Sunday, September 15, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 3
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Buckeyes are clear clubhouse leaders: Just a week ago, we declared that Ohio State had company at the top of the Big Ten. Our bad, Buckeyes. As much of the Big Ten struggled or looked sluggish for large stretches on Saturday, Urban Meyer's team rolled up more than 600 yards and beat Cal 52-34 on the road. What's so impressive about Ohio State so far is that Braxton Miller has played only a little more than one game, and last year's leading rusher (Carlos Hyde) remains suspended for one more game, yet the offense hasn't missed a beat. Kenny Guiton threw for four touchdowns and ran for 92 yards at Cal, while tailback Jordan Hall ran for 168 yards and three scores. It's scary to think how good this offense can be when it has a full cast of characters. The Buckeyes still need to tighten things up on defense, and it has major challenges coming up against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and at Northwestern (Oct. 5). But this team deserved to be the preseason favorite, and through three weeks, it remains the one to beat.
Maybe Wisconsin couldn't celebrate a win against Arizona State thanks to the craziest ending seen in years, but the Badgers showed just how tough they will be this season.
2. Wisconsin will be a tough out for Buckeyes, Big Ten: Gary Andersen's Badgers deserved better at the end of their game against Arizona State, as an inexcusable officiating blunder let the clock run out and prevented a potential game-winning field goal attempt. It was a bizarre and incredibly painful way to lose, but we learned that the Badgers will battle this season and could push Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Melvin Gordon is a revelation, possibly the most naturally talented running back during a run of very good/great ones at Wisconsin. The only question after Gordon rushed for 193 yards and two touchdowns at Arizona State: Why didn't he get more touches? Wisconsin has its problems, from continued poor pass protection to inconsistent quarterback play to a young secondary, but Andersen's team will be fun to watch this season. The defensive scheme is fascinating, and linebacker Chris Borland, who added a fake-punt pass to his repertoire Saturday night, is among the most entertaining players in the Big Ten. Remember, Wisconsin knows how to win Big Ten games and will be tough to beat the rest of the way.
3. Michigan, Penn State have work to do: We were already looking forward to Michigan's Oct. 12 trip to Penn State, thinking both teams could be 5-0. We got ahead of ourselves. The Wolverines probably will still have that record, but suddenly there are major concerns for a team that was celebrated just a week ago. After the big win over Notre Dame, Michigan was a yard away from a mojo-killing loss to Akron that would have rivaled Toledo in 2008 for the worst in recent program history (sorry, the 2007 Appalachian State team was much better than these Zips, who have lost 27 straight road games). Quarterback Devin Gardner looked like a first-year starter, committing three interceptions and a fumble. Michigan's defense looked leaky for the second straight week, allowing 21 first downs and 418 yards. Last week, the Wolverines looked to be ahead of schedule for a breakthrough, especially on offense. Saturday, they looked like a very young team, prone to mistakes and lapses. Penn State, meanwhile, lost at home to UCF. The Knights are a solid team with a very good veteran quarterback in Blake Bortles, but the Nittany Lions made them look like a powerhouse with a superstar under center. Their defense, so good in the first two weeks against offensively challenged Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, simply could not make a key stop and gave up 507 yards. That's not a good sign for the future, with teams like Ohio State, Nebraska and, yes, Michigan on the schedule.
4. Michigan State offense, Indiana defense establish starting point: Before Saturday, no Big Ten unit had shaken its fans more than Michigan State's offense, which produced just two touchdowns, none through the air, in the first two games. There wasn't much optimism entering Week 3 as the coaches went back to Connor Cook to lead the offense. But Michigan State's offense showed up early and often against Youngstown State, exploding for 35 first-half points and 49 in the first three quarters. Cook showed good command in the pocket, completing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards with four touchdowns and, most important, no interceptions. The Damion Terry chatter can die down, at least for a week. Indiana's defense also rebounded after failing to force a single punt and surrendering 444 rush yards last week against Navy in a 41-35 loss. Not only did the Hoosiers do a better job against the run (136 yards) in a dominant win against Bowling Green, but they kept a dangerous Falcons offense out of the end zone. Defensive end Nick Mangieri had a big day with a sack and an interception for the Hoosiers. Neither Michigan State's offense nor Indiana's defense will lead the Big Ten this year, but neither unit needs to be dominant, given each team's strength on the other side of the ball. The two units just need to be respectable. They finally looked the part Saturday.
5. Bottom rises up: Say this about the Big Ten: there might not be any truly bad teams, if Saturday's action was a true indicator. Purdue occupied the bottom spot in our power rankings for good reason, but the Boilermakers battled Notre Dame to the wire. Darrell Hazell's team showed far more fire, resolve and offensive cohesion than it had in its first two games. Though the schedule remains brutal, Purdue has something to build on with that effort. Illinois had a prove-it game against Washington, and while the Illini lost 34-24, they kept battling back and stayed competitive throughout. This still looks like a vastly improved team over last year's 2-10 version. Iowa came through with a much-needed victory over rival Iowa State on the road. The Hawkeyes physically dominated their Big 12 foe, outrushing the Cyclones 218-59. The score didn't have any business being as close as 27-21, and Iowa's lack of big-play ability will hurt it down the line. But Kirk Ferentz's team ran it 60 times on Saturday and has an identity in its power ground game. None of these three teams will be pushovers in Big Ten play if they can replicate this weekend's performances.