Big Ten: Tony Pike
- The pick: Cincinnati 38, Illinois 27
- Actual score: Cincinnati 49, Illinois 36
- 20-20 hindsight: Once again, my margin of victory wasn't too far off, though the teams nearly matched the predicted final score at halftime (Cincinnati led 35-20). It turned out that Illinois' passing attack, led by quarterback Juice Williams, proved to be a much bigger factor than the run game. As predicted, Cincinnati wide receiver Mardy Gilyard caught two touchdowns, one of the controversial variety, but tight end Ben Guidugli gave Illinois much more trouble. Quarterback Tony Pike went off for six touchdowns and as predicted, Cincinnati pulled away behind its dominant offense.
Season record: 62-24 (.721)
Cincinnati has dissected opposing secondaries all fall, regardless of whether Tony Pike or Zach Collaros was making the throws.
That's why it seemed odd to see this quote from Illinois co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch following Friday's 49-36 loss to No. 5 Cincinnati. Pike returned to the field and threw for 399 yards and a school-record six touchdowns against Illinois, while Cincinnati barely tried to run the ball.
"You go into a game trying to make them pass," Illinois defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "That may be a mistake against them. We gave up too many big plays."
Yep, big mistake. I wasn't the only one taken aback by the strategy.
If Juice Williams and his wide receivers performed like this all year, Illinois wouldn't be sitting at 3-8. Though Williams had several costly incomplete passes, including a sure touchdown to Chris Duvalt early in the third quarter, he performed well overall against a vulnerable Cincinnati defense.
The missed pass to Duvalt was one of several plays that seemed to sum up Illinois' disappointing season in Friday's 49-36 loss to the fifth-ranked Bearcats. Linebacker Nate Bussey was flagged for an inexcusable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave Cincinnati a fresh set of downs inside the Illinois 10-yard line (the Bearcats converted for a touchdown). Illinois drew eight penalties for 69 yards, as it remained the Big Ten's most penalized team.
Special teams also continued to hurt Illinois. While Derek Dimke went 3-for-3 on field goals, Cincinnati racked up 210 return yards, including a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mardy Gilyard.
Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said last month that changes would be coming in Champaign, although head coach Ron Zook was safe. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz might be saving himself with the offense's progress down the stretch, but Zook might need to shuffle his defensive staff. Illinois had no answer for a one-dimensional Cincinnati offense, as Tony Pike shredded the Illini for 399 pass yards and six touchdowns. The back seven couldn't keep pace with tight end Ben Guidugli (149 receiving yards, 2 TDs) and Gilyard (102 receiving yards, 2 TDs).
It's nice to see a class act like Williams play well down the stretch, but the future of the Illinois program seems very shaky right now. The Illini finish up next week against Fresno State as they try to avoid going 3-9.
Juice Williams and his weapons are moving the ball well against Cincinnati, racking up 267 yards and dominating possession time (21:04-8:56). Illinois got the start it wanted, as Williams led a 12-play, 87-yard scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead.
But Cincinnati countered in a hurry, using big plays on both offense and special teams to take a commanding lead. Give Illinois credit for hanging tough -- Williams had an excellent first half, completing 12 of 18 passes for 164 yards and two scores -- but the Illini trail 35-20 at halftime and have shown no ability to stop quarterback Tony Pike, tight end Ben Guidugli and wideouts Mardy Gilyard and Armon Binns. Special teams have been a problem for much of the season, and Gilyard's game-tying, 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown really changed the momentum.
Cincinnati's defense certainly is vulnerable, but Zook and his defensive assistants must find a way to slow down Pike. Illinois needs to generate some pressure or force a turnover or two. Time of possession rarely means much against Cincinnati, which is the king of the big play.
Tony Pike will get the start at quarterback for the Bearcats, who have received great play from both Pike and backup Zach Collaros this season.
The Illini might not face as strong of a downfield passing attack with Pike taking the snaps.
Illinois has held its own against undefeated teams from Ohio during the Ron Zook era.
When scanning the BCS standings, it's pretty easy to formulate a one-sentence summary for each team to this point in the season.
- No. 1 Florida -- Dominating defense has picked up slack for offense, lacking a bit at wide receiver, led by quarterback (Tim Tebow) with potential to be Superman.
- No. 4 Iowa -- Extremely resilient team led by defense and special teams, Jekyll-and-Hyde quarterback in Ricky Stanzi, dominates fourth quarter, multitude of close wins preventing national respect.
- No. 5 Cincinnati -- Genius head coach (Brian Kelly) directing masterpiece on offense, overcame loss of starting quarterback Tony Pike, great wide receivers and solid defense, hamstrung by Big East's reputation.
