Big Ten in Bizarro World at midpoint of season
It already has been a wild and wacky year in the Big Ten, and the season is only half over.
What's next ... fish walking on land?
Don't doubt that possibility in Big Ten country, where the standings from the first half of the season reflect a Bizarro World weirder than a Fellini flick.
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As for preseason favorites Ohio State and Michigan, drop that gaze into the second division, where OSU sits tied for seventh at 1-1 and 3-2 and Michigan twists uncomfortably alone at 1-2 and 3-3.
Throw in serial bottom-feeder Indiana at 1-1 and 4-1 and the preseason analysts' sexy surprise pick, Purdue, stuck at 0-2 and 2-3 and the script looks goofier than an Andy Kaufman monologue.
Before attributing those results solely to some inexplicable cosmic calamity, credit the achievers and question the deceivers for what has been the strangest first half since the Big Ten supersized with Penn State's addition in 1993.
The Nittany Lions' resurrection can't be doubted any longer after their 17-10 victory over Ohio State at raucous Beaver Stadium on Saturday night.
Joe Paterno has proved he's not yet ready for the shuffleboard courts by hammering three inferior nonconference opponents and getting his team to show the week-by-week mettle champions possess.
Penn State rallied in the final minutes to overcome heavy turnover problems in a victory at Northwestern.
It then slobber-knocked Minnesota by 30 points when the distraction of an impending date with OSU could have been trouble.
Finally, the Lions seized the moment and out-Tresseled the Buckeyes in a classic field-position, punt-and-protect affair OSU has ruled in recent years.
Penn State goes to Michigan this week, but even a loss wouldn't make it go away -- not with those wins over Minnesota and Ohio State and an upcoming home date with Wisconsin.
Michigan State seems best positioned to overtake the Lions, but Sparty must win at Ohio State this week first to feel good about the future.
Wisconsin's stunning 51-48 failure at Northwestern was no fault of the guy who has gotten the Badgers into title contention in coach Barry Alvarez's final season. Tailback Brian Calhoun had more than 100 yards in both receiving and rushing in that defeat.
When the Badgers get healthy in two weeks, don't bet against them. Alvarez says Calhoun is the most complete back he has ever coached -- which is a mouthful of high praise -- and the schedule spares them games with OSU and MSU.
Minnesota probably isn't going New Year's Day bowling, given future games against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa. But despite that bumpy road, give it up for Glen Mason getting his marginally talented team to bounce back from the beating at Penn State to steal the Little Brown Jug from Michigan for the first time in 17 years.
What has happened to the Wolverines? There's no discernible answer now that Lloyd Carr's team lost with a healthy Mike Hart at tailback. He sat out most of the Notre Dame loss and the entire defeat at Wisconsin, then came back big in the overtime triumph at Michigan State.
Hart's 109 yards against the Gophers couldn't compensate for two missed field goals down the stretch, so Michigan has lost five of its last eight games dating to last season.
The numbers are similarly ugly at Ohio State when talking offense or the Buckeyes' road record in the Big Ten.
Losing at Penn State makes OSU 1-5 in its last six conference trips away from Ohio Stadium.
That's what happens when the responsibility to score falls on a unit that ranks ninth in the league in rushing, 10th in scoring, and last in total yardage and passing.
Penn State's three Big Ten victories in as many games match its combined total from 2004 and 2005. The Lions are the only unbeaten left in the league after three weeks of conference play. Credit a defense starting nine seniors and the oughta-be-odds-on-choice to win the Butkus Award, junior linebacker Paul Posluszny.
The league's three preseason Top 10 teams -- Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa -- are a combined 4-4 in the conference and 10-7 overall. Beating each other up? Nope. There has been just one meeting so far between any two of the three.
Honorable mention goes to Purdue's defense, the league's best unit in 2004 and one that returned all 11 starters. Familiarity apparently breeds inept. The Boilermakers have been gashed for 42, 49 and 34 points the last three weeks.
Wisconsin tailback Calhoun in a photo finish over Penn State linebacker Posluszny. Calhoun is the Badgers' best rusher and receiver. Posluszny has been the league's defensive player of the week three weeks in a row. Just name the award after him already.
Midseason Coach of the Year
People raised eyebrows when Terry Hoeppner left Miami (Ohio) to take over at Indiana. The buzz was that he surrendered a better job to embrace a career-killer. Instead, Hoeppner has built pride at IU by instituting a few new "traditions," such as a large limestone rock in one end zone and a player parade to Memorial Stadium. The best tradition Hoeppner has added is winning. IU's four victories already have sealed the Hoosiers' best season since 2001.
Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan.
Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.
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