Big Ten football preview: Best in the Midwest

first_imgPurdue is riding high heading into the opening weekend of Big Ten play.The Boilermakers handily defeated Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of 102-22. Purdue’s one loss came in a 20-17 loss on the road to No. 10 Notre Dame on a field goal with seven seconds left.Purdue’s offense may hinge on the health of quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, who are both expected to return soon from ACL injuries. Marve guided Purdue to the top passing offense in the Big Ten with one of the best completion percentages in the nation (73.2) before going down in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame. Bolden tore his ACL in the 2011 regular season finale after totaling 674 yards for the season. Caleb TerBush, who usually splits time with Marve, will handle the majority of the quarterback snaps until Marve’s return. Antavian Edison, who has made at least one catch in his last 24 games, gives Purdue quarterbacks a reliable target (18 catches, four touchdowns). The Boilermakers will have to sort out their offensive line, which has experienced shuffling at left tackle and both guard spots.Purdue’s defense, anchored by preseason All-American Kawann Short, has helped the defense hold opponents to 14 points and 293 yards per game. Strong play from defensive end Ryan Russell (1.5 TFL per game, second in Big Ten) and the cornerback tandem of Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson have contributed to the defense’s performance, which has thrived under first year coordinator Tim Tibesar. An inexperienced linebacker corps will have to continue to improve for the Boilermakers.Purdue has lived up to its hype as a preseason dark horse contender and appears to be the best team Danny Hope has had in his four years at Purdue. If the Boilermakers can stay healthy, successfully manage the quarterbacks and improve at offensive line and linebacker, the team should be in contention for a Leaders Division title.–Travis Baugh, Purdue ExponentIn Kevin Wilson’s second year at the helm in Bloomington, Indiana football is gaining ground in a weak Big Ten Conference.After last season’s 1-11 output in which the Hoosiers failed to beat a single Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, IU has started off the 2012 season with a 2-1 record with wins over Indiana State and Massachusetts.The Hoosiers’ success this year has mostly come on the offensive side of the ball, far removed from the days of 2011 in which they averaged only 21.4 points per game.IU currently ranks second in the conference in yards per game, averaging 538.3, and leads the conference in passing yards per game, with 335. This is despite the season-ending leg injury starting quarterback Tre Roberson suffered in the Hoosiers’ second game against UMass.Since his injury, junior college transfer quarterback Cam Coffman has stepped in for Roberson and been electric at the position, completing 40 of 57 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns in only two games played, all without a single turnover.The Hoosiers’ fast-paced offensive attack has also featured a corps of running backs running four-deep, as they have spread the ball effectively through three games.That said, familiar weaknesses have plagued IU. The Hoosiers rank second-to-last in the country in penalty yards per game (91) and second-worst in the Big Ten in average yards on kickoff returns allowed (27.44).Additionally, though the Hoosier defense has improved statistically, it has not faced the test of a Big Ten offense. As seen in it’s game against Ball State, a team with a strong quarterback could pose problems for the IU secondary.While this team might have it’s ups and downs, it appears Indiana football is headed in the right direction going into Big Ten play.–Jordan Littman, Indiana Daily StudentMinnesota has lived near the bottom of the Big Ten in recent years,  and early this season it looked no different.Not so fast.The Gophers struggled in their first game of the season at UNLV  but managed to squeak out a 30-27 triple-overtime win in the desert.Since then, Minnesota has steadily improved and is off to its first 4-0 start to begin the season since 2008.In head coach Jerry Kill’s second season with the team, he’s already surpassed his win total from each of the past two seasons.“I always say that good players make better coaches,” Kill said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “We have some players that are playing aggressively and making some plays.”It’s been the defense that’s making plays. Minnesota’s defense has dominated the first four weeks of the season. Its secondary has already intercepted more passes (7) than it did all last year (4), and the pass rush has generated consistent pressure en route to 11 sacks.On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback MarQueis Gray has been sidelined with a high-ankle sprain for the past two weeks. Max Shortell has filled in admirably and led the Gophers to wins over Western Michigan and Syracuse.Shortell’s favorite target this season has been former walk-on wide receiver A.J. Barker. Barker had a breakout game in Week 3 – five receptions, 101 yards, three touchdowns – and has become the go-to target on the team.The Gophers have eight games left in the season and are just two wins from qualifying for their first bowl game since 2009. Minnesota opens Big Ten play in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes.–Dane Mizutani, Minnesota DailyNebraska football’s nonconference schedule was just as topsy-turvy as the rest of the Big Ten’s.The Huskers started strong by thrashing last season’s Conference USA champion, Southern Miss, 49-20 in a hard-fought game in Lincoln. During that game, Nebraska lost senior I-back Rex Burkhead to a sprained MCL. Burkhead missed the next two games for the Huskers but came back strong against Idaho State last weekend.Burkhead’s backup, Ameer Abdullah, came out strong in Burkhead’s absence in NU’s loss to UCLA and win against Arkansas State. Abdullah and Burkhead will be one of the elite tandem running back packages in the Big Ten this season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has also greatly improved. Martinez doesn’t look like the signal caller who threw three interceptions in Madison a year ago.Martinez also has plenty of options at receiver. Jamal Turner, a talented wideout who saw limited playing time last season because of “character issues,” is coming around. Sophomore Kenny Bell is displaying even more speed than from a year ago, and physical receiver Quincy Enunwa can make catches over the middle and block for Nebraska’s I-backs down field.Nebraska’s offense is greatly improved from last year and should be among the best in the Big Ten. The big question mark for Nebraska this season is its normally stalwart defense. The Huskers struggled against UCLA, giving up the second-most yards in school history, 653, to an electric UCLA offense. The Huskers did improve against Gus Malzahn’s Arkansas State offense, but if the Huskers want to compete for a conference title, they will need to plug up holes on their defensive unit.–Robby Korth, Daily NebraskanIt certainly wasn’t the start anyone imagined.Four games into the season, the Badgers find themselves with a hard-fought 3-1 record, each of the three home victories coming down to the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. A road loss to a then-unranked Oregon State team sent Wisconsin into an early tailspin, but after climbing to No. 18 in the polls, the three-point loss to the Beavers looks more respectable.However, a missed field goal in the closing seconds against Utah State saved a second-straight loss, and even against Texas-El Paso it took an explosive performance from redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon to put away the Miners.And it’s about to get much more difficult, as the Badgers travel to Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1973 for their Big Ten opener.The electrifying Russell Wilson-led offense of 2011 gone, a defense allowing an average of just 17.8 points and 80.8 rushing yards per game has saved this team. Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule looked manageable before the season started, but the struggle to piece together consistent scoring drives has it looking much more daunting.UW does have the fortune of facing Ohio State and Michigan State at home, but road trips to Nebraska and Purdue will provide defining tests early on.With Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible for postseason play, the door is still open for a second-consecutive appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes are the only team in the Leaders Division with an unblemished record, but the Boilermakers nearly knocked off a Notre Dame team now ranked No. 10 in West Bend.Head coach Bret Bielema is hoping a new face at quarterback in redshirt freshman Joel Stave and a former Heisman contender in the backfield in Montee Ball will carry this run-first attack back to Indianapolis Dec. 1.—Ian McCue, The Badger HeraldFour games in, and Michigan seems to have more questions than answers.Quarterback Denard Robinson dominated against Air Force and Massachusetts – the cupcakes on the schedule – but struggled against the elite competition. Alabama and Notre Dame both forced him to pass, and things turned ugly. Six interceptions later, Michigan stands at 2-2 and out of the top 25. The Wolverines could pick it up against the watered-down Big Ten, but Michigan State and away games at Nebraska and Ohio State could pose problems.Michigan’s ground game will have to pick up, as Robinson has been the only rusher able to pick up big chunks of yardage. Quarterback-turned-wideout Devin Gardner has been a revelation and freshman tight end Devin Funchess has been one of Robinson’s favorite targets.The defense, which had been so effective in 2011, is concerning too. Alabama put up 41 points, and Air Force was able to rack up 25. But despite Saturday’s ugly 13-6 loss in South Bend, it seemed as though some issues had been ironed out defensively.Michigan’s sheer talent may lift it to its first Big Ten title since 2004, but if the season to date is any indication, there are rough waters ahead.