Welcome to Big Ten Blast!
Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez will go head to head Saturday in Lincoln
This will be a regular weekly column where we will provide some news and notes from around the conference.
Much has been made about the Big Ten’s rocky performance in the nonconference portion of the season, so we won’t dwell on that. The 117th season of Big Ten conference play begins this weekend with several intriguing match-ups.
No. 22 Nebraska opens conference play at home against Wisconsin in a prime time showdown. Also, No. 14 Ohio State visits No. 20 Michigan State in one of the weekend’s two match-ups of ranked teams nationally. (Baylor-West Virginia is the other.)
Also, Penn State visits Illinois in a match-up of teams heading in opposite directions. Unbeaten Minnesota visits struggling Iowa in the annual Floyd of Rosedale rivalry game. Indiana will try and spoil Northwestern’s unbeaten season. And, Purdue wraps nonconference play by hosting Marshall in what could be an offensive shootout.
Below, we look at each of these match-ups. Here goes this week’s Big Ten Blast:
Wisconsin at Nebraska (22)
Nebraska (3-1) begins its second season in the Big Ten hosting Wisconsin (3-1). The Badgers obliterated Nebraska 48-17 in NU’s first-ever Big Ten game last year. Although the Badgers have struggled early this season, NU coach Bo Pelini knows his team will still have a tough battle on its hands.
“They are well coached and they are committed to running the football,” Pelini said. “I look at (UW coach) Bret Bielema and his personality. He is a tough guy. He was a tough, physical football player. That is kind of his philosophy. It’s what they were under Coach Alvarez and what they have continued to be under Coach Bielema.”
Nebraska was gashed for 653 yards in its Week 2 loss at UCLA (36-30). The Huskers are still rated just 86th nationally in rushing yards allowed (177.0 per game). That doesn’t bode well going against Wisconsin, which loves to pound the ball with RBs Montee Ball and James White.
“I want to see improvement every day and that’s why you practice,” Pelini said of his offense. “I am seeing progress and it has to continue as the season goes on.”
Pelini was asked for his thoughts on Wisconsin QB Joel Stave, who has unseated Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien as the Badgers starter.
“He is a big, strong-armed guy,” Pelini said. “I thought he played well the other day (against UTEP). He will get better as he gets more experience.”
Stave (pronounced Stah-vay) completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown with an interception in UW’s 37-26 win over UTEP. A native of Greenfield, Wis., he originally arrived at UW as a preferred walk-on.
“His story is he is a typical Wisconsin kid who was maybe under-recruited,” Bielema said. “It wasn’t a normal walk-on situation. We had some parameters that he knew if he came in and did some things he would be put on scholarship within a year or two. We actually put him on a little bit early because we had some availability.
“He’s one of those kids with a dynamic personality. It’s what you want to see in a quarterback. He walks into a room and people know who he is. He has some things that excite you, but we are dealing with a first-year starter. That brings up some challenges, especially playing against a Nebraska defense.”
Ball left the UTEP game with a head injury. Bielema said he will be held out of most if not all contact drills this week and will be evaluated late in the week to see if he can play at Nebraska.
“It’s a standard, normal procedure for a guy,” Bielema said. “We will see where he is tomorrow and hope he will be cleared by Thursday or Friday.”
Ball rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s rout of the Huskers in Madison.
Click here for coverage of Wisconsin from Badger 247.
Nebraska moved up three spots from No. 25 to No. 22 after the win over Idaho State. Click here for more coverage from Huskers Illustrated.
Ohio State (14) at Michigan State (20)
ESPN’s College Game Day will be on hand in East Lansing as the Spartans (3-1) host the Buckeyes (4-0). It will be OSU’s first visit to East Lansing since 2008 (a 45-7 OSU win). MSU won last year’s match-up in Columbus (10-7).
MSU coach Mark Dantonio was not happy with how his team responded to a Week 3 home loss to Notre Dame (20-3). The Spartans trailed winless Eastern Michigan at home last week before rallying for the 23-7 win. Dantonio was terse with the media after the win and made his players and assistants off-limits to reporters this week. (That tact actually worked twice last year as MSU defeated Ohio State and Michigan in weeks where the players did not speak.)
“I felt we needed to come together as a team,” Dantonio said. “It had nothing to do with the press.”
