Roughly halfway through the Big Ten season, Michigan and Rutgers are tied for fourth place in the East Division with 2-2 conference records.
That’s right about where we all expected both teams to be.
OK, so that’s not at all where most people expected those teams to be. We’ll leave the Michigan debate for another time and for those who truly wish to dive into the issues with the Wolverines.
For now, let’s talk about Rutgers and the fact the Scarlet Knights have a two-game winning streak in the Big Ten. Yes, that Rutgers team. The one that had a grand total of four conference wins over its first three years in the conference. The one that went winless – that’s 0-9 – last season under first-year coach Chris Ash. The one that lost to Eastern Michigan this season.
Yes, that Scarlet Knights team won their second straight Saturday by beating Purdue, 14-12. And a look at the stat sheet makes you kind of scratch your head and wonder how.
Purdue outgained Rutgers 474-217 and had 25 first downs to just eight for the Scarlet Knights. But a pair of Boilermakers turnovers and two big plays allowed Rutgers to stop a late two-point conversion try to preserve the victory.
“It's OK to win games like that, but it wasn't pretty,” Ash said. “Really excited about our team. We challenged them several weeks ago after the Ohio State game to bounce back and show tremendous grit and resolve and brotherhood, and they've done that.”
That Ohio State game was a low point, to be sure, as the Buckeyes went through a light workout to get a 56-0 win. And bouncing back becomes a lot easier when the next two teams on the schedule are Illinois – a team in worse shape than Rutgers – and a Purdue team that is showing signs of life but is still a ways from being a true player in the Big Ten.
That, Rutgers did take advantage of, and when Raheem Blackshear – a Michigan State commit for all of five days – scored on a 35-yard pass in the third quarter, it put the Scarlet Knights in position to hang on and create their first Big Ten winning streak.
“If you want to talk about identity, just mentally and physically tough, we laid it on the line,” Ash said. “They did it for each other, and that would be our identity.”
That identity might get challenged next week. Rutgers hits the road for a huge fourth-place battle with Michigan. Of course, the Wolverines will be in a foul mood after getting whitewashed at Penn State.
After that, the Scarlet Knights also have dates with Maryland, Penn State, Indiana and Michigan State. They won’t be favored in any, most likely, but that won’t take away a couple weeks of joy.
And who knows, maybe it’s a sign that Ash has his team on the right path.
“The fact that I get to watch them celebrate the way they have the last two weekends, that's all the gratification I need,” Ash said. “That's the only thing I worry about. I don't care if it's two wins in a row, three. Every Saturday we get one win and they get to celebrate like that, man, that's so rewarding.”
‘Never take winning for granted’
After losing three straight, P.J. Fleck got his first Big Ten win as Minnesota (4-3, 1-3) got the schedule prize by hosting Illinois on Saturday. It resulted in a 24-17 victory for the Gophers, who hadn’t won a game since the middle of September.
“It’s been close to a month now. Never take winning for granted,” Fleck said. “The result is really nice, but I go back to how we got to that point. We have so much to get better at. We have so many kids to develop and keep getting better. We have so many kids that we have to continue to instill the belief in them.”
There is plenty of progress to be made for the Gophers, but starting with a bruising running game can be good, even after losing Shannon Brooks to injury. Minnesota ran for 292 yards with Kobe McCrary gaining 153 yards and Rodney Smith gaining 103. Both were big in a 12-play, third-quarter drive that ended with a McCrary 4-yard touchdown run.
“My mindset was to make sure that the running backs didn’t skip a beat,” McCrary said. “We lost Shannon and he is one of the best backs in the Big Ten, so I knew I had to step in and fill his role. We came in the game knowing we had to run the ball and dominate the line of scrimmage, so Coach got me prepared to run hard like I did.”
They’ll need plenty more of that moving forward, as well as making big plays like linebacker Jon Celestin’s 31-yard interception return for a touchdown. The schedule gets tougher and the Gophers expect to be playing in a bowl game.
A better performance from the passing game will help – Demry Croft threw for just 47 yards and had two interceptions in his first start – but the feeling from Saturday can help.
“It means a lot to us,” linebacker Thomas Barber said. “We’re excited and we’re going to enjoy it for a little bit and then get back tomorrow and focus on next week so we can keep getting better.”
Penn State-Ohio State showdown
There were some who thought Penn State was ranked too high at No. 2, saying the Nittany Lions hadn’t played anybody.
Think anyone is saying that now?
All Penn State did was light up the No. 1 defense in the nation for more than 500 total yards in a 42-13 blowout of Michigan. And in the process, the Nittany Lions served notice – were you watching, Ohio State? – that not only do they have a dynamic offense, but the defense isn’t bad, either.
“All week long, everybody was talking about their defense,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Michigan. “We've got a pretty good defense around here.”
Good enough to hold Michigan to 269 yards. But the Wolverines are hardly an offensive juggernaut.
Can Penn State do the same next week against Ohio State, which has the No. 3 total offense in the country and the No. 2 scoring offense?
“There’s still a lot of things that I think we can improve on, which is the exciting thing, but we’ve got 37 minutes to enjoy this win,” Franklin said late Saturday night. “I’m not talking about the next opponent and enjoy the heck out of this win for 37 minutes and then the next day we’ll focus on the next opponent. I know people are going to ask me; I’m not answering. Thirty-seven minutes to enjoy this win with the fans and our team and I’m just really proud of them.”