THE GOULD STANDARD/Five things we learned about the Big Ten in Week 10

Northwestern & Michigan rolling...Smiling Illini...Messy Maryland...Desperation Saturday.

Five things we learned about the Big Ten in Week 10. . .

1, Northwestern is in the driver’s seat

For a team that started 1-3, Northwestern is really livin’ large these days.

Barring a major collapse, the Wildcats will be playing in the Big Ten championship game. Thanks to Purdue’s 38-36 nail-biter over Iowa, Northwestern can punch a ticket to Indianapolis by beating Minnesota and Illinois—regardless of what happens when the Cats travel to Iowa City on Saturday.  

Northwestern (5-4) went 0-3 outside the Big Ten, losing to Duke, Akron and Notre Dame. But its 5-1 Big Ten record gives it a two-game lead over Iowa (3-3). Because it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against Purdue (4-2) and Wisconsin (4-2), it basically has a two-game lead in the mild, mild West with three games left.

“I was watching for a little bit, but, no, I’m not aware of our status,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the Wildcats had come up short 31-21 against Notre Dame.

I was at the Notre Dame post-game, so I don’t know whether Fitz honestly didn’t know, or if he didn’t want to deal with all that stuff.

I’m sure he knows by now. He’s a sharp guy. But I’m also sure he doesn’t want to deal with that. Media and fans can talk all we want; he has to keep a bunch of muscular young men “focused’’—don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard an athlete or photographer use that word?

And Fitz should avoid looking ahead. Because if he does, the Golden Gophers will slobber all over NU’s golden opportunity. Or the Illini will pull out the retired (politically incorrect) Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and plant it in a painful place.

2, Michigan is the class of the Big Ten, until someone proves otherwise

The Wolverines’ 42-7 rout of Penn State was another major stride in the triumphant return of Jim Harbaugh. Michigan is expected to check in at No. 4 in the College Football Playoff poll on Tuesday, behind Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame.

A couple of months ago, speculation centered around whether he could weather another stormy season like last year’s 8-5. And lining up in a division where Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State all were ranked higher in the AP pre-season poll, that was a very real question.

No more. Sparked by an incredibly stout defense and the arrival of stellar grad-transfer QB Shea Patterson on offense, the Wolverines have taken down the Spartans as well as the Nittany Lions.

And the Buckeyes, who followed up their blowout 49-20 loss at Purdue with a queasy 36-31 win over Nebraska, have a lot of mending to do if they plan to beat Michigan in their traditional regular-season-ending tussle.

Harbaugh, as you would expect, is enjoying the moments. And praising his now-fierce players.

“I’m proud of them. Put an explanation point on how proud I am,” he said, smiling and slamming his fist on the table, the Detroit Free Press reported.

And be assureed, he heard all the outside noise, which makes Michigan’s eight-game winning streak all the more satisfying.

“Yeah, these are personal,’’ he said. “You are striving for happiness.”

3, Four wounded teams will meet on Desperation Saturday

Before the season, this week’s marquee matchups—Ohio State at Michigan State, and Wisconsin at Penn State—looked like Coronations. Now they look more like a demolition derby.

The Buckeyes are in the best position. All their goals are still theoretically possible. The only problem is, they haven’t played a solid game since they slipped past Penn State—on Sept. 29. And Sparty, coming off a good win over Purdue and a dominsnt performance at Maryland—looks very capable of “exposing’’ Ohio State, to borrow the word Urban Meyer used after the Purdue debacle..

Wisconsin at Penn State is more of a misery-loves-company deal. The Badgers, who are used to imposing their will, have been roughed up in their last two road games, losing at Michigan and Northwestern by a combined 69-30.

Penn State already has three conference losses, and a chorus of critics who believe a third-grader could do better job of fourth-quarter play-calling than James Franklin.

The winners will sigh with relief. The losers? Keep the sharp objects safely hidden away.

Should be fun.

4, Maryland needs to pick up the pieces

After a brutal week with the In-Again-Out-Again Durkin Disaster, Maryland was a sentimental pick to rally up against Michigan State. The Terrapins had done it before, shocking Texas 34-29 in their opener.

They also had looked sharp in their three Big Ten home games, whipping Minnesota 42-13, Rutgers 34-7 and Illinois 63-33. Never mind that those are bottom-feeders. Those wins impressed me enough to think interim coach Matt Canada deserves to be considered to remain in the coaching job.

The much-needed relief of a win didn’t happen. Michigan State rolled 24-3, which wasn’t all the surprising. The Spartans are getting their act together. And the Terps’ emotional roller-coaster finally took a toll.

We won’t even go into the myriad issues Maryland needs to address administratively and on the football side. Don’t have the time, space or interest. Figure it out, though. Please.

For the record, I never liked the idea of adding Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten, a blatant television-set grab. Then again, I wasn’t a fan of Missouri and Texas A&M joining the SEC, which is as directionally challenged as the Big Ten is mathematically challenged.

And don’t get me started about Colorado and Utah being in the Pacific-12. Or the Big 12 having 10 teams.

5, Hats off to the Illinis

No, Illinis (plural) is not a typo. When Illinois would beat his Gophers, former Minnesota basketball coach Clem Haskins used to say, “Hats off to the Illinis,’’ which we media types found very entertaining. Then again, I always liked Haskins. He was a Chicago Bull in my youth.

I couldn’t help but think of Haskins’ malaprop after Illinois stomped on his former employer, Minnesota, 55-31, giving coach Lovie Smith and his Illini something to celebrate after a brutal stretch in which they were routed by Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland.

With the win, Illinois improved to 4-5, including 2-4 in the Big Ten. With two more wins, the Illini could become bowl-eligible. With improving Nebraska and unsympathetic Iowa and Northwestern still to play, though, even probably would decline to calculate the percentage chance of that happening.

That said, nice job, Illini. Especially junior running back Reggie Corbin, who ran for 213 yards, including touchdowns of 72 and 77 yards.

One more thought about the Gophers. . . Before they hired P.J. Fleck, there were all kinds of reports that Purdue was interested in him. Fleck didn’t seem interested. I always wondered if Minnesota already had lined him up.

And so, the Boilermakers moved on to Jeff Brohm.

Guessing they’re OK with the way things worked out.