Looking at Ohio State, Dantonio was asked if there are more players on the OSU offense besides QB Braxton Miller who concern him.
“Absolutely,” the coach said. “I would say that Devin Smith and Evan Spencer make great catches. They have big play potential. Philly Brown is a guy who gets the ball all over the place at times. Jake Stoneburner is a mismatch tight end they use. Then you get into Jordan Hall and (Carlos) Hyde may be back as well. Those are two tailbacks they will get the ball to.
“But Braxton Miller, because he is at the center of everything, the ball always starts with him. He can do so much and be dynamic with him. He is a feature guy for them.”
Dantonio was asked what went wrong against ND, when MSU mustered just 237 yards total offense and a 50-yard Dan Conroy field goal.
“In our Notre Dame game, we were moving the ball somewhat,” Dantonio said. “We were getting 3 or 4 yards and then we were stalling out throwing the football. I got impatient as a head coach in the third quarter. We turned more to the passing game to try and change the tempo.”
Ohio State will be going for its seventh 5-0 start in 13 years, dating to 2000. This is also first-year OSU coach Urban Meyer’s Big Ten debut. He knows it won’t be easy as MSU RB Le’Veon Bell already has two 200-yard rushing games in the young season.
“Film doesn’t lie,” Meyer said. “Our players know exactly what they are running into. They are running into the best defense in the Big Ten. They have the best running offense in the Big Ten. And it’s one of the toughest environments. Now we have to get ready.”
OSU could travel as many as 20 true and redshirt freshmen to East Lansing for its first road game after four home wins. As many as 12 of them could be in the two-deep or play key roles on special teams.
“I don’t know if we have ever played this many,” Meyer said. “We have a lot of them in key areas, including the special teams. It’s alarming at times. But for the future, it’s great. There is nothing like game experience. There are some freshmen here that we believe in.
“But this will be a whole another test. This is Big Ten play and it’s on the road.”
Meyer’s offense has scratched the surface of doing some big things. He is waiting to see that unit, led by the dynamic Miller, put it all together.
“I don’t think it’s real close yet,” Meyer said. “I think at times we have shown some glimpses. But we have to be able to spread the ball around a little bit. Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall coming back helps a little bit. Our receivers are still coming along.”
MSU moved up from 21st to 20th in this week’s AP poll after the win over EMU. Click here for more MSU coverage from Spartan Tailgate.
Ohio State moved up from 16th to 14th in the AP poll after its win over UAB. Click here for more Ohio State coverage from Bucknuts.com.
Penn State at Illinois
Surging Penn State will travel to struggling Illinois in a Leaders Division match-up of 2-2 teams. The respective coaches – PSU’s Bill O’Brien and Illinois’ Tim Beckman – will each be making their Big Ten debut.
The Nittany Lions opened with tough losses at home to Ohio and at Virginia before rallying nicely with solid wins over Navy and Temple. The PSU offense, led by QB Matt McGloin, has sparked up the last two weeks after a slow start.
“It was all a matter of being a new system,” O’Brien said. “You were starting from scratch because it was all brand new with the language, how we run things, how we run the ball, how we run routes and how we protect.
“One of the things that is neat for us as coaches is how far these guys have come from the beginning of spring practice until now. They have worked at it and it’s neat to see how they have picked up the system.”
Things could not have been much lower for PSU than it was after the team’s 24-14 loss to Ohio to open the season. But O’Brien said his team stayed with it and the morale has greatly improved.
“When you win a football game, you put so much time into it and you play so many good teams, when you win that gives you a good feeling for that week,” O’Brien said. “Then you have to get ready for the next team, which is a challenge. Our players feel good about where they are now. But they also know there is a lot to improve on.”
The Fighting Illini have been banged up with QB Nathan Scheelhaase in and out of the lineup. The result was lopsided losses at Arizona State in Week 2 (45-14) and at home to Louisiana Tech this past Saturday (52-24). Beckman hopes Scheelhaase can go against Penn State.
“He had a good practice (Tuesday),” Beckman said. “With our whole football team, we have to get healthy. Our guys are trying to get back. We look forward to him progressing each and every day.”
Freshman RB Josh Ferguson was a bright spot in the loss to Louisiana Tech with 180 all-purpose yards. Ferguson had 27 yards rushing, 84 yards receiving (on 10 catches) and 69 yards on kick returns.
