Thursday, October 18, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 8 ...
1. Clock ticking for Michigan seniors: Quarterback Denard Robinson and his fellow Michigan seniors have been through a lot in their careers -- some historic lows from 2008 to '10, a rebound 2011 season under current coach Brady Hoke, a Sugar Bowl championship and a streak-snapping win against Ohio State last November. But the fourth-year seniors never have beaten Michigan State. Hoke puts countdown clocks for Michigan State and Ohio State in the football complex and has emphasized the need to beat the Spartans since the preseason. Robinson has struggled in two starts against Michigan State (4 interceptions, 2 touchdowns) and tries to turn the tide against a stout Spartans defense. Michigan can nudge Michigan State farther out of the division race with a victory.
2. Blackshirts versus Blackshirts: Northwestern will don all-black uniforms Saturday at Ryan Field for one of its more anticipated home games in recent memory. Some are joking the Wildcats' threads will be the first blackshirts Nebraska has seen this season. The Huskers' defense has a lot to prove after Ohio State put 63 points on the board against Bo Pelini's squad Oct. 6 in Columbus. Spread offenses have given Nebraska trouble in recent years, and Northwestern quarterback/receiver Kain Colter led his team's upset win last year in Lincoln (2 rush TDs, 1 pass TD). Pelini wants to see an "angry" Nebraska team in Evanston and feels like he has one. The fifth-year coach has stressed winning out, which would put Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. A Northwestern win, meanwhile, means the Wildcats are serious contenders in the Legends Division.
Iowa's Mark Weisman has four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, including eight touchdowns during the span.
3. Weisman watch: There's no doubt Mark Weisman is Iowa's top offensive weapon, and for much of the past four games, he has been the Hawkeyes' only threat. The Air Force transfer has recorded four consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and a total of 623 yards and eight touchdowns during the span. But Weisman's status for Saturday night's showdown against Penn State is very much in doubt because of an ankle sprain he suffered last week at Michigan State. Weisman is cleared to play, and an MRI done Monday didn't show major damage, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn't sound overly optimistic about having the sophomore, noting that he "would have a lot of progress to make to be able to play." While Weisman might sit, Jordan Canzeri, who tore his ACL this spring, should return for Iowa at running back. Either way, the Hawkeyes are facing arguably the Big Ten's best defensive front seven and need more from a passing attack that ranks 99th nationally.
4. An ax to grind: The Big Ten's best rivalry trophy is at stake at Camp Randall Stadium as Wisconsin and Minnesota play for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Wisconsin has won eight straight in the series and can match the longest win streak by either squad with a victory Saturday. Minnesota senior linebacker Mike Rallis acknowledged this week, "If you don't ever win, it's not really a rivalry." The detest for the Badgers runs deep with Minnesota's roster, though, and while the Gophers will be short-handed, they can record a signature win and a significant upset Saturday. They'll have to beat a Wisconsin team that seems to have found its bearings after a slow start, especially along the offensive line.
5. Getting defensive in Columbus: Both Ohio State and Purdue are looking for better results from their defenses Saturday at The Shoe. The Buckeyes' defensive woes against Indiana (49 points allowed, 481 yards) and for much of the season prompted their offensive-minded head coach, Urban Meyer, to take a more hand's-on role with the defense this week. Ohio State is banged up on defense and had to move starting fullback Zach Boren to linebacker last week (he'll stay there for a while). Meyer stressed the need to finish plays within 4-6 seconds and tackle better. Tackling has been a huge issue for Purdue the past two weeks, as it has allowed 82 points and 771 rush yards in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan. Standout tackle Kawann Short and the Boilers' defensive line needs a dramatic improvement against Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and Co., or Saturday's game will get ugly in a hurry. Purdue hasn't won in Columbus since 1988 and hasn't beaten an AP Top 10 team on the road since 1974.
