Sunday, September 9, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 2
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Spartans or bust: With all due respect to Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota, the Big Ten is down to one legitimate remaining BCS title contender after just two weeks. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska have already seen their hopes of an undefeated season vanish. Ohio State technically could win The Associated Press national title, but the probation-saddled Buckeyes can't play for the BCS crown. So Michigan State, which looks like the Big Ten's best team right now, is really the only league team that can hoist the crystal trophy. The Spartans own the league's best nonconference win (the opener over Boise State), an elite defense and a strong running game behind Le'Veon Bell. Their passing game needs more work, but quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his young receivers made some strides in a blowout win over Central Michigan. Michigan State still has a demanding schedule, including next week's game against Notre Dame. But as the only Big Ten power still without a blemish, the Spartans represent the conference's last, best hope for a BCS championship this season.
2. The Leaders Division race is wide open: Hold off on Wisconsin's coronation. The Badgers look completely out of sorts after barely holding on against FCS team Northern Iowa in Week 1 and then nearly getting shut out in a loss at Oregon State in Week 2. If Wisconsin's offense is going to be that pedestrian, to put it kindly, then Bret Bielema's team no longer looks scary for the rest of the teams in the division. Purdue, even in a loss to Notre Dame, might have had the best performance by a Leaders team Saturday. Illinois got dusted in the desert against Arizona State as its vaunted defense faltered. Indiana is 2-0 but is most likely not ready to contend in the division, especially with quarterback Tre Roberson now out for the year. Ohio State might end up being the best team in the division, but the Buckeyes can't go to Indianapolis. Right now, it's anybody's guess who will represent the Leaders at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Caleb TerBush pulled Purdue into a late tie at Notre Dame with a 15-yard TD pass.
3. There's fight in these Nittany Lions, but transfers continue to sting: No matter your opinion on Penn State, you had to feel for the Nittany Lions players and particularly sophomore kicker Sam Ficken after their 17-16 loss to Virginia. Penn State thoroughly outplayed Virginia and received gutsy efforts from linebacker Michael Mauti, quarterback Matt McGloin and others. But it repeatedly missed scoring opportunities, setting some type of record for drives started in plus territory that didn't translate to points. Ficken missed field goal attempts from 40, 38, 20 and 42 yards, the last on the final play of the game after McGloin led an impressive drive. Although Ficken is a scholarship player who needs to convert, he was thrust into this role once All-Big Ten specialist Anthony Fera transferred following the NCAA sanctions (though Fera, now at Texas, is currently injured). Some pointed to Fera's departure as the second most significant of the nine -- behind running back Silas Redd. Penn State certainly could have used him Saturday. The Lions deserve credit for moving the ball and for forcing turnovers, but the player departures have and likely will continue to hamper this team. It will be interesting to see how they bounce back from Saturday's heartbreaker.
4. New coordinators struggling at Wisconsin, Iowa: Both Wisconsin and Iowa went through some significant coaching changes during the offseason, including new offensive coordinators in both Madison (Matt Canada) and Iowa City (Greg Davis). So far, any concerns about the new hires are looking justified. After setting offensive records the past two seasons, Wisconsin came 91 seconds away from being shut out against unranked Oregon State. The Badgers finished with 35 net rush yards and couldn't get Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball going. While the players bear a lot of responsibility, Canada's play calls seemed questionable at best. Iowa's offense also is spinning its wheels under Davis, who took criticism toward the end of his Texas tenure but was supposed to diversify the Hawkeyes' attack. Like Wisconsin, Iowa didn't come alive offensively until the closing moments, and senior quarterback James Vandenberg struggled again with no touchdown passes and two interceptions. Iowa has scored one touchdown through the first two games. Although both Canada and Davis faced some personnel challenges with their offenses, they didn't walk into dire situations, either, particularly Canada. The results so far are extremely disappointing.
5. Braxton Miller needs some help: Urban Meyer doesn't want to overexpose his sophomore quarterback, but the Ohio State coach doesn't have much choice right now. Miller had a whopping 27 carries in Saturday's 31-16 win over Central Florida, rushing for 141 yards. He also threw the ball 24 times. Jordan Hall remains out with an injured foot, and Carlos Hyde left Saturday's game with a knee injury, leaving the Buckeyes without many options at running back. Miller took a few hard hits against UCF, and it's clear that if he has to miss any significant time, the Ohio State offense will nosedive. The Buckeyes have to find some complementary players so Miller can make it through the year. We could say the same about Michigan's Denard Robinson, who accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offensive total against Air Force. But we're pretty sure Fitz Toussaint will contribute more than 7 rushing yards in the near future. The Buckeyes need Hyde or Hall to get healthy or for someone else to emerge as a reliable running mate for Miller.