Michigan Wolverines: Ralph Bolden

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
9:00
AM ET
We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

Donnell Kirkwood: The Minnesota running back is somewhat quietly putting together a strong season. The sophomore ran for a career-best 152 yards and two touchdowns last week against Illinois, his third 100-yard game of the season. Kirkwood now has 819 rushing yards on the season and has a great shot at going over 1,000 for the year, especially with the Gophers reaching a bowl game. Minnesota's last 1,000-yard back was Amir Pinnix in 2006 (1,272).

Michigan's passing game: There's no doubt the Wolverines' passing game has improved with Devin Gardner at quarterback, which has seemed to raise the level of play of the receivers. Senior Roy Roundtree had 139 yards receiving last week against Northwestern and 64 yards the week before; Roundtree's previous season high was 33 yards. Jeremy Gallon had seven catches for 94 yards last week and four grabs for 72 yards the week before. Gallon hadn't caught more than three balls in a game since catching four in the season-opening loss to Alabama. As Kyle Meinke points out, Michigan has 520 passing yards the past two weeks under Gardner, compared to 482 in five previous Big Ten games from Denard Robinson.

Stock down

Indiana's rush defense: Well, this one is fairly obvious after the Hoosiers surrendered 564 yards on the ground to Wisconsin. That won't help your stats, and Indiana now ranks 118th nationally -- out of 120 FBS teams -- in allowing 244 rushing yards per game. What's most disappointing about last week's effort is the Hoosiers knew Wisconsin would have a first-time starter at quarterback, so the Badgers were going to try to run the ball as much as possible. Knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different things.

Iowa's running game: Focus on the failures in the passing game if you want, but Iowa's real problems are in its bread and butter: the running game. During the Hawkeyes' current four-game losing streak, they are averaging just 78 rushing yards per game and a mere 2.5 yards per carry. Offensive line injuries and the rotating cast at running back have played a large role.

Illinois' offensive line: The Illini struggles up front on offense aren't exactly new, but they're not getting any better, either. Illinois is last in the Big Ten with 21 sacks allowed through 10 games. That ranks the team 114th nationally. Tim Beckman will not get this program going until he first solves the issues on the O-line. "We've had tremendous problems protecting Nathan [Scheelhaase] or Reilly [O'Toole]," Beckman said. "We've got to continue to improve in those categories and get our young players going. We need to get ourselves in the weight room and get stronger and get much more physical."

Penn State's finishing kicks: No Big Ten team has been better at jumping out to an early lead than the Nittany Lions. But Penn State's second halves leave something to be desired. The team has either led or has been tied at halftime in all four of its losses, including last week when it lost 32-23 at Nebraska after taking a 20-6 lead into the break. "That's probably more of a discussion for after the season," coach Bill O'Brien said. "So in the offseason, we're going to dive into this thing and scout ourselves and see if we can improve. But over the next two weeks we need to make sure we do a better job of coming out after halftime."
Got to see a little bit of a different view Tuesday for the 20 allotted minutes of practice viewing for the media. Instead of watching just stretching, the media was brought in early, although not too much happened. Here's what we observed -- in bullet form:

  • Martavious Odoms has shed his protective cast on his arm for good. He was out there catching kicks. Taylor Lewan was at practice, with his left ankle heavily bandaged and tape on both of his wrists. Tough to tell whether the tape on the wrists was at least in response to his injury suffered against Michigan State. Ricky Barnum was also at practice, with his right ankle heavily taped.
  • Cornerback Troy Woolfolk, who has had multiple injuries this season, was at practice with no wraps or braces of any kind to be seen.

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