The best sign of how far the Big Ten has come as a conference in recent years may have been on a banner towed by an airplane over Ross-Ade Stadium. The sign, which urged the 68,216 fans in attendance to "Think Rose Bowl," could have been directed at both teams on the field.
Fifth-ranked Michigan State still has an excellent chance for the Rose Bowl, even after falling, 52-28, to No. 20 Purdue today, but the Spartans also could lose two more games just as easily. Even Purdue, with two losses, has a slim chance. Such is the state of the conference Purdue Coach Joe Tiller calls "the best in the country."
He should know. His Boilermakers (5-2 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) snapped a two-game losing streak today after dropping games to Michigan and Ohio State in the past two weeks. Michigan State (6-1, 3-1), which beat Michigan last week, knows what Tiller means, too.
"People start talking about the Heisman, and people start talking about an undefeated season and a Big Ten championship, and really the commitment needs to be to all the things you did game by game to get you to the place you were at," said Michigan State Coach Nick Saban.
Purdue's Heisman Trophy contender, junior quarterback Drew Brees, threw for 509 yards and five touchdowns. He threw four interceptions, including two that resulted in touchdowns, but two came as he was tackled. Brees, ever the perfectionist, was aware of the way those numbers will look to people who didn't see today's game.
But the Big Ten boasts six ranked teams--and those teams are so evenly matched that the margin of error in conference games becomes whittled down to a knife's edge. One week Michigan can beat Purdue badly, then lose to a Michigan State team that goes on to lose to that same Purdue team. In such a conference, a game can hinge on how fired up an opponent is.
The Boilermakers thought their team was more ready and more excited than the Spartans.
"I think we went in with a lot of confidence," said senior safety Adrian Beasley, who intercepted Spartans quarterback Bill Burke twice.
"You have to come out with emotion," Tiller said. "If you're not on top of your game, the conference is talented enough to make you lose a game."
The Spartans' defensive talent and emotion wasn't enough to prevent Brees from finding senior wide receiver Chris Daniels 21 times, including three touchdowns of 51, 10 and 4 yards. Daniels's 301 yards receiving also set a school record.
Michigan State's Plaxico Burress, who set a school record for receiving yards last week against Michigan, was held to just four catches for 75 yards, but one was an 18-yard touchdown, and the other a 25-yarder that set up T.J. Duckett's one-yard plunge that cut the Boilermakers' lead to 35-21. Burress also dropped one pass and lost a fumble.
The Boilermakers' secondary--long an afterthought on a team that holds the spread offense in high regard--was ready for Burress.
"People think he is Michigan State's offense," said Purdue senior cornerback Michael Hawthorne, who drew the task of Burress. "He gets up after every catch, slaps his chest and acts like he's the greatest thing that ever happened to college football . . . We were on Plaxico."
After Duckett's touchdown, Brees forced a pass and senior safety Aric Morris came up with the ball, returning it 76 yards for the Spartans' second defensive touchdown of the day and pulling Michigan State to 35-28.
But Morris and his defensive mates couldn't keep Brees down for long. Brees engineered a scoring drive that ended when he outran the Spartans to the corner of the end zone to give the Boilermakers back their 14-point cushion with 1 minute 28 seconds left in the third quarter, and Michigan State got nothing going in the fourth quarter.
The jury is still out on whether the Big Ten's parity is good for college football. But Brees was pleased that at least everyone will be roughly equal.
"It's kind of funny, because I don't think there will be a team in the Big Ten without a loss this year," said Brees, aware that the last undefeated Big Ten team--second-ranked Penn State--will visit here next week.
"In this offense," Brees said. "It can be any guy, any game."