October 29, 2011
Nebraska 24, Michigan State 3.
One team came into today with the nation's No. 2 total defense after three consecutive wins over ranked teams. The other came in having been eviscerated for 48 points in its biggest game of the year, and for at least 27 in three other games it was favored to win by double digits. Then they supplied the Big Ten with is latest plot twist by switching bodies on national television.
Nebraska, barely five quarters removed from a near-catastrophe against Ohio State on Oct. 8, held Michigan State to new season lows in passing and total yards, sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins four times and kept the Spartans out of the end zone entirely for the first time since the 2003 Alamo Bowl. (Also, coincidentally, against a Nebraska outfit coached by Bo Pelini.) MSU's only points came on a short-field field goal following the Cornhuskers' only turnover. Cousins, one week after lighting up unbeaten Wisconsin for 290 yards and three touchdowns en route to being named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, completed barely 40 percent of his passes for 86 yards and a pick.
That Nebraska was also held to a new low in passing and total offense hardly seemed to matter once the 'Huskers found enough rhythm to embark on back-to-back touchdown drives covering 80 and 89 yards in the third quarter. Those two marches alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of Nebraska's total offense — capped by the longest completion by either quarter, a 27-yard connection from Taylor Martinez to Rex Burkhead that effectively put the game out of teach at 24-3 — but it was more than enough to ensnare both teams in a four-way tangle atop the Big Ten's "Legends" Division, along with Iowa (assuming the Hawkeyes dispatch lame-duck Minnesota later today) and Michigan.
But it also confirmed the lingering power void at the top of the Big Ten now that Ohio State has ceded its status as perennial conference overlord. Wisconsin was poised to assume the throne after knocking out Nebraska, until it was knocked out itself by Michigan State. Michigan was KO'd by Michigan State, too. Now it's the Spartans' turn take it on the chin, allowing Nebraska off the mat and leaving one team with a perfect conference record at the start of November: Penn State. And the Nittany Lions (assuming they get by Illinois today) still have Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin to go.
Which is a long way of saying that there is no frontrunner in this conference — and if there is, Nebraska is suddenly as good a candidate for the title as any. The Cornhuskers continue to struggle in the passing game, but compared to Michigan State's offense, Iowa's defense and Michigan's string of futility against ranked opponents (ten consecutive losses and counting), they're in good company. And they control their destiny down the stretch. Which means they should probably be watching their backs.