10 Things We Learned About the Big Ten in Week 7
Another week of Big Ten football is in the books, and Week 7 brought a little bit of contrast for your viewing pleasure.
The day started with a battle of defensive dominance between Iowa and Michigan State, with neither team being able to break 20 points despite going to double overtime. The day ended with a battle of high-octane offenses as Ohio State and Indiana combined for 101 total points, the second straight week Ohio State has been in a 100-plus-point game.
Even with six weeks of conference play remaining, the path to Indianapolis has cleared for some teams. The development of teams like Wisconsin and Michigan has been slow, but it is becoming more evident as the weeks go on. Meanwhile, other teams have a long way left to go with not much time left to make progress before 2013.
The bowl chase is on. Let's take a look at what we learned from this scrum that was called Week 7.
The Best Defense in Michigan Is in Ann Arbor
Throughout September the talk around the Big Ten focused on just how great the Michigan State defense was. The Spartans completely shut down Boise State and seemed to be overcoming an under-performing offense. As time has gone on, though, the Spartans have struggled more and more to get pressure up front and stop teams in pressure situations.
As a result, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Iowa have all come into East Lansing and knocked off the Spartans. Even though Michigan State keeps these games close, the results are not going in the favor of the Spartans because the defense cannot stop the big play that puts the game away for the opponent. The results are a 4-3 record, and that speaks for itself.
Meanwhile, with the obvious early struggles for the Wolverines against Alabama, it became easy to forget about the improved Michigan defense under Greg Mattison. The Wolverines have kept grinding on and proved that they could be ready for the big time by holding Notre Dame to 13 points despite giving up six turnovers and great field position all night in Michigan's second loss.
Then Big Ten play began and Michigan has taken it to another level. Purdue was held to 213 yards in a 31-point loss, and then Illinois was shut out while only managing 134 yards. These teams might be the bottom barrel teams in the Leaders Division, but both have been far better on offense than what was shown against Michigan.
Behind the strength of linebackers Jake Ryan and Kenny Demens, Michigan looks ready to roll through much of the Big Ten schedule leading up to the battle with the Buckeyes. Once Nebraska and Ohio State come calling, we will see if the best defense in Michigan can hold up to the scrutiny required to win a Big Ten championship.
Michigan State Could Struggle to Get Bowl Eligible
In addition to not having the best defense within the state of Michigan, the Spartans are also now flirting with a truly disastrous season following two 11-win campaigns. In the last five weeks, Michigan State has struggled mightily to win at home against Eastern Michigan, escaped from a big deficit late against Indiana, and lost three home games to Notre Dame, Iowa and Ohio State.
That leaves Michigan State at 4-3 with five games remaining, and those games do not look anything like the probable wins that they looked like a few weeks ago. The next two weeks bring tough road games at Ann Arbor and Madison, which now appear to be the two teams to beat in the chase for Indianapolis. Unless Michigan State figures out how to generate some more offense to help out the worn-down defense, these two games will put the Spartans at a shocking 4-5 record heading into November.
Assuming the worst comes to pass, then Michigan State would need to win two games in November with the schedule bringing Nebraska and Northwestern to East Lansing before a road trip to Minnesota. If the Spartans can lose to the likes of Iowa, they can lose to each of these teams as well with a poor performance.
Thus, finding two wins in the last five games is not an automatic thing. It will likely happen, but Michigan State appears to be out of the hunt for the Legends Division after being a near-consensus favorite to win the division again this year. Missing a bowl could set this program back significantly on the recruiting trail and beyond.
Illinois Is Headed for 2-10
Remember when Illinois was 6-0 and headed towards big battles with Ohio State and Wisconsin last year for the Leaders Division championship? Seems like that was years ago now after the 0-6 finish to 2011 and the struggles to begin 2012. Following a shutout at Michigan, Illinois has now lost four in a row and is 2-5 on the season.
The bad news is not that Illinois coach Tim Beckman uses chewing tobacco on the sidelines. No, the bad news is that he might be driven to drink on the sidelines before the end of this Big Ten season. Illinois has home games remaining against Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, but each of these teams has at least shown a pulse on offense or on defense this year.
