It was another wild week for the Big Ten. Everything pointed toward a November to remember. Top 10 matchups between East Division foes would wrap up the last few weeks of the season. All Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan had to do was take care of business for a few weeks.
Handling success is often tougher than handling adversity, as Michigan State discovered on Saturday. The Spartans dug a two score deficit twice against the Boilermakers, but there was no miraculous comeback like they had the week before. Unfortunately, Mel Tucker’s defense failed in critical moments and it cost him a chance at an undefeated season.
It wasn’t all roses for the other favorites across the conference either. Ohio State started fast but red zone troubles and an inconsistent running game prevented them from pulling away from Nebraska, and Minnesota couldn’t muster any offense against an Illini team that has been anything but consistent.
Purdue shocks Michigan State, 40-29
Can it be considered a “trap game” if everyone talks about it all week? This week had all the ingredients of a trap game for Sparty…. and it came to fruition. After opening the game with a fumble, the Spartans managed to dig themselves a two touchdown hole. One week prior, MSU was able to mount a heroic 16-point comeback, but they didn’t have that same luck this week. The Spartan defense couldn’t figure out the Purdue air attack, and it allowed QB Aiden O’Connell to rack up a whopping 536 passing yards. Mel Tucker had to be sick to his stomach. The former defensive backs coach prides himself on a disciplined secondary and a defense that tackles well. Michigan State did neither of those things on Saturday.
The offense kept them in the game and even scored a late touchdown and two-point conversion to cut the lead to 37-29. All the Spartans needed was a defensive stop. Instead, they yielded a field goal that proved to be the clincher. Kenneth Walker III had his usual impressive performance, but without injured WR Jalen Nailor, the passing game lacked explosiveness.
David Bell was simply unbelievable. The Purdue wide receiver turned in another performance like the one he had in the upset of then No. 2 Iowa. The Boilermakers’ running game still isn’t something to write home about, but it produced just enough to move the chains in critical moments and churn the clock on the final drive. Credit HC Jeff Brohm for finding the magic to upset two highly ranked teams. He has the Boilermakers playing their best ball late in the year and will have another upset opportunity this week against Ohio State.
Ohio State outlasts Nebraska, 26-17
It was a sluggish start for the Buckeyes in Lincoln. Whether it was the 11 AM central time kick or underestimating a 3-6 Cornhusker squad, the Buckeye offense looked to be sleepwalking through a scoreless 1st quarter. In the 2nd quarter, they seemed to establish their footing by scoring 17 points, but there was a troubling trend that emerged. The Buckeye offense did a great job of racking up yards, but in the 2nd half they had to settle for 4 FG attempts.
Negative yardage plays and penalties certainly hurt the Buckeyes after they crossed the midfield, but it also felt like they struggled because they couldn’t develop a consistent running game. Nearly 500 yards of offense should equate to at least 35 points, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday. While the offensive line did a good job of protecting QB CJ Stroud, they struggled to block the front 7 of Nebraska, limiting running lanes for star RB TreVeyon Henderson.
For the Cornhuskers, it was another close loss. And while it wasn’t quite a one-score defeat, Nebraska played incredibly well up front on defense and did a great job playing situational football to hold OSU to field goals. QB Adrian Martinez did a great job a creating big plays, and his final rushing touchdown cut the Buckeyes lead to 23-17. He didn’t have the greatest statistical game, but his play kept the game close. Martinez’s favorite target WR Samori Toure racked up 150 yards on only 4 catches, including a 72-yarder. He was the one issue the Buckeye defense had all day. Despite their record, the Cornhuskers are close and still playing hard for HC Scott Frost, and that’s not always the case in college football.
Illinois grinds down Minnesota, 14-6
It’s incredibly tough to win a football game without scoring in the 2nd half, but that’s precisely what Illinois did against Minnesota on Saturday. HC Bret Bielema’s team was able to take advantage of an early interception from Gopher QB Tanner Morgan and convert it into a touchdown by RB Isaiah Williams. Then after a Gopher 3 and out, Illinois went on an 11-play, 86-yard drive that was capped off with a Brandon Peters touchdown pass to bring the score to 14-0. The Illini wouldn’t sniff the endzone again, ending every subsequent drive with a punt, but it was still enough to win.
Minnesota had everything going for them in the Big Ten West. After an ugly loss to Bowling Green, the Gophers then ripped off 4 straight conference wins. With only one conference loss, to Ohio State, the Gophers controlled their destiny. Saturday destroyed that opportunity. The Gophers seemed to have an unlimited supply of running backs, but the well appears to have finally run dry. RB Ky Thomas led the team in rushing with 16 attempts for 60 yards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Minnesota has relied on their defense and running game to win games over the last 4 weeks, and QB Tanner Morgan didn’t play well enough to overcome the deficiencies.