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Week 4 review (The epic choke heard ‘round the Big Ten)

When looking at the result of this past weekend in the Big Ten one thing is blatantly obvious: Michigan State is never going to be ready to return to the big boy table and seriously be considered as a contender. Every year the Spartans start hot and raise their fans hopes, and every year they collapse spectacularly and plummet from contender to pretender. The first such instance of this came in 1999 when the Spartans rolled into West Lafayette with a spotless 6-0 record and #5 national ranking. In that game, Drew Brees and Chris Daniels put on one of the most impressive passing displays I have ever seen. Brees threw for five first half touchdowns, ran for another in the second half, and finished with 509 yards passing in a 52-28 woodshed beating. Brees’ numbers would have been even gaudier if not for four interceptions, two of which were returned 75+ yards for touchdowns. Daniels set NCAA records with 21 catches and 301 yards to go with three TD’s as he and Brees had a Shinning-like thing going on all over the field.

We should have seen the trend before that, as in the two previous Purdue-Michigan State games the Spartans had double digit leads with less than five minutes to go to only lose each time. Since that 1999 game Michigan State has started all but one season with promise, only to have a critical loss, usually to a team it should have handled easily, derail its season. We’re not exactly talking about USC or Texas here, either. Northwestern, Louisiana Tech, and Rutgers are among the teams that have knocked off the Spartans early on. Suffice to say, Michigan State has become the poster team, even more so than my beloved tortured Boilermakers, for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Remember, last year Michigan State beat Notre Dame in South Bend and collapsed after an overtime loss to Michigan, so much so it later lost to the same Purdue team that got absolutely drilled by the Irish in West Lafayette.

So why are we surprised they did it again Saturday night? Perhaps it is because of the way it happened this time. Through three quarters of the game, only the ABC announcing crew, who seemed to be on the verge of tears that Notre was losing and that Quinn’s Heisman hopes were over, seemed to believe that Notre Dame could pull it out. My Saturday night remarks were made during the game, and everything certainly looked like the Spartans were going to cruise. Even to the point where Michigan State had driven deep into Notre Dame territory with a 16 point fourth quarter lead it had not played great in the second half, but it looked all but over.
Then it all fell apart over one of the strangest six minutes of football ever. First Michigan State gets enough penalties to makes it so they could not even punt, go to where the ball landed, and punt again for a first down distance, a quick but seemingly meaningless touchdown drive followed by a stop 2-point conversion, and even then things still seemed in hand. After Stanton’s fumble and subsequent quick Notre Dame score, the Spartans just panicked. How do you explain going away from the running game that was working with the massive running back they have, and instead throwing the ball leading to the completely dumbass interception returned for a TD. The fact that the game ended with another pick was only salt in the wound at that point.

Now the media is crowing over how it wouldn’t have happened if Notre Dame hadn’t given up, that it made plays, that Quinn kept them in it, yada, yada, yada. Well, it’s bullshit. That’s right, B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T. Notre Dame was dead, about as dead as a team can get, and Michigan State still managed to cough up the game. Even Charlie Weis sounded completely stunned at what just happened, and almost every fan in Spartan Stadium sat their with a, "WTF just happened" look on their faces. Credit Notre Dame for being in the right place at the right time, but this was not an "Instant classic" that people are referring too unless it one of the greatest chokes in college football history.

So from now on, it gets this serious for me. Until they prove otherwise, the Spartans are now being lumped in the same category as Indiana as far as the Big Ten goes. They are slightly above, since they have not lost to a 1-AA team this year, but until they prove themselves by holding on later on against Ohio State and Michigan, Michigan State will no longer be taken seriously by me.

Last week I talked about which teams in the Big Ten can already make plans to be going bowling somewhere this winter, based on their performances thus far into the season. This week I think the picture is much, much more clear than last week. Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State only cemented their status of making any bowl by getting to 4-0. Despite losses, I still think Wisconsin and even Michigan State are still good to go, although Michigan State is shakier than ever after last week. Northwestern, IU, and Illinois aren’t sure things for them. Purdue I think moved to near lock status for a bowl with over Minnesota. My Boilers only need to win three of their last nine games, and with the bottom three of the Big Ten still to go on the schedules it’s a fairly safe bet. That leaves one bowl spot left, maybe two to be filled. Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana can probably forget about it after two non-conference losses, so that leaves Minnesota and Penn State to fight over the last spot. Here is how I rank the Big Ten this week:

