What a week in the Big Ten.
Wild finishes were the norm Saturday, with two games being decided on the final play and another coming down to the wire. Plus, there was the impressive statement in East Lansing, with Michigan State not only asserting its dominance in the conference but also showing that it deserves national recognition.
More wins for the likes of the Badgers and Buckeyes capped what will be one of just two weekends crammed with six Big Ten showdowns, a rarity with all the bye weeks scattered throughout the season.
The big four of the Big Ten has now become the big three thanks to the Spartans' seemingly easy dispatching of the Wolverines, but what else did this excellent week of football do to the power rankings? You'll just have to take a look.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (Last week: 1)
For those keeping score at home, that's 119 points in two weeks for the Buckeyes, who have certainly answered the bell of putting up more dominant performances after they were clearly excluded from the true contenders to play in the national championship game. Though the latest beatdown, a 56-0 thumping of conference-worst Purdue, won't likely change Ohio State's status as the lesser-thought-of undefeated powerhouse, all the Buckeyes can do is keep winning games. Saturday, it didn't even take a minute for Ohio State to determine the game's outcome, as Doran Grant took an interception back to the house 57 seconds into the contest. By the end of the first quarter, the Buckeyes had a 28-0 lead, which ballooned to 42-0 by the end of the first half. Braxton Miller threw for 233 yards and four touchdowns and took a rest early in this one, while Carlos Hyde turned in a ho-hum 111-yard day on just eight carries. This, of course, was all expected against the Boilermakers. It seems likely that Ohio State will need two of the nation's top three teams — Alabama, Oregon and Florida State — to lose if it wants in to the title bout. Stay tuned.
2. Michigan State Spartans (LW: 3)
No disrespect to the Badgers, but Michigan State's continued dominance means it belongs at the No. 2 spot. It's now up to the national voters to come to this same realization that the team boasting the nation's No. 1 defense is deserving of a much higher ranking than the No. 22 mark it entered this past weekend with. The Spartans turned in an eye-popping performance against in-state rival Michigan on Saturday, winning the Paul Bunyan Trophy by a score of 29-6. That's right, no trips to the red zone for the Wolverines offense, which has been explosive at times throughout this season. They were anything but Saturday, with Michigan State suffocating Devin Gardner and the rest of his offensive teammates. The Spartans have sat in the top spot all season when it comes to rushing defense, but Saturday's performance was a whole different level of excellence, with a swarming defensive front holding the Wolverines to -48 rushing yards. That's no typo. Gardner went for -46 yards, with the "team" rushing for -22. Only eight carries and 20 paltry yards from Fitzgerald Toussaint kept this from being a -68 day on the ground. Meanwhile, Connor Cook threw for 252 yards and a touchdown, Jeremy Langford picked up 120 yards and a TD on the ground, and the Spartans established themselves as not just the favorite but the runaway favorite to meet fellow runaway favorite Ohio State in the BIg Ten title game. What originally looked like a Legends Division gauntlet of Nebraska and Northwestern now look like two easy wins to the Spartans, who — with only one loss to a ranked Notre Dame team — deserve to find themselves right near the top 10 if not in the top 10 come Sunday night.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (LW: 2)
Another criminally underrated team in the eyes of the national college football electorate, Wisconsin picked up yet another win Saturday, toppling Iowa, 28-9, on the road at Kinnick Stadium. It took a while for the Badgers to get things going, leading just 7-6 at halftime. But by the time things were over, it was all Badgers. Joel Stave threw a pair of touchdown passes, and James White had a huge day with 132 yards and two touchdowns. Even an off-day from Melvin Gordon — 17 carries for 62 yards — couldn't slow down Wisconsin. The Badgers defense came up big again, holding Iowa to just 110 yards on the ground and twice picking off a pair of Hawkeye quarterbacks. The Badgers, you might remember, should have just one loss thanks to that referee blunder for the ages to abruptly end the game against Arizona State. That means a seven-point loss to Ohio State should be the Badgers' lone blemish. This is another team being horribly penalized for the lack of significant depth in the Big Ten. But make no mistake, the Buckeyes, Spartans and Badgers figure to all make strong cases for berths in BCS bowls by the time this season ends.
