Which is more memorable: a touchdown pass on the game’s final play that lifts your team to victory or a heartbreaking field goal that stuns your squad? Which stays with you longer?
Most great games feature a back-and-forth struggle between two good teams with a memorable conclusion. Often the game features a rivalry with something more at stake than just a result. Many times the game boasts an epic comeback, a statistical record or a major upset. Since 2002, the Big Ten has featured games filling every one of the categories.
Which are the best? That’s a question with a purely subjective answer. Your joy is another man’s pain. Your team’s great last-second field goal is your opponent’s kick-to-the-gut loss. Here’s an attempt to define the 10 (in true Big Ten math) best Big Ten games of the last decade.
Here are numbers 6-1:
6. Oct. 15, 2005: Michigan 27, Penn State 25
Michigan QB Chad Henne completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on the game’s final play to knock Penn State from a perfect season. Michigan’s comeback ruined Penn State’s own heroics, when quarterback Michael Robinson scored on a 3-yard plunge with 53 seconds left. It was Michigan’s seventh straight win in the series. Penn State still won a share of the Big Ten title and later beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. (It since has been vacated.)
5. Oct. 23, 2010: Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30
The epic clash between the Badgers and Hawkeyes featured eight lead changes, a fake punt, a blocked extra point and a winding game-winning touchdown run by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball with 1 minute remaining. Iowa had its chances on a final drive, but poor clock management cost the team all of its timeouts. Iowa running back Adam Robinson was tackled in bounds near the sideline at the Wisconsin 36 with just seconds to go. With no Iowa timeouts, the game ended in Wisconsin’s favor. The longtime border rivals are on a two-year hiatus and the series is tied at 42-42-2.
4. Nov. 14, 2009: Ohio State 27, Iowa 24 (OT)
The winner earned a trip to the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten title. An injury to QB Rick Stanzi forced Iowa to start freshman James Vandenberg at the league’s most intimidating environment. For the most part, Vandenberg acquitted himself nicely, throwing a pair of second-half TD strikes to Marvin McNutt, the second of which sent the game into OT. But Iowa’s offense stalled, and the Buckeyes’ backup kicker, a 26-year-old pro soccer washout, nailed the game-winning overtime field goal to clinch OSU’s fifth straight Big Ten crown.
3. Oct. 22, 2011: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31
Wisconsin entered the clash between 2010 tri-champions a prohibitive favorite and took an early 14-0 lead. The Spartans proved they were game and led 31-17 early in the fourth quarter before the Badgers rallied to knot the game at 31-31 with 1:26 left. Instead of playing for OT, Michigan State moved the ball past midfield. On the game’s final play, QB Kirk Cousins launched a Hail Mary pass down the right sideline. The ball lingered in the air, and Michigan State WR (and ex-QB) Keith Nichol grabbed it and was brought down near the goal line. At first he was ruled down an inch short. Then a booth review showed Nichol had crossed the goal line and scored a game-winning touchdown with no time remaining.
2. Dec. 1, 2011: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39
The second battle for the peninsula was just an extension of the first. The teams traded blows at a furious pace and Michigan State led 29-21 at halftime. With less than four minutes remaining, Wisconsin trailed 39-34 and faced fourth-and-6 at Michigan State’s 43. QB Russell Wilson launched a 36-yard cross-field pass up for grabs to WR Jeff Duckworth, who pulled it in. One play later Montee Ball blasted in from the 7 to give the Badgers the go-ahead lead. Michigan State nearly answered late when Keshawn Martin returned a punt 61 yards to the Wisconsin 3, but it was negated by a running-into-the-kicker penalty. Wisconsin claimed the inaugural Big Ten championship and its second consecutive Rose Bowl berth.
1. Nov. 18, 2006: Ohio State 42, Michigan 39
No game in Big Ten history has or ever will match this one in hype or importance. The greatest rivalry in college sports reached a climax never seen before. Both teams were 11-0 with Ohio State ranked No. 1 and Michigan ranked No. 2, a first for the rivalry in both feats. The winner had an automatic berth for the BCS title game.
Legendary Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler spoke to the Wolverines on Thursday, then died on Friday morning. The game itself was a clash in styles between Ohio State’s speed and Michigan’s brawn. Both were on display throughout the game. There was controversy, such as a late-game, late hit out of bounds on third down that kept an Ohio State drive alive. There were big plays by great players. Ohio State survived 42-39.
Now that the teams compete in opposite divisions they still play one another in the season finale but they can meet in a rematch a week later. That’s what adds to the special lore of this game. Never again will the teams meet in a regular-season finale with everything at stake undefeated and ranked 1-2. Don’t let the bowl results at the end of the season cloud the interpretation of this game. This was epic.