Friday, September 25, 2009

Big Ten Conference Open Preview: Spoiler Alerts


When was this torch officially passed, the one that said, “Oh, we’re really good, but it just doesn’t show up in the records for our teams because they beat each other up in conference play”, from the Big Ten to the SEC? Isn’t it interesting how the Big Ten was ONCE considered so tough near the top that we excused conference losses because the competition was that deep? Contrast to nowadays where pundits dismiss the Big Ten by stating that the teams at the top lose to their rivaled foes because the conference is so weak. Certainly the last few years have been plagued by a lack of national attention (beyond Ohio State), and the only real exception I would argue was 2006 when number one Ohio State hosted and defeated number two Michigan in The Game, essentially knocking the Wolverines out of the National Title game, despite a one-loss Florida sliding in place (of course it didn’t help that Florida eventually went on to dismantle the Buckeyes. But let’s forget that for the moment.).

Nonetheless, we come across a make-or-break weekend right off the bat for the conference elite where only time will tell if this week was tough-versus-tough or meek-versus-meek. In the pre-season I dubbed this the “spoiler alert” weekend where the underdogs have a decent chance of wreaking havoc on the favorites:

Iowa at Penn State:
I don’t want to get in the way of the importance of this game early in the season. Although Penn State can’t erase their sole conference loss from last year, they can send a message early and convince doubters that the team has patched up the cracks in their units, namely power rushing and unproven pass defense. Iowa has recovered nicely from the opening day scare against Northern Iowa. As important as the notches in the win column is the development of their offense. Shonn Greene is missed in the backfield thus far (3.8 yards/carry), but the Hawkeyes are still managing to put points on the board (26 points/game). What to watch for: Make no mistake that the best units on the field for both teams will be their defenses. Penn State has given up only 20 points in three games and is yet to surrender a rushing touchdown. The huge question marks, however, is the health of linebackers Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman (Lee is unlikely to play and Bowman is probable). The Hawkeyes have been brilliant stopping aerial attacks, which have only completed 48 percent passing and 5.1 yards/attempt. The big turnover killed Penn State’s chances last year and Iowa looks to be ball-hawking thus far (six interceptions, two fumbles). As this will be defense versus defense, the key to the game will be which offense escapes making the big mistake. Look for the ability of Penn State’s Daryll Clark to be the playmaking quarterback while looking for Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi to be the protector of the ball, limiting big plays by the Nittany Lions’ defense.
Prediction: Home team wins in the rocking Whitehouse. Penn State 24, Iowa 13

Illinois at Ohio State:
The injury bug has seemed to nest and multiply within the Champaign community. Quarterback Juice Williams, receiver Arrelious Benn and linebacker Martez Wilson (out for the year) have all lost significant playing time in this young season. Losing Wilson is back-breaking for the defense that has given up a whopping 680 yards passing between Missouri and Illinois St. Against a quality opponent in Missouri, Williams was mediocre with 179 yards and one interception (albeit without Benn for most of the game), and the Illinois State game proves nothing as the team thrived despite Williams’ absence. The week off with a bye certainly helped. For the Buckeyes, they brushed up nicely ripping Toledo with a 38-0 shutout. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor showcased his athletic abilities, finally eclipsing 100 yards rushing. I say finally, because this should be at least a threat for every opponent trying to gameplan against the Buckeyes. What to watch for: The quarterbacks. This is somewhat obvious and a safe call, but the best player on both teams happens to be the guy holding the ball after every snap. I am unsettled by Pryor’s two interceptions last week (he hasn’t had an interception-free game yet this year and is one behind Purdue’s Joey Elliott for forking the ball over to the other team through the air the most in the conference). On the flip-side, Pryor leads the Big Ten in total offense (263 total yards/game). With Williams healthy, the outcome of the game will undoubtedly come down to which athlete does the most damage.
Prediction: Ohio State pitched a shutout last week and has seemed to shaken the cob-webs from their home loss to USC two weeks ago. Illinois is still settling into the season with the discontinuity brought about from injuries.
Ohio State 33, Illinois 21