4. Minnesota Golden Gophers (LW: 5)
It's somewhat shocking, that's for sure, but here the Gophers sit at No. 4. But before you scoff, recognize Minnesota's three-game winning streak in conference play. Since Jerry Kill took his leave of absence, a revitalized Gophers team has knocked off Northwestern, Nebraska and now Indiana, that latest victory an (unsurprising) 42-39 shootout vs. the Hoosiers. Up against a terrible Indiana defense, the Gophers posted 573 yards of offense, including an incredible 325 passing, nearly all of it from Philip Nelson, who hasn't been wowing anyone with his arm this season. But this was a great game for Nelson, as it was for running back David Cobb, who has gained 100-plus yards (188 on Saturday) in three straight games. Minnesota is 7-2, no joke, and having the opposite season of Northwestern. After getting rocked in its first two conference games, Minnesota has since flipped the script on the Big Ten. A win at home next week vs. Penn State is nowhere near out of the question, though back-to-back games vs. Wisconsin and Michigan State should slow the Gophers down. Yet again, the Gophers really haven't been paying to much attention lately to what they "should" be doing.
5. Michigan Wolverines (LW: 4)
Things really couldn't have gone worse for Michigan on Saturday. The 29-6 drubbing at the hands of in-state rival Michigan State was the ugliest day the Wolverines have had in some time, posting just 168 yards of total offense, including -48 rushing yards. Poor Devin Gardner was on his back so often that he needed help getting on and off the field during the fourth quarter. He still threw for 210 yards but never found the end zone and threw an interception. Michigan's offense had an excuse, it was stifled by the country's best defense. Michigan's defense, on the other hand, simply played poorly, allowing 252 yards through the air to Connor Cook and 120 yards on the ground to Jeremy Langford. The Wolverines defense has been lit up now in each of the last three games, two of which ended in Michigan losses. The Wolverines will surely fall out of the rankings after this loss, and it's pretty evident this isn't the contending team it seemed in the season's early days. Still, the Wolverines could come away with wins vs. Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa, setting up a still-important showdown against Ohio State to end the season.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions (LW: 7)
Remember that lack of significant depth I was talking about? No offense to the Lions, but they didn't look too good Saturday in their 24-17 overtime win over Illinois. Christian Hackenberg, though he racked up 240 yards and a touchdown, was limited by what's been a real bad Illini defense, and Penn State made a whole ton of mistakes throughout this game, namely with penalties and an untimely goal-line fumble that nearly cost them the game late in the fourth quarter. But they did come out with a win, and that's all that matters. Bill Belton and Allen Robinson were huge for Penn State, with the former rushing for 201 yards and a touchdown and the latter catching 11 passes for 165 yards. Thankfully for the Lions, Illinois made vastly more mistakes than they did in this one. It could be argued the Illini should have had a several-touchdown win on the road in Happy Valley, but an interception in overtime sealed it for Penn State, which has three winnable games against Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska before closing the season against Wisconsin. An 8-4 season earned much praise for Bill O'Brien's squad a year ago, and that outcome is still very possible in 2013.
[BIG TEN HOOPS: Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith]
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers (LW: 9)
There's no such thing as watching this play too many times. Nebraska's unbelievable game-winning Hail Mary could be the play of the year in college football, and it completed a stunning 27-24 win over Northwestern that sunk the Cats into an even deeper hole in their nightmare ongoing season. But for the Huskers, it might have just saved their season. Ron Kellogg III's 49-yard heave tipped off a Northwestern defender's hands and into the hands of a perfectly placed Jordan Westerkamp for a crazy, emotional victory that seemed to leave embattled head coach Bo Pelini without speech. Pelini's been getting questions about the state of his program and his job security all week following a loss at Minnesota, and this sensational finish — which in the process prevented another embarrassing Husker loss — might send those away for a little while. Nebraska, which still has only two losses, has a real toss-up game against Michigan next before a frightening matchup with Michigan State. But the season ends with Penn State and Iowa, meaning — while those results are all mysteries — a 9-3 record would be within the realm of possibility. And that's not bad, especially considering the furor this Nebraska season has caused in Lincoln.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes (LW: 8)
Wisconsin's defense is good, and it shut down the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Iowa fell, 28-9, and posted just 289 yards in the effort. Though the defense showed up and silenced all-everything running back Melvin Gordon, the offense couldn't do much of anything. Even a supposedly strong rushing attack couldn't get the Hawkeyes moving, picking up just 110 yards. There was more bad news when Jake Rudock was knocked out the game, replaced with C.J. Beathard. The duo mustered only 179 yards through the air and threw a pair of interceptions. The Hawkeyes need just one more win to get to the postseason, and it seems likely they'll get it with Purdue up next. That should be a nice accomplishment for a team that is turning in one mediocre performance after another in conference play and opened the season by missing out on what could've been a signature win against a now-invincible Northern Illinois team.