Illinois does not have much of a pulse on either side of the ball. The defense is giving up 30 points per game and has not been successful except for the joke game against Charleston Southern. Meanwhile, Nathan Scheelhaase is having trouble staying healthy and generating much in the passing game even when he is healthy. With teams loaded up against the run, Illinois ranks in the bottom 30 teams nationally in passing yards, rushing yards and points per game.
It should come as no surprise that Illinois lost to Michigan. However, with Indiana improving and Purdue likely becoming desperate to get bowl eligible, there do not appear to be any wins left on the Illinois schedule. A 2-10 record is on the way, which will make this is tough first offseason for Beckman.
Wisconsin Is Headed to the Big Ten Championship Game
Well it only took seven weeks, but Wisconsin is beginning to look like the offensive juggernaut that was expected to romp through the Leaders Division this season. Montee Ball ran for 247 yards against the Boilermakers this week and helped lead Wisconsin to 645 yards of offense. Numbers like that were what propelled Wisconsin to keep up with Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
Illinois and Purdue have serious defensive problems, and Indiana is in the same boat after surrendering 52 points to Ohio State. As these are the only teams competing with Wisconsin for a trip to Indianapolis, the two-game lead the Badgers already hold in the conference standings looks insurmountable. Even with a loss to Indiana, Wisconsin would likely do more than any of these teams down the stretch to hold onto the division lead.
Thus, this race appears to be over. Wisconsin made us doubt after the tough non-conference results, but the team is still the class of this division (at least, when we consider only the postseason-eligible teams). So get ready Badger fans: Indianapolis will be happy to welcome you back this December to defend the last two conference titles.
Braxton Miller Finally Has Help, but Not from Defense
The only difference between the 2011 Buckeyes who finished 6-7 and the 2012 Buckeyes who have already exceeded that win total at 7-0 is a vastly improved offense. Gone are the days of not having any passing game to speak of and a freshman quarterback trying to do everything on offense. Well, Braxton Miller still tries to do it all, but he has a lot of help this year.
Although the other weapons who step up may change from week to week (Devin Smith and Carlos Hyde played well against Indiana), Miller always has help these days. That has led Ohio State to be dynamic enough to overcome the same lapses on defense that plagued this team a year ago. In fact, the defensive lapses have seemingly become worse after giving up 103 points in the first three weeks of conference play.
But that doesn't much matter to Buckeye fans who see the bottom line: an undefeated record. These Buckeyes certainly do not resemble the Jim Tressel teams of the past decade, but that may make the team much more fun to watch. At some point the Silver Bullets will need to step up to help Miller win a game (likely against Penn State or Michigan), but for now, there's enough help there to be 7-0.
The Legends Division Race Is Far from over
The weekly game of musical chairs in the Legends Division continues with Michigan State and Minnesota missing big chances this week to win intra-division games to stay near the top of the standings. With both of those teams falling off and Nebraska struggling last week, now it looks like Iowa and Northwestern will have a real say in who wins this division.
The only expected front-runner still unblemished is Michigan, but the Wolverines have not played a tough schedule in the first three weeks of conference play (bye, Purdue, Illinois). Finally overcoming a struggling Spartans team that has won the last four meetings with the Wolverines is a must this weekend for Michigan. Iowa must defend the home turf against a hot Penn State team to stay atop the division.
If both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes win these games, then perhaps there will finally be some definition to this race. If both lose, then every team will have a loss and the division will remain up for grabs likely late into November.
Although the storylines are drying up in the other division, the Legends Division is making Big Ten football must-see television in the coming weeks. This competitiveness is great in an overall down year for the Big Ten. Who will join Wisconsin in Indianapolis in December? Who knows!
Danny Hope May Be Done in West Lafayette
Heading into the 2012 season, the impatience with Boilermakers coach Danny Hope was beginning to grow. A bowl appearance and a bowl victory helped things in 2011, but Purdue fans expected more big things in year four after a 16-21 start in Hope's first three seasons. Indeed, Hope himself admitted that this was the best team of Boilermakers he had to work with thus far during his tenure.
And yet, six games in this looks like the same old Purdue. After losing two huge opportunity games against Michigan and Wisconsin at home in blowout fashion, the fans appear to be bailing on this season. With a road trip to Ohio State this weekend, Purdue is facing an 0-3 start in conference play (and 3-4 overall) right in the eyes.
