The Big Ten’s 10 most notable upsets of this century
It wasn’t easy to finalize the Big Ten’s most significant upsets of this century. The original countdown offered 33 worthy candidates and needed four different recounts to arrive at the final number of 10.
But we’re satisfied with the final product, which to the surprise of no one, includes six Ohio State gems from the the last 16 years — both positive and negative.
Point of clarification: This countdown only features conference members at the time of a signature victory (or defeat). For example, we didn’t spotlight any Nebraska, Maryland or Rutgers upsets from the last decade, prior to the Cornhuskers, Terrapins and Scarlet Knights gaining full-time admission into the Big Ten.
The national rankings at the time of each upset are from The Associated Press poll. So here we go:
1. APPALACHIAN STATE 34, No. 5 MICHIGAN 32 (2007)
THE LEGACY: This easily ranks as the most-hyped upset of college football’s modern era.
THE SKINNY: In 2006, Michigan went 11-2 overall and was on a national-championship run, before falling to top-ranked Ohio State and Southern California in the final two games.
The following year, the Wolverines were loaded for bear, featuring experienced stars like quarterback Chad Henne, running back Mike Hart (5,040 career rushing yards, 43 TDs), receiver Mario Manningham (eventual hero of Super Bowl XLV) and offensive tackle Jake Long (No. 1 overall pick for 2008 NFL Draft). Hence, the elite-level preseason ranking reflected that potential for a special season.
But things disintegrated shortly after that. In the opener, Michigan either took Appalachian State – the three-time FCS national champion for 2005-07 – for granted, or the Wolverines weren’t properly prepared for the athletic exploits of Mountaineers quarterback Armanti Edwards, who shredded the U-M defenders for 289 total yards (227 passing) and four touchdowns.
Whatever the case, Appalachian State didn’t relent to Michigan’s bigger names early on and come halftime, the Mountaineers were deservedly sitting on a 28-17 lead. The Wolverines rallied for three scores in the second half, including Hart’s go-ahead touchdown with four-plus minutes remaining, but Appalachian State dealt the final blow on two fronts — kicking the go-ahead field goal with 26 ticks left … and then blocking Michigan kicker Jason Gingell’s 37-yard attempt with no time left, thus clinching the greatest college shocker in recent memory.
2. No. 2 OHIO STATE 31, No. 1 MIAMI 24 (2002 BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP)
THE LEGACY:This upset signaled the beginning of the end of Miami’s mini-dynasty in the early 2000s.
THE SKINNY: At first blush, it seems odd that a No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash would rate as this countdown’s second-greatest upset.
However, in the BCS national championship era from 1998 to 2012), the 2002 Buckeyes stood as the biggest title-game underdogs, encountering a 12-point spread against the defending champion Hurricanes.
For some perspective, in the 2001 BCS title game at the Rose Bowl), Miami was only an 8 1/2-point favorite over Nebraska and that Cornhuskers squad starring Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch couldn’t match the talent base of the 2002 Buckeyes.
As such, the double-digit point spread involving Miami and Ohio State was more a credit to the Hurricanes, who were loaded with future NFL stars. Even many of their backups were future pro stars.
The game itself was a true classic. Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey passed for 296 yards and two scores, future pros Kellen Winslow Jr. (11 catches, 122 yards), Roscoe Parrish and tailback Willis McGahee all found the end zone.
For Ohio State, QB Craig Krenzel rushed for two touchdowns and completed only seven passes for the night. But his most memorable contribution involved an incomplete-pass-turned-pass-interference call on fourth down in the first overtime (shown below), a delayed call which momentarily had the Miami players, coaches and fans celebrating back-to-back national titles.
Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett scored two rushing TDs, but his greatest contribution involved the miraculous forced fumble/strip recovery off Miami safety Sean Taylor, after Krenzel tossed an ill-advised interception in the end zone.
In the second overtime, Ohio State would score the go-ahead touchdown. The defense then buckled down for Miami’s final possession, relying on an all-out blitz near the goal line to clinch the Buckeyes’ first national championship since the late 1960s.
