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Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Big Ten’s Opening Weekend Delivered and Gave CFB a Welcome Boost

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Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) celebrates after Indiana defeated Penn State in overtime of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 36-35 in overtime. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It was 75 days ago that the Big Ten shut the doors on the 2020 football season. Well, technically it didn’t close its doors completely. Let’s just say the Big Ten punted on the idea of having a fall season at the time. That analogy, given the conference and history, feels more appropriate.

What followed is well documented and debated. Outrage. Disagreement. Confusion. Protests. Lawsuits. Press releases. More confusion. More press releases. Those 75 days were not absent of news and story lines even if it was absent of football.

But on Saturday—technically Friday, when Wisconsin and Illinois kicked off the season in Madison—the Big Ten returned in earnest. And the sport was instantly reminded how much better it is when the B1G is involved.

The outrage gave way for upsets—the kind of upsets that can ignite a program or season. The confusion subsided for excellence—the kind of excellence that showed us what we were missing all along.

The Big Ten’s mere presence was enough to celebrate given how long those 75 days felt and how unlikely a season was a few months back.

Whether the games were any good or not mattered less than the fact that they existed at all. Although the conference slate, which on paper didn’t feel noteworthy before the games began, delivered.

Indiana wasn’t just the story of the Big Ten. It was the story of the weekend, and the Hoosiers provided one of the season’s most impactful moments thus far.

Their 36-35 win over Penn State came with its own bit of controversy—a welcomed kind of on-field controversy—when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. extended for the pylon in overtime on a two-point conversion.

The officials upheld the call on the field after assessing it from every possible angle. A little more than 15 minutes later, Indiana head coach Tom Allen was crowd surfing in the locker room as his program celebrated one of its best victories ever.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

Michigan finally has an offense and a quarterback. Might that be an overreaction after only four quarters? Of course, it might be. But Joe Milton, even without gaudy numbers, delivered the kind of game Jim Harbaugh has been searching for with his quarterbacks.

What the Wolverines’ 49-24 victory over Minnesota means will be decided in time. But the offense had a spark, the play calling was (finally) innovative and the results were there. While many fans of other programs savor every Michigan loss or Harbaugh disappointment, this felt significant.

Rutgers likely wouldn’t be able to hang with Michigan right now. That should come as no surprise. But the Scarlet Knights did conquer one of the Wolverines’ primary rivals, Michigan State, in one of the weekend’s most unlikely outcomes.

It was the first Big Ten win in 21 tries for Rutgers. It was also the first game for Greg Schiano as the team’s head coach in his second stint with the program. Given the elongated struggles Rutgers has experienced over the past five years, the victory provides perhaps the most important commodity entering a young, disjointed season. Hope.

Hope comes in different forms. For Purdue it came on a day when the team’s best player, wideout Rondale Moore, and the team’s head coach and offensive conductor, Jeff Brohm, were unable to participate. Moore missed the game for reasons unknown; Brohm’s positive COVID test prompted his absence. Purdue’s late touchdown pushed the Boilermakers past Iowa 24-20.

For Northwestern, hope came in the form of an offense. Not just any offense, but an offense that dismantled Maryland 43-3 with ease. It’s the kind of offense fans of the program have been dreaming of. And although it was only one game, the performance was noteworthy nonetheless.

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Justin Fields’ performances are pretty much always noteworthy. Although no touchdown pass thrown on Saturday was prettier or smoother than the Ohio State quarterback’s ball to Garrett Wilson in the first quarter.

The 42-yard pass resembled a pitcher’s fastball; a perfect frozen rope that caught Wilson in stride. The Buckeyes handled Nebraska in the way most expected, but Fields’ play was a reminder of what we almost didn’t have this year.

Fields could have opted out. He could have left when it looked like the Buckeyes’ season was lost. But he stayed. And 75 days after the season was pronounced dead, the face of the conference looked as polished as ever.

The Big Ten is back, and college football is better for it. With it comes chaos and confusion, but this is the welcomed kind. The questions regarding whether a season will be played have given way for how the year will play out.

There will be more upsets. More unexpected offensive outputs. More pristine throws from Fields. More time to figure out whether Michigan has finally figured it out or if Indiana is as good as it looked in one 60-minute sample size or if Northwestern is truly a juggernaut in the making.

Time will tell what’s real and what’s not real, and that’s the best part. Things are just getting started.

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