Thursday, September 12, 2013
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3
By Josh Moyer
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:
1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.
2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.
3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.
Devin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.
5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns:Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."
6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.
7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.
8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.
9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.
10. Erasing the question marks:Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.