Thursday, October 25, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 9
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 9 ...
1. Battle of the banned: The harsh reality of no bowl trip hasn't slowed down Ohio State or Penn State this season. New coaches Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien have revolutionized the offenses in both Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pa., and have their teams on long win streaks entering Saturday night's clash at Beaver Stadium. Expect an electric atmosphere in Happy Valley as Nittanyville has been packed all week and Penn State fans are viewing the game as by far the biggest of the season. Although neither team will play in the postseason, Saturday night's winner likely will have the label of the Big Ten's best team and will put itself in the driver's seat for the Leaders Division championship.
2. Legends of the fall: While Penn State and Ohio State compete for symbolic titles and a division crown, Michigan and Nebraska are aiming much higher -- for a spot in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. The Wolverines and Huskers meet Saturday night in Lincoln for the right to sit atop the Legends Division before the final month of the regular season. Although both teams have remaining tests, Saturday's winner gets the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker and a confidence boost for the stretch run. Michigan makes its first trip to Lincoln in 101 years, and Saturday marks the first conference game in NCAA history to feature two programs with at least 850 all-time victories. Nebraska is 27-6 at home under coach Bo Pelini.
Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions have opened games strong this season, outscoring opponents 66-0 in the first quarter.
3. Ball vs. Bell: The Big Ten's top two running backs -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Wisconsin's Montee Ball -- will share the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in a reunion of two teams that last year gave us two thrillers, including one in the inaugural league title game. Ball, back to Mon-tee, has looked like a different player in Big Ten games, averaging a league-best 155.5 rush yards with 10 touchdowns. The Wisconsin senior has averaged three touchdowns per game in his past 17 contests, and needs five touchdowns -- of any kind -- to break Travis Prentice's all-time NCAA record. Bell was limited to just 68 rush yards on 26 carries last week, but still comes in ranked second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rushing average (123 ypg), just ahead of Ball (122.8 ypg). If Michigan State has any chance to record the upset and possibly turn around its season, it needs a big performance from No. 24.
4. Possible bowl elimination game: Both Minnesota and Purdue have some work left to get bowl eligible, and the loser of Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium will have its back to the wall. Both teams started the season strong, but have fallen off in Big Ten play, going a combined 0-6. Both teams have had quarterback issues and some trouble stopping the run on defense. Minnesota, needing two wins to become bowl eligible, has turned the keys of its offense over to true freshman Philip Nelson, who makes his first home start at quarterback. It'll be interesting to see how the former prep player of the year in the state performs in front of the home faithful. Purdue, meanwhile, comes off of a heartbreaking loss at Ohio State, a game it dominated most of the way. Inconsistency and big mistakes continue to haunt Purdue, which faces yet another pivotal game in the Danny Hope era.
5. Offenses in the crosshairs: Iowa and Northwestern combined for 72 points, 46 first downs and 874 yards in last year's game at Kinnick Stadium, a 41-31 Hawkeyes victory. If another shootout takes place Saturday in Evanston, it will come as a bit of a surprise. Iowa's offense has been a mess most of the season, aside from the surprising play of running back Mark Weisman. Many Hawkeyes fans are calling for a change at quarterback after senior James Vandenberg committed three turnovers in last week's blowout loss to Penn State. Coach Kirk Ferentz is sticking with Vandenberg, who might be able to capitalize on a Northwestern secondary banged up at the cornerback spot. Northwestern, meanwhile, is still searching for an identity on offense after enduring 20 three-and-outs in its past three games, including 10 against Nebraska. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall needs to figure out his quarterback rotation (read: give Kain Colter more opportunities) in a hurry.
6. Win or perish: Illinois coach Tim Beckman took a page from Jim Tressel's book during the off week and told his team to "burn the boats." The phrase, told to Beckman by Tressel, stems from the story of conquistador Hernando Cortes, who ordered his men to burn the ships that brought them to Mexico in the 1500s. "There was no turning back," Beckman said. "Win or perish. I have challenged this team to change." After four blowout losses, Illinois needs a lot of things to change as it hosts Indiana on Saturday. The Illini have a fairly favorable schedule the rest of the way, but they haven't been competitive against an FBS opponent since the season opener. Indiana, meanwhile, continues to find ways to lose and searches for its first Big Ten victory under Kevin Wilson. The Hoosiers have either led or been within one score of their opponents in all five of their losses. They seek their first win in Champaign, Ill., since 2006.
7. Miller's time: Last we saw Braxton Miller, the Ohio State quarterback was leaving Ohio Stadium in an ambulance after being slammed to the ground. Miller fortunately emerged with only a sore neck, and returned to practice this week. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said the team is preparing two quarterbacks for Penn State -- Miller and backup Kenny Guiton, who led last week's dramatic comeback against Purdue. Ohio State will use Miller as much as it can, but how he responds from the first real injury scare of his career remains to be seen. Penn State's defense has been stellar, but the Lions haven't seen a quarterback as dynamic as Miller since Ohio's Tyler Tettleton in the opener (a PSU loss). Given Ohio State's lack of depth on defense and Penn State's surging offense, the Buckeyes likely will need a boost from Miller in a tough environment to remain perfect on the season.
8. Martinez, Robinson on center stage: Michigan and Nebraska are contrasting teams in many ways, but they both have similar, dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the Huskers' Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson. Martinez was brilliant in leading Nebraska to a come-from-behind win against Northwestern, and he has been very good at Memorial Stadium throughout his career. But he'll face the best defense he has seen all season in Michigan. Robinson performed well in his last road game at Purdue, but still needs to distance himself from his early-season struggles away from Ann Arbor against Notre Dame and Alabama. For just the second time in college football history, two quarterbacks with more than 5,000 career pass yards and more than 2,000 career rush yards will square off (the other: Texas' Vince Young and Missouri's Brad Smith in 2005). Robinson leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career rushing (4,129 yards, 351 yards shy of the all-time record for career QB rushing), while Martinez is third (2,242 yards).
9. Roushar's play calling: Michigan State fans are understandably upset about their team's 4-4 start, and they've centered their critiques on offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. The Spartans have had a championship-level defense for much of the season, but the offense simply hasn't held up its end of the bargain. Head coach Mark Dantonio came to Roushar's defense this week, saying, "If they want to criticize, tell them to criticize me a little bit, because I'm in charge." But Dantonio also added, "We’ve got to get more points." Roushar's play calling looked pretty good in the two games last season against Wisconsin -- remember Rocket? -- but he'll have to find a way to move the ball against a solid, but not impregnable Wisconsin defense. The Spartans rank 107th nationally in scoring (19.6 ppg), averaging nearly 12 points per game fewer than they did in 2011. Michigan State should get more from tight end Dion Sims, who returned to the field last week at Michigan and can give struggling quarterback Andrew Maxwell a big target.
10. The start in State College: If season-long patterns hold for Ohio State and Penn State, the Buckeyes will be in trouble early on Saturday night. Penn State has outscored its opponents 66-0 in the first quarter and 100-23 in the first half this season. The Lions have scored in the first quarter in all seven of their games, and have scored at least one first-quarter touchdown in five contests. Ohio State, meanwhile, has been a slow-starting team in most of its games, being outscored 56-51 in the first quarter this season. The Buckeyes have been trailing at the end of the first quarter four times this season. The good news is they came out fast in their first road game against Michigan State, scoring on their first possession. Given how much confidence Penn State has and what will be a huge home-field advantage, Ohio State simply can't stumble out of the gate Saturday night. The good news is if the Buckeyes survive the first half, they should be in decent shape against a Penn State team that struggles in the third quarter.