Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, November 13, 2011
The races in each division came into sharper focus on Saturday with some big individual performances, headlined by Wisconsin?s Montee Ball setting the Big Ten single-season touchdown record. Michigan State?s domination of Iowa makes the Spartans the clear leader in the Legends as the only team still in control of its destiny. In the Leaders, Penn State and Wisconsin control their destiny, but each seems to be going in opposite directions (see the Big Ten standings). See what Tom learned this weekend in this post.
1. Michigan State is on a mission. The Spartans looked like a buzz saw in scorching Iowa, 37-21, in Iowa City. A middling Michigan State offense took flight, notching 441 yards with a 153 coming from a rushing attack that entered the game ranked last in the Big Ten. Now, the Spartans are in the driver?s seat in the Legends Division, only needing to beat Indiana at home and win at Northwestern to sew up the division and head to the inaugural Big Ten title game. Can Michigan State advance to its first Rose Bowl since the 1988 season?
2. Wisconsin looks destined to win the Leaders Division. Yes, the Badgers trail Penn State by a game, but Wisconsin is rolling with back-to-back impressive wins that have seen the offense score an aggregate 104 points. Next up is a game at slumping Illinois-losers of four in a row–followed by a visit from Penn State. Bottom line: If the Badgers win out, they will claim the Leaders Division and play in the Big Ten title game. Watching this team now, don?t you wonder how Wisconsin has lost any games?
3. Penn State may not win again. The Nittany Lions opened 8-1 and lead the Leaders Division, but the team and school have been rocked by a child sex-abuse scandal that has taken the focus off the field. Penn State got beat, 17-14, at home by Nebraska in an emotional game on Saturday. Now come trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin, two teams with a lot to play for and still prove. Can Penn State?s damaged psyche and slumping offense find a way to support its strong defense lead the Nits to victory?
4. It?s a shame that Dan Persa wasn?t 100 percent all season. The Northwestern signal-caller, who has dealt with linger effects of an Achilles injury, among other ailments, may have been able to make a Heisman run. He was at his best in a 28-6 win over Rice, throwing for a career-high 372 yards. Persa also matched a career-high with four touchdown tosses. He entered the game as the nation?s leader in completion percentage and did little to harm that figure by hitting 25-of-32 passes.
5. Don?t give up on Purdue. The season looked bleak after the Boilers dropped two in a row and three of four, including a record-setting 62-17 loss at Wisconsin last week. But the Boilermakers shocked many with an incredible bounce back 26-23 overtime win over Ohio State. Purdue next plays host to Iowa before finishing at Indiana, needing just one win to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Without a doubt it is Purdue?s stunning 26-23 overtime win over Ohio State. The victory kept the Boilermakers? bowl hopes alive, which is saying something for a program that hasn?t been to the postseason since 2007. It was Purdue?s second upset in a row over the Buckeyes in West Lafayette, the Boilers also turned the trick in 2009.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: It isn?t a total shock that Iowa lost at home to Michigan State. But it is stunning that the Hawkeyes got absolutely smoked, 37-21. And it really wasn?t that close. For all intents and purposes, the defeat knocks the Hawkeyes out of contention for the Legends Division.
TOP GAME: Gotta love the drama of the Ohio State at Purdue game. The Boilermakers led all the way until the fourth quarter, when Buckeye QB Braxton Miller scrambled and hit RB Jordan Hall with a 13-yard touchdown on fourth down with 55 seconds left. But the extra point was blocked, keeping the game tied, 20-20. After Ohio State kicked a field goal on its first possession of overtime, Purdue answered with a one-yard score by QB Robert Marve, who the play before hit a 14-yard pass on third-and-12 to get the ball to the one-yard line.
TOP RUSHER: Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint is on a roll. He burned Purdue for 170 yards rushing on October 29. On Saturday, Toussaint ran for a career-high 192 yards in a 31-14 win at Illinois. When he?s clicking and working in concert with QB Denard Robinson, this Wolverine offense is deadly.
TOP PASSER: Northwestern?s Dan Persa hit 25-of-32 passes for career-highs in yards (372) and touchdown passes (four) in a 28-6 win over Rice. He had great mojo with WR Jeremy Ebert, who caught seven passes for a career-high 208 yards with two touchdowns.
TOP SPECIAL PLAY: How about massive Purdue DT Bruce Gaston blocking Ohio State K Drew Basil?s extra-point attempt in the final minutes of regulation, keeping the score tied, 20-20, and ultimately pushing the game to overtime? Awesome. The Boilermakers pulled it out in the first extra session on a one-yard touchdown run by QB Robert Marve after the Buckeyes had scored a field goal on their overtime possession.
SNEAK PEEK AHEAD: Legends Division leader Michigan State plays host to Indiana in a game most think the Spartans should win with ease. Nebraska is at Michigan in what amounts to a divisional elimination game. In the Leaders Division, red-hot Wisconsin now controls its destiny as it travels to Illinois, which has lost four in a row. Will the Badgers lose focus vs. a struggling Illini team? Also, keep an eye on Penn State at Ohio State. The Buckeyes? title hopes took a big blow with a loss at Purdue. The Nittany Lions still lead the division by a game and control their destiny even coming off a loss at home to Nebraska. But Wisconsin is lurking, only a game behind Penn State. And the Nits play at Wisconsin to finish the season in what may be a de facto Leaders Division title game.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.