—Neal Rothschild, The Michigan DailyNorthwestern enters Big Ten play at 4-0 as the only school that can claim to have beaten three BCS schools so far this season. And that fact, along with the quality of those three opponents (Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College) has the student body thinking big.The Wildcats are making a case for being ranked and look like potentially one of the better teams in a weak Big Ten. Many people on campus are whispering the team could start 7-0, seeing only Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota standing in the way the next few weeks. The fact this is taken seriously tells us all we need to know. NU is for real.The defense, much maligned after the 42-41 win over Syracuse, has settled down and played well, largely as a result of the excellent play of the defensive line. The front four have covered up for potential weakness in the secondary, and there’s every indication it’s a sustainable situation.On offense, the Cats rely on a strong running game to move the ball, led primarily by junior Venric Mark. The explosive, dynamic Mark has 399 yards and four touchdowns to go with his shiny 5.5 yards per carry average and has been a huge driving force behind the 4-0 start. Behind him are Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green, both capable backs who give the ground game an added spark.The Cats aerial attack is fairly untested since the running game dominates, but both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are capable of playing well when called upon. They generally split pass attempts each game, and despite not posting particularly sexy numbers, neither has thrown an interception all year. So no one is complaining.This team can make noise in the Big Ten, and that’s something the Wildcats haven’t been able to say in a while. We will know if they’re for real in three weeks.—Dan Ryan, The Daily NorthwesternHeading into Big Ten play, No. 20 Michigan State currently sits at 3-1, with its only loss of the season coming to an undefeated Notre Dame squad.MSU’s three wins have come in dominating fashion as they have scored a total of 81 points, while they allowed their three opponents – Boise State, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan – a combined 27 points.The offense is led by junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who currently ranks third in the Big Ten in passing with an average of 272 yards per game and fifth in total offense with 213 yards per game. He comes in as the starting quarterback this season after replacing Kirk Cousins, now playing for the Washington Redskins. Combined with the strong early season play of junior running back Le’Veon Bell, who currently sits third in the Big Ten with 152.5 yards per game, the Spartans are primed to cause problems for Big Ten defenses this season.Still, despite Bell rushing for a career high 253 yards, a slow start against Eastern Michigan saw MSU trail the Eagles well into the second half before finally taking the lead at the end of the third quarter on the third field goal of the game for senior Dan Conroy.The Spartans’ high-powered offense is also backed up by one of the best defenses in the nation.One year after leading the Big Ten in total defense, MSU’s defense has been impressive again this year, leading the Big Ten in four defensive categories – including total defense, rushing defense, passing efficiency defense and scoring defense.The defense is anchored by junior defensive end William Gholston, who has been featured on preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Hendricks, Lombardi and Walter Camp awards, as well as the Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in the country. In MSU’s four nonconference games, Gholston leads the defensive line with 14 tackles, three of which resulted in a loss of yards.Michigan State opens up Big Ten play against No. 14 Ohio State Saturday in what could be a season-defining game for both teams.