6. Spartans' season on the brink: Michigan State has been the Big Ten's biggest disappointment this season. The Spartans already have lost three home games, including two league home games, meaning they'll need signature road wins to have any chance to repeat as Legends Division champs. Losses this week in Ann Arbor and next week in Madison would eliminate Michigan State from the race. Coach Mark Dantonio does a masterful job of embracing the Michigan rivalry, and his players have responded, winning four straight. Michigan State aims for its first five-game win streak against Michigan in program history Saturday. The Spartans will be geared up, but they can't expect to commit 13 penalties and win, like they did last year in East Lansing. "There's no question that both teams are going to go after each other," Dantonio said. "I don't think there's any question about that. But we've got to keep the game under control. We can't let it get out of control." All eyes will be on the William Gholston-Taylor Lewan matchup after their dust-ups last year.
7. Indiana drops anchor: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson isn't satisfied with being close, and neither are his players. The Hoosiers have had a chance to win all seven of their games this season, but they've only won two of them. "You are getting better and you should feel good about yourself, but you need to keep pushing," Wilson said Tuesday. The next push would be a win Saturday against Navy as Indiana wraps up non-league play for itself and for the Big Ten. Navy ranks 97th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, which should bode well for Hoosiers quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and their talented core of wide receivers. But the Midshipmen also have turned around their season a bit the past two weeks, and their triple option attack will test an Indiana defense that ranks 109th nationally against the run and has surrendered more than 350 rush yards in two of its past three games. Indiana could go on a nice second-half run, but it needs to get over the hump against Navy in a potential shootout.
8. On the Ball: After a rough few months both on and off the field, Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball is back on track, racking up eight rushing touchdowns in Big Ten play and averaging 152 rush yards against league opponents. He broke the Big Ten career touchdowns record -- owned by former Badgers star Ron Dayne -- last week against Purdue and is six touchdowns shy of matching Travis Prentice's NCAA record of 78. He still needs five rushing touchdowns to match Dayne's Big Ten career record of 71. "I feel like I have my balance back, which is a huge part," Ball told ESPN.com this week. "My cuts are a lot better, a lot stronger. I just feel a lot more comfortable out there." Ball faces a Minnesota team that has been vulnerable against the run in Big Ten play. Wisconsin's offensive line seems to have turned the corner in the past five quarters. The Badgers' front five matches up against an improved Minnesota defensive front led by tackle Ra'Shede Hageman.
9. Lions enter their house of horrors: Kinnick Stadium hasn't been kind to Penn State, which hasn't won in Iowa City since 1999, Ferentz's first season as Hawkeyes coach. The Lions saw their national title hopes vanish at Kinnick in 2008 and managed just three points against the Hawkeyes in their last trip there in 2008. Despite his team's four-game win streak, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien made it clear that "the meat of the schedule" begins now, and Lions cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted this week, "This is a huge game, we hate them they hate us." A win keeps Penn State undefeated in Big Ten play and sets up next week's so-called Ineligi-bowl against Ohio State in Happy Valley. The game features an interesting coaching connection as Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, Kirk's son, worked alongside O'Brien with the New England Patriots the past few years. Kirk Ferentz downplayed the impact of having Brian Ferentz on his staff.
10. Cat nap: After a sluggish start in a previous mid-afternoon kickoff against Boston College, Northwestern's team leaders decided to schedule a mandatory team nap before Saturday's game against Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET kick). Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald greeted the decision with quasi-disgust, saying Monday, "Unbelievable. This is what I get paid to do. Seriously. Create nap time. It's pathetic." But the cat nap is definitely happening, as Fitzgerald confirmed later in the week, and it'll be interesting to see how Northwestern starts the game against the Huskers. Although the idea sounds silly, figuring out how to rest before games to produce peak performances is a subject that gets a lot of attention from sports teams at all levels. There will be some jokes if Northwestern sleepwalks through the first half against the Huskers. If the Wildcats win, expect to see the pregame nap adopted all over the country.