Big Ten Digest: It's Heeeeeere! Conference Play Finally Starts In The Big Ten

Week 5 in an ongoing series on the teams of the Big Ten...

So Week 4 in the Big Ten has concluded and we've learned ... well, nothing really. The most uninteresting week of the season by far (also known as the Big Ten - MAC "challenge") saw a pair of teams in the conference act like they had suddenly put Urban Meyer at the helm, two bottom of the barrel teams playing like bottom of the barrel teams, and the rest of the conference winning games that they were supposed to win.

And while we saw some new developments this week - Wisconsin beat a non-con team by more than three TDs! Iowa has a running game! - for the most part, the games this week went as expected. We didn't see anything, that is, to tell us how the middle tier of the conference (now including every team except for Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois) will actually shake out this year. The good news is that Week 5 (finally!) brings conference play, and with it, a real look at just how good or bad teams in the Big Ten are. Some will win, some will lose, and some are born to ... be coached by Tim Brewster.

 

News update:

Two Big Ten quarterbacks suffered knee injuries on Saturday, as Denard Robinson of Michigan and Robert Marve of Purdue both went down. Marve is expected to be out for "awhile" (which probably means the entirety of the season) and, for those keeping track, makes the third key offensive player that Purdue has lost this season. Ralph Bolden is already out for the season with a torn ACL, and wide receiver Keith Smith too suffered knee damage in the form of a torn ACL and MCL. Going into the season it looked as though Purdue might have the pieces to put together a dark horse run, but the injury bug has made that exceedingly unlikely at this point.

The news on Robinson is, by contrast, mostly good. Though he came out of the game after his injury, there was no serious damage and he could have gone back in had Michigan wanted him to play. Since he is pretty much the entirety of the offense, however, Rich Rodroguez made the safe choice and relied upon Devin Gardner and Tate Forcier instead. Denard should be back for this week's game.

Also on the news front, congratulations go out to Joe Paterno for claiming his 150th career Big Ten win with Penn State's victory over Temple this weekend.

 

Week 4 Recap:

The games in Week 4 were, for the most part, predictable. A few offered excitement, but if you spent most of your Saturday watching games in other conferences, no one would blame you.

Central Michigan at Northwestern (Northwestern, 30-25):

The Wildcats and Dan Persa continued their impressive start to the season by going 4-0 after defeating the Dan LeFevour-less Central Michigan Chippewas. With this victory, the ‘Cats have now won all of their non-conference games for only the second time since 1962 (2008 is the only other year this has happened).

Northwestern played decently, but not as well as they could have. Though the offense was mostly clicking, with Persa throwing for 280 yards and two TDs, he did serve up his first INT of the season in the end zone. Stefan Demos also had a blocked point after in the first quarter, and when all was said and done, the defense ended up giving up 423 total yards, which isn't exactly a number to write home about. The lesson from this game is that Dan Persa, if given time and protection, can essentially move the ball down the field at will. However, the defense is still in a state where even a small mistake in the later part of a game could cost them dearly.

Northern Colorado at No. 25 Michigan State (MSU, 45-7)

Well, the Spartans responded to the temporary loss of Coach Dantonio by coming out and crushing Northern Colorado. Kirk Cousins continued his improvement of late, with 290 passing yards, two TDs, and no interceptions. Freshman running back Le'Veon Bell added another three rushing TDs to his season total, already at an impressive seven in just four games. Of course, Northern Colorado was a team that Michigan Spate was supposed to beat with ease. The Spartans seem to be clicking, but can they keep it up against tougher competition in the weeks to come?

Bowling Green at No. 21 Michigan (Michigan, 65-21)

The good news for fans of the Maize and Blue? Even if Denard Robinson is taken out of a game, Devin Gardner and Tate Forcier can step in and keep the offense rolling. The bad news? Blue's defense once again gave up multiple touchdowns to an inferior opponent. It's starting to look like Wolverines fans should expect all of Michigan's games to be shoot-outs this year. Keep Robinson and his backups healthy, and the offense will roll. That's great, because they're going to need it...

