For the 45th year in a row, Athlon Sports will release its in-depth preseason preview annual complete with coaching changes, behind the scenes features, scouting reports from within the locker room, pages of recruiting rankings, and most importantly, in-depth predictions and previews.
The finalizing of recruiting in the Big Ten for 2011 symbolizes the end of an extremely transitional year for the country’s most lucrative conference. (Well, at least it's over for now.) Heartland powerhouse Nebraska is now recruiting to the Big Ten, and it didn’t take long for the Huskers to assert their influence, finishing No. 2 in the league rankings this fall.
Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.
Here are "The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011" in the Big Ten.
There certainly is no shortage of storylines for the Big Ten conference heading into 2011. Three one-loss teams claimed championship honors in 2010. Rich Rodriguez has a tenuous grip on his ever-warming coaching seat at Michigan. Terrelle Pryor and some of his teammates will miss roughly half of the ’11 season due to suspension. Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin has to replace a majority of its starting lineup. And Jerry Kill takes over as the head coach at Minnesota.
Have I mentioned that the third-winningest program in NCAA history is joining the league, forcing a divisional split and Big Ten title game for the first time in the league’s 115-year history?
TP2’s eligibility might be the most impactful, on-the-field issue of the off-season, but there is no doubt that Nebraska’s first season in the league — and all that that entails — will steal most of the preseason headlines.
For starters, Nebraska will get its first shot at the Legends’ (for now) division title at the same time as everyone else. Michigan State and Michigan appear to be the biggest competition to the Big Red. Sparty is coming off a one-loss Big Ten campaign that earned it a conference championship but has to replace its heart and soul on defense as Greg Jones and Chris Rucker depart. A deep stable of talented running backs, a seasoned veteran at quarterback and some talented receivers could make Michigan State the team to beat.
Michigan’s quarterback Denard Robinson will enter his second season as the starter for the Maize and Blue. He is arguably the most exciting player in the game but has to stay healthy. There is talent around him on offense, but until something (anything!) is done to the dramatically improve the Wolverine defense, RichRod won’t be hoisting any Big Ten championship trophies anytime soon.
Minnesota is in total rebuilding mode and Northwestern is always a bit better than the roster indicates. Iowa is the wildcard. They are always a well-coached squad with solid talent. However, Kirk Ferentz has to replace his veteran starting quarterback, the Hawkeye’s all-time leading receiver, three-fourths of a stellar defensive line and plenty of talent in the back seven of his defense. The Hawks will be in major rebuilding mode next fall, but always seem to play good football every Saturday.
Nebraska will have to address major losses on the defensive side of the ball. That leaves Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and company to improve the offense enough to cover for the defense early in 2011. With added toughness and maturity, Martinez could push Robinson and Pryor for “most exciting quarterback in the Big Ten” next fall. He could also lead his team to the first annual Big Ten title game in the Huskers’ first Big Ten season.
Jim Delany didn’t do Bo Pelini any favors as his first Big Ten schedule is murderous: at Wisconsin, at Penn State and Ohio State at home are the cross over games. Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern at home divisional games while trips to Michigan and Minnesota are the two road trips within the division.
LeShoure's pending decision will be huge for Illinois.
In the Leaders Division, it is unfortunate that suspensions could play the biggest role in determining the champion. Pryor will miss the first five games next fall, so he should get to play most of the Big Ten schedule. How a slow start in non-conference play affect the Buckeye’s Big Ten title hopes remains to be seen, but OSU will once again be loaded along the line of scrimmage.
Wisconsin, much like Iowa, is looking at major losses. Arguably the four most important offensive players need to be replaced. Quarterback Scott Tolzien has led the Big Ten in passer efficiency two years in a row and claimed the Johnny Unitas Award this fall. Tight end Lance Kendricks and left tackle Gabe Carimi could be the best player at their position in the nation. The backfield will be absolutely stacked — whether John Clay is in Madison or not — but the holes will be a bit smaller as the offensive line will need to replace Carimi and fellow All-Big Ten-er John Moffitt.
Penn State and Illinois are a bit of a mystery and are in similar situations. Both have young quarterbacks and offenses built around running the ball. Both need to rebuild inconsistent offensive lines. And both should be strong in the front seven on defense. The difference could be Mikel LeShoure and the Illini rushing attack. If quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can get the ball down the field and open running lanes for LeShoure (assuming he does not go pro), then Illinois has a chance to be THE surprise team in this division. Very few quarterbacks improved from the first to second half of the 2010 season more than Scheelhaase — few quarterbacks are as fun to watch as him either.
The schedule could favor Illinois too, as Penn State travels to Champagne in the first week of conference action (a home test against Alabama doesn’t help momentum either). Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State and Western Michigan could give the Illini an unbeaten mark heading into that first conference game with Penn State. The cross overs also favor the Illini. Ron Zook will face Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan from the Legends Division while JoePa will take on Michigan State, Iowa and Minnesota.
With Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and LeShoure still holding plenty of NFL cards, its tough to peg the Illini for 2011. If all return, the Illini could be the top contender to Ohio State. If not, Penn State is the biggest hurdle for Ohio State in the division.
Legends Division Predictions (key losses)
1. Michigan State: WR Mark Dell, TE Charlie Gantt, OL D.J. Young, OL John Stipek, DE Colin Neely, LB Greg Jones, LB Eric Gordon, DB Chris L. Rucker, S Marcus Hyde
2. Nebraska: RB Roy Helu, TE Mike McNeill, DE Pierre Allen, DT Jared Crick*, CB Prince Amukamara, DB Eric Hagg, K Alex Henery
3. Michigan: OL Steve Schilling, LB Jonas Mouton, LB Obi Ezeh, CB Troy Woolfolk
5. Iowa: QB Ricky Stanzi, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, OL Julian Vandervelde, OL Josh Koeppel, TE Allen Reisner, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Christian Ballard, DT Karl Klug, LB Jeremiha Hunter, LB Jeff Tarpinian, S Brent Greenwood, P Ryan Donahue, S Tyler Sash*
6. Minnesota: QB Adam Weber
Leaders Division Predictions
1. Ohio State: WR Dane Sanzenbacher, OL Justin Boren, OL Michael Brewster*, OL Mike Adams*, OL J.B. Shugarts*, OL Bryant Browning, Cameron Heyward, DT Dexter Larimore, LB Brian Rolle, LB Ross Homan, CB Chimdi Chekwa, CB Devon Torrence, S Jermale Hines, QB Terrelle Pryor*
2. Penn State: RB Evan Royster, OL Stefen Wisniewski, DT Ollie Ogbu
3. Illinois: WR Jarred Fayson, RB Mikel LeShoure*, OL Randall Hunt, OL Ryan Palmer, S Travon Bellamy, LB Nate Bussey, LB Martez Wilson*, DT Corey Liuget*
4. Wisconsin: QB Scott Tolzien, TE Lance Kendricks, OL Gabe Carimi, OL John Moffitt, RB John Clay*, S Jai Valai, LB Culmer St. Jean, DE J.J. Watt*, CB Niles Brinkley, WR/KR David Gilreath
5. Purdue: TE Kyle Adams, DE Ryan Kerrigan
6. Indiana: QB Ben Chappell, OL James Brewer, WR Tandon Doss*
* - Underclassmen who could still decide to enter the NFL Draft.
Athlon will be awarding postseason honors to each BCS conference in the country. Today we look at the Big Ten’s best for 2010.
For the sake of this exercise, the Heisman and Bednarik will function as MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. The Outland will be given to the offensive lineman of the year while the Lombardi will be given to the defensive lineman of the year. Two fictitious awards, the Adrian Peterson Freshman of the Year honor and the Desmond Howard return specialist of the year award, will be given as well.
Heisman Trophy (MVP/POY): Denard Robinson, Michigan
The definition of the Heisman is the “Most Outstanding Player.” While Robinson might not be the toughest or most efficient player in the league, he certainly was the most outstanding. He is the only player ever to rush for 1,500 and throw for 1,500 yards in a season — and he actually topped 2,300 and 1,600.
Chuck Bednarik Award (Def. POY): Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
The Boiler defensive end led the conference in sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (26.0) while posting 70 total tackles. In a conference loaded at the defensive line (JJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborne), Kerrigan showed up as the best one in 2010.
Davey O’Brien Award (QB): Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
How can the MVP of the league not be the best player at his position? Because Robinson wasn’t the best quarterback in the league. In fact, this was a toss-up between Pryor, Scott Tolzien and Dan Persa. Tolzien was the most efficient and won a conference title. Persa was clearly more valuable but missed some time late. Pryor is easily the most talented, won a title and posted the most productive season (other than D-Rob). In a controversial decision, TP2 gets the nod as the best quarterback in the conference.
Doak Walker Award (RB): Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
I really wanted to vote Denard Robinson as the best running back in the league. He led the conference in rushing, leading LeShoure by nearly 300 yards. In the purest form, however, LeShoure was the best running back in the league. He was second in the league with 16 total touchdowns and helped carry/develop a freshman quarterback for a middle of the pack team.
Fred Biletnikoff Award (WR): Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
The gritty, little (5-10, 180) wideout made the tough catches all season long. He led the conference with 10 TD receptions, was second in yards with 889 and sixth in catches per game with 4.3. He also had one of his best games of the year (6 rec., 102 yds) in a tough spot against Iowa.
