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Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Big Ten mailbag

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The conference title race is taking shape, some teams are surging and others are sliding.

It's time to take the pulse of Big Ten fans.

Derek from St. Louis writes: Explain this to me... Illinois has 2 losses, both to top 5 teams, both on the road, neither were embarrassing. They don't break the top 25 in ANY poll after destroying Michigan in Ann Arbor after (still ranked and 0-2 in the Big Ten) Wisconsin loses there a week prior. Auburn (also still ranked) also has 2 losses and a pillow fight 3-2 victory AT HOME to Miss St. WAKE FORREST is still ranked... and they're coming off of a loss to NAVY... AT HOME. How is ANY of this possible. I can't say it's because the Big Ten doesn't get any love because WISCONSIN is included in this mess.

Adam Rittenberg: For the first time this season, the Illini played to their potential in the final three quarters at Michigan and will regain some respect by continuing to win. Illinois soured some people with a poor performance against Louisiana-Lafayette, but pounding Michigan at the Big House still means something, even this year. Wisconsin fell out of the AP Poll, if it makes you happy, and the Badgers need to beat No. 6 Penn State at home to remain in any other rankings. Auburn's continued inclusion has to do with the strength of the SEC, nothing else. Wake Forest moved up in the poll only because a bunch of teams between 20-25 lost last week.


J.Z. from Bloomington, Ind., writes: Many IU fans including me had high expectations for the football team this year. Coming off our first bowl game in ages, 8 home games, a super soft OOC schedule. The way I see it we should have ended with at minimum a winning record this year. Ending the year with 4 wins seems like wishful thinking now. There are many fans that never wanted Coach Lynch hired based off his terrible past in the MAC and lack of Big school experience. With the new stadium and facility renovations come higher expectations. Do you think if things continue the way they are that Coach Lynch could get his walking papers this year? With a new AD coming in I could see that happening. I do also realize that IU also needs to step up and be willing to pay a new coach to come in, as there are some coaches in conf USA that make double what our Head Football coach makes. Do you think IU will be willing to finally spend the cash on football that they do on basketball?

Adam Rittenberg: The Ball State loss looks better and better, but I agree with you that Indiana has been a major disappointment this year. Lynch acknowledged today that the team could still be looking for its identity, which should be based around quarterback Kellen Lewis and several promising defenders. But turnovers and penalties kill teams, and Indiana hasn't been able to avoid them so far. The new athletic director will have a decision to make if things don't improve, but I don't see Lynch getting fired less than a year after receiving a contract extension. Next year, maybe, but the program has been through some tragedy and transition, much like Northwestern went through in 2006-07, and Lynch deserves a ton of credit for last year's bowl run. Indiana is making a greater commitment to football with the stadium renovations and even with the eight home games, so expectations are justifiably higher. But I would wait a little bit longer to see how things play out.


Andrew from Pittsburgh writes: What are your thoughts on the Spartan defense? We're giving up tons of yards between the 20s the last several weeks, but we keep coming up with stops or turnovers in the red zone. Is that the mark of a better defense, or have we just been lucky?

Adam Rittenberg: They are tough and physical, a perfect reflection of head coach Mark Dantonio. They don't have the most talent in any one area, but stars like safety Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones take on a lot of responsibility and guys like Adam Decker step up and make big plays like the fourth-down stop on Iowa's Shonn Greene to seal last week's win. Honestly, giving up yards between the 20's doesn't matter if you make stops in the red zone, and that's how teams like Michigan State and Northwestern have improved on the defensive side. Michigan State is limiting the big play and forcing other teams to execute near the goal line.


Brent from parts unknown writes: i have been a minnesota fan all my life, now i see that Eric Decker is leading the nation in receiving yards yet you hear nothing about him mentioned nationally. is he being over looked by most? i understand we haven't played great teams for the most part but still. he is minnesotas only proven receiver!

Adam Rittenberg: Decker is the best receiver no one knows about, except the NFL scouts who will covet his services in the near future. I'll have an item on Decker in tomorrow's blog, and he should start gaining more attention if he continues to put up these huge numbers. Decker is big and physical, and coach Tim Brewster raves about his blocking skills. He can definitely turn heads Saturday by outplaying Illinois' Vontae Davis, one of the nation's top cornerbacks and a legit NFL prospect.


Erik from State College, Pa., writes: Adam, I agree with the others that have emailed you saying that Penn State did not use it's entire playbook at Purdue. They seemed very hesitant on certain 3rd and short plays, and also in the 1st quarter. Do you think that JoePa is going to stick to his conservative play-calling in Big Ten road games this Saturday? If he does we could be in a world of trouble, but if he lets Galen Hall & JayPa do their jobs we could have huge win.

Adam Rittenberg: We'll see on Saturday. This is a pretty popular excuse from fans when their team has an unimpressive win. Penn State played a smart game, and if it had executed a little bit better in the red zone, it would have been a blowout. I would imagine Penn State plays it bold against Wisconsin and tries to get into the secondary with its many weapons. The Lions' speed should be the difference, as usual.


