Thursday, October 13, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track Saturday as a five-pack of Big Ten games is on tap.
1. A Legendary rivalry: Pardon the pun, but Michigan and Michigan State meet Saturday at Spartan Stadium with more than bragging rights on the line. The winner has to be considered the frontrunner in the Legends division. Michigan can improve to 7-0 overall, 3-0 in Big Ten play and, most important, 2-0 in division play with both wins coming on the road. Michigan State arguably has more on the line as Saturday marks one of just two Legends division home games. The Spartans still must travel to Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern, so defending their home turf against Michigan is critical.
2. Desperate Buckeyes hope to avoid history: These are tough times for Luke Fickell and the Ohio State Buckeyes, who are in an unfamiliar spot at 3-3 after last week's meltdown at Nebraska. A loss Saturday at No. 16 Illinois would drop Ohio State below .500 for the first time since 1999 -- and for the first time this late in the year since 1988, the Buckeyes' last losing season. After months of disappointing news and heightened criticism for Fickell and the coaching staff in recent weeks, Ohio State desperately needs something good to happen.
Will Denard Robinson be able to break loose against Michigan State, or will the Spartans bottle him up again?
3. Denard vs. the Spartan Swarm: "There's no way to stop that kid," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this week, referring to Michigan star QB Denard Robinson. While no team has slowed down "Shoelace" this season, Michigan State put the brakes on Robinson in 2010. The Spartans were the first team to stifle Robinson last fall in a 34-17 win, picking off three of his passes and holding him to just 86 rush yards on 21 carries. Michigan State has an even better defense this year, a unit that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed (173.4 ypg) and ranks third in points allowed (10.2 ppg). It'll be strength vs. strength Saturday as Robinson goes up against the Spartans' defense.
4. Must-win game at Kinnick: Night games at Kinnick Stadium are always electric, but the intensity level might go up a few notches Saturday as Northwestern comes to town. Both Northwestern and Iowa are winless in Big Ten play and in danger of moving closer to the league's bottom-feeders than the lead pack. Throw in the fact that Northwestern has won three straight at Kinnick and five of the past six against Iowa, and Hawkeyes fans will be geared up. They hope their team displays better energy after a lackluster performance at Penn State. One squad will walk out of Kinnick with some momentum.
5. The scoreboard at Camp Randall: Last year Wisconsin hung 83 points on Indiana, the third-highest total scored in a Big Ten game and the most ever allowed by the Hoosiers. The Badgers' offense is arguably more dangerous this year with Russell Wilson at the helm, and Indiana ranks 11th in the Big Ten in total defense (421.5 ypg). Will Bucky Badger eclipse his 573 push-ups from last year on Saturday, or will Indiana's defense respond and make Wisconsin work for its points? It should be interesting to see how Wisconsin looks following a bye week, and how Indiana performs at a place where it was embarrassed last year.
6. Penn State's never-ending QB competition: The biggest mystery in the Big Ten isn't who should start for Penn State at quarterback, but why it's taking Joe Paterno and his staff so long to reach a decision. The numbers point to Matthew McGloin over Rob Bolden, and Penn State's offense has consistently operated better with McGloin calling the signals. But Paterno isn't budging, saying he's not convinced one quarterback is better than the other. Perhaps Saturday's game against Purdue provides a resolution under center. McGloin can help himself with a completely clean performance after tossing an interception in the end zone last week against Iowa. Also worth watching: how Purdue uses quarterbacks Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve.
7. Illinois' Mercilus defense vs. Braxton Miller: Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has pulled the right strings for most of the season, mixing fronts and formations and maintaining an aggressive style from week to week. You can bet Koenning will turn up the heat on Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who left the Nebraska game with a sprained right ankle but will play against Illinois. Keep an eye on Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks (8.5) and leads the Big Ten in both tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (4). Illinois also gets linebacker Jonathan Brown back from suspension. Ohio State must protect Miller and find the gaps in Illinois' defense, as it did for the first two and a half quarters at Nebraska.
8. Rushing the field in East Lansing: It's all about the ground game in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. The team with more rushing yards has claimed 38 of the teams' past 41 meetings. Michigan State has outrushed Michigan 613-274 during its current three-game win streak in the series, but Michigan boasts the nation's No. 7 rushing offense, led by Robinson, the Big Ten's leading rusher (120 ypg). Michigan State is No. 3 nationally against the run, but the Spartans also must get their own run game going. Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker gashed Michigan last year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan State's green offensive line is still building chemistry and faces an improved Michigan defense.
9. Boom is back: You could see the difference in Ohio State's offense with left tackle Mike Adams back on the field from suspension at Nebraska. The Buckeyes regain another key piece as running back Dan "Boom" Herron returns from suspension at Illinois. Herron gives the Buckeyes another option in the backfield, which should allow Jordan Hall to be utilized in different ways. Herron is Ohio State's most seasoned skill player and a guy performed well in Big Ten games last year (876 rush yards, 11 TDs in eight games). With Miller likely not 100 percent, Herron could play a big role for the Buckeyes' offense.
10. Persa vs. Vandenberg: The Northwestern-Iowa game could be a high-scoring affair, and quarterbacks Dan Persa and James Vandenberg will have opportunities to showcase their talents. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense (439.4 ypg) and pass defense (263.8), so Vandenberg and his receivers should regain their swagger after a rough outing at Penn State. Persa shredded Iowa's defense in the fourth quarter of last year's game in Evanston, firing the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left and rupturing his Achilles' tendon on the play. The senior has been sharp since his return and faces an Iowa team allowing its opponents to complete 64.7 percent of their passes.