“We tried to utilize Josh the best way we could,” Beckman said. “He has great quickness coming out of the backfield. We were proud of the way he played.”
Click here for more coverage of Penn State from Lions 247.
Minnesota at Iowa
Minnesota (4-0) visits Iowa (2-2) in the annual Legends Division battle for the Floyd of Rosedale. It will be the 78th time since 1935 the Gophers and Hawkeyes will square off for the trophy, with Minnesota holding a 41-34-2 advantage with the trophy at stake.
Minnesota has won back-to-back match-ups in 2010 (27-24) and 2011 (22-21) and heads to Iowa City looking for its first three-game win streak in the series since 1998-2000. Minnesota is also looking for its first 5-0 start since 2004.
The Golden Gophers have made a quantum leap defensively. Last year, Minnesota was 77th in total defense (403.1 ypg) and 93rd in scoring defense (31.7 ppg). They have shaved nearly 100 yards and two touchdowns off those averages so far this year. Minnesota is 21st in total defense (307.5 ypg) and 30th in scoring defense (16.8 ppg).
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was asked when he knew his team’s defense would be improved.
“I wish I could say that,” Kill said. “I think it’s been a work in progress. We felt like we got better in the spring. But until you play games, you don’t know what you have. We felt like we added some people and some depth in recruiting. We felt like our team could be better because our kids are bigger and stronger and we have some continuity with the coaching staff. That’s what has taken place.
“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing. We want to get better and hopefully we will have some success.”
Kill said that Max Shortell will continue to start at quarterback in place of the ailing MarQueis Gray.
“We do a lot of stuff in practice with two huddles and two offensive lines,” Kill said. “We get a lot of repetition with our first- and second-team quarterbacks. The way we practice has helped us. We don’t have a lot of depth. The more repetition you get in practice, the better you can get.”
Iowa has yet to play a complete game after lackluster wins over Northern Illinois and I-AA Northern Iowa and home losses to Iowa State (9-6) and Central Michigan (32-31). Aided by an onside kick recovery, CMU scored nine points in the final 45 seconds to steal that win at Iowa City.
“Obviously, we had a disappointing outcome on Saturday,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “Central outplayed us and deserved the win. The credit goes to them. It’s disappointing. The reality of football is, win or lose, you have to move past what you did last week. You have to focus on what you need to do better internally and focus on your opponent.
“Clearly, we weren’t prepared well enough last week and we didn’t play well enough. We come in every week to do our best to prepare the team and then go out and try and play well. That’s how it’s been for 13 years here. That hasn’t changed.”
Ferentz said the Hawkeyes need to pull it together quickly – or a third home loss in four weeks could be staring them in the face.
“We have a great challenge on our hands,” Ferentz said. “They are playing really well. Coach Kill has done a wonderful job up there in a very short amount of time. They aren’t 4-0 by accident or some fluke. They have played four teams and earned four victories. They are playing disciplined football. They play together and play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
Click here for coverage of Iowa athletics from Voice of The Hawkeyes.
Indiana at Northwestern
Northwestern (4-0) will host Indiana (2-1) looking to get to 5-0 for the first time since 2008.
NU coach Pat Fitzgerald talked about the emergence of RB Venric Mark, who has 399 yards rushing and four touchdowns so far this season. He has stabilized a position that has been a revolving door since Tyrell Sutton left after the 2008 season.
“V has been very efficient and very effective for us,” Fitzgerald said. “We moved him over to tailback in the bowl practice and it’s where he played in high school. It’s a more natural position for him. He invested this summer and he is doing a terrific job for us.”
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wants to see how his team will respond after an open week.
“We have a really good challenge,” Wilson said. “They are solid in all three phases. Pat has them playing well. Their team has the ability to score. Our defense needs to rise up to the challenge. Their defense has played solid. We’ve done OK. As soon as you think it will be a high scoring game, nobody will score. I don’t know what to expect, but I expect our team to practice well this week and go up there and play well.”
Indiana opened with wins over I-AA Indiana State and Massachusetts before a tough home loss to Ball State in Week 3 (41-39). Indiana was winless in Big Ten play a year ago and has only won three conference games in the past four seasons combined.
