Thursday, October 7, 2010
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track as you watch the second Saturday of Big Ten games.
1. Slowing down Shoelace: No one this season has slowed down Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who leads the nation in rushing (181 ypg) with 27 runs of 12 yards or more. Michigan State All-American linebacker Greg Jones plans to change things Saturday in Ann Arbor. Jones is by far the best defensive player Robinson has faced this season and was all over the field last week against Wisconsin. Jones vs. Robinson is a fascinating subplot to the most anticipated game in the rivalry in recent memory.
Michigan State's Greg Jones and the Spartans defense against Denard Robinson and Michigan will be one of the more intriguing matchup of the weekend.
2. Pass the Buck(eyes): Excuse the bad pun, but Indiana brings the Big Ten's top pass offense (348.2 ypg) to Columbus, where it faces an Ohio State Buckeyes team that leads the Big Ten in defending the pass (161.8 ypg allowed). Something's got to give as Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell and his talented wide receivers and tight ends go up against Chimdi Chekwa, Jermale Hines and a speedy Ohio State secondary. Chappell (480 pass yards) and receiver Tandon Doss (15 rec., 221 yards) come off of huge games, while Ohio State plays its first full contest without Tyler Moeller.
3. Gophers gunning for the Axe: If Minnesota plans to turn around its season, there's no better place to start than Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. The Gophers love their trophy games, but their trophy case in Minneapolis has been empty for some time. No trophy and no game means more to Minnesota than the annual clash with Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Minnesota seniors like quarterback Adam Weber don't want to go through their entire careers without hoisting the coolest rivalry trophy in college sports. An upset victory would provide a huge boost, while a loss would virtually shut the door on postseason play and possibly Tim Brewster's future as Gophers head coach.
4. Seeing red in Happy Valley: Penn State has failed to reach the end zone twice in five games this season, and the Lions have slipped into a tie for 114th nationally in red-zone efficiency, converting just two-thirds of their opportunities into points. Illinois ranks fourth in the league in red-zone defense (75 percent conversions), but coordinator Vic Koenning tells me that depth problems have prevented him from employing a true goal-line package. Penn State coach Joe Paterno says opening up the playbook in the red zone isn't the answer, but the Lions had better try something against an improved Illini defense.
5. Henry leads banged-up Boilers: No team in America has been hit with more significant injuries than Purdue, which mercifully received a bye last week to regroup a bit. After losing quarterback Robert Marve to a season-ending ACL tear, the Boilers now turn to redshirt freshman Rob Henry to guide their offense. Henry is an exceptional athlete with good potential as a quarterback, and Danny Hope doesn't plan to shrink the playbook Saturday at Northwestern. But Henry will be tested in his first career start -- a Big Ten road game at night, no less.
6. Mark Dantonio returns for rivalry: Mark Dantonio has placed a premium on the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry ever since he became Spartans head coach. It would take more than a blood clot to make him miss Saturday's game in Ann Arbor. Dantonio, released from the hospital Monday, opened his news conference Tuesday by saying, "Can't keep me down Michigan week." The plan calls for him to spend the game in the coaches' booth. Michigan State is 2-0 during Dantonio's recovery from a mild heart attack, but his presence should provide a lift in a hostile environment.
7. Wisconsin's running back rotation: John Clay might be the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but he's being pushed for carries by dynamic freshman James White. After White had another big day last week at Michigan State, Badgers running backs coach John Settle said, "We're going to put the competition out there and open it up." Clay continues to put up solid numbers, but he hasn't shown home-run ability like White this season. The burly junior has responded well to challenges before and on Saturday faces a vulnerable Minnesota defense that has allowed a league-high 10 rushing touchdowns.
8. Northwestern aims for historic start: There have been some bumps along the way, but the Wildcats sit at 5-0 for the second time in two years. A win Saturday night against Purdue would give Northwestern its first 6-0 start since 1962, the last time the program was ranked No. 1 nationally. The Wildcats are favored to do so, but they can't expect to keep overcoming penalties and turnovers, especially in Big Ten play. A polished performance against Purdue would put Northwestern in both national polls when No. 17 Michigan State visits on Oct. 23.
9. Sorting out the Buckeyes' backfield: Quarterback Terrelle Pryor (strained quad) should be ready for Saturday's game, but he still needs some help from his backfield mates. Ohio State's situation at running back has been the hot-button topic among Buckeye Nation, which wants to see either more production from Dan Herron and Brandon Saine or more opportunities for Jaamal Berry and Jordan Hall. If the Buckeyes can't spark their ground game against an Indiana defense ranked 108th nationally against the run (207 ypg allowed), they should start to get worried.
10. Cousins takes aim at shaky Michigan D: As incredible as Denard Robinson has been for Michigan, there's a growing sense that the Wolverines will see their fortunes turn soon if Greg Robinson's defense doesn't show some improvement. Indiana's Chappell had his way with Michigan's secondary last week, and while Michigan State brings a more balanced offense to Ann Arbor, Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins is playing with a lot of confidence. If Michigan can't pressure the pocket, Cousins will pick apart the Wolverines' secondary with his talented receivers and tight ends.