Penn State Nittany Lions: James Vandenberg
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.
As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."
Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- It's time to stop talking about Penn State as a nice little story.
The narrative about first-year coach Bill O'Brien getting the most out of his presumably talent-starved, transfer-wrecked roster sounds old, boring and, quite frankly, a bit condescending. Because even in praising O'Brien and his Nittany Lions, there's a subtle hint that things inevitably will fall apart. There's a suggestion that at some point, the letdown will happen -- at some point, Penn State will collapse under the weight of all that has happened to its program in the past 11 months.
Maybe it's time to be honest about Penn State. This is a merciless football team playing with tremendous confidence and urgency on both sides of the ball. O'Brien and his staff are one step -- or, in games such as Saturday night's -- three steps ahead of the competition, and they have more than enough talent to keep on winning.
Right now, the Big Ten has no hotter team than the Lions. A week from now, we could be proclaiming Penn State the Big Ten's best team.
"The sky's the limit for us now," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "Today just speaks a little about how well we can play."
O'Brien talked in July about the season being Penn State's chance to punch back. On Saturday night, the Lions scored a first-round knockout in a place where they hadn't won since 1999. It marked their fifth win in a row after an 0-2 start.
"Every day, we're running out of time," senior linebacker Michael Mauti said. "We don't believe in a lull or anything like that. You only have so many games to suit up in a Penn State uniform. That's something really special that we take a lot of pride in.
"There's so much emotion we bring."
Perhaps Penn State's strongest weapon isn't O'Brien's scheme, which has transformed one of the nation's worst offenses and one of the Big Ten's weakest quarterbacks (Matt McGloin). It isn't a stout defensive front seven or a group of surprisingly dynamic young receivers and tight ends.
It's urgency. The Lions have it, and it shows in their play.
"They know at the end of the day, there's only five games left," O'Brien said. "There's only five games left. So what are you going to do? OK, we're going to be flat today, and then the last four, we'll get up? I believe that these guys will come ready to play and be energized. Whether we win or not, who knows, but they'll be energized."
Open weeks haven't exactly been favorable to Big Ten teams in recent years. Many return to the field sluggish.
Penn State returned in fifth gear, shifting into its up-tempo offense -- O'Brien calls it NASCAR tempo -- on the game's second series and marching 84 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. The Lions kept the pedal down and scored on four of their next six possessions, as McGloin (26-for-38 passing, 289 yards, 2 touchdowns) spread the ball to several targets, namely freshman tight end Kyle Carter (6 catches, 85 yards), and received a big boost from a healthy Bill Belton (16 carries, 103 rush yards, 3 touchdowns) at running back.
"I didn't think we could come in here and huddle, and break the huddle, and run a normal pace," O'Brien said.
The result? "They couldn't keep up with it," McGloin said.
Penn State racked up 10 first downs and 187 yards in the first quarter, and finished the first half with 304 yards. Four players had multiple receptions, and Belton, finally near full strength after dealing with an ankle injury since the season opener, averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
A Lions offense that eclipsed 25 points just once in Big Ten play last season has put up totals of 35, 39 and 38 points in its first three league contests this season.
"Coach O'Brien's a great coach, and what he does is very unique and very effective," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "We're just proving it. Do we have an advantage? Coach O'Brien's the guy we have an advantage with because he's the coach."
Penn State's offensive renaissance under O'Brien has somewhat overshadowed a defense that keeps getting better each week. The Lions kept Iowa's offense out of the end zone for nearly 56 minutes -- the Hawkeyes scored on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter -- and surrendered just 20 rush yards on 23 carries. Iowa star Mark Weisman played despite an ankle sprain and had 9 yards on five carries.
Hill and Mauti triggered the defensive effort, combining for 17 tackles, including three for loss, and two sacks. Mauti had one of two interceptions against struggling Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg (17-for-36 passing, 189 yards).
"It was one of my better games," said Hill, who led Penn State with nine tackles. "[Defensive line coach Larry Johnson] always says, 'Who's going to rise to the occasion when you're playing under the lights?'"
Penn State will be back under the lights next Saturday when it hosts undefeated Ohio State. The forecast calls for a whiteout at Beaver Stadium. No Big Ten fan base cherishes night games like Penn State's. For seniors such as Mauti, McGloin and Hill, it'll be their last time playing in front of the faithful at night.
It'll also give Penn State an idea of exactly where it stands.
"It'll be the best team we play so far this season," Hill said. "It'll be a great test for us, and we're up for the challenge."
In O'Brien's eyes, why wouldn't they be up for it?
"When you play football at Penn State," he said, "you have a hell of a lot to play for."
Saturday night against Ohio State, Penn State will play for the title of Big Ten's best team.
1. Aggressive pass attack: PSU finally decided to get a little more aggressive. Bill O'Brien pulled out the early NASCAR no-huddle offense, and Matt McGloin tossed a few deep balls. Iowa simply had no answer for the passing game. McGloin finished 26-of-38 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and -- in what's becoming the norm -- no interceptions. He spread the field, found 10 different receivers and Iowa was unable to key in on just one or two targets. If this becomes the norm for PSU's offense, it could soon become the favorite to win the division.
