Sunday, October 7, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 6
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
1. How about an Ineligi-Bowl?: Here's an idea: Make this year's Big Ten championship game a doubleheader. First, the scheduled contest between the Leaders and Legends Division representatives. And then a second game between probation-saddled Ohio State and Penn State for the shadow championship. Penn State might not be the second-best team in the Big Ten, but it's one of the hottest, having won four straight games and gaining confidence every week under Bill O'Brien, the clear front-runner for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, the league has finally found the team to carry its banner in Ohio State, which blasted Nebraska 63-38 to improve to 6-0. Too bad there's an asterisk on that banner, because the bowl-banned Buckeyes are the cream of the crop right now in the Big Ten. The two teams on probation are a combined 4-0 in league play and one made field goal at Virginia away from being 11-1 overall. The de facto Ineligi-Bowl arrives Oct. 27, when Ohio State goes to State College. Surprisingly, that game is now must-see TV because ...
Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes will play in a de facto Ineligi-Bowl on Oct. 27.
2. The eligible Leaders teams are worse than expected: Wisconsin at Purdue. Oct. 13. A spot in the Big Ten championship game potentially on the line. Who's excited? (crickets) ... We knew the Leaders would have a unique dynamic this season with only four postseason-eligible teams. But we figured some team might resemble a division winner that could advance to the Rose Bowl. Michigan exposed Purdue in a 44-13 beatdown at Ross-Ade Stadium. Wisconsin slogged its way to a win against Illinois but hardly looked impressive for most of the game. Indiana looked great for a half and terrible for a half, failing once again to get over the hump in a Big Ten game. Illinois is, well, not good. One of those four teams will be going to Indianapolis, whether it deserves it or not. At this point, we'd probably pick Wisconsin by default. The eligible Leaders teams own a combined 1-6 Big Ten record and are 0-4 versus the Legends. Perhaps Jim Delany should have listened more seriously to Pat Fitzgerald's summer suggestion of picking the second Big Ten title game participant via a committee.
3. Michigan's defense, run game make it top Legends contender: Michigan's turnovers at Notre Dame overshadowed some promising signs from the defense and the offensive line. The Wolverines showcased those elements Saturday at Purdue in a dominant performance they really needed after a 2-2 start. They generated four takeaways, including a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Raymon Taylor. Linebacker Jake Ryan continued to elevate his play, and Michigan held a Purdue team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points and 213 total yards. This is the same time of year when Greg Mattison's defense really turned a corner in 2011. The unit's play the past two games has been very encouraging. Michigan also committed itself to the run game against a decent Boilers defensive front and racked up 304 rush yards and three touchdowns on 55 attempts (5.5 ypr). Denard Robinson rebounded with a huge game on the ground (24 carries, 235 yards). Fitzgerald Toussaint twice found the end zone, and Thomas Rawls finished things off nicely. It's important for Michigan to get its running backs more involved in the coming weeks, but Saturday's offensive approach was encouraging.
4. The Spartans had better hope Saturday was their wake-up call: Despite being billed by some (ahem) as the Big Ten preseason favorite, Michigan State has looked really impressive only once in the first five games. After a tough 1-point home loss last week against Ohio State, Michigan State seemed to suffer a hangover in the first chunk of Saturday's game at Indiana. The Spartans were a complete mess -- committing personal fouls, getting steamrolled on defense, not moving the ball consistently enough on offense. They had seven first-half penalties (six personal fouls), fell behind 17-0 and got outgained 183-22 in the first quarter. To their credit, the Spartans turned things around and dominated the second half to escape Bloomington with a win. Michigan State's defense regained its top form, Le'Veon Bell (121 yards, 2 TDs) steamrolled the Hooosiers, and freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge (8 catches, 134 yards) sparked the passing game. Was Saturday the wake-up call Michigan State needed after a somewhat sluggish 3-2 start? It had better be, as the schedule gets much tougher the rest of the way. Michigan State remains very much in the Legends Division mix, but it can't expect to overcome the early miscues it had in Bloomington.
5. More work to do for Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska defenses: Saturday was a disappointing day for three teams that thought their defenses had made gains. It's back to the drawing board -- or more apropos, back in the defensive meeting room -- for the Boilermakers, Wildcats and Cornhuskers. Purdue brought in defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar from the Canadian Football League in part because his CFL experience taught him how to defend the spread. But a Boilers defense that looked good the first three weeks has gone south the past two weeks in allowing 85 points to Marshall and Michigan, and it couldn't stop Denard Robinson on Saturday. Northwestern seemed to have made some strides defensively this season in a 5-0 start. But the Wildcats crumbled at Penn State, allowing 22 fourth-quarter points in a 39-28 come-from-ahead loss. The Nittany Lions ran a whopping 99 plays as a lack of a pass rush kept Northwestern from getting off the field defensively. And then there was Nebraska, which stuffed Wisconsin in the second half of last week's comeback win. But these still aren't your older brother's Blackshirts, as Ohio State rolled to 498 yards and 49 offensive points in a 63-38 rout in Columbus.