By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.
Hoke admits that, yes, the mood is a bit different now: "It's a heck of a lot nicer for everybody when the work day before was successful."— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
RT @MikeWScout: Dantonio on fake punt name: "Frozen. I guess we froze. Gotta let it go, I guess."— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 14, 2014
Tim Beckman says his players still fighting and working to "move this program forward" despite negativity.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 14, 2014
Dantonio asked about player autographs. Says he hopes amount of attention on that now "I think would give our players pause."— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
Pelini, asked to revisit MSU clapping: "I've moved past that. I can tell you this, we didn't 't lose the football game because of any clap."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) October 14, 2014
Kill on slowing down in world of up-tempo offense: "You are who you are throughout the years. ...Sometimes it's not bad to be different."— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 14, 2014
Ferentz's reaction when Tevin Coleman ran by Iowa's bench on Sat.? "Holy Smokes." Says Coleman even more impressive in-person than on film.— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) October 14, 2014
What were the worst moments the Big Ten had to offer so far this season? What were some of the worst plays? The worst trends? Here’s a look at some of the things that won’t be making highlight videos any time soon, the lowlights to the first half of the season:
Brian Bennett: Night games in Week 2
The night time was not the right time for the Big Ten in Week 2. A highly-anticipated trio of prime-time games all ended up duds for the league, as Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon, Ohio State fell by 14 points at home to Virginia Tech and Michigan capitulated in a 31-0 loss at Notre Dame. You could almost feel the air drain out of the conference's playoff hopes on just the second Saturday of the season. The Spartans' loss didn't sink their College Football Playoff hopes, and the young Buckeyes have bounced back strongly (sorry, we can't say the same about Michigan). But the results of Week 2 will reverberate for a long time, and quite possibly inside the playoff selection committee war room on the first weekend in December.
Yes, the Wolverines had a nice reprieve Saturday night, but it has more to do with their defense and Penn State's offensive ineptitude. Michigan is tied for 104th nationally in sacks allowed (17), 110th in first downs per game (18) and tied for 119th in turnovers (16). New coordinator Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the problems, and things don't get any easier with Michigan State up next.
Josh Moyer: Penn State offensive lineman blocking a teammate
The struggles of this offensive line are well-documented: Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks and only nine teams have rushed for fewer yards per game. This is the worst offensive line in the Big Ten and possibly the worst in the Power Five. But it reached a new low against Northwestern when one offensive guard blindly blocked a fellow offensive tackle on a 4th-and-1 play. (Needless to say, that rush went for minus-2 yards.) The video went viral and served as the symbol for just poorly this unit has played. No reprieve is in sight.
Dan Murphy: Michigan's Shane Morris mistakes
Allowing a potentially concussed player back on to a football field in 2014 isn't acceptable, but it's at least somewhat understandable that signals could be crossed on a hectic sideline to create such a blatant blunder. It's much harder to understand how those signals remained crossed for the better part of the week that followed while Michigan's athletic department tried to explain how woozy quarterback Shane Morris returned to action in a loss to Minnesota. Inconsistent reports and middle-of-the-night press releases exacerbated the problem and revealed at least a temporary level of dysfunction inside the proud program's athletic operations.
Mitch Sherman: Nebraska's first half at Michigan State
The Huskers went to Spartan Stadium on Oct. 4 with an opportunity to show the Big Ten, if not the nation, that they were on the road to reclaim attention, if not establish position as a darkhorse for the College Football Playoff. Nebraska did none of that in the first 30 minutes, falling behind 17-0 as it failed three times to capitalize on turnovers in Michigan State territory. The Huskers were tentative on offense as with nine first-half drives ended in seven punts, one interception and one fumble. Six of those possessions netted 6 yards or fewer. For the game, Nebraska's high-powered rushing attack gained just 47 yards. It did, though, stage a serious comeback in fourth quarter, falling 27-22 and left to wonder how a decent first half might have altered the outcome.
