Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Ten Preview - Rivalry Week


And down the stretch they come! The chase for the Big Ten crown looks like a three horse race – Penn State (6-1), Michigan State (6-1, loss to Ohio State) and Ohio State (6-1, loss to Penn State) neck-and-neck…and-neck. Penn State’s road to the Rose Bowl is most straight-forward: win and they pack for Pasadena as they will have beaten the other two. Ohio State needs Michigan State to beat Penn State, but that’s not all. The Buckeyes then need to avoid slipping over distractions in Columbus to take care of business against the sickly Wolverines (Ohio State then owns the tie-breaker with their head-to-head win over the Spartans). Michigan State has the biggest battle on their hands: beat Penn State on the road after Michigan beats Ohio State after a reversal of the magnetic north and south poles. Where are we when Ohio State needs to root for a team from Michigan (the Spartans) to win, while Michigan State will become the Wolverines’ biggest supporters as their in-state rivals try and knock off the Buckeyes? And by the way, five other teams are jockeying for bowl positioning. How’s that for the last week of the season in the Big Ten?

On to the games…

Michigan State (6-1, 9-2) at Penn State (6-1, 10-1) [Battle for the Land Grant Trophy]: Penn State is looking for their 800th win, all under Joe Paterno. OK, yes, I exaggerate…Michigan State is looking for their first win in Happy Valley since Lucky Debonair took first place in the Kentucky Derby back in 1965.

The keys to the game:
1. Penn State’s Clydesdales versus Michigan State’s Clydesdale:
Michigan State star and heart of the offense, Javon Ringer (1,548 yards, 20 touchdowns) needs to show up big to have a chance. Penn State boasts the number one overall (259 yards/game) and rushing defense (102 yards/game). On the other side, Evan Royster (1,123 yards, 12 touchdowns) leads the Nittany Lions’ rushing charge (first in the conference, 218 yards/game). However, Royster’s rushing between the tackles has been less successful compared to earlier in the year—he’s broken 100 yards only once in the last five games (Michigan, 174 yards). Further, coaches seem to be holding Daryll Clark back, perhaps due to the concussion he suffered in the Ohio State game. Clark hasn’t scored on the ground since, well, Michigan (two touchdowns rushing). The team with more rushing yards has the best chance of winning because…

2. Air Clark and Air Hoyer have lost their wings lately:
Clark has not thrown for 200+ yards since Wisconsin (244), and that was five games ago. His last two outings have included interceptions, doubling his total from the previous nine games combined. Nitpicky? Maybe. But Penn State has, like most teams, shown they struggle when they turn the ball over. Brian Hoyer, on the other hand, has thrown touchdown passes only once in his last four games (against…Michigan, three) and tossed two interceptions to Purdue last week. Further, Hoyer’s completion percentage has surpassed 60% only twice this season (at Northwestern October 11th and against Eastern Michigan, September sixth). Championship caliber play comes with mistake-free football, which means being smart through the air. The quarterback who makes the least amount of mistakes regardless of yards or touchdowns will give his team the best chance to win.

PREDICTION: Penn State is better equipped for this type of game – better defense, more options on offense, better leadership at quarterback. White roses signify purity, innocence, and sympathy--sorry Michigan State.

Penn State 30, Michigan State 17

Michigan (2-5, 3-8) at Ohio State (6-1, 9-2):
So “The Game” billed up as the greatest rivalry in all of sports is on fall break this year as the Wolverines’ season was put out to stud after their bad loss to Toledo…or Penn State…or Michigan State…The Buckeyes, on the other hand, play host while playing their best football to date.

The keys to the game:
1. Michigan’s arms vs. Michigan’s hips:
The tackling by Michigan’s defense outside of the Minnesota and perhaps Wisconsin games has been egregious. Attempting to arm tackle 6’1” 237 lbs of Chris “Beanie” Wells or the slippery 6’6” 235 lb Terrelle Pryor will only lead to bad things in the yards after contact statistic. The Wolverines need to tackle solidly to have any chance of preventing small plays from turning in to big gains, something they’ve been unable to avoid this season.