Austin Peay at No. 11 Wisconsin (Wisconsin, 70-3)

So did Urban Meyer drive up from Florida, put on a Bret Bielema suit, and coach the Badgers on Saturday? It sure seemed like it, given the beat down that Wisconsin put on hapless Austin Peay. This game actually set a modern scoring record for the Badgers, whose previous high was 69 points set in 1962. Yeah, it's been that long. Tolzien had a solid game, throwing for 217 yards and two TDs, but the real standout was the running game. Even though John Clay was being rested for most of the game (he had only 118 yards and a TD in limited play) the Badgers ground game still managed to grind out over 200 more rushing yards and SIX touchdowns. Four of those TDs came on the back of an outstanding day by freshman James White, with Montee Ball and Bradie Ewing contributing the other two. Though it's important to remember that Austin Peay isn't exactly a tough opponent, it's good to see the Badgers actually win a non-con game in convincing fashion this season.

Ball State at No. 18 Iowa (Iowa, 45-0)

As predicted, Iowa dropped the hammer on Ball State as it bounced back from its disappointing showing against Arizona in Week 3. Ricky Stanzi continued the parade of Big Ten quarterbacks throwing for more than 200 yards, with 288 yards and three TDs. A good effort, but the big news was the running game - specifically Adam Robinson and his 115 yards and two TDs. The ground game has always been a struggle for the Hawkeyes of recent years, as their star RBs tend to get hurt before seeing much action. If Robinson keeps it up, Stanzi refrains from his pick-six tendency, and the defense stays strong, then the Hawkeyes may yet find themselves smelling roses this year.

Toledo at Purdue (Toledo, 31-20)

Someone needs to check the water on Purdue's campus, as it seems to produce ACLs that are all too susceptible to tearing. Yet another Purdue player went down with a season ending knee injury - quarterback Robert Marve. As tempting as it would be to say that Purdue will rise above the loss of their star RB, star WR, and starting QB, that's just not realistic. Purdue is headed for the cellar of the conference this year, and every injury loss just accelerates that trip.

Eastern Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State (OSU, 73-20)

Apparently after coaching the Badgers to their 70-point victory, Urban Meyer took off his Bret Bielema suit, teleported to Columbus, and put on his Jim Tressel suit to coach the Buckeyes to their very own drubbing of a vastly inferior opponent. It was an unusual site to see Coach Tressel running the score up past 50 on a bad opponent, but perhaps the Buckeyes were trying for style points? Who knows. Just as with Wisconsin's game, while it's great that OSU can put together such a dominant performance, it's relatively meaningless until we see them in conference action. Then again some of the teams in the Big Ten are probably worse than random directional Midwest schools ... I'm looking at you Twin Cities.

Temple at No. 23 Penn State (Penn State, 22-13)

Well it's certainly good that Penn State survived against the Owls, after making a second-half comeback. What's not good is that they had to make a comeback in the first place. Oh I know, Temple is a surprise team this year. That's all well and good, but games like this just don't make me believe that Penn State is the fourth best team in the conference this year. Fifth? Maybe. Sixth? Yeah that's probably more like it. This year will be a rather mediocre one for Nittany Lions fans, but with Rob Bolden coming into his own, it won't be long before Penn State finds the top again.

Akron at Indiana (Indiana, 35-20)

Indiana collected its third win of the season as Ben Chappell once again put up ridiculous passing numbers, throwing for 342 yards and four TDs. Much like Michigan, Indiana is a team with a prolific offense and a sketchy (at best) defense. While the troubles of Purdue and Minnesota have made a bowl game a possibility for the Hoosiers this season, their in-conference schedule is quite the steep hill to climb. But just maybe...

Northern Illinois at Minnesota (NIU, 34-23)

Oh Minnesota. At this point, can I even say that I'm disappointed? If a team plays to your expectations, even if those expectations are low, I guess it really isn't disappointment. The Gophers are two things this year: the worst team in the conference, and the team with the crazy eyes. I've said it before, but what you need to worry about when you see Goldie on your schedule is that it will be the week that Minnesota decides to turn in a performance like they did against USC. Is it going to happen frequently? No. But then again, the uncertainty is sort of what makes them crazy. Minnesota won't win very many games this year, but there's just enough talent on that team that if everything breaks right for them in a given week, the Gophers could pull off a surprising upset.

 

Week 5 Preview:

Conference play is finally here! And it certainly opens with a bang. Week 5 features two games with undefeated teams of similar styles duking it out to see who really belongs in the conference title conversation. Every team but Purdue is in action this week, and all but one game should be entertaining.