Austin Ward: Quarterbacks sabotaging Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin
The ultimate backfield weapon doesn’t need much help, but imagine what Melvin Gordon might be capable of with even an average passing game to complement his otherworldly rushing ability. The star running back is still gashing defenses on the ground, but any chance of dragging Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff was erased with Joel Stave catching a case of the yips, Tanner McEvoy throwing an interception for every 20 attempts and defenses responding by loading up the box. The Badgers could have been truly dangerous on offense, but instead they have almost entirely squandered what should be their last season with Gordon before the calendar even flips to November.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska
Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.
The breakdown by team:
Michigan State: 5
Penn State: 3
Ohio State: 2
Things started out well enough, as Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter on opening weekend. And it was pretty much all downhill from there for the Badgers, who wound up losing 28-24, and the rest of the league. Other early-season losses by Michigan State (at Oregon), Ohio State (Virginia Tech) and Iowa (Iowa State) relegated the Big Ten to its same old status as a middle-of-the-pack (at best) power conference.
As a result, the league needs some breaks just to get a team into the four-team College Football Playoff. Yes, conversation about the inaugural playoff has dominated the sport a little too much so far. Then again, when's the last time you heard anybody talking about who might play in this year's Orange Bowl?
The Big Ten might not place a team in the Rose Bowl -- site of a national semifinal this year -- unless Michigan State and Ohio State run the table the rest of the way, or if a team from the wide-open West Division like Nebraska or Minnesota really surprises.
Not everything, of course, revolves around the playoff, and there have been some good stories in the Big Ten during the first half. The conference boasts three of the top four rushers in the nation. The oft-mocked addition of Maryland and Rutgers doesn't look so bad as the two teams are a combined 9-3. Purdue has already tripled its win total from a year ago. The NCAA sanctions at Penn State were lifted -- though no relief was provided for the Nittany Lions' offensive line. Five teams sit at 5-1, setting up an interesting race toward ... wherever the league champion might wind up in the postseason. (Hey, how about that Orange Bowl?)
So reasons for hope remain in the Big Ten for the second half. Though maybe not so much in Ann Arbor and Champaign.
Defensive MVP: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa. There's no runaway winner of this award yet, but Bosa has built on his impressive freshman campaign of a year ago to become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing forces around. He has seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Biggest surprise: Few people gave Rutgers much of a chance to contend in the school's first year in the Big Ten, especially given the Scarlet Knights' murderous schedule. But with an improved Gary Nova at quarterback and a stout defense, Rutgers sits at 5-1 at the halfway point. The back half is still treacherous, including games against Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, but Kyle Flood's team has shown it can't be taken lightly.
Biggest disappointment: Michigan, naturally. The Wolverines (3-4) beat Penn State last week at home, finally ending a streak of seven straight losses against Power 5 teams. Blowout losses against Notre Dame, Utah and Minnesota, and the Shane Morris concussion controversy have put Brady Hoke squarely on the hot seat.
Newcomer of the year: Losing Braxton Miller did not end Ohio State's playoff chances, largely because of the rapid growth of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. After struggling in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Barrett has blossomed into one of the top players in the Big Ten. He leads the league in total offense, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns (17).
Best coach: Jerry Kill, Minnesota. With apologies to Flood, no coach has maximized his talent more than the head Gopher. Minnesota is 5-1 and tied atop the Big Ten West Division, with its only loss coming at TCU. Kill's team finds ways to win without an overpowering offensive attack.
Best game: Indiana 31, Missouri 27. This game had a little bit of everything, with both teams combining for nearly 1,000 yards of offense and the Hoosiers scoring the winning touchdown with 22 seconds left after Missouri had hit what looked like the game-winning field goal. The road win in SEC country was also one of the league's few bright spots in nonconference play. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they haven't been able to duplicate that performance.
