Week four in an on-going series on the teams of the Big Ten conference...
Well, that was unexpected. If I had told you last week that the Big Ten would have gone 1-2 in their games against the Pac-10 (and nearly 0-3), would you have believed me? Perhaps. But if I had also told you that the only wining team would be Wisconsin, that Minnesota would play USC very close for three quarters, and that Iowa would have been thoroughly embarrassed in the desert, would you still have believed me?
And yet, that's what happened. Things in the conference have gotten a lot more uncertain all of a sudden. Beyond the consensus number one team in Ohio State (who could still be upset unexpectedly as they were last year with Purdue) we now have a conference that has a middle tier that is about as defined as a bowl of jello pudding. Mmm. Pudding.
Unfortunately, this mess won't start to sort itself out until after this week. Week four in the conference brings a suite of games that are mostly forgettable. Barring any ridiculous upsets, there are perhaps only two games that will tell us more about the teams of the Big Ten. One of those games will tell us whether a middle tier team will make a run at the top, and the other will perhaps give an indication of who really is the worst team in the conference. Which games are they? Read on to find out.
Week Three Recap:
Big 10 Conference Standings
(updated 9.19.2010 at 5:02 AM CDT)
|Ohio St. Buckeyes||0||0||3||0|
|Michigan St. Spartans||0||0||3||0|
|Illinois Fighting Illini||0||0||2||1|
|Penn St. Nittany Lions||0||0||2||1|
|Minnesota Golden Gophers||0||0||1||2|
Week three in the conference was defined by the hosting of three games against the teams of the Pac-10, a rubber match against the Irish, and seven games against lower tier FBS or FCS competition. Though the games weren't as exciting on paper as those in week two, they certainly proved to be a lot more interesting than their first impression.
Massachusetts at No. 20 Michigan (Michigan, 42-37)
The Michigan offense (aka Denard Robinson) once against displayed their scoring prowess, as they put up six touchdowns on their inferior competition. But the story of the game is not about the offense. No, this game tells the story of a defense that nearly got upset by a team that's in a conference with the likes of Villanova. For football. Our third look at the Wolverines has really confirmed what we suspected before - this is a team that will be relying on their offense to score points faster than their defense gives them up all season long. Assuming Robinson stays healthy (a big assumption), that is going to be the battle every week. Win the scoring speed battle and they win the game. Get stalled? Not so much. The real question at this point is whether the hardier defenses of the Big Ten will be able to slow down the Michigan tempo.
Ohio at No. 2 Ohio State (Ohio State, 43-7)
There really isn't much to be said about this game. Ohio State once again dominated an in-state school, and looked good while doing it. Terrelle Pryor really is coming into his own, though his two INTs against a team like Ohio are a bit of a concern. For now, the Buckeyes remain King of the Hill, and are just daring one of the other conference teams to take them down.
Kent State at No. 22 Penn State (Penn State, 24-0)
A good rebound showing by Penn State this week. There was some concern that the ugly loss to Alabama in week two would cast a Virginia Tech like shadow over the Nittany Lions, but that certainly was not the case. Rob Bolden continued to show that in a year or two he will be a stud at QB, while the PSU defense looked competent, preventing Kent State from finding the end zone and keeping the team to just over 200 yards of offense total.
Northern Illinois at Illinois (Illinois, 28-22)
The good news for Illini fans: they didn't get upset by the Huskies. The bad news? Illinois did not have this game put away until the very last moments of the fourth quarter. While we still haven't seen anything to indicate that the Illini will be anything but bottom feeders in the conference this year, the development of Mikel Leshoure (rushed for 180 yards and a TD) and Nathan Scheelhaase (only 70 yards passing, but 115 rushing yards and a TD of his own) suggest that perhaps brighter times are on the horizon over the next few years.
Ball State at Purdue (Purdue, 24-13)
The Boilermakers continued their shaky start to the season, just managing to down Ball State, largely on the strength of Cortez Smith's excellent two touchdown receiving effort. Robert Marve also "tweaked" his knee and missed significant portions of the game. He should be back for next week's tilt, but Purdue's lack of consistency remains a concern. A bowl game remains within reach, but that whole pre-season "surprise team in the conference" label is looking more misplaced with every week.
No. 18 USC at Minnesota (USC, 32-21)
A week after getting embarrassed by South Dakota, Minnesota somehow managed to rebound and keep their game against one of the "better" teams of the Pac-10 within a touchdown for three quarters. I said last week that this game would give us some idea of what the identity of the Gophers will be this season. I knew that a loss was almost certain, but that the game would give us one of two outcomes. Either the Gophers would roll over to the Trojans and suggest that they were destined to spend the rest of the season as the "sad sack" of the conference. Or, they would keep the game close and look like the off-kilter team that can pull an upset on any opponent they catch napping. After this game, I think the latter is much more likely than the former.
