Big Ten Power Rankings: What We Learned in Week 7

Zach TravisContributor IOctober 17, 2011

Big Ten Power Rankings: What We Learned in Week 7

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    This week in the Big Ten was an eventful one.  Michigan State claimed a decisive win in the battle of Michigan and made its case for being the best defense in the conference.  Ohio State reminded the country that it does still know how to play some pretty tough defense.  

    Wisconsin put it on cruise control to beat Indiana in just one half of football.  Iowa got revenge over its tormentor Northwestern despite being outgained on offense.  Finally, Penn State took the win that Purdue gladly handed it.

    On the losing end, Illinois got Zook'd; Michigan got Denard'd; Northwestern just doesn't know anymore, man; Purdue let one slip away; and Indiana is just happy Wisconsin didn't put up 80 again.

    Breaking news:  Penn State still doesn't have a quarterback.

    Some seismic shifts took place all across the Big Ten, and after three weeks of conference, games the race to Indianapolis is beginning to shake out with front runners (Wisconsin, Michigan State), flawed contenders (Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Penn State), and the fly in the ointment (Ohio State).

    Meanwhile a few teams (Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern) are just trying to figure out a way to build some positive momentum for next year.

    Let's look at this week's games and what they mean in the coming weeks.

12. Minnesota 1-5 (0-2) (12)

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    Last Week: BYE

    Minnesota got a much-needed week off last weekend to regroup after what had nearly been the absolute worst case scenario for Jerry Kill's first season; only a loss against Miami (Ohio) could have pushed things over the top.

    The rest of the schedule doesn't offer much in the way of comfort.  Minnesota welcomes Nebraska and Iowa to the Twin Cities in back-to-back weeks then goes on the road against Michigan State before coming home to play Wisconsin.  The one seemingly winnable game left is at Northwestern in mid-November, followed by a final game against Illinois at home.

    By any reasonable measure, Minnesota shouldn't win a game in this stretch, but if the Gophers are going to build any positive momentum for next year, the last two games might be the two best possibilities for upsets.

    Either way, it will be a long, cold winter in Minnesota.

    Next Week: vs. Nebraska

11. Indiana 1-6 (0-3) (11)

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    Last Week: Lost to Wisconsin 59-7

    I have good news and bad news, Indiana fans.  The good news: Wisconsin didn't break 60 points.  The bad news: everything else.  Seriously.

    The game that no one thought would be competitive turned out just how everyone predicted, and that is just how the Badgers planned it.  After punting on the first drive, Wisconsin rattled off four touchdowns and a field goal before halftime.  In the second half, the punt return unit, courtesy of Jared Abbrederis, and the defense both added a touchdown.  

    Indiana couldn't capitalize on early momentum and eventually wilted.  The Hoosiers got a stop on Wisconsin's first possession and had drives of 29, 54 and 48 in the first half that eventually stalled. Quarterbacks Edward Wright-Baker and Tre Roberson combined to go 8-fo-20 passing for just 64 yards with Wright-Baker throwing two interceptions.  

    However, Stephen Houston had a very nice day running the ball, going off for 135 yards on 19 carries with his long run of 67 yards ending in a touchdown.  Yet, without any offensive balance, the Hoosiers failed to convert on third (2/14) and fourth (0/2) down.  Three turnovers, one of which directly resulted in a Wisconsin defensive touchdown, were just adding insult to injury.

    Defensively, it was more of the same for Indiana, whose jerseys probably have cleat marks from the 7.9 ypc Wisconsin was able to rack up on the way to 332 rushing yards.  Montee Ball was particularly unstoppable, needing only 14 carries to gain 142 yards and three touchdowns.

    The most disheartening aspect of the day might have to go to the punt team, which in its nine attempts managed just 34.1 yards per punt, in part thanks to a shanked punt that set Wisconsin up deep in Hoosier territory for its second touchdown.  

    By the time Jared Abbrederis took a punt 60 yards for a touchdown the game was already well out of hand...and that was in the middle of the third quarter.

