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Weekend Rewind, Week 12: Northwestern loses to Michigan

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern's 27-19 triple-OT loss to Michigan, here’s the 12th edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final Thoughts on NU

Does Northwestern have a shot next week against Michigan State?

Before this week’s game against Nebraska, Michigan State’s defense seemed to be creeping closer and closer to 2011 ‘Bama domination-level. The Spartans traveled to Lincoln Memorial Stadium having given up a paltry 3.47 yards per play and less than 50 rush yards per game. On Saturday, Nebraska rolled up 6.13 yards per play, 5.7 yards per rush and outgained the Spartans 392-361. Michigan State needed a fake field goal midway though the fourth quarter to go ahead by two scores and finally put the game out of reach. Maybe the Huskers didn’t beat the Spartans, but they did prove at least one thing: Michigan State’s defense is not invincible.

For all those ready to assume the Spartans’ defense will suffocate Northwestern’s offense in next week’s game in Evanston, ending the Wildcats’ chances of making the postseason – the same group who counted the Wildcats out in 2011 before they won at Nebraska – Saturday’s game in Lincoln should have grabbed your attention.

The Spartans’ defense remains one of the best in the country, and it’s not unreasonable to expect coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s crew to get back on track this week. But if Nebraska can find holes in Michigan State’s defense…can Northwestern? It’s not that simple. The Huskers’ offense is better than the Wildcats’. But maybe Nebraska discovered a weakness, something Northwestern can identify on tape. Or maybe Michigan State’s defense is wearing down.

Even if neither of those things are true, the sense Michigan State would come into Evanston and absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about it shut down Northwestern’s offense should be reevaluated. Michigan State has one of the best defenses in the country, but for one week at least, it looked merely good – not “one of the best in the country” good. Nebraska’s performance should give Northwestern confidence it will be able to move the ball against Michigan State. Doing everything else it needs to get a win (not self-destructing on the final play of regulation, limiting turnovers, etc.) is another matter entirely.

Being able to sustain drives and score points would be a step in the right direction for the (+ 7) Wildcats, obviously. Before last week, nobody would have thought Northwestern could do as much against Michigan State. 

- Chris Johnson

Northwestern has been unlucky, but there's more to that story

I'm reposting this from Saturday, because I've heard a lot of arguments from people who I think need to see this side of things:

Northwestern has been extremely unlucky this year. There’s no doubting that. From injuries to the Hail Mary against Nebraska to the last second field goal against Michigan, it’s been a rough year, and one in which the Wildcats likely won’t go bowling.

The typical response to this game was something to the tune of “that’s so Northwestern,” like some force of nature has it out for NU. Obviously, those comments are made tongue-in-cheek, but the idea that NU’s losses are due to unavoidable bad luck isn’t true.

You create your own luck to some extent, and the Wildcats have done a terrible job of doing that. The injuries are unavoidable (NU was actually extremely lucky, injury-wise, in 2012) but other things aren’t. Let’s start with this game: had NU not let Devin Gardner break two tackles on fourth-and-six, the Wolverines wouldn’t have been able to attempt a field goal. Had the Wildcats turned field goals into touchdowns, the field goal wouldn’t have mattered.

The same goes for the Nebraska and Iowa games. The Huskers wouldn’t have been able to attempt the Hail Mary if a receiver hadn’t broken tackles to convert a fourth-and-15. NU likely would have beaten Iowa if it hadn’t fumbled twice in Hawkeye territory (just once probably would have been fine).

This is at least a 7-3 caliber team, even including the injuries, that will likely miss a bowl game, and the advanced stats support that.

Unlucky? Sure. But Pat Fitzgerald always talks about his team controlling things they can control. That is where they’ve failed this season.

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Looking at Ohio State’s BCS title game chances

The latest edition of the BCS standings has Ohio State ranked third with an average score of 0.8869. Baylor (0.8856) is in fourth place. The Buckeyes had a larger lead (0.8926 to 0.8618) over the Bears in last week’s rankings (when Baylor was ranked 5th, behind Stanford), but Art Briles’ team has since closed the gap in the Harris and Coaches’ Polls after a convincing win over Texas Tech.

Ohio State’s win over Illinois Saturday seemed nearly as convincing to the objective observer – the Buckeyes were up 21-0 before most Illinois fans at Memorial Stadium had time to visit the concession stands – but apparently most poll voters didn’t agree. The AP voters (whose votes aren’t included in the BCS formula) were so impressed by Baylor’s 63-34 win in Arlington, they moved the Bears ahead of Ohio State in their latest poll.

Next week, Baylor faces a huge matchup at BCS No. 12 Oklahoma State. If the Bears win, there’s a good chance they will jump Ohio State in the BCS standings. Not only will beating a good team like the Cowboys boost Baylor’s computer numbers, poll voters will be even more impressed by Art Briles’ team than they were this week.

