Welcome to Big Ten Blast!
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Denard Robinson will collide Saturday night in Lincoln
This will be a regular weekly column where we will provide some news and notes from around the conference.
This Saturday will be one of the biggest of the season in Big Ten football. The two unbeaten teams in the Leaders Division will go head to head as Ohio State visits Penn State. First place in the Legends Division will also be on the line as Michigan travels to Nebraska.
In a rematch of last year’s Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin – the defending league champion and top eligible team for postseason play in the Leaders – will welcome in Michigan State.
Also this weekend, Iowa visits Northwestern, Illinois comes off a bye week by hosting Indiana and Purdue travels to Minnesota.
Below, we look at each of these match-ups. Here goes this week’s Big Ten Blast:
Michigan (20) at Nebraska
Michigan (5-2, 3-0) can put itself in the driver’s seat for the Legends Division lead if it can pull off a win at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) Saturday night. Michigan has not won a Big Ten championship since 2004 – the longest hiatus between championships for the Wolverines since a 14-year break between 1950-64.
“Besides graduating, the expectations here are to win Big Ten championships,” said UM coach Brady Hoke. “We embrace it. We aren’t going to shy away from it. We’re going to be very honest about it. It’s part of the legacy of this program.”
A year ago, Michigan dealt Nebraska a 45-17 defeat in Ann Arbor. But Hoke knows going to Nebraska will be a different matter. The Huskers are led by junior QB Taylor Martinez, who is third in the conference in total offense at 288.3 yards per game.
“The maturity that Taylor has shown, you just watch the games and see the confidence has grown,” Hoke said. “He gets them into the right plays. Every year is different. Going on the road and playing there, it’s a great place to play because of the passion the Nebraska fans have about their team.
“It will be exciting on both ends of it. You play a team that’s got rich tradition and a passionate fan base. It will be a lot of fun.”
Nebraska lost RB Rex Burkhead to an injury last week in its come-from-behind 29-28 win at Northwestern. Ameer Abdullah has filled in admirably all season while Burkhead has been in and out of the lineup.
“Both running backs with Burkhead and Abdullah present problems we will have to deal with,” Hoke said. “Defensively, they make a lot of negative plays. We have not played our best football. But we’re going to need to this week.”
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Burkhead has handled his injuries as well as could be expected.
“Rex is a strong-minded kid,” Pelini said. “That’s the last thing we’re worried about, what his mind-set is. He is a strong young man. He doesn’t let a lot of things bother him. I’d say we’re all frustrated with the situation and his health this season. But he’s handled it well and has kept fighting.”
Martinez earned Big Ten player of the week honors for the third time this season for his play against Northwestern.
“He’s further ahead of where he was last year in every way,” Pelini said. “He continues to develop. He’s gotten better with the more experience he has gotten. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Pelini said his Huskers defense, which has struggled at times this year, will have its hands full with Michigan and QB Denard Robinson, who leads the Big Ten at 309.1 ypg.
“They do a good job,” Pelini said. “They have a lot of playmakers and it starts with Denard. But they have some good players up front. It will be a challenge for us.”
After the win over Michigan State, Michigan moved up three spots in the AP poll to No. 20 this week. Click here for more coverage of Michigan from Wolverine 247.
Click here for more coverage from Huskers Illustrated.
Ohio State (9) at Penn State
Neither of these teams can play for the Big Ten championship this season, but they can still have the distinction of winning the Leaders Division title. The winner of this game Saturday night between OSU (8-0, 4-0) and PSU (5-2, 3-0) at Beaver Stadium will move into first place in the division.
After an 0-2 start, Penn State has won its last five games. The Nittany Lions are coming off their best showing with a 38-14 win at Iowa last Saturday. PSU coach Bill O’Brien was asked how his team came back after losses to Ohio (still unbeaten at 7-0) and Virginia to open the season.
“Like any losing locker room, it wasn’t a great mood,” O’Brien said. “I knew there was still a lot of resolve in our locker room. They came back to practice and I knew we had resilient kids. All we’ve tried to do each week is try to improve.”
Penn State’s emergence has paralleled the play of senior QB Matt McGloin, who will make his third start against OSU on Saturday. In Big Ten games, McGloin leads the conference at 260.7 passing yards per game.
"He is smart,” O’Brien said. “He has a really good brain. He understands things. He can watch film and have an idea of what you want to do. You don't have to tell him twice. He’s very competitive. He's a tough guy. If you come from Scranton, all I hear about is how tough it is in Scranton and he's right."
Asked about similarities between himself and McGloin, O’Brien said, "We're both Irish, we both have a bit of a temper and we both like to compete."
