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MUTKA: Can Michigan State buck the Big Ten odds?

Michigan State players including Jermaine Edmonds(39) Kurtis Drummond Trae Waynes (15) R.J. Williams(26) Max Bullough (40) celebrate Waynes' interceptiagainst Minnesotduring

Michigan State players, including Jermaine Edmondson (39), Kurtis Drummond, Trae Waynes (15), R.J. Williamson (26) and Max Bullough (40), celebrate Waynes' interception against Minnesota during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

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Updated: December 1, 2013 11:25PM



Back in the neanderthal age, grind-it-out football advocates were fond of quoting this from the Big Ten bible: offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.

That was before Urban Meyer revised the blueprint at Ohio State.

Under Meyer, the Buckeyes have rolled to a school-record 24 straight victories. They went 12-0 despite a defense which was leakier than an old oaken bucket against California (35 points), Northwestern (30), (Illinois (35) and Michigan (41).

Doormats Northwestern and Illinois never threatened because Braxton Miller, only the third quarterback to surpass 7,000 total yards in Ohio State history; and Carlos Hyde, Meyer’s first 1,000-yard rusher, skewered them. Still, Meyer must be concerned over giving up 600-plus yards to Michigan, which had frequently sputtered before their rivalry game.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michigan State went 8-0 for the first time in Big Ten play, but never gained much respect from poll voters because of an early 17-13 loss to Notre Dame.

Voters were turned off by an inconsistent offense, which gradually evolved as quarterback Connor Cook emerged and Jeremy Langford piled up seven straight 100-yard games to finish with 1,210 rushing yards.

Not enough credit was given to MSU’s lockdown defense, which limited five of its last six opponents to less than seven points.

Spartans like end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough offer penetrating reasons why this is the top-ranked defense in Division I. Simply put, they have put the fear of God into opposing quarterbacks, who have been sacked 28 times.

Saturday’s coming collision at Indianapolis will be their first meeting since the 2012 Big Ten opener, which marked Meyer’s first victory at Ohio State.

I’m picking Michigan State to improve its record to 12-1, but my disdain for the smug Bucks has nothing to do with the prediction (well, maybe a little).

Elsewhere around the Big Ten here are a few observations:

Best comeback: Iowa closed with victories over Michigan and Nebraska to reverse last year’s 4-8 record. The Hawkeyes claimed their first victory in Lincoln since 1943 and their fourth on the road.

Their plus-four improvement is fourth best in the country and they qualified for their 12th bowl in the last 13 years.

Most disappointing: Expected to contend for a division title, Northwestern’s Wildcats collapsed after a 4-0 start and didn’t win a Big Ten game until Illinois obliged them Saturday. Injuries to Venric Mark and Kain Colter turned a potent offense into mush.

Losing Mark for nine games was particularly painful a year after the All-America punt returner rushed for 1,336 yards. Team captain Colter missed two games, also disrupting the offense.

Best story line: Minnesota rallied around ailing coach Jerry Kill, who spent much of the season in the press box because of continued problems with epilepsy. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who was nominated for assistant coach of the year, filled in nicely, taking over on the sidelines.

The Gophers responded with an 8-4 record, including victories over Nebraska and Penn State.

Biggest flop: Expectations were not high for Purdue under first-year coach Darrel Hazell, but no one was prepared for 1-11. The Boilermakers were winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 1993.

They’ll take a 10-game losing streak into next season thanks to a punchless offense. The Boilers were shut out twice and scored fewer than two TDs in three other losses.

Biggest paradox: How do you average more than 38 points a game, but fail to qualify for a bowl game for the sixth straight year? If you’re Indiana it’s the same old problem. No defense. As is their custom, the Hoosiers were shredded by any running back with a pulse, giving up an average of 220 yards.

They ranked last in the Big Ten in virtually every defensive category and managed to pull off the nearly impossible feat of scoring 35, 47, 47 and 39 points in four of their seven losses.

In an odd sort of way they did make progress, setting numerous offensive records. Racking up more than 700 yards against Purdue makes a 5-7 record almost palatable.

They did overcome: Showing remarkable resilience, Penn State rebounded from its first loss ever to Indiana to cap a 7-5 season with a 31-24 victory at Madison, where Wisconsin loses about as often as the Cubs win a pennant.

The penalized program regrouped behind Christian Hackenberg, who tossed four touchdown passes against the 24-point favorites.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson helped the freshman quarterback complete 59 percent of his passes by piling up 1,432 yards on 97 receptions.

No passing fancy: Illinois proved that you need more than a quarterback to play winning football. The Illini finished 1-7 in the Big Ten (thank you, Purdue) even though Nate Scheelhaase led the league with 272.7 yard average and completed 67 percent of his passes.

What’s the rush? Quarterbacks are glamorized, but running backs still carry the lunch box.

Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah led the Big Ten with 1,568 yards, but five other blue collar studs rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

It would have been seven if Indiana’s Tevin Coleman hadn’t missed three games. He finished with 958. Penn State’s Zach Zwinak fell only 11 yards short of the magic number.



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