Thursday, September 13, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track as you ingest a 12-pack of games involving Big Ten teams Saturday.
1. The green flag: After the Big Ten's Week 2 disaster, Michigan State is the league's only legitimate hope for a national title run. Coach Mark Dantonio wisely isn't thinking about carrying the Big Ten banner, and his Spartans face their second home test in the first three weeks as No. 20 Notre Dame visits East Lansing. It's another big game for new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who rebounded nicely last week after tossing three interceptions in the opener against Boise State. If Maxwell performs well against Manti Te'o and a solid Irish defense, more folks might start taking Michigan State seriously as a dark-horse championship contender.
2. The thin red line: Dominant offensive line play has defined Wisconsin for the better part of two decades, but the program's hallmark position (along with running back) is suddenly under the microscope. A horrific performance against Oregon State, a game in which the Badgers finished with just 35 net rush yards, led to the dismissal of new line coach Mike Markuson after just two games. Head coach Bret Bielema has tabbed the unproven Bart Miller, a Bob Bostad disciple, to lead the group. "We're going to take some baby steps," Bielema said. "And my guess is we're going to have a great amount of change in a short amount of time." Wisconsin could use a bounce-back performance Saturday night against Utah State, which comes off of an upset of Utah.
Andrew Maxwell and Michigan State should be tested by Notre Dame on Saturday night.
3. Casting call for Robinson, Miller: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did it all for their respective offenses in hard-fought Week 2 wins. Although both men can do special things with the ball in their hands, their coaches need other weapons to emerge, if only to protect the signal-callers from injury. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants to be "a little smarter" about Miller's carries after the sophomore logged 27 against UCF. The problem is that top running backs Jordan Hall (foot) and Carlos Hyde (knee) are banged up, and freshman Bri'onte Dunn should get the start Saturday against Cal. Robinson recorded his fourth career 200-yard rushing performance last week against Air Force, but running back Fitz Toussaint had just 7 yards on eight carries in his season debut. Michigan's offensive line wants to get Toussaint going and should get the chance Saturday against a woeful Massachusetts team.
4. Receiving orders for Wildcats: Northwestern's quarterback rotation seems to be functioning well so far, and while Trevor Siemian has led comebacks the first two weeks, Kain Colter will continue to start. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald seems more concerned with the guys catching passes than throwing them. The wide receivers, undoubtedly Northwestern's strongest position group entering the year, struggled with drops in last week's win against Vanderbilt. Fitzgerald challenged all his players this week but especially the receivers, saying, "I reminded them that it's a $60,000 scholarship. Catch the ball." As good as running back Venric Mark has been, the offense is driven by high-percentage passes. The receivers look to get back on track against Boston College, which ranks 11th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.
5. TerBush's time: Purdue coach Danny Hope loves his quarterback rotation, but another knee injury to Robert Marve has put Caleb TerBush in the spotlight. TerBush returned to the starting lineup last week and had mixed results, struggling early before relieving Marve and guiding the game-tying touchdown drive in the closing minutes. While most Purdue fans preferred Marve over TerBush, the Boilers will move forward with TerBush and Rob Henry calling signals. TerBush could really use a big performance against Eastern Michigan before an open week, a game against Marshall, and then a defining stretch to open Big Ten play (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State).
6. Bo vs. Gus: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini called his team's performance against UCLA "embarrassing," and the criticism justifiably centered on a defense that surrendered 36 points, 26 first downs and a whopping 653 yards to the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Pelini pointed to the need for better tackling and also indicated the defense has been geared more toward stopping pro-style teams than spread teams. Nebraska faces Arkansas State on Saturday. While Gus Malzahn doesn't like his offense to be labeled a spread system, he'll use the entire field, numerous formations, accelerated tempo, and plenty of trickery to keep defenses off balance. Malzahn, the first-year Arkansas State coach, brings his offense, rated seventh nationally in total yards this season (574.5 ypg), into Memorial Stadium on Saturday. "We will be tested," Pelini said. "...We need to get better against that offense. It comes kind of at the right time for us." It should be fun to watch Pelini and Malzahn match wits Saturday.
7. Iowa's search for the end zone: Iowa is one of just two FBS teams with just one touchdown in two games this season. The Hawkeyes failed to reach paydirt on their home field in last week's loss to rival Iowa State. Needless to say, this isn't the start Iowa had hoped for under new coordinator Greg Davis, and the struggles of senior quarterback James Vandenberg have been particularly baffling. Iowa looks for the end zone Saturday in a critical game against Northern Iowa, an FCS program that gave Wisconsin all it could handle in Week 1. Iowa considers itself the state's flagship program. It's a very tough claim to make if the Hawkeyes lose to Iowa State and Northern Iowa in consecutive weeks.
8. Hoosiers, Gophers face first real challenges: Indiana and Minnesota are two of the Big Ten's five undefeated teams through the first two weeks, and both squads looked impressive last week after shaky openers. Both squads also haven't played anyone, making it tough to accurately gauge their progress. Although Ball State and Western Michigan aren't powerhouses, both are legitimate FBS programs that can pull off victories Saturday. Indiana has dropped consecutive games to Ball State and turns to Cameron Coffman, who makes his first start at quarterback in place of Tre Roberson. Minnesota's defense has impressed to date, but Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder provides a nice test.
9. Opportunity knocks for Lions: Penn State has had ample opportunities in its first two games under coach Bill O'Brien, but the Nittany Lions repeatedly haven't cashed in and sit at 0-2. Questions about confidence resurfaced after a heartbreaking loss to Virginia, a game in which Penn State was plus-4 in turnover margin but missed four of five field goal attempts. It'll be interesting to see how sophomore kicker Sam Ficken performs in front of the home crowd Saturday against Navy. But Ficken, who still has the top place-kicking job, is just a piece of the puzzle, and Penn State has to start finishing drives and getting key second-half stops. The Lions have done some good things the first two weeks. They now need to finish the job and get a win, or the season will really begin to slip away.
10. Spartans' D prepares for two QBs: Michigan State's defense has been as advertised so far, ranking eighth nationally in yards allowed and 12th in points allowed. The Spartans' challenge changes this week as they must prepare for two Notre Dame quarterbacks after Tommy Rees led the game-winning drive last week against Purdue. Freshman Everett Golson will get the start for the Irish and coach Brian Kelly would like him to finish the game, too, but Kelly showed last week he isn't afraid to go with Rees, who has had been both the hero and the goat at times during his career.