Ohio State lost starting QB Braxton Miller to a neck injury in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game with Purdue. Backup Kenny Guiton came on and led OSU to a seven-play, 61-yard scoring march in the final minute to force overtime as the Buckeyes eventually pulled out a 29-22 win. Miller figures to start at Penn State, but O’Brien said the Lions are working on stuff for both quarterbacks.
"It is very difficult (to prepare),” O’Brien said. “We are preparing for Braxton Miller. He is one of the top players in the country. He does everything well. He can run, he can throw and he’s instinctive. He runs Urban Meyer’s offense very well. At the end of the day, that’s the guy we have to prepare for.
“Obviously, Guiton came in at the end of the game against Purdue and did a great job of leading them down the field to win the game.”
OSU coach Urban Meyer talked about his team’s preparation at quarterback.
“We will get both of them ready,” Meyer said. “Both Braxton and Kenny are good athletes, so we will have the elements of the quarterback run and the option. Kenny is a great manager and distributor. He’s like a coach on the field. He gets you in the right play easily.”
Miller was injured late in the third quarter after going down on a hard tackle. He suffered a sore neck, although he was checked out for a concussion and shoulder injuries as well. He returned to practice on Tuesday.
“I kept asking during the game and they didn't know,” Meyer said. “After the game, we finished the team gathering, I grabbed someone and they said, ‘Coach, it’s coming back good.’ As soon as the press conference was done, I jumped in a police car and went to the hospital and sat with the doctor. The tests were coming back and all were positive.
"He's real sore, his neck, but he's good to go for practice. He passed all the tests. Our biggest concern is how sore he is."
In Big Ten play, Penn State’s hurry-up offense leads the conference in time of possession (nearly 37 minutes per game) and plays per game (90.3 plays per game).
“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge,” Meyer said. “They’re averaging almost 90-some plays a game. It’s not a panic up-tempo offense. It’s under control. They are going to try and uncover what you’re in and this quarterback, you can tell, gets you in the right play against the right defense. It seems like he does a lot of it on his own.”
Click here for more coverage of Penn State from Lions 247.
Ohio State moved down from seventh to ninth in the AP poll after its win over Purdue. Click here for more Ohio State coverage from Bucknuts.com.
Michigan State at Wisconsin
Michigan State (4-4, 1-3) will try and turn its season around as it visits Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1). The Spartans have dropped four of their last six games after a 2-0 start.
“They have lost some close games against good opponents,” said UW coach Bret Bielema. “The ball just didn’t bounce their way at critical times. We know we will get their best game of the year this weekend.”
This is a rematch of last year’s Big Ten championship game, which Wisconsin won 42-39. The teams have played three times in the last two years. MSU won at home over the Badgers in both 2010 (34-24) and 2011 (37-31 on the Hail Mary touchdown from Kurt Cousins to Keith Nichol).
“We’ve had a nice run of games against them with all three on the road – two in East Lansing and one in Indianapolis,” Bielema said. “We are looking forward to playing them here in Madison.”
After some early struggles with road losses to Oregon State (still unbeaten at 6-0) and Nebraska, Bielema said the Badgers have gotten back to what they do best.
“We’ve stuck to our DNA,” Bielema said. “Offensively, that’s running the football and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Defensively, we want to have success on first down and make third down much easier.”
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball continues to climb the Big Ten career records lists, while also closing in on the all-time NCAA record for total touchdowns. With two more rushing touchdowns against Minnesota on Saturday, Ball climbed into a tie for second place on the conference’s all-time rushing touchdowns list with former Indiana running back Anthony
Thompson with 68 career rushing scores.
The two touchdowns brought his career touchdown total to 74, just four off the NCAA record of 78, held by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio).
Ball was also in the news this week for changing the pronunciation of his first name from Mon-tay back to the original Mon-tee.
“I’m sticking with Montee,” Bielema said. “Until somebody tells me different, I am going to stick with Montee because that has been successful in the past.”
MSU’s Big Ten losses have all been hard to take. The Spartans lost at home to Ohio State (17-16) and Iowa (19-16 in overtime) and this past weekend at rival Michigan (12-10). That’s three losses by a combined six points.
“We’ve lost very close football games,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio. “The foundation, I don’t worry about. Games can go one way or another depending on a few plays. We need to stay focused on the challenge at hand and deal with things one game at a time.
“We’ve had some injuries and some guys who have graduated. But that’s the nature of college football. We need to push through the tough times. Under adversity, you will see your biggest growth. We will be there on Saturday and we’ll be ready to go.”
Dantonio said his team has stayed tight despite the defeats. After back-to-back 11-win seasons, MSU needs two more wins just to become bowl-eligible.
“It’s important that when there is a problem that we don’t splinter,” Dantonio said. “We have to remain resilient and focused on the task at hand and don’t go sideways. We have to identify the problems and fix them.”
