What We Learned About the Big Ten in Week 6

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IOctober 6, 2013

LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 5: quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers looks for an opening in the Illinois Fighting Illini defense during their game at Memorial Stadium on October 5, 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Is it just me, or was that the most fun we've had watching Big Ten football from start to finish on a Saturday in a long time? 

There was great competition and great individual performances all over the place. Even in the two "blowout" games in Lincoln and Ann Arbor, there were lessons to be learned. 

Of course, the nightcap was unreal and did a lot to help the perception of the conference.

Let's just put it this way: That was more like a Big Ten weekend from a decade ago than one from recent times. For you younger folks, hopefully this is a sign of things to come and not just a lucky weekend of matchups. 

So, having gushed about what took place on Saturday, it's time to get to why we're all here—finding out what lessons we learned inside the Big Ten this weekend. 

Let's get to it then, shall we? 

Illinois' Defense Has Some Nice Parts, but as a Group, It Isn't Ready to Compete Against Better Big Ten Offenses.

Jonathan Brown is a stud and deserves to be in the conversation as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. Mason Monheim, just a sophomore, is a star in the making for the Illini at linebacker. Too bad only one of those two showed up in Lincoln on Saturday.

LINCOLN, NE - OCTOBER 5: Running back Ameer Abdullah #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers tries to break free from linebacker Jonathan Brown #45 of the Illinois Fighting Illini during their game at Memorial Stadium on October 5, 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Phot
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Brown did his part to show the rest of the Illini D how to get it done, recording 13 tackles and four tackles for loss in the defeat. 

Overall, though, this Illini defense showed that if you can deflate its confidence early on, it folds like a cheap suit. 

The numbers sure make you scratch your head as to how this game became a blowout, until you see one number: 140.

That was the advantage Nebraska had on the ground, rushing for 335 yards. 

Illinois simply had zero answer for the Huskers' Ameer Abdullah, who racked up 225 yards on just 20 carries and had two touchdowns to his name. 

With a strong wind blowing (gusts over 30 mph) all game long at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, the Illini let Tommy Armstrong, Jr. do good things with the wind at his back. Nebraska's passing game averaged 16.9 yards per completion to go with two touchdowns through the air. 

It's those little things that made the difference in this one. If the Illini want to be a real player in what is looking like the tougher division this season, their defense needs to step up to the plate sooner rather than later.

Nebraska Has a Star in Waiting at Quarterback in Tommy Armstrong, Jr. 

Oct 5, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. runs against Illinois Fighting Illini defender Eaton Spence (27) during the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Taylor Martinez has been at Nebraska for what seems like a decade at this point in time, and when he's healthy, it appears there's zero question in the mind of head coach Bo Pelini as to who will start. 

However, over the past two games, Tommy Armstrong, Jr. has had the Nebraska offense humming along just fine. 

His first start came against an FCS foe, so I was a bit skeptical simply because of the level of competition. After this week's performance, though, I'm sold that he will be the future of this program and the future is going to be bright. 

The combination of Armstrong, Jr. and Imani Cross (who happen to be roommates at Nebraska) should be fun to watch next season. 

Of course, thanks to these performances, there will some clamoring from fans to keep Martinez on the bench in favor of what they've seen from Armstrong, Jr., but for me, Martinez and his over 10,000 yards of offense (as long as he's 100 percent healthy) have earned the right to start. 

That said, this could get messy if Martinez struggles to lead this offense to explosive numbers down the stretch.

Michigan State Found Some Passing Offense in the Bye Week. 

Any questions about who would start at quarterback were put to rest by the comments of head coach Mark Dantonio this week. His faith in Connor Cook paid off, as the quarterback led the offense confidently against a good Iowa defense. 

He even showed the ability to hit the big play with his arm as well as his legs in this one. Cook finished the game 25-of-44 for 277 yards and two touchdowns. 

More importantly, though, Michigan State won a game against an FBS foe with its offense for the first time this season, and it appears that the bye week fixed what had ailed this team in the passing game.

Of course, there's plenty of season to go and tougher defenses will come on the schedule, but it was encouraging to see Cook look as good as he did. 

There are still questions about the rushing game, as the Spartans averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on 37 attempts on Saturday, but there was far more to like than to pick apart about the offense. Michigan State fans should enjoy seeing an offense that can score points on its own for a change.

