Thursday, October 3, 2013
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6
By Josh Moyer
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 6:
1. Will the real Devin Gardner please stand up: The Michigan quarterback has been an anomaly in the last three weeks. He exceeded expectations against Notre Dame, the toughest test so far this season, but struggled against two cupcake opponents. He competed 64 percent of his passes against the Irish; he went 11-of-23 against UConn. He threw four touchdowns to one interception against Notre Dame; he posted three picks against Akron. He's going up against a middle-of-the-road Minnesota defense Saturday, and no one's quite sure what Gardner is going to show up. Is he finished struggling against mediocre competition? Or is this just the new normal?
2. Sixteen tries, zero wins: Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State 16 times. And, since 1993, the Hoosiers have beaten the Nittany Lions a grand total of … zero times. They've come close on six occasions -- losing by just one score -- but Indiana's hoping to reverse that trend this weekend. Redshirt senior Ted Bolser has watched his team fall to Penn State four times now, and he doesn't want to make it five. This will be the most up-tempo team PSU faces all season, and Indiana's hoping to catch the visitors off guard.
The return of running back Venric Mark is a huge boost for Northwestern as it tries to upset No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday.
3. Venric Mark returns: The Wildcats' offense is about to get quite the boost, as Mark will return after sitting out the last three games with a leg injury. He rushed for more than 1,300 yards last season and he comes back at just the right time for Northwestern. He's a big part of the option attack, which just hasn't been the same without him. And he'll likely play a big role against the Buckeyes. It's great timing for Northwestern -- and terrible timing for OSU.
4. Epic defensive matchup: At the final whistle, the Michigan State-Iowa score might just end up looking like a baseball tally. The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked defense, while Iowa isn't too far behind at No. 7. No other game so far this year has pitted two top-seven defenses against one another, and this should be an exciting one for fans who prefer low-scoring contests. The Spartans have come up with nine sacks and 24 tackles-for-loss in just four games, while Iowa ranks 12th in the country by forcing 11 turnovers.
5. Tailoring a game plan without Taylor Martinez: Martinez is still battling turf toe, and the Nebraska QB is questionable for Saturday's game against Illinois. If he can't go, offensive coordinator Tim Beck could opt to go with the same two-quarterback system he utilized against South Dakota State. That means redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III would split reps. Martinez started 32 consecutive games before the streak ended two weeks ago, so neither backup is exactly a proven commodity. Martinez could still play but, if he doesn't, there'll be quite a few extra question marks for the Huskers on Saturday.
6. Can Nathan Scheelhaase keep up this pace?: The Illini have already surpassed last season's win total, and Scheelhaase has been a big reason for that. He leads the conference in passing yards (1,162) and quarterback rating (174.8). Plus, he's second in completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt (9.5) and passing touchdowns (12). At this point, it certainly seems as if he belongs on the All-Big Ten team. And it'll be interesting to see if Scheelhaase's huge numbers can continue. He's going up against Nebraska's 105th-ranked passing defense this weekend.
7. Seventeen and counting Ohio State's 17-game winning streak is on the line against No. 16 Northwestern, and this matchup is once again the Big Ten game of the week. A convincing win here would help boost the Buckeyes' No. 4 ranking in the polls, while a Northwestern victory would help cement the Wildcats' status as a title contender. Pat Fitzgerald has been looking for his gritty team to take the next step, and this is the perfect opportunity. Urban Meyer, meanwhile, hopes to increase the nation's best winning streak and to pave the way to the national title game. Ohio State's the favorite, but no one's counting out the Wildcats.
8. Redeeming the secondary: OK, there are a few Big Ten teams that could fit under the title of "struggling secondary," but there's one team where that identity isn't quite clear yet -- Penn State. The Nittany Lions actually boast the No. 23 passing defense, BUT they were absolutely dominated by Blake Bortles and UCF. Indiana's eighth-ranked passing attack will be a tough test for the PSU secondary. And this will go a long way in determining whether UCF was an anomaly, or whether big passing numbers will be the new norm for Penn State's defense.
9. Forgetting the pig in favor of a jug: After starting out 4-0 and then losing the Floyd of Rosedale to Iowa, the Golden Gophers will get another chance at a trophy -- in the battle for the Little Brown Jug against Michigan. Of course, Minnesota has only won the trophy three times since 1968. Still, Jerry Kill keeps a replica of the trophy on his desk, and this would be a program-defining upset. The Gophers need one of those, as they have a difficult schedule coming up and a bowl berth certainly isn't guaranteed. Four of their next five opponents are Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State.
10. Bradley Roby trying to get back on track: He gave up a few big plays against Cal and then, against Wisconsin, Jared Abbrederis lit him up to the tune of 207 yards for the biggest game a Badgers receiver has had in a decade. Roby wasn't made available to the media this week, but his teammates voiced confidence in the preseason All-American. He is -- was? -- considered one of the nation's top cornerbacks, but that title might be in jeopardy. He's undoubtedly looking for a big play or two to help silence the doubters. Northwestern doesn't have the most high-powered passing attack so, if Roby struggles this weekend, those critics will only get louder.