As expected, Michigan State has boasted the Big Ten’s best defense. MSU leads the league in scoring defense (15.2 ppg) and total defense (277.1 ypg). But the offense has lagged behind. The Spartans are 10th in rushing offense (140.0 ypg), ninth in total offense (370.8 ypg) and 11th in scoring defense (19.6 ppg).
“I knew we were losing some excellent football players,” Dantonio said of changes on offense. “We lost some great players to graduation and we are inexperienced in some places because of that. We’ve been hit with some injuries. All of those things result in not playing up to expectations. We’re growing as a football team. We are growing depth on our offensive line. Guys are stepping in there and that’s been a positive for us.”
Click here for coverage of Wisconsin from Badger 247.
Click here for more MSU coverage from Spartan Tailgate.
Iowa at Northwestern
Two teams coming off losses will collide in Evanston as Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) hosts Iowa (4-3, 2-1).
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked if there were any themes between his team’s two losses to Penn State (39-28) and Nebraska (29-28). The Wildcats held double-digit leads in both games.
“We lost, that’s the first thing,” Fitzgerald said. “Second of all, we have to coach our guys better to make some plays down the stretch. We had opportunities in both games, but ended up on the short end. We just have to keep plugging along.”
Fitzgerald was asked if his team was cursed. He made light of the question, saying, “Yeah, I bought a rubber chicken so if we get a lead I’m going to cut the head off of it like (Pedro) Cerrano did in Major League. You guys are overanalyzing this, man. We lost two tough games against two doggone good football teams.
“Typically, as coaches, you don’t have a lot of paralysis by analysis. You look at what went wrong fundamentally and what we can do to put our guys in a position to succeed.”
Iowa’s 38-14 loss to Penn State was the Hawkeyes’ worst home loss in 12 years, dating to a 38-10 loss to Ohio State in 2000.
Asked what he gleaned from watching the Penn State game on tape, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “Where would you want to start? There wasn’t much we did well. Penn State had a lot to do with that. They played excellent football. We didn’t match them. We lost the game and we have to get back to work.”
Ferentz raised some eyebrows by keeping most of his starters – including QB James Vandenberg – in the game until the bitter end.
“We left our starters in there,” Ferentz said. “We thought that was the best thing to do.”
Ferentz said RB Mark Weisman, limited to five carries against Penn State due to an ankle injury, should be full-go against Northwestern.
“We’re hoping so,” Ferentz said. “If we can get through this week without any reoccurences, hopefully he will be a week stronger. He made a good comeback to play last week. But the game got out of hand and we thought it was best to get him out of there.”
Click here for coverage of Iowa athletics from Voice of The Hawkeyes.
Purdue at Minnesota
Two teams still searching for their first Big Ten win will meet in Minneapolis as Minnesota (4-3, 0-3) hosts Purdue (3-4, 0-3). Both of these teams have a lot of work to do still to become bowl-eligible.
Last week, Minnesota pressed freshman Philip Nelson into service at quarterback as injuries kept MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell from playing. Nelson was 13 of 24 passing for 149 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in UM’s 38-13 loss at Wisconsin.
“It’s a situation where we had a difficult thing,” said UM coach Jerry Kill. “Everybody has tough situations. But MarQueis was not 100 percent and we don’t know when he’s going to be. Max Shortell got dinged when we played Northwestern. Building a program, we are a little bit thin.
“We made the commitment to pull the redshirt off Philip. When you do that, you make the commitment to play him. We just need to worry about keeping somebody healthy.”
Kill said that even if Gray comes back from his various injuries, the ship has probably sailed on him being Minnesota’s every down quarterback.
“Could we use him (at quarterback) in some situations, certainly,” Kill said. “We have to build some continuity and if that’s him at wide receiver then so be it. He could still do some things at quarterback as well.”
After blowout home losses to Michigan and Wisconsin, Purdue coach Danny Hope was glad to see his team compete at Ohio State – even if the result was another loss.
“We played much better,” Hope said. “It came down to the last play of the game. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to come out with a win. We showed some signs of improvement as a football team. I was pleased with our effort. I think we came out of that game with more confidence.
“We challenged them. We came off two ugly losses at home. Anytime that happens, everybody has to lock arms and recommit themselves to the season. I thought we did a good job of coming back and practicing with a purpose. There was a sense of urgency and we played that way. We took the fight to them.”
Click here for more Purdue coverage.
Indiana at Illinois
Two more teams will also be vying for their first Big Ten win as Indiana visits Illinois. Both teams are 2-5 overall and 0-3 in conference play.