Biggest games of the second half: Armageddon arrives on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, when Ohio State travels to Michigan State in a possible playoff eliminator. Other big B1G games are mostly in the wide-open West, including: Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8), Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15), Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15), Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22) and Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 28).
We take a look at the week that was and what could happen in the future within the conference.
It was a banner weekend for resilient quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Junior Jake Rudock wrenched Iowa’s plans for a balanced, two-quarterback system by completing nine of his first 11 passing attempts en route to 28 points in the first quarter. Michigan’s Devin Gardner, who has had to fight for his job during a 2-4 start to the season, returned from an ankle injury to lead the Wolverines to an 18-13 win over Penn State. And in West Lafayette, a new face is emerging under center. Purdue sophomore Austin Appleby kept Michigan State’s defense on its toes for much of a 45-31 Spartans win.
The Big Ten won’t be confused for anything but a running back’s league this season, but this past weekend was a relatively strong showing for their backfield mates.
Rudock earns the top honor there for helping the Hawkeyes to their fifth win of the season. Minnesota has done most of the head-turning in the West Division during the past couple weeks, but Iowa has quietly compiled an identical record (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) and is tied with the Gophers for the division lead. Both teams have two winnable games before facing each other Nov. 8, which brings us to our choice for the team of the week ...
Team of the Week: Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Iowa’s offense was downright explosive at times during a 45-29 win over Indiana Saturday. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s decision to go for it on fourth down pushed Iowa’s lead to 38-21 on the final play of the first half. The offense, led by the sharpest version of Rudock to date, had topped its previous season-high point total by the end of the first quarter.
Biggest Play: Speaking of Minnesota, the Gophers kept their Big Ten record unblemished Saturday thanks to Jalen Myrick's 100-yard kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown. Northwestern had just tied the game 17-17 with 7:32 to play on an impressive 13-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Myrick went a little farther in far less time, darting past midfield untouched before slipping away from the Wildcats' kicker on his way to a big score.
Big Man on Campus (offense): It may have come in a losing effort, but Indiana’s Tevin Coleman dazzled again with big plays and big numbers. Coleman finished Saturday’s game with 219 yards on just 15 carries. He scored three times on runs of 83, 45 and 69 yards to keep the Hoosiers within striking distances even after starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld left the game before halftime. Coleman leads the nation in rushing yards and is on pace for 2,120 yards in his junior season.
Big Man on Campus (defense): Stellar defense was hard to find this weekend in the Big Ten. The biggest play on that side of the ball belonged to Michigan State linebacker Darien Harris, who clinched the Spartans’ win over Purdue with a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Harris added six tackles, one of them behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that looked uncharacteristically average against the Boilermakers and their sophomore quarterback, Appleby.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Myrick certainly deserves mention here for his big return, but placekicker Matt Wile beats him out by being the difference for a Michigan team that desperately needed a victory. Wile connected on all three of his field goal attempts, from 45, 42 and 37 yards out. He bailed out an offense that has yet to find a way to move the ball consistently, accounting for 10 points in an 18-13 win over Penn State.
Biggest face plant: The Nittany Lions' offensive line did its part to make field goals the difference against Michigan. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was under constant siege at the Big House Saturday. He was sacked six times and pressured into poor decisions on a regular basis. The running game managed only 54 yards. The crumbling of Penn State’s promising September begins and ends with its struggle in the trenches.
Facts and numbers to know: Purdue’s 31 points against Michigan State is the most a Big Ten opponent has scored on Sparty since Wisconsin hung 42 on them in December 2011. ... Myrick’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first such play for anyone in the Big Ten this season. ... Ten teams in the country allow less than 100 rushing yards per game. Three of them (Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan) are in the Big Ten. ... Coleman’s 176.67 rushing yards per game leads the nation. Melvin Gordon (174.33) and Ameer Abdullah (146.33) are second and fourth, respectively, in that category. ... Ten different Iowa players caught passes in the win over Indiana. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 this season when completing throws to at least 10 receivers. ... Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player to 1,000 yards rushing by accomplishing the feat in his sixth game of the season.
