A Comedy of Errors in Five Acts: Around the Big Ten

After throwing Penn State into the game in the first half, it was only fitting that Matt McGloin threw them out of it in the second. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Last weekend's slate of Big Ten games outlined some of the most painful ways a team can lose a football game. There were turnovers, defensive breakdowns, second half collapses, upsets, and whatever the hell Purdue put on the field when they got the ball.

Let's asses the pain that befell five of our Big Ten brethren on a cold, wet November day.  Nothing like a little Monday afternoon schadenfreude to help you appreciate seven wins (guaranteed winning season, FTW).

The Humiliating Blowout

Wisconsin 83 - The charred remains of Indiana's football team 20:  Remember when Wisconsin rolled up 70 points on Austin Peay during the Big Ten's "mid-major smackdown" weekend in the end of September?  Now do you remember how everyone said, "that would never happen if the Badgers had scheduled a Big Six conference opponent instead of the FCS equivalent of a high school class C all conference team?"

Enter Indiana, redefining "poor effort" for once respectable football programs everywhere.  Set aside the question of whether Bret Bielema ran up the score or not.  Even if Bielema ran out his starters for all four quarters, nowhere does it say that Indiana has to let the Badgers run up 83 points on nearly 600 yards of offense.  For all the talk this year about how incompetent Michigan's pass defense is (well deserved at this point) there is little said about just how bad Indiana's defense is at stopping the run (338 yds allowed against Wisconsin).  Other teams are averaging 5.5 YPC against the Hoosiers, and only one team (Ark St.) has failed to eclipse 100 yds.  Things were so bad for Indiana on Saturday that they couldn't manage to force one Badger punt or turnover.  Every one of Wisconsin's thirteen offensive possessions ended in points.  Even Austin Peay forced two punts against Wisconsin back in September.

There are no bright spots, no silver linings, and no moral victories.  Indiana suffered the worst loss of any team all year, and it was to a team in the same conference.  This wasn't a blowout, it was an execution.

The Second Half Collapse

Ohio State 38 - Penn State 14:  The two halves of this game could not have been any different.

First half.  After allowing a long drive for a Buckeye FG, Penn State clamps down on defense and holds the Buckeyes to four straight punts.  The Nittany Lions offense takes over on the second drive of the game and marches 67 yards on ten plays for the first passing touchdown by a Penn State team in the Horseshoe since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.  For good measure Matt McGloin decides to match that feat on the next drive taking the Penn State offense 82 yards on eleven plays for another passing touchdown.  The next drive ends on a failed 4th down attempt deep in Buckeye territory, but going into halftime minutes later the Nittany Lions are thoroughly in control.  McGloin had spent the first half picking apart the Buckeye secondary like they had wings on their helmets en route to two touchdowns and an astronomical completion percentage.  Meanwhile the Buckeyes offense couldn't establish any run game and Terrell Pryor looked about as comfortable in the pocket as Mike Leach sitting next to Craig James on an airplane.

Fast forward to the second half.  Penn State is forced to punt after the first drive stalls.  The punt pins the Buckeyes back at their own four yard line.  What follows is a 96 yard, eleven play drive that culminates in a rushing touchdown. After a couple of short gains and a big Silas Redd first down, Matt McGloin throws a pick-six to give Ohio State the lead.  The next five Nittany Lions drives go 3-and-out four times and pick-six once.  Ohio State finishes the game strong with two touchdowns (one a fortunate tipped pass to Dane Sanzenbacher for a 58 yard touchdown), and  Matt McGloin's first half heroics are thrown out the window as he personally gift wraps those 14 points back to Ohio State.  Welcome back to the "Big Ten underachievers club", Penn State.  We kept your seat warm for you.

The Hangover Upset

Minnesota 38 - Illinois 34:  Coming into the season these two programs seemed to be staring down the same fate. Both head coaches had failed to deliver even a modicum of success over the course of their tenure, and both were wearing on the last nerve of their respective fan base.  Win or leave.  The ultimatum was set.

Ron Zook, armed with a new set of coordinators, was able to lead Illinois to five wins over the first eight games. Tim Brewster...led Minnesota further into the dark abyss until the administration ran him out of town like it should have done years ago.  Last week both squads played teams from Michigan.  Minnesota rolled over and played dead until Michigan State was finished with them.  Illinois took Michigan to three overtimes before losing on a heartbreaking failed two point conversion.

This week wasn't supposed to be complicated.  Minnesota had proven at every turn to be the worst team in the Big Ten by a mile and Illinois was led by a stout defense and effective running game.  Instead the Illini let the Gophers take control early in the second quarter.  By halftime Minnesota led 17-7.  Illinois stormed back with two touchdowns in the 3rd quarter to reclaim the lead, but Minnesota took it back with a touchdown to put the score at 24-20 going into the final quarter.

Illinois again came out of the gate strong in the last quarter, scoring two touchdowns.  After the second touchdown to go up 10 points the Illini allowed a Minnesota kick return to go 90 yards back to the Illinois four yard line setting up a Gopher touchdown.  After the teams exchanged punts Minnesota got the ball back with under three minutes to play and marched down the field 80 yards in ten plays for the go ahead touchdown with 16 seconds left to play.

