Skip to main content

 In a way, it felt like football season in the Big Ten on Saturday for the first time this fall.

The two biggest developments: Ohio State beat Penn State 20-12. And the sun rose in the East.

For years, fans and media have been coming up with storylines projecting that the Nittany Lions were ready to go toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes and come out ahead.

All credit to James Franklin for restoring Penn State as a contender after the Sandusky scandal. But his 1-9 record against Ohio State says the Nittany Lions can’t match up with that team from Columbus.

A lot of experts think Michigan will have the magic Buckeye nutcracker. I still don’t have a feel for that. The Wolverines stomped on Michigan State 49-0 to improve to 8-0, and have outscored their five Big Ten opponents by a ridiculous 229-31. That’s an average of 46-6 in round numbers.

No question, the Wolverines have looked gr-e-at while Ohio State often sputters on offense. The thing is, Michigan still hasn’t played anyone, um, challenging in my book. That won’t change until Nov. 11, when the Harbaughs go to Penn State. And maybe we’ll have to wait until Nov. 25, when Ohio State comes to Ann Arbor.

Oh, and by the way, the Michigan sign-stealing stuff strikes me as sleazy and misguided, as well as overkill. Teams at that level shouldn’t be bending the rules. But the Wolverines’ biggest abuse in my book is their nonconference slate—East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. Play somebody. That’s criminal.

That said, it sure is looking like the Big Two and the little Twelve.


I’m not a rules expert. And I'll never be mistaken for a fan of Iowa football.

But the Hawkeyes were robbed when that punt return for a game-winning touchdown was wiped out by a phantom fair-catch call.

Instead of being fined for ripping the officials, Kirk Ferentz ought to get an apology from the Big Ten.

The real question on that play was. . . What in the heck was the deal with the Minnesota punt-coverage unit? The gunner easily could have pushed Cooper DeJean out of bounds. And the next five Gophers looked like the Keystone Cops, not a football team.

That said, Iowa had 11 rushing yards in its 12-10 loss to a Gopher squad that’s allowing nearly 120 yards. The Hawkeyes are averaging 19.6 points a game, 116th out of the nation’s 130 teams. And barring a huge surge, they’ll fail to reach the 25 points-a-game that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz needs to keep his job, according to his bizarre contract.


Meanwhile a few cornfields to the east in Champaign, another strange ending was playing out in the Big Ten West, which is no stranger to strange.

Wisconsin, which had scored 20 points in its previous nine quarters, erupted for 18 fourth-quarter points at Illinois to beat the Illini 25-21. Even stranger, the Badgers’ offense was being directed by freshman Braedyn Locke, the Mississippi State transfer who was making his first collegiate start.

Thrust into action by the hand injury to Tanner Mordecai, Locke threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns, including some completions that are very promising for Wisconsin’s offensive future.

Disappointed Illinois fans were left to moan about a targeting call against Johnny Newton. “It just turned the game,’’ Illini coach Bret Bielema said. ``It’s maddening. It’s absolutely the most frustrating thing to have one of your best players make a great play, and to have it go 30 yards the other way is just insanity.”

The problem is, in the modern world, the Newton ejection fit the description of targeting. If Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, two Illini legends who became defensive giants in the NFL, were playing today, they would likely receive incalculable targeting calls. But that’s the price of making the game safer.

What would probably help is a better word than ``targeting.'' That sounds like defenders are head-hunting. The truth is, most targeting offenses are inadvertent.

Another improvement would be to give officials more discretion on targeting calls. For example, sentencing Newton to missing the first half of Illinois' next game seems excessive for being unable to avoid bumping helmets. A simple one-day ejection is harsh enough to make the point.

If my all-time favorite quarterback, Johnny Unitas, who took a licking and kept on ticking, were here to watch tape of Tom Brady passing from his rocking chair, he'd be astonished by how the game has changed. But that's the price of having a safer sport—and one that keeps it best players off the injured list.


If Bielema was understandably frustrated, the Wisconsin comeback gave the Badgers’ first-year coach, Luke Fickell, some breathing room—and a big win. The victory not only put the Badgers atop the Big Ten West. It also avoided some bad optics.

A crushing defeat against Illinois cost Paul Chryst the Badger coaching job last year. How would it look if the new guy lost to Illinois, too?

``It’s the resiliency, the fight, the grit,’’ said Fickell, pleased to see his team show the toughness that had been missing in the losses to Iowa and Washington State. ``We’d been in some situations in fourth quarters in two games this year and didn’t find a way to come out with [a win].’’

Having shown some backbone and armed with an intriguing young QB, Wisconsin now faces its sternest test on Saturday night in Madison against national-championship contender Ohio State. 

A two-touchdown underdog, the Badgers will be bolstered by a raucous crowd and the confidence they built at Illinois. But the Buckeyes, coming off of their own impressive win, are a whole different hurdle. No one knows that better than Fickell, a former Ohio State defensive stalwart and interim coach.

That will be a huge challenge. But it would have been even more daunting if the Badgers had not rallied to win at Illinois.