We have a new most important injury situation in the Big Ten.
No, it's not Rex Burkhead's strained MCL; he's back and Nebraska ran well without him. No, it's not Ohio State's RBs being constantly hobbled; the Buckeyes have never been hurting for depth at RB. No, it's not even Wolverine CB Blake Countess' torn ACL (you can blame a lot for the Notre Dame loss, but Michigan's pass defense isn't on that list).
It's not Illinois' already tumultuous QB situation getting submarined for the month of September, nor is it Penn State trying to work around the legions of injuries at tailback. It's not even the Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God, since walk-on backup fullback Mark Weisman has somehow turned into a serious weapon running the ball. Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray being out with a high ankle sprain? Pshhh. Max Shortell is serviceable as a backup.
No, the biggest story in the Big Ten regarding injuries is Michigan State's offensive line, as the Spartans are now having to deal with the reality of Travis Jackson being done for the season with a significant leg injury. Here's more from the State News, Michigan State's student paper:
Saturday’s 17-16 loss to No. 12 Ohio State (5-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) was made more painful for the MSU football team (3-2, 0-1) as the Spartans learned sophomore center Travis Jackson suffered a broken leg and a torn medial collateral ligament, or MCL.
Jackson is expected to be out for the rest of the season, placing additional pressure on an offensive line that is without senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti, who also is at risk of missing the rest of the season with injury.
Senior Ethan Ruhland replaced Jackson at center, and head coach Mark Dantonio said the coaching staff would have to evaluate the film of Saturday’s game before determining what the makeup of the offensive line would be this week.
This is a brutal, brutal loss for Michigan State, and there's no way to spin it otherwise. If Jackson isn't the Spartans' best offensive lineman, he's No. 2 on the list—and the only guy potentially better than him is Fou Fonoti, who's out for a significant portion of the year with a broken foot and may not return this year.
In other words, Michigan State is now without its two best offensive linemen for most (if not all) of the Big Ten slate, and for an offense like the Spartans', that is a potentially fatal loss for Legends Division title hopes.
There are very few teams that can sustain the loss of two starting offensive linemen early in the season and still put together a season that leads to contention for a conference championship. Offensive line continuity is that important, and Michigan State has no avenues toward achieving that with Jackson and Fonoti now out in the middle of the season.
There is evidence to support this standpoint, and it's not hard to find. Just last year, offensive linemen Blake Treadwell and Skyler Burkland were lost for the year against Notre Dame in Week 3, and there's no shortage of irony in the fact that Jackson and Fonoti replaced those two (respectively) as starters last year and are now casualties of injury themselves.
But if Michigan State went through this last year and still won the Legends Division title anyway, there's no problem, right? Um, not exactly. Michigan State made its hay throwing the ball in 2011, and why not? It had three-year starter passing to three senior WRs in Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Keyshawn Martin—to say nothing of TE Brian Linthicum.
With a passing game like that, you can survive a weak line. You can get the ball out and you can make plays on the margins and put pressure on the talent disparity on the outside rather than the inside.
With a passing game like Michigan State's in 2012, however, there is no such luxury. Kirk Cousins isn't that much of a better pure passer than Andrew Maxwell, but let's just say starting 2011 WRs Dell, Cunningham and Martin have been replaced with the law firm of Dewey, Droppem and Howe. Old joke. Ask your parents.
Yes, Maxwell has a go-to target in Dion Sims. Sims is 6'5", 285 pounds and leads the team in both receptions (24) and receiving yards (313). He is a matchup nightmare and will continue to be so until he joins the NFL, either this year or next.
And yet Michigan State is still lacking badly in the passing game and will continue to be so unless some wideout steps up as a go-to receiver—and let's be honest, if there were one on the roster at this point, we'd know by now.
So Michigan State is left to try to focus on the ground game to get the offense moving. It didn't work last year after the two linemen went out (Michigan State finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing) and it doesn't look like it'll work this year.
With Travis Jackson and Fou Fonoti out of service, Michigan State couldn't muster a single first down on the ground all day against Ohio State. 34 yards on 22 rushes is all MSU could muster. It's a wonder the Spartans were even close in that game.
Ohio State wasn't the first to exploit the lack of speed in the Spartan rushing game this year. That was Notre Dame in Week 3. With the front seven swallowing blockers and letting the linebackers flow to the ball, Bell could rarely muster up a head of steam, and if he's not getting downfield before the initial contact, he's just not going to be able to get significant yardage.
And as much as we like Sims, he's not exactly a defense-stretcher. He's not keeping guys out of the box. He's lethal in the play-action game, but Michigan State's not going to play-action its way to 300 passing yards any time soon.
Now, most defenses left on the MSU schedule don't have lines as good as Ohio State's or Notre Dame's (who allowed only 25 rushes for 50 yards and three rushing first downs in Week 3).
And yes, Le'Veon Bell did rush for a whopping 253 yards by himself against Eastern Michigan between the Notre Dame and Ohio State games.
But this is the Big Ten, and most of the defensive fronts the Spartans will see are closer in talent to Ohio State's than they are to Eastern Michigan's.
According to the NCAA's stats, five teams in the Big Ten are in the top 25 of rushing defense thus far this year, and nine are in the top 50. Even Nebraska, still down at No. 62, just held Wisconsin to 56 yards on 41 rushes on Saturday.
So if Michigan State can't block as well, it can't run as well. And it's pretty obvious that the Spartans are nowhere near their ability to pass as well as 2011. And if your offense is struggling on both fronts, it's pretty safe to put that conference title talk away for the year.