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Weekend Rewind: week 10, Northwestern vs. Nebraska

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 27-24 loss to Nebraska, here’s the 10th edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

“I can play running back!” – Northwestern fans everywhere. 

This tweet you see below is probably the best explanation. Maybe Northwestern is cursed, afflicted by the same running back hating god that has haunted Iowa for years. Maybe the Wildcats are just unlucky. Or maybe, just maybe, injuries tend to be cyclical.

https://twitter.com/sippinonpurple/statuses/396024659407540224

If you have another theory to explain the depleted state of Northwestern’s running back position, by all means, post it in the comment section below. Because I’m sure Northwestern’s medical staff would like an explanation for how its running back corps, once considered one of Northwestern’s best and deepest position groups, has been whittled down to Treyvon Green and Tim Hanrahan. Green, who has made major strides this season (and came through in a big way Saturday), was practically an afterthought entering this season, overlooked following a disappointing 2012, glossed over amid the Venric Mark hype. Maybe the most notable thing about Hanrahan, meanwhile, was that he earned the right to wear the honorary No. 1 jersey donned by lightsaber-wielding cult hero Bo Cisek last season, or that he specialized in signaling to kick returners when they were supposed to knee the ball in the endzone.

Saturday’s excruciating loss to Nebraska – in which Northwestern watched redshirt freshman tailback Stephen Buckley suffer what appeared to be a serious knee injury, and the Wildcats, at one point, were down to their sixth running back (Hanrahan) – presents the possibility (or likelihood) that both players could play huge roles in Northwestern’s rushing attack over the final three games of the season. Hanrahan might not see many carries right away, but if Green – who left Saturday’s game in the third quarter with a leg injury – happens to suffer another injury, the junior walk-on could quickly eclipse the eight-carry total he logged last season.

Redshirt freshman Malin Jones, who was switched to superback a few weeks ago, could be another option. “Yeah, he’s definitely an option, there’s no question about that. But for the gameplan, we didn’t want to overload him,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald at Saturday’s post-game press conference.

It’s not clear whether any of Northwestern’s four injured running backs – Trumpy, freshman Warren Long, Mark (probably not) or Buckley (extremely doubtful) – will come back this season. The Wildcats have not been anywhere near as healthy this season as they were in 2012, and no position has been hurt more by injuries than running back. At this point, calling Northwestern’s football office and uttering the bolded quote above might not seem like such a bad idea. Running backs coach Matt MacPherson might actually listen.

- Chris Johnson

A look at the future of the defense

For all intents and purposes, this season is over for Northwestern. Sure, the Wildcats could still manage to make it to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but that's not a goal that anyone aspires to. After the injuries, offensive woes and a fluke Hail Mary — en route to a 4-5 record — it's time to at least start talking about next season.

Next year's offense is full of question marks. Who will be the quarterback? Will Venric Mark be back? Can the offensive line improve? It's all a mystery right now, and frankly, it's not worth debating, because nobody really knows. However, next year's defense could be something special, and that has been especially evident over the past three weeks, as playmakers have started to step up.

Northwestern's defense has struggled to catch up to its offense over the years, but after a few solid years of recruiting, the defense now has the athletes to keep up. Next year's unit loses two full-time starters in Tyler Scott and Damien Proby, and a part-time starter in Will Hampton. All three are good players, but NU has more than enough depth to replace them. A position-by-position look:

Defensive line: The tackles are still a work in progress and will be the biggest question mark on the defense, once again. However, Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly are both back, and the Wildcats got some nice contributions from Max Chapman against Nebraska. If he and C.J. Robbins can develop into consistently good defensive tackles, that group will get back on track. The ends, on the other hand, will be the team's strength. Losing Tyler Scott hurts a little, but the Wildcats are stacked enough at defensive end to soften the blow. Dean Lowry has proven himself as a solid starter, while Ifeadi Odenigbo has turned into an outstanding pass rusher. Once he adds more weight, he could be an every-down defensive end. And don't forget about Deonte Gibson — NU will really have three starters at defensive end next year.

Linebacker: Don't expect the linebackers to miss much of a beat next year after losing Damien Proby. Collin Ellis can slide into the Mike spot, while Chi Chi Ariguzo will stay at Will and Drew Smith will slide in at Sam. The youngsters are worth watching, too. Joseph Jones showed flashes in spring practice, while true freshman Anthony Walker Jr. has the potential to be a good player down the road.

Secondary: Everyone is back. The safeties will be great again and the corners can take a step up now that freshmen Mat Harris and Dwight White have another year under their belt. Both played great against Nebraska in the absence of Nick VanHoose (he has two more years after this season) and can help make this the best NU secondary of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

We'll talk a lot more about next year's defense once the season is actually over, but no matter what happens against Michigan, remember that the future is bright, at least on one side of the ball.

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Michigan State-Ohio State could be a lot of fun 

Poking fun at Michigan State’s offense was starting to feel like a natural part of the college football fan experience. The Spartans were so laughably bad watch on offense over the last season and a half, it almost didn’t even matter whether they won or lost. That’s the way most people framed it, at least. Michigan State’s defense is great, but so what! Its quarterback can’t complete a pass! Get Kirk Cousins another year of eligibility before I permanently cancel my subscription to the Big Ten Network! 

None of those jokes seem quite as funny anymore. Not after Michigan State, in one of the most impressive defensive performances in all of college football this season, held Michigan to -48 rushing yards and allowed just 168 total yards on 2.8 yards per play in a 29-6 win at Spartan Stadium. The best way to illustrate how dominating MSU’s win was involves some version of the following analogy: Michigan State broke Michigan’s will, banished Brady Hoke’s team to “the worst hell on earth” and the Wolverines, wallowing in frustration, couldn’t conjure up the Bruce Wayne-like determination required to climb out.

