Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.
For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:
Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.
Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.
Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.
Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.
Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.
Michigan and Michigan State are on two different paths this season. The Spartans are fighting for a spot in the first College Football Playoff and Michigan is fighting to keep Brady Hoke’s job.
Despite the difference in the state of the two programs, in-state prospects say their opinions haven’t changed much on how they view the schools.
This is shaping up to be an important weekend for the Big Ten, with rivalry games and big recruiting visitors on tap.
Plenty of recruits are making their way to Big Ten games this weekend, so here is a look at some of the top prospects who will be on hand.
Ohio State vs. Penn State
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Michigan might stage a watershed moment at Spartan Stadium. Hey, stranger things have happened. Yeah, Michigan State has been good in winning five straight, but it’s not without holes. The Spartans have overcome struggles on the defensive side in each of the past four games. And Michigan has the athletes to burn the MSU defense. If the Wolverines can gain some confidence, no better time exists to inject life back into a seemingly lost season than in this rematch of the Spartans’ domination a season ago. Perhaps, Michigan can find some inspiration from its predecessors’ huge comeback 10 years ago to beat the Spartans -- a triple-overtime win that appeared more unlikely in the fourth quarter than even a victory this week. Michigan had last week off to get healthy and concoct a plan to attack its rival as if there's no tomorrow in Ann Arbor. Even Brady Hoke sounds ready to rumble, admitting that he’s “not a big fan of the Spartans.” More than likely, though, this game will follow script and end with an MSU win, thanks in no small part to its tendency to create turnovers -- and Michigan’s habit of losing the football.
Wisconsin might get it together. It’s almost November, and, if it’s going to happen, now is the time for the Badgers to make a move. After an off week, with extra practice to bring clarity to the quarterback puzzle in Madison, this game looks like a good one to start playing like a cohesive unit, especially on offense. Maryland gives up points and yards. And the Badgers appear set to welcome diverse fullback Derek Watt back from injury in addition to defensive tackle Warren Herring, who injured a knee right as things went downhill in the season opener against LSU. Maybe offensive guard Rob Havenstein can help bring some focus to the Badgers as he goes against his homestate school. Or perhaps what we’ve seen through six games is Wisconsin -- a team with a solid defense, a great running back and no answer at quarterback.
Rutgers might neutralize the Nebraska pass rush. It seems Kaleb Johnson believes that Ohio State star defensive end Joey Bosa was avoiding the Scarlet Knights' decorated left guard last week in Columbus. Johnson and left tackle Keith Lumpkin want a chance to stack up against the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. And apparently, Ohio State attacked the right side of the Rutgers offensive line. Sounds like an odd thing about which to complain after a 56-17 loss. The Buckeyes sacked Gary Nova four times. Johnson and Lumpkin are anxious this week to face Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The Scarlet Knights might want to be careful what they wish for. Gregory is a one-on-one nightmare for any offensive lineman. Collins and Vincent Valentine on the interior are a handful. And the Huskers are developing depth up front on defense. But I like the attitude of Johnson and Lumpkin. Nebraska’s pass rush, while solid and full of promise, has overwhelmed only Fresno State and Illinois this season. And if Nova stays clean, he can do damage.
Around the league:
- Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart goes way back with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
- Is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the next star quarterback to struggle against the Ohio State defense?
- The biggest recruiting weekend of the year has arrived at Penn State.
- A midseason report card for Iowa.
- Purdue quarterbacks want to go deep.
- A history lesson on Minnesota football from Patrick Reusse, and what it means about the direction of these Gophers.
- The compelling story of Northwestern's Dwight White, who learned this year that he had been playing football with one kidney.
- Check out these names who should be on the Illinois coaching radar, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
So we thought we'd take it a step further this week. Instead of just predicting the winner, which seems like a relatively easy exercise this week, we each took a crack at making a bold prediction for Week 9.
Here are those bold predictions:
Adam Rittenberg: Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova combine for 550 pass yards
I expect a big day for both quarterbacks in Lincoln. Rutgers is very vulnerable to long passes -- 52.5 percent of opponents' completions against the Scarlet Knights go for 10 yards or longer -- and Nebraska features a big-play passing attack. I'm also not sold on the Huskers secondary, which will be tested by Rutgers deep threat Leonte Carroo. Maybe Randy Gregory inhales Nova and it's another rough day on the road for Rutgers, but I see a lot of pass yards in this one.
