Charboneau: Big Ten East better than ever

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Spartans Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson (9) tackle Notre Dame running back Josh Adams (1) for a loss.

The Big Ten offered up plenty to talk about this week, and typically I would start out by having some fun and taking shots at the fact the West Division is now 0-2 against Western Michigan or the fact Iowa lost out on the September version of the FCS national championship.

Or we could have a more serious discussion about Penn State’s wildly inappropriate decision to honor Joe Paterno on Saturday.

But this time we’re gonna start by talking about how stinkin good the East Division contenders really are.

Yes, we all believed going into the season that Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State were the class of the conference and winning the East was going to be a knock-down, drag-em-out battle. But just three weeks into the season, it’s shaping up to be even better than that.

It’s a few weeks away from the first meeting of the teams – Michigan’s visit to Michigan State on Oct. 29 – but from what we’ve seen so far, we could be in for some doozies.

The first team to play on Saturday was Michigan, and for about a quarter, it looked like the Wolverines were going to struggle playing a team with a pulse as the trailed Colorado 21-7. However, it didn’t take long for Michigan to get rolling behind and do-everything sophomore Jabrill Peppers.

Peppers had nine tackles, a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss while also producing 204 total yards, including 99 yards on punt returns. He scored on a 54-yard punt return, the first of his career.

“Jabrill Peppers proved he was the best player in today’s game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We don’t win that game without Jabrill Peppers.”

Probably not, but the Wolverines were sure happy to see they can bounce back from a little adversity, something that hadn’t happened in the first two weeks but will almost certainly take place during three brutal road games later this season at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.

As for the Spartans, it probably shouldn’t come as all that big of a surprise that they headed into their matchup with Notre Dame as the underdog. Most were unsure about the defending conference champion after an uneven performance in the opener over Furman followed by a bye.

But Michigan State was dominant at times, scoring 36 straight points over the second and third quarters then withstanding a furious Notre Dame rally. Now the Spartans head into next week’s matchup with Wisconsin riding high with confidence.

“When you don't play well and people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to rise up a little bit,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think that's what we did. I think we came into this football game with something to prove, talked all along that we needed to measure up and I thought we did that.”

The night was capped off by Ohio State’s 45-24 victory at Oklahoma, basically wiping out playoff hopes for the Sooners and kindling those for a young Buckeyes team that knew it had a great quarterback but wondered about everything else.

“This was the coming-of-age game,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I just made a comment earlier about that, I took a deep breath and as I just watched our guys be on the buses, I thought, ‘My gosh, this is a young team.’ This was for a lot of them their first road experience. I'm very proud of them.”

J.T. Barrett was his usual self, throwing for four touchdowns and running for 74 yards. But the breakouts were clear all over the field from younger players as sophomore Noah Brown had four touchdown catches and redshirt freshman Mike Weber ran for 123 yards.

It was all an indication on Saturday that we might have undersold how good the East battle will be. Yes, we were pretty sure it would be good, but it might just turn out to be incredible.

West Division questions

Anyone want to try and figure out the West Division at this point?

Iowa was everyone’s favorite and still might very well win it again and play in Indianapolis in December. But after the loss to North Dakota State, you have to start wondering.

Here’s a vote for Nebraska, which knocked off No. 22 Oregon on Saturday behind a heck of a performance from quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. His 34-yard touchdown run with less than three minutes to play was the winning score as he threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns while running for 95 yards and the final TD.

The 3-0 Cornhuskers now enter Big Ten play with a favorable schedule through late October leading up to a trip to Wisconsin on Oct. 29.

But they aren’t ordering the championship rings yet.

“What it means right this moment is a lot. We're 3-0 going into the Big Ten,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "What this team is doing, I love the fight, just the fact we kept our poise so well to come back and make the plays to win.”

Double whammy

We would be remiss if we didn’t revisit the Iowa loss. It could have been a double whammy for the Big Ten, but Wisconsin managed to hang on against Georgia State.

Iowa, however, couldn’t do the same against North Dakota State.

“It's painful anytime you lose, and there's really not a lot of value that takes place when you do lose a game other than if you learn from it,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Probably the only good news for us, we've got another nine football games in front of us, and that's where our focus has to go here at some given point.”

No, North Dakota State is not a bad team. It’s hard to come to that conclusion when you win five straight FCS national titles. But Iowa is no average team, either. The Hawkeyes expect to win the Big Ten West, and while this does nothing to hurt that, hopes of a playoff spot take a big hit when you lose to an FCS team – a hit that’s nearly impossible to recover from.

That’s the position the Hawkeyes are in. They can still win the Big Ten, but anything beyond that might be a stretch.