For the Buckeyes, it was validation for the lukewarm hire of head coach Jim Tressel prior to the 2001 season. It was also another close-shave triumph for Ohio State, which claimed seven of its 14 seasonal victories by just seven points or less.
3. No. 9 MICHIGAN STATE 17, No. 2 OHIO STATE 14 (2015)
THE LEGACY: Ohio State falls apart at the worst possible time and subsequently tumbles out of the national-title picture.
THE SKINNY: For such a low-scoring game, this monumental upset certainly offered plenty of quirky action:
- As a back story, Ohio State won its first 10 games by an average margin of 22.6 points. For the first nine weeks of the 2015 season, the Buckeyes held the nation’s No. 1 ranking. Michigan State, in turn, was still smarting from its controversial loss to Nebraska earlier in the month (more on that later).
- You couldn’t have asked for worse weather in November, short of a blizzard blanketing the playing field with 12 inches of snow. On second thought, that might have been more favorable than the blustery conditions at Ohio Stadium — biting-cold temperatures, heavy rains and a stifling crosswind.
- Forced to play without injured starter Connor Cook (shoulder), Michigan State would rotate backup quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry throughout the day. The duo combined for just eight completions and 91 yards passing.
- Despite possessing clear advantages with starting personnel and home field, the Buckeyes coaches were way too conservative with their game plan. The bad weather might have influenced this rationale. All-Big Ten tailback Ezekiel Elliot (33 yards rushing, 1 TD) only touched the ball 12 times and quarterback J.T. Barrett attempted just 16 passes against the Spartans. All told, Ohio State collected five first downs and 132 total yards.
- Michigan State flourished in the ground game, notching 203 rushing yards and one touchdown against Ohio State’s NFL-prospect-heavy defense. That stability set the table for MSU kicker Michael Geiger to boot the game-winning field goal with no time left. The final drive was methodical. The Spartans didn’t gain more than 7 yards on any play.
- As a postscript, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in unbeaten against every Big Ten member since 2012, except for Michigan State. Against the Spartans, Meyer owns a modest 2-2 mark, with both victories coming in East Lansing.
4. NEBRASKA 39, No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE 38 (2015)
THE LEGACY: Brandon Reilly’s controversial touchdown ultimately denies Michigan State a top seed in the College Football Playoff.
THE SKINNY: Mike Riley could coach at Nebraska for 20 years, but he’ll never experience a wilder spectrum of emotions than what went down on Oct. 31 and Nov. 7.
On Halloween Day last season, the Cornhuskers’ once-vaunted defense surrendered 55 points to Purdue in an embarrassing road defeat — their sixth of the season. It also serves as Boilermakers head coach Darrell Hazell’s only Big Ten home victory of his embattled tenure (1-11 over three years).
A week later, with Riley feeling the collective weight of a depressed Huskers Nation, his Nebraska troops hung tough with No. 6 Michigan State, before earning the crazy one-point victory.
The Spartans seemed in control for large chunks of this game, especially within the final two minutes. But Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., who had 320 yards passing and 4 total TDs, engineered a frenetic final burst, rallying his team for two quick-strike touchdowns — including the go-ahead touchdown passing to receiver Brandon Reilly.
For Reilly’s memorable catch, he inexplicably ran out of bounds during the go-route, a decision that should have made him ineligible upon coming back inbounds. Instead, the referees erroneously ruled that Reilly had been forced out of bounds — a claim that was easily refuted during television replays – but was not applicable to changing the call.
Even with its late defensive meltdown, Michigan State still had a chance to kick a game-winning field goal. However, in the final seconds, QB Connor Cook (335 yards passing, 4 TDs) had difficulty grounding the ball in Nebraska territory, allowing the clock to run out on the Spartans’ perfect season.
A month later, Michigan State (12-2) captured the Big Ten championship; but the Spartans would likely have avoided eventual champion Alabama in the national semifinals if they entered the College Football Playoff as an undefeated entity.
5. #10 MICHIGAN STATE 34, #2 OHIO STATE 24 (2013)
THE LEGACY: Urban Meyer suffers his first Big Ten defeat as Ohio State head coach.
