Wednesday, November 21, 2012
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13
By Adam Rittenberg
Ten items to track around the Big Ten on the final weekend of the regular season:
1. Bigger than The Game: Michigan defensive lineman Will Campbell told me this week that The Game never wavers in importance, whether Ohio State is 0-11 or 11-0. That's a good attitude for a player to have, but from the outside looking in, the Michigan-Ohio State game is much more appealing when there's a lot at stake for both teams. For the first time since 2007, that's the case. Ohio State aims for the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Michigan can hand the Buckeyes their first loss and possibly reach the Big Ten title game. This one should be fun. "It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said.
2. Bo knows: Stunned by his team's performance in a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini sat in the visitors' media room at Ohio Stadium and said, "Like I just told the football team, we need to win out. We need to win out." Few thought it would happen, and even Pelini's faith had to be wavering a bit at that low point. But Nebraska has won five consecutive games, rallying for three of the victories, and need only beat slumping Iowa in the Heroes Game to punch its ticket to Indianapolis. The Huskers have ridden the roller coaster all season, but they'd need a serious derailment in Iowa City not to fulfill Pelini's pledge.
3. Senior day in State College: There might never be another senior day at Penn State quite like the one Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Penn State will recognize a class that kept the team together during a tumultuous summer that included severe NCAA sanctions being handed down and several key player departures. "There's no doubt," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said, "that they set the tone for the future of Penn State football." Unfortunately, Penn State will play without senior linebacker Michael Mauti, a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year and the team's emotional leader. Mauti, who suffered a knee injury last week, will be recognized along with his classmates.
4. Spartans, Boilers face must-wins: Both Michigan State and Purdue entered the season with lofty goals, particularly the Spartans, pegged by many to win the Big Ten and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century. Few expected MSU and Purdue to be fighting for bowl eligibility in Week 13, but that's exactly the case. Michigan State must win at Minnesota, and coach Mark Dantonio is confident, saying Tuesday, "When we win Saturday -- and I'll say when -- we'll be a 6-6 football team." Purdue, meanwhile, aims for its third straight win when it hosts rival Indiana in the Bucket game. Will a 6-6 season save fourth-year coach Danny Hope?
Jim Tressel, now a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, will be part of Ohio State's celebration of its 2002 national-title team.
5. Tressel's return: Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will return to Ohio Stadium on Saturday for a reunion of the school's 2002 national championship team. It marks Tressel's first major public appearance at Ohio State since resigning from his post on Memorial Day in 2011. It will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes faithful react to Tressel, whose actions helped land the team in hot water with the NCAA. On the flip side, Ohio State's program is arguably better off with Urban Meyer as coach. "Some people will embrace it, some people will not," athletic director Gene Smith told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. "Some people will feel it's awkward, some people will not. I'm not going to feel it's awkward because I'm realistic -- he was part of that team. And I know what he means to those players."
6. Their kind of town: Northwestern and Illinois both want to increase their clout in the Chicago area. Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats have been the more consistent program in the past decade and take an 8-3 record into Saturday's clash with the Illini at Ryan Field. With a win, Northwestern will match its highest victories total under Fitzgerald, who would tie Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf for the school's career coaching wins record (90). Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman has emphasized the Northwestern rivalry from the moment he arrived. Perhaps his players will respond with a strong effort to end an otherwise miserable season.
7. Making their cases for awards: The Big Ten hands out all its awards next week, and races for offensive and defensive player of the year are still very much in doubt. Mauti's injury creates a potential opening in the defensive player of the year race, and a lot could depend on what happens in Columbus, as candidates such as Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and Ohio State's tandem of John Simon and Ryan Shazier take the field. Other candidates, such as Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, also are in action. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller remains the front-runner for offensive player of the year, but Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has been brilliant of late and could challenge Miller if he turns in a monster game at Iowa.
8. Boiler spoilers: Two weeks ago, Indiana was a home victory from putting itself in line to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game. The Hoosiers now know their season will end Saturday in West Lafayette, as they won't be going bowling for the fifth consecutive season. But Kevin Wilson's team still can reclaim The Bucket and prevent Purdue from making a bowl game. Wilson talked Tuesday about how the season doesn't feel like it's ending, and with so many young players, the future is promising. He downplayed the spoiler role, saying Tuesday, "It has nothing to do with what it does for them; it's about what it does for us. Winning is good for us. Winning builds us." Indiana has eight home games next season and should be in the mix for a bowl. A victory Saturday would be a nice boost before a crucial offseason.
9. Gray's day: Minnesota will recognize 15 seniors Saturday against Michigan State, and none has had a more unique career than MarQueis Gray. He arrived as a nationally heralded dual-threat quarterback recruit, played quarterback for a year, played primarily wide receiver for a year, started 10 games at quarterback in 2011 and opened this season as the top signal-caller but moved to wide receiver following an ankle injury. He will play primarily at receiver against the Spartans but had two rushing touchdowns last week and could see increased time in the backfield. Gray talked this week about "closing the chapter" on his Gophers career, and it'll be interesting to see how he performs in his final game at TCF Bank Stadium.
10. Denard and Devin: Michigan's Denard Robinson is healthy again, but how much quarterback he will play against Ohio State remains to be seen. Robinson's replacement, Devin Gardner, has been spectacular since returning to the quarterback role, accounting for 13 touchdowns in the past three games, including six last week against Iowa. Michigan started the Iowa game with Gardner at quarterback and Robinson at running back, and offensive coordinator Al Borges has the "creative juices" flowing as he crafts the game plan for Ohio State. Robinson and Gardner certainly give Michigan's offense a different look -- and some extra homework for Ohio State's improving defense.