Sunday, October 13, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 7
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the four-pack of games on Saturday in the Big Ten.
1. The honeymoon is officially over for Brady Hoke: Michigan fans generally have been very happy with Hoke as their head coach, and rightfully so. He's a "Michigan man" who took the team to the Sugar Bowl his first season, and though last year's 8-5 season was a disappointment, the schedule made it understandable. What's more, Hoke's recruiting successes had fans very optimistic about the future. But even though this year's team started off 5-0, the lack of progress and development was puzzling. Penn State finally handed the Wolverines their first loss, and Hoke's very conservative play calling at the end of regulation and in overtime was a major reason why. On repeated occasions, Hoke played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime, and it cost Michigan big time. Maize and Blue fans will grumble about the play calling for a long time, just as they did about last year's loss at Ohio State. The sky is not falling in any way shape or form, since the Wolverines are still 5-1 and have loads of talent on the way. But Hoke will need to start delivering on that potential and promise soon.
Randy Gregory and Nebraska are proving to be a tough matchup for Big Ten opponents.
2. Michigan State and Nebraska need to be taken seriously: With Michigan faltering and Northwestern getting blasted in Madison, suddenly it looks as if Michigan State and Nebraska are no worse than co-favorites to win the Legends Division. Granted, both teams got exactly what they needed Saturday in facing the Indiana defense (for the Spartans) and Purdue (for Nebraska). Still, it's easy to see that both teams are building confidence in their most troubling areas. Michigan State is getting solid quarterback play at long last thanks to Connor Cook, while the receivers and running backs are rounding into form. Nebraska's defense has put together three solid efforts in a row, and though the competition has been weak, the fundamentals have been noticeably better. And defensive end Randy Gregory is a blossoming star. Both teams should enter November undefeated in conference play. Don't be surprised to see one of them in Indianapolis.
3. Ohio State had a very good off week: The Buckeyes might have been idle Saturday, but it was a productive day for their national championship hopes. We know Ohio State will need lots of help even if it goes undefeated this year. It got some assistance in Week 7. Stanford, ranked one spot behind Ohio State in The Associated Press poll and two spots lower in the coaches' poll, lost to Utah. No. 7 Georgia, a threat to win the SEC, fell to Missouri. No. 12/10 Oklahoma, which was undefeated and might have gotten a bump past the Buckeyes if it won the Big 12, went down against Texas. Clemson's struggles against Boston College might even cost it some votes in the polls. It's true that Michigan's loss might end up hurting Ohio State down the road because of strength of schedule ratings. But no Buckeyes fan is going to complain about seeing the Wolverines lose. Urban Meyer's team will still need some help from Alabama, Oregon and the ACC champ, but at least some dominoes started to fall its way.
4. Wisconsin has an outside chance at a BCS bid: The first thing Badgers coach Gary Andersen did after his postgame news conference was go and chat up the representatives from the Fiesta and Capital One bowls. Smart move. Wisconsin is in pretty good shape for the rest of the season after blasting Northwestern and could even sneak its way into a BCS game. If Ohio State gets into the BCS title game, heck, the Badgers could even make a fourth straight appearance in Pasadena. The 4-2 Badgers' remaining schedule looks like this: at Illinois, at Iowa, BYU, Indiana, at Minnesota, Penn State. Not exactly layups, but they will be favored in every single one. If Wisconsin can run the table, that would equal a 10-2 record, with an asterisk by one of the losses. The only team to beat Andersen's team without an officiating crew being disciplined afterward would be Ohio State. Wisconsin was unranked last week, which should be rectified later today. A lot of things would have to go the Badgers' way for them to climb the polls and the BCS standings, and the schedule doesn't provide any more opportunities for marquee wins. But Wisconsin at least could put itself in the discussion.
5. Purdue might be worse than last year's Illinois team: For the second consecutive season, the Big Ten features arguably the worst team among the BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Illinois struggled through a 2-10 season in which nothing went right in 2012, and Purdue knows the feeling so far this year. An open week and a quarterback switch didn't fix the Boilers' many problems, as they fell 44-7 to Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium. Freshman quarterback Danny Etling might have a bright future, but he's going through some growing pains now. He completed just 14 of 35 pass attempts, as Purdue failed to enter Nebraska territory until the fourth quarter. The Boilers' defense isn't faring much better, allowing 140 points in the last three games. It's hard to envision Purdue winning anytime soon, as first-year coach Darrell Hazell is going through some of the same issues Tim Beckman did last year at Illinois.