Chicago Colleges: Chris Norman

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

Plenty of what-ifs for Wildcats, Spartans

November, 13, 2012
Dantonio/FitzgeraldUS PresswireMark Dantonio's Spartans and Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats still have plenty to play for.
Michigan State linebacker Chris Norman admits he plays the what-if game.

It's what happens when your team loses four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points.

"I know I have, and I'm pretty sure some of my teammates have, too," Norman told "It's natural to do so with everything that hasn't been going our way. What if this would have happened? What if that would have happened? You can really point out so many things that happened and say, 'Man, if that one thing is different, then the whole season would be different.'"

Northwestern knows the feeling. The Wildcats haven't endured as much misery as Michigan State and, unlike the Spartans, who were pegged by many to win the Big Ten this year, they've exceeded many preseason expectations with a 7-3 record. But they've also held double-digit, second-half leads in all three of their losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan).

Their most painful setback came last Saturday at the Big House, as a desperation pass from Devin Gardner, deflected by Northwestern's Daniel Jones and caught by Roy Roundtree allowed Michigan to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Wolverines won 38-31 in overtime.

"That's football for you," Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile told "That's what it comes down to sometimes, one or two plays, and just being able to make one more stop or one more block or more tackle. Everyone can play the, 'if this, then that' game."

Odds are the Wildcats or the Spartans will be asking those same questions after their game Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. One of them, though, will be celebrating an important win. Michigan State (5-5, 1-4) is still trying to get bowl eligible, while Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) can improve its bowl position before closing out the season against struggling Illinois.

But these teams easily could be playing for a chance to represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game in Indy. Both teams had division front-runners Nebraska and Michigan on the ropes. Both teams squandered fourth-quarter leads against the Huskers and Wolverines, losing by a combined 14 points in those four games.

"That just shows you how close both programs are," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "... With the ball being oblong, it sometimes bounces weird, and they've just had some tough bounces. At the end of the day, so have we, but it’s not a pity party. It's football."

Michigan State had an extra week to regroup following its loss to Nebraska, which featured some controversial calls down the stretch. When the Spartans resumed practice, Norman saw a "business-like approach" from his teammates. They know they need at least one win to reach a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season.

Close games and home wins had been Michigan State's hallmarks in 2010 and 2011, when the team won 22 games. The Spartans swept their home schedules in both seasons and went 9-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. A loss Saturday means Michigan State would go winless at home in Big Ten play for the first time since 2006.

"We really want to get at least one [Big Ten] win under our belt in Spartan Stadium," Norman said. "We've done really well here in the past, and it’s something we haven't been able to do this season. It's our last home game, and it's a really good stage that is set for us."

Michigan State's season reminds Mark Dantonio of the 2007 campaign, his first as the team's head coach. The Spartans lost five games by seven points or fewer and sat at 5-5 before winning its final two games.

"That's sort of the same situation we're in right now," Dantonio said. "You always want to finish strong. That's the message sent around here constantly, complete our circles and finish strong."

Fitzgerald on Monday calmly answered questions about the 53-yard pass to Roundtree that set up Northwestern's latest agony. What was the coverage plan? What was the personnel on the play? Should Northwestern have purposely interfered with Roundtree, limiting such a large gain?

But he not surprisingly seemed more eager to talk about the need to respond this week. Northwestern's late-game struggles are an issue that must be addressed, but the team also has rarely, if ever, let painful losses impact its next game.

"We’ve responded in the past, and we're going to need our best response of the year this Saturday," Fitzgerald said. "In a weird sort of way, it's easier to respond when you get knocked down than it is when you have success, in a crazy sort of way. We've won a lot of close games around here, and unfortunately we let one get away Saturday."

He liked the team's energy in Monday's workout and called Tuesday's practice the best of the season. But he also noted Northwestern is facing a Michigan State squad that "very easily could be undefeated."

"We're close," Fitzgerald said. "This young team's growing up. There's no moral victories in our ballclub. There's a lot of frustration in the way that we haven't been able to finish. But what's done is done."

Michigan State knows the feeling.

"Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Norman said. "The same thing happened against Michigan. I guess when we play them, it's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."