Arizona State at No. 11 Wisconsin (Wisconsin 20-19)
How Wisconsin managed to stay at No. 11 in the polls after this win I will never know. The play of the Badgers was nearly as embarrassing as that of the Hawkeyes against their own Arizona competition. The only difference? The Badgers somehow eked out a win. Scott Tolzien had a slightly better day, as he turned in a completely turnover free performance. John Clay was good again, and Lance Kendricks showed that Wisconsin continues to produce some of the best tight ends in the entirety of college football. But, just as with the Hawkeyes game, the Badgers special teams was atrocious. Arizona managed more yards and touchdowns on their kick returning squad than on either their passing or rushing offenses. Bucky only came away with a win this week because of the Sun Devils mistakes and just a little bit of luck. The refrain for Wisconsin remains the same: a conference championship or BCS game is only in the cards if they get their play together in a hurry.
Indiana at Western Kentucky (Indiana, 38-21)
Like their in-state brethren at Purdue, Indiana has looked to be the pre-season dark horse team that is just a bit too shaky to be trusted. Are they 2-0? Yes. And Ben Chappell continues to impress, with a 366 yard, 3 touchdown, 0 interception performance. But the truth with Indiana is they still look a bit shaky on defense and are looking at opening their conference slate against Michigan and Ohio State after this week's matchup against Akron. Is a bowl game possible? Yes, but with an in-conference schedule that features tilts against five ranked teams, they'll have to have more than luck on their side.
Northwestern at Rice (Northwestern, 30-13)
With their win at Rice this week, Northwestern has become one of the more interesting teams in the conference. Yes, it was against Rice, but this was a Rice team that gave Texas conniptions in week one. Dan Persa continued his absurd accuracy, connecting with his receivers at a 75% clip good for 307 yards and a TD. He also ran for another. And the Wildcat defense improved from its Vanderbilt performance to keep Rice without a touchdown until the fourth quarter. If Persa keeps this up, he could be NFL bound just like his predecessor Mike Kafka. But can he? It all comes down to whether the offensive line can hold off the pressure from better defenses during conference play.
Notre Dame at Michigan State (Michigan State, 34-31 OT)
First off, we at the Big Ten Digest send get well wishes to Spartan coach Mark Dantonio, who suffered a heart attack after his team's thrilling victory on Saturday. Here's to a speedy recovery.
What a game this was. After watching Denard Robinson shred the Irish in week two, we thought that the Irish and Sparty would be pretty evenly matched. We were right. This game went back and forth for the entire game. After about the second quarter you could predict that every score by one team would be answered by the other. What you couldn't predict? That Dantonio would call a fake field goal pass to the end zone in overtime, sealing the win. Could Sparty have one of those special seasons this year? Just maybe...
No. 9 Iowa at No. 24 Arizona (Arizona, 34-27)
Oh boy. The final score of this game doesn't really indicate just how awful the Hawkeyes were for much of it. Whether it was due to the extreme heat in Arizona, the west coast time change, or something else, they just did not look like the conference championship contending team we all expected them to be. Ricky Stanzi threw his first pick-six of the season, though he did partially redeem himself with 287 yards and two touchdowns by game's end. This was clearly a bad week for Iowa. They will not be this bad in the future, and will likely storm back with a vengeance as we head into conference play. But... barring losses by pretty much every other ranked team, there will be no national championship in Iowa's future this year. Take down Ohio State and run the table, and a trip to the Rose Bowl could still be in order, however...
BONUS: No. 8 Nebraska at Washington (Nebraska, 56-21)
Mercy. I knew that Nebraska would get a victory in Washington this week, but I had no diea how soundly that victory would come. The Huskers defense made Jake Locker look silly. And despite having a quarterback in Taylor Martinez who only threw for 150 yards and a single touchdown, the Cornhuskers managed to get six touchdowns on the ground on the back of three different players (including Martinez himself) rushing for more than 100 yards each. If there are any left who don't think Nebraska will be playing for the Big 12 championship this year, they clearly haven't been watching the same games I have.
Week Four Preview:
The last week of non-conference play is (mercifully) here! Yes, it's a week that offers precious little in the way of excitement, but the smell of actual-games-that-matter on the horizon should be enough to keep you going. Sort of like bad office coffee at 2 in the afternoon.
Central Michigan at Northwestern (11AM)
One of the only interesting games on this week's slate is the hosting of the Chippewas by the Wildcats on Saturday morning. Currently second in the MAC (behind Toledo of all teams) Central Michigan, though now without Dan LeFevour, still remains an intimidating non-conference presence. They feature the 25th best passing offense and 4th best defense in the nation, though those numbers have been bolstered by games against Hampton and Eastern Michigan. This is a defining game for the Wildcats. If they can make it out of non-conference play 4-0 and healthy, they will position themselves for a great season and some very exciting conference games. A loss, on the other hand, would confirm their status as merely middle of the road.
Northern Colorado at No. 25 Michigan State (11AM, Big Ten Network)
Spartan football, now available in the ranked version! Look, Northern Colorado is not a scary opponent, even for a team like Michigan State that has a secondary made of swiss cheese. The questions for this game are whether Mark Dantonio will be on the sidelines (unlikely) and more importantly, how Sparty will play without his presence. Personally, I'd like to see a crushing victory for Michigan State. The more teams we legitimately have in the conference mix, the better.
