Chicago Colleges: Tom Bradley

Coaches say B1G deserves second BCS bid

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
2:45
PM CT
The Big Ten has received an at-large BCS bid in each of the past six seasons and in eight of the past nine.

That streak is in jeopardy this season, thanks in part to the addition of a league championship game. Whoever loses in the Dec. 3 title game next week will have at least three losses and likely won't finish in the Top 14 of the BCS standings, which is needed to qualify for an at-large bid. That means the league's best shot at an at-large bid is probably Michigan, which would finish 10-2 if it beats Ohio State this week, even though it didn't make the conference title game.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireThe win over Boise State by coach Mark Dantonio and Michigan State could turn out to be the Big Ten's top nonconference victory of 2012.
If the season ended today, only Michigan State would finish in the Top 14 of the BCS standings, at No. 14. So does the Big Ten even deserve a second spot this year?

Not surprisingly, the coaches of the teams who could be lobbying for such a bid all defended the strength of the league and its credentials when I asked them about it on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference.

Brady Hoke might be the one who has to do the most convincing. His Wolverines could be measured up against teams from the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC when the at-large spots are handed out.

"This conference always deserves whatever it can get, to be honest," Hoke said. "The competitiveness that's shown every Saturday, I don't know why they wouldn't [give the league a second bid]."

Michigan State is in an interesting position. The Spartans have already locked up the Legends Division title, are the league's highest ranked team right now and will go to the Rose Bowl if they win next week in Indianapolis. But should the Spartans lose next week, they would almost certainly get passed over for a BCS bid at 10-3 while Michigan, a team they beat earlier this year, could go instead. That would be a bitter pill for a program that finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title last year but saw the other two tri-champions -- Ohio State and Wisconsin -- go to the BCS.

"I think the Big Ten deserves another BCS bid, absolutely," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "Week in and week out, we face some of the toughest competition in America, and I think that warrants the opportunity to play at a special time."

I asked Dantonio his thoughts about a Big Ten title game potentially hurting the league's chances at another bid.

"It may," he said, "but I think it also allows things to sort of be settled on the field, as opposed to the BCS. This year it sort of maybe doesn't favor us, while last year it would have been good to have a playoff."

Wisconsin would seem to be an appealing team for an at-large bid, with a large fan base, two exciting and marketable players in Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, and an attractive style of play. Should the Badgers beat Penn State this week but lose in the title game, they'd be 10-3, but two of their losses would be to the same team (Michigan State). Yet Wisconsin would have almost no chance to make it because of low computer rankings.

"There's a lot of good football players and good football teams in this league this year," coach Bret Bielema said "Defensively, I think it's probably as good as we've ever had.

"I know this: I look at the board in front of us and see teams that have two losses similar to us, but sometimes there are blowout wins at home or against unranked teams, and you just don't know how some of these votes go or how the computers work. But as a member of this conference, I think everybody in this league thinks it's as competitive as anybody out there."

The other team with a dog in the fight is Penn State, which can get to Indy with a win in Madison this week. An at-large bid appears impossible for the Nittany Lions, who are dealing with a public relations nightmare that wouldn't appeal to BCS bowls even if the team qualified. Interim coach Tom Bradley hasn't had much time to think about those scenarios, but also emphasized that the Big Ten is worthy.

"I certainly think a heck of a lot of good football is being played in the Big Ten, maybe more so than people realize," he said. "We've got, what, like 10 teams bowl eligible [if Purdue wins this week]? So it's a tough league."

Of course the coaches will defend their league and lobby for the Big Ten to get a second bid. We'll have to see if the voters, computers and bowls themselves agree.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 21, 2011
11/21/11
12:00
PM CT
Saw you so much clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.

Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.

[+] EnlargeJustin DuVernois
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireIllini punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Wisconsin's Conor O'Neill after a game-changing fumbled snap Saturday.
Biggest play: Illinois led Wisconsin 14-0 in the second quarter when punter Justin Duvernois dropped the ball after catching the snap. The Badgers' Conor O'Neill tackled him at the 2-yard line to set up a Montee Ball touchdown run and finally give Wisconsin some momentum. Who knows how the game would have unfolded differently had the Illini taken a 17-0 lead into half instead of 17-7. And for a team that had special-teams breakdowns in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was good for Wisconsin to get one back in the kicking game.

Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?

Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.

Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.

Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.

"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."

It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.

"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten action.

1. Nebraska is still breathing, while Ohio State is on life support: Both teams' seasons could have turned in the final 23 minutes at Memorial Stadium, as Nebraska scored 28 unanswered points to beat Ohio State 34-27 in the largest comeback in Huskers history. Nebraska was staring at an 0-2 start in its new conference and two weeks of intense scrutiny before the furious rally. Although the Huskers have a lot to fix, they're still very much alive in the league race. Ohio State, meanwhile, can't catch a break and fell apart after starting quarterback Braxton Miller went down with an ankle injury. For a team that already has faced so much adversity, the Buckeyes will have a tough time responding from Saturday's loss.

[+] EnlargePenn State defense
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State's defense carried the day as the Nittany Lions held the Hawkeyes to just 253 yards.
2. Defense makes Penn State a contender: A never-ending quarterback competition and Joe Paterno's game-day whereabouts have dominated the spotlight in Happy Valley, but it's about time people recognize the Nittany Lions' defense. It's really, really good, perhaps even championship-level good. Penn State smothered Iowa on Saturday, keeping the Hawkeyes' high-powered attack out of the end zone. Despite losing key personnel and getting little to no help from its own offense, Penn State's defense continues to step up. Tom Bradley's unit should keep Penn State in every game -- and makes the Lions a contender in the Leaders division.

3. Michigan is a second-half team: If the stunning Notre Dame comeback didn't convince you of the Wolverines' second-half prowess, then Saturday's win over Northwestern should. Michigan trailed 24-14 at the half but outscored the Wildcats 28-0 in the final two quarters. The defense under Greg Mattison continues to make very good adjustments throughout the course of the game. Northwestern threw the kitchen sink at Michigan offensively in the first half but was stonewalled in the second half, while the Wolverines came up with two more turnovers. The Wolverines have given up only seven points in the fourth quarter all year and are outscoring opponents 141-21 after halftime. If Michigan can continue that in the second half of the season, its 6-0 start could turn into something special.

4. Scheelhaase-to-Jenkins is Big Ten's deadliest connection: The Big Ten entered the season with several dynamic quarterbacks and receivers, but one passing combination has risen above the rest. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins are on fire, as they've been for much of the season. The two connected six times for 182 yards and scoring passes of 77 and 67 yards Saturday against Indiana, a week after Jenkins set a team record with 268 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches against Northwestern. Jenkins has backed up his claim as the league's top receiver, and Scheelhaase is evolving into a complete quarterback in just his second season.

5. Minnesota is the nation's worst major-conference team: It might sound harsh, but there's not another major-conference squad struggling as much as the Gophers, who have lost their past two games by a combined score of 103-17. After Minnesota's encouraging season opener at USC, almost everything has gone downhill. We thought Minnesota had hit rock bottom in Ann Arbor after its 58-0 loss to Michigan. But the worst came in the first half against a mediocre Purdue team, as the Gophers fell behind 31-0 and committed three turnovers. Coach Jerry Kill is dealing with a lot of young players and veterans not used to winning, but his squad needs to compete better in games. The schedule doesn't get any easier, and it'll be a long year in Minneapolis.

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