If there was a year when two Big Ten teams might be good enough to be included in the four-team playoff field at the end of the season, this could be it.
No, I’m not gonna get into playoff projections less than halfway through the season and start breaking down which conferences might get left out if two from the Big Ten made it. I’m simply talking about two teams that looked like two of the best teams in the nation.
The Ohio State-Penn State matchup on Saturday night in Happy Valley had everything you’d expect in a heavyweight bout. Star players throwing haymakers, momentum swings, drama down to the last tick of the clock — it was all there.
There are a handful of good teams this season. Maybe even a couple that are really good. And as we all know — though we tend to quickly forget — the first playoff projections never seem to hold by the time it’s all said and done.
But if the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions get a chance to play again, I’m watching.
Let’s forget about the flat-out awful play called by the Nittany Lions on fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 43 in the final minutes.
"We obviously didn't make the right call in that situation, and that's on me, nobody else,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of the peculiar choice to not put the ball in quarterback Trace McSorley’s hands.
Up to that point, it was high drama. No, not perfect, but the swings were fun. Penn State opened a 13-0 lead only to watch Ohio State to score the next 14 points. Penn State was next as it opened a 12-point lead behind the play of McSorley, who had a program-record 461 yards of total offense, including a career-high 175 rushing while throwing two touchdown passes.
With the record-setting crowd in a delirious frenzy, it looked like Penn State was going to pull off the win with less than eight minutes to play. Even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wasn’t sure.
“That sideline was not giving up,” Meyer said. “There was a time, now, you looked up and saw those white pom-poms and that whole deal and thought that was over.”
But Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins orchestrated a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives that flipped everything. First, he connected with Binjimen Victor, who navigated his way to a 47-yard touchdown that cut it to 26-21 with 6:42 left. Then, after Penn State pinned OSU at its 4 with about four-and-a-half minutes to play, Haskins went to work again.
A 35-yard screen pass to J.K. Dobbins got things going and when Haskins hit K.J. Hill with a quick pass to the outside, Hill broke a tackle and raced 24 yards to put the Buckeyes up 27-26 with 2:03 left.
“One of the great drives in Ohio State history,” Meyer said.
The notion of McSorley rallying the Nittany Lions for at least a shot at a winning field goal seemed likely, right up until Franklin decided to run the ball with Miles Sanders on the final fourth-down play.
Nothing is guaranteed moving forward, especially in the Big Ten East. Both teams still have to play Michigan and Michigan State while Penn State also hosts Wisconsin. But the early returns were impressive.
Ohio State’s path remains clear. Penn State’s isn’t quite as simple, but who’s betting against the Nittany Lions? Franklin believes they need to take another step.
“The reality is, we've gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team, but we're not an elite team yet,” Franklin said. “The work that it's going to take to get to an elite program is going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we've already traveled to get there.”
So, yeah, it’s early to talk playoffs. But there’s at least a little hope these teams get another shot at each other.
When you lose the first three games of the season by a total of eight points, you don’t complain about victories. So, Purdue is hardly gonna apologize for its 42-28 victory at Nebraska on Saturday.
“We knew this would be a tough football game,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “We knew the team would be hungry for a win and the fans would come out like they always do. We had to block that out. Our guys just played well. When Nebraska made some runs we could have easily shut that down. We are happy to come out with the victory.”
Who wouldn’t be when their team allowed 582 yards and 30 first downs?
But that, of course, turns the attention to the Cornhuskers, who did their best to give the game away, committing 11 penalties for 136 yards along with five personal fouls.
“In three of our games, we've played well enough to win a game,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. "In my opinion, we looked like one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, and it kills me.”
It kills him because the Huskers remain winless and the buzz that surrounded Frost’s hire is fading. He’ll get plenty of rope being a former national championship winning quarterback for the Huskers, but this is not how things were supposed to go.
So, while the Boilermakers take the win and look past some of the ugly numbers, the Huskers look for not only a win, but a shift in focus.
“We were down 13 points and we had backups and reserves dancing on our sideline before kickoffs," Frost said. "They look like they love losing and they look undisciplined."
Funny how a final score can mean different things to different teams. Indiana beat Rutgers, 24-17, on Saturday. But afterward, the Hoosiers were frustrated while the Scarlet Knights were upbeat.
Indiana, which has won four of five, scored on its first four possessions before shutting things down.
“Challenged our guys at halftime to finish and we did not," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "That's something we have to grow from and learn from. We let them hang around and hang around and they made it interesting at the end.”
Rutgers, which has spent most of the season getting destroyed, saw the silver lining.
“This team's got a lot of fight in it," coach Chris Ash said. "You guys have asked me before, has this team quit? This team hasn't quit, there's a lot of fight in this team, this team won't quit.”
Maybe not, but in the end, the Scarlet Knight still walked away with a loss.