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Week 12 Rewind: Final Thoughts on Northwestern's 23-20 Victory Over Michigan State and a Look around the Big Ten

Rebounding after a devastating loss to Michigan, a process Pat Fitzgerald said began "when we got back off the bus from Ann Arbor a week ago", was arguably Northwestern's toughest challenge of the season. They emerged with a 23-20 win to push their record to 8-3 (4-3 Big Ten), with the rivalry game against Illinois next week to close out the regular season. Check out our final thoughts on Northwestern's 23-20 victory, plus some of our observations from the rest of the Big Ten.

Final Thoughts on Northwestern's Win

Adapting On Offense

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

In case you needed proof that Northwestern can win games without a strong running game, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian delivered that Saturday afternoon by completing 26 of 43 passing attempts for 246 yards and a touchdown and zero interceptions. After Venric Mark went down with an “upper extremity” injury in the first half and didn’t return the rest of the game, the Wildcats dialed up an effective contingency plan to make up for the loss of their best offensive player.

Northwestern had relied on Mark all season as their go-to ball-carrier. He was their sparkplug, both in special teams and the running games. Losing him posed a fundamental challenge to the Wildcats’ offensive creativity. Mark’s injury could have disrupted the offense and ruined Northwestern’s chances of sneaking out of East Lansing with their second Big Ten road win. The Wildcats had other plans.

Adapt and survive. Northwestern went to the air against the Big Ten’s best defense. It was the first time all season that the Wildcats recalled their 2011 roots, when passing was the modus operandi, and the run game was but a mere subsidiary function of the offense. Now without Mark, the passing game many hailed as the Big Ten’s best entering this season was put to the test. Both Colter and Siemian struggled at times, but with the help of true freshman Dan Vitale, who broke out for nine catches and 110 yards Saturday, and a formidable effort from the offensive line – in particular Patrick Ward, who did a nice job reigning in 6-7, 278-pound defensive end and likely first-round draft pick William Gholston – the two quarterbacks pieced together one of their better performances of the season.

The way Mark has evolved into such an important component of this offense, it would have seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago that Northwestern could put up 23 points against one of the nation’s best defenses with Mark accounting for just seven yards on six touches. Mark’s loss was a blow, but Northwestern found other ways to advance the offense, and that bodes well for its offensive versatility going forward.

The Jared Carpenter Show

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

I'll admit it: when we wrote our Northwestern secondary preview this fall, Jared Carpenter was nowhere to be found. We didn't even have him on the two-deeps. However, the Wildcats' senior safety earned a starting spot halfway through the season, beating out Davion Fleming and Jimmy Hall for that spot. Now, Carpenter has been one of the bright spots on the NU secondary, playing alongside Ibraheim Campbell to form a solid safety duo.

Saturday, Carpenter was all over the field, recording 9 tackles, 2 pass break-ups and an interception. He was also responsible for punching the ball out on fourth down of Michigan State's last drive, sealing the win for the Wildcats. The week before against Michigan, he punched the ball out deep in NU territory to force a fumble and possibly save a touchdown. Turnovers win games on the road, and while NU was just 1-1 in that stretch, the Michigan game could have been a lot worse and the Michigan State game could have gone the other way without Carpenter on the field.

Carpenter has gained inspiration from Charles "Peanut" Tillman of the Chicago Bears this year after Tillman gained national attention for punching the ball out to force turnovers — the "Peanut Punch," as they like to say. He's learned well, it seems, and he's come up big over the past two games.

Around the Big Ten

A Meyer-Led Ohio State Is A Scary Concept for the Rest of the Big Ten

by Chris Johnson

When Ohio State announced its hiring of Urban Meyer last November, I envisioned a steady rise to national relevance. The Buckeyes, with Meyer’s recruiting prowess and national championship pedigree, would become the class of the Big Ten and compete for league championships on an annual basis. Only I never thought the Buckeyes could complete their ascent this quickly, this early into Meyer’s tenure.

The Buckeyes won’t play in the Big Ten championship game this year, but that’s only because they’re legally barred from doing so. Had Ohio State taken its lumps and self-imposed a one-year bowl last season for the Terrelle Pryor tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, the Buckeyes may have evaded an NCAA postseason ban for this season, and would likely be on track for a slot in the National Championship game.

And to think: this is Meyer’s first year in Columbus. He’s not yet had a chance to replenish the recruiting ranks, nor fully implement his complex spread system, nor learn the Big Ten landscape and the different challenges each team poses. Yet he’s already commanding the league like an established veteran. Ohio State will enter next season as the frontrunner to win the Big Ten. With quarterback Braxton Miller continuing to get better, and Meyer’s team growing more comfortable with his coaching style, the Buckeyes are poised for another dominant season. And while the short-term outlook is bright, Ohio State has the potential to be even more dangerous in the long run.

In just one season, Meyer has given us a glimpse of the Buckeye-dominated future ahead. Once the two-time national championship-winning coach gets his hands on all the elite five star talent he needs to maximize his offensive and defensive paradigms – a spread option read attack lead by an athletic dual-threat qb, and a track-speed defense with numerous waves of elite pass rushers and linebackers – the Buckeyes will outclass the rest of the league. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Michigan or Wisconsin or even Northwestern has a brighter future in the land of Legends and Leaders. I just have a hard time imagining Ohio State not blowing by the rest of the Big Ten; it’s only year one, and the Buckeyes are far and away the league’s best team. What will Meyer’s teams look like five years down the road? The rest of the league does not want to find out.

Quarterback Woes

by Kevin Trahan

If you had told me before the season that Penn State's Matt McGloin and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez would be the Big Ten's leading passers, I would've thought you were crazy. My picks would have been Iowa's James Vandenberg and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, who seemed like the most polished passers heading into the season. However, Vandenberg and Maxwell have been incredibly bad this season, especially considering the high expectations they had going into the year.

