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The Big 10: Northwestern — refusing to slip into irrelevance — leading B1G West

Ninety-nine yards. And go on and add half a yard more to that, as Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald did.

It was the drive to end all drives — the full football field, really, in the final two minutes as the Wildcats (3-3) rallied at Ryan Field to force overtime and eventually top winless Nebraska 34-31.

“That’s about as good as you can get,” Fitzgerald said.

It was a definitive drive for quarterback Clayton Thorson, a fourth-year starter and one of the best at his position in school history. It was a character drive for the offense and a program drive for all the Wildcats, who refuse to slip into irrelevance.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson leads Northwestern in singing the school fight song after a 34-31 overtime victory against Nebraska. (AP/Jim Young)

They could’ve caved after a 20-17 loss to Michigan three Saturdays ago in which they blew a 17-0 lead. But they responded with an upset victory at Michigan State and now this — the 99½-yard gut check that got them to 3-1 in the Big Ten.

Worth noting: The Wildcats have a half-game lead over Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue in the West division. Might a path that began with three losses in four games lead to the league title game in Indianapolis?

Probably not, but it’s a kick to think about.

On to the rest of the “Big 10” (where 10 actually means 10):

2. Are we there yet? I can’t be the only one who watched Michigan’s 38-13 dismantling of Wisconsin and found his imagination drifting into the near future. No, not to this weekend’s game at Michigan State. No, not to the following Saturday’s matchup with Penn State.

I’m talking about Nov. 24 at Ohio State, but you probably knew that already.

Early line, per Bovada: Buckeyes -7½. Discuss.

3. Sparty on, dudes: Speaking of Michigan State and Penn State, the Spartans’ 21-17 upset victory in Happy Valley was a reminder of just how deep the Big Ten East is. Yes, MSU is good enough to play with anybody. Yes, PSU is, too.

Wisconsin and the rest of the West? Not so much.

4. Little brother: Not to pick on the West, but when the best team (it’s still Wisconsin, isn’t it?) has no playmakers on defense and a quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, who struggles with accuracy and offers zero running threat, well, let’s just say the sky isn’t the limit.

Someday, the gap between the divisions will shrink. Maybe.

5. You’re … not good: Did you catch the big touchdown drive by Illinois? It was the story of the day in Champaign, unless you count the (ahem) 46 consecutive points scored by Purdue that came after it.

Yeah, that’ll leave a mark.

6. Bum and bummer: More proof that Illinois hired the wrong Toledo coach after the 2011 season came in the form of Iowa State’s 30-14 dismantling of unbeaten West Virginia. The Cyclones are coached by Matt Campbell, who was Toledo’s offensive coordinator under Tim Beckman. Speaking of whom, have Becks and former Illini athletic director Mike Thomas made that buddy movie yet?

7. Pitt stop: We’ve gone a long time without mentioning Notre Dame, which looked nothing like a playoff contender in a 19-14 victory over Pittsburgh. Weird game. Inconsistent team. I’m still betting on the Irish to make the playoff, but I’ll deny ever having said it if they lose to Navy on Saturday in San Diego.

8. Fab five: One of these men will be national coach of the year — Texas’ Tom Herman, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops or Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly.

Unless it’s — what’s his name again? — that Nick Saban fella.

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9. Fab two? It just might be there are only two real Heisman Trophy candidates out there. Any guesses? If you’ve been paying attention, you answered Alabama quarterback Tua Tagvailoa and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins very quickly.

10. Mea culpa: A week ago in this space, I remarked how “stressed out” and “miserable” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer appeared during a game against Indiana. What I missed — and shouldn’t have — was that Meyer was suffering from headaches due to an arachnoid cyst. That’s 15 yards on me for piling on.