Sunday, September 23, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 4
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Bring on the conference season ... please: There's no way to sugarcoat it. The Big Ten's nonconference schedule (which has two more inconsequential games left) has been a disaster. The league's 33-13 record doesn't begin to tell the story of the train wreck that included losses to three MAC teams, an 0-3 record against Notre Dame, a 1-3 mark against the Pac-12, a loss to Louisiana Tech and several very close calls to non-power-league teams. Michigan State's squeaker over a Boise State team replacing most of its starting lineup remains the Big Ten's signature victory, and Northwestern and Minnesota helped saved the day with a combined 8-0 record, including four wins over BCS AQ teams that won't be in the national title conversation anytime soon. Michigan flopped in its two spotlight games against Alabama and Notre Dame. Michigan State also got clobbered by the Irish, while UCLA ran all over Nebraska. The Big Ten is a national punchline right now, a status it has earned with possibly the worst start in the history of the conference. The good news? League play starts next week, and these teams are all so flawed that it should be as exciting a conference race as there is anywhere. For the Big Ten, it can't start soon enough.
Michigan, Denard Robinson and much of the Big Ten took a beating during the nonconference schedule.
2. The I's have it ... rough: It was a disheartening day for Iowa and Illinois. While Iowa has ebbed and flowed during Kirk Ferentz's tenure as coach, has it ever been this bad in Hawkeye Country? It's hard to imagine a lower point for Iowa since 2002 or so than Saturday's 32-31 loss to a weak Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. If it's not the offense for Iowa, it's a defense that couldn't stop Chippewas quarterback Ryan Radcliff. And in the end, Iowa's special teams let it down on an onside kick recovery. We knew Iowa would have some growing pains with a young team and new coordinators, but the Hawkeyes have struggled against two MAC teams and lost to rival Iowa State at home. Hawkeyes fans always have high expectations, especially for their extremely well-compensated coach. The program has completely lost momentum from the 2009 season, and it can only hope Saturday was rock bottom. Meanwhile, Tim Beckman is just starting his program at Illinois, but it's off to a bad start. After a promising opening win over Western Michigan, the Illini have gotten completely waxed by both Arizona State and, in Saturday's home implosion, Louisiana Tech. (The Charleston Southern game was worthless). We knew that Illinois lacked playmakers for Beckman's spread, but it's shocking how easily other spread teams have shredded the once-proud Illini defense. Beckman has a lot of ground to make up in Champaign.
3. Buckeyes, Spartans have work to do before showdown: The Ohio State-Michigan State game in East Lansing looks like the main event of the first Saturday of Big Ten play, but both teams need work in the next six days. Ohio State struggled on its home field for the second straight week Saturday, committing special teams blunders and surrendering 22 first downs and 402 yards to UAB. That might not matter much to Buckeyes assistant Everett Withers, but it's a concern for a unit that had been pegged as one of the Big Ten's best. Then again, Ohio State isn't facing a juggernaut with Michigan State, which needed three and a half quarters to reach the end zone against an Eastern Michigan team that entered the game allowing an average of more than 40 points. Le'Veon Bell is a work horse for the Spartans, but they continue to struggle to stretch the field with the passing game. These teams played a game that made our eyes bleed last year in Columbus. Although this year's contest figures to be more entertaining, both Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio have a lot to fix.
4. Claims of Penn State's demise were premature: After Penn State dropped its emotionally charged season opener against Ohio and kicked away a sure win at Virginia, many felt the Lions had reached their breaking point after a nightmarish offseason. Predictions of three-win seasons rolled in. Instead, Bill O'Brien's squad has made a nice turnaround and recorded convincing wins against Navy and Temple. The offense is clearly better under O'Brien's leadership, and senior quarterback Matt McGloin looks much more comfortable and efficient. The defense can be dominating at times and bottled up Temple's rushing attack Saturday. Penn State still has its flaws -- too many penalties Saturday -- but so does every Big Ten team. The Lions are starting to hit their stride under O'Brien, and they could make things very interesting in the wide-open Leaders Division.
5. Minnesota could go bowling: Break up the Gophers. They're 4-0 for the first time since 2008 and could make the postseason for the first time since 2009. The biggest difference for this team is on the defensive end, where Minnesota is finally getting a strong pass rush up front with D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman leading the charge. The defense paved the way for a 17-10 win over Syracuse that wasn't as close as the score. Donnell Kirkwood has provided the offense a solid running attack, and the team has proved it can win with either MarQueis Gray or Max Shortell at quarterback. Minnesota isn't a powerhouse yet, and the schedule is going to get a whole lot tougher. But Jerry Kill has guided this program to five straight wins since the end of last season and only needs to match last year's 2-6 Big Ten record to qualify for a bowl. In fact, the Gophers probably will be favored this week at Iowa.