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During Rivalry Week, anything can happen… and on Saturday just about anything did. In the three biggest games in the Big Ten, underdogs were able to pull out a victory. The biggest upset came on a national stage as Michigan upset Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
The Buckeyes were a touchdown favorite at kickoff but were thoroughly handled by a physical Wolverine front soon afterwards. Even more surprising was Minnesota upsetting Wisconsin. Iowa won on Friday, which eliminated the Gophers’ chances of winning the Big Ten West and relegated them to the role of spoiler — and they played it to perfection.
The final surprise of the day was a battered and bruised Michigan State squad holding on to beat an inspired Penn State team. Many of the Spartans’ offensive stars were hobbled, but that didn’t stop them from reaching their first 10-win season of the Mel Tucker era.
No. 5 Michigan overpowers No. 2 Ohio State 42-27
It was the game of the day. Sitting in its traditional noon eastern timeslot, The Game is one of the few traditions that seems to remain in college football. For the last 20 years, Ohio State has dominated the greatest rivalry in all of sport. The reason has been their ability to run the football. Despite the advancements in passing offense and the rule changes to make throwing more advantageous, at its core, this game has always been about controlling the line of scrimmage. Over the last 20 years, the team that has won the “yards per rush” battle was won The Game… and that rule held true once again on Saturday.
Behind a physical offensive line and a relentless determination to run the football, the Michigan Wolverines rolled up 297 yards rushing, averaging a whopping 7.2 yards per attempt compared to 2.1 for OSU. HC Jim Harbaugh wanted to play his game, and he did. He called 41 run plays, which was over 60% of the offensive snaps. UM was able to impose their will and play with a level of desperation that OSU was either unable or unwilling to match, which is why Michigan was able to control the game.
QB CJ Stroud, who had been ill all week, performed admirably, though he was never able to get the Buckeye offense on track. Even WR Chris Olave, who has been a Michigan slayer, was marred with some early drops that could’ve resulted in points. The OSU offense rolled up over 450 yards of total offense but couldn’t create the signature big plays that have been a staple of the offense all season.
Much of it was due to DE Aidan Hutchinson, who played a phenomenal game. When he wasn’t in the backfield for one of his three sacks on the day, he was forcing false starts by the Ohio State offensive line.
The reality is this game came down to toughness and attitude, and Michigan’s desperation paid off. They dominated both sides of the football, and OSU had no answer or ability to make a stop late in the game. UM wasn’t going to stop running the football, and the OSU defense was forced to handle a great rushing attack for 4 quarters, something they hadn’t had to do since the Oregon game.
Minnesota surges past No. 14 Wisconsin 23-13
The Wisconsin Badgers were as hot as any team in college football. After a putrid start where they couldn’t run the football and QB Graham Mertz was a turnover machine, it appeared they had returned to their traditional form. All they had to do was beat a Minnesota team who had already been eliminated from the West division race. Apparently, playing for pride was more than enough motivation. The Gophers smothered RB Braelon Allen, limiting him to 47 yards all day. The Freshman Sensation had been tearing up the conference the last month, but that came to a grinding halt in the Twin Cities.
It wasn’t the prettiest game to watch, but it was a classic example of what wins in the Big Ten West: a solid run game, efficient quarterback play, and a stout defense. Behind a gritty performance from senior QB Tanner Morgan, the Gophers were able to stave off a 10-6 halftime deficit and score on their first two possessions to start the 2nd half. Once they gained the lead, the Minnesota defense limited Wisconsin to only a field goal in the 2nd half, forcing an interception and two 4th down stops. The loss had to sting for the Badgers after they were poised to get back to the Big Ten title game after such a rocky start. Now Bucky the Badger will be sitting at home, and the Hawkeyes will be representing the West.
No. 12 Michigan State survives Penn State 30-27
It was a long week for Michigan State HC Mel Tucker. Coming off his historic contract extension and a 56-7 shellacking to Ohio State, the Spartans’ season appeared to be headed off the track. Though many of their offensive stars were hobbled, the Spartans fed off their home crowd and delivered an epic performance in the snow to re-capture the Land Grant Trophy. Heisman hopeful RB Kenneth Walker III shook off his bum ankle to rush for 138 yards. The turning point in the game was the 15-play, 9-minute touchdown drive for the Spartans after a pick 6 had just given the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game. Mel Tucker is building something special in East Lansing, and it showed on Saturday. When stars like Walker and WR Jayden Reed battle through injuries to play in a “meaningless” game to finish the season, you know a culture is being built.
Penn State and HC James Franklin have been battling their own issues for the last month and a half. Franklin just received his own massive contract extension and wanted to finish the season on a high note. QB Sean Clifford performed at a high level and led a late-game touchdown drive that cut the Spartan lead to 3. However, it was too little, too late.
Unfortunately for Penn State, it’s another promising season with unfulfilled expectations. Though they beat Auburn earlier in the year and climbed all the way to an AP top 5 ranking, injuries and illness took their toll. The good news for Franklin is, despite the late season swoon, he has one of the best recruiting classes in the nation ready to sign, which bodes well for the future.