Illinois pulled off not one, but two impressive upsets on its way to becoming bowl eligible
Big Ten football provided plenty of excitement in 2019, from the culmination of one of the greatest careers ever in Jonathan Taylor; to Ryan Day taking over at Ohio State; and the stunning emergence of Minnesota.
This past campaign was special for the historic conference in a number of ways. The Big Ten also delivered on some of the most exciting games of the season.
10 Best Big Ten Games of 2019
10. Iowa 49, USC 24 – Dec. 27 (Holiday Bowl)
To include such a lopsided game among the season's best might raise eyebrows. However, Iowa's Holiday Bowl rout of USC deserves a shoutout for its honoring of a Big Ten legend.
The Hawkeyes played arguably their best game of the season while paying homage to the late, great Hayden Fry. Ihmir Smith-Marisette (TD run, TD catch, 98-yard kickoff return for TD in the same quarter) delivering one of the most impressive individual performances of the entire Big Ten season also is worthy of recognition.
9. Michigan 24, Army 21 (2OT) – Sept. 7
Now, after Army took Oklahoma to overtime in Norman a season ago, the outcome made sense in hindsight. The Black Knights finished with their highest ranking in decades in 2018. The 2019 Army team struggled, however, which makes this nail-biter in the Big House one of the season's bigger head-scratchers in retrospect.
It's doubly unusual, given Army probably should have won, all things considered. The Black Knights attempted a 50-yard field goal as time expired that missed, but that isn't as heartbreaking for Army as a rare interception thrown at the goal line after a penalty moved the Cadets from the Michigan 1 to the 5.
The Wolverines escaped by the skin of their teeth thanks to Kwity Paye's assisted sack and fumble recovery.
8. Minnesota 35, Georgia Southern 32 – Sept. 14
Minnesota ascending into the College Football Playoff discussion by November is one of the more unpredictable developments of the 2019 season, particularly given how the Golden Gophers opened the campaign.
One week after barely surviving against Fresno State, Minnesota needed some final-minute dramatics to get past Georgia Southern. The unlikely shootout took multiple turns, beginning with the 77-yard run-back of a missed field goal. Georgia Southern followed that up with a 44-yard fumble return.
In both instances, the Eagles failed on two-point conversion attempts, only adding to the weirdness of this one. Minnesota ultimately rallied with a 75-yard drive that culminated with just 13 seconds remaining.
7. Indiana 44, Purdue 41 (2OT) – Nov. 30
The Old Oaken Bucket turned 94 in 2019, so rivals Indiana and Purdue did their best to honor the anniversary by scoring 94 points.
They fell a little short, but not for lack of trying. The Boilers rallied from down 28-10 in the third quarter, thanks to a pair of Zander Horvath touchdown rushes, then Aiden O'Connell throwing for both a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Purdue's 14-point fourth quarter forced overtime, where the teams traded first-frame touchdowns. But a field goal in the second overtime set the table for Indiana to score the walk-off on Peyton Ramsey's fifth different score of the day.
6. Iowa 18, Iowa State 17 – Sept. 14
The CyHawk Trophy rivalry between Iowa and Iowa State has had plenty of competitive and unique installments. Just two years ago, the teams played to overtime in a thrilling shootout, the antithesis of the defensive struggles that have come to defy the series.
The 2019 edition marked a return to defensive football taking center stage, but special teams ultimately defined Iowa's 18-17 win. Iowa forced a fumble on an Iowa State punt return that sealed the Hawkeyes' victory.
It's a play that fits quite well into the long history of this rivalry.
5. Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 21 – Dec. 7 (Big Ten Championship)
Big Ten Conference play produced plenty of games with closer finally scores, but the Big Ten Championship Game stands out for a number of reasons. First, Wisconsin's surprising deluge in the first half added intrigue to what by this point on Championship Saturday had been a chalky chase for the College Football Playoff.
Then, in rallying from down two scores, Ohio State played some of its absolute best football of the season on both sides of the ball. Justin Fields took over in a way that solidified his Heisman Trophy candidacy, as did Chase Young.
The comeback put a fitting punctuation mark on Ryan Day's first season as Buckeyes head coach.
4. Wisconsin 24, Iowa 22 – Nov. 9
Iowa-Wisconsin may not garner the kind of rivalry comparable to other Big Ten series, it's one of the older series in the conference with a lineage dating back to 1894. The end of the ill-conceived Legends and Leaders divisional split and implementation of geographical divisions in 2014 restored the series as an annual meeting, and it's been mostly Wisconsin since.
The 2019 installment marked the Badgers' fourth consecutive win, but the closest since a 26-24 decision in 2014. This year's also marked an ostensible West championship based on how the season unfolded. That, combined with historically prolific running back Jonathan Taylor blowing up for 250 yards upped the ante on this one enough to make it one of the Big Ten's very best of 2019.
Iowa scored just six points through three quarters, but mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback with a pair of Nate Stanley touchdown passes, the second a 75-yarder to Tyrone Tracy Jr. The score led to a would-be game-tying two-point conversion that fell short.
3. Illinois 37, Michigan State 34 – Nov. 9
Illinois earned bowl eligibility for the first time under Lovie Smith with a dramatic win at Michigan State — and a comeback that one could argue makes this the best Big Ten game of 2019.
The Illini trailed Sparty 31-10 heading into the fourth quarter, but Josh Imatorbhebhe's 83-yard touchdown reception from Brandon Peters ignited a rollicking 15 minutes. Reggie Corbin scored less than four minutes later, and a Sydney Brown pick-six made it a one-point game. Illinois held Michigan State to a field goal on a drive into Illini territory, setting up the dramatic conclusion when Peters found Daniel Barker with just five seconds left.
2. Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23 – Oct. 19
Since 2003, the Illinois-Wisconsin series was about as competitive as Wile E. Coyote vs. ACME products. The Illini's lone win over the Badgers came in the remarkable Rose Bowl run of the 2007 campaign.
Not only had Wisconsin won every matchup since, but the Badgers also rolled by an average of 19 points per game. Every win in that stretch came by double-digits, and the Las Vegas point spread ahead of this year's installment was a staggering 30.5 for Wisconsin.
Of course, games aren't played in sportsbooks. Not only did Illinois not lose by 30-plus points, but its defense also rose up to hold Wisconsin under 30 points. The defense really came through when, after a Josh Imatorbhebhe touchdown reception to pull the Illini within two, Tony Adams snagged an interception near midfield.
Illinois' subsequent drive into Wisconsin territory and a game-winning field goal by James McCourt sealed the program's biggest win under Lovie Smith.
1. Minnesota 31, Penn State 26 – Nov. 9
A November showdown between a top-10-ranked historic powerhouse and an undefeated program enjoying its best season in decades, Minnesota and Penn State offered the dramatic backstory of an epic.
And the on-field product matched up to the underlying themes.
Minnesota stormed ahead by two touchdowns in the first half and energized the home crowd, but Penn State chipped away at the deficit. Journey Brown's late fourth-quarter touchdown preceded the Nittany Lions regaining possession, down five points and needing only a touchdown with or without the extra point to win. Jordan Howard's end-zone interception, however, prevented the comeback.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)