Heading into this week's slate of Big Ten conference games, we've got a Peaceful Easy Feeling thanks to The Eagles dropping by to provide theme songs for the teams. Not many teams had such a peaceful feeling last weekend, as four of the six games came down to the final possession or overtime.
What could have been a nice rebound week for teams like Purdue, Michigan State and Northwestern became further disappointments. Meanwhile, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan moved closer to the coveted division titles. That bodes well for this week, when those top four teams in the rankings and in the conference standings play for first place.
Although a lot of focus goes to those teams at the top, the remainder of the schedule is also important for figuring out which teams will surge to a bowl, and perhaps a January bowl. With Penn State and Ohio State so high in the standings, it may not take much to end up playing on January 1 this year. That opens opportunities for teams that do not see that stage much.
With the exception of the battle between Illinois and Indiana, all games have bowl implications. Before we get there, let's join a Witchy Woman and check out how the teams rank this week heading into Halloween.
Theme Song – New Kid In Town
The one team that had a bye last weekend was Illinois, and that was sorely needed following a four-game losing streak. Illinois is struggling on offense and on defense, and it seems like Tim Beckman has Mount Everest to climb in getting the Illini back to respectable in the Leaders Division.
The offense is only averaging about 300 yards per game, which has led to a point disparity of about -12 points per game (18.1 for, 30.7 against). Nathan Scheelhaase has struggled in the passing game and has put up 663 yards on the season, while backup Riley O'Toole has a better completion percentage and twice as many touchdowns. Despite suffering a concussion, Scheelhaase will play against Indiana following the bye, although O'Toole may start to see more looks as the future of the team.
The focus during the bye had to be the defense though, as the upcoming games against Indiana and Ohio State present the stiffest tests of the season to date. It will be interesting to see if Illinois takes advantage of this opportunity to climb out of the conference basement. With three winnable home games left, the defense has to show progress in Beckman's first season.
It's a welcoming committee for Moneyball
Theme Song – How Long
The Gophers have been nothing if not consistent in Big Ten play, scoring 13 points against each of Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Of course, that is not good enough when those other teams put up 31, 21 and 38 points, respectively. It's no secret that the offense has fallen apart without their leader QB MarQueis Gray being healthy.
Last week the offense was particularly lost, but that had a lot to do with needing to play freshman QB Philip Nelson thanks to injuries to Gray and Max Shortell. Nelson accounted for the vast majority of the 245 yards of offense against the Badgers with 149 yards passing and 67 yards rushing. That is not a recipe for success against better teams that can shut down one player.
Wisconsin was the first team to really exploit the Minnesota defense, although the Badgers excel at wearing teams down throughout games by running the ball. Nevertheless, Minnesota must avoid a letdown this week against a Purdue team that has struggled to put up many points. This is nearly a must win for Minnesota to keep hopes alive for a bowl game, so I expect a big effort this week from Jerry Kill's team.
Theme Song – I Can't Tell You Why
The Big Ten had not lost a game to the Naval Academy since 1979, although some teams had played with fire recently like Ohio State. That being said, Big Ten teams generally have more depth and can play strong enough defense to slow down the unique triple option rushing attack. Despite having a weak defense in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers actually shut down Navy for most of the day.
However, when the Midshipmen needed a big drive they always got one. That may be the story of the season for the Hoosiers: the lack of an ability to close out games, usually based on defensive lapses. The Hoosiers could easily be 4-3 or even 5-2 right now, but the current five-game losing streak has proven that Kevin Wilson still has some program building to do.
This week brings a road test at Illinois, and Indiana should win this game even with some defensive struggles. With Cameron Coffman leading a potent passing offense that ranks 18th in the country, the Illini should have trouble keeping the Hoosiers under 35 points. Unlike other shootouts against Ball State, Ohio State and Northwestern, the Hoosiers will be favored against a team with as many offensive struggles as the Illini.
Indiana can and probably should win games against Illinois and Purdue. That will not be enough to make a bowl game, but it will show the progress that is necessary. Indiana looks respectable on the field, and that is something that could not be said much over the past decade.
Theme Song – Heartache Tonight
Purdue scored on an 83-yard touchdown pass on the first offensive play of the game and then responded to the first Ohio State touchdown with a 100-yard touchdown return. Unlike previous weeks, the Purdue defense stymied Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense for the majority of the game from that point onward. When Miller went down with an injury at the end of the third quarter, Purdue looked like a lock to pull off another massive upset against the Buckeyes.
But then the Buckeyes pulled off some magic behind backup quarterback Kenny Guiton and pulled the rug out from under the Boilermakers in a final minute drive and overtime. It was shades of 2002 when Ohio State pulled a similar comeback against another struggling Purdue squad. The bottom line is that Purdue has now officially squandered all opportunities in the most important three-game stretch of the season.
