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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Big Ten Recap: Wild upsets, unpredictable finishes in the conference

Penn State upset by unranked Spartans, Nebraska remains winless under Scott Frost, Buckeyes pull away from Gophers

In a week characterized by wild upsets and unpredictable finishes, the Big Ten also followed the script. 

Here’s what happened around the conference.

No. 8 Penn State upset at home by unranked Michigan State

Two weeks removed from a 27-26 loss at home against No. 3 Ohio State, Penn State needed all the wins they could get in order to reopen a path to the Big Ten Championship game. The Nittany Lions welcomed an unranked Michigan State team to Beaver Stadium Saturday.

In classic Big Ten fashion, the teams traded punts and turnovers for much of the first half; a 48-yard touchdown run from Penn State running back Miles Sanders at the end of the half gave the Nittany Lions a 14-7 lead heading into the break.

The Spartans quickly evened the score in the third quarter. A quick six-play, 64-yard drive capped off with a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brian Lewerke put MSU in a great position to finish off the upset.

Missed opportunities characterized the second half for Penn State. Over three consecutive third-quarter drives, the PSU offense turned the ball over on downs, fumbled and missed a 37-yard field goal. Kicker Jake Pinegar was able to connect on a 20-yard field goal with 9:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, putting the Nittany Lions back in front by three.

With 1:19 left in regulation, Michigan State was faced with a do-or-die drive in need of at least a field goal to tie. Lewerke sparkled under the pressure. The junior completed four passes for over 10 yards on the drive, connecting with Felton Davis III on third-and-two for 25 yards and six points to put the Spartans up 21-17 with just 19 seconds left. On the ensuing drive, time expired on the Penn State offense before they could get across midfield.

The defeat marks Penn State’s second conference loss of the season, arguably ending their hopes of a Big Ten East championship. Entering the season with College Football Playoff hopes, the Nittany Lions’ inability to win at home dashed their dreams.

Nebraska blows late lead at Northwestern, falls to 0-6

For the sixth straight week, head coach Scott Frost has headed to the postgame podium to discuss another loss for his still-winless Nebraska team. Last weekend’s 34-31 loss to Northwestern may have been the most frustrating so far.

Nebraska looked well on their way to win number one late in the fourth quarter. Already leading by a touchdown, kicker Barret Pickering hit from 34 yards out to put the Huskers ahead by two scores, 31-21, with just over five minutes remaining in the game. Nebraska’s defense held tight at the goal line, but a Northwestern field goal narrowed the gap to seven points with only 2:27 to play.

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A quick three-and-out from the Nebraska offense forced them to punt, but a beautiful kick from Isaiah Armstrong pinned Northwestern at their own one-yard line. Quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats’ offense would have to march 99 yards to tie the ballgame.

Nebraska’s defense was torched the entire drive and wide receiver J.J. Jefferson found the end zone with 12 seconds to play to even the score at 31-31.

Overtime went equally terrible for Frost and the Huskers. After turning the ball over on fourth and one from the Northwestern 46-yard line, the Nebraska defense let Northwestern pick up just enough yards to comfortably drill a 37-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a dramatic 34-31 victory at Ryan Field.

Northwestern improves to 3-1 in conference play in 2018, giving them sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West and in control of their destiny if they win out and beat West-favorites Wisconsin at home in a few weeks.

Ohio State stays undefeated, holds off Minnesota 30-14

No. 3 Ohio State is showing the world once again why they are a perennial championship contender. Even after turning in a sloppy, far-from-perfect performance against an unranked Minnesota team, the Buckeyes were able to pull away from the competition in crunch time to win 30-14.

Leading 17-14 at halftime, the OSU defense shut out the Minnesota offense in the second half, holding true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad to just 13 completions and 218 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Buckeye offense did their part as well. OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins helped solidify his candidacy in the Heisman race this fall, completing 33 of 44 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Haskins connected with his favorite target K.J. Hill nine times during the game; Hill racked up 187 yards and two scores of his own.

With Georgia’s loss to LSU later Saturday afternoon, Ohio State is now firmly in the playoff picture. The Big Ten favorites sit at 7-0 (4-0 in conference play), but cannot afford to lose more than once in upcoming battles against Michigan State and No. 12 Michigan later this season, and they still have the Big Ten title game to deal with.

As for head coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers, 2018 may serve as a learning experience for the team’s younger players. Minnesota fell to 0-3 in the Big Ten with the loss, burying them below Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West.

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