- No. 8 Oregon -- Disastrous season debut against Boise State, overcame suspension of star running back LeGarrette Blount, crushed USC and Cal, frontrunner for Rose Bowl berth, incredible turnaround.
Then you get to No. 11 Penn State. What do we really know about this team?
Nine games into the season, the Nittany Lions have flown completely under the radar. And it's not entirely their fault. Sure, it would have been nice to see Penn State play a decent nonconference opponent instead of Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois.
|Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI|
|Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions need a signature win over Ohio State on Saturday.|
Penn State has made strides since then and breezed through the month of October, but it beat no team close to the Top 25. Normally, the Nittany Lions' triumph at Michigan would carry a lot of weight nationally, but Michigan is a disaster right now. Wins against Northwestern and Illinois looked good before the season, but both of those teams have underachieved.
When will we get a true gauge on Penn State? The wait should be over on Saturday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Ohio State is visiting Happy Valley, and while the 16th-ranked Buckeyes aren't a powerhouse this season, they remain the measuring-stick program in the Big Ten. They boast a dominant defense and an offense starting to find itself. And they don't lose in November.
For the Lions, Saturday's game likely represents their final chance for a signature win during the regular season, their final chance to show the progress made since the Iowa loss.
"When you play a team you know is good and everyone knows is good, you look at it like, 'Hey, if we beat these guys, we'll know we really are good,'" Penn State left tackle Dennis Landolt said.
The defense has been more than good, leading the nation in points allowed (9.33 ppg), ranking second in tackles for loss (8.8 per game) and ranking fifth both in total defense (254.8 ypg) and rushing defense (84.1 ypg). The offense certainly has something prove Saturday against Ohio State, which last year held Penn State to 13 points and knocked out quarterback Daryll Clark. The Buckeyes have posted three shutouts this season and rank sixth nationally in total defense.
Penn State needs some help to return to the Rose Bowl, but other goals are still out there. It could become the first Big Ten team to beat Ohio State in consecutive seasons since Wisconsin in 2003-04.
More importantly, a victory Saturday will show Penn State is more than a product of an easy schedule. It will show the Lions are a worthy BCS bowl contender.
"It's a chance to see how good we really are," Landolt said, "how far we've come."
Eight FBS teams call Ohio home, but only one program has been nationally relevant for decades. Ohio State is the state's premier program, having won 13 national championships and 33 Big Ten championships. It's produced seven Heisman Trophy winners.
But for the first time in recent memory, the Buckeyes face a legit challenger for the title of best in state. Cincinnati has surged under third-year coach Brian Kelly, winning the Big East last season and rising to No. 8 in the BCS standings, nine spots ahead of the Buckeyes, who already have two losses. While the teams don't meet again until 2012, the two programs have been compared a lot during the past few weeks.
Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down the debate in the Buckeye State.
Adam Rittenberg: We've already looked at Iowa-Cincinnati and Penn State-Pitt. Now let's get to a topic that has been debated for a while this season. A Cincinnati radio station even got into the act to mock Ohio State after the Buckeyes' loss to Purdue. What's your take on these two teams?
Brian Bennett: Adam, Cincinnati fans are getting a bit chesty after decades of playing the role of little brother in Ohio. Well, maybe more like little second cousin than little brother. Look, there's no question that the Buckeyes have a William Taft-sized edge on the Bearcats in history, tradition, resources and facilities. But college football is becoming a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and it's hard to argue against the fact that Cincinnati is having the better season this year.
|AP Photo/Jay LaPrete|
|The Buckeyes have yet to figure out how to best utilize Terrelle Pryor’s skills.|
Which team is better? That's debatable. But let me ask you this: If given the choice, would you rather have Terrelle Pryor, who looks ill-suited for Ohio State's system, or Tony Pike expertly running the spread? Or, for that matter, Bearcats backup Zach Collaros, who's a dual-threat guy himself?
Rittenberg: Cincinnati knows exactly who it is on offense, and the results show every time the Bearcats take the field. The system is bigger than any player, as Kelly can plug in just about anyone at quarterback and get tremendous results. Ohio State, meanwhile, hasn't established an offensive identity since Pryor became the starter. The Buckeyes keep experimenting with the spread, the pistol formation, a pro-style set, etc., as they try to mold the offense around Pryor. I wish they'd just pick something and stick with it, even if it's an option-based offense. I do think Pryor will get better over time. He's just so talented.
Ohio State's defense knows exactly who it is, and it's an extremely talented group. I know UC's offense is tremendous, but do the Bearcats face any defenses like Ohio State's in the Big East?