John Mackey Award (TE): Lance Kendricks
This was one of the few easy selections as Kendricks is the best tight end in the nation. Despite missing time, Kendricks still led the highest scoring offense in the conference in catches (3.25) and yards (52.3) per game. His blocking is wildly underrated as well.
Outland (O-Lineman): Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
Carimi, a national Outland finalist, helped lead the Badgers to a conference-leading 45.2 ppg and 242.2 rush yards per game — the second time a team has averaged more than 45 points per game in conference play since 1936 (Penn State, 48.1 ppg, 1994).
Jones was the Big Ten's best linebacker.
Dick Butkus Award (LB): Greg Jones, Michigan State
The preseason All-American finished with a team-leading 98 total tackles, his first two INTs, three forced fumbles and 8.0 tackles for loss. The Spartans rush defense was third in the Big Ten and 20th nationally, and their scoring defense was also third in the league and 24th nationally.
Jim Thorpe Award (DB): Chimdi Checkwa, Ohio State
The most talented shutdown corner in the league was a first-team all-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media. Checkwa led the team in interceptions, was used as a blitzer from time to time, had 42 total tackles, four solo TFL and had eight passes defended.
Lombardi Award (D-Lineman): Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
See The Bednarik Defensive Player of the Year award above.
Adrian Peterson Award (freshman): James White, Wisconsin
The freshman from Florida finished fourth in the league with 108.6 rushing yards per game and led the Badgers in rushing with 1,029 yards. He averaged 7.0 yards per carry and scored 14 times on the ground. He was the game-changer at tailback for Wisconsin.
Lou Groza Award (K): Dan Conroy, Michigan State
Conroy had made 14 straight field goals before missing his first kick in nearly two full seasons when he missed his only field goal of the year against Northwestern. He missed only one of 45 extra points on the year.
Ray Guy Award (P): Anthony Santella, Illinois
The Illini punter was sixth nationally and led the conference in punting at 45.7 yards per punt.
Desmond Howard Award (KR/PR): Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
This was a tough call because a few names could have been picked. David Gilreath’s opening kickoff for a touchdown against Ohio State was easily the biggest return of the year in the league. DJK from Iowa led the league in kick returns, but only Martin was used as both a punt and kick returner. He scored once on a punt return and led the league in that category.
Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year (HC): Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
Wisconsin was picked third in the preseason, but wins against No. 1 Ohio State and on the road at Iowa in back-to-back weeks probably won Bielema this award. Oh, and that likely trip to Pasedena gives him the nod over fellow Big Ten champ Mark D'Antonio.
Broyles Award (Asst Coach): Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
The Badgers led the league in scoring (43.3 ppg) and dropped at least a 70-spot three times this year — twice in conference. All of this with star tailback John Clay and tight end Lance Kendricks missing time throughout the season. This was the best scoring attack in Big Ten (45.2) play since the 1994 Penn State Nittany Lions (48.1).
Now that the Big Ten season is in the books (all except Illinois’ final contest), it’s time to hand out the end-of-season awards …
Most Valuable Player: Scott Tolzien, QB, Wisconsin
It’s a crowded field, with Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor not far behind the Badgers signal caller. Voters may give Robinson style points for setting a new NCAA rushing mark for a quarterback, but I felt Robinson failed to excite in his team’s biggest games. Tolzien, on the other hand, was consistent throughout the year. He owns the nation’s best completion percentage and the fourth-highest QB rating. And while it’s clear John Clay was replaceable in Wisconsin’s run-first offense, I doubt the same can be said of Tolzien.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
The Badgers’ J.J. Watt has picked up momentum at the end of the year due to some outstanding play, but Watt has more help surrounding him than Kerrigan, who might as well play on an island at Purdue. In terms of statistics, Kerrigan dominated the league like no other; he led the Big Ten in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and posted a respectable 70 tackles. His 12.5 sacks rank second nationally.
Top Freshman: Nathan Scheelhasse, QB, Illinois
Another Badger — James White — will be the frontrunner for this award, but the fact that fellow backup running back Montee Ball put up similar numbers to White in the final month of the season should scare voters. Scheelhasse played a bigger role in getting his team to the bowl season. The first-year signal caller has a two to one touchdown-to-interception ratio (16 to 8), with 12 touchdowns and just one interception in the past five weeks. And he’ll finish the season among the top 10 in the conference in rushing yards.
Coach of the Year: Bret Bielema, Wisconsin
Little room for debate here. Bielema guided his club past No. 1 Ohio State at home, then went to Iowa City the following week and knocked off the Hawkeyes. Throughout the year Bielema kept his club prepared and focused and he refused to look ahead. Voters may deduct points if they believe Bielema is guilty of “piling it on” in games against Austin Peay, Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern.
