A 7-1 start, prominent position in the Legends division title hunt and a big reputation boost fell out of NU's grasp in the fourth quarter when Nebraska stormed back from a 12-point lead to steal a 29-28 win at Ryan Field. Take in our final thoughts on the Wildcats' disappointing loss, plus a look around the Big Ten and a brief preview of three of next week's biggest Big Ten games.
Final Thoughts on Northwestern's 29-28 loss to Nebraska
Shades of last year’s secondary
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Defending the pass was Northwestern’s biggest weakness last season. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten in that category, giving up an average of 230.4 yards per game, and figured to be even worse in 2012 with the departures of safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin. The lone returning starter, Ibraheim Campbell, went part and parcel with the year-long pass defense breakdown, even if he did make major strides as the season rolled on. Heading into this season, Campbell established himself as the leader of the defensive backfield, a group with three new starters and just one combined year of starters experience. It looked like a recipe for disaster, and the Syracuse game, in which NU yielded 482 yards through the air, confirmed those fears. But the secondary quickly eliminated the belief – one relayed with alarming prevalence on Twitter – that the season-opener presaged another league-worst pass defense. Aside from second half of the Penn State game, the secondary, led by Campbell’s leadership and instinctual play, has done more than expected. It’s been a pleasant surprise.
What Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense did Saturday in ripping the Wildcats for 342 passing yards and three touchdowns was knock the secondary’s remarkable progression into harsh perspective. T-Magic found receivers running into swaths of open space, lofted passes over defensive backs and found seams in the middle of the field. The confusion and disarray invited strong comparisons to last season, and the final result, like so many in 2011 where opposing signal-callers had big passing games against the Wildcats, was an unfavorable one for NU. One bad game doesn’t necessarily mean the secondary will regress to its former self; it just shows there’s work to be done still before the youth and inexperience coalesces into a truly reliable unit. The good news is NU won’t face an elite passer the rest of the season. Martinez isn’t exactly an excellent thrower, mind you, but he’s improved his delivery and accuracy consistently and is well capable of picking apart Big Ten secondaries. NU can recover from Saturday’s debacle; just as it did after week 1. Whether it will, and where coordinator Mike Hankwitz will look to make adjustments, are open questions.
What happened to the receivers?
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Most people will put Saturday's loss on Trevor Siemian's inability to make enough throws — well, that coupled with the offensive gameplan. Siemian certainly deserves his share o the blame, going 15-for-35 for 116 yards in a less-than-impressive performance that followed up similarly unimpressive games against Minnesota and Penn State. While I fully believe that Northwestern needs to hand the reigns of the offense back to Kain Colter, the wide receivers aren't doing Siemian any favors. This is a unit that was considered one of the best receiving corps in the conference coming into the season, but it has turned out to be one of the worst, failing to separate from defensive backs and dropping passes. Dropping passes, especially, is unacceptable, considering we're now eight weeks into the season.
When anointing this group the Big Ten's best earlier in the year, we overlooked one key thing — this group doesn't have a No. 1 receiver. Sure, Demetrius Fields sort of qualifies in that category, but he's not a big-play receiver who is a clear go-to guy. In fact, NU doesn't have any receiver that it can turn to in crunch time. The Wildcats have a number of solid possession receivers, but no big-play guys. Separation has been a big issues for the receivers, who have been running "go" routes, but don't get enough space from defenders. NU's receivers are shiftier and may benefit more from crossing patterns than go routes, but regardless, something needs to change — be it the play-calling or just the execution — for the passing game to be successful. It's a two-way street, and the wide receivers need to do their part in helping out the quarterback.
Around the Big Ten
Legends Division race not over yet
by Chris Johnson
Last week, I adopted the conclusive mindset that both division races were, by all accounts, finished. Wisconsin had dominated Purdue, the only eligible Leaders team with any real hopes of blocking a third consecutive Badgers invite to the conference championship game. That much remains true; Wisconsin is almost guaranteed a shot at the league title in Indianapolis. As for the Legends division, nothing is guaranteed.