Penn State is for real, folks.
Bill O'Brien has worked wonders with a limited roster in his first year as Nittany Lions head coach, and his team appears to be getting better every week. On Saturday night, Penn State waltzed into Kinnick Stadium -- a house of horrors for this program in the past -- and absolutely threw the hammer down on an Iowa team that came in riding a wave of confidence. The offense is clicking in ways we haven't seen in years from Penn State, and the defense is locking things down. The Lions are playing as well as anybody in the Big Ten right now, and nobody expected that.
Here's a look at how Saturday's wildly impressive 38-14 blowout of the Hawkeyes went down:
It was over when ... Penn State recovered a James Vandenberg fumble at the Iowa 14 and, two plays later, capitalized with a Bill Belton touchdown run. That made it 24-0 with 5:53 still left in the first half, and the rout was officially on.
Game ball goes to: Quarterback Matt McGloin. The fifth-year senior is the league's best pro-style quarterback, which is still a shocking development. He's had a great season and showed his burgeoning mastery of O'Brien's offense with a crisp performance, going 26-of-38 for 289 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. The defense also needs some major recognition after holding Iowa to zero offensive points until the final five minutes of the game.
Stat of the game: Iowa had just 21 rushing yards for the game, including five in the first half. Mark Weisman's ankle injury probably had something to do with that (he had just 9 yards on five carries) but Penn State's defense also played a large role. When the Hawkeyes can't run the ball effectively, they're pretty much toast. Extra-crispy burnt toast, in this case.
Unsung hero of the game: Penn State running back Belton was healthy for the first time since he hurt his ankle in the opener, and he ran 16 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns. Belton brings a much-needed speed element to the Nittany Lions' backfield.
What it means: During the bye week, O'Brien described Penn State's remaining schedule as "Murderers' Row." Well, his team played the executioner tonight. That's five straight wins for the Nittany Lions, and astute Associated Press poll voters will give them serious consideration for the Top 25 this week. A win next week over Ohio State at home could put Penn State in line for a Leaders Division title, even if that doesn't equal any postseason opportunity. The Nittany Lions will be extremely tough for any league team to handle the rest of the way if they can stay relatively healthy.
For Iowa, its 2-0 start in the Big Ten was exposed as potentially fraudulent with this train wreck of a performance at home. The Hawkeyes still don't appear strong enough offensively to hang with the best teams in the Big Ten, and a defense that had been playing at a high level lately was destroyed by O'Brien's attack. It was a costly loss, too, as two starting offensive linemen -- left tackle Brandon Scherff and guard Andrew Donnal -- left the game with what looked like serious leg injuries in the first half. For an offense already struggling to score points, that's a tough blow. The Legends race isn't out of reach, since this was a cross-division game. But the Hawkeyes still have difficult games left with Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska.
The bruising runner is listed as doubtful, but Hull didn't seem to care if he had a 1 percent chance or 100 percent chance of playing. Hull and the defense planned to treat this game the same way no matter what.
"We're preparing as if he's going to play just because he's been a big part of their offense," Hull said Wednesday. "He's made some big plays for them. He's tough, he's a big guy, and we're going to have to stop him for us to be successful."
But wouldn't the game at least be a bit easier without the 225-pound fullback-turned-tailback bursting through Penn State's defensive line?
"Well," Hull said, "their other backs have had success. He's just been a spark for them recently."
That just speaks to Iowa's lack of depth at the position. Just like Penn State earlier this season, the Hawkeyes have been forced to get creative with their depth chart.
Damon Bullock remains foggy after a Sept. 15 concussion and won't play Saturday. That means the true freshman with the tricky last name will get the start -- with Jordan Canzeri backing him up. Canzeri hasn't played yet this season after undergoing ACL surgery in the spring.
But Penn State's players didn't want to hear all that.
"We realize right now he's not on the depth chart," safety Jake Fagnano said. "But we're preparing as if he's going to be playing every down. Obviously, he's a big part of their offense."
Matt McGloin took that preparation talk one step further. Forget that injury uncertainty, he wanted to see Iowa's version of Zach Zwinak in the backfield Saturday night.
"It would be great to have him in the game and see him do his job," McGloin said Wednesday afternoon. "It's definitely good to see another kid have success who started out as a walk-on."
Penn State's quarterback could regret those words if Weisman somehow defies the odds to return. In the last two games -- both wins -- Weisman has accounted for more than 49 percent of Iowa's entire offense. His 6.3 yard-per-carry average this season is surpassed by only two tailbacks in the country who also have at least 100 carries.
McGloin complimented Iowa signal-caller James Vandenberg. But it's clear this is Weisman's offense -- and, without him, the Hawkeyes could struggle against the Nittany Lions' front seven.
"We are going through our preparations as if he's going to play," Pete Massaro said in a familiar refrain. "He's got a lot of ability between the tackles, but that doesn't change the fact they have a big and aggressive line."