Indiana has lost its last five games after a 2-0 start. Other than a 44-29 loss at Northwestern, the Hoosiers have lost the other four games in that losing streak by a combined 10 points. The worst, perhaps, was last week’s 31-30 loss at Navy.
“It’s just making the plays to win,” said IU coach Kevin Wilson. “We are down to where it’s just a small thing. We had a turnover at the end of the game that haunted us. We’ve done good with ball security. We’re right there. We just haven’t made the play to close it out.
“We’ve competed for 60 minutes. We’re staying positive and we’ll keep pushing.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman hopes his team comes off its open week ready to go.
“We had a week off and that was much needed,” he said. “We needed to get some guys healthy and we had to evaluate some things we had been doing. Now we’re ready for homecoming weekend here against Indiana.”
Beckman said QB Nathan Scheelhaase will be full-go. He was lost in Illinois’ Oct. 13 loss to Michigan due to a concussion.
“He’s been great,” Beckman said. “He’s been cleared. He was able to practice. He has been at every practice full speed.”
Illinois is averaging a Big Ten-worst 7.0 points in conference play.
“We have to build,” Beckman said. “Twenty-one points in three games is not acceptable.”
Click here for coverage of IU athletics from Inside Indiana.
* Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State are all ranked between 28th and 31st in this week’s AP poll. If any of those three win their marquee games this weekend, they could move into the top 25 next week.
* With Michigan’s victory over Michigan State last Saturday, the Wolverines recorded the 900th victory in program history. The all-time winningest program in NCAA history, Michigan is one of three Big Ten programs ranked among the top five winningest programs in the country, with Nebraska fourth and Ohio State fifth, and has 37 more victories than the next closest team.
* The Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker, announced its 12 semifinalists on Monday, and one-third of the list is populated by Big Ten players. That includes Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, Michigan State’s Max Bullough, Penn State’s Gerald Hodges and Penn State’s Michael Mauti.
Beckman was asked about how Brown has played this year.
“It’s a great honor for Jonathan,” the Illini coach said. “He is a good football player. He played the last two weeks at less than 100 percent. His game will project further and further as he continues to learn it. He’s been a good football player for us.”
* The Big Ten’s TV partners are using their second and final six-day selection window for the weekend of Nov. 3. That means those games should be announced after play concludes this Saturday or sometime on Sunday.
The smart money would be on Nebraska-Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. on ABC. It is possible that Big Ten Network could also have a 3:30 game that day, but at least three of the other games that day should be at noon on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or Big Ten Network.
By Monday, we should also know the assignments for the weekend of Nov. 10. Penn State-Nebraska is the top game that day with Northwestern-Michigan a close second.
* Players selected as Big Ten players of the week included:
Offense: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez (407 yards total offense, four touchdowns against Northwestern)
Defense: Penn State DT Jordan Hill (nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one sack against Iowa)
Special Teams: Michigan K Brendan Gibbons (3 of 3 on field goals including the game-winner against Michigan State)
Freshman: Penn State TE Kyle Carter (six catches, 83 yards against Iowa)
Big Ten Standings
Ohio State (8-0, 4-0)
Penn State (5-2, 3-0)
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1)
Purdue (3-4, 0-3)
Indiana (2-5, 0-3)
Illinois (2-5, 0-3)
Michigan (5-2, 3-0)
Nebraska (5-2, 2-1)
Iowa (4-3, 2-1)
Northwestern (6-2, 2-2)
Michigan State (4-4, 1-3)
Minnesota (4-3, 0-3)
Oct. 20 Games
Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 13
Ohio State (7) 29, Purdue 22 (OT)
Navy 31, Indiana 30
Michigan (23) 12, Michigan State 10
Nebraska 29, Northwestern 28
Penn State 38, Iowa 14
Oct. 27 Games (All Times Eastern)
Iowa at Northwestern, noon (ESPN2)
Indiana at Illinois, noon (Big Ten Network)
Michigan State at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional; ESPN2 outer market)
Purdue at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Ohio State (9) at Penn State, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Michigan (20) at Nebraska, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 3 Games
Iowa at Indiana
Michigan at Minnesota
Nebraska at Michigan State
Illinois at Ohio State
Penn State at Purdue
Idle: Northwestern, Wisconsin
On Thursday, I made my picks for Week 8.
I ended up 22-4 straight-up and 12-14 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 155-46 SU and 93-97-1 ATS.
In Big Ten games, I was 5-1 straight-up (lost on Indiana) and 4-2 ATS. Through eight weeks, I am 56-12 straight-up and 31-29 ATS.
Stay tuned this week for Picks for Week 9 on Thursday.
Also, please note we will be in Chicago all day Thursday for coverage of the Big Ten basketball media day. Check the Big Ten board and our conference team sites all day for updates.