After the long slog through non-conference play, Big Ten conference games finally arrived last weekend to end September on a good note. Northwestern and Ohio State survived and stayed undefeated, while Minnesota found the road a lot tougher in Iowa City than many expected. Penn State won a statement game against new rival Illinois in dominant fashion.
But the highlight of the night was the nationally televised battle between Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Badgers had not put together a good 60 minutes of effort, but Wisconsin came out of the gates of Memorial Stadium with fire and fury. Nebraska fell behind early and the deficit grew to 17 points in the third quarter. But Nebraska clawed back quickly and won the game in the fourth quarter.
What this tough win for Nebraska and the upset of Minnesota prove is that nothing can be taken for granted in conference play. These are the teams that know exactly what you want to do and how you plan to go about it. Even with coaching changes and realignment shifts, the possibility for a loss increases in conference play due to this familiarity.
The second weekend of conference play brings five more games, and at least three of these are highly compelling games. At this point, all five games have serious Big Ten championship implications. Will the teams at the top of this power ranking stay there? This week will likely provide some much-needed separation of these teams at the top.
Although Axl Rose may bring a whole different set of band mates with him these days, let's go back to the good old days of Slash and Rose as G-N-R brings us some theme songs for the B1G this week.
Theme Song – "You Could Be Mine"
Although those blue matte helmets looked mighty fine on Saturday, the football on the field was another story. Penn State took out some serious frustrations on the new Illinois football staff with a 35-7 beating on Illinois's home field. While this loss cannot be completely caused by the anger within the Penn State football program for Illinois recruiting in State College immediately after the NCAA sanctions were dropped, it could not help to incite a team that ends up on a roll when conference play begins.
Illinois has proven in five weeks that the defense will seriously struggle to contain any team with a competent passing game. Unlike a year ago, Penn State has just that with Matt McGloin. Thus, the Illini offense will need to keep up with their own balanced attack.
However, even with a running threat Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, the Illini could only generate 74 yards rushing against a thin Penn State defensive front. This is a continuing downward trend as Illinois is only averaging 130 yards per game rushing. This one-dimensional attack will simply not work against most Big Ten teams.
Bottom line: This is just not a very good team and the talent does not appear to be fitting exactly what Tim Beckman wants to do. State College will certainly not be the only place Beckman goes this offseason looking for answers, telling recruits that "you could be mine." This week brings a tough road game at an improving Wisconsin team, which is no way to make the road easy.
Theme Song – "Since I Don't Have You"
Despite having the extra week off, the loss of Tre Roberson at quarterback was felt sorely by the Hoosiers in the conference debut at Northwestern. The Hoosiers fell behind 20-0 at halftime thanks to a stumbling offense. Nate Sudfeld will likely still share some playing time with Cameron Coffman, but Sudfeld averaged over twice as many yards per pass attempt than Coffman and so seems to be a better fit for the time being.
Indiana did gain 425 yards, which looks good before considering that the defense surrendered 704 to the Northwestern offense. The Hoosiers climbed back into the game and made the final score of 44-29 more respectable thanks to some Wildcat turnovers. While turnovers are a good sign, giving up 700 yards is a shocking lapse for a defense that looked to be improving in non-conference play.
It begs the question of what the focus was for the bye week on the defense. Although Kain Colter presents a threat rushing and receiving as well as passing, Northwestern stayed with Trevor Siemian and did not run a lot of trick plays. The Wildcats just blew Indiana off the line of scrimmage and broke some weak tackles.
This week, Indiana comes back home for a game against Michigan State, which will be seething following another home loss. It is doubtful that Le'Veon Bell will be shut down for a second straight week, which means Coffman and Sudfeld will need to find the same opening against the Spartans secondary that Ohio State did to lock up the win last weekend.
This is going to be a tough stretch for Indiana following that loss to Northwestern.
The Pig is All That Matters
Theme Song – "Civil War"
Although this theme song may be a better analogy for the Hawkeyes following games against in-state rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa State, the rivalry with Minnesota for the Floyd of Rosedale feels like a civil war each year. Iowa has had a clearly superior team the past two years and yet lost both times.
With the game back in Iowa City for the first time since 2009, the trend of losing to Minnesota ended in a hurry. Mark Weisman has taken the role of running back and made it his own with another 177 yards on 21 carries. He routinely broke into the second level of the Gophers defense, which opened up the passing game and kept some pressure off James Vandenberg. That was just what this offense needed.