    Indiana gets a trip to Iowa and a home game against Northwestern in the next two weeks, but with the way the Hoosiers are playing, it would be foolish to expect much from them in either game.  

    Coach Kevin Wilson is running into the same problem that Jerry Kill has at Minnesota: his team just isn't yet talented enough to carry out his game plan.  An upset win in the next two weeks would certainly help build some positive momentum for a program that desperately needs it.

    Next Week: at Iowa

10. Purdue 3-3 (1-1) (10)

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    Last Week: Lost to Penn State 23-18

    Purdue had a number of opportunities to get the win Saturday against Penn State, but special teams errors and the lack of an effective passing game were too much for the Boilermakers to overcome.

    Offensively, Purdue's first half was as underwhelming as they come.  Purdue had three solid drives (36, 69 and 67 yards) stall and were only able to capitalize on two of them for field goals.

    The passing game was a major source of frustration for Purdue.  Both Caleb TerBush (12/25) and Robert Marve (2/5) completed less than half of their passes and together they combined for three interceptions and 6.1 ypa.

    The timing of the interceptions was even more costly.  The first came on the last possession before halftime and set up a Penn State field goal, and the final interception came on Purdue's last possession of the game and sealed Penn State's five-point victory.

    The bright spot in all of this is that Purdue was able to run the ball effectively against what had been a very good Penn State rush defense up to this point; Penn State entered the game allowing only 93 yards rushing per game at just three yards per carry.  

    Purdue's backfield combo of Ralph Bolden (97 yards) and Akeem Shavers (54 yards) were able to combine for 5.8 ypc on 13 carries apiece.

    Ultimately, in a game where yardage totals were nearly equal in both rushing and passing, the game came down to mistakes, and the Boilermakers simply made too many of them.  Three interceptions, one missed field goal, one missed extra point, and one long Penn State kickoff return that set up the Nittany Lions' final score was too much to overcome.

    Purdue continues to operate in a no-man's land between the bottom of the Big Ten and the cluster of average to good teams in the middle.  If Purdue can continue to run the ball well and fix some of the mental errors in the passing game, there is a good chance to pull a surprise upset in the next two weeks over the conference's two former unbeatens (vs. Illinois, at Michigan).

    If Purdue can't pull out a win in one of these two games, the Boilermakers' chance at a bowl game could quickly evaporate.

    Next Week: vs. Illinois

9. Northwestern 2-4 (0-3) (8)

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    Last Week: Lost to Iowa 41-31

    The Wildcats finally finished a game strong scoring 24 points in the second half.  The problem was Iowa put up that many in the fourth quarter alone and rolled to an easy win after allowing Northwestern back in the game after taking a 17-7 lead into halftime.

    The Wildcats offense played well, gaining 495 yards, but the going was slow as Northwestern was only able to gain 6.7 yards per attempt in the passing game and 3.7 yards per carry on the ground.  While the Wildcats converted 16 of 22 on third down and has 12 more first downs, there were too many mistakes.  

    A long pick-six in the first quarter was a huge point swing for Iowa, then back-to-back possessions to start the fourth quarter that ended in a missed field goal and a fumble set Iowa up for 10 more points.

    Defensively, Northwestern just couldn't stop Iowa's offense.  Northwestern allowed two scoring drives of over 70 yards that took three plays, and Iowa only once had to string together 10 or more plays for a score: an 11-play, 64-yard drive to take the lead in the beginning of the fourth quarter.  

    The fact that Iowa was only 1-for-7 on third downs is irrelevant because the Hawkeyes were able to pass for over 10 yards per attempt and run for over five yards per carry.

    Northwestern has now lost four straight games and is 0-3 in the conference.  With games left against Indiana, Minnesota, and Rice it is very possible that the Wildcats can fight back to .500, but that sixth win will come down to beating Penn State at home next week.

    Northwestern fans, this is your worst-case scenario.

    Next Week: vs. Penn State

8. Penn State 6-1 (3-0) (6)

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    Last Week: Beat Purdue 23-18

    It isn't that I hate Penn State.  It is just that a week after looking solid against Iowa the Nittany Lions go out and barely squeak by Purdue.  How can I put the Nittany Lions ahead of Ohio State and Iowa after that?

