What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 6
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Five lessons from the week that was in the Big Ten:
1. Iowa is foolproof in the clutch -- After a long stretch of heartbreaking losses from 2006-2008, Iowa has won its last five games decided by five points or fewer. The Hawkeyes have fallen behind in both of their Big Ten games and rallied behind tremendous special teams play, opportunistic defense and a resilient quarterback in Ricky Stanzi. Since upsetting Penn State last November, Iowa has displayed a team-wide confidence when things get close. The Hawkeyes might not be able to live on the edge much longer given their schedule, but they're a good bet when the score gets close late in games.
2. Ohio State's defense is the Big Ten's best unit -- Jim Heacock's defense once again has made the Buckeyes the team to beat in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in points allowed and 11th in total defense, and they're forcing more turnovers than they have in past years. No Big Ten offense comes close from a talent and execution standpoint, and while Iowa's defense has been solid, Michigan exposed some weaknesses Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Despite losing several national award winners, Ohio State's defense repeatedly makes big plays and rescues an offense that still hasn't found its rhythm. Sure, the Buckeyes allowed yards to Wisconsin, but they forced major mistakes and didn't wear down despite being on the field for 42:47.
3. Minnesota can run the football -- Tim Brewster wants to restore Minnesota as a rushing powerhouse, and the Gophers took a big step Saturday. Eight players combined for 207 rush yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's victory against Purdue. Redshirt freshman Kevin Whaley provided a spark off the bench, and quarterback Adam Weber got more involved in the run game with nine carries and a touchdown. Weber only attempted nine passes in the victory, two of which were intercepted. Wide receiver Eric Decker might be the Big Ten's best offensive player, but Minnesota knows it needs to run the ball to win Big Ten games.
4. Big Ten getting defensive -- It's very clear midway through the season that the Big Ten won't be an offensive league in 2009. While veteran quarterbacks have struggled a bit and one potential juggernaut (Illinois) has totally crumbled, the league's defenses are once again the story. Both Ohio State and Penn State boast top-20 units, and Iowa has at times been the league's most impressive defense. Minnesota's linebackers have sparked an improved defense, while both Michigan State and Northwestern are starting to see their veteran-laden units step up. Both Michigan and Wisconsin showed good things on defense despite losses, while the league's bottom three (Purdue, Indiana, Illinois) are all struggling to stop anybody.
5. Michigan not a finished product -- Credit the Wolverines for never giving up and always finding ways to hang around in games, but it's clear that head coach Rich Rodriguez is still very much in the building stage. Michigan is still too prone to defensive breakdowns, and its special-teams play, aside from all-world punter Zoltan Mesko, left much to be desired against Iowa. Despite Tate Forcier's late-game magic earlier this season, Rodriguez didn't go back to the freshman quarterback in crunch time after some earlier struggles. The talent is there and Michigan will continue to improve, but things aren't falling into place just yet.