Power struggle in Big Ten after MSU loss

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Big Ten is losing credibility so fast that even when its teams win, they drop in the Associated Press poll.

Michigan beat UMass by 50 points and dropped from No. 17 to No. 18. The Wolverines even beat the 42-point spread, so what gives?

Ohio State beat unranked California by a touchdown and slipped from No. 12 to No. 16.

And Michigan State went into a free-fall drop from No. 10 to No. 21 after getting beat into the ground by Notre Dame, 20-3.

The Big Ten needed the Spartans to win in the worst way. They were the only undefeated and ranked conference team that’s bowl eligible, plus the only realistic hope for a berth in the national championship game.

Guess what?

The Big Ten team with the best chance to carry the conference’s flag now is Michigan. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Don’t get carried away by the Wolverines destroying a lousy team.

That’s not the impetus for my logic. Michigan is suddenly viable again for two reasons:

First, it plays the Fighting Irish on Saturday night, just a handful of first downs away from ol’ Touchdown Jesus. If — and this is a big if — the Wolverines win, they’ll have defeated the team that beat the team that everybody thought was the best team in the conference.

Second, if you must lose, you want to lose early. And if you must get pasted by somebody, let Alabama do it to you.

The Crimson Tide beat the Wolverines, 41-14, on Sept. 1 and last week stomped Arkansas, 52-0. Alabama is simply head and shoulders above, well, everybody.

That said, this is Michigan’s last chance at serious national consideration. The Wolverines must beat Notre Dame and then keep right on winning.

More likely, this season will be strictly a regional affair for Big Ten teams. That means playing for the Rose Bowl and the conference crown.

Although that’s not as exciting as being in the national-title picture, the team taking the field in Pasadena is guaranteed to feel pretty good about its season.

In East Lansing, Rose Bowl logos and pennants can be seen in and around the Spartans’ practice facility.

“All of our goals are still in front of us,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “That’s what’s important … The Big Ten season is ahead.”

Michigan State hasn’t played in the “Granddaddy of Them All” in 25 years, and it craves a return trip. Whether or not this is the year depends on what kind of passing game it can put together.

The defense is powerful, and the running game is above average with Le’Veon Bell. But the Spartans must prove they can pass effectively on somebody other than Central Michigan and Saturday’s visitors from Eastern Michigan.

Bennie Fowler was quarterback Andrew Maxwell’s main target against the Chippewas, catching eight for 99 yards and a touchdown in a 41-7 victory on Sept. 8.

Against Notre Dame, when Maxwell threw 45 times, Fowler didn’t have a single catch, and dropped both a 28-yard touchdown and a first down early in the game.

“It was just a lack of concentration by me,” Fowler said. “Personally, I felt like I let the team down.”

There are those (not me) who believe that Maxwell — who completed 23 passes for 187 yards — deserved a good share of blame, but Dantonio doesn’t think so.

Although he did allow that Maxwell made some mistakes, Dantonio also said his quarterback “played high average” and showed the “controlled, composed and resilient” qualities needed.

Maxwell, who received negative social-media feedback from fans, said he must have “thick skin” for positive and negative comments, before adding, “I don’t want to be the piece of the puzzle to hold this team back … I don’t think I have been.”

He had little time to set and throw, getting sacked four times, and still managed to complete a decent amount of passes with nary an interception. And there were drops other than those made by Fowler.

The Spartans have plenty of talented young receivers, but Dantonio said decisions have been made as to how many receivers get practice snaps with the first team and in games.

“You can’t rep them all,” Dantonio said. “You can’t play eight. You have to play six or five.”

Getting the passing game in gear is a matter of better protection against quality defenses and finding a wide out Maxwell can trust as much as tight end Dion Sims.

Maybe it’s Keith Mumphery, who had six catches for 71 yards and made some tough grabs against the Irish. Perhaps it’s Tony Lippett or Fowler.

If it’s all three, bingo!

The Spartans might not lose another game if that happens, which would be good for the Big Ten.

NOTES

Dantonio said he will make a decision in the weeks ahead on whether or not to redshirt right tackle Fou Fonoti (foot stress fracture), who is expected to miss about six weeks

… The coach didn’t seem very concerned about the defense after the loss to Notre Dame, noting that the unit stopped the Irish on 14 of 16 third- or fourth-down plays.