Best Game: Illinois at Michigan, Nov. 6
Fans will remember the score — a 67-65 Michigan victory — but the three-overtime game was exciting for the simple fact that neither team owned more than a seven-point lead at any point in this game. It was back and forth from the start. Illinois held Denard Robinson to just 3.3 yards per carry; too bad they couldn’t stop the Michigan passing game: 419 yards and five touchdowns. The win gave Michigan its sixth win, earning the program bowl eligibility after a two-year layoff.
Indiana 34, Purdue 31
Michigan State 28, Penn State 22
Ohio State 37, Michigan 7
Minnesota 27, Iowa 24
Wisconsin 70, Northwestern 23
Penn State comeback falls just short
It was a valiant effort, but Penn State came up just short against Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans held a 21–3 lead entering the fourth quarter, and a 28–10 lead with less than nine minutes to play, but Penn State kept fighting. The Nittany Lions actually had more total yards and committed fewer turnovers, but that wasn’t enough.
Hoosiers take home the Bucket
Freshman Mitch Ewald nailed a 26-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining to help his Hoosiers send their game with Purdue into overtime. There Ewald made a 31-yard field goal that earned Indiana the Old Oaken Bucket. The Hoosiers celebrated for a day until coach Bill Lynch was fired after a 5–7 season.
Clay plays, not needed
Star running back John Clay was healthy but his team did not need him in its win over Northwestern. In fact, the coaching staff did not insert Clay into the game until the second half when things were already in hand. He carried four times for seven yards after missing two games with a bum knee.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin
No one believed Northwestern would have a chance without Dan Persa in the lineup — and for good reason. The Wildcats were never in this game. The Badgers forced six of the Wildcats’ seven turnovers, and outgained their opponent, 559 to 284. Wisconsin scored 70 points, all in the game’s first three quarters. Total domination.
Disappointment of the Week: Iowa
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Iowa tossed in the towel this week. Sure, Floyd was probably a big motivator for a Minnesota team with nothing to lose, but how could Iowa play so poorly? They gained just 3.4 yards per rush against the conference’s worst run defense. They allowed the Gopher offense to convert nine of 16 third downs. And Iowa lost the time of possession battle, 36:06 to 23:54. Ugly, plain ugly.
Offensive Player of the Week: Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State
The numbers don’t suggest it, but Pryor had a magnificent day in Ohio State’s win over rival Michigan. He made difficult passes to sustain drives, and found Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey for second quarter touchdowns. And Pryor’s feet did some work, too — 49 yards.
Defensive Player of the Week: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Watt’s effort against the Wildcats may have been the best defensive performance of the season. He stripped quarterback Evan Watkins of the ball early, leading to a Badger fumble recovery. Then he pressured Watkins into an interception. On another down, Watt chased down the ballcarrier from behind and stripped the ball for another fumble. Oh yeah, and he blocked an extra point.
Freshman of the Week: Rob Henry, QB, Purdue
It may have come in a losing effort, but Henry’s performance was still noteworthy. He posted season bests of 252 yards and three touchdowns and led his club in rushing. Henry has much to learn, but he will give the Purdue coaching staff reason to consider their options at quarterback when spring camp opens in a few months.
The Week Ahead
Player to Watch: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
The junior has caught a touchdown pass in three of the past four games. In a week when the passing game will be important to Illinois’ success, Jenkins will be a key figure in his team’s hopes for a seventh victory.
When Illinois and Fresno State met at the end of the 2009 season, the Bulldogs won thanks to a last-second touchdown pass from Ryan Colburn to Jamel Hamler. Fresno State decided to go for the win instead of the tie and was successful on its two-point try in the 53–52 win.
Fresno State ranks 82nd in the country in points allowed per game (29.7). The Illini rank 29th in the country in scoring (32.9).
It was 75 years ago that a pig played peacemaker, and with that a rivalry began. Here is how the legend goes …
Angered by Minnesota’s style of play the year before, Iowa Governor Clyde Herring stated that the 1935 contest between the Hawkeyes and Gophers would be a cleaner game, and if not the Iowa fans would stand as judge and jury. Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson settled the tense situation by suggesting the two states bet their prized hogs on the contest. After Minnesota won, 13–6, Herring brought a pig from Rosedale Farms to Olson’s office, appropriately dubbed, Floyd of Rosedale. Olson later commissioned a bronze statue be constructed.
In a weekend in which Michigan and Ohio State is most present on the minds of Big Ten fans, the battle for Floyd will get overlooked. Iowa is finishing what’s been a frustrating season, while Minnesota administrators are ready for this season to end so that they may begin to rebuild a program that has been sputtering for some time.
But make no mistake: Both teams take fighting for Floyd very seriously. Here are a few notes on this series:
• Minnesota has 39 wins to Iowa’s 34, with two ties.
• The Gophers won 10 of the series first 11 meetings.