    On offense, Penn State still hasn't found an answer at quarterback, at least an answer that Joe Paterno seems comfortable with.  While Matt McGloin hasn't been Kerry Collins reincarnate so far this year, his numbers have been equal to or better than Rob Bolden's in every game with the exception of Alabama.  Somehow Bolden continues to get playing time and do little to nothing with it.

    Here it is, my plea to Joe Paterno:  Please Joe, I know that Bolden may very well ask for a transfer if you finally nail his butt to the bench, but at this point that doesn't seem like such a bad option.

    Sometimes quarterbacks just don't develop past their high school prime; some guys can't handle Div. I football.  If Bolden threatens to leave school because he isn't happy with being benched after doing nothing to earn the starting position, at some point Bolden transferring has to be good for the program, and if not good, then at least there is no loss in the foreseeable future.

    Matt McGloin?  In this game he was just Matt McGloin.  Bad completion percentage.

    The biggest concern for Penn State following this game is the ease at which Purdue was able to pick up yards on the ground.  The Boilermakers' top two backs combined for 154 yards and better than five yards per carry, putting up 60 more rushing yards than Penn State's defense has allowed on average this season.

    With a trip to Northwestern next week Penn State had better hope that those defensive lapses were only temporary, because Dan Persa is a much more capable passer than anything Purdue has to offer.  

    Next Week: at Northwestern

7. Iowa 4-2 (1-1) (9)

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    Last Week: Beat Northwestern 41-31

    Iowa fans might as well call this one How James Vandenberg Got His Groove Back.

    After being utterly pushed around last week against Penn State, Vandenberg was quietly efficient completing two-thirds of his 22 passes en route to 224 yards passing and two touchdowns at better than 10 yards per attempt.  

    His partner in the backfield, running back Marcus Coker, was similarly effective, getting 124 yards himself in the running game at better than five and a half yards per rush while adding two touchdowns.

    Defensively, Iowa wasn't as effective, giving up close to 500 yards, but the bend-not-break approach worked by holding Northwestern to less than seven yards per pass attempt and less than four yards per rush while causing two a long interception returned for a touchdown.

    Iowa has a good chance to stretch this conference win streak to four with back-to-back games against Indiana and Minnesota coming up before a visit by suddenly vulnerable Michigan in the first week of November.

    If Iowa can sweep both Michigan teams in November the final game at Nebraska could be for an invite to Indianapolis.  However, that is a long way off and Iowa still has some consistency issues to deal with.

    Next Week: vs. Indiana

6. Illinois 6-1 (2-1) (2)

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    Last Week: Lost to Ohio State 17-7

    Come in and have a seat, Ron.  I think I speak for all of us in the college football world when I say, we missed you.

    Through Illinois' 6-0 start, there were plenty of reasons to believe.  A win over Arizona State, a blistering run game, and the suddenly deadly pass-catch duo of Nathan Scheelhaase and AJ Jenkins.

    However, none of these reasons outweighed that gnawing concern at the back of everyone's mind: this is a Ron Zook team.

    This game was to be a coming-out party for the Illini on a march to a late November showdown with Wisconsin for the Leaders Division title.  Instead it was another piece of evidence in the case against Ron Zook, and it is a damning one at that.

    Illinois was betrayed by its offense in this one.  The Illini only gained 285 yards and the per play averages were downright bad: just five yards per pass attempt and 3.3 yards per carry.

    Scheelhaase looked pedestrian in this one throwing two interceptions and just 169 yards, and despite catching eight passes, Jenkins was only able to gain 80 yards.

    The Illini defense gave up ground in the only place it mattered: the run game.  Ohio State only threw four passes, completing its one for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the Buckeyes ran the ball 51 times for 211 yards and a touchdown.  Still, Ohio State had only one drive over 50 yards and that ended in a punt.

    Illinois is by no means out of the Big Ten Leaders race, but there is no margin for error now.  Illinois must win out, including a game at Penn State and back-to-back home games against Michigan and Wisconsin in the middle of November.

