Last Saturday, Northern Illinois went into West Lafayette, Ind., and beat Purdue convincingly. (Don't let the 28-21 final score fool you: NIU dominated that game from the second quarter on.) It was the Huskies' first victory over a Big Ten squad in 21 years and an important milestone for a program which was once among college football's very worst. Second-year head coach Jerry Kill has now taken his team to a bowl and knocked off one of the big boys. On the road, no less.
You'd hardly know it, however. Big wins by underdogs usually lead to an avalanche of media coverage, but NIU's historic victory sank without a trace. Why?
Because it's not news anymore when a MAC team beats a Big Ten squad.
For decades, the "MACrifice" has been one of Big Ten football's most endearing rituals. Some Saturday in September, a school with a direction or a city in its name would come to one of the conference's football temples and walk out bloodied after a 66-0 beatdown. The win would give the coaches a chance to work all the way through the depth chart and served as a final tuneup before the conference season began.
But why the MAC? Well, because they were there. The MAC's geographic footprint fits almost perfectly into the Big Ten's, and the MAC schools needed the money. Hence the uneasy big brother-little brother relationship between the two conferences.
Funny thing about little brothers. They grow up. Sometimes they grow bigger than their big brothers. Even if they don't, though, they always know just the right buttons to press to get the big brother's hackles up.
The MAC will never be a bigger football conference than the Big Ten, but the two conferences aren't as far apart as you might think. The largest MAC schools, like Kent State, Buffalo and Central Michigan, have larger enrollments than the Big Ten's smallest schools, Northwestern and Iowa. The states of Ohio and Pennsylvania are rich with prep football talent, and they can't all become Buckeyes, Nittany Lions, Bearcats or Panthers. Dreaming of the NFL? There are eight former Northern Illinois Huskies and eight former Kent State Golden Flashes on NFL rosters. Indiana and Northwestern each have only nine former players currently in the NFL.
This just makes it all the more surprising to find out, as I did, that every Big Ten school has lost to a MAC school at least once. Granted, if you play enough games against any conference, no matter how weak, they're going to rack up a couple upsets along the way. The MAC's all-time record against the Big Ten, as of the end of last season, stood at a dismal 47-300-8. (That's a .143 winning percentage.) The tide has turned, though, and in case you forgot, here are the MAC's five biggest victories over the Big Ten in the past decade:
1. 2008: Toledo 13, Michigan 10. This game is notable for several reasons. First, Michigan was the only remaining Big Ten school which had never lost a game to the MAC. (Giant technicality: Ohio State's only MAC loss was to Akron in 1894. That predates not only the MAC but also the Big Ten.) Second, it showed how far Michigan had slipped. Third, even though the Rockets won in the Big House, it still wasn't enough to save coach Tom Amstutz's job. Imagine that. You beat Michigan in Ann Arbor and still get run off. That proved it was no longer any big deal for a MAC school to beat a Big Ten school.
2. 2007: Western Michigan 28, Iowa 19. The Hawkeyes came into this game 6-5, needing a win to lock up bowl eligibility for the seventh straight season. Western Michigan was having a flat-out bad year, coming into Iowa City with a 3-7 record. Hawkeye fans came to the game with the travel agency's phone number in their pockets, ready to book a trip to whatever bowl game their team would be going to after dispatching this MAC tomato can.
In the twinkling of an eye, the Broncos were up 19-0 as they scored on four of their first five possessions. The Iowa offense, meanwhile, moved slower than a Steely Dan album track. At halftime, the Hawkeyes had only six first downs and six points. The Hawkeyes wound up staying home for the holidays.
3. 2003: Bowling Green 28, Northwestern 24. Only twice in its history has the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl (formerly the Motor City Bowl) produced its intended MAC-versus-Big Ten matchup. This was the first time, as a Bowling Green program in its first season without Urban Meyer prevailed over a Northwestern team making its second bowl appearance under Randy Walker. This was a true nail-biter with the lead and the momentum going back and forth until Bowling Green took it for good with just four minutes to play.
4. 2008: Western Michigan 23, Illinois 17. This game, played at Ford Field in Detroit, was a must-win for the Illini. Ron Zook's team was 5-4 coming into this one. A loss would mean having to beat either Ohio State or Northwestern just to become bowl eligible. Illinois certainly didn't play like they needed to win, though, with Juice Williams throwing two interceptions and the team going an almost-unbeliveable 1-13 on third down conversions. The Illini were down 20-7 at the half, lost the game, lost their next two games and wound up not going to a bowl just one season after going to the Rose Bowl.
5, 2009: Central Michigan 29, Michigan State 27. Sure, it's too early to tell if Michigan State is just really bad this season, but this was the MAC's first victory over a team expected to contend for the Big Ten title. The hype was huge surrounding the Spartans coming into this season. This game proved that Michigan State had some serious issues and Mark Dantonio had not yet removed all traces of Sparty-ness from his team's system. Coupled with a loss to Notre Dame the following week, it now looks like MSU will have to fight just to make it to a bowl game this season.