[BIG TEN HOOPS: For Northwestern, excitement welcomed, patience preached]
9. Indiana Hoosiers (LW: 6)
These power rankings seem to be becoming a broken record, but it's darn true: Indiana's offense is amazing and it's defense is horrific. The bad side struck first Saturday, with Indiana going down, 35-13, to surging Minnesota midway through the third quarter. But then came four straight Hoosier touchdowns to give Indiana a 39-35 lead with five and a half minutes left in the game. But, in true terrible-defense fashion, the Gophers picked up a 50-yard touchdown pass to beat the Hoosiers, 42-39. Unsurprisingly it was another Indiana shootout, but it's becoming somewhat of a ridiculous trend that Indiana can't win any of these games. The Hoosiers have one tremendous aspect of their football team, and it keeps them in nearly every game they play. They should be able to challenge almost anyone. Unfortunately for Indiana, it's just 3-5 with the lone win of any consequence that one against Penn State. The others came against Indiana State and Bowling Green. Illinois and Purdue remain on the schedule, but so do Wisconsin and Ohio State, making it hard to see where the three wins necessary for bowl eligibility will be coming from.
10. Northwestern Wildcats (LW: 10)
This is really getting ridiculous. Northwestern's fall from grace this season has been one of the more puzzling things you might ever see. Another week, another loss for this team, which even on a good offensive day turned in some real unbelievable plays on that side of the ball. Yes, Treyvon Green rushed for 149 yards and three first-half touchdowns, and yes Kain Colter contributed another 86 rushing yards for a great day on the ground. But Colter and Trevor Siemian combined to complete just eight passes, with one of Siemian's incompletions being a pick six from Nebraska defensive lineman Avery Moss. It makes you wonder whether the Cats should even bother throwing the ball anymore. Brandon Williams punted 11 times, another showing of ineffectiveness from the offense. And despite finding the end zone three times this week, when it mattered most the offense couldn't do it. Tyler Scott returned an interception to the 7-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but Northwestern couldn't punch it in, instead taking a field goal, then losing moments later on that miraculous Hail Mary. The Northwestern defense intercepted Nebraska QBs four times Saturday, and the Cats still lost. Finding new ways to lose is becoming a specialty with the Wildcats now 0-5 in Big Ten play. At this point, a team that had Rose Bowl aspirations will be extremely fortunate to reach a bowl game at all, needing two wins against its trio of remaining opponents: Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois.
[LAST WEEK: Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 9]
11. Illinois Fighting Illini (LW: 11)
The Fighting Illini just make too many mistakes. They nearly had their first Big Ten win in two years Saturday but couldn't get out of their own way long enough to get it done. Illinois' offense looked great all day when it came to driving the ball down the field, with Nathan Scheelhaase throwing for 321 yards. But yards don't equal points, and it seemed each time a drive looked good, it ended with nothing on the scoreboard. It instead ended in either a touchdown negated by a penalty, an interception or some other misfortune. The Illini grabbed a 17-14 lead with five and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter and were even lucky enough, after Penn State drove all the way down to the 1-yard line, to recover a Bill Belton goal-line fumble. But they couldn't pick up a first down following the fumble, punted to Penn State, watched the Lions tie things with a field goal and then score a touchdown in overtime. Then, on Illinois' first play of the extra session, Scheelhaase threw his second interception. After the game, Tim Beckman promised his first Big Ten win would come this season (a safe bet with hapless Purdue left on the schedule). But if the Illini ever want to get multiple conference wins in a season, they'll need to stop making such egregious mistakes.
12. Purdue Boilermakers (LW: 12)
There's not much more that would surprise in this nightmare of a debut season for Darrell Hazell at Purdue, but some of the numbers in Saturday's 56-0 loss to Ohio State were just too gaudy to ignore. Of course, that score is the first one that jumps out at you, and the four first-quarter touchdowns are just head-shakingly bad. Check out some of the others, though. Purdue was out-gained 640-116, which includes a truly stunning 345-27 mark on the ground. Poor Danny Etling, a freshman mind you, posted a 2.2 quarterback rating thanks to 13 completions on 29 attempts for 89 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception. He was also sacked six times, losing 49 yards in the process. Purdue still has four games left in conference play: Iowa, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana. That's no quartet of powerhouses, but to Purdue it might look like Florida State, Oregon, Alabama and the 1985 Chicago Bears.