The bye week gives Northwestern two weeks to prepare for Saturday's game at Michigan. Meanwhile, the Wolverines throttled Minnesota, 35-13, in a nice momentum-building effort before welcoming NU to Ann Arbor. What follows is our bye-week thoughts on NU and a look around the Big Ten.
What is Northwestern’s Best Win?
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Saturday’s results – namely, Indiana’s 24-21 home win over Iowa brought this question – to my attention. After poring over Northwestern’s schedule, and digging through the track records of its opponents, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Wildcats’ best win is Indiana. Arguments can be made for Iowa (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) or Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3 SEC) or Minnesota (5-4, 1-4 Big Ten), but none of those teams have done anything particularly special so far this season. That’s not to say Indiana has put together a BCS-worthy season – victories over Illinois and Iowa doesn’t exactly constitute a sterling resume. The Hoosiers have won consecutive Big Ten games, and lost their three games prior by a combined eight points. Since its 44-29 defeat at Ryan Field, Indiana has played all of its opponents close, and its latest two victories are a well-deserved reward. More importantly, the Hoosiers find themselves in position to make a run at the Leaders Division crown if they can beat Wisconsin at home next weekend.
There’s no question this has been a positive season for Indiana. The Hoosiers have proven they can no longer be viewed as a mere bye-week in the Big Ten schedule. Northwestern was the last team to beat Indiana comfortably, and that win looks better and better with each passing week. It’s still not a good win, nor will it prevent criticisms against Northwestern’s schedule strength. If Indiana is your best win, no matter how much they’ve improved this season, you really haven’t beaten anyone. No offense, Hoosiers, but you’re not exactly helping Northwestern’s chances of breaking into the top 25. All of this can change if the Wildcats can knock off Michigan in Ann Arbor next week. Until then, I’ll reserve judgment on NU’s 7-2 start.
Northwestern Fans and Bowl Selection
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
The common theme when projecting Northwestern's bowls for the past few years has been the same: NU will likely end up with a worse bowl game than it deserves, mainly because the fan base is so fall. As history has shown, that kind of thing clearly happens, with the biggest example coming in 2008, when the Outback Bowl selected 8-4 Iowa over 9-3 NU, even though the Wildcats had beaten the Hawkeyes in Iowa City that year. The Gator Bowl reaffirmed the theory last week, as the bowl's president said they would rather not take Northwestern. However, we spoke to Matt Repchak of the Capital One Bowl, and he said the bowl wouldn't shy away from NU. Here are some snippets:
"Every time Northwestern comes up among our selection committee, the first thing that Steve Hogan (the CEO), or the other leaders who have been around for awhile, have said is (Northwestern) did a great job when they came here in 1997."
"There is not — at least among the selection committee in Orlando — there is not a negative perception of Northwestern’s travel capabilities, or of fan excitement. I think, if they were available to us, they would be an attractive option."
Repchak also said that the perception NU doesn't travel well persists "despite performances to the contrary." Even so, he said the strength of the matchup and the strength of the teams are the top considerations, and if there are two Big Ten teams with fairly even resumes available, then travel comes into the equation. This isn't to say NU would be chosen over Michigan or that the Wildcats travel as well as Michigan — they don't. However, don't count NU out just yet, especially considering that the bowl might be forced to take the Cats no matter what. If NU wins out, it will be 10-2, and the Capital One Bowl can't take a team with two losses more than one already on the board — in this case, that could mean 8-4 Michigan or Wisconsin.
It will be interesting to see how the selection process plays out, and NU needs to take care of business first and foremost, but there's definitely a chance the Cats could end up in Orlando this bowl season, even if a team that is perceived to have a better traveling fan base is within one loss of them.
Around the Big Ten
The Big Ten’s Most Disappointing Team
by Chris Johnson
With just two games to play, Michigan State has not yet reached the six-win threshold required for bowl eligibility. That is a sobering reality for a team who, lest we forget, was being propped up in the preseason as a potential National Championship contender. The large majority of that praise centered on the defense, and the Spartans have indeed lived up on that side of the ball; they rank first in the Big Ten in most of the major categories, including yards per play (4.28), total defense (267. 4 yards per game) and rushing defense (91.22). The offense has been a completely different story. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell, a three-year veteran of former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins’ tutelage, has improved since the beginning of the season, but on the whole been a disappointment. Le’Veon Bell ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (117.89), but he’s needed an enormous amount of carries (27.44) – over three more than any other Big Ten back – to sustain that pace.
The crux of the Spartans’ problems is difficult to pin down. The offense has not played with the same week in-week out consistency the defense has exhibited, but that doesn’t feel like the main culprit. To me, the Spartans’ problems have just as much to do with the mental aspects of the game as they do the physical ones. Four of Michigan State’s losses have been decided by four or fewer points. Its one convincing defeat came against undefeated Notre Dame. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting Michigan State should have won all of those close games. Good teams thrive under pressure, and the Spartans have done just the opposite. Michigan State is in good position to secure bowl eligibility, but that’s a huge comedown from the BCS heights many envisioned before the season began. This season has been a huge disappointment for the Spartans. There’s no getting around it. My preseason Legends Division Champion pick is not nearly the team I expected.
An Open Letter to Mark Dantonio
by Kevin Trahan
Dear Mark Dantonio,
Saturday's game and aftermath were an embarrassment. No, not because of the final score — there's nothing to be embarrassed about when you lose to the likely Legends Division champion. What is embarrassing is how your team lost and how they handled the aftermath. After the loss, a number of Michigan State players took to Twitter to announce that the refs handed Nebraska the game after an admittedly bad pass interference call on the final drive. The Tweets were comical, are the best one had to be from star Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell, who claimed that MSU — yes, 5-5 MSU — only legitimately lost one game all year. Here's the tweet:
I expected all the hate, but idc... we legitimately lost ONE game this year... and that was Notre Dame! The black & white team beat us 4 times.