Brian Bennett: Penn State breaks out something new
The Nittany Lions know they can't simply line up and run the ball in conventional ways (or protect Christian Hackenberg) because of their porous offensive line, and the talent level isn't going to change this season. But the team had a bye week in which James Franklin said it spent working on those issues. Expect the coaching staff to throw some new wrinkles at Ohio State, a la the 2011 game when Penn State broke out the Wildcat. It probably still won't be enough to beat the surging Buckeyes, but Ohio State had better be ready to adjust for something different.
Austin Ward: The Badgers will look competent throwing the football
The two-quarterback system barely made an appearance the last time Wisconsin stepped on the field, though it hardly made any difference against Illinois and its pillow-soft defense. Melvin Gordon might still be enough on his own against another unit that doesn’t usually put up much of a fight on the ground, but Maryland does have better athletes on that side of the ball and the Badgers will likely need to show more balance to get the win they need to remain a factor in the West. Coming off a bye week to tinker with the rotation and fine-tune some packages for both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, expect to see more production from those passers -- maybe even the first 200-yard passing performance since Week 2 against Western Illinois.
Josh Moyer: The Illini will look incompetent with a two-QB system
Tim Beckman was adamant he wants to play both dual-threat Aaron Bailey and pocket-passer Reilly O'Toole. Bad move, Tim -- and even your offensive coordinator doesn't seem sold on the idea. Bill Cubit just shrugged earlier this week when asked if Beckman's two-QB idea was the best plan: "I don't know. I'll be honest with you, the playbook gets really expanded for one guy." The two-quarterback system worked against Wisconsin because the Badgers didn't expect Bailey to run. That element of surprise is gone now; Minnesota knows what's coming. And we think we know, too: Another Illinois loss.
Dan Murphy: Three players will reach 200 rushing yards
Despite Tevin Coleman -- the country's second most productive running back -- taking the week off for a bye, the Big Ten will see three 200-yard rushing performances this Saturday. Illinois allows 271 yards per game on the ground (125th nationally). Minnesota workhorse David Cobb will fill the majority of that quota this week. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the only player with more rushing yards than Coleman, faces a Maryland defense with its own issues stopping the run. The regular cast of characters finishes with Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, who is likely headed for a high-scoring affair with Rutgers in Lincoln.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan will rush for positive net yardage
Believe it. Michigan State mauled the Wolverines last year, sacking QB Devin Gardner seven times as the Wolverines finished with minus-48 rushing yards -- the lowest figure in program history. It’ll go better for Michigan on Saturday, though well not enough to beat the Spartans. Or come close. Michigan ranks 64th nationally in rushing offense, a significant improvement over last year, and the Spartans have slipped to eighth against the run, allowing 100.3 yards per game. The Wolverines won’t get to triple digits, especially without injured back Derrick Green. But Brady Hoke has said he wants to get Gardner more involved in the ground game. They had a bye week to prepare. Let’s see it.
Anyway ... here are the breakdowns:
Minnesota 31, Illinois 20: The Big Ten's worst run defense will get a heavy dose of David Cobb, the nation's carries leader (189) and No. 4 rusher (1,013). Like Purdue, Illinois will try to attack Minnesota with its speed and will have some success, but Minnesota remains perfect in league play.
Wisconsin 38, Maryland 30: Expect a ton of handoffs from Wisconsin's quarterbacks, who should want no part of Will Likely. But Maryland allows nearly 200 rush yards per game, which doesn't bode well against a rested Melvin Gordon.
Nebraska 41, Rutgers 27: Can the Huskers avoid a slow start? If so, they should be able to pull away from a Rutgers team that had no answers for Ohio State's offense. Quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Gary Nova both put up big numbers in this one.
Michigan State 24, Michigan 13: The Wolverines' points totals against MSU have dropped every year since 2004. They exceed last year's woeful production but can't stop the Spartans' Connor Cook and Tony Lippett, who connect for two touchdown strikes.
Ohio State 27, Penn State 16: J.T. Barrett won't go nuts against an improved Penn State defense that can shut down the run. But his counterpart, Christian Hackenberg, could be in real trouble if he's not protected from Joey Bosa and Ohio State's fearsome defensive line.
