Thursday, November 1, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 10
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten (items) for (Week) 10 for (Big) Ten.
Ready? Let's go ...
1. Nebraska's offense vs. MSU's defense: Something's gotta give in East Lansing, as the Big Ten's top offense (Nebraska) faces off against one of the nation's best defensive units (Michigan State). The Spartans throttled Wisconsin last week, finally complementing their standard stinginess with impact plays needed to win a big one on the road. Michigan State needs William Gholston and its other defensive linemen to pressure QB Taylor Martinez, while Max Bullough and his fellow linebackers must slow down running back Ameer Abdullah. Martinez came up big in Nebraska's last road game, and must limit mistakes and pick his spots against a defense allowing just 15 points per game. Nebraska's offense has survived and thrived without its best player -- running back Rex Burkhead -- but it hasn't faced a defense like this.
2. Michigan's end zone drought: The Wolverines have gone 126 minutes, 1 second without scoring a touchdown, failing to reach the end zone in each of their past two games. Michigan hasn't had three touchdown-less games in a season since 1962, when it went 2-7. Brady Hoke's crew has much bigger goals this season and still has a chance to win the Legends Division and play for a Big Ten championship. But it needs to start finishing drives beginning Saturday at Minnesota. Quarterback Denard Robinson is expected to play despite leaving last week's loss to Nebraska with a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If Robinson doesn't stay on the field, Michigan might have a tough time ending its drought against an improved Gophers' defense.
Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will face a stiff test in East Lansing.
3. Indiana's opportunity: Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson and his players aren't worried about the big picture, and rightfully so after recording their first Big Ten win since 2010 last Saturday. But in this wacky/unique/bad Big Ten season, Indiana finds itself right in the mix to represent the Leaders Division at the league title game. Indiana hasn't won back-to-back conference games since 2007 and hasn't won a league contest at home since 2009. It can accomplish both Saturday against a slumping Iowa team. If so, Indiana will set up a potential play-in game against Wisconsin next week in Bloomington. "Deep down, we know we have a shot," cornerback Greg Heban told ESPN.com.
4. Perfect 10: Ohio State is the first FBS team to reach nine wins, and the Buckeyes aim for a perfect 10-0 record Saturday against Illinois. Although it would take a very sloppy performance to let slumping Illinois hang around, Ohio State can't be complacent following a big win against Penn State and with an open week upcoming. Ohio State hasn't started 10-0 since 2007, and it can clinch the Leaders Division championship with a win and a Penn State loss at Purdue. Like Purdue, Illinois has given Ohio State more trouble than you'd think. The Illini have won seven of their past 11 games at Ohio Stadium, including a 2007 win against ... wait for it ... a 10-0 Buckeyes team.
5. Marve's moment: Purdue's season hasn't gone according to plan, and, unfortunately, neither has Robert Marve's career in West Lafayette. Marve has suffered three ACL tears since transferring to Purdue, including one he continues to play on for the rest of his final season. Boilers fans have clamored for Marve for most of the season, and they'll finally get their wish as Marve will start at quarterback Saturday against Penn State. Marve, who played well last week at Minnesota, will make his second start of the season. Purdue has dropped its first four Big Ten games and coach Danny Hope is under fire. If the Boilers have any hope of rescuing their season, they need to beat Penn State and get a big boost from Marve under center.
6. One win away: Three Big Ten teams are bowl eligible (Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin), and three more can get there Saturday. One certainly will as Michigan and Minnesota, both with five victories, meet for the Little Brown Jug at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota aims for its first bowl appearance since the 2009 season and its first win against Michigan since 2005. Michigan State, meanwhile, can record its sixth win by beating Nebraska, ensuring a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season. The Spartans also are looking for their first Big Ten home win of the season. After recording perfect seasons at home in each of the past two years, Michigan State already has lost three times at Spartan Stadium this fall.
7. Bullock's turn: Damon Bullock opened the season as Iowa's top running back, had a big performance in the opener against Northern Illinois and then, like so many other Hawkeye ball carriers, fell victim to AIRBHG. He's back in the mix after recovering from a concussion, and Iowa needs him as Mark Weisman (ankle) is out for the Indiana game. Bullock showed good power and speed last week at Northwestern, rushing for 107 yards on 22 carries. Iowa needs to keep Indiana's high-powered offense off of the field Saturday, and it'll look for a big game from Bullock against the nation's 109th-rated rush defense (222.5 ypg allowed).
8. Full Nelson: Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson stole the show last week in his debut before the home crowd at Minnesota, completing 13 of his first 14 pass attempts and finishing with 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Nelson has Gopher Nation excited, but we'll learn a lot more about him this week as he faces Michigan, which ranks ninth nationally in yards allowed and 14th nationally in points allowed. If Nelson slays Michigan's defense as a true freshman, the buzz around him and the Gophers will only increase. Brady Hoke, meanwhile, called out Michigan defense Tuesday for a lack of pressure. Michigan has only 10 sacks in eight games, which ties for 104th nationally.
9. Crowd in East Lansing: Several times this week, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio expressed some concern about the crowd for Saturday's game, namely that Spartans fans wouldn't show up in their typical droves. With Nebraska coming to town, that's a problem because nobody travels like the Sea of Red. Remember what happened three weeks ago at Northwestern's Ryan Field. The Nebraska contingent was so big and so loud that Northwestern, the home team, had to operate on a silent count on offense toward the end of the game. Plenty of tickets are available at low prices, which comes as a bit of a surprise as Michigan State, while falling short of expectations this season, especially at home, comes off of a big win at Wisconsin. "Hopefully ... this week, we don't sell our tickets to the highest bidder," Dantonio said. "I know they'll come in in droves."
10. Lions on the rebound again: Penn State responded extremely well from its first setbacks of the season, erasing an 0-2 start with five straight wins. Thoughts of a 10-2 season surfaced around State College, but Ohio State provided a reality check of sorts in last week's game at Beaver Stadium. Bill O'Brien's team once again must show its resiliency on the road, where it is 2-0 in Big Ten play this season. Offensive lineman John Urschel said Wednesday that the team might have been too hyped up for the Ohio State game, while O'Brien disagreed. Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium should have a more subdued atmosphere, but Penn State can't afford to sleepwalk against a Boilers team playing to save its season.