Saturday September 5th, 2009

The Big Ten has long enjoyed a near-stranglehold on the first window of televised college football on Saturdays. Sometimes, though, that mass exposure isn't a good thing.

For a league desperate to mend its poor reputation, dual upset scares for two of its three ranked teams Saturday was not exactly a confidence-inspiring start. No. 6 Ohio State needed a last-minute interception of a two-point conversion attempt to survive Navy, 31-27, while No. 22 Iowa blocked two last-second field goal attempts to fend off I-AA power Northern Iowa, 17-16.

Props to both teams for their clutch defensive stops, but in terms of the bigger picture, these ominous starts for both the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes raise questions about whether the Big Ten is in for another humbling season nationally.

Mind you, Navy is no slouch, and Ohio State is hardly the first team to get tripped up by the Midshipmen's flexbone offense. While the Buckeyes led nearly the entire way, they never could put Navy away. Surprisingly, it was Navy QB Ricky Dobbs' passing (9-of-13 for 156 yards and two TDs, including an 85-yarder) that hurt the Buckeyes most.

But if I'm an Ohio State fan, it's not the defense that would concern me. A week before facing USC, the Buckeyes' offense was largely uninspiring. OSU's offensive line, its Achilles heel the past few years, seemed to struggle yet again, even with the addition of Michigan transfer Justin Boren. The running game was largely a non-factor, and while QB Terrelle Pryor had a decent passing day (14-of-21, 174 yards), his interception late in the fourth quarter set up Dobbs for a 24-yard touchdown run that cut the score to 29-27. (LB Brian Rolle intercepted Navy's two-point conversion try and returned it for two points.)

A year ago in Los Angeles, the Trojans' defense smothered OSU's O-line en route to a 35-3 win. While we've yet to see the state of USC's reloaded defense, here's guessing it's still pretty darn good.

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, proved true their fans' worst nightmare: that the season-ending injury to RB Jewel Hampton, announced earlier this week, may prove a huge blow. Iowa managed just 89 rushing yards without him, while its defense -- which lost standout defensive tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King -- applied little pressure on Panthers QB Ricky Grace.

In the end, however, the middle of Iowa's defense saved the day. In a bizarre ending, Northern Iowa got two tries at a game-winning 40-yard field goal (the Panthers recovered the first one behind the line of scrimmage), and both times, Iowa blocked the kick. Crisis averted.

Obviously, it's too early to make any definitive conclusions about the strength of any conference. In fact, the Big Ten was 8-0 heading into Michigan-Western Michigan and Illinois-Missouri, with Minnesota topping Syracuse in overtime, Penn State drilling Akron, Purdue toppling Toledo and Michigan State and Northwestern routing their I-AA foes.

Perhaps the league will ultimately wind up achieving national redemption. It just might not be Ohio State or Iowa delivering it.

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