Thursday, September 22, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4
By Adam Rittenberg
This week's sorry slate of Big Ten games tested my what-to-watch detective skills. Are there really 10 things to watch around the league on Saturday?
You bet, and here they are.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke will face his former team, San Diego State, in an emotional game this Saturday.
1. The Brady Bowl: Michigan coach Brady Hoke goes up against his former team as San Diego State visits the Big House. There's a lot of familiarity on both sides, and it will be interesting to see the coaches match wits, particularly longtime colleagues Al Borges (Michigan's offensive coordinator) and Rocky Long (San Diego State's head coach). The Aztecs players will be geared up to face Hoke, and the Wolverines much match their intensity.
2. Miller time or Cup 'o Joe: Ohio State coach Luke Fickell was noncommittal Tuesday about his starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Colorado, although he seemed to lean toward true freshman Braxton Miller. Fickell wants more big plays from the offense and Miller can provide them. He also elevates the risk for mistakes, committing two turnovers in the loss to Miami. Miller clearly is Ohio State's future at quarterback, but Fickell needs to win now as his own future is in doubt. It'll be interesting to see what the young coach does with his signal-callers.
3. Illini defense to be tested again: Illinois' defense carried the team to a signature win last week against Arizona State. Vic Koenning's unit faces another test Saturday against Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder, who ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency. If the Illini don't tighten up a bit in the secondary or pressure the pocket like they did last week, Carder will capitalize. Illinois also must avoid the letdown factor against a team it lost to in 2008.
4. Blackshirts look for boost: We're still waiting for the Nebraska defense to live up to the lofty expectations placed on the unit -- both inside and outside the program -- entering the season. The Blackshirts have allowed 68 points in their past two games and rank in the middle of the pack nationally in most major defensive statistical categories. The Pelini brothers will look for a more polished performance against 3-0 Wyoming before a much tougher game next week at Wisconsin.
5. The Bison are coming: Most games against FCS opponents are glorified practices, but not for Minnesota. The Gophers lost to South Dakota last year and North Dakota State in 2007, and they barely escaped against South Dakota State in 2009. Jerry Kill might be the perfect coach to prepare Minnesota for a rematch with North Dakota State, as he spent a lot of time at the FCS level and knows how motivated those teams are to face the big boys. The Bison are ranked No. 6 in the latest FCS poll and provide a significant challenge for Kill's Minnesota squad.
6. Hillman vs. Denard: Two of the nation's most dynamic ball carriers will share the field Saturday at the Big House. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, the nation's second-leading rusher (165.7 ypg), will test Michigan's defensive front seven. Michigan will counter with -- who else -- Denard Robinson, who has been brilliant with his feet despite some ups and downs as a passer in the first three games.
7. The McGloin-Bolden saga: Will Week 4 finally provide some clarity in Penn State's seemingly never-ending quarterback competition? Most Nittany Lions fans certainly hope so. Coach Joe Paterno wants to be fair to both Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin, both of who have had their ups and downs in the first three games. "I don't know what I'm waiting for,'' Paterno said this week. Maybe a touchdown pass. Penn State is one of only three FBS teams not to record a passing touchdown in the first three games.
8. Young lines under the gun: Michigan State and Indiana both will send relatively inexperienced offensive lines onto the field Saturday. Injuries have taken their toll on the Spartans' line, and junior-college transfer Fou Fonoti needs to step up at tackle in place of Skyler Burkland. Despite a flurry of false-start penalties last week, Indiana plans to start several freshmen offensive linemen in its first true road game against winless North Texas.
9. Iowa's green-out: Iowa fans excel at color coordination, but you'll see plenty of green mixed in with black and gold on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The school is encouraging its fans to wear green as a tribute to former safety Brett Greenwood, who remains hospitalized after collapsing Sept. 9 during a workout. It's a great idea and I hope to see plenty of green in the grandstands.
10. Bucky Badger's pushups: Wisconsin scored 70 points or more three times last season, and the Badgers could close in on the plateau Saturday against FCS South Dakota. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring (45 ppg) and total offense (505.7 ypg). Although Bret Bielema likely won't take many chances with his starters a week before Nebraska comes to town, his team should produce plenty of points -- and pushups for its beloved mascot.