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Wednesday, August 12

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« Big Ten Football: Ohio State Grooms New QB Never Saw It Coming: Bears Lose Cutler »

College Teams Mon Nov 21 2011

Big Ten Football: Only the Strong Survive

Thumbnail image for big ten divisions vertical.JPGRussell Wilson was supposed to be the savior of the Badgers' season.

Returning the lion's share of starters from 2010 season that ended in the Rose Bowl, the only pressing question mark was the lack of a clear leader under center. And with Wilson's transfer, they added not just a competent starter, but a proven star who turned Wisconsin from being a conference contender to a clear-cut favorite.

But the wind in Champaign on Saturday isolated the passing game (Wilson was 10-of-13 for 90 yards and a touchdown) and gave us a glimpse at what the Badgers (9-2, 5-2) might have been without him: a team that is really good at running the football.

Montee "Touchdown Machine" Ball ran for 224 yards and two touchdowns, adding a third touchdown via the air as Wisconsin rallied past Illinois (6-5, 2-5), 28-17.

It's silly to think about picking apart an otherwise commanding victory, but this was a game the Illinois Fumblerooskis were just too bad to win. Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and R. O'Toole combined to throw three interceptions, on top of a lost fumble that gave the Badgers all the breathing room they needed.

Despite a 10-point halftime deficit, the Badgers now are just one win away from being invited to the Big Ten championship game.

But their competition looks more difficult than it did a week ago. No. 21 Penn State (9-2, 6-1) spent their Saturday in Columbus doing exactly what the Badgers couldn't do several weeks ago: winning a game on the road against the Buckeyes (6-5, 3-4), 20-14.

It wasn't pretty, but the Nittany Lions took care of business the same way they've done all season, playing sound defense and limiting mistakes on the offense. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller looked as impressive an athlete has usual, running for 105 yards and a touchdown, but Penn State's defense held him to 83 yards with a touchdown on just 7-of-17 passing.

Penn State's visit to Wisconsin next week should prove more difficult, but the winner will represent the Leaders Division in the conference title game.

Already headed to Indianapolis is Michigan State (9-2, 6-1), which manhandled the Hoosiers (1-10, 0-7), 55-3. Their matchup next week is against Northwestern (6-5, 3-4), which became bowl-eligible with a 28-13 victory over Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).

The Spartans clinched their berth in the championship game when Michigan (9-2, 5-2) beat Nebraska (8-3, 4-3), 45-17. At worst, Michigan could become tied with the Michigan State next week, only to lose out on their bid for the championship via the head-to-head tiebreaker going in the Spartans' favor.

Nebraska would have had to defeat Northwestern to elude the head-to-head tiebreaker against Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers sealed their own fate by being overpowered on both sides of the ball by the Wolverines.

Both Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson share the distinction of being better runners than throwers, but Robinson proved severely more effective in both facets of his game. He not only rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns, but he also completed 11 of 18 passes for two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Martinez ran for just 49 yards and completed only 9 of 23 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. He was flashy in the Big 12 last year, but he's getting roughed up by the Big Ten.

With the loss, Nebraska dropped down to a tie with Iowa (7-4, 4-3) for third place in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes took care of Purdue (5-6, 3-4), 31-21 Saturday.

Though, neither of them factor into what's become a three-team race in the Big Ten. It's encouraging to know that this year's slate was able to work itself out and could have been clear-cut even without a championship game to decide it. But it's even better to know that we'll get to watch two of these teams slug it out again.

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