For a league struggling to earn national respect on the football field, the Big Ten received the best possible news on Saturday.
The final experiment of Legends and Leaders concludes Dec. 7 in Indianapolis with Michigan State and Ohio State pounding one another for the Big Ten title. It's the league's perfect scenario for multiple reasons.
One, the teams have yet to play this year. The last two seasons have included title-game rematches that were memorable for different reasons. Yet neither had the cache of unbeaten divisional champions. The last time Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) and Michigan State (10-1, 7-0) competed against one another -- the 2012 league opener -- the Buckeyes won 17-16 in a defensive slugfest. The Buckeyes have won 23 straight games but none were as low-scoring or close as that game.
Two, while Michigan State and Ohio State are not "rivals" they do have a relationship. Ohio State clearly wanted the Spartans in the same division when the league revamped geographically for 2014. Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio formerly was an assistant at Ohio State and the teams fight for the same players. And they both hate Michigan.
Three, it's the classic "styles make fights" game. Michigan State boasts the Big Ten's best defense, while Ohio State has the league's most potent offense. Both make plays on the opposite side of the ball, but it's rare that you see a dynamic combination opposing one another.
Michigan State clinched the Legends Division on Saturday with a 30-6 win against Northwestern. The Spartans prevented Northwestern from running the ball effectively, holding the Wildcats to 80 yards on 26 carries. For the fourth time in Big Ten play, Michigan State didn't allow a touchdown.
"Ten wins, Legends champions and as we go forward it's exciting times," Dantonio said. "We've talked about there being moments that we'd remember for the rest of our lives, and I think that's what is happening for us so we just need to continue and press on."
"Winning this game and knowing we're going to Indianapolis is a great feeling," Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. "This is just a great feeling. We knew then (during media days) what type of team we had. During the summer, we had to mold each other. We had to get closer than we were and finish games. It's a great feeling right now, seeing it all come together. Seeing all of our goals in front of us is just a great feeling."
Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) extended its national title hopes with a 42-14 pounding of Indiana. It's the Buckeyes' first trip to the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes won't have a problem looking ahead to the Spartans; Ohio State plays at archrival Michigan on Saturday.
"When we focus, this is a very good team, very, very good," Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer said. "Obviously this week focus won't be an issue. It's going to be execution and performance."
Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1) beat ancient rival Minnesota (8-3, 4-3) 20-7, the Badgers' series-record 10th straight victory. Afterward, the schools had an altercation in the end zone when the Badgers mock-chopped the goal posts at TCF Bank Stadium.
Monday, Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen said there was nothing to discuss about the incident, calling it "water under the bridge."
"The biggest thing I would say is ultimately at the end both teams handled it," Andersen said. "The kids on the team both handled this as pretty good in the setting, in the situation. When I was down there — and I wasn't down there for very long. I was caught up in it for just a brief moment. But all the other stuff, we've moved along, and away we go."
Iowa (7-4, 4-3) recorded its seventh win this season to beat Michigan 24-21, reversing a porous 4-8 record from a year ago. The Hawkeyes rebounded from a 21-7 halftime deficit to outscore the Wolverines 17-0 in the second half. Perhaps even more impressive, Iowa out-gained Michigan 237-45 and had 13 second-half first downs to Michigan's three.
"We've been taking it a step at a time, a week at a time," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Illinois (4-7, 1-6) ended a horrific 20-game Big Ten losing streak with a 20-16 win against Purdue (1-10, 0-7). Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase became the 10th player in Big Ten history to surpass 10,000 yards of total offense. Scheelhaase now has 10,272 total yards, which ranks eighth in Big Ten history.
Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier recorded 20 tackles, including five for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. ... Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens had eight tackles, including three for loss, forced and recovered the game-deciding fumble and had two quarterback hurries. ... Illinois WR Steve Hull caught a career-high 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. ... Michigan State RB Jeremy Lankford rushed for 150 yards and two TDs and caught two passes for 35 yards.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. ... Purdue RB Akeem Hunt ran for 102 yards and one TD. ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg threw for for 217 yards and two TDs and rushed for another. ... Minnesota LB Aaron Hill had six solo tackles, one interception and a forced fumble. ... Wisconsin DE Brendan Kelly had three tackles for loss and a forced fumble. ... Northwestern punter Chris Gradone punted four times for a 40.8 average and hit three inside the 20. ... Michigan CB Raymon Taylor had nine tackles, an interception and fumble recovery. ... Indiana WR Kofi Hughes caught nine passes for 120 yards.
100 degrees of temperature separation between the season opener and last week in the Midwest
1. Ohio State (1) 11-0 7-0
2. Wisconsin (2) 9-2 6-1
3. Michigan State (3) 10-1 7-0
4. Nebraska (5) 8-3 5-2
5. Iowa (6) 7-4 4-3
6. Minnesota (4) 8-3 4-3
7. Penn State (10) 6-5 3-4
8. Michigan (7) 7-4 3-4
9. Northwestern (8) 4-7 0-7
10. Indiana (9) 4-7 2-5
11. Illinois (11) 4-7 1-6
12. Purdue (12) 1-10 0-7