    What you think of Illinois' chances has a lot to do with what you think of Ron Zook.  Needless to say, this writer isn't holding his breath. 

    Next Week: at Purdue

5. Michigan 6-1 (2-1) (3)

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    Last Week: Lost to Michigan State 28-14

    We'll get to what Michigan State accomplished a little later, but for right now let's look at what Michigan accomplished.  

    The Wolverines were able to put together one impressive 80-yard scoring drive to open the game, in which the running game was effective and Denard Robinson used movement out of the pocket and the threat of his legs to complete passes on the edge and move the chains.

    From there, Michigan managed to send its fanbase into a tailspin of anguish and self pity, make Denard Robinson look like his former freshman-self, and give sportswriters across the country an excuse to recycle the same column they've run the past two Octobers vis-a-vis the Wolverines.

    So what went wrong?

    Everything doesn't quite cover it, but it comes close.  Offensively, the Wolverines never found a way to deal with Michigan State pressure from the front seven and very early got away from the run game that had worked well on the first drive.  

    Part of that is due to just how well Michigan State's defensive line played, but a great deal of blame falls on the Michigan offensive line's inability to pick up blitzes and deal with Spartan defenders jumping snap counts.

    Robinson, for what it is worth, looked worse than he has at any time in his tenure as a Michigan quarterback.  He was unable to deal with the windy conditions, often missing receivers and even defenders by wide margins.  

    Offensive coordinator Al Borges brought in backup Devin Gardner on several occasions as a change of pace, but that simply telegraphed to the defense that the play was either going to be a hand off to Robinson on a jet-sweep or a pass.

    Defensively, Michigan actually played a somewhat solid game.  While there were some problems containing Spartan backs on runs to the edges, Michigan was fortunate to (somewhat inadvertently) force two turnovers, and because of great field position supplied by punter Will Hagerup the defense was often able to set the offense up with good field position.

    The problem on the day was the culmination of fears about the new offense, coordinator Al Borges, and Denard Robinson.  The Wolverine offense looked like it was being called out of a PS3 playbook.  One play would be from the I-form, the next from a shotgun spread.  At no point after the first drive did Michigan look like the same offense it had been earlier this season.

    The question now is just what does this mean for the future?  Michigan gets a bye week then a home game against Purdue, but the last four games of the schedule ramp up significantly with back-to-back road contests at Iowa and Illinois followed by home games against Nebraska and Ohio State.

    These games are all winnable, but if this team doesn't respond in a positive manner, an 0-4 end of the season is in play.  After that, its only a matter of time before someone mentions the hot seat.

    Next Week: BYE

4. Ohio State 4-3 (1-2) (7)

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    Last Week: Beat Illinois 17-7

    How do you win without a credible passing game?  Don't pass the ball.

    It isn't quite that simple, but its close.  Ohio State used a stout defensive performance, three turnovers, and a solid rushing performance to knock Ron Zook's team from the ranks of the unbeaten.

    Buckeye fans are all left to wonder, "What if?" after Dan Herron's return to the field after a suspension saw him run for 114 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.  The other half of OSU's rushing total was split between Jordan Hall's 56 yards and Braxton Miller's 34.

    Miller, after throwing the ball eight times last week for almost 100 yards was able to give the arm a rest.  He threw just four passes, but made his one completion, a 17-yard touchdown to Jake Stoneburner, count in a big way.

    Defensively, Ohio State pushed Illinois around in the run game, allowing just 116 yards at 3.3 ypc, while holding the Nathan Scheelhaase to AJ Jenkins combo to just 80 yards.  Scheelhaase had 169 on the day, but threw two interceptions.

    Ohio State now gets a bye week to prepare for a visit from Wisconsin, and then gets two very winnable games against Indiana and Purdue before playing Penn State and Michigan back-to-back to end the season.

    While a win against the Badgers seems unlikely, the last four games are all very winnable now that the defense has ramped up its effort and the offense has found a groove.

