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Big Ten Digest: And Then There Were Two...

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Week seven in an on-going feature that looks at the teams of the Big Ten conference...

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Well Big Ten fans, we've come a long way since the beginning of the year. With the games last week and the upcoming ones this week, we've reached the half-way point of the season. By the end of this week every team in the conference will have at least half of their regular season in the books. Some of what we knew going into the conference has held up: OSU still looks like the best team in the conference. Some of the likely challengers in Iowa and Wisconsin have faltered in the early goings, however. Penn State, previously thought to be an upper echelon team, has been working out kinks due to the youth on its roster. Michigan has been exposed as an offensive juggernaut that couldn't tackle Betty White on a run up the middle. And how about Michigan State? Did anyone really see that coming at the beginning of the season? We've been waiting for them to collapse and (knock on wood for the all the State fans out there) it just hasn't happened yet.

So those have been the stories in the first half. What questions have those happenings raised for the second half? Well, I'd suggest a few. Will Ohio State's sometimes erratic play on the part of Terrelle Pryor cause them to drop a game on their march towards at spot in the national championship? Can Michigan State avoid the late season collapse this year? Will Iowa or Wisconsin take advantage of match-ups against OSU to make a run at the conference title? Will Northwestern or Michigan make it to eight wins? Can Illinois, Purdue or Indiana make themselves bowl eligible despite a dismal season beginning?

My early feelings right now are that all of the above (except MSU collapsing) will happen. OSU will falter at some point, though whether it will come in the form of a loss or just a very ugly win I am uncertain. The two teams best poised to make that happen are Iowa, and then Wisconsin. At least one of Northwestern or Michigan will make it to eight wins. As well, at least one of Illinois, Purdue, or Indiana will be a second half surprise and become bowl eligible. Will I be right? Well, there's only one way to find out, so stay tuned...


News Update:

Before we get to the rankings watch, two items of note. First, congrats to Jim Tressel, who earned his 100th win as the Buckeyes coach with last weekend's rout of Indiana. He also became the first coach in conference history to reach that milestone in just 10 seasons. Ohio State has been one of the most consistent programs in the conference in that time span, so it's really no surprise to me that he reached that milestone so quickly. The Buckeyes will have big shoes to fill whenever Tressel decides to call it quits.

In the latest NCAA statistics this week, the Big Ten is first among all conferences in the number of quarterbacks with highest passing efficiency. The conference has six QBs ranked in the top sixteen: Ricky Stanzi (3rd - 176.85), Dan Persa (4th - 173.27), Terrelle Pryor (sixth - 170.4), Kirk Cousins (ninth - 167.55), Denard Robinson (12th - 164.11), Scott Tolzien (16th - 160.59). And you thought this was a rushing conference.


Rankings Watch:

The biggest news in the rankings watch this week is the ascendancy of OSU to the No. 1 spot after ‘Bama lost at South Carolina. Most of the other movement was minor, with already ranked teams shuffling by a few places.


Was: No. 2 in the AP Poll, No. 2 in the Coaches Poll

Now: No. 1 in the AP Poll, No. 1 in the Coaches Poll


Was: No. 15 in the AP Poll, No. 15 in the Coaches Poll

Now: No. 15 in the AP Poll, No. 14 in the Coaches Poll


Was: No. 17 in the AP Poll, No. 17 in the Coaches Poll

Now: No. 13 in the AP Poll, No. 11 in the Coaches Poll


Was: No. 18 in the AP Poll, No. 17 in the Coaches Poll

Now: Unranked in the AP Poll, No. 24 in the Coaches Poll


Was: No. 20 in the AP Poll, No. 19 in the Coaches Poll

Now: No. 18 in the AP Poll, No. 16 in the Coaches Poll


Was: Unranked in the AP Poll, No. 25 in the Coaches Poll

Now: Unranked in the AP Poll, Unranked in the Coaches Poll


Week Six Recap:

 Week six saw two undefeated teams fall, and one team pull off a surprising upset...