Northwestern at Minnesota (11 a.m., ESPN)

Unbeaten Northwestern opens in conference play with their first trip to The Bank. This is a game that should give us an idea just how good Northwestern is going to be this season. We know the Gophers aren't going to play well, but what we don't know is whether the Wildcats will be able to capitalize on that. If Fitz and the ‘Cats can put together a dominant win over Minnesota, they might just find themselves at 5-0 and mentioned in the same breath as Michigan State. If they turn in a Cardiac Cats style victory on the other hand? Well, then it looks like a middle tier bowl is all that's in store for them this year. I don't even want to touch on the implications of a loss.

No. 2 Ohio State at Illinois (11 a.m., Big Ten Network)

This is one of those games that makes Buckeye fans nervous. They know that to get to the national championship game this year they need to run the table. One loss won't do it. The team certainly has the talent, and should have no trouble in its actual challenging games, but it's the sneaky upsets like Purdue of last year that could derail the season for OSU. Even knowing the Zooker's coaching ability, the Fighting Illini have looked improved enough at quarterback with Scheelhasse and at running back with Leshoure that an upset is certainly not out of the question. But for that to happen, everything has to go right at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. At the very least, we know this game will be more entertaining to watch on TV than the one against Eastern Michigan, and that's a plus, right?

No. 19 Michigan at Indiana (2:30 p.m., ESPNU)

The first of our unbeaten games sees two offensively minded schools squaring off. Conventional wisdom says that Indiana's inability to defend the run on a consistent basis (combined with their shaky secondary) will outweigh Michigan's entirely too porous defense. But could they be wrong? We know that Denard Robinson and Ben Chappell are basically the entirety of their team's respective offenses, so this Saturday really comes down to who is more consistent. As good as Michigan has looked at times this year, an upset by Indiana is definitely within reach. And if this is the week that Robinson gets seriously hurt? All bets are off.

 No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 24 Michigan State (2:30 p.m., ABC)

Finally, a worthwhile Big Ten game on ABC! The second of our undefeated vs. undefeated matchups pits the newly resurgent Badgers against the newly resurgent Spartans. Both teams have green-ish secondaries and quarterbacks that can either be excellent or mediocre, depending on the day. Wisconsin has a killer ground attack in John Clay, backed up by Montee Ball and James White. Michigan State has a killer ground attack in Le'Veon Bell, backed up by Edwin Baker. Really, these teams could not be more similar. The team that wins this game is the one that belongs in the top of the conference conversation. If they minimize their mistakes, that team should be the Badgers.

No. 22 Penn State at No. 17 Iowa (7:05 p.m., ABC/ESPN)

The Big Ten's evening game features a matchup of two long time foes, both sitting at one loss. Iowa needs to dominate this game to have any hope of heading to the Rose Bowl or a BCS bowl game this year. Penn State needs to put together a strong showing to prove that they haven't fallen off the map in 2010. Iowa has traditionally had Penn State's number over the last few years, but now that they're favored again, perhaps that will change? My money in this game is on Iowa, if just because I think that their solid defense will make Rob Bolden pay for the mistakes that he will inevitably make. I wouldn't be surprised if this game looks like a re-run of Penn State's visit to Alabama earlier this year. That is, a lot of chances for the Nittany Lions, and a lot of missed opportunities. The score will be closer in this game than in that drubbing, but I think the Hawkeyes still come away with a solid W.

 

Hilary's Picks:

 

Most likely rout: This honor goes to the Ohio State at Illinois game. Oh sure, the Fighting Zookers could put together an upset at Memorial Stadium. But as we saw last week, Ohio State is gunning for style points and national recognition. If the Illini have a bad game, don't expect Tressel to let up.

Most likely upset: Michigan at Indiana. Michigan faces its first true test in a team that is a slightly worse mirror of itself. If Indiana finds some way to stop the option part of Denard's run-pass option, and Ben Chappell is his usual pass-happy self, then the Hoosiers could walk away with an upset over a ranked team.

Best game to watch: Week 5 is an ABC week for the Big Ten. Start your afternoon with Wisconsin and Michigan State and move on to the evening theatrics of the Nittany Lions at the Hawkeyes. An exciting time will be had by all.

Big Ten player of the week: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. It's a bit unconventional to select a defensive player here, but I think Clayborn and the Iowa defensive front make the iffy Nittany Lions o-line and freshman QB Rob Bolden pay.    

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