Thursday, November 8, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 11.
1. Leaders of the pack: How nutty is the Leaders Division? There could be only one bowl-eligible team (Wisconsin). Indiana could represent the division at the league title game with a 5-7 record. Oh, yeah, and Wisconsin and Indiana are playing an incredibly significant game on the second Saturday of November. Pretty sure no one predicted that. Wisconsin can secure a spot in the Big Ten title game with a victory in Bloomington, where the Badgers have won six of their past seven games. Indiana, meanwhile, plays arguably its biggest home game in decades. A win puts the Hoosiers in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders Division in Indy with two games to play. But Kevin Wilson and his players aren't getting wrapped up in the hype. "We're 4-5 and 2-3 in the league," Wilson said. "We always play in bad TV slots and we don't get much coverage, so we're going to just keep plugging along and getting better. ... We are a long way from being a good football team."
2. The M&M QBs matchup: Arguably no two Big Ten players have improved more from the 2011 season than Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Nebraska signal-caller Taylor Martinez. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing (270.7 yards per game), while Martinez is second (215.7). They rank second (Martinez, 289.7) and fourth (McGloin, 271.2) in total offense, and they're tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes with 18. The two men share the field Saturday at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, where Martinez has been very good. Martinez needs just 190 passing yards to become Nebraska's all-time leader, and he just needs four more passing touchdowns to tie Zac Taylor's team mark. McGloin needs four touchdown strikes to pass Daryll Clark for Penn State's career record.
Matt McGloin and Penn State are looking to go 4-0 on the road in Big Ten play this year.
3. Quarterback questions: While both Nebraska and Penn State know who will be leading their offenses Saturday, other Big Ten teams have questions at the most important position on the field. Coach Bret Bielema has made a decision on a starter for the Indiana game, and while he's not revealing it publicly, Curt Phillips reportedly will finally get his shot to lead the offense after years of battling injuries. Michigan coach Brady Hoke also isn't saying much about the availability of top quarterback Denard Robinson (elbow), who sat out last week. Both Robinson and backup Devin Gardner took reps in practice this week. Indiana and Northwestern, meanwhile, have had ups and downs with their respective quarterback rotations this season. Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Northwestern's Kain Colter both stepped up big in their most recent performances. Will the coaches stick with them on Saturday?
4. Gophers' one win away: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill always talks about the time it takes to build a program, and he's right. But the Gophers can take a significant step Saturday when they visit slumping Illinois. A victory makes Minnesota bowl eligible and likely ensures the Gophers go somewhere warm for the holidays for the first time since the 2009 season. After wasting several opportunities last week against Michigan, Minnesota must capitalize in Champaign or run the risk of a late-season slide. The Gophers finish with Nebraska on the road and Michigan State at home, so they really need this one. Minnesota has won its past three road games against Illinois, last falling at Memorial Stadium in 2001. The Gophers are 0-2 on the road this season.
5. Boilers, Hawkeyes on the ropes: Once-promising seasons for both Purdue and Iowa have spiraled out of control in recent weeks. The Boilers have been blown out in four of five Big Ten games and must win their final three contests to go bowling. Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is under fire -- Purdue reportedly is putting feelers out for a new coach -- but maintaining his eternally optimistic view, saying this week, "I'm not going to let a disgruntled fan or any one person take my spirit away or take away from what it is that we're here to do, and that's to coach football and have fun and to win." Purdue needs a win as it travels to Iowa, where head coach Kirk Ferentz is also feeling the heat (although he has no chance of being fired). Iowa hopes to avoid its first four-game losing streak since the 2007 season.
6. November reign: Every Big Ten team is hoping to make it a November to remember, and several Big Ten coaches have done their best work in the season's pivotal month. Wisconsin's Bielema is 17-3 in November games during his six previous seasons as Badgers boss, including a 9-3 mark in November road contests. Nebraska's Bo Pelini boasts a 13-4 mark in November games, although he went 2-2 in his first November in the Big Ten. Pelini has lost to only one unranked team in November at Nebraska (Northwestern last season). Speaking of the Wildcats, they are 10-5 in November in the past four seasons. Pat Fitzgerald is 13-8 overall in November games at Northwestern, which squares off against a Michigan team that went 3-1 in November in Brady Hoke's first season as coach. There's more of this coming next week, as Ohio State's Urban Meyer (33-7 in November) and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (13-4 in November) return to the field.
7. Road warriors: Missed field goals cost Penn State in its first road game at Virginia, but since then, the Lions have been dominant away from Happy Valley, winning their three Big Ten road games by a combined score of 107-30. Penn State aims to sweep its Big Ten road schedule for just the third time (previously done in 2009, 1994) in its 20-year history as a member of the league. Bill O'Brien is one of only five first-year Big Ten coaches (Meyer being another) to win his first three league road games. Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce is the only Big Ten coach since 1950 to win his first four conference games on the road, accomplishing the feat in 1979. Nebraska provides by far the toughest road test for Penn State, which makes its first trip to Lincoln since 2003.
8. Stayin' alive in Ann Arbor: Although Michigan is tied with Nebraska atop the Legends Division and Northwestern is just a game back, both the Wolverines and the Wildcats would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Huskers, making their margin for error razor-thin. The loser of Saturday's Northwestern-Michigan game at Michigan Stadium could completely drop out of the race, especially if Nebraska defends its home turf against Penn State. Northwestern is 16-9 in true road games since the start of the 2008 season, including a win at the Big House in 2008, but Michigan has been perfect (12-0) at home under Hoke, averaging 37.8 points and 465 yards per game this season.
9. Unlucky 13: The one number Minnesota wants to avoid Saturday -- unless it's signifying a victory -- is 13. The unlucky number has been exactly that for the Gophers this season, as they've scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses (against Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan). Minnesota has moved the ball decently at times, but has struggled to translate yards into points and has repeatedly stubbed its toe in the red zone. The Gophers have scored touchdowns on only 16 of 30 red zone opportunities this season and on only 6 of 13 opportunities during conference games. Illinois actually ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in red zone defense, so Minnesota will have to be more polished in Saturday's game, especially if top wide receiver A.J. Barker (ankle) can't play. The Gophers likely won't need many points to win -- Illinois has scored 24 or fewer in eight of nine games -- but another 13-point performance could spell trouble.
10. Veterans Day tributes: Several Big Ten teams honor the nation's military veterans Saturday, including Iowa, which will don special uniforms for its game against Purdue. The Hawkeyes are expected to wear silver pants, black shoes and silver helmets, and the nameplates on the backs of their jerseys will list a branch of the armed services -- chosen by each player. Illinois will have several veterans tributes for its game against Minnesota, including the coaching staff wearing camouflage hats and American flags being passed out to the first 10,000 fans at the game.