Ten contender that they're meant to be, aside from a sluggish second quarter when they let the Gophers pull within five points.  Scott Tolzien was back to being quietly efficient (17/23, 223 yards, 1/0 TD/INT), while John Clay (21 carries, 111 yards, 3 TD) and Jason White (19 carries, 118 yards, 2 TD) were an unstoppable tag team on the ground.  That was all well and good.

No, the standout part of the game was unquestionably Conversiongate, or Bielema's decision to go for two after they scored late in the fourth quarter to push their lead to 41-16.  Bielema said that's just what the coaching card said to do; Brewster, uh, disagreed and after forcefully shaking Bielema's hand in the post-game handshake, had a few choice words for Bielema in his post-game presser.  Was it a dick move?  OF FUCKING COURSE IT WAS.  When you're up 25 with six minutes to go, it's hard to fathom a sound strategic reason for going for two.  Does that make it any less funny?  OF FUCKING COURSE NOT.  

just NORTHWESTERN 17, PURDUE 20 (coverage)
Filed under things which are not good ideas: playing a ton of close games when you have a shitty kicker.  Having danced far too close to the edge in many games this season (Vanderbilt, Minnesota, even Central Michigan to an extent), the "Cardiac Cats" finally flatlined against OUR MOST HATED RIVAL last night, thanks in part to a pair of missed kicks by Stefan Demos, best known for blowing kicks in the Outback Bowl last season.  Our friends at Sippin' on Purple are blaming penalties, an offensive gameplan that saw them run the ball 42 times (despite gaining just 84 yards) even though Persa again threw for 300+, penalties, and a defense that couldn't stop the run (OMHR gained 232 yards and two scores on 42 carries; especially impressive since Rob Henry was just 6/18 for 47 yards and an interception through the air).  The penalties don't seem that bad on the surface (8 for 60 yards), so I'll just trust that they came at some truly inopportune moments.  But ultimately maybe they were just due to lose a close game, especially since they haven't been winning all these close games with the benefit of a murderous defense (a la Iowa 2009 or Ohio State 2002).  And as far as OUR MOST HATED RIVAL goes... it's PURDUE HATE WEEK; do you think we're going to offer them too many kind words this week?  Hell no.  (But good job winning on the road even without your best offensive players.)