COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was talking about his team being shut out for the first time in 30 years.
He might as well have been referring to the whole sorry state of Big Ten football.
“Well, yes, it’s embarrassing,” he said after his Wolverines’ dreadful 31-0 beatdown to Notre Dame in the final game of their historic rivalry. “But you have to continue to fight.”
It’s barely September, and the Big Ten just might be out of the inaugural College Football Playoff race.
That sure didn’t take long, did it?
A conference that has had more than its share of epic failures in big showdowns in recent years had a night to forget Saturday. Three of its biggest bullies — No. 7 Michigan State, No. 8 Ohio State and once proud Michigan — all were soundly defeated.
Factor in Wisconsin’s loss to LSU a week earlier, and it’s easy to see why the conference could be a spectator for the next four months when the talk turns to the best teams in the country.
Favored by 11 points, the Buckeyes — picked by many, many experts to make it into the elite four-team playoffs — hadn’t lost to an unranked nonconference team at home since 1982.
Michigan State was up by nine points in the second half and seemingly had a handle on its game at No. 3 Oregon. But then Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota started running over, around and through the Spartans’ vaunted defense. All of a sudden, a wave of green submerged Sparty 46-27.
MSU is off this week. It’s gotten to the point in the Big Ten where an open date is something to get excited about. It gives teams more time to erase the awful defeats.
Michigan’s Brady Hoke’s seat is so hot no one will need handwarmers in the first 20 rows at the Big House this season. His Wolverines have won just three of their last 10 games.
At Northwestern, ninth-year coach Pat Fitzgerald — once considered one of the shining lights among young coaches — has one won of his last 10 games. The Wildcats lost at home (where they are 0-2) to Northern Illinois, 23-15.
As bad as Saturday was, it still wasn’t the worst day in Big Ten football history — although it was close.
Almost nine years ago to the day, on Sept. 10, 2005, the conference got a black eye when No. 3 Michigan lost to No. 20 Notre Dame 17-10, No. 4 Ohio State was beaten by No. 2 Texas 25-22 and No. 8 Iowa fell to Iowa State 23-3.
Maybe it’s because the trio of Saturday losses happened at about the same time, under the lights and on millions of TV sets. Maybe there’s a cumulative effect because the conference has been an easy target for the past several years due to an unending series of high-profile losses in bowl games.
Maybe it’s just the big picture.
Those three powers hadn’t lost on the same Saturday since Sept. 17, 1988, according to ESPN Stats.
Since 2010 against the other Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten is 36-53. It is 8-29 against ranked teams from those leagues, according to CBS Sports.
And it wasn’t just the big three that faltered. The rest of the conference didn’t put anyone in mind of the Monsters of the Midway.
Nebraska struggled mightily before beating McNeese State, 31-24. Illinois had trouble getting past Western Kentucky, 42-34. Iowa barely survived at home against Ball State, 17-13. Minnesota was hard pressed to get by Middle Tennessee, 35-24.
At least now the conference that once pretentiously gave us Legends and Leaders, can look forward to its first 14-team league race. Maybe Maryland (which edged South Florida 24-17) and Rutgers (which got by Howard 38-25) can lift their peers.
Here’s the good news, fans. League play gets going this Saturday with Penn State at Rutgers.
A Big Ten team has to win that one, right?