Mitch Sherman: 62-13 (.827)
Brian Bennett: 60-15 (.800)
Austin Ward: 59-16 (.787)
Adam Rittenberg: 58-17 (.773)
Josh Moyer: 56-19 (.747)
Dan Murphy: 28-10 (.737)
1. Buzz-building weekend: For all the problems generating much hype for teams in the Big Ten early in the season, it doesn’t seem to really be slowing down individuals in the league heading into the final weekend of October. In fact, the next couple weeks could be critical for launching a few stars into the conversation for the stretch run, beginning with Melvin Gordon and a campaign that appears to be back on track. Just like Wisconsin collectively, Gordon was a bit slow out of the gates and became something of a forgotten man. But coming off a bye week with another opportunity to potentially put up big numbers against Maryland and its soft rush defense, he could be right back in the thick of a few trophy races. Ameer Abdullah takes on a Rutgers defense that was just gashed by J.T. Barrett, and the Nebraska rusher could use an impressive outing to recapture some hype that slowed down considerably after the loss at Michigan State and an off date of his own. Then there’s Barrett, who is flying up the charts with his eye-popping numbers. The Ohio State quarterback is also in position to capture more attention if he adds a solid Penn State defense to his list of recent victims.
2. Position under fire: The problems the Penn State offensive line have had are no secret, and Christian Hackenberg surely has the bruises to prove it. But if the Nittany Lions are going to bounce back and regain some of the winning swagger they had during the four-game winning streak that opened the season, they’re going to need to show some marked improvement in a hurry. Coming off a bye week to work out a few kinks, Penn State is certainly going to be put to the test to see what it accomplished with the extra practice time on Saturday night against the Buckeyes. Count Joey Bosa among those who has noticed the guys in charge of blocking him next have had issues at times this season, pointing out some “struggles” and noting their youth after practice on Wednesday. The Ohio State pass-rusher also made clear, however, that he is expecting Penn State's best shot this weekend and won’t take anything for granted, though he was obviously fired up to hit the road after practice. The Nittany Lions had certainly better be energized and ready for the sensational sophomore’s top effort as well.
3. Under-the-radar matchup: The coaches may have taken notice and started ranking them in their poll, but the Gophers still aren’t drawing much of a spotlight despite sitting on top of the West Division. There might not really be any incentive to pay attention to Illinois at this point, but it’s a program that still has something to play for as its coach fights for his job and a bowl game remains mathematically in reach. So despite the justifiably low intrigue there might be nationally for Minnesota’s trip to Illinois, the outcome figures to be plenty relevant in the Big Ten. If the Gophers win again, they’re halfway through the league schedule without a loss and on the inside track in the divisional race heading into their second and final bye week. Should the Illini pull an upset, they’d be right back at .500, Tim Beckman’s seat would be considerably cooler and they could once again start entertaining the idea of playing in the postseason. Maybe that’s a stretch to make the game itself worth watching for casual fans, but the final score will carry weight for both teams.
- Michigan State center Jack Allen has returned to practice and will be in the starting lineup on Saturday.
- Michigan offensive linemen were "deer in the headlights" last year against the Spartans, and they'll have to be better this time around.
- Penn State has flip-flopped about its plans for offensive coordinator John Donovan this week.
- Rutgers still has faith in up-and-down receiver Janarion Grant.
- Ohio State knows what to expect from the road crowd this week at Penn State, and it can't wait for the opportunity to play in front of it.
- Another tough task for Maryland's defensive front is on tap against Wisconsin.
- A look at the upbringing for new Indiana starting quarterback Zander Diamont, the son of a soap-opera star.
- Nebraska punter Sam Foltz is all about the little things when it comes to his craft.
- Wisconsin appears ready to welcome back some important contributors.
- Minnesota's kicker is easy to spot -- for most people, anyway.
- Crunching the numbers on third down for Northwestern.
- Take a look at what is in front of Iowa down the stretch.
- Illinois has had some hard-to-watch moments on film this season.
- Purdue is turning some heads around the Big Ten.
Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will both play. I don't entirely get that, though I recognize, considering Stave's unusual season, that it's likely been one of the most difficult situations a coaching staff could face with two healthy quarterbacks.
