Big Ten Notebook: Spartans no longer flying under the radar

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Michigan State has only one loss -- to Notre Dame in a road game it easily could have won -- and yet the Spartans weren't getting much respect in the national polls.
There were legitimate questions about their offense. The perception of the Big Ten as a weak conference this season didn't help the Spartans' image. And many thought the nation's top-ranked defense would meet its match against Michigan.
As it turned out, the Wolverines were no match for their in-state rival on either side of the ball Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State rolled to a 29-6 victory -- the fifth win in the last six games of the series -- behind a capable offense and a devastating defense.
It's hard not to notice the Spartans now. They not only moved up five spots to No. 17 in the BCS Standings, they remained atop the Big Ten Legends Divisions standings and are in prime position for a berth in the Big Ten championship game in December in Indianapolis almost certainly against Ohio State.
As expected, the Buckeyes extended the nation's longest winning streak to 21 games with a 56-0 blowout at Purdue. They're still No. 4 in the BCS Standings and on track for the Big Ten championship and possibly a spot in the BCS championship game.
The unexpected took place in Lincoln, Neb., and Bloomington, Ind.
Nebraska completed a miraculous Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to defeat Northwestern 27-24. Quarterback Ron Kellogg III heaved a desperation throw with no time left that was tipped into the end zone and caught by Jordan Westerkamp for the improbable win.
Meanwhile, Minnesota held on for a 42-39 win at Indiana when the Gophers pounced on a fumbled lateral in the final minutes with the Hoosiers in position to score the potential tying or winning points.
There's some magic going in with Minnesota. A third straight win vaulted the Gophers (6-2) into contention for the Top 25. They continue to find success without inspirational coach Jerry Kill, who is on leave for medical reasons, on the sideline but still around the program.
Wisconsin continued building its case, along with Michigan State, as the second-best team in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. The Badgers pulled away from Iowa in the fourth quarter for a 28-9 road win that improved to No. 24 in Sunday's BCS Standings.
Penn State rebounded from a crushing loss at Ohio State a week earlier, squeaking out a 24-17 overtime victory over Illinois with a tying field goal in the final minute of regulation and a touchdown pass in OT.

1. Michigan State's defense validated its status as the best statistically in the country. The Spartans are No. 1 in total defense and rushing defense, and that defense -- along with an improving offense -- could carry them to the Legends Division title and what would be an interesting matchup with Ohio State.
2. Minnesota keeps finding ways to win. The Gophers were up and down against Indiana, but they displayed plenty of heart and escaped after letting a big lead slip away. Three straight victories after all that has happened with coach Jerry Kill taking a medical leave and Tracy Claeys stepping in has the Gophers on the cusp of the national rankings.
3. Michigan State has become the dominant program in the Great Lakes state. After Saturday's 29-6 victory, the Spartans have won five of the last six meetings with defense and toughness.
4. Nebraska saved its season with a Hail Mary touchdown pass with no time left on Saturday to beat Northwestern 27-24. At 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers are still in the thick of the Legends Division race and play host to leader Michigan State in two weeks.
5. Everything seems to be going wrong for Northwestern. The Wildcats suffered their fifth straight loss in the cruelest of ways on Saturday at Nebraska when they gave up a 49-yard desperation touchdown pass with no time left. Coach Pat Fitzgerald blamed himself, saying the Wildcats committed a cardinal sin by letting Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp get behind them in the end zone.

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