Oh, and this comes a few months after MSU players mocked Michigan and Denard Robinson for the Wolverines' loss to Alabama. Apparently they forgot when they lost 49-7 to Alabama two years ago in the Capital One Bowl. I don't like it when coaches ban their players from Twitter, but you, Mr. Dantonio, have to do something to get control of your team, because this is a complete embarrassment. Speaking of getting control of the team, if MSU hadn't had so many personal fouls and bonehead plays, maybe the Spartans would have actually won. In particular, there was a needless personal foul on an interception return for a touchdown, which would have all but sealed the deal.
It's fine to want to be known as a tough, physical team, but it's not good to be known as dirty more than it is for being a good team. That sounds a lot like a certain professional team in Michigan, which also sits at .500 and has underachieved.
Michigan State lost Nebraska on Saturday, and the call at the end of the game hurt the Spartans. But if MSU had been responsible earlier in the game, it wouldn't have even mattered. Even if the final score was all on the refs — its wasn't — the Twitter response was still unwarranted. That's on you, Mr. Dantonio. Get control of your team, or else a .500 record could become the norm, not a fluke bad season.
Around the Big Ten – Three Best Games from Last Week
by Kevin Trahan
Nebraska 28, Michigan State 24 — We discussed this one above, as Nebraska was helped at the end by a bad pass interference call. However, the Spartans had a 24-14 fourth quarter lead that could have been even more if not for bonehead personal foul penalties. Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers ran all over MSU to the tune of 313 yards, including 205 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns for Martinez. MSU's Le'Veon Bell also had a big day, accumulating 188 yards on the ground and two scores. The Spartans' defense came up with three interceptions, but it struggled once again in the fourth quarter. MSU dropped to 5-5, while Nebraska improved to 7-2 (4-1 in the Big Ten), slimming Northwestern's Legends Division title hopes even further.
Indiana 24, Iowa 21 — Indiana's improbable "run" stayed alive this week with a 24-21 come-from-behind win over Iowa. The Hawkeyes jumped out to an early 14-3 lead, but the Hoosiers battled back and their defense held on to keep a Big Ten title within reach. This week's game against Wisconsin in Bloomington could decide the Leaders Division, and while Indiana will surely be the underdog, the Hoosiers are much improved from earlier this season and could steal a win from a Badgers team that lacks any offensive consistency. Iowa, meanwhile, dropped its third straight game to fall to 4-5 and it looks like the wheels have fallen off for this season. The Hawkeyes don't look like they'll make a bowl — that will be just the second time since 2001 — having to win two out of three against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska.
Michigan 35, Minnesota 13 — Michigan came into this game fresh off a loss to Nebraska and without star quarterback Denard Robinson. Minnesota, meanwhile, had gained some momentum behind freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. That's why some people (including yours truly) picked Minnesota to pull off the upset. However, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner put together a surprisingly good performance and the Wolverines' defense handled the Gophers' offense. The most impressive part might have been the Gardner throw at the beginning of this highlight. Michigan now heads into a big game with Northwestern that could provide some clarity at the top of the bowl pecking order.
Around the Big Ten – Three Games to Watch Next Week
by Chris Johnson
Wisconsin at Indiana – Two weeks ago, Indiana was 0-3 in the Big Ten and 2-5 overall, coming off a one-point loss at Navy, their season seemingly lost. They’ve won two games since, and now find themselves very much alive in the Leaders race. If they beat Wisconsin, the Hoosiers control their own destiny in the division. The Badgers had built considerable momentum in recent weeks before losing at home in overtime against Michigan State. Indiana boasts the league’s third best offense (on a yards per play measure), but its been far less formidable on the other side of the ball, where the Hoosiers give up an average of 5.58 yards per play, good for 11th among Big Ten opponents. It feels weird to put “big game” and Indiana in the same sentence in a football context. This one qualifies, and it will have huge league championship implications.
Northwestern at Michigan – When Pat Fitzgerald suggested at Big Ten Media days that the conference use a selection committee to pick this season’s championship game participants, his words were met with widespread neglect. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a terrible idea. With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for the postseason, and Wisconsin doing everything in its power to screw up a golden opportunity, the path to Indianapolis from the Leaders Division is a cakewalk compared to the road through the Legends. A selection committee could have taken the Leaders teams’ built-in advantages into consideration, and selected the two best teams – discounting divisional alignments. Northwestern, at 7-2, likely needs to beat Michigan to stay alive in the division race. By comparison, 4-5 Indiana controls its own destiny in the Leaders and can pull into first place by beating Wisconsin this weekend. The Wolverines found themselves on offense in a 35-13 win at Minnesota Saturday, with wide receiver/quarterback Devin Gardner starting in lieu of the injured Denard Robinson. His 234-yard, two-touchdown day could shake up the quarterback situation in Ann Arbor. Is Robinson about to get (gasp!) benched?
Penn State at Nebraska – The Legends race is Nebraska’s to lose. If they can get by Penn State Saturday, the rest of their schedule – home against Minnesota, then at Iowa – is manageable. The Huskers’ season, thrown into flux after a devastating 63-38 loss at Ohio State, has changed course since the 29-28 win at Ryan Field. The road to Indianapolis is in clear sight, and barring a collapse, the Huskers should cruise the rest of the way. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has found his groove, the defense is improving, and the schedule shapes up nicely down the stretch. Just two years after joining the Big Ten, Nebraska has a prime opportunity to compete for a league title. This is an undeniably positive development for Nebraska fans. For Wildcats supporters, the feeling is one of regret. If only Northwestern could have hung on to that 12-point fourth quarter lead……..