Meanwhile, Ohio State plays Indiana, who lost 51-3 at Wisconsin Saturday. Ohio State’s best bet is to absolutely obliterate the Hoosiers, score upwards of 60 points on them, then hope Michigan State keeps climbing in the BCS standings so that when these teams meet in the Big Ten title game, Ohio State can claim to have played a quality (hopefully top 10/12-ish) opponent in its last game of the season, which would bolster its argument to retake the No. 3 slot in the BCS standings.

This is all speculative right now: if Alabama and Florida State finish out undefeated, neither Ohio State nor Baylor will play in the national championship game. The importance of the No. 3 slot is being the next team in line if the Crimson Tide or Seminoles lose. College football has proven in recent years that crazy things can happen to national championship contenders in November. And it wouldn’t be shocking if the ‘Noles or the Tide unexpectedly fall.

That’s why the Buckeyes need to hold on to that No. 3 ranking. They might lose it next week. They might not (if Oklahoma State beats Baylor). After conference championship games, provided Michigan State keeps winning, Ohio State should be able to move ahead of the Bears in the BCS Standings (remember, the Big 12 does not play a conference championship game). That means, if one of the current top-two loses, the Buckeyes would be slotted into the national championship game.

- Chris Johnson

Where's the love for Wisconsin?

It's obvious that there's an anti-Big Ten bias among the voters right now. Some of that is well-deserved, while some of it is just ridiculous. People are far too quick to make excuses for teams like Alabama and Stanford, but blast teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Chris already covered the Ohio State issue above, and while it's ridiculous that people have a double standard with the schedule when comparing Ohio State and Baylor, the disrespect fir Wisconsin is even more amazing.

It's long been true that most voters either 1) follow the herd, or 2) don't actually vote with any knowledge other than game scores. With that in mind, maybe it isn't so crazy that Wisconsin is ranked 19th in the latest BCS Standings. But with a closer analysis, that ranking is absolutely ridiculous.

Wisconsin is 8-2 with a 7-point loss at No. 3 Ohio State and a "loss" at Arizona State that anyone who pays minimal attention to college football knows probably shouldn't have been a loss. The Badgers beat BYU and Iowa handily, showing off their defensive and offensive prowess, respectively. They beat Northwestern when the Wildcats weren't reeling, and they have absolutely crushed all the lesser teams in their path.

How on Earth is this team ranked 19th, below Northern Illinois, Fresno State and UCF? Because those teams have fewer losses? Well that argument hasn't always worked in Ohio State's favor.

If Wisconsin wins out, it absolutely should get the chance to at least play for a BCS Bowl — in my mind. the Badgers can play with anyone in the country, so let them prove it. Unfortunately, Gary Andersen's team might not get that chance. Good riddance, BCS (and to many of the voters). Wisconsin might play in the Big Ten, but it's also proven itself as a damn good football team. Those two things have never been mutually exclusive, and they aren't now, either.

- Kevin Trahan

Power rankings 

1. Ohio State – Yes, Illinois fought back to keep its game against the Buckeyes Saturday respectable. No, it never had a chance to win.

2. Wisconsin – It’s mystifying how poll voters continue to underrate Wisconsin (BCS No. 19). If not for that wacky ending in a week three, two-point loss at Arizona State, the Badgers would be taken much more seriously as a BCS at-large contender.

3. Michigan State – The defense didn’t play up to its typically mind-bogglingly dominant standards Saturday, but the Spartans still won an important game in an hostile environment (Lincoln Memorial Stadium).

4. Minnesota – It’s been a good run for the Gophers. Over the past four weeks, this team has transformed from “nice story” to “legitimately good.” Unfortunately for Minnesota, its four-game winning streak will almost certainly end Saturday when it hosts Wisconsin.

5. Iowa – Last week, the Hawkeyes secured bowl eligibility by dominating Purdue. In their final two weeks of the season, they can make their case for something better than the Heart of Dallas or Texas bowls by beating Michigan at home and Nebraska on the road.

6. Nebraska – I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Nebraska – even in defeat – was able to sustain drives and put up points (28) against Michigan State’s defense.

7. Michigan – As the guys on the Solid Verbal like to say, Michigan’s mantra for 2013 should be the following: doing less with more.

8. Penn State – This season hasn’t turned out the way most Penn State fans probably expected, but the Nittany Lions, undefeated at home this season, are capable of knocking off Nebraska in Happy Valley Saturday to move to 4-3 in Big Ten play.

9. Northwestern – It’s getting to the point where you almost expect Northwestern to unravel in the final minutes of games. Maybe the Wildcats will have the lead late in the fourth quarter against MSU. If they do, don’t expect them to win.

10. Indiana – No one expected Indiana to have a good run defense this season. But allowing 554 yards on the ground, as the Hoosiers did Saturday against Wisconsin, requires almost unforeseen levels of ineptitude.

11. Illinois – On Saturday, Illinois fought back from a 21-0 deficit to pull within 12 of Ohio State midway through the fourth quarter. At least this team hasn’t totally mailed it in.

12. Purdue – In a season rife with misery, it must have been encouraging for Purdue fans to watch quarterback Danny Etling throw for 223 yards and a touchdown. Impressive though it was, Etling's performance doesn’t guarantee he won’t lose his job next season to incoming freshman David Blough.