Five lessons from Big Ten play in Week 8:
1. Separation not wide in the Big Ten: Given the schedule, we expected Saturday to be filled with blowouts. Just about every game featured double-digit favorites. But with the exception of the Wisconsin-Illinois game, every contest was in doubt late in the second half. Iowa was tied with Ohio State in Columbus going into the fourth quarter. Michigan State struggled to put away Purdue. Minnesota upset Northwestern on the road. Michigan needed some school-record offensive performances to finally get by Indiana. Even Illinois scored 32 points on a Wisconsin defense that had been very stingy. This tells us that the final six weeks of the season could be a wild ride, especially in November, when many of the top contenders play each other. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team but hasn't dominated any of its first three league opponents -- in fact, the Buckeyes have trailed at halftime in their past two outings. Indiana plays almost no defense but will make every opponent beat it in a crazy shootout. Teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska have enough flaws that you're not quite sure what to expect from week to week. Call it parity or call it mediocrity. Either way, the rest of the Big Ten race should be a whole lot of fun.
2. Ohio State is becoming a second-half team: Coach Urban Meyer's Buckeyes had their first few victories sewn up at the end of the first half, if not the first quarter. In Ohio State's first five games, it outscored its opponents 121-21 in the first quarter and 175-47 in the first half. But after going conservative in the second half of a Sept. 28 win against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes are starting to play their best football in the final 30 minutes of games, mostly because of necessity. Much like they did against Northwestern, the Buckeyes struggled early Saturday against Iowa, which had a terrific offensive game plan and limited Ohio State to 25 first-half plays. But the Buckeyes' offense put on a clinic in the second half, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on its first four possessions. Ohio State ran 30 plays in the third quarter alone. Braxton Miller, nearly benched against Northwestern because of turnovers, showed why he's the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, completing 22 of 27 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He added 102 rush yards, including a cross-field 9-yard scamper on third-and-7 that set up an even better run by Carlos Hyde, who leaped into the end zone for a 19-yard score. Hyde again proved too much down the stretch, bulldozing his way to 149 rush yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Ohio State isn't getting rattled by shaky starts, and its knack for strong finishes should come in handy in November.
3. Northwestern has come unglued: A little more than a fortnight ago, Northwestern was a top-20 team that held a fourth-quarter lead on Ohio State. Pretty much nothing has gone right since then. The Wildcats got manhandled 35-6 in Week 7 at Wisconsin, a performance that one could easily chalk up to an Ohio State hangover. But after a 20-17 home loss to Minnesota, it now seems Northwestern is suffering from a serious illness. Losing quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark -- both of whom were injured again at Wisconsin and didn't play versus the Gophers -- has robbed the Wildcats of explosiveness on offense, although coach Pat Fitzgerald's team should still have enough talent to get by Minnesota at home. You wonder whether the injuries have taken a mental toll, and quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled in a full-time role. Northwestern was once 4-0 and looking like one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Today it is 0-3 in the league, out of Legends Division contention and in need of some answers fast.
4. Don't get too excited about that Michigan State offensive renaissance: Two straight solid offensive performances -- including a 42-point outburst in Week 7 versus Indiana -- made it appear that Michigan State had solved its long-running problems on that side of the ball. Saturday's 14-0 win over Purdue will slow down some of that talk. The Spartans managed just one offensive touchdown and only 294 total yards against the Boilermakers, who entered the game last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.8 points per game allowed in the first six weeks). Quarterback Connor Cook, who had come on strong the previous two weeks, went just 13-of-25 for 107 yards. Wide receiver Tony Lippett threw for the lone offensive score on a trick play. At least running back Jeremy Langford had another big day, rushing for 131 yards. Yeah, the weather wasn't great. But the Spartans missed injured receiver Bennie Fowler (hamstring) more than we expected, and given the opponent, their performance raises questions again about whether this is a championship-level offense.
5. Quarterbacks shuffle again at Minnesota and Indiana: If you can figure out the quarterback situations for either the Gophers or the Hoosiers, please let us know. After going back and forth between Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson -- who appear to share similar skills -- Minnesota seemed to settle on Leidner as its starter. But then Nelson came in and played much better in relief while leading the team to a big victory at Northwestern. Is Nelson back to being the guy? Or is this just a ride-the-hot-hand situation? Similarly, we were confused as to why Kevin Wilson had been reluctant to anoint Nate Sudfeld as the Hoosiers' main signal-caller despite Sudfeld's gaudy numbers this season. Wilson insisted that Tre Roberson still had a role, and Roberson gave the team a huge spark at Michigan with 288 passing yards. Sudfeld threw a costly interception late after Roberson got dinged. Perhaps both teams can juggle two quarterbacks as effectively as Northwestern has done for the past year and a half.