Meanwhile, on defense, Iowa did benefit from not having to face MarQueis Gray. Backup quarterback Max Shortell had a similar day passing as Vandenberg, but he had no significant contributions from the running game and that made it too easy to stop the Gophers. Iowa has consistently played well on defense and that will keep the team out of the cellar in the Legends Division, at least for now.
Now, Iowa gets to enjoy the bronze pig for a week off heading into a much more important game against Michigan State in East Lansing. With the Spartans dropping a game to Ohio State, Iowa could knock the preseason division favorite nearly out of the race with a second conference loss. To do that, the offense will need to come up with a big play and follow the formula that Ohio State used: stop Le'Veon Bell.
Even if the season tanks from here, Iowa will have the pig.
As it turns out, "W" is not for Winner
Theme Song – "Estranged"
For two-and-a-half quarters in Lincoln, it certainly looked like Wisconsin had Nebraska's number once again. But unlike last year's game, Wisconsin was not able to keep the pedal down and the Cornhuskers came back with 20 unanswered points for a 30-27 win. By the end of the third quarter, Wisconsin was being dominated at the line of scrimmage and clearly lacks the depth on the lines that led them to the last two Big Ten championships.
The offense is a work in progress under Matt Canada and freshman quarterback Joel Stave. Stave made some bad decisions that killed some drives, and he cannot rely on the running game with all of the struggles at offensive line. When Montee Ball can only average 3 yards per carry for another weekend, that does not usually bode well for success.
The offense also was helped by two Nebraska turnovers in Nebraska territory. That helped Wisconsin contain Nebraska, but Taylor Martinez and his two running backs eventually wore down the Badgers on the defensive line and at linebacker. Holding Nebraska to 440 yards is actually respectable, but the offense needs the defense to be better than that until Stave and Ball get things rolling again.
On the bright side, a struggling Illinois team comes to Madison this weekend before a critical road game at Purdue. Wisconsin cannot afford an 0-2 start, but it seems unlikely that a loss is in the cards if Wisconsin plays tough like last weekend.
Theme Song – "Patience"
Count these power rankings as those looking past the Iowa game and seeing the possibility of a big undefeated match up of Minnesota and Northwestern on October 8. But that will not happen now, and Northwestern will also find it tough to stay undefeated this weekend against Penn State. But more on that later, as this slide is all about the team going home without Floyd the pig.
Like Iowa, Minnesota also gets this weekend off following the conference opener. After struggling to put up 300 yards against Iowa's defense, Minnesota will need to work on the running game to make the Gophers more dynamic as conference play continues. Shortell led all of the running backs against Iowa, which is not good whether he or Gray is taking the snaps.
Speaking of Gray, there is a chance he will be ready for some game action against Northwestern. Given how Northwestern has rolled against mediocre defenses this season, the bigger question might be if the Gophers can keep up on defense next weekend. That game will be critical if Minnesota is to find wins number five and six to become bowl eligible.
Minnesota fans will have to show patience. Jerry Kill has more wins as a college coach than any other Big Ten coach. Things are headed in the right direction, but the game in Iowa City proves that there is still a long way to go to get out of the Legends Division basement. Let's hope the fans are patient and give Kill a legitimate chance to return this program to glory.
Theme Song – "Live and Let Die"
The Wolverines were the only Big Ten team to have the week off in the first week of conference play. Although the team they open conference play (Purdue) with has also not played a conference game. Instead, the Boilermakers tuned up for Michigan with a non-conference game against Marshall. Michigan's coaches should find a lot of things to put into the game plan thanks to how competitive Marshall was against the Boilermakers.
For one thing, Purdue proved to be weak against the passing game as Marshall threw for 439 yards. With risk came reward though, as Purdue generated 21 points off three interceptions in the second quarter. Michigan is familiar with a series of interceptions in the second quarter, as five in a row helped Notre Dame hold off Michigan two weeks ago. Denard Robinson will need to remove these mistakes to escape tricky West Lafayette with a victory.
As long as Purdue contains Robinson, the Michigan defense will need to rise to the occasion and stop Caleb TerBush and the dynamic Purdue passing attack. Alabama and Notre Dame have found some success against Michigan, but the defense has not been bad against opposing passing attacks. If that trend continues, Michigan will certainly have a chance to win this game late against an underrated Purdue team.
