Sunday, September 30, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 5
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:
1. The divisions are more balanced than originally thought: The Leaders Division made a nice statement Saturday, as Ohio State and Penn State both recorded nice home wins and Purdue wrapped up nonleague play at 3-1. Even Wisconsin deserves some credit for the way it fought at Nebraska before caving in the final 25 minutes Saturday night. Although it could be a case where the division's top two teams both are ineligible for the Big Ten title game, there seems to be a little more depth, especially if Wisconsin can find a little more consistency on offense. The Wisconsin-Purdue matchup on Oct. 13 should be pivotal, and Purdue has a big opportunity this coming week against Michigan. Even Indiana is showing greater resilience than it did a year ago, and the Hoosiers have a lot of talent at receiver. Only Illinois seems to be an utter mess in the Leaders. Although Ohio State and Penn State can't get to Indianapolis, both teams will have a say on who does. While the Legends still could be the stronger division, there isn't a huge gap.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez helped rally Nebraska past Wisconsin in September.
2. Nebraska-Ohio State could be Big Ten's game of the year: You might see this designation a few times this year in a truly wide-open, deeply flawed league, but Nebraska-Ohio State this coming Saturday at The Shoe looks like a very big game. Nebraska survived a scare from Wisconsin on Saturday night and rallied to win a game it had to have. But after getting humiliated last year at both Wisconsin and at Michigan, the Huskers need to validate themselves by recording a road win at a hostile Big Ten venue. Ohio Stadium undoubtedly will be cranked up for the Buckeyes' Big Ten home opener, as Ohio State has a potential undefeated season in its sights. The game will feature two dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez), two innovative spread offenses and two defenses looking for consistency. A Nebraska win would cement the Huskers as the team to beat in the Legends Division.
3. Penn State is the Big Ten's hottest team: Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions might not have the league's best record, but no one is playing better football right now. Counted out by many after an 0-2 start, Penn State has rattled off three consecutive wins in impressive fashion. The Lions stormed out to a 21-0 lead at Illinois and never let the Illini into the game Saturday. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti is playing inspired football, while senior quarterback Matt McGloin continues to look like a completely different player from the guy we saw last season. The Lions recorded three or more sacks for the third straight game and continued to dominate the first half, where they've outscored opponents 76-9 this season. The offensive line flexed its muscles, while the defense continued to keep opponents out of the end zone. Penn State should be 4-1 and has really played only one poor half all season (the second half against Ohio). After everything that happened this summer, O'Brien is doing a phenomenal job and has the arrow pointed up in State College.
4. Don't count out Iowa: Last week's lessons noted that Iowa had reached a recent low point in coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure after a brutal home loss to Central Michigan. A week later, things look a bit sunnier in Hawkeyes Country. Iowa delivered its most complete performance of the season and dominated Minnesota to finally claim a rivalry trophy (Floyd of Rosedale). The offense has built its identity around bruising running back Mark Weisman, who delivered another impressive performance Saturday (21 carries, 177 rush yards, 1 TD). Quarterback James Vandenberg is making some improvements, and the big plus Saturday came from a defense that got shredded the week before. The Hawkeyes stifled Minnesota's ground game and got big takeaways from Tanner Miller and Christian Kirksey, who recorded a pick-six in the fourth quarter. Iowa heads into an open week feeling better about itself, and with a favorable schedule (no Ohio State, no Wisconsin), it still could make a run in the Legends Division.
5. Northwestern, Purdue need to close the deal: Both Northwestern and Purdue can do special things this season, especially in a wide-open Big Ten. But both teams need to close out games better than they did Saturday, especially with some major tests coming up. Northwestern nearly squandered a 27-0 lead against Indiana in Syracuse-esque fashion before finding itself late. Purdue's seemingly reliable defense surrendered 41 points and 534 yards to Marshall in a shootout victory. Pat Fitzgerald and Danny Hope need their teams to deliver 60-minute performances going forward. Northwestern faces a big test this coming Saturday at red-hot Penn State, while Purdue begins its decisive stretch of the season, hosting Michigan and Wisconsin before traveling to Ohio State. We'll find out a lot about the Wildcats and Boilers in the coming weeks.