Sure, Michigan looks like the favorite, and it got a key win over rival Michigan State Saturday. But it was by no means the kind of resounding victory the Wolverines needed to cement their division superiority. The Spartans hung around well into the fourth quarter, shut down the Wolverines offense and proved that Michigan, when physically challenged, is vulnerable. A team like Nebraska, who gets Michigan at home next week, is more than capable of inflicting the Wolverines’ first conference loss and moving into a tie for first place. Even Northwestern or Iowa, both of whom must travel to Ann Arbor, can at least keep it interesting. This is nothing earth shattering; we knew Michigan wasn’t the top-10 squad many predicted before this season. The weekend’s events just reinforced the Wolverines’ tenuous grip on the Division lead.
The Leaders may be a foregone conclusion. The Legends, however, still has plenty of title race-altering contests left on the docket. Michigan will remain part of that race right until the end, but it’ll have to fight tooth and nail to secure the division crown.
Purdue being Purdue
After Braxton Miller went out against Purdue, with the Boilermakers holding an 8-point lead, I told a friend next to me that Purdue would still probably lose. I was half-kidding, but really, I was serious. Nevermind that it looked like Ohio State couldn't complete a pass. Nevermind that all Purdue had to do was not shoot itself in the foot. Shooting themselves in the foot is what the Boilermakers do best, so the Buckeye's miraculous comeback was really not all that miraculous. Purdue had Purdue'd away another game; nothing new here.
Northwestern fans like to complain that their team is the best at blowing big leads, but in reality, it's nothing compared to what Purdue does to itself. The Boilermakers seemingly find a way to blow every big game they're in, and Saturday was no exception. Purdue was considered a possible Leaders Division sleeper this year, but who were we kidding? Sure, the Boilermakers have more talent than normal, but it's still not an ultra-talented team, and it's apparently still a team that can't make big plays late in the game. So the next time you see some future NFL players on the Boilermakers' defense and want to declare them "finally for real," remember Saturday, and remember that Purdue will almost certainly "Purdue" its season away.
Around the Big Ten -- Recapping the week's Biggest games
by Kevin Trahan
Michigan 12, Michigan State 10 — Michigan State has clearly been the disappointment of the Big Ten so far, as the Spartans fell to 4-4 and 1-3 in the Big Ten. This was Michigan's first win in five years in the series, and although it was ugly, the Wolverines snuck one out with a 38-yard field goal from Brendan Gibbons with five seconds left. Michigan improved to 3-0 in the conference and heads into a huge game in Lincoln next week that could end up being the de facto Big Ten title game when it's all said and done. Michigan State, meanwhile, could struggle to even make a bowl game. The Spartans still have to play at Wisconsin and Minnesota and get Nebraska and Northwestern at home. The Badgers and Huskers will almost certainly be favored against the Spartans, while NU definitely has the capability of taking down MSU, keeping coach Mark Dantonio and company home for bowl season, capping off a very disappointing year.