Bennett: Well, a couple of weeks ago, I might have said South Florida, but the Bulls have since been exposed. So it's true that at least so far, the Bearcats haven't faced any shutdown, stout defenses. The last time they did, in fact, was against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and that didn't work out so well.
|Joel Auerbach/US Presswire|
|Brian Kelly’s offense has proven successful no matter who is at quarterback.|
But I do think this is a better, more well-rounded offense than even last year. And if you can fairly ask if Cincinnati has seen a defense like Ohio State's, I can fairly counter by asking if the Buckeyes have faced anything as good as Kelly's offense. USC wasn't exactly airing it out. Purdue runs some spread and managed to beat Ohio State, and I think we'd both agree that the Boilermakers aren't quite in the Bearcats' class. And on the flip side, don't count out that Cincinnati defense, which statistically has been better than the one in Columbus.
Rittenberg: I can't believe you, Bennett. You're totally neglecting the mighty Toledo Rockets, the nation's 14th-ranked offense that managed to put up exactly zero points against Ohio State back on Sept. 19. I see how it is. Now that Cincinnati is highly ranked and competing for state bragging rights, you totally neglect the little guy. Jim Tressel wouldn't approve.
In all seriousness, no, Ohio State hasn't faced an offense that resembles Cincinnati's, though the Buckeyes really did a nice job against USC until the final drive. It's too bad Illinois never showed up this season, as the Illini could have given Ohio State a nice challenge. But Kelly's scheme would really test Ohio State, especially in the secondary. Kurt Coleman is one of the best safeties in the country, but corners Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence would have their hands full. Ohio State's pass rush would need to be on point, but I have full faith in the Buckeyes' defensive line.
OK, Brian, you're on the spot. Who wins this game? And perhaps, more importantly, could Cincinnati win in Columbus? I don't think the Bearcats enter many environments nearly as hostile as The Shoe.
Bennett: Does this mean we have to debate Toledo vs. Akron next?
You know, if they played every year or even if they played 100 times this year, Ohio State would probably win the majority of them. But in a one-shot deal, this year, no matter where the game was played, I'd cast my lot with the Bearcats. Not only is this a really good team, but it's a team full of guys who grew up in Ohio but weren't considered good enough to play for the Buckeyes. Combine their talent with motivation, and I think that would be enough to change the state's power structure for one day, at least.
Who would you take?
Rittenberg: I agree the Bearcats would have no trouble getting up for this game. Cincinnati clearly has the better offense, but I don't think UC has seen a defense like Ohio State's. Keep in mind the Buckeyes play a similar style to Virginia Tech, which beat Cincinnati pretty handily in the Orange Bowl. Location also would make a difference. Cincinnati wins at Nippert, but I don't see the Buckeyes losing this game in Columbus.
Several teams remain alive in the BCS title game hunt. But outside of the Big Three (Florida, Texas, Alabama), only two BCS conference teams are still unbeaten -- Iowa and Cincinnati. And both are the subject of considerable debate.
So let's break it down now with Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett.
|AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais|
|Mardy Gilyard has scored 10 touchdowns so far this season.|
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I think both teams are worthy, and before getting to each case, let's look at the sport as a whole. Who is really good this year? Florida has flaws, Alabama has flaws, Texas has flaws, USC certainly has flaws. The most dominant teams to me have been TCU, Boise State and yes, your Cincinnati Bearcats, but those teams will always face questions about overall strength of schedule.
When it comes to Iowa, I know the Hawkeyes don't win many style points with the voters outside the Big Ten region. I know they should have beaten Arkansas State and Northern Iowa by a lot more. But trust me, it can't be understated how hard it is for a team to go into State College, Madison and East Lansing and come out with victories. If Iowa completes its road circuit with a win at Ohio State, I don't know how you leave that team out of the title chase.
So let's hear it. Make your case for Cincinnati. Are they worthy? I feel like Wayne and Garth right now.
BB: Party time, it's excellent. (We're dating ourselves here, Adam.)
Well, Cincinnati has been simply dominant, winning its three Big East games by an average of 27 points. Two of those were on the road. In fact, the Bearcats are 4-0 on the road, including a 10-point victory at Oregon State. Mighty USC just beat those same Beavers by 7 at home.
Look at the national statistics, and Cincinnati is everywhere: second in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense, first in sacks, third in turnover margin, ninth in kickoff returns. This is a complete, well-rounded football team with a couple of real stars on offense (Tony Pike, Mardy Gilyard) and one of the best coaches in the business right now, Brian Kelly.
Iowa has had a great year, but I just can't shake those close shaves to Northern Iowa and Arkansas State out of my mind. Can a team that has as much trouble scoring as the Hawkeyes do really be taken seriously as a national championship contender?
AR: I'll admit to having a man-crush on Brian Kelly. He's an amazingly innovative coach, and I love the way he never lets a setback like losing a quarterback affect his plan.
|Stephen Mally/Icon SMI|
|Tyler Sash leads the Big Ten in interceptions with five.|
The offense has some bright spots as well (tight end Tony Moeaki, running back Adam Robinson, wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and while quarterback Ricky Stanzi has had his ups and downs, he's incredibly resilient and just knows how to win games. He's 16-3 as the starter.
