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Big Ten Football: Best Games of 2021

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State Buckeyes in 2022 Rose Bowl vs. Utah Utes

C.J. Stroud and the Ohio State Buckeyes capped an exciting season for Big Ten teams by outlasting Utah in a wild, back-and-forth, high-scoring Rose Bowl

Contests coming down to the wire, exasperating moments, and a thrilling finish every week — and that's just Nebraska's 2021 schedule.

Indeed, Big Ten football delivered on some of the most exciting football of the past season.

Best Games of 2021 by Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC

10 Best Big Ten Games of 2021

10. Iowa 27, Minnesota 22 – Nov. 13

Iowa made a habit of playing tight contests on its way to 10 wins and the Big Ten Championship Game. Its win over Minnesota to retain the Floyd of Rosedale — one of college football's most unique rivalry trophies — was among the Hawkeyes' most exciting. Iowa and Minnesota exchanged big plays in the second half, first with Alex Padilla connecting with Charlie Jones for a 72-yard touchdown that gave Iowa the lead, followed by Tanner Morgan's 68-yard scoring pass to Chris Autman-Bell in the late fourth quarter.

Fittingly though, defense won the day for Iowa when Zach VanValkenburg sacked Morgan on the Golden Gophers' penultimate possession and set up the Iowa offense for a chip-shot field goal.

9. Michigan 21, Penn State 17 – Nov. 13

A dominant showing against Ohio State sent Michigan to the Big Ten Championship Game and was one of the team's crowning achievements in 2021. However, Michigan's first Big Ten title since splitting the 2004 crown with Iowa, and the program's first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff would not have been possible without the Wolverines pulling out some heart-stopping wins leading up to that snowy rivalry.

The win at Penn State was among the most remarkable. After going more than three quarters unable to mount much of anything offensively, Penn State was set up with a short field in the latter half of the final period to score 10 straight points. But a Michigan offense that was struggling in its own right answered the bell when Cade McNamara hooked up with Erick All on a 47-yard score that stole the win.

8. Iowa 23, Penn State 20 – Oct. 9

Big Ten football made its share of contributions to the madness that was Oct. 9, 2021. Among the most confounding results was Iowa's comeback from a 20-10 deficit late in the third quarter against Penn State. Riley Moss, Jack Koerner, Matt Hankins and Jestin Jacobs all picked off passes for the Hawkeyes, and Iowa scored 13 unanswered points in a turnover-fueled flurry spanning a little more than 10 minutes of game time.

Related: Best ACC Games of 2021

7. Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 28 – Nov. 20

Wisconsin boasts an illustrious history of standout running backs. Braelon Allen added his name to the legacy with a ridiculous 228-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Badgers' win over Nebraska.

Allen carried the ball just 22 times, two of which were touchdowns of 71 and 53 yards. The latter came with 3:50 remaining, breaking a 28-28 tie after a Cornhuskers score just minutes earlier.

6. Iowa 28, Nebraska 21 – Nov. 26

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten from the Big 12 early last decade, the placement of its annual matchup with Iowa on Rivalry Week felt a little forced. After years of wild finishes and some memorable trash talk, it's fair to call this a genuine rivalry. And the Hawkeyes' win in 2021 is the stuff of rivalry lore.

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Nebraska built a seemingly insurmountable two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter against a struggling Iowa offense. But an absolutely chaotic fourth quarter flipped the game with Iowa scoring on a punt-block touchdown, then a safety, a field goal, and finally, a 76-yard touchdown drive.

5. Penn State 28, Auburn 20 – Sept. 18

Penn State's White-Out games rarely disappoint, and the 2021 edition against SEC foe Auburn was no exception. A rocking crowd at Beaver Stadium erupted as Noah Cain scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, then nearly came unglued when a fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line denied Auburn a crack at tying it up.

4. Michigan State 23, Nebraska 20 (OT) – Sept. 25

The Nebraska defense neutralized outstanding Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III in a way few opponents could last season, holding the eventual Doak Walker Award winner to just 61 yards on 19 carries. No, it wasn't the defense that bit the Cornhuskers in another of their heartbreaking losses of 2021: It was special teams.

A punt return of 62 yards from Jayden Reed — who opened the game with a 35-yard touchdown reception — forced a 20-20 tie. The Spartans' defense bowed up in overtime and sealed the win. 

3. Michigan 32, Nebraska 29 – Oct. 9

A roller-coaster ride in Lincoln put an exclamation point on the incredible Oct. 9 slate, as Nebraska battled back from down two touchdowns at halftime, and 12 points in the late third quarter, to take a lead midway through the fourth.

But Brad Hawkins came up with maybe the play of the year for Michigan, forcing a fumble that led to the second of two Jake Moody field goals in the waning minutes to give Michigan a white-knuckle victory.

2. Michigan State 37, Michigan 33 – Oct. 30

Kenneth Walker III delivered on a game for the ages, rushing for five touchdowns and a hair less than 200 yards as Michigan State rallied from down 16 points to beat Michigan.

Walker's stats are impressive enough on their own, but the Spartan back was explosive when Michigan State needed it most. His two fourth-quarter scores — the first tying the game at 30, and the second putting Michigan State ahead for good — were from 58 and 27 yards out.

1. Rose Bowl Game: Ohio State 48, Utah 45 – Jan. 1, 2022 

Many of the greatest Rose Bowl Games ever played have been in the last five years. Ohio State's 48-45 defeat of first-time Granddaddy participant Utah ranks among them.

The wild and emotional back-and-forth saw Ohio State rally from multiple two-score deficits, taking the lead when California quarterback C.J. Stroud found Jaxon Smith-Njigba on a 30-yard score — part of the receiver's Rose Bowl record-setting 347-yard performance.

But the Utes' Bryson Barnes, thrown in for an injured Cameron Rising at quarterback, found Dalton Kincaid on a beautiful pass that tied it up at 45. Ohio State marched down the field on the ensuing possession to kick a game-winning field goal and put a cap on a memorable Rose Bowl.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break