Friday, September 4, 2009

Big Ten: The September Start


Here’s a look at some key early-season matchups and “The Quick Synopsis” of what to look for in each game

September 12th (Redemption Weekend)

Quite simply Michigan and Ohio State need to redeem themselves for their two embarrassing losses last year, on a national stage.

Notre Dame (W) @ Michigan (L): This game is obviously big for the folks from South Bend led by a coaching “intern” as they make a plausible push back in to the BCS and media’s hearts. For Michigan not only is this a chance for them to redeem themselves for last year’s more-turnovers-than-minutes-played fiasco in the mud, it’s a formidable litmus test against a BCS contender.

The Quick Synopsis: 1) Michigan’s youth and inexperience at quarterback versus Jon Tenuta’s zone blitzing scheme and 2) Michigan’s third defensive coordinator, with the newly installed stack defense versus Jimmy Clausen and company. Was the trip to the Hawaii Bowl to end 2008 Clausen’s coming out party (24-28, 413 yards, five touchdowns) or a timely aberration? I am not convinced the maize-and-blue will have the answers to their two questions resolved before week two of the season.

USC (W) @ Ohio State (L): On the Big Ten beat, it is somewhat choking to rehash another Big Time matchup resulting in a Big Ten blunder. 35-3. And no, the Buckeyes didn’t cover the spread (+12). Nonetheless, Ohio State now plays host to the Trojans this go-around and Jim Tressel holds a 54-8 record in Columbus. Redemption is certainly in order to give the Buckeyes (and the conference) an early season lift and to set the stage heading into conference play.

The Quick Synopsis: the quarterback role-reversal – 1) apparently, USC will be going with a freshman signal caller in Matt Barkley, and will do so on the road. Will the Columbus faithful be as welcoming as the Coliseum was for Terrelle Pryor’s freshman start last year? 2) Who is scoring for the Buckeyes? They lost Beanie Wells at running back (team rushing leader), receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie (team leading receivers), and now the weight falls even more heavily on Pryor to be the playmaker on offense. 3) On defense, can they quickly reload after losing their team tackling leaders James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman? It’s a step-up Saturday for the Buckeyes.

September 19th (Big Ten R-E-S-P-E-C-T Weekend)

These non-conference matchups will set the stage for conference play for the Spartans and Gophers. Wins here will boost each, and infuse a competitive lifeline in to their Big Ten conference aspirations.

Michigan State (L) @ Notre Dame (W): No need to rehash Notre Dame’s need for a Big Ten sweep (Purdue follows for the Irish the following week). But this game is absolutely huge. Michigan State needs this game to prove they have made the leap from a very good team to a possibly great team.

The Quick Synopsis: 1) same goes for the Spartans against the Irish as compared to their “brothers” in Ann Arbor–how will inexperience at quarterback (sophomore Kirk Cousins named starter over sophomore Keith Nichol) be affected by the zone-blitz? 2) How does the running-back-by-committee pan out early on? 3) Can the front seven put pressure on the Notre Dame passing game with the installation of more stunts and blitzes?

Cal (W) @ Minnesota (L): After breaking in the new outdoor, on-campus field against Air Force the week prior, hopefully with a win, the Gophers will have to man up for a visit from a PAC-10 conference contender, Cal, who returns 15 starters from last year (on top of a 9-4 record). Minnesota needs revenge for 2006’s drubbing by the then #22 ranked Golden Bears, which took place in Berkeley. A win here will, well, you get the drill here–it’s all about respect.

The Quick Synopsis: The Gophers are doing a 180-degree swing out of the spread and into a power-running, pro-style attack. How do the Gophers respond 1) with physicality at the line of scrimmage, something stressed under their new offensive scheme? Can they get a good push against Cal’s 3-4 defensive front? 2) How does quarterback Adam Weber look as a drop-back passer? 3) With the focus on the running game, can Duane Bennett break through as an impact runner after missing 2008 with injuries?

September 26th (Spoiler Alert Weekend)

Big Ten conference play starts immediately with upset alerts, one of which being Illinois over Ohio State in Columbus. A loss in the first week of conference play could derail chances for the contenders to make it to the top of the mountain.

Illinois (W) @ Ohio State (L): Juice Williams has done it before, in 2007, and I believe he will do it again—upset the Buckeyes in Columbus. Ohio State, with Laurinaitis and Freeman, were unable to get the ball out of Williams’ hands for the last 8:09 of the game. Williams also passed for four touchdowns. This year, Illinois has two weeks to prepare for the matchup, with a bye on the 19th.

The Quick Synopsis:
1) How Juice goes, so does the team. Will the Buckeyes have the speed and discipline to stop Williams and the read-option? 2) How Pryor goes, so does the team. Will the Illini have the speed and discipline to stop Pryor? 3) How does Ohio State’s secondary match up with Arrelious Benn, Jeff Cumberland, and newcomer Jared Fayson?

Iowa (L) @ Penn State (W): No need to bring up the past for the Nittany Lions. Penn State can avenge their tarnished 2008 with a good old fashioned home thumping under the lights and 110,000 of their closest friends.

The Quick Synopsis: 1) Did Penn State correct the drops that plagued their chances last year? Better yet, have they found receivers who can emerge as viable targets for Daryll Clark? For PSU, projected starting receivers are well over six-feet tall as is their returning tight end, Andrew Quarless (6-5). 2) With Jewel Hampton sidelined for the season, who will replace Shonn Greene (who rushed for 117 yards and two scores against the Nittany Lions last year)? 3) Will Iowa be able to plug up the gaping hole left by the loss of Mitch King and Matt Kroul in the interior of the defense? If not, look for a punishing running attack from the home team.

Notre Dame (W) @ Purdue (L):
Notre Dame could potentially be looking at a Big Ten sweep when they travel to take on the Boilermakers. I give Purdue a chance because this is a rivalry and Purdue’s strength lies in their secondary.

The Quick Synopsis: 1) CBs Brandon King and David Pender vs. WRs Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. Who wins? 2) How well can running back Jaycen Taylor stay healthy enough to take some pressure off of quarterback Joey Elliott?

Photos Courtesy of Illinois Sports Information, University of Minnesota Athletic Communications, The Ohio State Department of Athletics