THE SKINNY:The Buckeyes initially bore the look of a national-title contender in 2013, winning their first 12 games and posting an average victory margin of 29.6 points.
As such, they swaggered into Indianapolis as overwhelming favorites for the Big Ten crown against a Michigan State team that had flown under the national radar ever since an early-season defeat to Notre Dame.
In hindsight, it was the perfect cover for Michigan State’s early ambush. The Spartans scored 17 unanswered points in the first 21 minutes, including two touchdown passes from QB Connor Cook.
Ohio State would rally with 24 consecutive points to grab a temporary lead in the third quarter, but the No. 2 Buckeyes were essentially operating on borrowed time, with the Spartans notching the game’s final four scores — highlighted by Jeremy Langford’s title-clinching TD run with 2:16 remaining.
In the upset, Cook (304 yards passing, 3 TDs) and Langford (149 total yards, 1 TD) may have warranted the offensive limelight, but the Michigan State defense merited tremendous praise for limiting Ohio State’s passing attack to just eight completions and 101 yards.
The Spartans (13-1) would subsequently defeat Stanford in the Rose Bowl and finish the season at No. 3 overall, trailing only Auburn and national champion Florida State.
6 — ILLINOIS 28, #1 OHIO STATE 21 (2007)
THE LEGACY: Illinois takes down a national No. 1 for the first time since 1956, when they beat Michigan State).
THE SKINNY: Sure, this was a devastating defeat for Ohio State, surrendering college football’s highest ranking at home and seemingly squandering a chance to reach the BCS title game.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t harm the Buckeyes’ chances of reaching the BCS championship — thanks to a pair of final-weekend losses from No. 1 Missouri, which lost to Oklahoma, and No. 2 West Virginia, home losers to Pittsburgh.
This crazy action propelled Ohio State — which had been idle on that first December Saturday — back into the BCS final, which they would eventually lose to LSU.
In a quirky matter of speaking, the Illinois-Ohio State game represented a win-win for both parties, along with the Big Ten office.
The Fighting Illini would rush for 260 yards against the typically stout Buckeyes. The offense also relied on the rock-steady hand of quarterback Juice Williams, who tossed three touchdowns on the day and sealed the upset victory.
When the dust settled on that season, Ohio State would claim the outright Big Ten title; and Illinois had enough cachet to warrant a spot in the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Southern California).
7. IOWA 24, No. 3 PENN STATE 23 (2008)
THE LEGACY: The Hawkeyes’ comeback victory effectively dashed Joe Paterno’s last great hope at a national championship.
THE SKINNY: The Big Ten Network airs this classic at least three times a month it seems, and it’s easy to see why.
Here’s the scene: In 2008, Penn State won its first eight games by at least 14 points apiece and then in Week 9, the Nittany Lions outlasted Ohio State to improve to 9-0.
By most accounts, the program now had a relatively clear path to a perfect record, a Big Ten title and a potential berth in the BCS national championship.
Iowa, however, had a different spin on Penn State’s title quest.
Tailback Shonn Greene (117 rushing yards, 2 TDs) opened the scoring with a first-quarter touchdown. Penn State would counter with four consecutive scores — but just one TD — boosting its lead to 16-7. After trading TDs in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions, leading by nine, appeared to be shoo-ins for their 10th straight victory.
However, a Greene rushing touchdown and costly interception from Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark had suddenly positioned Iowa for the upset. Shortly after that, Daniel Murray booted the game-winning kick from 31 yards to clinch the Hawkeyes’ signature win, which ran eerily similar to Rob Houghtlin’s game-winning kick over No. 2 Michigan in October 1985 (above video).
The vibe at chilly Kinnick Stadium, on that cold, blustery November evening was perfect for a game of this magnitude.
Prior to this clash, there was heavy talk of three major-conference clubs — Alabama, Texas Tech and Penn State — all finishing the season undefeated and leaving one perfect team out of the mix for the BCS championship. However, later in the month, the Crimson Tide, Red Raiders and Nittany Lions would all squander their chances for a national title.