Minnesota is finally looking at a glimmer of hope in what has so far been a wasteland of blowouts against Big Ten teams and upsets to FCS teams.  Illinois on the other hand is looking at two straight losses and an uncomfortable Ron Zook.  Two games remain in the quest for bowl eligibility (vs. Northwestern at Wrigley Field, and at Fresno St.), and the deal is still set for Ron Zook:  win or leave.

The Loss You Saw Coming

just Northwestern 21 - Iowa 17:  For a second year Iowa rolled into the Northwestern game with big aspirations (in 2009 it was a shot at the BCS title, in 2010 it was a share of the Big Ten and a BCS bowl), and both times the Hawkeyes have walked out stunned by another loss to just Northwestern.  To say that Iowa fans were uneasy going into this game would be an understatement.  Pat Fitzgerald and the wunderkinds have tormented the Hawkeye fan base for five of the last six years now, and Saturday was no different.

Northwestern scored on its first drive of the game marching 62 yards for a touchdown.  The rest of the first half would be nothing drives followed by punts or in one case a missed field goal.  Iowa on the other hand started the game off even worse offensively.  The Hawkeyes punted on the first five possessions of the game, never running more than five plays per possession, and only gaining more than 10 yards once (32).  The last Iowa possession of the half did yield a field goal after a 54 yard march down field.  Both teams had plenty to fix at halftime with the score standing 7-3 in favor of the home team.

Iowa seemed to come out of halftime a different team.  The Hawkeyes marched downfield on the first two possession of the second half for touchdowns to jump out to a 17-7 lead.  Conversely, Northwestern picked up the offensive incompetence flag and ran with it.  The Wildcats punted on the first three possessions of the second half before throwing an interception in the waining moments of the third quarter.

Then a funny thing happened.  Northwestern did what it had failed to do seemingly all year (put together a good fourth quarter in a close game), and Iowa did exactly what it had done too many times this year (allow the other team to move the ball up and down the field in the fourth quarter).  Northwestern went for touchdowns on both of its possessions of the fourth quarter, and demoralized the Hawkeye defense by doing so in an 11 play, 91 yard drive and a 13 play, 85 yard drive.  Iowa failed to match the Wildcats, turning the ball over once, punting once, and then failing to pick up a first down on the last ditch effort.

Another year, another reason for Hawkeye fans to hate just Northwestern with the fire of one thousand burning suns.  And while this was a great win for the WIldcats, it came with a steep price.  Dan Persa, the quarterback and linchpin of the Northwestern offense ruptured his achilles tendon on the go ahead touchdown pass.  If the Wildcats were going to sell the farm for one victory, it might as well have been the one that would cause the most pain.

The Ugly Loss

Michigan 27 - Purdue 16:  There wasn't much more Ryan Kerrigan and the boys could do on Saturday.  Sure, the Michigan offense shot itself in the foot a number of times, but the utter dominance of Kerrigan and the sound play of the rest of the Purdue defense had a large hand in the Wolverine turnovers.  For his part, Kerrigan put on an absolute clinic, notching 10 tackles, four sacks, and two forced fumbles.  I spent all last year watching Brandon Graham toil away on a bad team, and I can say without a doubt that Kerrigan is exerting the same kind of herculean effort in an attempt to keep his team in the game.  Neither Robinson or Forcier was ever able to get comfortable in the pocket and it showed in the poor performance of both that led to a musical chairs situation in the second half.

Unfortunately Purdue's offense was utterly incapable of doing anything with all of the great opportunities that were presented by the defense.  In fact, Purdue's offense is so bad that it made Michigan's much maligned defense look downright impressive.  No offensive touchdowns allowed, 3.7 yards per play given up, five forced turnovers, and a defensive touchdown.  Who turned the clock back to 2006?

The Wolverines followed up the most exciting Big Ten game of the year with perhaps the ugliest.  Ten turnovers between the two teams, thirteen punts (two shanks), and only brief flashes of any offensive consistency for either side.  Purdue's string of horrific injuries decided this game long before the teams ever took the field.  Even Michigan's defense can stop a pack of quarterbacks who are either too injured or too inexperienced to throw the ball farther than five yards down the field.

Let's all just move on and pretend that game didn't happen.

--

Is there more pain in store next week?  Ohio State visits Iowa city in hopes of staying in the Big Ten title race, while Iowa would like nothing more than to ruin another teams season before all is said and done.  Purdue travels to East Lansing looking for an upset, but most likely the Boilermakers find out that Greg Jones and the boys like nothing better than destroying offenses with no vertical passing game.  Indiana plays Penn State in Maryland because Bloomington turned the Hoosiers' bus back at the outskirts of town.  Northwestern and Illinois meet in Wrigley field, and in true Cubs fashion neither team has a shot in hell of winning a title anytime soon.  Finally, Wisconsin takes its magnificent offensive circus on the road to Ann Arbor.  Between the history of bad luck the Badgers have in the Big House and the mountain of bad karma that Bret Bielema built for himself last week, I am hoping for a decisive Wolverine upset.  Win one for the hapless Hoosiers, boys.

A man can dream, can't he?

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