• Iowa has been the better team in recent years, having won eight of the last nine.
• The Gophers have failed to score a point in each of the past two years.
The battle for Floyd of Rosedale appears to be one-sided again this year, as Iowa possesses the more experienced and talented team. But if Minnesota showed anything in its last contest it is that it’s not ready to give up fighting. There is one more fight to go, one more opportunity to save face. And if there is anything that can bring a little joy to Gopher fans this season, it would be to bring that sweet pig back to Minnesota.
Week 12 Scoreboard
Penn State 41, Indiana 21
Michigan State 35, Purdue 31
Wisconsin 48, Michigan 28
Illinois 48, Northwestern 27
Ohio State 20, Iowa 17
Saturday’s intra-state clash between Northwestern and Illinois was interesting, to say the least. Due to limited space surrounding the east end zone, both teams had to start possessions going in the same direction — with one exception: Brian Peters’ 59-yard interception return for a score. Illinois coach Ron Zook said he’d love to play another game at the historic venue. No word yet on what Big Ten officials think about continuing the Wrigley game.
Another big day for McGloin
Nittany Lion quarterback Matt McGloin took apart Indiana in the second half of his team’s win on Saturday. McGloin finished the game 22 of 31 with 315 yards and two touchdowns. In four starts McGloin has led Penn State to a 3–1 record with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
Posey almost drops Ohio State’s BCS hopes
In a play that could have ruined Ohio State’s season, DeVier Posey let a perfectly placed Terrelle Pryor pass fall through his arms in the end zone. The third down drop would have been the game-winner. Instead, Pryor saved his junior receiver by continuing the drive and finishing off the Hawkeyes.
Team of the Week: Ohio State
With their season hanging by a thread, quarterback Terrelle Pryor picked up a first down on a fourth-and-10, then led the Buckeyes down the field toward victory. This may be a disappointing year for Iowa, but winning in Iowa City is no easy task, and the Buckeyes got it done with plenty riding on the outcome.
Disappointment of the Week: Michigan State
So what if Michigan State battled back, it had trailed an inferior Purdue squad all game — in East Lansing, no less. Had the Boilermakers not committed a 10-yard penalty and had a punt blocked on their second-to-last possession, the Spartans season would be over.
Offensive Player of the Week: Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois
Illinois’ junior back had been on a roll entering Saturday’s contest, but no one could have guessed he would gain 330 yards against a Wildcat defense that had been allowing just 137.4 yards on the ground per game. Leshoure averaged 10.0 yards per carry for an Illini team that gained a total of 519 yards on the ground. His only two scores both came in the game’s first five minutes.
Defensive Player of the Week: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
The junior defensive lineman was his usual dominant self in the win over the Wolverines. Watt finished with six tackles and was disruptive on several other plays. He batted two Denard Robinson passes into the air, the second of which he caught and returned 15 yards. That play helped nail the coffin shut on Michigan.
Freshman of the Week: James White, RB, Wisconsin
White had 200 yards of total offense (181 rushing, 19 passing) on 25 touches and scored twice in Wisconsin’s convincing win over Michigan. Sure, much of his success can be attributed to the Badgers’ mammoth line, but White has proven week after week that he can be just as dangerous for Wisconsin as veteran back John Clay.
The Week Ahead
Upset Alert: Michigan State
The last time the Spartans came to Beaver Stadium, Mark Dantonio’s club was clobbered in a game that wasn’t as close as the 49–18 score suggests. Penn State is not that same team, but they are fully capable of handling a Spartans team that needed all of its ammo to beat Purdue last week.
Player to Watch: Adam Weber, QB, Minnesota
The Big Ten’s most experienced passer will end his career at home against an Iowa secondary that ranks seventh in the conference in passing yards allowed (217.9 per contest). The Hawkeyes rank first in team interceptions, so Weber must make wise decisions if he is to help Minnesota stay with the Hawkeyes for four quarters.
Only two Big Ten defenders are averaging more than nine tackles per game: Michigan’s Jonas Mouton and Illinois’ Martez Wilson. Last season’s leading tackler, Michigan State’s Greg Jones, ranks third.
Ohio State has a chance to close the gap in its all-time series with that team from up north. Michigan still holds a 57–43–6 advantage, but the Buckeyes have won the last six meetings.
The Badgers rank second in the country in team rushing touchdowns, trailing only Nevada, 44 to 41. Air Force and Auburn are the only other FBS schools with more than 35 rushing scores.