After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.
It's prediction time ...
IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17
NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24
Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20
Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24
ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10
No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24
Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21
Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)
Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
League action officially begins in a couple of hours, starting with three intraconference noon games. Here's a quick preview of those early matchups:
Indiana (2-1) at Northwestern (4-0): Pat Fitzgerald said this week that Hoosiers-Wildcats games are usually close and entertaining. He's right. Before Northwestern’s 59-38 win in Bloomington last year, the previous seven meetings between these two were decided by a total of 26 points, including the Wildcats' three-point win in 2010, and huge comeback for a one-point victory in 2009. Indiana will have to try and stop a Northwestern rushing attack, led by Venric Mark, that has been one of the best in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers have the league's top passing attack and remain dangerous with Cameron Coffman at quarterback.
Penn State (2-2) at Illinois (2-2): We've had this game circled since late July, when the Illini sent eight coaches to State College to try and recruit some Penn State transfers. Nobody on either side said anything inflammatory this week, but it clearly is a major subplot in this game. Illinois' defense has struggled against spread offenses, which doesn't really describe the Nittany Lions. But Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson are the leading passer and receiver in the league, respectively. Illinois has some quarterback questions. Nathan Scheelhaase is expected to start, but he was pulled early for Reilly O'Toole in last week's Louisiana Tech game when he didn't look completely healed from a Week 1 sprained ankle.
Minnesota (4-0) at Iowa (2-2): The Gophers are looking to win the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the third straight year. That hasn't happened since 1998-2000. During that stretch (1999) was also the last time Minnesota won in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes should be an angry team after losing last week to Central Michigan, but James Vandenberg and his receivers must be on point against the No. 11 pass efficiency defense in the FBS. Max Shortell makes his second straight start at quarterback for the injured MarQueis Gray and will have to avoid turnovers like he did last week versus Syracuse.
No offense to those schools, some of whom gave Big Ten teams all they could handle. But we've seen enough of that nonconference stuff. This week brings what we've all been waiting for: conference play. It's going to be a wild ride, and here's how it starts:
No. 14 Ohio State (4-0) at No. 20 Michigan State (3-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The "College GameDay" gang is coming to East Lansing, which says as much about the national slate of games as it does this one. Not that we're not excited about this matchup. Braxton Miller running the Urban Meyer offense against Michigan State's No. 6 defense? Yes, please. But it's also true that these teams have been scuffling the past couple of weeks and have some major issues -- the passing game for the Spartans, tackling and finding other options besides Miller for the Buckeyes. Still, it'll be a big game in the Big Ten race and an emotional one for Michigan State, which has a ton of Ohio kids on its roster.
Wisconsin (3-1) at No. 22 Nebraska (3-1), 8 p.m., ABC: Last year, the Huskers made their Big Ten debut in Madison and left with their tails between their legs after getting thumped. This time, it's Wisconsin who comes limping into Lincoln after a very shaky nonconference schedule. The Badgers put together their best overall offensive performance against UTEP but also lost running back Montee Ball in the process. Meanwhile, Nebraska has been a scoring machine, ranking eighth nationally at 48.5 points per game. Wisconsin might have a hard time keeping up with Taylor Martinez and his pals, who are eager for redemption.
Minnesota (4-0) at Iowa (2-2), Noon, ESPN2: Oink, oink. It's Floyd of Rosedale time, and Minnesota is looking to bring home the bacon for a third straight year. But whereas the last two Gophers wins would be upsets, this time it wouldn't shock anybody to see Iowa lose. The Hawkeyes are struggling right now and need to win this game to avoid what would be a long two weeks heading into next week's bye. Jerry Kill has his defense playing at a high level, especially against the pass, and James Vandenberg will have to pick his spots carefully.
Penn State (2-2) at Illinois (2-2), Noon, ESPN: Penn State will see some familiar faces on the sideline, as eight of the Illini assistants lurked around State College seeking some transfers this summer. The Nittany Lions were not happy about that and now get a chance to do something about it. Probation and all, Penn State is actually feeling better about its season right now than Illinois, which has lost its last two games against FBS opponents by a combined score of 97-38.
Indiana (2-1) at Northwestern (4-0), Noon, Big Ten Network: Northwestern looks to move to 5-0 and will be heavily favored against the Hoosiers, who had last week off. The Wildcats have held their past three opponents to 11 points per game, but an improved Indiana offense should offer some challenges. Cameron Coffman is expected back at quarterback for IU, and former Northwestern assistant Kevin Wilson returns to Evanston.
Marshall (2-2) at Purdue (2-1), 3:15 p.m., BTN: Sorry, Boilers. We know you're playing well and all, but we just can't muster any excitement for this nonconference game when there are five league contests the same day. But Marshall should test Purdue's defense, as the Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing yards (383.5 per game) and are averaging 41 points. Of course, they're also allowing 42.8 points, so there's that.
Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.
Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.
There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.
Here we go ...
1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.
2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.
3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.
4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.
5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.
6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.
7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.
8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.
9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).
10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
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