In America’s heartland, the farmers had reason to rejoice. Iowa and Wisconsin stepped up and delivered big wins, both of which reshape our outlook on the Big Ten race, at the top and in the middle. Iowa’s prime-time win over Penn State was predicted here in the Notebook and the 21-10 final really doesn’t do justice to how completely the Hawkeyes dominated the Nittany Lions on their homefield. PSU got a 79-yard touchdown pass a couple minutes into the game. The rest of the night belonged to the Iowa defense. It was a slug-it-out game, and it took into the fourth quarter before the Hawks finally got the lead, on a blocked punt run in for a touchdown. And the way their defense was playing that 11-10 lead seemed like a lot more. They picked off Daryl Clark three times, harassed him all night long and tacked on ten more insurance points for good measure. Brent Musberger allowed that Iowa had to be on the radar screen for the Big Ten championship. I’ll admit to being offended—obviously Musberger isn’t reading the Notebook or they would have been on his screen already. As for Penn State, they still have time to get back in the race. Iowa has tough road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin and I think every contender will lose at least one league game. But I haven’t believed all year that the Lions are really good enough and nothing I saw Saturday night is inclined to make me change my mind.
Now that I’ve finished ungraciously gloating, it’s time to look at a team that I appear to have grossly underrated. I saw Wisconsin as anywhere from 8th to 10th in the Big Ten, while Michigan State was the dark horse contender. The Badgers beat the Spartans 38-30 in another game not nearly as close as the score makes it sound. It was 38-17 until a pair of garbage time touchdowns made it look respectable. Scott Tolzien threw for 243 yards and four touchdowns, while John Clay muscled his way for 142 yards on the ground. Though undefeated I still don’t see UW as a championship contender in this league. The defense is flawed. Michigan State racked up 396 yards in the air. The Badgers, as they did against Fresno State a couple weeks earlier, forced enough mistakes to keep the score down, but this looks more like an up-and-down team than a championship one. Either way, Bret Bielama took a lot of heat off himself with this win and he’s a legitimate contender to get in the top four and have a shot at a January 1 bowl game.
One coach that does have a lot of heat on him barely escaped Saturday night. Notre Dame needed a last-second touchdown toss by an injured Jimmy Clausen to win at Purdue 24-21. The same Purdue who lost to Northern Illinois. Had the Boilers won, the Charlie Weis era would have been all but over. But given how poorly ND played, that may just be a matter of time. Remember when we were wondering just how big that ND-Michigan game was a couple weeks ago? We may have gotten our answer on both counts. The Wolverines also needed last minute heroics to escape Indiana at home. Neither the Irish or Wolverines have done anything remotely impressive outside their game with each other, so what does that tell you?
In the SEC…
Since their Thursday night non-performance against South Carolina, it’s become fashionable to say that Ole Miss is clearly not a contender and was grossly overrated at #4. I really don’t have anything to add to that obvious point and in the interests of not piling on Houston Nutt’s team, I’ll move on with just this observation—the Rebs were indeed overrated, including by me, but instead of bashing them over the head, shouldn’t we instead rebuke ourselves for bad prognostication? It’s not as though Ole Miss is a football factory, in a state bursting at the seams with recruit. They share space with Mississippi State competing for a limited number of recruits. Based on what they have to work with, they can still have a nice season. We overestimated how good they really were. That’s our fault. They can only be accountable for fulfilling their potential as a program, a goal eminently within their reach.
There’s no doubt Alabama is a national contender, and the Crimson Tide thumped Arkansas 35-7. Greg McElroy is really looking good behind center, and at 17/24 for 291 yards and three touchdowns, he’s having a better year than another more heralded quarterback at rival Florida. That quarterback was all over the headlines for having left the Gators’ 41-7 win over Kentucky with a concussion. The good news for Florida fans is that they have a bye week next before going to LSU, so Tim Tebow will have time to recover.
And as LSU rises to #4, they might be the latest SEC team to be overrated in that spot. The Tigers barely got by Mississippi State, 30-26 and it can’t be overstated how fortunate they were to win. They needed a touchdown from both their special teams and defense to escape with their lives.
Out west in the Pac-10….
Cal was awful against Oregon, losing 42-3 and the stats show the game being every bit that ugly. Jahvid Best, the choice here and elsewhere for the Heisman right now, did nothing. Jeremiah Masoli was nearly flawless for the Ducks and Chip Kelly’s team rang up 236 yards on the ground. The Golden Bears are not ready maturity-wise to win a conference championship, even though USC looks as vulnerable as ever. The Trojans got back on track with an easy win over Washington State and Matt Barkley played well. But the Trojans handed over 115 yards worth of penalties and really didn’t run the ball all that well. They have plenty of time to get back in the national title race, but those are the markings of a team that might have one more loss left in them.
One team that might be able to hand it USC on a bad day is Stanford. The Cardinal is now 3-1 and ended the Washington bandwagon as quickly as it began. Toby Gerhart is an early contender for Pac-10 MVP, rushing for 200 yards as his team moved to 3-1 by pulling away in the second half for a 34-14 win. And Arizona edged Oregon State, in spite of a great all-purpose day by Beaver running back Jacquizz Rodgers. He carried 16 times for 85 yards and caught 13 passes for 70 more. The Pac-10’s the best its been in a while and all of these teams promise an entertaining fall out west.
That wraps up the look at Week 4. See you Wednesday to start looking ahead to the weekend.