2. The safety dance: In the same vein, Michigan’s safeties must realize their “safety dance” is a series of maneuvers best executed when there is no partner behind them. Stevie Brown, Brandon Harrison and company may have the most simplistic recipe for success – keep everyone in front of them, hug your “partner” and do not let go.

3. Trench Warfare: Ohio State is ranked third in rushing offense (188 yards/game) and defense (115 yards/game) and second in total defense (287 yards/game). Furthermore, the time of possession battle sways heavily in the Buckeyes’ favor (31:55 vs. 27:29). Controlling the line of scrimmage typically is and will be paramount for either team’s success in the “Big Game”; it looks like the scarlet and gray carry significant advantages in the trenches, in case you needed any statistics to show the lopsided nature of this year’s contest.

PREDICTION: My prediction? Painnnn…in a Clubber Lang sort of way.
Ohio State 37, Michigan 13

Iowa (4-3, 7-4) at Minnesota (3-4, 7-4) [Battle for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy]:
Certainly the under-card, but a contest that will help separate those teams jockeying for higher bowl bids. With a Northwestern loss, Iowa can jump the Wildcats and finish fourth in the conference if they beat the struggling Gophers. If Minnesota prevails, they will hop Iowa in the standings but can only secure fifth place (Northwestern owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota). The Gophers’ magical season came to a screeching halt in November and they’re winless in their last three tries. Galloping toward a January bowl game has quickly turned in to a limp towards the finish line. An eight-win season would be nothing less than magical after a single-win season last year, but it will take some heavy lifting against a hot Iowa squad. The Hawkeyes have won four of their last five, including the stunner over Penn State, and it all starts (and finishes) with tough running (Shonn Greene -1,585 yards, 15 touchdowns) and tough defense (third in scoring defense and total defense, second in rushing and red zone defense). Iowa wins a close contest, which will be in their control most or all of the game

PREDICTION: Iowa 27, Minnesota 21

Illinois (3-4, 5-6) at Northwestern (4-3, 8-3) [Battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy]:
This is a meeting between two teams moving in opposite directions. Illinois is a win shy of bowl eligibility, having failed in their last two attempts (Western Michigan, Ohio State) to reach their sixth win. The big talk from the Illini camp after the Iowa win seems like it happened many moons ago as players and coaches alike seemed optimistic about the last three weeks of the season. Well, so much for that. Northwestern stands in the way (20 points/game against) defensively, led by junior defensive end Corey Wootton. No one seems to be discussing Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s job in his third year in charge of the Wildcats--four wins in 2006, followed by six last year, and now at least eight and possibly 10 this year speaks volumes for the coach’s mettle (and if Iowa loses, they secure fourth place in the conference). Northwestern wins this one old-school, middle linebacker style – with defense and grit.

PREDICTION: Northwestern 27, Illinois 23

Indiana (1-6, 3-8) at Purdue (1-6, 3-8) [Battle for the Old Oaken Bucket]:
So as it breaks down here, if Purdue wins and Michigan loses…wait…whatever.

PREDICTION: Purdue - Old Oaken Bucket, Indiana – the comfort of last place in the Big Ten again.

Cal Poly (8-1) at Wisconsin (6-5, 3-5):
Cal Poly’s undefeated season was dashed early in the year by none other than Montana (30-28), but the Mustangs have steadily improved and now hold the third spot in the FCS polling (James Madison first, Appalachian State two). Short of those aforementioned magnetic poles reversing Saturday afternoon, the Badgers will tidy up their record and finish with a seven-win season.

PREDICTION: Winner - Wisconsin, Losers – Cal Poly and college football fans tired of seeing fat cat FBS schools filling in their 12th game with FCS opponents.

Photo Credit: Michigan State Athletic Communications