I just keep pointing to the road wins, plus a nice home victory against surging Arizona. Corvallis is a tough place to play, but it isn't State College, Madison or Columbus. The Big Ten still has the intimidation factor going for it. Does Cincinnati run the table with Iowa's road slate?
BB: I think Cincinnati would win at Wisconsin and possibly at Penn State, given that Syracuse stuck around there in Week 2 without any offense at all. As for Ohio State, well, that's a subject of great interest for many Bearcats fans that we'll have to take up later this week.
I do seem to remember, however, Iowa losing at Pitt last year. Different year, I know, but a lot of the same players on both sides. And it proves that the Big Ten and Big East aren't too far apart.
I wonder if we should be watching the Arkansas State-Louisville score this weekend, since Cincinnati beat Louisville 41-10 and of course Arkansas State nearly knocked off the Hawkeyes. Unfortunately, given the system, comparative scoring is about all we have.
Well, that and opinion. So in your opinion, who's better between Cincinnati and Iowa?
AR: You're right in that there isn't much to compare these two leagues, but this Iowa team is totally different than the one that lost at Pitt last September. The quarterback situation was messy back then, and Stanzi's presence has completely changed things and provided the offense a new degree of confidence.
As for who's better, it's a tough call. Cincinnati is certainly the sexier team. Heck, Iowa even admits that it isn't the prettiest car in the lot. It's almost a point of pride. I would certainly pay to see Clayborn, Binns and the Iowa defense go up against the Bearcats' offense. Stanzi and the Iowa offense would need to limit mistakes and try to control the clock to keep Pike or Zach Collaros or Brian Bennett or whomever is playing quarterback for UC off of the field.
But if the game is close, and you'd figure this game would be, you simply can't bet against Iowa. The Hawkeyes are fail-safe in the clutch, while Cincinnati hasn't been in many down-to-the-wire games. You need a special quality to dig deep and pull out the close ones, and Iowa has that quality this season. If the Hawkeyes could keep things close until the fourth quarter, I would like their chances.
OK, you get the last word on this. Who's better?
BB: I've got to stick with Cincinnati (assuming that Bennett kid is far away from the huddle). I just think the Bearcats would definitely score some points on offense and that they have a much more modern attack than Iowa sees most weeks in the Big Ten. I have no confidence that the Hawkeyes could score enough against a very underrated Cincinnati defense. Stanzi is clutch but is nowhere near Pike's league. And I have learned to never bet against Kelly.
Let's just hope that neither team gets shut out of the BCS title game if indeed it can go undefeated. Or that would make a lot of fans Angerer.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Joe Paterno wants a Big East team to join the Big Ten. He probably won't get his wish any time soon, but the next best thing takes place this fall. Syracuse will face three Big Ten teams -- Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State -- in the first three weeks of the season. It's rare when another BCS team not named Notre Dame plays two games against squads from another BCS conference, much less three.
To help educate us on the Syracuse Orange, I consulted Big East blogger Brian Bennett, who boasts plenty of expertise on the league. Get your notepads out and prepare to learn something as Brian fills us in on Syracuse as well as Cincinnati, which hosts Illinois on Nov. 27.
Also, check out my thoughts on how the Big Ten matches up with the Big East.
Adam Rittenberg: So BB, Syracuse is clearly trying to join the Big Ten with this schedule. Three Big Ten teams? Wow. Do Minnesota, Northwestern or Penn State have much to worry about with Doug Marrone's team?
Brian Bennett: Well, Adam, if this were hoops, then the Orange might well go 3-0. As it stands, the 'Cuse will more likely go 0-3. I really like what Marrone is doing in rebuilding the program, but the simple fact is that he's got a huge repair job on his hands. There just isn't much in the cupboard after the disastrous Greg Robinson tenure. That said, I think Syracuse could potentially put up a fight at home against Minnesota and Northwestern. Going to Penn State looks like a massacre waiting to happen.
AR: Hey, Penn State won the NIT last year! They might give the Orange a game in hoops (or not). What can Big Ten teams expect from Marrone scheme-wise this fall?
BB: You'll see a much more diverse offense than what Syracuse brought against Northwestern and Penn State last year. Marrone was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, who had one of the most creative and varied attacks in the NFL the past couple of years. The offensive system should be predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly, with some spread elements. The rushing game should be decent with Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey and Averin Collier. The offensive line is a question mark right now. On defense, former Michigan coordinator Scott Shafer is in charge, so Big Ten fans should be familiar with his schemes. Syracuse hopes he has more success than he did in his short stint in Ann Arbor.