If that comes to pass, then Purdue will have lost perhaps the best opportunity it will have this decade to win a division title. With Ohio State on probation and Wisconsin down, this was supposed to be Purdue's season. Instead, there may not even be a bowl game awaiting at the end of the year if Purdue does not improve dramatically on defense.
With another losing record, it would not be surprising to see Purdue head a different direction with the football program. Hope has had a real good chance in West Lafayette, and it may just be time to move on if he cannot get it done this season with all this talent.
Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson Are Succeeding
This was a disappointing week in Minneapolis and Bloomington, as the Gophers and the Hoosiers missed opportunities to add huge wins to their resume. Minnesota struggled to put up 13 points against a weak Northwestern defense, but MarQueis Gray was just returning to limited duty from a September injury. Meanwhile, Indiana put up 49 points against Ohio State for the first time ever in a wild Saturday night game, but still came up short against the Buckeyes.
That leaves both these teams winless in the conference and back at the bottom of the standings. However, the signs of improvement are clear in these coaches' second seasons because Minnesota and Indiana are no easy out for even the best teams in the conference.
Minnesota has done it with defense, as proven by holding a dynamic Northwestern offense to 275 yards. Minnesota is only giving up 19.8 points per game, a number which could be even better if not for a triple overtime game against UNLV to start the season. That is still good enough to rank 31st in the country.
Indiana, on the other hand, has been doing it with offense. The Hoosiers are averaging nearly 500 yards per game on offense including 313 yards per game passing. These numbers have not fallen off too much even with the loss of Tre Roberson, which is a testament to the caliber of athletes Kevin Wilson has been bringing into the program. You can also see that Indiana has the speed to keep up with teams like Ohio State, which is a great sign for the future.
Both these teams hired coaches with good track records. Despite the disadvantages present when trying to recruit against the likes of Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan, both of these programs appear to be improving. If the bottom rung of the Big Ten gets significantly better, that will help the conference move back among the elite conferences much more quickly than it would otherwise.
The Penn State Season Comes Down to the Next Two Weeks
Although it looked like Penn State might squander the momentum from a three-game winning streak heading into this past week's bye, a comeback against Northwestern kept the good feelings going with a 4-2 start. The bye comes at a great time despite Penn State being hot because the biggest two games on the schedule may be coming these last two weekends in October.
Up first is a road game at Iowa, where Penn State has had some interesting games over the years. The Hawkeyes stand at 2-0 in conference play just like the Nittany Lions, and both teams have struggled at times this season. If Penn State can continue the offensive success against the tough Iowa defense, then that will set up a massive showdown of undefeated Leaders Division teams with Ohio State the following week.
Night games at Beaver Stadium are tricky for opponents, and Ohio State will not find the environment easy. In this game the Penn State defense will be tested by a Buckeyes offense that has been shredding most opponents except for Michigan State. The Buckeyes have struggled to escape with road wins so far, and this will be the toughest road test of the season, which makes it another big opportunity for Penn State.
So one week with a top defense coming, and the following week with a dynamic offense coming. If Penn State can go 2-0 to end October, that will make this a highly successful season and a pleasant surprise before a big senior class departs and the sanctions really begin to kick in.
The Big Ten Could Change the World for the MAC
Louisiana Tech lost a wild game against Texas A&M Saturday night, and that seemed to remove any hope that a non-BCS conference team would finish high enough in the rankings to sneak into a BCS bowl this year. However, there does remain one undefeated team in the lesser conferences.
That team happens to be Ohio University, which is now 7-0. The Bobcats opened the season with a win at Penn State, which looks better and better as the Nittany Lions keep winning games. The Bobcats broke into the AP rankings this week and are nearly into the Coaches Poll as well. Penn State is not the only Big Ten team helping the Bobcats in a BCS bid though.
Instead, the 10 postseason eligible teams are who could help Ohio make a BCS bowl. All Ohio has to do is finish ahead of a major conference champion in the final BCS rankings to grab an automatic berth to one of the huge paydays. That is a real possibility with Ohio leading every team but Michigan in the Big Ten thus far (Ohio State cannot be ranked in the BCS standings).
The three non-conference wins for the MAC against the Big Ten were a nice gift from the conference. But a much bigger gift and a much bigger payday for the MAC could be coming, courtesy the struggles of "big brother" the Big Ten. Don't sleep on the Bobcats and the MAC...just ask Michigan's basketball team about that.
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