Notre Dame at Purdue:
The Fighting Irish (2-1) march in to West Lafayette after escaping a last second drive by Michigan State last week. Notre Dame looks to be quickly evolving with the loss of wide receiver Michael Floyd on the outside and the addition of a more determined rushing attack lead by Armando Allen. Allen (23-for 115 yards and one touchdown last week) has strung together back-to-back 100 yard rushing games (both against Big Ten foes), something escaping his early career. In fact, the only game he rushed over 73 yards last year was against, well, Purdue and he went bananas (17-for-134 yards, one touchdown). Purdue (1-2) is already reeling after a tough loss to Northern Illinois last week, tallying their second loss in as many weeks. The big alarm here is surrendering 454 total yards, 270 of them on the ground. This also spelled a huge time-of-possession deficit of nearly 2:1 (18:20). What to watch for: Obviously I see this coming down to how well Purdue can stop Allen, who is not 100 percent nursing a sore ankle. Surprisingly I previewed Notre Dame without talking about Jimmy Clausen, but I guess I just did. But I feel that Charlie Weis has decided to balance out his offensive scheme by folding in more action from the backfield. Allen is rushing well and that will set up the play-action for wideout Golden Tate deep or tight end Kyle Rudolph over the top of the biting linebackers. If Purdue loses the time of possession battle again, that will spell disaster for a tiring defense playing against a potent offense like Notre Dame’s. To this end, I also expect Purdue to pound the ball themselves, as they are averaging 210 yards on the ground.
Prediction: Purdue hasn’t shown the defensive prowess to slow down anyone, so I don’t expect much of a change with a visit from the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame 34, Purdue 20

Michigan State at Wisconsin: What to watch for: Wisconsin’s 200 yards rushing per game behind tailbacks Zach Brown and John Clay versus the Spartans' stingy rush defense (87 yards/game, 2.8 yards/carry). If the Badgers stall rushing, fear not, Michigan State’s Achilles’ heel so far has been stopping talented quarterbacks. Can the Badgers’ signal caller Scott Tolzien carry the load if called upon? For Michigan State, their quarterback combination has been successful (eight touchdowns, one interception, converting the most first downs in the conference passing with 44). Also, penalties may come in to play–Michigan state opponents are tops in penalties committed (24 total, 76.7 yards/game) and Wisconsin is ninth in the conference in penalties committed (19 total, 61.7 yards/game)
Prediction: Michigan State 30, Wisconsin 27

Indiana at Michigan: What to watch for:
Indiana leads the conference in three categories–kickoff returns (27.9 avergae), turnover margin (plus three) and sacks against (one, for one yard loss). In fact, if there were a sack margin (sacks for – sacks against) Indiana would be tops with a +8 (followed by Michigan State at +7). Defensive ends Jammie Kilrew and Greg Middleton are as good as it gets as a duo off the edge (Can Tate Forcier be more consistent in his crash-reads of one of the ends? This may be a very intriguing individual offense-defense match-up). Michigan’s offensive line is credible, but suffered a big loss with an injury to center David Molk. So the battle in trenches should be the marquee for the match-up in Ann Arbor. If Michigan’s quarterbacks find more time looking up at the sky from ground, the Hoosiers may be able to hang tough. I am tremendously skeptical of that fact considering the team speed and athleticism heavily tilted towards Michigan.
Prediction: Michigan 28, Indiana 10

Minnesota at Northwestern: What to watch for:
I was looking forward to this game during the pre-season because of the potential both squads posed heading in to the season. But after disappointing losses last week for both teams, the luster has worn just a bit. Northwestern’s gunslinger Mike Kafka has filled in nicely for the graduated C.J. Bacher, completing 75 percent of his passes for almost 250 yards/game (second in the Big Ten), with a conference leading 164.9 passing efficiency (which includes some statistical combination of blue moons, green diamonds and purple horseshoes). He’s managed to distribute the ball evenly amongst his receiving corps as four wideouts have hauled in at least 10 receptions so far. For the Gophers, they have also celebrated a strong passing attack, although quarterback Adam Weber has again fallen in love with senior receiver Erick Decker (27 receptions, 415 yards, two touchdowns). Will this game be a shootout? I doubt it; I feel that the Gophers are begrudgingly trying to prove they can play smashmouth football by running right at their opponents and failing. (Dead last in the conference with 85.7 yards/game).
Prediction: Northwestern is coming in with a better defense, which will again expose Minnesota’s one-sided offense. Northwestern 17, Minnesota 9

Photos Courtesy of Mark Selders/Penn State Athletic Communications & Michigan State Athletic Communications