Sherman: Let me direct you to the weekly Playoff Eliminator, which puts into context the contenders that remain for the main event in January. Context is the all-important factor here. Without it, no one can say if a Big Ten team has a shot to make the playoff. At this point, even the league's top-ranked teams, when the committee's first poll is unveiled next week, will need help in order to reach the top four. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week in conference play and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team would stand a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
@mitchsherman As Nebraska sets it self out from the others in the west can we make the playoff at 11-1 and a big ten championship?— Brandon Williamson (@Husker_bran) October 22, 2014
Since we didn't include a tight end on our midseason All-Big Ten team, we'll give that position some love as our bonus category of the week.
Here we go ...
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): The Badgers were off last week, but we named Gordon our midseason offensive MVP.
2. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: He bounced back from a rough game at Michigan State to score four touchdowns at Northwestern. Expect a big finish to his college career.
3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Even though Michigan State knew Indiana couldn't pass the ball last week, Coleman still managed 132 rushing yards. What a player.
4 . Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's sneaking up on the competition. The Buckeyes' freshman has 20 total touchdowns and just one interception in his past four games, and he leads the league in total offense and pass efficiency.
5. Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: Brady Hoke called him the league's best wideout this week, and we agree wholeheartedly. Lippett's eight receiving touchdowns lead the league, as does his 112.3 receiving yards per game.
Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): The guy who leads the league in tackles for loss and ranks second in sacks had his best game against Rutgers last week, according to Urban Meyer. Bosa is getting better, which is scary.
2. Minnesota LB Damien Wilson: He leads the league in tackles, with 76. That ranks 15th in the FBS.
3. Maryland CB Will Likely: If you pass the ball on the Terps, he will likely intercept it. And maybe score. Likely had another pick-six vs. Iowa, his second of the year and his Big Ten-best fourth interception overall.
4. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions' defense remains stout, and Hull is an anchor. He's right behind Wilson for the Big Ten tackles lead.
5. Iowa DE Drew Ott: He started off the Maryland game with an interception, and Ott now leads the league in sacks with seven in as many games.
Also receiving votes: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun; Nebraska DE Randy Gregory; Michigan LB Jake Ryan
Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year
1. Maxx Williams, Minnesota (six first-place votes): In an offense that doesn't pass much, Williams has become the go-to target. He has 15 catches for 247 yards and four touchdowns and has made some spectacular plays.
2. Josiah Price, Michigan State: Price's numbers are very similar to Williams' (15 catches, 244 yards and four touchdowns) as the tight end has become much more of a weapon this season for the Spartans.
With a few weeks of senior film to evaluate, ESPN’s scouts have updated the ESPN 300. We are around the midpoint of the season as well, so teams are looking to finish off their classes and fill any remaining needs.
There is plenty to discuss at this point in the Big Ten. Here are five things to know within the conference:
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Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.
The Michigan-Michigan State series resumes on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and the Spartans have been dominant of late in winning five of the past six meetings. But will it continue? Today's Take Two topic is: Which program will be in better shape five years from now?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
The real answer here is we have no idea. Things can change quickly in college sports, and nothing is guaranteed. Just look at Florida and Texas.
It's particularly hard to predict with any accuracy what Michigan will look like in the future, because we don't know who will be the coaching the Wolverines in five months, much less years. Of course, the Maize and Blue have all the resources to bounce back quickly, assuming they hire the right man. But they've missed on that two times in a row now, right?
That's why I'll pick Michigan State. Rivalries tend to go in cycles, and the Spartans' ownership of their in-state opponent likely won't continue at this rate. But stability has been a key to the success of Mark Dantonio in East Lansing, as so many of his coaches have been with him since the beginning. That probably won't stay the case -- Pat Narduzzi has to get a head-coaching gig this winter, and he is likely to take some other Spartans assistants with him when he does -- but Dantonio will keep sticking with what works.
He just coached his 100th game with Michigan State and is only 58. Dantonio figures to still be leading the Spartans five years from now, and the program continues to get better in all areas. Even if Michigan finally maximizes its potential, Michigan State isn't going away. I'll stick with the sure thing.
Take 2: Dan Murphy
Five years is a long time in the cyclical world of college football. As far ahead as Michigan State currently sits in just about every metric of a successful program, there's no reason to believe Michigan can't catch up and possibly pass the Spartans in the future.