Big 10 Conference Standings

(updated 10.10.2010 at 3:29 AM CDT)

Indiana at No. 2 Ohio State (OSU, 38-10)

Given the play of both of these schools in recent weeks, we thought this had the potential to turn into the upset of the season. Unfortunately for Hoosiers fans, that was not to be. While Ben Chappell is a monster in most games, he was held in check by the formidable Buckeye defense - throwing for only 106 yards, two interceptions, and no TDs. Further, the shaky Indiana defense we saw against Michigan in week five proved to be too easy to pick apart for Terrelle Pryor, who hasn't really been throwing all that well lately. Pryor managed 334 yards in the air as well as three TDs. While Indiana has definitely made it past their biggest challenge of the season, they still will need to pull an upset or two to make it to bowl eligibility.

Illinois at Penn State (Illinois, 33-13)

While this game certainly had upset potential written all over it, did anyone expect that Illinois would do so with a twenty point margin of victory? Didn't think so. Also interesting - Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure were merely average this past Saturday. Scheelhaase threw for 150 yards with no TDs, and Leshoure ran for just over 100, but also had no TDs. This game really turned on two things: special teams and defense. Illinois' kicker Derek Dimke was a perfect 4/4 on the day, including making field goals from 41 yards and 50 yards. The Illini D also managed to take advantage of a Rob Bolden mistake, as Nate Bussey returned Bolden's only INT on the day for a TD. The Illini held the Nittany Lions to just 235 total yards. Even more interesting, and perhaps troubling, for PSU fans was that Evan Royster was kept to only 35 yards. What has happened to him?

Minnesota at No. 20 Wisconsin (Wisconsin, 41-23)

For the seventh straight year, the Wisconsin Badgers will be keeping Paul Bunyan's axe on the east side of the Mississippi. Scott Tolzien had a great game against the lackluster Gophers defense, throwing for over 200 yards and a TD, while avoiding throwing an interception. But the real story came on the ground for Wisconsin as John Clay and James White managed to tag team for 129 yards and five TDs. On the Minnesota side, Adam Weber actually had a really good day, throwing for three TDs on 250 yards. But it just wasn't enough with Wisconsin running over Minnesota's D all day. The reality for Gophers fans is that this is a lost season. Next year, the defense will have a season of experience under its belt, and hopefully a new head coach.

No. 17 Michigan State at No. 18 Michigan (MSU, 34-17)

We knew this was coming. Michigan's hot start was filled with troubling defensive performances and a secondary that often looked like swiss cheese. Many predicted that as soon as Michigan had to go toe-to-toe with a team that had an offense as well as a legitimate defense, they would find themselves in a world of trouble. They were right. MSU more than matched the Wolverines on offense, at 536 total yards to Michigan's 377, while at the same time largely controlling Denard Robinson, who threw three picks in the game. This game tape will probably be studied by every single coordinator in the Big Ten who has Michigan on their schedule this year. It contains the formula for beating Big Blue - but can any other team capitalize on it?

Purdue at Northwestern (Purdue, 20-17)

Ick. If any game this week showed the importance of competent special teams, it was probably this one. Northwestern's special teams were responsible for two missed field goals and two muffed punts, one of which was turned over and resulted in a field goal for the Boilermakers. Credit the Boilermakers for a nice bounce back performance. They've been devastated by injuries this year, but they're still going to show up to games and attempt to make the most of what they do have. Northwestern on the other hand, needs to get its mistakes under control in a hurry if they want to make it to more than just the Pizza Pizza Bowl this year.

BONUS: Kansas State at No. 7 Nebraska (Nebraska, 48-13)

This game made me so happy that both Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson are not graduating any time soon. I cannot wait for a match-up between those two. Of course, if Michigan doesn't develop a defense by that point it will be a lot less exciting, but still. Kansas State had been having an excellent season this year, but Martinez continued to impress, throwing for one touchdown and running the ball in himself four more times. The Nebraska D also managed to do its job, holding Kansas State QB Coffman in check for only 91 yards. Perhaps the only troubling aspect was that the Huskers did allow 186 return yards... perhaps special teams is their weakness this year?


Week Seven Preview:

 Both undefeated teams in the conference are back in action in week seven, and one team finally rounds out its non-con schedule as it looks for a fourth win.