Purdue 28, Indiana 21
Penn State 27, Michigan State 24
Ohio State 38, Michigan 14
Iowa 45, Minnesota 7
Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13
Penn State (6-4, 3-3) at Indiana (4-6, 0-6), Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
This is a season to forget for the Hoosiers, as Bill Lynch’s club has failed to capitalize on too many opportunities. With two games to go, Indiana needs two wins to extend its season — highly unlikely. For one thing, the Hoosiers do not have a good history against Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions. The last time the two teams played in Bloomington, the Hoosiers kept it close but the team’s four second-half turnovers were too much to overcome. This game could also come down to turnovers — Penn State and Indiana are among four Big Ten teams with a negative turnover ratio — but a safer bet is that it will come down to which team’s quarterback makes more plays.
Last week, Matt McGloin was marvelous for Penn State in the first half, but not so much in the second. He needs to play well for four quarters to get Penn State back on track. The Hoosiers have no choice but to keep the ball in the air on offense, meaning another 40-attempt game is likely for Ben Chappell, who is expected to return to the lineup (hip). If Chappell is perfect, Indiana has a shot at its first conference win of the year. Anything short of that will not be enough.
Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at Michigan State (5-1, 9-1), Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
There is no more impressive player in Big Ten football than Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, who has come as close as a defender can to being a game-changer. This week, Purdue must offer him more support. The offense has scored more than 20 points in conference action just once this season (Minnesota). That unit is still trying to find consistency in the running game and is in need of a primary receiver; Keith Smith, who played just a game and a half, still ranks fourth on the team in receptions. For Michigan State, the big news this week has been the return of Keshawn Martin, who was missed badly in games against Iowa and Minnesota. Martin is the Big Ten’s leading punt returner and the Spartans’ most explosive receiver. His return is welcome, but it won’t solve one of Michigan State’s problems: a squeaky running game. Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker exploded out of the gate but have both struggled the past month. A Purdue defense allowing 148.7 rushing yards per game could prove to be the cure. Fans may recall Michigan State needed 17 points in the final 12 minutes to beat the Boilermakers last year. The Spartans may only need 17 points total to put away Purdue this year.
Consider this Wisconsin’s last big test before booking its flight to Pasadena. Bret Bielema-coached teams have stumbled in their last two trips to Ann Arbor, so to complete this season’s goals the Badgers must first overcome that obstacle — and it appears they must do so without John Clay again. Perhaps it’s precautionary, but Clay continues to nurse his bum knee. No worries — the 1-2 combo of Montee Ball and James White did just fine without Clay last week (311 yards and five touchdowns combined) and should again this week against a run defense that has given up the second-most rushing scores in the Big Ten. In general, the Wolverines are giving up too many points (34 or more in five of the last six games) and must play well on both sides on Saturday to beat Wisconsin. Of course, the conversation with Michigan begins and ends with Denard Robinson. He has gained fewer than four yards per carry in each of the past two games but has the passing game clicking better than ever. Wisconsin’s secondary must respect Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemmingway this week, because if Robinson does not find open lanes to run through, he is perfectly capable of finding open receivers to throw to.
This game has drawn plenty of attention due to its location (Wrigley Field) but it shouldn’t take away from what is an important contest for both clubs. For Illinois, there is no getting around it: They must win this game because there is no guarantee they will beat Fresno State in the season finale. Illinois’ pass defense has been suspect as of late, having made Adam Weber and Minnesota’s receivers look good a week ago. Now the Illini face a Northwestern club trying to fill a hole at quarterback. Dan Persa was a darkhorse candidate for conference offensive player of the year thanks to his 3,100 yards of total offense. Freshman Evan Watkins has thrown a total of seven passes. He has good size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) but must learn where his safety blankets are in a hurry before he gets a face full of orange. Northwestern has beaten Illinois in each of the last two meetings.
Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at Iowa (7-3, 4-2), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT
Once upon a time this game was categorized as one of the few contests that would help to decide the conference race. Not true anymore. Iowa’s two conference losses have dropped them from that race, and now all Kirk Ferentz’s club is hoping for is a dignified finish to what’s been a somewhat disappointing season. The silver lining is that the game will take place in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes have been dominant in all but one contest this year (Wisconsin — a game many feel Iowa should have won). Iowa has scored in bunches at Kinnick Stadium, but there will be no easy victories on offense for the team this week. The Buckeyes have the Big Ten’s top-rated pass defense and allow just 2.8 yards per carry on the ground. As they say, every yard must be earned. Ohio State’s task will be no less complicated. Iowa still has a respectable pass rush and a run defense allowing just 2.9 yards per carry. Chances are, the Buckeyes’ best bet for big plays will come via the passing game; the Hawkeyes give up 220.2 passing yards per game. It’s been six years since an Ohio State team has lost to Iowa, but that 2004 game was one Hawkeye fans have hardly forgotten — a 33-7 thumping in which Iowa outgained Ohio State by a ratio of almost three to one.
The Wildcats will have to play without Persa from here on out.
Back where football belongs
It’s the perfect home for a baseball afternoon, but Wrigley Field’s football history is also rich with gridiron stories from a forgotten era.
