Sunday, September 15, 2013
Big Ten not changing anybody's mind
By Adam Rittenberg
Bo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis watched their team crumble against UCLA.
CHICAGO -- A CBS camera followed Johnny Manziel's every move Saturday, tracking the Texas A&M quarterback from the magical to the mundane.
More than 750 media members converged on Kyle Field for a game that had been anticipated for months. This was another SEC Saturday, and no matter what happened in the Big Ten, the eyes of the nation would be on Alabama-A&M.
But the Big Ten had a chance to steal a glance, build some credibility and maybe change the narrative, not to mention a few minds. However, the league fell short in its one Saturday showcase of September.
Nothing to see here, folks. Same old story.
Michigan forgot to show up against an Akron team that had lost 27 consecutive road games. Nebraska decided to pack it in during the third quarter against UCLA. And Penn State's defense made a very good college quarterback (UCF's Blake Bortles) look like a Heisman Trophy candidate.
There was one Big Ten game that left everyone talking and tweeting well into Sunday morning, thanks to one of the more bizarre finishes you'll ever see. The clock ran out on Wisconsin after quarterback Joel Stave tried to center the ball deep in Arizona State territory. The officials, seemingly confused that Stave placed the ball on the ground rather than make an obvious kneeling motion, delayed in spotting the ball and time expired.
No one could believe it, even the victorious Sun Devils.
Wisconsin deserved a chance to win a big game on the road and salvage something for the Big Ten. Thanks to the inexcusable officiating blunder, the Badgers' 32-30 loss was a black mark on a mostly sour Saturday.
Make no mistake, Week 3 wasn't as bad as Week 2 of the 2012 season, when the Big Ten went 6-6, a virtual impossibility given the forgiving nature of nonconference schedules. After that sorry Saturday, league commissioner Jim Delany told the critics to swing away, acknowledging the Big Ten's status as a national pinata.
The Big Ten bashing will continue after this Saturday, although not as much as it did last season. But perhaps just as damaging, the league didn't give people a reason to pay attention. The Big Ten is still viewed as a has-been conference, not a right-now conference.
Christian Hackenberg and PSU were stunned at home by UCF.
Oh, there's Ohio State, which flexed its offensive muscles at Cal despite being without starting quarterback Braxton Miller. Michigan State's offense showed up, and so did Indiana's defense. Iowa ended its slide in the Cy-Hawk series and captured a win it absolutely had to have in mostly impressive fashion. Purdue gave Notre Dame a better game than expected before folding early in the fourth quarter. Illinois fought hard against a good Washington squad here at Soldier Field. Northwestern continues to look very good.
But nothing that happened Saturday boosted the Big Ten's poor perception.
This is who you are, Huskers. Your Big Ten legacy can be summed up in a series of numbers: 48-17, 45-17, 30-13, 63-38, 70-31, 45-31 and 41-21. Those are the final scores of Huskers losses in nationally relevant games against Wisconsin (2011), Michigan (2011), South Carolina (2012 Capital One Bowl), Ohio State (2012), Wisconsin (2012 Big Ten championship game), Georgia (2013 Capital One Bowl) and UCLA (Saturday).
They're not stunning collapses because they happen so often. They're as much a part of Nebraska's identity as the Blackshirts, the balloons and the Tunnel Walk.
Coach Bo Pelini said his players looked like they'd seen a ghost as UCLA took over in the second half. Maybe they had just seen this movie so many times before.
While Nebraska continued to bring negative attention, Michigan brought unwanted attention. The Wolverines' game against Akron was off the radar in a slate that featured four matchups with the Pac-12, the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry and other superior pairings. Devin Gardner and his teammates were supposed to make quick work of Akron, which has won one game in each of the past three seasons.
Akron's best hope for an upset? Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who tortured Michigan during his tenure, is the school's vice president for student success. Maybe Michigan can chalk up Saturday's near-upset to The Curse of The Vest, as Akron's student-athletes had plenty of success at the Big House.
Michigan was a yard away from arguably the worst loss in program history. It wasn't Appalachian State, as the 2007 Mountaineers were miles better than the Toledo team Michigan lost to in 2008 or the current Akron squad. The 2008 Wolverines might have been the worst edition in school history. Michigan entered Saturday off an impressive win against Notre Dame. A letdown was possible? A letdown loss to Akron? Not a chance.
But it nearly happened.
"We almost lost to Akron," said Gardner, who committed four turnovers in the 28-24 win. "No disrespect to Akron, but we almost lost after coming out and having a great win last week in front of the whole world, and we come out and almost blow it. I definitely would have been sick if we [had lost]."
Michigan fans thankfully don't have to debate whether 2008 Toledo or 2013 Akron is a worse loss, but they do have to figure out what type of team they'll have the rest of the season after such a step backward.
Penn State can't help the Big Ten's ragged reputation in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. But the Lions could have taken care of business against UCF, a 10-win team in 2012.
However, a normally sound defense didn't come through, surrendering 507 yards and failing to get key second-half stops in a 34-31 loss. Get ready to hear a lot about how the sanctions are finally getting to Penn State.
Listen, it's not all gloom and doom for the Big Ten. There are some bright spots. If Ohio State goes on to win a national title, all the negative stuff washes away. That's how it works in college football.
This could turn out to be a better league than it was last season, when it set a historically low bar. We'll find out in late December and early January.
Until then, it'll be all SEC, all the time.
After another lost Saturday, the Big Ten still doesn't give the nation a reason to care.