    Its not a Big Ten title, but after the last year, Buckeye fans will take what they can get.

    Next Week: BYE

3. Nebraska 5-1 (1-1) (4)

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    Last Week: BYE

    Nebraska got the week off after a big win against Ohio State, and now gets a road trip to Minnesota to warm up for a home game against the suddenly front-running Spartans.

    Nebraska will need to find a passing game quickly, lest it fall into the same trap that Michigan and Ohio State did against the Spartans.  

    While Nebraska's defense should be good enough to hold Michigan State to reasonable totals, as it stands now, the offense doesn't look capable of overcoming the strong defensive front seven of Michigan State.

    In that case, the defense will need a complete effort to hold the average Spartan offense off the board and give the Huskers more chances to score.

    If Nebraska can win that game, it will be in the driver's seat for the Legends Division title and a rematch with Wisconsin.

    Next Week: at Minnesota

2. Michigan State 5-1 (2-0) (5)

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    Last Week: Beat Michigan 28-14

    The main storyline coming out of this game has been the focus on four straight wins against Michigan. While this is big, it overlooks the biggest development: this Michigan State defense is for real.

    The early schedule was enough to keep most people skeptical of just how good the Spartans were on defense.  Despite holding Notre Dame to its lowest yardage total of the season, Michigan State lost by three scores, and a win against the struggling Buckeyes didn't look much better.

    Shutting down Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense?  That is something to base a defensive resume on.  Up to that point, Michigan was one of the best offenses in the conference and country, and Denard Robinson was able to pick up yards on the ground and through the air almost at will despite an interception problem.

    The most impressive part of Michigan State's defensive performance was just how much Michigan was given.  A large number of Spartan penalties kept Wolverine drives alive and the Michigan offense only turned the ball over once.  Despite that MSU held the Wolverines to 250 total yards, less than a 50 percent completion rate in the passing game and less than two and a half yards per rush.

    Jerel Worthy looks every bit of the first round pick he is projected to be, and the Spartan defense is tough, gap-sound, and sure-tackling.

    Next week's game now looms large.  Wisconsin is without question the best offense in the Big Ten, and MSU has a prime opportunity to stake its claim to being the top defense in the Big Ten, as well as getting a little revenge on the Badgers after MSU was snubbed from the Rose Bowl in favor of Wisconsin.

    Of course, with the way things are going, the odds are good that this isn't the only time these two teams will meet this year.

    Next Week: vs. Wisconsin

1. Wisconsin 6-0 (2-0) (1)

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    Last Week: Beat Indiana 59-7

    Wisconsin took it fairly easy on the Hoosiers this time around.  After putting up 83 points last year, Wisconsin stopped just shy of 60.  Of course, with the game well over at halftime and a big matchup against Michigan State coming next week, it was as good a time as any for Wisconsin to rest its players.

    When Wisconsin was playing hard, there wasn't much it couldn't do.  Russell Wilson completed 12 of 17 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, and also caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Montee Ball. Ball was unstoppable on the day, going for 142 yards on 14 carries for three touchdowns, and James White added 87 yards and a touchdown.

    Defensively, the Badgers limited Indiana to just 3.2 yards per completion and 14 percent on third down while forcing three turnovers.  The one black eye for the Badgers?  Indiana gained five yards per carry on the ground, but if you remove Stephen Houston's 67 yard touchdown run that number drops to 3.5 ypc.

    Now the big question, can the Badgers avenge the only loss of 2010 in the same place it happened, Spartan Stadium?

    The ease with which Wisconsin has run the ball so far this season leads one to believe that the Badgers should be able to move the ball with some success against the Spartans, and the Badger defense has played well enough to inspire confidence going against a Michigan State offense that hasn't once this season put together a complete effort.

    However, if there is one thing Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is good at it is firing his team up after supposed "disrespect."  Missing out on the Rose Bowl after beating Wisconsin last year qualifies as one, but you have to believe that Bret Bielema's team wants revenge just as bad.

    Either way, its a win for fans of good ol' smashmouth football.  

    Next Week: at Michigan State