NCF Nation: Andre Sims Jr.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the Big Ten quarterbacks who were most likely to throw for 3,000 yards. Last week, I examined the running backs most likely to crack 1,000 yards. If you sense a pattern, you're right. Today, we're going to check out which players can reach the milestone of 1,000 receiving yards in 2012.

It's not an easy achievement. Last season, only four Big Ten receivers exceeded 1,000 yards after none got there in 2010. Only 39 players in the FBS posted 1,000-plus yards receiving.

Complicating things for this exercise is the fact that the Big Ten's top pass-catchers have all departed. Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Illinois' A.J. Jenkins, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham were all seniors in 2011, leaving the league without a returning receiver who had a 1,000-yard season.

The receiver position is a big question mark throughout the league, but here are some players who could jump up and get to quadruple digits, in order of most likely:

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
David Hood/CSMWisconsin's Jared Abbrederis had 933 receiving yards last season despite a foot injury.
1. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis wasn't far off from the mark last season, posting 933 receiving yards as the Big Ten's top returning wideout. He also played most of the season on an injured foot which he had surgically repaired in the winter. With Nick Toon gone, Abbrederis becomes the clear No. 1 target. The only question is how much the Badgers will pass the ball now that Russell Wilson has moved on.

2. Keenan Davis, Iowa: Davis had 713 receiving yards last season as the secondary target next to McNutt. Now the No. 1 receiver for the league's best pocket passer in James Vandenberg, Davis has a chance to make a similar leap his senior season as McNutt did. He's always had the talent. He just needs more consistency, and to avoid costly drops.

3. Roy Roundtree, Michigan: Roundtree's numbers went way down last season, but just two seasons ago he caught 72 balls for 935 yards. He played a complementary role to Junior Hemingway in 2011, but is poised to regain his No. 1 status this year. If Denard Robinson truly has improved his throwing mechanics, Roundtree could be the main beneficiary.

4. Justin Brown, Penn State: Derek Moye is gone, leaving Brown as the likely main target in the Penn State passing game. That passing game should be more efficient under the coaching of Bill O'Brien, and quite possibly a more stable starting quarterback situation. But can Matt McGloin pitch it well enough for Brown to improve on his 517 yards last season? That's a big if.

5. Christian Jones, Northwestern: The Wildcats' offense creates a lot of opportunities for receivers, and someone will have to fill the considerable void left by the highly productive Ebert. Jones, coming back after an injury, could be that guy. Or maybe it's Demetrius Fields. Maybe the best bet is USC transfer Kyle Prater, but as of this writing he hasn't heard back on his eligibility appeal from the NCAA. Northwestern should be deep and talented at receiver; it's just a matter of whether Kain Colter can sling it nearly as well as Dan Persa.

6. Kofi Hughes, Indiana: Kevin Wilson was dissatisfied with his team's passing performance last season, and wants to be more dangerous through the air this season. If the Hoosiers can start approximating Wilson's old Oklahoma offenses, then Hughes -- who had 536 receiving yards last season while playing with a rotating cast of quarterbacks -- might set some career highs.

7. Antavian Edison, Purdue: Edison led the Boilers with 584 receiving yards last season, and the team's passing game should get better with a healthy Robert Marve and a more experienced Caleb TerBush at the controls. Edison could become more of a primary target with Justin Siller graduated. But Purdue also tends to spread the wealth, hurting the chances of any one player reaching 1,000 yards.

8. Unnamed Ohio State receiver: Maybe freshman Michael Thomas builds upon his huge spring-game performance, or a guy like Corey "Philly" Brown breaks out and has a huge season. The Buckeyes need someone to step up at receiver, and they figure to throw it a whole lot more than they did last season. But also consider this: Urban Meyer never had a 1,000-yard receiver while at Florida.

9. Unnamed Michigan State receiver: Receiver is a huge question mark for the Spartans, who lack experience at the position. But Michigan State showed it wasn't afraid to throw the ball all over the field last season with Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Maybe Tony Lippett or Andre Sims Jr. or DeAnthony Arnett has a huge season. More likely, though, the Spartans will ease into the passing game with new quarterback Andrew Maxwell and spread the ball around more than they did in '11.

10. Kenny Bell, Nebraska: Bell had a really strong freshman campaign, leading the Huskers with 432 receiving yards. Word out of Lincoln is that Taylor Martinez and the passing game look a lot better. Still, since Nebraska has never had a 1,000-yard receiver in its history, we're going to call this one a long shot.

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