Title contenders:
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan
3. Iowa (can make a HUGE statement this week at home)
Almost certain bowl teams:
4. Wisconsin
5. Purdue (by virtue of a weak remaining schedule after Iowa, and Wisky and Penn State at home)
6. Penn State (They have Michigan State at home in the last game, a mortal lock if there ever was one.)
7. Michigan State (only because of the bottom three left.)
Could go either way:
8. Minnesota (need four wins, ND State and IU are two, talent is there to get two more somewhere if Mason doesn’t gack another one)
When does basketball season start:
9. Northwestern (whoops, they’re not good there, either)
10. Illinois
11. Indiana (by virtue having to play in Champaign and that Illinois hung around with Iowa)

I know this tarnishes my glowing view of the Big Ten a bit, but the conference as a whole wasn’t that exciting this past week. Ohio State and Michigan went through the motions and still won easily against two of the teams that could have possibly come up to challenge them. Only if Iowa pulls off the upset this week will it appear that this will be an actual race, unless Purdue uses its weak schedule and a few upsets to get involved since it does not play the two heavyweights. The conference lost all three games it played against outside foes, and while Notre Dame is a respectable loss, the way that it happened wasn’t. Nevada (over Northwestern) and Connecticut (over Indiana) aren’t exactly going to be beating down the door to Glendale this year, either. It did make for a nice week though, as I correctly picked all seven Big ten games before blowing my two national games.

For the second straight week the rock was left undefeated for a dog to pee on it, and this one may have been worse than last week. What was supposed to be a strength for Indiana this year, its passing game, has now become a glaring weakness and James Hardy, the one serviceable offensive player the same old, sorry-assed Hoosiers have, seems more content to find other women to beat than defensive backs. He hasn’t played in the last two games, and it has shown as, despite how badly the Hoosiers have played, he could have made a difference.

And how can IU manage zero rushing yards over the course of a game? It should be interesting to watch every team IU plays from now on drop seven guys into coverage and dare them to throw. At least Purdue’s defensive stats will get a nice boost by playing Illinois’ and Indiana’s inept offenses at the end of the season.

As promised this week, I will unveil my personal top 25. Bear in mind, these rankings are merely based on my own conjecture, so take them for what they are. I’ve only been to four games and by the best team I have seen play in person is Louisville, but the second one is probably Purdue, as Miami is that bad (both of them). I’ve tried to watch a little of everyone else, however, so I am already instantly more informed than every coach in the coaches poll. So here we go!

1. Auburn (more impressed by their win over LSU, than Oho State’s over Texas)
2. Ohio State
3. Michigan (very impressed by the last two weeks)
4. LSU (so they have a loss, unlike many below them, they’ve played someone)
5. USC
6. Florida
7. Louisville (Above West Virginia because of the Miami win w/o Bush, Brohm)
8. West Virginia
9. Virginia Tech
10. Iowa (Can really move up this week)
11. Georgia (What the hell was that against Colorado?)
12. Texas
13. Notre Dame (this feels about right, but the remaining schedule is not as easy as it looks)
14. Oregon
15. Oklahoma
16. Tennessee
17. TCU (very impressed by the defense shutting down Texas Tech to 3 pts.)
18. California
19. Clemson
20. Nebraska
21. Boise State
22. Florida State
23. Georgia Tech
24. Missouri
25. Purdue
Close to the top 25: Rutgers, Wake Forest, Texas A&M

I think there is such a drop-off after the top 16-20 that everyone else behind those teams is fairly equal. My justification for Purdue being #25 stems just from the improvement they have shown me since week one. I also think Wake Forest and Rutgers are very, very close to getting the nod here, but it's my blog, so its my vote. I still think Saturday will be a loss, but I feel a lot better about our chances than I did following the Indiana State game. If they continue to improve, Purdue very well could turn out to be the fourth best team in the Big Ten, and with the schedule being the way it is, they would only play one of the perceived three ahead of them.
So those are my thoughts for this week. I am looking forward to Saturday because for the first time in a long time, the Notre Dame game is a nothing to lose game for us. Everyone expects us to go up there and lose, and even if we do it’s not the end of the world like in past seasons. There is no pressure on us to do anything except compete and learn.

And that’s exactly what was expected in 1997…