For half a century, the Chicago Bears called Wrigley home, when from 1921 to 1970 the franchise was one of the NFL’s most dominant. In December of 1963, coach George Halas claimed his last NFL title against the New York Giants at Wrigley on a bitterly cold day.
When Northwestern and Illinois meet up there this Saturday it will mark the first college game played inside the ivy-laced walls since 1938.
The game itself is deserving of a little national attention, and certainly of the ESPN GameDay crew. Illinois has been one of the Big Ten’s most unpredictable teams, and at the moment is still pressing for win number six; Northwestern, on the other hand, is still jockeying for a better bowl destination.
But this game won’t be about the bowl season. Instead, the emphasis will be to bring a little spark back to the Big Ten’s dullest in-state rivalry. And what better way to do that than to hold the game in the state’s proudest landmark and have Erin Andrews there to walk the sidelines?
This weekend, fans of all Big Ten colors have reason to watch two mid-level clubs duke it out. If the football fails to hit the mark, chances are the backdrop of historic Wrigley Field will make the moment enjoyable and everlasting.
Northwestern 21, Iowa 17
Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20
Minnesota 38, Illinois 34
Michigan 27, Purdue 16
Ohio State 38, Penn State 14
A tale of two halves
At the end of the first half, Penn State held a 14–3 lead and had dominated Ohio State. Matt McGloin played an inspired second quarter, and it appeared an upset was brewing. But the Buckeyes scored on a pair of interception returns in the second half and didn’t let Penn State gain much ground in the 38–14 victory.
A perfect dozen
Wisconsin scored on all 12 of its offensive possessions in an 83–20 win over Indiana. It was the most points scored by the program since 1915, and Wisconsin’s 11 touchdowns were the most by a conference team in the past half-century. The Hoosiers had no answer for the Badger running game, evident on one two-play second quarter drive that consisted of a 36-yard carry by Montee Ball and a 30-yard scoring run by James White.
Michigan pushes past Purdue
Thanks to kicker Carson Wiggs, Purdue kept pace with Michigan for three quarters on Saturday and limited Denard Robinson to just 3.1 yards per carry. But the Wolverines’ nine-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter gave them just enough cushion to beat the Boilermakers.
Team of the Week: Northwestern
Quarterback Dan Persa guided the Wildcats on two fourth quarter touchdown drives to help his team defeat Iowa for a third straight season. It was part of a 318-yard day for the junior quarterback — a career best. Northwestern converted more than half of its third-down opportunities on Saturday, as compared to just two of 14 for Iowa. Unfortunately, Persa ruptured his Achilles on the last drive and was lost for the season.
Disappointment of the Week: Illinois
There is absolutely no good excuse for Illinois’ loss to Minnesota in Champaign on Saturday; the game was even in total yards, time of possession and turnovers. In the end, Minnesota simply made plays and Illinois could not. With a 10-point lead, the Illini allowed Troy Stoudermire to return a kick 90 yards. Two drives later, the Illini defense could not hold Minnesota during an 80-yard go-ahead drive.
Offensive Player of the Week: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
Herron is not supposed to be a 20-carry back, but on Saturday the coaching staff kept feeding him the ball and Herron kept delivering. He averaged just better than nine yards per carry on his 21 attempts. Late in the contest, Herron crushed what remaining hope the Nittany Lions had by gaining 70 yards in five carries in the Buckeyes’ final scoring drive.
Defensive Player of the Week: Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Hmmm, let’s see: four sacks, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles. Forget this week, it might be the performance of the season.
Freshman of the Week: James White, RB, Wisconsin
Fellow Badger freshman Jared Abbrederis also deserves consideration, but White had the better day: 144 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. It was White’s third 100-yard contest of the year, and with two games remaining he still has a shot at reaching the 1,000-yard mark.
The Week Ahead
Upset Alert: Wisconsin
Bret Bielema is 0–2 in trips to Ann Arbor, including a 27–25 meltdown two seasons ago. Wisconsin is in the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl, but this game is no picnic and if the Badgers are unable to contain Denard Robinson things could get very interesting.
Player to Watch: Ricky Stanzi, QB, Iowa
On Saturday the senior must tame an Ohio State pass defense ranked sixth in the country. No Big Ten team has passed for more than 170 yards on the Buckeyes yet, and the secondary leads all conference schools with 17 interceptions. Sounds like the perfect test for the conference’s most efficient passer. Last year, Stanzi was on the sideline with an injury when the Hawkeyes lost a heartbreaker in overtime.
• No one can mistake the Big Ten for being a passing league. Not a single receiver ranks among the top 20 in the country in yards per game (Northwestern’s Jeremy Ebert leads all Big Ten players with 84.9 yards per game) and only two schools (Indiana and Northwestern) rank among the top 30 in team passing.
