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An offensive revolution in East Lansing.
A resurgence triggered by a culture change in Ann Arbor.
Week 6 brought more good news for the two major programs in this state.
But elsewhere in the Big Ten, there were setbacks.
We examine the conference’s most notable winners and losers from Saturday:
Winners: Michigan State offense
During the end of Mark Dantonio’s regime and the start of Mel Tucker’s tenure in East Lansing, the Spartans’ offense was an eyesore. Whether it was due to a lack of creativity, execution or a toxic combination of both, MSU struggled to reach the end zone. From 2016 to 2020, the Spartans finished no better than 96th in the country in scoring.
But now things are cooking in Ingham County, where Tucker and coordinator Jay Johnson have built a potent attack via the ground and the air. Never was that more evident than Saturday, when Michigan State powered past Rutgers, 31-13. The Spartans became the fifth team in Football Bowl Subdivision history to have a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver. The dynamic trio of quarterback Payton Thorne, running back Kenneth Walker III and wideout Jalen Nailor propelled MSU while flashing the kind of playmaking ability that was a rare sight not long ago. The undefeated Spartans are now averaging 36.7 points per game, 23rd in the nation and third in the Big Ten. But they may climb even higher. Up next is Indiana, which has one of the conference’s weakest defenses.
After U-M outlasted Nebraska, 32-29, in Lincoln, Cade McNamara made an interesting comment about the program’s growth in the last ten months.
“Michigan teams in the past, no disrespect, but I think since I’ve been at Michigan we lose this game — sometimes,” the Wolverines’ quarterback told ABC. “I think this is a testament to the guys in that locker room, the coaches who have made a commitment to make this year different, and I think we have something special here.”
There seems to be a lot of truth packed into those remarks. Michigan does appear tougher and more resilient than it has in the past. On Saturday, the Wolverines squandered a 13-point halftime lead and McNamara contributed to Nebraska’s surge when he threw his first career interception. But he and the Wolverines didn’t crumble. Instead, they overcame deficits twice in the fourth quarter. The resolve Michigan showed can be attributed to the culture change that was the talk of the offseason after the Wolverines stumbled to a 2-4 record in 2020. That team folded multiple times in the face of adversity, causing head coach Jim Harbaugh to reevaluate his entire program. This one has yet to do so even when it has been tested at times during each of the last three games.
After enduring a rocky first month that featured a loss (gasp!) to Oregon at home and a dodgy performance in a win over Tulsa, Ohio State looked more vulnerable than it has been any point in recent years. The defense was out of sorts and quarterback C.J. Stroud’s performance was questioned.
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Some wondered aloud if it was time to panic.
No. No, it wasn’t.
It appears a crisis in Columbus has been averted for the time being. In a span of eight days, the Buckeyes outscored Rutgers and Maryland, 118-30.
The margin of victory in each game was impressive no matter the opposition. The best Ohio State teams of the past dominated in similar fashion when they played least of the Big Ten East, and a convincing argument can be made that both the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins aren’t as bad as they once were.
Sure, the Buckeyes and their suspect defense may be exposed again later in the season. But when their offense is firing on all cylinders as it has been the last two weeks, who in the Big Ten can match them? Ohio State averages 48.5 points per game — 10 more than any other team in the conference. Those intent on writing OSU’s obituary may want to hold off for a bit.
Losers: Scott Frost
Disappointment was etched on Scott Frost’s face as he walked off the field following the defeat to Michigan. It was another bitter outcome for a coach whose program remains submerged below a rip current of mediocrity. The Cornhuskers have never finished above. 500 during his tenure, and now they carry a 3-4 record.
Is there just bad juju in Lincoln these days?
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The thought crossed everyone’s mind when Wolverines safety Brad Hawkins tore the ball out of quarterback Adrian Martinez’s arms in the final minutes and set up the winning field goal. Had Martinez been able to lead a scoring drive instead, Frost could have made the case he was capable of changing the Cornhuskers’ trajectory.
But alas, it wasn’t meant to be and Frost’s prospects at his alma mater seem as dim as ever despite Nebraska fielding a team that appears to be among the most competitive during his regime. For Frost, the frustration is real.
During his first run in the Big Ten at Wisconsin, Bret Bielema was considered a rising star in his profession. Three consecutive conference titles vaulted him into rarefied air.
Then he chased a new challenge at Arkansas, where Bielema’s career took a wrong turn in the SEC. Two consecutive defeats at the end of 2016 set the stage for a losing season that led to his firing in Fayetteville.
After a detour in the NFL as an assistant, Bielema was hired as Illinois’ coach last December.
But the bad times have continued for Bielema.
A 24-0 loss Saturday to one of the worst Wisconsin teams this century was another crushing setback. The disastrous result removed any doubt the Illini have the least productive offense in the conference.
Dragging a 2-5 record heading into a bye week, they are headed for the 10th straight losing season with a coach who is trending downwards. In his last 21 college games, Bielema is just 6-15.
The star has fallen.
It was a rough afternoon in Iowa City, where the complexion of Penn State’s season suddenly changed during early in the second quarter of a 23-20 loss to No. 3 Iowa. With the Nittany Lions leading by two touchdowns, quarterback Sean Clifford suffered an undisclosed injury and left the game.
Just like that, Penn State’s offense vanished along with its chances at an elusive College Football Playoff berth. Notwithstanding Clifford’s uncertain status, the Nittany Lions find themselves in a dangerous spot. Games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State remain, which leaves Penn State with no margin for error as it tries to survive the gantlet of the Big Ten East.
If Clifford can’t make a speedy recovery, then it’s all but certain Penn State’s once-promising season will have crashed and burned in Kinnick Stadium.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten winners, losers: Michigan, MSU fixed long-time issues?