Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Big Ten Wednesday mailbag
By Brian Bennett
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: You used the term "signature win" for the the Gophers. How do we know if that win over Nebraska was a signature win? We don't know if it was until the program changes levels. If the Gophers lose their remaining games this year, will it be a signature win? If they finish in the top 25 this year but don't make a bowl game next year, was it really a signature win? It comes down to 'what is a "signature win"' (sort of like what is an MVP).
Brian Bennett: Don't overthink this one, Craig. Beating Nebraska -- for the first time since 1960, no less -- is absolutely a signature win for this coaching staff at Minnesota. Here's what Jerry Kill said this summer:
"We play three or four rival games. We need to get one of those, maybe do it with a [last-minute] field goal. Everywhere I've been, we've had kind of a signature game where it flipped and we really got going for the program. ... That's where we're at in Minnesota right now. We need to find one of those."
Remember that the Gophers' Big Ten wins in the Kill era before last week were against a mediocre Iowa team, Purdue and Illinois (twice). Whether Nebraska turns out to be a great team this year is besides the point, because the Huskers are a marquee name. And Minnesota didn't even need to win on a late field goal, as it beat Nebraska by double-digits.
Husker from Wayzata writes: Saw your response about Bo Pelini in the Take Two. Agree with most of it, but worst/most deflating loss of his tenure is still 2009 at home to Iowa State. Personally, I'd classify the performance against MN as the very predictable overlooking an opponent and not taking a game seriously coming off of a longer layoff. Think 2008 Colorado/2009 Texas Tech/2010 Texas/2012 Northwestern.
Brian Bennett: The Iowa State loss was truly a bad one and the first one I thought of over the weekend. But that Nebraska team also finished with 10 wins and nearly beat Texas in the Big 12 title game (Iowa State went on to finish 7-6 and, ironically, beat Minnesota in a bowl). In other words, the 2009 loss was a key setback but not a crippling one for a very good Huskers team. The Minnesota loss feels like it could be a turning point in Pelini's tenure, unless Nebraska can come up with a strong November showing. We shall see.
Alex from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: How concerned should we be with PSU's defense moving forward? And I mean not just for this season but the duration of Bill O'Brien's tenure. I was concerned when Bill was hired that this was clearly an offensive hiring and was not too excited about Ted Roof, but at least last season's defense performed admirably. While I'm not against having a more exciting and competent offense, I feel that Penn State had always had a basis on defense (which is why we're known as Linebacker U). Looking at this season and even with the recruiting focus it is clear that there is a focus on the offensive side of the football. What are your thoughts?
Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question, and one you always have to wonder about when an offensive-minded guy is the head coach. I also believe the scholarship situation is a real problem here. I think it's easier to build an offense without tremendous depth, since one or two stars at key positions can make a big difference, than it is on defense, especially in today's offense-first world. (Ask Kevin Wilson at Indiana how that's going). It's pretty obvious to me that Penn State is light on speed and difference-makers on defense and really misses the outstanding group of seniors it had on that side of the ball last year.
With all that said, it's still shocking to see the Nittany Lions give up 147 points in three games, even if it came against three of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. I'm not terribly worried about the long-term defensive prognosis under O'Brien, because he's a smart enough coach to figure that out once he gets to play with a full deck. But in the short term while the sanctions are still being felt, defense could remain an issue.
Mark from Arizona writes: Where has Mark Weisman been in the 2nd halves lately? Against Ohio State, he dominated the rushing game. Because of that, Iowa dominated the clock. Because of that, the Buckeyes offense couldnt get in sync. Then the 2nd half comes and Weisman disappears and Iowa starts throwing the ball. They fixed what was working in the first half and lost the 2nd half. If they kept pounding away like they did, I think Iowa would have won the game. Then comes Northwestern. Same thing. Iowa ran Weisman in the first, dominated in all phases, and then did the disappearing act with him and nearly lost. This is poor coaching.
Brian Bennett: I don't think it's poor coaching as much as it is game situations and adjustments by the other teams.
Let's look at the Ohio State game. Iowa had only two possessions in the third quarter. On its first one, Weisman opened the drive with a 12-yard run and then had a four-yard carry. But two plays later, the Buckeyes stuffed Damon Bullock on first down. When it's second-and-nine, that's a passing down. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, they threw two straight incompletions and had to punt.
The following drive began with a holding penalty, and then Jake Rudock threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Jake Duzey. I think you'd agree that was a good play call. Weisman did not get a carry in the fourth quarter, but Iowa trailed by a touchdown on the road and probably felt it needed to make something happen in the passing game.
In the Northwestern game, the Hawkeyes' best drive of the game came on its first possession, similar to the week before. Weisman ran for 32 yards on that drive, and Iowa scored a touchdown. But Northwestern shut the running game down after that; Iowa would not reach the end zone again until overtime; in fact, after rushing for 68 yards on the opening drive, the Hawkeyes would finish with just 136 rushing yards.