These teams are both on the fringe right now and mired in the middle of the power rankings. If the Wolverines can win in one of the toughest road venues in the conference, that could be a leg up on Nebraska and Michigan State (especially if Nebraska loses this weekend).
So close...and yet so far away
Theme Song – "Don't Cry"
A tough September came to an end with a thud, as Michigan State missed another opportunity to get a signature win at home. After starting with the dominant performance against Boise State, Bell and the Spartans offense has been completely nullified by Notre Dame, and now Ohio State. With defenses strong enough to stop the running game, it will continue to fall to Andrew Maxwell to make the big plays necessary to win games.
Maxwell was good on Saturday with a pass-heavy offensive game plan, but not good enough to punish the Buckeyes. Thankfully, this week Maxwell will get a nice break by playing an Indiana defense that gave up 700 yards to Northwestern. About the only question is whether Indiana's offense will put any pressure on the Spartans offense by scoring a couple of times early and putting the Spartans in a hole.
Even if that happens, one would guess that Bell will slowly grind away and have a big day. The Spartans defense played pretty well against Ohio State, but the mistake on a deep throw cost them the lead and the game. The same mistakes cannot be had against a passing offense designed to punish those types of errors. While it is unlikely that Indiana will win this weekend, Michigan State cannot just show up and claim victory.
The Spartans must take it by the horns and put the game away. Some big games await in the Legends Division, and it will be interesting to see if Michigan State can pull together after a highly disappointing start. A Big Ten championship is still on the table and well within the reach of this defense.
Now to grind away at a Big Ten Championship
Theme Song – "Paradise City"
Purdue is treating West Lafayette as a paradise right now after winning its first three home games, capped by a 51-41 victory over Marshall on Saturday. Purdue grabbed a 35-14 halftime lead and then coasted, which let Marshall get a lot closer than many would have expected. Although Rakeem Cato is a better-than-average quarterback for the Thundering Herd, giving up 439 yards passing is not an acceptable effort from the Boilermakers defense.
This is the same defense that shut down a lot of what Notre Dame wanted to do in the only loss of non-conference play. If the weakness of this defense is only against the passing game, the good news is that this critical three-game stretch of the schedule starting this week does not present many challenges from elite passing quarterbacks. Robinson, Miller and Stave are no murderer's row, although Robinson and Miller create a different type of matchup problem, thanks to the running ability.
Right now, all we really know about Purdue is that the Boilermakers are tough to play at home (as usual), and that they are good enough to play with a legitimate top-10 team on the road. With the division race really coming down to just Purdue and Wisconsin, getting wins in two of the next three weeks would likely be enough to gain the inside track to Indianapolis. Beating Michigan at home should be easier than OSU on the road, so this week is critical to Purdue's high aspirations for 2012.
In other words, if West Lafayette remains a paradise city for Purdue the next two weekends, then the Boilermakers will head to Columbus not even needing a win to stay atop the race for the Leaders Division title. That would be a very good position.
Theme Song – "Knocking on Heaven's Door"
This team was at the very bottom of these power rankings after the heartbreaking loss at Virginia and the 0-2 start. At that time, it was unclear if Penn State would be able to win three games all season following a tough start. But it only took three weeks to win those three games, and the Nittany Lions are by far the most improved team in the month of September.
The question now becomes can the Nittany Lions go to another gear, or is this as good as it will get? Beating a wretched Illinois defense silly, even on the road, really does not tell us much about Penn State other than taking care of business. Zach Zwinak saw more of the rushing load against Illinois, and he will be a nice complement with the power rushing game using fullback Michael Zordich and running back Bill Belton (when healthy).
Matt McGloin just continues to stay the efficient senior leader of this offense. Although the running game showed up well against Illinois, the going will be a lot tougher in most weeks of conference play. This week might be an exception, though, as Northwestern comes in after surrendering a ton of yards to Indiana. Northwestern is looking to push back to the top of these power rankings, and this will be a valuable test for how far Penn State has really come.
If the Nittany Lions win this one, a winning record in conference play looks like a real possibility. For a team limited in depth already, that would be a great achievement that may help lure some recruits in during the future dark ages of Penn State football. PSU in the top four of the power rankings is a good sign for the Big Ten, as long as it lasts.
Who could have guessed the Nittany Lions would be this high after the 0-2 start? What a roll these kids are on!