The good news is that even with a 3-4 record, the back five games on the schedule are much easier except for a visit from Penn State. Caleb TerBush should find some openings against the Minnesota defense this week, but the key going forward will be to get better rushing totals from Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. If the rushing game appears, then Purdue has enough defense to win three of these games and get back to a bowl, if last Saturday is any indication.
Theme Song – Get Over It
The bad Hawkeyes football team made its way back into Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night, as Penn State had to call off the dogs after going up 38-0 on the first drive of the second half. A couple of late touchdowns made the score more respectable, but there was no doubt that Iowa is not among the conference elite following the loss at home to the Nittany Lions.
The Hawkeyes must get over this loss quickly though, as Northwestern welcomes in the Hawkeyes to Evanston this weekend. Northwestern has had some struggles on defense, but Iowa may continue to struggle with all the injuries along the offensive line and of course to the running back position. James Vandenberg is a good quarterback, but he has only found the end zone three times on the season and cannot overcome all the injuries by himself.
This will be a critical stretch for Iowa, as reaching a bowl game is no certain thing if the Hawkeyes cannot score enough points to keep up with the likes of Northwestern and Indiana. The Hawkeyes have only been gashed by strong passing attacks in Central Michigan and Penn State, so perhaps the Hawkeyes will match up well against the Wildcats.
Iowa has bounced back well with big wins following the first two losses of the season, so perhaps that resiliency will keep Iowa relevant in the Legends Division race with a win this week. Hawkeye fans certainly have to hope so.
Theme Song – Already Gone
There will be no eleven-win season in 2012. Following a tough loss at Ann Arbor to break a four-game winning streak against the rival Wolverines, Michigan State stands three games back in the division standings with no tiebreaker and only four games left to play. Therefore, the Spartans are nearly mathematically eliminated from winning the division that so many expected them to repeat as champions of in 2012.
Just like in the other three losses this season, Michigan State struggled to put up any points. The Wolverines followed the formula of Ohio State and Iowa by containing Le'Veon Bell to only 68 yards on 26 carries. Without big production in the running game, the pressure fell on Andrew Maxwell. He actually played a decent game, but only generating 192 passing yards and one touchdown would not prove to be enough, even with the defense preventing any Michigan touchdowns.
That defense remains one of the best in the country, but it just does not matter when the offense cannot hold up. Denard Robinson was largely contained and the Wolverines only managed 326 yards of offense with zero touchdowns, but four field goals is enough against the Spartans. With grudge matches coming up against Wisconsin and Nebraska the next two weeks, the Spartans will continue to be tested on defense.
At this point, winning just one of the next two would probably be acceptable. Missing a bowl would be a disaster, but it could happen.
Theme Song – Take It Easy
The Wildcats certainly know how to lose games in painful fashion after blowing another big fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska. The Wildcats had a big chance at home to keep pace with Michigan and stay relevant in the Legends Division, but the defense failed once again. Some credit has to be given to Taylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers though, as Nebraska finally showed some resilience after losing the first two road games to UCLA and Ohio State.
Of course, the Wildcats would have never been in the dominant fourth-quarter lead had it not been for the defense generating three turnovers from the Cornhuskers. Trevor Siemian had a poor day passing the ball and Venric Mark was the only big offensive weapon to speak of with 112 yards rushing. The passing game needs to get better for Northwestern to put these games away in future weeks.
This week brings an important test against another team currently ahead of Northwestern in the division standings. Not only will beating the Hawkeyes be important for finishing higher in the division, Northwestern could push Iowa towards the brink of not qualifying for a bowl. That could help Northwestern move up towards a January 1st bowl game and a better season than anyone expected heading into 2012.
Theme Song – The Long Run
When Wisconsin fell apart late to lose at Nebraska and go to 3-2 on the season, there was no indication that the Badgers would be in the dominant position in the Leaders Division just three weeks later. But Big Ten play has revitalized the Badgers, and the offense is rolling along like the powerhouse from a season ago. Minnesota has a strong defense, but the Golden Gophers were no match for Montee Ball and James White, who combined for 341 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the day.
White actually had the best game of the season with three of those touchdowns, and he may be living up to the potential he showed a couple years ago prior to Ball going crazy last season. Just like with Russell Wilson a season ago, freshman QB Joel Stave is gaining more confidence as the rushing game becomes more and more dominant against opposing defenses. Stave only had to throw for 106 yards last week, but he can still find Jared Abbrederis for a big play when needed.
Wisconsin started the year with plenty of struggles on the offensive line and in the running game, but the Badgers are built for the long run. With the other three eligible teams for winning the Leaders Division each sitting at 0-3, Wisconsin could wrap up the division before ever playing the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions to close the season.
A third straight Rose Bowl would be close in such a circumstance, which is a great turnaround and a great story in a lowly 2012 for the conference as a whole.
Theme Song – One of These Nights
Nebraska looked headed to another road loss caused by a lack of shutdown defense and a bevy of turnovers against Northwestern. However, Taylor Martinez capped a great day passing with two touchdowns in the last six minutes of the game to lead the Cornhuskers back to a 29-28 win. That keeps Nebraska in the mix in the Legends Division, only one game behind the 3-0 Michigan Wolverines.