I would like to see Iowa stick with Weisman a little longer, because he tends to wear down opponents late in games. But it's hard to run when opponents are loading the box or if you're trailing in a game that doesn't feature many possessions.
John from Northern Michigan writes: Compare and contrast the last games played by Wisconsin and Sparty, the entire games. Oh, just happens to be common opponent. Too bad that isn't a protected rivalry.
Brian Bennett: Michigan State beat Illinois 42-3, one week after Wisconsin won in Champaign by a 56-32 margin. I'm not sure how instructive the comparative scoring is here. The Spartans led only 7-3 late in the first half before completely taking over, while the Badgers were up 42-17 at one point and probably could have scored 70 if they really wanted. They also didn't have their best defensive player, Chris Borland, for most of the game. What those two outcomes told me was that Illinois is simply overmatched against the best teams in the conference. Wisconsin's a little stronger offensively, while Michigan State is better defensively. I have both those teams ranked No.s 2 and 3 in the Big Ten right now. I would love to see them play this year, but barring a completely unexpected Ohio State meltdown, it's not going to happen.
Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, I can't help but wonder what the impact would have been if Vanderbilt wouldn't have pulled out of this year's game with Ohio State. Let's imagine Ohio State beats the Commodores by two touchdowns. Would this have had any effect on their perceived strength of schedule?
Brian Bennett: My answer: not much. Vanderbilt is 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, with its best victory coming over an injury-ravaged Georgia. Beating the Commodores would have helped Ohio State's strength of schedule a little, but it wouldn't have added much to the Buckeyes' case. They would still be behind Alabama, Oregon and Florida State in the pecking order. I'm not sure there are many teams out there Ohio State could have scheduled on short notice that would have changed that.
T.J. from Ashland, Wis., writes: Hey Brian, just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your Blog and have always enjoyed your wit, more this year than any other year I can remember...because...NO ONE ELSE IS TALKING ABOUT THE B1G!!! I've caught three different college football shows on ESPN, and not once was any B1G team mentioned. Outside of the BTN, do you remember a year like this, where it's obvious that there is zero interest in the B1G? Concerns? How long could this continue?
Brian Bennett: Well, it's not terribly different than last year, and at least this season the Big Ten has a legitimate national title contender since Ohio State is eligible for postseason. But the Buckeyes' status is pretty static, and nobody else is making any noise in the BCS picture right now, which means that the league is fairly irrelevant on the national scene. Same goes in many ways for the Big 12, which has Baylor but not a whole lot else. It also means there aren't many games that create a buzz across the country. For example, the Michigan-Michigan State game this weekend has all the makings of a classic. But when it's No. 21 vs. No. 22, it just doesn't get people talking as much.
This is a problem, and it's why we have written and said on numerous occasions that the Big Ten needs to develop depth at the top of the league beyond Ohio State. When an SEC team has a bad season, the conference usually has several others who can pick up the slack. The Big Ten needs somebody else, whether it's Michigan State, Michigan or Wisconsin, to go on a run and give the league another prominent team besides the Buckeyes.
Vincent R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: After watching Braxton Miller against Penn State, I saw something in him that I saw in a player most Ohio State fans will remember: Troy Smith. As Braxton was squirming his way out of potential sack after potential sack, I began to see the drive in Braxton that I hadn't seen out of an Ohio State offensive player since the last Heisman Trophy winner. To top that off, after making these great dodges in the pocket, he had the presence in mind, just like Smith, to look down field and see the open man. Bearing this in mind, that Braxton looks as good now as Smith did his senior year, could Braxton Miller win the Heisman next year?
Brian Bennett: It would be interesting to see where Miller would be in this season's Heisman race had he not gotten hurt early. He'd probably be behind Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, but maybe not too far behind. Miller has been terrific in Big Ten play, and he has his completion rate up to over 70 percent. Assuming he returns for his senior year, which at this point looks like the right call, he'll be a leading Heisman contender in 2014. The reason to exercise caution on that, however, is the fact that the Buckeyes will lose four senior starting offensive linemen. There's also a better-than-decent chance that Miller could have a new offensive coordinator, since Tom Herman should be a hot name in the offseason for head coaching gigs.
Jim K. from New Cumberland, Pa., writes: Brian, seriously you think that PSU is going to put up 48 points on Ohio State,. NO way! I agree Ohio State's defense is not as good as usual but they won't give up that at the 'Shoe.
Brian Bennett: I have run some readers' terrible Friday predictions the following week in the mailbag this year. So it's only fair for me to include an email about my own awful score call in the Penn State-Ohio State game. At least I got the winning team right, which is all that matters in my contest with Adam for a St. Elmo's dinner.