Monday, October 22, 2012
Big Ten power rankings: Week 9
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
The power rankings nearly underwent an extreme makeover in Week 8, as top dogs Ohio State and Michigan had to rally for home wins against heavy underdogs. Nebraska recorded a potential season-saving win against Northwestern, and Penn State made the biggest statement of the day, crushing Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
Bill O'Brien's team may or may not be the Big Ten's best, but it certainly is playing the best football right now (Wisconsin is a close second). The Lions rise to No. 2 in the power rankings after their destruction of Iowa, and we seriously considered putting them ahead of Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes' perfect record. The good news: We'll find out this week in State College which team is better.
Michigan barely hangs on to the No. 3 spot after beating Michigan State. We considered putting Wisconsin at No. 3 after another dominant win, and the Badgers are looking more and more like their former selves.
Let's get to the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0; last week: 1): It looked like the Buckeyes would relinquish the top spot after falling behind Purdue 22-14 in the fourth quarter and losing star quarterback Braxton Miller. But Miller's supporting cast -- namely backup quarterback Kenny Guiton and little-used wide receiver Chris Fields -- came up big in the clutch to keep these very imperfect Buckeyes perfect on the season. The only thing better than the win was the good news about Miller's health after a hospital trip. Urban Meyer's crew now marches on to Penn State.
2. Penn State (5-2, 3-0; last week: 3): Are you a Bill-iever? You should be after Penn State dismantled Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, a place where the Lions hadn't won since 1999. With two weeks to prepare, O'Brien put on a play-calling clinic as Penn State's offense surged behind quarterback Matt McGloin, tight end Kyle Carter, running back Bill Belton and others. The Lions' defense shut down Iowa and seems to be getting better by the week. Penn State has won five straight and returns home to face Ohio State for what should be an incredible setting at Beaver Stadium.
3. Michigan (5-2, 3-0; last week: 2): Like Ohio State, Michigan wasn't sharp on offense for most of Saturday's game, although Michigan State's defense had something to do with it. And like the Buckeyes, the Wolverines rallied late in regulation and survived behind the boot of Brendan Gibbons. Michigan's defense stepped up on third down and in the red zone, as linebacker Jake Ryan continues to play at an elite level. After an emotion-charged, physical game, Michigan will have to reload in a hurry for this week's Legends Division showdown at Nebraska.
4. Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1; last week: 4): One of the nation's best 1-2 punches at running back -- Montee Ball and James White -- propelled the Badgers to another easy win against rival Minnesota, as they retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the ninth straight year. White carried the offense in the first half, and Ball once again came on strong in the fourth quarter. An underrated defense recorded two interceptions and Wisconsin won its third straight. It's hard not to see Wisconsin playing in Indy on Dec. 1. The Badgers host Michigan State this week in a rematch of the 2011 title game.
5. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 6): Nothing comes easy for Bo Pelini's crew on the road, but the Huskers stepped up in the clutch after a flurry of mistakes put them in a 28-16 hole at Northwestern. Following two near interceptions, quarterback Taylor Martinez settled down and led two masterful scoring drives as Nebraska rallied for a win. The Huskers return home for a huge Legends Division showdown against Michigan. With road games left at both Michigan State and Iowa, a win Saturday is critical.
6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): For the second time in three weeks, Northwestern held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of a game in which it had been dominated on the stat sheet. And once again, the Wildcats couldn't hold on, as they watched a 12-point lead evaporate against Nebraska. Key injuries to star running back Venric Mark and several cornerbacks haunted Northwestern down the stretch, but a head-scratching offensive game plan that barely featured dynamic quarterback Kain Colter was the biggest reason for the loss. The Wildcats try to regroup against Iowa.
7. Michigan State (4-4, 1-3; last week: 7): Mark Dantonio's team came to play in Ann Arbor, and a ferocious defensive performance put the Spartans in position to win their record fifth straight against Michigan. But one-half of a championship formula isn't enough, and the Spartans' pathetic offense once again came up short. The personnel losses from last year's squad have been more dramatic than anyone expected. It has to be frustrating for coordinator Pat Narduzzi and his defense. Another tough road test awaits this week at Wisconsin.
8. Iowa (4-3, 2-1; last week: 7): What a buzz kill. After a gutsy road win at Michigan State, Iowa returned home to a packed house for the lone night game of the year at Kinnick Stadium. And the Hawkeyes laid an egg, never challenging Penn State in a 38-14 loss. Quarterback James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' offense sputtered again, and the defense was exposed by McGloin and his weapons. Iowa could still linger in the Legends Division race if it beats Northwestern this week, but the Hawkeyes don't look like they're for real.
9. Purdue (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): It was right there for Danny Hope's squad -- a breakthrough win against Ohio State, life in the Leaders Division race -- and then it vanished. Credit Purdue for playing with a pulse, particularly on defense, but the mistakes that have cropped up all too often in Hope's tenure surfaced again at Ohio State. A blocked extra point and a blocked field goal attempt loomed large as Purdue should have been up more than eight points in the closing seconds of regulation. The schedule gets a bit easier, but how much do these Boilers have left after Saturday's heartbreaker?
10. Minnesota (4-3, 0-3; last week: 9): The Gophers got a glimpse of their future Saturday as freshman quarterback Philip Nelson made his collegiate debut, starting at Wisconsin. Nelson not surprisingly had mixed results but will continue to be the team's primary quarterback, at least until MarQueis Gray gets a bit healthier. The Gophers need a scoring spark on offense after averaging just 13 points in Big Ten play. Their improved pass rush seems to be offset by spotty rush defense. Their bowl hopes could hinge on this week's home game against Purdue.
11. Indiana (2-5, 0-3; last week: 10): Once again, Indiana found itself in position for a win, and once again, the Hoosiers made just enough mistakes to lose. The defense didn't play great, but this one was on an offense that settled for three short field goals instead of getting the ball in the end zone. Quarterback Cameron Coffman, who entered the game with just one interception for the season, had two picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Indiana still can't get over the hump. Maybe it'll happen this week at Illinois.
12. Illinois (2-5, 0-3; last week: 12): At least Tim Beckman's team got through a Saturday without another humbling setback. The week off also should help the Illini get a bit healthier as the injury bug has hit them hard in the first half. If Illinois has any plan to salvage its season, it needs to beat Indiana at home this week. The team's closing stretch isn't that difficult, but Illinois needs a lot of work, especially on offense, to have a chance to win a Big Ten game.