Scott from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, When can Shonn Greene start getting some Heisman love? He outperformed Javon Ringer last weekend and has eclipsed 100 yards in every game this year. I know Iowa is not winning but Shonn Greene one of the few bright spots on this team that shines every week. After Indiana, Iowa's schedule gets rough with games against Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State. Can solid performances in those games make Greene a legitimate contender for the Heisman?

Adam Rittenberg: Unfortunately for Greene, he needs his team to start winning games. Greene has been one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises, a player who spent a full year away from football who now ranks sixth nationally in rushing average (133 ypg). He's an incredibly physical runner who defenders hate to try to tackle. But Greene, like the rest of his teammates, has a hard time finding the end zone, with only five touchdowns in six games. His rushing totals have been consistently impressive, but until the touchdowns and the wins increase, he won't be on the Heisman radar.


Alex from Austin, Texas, writes: Being
a Buckeye fan, I've read many summaries about Saturday's game and I can't seem to recall any mention about the two fumbles that OSU recovered on their last drive. One being Pryor's bad handoff and the other being Hartline's drop after a big catch. Pryor was great, but without Robiskie's hustle to recover Hartline's fumble, game-set-match for Wisconsin. Did any one ask Robiskie after the game about his hustle play?

Adam Rittenberg: Good call, Alex. A think we all were a little wrapped up in Pryor's ability to lead the team down the field and score the winning touchdown. Robiskie wasn't available to reporters after the game, but that would be a good question to ask him. Plays like that are what senior leaders do, and Robiskie's hustle helped save what turned out to be a huge win for the Buckeyes.


Steven from Madison, Wis., writes: hey Adam, I know the badger's season isn't looking that great now, but what did you think of the crowd? Did we re-earn our reputation as a tough place to play after the absenteeism at the Marshall game?

Adam Rittenberg: It was a great crowd on Saturday night, even without the Wisconsin marching band in the stands. I'll be up there again this week, and the Badgers' faithful will need an even better effort as their slumping team tries to take down No. 6 Penn State (ESPN, 8 p.m., ET).


Jon from Chicago writes: I wanna know who is going to be back from injury for Michigan State this week against Northwestern, I will be attending the game ot watch my beloved Spartans play here in East Lansing West (Ryan Field, Evanston, IL) Let us know whats happening with the green and white secondary after that smashmouth game against Iowa.

Adam Rittenberg: It looks like cornerback Chris L. Rucker will be the only starting defensive back missing from Saturday's game in Evanston. Safety Otis Wiley could be a little banged up but should play, and the Spartans will get cornerback Ross Weaver back from illness. Cornerback/safety Kendell Davis-Clark also should return after missing the last five games with a shoulder injury. Still, the health of the secondary will be a concern up until kickoff. Michigan State is much better in the back half this season, but C.J. Bacher dissected this secondary last year for 520 passing yards and five touchdowns.


Derek from New Jersey writes: After two consecutive close losses, is Wisconsin more likely to come out flat against Penn State, or with something to prove?

Adam Rittenberg: I would expect the Badgers to come out strong against the Nittany Lions. They realize another loss puts them out of the Big Ten title race and most likely a January bowl game (for the first time since 2004). Wisconsin needs fewer mistakes from quarterback Allan Evridge, more carries from reserve running back John Clay and superb run defense from the front seven to upset Penn State, but motivation shouldn't be a problem.


Mike from Champaign, Ill., writes: How much more dangerous is the Illinois offense now that they're succeeding in getting Rejus Benn the ball downfield?

Adam Rittenberg: It's not only Rejus. Illinois is getting big target Jeff Cumberland, Will Judson, Chris Duvalt and running back Daniel Dufrene in space, and the results have been positive. Benn has definitely stepped up his play since Ron Zook's best-players-need-to-play-like-it challenge. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is emphasizing the big play and he should, given the weapons he has. Illinois and Penn State are the league's most explosive offenses.


John from Akron, Ohio, writes: Adam, Thought it would be interesting if you could talk to Sutton and Ringer this week about their competition for Mr Ohio their senior year of high school. The two were neck and neck heading late into the season when Sutton ran for 500 yards and 8 touchdowns the same week that Ringer tore up his knee. I don't know if they knew each other at the time since Ringer was in Dayton and Sutton was in Akron, but I'm sure they knew of each other and what the other was doing.

Adam Rittenberg: Shoot, I wish I'd seen this question on Monday. I did ask Sutton about fellow Akron native Chris "Beanie" Wells, and he said Beanie keeps changing his phone number, so it's hard to stay in contact with him. I wasn't sure if Sutton knew Ringer because, as you note, they come from opposite ends of the state. But I know that Sutton and the Wildcats have a lot of respect for Ringer and expect a tough game Saturday (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET).