Matchbook still in his hand, Jim Harbaugh seemed genuinely stunned that the gas station behind him was a smoldering ruin.

In his postgame press conference, Harbaugh was shocked and dismayed that two of his players were jumped by a much larger gang of Michigan State players following Saturday night’s game at Michigan Stadium.

Make no mistake, it was a cowardly and inexcusable act by the Michigan State players involved. A 10-on-1 beatdown proves you’re the opposite of tough.

But it is also naive to think Michigan doesn’t bear some culpability for what happened.

This was a tinderbox, and Harbaugh fanned the flames with his blatant attempts to run up the score late in the game.

With just over 4 minutes left, the Wolverines were just a couple first downs away from running out the clock on a 29-7 win. And they would have gotten those first downs on the ground, where no Big Ten defense has proven capable of stopping them this year — much less Michigan State’s. Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the win.

But that wasn’t good enough for Harbaugh, who had to be an ass about it. His intent was to rub salt in the wound and put more points on the board.

So Harbaugh made, for lack of a better term, a bullshit play call.

Michigan dialed up a trick play in a game that was already decided, running a reverse flea-flicker to wide receiver Ronnie Bell, who tried to find Donovan Edwards downfield for the all-important touchdown that would have given the Wolverines a 36-7 lead. Or maybe 37-7, since Harbaugh probably would have gone for 2 in the situation.

Bell’s pass fell incomplete. But the moment it was thrown, it should have been obvious to anyone who has been involved in an athletic rivalry at any level what was going to happen next. It certainly was to me.

My immediate reaction:

Some might think “Oh, he’s just running a trick play to get Ronnie Bell a touchdown pass. It’s cool.” But Harbaugh removed any doubt of his intentions by going deep on third-and-10 with 1:15 left on the clock.

It was not a case of JJ McCarthy simply making the right read and trying to pick up a first down. In this case, that would have meant throwing to the sticks. Not 30 yards downfield. McCarthy threw into double coverage that was so tight it drew a pass interference penalty.

The Wolverines were trying to rub it in. Repeatedly.

Anybody surprised the Spartans had a visceral response to this attempted humiliation is either lying to themselves or a fool. And anyone who thinks a Michigan Man would never do such a thing is full of it, too. If Ohio State pulled this nonsense against the Wolverines, tempers would be flaring in the other direction.

That’s reality.

In no way does that excuse those who attacked Michigan players. But it does explain why they probably wanted to take a swing at the first thing they saw in maize-and-blue.

Michigan State players are used to being called “little brother.” Attempting to run up the score was akin to big brother grabbing little brother’s arms and taunting, “Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself!”

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To this point, the condemnation of Michigan State’s players has been as one-sided as their jumping of Ja’Den McBurrows. Which especially makes sense when most of those commenting likely only saw that video and not how the game ended.

But if you don’t want to get sprayed, don’t kick a skunk. And that’s precisely what Harbaugh did by calling a trick play when he could have bled the clock behind the nation’s best offensive line.

“Just like anybody, you want to protect your players,” Harbaugh said after the game.

His concern was sincere. Even among coaches, Harbaugh’s reputation for loyalty is second to none. But he should also realize his own actions increased the risk that some Spartan would take a swing at one of those players.

Is it possible this still would have happened if Harbaugh hadn’t tried running up the score? Sure. But when a losing team watches the clock slowly wind down, usually the emotions associated with a humbling defeat wear out by the time you head to the locker room.

You’re spent; not steamed.

Everyone on Michigan State’s sideline knew exactly what Harbaugh was trying to do, and it pissed them off. Because that was the intent. To pour salt in the wound.

Given the one-tunnel layout at Michigan Stadium, intentionally raising an opponent’s temperature is a pretty reckless choice. Especially given the near-scuffle against Penn State 2 weeks ago.

Michigan State players deserve whatever penalties come their way, particularly whoever is responsible for swinging a helmet at a Michigan player. You can only hope lessons can be learned by those college athletes involved.

But those lessons should extend to the adult whose childish attempt to embarrass his rival likely boiled this pot over.

Around the B1G horn

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No. 2 Ohio State 44, Penn State 31

This outcome made it clear nothing stands in the way of another titanic Michigan-Ohio State clash to end the regular season. The Nittany Lions seemingly had an answer for the Buckeyes, only to allow 28 points in the final 9 minutes. Nothing keeps this offense in check for 60 minutes.

And maybe not the defense, either. The Bucks forced at least 4 turnovers for the second straight week, and are likely to do it again next week at Northwestern.

No. 4 Michigan 29, Michigan State 7

Last year, Kenneth Walker III had 197 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns against the Wolverines. On Saturday, Michigan State ran for 37 yards on 23 carries.

Without a talent of Walker’s caliber, Mel Tucker is certainly looking like an ordinary head coach.

