Sunday, October 14, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 7
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball rushed for a career-high 247 yards Saturday against Purdue.
1. Wisconsin is back in the driver's seat for Indy: After stumbling out of the gate this season, Wisconsin has rebounded very well and put itself back on track to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible and Indiana and Illinois struggling, Wisconsin and Purdue met Saturday for the likely right to represent the Leaders Division on Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Badgers dominated Purdue from the onset, racking up 467 rush yards, including a career-high 247 from senior running back Montee Ball, and cruised to a 38-14 win that could have been much more lopsided. An offensive line that has dealt with a coach firing and a scheme change is coming together for the second half of the season, while the defense continues its solid play. Besides Ohio State and Penn State, Wisconsin is the only Leaders Division team with a Big Ten win. It holds tiebreakers against both Purdue and Illinois. Although the Badgers have some tough tests remaining, they'll need a major late-season swoon not to get to Naptown for the second straight year.
2. The Legends Division logjam isn't what we expected: We both expected a three-team race for the Legends Division featuring Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State. So far, only Michigan has lived up to the hype. There's a logjam in the Legends after Week 7, but it features Iowa and Northwestern more than Nebraska and Michigan State. After a lousy nonconference performance, Iowa is 2-0 in Big Ten play -- and Legends Division play -- after rallying to beat Michigan State in two overtimes at Spartan Stadium. The Hawkeyes don't have much offense other than running back Mark Weisman, but their defense has been surprisingly effective, particularly up front. Northwestern won ugly at Minnesota, as running back Venric Mark continued to dazzle and the defense did just enough. Despite the so-so effort, the Wildcats sit at 2-1 in league play with two division home games upcoming (Nebraska and Iowa). Nebraska and Michigan State aren't out of the race, but both teams need to perform well on the road to catch up to the lead pack. Michigan still hosts Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern and looks like the best bet to reach Indy.
3. Purdue and Michigan State are in big trouble: It's a close call between Purdue and Michigan State for the Big Ten's biggest disappointment of the first half of the season. Both teams made their cases Saturday with disappointing home losses. Purdue entered its defining stretch of the season -- and the Danny Hope era -- with highly anticipated home games against Michigan and Wisconsin. The Boilers have dropped those games by a combined score of 82-27. A defense featuring multiple NFL prospects has completely fallen apart, surrendering 771 rush yards in the past two weeks. Purdue's quarterback play continues to sputter, as does its third-down efficiency. If this is Hope's best team, as he has been saying for months, what does this say about the state of Purdue's program under the fourth-year coach? Fan apathy seems to be at an all-time high, too. Still, Michigan State might be the bigger first-half letdown, as the Spartans' offense has been a disaster aside from a few stretches. After going 14-0 at Spartan Stadium in 2010 and 2011, Michigan State now has lost three games on its home field, including two in Big Ten play. If the Spartans have any chance in the Legends Division, they'll need to play well on the road. The upcoming stretch -- at Michigan, at Wisconsin, home against Nebraska -- does them no favors.
4. Michigan's defense is the Big Ten's best unit right now: No disrespect to Ohio State's offense, which is surging, but Michigan's defense has taken its play to the next level the past four games. After surrendering just 13 points for three straight weeks, Michigan blanked Illinois 45-0 for its first shutout since a 58-0 shellacking of Minnesota last year. Led by standout linebacker Jake Ryan, the Wolverines surrendered just 134 yards and only one first down in the second half against the Illini. Linebacker Kenny Demens continues to make plays, and the secondary limited Illinois to just 4.1 yards per completion. Michigan has surrendered an average of just 211.3 yards in its past four games and seems to be hitting its stride at a perfect time as Michigan State's slumping offense comes to the Big House. The Wolverines are generating more takeaways and preventing the big play. If the unit keeps up its play, Michigan will be very tough to beat in a softer-than-expected Legends Division. We put this label on Michigan State's defense before the season, and while the Spartan D hasn't been the problem there, Michigan's defense under coordinator Greg Mattison is a notch above the rest.
5. Braxton Miller's Heisman chances are getting better: Urban Meyer might not consider Miller a Heisman Trophy candidate just yet, but the rest of the country certainly has the Buckeyes' sophomore quarterback on the radar. Miller received four second-place votes and eight third-place votes in the most recent ESPN.com Heisman Watch. After Geno Smith struggled -- at least by his lofty standards -- and West Virginia crashed and burned in Lubbock, Miller should be getting more consideration for the top spot. Yes, he's on a team ineligible for the postseason. Yes, he's only a sophomore. Yes, the schedule hasn't been that great. But Miller has been simply spectacular week after week. Miller racked up 211 pass yards, 151 rush yards and three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) in Ohio State's 52-49 win against Indiana. Other than an interception in the end zone, Miller made good decisions and fired some of his best passes of the season, perhaps none better than a 60-yard scoring strike to Devin Smith. Miller should have had bigger numbers if not for several key drops. Whether he's No. 1 in the Heisman Watch is up for debate, but with Smith coming back to the pack, Miller definitely belongs in the discussion for college football's top prize. And as the Buckeyes showed again, they need every bit of Miller's magic with such a shaky defense, especially against spread teams.