Big holes...a consistent fixture in Indiana's defense
Theme Song – "Ain't It Fun"
The best part of this weekend in the Big Ten is that four of the five teams that won conference openers now play each other this week. Two teams will cement themselves atop these power rankings and atop the race for division titles with wins this weekend. Speaking of wins, Northwestern keeps racking them up after a perfect 5-0 September.
As E. Gordon Gee would tell you, these five games were not against the Little Sisters of the Poor, either. Except maybe Indiana, but you can't pick your conference foes. Northwestern has won a couple of defensive slug fests and a couple of shootouts. What remains constant is that Northwestern always comes up with a key play on offense when needed most in the fourth quarter. That's a good trait to have when trying to stay undefeated.
That trait will likely be important this weekend with a real tough test on the road against the hottest team in the Big Ten, Penn State. It seems likely that Northwestern will give up the usual 400-450 yards of offense, and Penn State will likely score 21-31 points off that yardage. The Northwestern offense will have to keep up against a tough defensive front. If the offensive line can keep Siemian clean and let him have time to throw, the Wildcats have a great chance to get bowl eligible in just six games.
Plus, with Minnesota next week, that could very well mean a 7-0 start. That would make the following games against the Michigan schools and Nebraska absolutely huge. Is this the year Pat Fitzgerald breaks through and makes a huge splash in the Big Ten? If nothing else, it is fun to watch Northwestern football right now.
Team Nitrogen Wins!
Theme Song – "Nighttrain"
Nebraska is currently riding the night train, with two straight national showcase games on Saturday Night Football. The first showcase almost turned into another disaster against Wisconsin, but the Cornhuskers persevered and overcame two early turnovers to take the game over with 20 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters. As the game wore on, Nebraska's advantage in depth and skill on the offensive and defensive lines made all the difference.
Now comes the second stop on the Saturday Night showcase train, and this time the game is in Columbus against Ohio State. This is an inter-division battle that goes away for a couple of years after this meeting, so both teams would like to leave the series with a happy feeling. For Nebraska, this is another opportunity to prove that the defense is better than what happened in the only other road game of the season at UCLA.
Ohio State is unlikely to gash Nebraska for 600 yards, but Nebraska is also probably not going to score 40 on the Buckeyes either. Last year, the game turned when Miller went down to injury, but, this year, Ohio State has a much more competent backup quarterback. Still, Nebraska will probably still have an advantage late in the game. If the Buckeyes continue to have trouble tackling in the open field, Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead will run away with the second half again.
In reality, this game is not critical to Nebraska's chances of winning the Legends Division. But with Michigan State losing to the Buckeyes, this would be a possible tiebreaker if Nebraska is the only one of the three major contenders to beat the Buckeyes. With nothing to lose and no big road wins yet in Big Ten play, the time is now if Nebraska wants to take ownership of this league in a down 2012 season.
Silver Bullets...survive and advance
Theme Song – "Welcome To The Jungle"
Surprise...look who is back at the top of the Big Ten power rankings. After being absent from the top of the rankings for all of 2011, the Buckeyes finally found a signature victory for the first time since the vacated 2010 season. By winning a defensive struggle against Michigan State in East Lansing, Ohio State paid back one of the many teams that took advantage of the transition year with interim coach Luke Fickell in 2011.
Another one of those teams that beat the Buckeyes in 2011 comes into the Horseshoe this week, and that is Nebraska. Nebraska has a dynamic offense led by Martinez, who actually leads the conference with 11 passing touchdowns on the season. Look for Bo Pelini to follow a similar strategy that Michigan State tried to use against the Buckeyes last week: pass a lot and make the Buckeyes tackle in open space.
The Silver Bullets looked much better when pursuing plays last week, so the passing game might not be enough. Instead, Nebraska will try to wear down the Buckeyes with the running game as well. The Buckeyes are much better on both lines than Wisconsin appears to be though, so that could be a huge difference if Nebraska cannot wear out the opposition this week.
Although Ohio State may give up some more big plays and points this week, the offense will find the going easier against this Nebraska defense than the Michigan State game. When Miller is healthy, he provides a similar challenge as Martinez and Burkhead do going the other direction. If the Buckeyes avoid turning the ball over on offense, it will be difficult to knock them off at home in a night game.
The lights are bright and the Buckeyes are undefeated once again. Welcome to the jungle Nebraska...this is the Texas of the Big Ten.
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