“We need to start playing competitive, winning football in the Big Ten,” Wilson said. “This is our first opportunity to gauge how far we’ve come.”
Wilson said that sophomore Cameron Coffman will start at quarterback, but freshman Nate Sudfeld will also play. They combined for 423 yards passing and four touchdowns in the loss to Ball State. This could be a real shootout: Last year, NU took a 59-38 win over Indiana in Bloomington.
Click here for coverage of IU athletics from Inside Indiana.
Marshall at Purdue
Purdue (2-1) wraps up nonconference play by hosting Marshall (2-2). The Boilermakers had last week off after their Week 3 romp over Eastern Michigan (54-16).
This could also be a high scoring game. Marshall is first nationally in passing yards (383.5 ypg) behind the play of sophomore QB Rakeem Cato. Marshall is 16th nationally in scoring (41.0 ppg), while Purdue is 19th (39.7 ppg).
“We are excited about the progress of our football team,” said Purdue coach Danny Hope. “The bye week gave us a chance to heal up and recover some. We got some early preparation for Marshall. They are the No. 1 passing offense in the country. The time off was also good for our football team and our staff.”
With Wisconsin struggling and Ohio State and Penn State each ineligible, some have picked Purdue to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game.
“We felt pretty good coming into the season that we were going to be contenders, based on the momentum we had from last year with the bowl win,” Hope said. “The performance of the other teams in our league had nothing to do with the goals we set for our team coming into the season.
“Yes, we have fared well. But we thought coming into the season we would have a chance to be a good football team.”
Hope provided injury updates on QB Robert Marve and DE Ryan Russell.
“Robert is coming off his third ACL tear,” he said. “We anticipate him coming back and playing at some time this season. He is still recovering from the injury. He will not play this week, though.
“Ryan looked fine in practice on Sunday. I anticipate him being able to play in the game Saturday.”
Michigan Sitting This One Out
Michigan (2-2) will head back into the garage for an off week after its troubling 13-6 loss at Notre Dame. The Wolverines had six turnovers in gift-wrapping that win at South Bend for the Fighting Irish.
“The effort and demeanor our defense played with kept us in the football game,” said UM coach Brady Hoke. “We’ve got to improve upon that."
“We have to take care of the football better and execute better on both sides of the ball. Our team will take this week and we’ll get better on fundamentals and techniques and we will get ready for the Big Ten season.
“I would say the bye week came at a good time for us. We can reevaluate some of our personnel and also work to get better.”
The big news for Michigan on Tuesday was the announcement that its series with Notre Dame will be ended after their 2014 meeting. ND exercised its right to break off the contract – which included meetings in most seasons through 2031 – by handing Michigan athletic David Brandon a letter prior to Saturday’s game. ND recently announced an affiliation where it will play as many as five games a year against ACC opponents while also maintaining its football independence.
“My reaction is that Notre Dame made a decision,” Hoke said. “It’s not our decision. (Athletic director) Dave (Brandon) told me on Sunday about what was going to happen. It’s unfortunate. It’s a great rivalry, but they have to do what they think is best. It opens up some new scheduling opportunities for us.
“In the long run, we thought this might happen … I’m sure Dave and I will have some conversations and do what’s right for Michigan.”
It’s unclear what impact that ACC deal could have on future games ND has scheduled with Purdue and Michigan State as well as any other Big Ten schools.
Click here for more coverage of Michigan from Wolverine 247.
* One subplot to the Illinois-Penn State game was the controversy generated as Beckman sent Illini coaches to State College to meet with potential PSU transfers after NCAA sanctions were announced against the school in July. O’Brien did not feed the fire, though.
"It takes a lot to bother me," O'Brien said, "so I would tell you that, again, our players, myself, our staff, we're very focused on the task at hand."
The Illinois plan netted one transfer in backup OL Ryan Nowicki
"We did everything under the rules, and everybody was notified prior to anything happening," Beckman said. "I'm sure it has a little bit of an effect on this football game, but it's still about tackling and blocking and doing the things right fundamentally to be successful."
Given the chance to assess the job O’Brien has done so far at Penn State, Beckman said, “I think Coach O’Brien has done a fabulous job. Their players have played extremely hard. Each week, they perform better and better. We know it will be a tough challenge.”
