How quickly things can change.
Entering Saturday, the pecking order in each division of the Big Ten seemed fairly clear. But as is the norm in college football, nothing is ever as it seems.
By the time the day had ended, Wisconsin was reeling and Penn State was stunned, both almost certainly knocked out of playoff contention as the Nittany Lions have the added downfall of being two games down in the Big Ten East while the Badgers’ stranglehold on the West was just loosened significantly.
On the flip side, Michigan kept pace with Ohio State and Michigan State served notice that its season, in fact, wasn’t over and will have plenty to say about who wins the East. And over in the West, Iowa and Northwestern are now suddenly tied atop the division and feeling like the race is wide open.
“Great Character. Absolutely terrific character,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That's who they are. It's who we recruit. After we got the field goal to cut it to a one score game the guys, they're going ‘we're winning the game. We're winning this football game.’”
That’s exactly what the Wildcats did, erasing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Nebraska at home. At the same time, Iowa was rolling over Indiana on the road and Purdue was winning its third straight.
After Wisconsin’s loss, all four were tied atop the West standings with Northwestern and Purdue yet to face the Badgers. Iowa lost a tough one earlier this season to Wisconsin, but that hasn’t deterred the Hawkeyes. On Saturday, they got up on Indiana and never let up.
“We’re trying to be a championship-level football team around here,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “Once you get up on a team, you need to step on the gas. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
With half the Big Ten season to go, the shuffling has created a stretch run that should get interesting. It’s the same story over in the East. Ohio State is the class of the conference, but with games still against Michigan State and Michigan, there’s still plenty to be determined.
As for the Nittany Lions, it’s all about picking up the pieces for the second straight season as they followed a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State with one to Michigan State, just like in 2017.
“We know there is going to be a lot of criticism from everyone outside of this locker room, outside of this stadium,” freshman receiver KJ Hamler said. “I don't care what they say. I don't care what they say about me, I don't care what they say about the team, I don't care what they say about Coach Franklin, I love them to death. We just have to bounce back. We have a lot of football ahead of us.”
They do, but odds are that roll is now as a spoiler with games against Michigan and Wisconsin still to come.
As for the Badgers, winning out would still get them back to the conference championship game. And while the playoffs are out, that is now the focus.
“We got beat tonight,” coach Paul Chryst said. "There’s things to learn from it, but you go forward, and this group will do that.”
While things are heating up near the top half of both divisions, things couldn’t get much worse for those at the bottom.
For Nebraska, the misery continues as the Cornhuskers lost at 10-point lead in the final six minutes at Northwestern. First-year coach Scott Frost remains winless and the soul-searching is in full effect.
“This is wearing on me, but mostly I just feel bad for them, especially the seniors,” Frost said. “Lombardi said it: Winning is a habit, and unfortunately, so is losing. We challenged the guys before the game: Find a way to make one more play to put us over the top. ... We had some guys step up and make some plays today. Coulda, woulda, shoulda ended the game for us.”
Things aren’t a whole lot better at Rutgers. In fact, they’re probably worse even though the Scarlet Knights have a win.
But Rutgers getting blown out on such a regular basis that coach Chris Ash can hardly feel comfortable about his status in Year 3.
“My job is to coach the football team, and the players are going to react to me,” Ash said. “I'm going to show up every day to coach the football team. That's what we do. When you put a lot of time and effort into it, and I'm talking about the players, they get frustrated. And I understand that. We as coaches do, too.
“But our job is to show up and continue to control what we can control and that's our attitude and that's our effort and the way we stick together."