Bowling Green at No. 21 Michigan (11AM, ESPN2/ESPN3.com)
Another game, another week for Blue fans to cross their fingers and hope Denard Robinson doesn't get hurt. Bowling Green should, much like Northern Colorado, not be a challenge to Michigan even though they, like their in-state brethren, have sketchy pass coverage. As much as I hate these matchups, I comfort myself with the knowledge that conference play is only a short ways away...
Austin Peay at No. 11 Wisconsin (11AM, Big Ten Network)
In doing my write-up for this game, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to pronounce Austin Peay. Is it like Jake Peavy but without the "v"? Or perhaps it's more like Austin Pe-AY like "ole!" Fortunately, I have the official website of the Austin Peay Governors to answer the question for me:
How Do You Pronounce "Peay"?
Just like the letter "P". Or like the southern vegetable, "black eyed pea." Ask an APSU fan the proper pronunciation and they'll tell you, As in ..."Let's Go Peay!"
The cheer "Let's Go Peay" became APSU's battle cry during its first two NCAA appearances in the early 70's.
I only wish I was capable of making stuff this good up. Seriously, though, this game should not be a challenge for Wisconsin. The operative word here is "should." Given the way the Badgers have played lately, who knows if they'll actually manage to have a clean victory. It'd be a first on the season.
Ball State at No. 18 Iowa (11AM, Big Ten Network)
Oh do I feel sorry for Ball State. Why? Because the only response to expect out of an Iowa team that was just embarrassed against Arizona is a victory so soul-crushing and brutal that their competition won't even be salved by the oodles of money they were given to show up to this game in the first place. Iowa will win this game, and they will do it in a convincing and clean fashion. Will the voters in the polls care? Not a whit. Unfortunately for Hawkeyes fans, redemption won't be forthcoming until they take down in-conference foes.
Toledo at Purdue (11AM, Big Ten Network)
Another game in which we get to watch Purdue probably garner a victory but definitely do it in a less than convincing fashion. Will Robert Marve's tweaked knee be healthy for this weekend? Unknown. Can the Boilermakers erase that kind of icky taste in the mouth that I get every time I watch them play this season? Also unknown.
Eastern Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State (2:30PM, ABC)
I sort of want to know how this game made it onto ABC. Okay, yeah, finally Ohio State isn't playing an inferior team from Ohio. No, this week they've decided to play an inferior team from Michigan. It's an improvement! Really! This game should only be on your TV on Saturday afternoon if you have no other college football options. The tried and true, "Move along, nothing to see here..." applies both because of the boredom this game will inspire and the image of a chalk outline surrounding Eastern Michigan on the pavement by the end of the game it conjures up.
Temple at No. 23 Penn State (2:30PM, Big Ten Network)
This game could be interesting. If only because Temple has actually beaten teams such as Connecticut (who gave Michigan a run for their money in week one) and Central Michigan this season. Penn State's defense looked back to form this past week, but their running game still is a bit iffy and Rob Bolden is still a freshman. The Nittany Lions should win, of course, but there is slight upset potential.
Akron at Indiana (6:00PM, Big Ten Network)
Much like the Purdue game this week, we get to watch Indiana likely beat a team but do so in a not all that convincing fashion. Will Ben Chappell have crazy passing numbers this week? Probably. Will the Indiana defense give up at least one touchdown they shouldn't have? Almost certainly. If the Hoosiers want any hope of getting to a bowl game this year they need another win this week, because their in-conference schedule is just downright scary.
Northern Illinois at Minnesota (7:30PM, Big Ten Network)
The evening game in week four is the other intriguing matchup this week. This is the game that is likely to give us an idea of whether Illinois or Minnesota will be the worst team in the conference this year. Illinois beat Northern Illinois (just barely) in week three. Minnesota kept a game against USC within reach. Therefore, Minnesota should beat Northern Illinois by at least ten points. Unless they actually play like themselves, in which case they'll lose in slightly embarrassing fashion.
BONUS: South Dakota State at No. 6 Nebraska (6:00PM)
Nebraska rounds out their non-con schedule with a visit from the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Much as I love the great state of South Dakota (great faces... great places... indeed), there will be no upsets here. Nebraska is simply too good. All I want to know is how insane the spread will be. Look for Nebraska to make chislic out of South Dakota State. Mmm. Chislic.
Most likely rout: Ball State at Iowa. Woe unto the Cardinals for the pain that will be brought by Herky will be mighty and terrible indeed.
Most likely upset: Temple at Penn State. Penn State should be good enough to win this game easily, but Temple has been a bit of a surprise this season...
Best game to watch: There really aren't many options this week. The Northwestern game will be good if you can find it on TV, else the Michigan game will be fun if just to watch Denard Robinson zoom around the field all day. Big Ten speeeeeed!
Big Ten player of the week: Dan Persa, Northwestern QB. Other teams have easier opponents, but I think Persa steps up to the challenge and continues his scary accuracy.