Penn State 38, Iowa 14 — Remember how Iowa beat Michigan State in East Lansing last week to jump into the Legends Division conversation? Remember how the Hawkeyes rarely lose home night games? Well, that Iowa team was nowhere to be found on Saturday, as the Hawkeyes were walloped by Penn State, 38-14, in their primetime, spotlight game of the season. We knew Iowa had issues in the passing game, but now there might more, as star offensive tackle Brandon Scherff will now be out for the season. At 4-3, the Hawkeyes control their own destiny, but this two-game stretch at Northwestern and Indiana will be crucial in determining if they even make a bowl. Penn State, meanwhile, showed that it is the hottest team in the Big Ten and got its fifth straight win this weekend. Now, the Nittany Lions go home for a huge game against Ohio State that could decide the Leaders Division champion. You've got to hand it to quarterback Matt McGloin, who looks like the most improved player in the Big Ten, and coach Bill O'Brien, who seems like a runaway candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Ohio State 29, Purdue 22 (OT) — We went over this earlier in the column, as Purdue "Purdue'd" away a game it had all but wrapped up against an inexperience quarterback. After Braxton Miller went down, junior Kenny Guiton came in and led a touchdown drive and two-point conversion with three seconds left to tie the game. Then he helped lead his team to a touchdown in the first overtime, and that's all the Buckeyes needed to seal the win. Ohio State's win makes next week's game at Penn State even more exciting and keeps the Buckeyes undefeated in a surprisingly successful first year under Urban Meyer. The biggest win for the Buckeyes: they'll likely have Miller back, as he was cleared and released from the hospital. Purdue, meanwhile, fell to 3-4 on the year and 0-3 in the conference in a year that many people picked the Boilermakers to be a sleeper in the Big Ten. They have virtually no chance of winning the division now and need to focus on even becoming bowl eligible. The good news for Danny Hope's squad is that, while they still have to face Iowa on the road and Penn State at home, wins against Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana can get them to bowl eligibility.
Around the Big Ten – Three Big Games to Look Forward to
by Chris Johnson
Michigan at Nebraska – With massive Legends division implications hanging in the balance, Nebraska needs to carry momentum from Saturday’s win at NU into a crucial home test against the Wolverines. If you’re a fan of pro-style passers, I recommend another game for your Saturday night college football viewing, because neither Taylor Martinez nor Denard Robinson bring any semblance of desirable mechanical function on their throwing motions. These dual-threat QBs’ passing attempts are best described as “arm punts”, though I give a slight edge to Martinez based off the improvements he made over the offseason and the 342-yard game he reeled off against NU. The Huskers offense has been the story so far this season, but the defense looked strong against the Wildcats. Robinson has struggled mightily against good defenses (See: Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan State), so if Nebraska can conjure up its blackshirt past, the Wolverines may not be able to keep up with Martinez and his explosive receivers.
Michigan State at Wisconsin – The two games these teams produced last season, one decided on a last-second Hail Mary, the other a critical roughing the punter penalty, provide reason unto themselves to believe this year’s rendition will feature an entertaining brand of football. While both teams haven’t lived up to their preseason hype levels, there is plenty of talent for both squads on both sides of the ball, talent that tends to wake up in the biggest moments. The Spartans in particular need a signature win to get their season back on track. Following Saturday’s loss in Ann Arbor, which dropped Michigan State’s conference record to 1-3, stealing a win at likely Leaders champion Wisconsin could spark a strong finish to its season. The Badgers don’t technically need to win this game, but this cross-divisional rivalry is always a hard-fought battle of late, no matter the stakes. Bret Bielema will have his team rearing to go against arguably the league’s best defense.
Ohio State at Penn State – As postseason significance goes, this game will have no bearing on what happens in December and January. Both teams are ineligible for the bowl season as well as the conference championship game. It’s a darn shame, because it’s entirely possible these two teams are the Big Ten’s best. Penn State, after starting out 0-2, has won five straight, including a convincing, 38-14, decision at Iowa. Meanwhile, Ohio State, who was nearly caught napping at home against Purdue, managed to overcome an injury to do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller to steal an overtime victory from the spunky Boilermakers. Miller left the hospital “symptom-free” Saturday, and all indications point to him being ready to go for Saturday’s “ineligibowl.” The Nittany Lions boast a skilled quarterback of their own in Matt McGloin, who ranks second in the Big Ten with 257.1 passing yards per game and 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Though a slot in the league title game is by definition an impossibility for either team, there’s plenty of competitive pride on the line. It’s also worth noting that, thanks to a quirky legislative loophole that allows ineligible Big Ten teams to win division titles, even if unable to participate in the conference championship game, the victor will gain the inside track on a division title.