Thursday, October 20, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track on Saturday as you watch another set of Big Ten games.
1. Wisconsin offense vs. MSU defense: Two of the nation's elite units clash Saturday night at Spartan Stadium in a game that likely will determine the Big Ten's top team. The nation's top scoring offense (50.2 ppg) is pitted against a Michigan State defense ranked fourth in points allowed (10.8 ppg), second in yards allowed (186.2 ypg) and first against the pass (119.2 ypg). From terrific individual matchups -- Jerel Worthy vs. Peter Konz, Nick Toon vs. Johnny Adams -- to the chess game between the coordinators, these two units will easily hold your attention.
2. Life without Crick begins: After six shaky quarters in Big Ten play, Nebraska's defense regained its mojo in the final 23 minutes of a historic comeback victory against Ohio State on Oct. 1. But the Huskers received some bad news during the bye week, as star DT Jared Crick was ruled out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Coach Bo Pelini plans to use a four-man rotation at defensive tackle -- Chase Rome, Terrence Moore and Thaddeus Randle will see time alongside starter Baker Steinkuhler. Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said this week that Rome, a redshirt freshman, "plays like a madman" and has stood out. The Crick-less defensive line debuts Saturday against 1-5 Minnesota.
Can Russell Wilson and the Badgers continue their torrid run when they visit East Lansing?
3. JoePa goes for No. 408: There's something about Joe Paterno, Northwestern and milestone victories. In 2001, Paterno tied Paul "Bear" Bryant's Division I-A record with his 323rd coaching victory after Penn State upset Northwestern in Evanston. Last year, JoePa earned win No. 400 after Penn State rallied past Northwestern in State College. Paterno can reach another plateau Saturday night as Penn State visits Northwestern. A victory gives Paterno 408 for his career, tying him with the late Eddie Robinson for the most in (formerly Division I) history.
4. Spartans' October grind continues: Michigan State is halfway through one of the more grueling months in recent Big Ten history and boasts a 2-0 mark. The Spartans already have made history with their first win at Ohio State since 1998 and their fourth consecutive win against archrival Michigan last Saturday. They now aim to make a national statement by recording their first win against a BCS top 10 team under coach Mark Dantonio. Although Wisconsin certainly gets Michigan State's attention, it'll be interesting to see how the Spartans perform after emotional games against Michigan and Ohio State. Oh, yeah, and a road trip to Legends division contender Nebraska awaits next week.
5. Badgers' road leads to house of horrors: Wisconsin's first true road game of the 2011 season takes place in a stadium that has been the program's house of horrors in recent years. The Badgers have dropped three consecutive games in Spartan Stadium, including a 34-24 defeat last year that proved to be their only regular-season loss. They blew a late lead in East Lansing in 2008 and suffered a 49-14 beating in 2004 when they were 9-0 and ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn't been part of the Badgers' stumbles in Sparta, and Wisconsin will lean on the transfer in what should be a raucous environment Saturday night.
6. Boiler crossing: The Illinois-Purdue game won't make waves nationally or even regionally, but it's absolutely huge for both teams. Illinois comes off of its first loss and knows the doubters are getting louder. The Illini also must regain their swagger on both sides of the ball after failing to score for 53 minutes last week and falling to an Ohio State team that completed only one pass (and attempted just four). This game might be even more important for Purdue, which did some good things last week at Penn State but once again made too many major mistakes to record a win. The Boilers' schedule following Illinois is very difficult -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa -- so if they want to end their bowl drought, they had better start winning soon.
7. Iowa's McNutt eyes the record: After coming to Iowa City as a quarterback, Marvin McNutt will leave as one of the Hawkeyes' most prolific wide receivers. Last week he tied Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes for the team's career touchdown receptions record with 21. McNutt can set the record Saturday as he goes up against an Indiana defense that has surrendered 13 passing touchdowns this season. McNutt ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receptions (5.8 rpg) and third in receiving yards (95.5 ypg) this season.
8. Spartans getting defensive: Michigan State has been on the defensive about its defense since last week's penalty-filled win against Michigan. Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi on Tuesday clarified his "unnecessary roughness" quote and defended the unit against claims it played dirty against Michigan, in a game that featured several personal fouls. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has his team prepared, saying the Spartans, "do certain things, whether it be before the snap, during the snap or after the snap that can cause you to react." It will be interesting to see if Michigan State's defense can strike a balance between aggression and discipline against a Wisconsin team that rarely beats itself.
9. A close shave in Evanston: Northwestern has lost four consecutive games for the first time since 2006, and quarterback Dan Persa's senior season seems to be going down the drain. The Wildcats clearly need a shake-up ... or a shave-up? The day after throwing a pick-six at Iowa, Persa decided to shave his head. "Woke up on Sunday, felt like shaving it," Persa said Monday. "So I shaved it." Perhaps the new 'do will help Persa and the Wildcats in a must-win game Saturday night against Penn State at Ryan Field. It's a big one for Persa, a Pennsylvania native who was overlooked by the Lions during the recruiting process. The quarterback needs a strong effort against a Penn State defense ranked seventh nationally against the pass (161.1 ypg).
10. Hoosiers receivers under the gun: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson rarely holds back, and this week he unloaded on his wide receivers, a group that was supposed to be the team's strength. "Our receiver play's been very, very poor," Wilson said. "... We don't work with any sense of speed and urgency out there." Injuries have been a problem, but the wideouts need to help out their young quarterbacks, beginning Saturday afternoon at Iowa. The Hoosiers will be without Damarlo Belcher (knee), so Kofi Hughes and others must step up against the Iowa secondary.