Speaking of the Wolverines, that is who Nebraska welcomes this weekend for another big Saturday night showdown. Nebraska has already played two big Saturday night spotlight games this month against Wisconsin and Ohio State, and a better effort than was shown in either of those games will be required to grab the lead in the division back from Michigan. Nebraska fans will remember how Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint tore through the Blackshirts last season in a blowout in Ann Arbor.
That cannot be allowed to happen again, especially with Michigan's occasional penchant for turning the ball over in bunches. Turnovers will likely be the key in this game, as both offenses should find openings to score some points and make some big plays. If Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah take better care of the ball this week, then Nebraska could finally take command of the Big Ten race heading into a tough road game at Michigan State.
If not, then Michigan will likely run away with the division.
Kenny G's Jazz Time!
Theme Song – Take It To The Limit
For the first time since playing against Michigan State, the Buckeyes struggled mightily on offense against Purdue. The Boilermakers just seem to have the Buckeyes' number, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. Ohio State turned the ball over four times, gave up a safety on a penalty in the end zone when down six in the fourth quarter and only achieved 342 yards on the day.
But still, backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the Buckeyes to a memorable touchdown drive and two-point conversion to tie the game in the last seconds of regulation. Ohio State also scored easily in overtime and the defense locked down the game for the shocking comeback. Despite taking it to the limit against Purdue, the magic dust worked once again and kept the Buckeyes undefeated. On the bright side, the defense performed well except for the big 83-yard touchdown pass to start the game on the first Purdue drive.
Ohio State now faces a tough closing stretch, starting with a game at the only other undefeated team in the Leaders Division, Penn State. Braxton Miller is apparently OK with nothing but a sore neck to show after getting carted off the field and sent to the hospital against Purdue. Miller will likely need to be healthy to ensure a Buckeye win on the road, as the Nittany Lions will score some points with the passing game against the injury-riddled Buckeye back seven (particularly at linebacker).
However, there is still hope with Guiton and RB Carlos Hyde, as proven this weekend. You can't give up on these Buckeyes, and this team looks a lot like the 2002 team that seemed overmatched multiple times but still found a way to win each weekend. The top spot will be right back for the taking if Ohio State can overcome the struggles of the past two games with a big road win in State College.
Coach of the Year?
Theme Song – Life In The Fast Lane
No momentum was lost in that bye week apparently, as Penn State came out swinging against Iowa in Kinnick Stadium. Before the Hawkeyes knew what hit them, Penn State had racked up nearly 400 yards of offense and 38 unanswered points. Iowa could not get off the field against Penn State, which is surprising considering that a lot of the offense came from the passing game.
Matthew McGloin continued his resurgence in his senior season with 289 yards and two touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. McGloin looks like he may end up as the Big Ten's passing champion thanks to the new offensive regime in State College. Bill Belton is now back in his expected role as a dominant starting running back, with 103 yards and three touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. If Penn State keeps the running game going, then it will be difficult to keep them off the scoreboard.
The real story behind the five-game winning streak is the defense, which only gave up more than 14 points to Northwestern in the last five games. That streak of success will be tested more by Ohio State than any other team so far this season, although the Nittany Lions could benefit from a slightly dinged up Braxton Miller. It is strange that Penn State comes into this game with the stronger passing game, and this year's battle of the easternmost Big Ten teams will likely not look much like the defensive slug fests of the past decade. However, that slug fest favors Penn State if it happens again.
This week will not lock up the division title with a win, but losing the game may knock the Nittany Lions out of the race. This should be a fun weekend in a year that seemed lost after the first two weeks of the season.
Theme Song – No More Cloudy Days
Michigan takes back the top spot in the power rankings this week, but all of the top four teams will shake themselves out with the two evening games on Saturday. Michigan may not have looked impressive in using four field goals to defeat Michigan State, but one cannot overlook that other top conference teams Iowa and Ohio State have also escaped with similar wins against the tough MSU defense. By avoiding a loss in the turnover battle, Michigan was able to grind out the first win in five years against Michigan State.
There is no rest for the weary though, as Nebraska will host the Wolverines this week and will present a much different test. Taylor Martinez and his dynamic running backs were limited by the Michigan defense last season, but that may not be as easy this year, especially with the game in Lincoln. Wolverines fans cannot expect to dominate the Cornhuskers like they did a season ago in Ann Arbor, but the defense could make all the difference in this important division game.
With Northwestern and Iowa falling off the pace and Michigan State falling out of contention, this game looks like a de facto division championship game. If Michigan wins, then the cloudy days of the Rich Rodriguez days will officially be over as Michigan likely heads to Indianapolis to play the Badgers for the Big Ten championship. Two straight BCS bowls are within the grasp of Brady Hoke, and that is impressive considering the state of the program when he took over.
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