There's a good chance Michigan is closing in on a clean slate with its athletic department leadership. Strong relationships between the head coach, athletic director and the university's big wigs is an essential part of creating a consistent winner on the football field. If things in Ann Arbor continue down this current path, the Wolverines will get a chance to start building those bounds from scratch before the 2015 season.
The resources -- money, facility, support and athletic talent -- have always tilted toward Michigan in this rivalry. The ingredients for a better product are there, Michigan just hasn't been able to put them together during the past couple years.
Meanwhile, in East Lansing, Dantonio is battling the high expectations and attrition that come with success. His coaching staff has remained largely intact during the Spartans' rise, but that can't continue forever.
Five years from now, Dantonio will be a 63-year-old coach that might be dealing with a new staff for the first time in a long time. It's not a foregone conclusion that the Goliath he's built will shrink, but history certainly points to the possibility that Michigan will be in a good spot to catch up, which is probably a good thing for Wolverines' fans to keep reminding themselves as this season's meeting plays out on Saturday.
But first, the Spartans must make sure they don't overlook their last game before that matchup: Saturday's contest against Michigan.
Michigan State, once infamously chided as "Little Brother" by former Michigan running back Mike Hart, will always approach this game with long knives drawn. Remember the "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness?"
"It's always really personal," linebacker Taiwan Jones told reporters on Tuesday. "Pretty much because we've always known every single game we play, we're never picked to be the favorites. It's always been about the school down the road instead of, I feel like, as much emphasis about us."
And yet ... you couldn't blame the Spartans if for maybe the first time ever vs. Michigan, the chip on their shoulders is more like a crumb. It's hard to fight for respect when you've so thoroughly stepped on your opponent's throats.
Michigan didn't even want to acknowledge the Paul Bunyan Trophy when it debuted in the early 1950s. Now, the Wolverines would love to see the little big man more often. Michigan State has won five of the past six meetings and is favored this week by 17 points, which is believed to be the largest spread on the Spartans' side in the rivalry's history.
Let's face it. This is a golden era to be rooting for the green and white.
Mark Dantonio's program is on a serious roll, having won 13 straight games against Big Ten opponents, building its College Football Playoff this year and still enjoying the glow from last season's Rose Bowl title. The only thing better than watching your team reach a crescendo is seeing your hated rival's drown. That's just what is happening at Michigan, as the Wolverines have wheezed to a 3-4 record while dealing with an angry fan base demanding heads on a pike.
Former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins famously said he and his teammates could "walk the streets" of Michigan proudly the rest of their lives after they completed a rare four-year sweep of the Wolverines in 2011. Right now for Michigan State supporters, it must seem like the streets are paved in gold (or perhaps more appropriately bronze, given the team's mascot).
There are only two comparable periods to this one: the early 1950s, when Clarence "Biggie" Munn turned the Spartans into a national powerhouse, and the early-to-mid 1960s, when Michigan State won two national titles as Michigan struggled under Bump Elliott. Michigan State went 14-4-2 against the Wolverines from 1950 to 1969, including a 9-1-2 mark from '56 through '67. Meanwhile, Michigan finished with losing records six times between 1958 and '67.
"Until now, that had pretty much been Michigan State's period of success," said Dr. David A. Young, author of Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten: Michigan State's Quest for Membership and Michigan's Powerful Opposition. "Otherwise, Michigan has been dominant in this rivalry."
Some other comparisons can be made between the eras.
Munn, Young said, "was known as intense and highly ethical, so you could say he's a lot like Mark Dantonio." Elliott had strong Michigan ties -- he'd played tailback at the school -- and was a well-liked man who just couldn't get the Wolverines over the hump, Young said. Sound familiar?
Dantonio is undoubtedly achieving legendary status at Michigan State. On Saturday at Indiana, he coached his 100th game for the Spartans and gained win No. 70. Tyler O'Connor and Kurtis Drummond presented Dantonio with game balls after the 56-17 victory.
Dantonio has certainly raised expectations in East Lansing. It's not just about beating Michigan and winning a Big Ten title now. The Spartans have their eyes on a national title, and as such, the game against Ohio State (coming after a bye week), looms as the biggest of their season. Still, Dantonio calls the Michigan game "the most important game on the schedule."