Teams Have Figured Out Braxton Miller, but His Supporting Cast Is Better This Season.

It may have taken over two years, but it appears opposing teams have figured out Braxton Miller.

He certainly isn't as deadly as he used to be, and after the past two weeks, it appears teams have taken the lesson from what Wisconsin's defense did to Miller last year and applied it to near perfection again.

Oct 5, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats defensive lineman Tyler Scott (97) recovers a fumble by Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller (5) during the first quarter at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The formula seems rather simple—keep Miller in the pocket, collapse the pocket around him and he will panic.

It does two things to Miller. He forgets the mechanics he has learned as a passer and makes rash decisions.

On Saturday, Miller did the one thing that scared me all week and that was turn the ball over. He's quickly gaining a reputation as a guy who will give opposing defenses a chance at a turnover or two a game, and he gave Northwestern plenty.

The Wildcats couldn't convert on two of those turnovers, though, and that was the difference.

If this is a continued pattern for Miller going forward, this OSU team will lose a game.  

However, Miller needs to learn that he's got a supporting cast around him that can win football games for this team, and he doesn't have to do it all on his own. 

Carlos Hyde was the star of the game and saved Miller's backside at Ryan Field on national television. 

He isn't the only one capable of winning games for the Buckeyes, though, and the return of a healthy Jordan Hall and the play of young Dontre Wilson can help make a difference for this offense, too. 

No matter what, though, Miller needs to learn what defenses are doing to him and adjust his game as such; otherwise the calls for Kenny Guiton are only going to get louder in Columbus.

Northwestern Is the Best Team in the Legends Division...and It's Not Even Close. 

Yes, I just said that, and after watching this team over the past month-plus of action, the thought I had a few weeks ago was confirmed, even in a loss. 

This Northwestern team is the best team in the Legends Division by a long shot. Sure, it lost to Ohio State, but it literally went toe-to-toe with the giant of the Big Ten and came away showing it belonged in the upper echelon of the conference.

Getting Venric Mark back only added to the team's offensive firepower, and that has to scare the crap out of any opponent it faces going forward—starting with Wisconsin this coming week. 

Oct 5, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Venric Mark (5) runs against Ohio State Buckeyes defensive back Tyvis Powell (23) during the second quarter at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Add a defense that is forcing turnovers at a ridiculous rate and you have a formula for success.

Yes, Northwestern's defense continues to give up yards, but it isn't they only one in the division doing that. When you force more than over two turnovers per game to go along with what the offense can do, those yards can be overcome.

Perhaps the most important stat of last night's 40-30 loss was the fact that Northwestern's offense was 6-of-6 in red-zone scoring. You can't let this team get within 20 yards of the end zone or it's putting points on the board. 

On the season, Northwestern has hit on 24 of 25 opportunities inside the red zone, with 15 of those being of the touchdown variety. 

Jeff Budzien is just another quality weapon this team has at its disposal as well, hitting on nine of 10 field goals so far this season for the Wildcats.

Simply put, this team is good in all three phases of the game this season, and it's really the only team in the Legends Division you can say that about. 

Indiana's Offense Is Deadly—Just ask Penn State.

It was just a 21-17 Indiana lead heading in to the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana on Saturday afternoon. Penn State had to feel good about its chances to pull off a win on the road and continue its undefeated streak against the Hoosiers. 

All it took to dash those hopes was a total of three minutes, 40 seconds. In that span, the Hoosiers managed to score three touchdowns and the game went from a four-point squeaker to 42-17 and completely in the control of the hosts. 

Oct 5, 2013; Bloomington, IN, USA;  Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld (7) passes the ball against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Memorial Stadium. Indiana won 44-24. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

That 3:40 wasn't just a statement to Penn State either; it was a warning shot to the rest of the conference—slip up for a second and before you know what hit you, we'll have a lead. 

It was also a statement to the rest of the conference that Indiana won't be a pushover win anymore. 

Make no mistakewinning for the first time ever against Penn State was a massive move in the right direction for this program.

Now the question is whether it can find a way to a winning record in Big Ten play. The next two weeks should be interesting and telling as it takes on Michigan State and Michigan on the road.

*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @andycoppens.


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