Vandenberg's drop-off has perhaps been the most surprising, because we actually had a sample from last year to go off of. He was one of the better passers in the Big Ten last season and had rest arm strength to go along with solid accuracy. Late game heroics aside, he didn't cause much of a drop-off from from Ricky Stanzi the previous season. However, Vandenberg has regressed significantly this season, and it's hard to pinpoint why. Marvin McNutt, his top receiver last year, was clearly more valuable than we thought, and the change to Greg Davis as offensive coordinator likely had something to do with it, but it's hard to figure out how Vandenberg could have possibly regressed this far. His confidence is shaken, and this week's game against Nebraska is his last chance for at least a little bit of redemption.

Maxwell hadn't gotten much experience before this year, but he was a four-star recruit, and many people figured he would pick up right where Kirk Cousins left off. While I thought Maxwell would be one of the better passers in the league — mainly due to the Big Ten's lack of great passers — I was skeptical, as high star ratings don't always produce great players. Michigan State fans found that out the hard way, as Maxwell has struggled mightily this year. Granted, like Vandenberg, he hasn't gotten a lot of help, but he has been way too inaccurate for the hype he had coming into the year.

It's tough to know what to make of Maxwell and Vandenberg's struggles. The lack of a supporting cast certainly hurts, but they've both struggled to make routine throws. In football, you can't take anything for granted. Not even a quarterback that you think can do no wrong.

Around the Big Ten – Previewing Three Games Next Week

by Chris Johnson

Michigan at Ohio State – Bowl season begins early in Columbus with “The Game”, the best rivalry in the Big Ten and one of the best in all of college football. The Michigan-OSU clash is an enormous event in any given year. This year, it has added importance. With no postseason to play for, Ohio State views this game as their Super Bowl. Michigan’s offense has struggled for much of this season, but Devin Gardner has provided a boost at quarterback. The Heisman Trophy window was cracked open by Kansas State’s loss to Baylor Saturday; Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller can make a strong push with a spotlight performance against the Wolverines.

Michigan State at Minnesota – Questions lingered in the preseason about Michigan State’s offensive viability following the departures of star quarterback Kirk Cousins and receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Even so, I have a hard time believing many people predicted the Spartans would find themselves in the do-or-die position they face Saturday at Minnesota. Lose this game, and Michigan State, one of the favorites to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten championship game, will not play in a bowl game. Minnesota was beaten down at home by Nebraska, but is more than capable of pulling the upset against the Spartans. In just his second season on the job, Jerry Kill has the Gophers back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. A seven-win campaign is very much within the realm of possibility.

Wisconsin at Penn St. – This game means nothing in terms of postseason implications. Wisconsin is guaranteed a spot in the conference championship game. Penn State is ineligible thanks to an NCAA postseason ban. Still, the Badgers need to generate some momentum before traveling to Indianapolis to take on Nebraska for a chance to play in the Rose Bowl. The Huskers have hit their stride at the perfect time, their latest win a 38-14 obliteration of Minnesota. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has dropped two of their last three. And when you dig into the Badgers’ schedule, there’s not a quality win in sight. (Take your pick: Northern Iowa, Utah State, UTEP, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana.) Wisconsin will waltz into the league title game without beating anyone of consequence. A loss to Penn State Saturday would send the Badgers limping into the most important game of their season with little in the way of optimism or confidence. A win would give them a positive end-note on which to base their preparation for the showdown with the Huskers.

Around the Big Ten — Recapping Last Week

by Kevin Trahan

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 14 — Nebraska needed a win over Minnesota to stay in the driver's seat for the Big Ten Championship Game, and the Cornhuskers didn't leave anything to doubt, going ahead 38-0 before allowing two garbage time touchdowns. Taylor Martinez became the Big Ten's leading passer and the Nebraska defense, which was considered a weak spot early in the year, showed just how much it has improved. All Nebraska needs to head to Indianapolis is a victory over limping Iowa or a Michigan loss to Ohio State. Minnesota, meanwhile, took a step back after gaining some momentum earlier this month. However, a win against Michigan State in the final game of the season will give the Gophers a much better position in the bowl pecking order, so there is still a lot to play for.

Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT) — Like all Wisconsin-Ohio State games as of late, this was a classic that went down to the wire. Wisconsin drove down the field  late to send the game to overtime, but the Buckeyes scored first in OT and kept the Badgers out of the endzone. Wisconsin had a chance to tie the game with 2:46 left in regulation, but Montee Ball fumbled on the one-yard line of what would have been his NCAA record-breaking run. Though Wisconsin did score on its next drive, that was one of too many missed opportunities that sent the Badgers to 7-4 heading into the final game of the season at Penn State. Unless Wisconsin wins the Big Ten Championship Game, it could end up falling to the Gator or Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Ohio State, meanwhile, clinched the Leaders Division, despite not being able to play in the championship game. The Buckeyes still have slim hopes of winning an AP national title.

Michigan 42, Iowa 17 — Denard Robinson returned to action for part of this game, but Devin Gardner was the headliner. Gardner scored 6 touchdowns overall, as the Wolverines embarrassed an Iowa defense that left receivers wide open and struggled with tackling. The Hawkeyes' defense was solid earlier in the year, but it has unraveled, just like the rest of this team, which will fail to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2000. The Iowa offense struggled with an improved Michigan defense, as well, after gaining a little bit of momentum early in the game. Michigan kept its slim Legends Division hopes alive, but the Wolverines still need to beat Ohio State and have Nebraska lose to Iowa in order to make it to Indianapolis.