The Big Ten’s last best chance to remain a relevant conference in the 2012 college football debate faded in the Spartan Stadium afterglow late Saturday night.
No. 10 Michigan State, which entered the season as the league favorite and clearly possessed the top defense, sputtered offensively in a 20-3 home loss to No. 20 Notre Dame. The Spartans rushed for only 50 yards, gave up four sacks and didn’t force a turnover for their first loss this season.
“We didn’t run the football, we didn’t protect the quarterback very well and we had some drops,” Michigan State Mark Dantonio said. “We need to have more explosive plays on offense.”
Michigan State’s loss places the Big Ten on the sidelines of any national title conversation. The league posts only three unbeaten teams just three weeks into the season, and Ohio State is ineligible for a bowl game. That leaves Northwestern and Minnesota, two programs with nice starts, but hardly considered championship worthy.
The Big Ten is 4-8 against other BCS-level conferences, and Northwestern owns three of those wins (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College). Ohio State trailed California early in the fourth quarter and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 72-yard pass from Braxton Miller to Devin Smith with 3:26 left.
But any conversation about the league’s struggles must include Wisconsin. Coming off two consecutive Rose Bowls, the Badgers returned a Heisman Trophy finalist at running back (Montee Ball), the leading pass receiver from a year ago (Jared Abberderis) and best offensive lineman (Ricky Wagner). But Wisconsin, the prohibitive Leaders Division favorite entering the season, has beaten Northern Iowa and Utah State at home by a combined seven points and lost at Oregon State 10-7 this season.
Saturday, Wisconsin needed Utah State to miss a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to preserve a 16-14 win at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers completed just seven passes and trailed 14-3 at halftime.
“Very excited to get a win,” Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said. “I knew that they maybe didn’t play as well as they could in certain phases. But I also know it’s very hard to get a win.”
After surrendering 653 yards in a loss at UCLA a week ago, Nebraska rebounded without head coach Bo Pelini for most of the game in a 42-13 win against Arkansas State. Pelini suffered from flu-like symptoms and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance during the game. He later was released.
“Bo is as close to me as anybody, so my initial reaction was more as a friend than a business colleague,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I kind of had to compose myself for a second because of my concern for his well-being. But then, at the end of the day, he would want nothing other than us to go out and perform as well as we possibly could. We got it pulled together and went to work.”
Iowa scored three touchdowns — two more than it had in the previous two weeks combined — in a 27-16 win over Northern Iowa. Fullback Mark Weisman shifted to feature back after injuries to Iowa’s top two running backs and rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns.
Minnesota is 3-0 for the first time since 2008 after holding off Western Michigan 28-23. Quarterback MarQueis Gray suffered an ankle injury with the Gophers down 10-7. Sophomore Max Shortell filled in nicely, and Minnesota might have a quarterback controversy entering this week. Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill said Gray will have an MRI today.
“That’s one of those things where (Shortell) was ready, and his opportunity came,” Kill said. “He was prepared
for his opportunity and took advantage of it. Also, (credit goes to) our quarterbacks coach (Jim Zebrowski). We train them all. They get a lot of reps. People don’t understand that, but that’s why you do it.”
Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien tied a school-record with five field goals to lift the Wildcats to a 22-13 victory against Boston College. It was the Wildcats’ third win against a BCS opponent.
“I think we’ve got a hungry team, they’ve got a look in their eyes right now and they’re embracing improvement,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re in no way, shape or form where we want to be yet but mission accomplished, we’ve gone 1-0 three times so far, so hopefully we’ll continue to keep getting better.”
Purdue (54-16 Eastern Michigan), Michigan (63-13 Massachusetts) and Illinois (44-0 Charleston Southern) rolled up big wins while Indiana suffered its first defeat in a 41-39 setback to Ball State. Penn State earned its first win under Coach Bill O’Brien, 34-7 against Navy.
STARS OF THE WEEK
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller threw for 249 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 75 yards and a score in a 35-28 win against California. Miller’s performance kept the Buckeyes undefeated. Minnesota wide receiver A.J. Barker caught five passes for 101 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-23 win against Western Michigan. Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor had 15 tackles, including one for loss, in a 16-14 win against Utah State.
Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien tied a record with five field goals to lift the Wildcats to a 3-0 record. Purdue punter Cody Webster had five punts for a 47.6-yard average and landed four inside the 20. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball rushed for 137 yards on 39 carries and scored on a 17-yard touchdown. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez completed 13-of-14 passes for 180 yards and two scores along with 54 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. Iowa fullback Mark Weisman ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns after switching to running back. Minnesota quarterback Max Shortell stepped in for an injured MarQueis Gray and tossed three touchdowns. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson passed for 291 yards and rushed for 106. Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole filled in for Nathan Scheelhaase for the second straight week and threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin passed for 231 yards and four touchdowns. Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer caught four passes for 115 yards and two scores. Michigan State defensive back Johnny Adams had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and a pass breakup.
BIG TEN STANDINGS
Minnesota 3-0 0-0
Northwestern 3-0 0-0
Iowa 2-1 0-0
Michigan 2-1 0-0
Michigan State 2-1 0-0
Nebraska 2-1 0-0
Ohio State 3-0 0-0
Illinois 2-1 0-0
Indiana 2-1 0-0
Purdue 2-1 0-0
Wisconsin 2-1 0-0
Penn State 1-2 0-0
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (3-0)
2. Michigan State (2-1)
3. Nebraska (2-1)
4. Northwestern (3-0)
5. Michigan (2-1)
6. Purdue (2-1)
7. Iowa (2-1)
8. Minnesota (3-0)
9. Wisconsin (2-1)
10. Illinois (2-1)
11. Penn State (1-2)
12. Indiana (2-1)