8. NORTHWESTERN 33, No. 7 OHIO STATE 27 (2004)
THE LEGACY: Northwestern head coach Randy Walker finally gets a piece of the Buckeyes.
THE SKINNY: In 1995, Northwestern shocked the world by winning the outright Big Ten championship and clinching a berth in the Rose Bowl. It was one of the greatest occurrences in conference history, but one that also included a significant caveat:
For Northwestern’s dream season, which included landmark wins over Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State, the Wildcats were fortunate enough to avoid Ohio State on the schedule.
From a long-standing perspective, Ohio State also has a thorough history of dominating Northwestern, holding a 60-14-1 edge in head-to-head meetings and seldom being challenged along the way.
That’s what makes the 2004 upset so grand, so awe-inspiring.
The Buckeyes weren’t exactly setting the football world on fire that year. After routing Cincinnati in the opener, Ohio State subsequently needed a little luck to slip past middling Marshall and North Carolina State.
But still, there were no impending signs of doom with Ohio State and its trip to suburban Chicago. The last five OSU-Northwestern encounters had yielded a spread of double-digit points each time.
The 2004 shocker had an eerie feel from the start: The Wildcats buried a 40-yard field goal right before halftime and seized a slim halftime lead. Northwestern then marched down the field on its opening possession of the second half, ultimately cashing in with Brett Basanez’s 27-yard TD pass to Mark Philmore.
Ohio State would quickly counter with a touchdown, but the defense was having no luck in stopping Northwestern’s offense, which would collect 33 points and outperform Ohio State in the vital categories of first downs, total yards, passing yards and rushing yards.
This efficiency would carry over into overtime, with tailback Noah Herron clinching Northwestern’s landmark victory with a 2-yard rushing touchdown. It’s worth noting that the Wildcats — who never trailed in the game — elected for the TD push even though a field goal would have sealed the win.
How shocking was this upset, outside of taking down a top-10 program? Since the 2004 game, Northwestern has dropped its last five meetings against Ohio State by an average margin of 36.2 points.
9. ILLINOIS 31, No. 5 WISCONSIN 26 (2007)
THE LEGACY: The Fighting Illini’s impossible-dream season started taking shape with this shocker.
THE SKINNY: Illinois endured a dreadful five-year run of 13-45 from 2002-06, a shaky period that included two seasons of the Ron Zook era.
But everything changed for the better in Year 3 of Zook’s tenure, with the tandem of quarterback Juice Williams (2,498 total yards, 20 TDs) and tailback Rashard Mendenhall (1,681 rushing yards, 19 TDs) leading the program’s out-of-nowhere resurgence.
The 2007 campaign started on a humble note, with Illinois losing to arch-rival Missouri in a 40-34 shootout. After that, the Fighting Illini began gathering steam, dispatching the likes of Western Illinois, Syracuse and Indiana before knocking off a pair of ranked clubs on consecutive weekends (Penn State, Wisconsin).
The Badgers, in turn, opened the ’07 campaign ranked in the top 10 and appeared to be the greatest conference challenger to vaunted Ohio State. Wisconsin had admirable offensive balance (QB Tyler Donovan, RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum) and a top-40 defense.
However, those Rose Bowl hopes were greatly hindered with the Illinois upset, as the Fighting Illini rode the massive coattails of Mendenhall (193 total yards, 3 TDs) and collected their first of two top-5 shockers for that season — with the other stunner ranking No. 6 in this countdown.
10. PURDUE 26, No. 7 OHIO STATE 18 (2009)
THE LEGACY: Ohio State makes the wrong kind of history with this deflating and baffling road loss.
THE SKINNY: From my research, the Purdue upset from 2009 stands as the only time in Ohio State’s modern history that it fell to a club riding a losing streak of five or more games.
On that quirky day, Purdue pass-catchers Keith Smith and Aaron Valentin combined for 22 receptions, 222 receiving yards and two touchdowns; and Ohio State’s high-octane offense would account for only 12 first downs and 265 total yards. Go figure.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.