Arkansas State at Indiana (11:00 A.M., ESPNU)

Indiana needs to win this game. That is not an exaggeration. The Hoosiers conference schedule is brutal, and getting two more wins (if they win here) is going to be difficult enough. With the notable improvement in Illinois, three wins may be extremely tough. Fortunately, Arkansas State out of the Sun Belt isn't exactly a formidable opponent. The Red Wolves rank 100th in FBS in points allowed and gave up 438 passing yards in a week two loss to Louisana-Lafayette. If Ben Chappell and the Indiana defense can bounce back from the let down of the Ohio State game, they shouldn't have much problem here.

Illinois at No. 13 Michigan State (11:00 A.M.)

What an interesting game we have here. I'm sure most Spartan fans, at the beginning of the season, circled this game as "automatic win." And that was before Sparty started playing as well as they have been. And for most of this year, that would have been the conventional opinion. Except... just two weeks ago Illinois nearly upset Ohio State and did upset Penn State last week. The Fighting Illini are rapidly, and surprisingly, improving with the play of Scheelhaase and Leshoure. Can the Illini take down the Spartans? Possibly. But going in to East Lansing to do it isn't exactly the easiest of tasks. Yes, the victory against Penn State was on the road, but Michigan State is a far better team than PSU this year. If they're still focused and on their game, they should win comfortably.


Minnesota at Purdue (11:00 A.M., ESPN2 / ESPN3)

 Another week, another game between teams with seriously demoralized fan bases. Purdue looked good in their victory over Northwestern, but the injuries are still going to haunt them in every game they go into. Minnesota has just looked... bad. Could they beat the Boilermakers? Yeah. But it's kind of like watching a fight between a blind man and a guy with one leg. Someone's going to win, but you're not going to feel good at the end.

No. 15 Iowa at Michigan (2:30 P.M., ABC / ESPN)

 Denard Robinson will try to bounce back after the disappointment against MSU, and Iowa will try to prove that they shouldn't be forgotten. After their terrible performance at Arizona, Iowa has been playing much better of late. Sure, they have to go on the road to the Big House, but, unfortunately for Big Blue, Iowa now has the perfect game plan for beating the Wolverines. Oh and they also have a good defense, just like Sparty.

No. 1 Ohio State at No. 18 Wisconsin (6:00 P.M., ESPN / ESPN3)

The evening game of the week features a game that Badger fans and players have been waiting for since October 11th of last year. Perhaps one of the most eager for this game is Scott Tolzien, who looks to have a better performance than his 250 yard, 0 TDs, 2 INT showing. Oh, and those two interceptions both resulted in TDs. Eesh. Last year, the OSU special teams and defense put 21 points on the board for the Buckeyes. More than their entire offense. Still, the last time OSU had to come to Camp Randall, they just narrowly walked away with a victory. If John Clay is healthy and Scott Tolzien controls the football, we might just see the second No. 1 ranked team go down in as many weeks.

BONUS: Texas at No. 5 Nebraska (2:30 PM, ABC / ESPN)

For the second week in a row, Big Ten fans will be able to watch Nebraska in action as the Huskers host the Longhorns in a nationally televised game. This game is of course the rematch after Texas edged out Nebraska in the Big 12 championship last year on a controversial last second field goal. Nebraska has looked almost unstoppable this year, and Texas is out of the top 25 for the first time since 2000. But while I think the Huskers walk away with a comfortable and much desired win, they can't go to sleep on Texas, who will still bring everything they have as they try to take down the Big 12 favorites.


Hilary's Picks:

Most likely rout: Arkansas State at Indiana. 438 passing yards allowed to Louisiana-Lafayette? Seriously? Look for Ben Chappell to hang at least 300 on the Red Wolves, if not more.

Most likely upset: I so badly want to write the Illinois game, but instead I'm going with Ohio State at Wisconsin. The difference here is the venue. MSU is at home, while OSU is headed to a very hostile Camp Randall. Wisconsin has to have their best game of the season for this to happen, but if they do, Buckeye fans better watch out.

Best game to watch: We lucked out with scheduled times this week. Start your morning in East Lansing and see if the Illini can continue their improvement. In the afternoon, watch newcomer Nebraska dismantle the Longhorns. Finally, round out your evening with a trip to Madison to see if the Badgers can pull a South Carolina on Ohio State.

Big Ten player of the week: Greg Jones, LB, MSU. Watch for him to be the difference in the Illini game. He's a beast, and he'll make sure Illinois doesn't leave with an upset.