1. I'm legitimately worried about Christian Hackenberg. Penn State's sophomore quarterback is a superlative talent who has a long future playing professionally ahead of him. That's if the the Nittany Lions' tragic offensive line doesn't ruin him.
The worst thing that can happen to a young quarterback is for him to succumb to unrelenting pressure. I've seen it before; suddenly, he starts looking at the pass rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He develops happy feet. He throws the ball away too quickly, or holds onto it while bracing for a hit.
I saw some of those things in Hackenberg during Saturday night's 18-13 loss at Michigan, and so did PennLive.com's David Jones, who wrote:
"Hackenberg is, by [James] Franklin's own estimation, 'frustrated,' due to obvious factors. He took a pounding again against the Wolverines, bringing his sacks-absorbed total to a whopping 20 just halfway through the season. His body language is awful; he spent much of the second half slouching on the bench in apparent despondence."
Penn State's inability to block for its star quarterback is clearly taking its toll and forcing Hackenberg into some bad habits -- to say nothing of the injury risk. Those bad habits can be hard to shake off. The Nittany Lions have to figure out a way to protect him in the second half of the season, because it would be a shame if the offensive line issues caused permanent damage.
2. Is it time to worry about Michigan State? The Spartans keep winning and still look like the Big Ten's best team. But for the second straight game, they let a big lead slip away, and Purdue had the ball with a chance to tie the score late.
This isn't even about the College Football Playoff, though Mark Dantonio's team is squandering opportunities to impress the selection committee. No, it's about whether some of Michigan State's obvious mental lapses -- Connor Cook throwing needlessly into coverage, for example, or the defense uncharacteristically giving up big plays -- will result in a loss before December. Last year's Spartans were masters at closing out games, but this year's edition has neither the shutdown defense nor the physical running game to impose its will in fourth quarters, at least not yet. As a result, Michigan State is flirting with disaster, as Drew Sharp writes.
3. Let's all marvel at Minnesota, which is winning in a way that's different than just about anybody else.
The Gophers had only 274 yards on Saturday yet turned away a solid, confident Northwestern team at home. Even with a rushing attack that by their standards was held in check (just 3.1 yards per carry), they continued to maximize every opportunity, KO'ing the 'Cats on a 100-yard KO return by Jalen Myrick.
Jerry Kill's team knows its identity, is too well-coached to beat itself with mistakes and will make you fight every down. That style might not always work against high-scoring, hyper-athletic opponents (see: TCU), but nobody in the Big Ten is looking forward to playing Minnesota in the second half. The Gophers showed resolve on Saturday.
- The Nate Sudfeld injury puts the rest of Indiana's season in jeopardy.
- A season-saving win for Michigan? Hardly. But at least there was some relief for the Wolverines
- Michigan State has a fourth-quarter problem. It's on the seniors, Dantonio says.
- Ohio State needs more than just Joey Bosa on the pass rush.
- New problems are mounting for Penn State, and the old ones are still there.
- Looking ahead to the second halves for Rutgers and for Maryland.
- Illinois will have to settle its quarterback situation over the next two weeks. An Illini staffer was arrested on DUI charges.
- Fourth-down tries are becoming a thing for Kirk Ferentz and Iowa.
- Mitch Leidner looked healthy and confident for Minnesota against Northwestern.
- Twins who have committed to Nebraska are dominating in high school.
- Northwestern was stunned late.
- What we learned about Purdue in its better-than-expected performance vs. Michigan State.
- Joel Stave was just functional enough for Wisconsin against Illinois.
Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.
We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.
The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.
Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.
Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.
The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.
Enough rambling. Projection time ...
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- An electric crowd, a stifling defense, modern-day trappings blended in proper proportion with an old-school Big Ten result. This was the vision that has danced in the heads of Michigan coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon for the better part of the past four years. For at least one night, they got to watch it play out.
