Thursday, September 20, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.
1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.
2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.
Reserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.
4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.
5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.
6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.
7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.
8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.
9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."
10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.