Thursday, November 10, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten things to watch around the Big Ten as a pivotal Week 11 slate of games kicks off on Saturday.
1. Penn State with no JoePa: For the first time since 1965, Penn State will play a game without Joe Paterno as its head coach. Paterno's firing Thursday night shook a program that had been rattled to its core throughout the week. Senior Day at Beaver Stadium will take place without the most famous senior of all. How will Penn State players respond? How will the fans respond after an outpouring of emotion Wednesday night? It's a very big game for this team and these seniors, but they'll be truly challenged to keep the focus on the task at hand.
Silas Redd and Penn State take the field after difficult week in State College.
2. Tom Bradley: The longtime Penn State defensive coordinator steps into the uncomfortable position of acting head coach following Paterno's ouster. Bradley must keep the focus on the players and not on the firestorm outside the program. He'll need help from his fellow assistants, including former head coaches like Galen Hall and Ron Vanderlinden. While many think Penn State's assistants have coached the team for years, Saturday will mark the first time Paterno is totally out of the equation.
3. A date with destiny: Michigan State and Iowa are the only two Legends Division teams that control their own fate in the Big Ten championship race. Only one squad will walk out of Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with that label still in place. Iowa has won seven consecutive home games in the series, including a 37-6 spanking of the then-undefeated Spartans last season. Michigan State hasn't been the same team away from home and must come out with better energy, particularly on offense, after struggling in a 24-3 loss at Nebraska on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes haven't lost at home this season, but haven't played a team as complete as Michigan State.
4. Chasing the record: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, or "Moneyball," as we like to call him, needs two touchdowns to tie the Big Ten single-season record of 26 held by three players (Ohio State's Pete Johnson in 1975, Indiana's Anthony Thompson in 1988 and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter in 1994). Ball has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and leads the nation with 24 scores in 2011. He'll try to make history as Wisconsin puts Paul Bunyan's Axe on the line at Minnesota.
5. Starting blocks in Champaign: Michigan and Illinois are trying to get back in the win column, and both teams are looking for stronger starts. The Wolverines have throttled opponents after the first quarter, but have been outscored in the first 15 minutes. The Illini have failed to score in the first half in each of their past three games, all losses. Ron Zook wants his Illinois team to play loose, while offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said it comes down to the basics. Illinois needs to show up offensively against a Michigan team that typically gets better as games go along.
6. Rex vs. Silas: Still undecided about the Big Ten's best running back? You're not alone. Two of the top candidates square off Saturday in State College as Nebraska's Rex Burkhead goes up against Penn State's Silas Redd. Both men have been their teams' most consistent offensive performers this season. Redd comes off of a bye week after recording a historic performance in October, rushing for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games and leading all FBS players with 703 rush yards during the month. Burkhead, who was a bit banged up in last week's loss to Northwestern, has eclipsed 100 rush yards five times in the past seven games.
7. Cousins' chance at redemption: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins grew up a big Iowa fan and has a few Hawkeye alums in his immediate family. But he has yet to record a win against Iowa as Michigan State's starting quarterback, losing a 15-13 heartbreaker in 2009 and struggling in last year's game, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six. Cousins gets one final shot at Iowa on Saturday, and it's a huge game for the senior and his Spartans teammates. Iowa has been vulnerable against the pass at times this season, so Cousins and his receivers will look to stretch the field.
8. Axe to grind: Speaking of final chances, Minnesota senior safety Kim Royston gets one last crack at Wisconsin, his former team, on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Royston began his career as a Badger before transferring to Minnesota, where he has faced some hurdles, including a broken leg that sidelined him all of last season. The NCAA granted Royston a sixth year of eligibility, and he has made the most of it as one of few bright spots for Minnesota's defense, leading the Big Ten in solo tackles (51). The Gophers have been playing much better ball as of late, and they hope to shock Wisconsin and regain the Axe on Saturday. Said Royston: "I've been having those visions [of hoisting the Axe] ever since I left there."
9. Buckeyes' boiling point: After looking flat at times last week against Indiana, Ohio State knows it can't afford a similar performance this week at Purdue. The Boilers are one of those teams, like Illinois, that seems to give Ohio State trouble. Ohio State stumbled at Purdue in 2009, putting its Big Ten title hopes in jeopardy. Another loss Saturday likely would take Ohio State out of the Leaders Division race. Buckeyes' running backs Dan Herron and Jordan Hall both are dealing with ankle injuries. Herron is expected to play and Hall could return after missing the Indiana game.
10. Bowl push continues: Northwestern (4-5) and Purdue (4-5) both need two more wins to become bowl eligible, and the quest resumes Saturday on their home fields. After a potentially season-turning win at Nebraska, Northwestern returns home to face 3-6 Rice, which has a victory over, yep, Purdue. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team won't be overlooking the Owls, who can put up plenty of points. Purdue, meanwhile, returns home after consecutive blowout losses on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan. The Boilers are 2-0 in Big Ten home contests and need at least one of the next two (Ohio State, Iowa), plus the finale at Indiana to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.