Michigan State’s smothering performance was impressive in its own right, but it should also strike fear into Ohio State. The running assumption with the Buckeyes this season is that they would trounce every Big Ten team standing in their way, championship game opponent included, en route to a possible berth in the BCS National Championship game. And make no mistake, Ohio State is definitely starting to look the part. The Buckeyes have beaten their last two opponents, Penn State and Purdue, by a combined score of 119-14. Braxton Miller is playing like the Heisman candidate everyone thought he would be at the beginning of the season. Tackling tailback Carlos Hyde is more frightening than, well, actually getting tackled.

I don’t see the Buckeyes stumbling between now and the rest of the season – especially not after the way Michigan looked Saturday – so we can probably pencil the Buckeyes in to a spot in the conference championship game. But if everyone believed Ohio State would merely walk over its title game opponent, on Saturday Michigan State proved, in emphatic fashion, precisely why that line of thinking is at best premature, and at worst completely misguided.

The upshot for Ohio State is that Michigan State, if it stays unbeaten the rest of the season en route to a Legends Division crown, could give the Buckeyes the marquee win they need to convince poll voters they belong in the national championship game (not to mention the boost to the strength of schedule component baked into the BCS formula). For Michigan State, it would be a chance to not only knock off the team most people suspect will – with Urban Meyer’s recruiting prowess at its back – reign over the Big Ten for years to come, but also earn the program’s first Rose Bowl invitation since 1988.

That would be a great title game.

- Chris Johnson

Minnesota magic

This won't be long, since we've already covered this at length, but Minnesota did it again. After starting the Big Ten season off with bad losses to Iowa and Michigan, the Wolverines suddenly find themselves at 3-2 in the conference, with wins against Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. Of course, there are some caveats here. Northwestern is reeling, Nebraska hasn't been very good and Indiana is, well, Indiana. But Minnesota at 3-2 in the Big Ten? That's impressive.

Even after the wins against Northwestern and Nebraska, it was evident that people didn't believe in the Gophers. They were listed as nine-point underdogs to Indiana. That's the best example you can find of a lack of respect.

Minnesota jumped out to a 35-13 lead against the Hoosiers and appeared to silence the critics, only to "Gopher" the game away and give Indiana a 39-35 lead. However, then something strange happened — the Gophers didn't "Gopher" the game! They took the lead back, going up 42-39, then recovered an Indiana fumble to win the game. It wasn't pretty, but it was a win, and now Minnesota sits with a 7-2 record and a winnable game against Penn State coming up. That game is followed by games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, but 8-4 is entirely doable. That's pretty incredible.

I'm a Baltimore Orioles fan, so I feel like it's fair to equate this Minnesota season with Baltimore's miracle year in 2012. The Gophers have gotten a lot of breaks and a lot of opponents at the right time, but they're certainly on the upswing. You may not see another jump next year — in fact, Minnesota will probably take a step back in 2014. However, if the Gophers can build off this season from a recruiting and perception standpoint, the future doesn't look as grim as it has over the past decade.

- Kevin Trahan

Power Rankings 

1. Ohio State – The scarlet and gray monolith keeps winning, the latest a 56-0 thrashing of Purdue, and so it shall remain atop the power rankings.

2. Wisconsin – This placement might be slightly controversial, given Michigan State’s eye-opening performance in the Big Ten’s marquee matchup of the weekend, but the Badgers’ 28-9 win at Iowa was arguably just as impressive.

3. Michigan State – The Spartans’ defense is the best unit in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the country.

4. Minnesota – Who would have thought Minnesota, picked to finish last in the Legends Division in the Big Ten’s preseason media poll, would make it this high in the power rankings at any point this season?

5. Nebraska – Thanks to a play the vast majority of people reading this site would rather me not talk about, the Huskers remain in the hunt for a Big Ten championship. They also get division leader Michigan State at home in two weeks.

6. Michigan – Losing 29-6 to a state rival is humiliating and demoralizing. It feels even worse when one of your players labels the opponent “little brother” and then has his words thrown right back in his face.

7. Penn State – I don’t really know what to make of the Nittany Lions. Over the past month, Bill O’Brien’s team has beaten Michigan and Illinois in overtime and been blown out by Indiana and Ohio State. Huh?

8. Iowa – If Iowa had a reasonably good offense, it might be a good team. That notion is tough to reconcile, though, when the Hawkeyes give up 28 points to Wisconsin while holding the Badgers’ two best offensive players, wide receiver Jordan Abbrederis and running back Melvin Gordon, to a combined 103 yards of total offense.

9. Northwestern – There’s no other way to put it: this is not Northwestern’s year. The Wildcats have now lost three consecutive games by seven points or less and the injuries continue to pile up. Winning at least two of the next three games to become bowl eligible would be a nice way to close an otherwise disappointing season.

10. Indiana – The most heartbreaking loss of the week award goes to Northwestern. Hands down. Indiana’s catastrophic last-minute fumble against Minnesota earned the Hoosiers the silver medal.

11. Illinois – Are the Illini, who fell to Penn State Saturday any better than last year? Probably. But they still haven’t beaten a Big Ten team in more than two years.

12. Purdue – There aren’t many Big Ten teams I can remember over the last half decade or so that were worse than Purdue. The Boilermakers lost 56-0 Saturday to Ohio State and were down 42-0 at halftime. At least Darrell Hazell’s squad has a chance, however unlikely, to win one of its final four games: Iowa, at Penn State, Illinois, at Indiana.