No. 17 Illinois 26, Nebraska 9

Nebraska led 9-6 when quarterback Casey Thompson landed awkwardly after getting plugged on a blitz by Illini linebacker Seth Coleman. He never came back, suffering a nerve injury that affected the feeling in his throwing hand.

Adding insult to injury, Thompson’s pass on that play floated into the arms of Illinois safety Sydney Brown. But Brown’s interception in turn set up one of the coolest sequences in college football history.

Illinois began its possession at the Nebraska 11 thanks to Brown’s interception. And it was his twin brother, Chase, who ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown.

How many times in college football history has a drive started with a twin’s takeaway and ended on the other twin’s touchdown? It seems likely Ronde and Tiki Barber would have pulled off the feat while they played at Virginia, but there can’t be that many other examples.

Thompson’s backups were ill-suited to take on the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense. Logan Smothers was 1-of-1 for 1 yard, and Chubba Purdy went 3-of-8 for 15 yards and an interception.

Iowa 33, Northwestern 13

Northwestern scored a touchdown on the game’s final play to make the outcome look less embarrassing, but the damage was already done. When you give up 33 points to the Hawkeyes, nothing makes it less embarrassing.

This was Iowa’s best offensive performance since a 51-14 beatdown of Maryland last season.

The Wildcats look like they’re on the way to becoming just the third Big Ten team to finish 1-11 in the past decade. That Nebraska somehow lost to this team is as solid an argument as any that Scott Frost is the worst coach to last 4 or more seasons in Big Ten history.

Minnesota 31, Rutgers 0

The Golden Gophers recorded their first Big Ten shutout since a 45-0 win over Illinois in 2004.

For all the guff we give Brian Ferentz and Iowa’s offense, Greg Schiano is lucky that few people actually care about the Scarlet Knights. Because Rutgers’ offense is significantly worse.

In Big Ten play, Rutgers is averaging 11.4 points per game to Iowa’s 18. The Scarlet Knights are passing for 162.4 yards per game compared to Iowa’s 173. Rutgers is also averaging 4.21 yards per play in conference games. Iowa is at a comparatively robust 4.44.

Week 9 MVPs

1. DE JT Tuimoloau (Ohio State)

This wasn’t just the best Big Ten defensive performance of the year. It was one of the greatest showings by a defensive end in college football history.

Tuimoloau had 6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, a forced fumble and recovery, a pass breakup that created a third interception, and a touchdown. You could play 11-on-10 against an offense and still not be able to replicate those numbers.

If you’re a fan of a bad NFL team, root for them to be bad in 2023 so they can tank for Tuimoloau next year. (Lions fans can certainly get a head start on dreaming of an Aidan Hutchinson-JT Tuiomoloau bookend.)

2. WR Parker Washington (Penn State)

Washington looked like he was tired of hearing about how great Ohio State’s receivers are. The 5-10 sophomore was delightful, grabbing 11 receptions on 14 targets for 179 yards and a touchdown. Washington had 65 yards after catch, most of which were gained on his sweet 58-yard score.

3. WR Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State)

Depending on what your bad NFL team is worst at, perhaps you’ll want them to tank for Harrison in the 2024 NFL Draft. Justin Fields could use a Buckeye to throw to, right?

Harrison didn’t score against Penn State, but he did grab 10 catches for a career-high 185 yards. All 10 of his catches resulted in first downs.

CJ Stroud is clearly going to get the majority of Ohio State’s Heisman hype, but voters should be giving Harrison serious consideration. Even Iowa’s quarterbacks would look good with him in their lineup.

4. S Sydney Brown (Illinois)

The Illini lead the country with 15 interceptions, and Brown has 3 of them after adding a pair against Nebraska. He can also crash into the box in addition to playing the pass. Brown finished with 6 tackles, including 1.5 TFL. Illinois coach Bret Bielema compares him to former Iowa great Bob Sanders for good reason.

5. QB Tommy DeVito (Illinois)

It’s nearly impossible for a quarterback to have a more efficient performance than DeVito did against Nebraska. He finished 20-of-22 for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Honorable mention

Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who became the Gophers’ all-time touchdown leader with another 3 to raise his career total to 46. He also had 159 yards, making it 16 straight games over 100 rushing yards. … Illinois running back Chase Brown, who ran his own total to 9 straight games over 100 yards with 149 and a touchdown. … Illinois center Alex Palczewski, who now is the new Big Ten career leader with 60 games started. … Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, who passed for 354 yards but “only” 1 touchdown. … Michigan kicker Jake Moody, who was a perfect 5-for-5 kicking field goals. … Michigan running back Blake Corum, who picked up 177 yards on a career-high 33 carries. … And finally, Michigan State receiver Keon Coleman, who had 155 yards on just 5 catches.

Play of the week

Keon Coleman’s acrobatic catches on Michigan State’s lone scoring drive against Michigan were by far the best thing any Spartan was involved in on Saturday night.