• Two Big Ten punters are among the 10 finalists for the Ray Guy Award: Illinois’ Anthony Santella and Iowa’s Ryan Donahue. Santella has maintained the conference’s best average (45.4 yards) despite also having the most attempts (52).
• This week’s Michigan-Wisconsin game pits the conference’s top two teams in first downs gained. The Wolverines and Badgers each have 124 first downs on the ground (Ohio State is the only other Big Ten team with more than 100).
Penn State 34, Indiana 13
Michigan State 28, Purdue 20
Wisconsin 24, Michigan 23
Illinois 28, Northwestern 24
Ohio State 20, Iowa 17
The Big Ten’s biggest contest of the week pits two clubs trying to hang on to the momentum that carried them through the first half of the year. Northwestern’s season took a turn for the worse in the second half of last week’s loss to Penn State. The defense must do a better job of holding Iowa’s running game in check this week, and it must do a better job of protecting its quarterback (conference-worst 31 sacks) against an aggressive Hawkeye front four. As for Iowa’s offense, Adam Robinson is expected to return to the backfield, which is welcome news for Ricky Stanzi. The Hawkeyes gained just 65 yards on the ground in last year’s 17–10 loss to the Wildcats. Having a healthy Robinson in tow should tip the scales back in Iowa’s favor. Stanzi was knocked out of that contest, so he has added motivation for this week’s contest.
Illinois had everyone convinced that it owned one of the conference’s best defenses until Michigan bent that unit every which way possible. Now the Illini can work out their aggression on a Minnesota offense that has scored just 18 points in its last two contests combined. Senior quarterback Adam Weber has been subpar, but then again he hasn’t had much help around him. The Gophers average just 3.5 yards on the ground and have registered the fourth-most penalties (57) in the conference. All Illinois must do to take control of this game is avoid turnovers and keep plugging away with their two-headed backfield of Nathan Scheelhasse and Mikel Leshoure. The duo should tear up a Gopher defense allowing 200.5 rushing yards per game.
Purdue’s bowl hopes are riding on this contest; Danny Hope’s team must win two of its last three to become bowl-eligible. With a trip to East Lansing and a home date against Indiana still on tap, most would agree Purdue’s best chance is to win its two home games. Denard Robinson is expected to start for Michigan after passing a wave of concussion tests. The real question is: Will he finish? The Wolverines were led by Tate Forcier in the clutch again last week, and one can only wonder how the coaching staff will satisfy both players — both now and next season. One encouraging thing Michigan saw in its win last week was improved play from its receiving corps. Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway both gained more than 100 yards, and both may see plenty of action again this week against a Boilermaker pass defense allowing 218.2 yards per game. Purdue is expected to feature Sean Robinson under center again this week. The freshman performed much better last week than his statline suggests, and he has the ability to give Michigan’s subpar defense fits, both with his feet and arm.
Another week, another winnable game for Wisconsin. That’s the scary part. The Badgers have a long history of playing to the level of their opponent, something Bret Bielema must shake so his squad can get through these final three games unscathed. If they do, Wisconsin will walk into a prime BCS berth. Wisconsin may be without John Clay, who has never really been healthy since the start of the year. The team does expect to see freshman James White back in the lineup and can also rely on Montee Ball, who gained more than 100 yards last week with White and Clay on the sideline. Regardless of who runs the ball, Wisconsin should have a field day against a Hoosiers defense allowing 5.2 yards per carry. On the opposite sideline, Indiana hopes to play with fewer mental mistakes this week. They let the Iowa contest slip away and have three weeks to win two games for bowl eligibility. The Hoosiers have gotten a lot of mileage out of their opponents’ mistakes this year (they lead the Big Ten in the category) but may not see the same benefits this week against a well-disciplined Badger group that gives up just 31.4 yards of penalty per contest.
Penn State (6-3, 3-2) at Ohio State (8-1, 4-1), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT
In terms of career wins, this game tops every other bill in the country — 637 between Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel. The road team has won this game in each of the last three years, including a 24–7 Ohio State win last year in which the Buckeyes outgained the Nittany Lions on the ground, 228 to 76. Ohio State runs a more balanced offense these days, but it can also be said that Penn State’s offense has made considerable progress in these past few weeks. Led by Matt McGloin, the Nittany Lions stomped on Michigan and Northwestern. Now McGloin faces his stiffest test to date. He has held up fine under pressure, but fans can expect the Buckeyes to test his poise early by stacking a few extra bodies near the line of scrimmage. And as a bonus, the Buckeyes return Ross Homan — one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers. Ohio State’s quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, is 24-of-42 with 351 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in two starts against Penn State. Last year Pryor did the most damage with his feet (five carries for 50 yards, including a first quarter score).