Thursday, October 6, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6
By Adam Rittenberg
Week 6 is just around the corner, so let's take a look at 10 items to track in the five Big Ten games taking place Saturday.
1. Buckeyes seeing red: Luke Fickell and his team can't catch a break these days. Saturday was supposed to mark the return of four players, including three multiyear offensive starters, from suspension. Turns out, Ohio State will only regain the services of left tackle Mike Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas for the game at Nebraska. The Buckeyes rank 108th nationally in total offense and face a Nebraska defense coming off of an embarrassing performance at Wisconsin. Ohio State is a double-digit underdog in a conference game for the first time in recent memory. Is this the beginning of the end, or the start of a turnaround?
Luke Fickell and Ohio State rank 108th in total offense this season.
2. Carson, Lions hope to humble Hawkeyes: Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson added some spice to the Penn State-Iowa rivalry this week, jokingly calling Iowa "a wrestling school" and saying of Hawkeyes fans, "They think they have this stranglehold on us. We just have to humble them up a little bit." Simply beating Iowa would be a nice start, as Penn State has lost three straight and eight of its last nine to Kirk Ferentz's squad. Carson and his fellow Lions defenders will need another superb performance if Penn State's offense continues to spin its wheels.
3. Wolverines, Illini finally hit the road: Michigan and Illinois have been the two nicest surprises in the Big Ten so far, as both teams are 5-0 and ranked in the top 20. Both teams also haven't left the comforts of their home stadiums. That changes Saturday as Michigan visits Northwestern and Illinois visits Indiana. Although neither road opponent or road setting seems too daunting, Michigan's improved defense will be challenged against Northwestern senior QB Dan Persa, while Illinois faces an Indiana team that held Penn State to 16 points last week in Bloomington.
4. Mad Martinez anxious to rebound: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is fed up with the criticism, which increased after his three-interception game against Wisconsin. Martinez had a terse session with reporters this week in Lincoln, and offensive lineman Yoshi Hardwick said, "It finally hit him. He'd been holding in a lot. He said he couldn't take it anymore. ... He told me he's sick of it. These next seven games, he just wants the world to get off his back, so he had to do something about it." He can start the process against Ohio State, which boasts the nation's No. 13 defense.
5. QBs in spotlight at Ross-Ade: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and Purdue counterpart Danny Hope both announced likely starters for Saturday's game -- Max Shortell for the Gophers, Caleb TerBush for the Boilers -- but said things could change by kickoff. MarQueis Gray practiced this week and could work his way back onto the field for Minnesota after missing the Michigan debacle. Robert Marve, whose critical tweet after the Notre Dame loss didn't upset Hope, should be in the mix alongside TerBush. "If he could stay within the system, he could be a difference maker for us," Hope said of Marve this week. "Caleb manages the offense very well and Robert doesn't manage it as well." This much is known: one of these four quarterbacks will guide their team to its first Big Ten win Saturday.
6. Denard vs. Dan: No two Big Ten players meant more to their teams in 2010 than Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Northwestern QB Dan Persa. The two signal callers meet Saturday night in Evanston in what could be an offensive shootout. Robinson still leads the Big Ten in rushing (120.6 ypg) and rebounded nicely as a passer last week against Minnesota, completing 15 of 19 attempts for 169 yards and two scores. Persa sizzled in his season debut at Illinois, firing a career-high four touchdown passes on only 14 pass attempts. Although Persa left the Illinois game with a right foot injury, he practiced this week and is expected to take the bulk of the snaps against Michigan.
7. Potent Hawkeyes pass attack put to test: Ferentz was joking last week when he said Iowa will "go 100 percent no-huddle" on offense the rest of the season, but the Hawkeyes have found something with their up-tempo passing attack. QB James Vandenberg has racked up 432 pass yards and six touchdowns in his past five quarters of play, and Iowa's receiving corps has been a pleasant surprise as Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley are emerging alongside No. 1 wideout Marvin McNutt. How good is the Hawkeyes' pass attack? Find out Saturday afternoon at Penn State, which ranks sixth nationally in pass defense with only three passing touchdowns allowed this season.
8. Illini livin' on the edge: Illinois is racking up the wins, but not without plenty of drama. The Illini have recorded three consecutive victories by three points, rallying in the fourth quarter for two of those wins (Arizona State and Northwestern). Ron Zook would like to leave the Maalox at home this week and enjoy a complete performance from his 19th-ranked squad at Indiana. Illinois has to cut down on turnovers, limit penalties after committing eight last week and improve its red-zone touchdowns efficiency against an Indiana defense that forced two Penn State turnovers in the red zone last week.
9. JoePa's sideline swagger: Penn State coach Joe Paterno has disposed of his cane and hopes to spend an entire game on the sideline for the first time this season. The 84-year-old has coached the first half on the sideline in each of the last two contests before heading to the coaches' booth after halftime. "I'm going to be swaggering all over the place." Paterno told reporters Tuesday. "Don't get in my way." Although Paterno's prolonged sideline presence should help his team, he remains removed from much of the key decision-making, including offensive play calls, which are handled by assistants Galen Hall and Jay Paterno. "I don't do a lot of play-calling anymore," he said. "I'm a cheerleader."
10. The league's middle class: Monday, I wrote that the Big Ten needs its middle class to rise to improve its national perception and enhance its chances for the bowl season. Top dog Wisconsin is off this week, so Saturday provides a chance to evaluate the rest of the league (aside from Michigan State, which also has a bye). Nebraska, Michigan and Illinois all have opportunities to take steps forward on the field and likely in the polls. The Iowa-Penn State winner will be in good shape to make a push in their division. Northwestern and Ohio State try to avoid 0-2 conference starts and change the mood around their programs.