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BIG TEN REPORT: Legends haven’t measured up to Leaders

Michigan State players celebrate after their 30-6 victory Saturday against Northwestern clinched Legends Divisispot Big Ten championship game. | AP

Michigan State players celebrate after their 30-6 victory Saturday against Northwestern clinched the Legends Division and a spot in the Big Ten championship game. | AP

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Updated: December 25, 2013 6:47AM



So now it’s official. No. 13 Michigan State, which clinched the spot opposite No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday, will play in the Big Ten championship game for the second time in three seasons.

The question is, will it again be sacrificial for Sparty and the Legends?

That might sound like a Motown group to you, but it’s strictly the blues for teams from the Legends, who must be glad this will be the last season of the current division format.

In 2011, Michigan State lost to Wisconsin 42-39 in the inaugural Big Ten title game. Sparty fell all the way from Rose Bowl contention to the Outback Bowl, while Michigan jumped up to the Orange Bowl.

In 2012, Nebraska was throttled 70-31 by four-loss Wisconsin, which smelled the Roses. The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, were saddled with the odor of a 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

The moral of that story: It’s better not to play in the league championship game than to lose it.

Expect a similar scenario this year. If the Spartans fail to upset Ohio State, No. 16 Wisconsin will be in line for a potential second BCS berth for the Big Ten. The Badgers even might land in the Rose Bowl if the Buckeyes maneuver into the national championship game.

It has been that kind of year for teams in the Legends Division, which was supposed to be more interesting than the Leaders. What looked to be a tight four-way race deteriorated into disappointment for many of the contenders.

Michigan, a popular pick to square off against rival Ohio State twice, didn’t take care of business against its in-state rival in a 29-6 loss at Michigan State. That started a November spiral salvaged only by a miracle comeback at Northwestern.

Nebraska, which narrowly escaped Penn State on Saturday, took itself out of the hunt with a surprising loss at Minnesota in late October and couldn’t deal with the Spartans in Lincoln.

If Michigan and Nebraska have had disappointing autumns, Northwestern has endured a crushing succession of late collapses for the second consecutive season. Once a contender, the Wildcats, who are 0-7 in conference play, head to Champaign on Saturday as Illinois’ Big Ten team with the losing streak.

If the four Legends teams who were in the early spotlight have faltered, the under-the-radar twosome of Iowa and Minnesota has prospered.

Despite a series-record 10th consecutive loss to Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Gophers have taken a big step forward. And the Hawkeyes can add frosting to a solid season in their rivalry matchup Friday against Nebraska.

WEEK 13 STARS

RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State

The senior from Naples, Fla., rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns vs. Indiana. He’s the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards in Urban Meyer’s 12 years as a head coach.

RB James White, Wisconsin

The senior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown, the 45th of his career, to move into ninth place on the Big Ten’s all-time list.

QB Ron Kellogg III, Nebraska

The senior from Omaha completed 20 of 34 passes for 191 yards and one touchdown, the Cornhuskers’ only offensive TD, in their 23-20 overtime win at snowy Penn State.

M GO BLUES

With the temperature 18 degrees at kickoff, Michigan continued to go south in a 24-21 loss at Iowa. Leading 21-7 at the half, the Wolverines were blanked 17-0 the rest of the way. It was their fourth loss in six games, including a miracle win at Northwestern.

This is no way to head into the Big Game. The Wolverines have lost eight of their last nine meetings with Ohio State and will need a big turnaround Saturday to avoid their ninth loss in 10 Big Games.

“We obviously have to play better,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

NITTANY LIONS KICKING THEMSELVES

Penn State started the day with a missed extra point and ended it with a missed field goal in overtime. That added up to a 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska.

It was the third OT game this season for the Nittany Lions, who beat Michigan and Illinois in the first two.

After Sam Ficken, Penn State’s beleaguered junior kicker, missed a 37-yard field goal, his only attempt of the game, Pat Smith, a senior transfer from Western Illinois, kicked the 42-yard game-winner. Smith was 3-for-3 on three-­pointers.

MILLER TIME FOR BUCKEYES

Braxton Miller delivered four touchdowns, two passing and two rushing, while running for 144 yards to lead Ohio State past Indiana 42-14. It was the 23rd consecutive victory, already a school record, for the Buckeyes, who have an interesting postseason to look forward to after staying home (on probation) last season.

“This year feels a lot different because you have stuff at the end of the run,’’ said Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had 20 tackles and forced a fumble. “But we were just trying to finish off everything for the seniors. We weren’t even thinking about what’s going on next.’’

BY THE NUMBERS

41-3 — Combined record of the four teams (NIU, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) that have beaten Iowa, arguably the nation’s best four-loss team.

16 — Points scored by Michigan in the second half (not counting overtime) of its last four games, against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa.

776 — Days between Big Ten victories for Illinois, which won Saturday at Purdue, its first conference victory since a 41-20 win at Indiana on Oct. 8, 2011.

2 — Big Ten teams that won on Saturday despite 4-1 turnover deficits. Illinois outlasted Purdue and Iowa beat Michigan.

THEY SAID IT

“The defense kept us alive. Typically, you’re not going to win when you lose that lopsidedly in the turnover battle.’’

— Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, after the Hawkeyes survived a 4-1 turnover deficit to beat ­Michigan, which was outgained 407-158



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