"When you compete day in and day out with them -- and that's what we do on recruits, for fans, for everything, it ... carries over to every sport here," he said Tuesday. "That still is a game that we have to point to and say, 'Hey, this goes beyond our schedule. This goes beyond the future.'"
The balance of power in this rivalry will likely change again in the future. But for right now, Michigan fans must be green with envy.
By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.
Brady Hoke filibuster watch: Opening statement clocks in at 90 seconds this week.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) October 21, 2014
Mark Dantonio says he thinks a one-loss Big Ten champ should make the playoff. "But that's just me as a fan," he said.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 21, 2014
More from Dantonio on the playoff: Could make a case for 15 different teams to be in the playoff.— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 21, 2014
Last 3 weeks, Fitz has seen Melvin Gordon, David Cobb and Ameer Abdullah: "Pretty special [group of RBs in B1G], no question about that."— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) October 21, 2014
Jerry Kill said coming from behind to beat Purdue was significant step last week. Gophers had never won after trailing at half under Kill.— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) October 21, 2014
Urban Meyer said Joey Bosa played his best game on Saturday vs. Rutgers. Kid's still getting better. Scary.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) October 21, 2014
Kevin Wilson on Tevin Coleman's big plays: "He's got a knack for it. Little bit of it is scheme, lot of it's him."— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) October 21, 2014
The standout individual effort by Funchess gave the Wolverines their longest completion of the year and the longest play of any kind since a season-opening drubbing of Appalachian State. As much trouble as Michigan’s offense has had with turnovers and finding a steady run game this season, it’s had an equally difficult time coming up with the type of big plays that can mask those inconsistencies.
Michigan’s bye week after seven straight games provided Hoke and his 3-4 team with an overdue opportunity to get healthy and evaluate themselves. Beating Penn State the previous Saturday allowed him to go through that process with less pressure and fewer questions about his future.
With in-state rival Michigan State next on the schedule and Ohio State looming a month later, the recalibrations Hoke and his staff make this week have the potential to save their jobs in Ann Arbor or provide the final nail in the coffin of their Michigan coaching careers. This week Hoke is attempting to land on the right side of the fine line that separates making improvements and overwhelming your team by tinkering too much.
“At times you say, ‘We need to add this,’ and then you add too much. Then you have a real problem,” Hoke said. “For us, it’s going back to what we want to be identity-wise, and we want to run the football.”
The run, Michigan hopes, will set up its dynamic offensive players with more chances to produce game-changing plays. Through seven games, the Wolverines have picked up 30 or more yards on a single play six times, fewer than all but four teams in the bowl subdivision this season. The only offensive category where they’ve struggled more is in turnover margin, where they rank dead last.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said big chunk gains usually come from exploiting an opponent’s weakest points or putting your best playmakers in a position to excel. Three of those long plays came from sophomore running back Derrick Green, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. The onus in Green’s absence falls even more squarely on the shoulders of Funchess and Gardner, the senior quarterback who has looked like more of an offensive threat in his two most recent games.
“I get the ball every play so it’s pretty much all my responsibility,” Gardner said. “Even if it’s a big run play for our running backs, I’ve got to hand it to them. I feel like I’m a big part of that.”
Gardner has the potential to create a few of those plays with his feet, but his best bet is to connect with his favorite target, the 6-foot-5 Funchess. He leads the team with 36 receptions and four touchdowns, but three of those came against Appalachian State.
Funchess battled a leg injury during most of September, making his highlight-reel return to the end zone against Penn State a beacon of hope that more spectacular efforts might be coming now that he’s healthy. Nussmeier knows Michigan has to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
“We’re always looking for ways to [create good match-ups],” he said. “Without giving away too much scheme stuff, we evaluated that very hard during the bye week and looked at ways to do that better.”
The Spartans, for all of their prowess on defense, have been burned by the long ball several times this season. They’ve surrendered at least 30 yards on 19 different plays this season, which ranks them 103rd in the nation in that category. The miscues have come against competition that ranges from Oregon to Eastern Michigan.
Michigan enters Saturday’s rivalry game as a double-digit underdog. The line against the Buckeyes later this season should be equally lopsided. The Wolverines likely need to win at least one of those games if Hoke is going to return in 2015. One tried-and-true way to pull off an upset -- especially with a defense that has held its own this season -- is with a few big plays.