What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
10:00
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsDavid Cobb and the Gophers have won four conference games in a row for the first time since the Nixon administration.
1. The Legends Division is officially a three-team race: If you thought Michigan State was going to cruise into the Big Ten championship game, think again. The Spartans remain the favorite in their division, but they have to travel to Nebraska this week in a potential winner-take-all scenario. While the Huskers' banged-up offense figures to have serious trouble against Michigan State's defense, one thing Bo Pelini's team has shown the past couple of weeks is heart, particularly in its hard-fought 17-13 win at Michigan. We've criticized Nebraska in the past for not winning key conference road games; well, credit is due for dealing the Wolverines their first home loss under Brady Hoke. And remember that the Cornhuskers are 2-0 versus Michigan State since joining the Big Ten. Don't count out Minnesota, either. While the Gophers will need some help to win the division, they have grown beyond a nice little story and into a full-fledged contender. Once again, a stout defense and running game led the way in a 24-10 win over Penn State, giving the program its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973. The Gophers have beaten Nebraska and play at Michigan State in the season finale. They're a team no one wants to play right now.

2. Ohio State is one stumble away: Despite not playing in Week 11, it was a good weekend for Ohio State, because one of the three teams ahead of it lost when Oregon fell to Stanford on Thursday night. It could have been a great weekend had Alabama lost to LSU, but the Buckeyes can't complain too much. That's because they're in position to move into the BCS national title game should either the Crimson Tide or Florida State stumble in its final games. Ohio State still has to worry about potentially getting passed by undefeated Baylor or one-loss Stanford, but it should remain in good shape if it keeps winning in style like it has the past few weeks. Wisconsin continuing to win also helps. We've known all along that the Buckeyes would need some help to get in the final two, but a big fluorescent green domino fell on Thursday night. One more break might be all Ohio State needs.

3. No quick fixes for Michigan, Penn State: Two of the Big Ten's marquee brands have fallen on hard times -- and might not be getting up soon. At least not much before the end of this season. Michigan followed up its beatdown at Michigan State by losing at home to Nebraska, snapping a 19-game win streak at the Big House. The Wolverines still can't run the ball; they had minus-21 rushing yards on Saturday, a week after going for minus-48 in East Lansing. Their flaws have been evident for weeks and have finally caught up to them; with road trips to Northwestern and Iowa and a date with Ohio State left, there's no guarantee this team finishes better than 6-6. Michigan is just 14-8 since the Sugar Bowl victory in Hoke's first year, and he'd better hope that all of those glittery recruiting rankings translate into better success down the road. Penn State's struggles are more understandable, given the sanctions, but things are still rougher than many expected. Not only is the defense still a mess, but the offense has taken a nose dive the past few weeks as the Nittany Lions have averaged just 13.7 points per game in regulation the last three times out. That's surprising, given the presence of stars such as Allen Robinson and Bill Belton and a talented, albeit freshman, quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. Penn State has lost to Indiana and Minnesota, and if not for near-miraculous overtime wins over Illinois and Michigan, it could be riding a five-game losing streak. Luckily, Purdue is up next, but with the final two games coming against Nebraska and then at Wisconsin, Bill O'Brien's team will need to do some good work just to finish at .500.

[+] EnlargeJordan Canzeri
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIJordan Canzeri and the Iowa offense got on track against Purdue and looks to be building momentum.
4. Iowa has positioned itself for a strong finish: The Hawkeyes are bowl eligible again, and this season will go down as a step forward no matter how it turns out. Kirk Ferentz's team has won the games it should and dropped games to four very good teams (Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin). But the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one as they close things out against Michigan at home and Nebraska on the road. After getting the offense on track against Purdue and racking up 318 rush yards and three touchdowns, Iowa enters a bye week before hosting Michigan on Nov. 23. Iowa has won three of its past four against Michigan at Kinnick Stadium, and the Wolverines aren't the same team on the road under Brady Hoke. A victory there could set up an intriguing Black Friday matchup against Nebraska, as Iowa needs to provide some juice for that series. An 8-4 season certainly is within reach for the Hawkeyes, who could climb up the bowl pecking order and build some momentum for 2014.

5. James White deserves his due: The Wisconsin running back has played all four years in the shadow of other backs, first with John Clay, then Montee Ball and even now as a senior with Melvin Gordon. But we should not overlook the fact White has had a spectacular career. Forget that he's one of the Big Ten's best players right now. He ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns and caught another score in Saturday's 27-17 win over BYU, a week after he put up 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns at Iowa. White, not Gordon, has been Wisconsin's best back in November. He has 951 rushing yards for the season, leaving him poised for his second 1,000-yard campaign and ranking him fourth among league rushers this year. White has rushed for more than 3,500 yards in his career. And if he keeps playing like he has lately, White might accomplish something even more special: playing in four straight BCS games.

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