Michigan (3-4) pounded its way to an 18-13 win Saturday over visiting Penn State (4-2) in front of the biggest crowd the Big House has seen this season. The 113,085 onlookers witnessed a dominant Michigan defensive line and a gutsy performance by its hobbled quarterback to seal the victory. Senior Devin Gardner returned from an ankle injury in the fourth quarter to push his offense just far enough for a game-winning field goal, ending the night’s drama in enough time to allow for a celebration and a collective sigh of relief.
“The environment, the crowd, there’s no place better in this country when you have a game like this than Michigan Stadium,” Hoke said.
Games like this have been hard to come by for Hoke and Brandon. Their Wolverines entered Saturday’s prime time matchup in a state of disarray. On the field, the team had lost four of its past five games and gave few reasons to be optimistic about a turnaround. Controversy and attempts to manufacture hype away from the field put the embattled coach and his boss on equally shaky ground in terms of job security.
“It certainly helps,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”
Michigan’s fortunes started to turn on its first possession. Gardner (16-for-24, 192 yards) lofted a pass down the middle of the field that looked destined to land in the arms of Penn State safety Ryan Keiser. Gardner was benched two weeks earlier largely because of turnover issues. Instead of another deflating mistake, though, wide receiver Devin Funchess stepped in front of Keiser and yanked the ball away to complete a 43-yard scoring play.
That would be Michigan's final trip to the end zone, but a fire blanket of a defense took the baton from there. Michigan’s front seven abused Penn State’s inexperienced offensive line and its star quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The Wolverines sacked Hackenberg six times and pressured him into several other poor decisions.
Jourdan Lewis intercepted an ill-advised throw in the third quarter that set up a game-tying field goal. A three-and-out and shanked punt in the fourth quarter gave Michigan’s offense the ball in good position again. Gardner completed two passes to get place-kicker Matt Wile in range to give his team a 16-13 lead. More pressure backed Hackenberg up to his goal line in the final minutes and forced Penn State to snap a ball out of the back of its end zone for a safety. A defensive line missing its most effective interior rusher (tackle Willie Henry) played a major role in creating Michigan's final eight unanswered points.
The near sell-out crowd roared in approval. The week started with threats of a student boycott to show their disapproval with the direction of the program. The lure of a night game brought them out in full force, waving yellow pompoms and creating an atmosphere that Michigan Stadium hasn’t seen since its previous two “Under The Lights” affairs -- both wins against Notre Dame.
“That was awesome tonight,” center Jack Miller said. “We feed off that kind of stuff. We love it.”
The buzz inside the Big House continued during halftime with a well-orchestrated light show from the Michigan marching band. Former players lined the team's walk to its locker room earlier in a show of support. Brandon’s attempts to add new life to the storied old stadium finally struck the right chord with a student body and alumni that has grown tired with his previous gimmicks.
“We try to create a spectacle,” Brandon said following the game. “It’s a great stadium and when you light it up, that’s what it is -- a spectacle.”
When the sun rises Sunday morning, Michigan will still have a losing record. The prospects of a bowl game will still be dim. Its team will still be plagued with the same problems that have caused it to stumble more often that not this season. The offense still struggled to run the ball consistently against Penn State. Gardner still threw an interception. Hoke and Brandon will still be climbing a steep, uphill battle to restore their reputations and save their jobs.
Two weeks from now, after a bye, the Wolverines face in-state rival Michigan State -- a Big Ten power with the potential to wipe clean the memories of this weekend’s spectacle.
Still, Hoke and Brandon should savor the moment. Both men might not be around for more nights like this in Ann Arbor. If this is indeed their final season as Michigan men, at least they got a taste of what they expected at the start of a promising relationship. They showcased a tough team on a glitzy stage Saturday -- a vision realized if only for one night.
1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.
3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.
4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.
5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.