* IU’s Wilson noted that although Ohio State and Penn State can’t play in the Big Ten title game they can each still claim the division title. That gives them something to play for.
“I expect both of those teams to be a major impact on what happens in the conference each week,” Wilson said.
* MSU’s Dantonio had eight starters back from the league’s top defense a year ago. And, while MSU is still sixth nationally in total defense (233.5 ypg), Dantonio still sees room for improvement.
“I notice we are in the top 10 in a lot of categories,” Dantonio said. “But we are 110th in sacks and we haven’t gotten the turnovers we’ve gotten before. Hopefully the turnovers will show up this weekend (against OSU). Sometimes they show up in bunches.
“We’ve gotten pressure on some quarterbacks and we have some TFLs and we’ve been hard to run against. Our guys will play fast and attack and play confidently and those other things will get themselves ironed out.”
* At the same time, Ohio State has been a fixture at the top of the defensive charts in the Big Ten over the past decade. But through four weeks, OSU is 12th in the conference (and 71st nationally) at 394.8 yards allowed per game.
“It is very alarming,” Meyer said of OSU’s defensive performance. “That’s not Ohio State defense over the last 10 years. Last year was not that great, but the previous years before that were as good as any defense in the country. That’s something that has to change really fast.”
* Four Big Ten standouts, Indiana’s Adam Replogle, Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead, Ohio State’s John Simon and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, were selected as candidates for the 2012 Senior CLASS Award, which honors the nation’s top senior student-athlete who excels in four areas – community, classroom, character and competition.
The list of candidates will be narrowed to 10 midway through the season. In the four seasons of the Senior CLASS Award, two Big Ten student-athletes have won the honor, including Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis, who won the inaugural award in 2008, and Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins last season.
* Weekly award winners from the Big Ten included:
Offensive Player of the Week: Michigan State RB Le’Veon Bell (253 yards, one TD vs. Eastern Michigan).
Defensive Player of the Week: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland (12 tackles, 3-1/2 TFLs, two sacks vs. UTEP).
Special Teams Player of the Week: Nebraska punt returner Ameer Abdullah (returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown).
Freshman of the Week: Nebraska RB Imani Cross (12 carries for 100 yards, 1 TD vs. Idaho State).
Big Ten Standings
Ohio State (4-0, 0-0)
Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0)
Indiana (2-1, 0-0)
Purdue (2-1, 0-0)
Illinois (2-2, 0-0)
Penn State (2-2, 0-0)
Northwestern (4-0, 0-0)
Minnesota (4-0, 0-0)
Michigan State (3-1, 0-0)
Nebraska (3-1, 0-0)
Iowa (2-2, 0-0)
Michigan (2-2, 0-0)
Sept. 22 Games
Wisconsin 37, UTEP 26
Ohio State (16) 29, UAB 15
Central Michigan 32, Iowa 31
Penn State 24, Temple 13
Nebraska (25) 73, Idaho State 7
Northwestern 38, South Dakota 7
Michigan State (21) 23, Eastern Michigan 7
Notre Dame (11) 13, Michigan (18) 6
Minnesota 17, Syracuse 10
Louisiana Tech 52, Illinois 24
Idle: Indiana, Purdue
Sept. 29 Games (All times Eastern)
Penn State at Illinois, noon (ESPN)
Minnesota at Iowa, noon (ESPN2)
Indiana at Northwestern, noon (Big Ten Network)
Ohio State at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. (ABC national)
Marshall at Purdue, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 8 p.m. (ABC)
Oct. 6 Games
Michigan State at Indiana, noon (Big Ten Network)
Northwestern at Penn State, noon (ESPN or ESPN2)
Illinois at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional, ESPN or ESPN2 outer market)
Michigan at Purdue, 4 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Nebraska at Ohio State, 8 p.m. (ABC or ESPN2)
Idle: Iowa, Minnesota
Last Thursday, I made my picks for Week 4.
I ended up 19-6 straight-up and a woeful 8-15 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 80-27 SU and 48-49 ATS.
In Big Ten games, I was 7-3 straight-up and also 2-6 ATS. Through three weeks, I am 36-10 straight-up and 17-21 ATS.
Stay tuned this week for our Big Ten Primer (with updated predictions and observations), Picks for Week 5 on Thursday and a Chat on Friday morning.