Wednesday, November 27, 2013
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 14
By Chantel Jennings
What to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:
Michigan's ability to keep Devin Gardner protected in the pocket could be key against Ohio State.
1a. The Game: Ohio State has locked up a spot in the Big Ten title game, but business is far from over. The next stop? Taking care of business in the Big House. The Buckeyes are the heavy favorite in this game, but Michigan coach Brady Hoke is doing his best Bo Schembechler-1969-game impression. In that game, Ohio State entered as the No. 1 team in the country, and Schembechler’s 12th-ranked squad took care of business 24-12. But the apparent gap between these two teams is more than a No. 1 vs. No. 12 -- it’s a No. 3 team fighting for a spot in the BCS title game against a group that has sputtered and stalled the past six weeks. We’ll see whether these teams keep those identities for the whole game or whether the mantra holds true and this stays a game in which you throw the records out the window.
1b. The Buckeyes' pressure up front: Specifically in The Game, keep an eye on the OSU pass rush against Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in sacks (36), and the Michigan O-line has been a sieve at times this season, allowing Gardner to be sacked seven times against both Michigan State and Nebraska. If Gardner has to exit this game, the Wolverines would need to turn to a freshman quarterback.
2. The other rivalry games: Purdue and Indiana will face off for the Old Oaken Bucket. Neither team is bowl-eligible so, really, this game is being played for pride and a bucket. No matter the outcome, the two will remain at the bottom of the Leaders Division. And then you’ve got the Land of Lincoln game with Northwestern and Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was 6-foot-4, so he probably could’ve made a pretty decent receiver, which you might see a bit of in this game. Illinois senior Steve Hull averages 76.2 yards per game (fifth-best in the Big Ten) and Northwestern junior Tony Jones averages 53.3 yards per game, good enough for 10th-best in the conference. Iowa and Nebraska will face off for the Heroes Trophy, which is one of the more normal trophies for which Big Ten teams play.
3. Solid matchups in the run game: Michigan State -- the No. 6 rushing offense in the Big Ten -- faces off against Minnesota, which has the No. 7 rushing defense in the conference. Last weekend the Gophers held Wisconsin to 197 yards rushing, 100 yards below the Badgers’ season average. And in Lincoln, the No. 8 rushing defense of Nebraska will try to contain Iowa, which averages 192 yards rushing per game. With both games having quite a bit on the line for all four teams and implications of bowl status, you can expect the trenches to be fierce and these run games to be contested. But with matchups between the middling rushing offenses and defenses, the possibilities for a few breakouts (as well as a few big breakdowns) are definitely something to keep an eye on.
4. Winless streaks ... no more? Purdue and Northwestern remain the conference’s only teams without Big Ten wins this season. The Wildcats travel to Illinois, and the Boilermakers face off against the Hoosiers. This very well could be the weekend that both teams break their winless streaks. (Well, it would have to be the week, because this is where the road ends for these two teams.) Between NU and Purdue, the Wildcats probably have the better chance to pick up a win, as Illinois’ defense has given up 474 yards per game this season and the Wildcats' offense has shown flashes of explosiveness. Whether they can do that consistently enough against the Big Ten's No. 11 defense, well, we’ll see.
5. The better kinds of streaks: On the other side of the Northwestern-Purdue coin would be the two Big Ten teams that have decimated (and also sneaked by a few) opponents. But no matter how close or lopsided the outcomes have been, Michigan State and Ohio State have gotten through the Big Ten slate unscathed and look to continue those streaks going into the regular-season finales.
6. The Cinderellas, the surprises: No one really expected these kinds of seasons out of Iowa or Minnesota, and no one knew quite what to expect from Wisconsin, either. However, all three teams have exceeded expectations. This weekend the Hawkeyes play for an eight-win season while the Gophers shoot for nine wins and Wisconsin aims for the 10-win benchmark. It’s nice to see teams like this come out of the shadows, especially when squads like Northwestern and Michigan have seemingly underachieved on every level.
7. The Penn State finale: The Nittany Lions certainly impressed a few people this season, especially considering their youth. With a win, Penn State could finish the season with seven wins, but this is the end of the road, as the Nittany Lions are still ineligible for the postseason. However, Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and the crew definitely opened some eyes this season and showed that Penn State will be a team to watch in the years to come as it gains back more scholarships and the possibility of a postseason.