—Nick Daniels, The Badger HeraldIowa fans were excited coming into this season. The Hawkeyes had two new coordinators after going 13 years without much significant change under the buttoned-down Kirk Ferentz era.On offense, new coordinator Greg Davis talked in the preseason about a new, shotgun-based, multiple wide receiver gameplan – exactly what frustrated fans had been longing to hear.It failed so miserably that Iowa all but abandoned it after two games, moving back to the power run game and play-action the team has relied on for so long.Iowa’s passing game has been a major problem. Quarterback James Vandenberg ranks 11th in the Big Ten in quarterback rating, and he has thrown just one touchdown after passing for 25 last season.But walk-on fullback Mark Weisman has come from nowhere to run like a superstar, gaining more than 330 yards and scoring six touchdowns in the last two games. And the Hawkeye defense had been good through three games before collapsing last weekend against Central Michigan. That’s right: Iowa lost to Central Michigan, which went 2-6 in the Mid-American Conference last season.Iowa sits at 2-2 entering Big Ten play. The last time the team lost twice in its nonconference schedule was in 2000, when it finished 3-9 in Ferentz’ second season. The program seems to be teetering on the edge of a season like that one.—Sam Louwagie, The Daily Iowan At 2-2, Penn State obviously has its warts.Sam Ficken’s four field goal misses at Virginia in Week 2 showed the kicking game is shaky at best, and the defense has worn down considerably in the second half of games. Penn State has been outscored 52-33 after halftime to this point, which casts considerable doubt about its ability to play 60 minutes against bigger, faster and tougher league foes.The secondary has also struggled, giving up the fifth-most passing yards in the conference despite facing Navy and Temple, two of the most run-heavy offenses in college football. An injury to an already thin and unreliable group could be devastating.But the Leaders Division is stunningly weak, and Penn State has the playmakers to keep things interesting into November.Matt McGloin is the conference’s leading passer through four weeks and has thrown nine touchdowns against just two interceptions. He’s hooked up with wide receiver Allen Robinson – who already has 29 receptions on the season – for three passes of 40 yards or more.Tight end Kyle Carter has made a big impact, too, catching 16 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. He’s not exactly Ron Gronkowski, whom Bill O’Brien coached last year with the New England Patriots, but he’s already exceeded the production of all Penn State tight ends in 2011.Ultimately, Penn State doesn’t have the horses to get through the conference slate unscathed. Transfers and departures have left the roster with a significant lack of depth, and that will hurt as inevitable attrition takes its toll. But if others in the division drop a game or two, there’s enough talent to compete for a share of the division crown, even if it doesn’t come with a ticket to Indianapolis.–Adam Bittner, The Daily CollegianThe Illinois football team has struggled to find any type of consistency through nonconference play. Coming into the 2012 season, Illinois’ strength was supposed to be its defense, but thus far it has been the defense that has let it down. In their two losses to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech, the Illini defense has surrendered a combined 97 points and 913 total yards.Injuries have kept as many as six Illini starters off the field. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Josh Ferguson, center Graham Pocic, linebacker Houston Bates and safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni all missed time due to injury. Scheelhaase injured his left ankle in the opener against Western Michigan. He returned for one quarter against Louisiana Tech and is expected to start Saturday against Penn State.The Illini have taken care of business against lesser opponents Western Michigan and Charleston Southern, but looked shaky offensively against the Broncos. While quarterback Reilly O’Toole broke out for five touchdown passes against Charleston Southern in relief of the injured Scheelhaase, the running game has been less than stellar all year long. Neither sophomore Donovonn Young or the redshirt freshman Ferguson have gotten off to the starts they wanted.If Illinois wants to compete in the Leaders Division, it will need its defense – which ranked seventh nationally in 2011 – to get back on track. No matter how dysfunctional the offense is, the Illini won’t stand a chance in Big Ten play if they can’t hold opponents under 40 points. A favorable home schedule provides Illinois with four winnable games, but road games at Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern could prove treacherous.–Sean Hammond, Daily IlliniSome expected first-year Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer to lead the Buckeyes, banned from the postseason this year, to an undefeated 2012 campaign.Then OSU took the field.Four games into Meyer’s reign, the Buckeyes (4-0) have left much to be desired in each phase of the game.Meyer doesn’t pull punches – he is widely respected throughout Buckeye Nation for his brutal honesty when it comes to evaluating his team. Following Saturday’s 29-15 win against Alabama-Birmingham, Meyer said he was pained by his team’s performance.“It’s glaringly obvious we’ve got to get a lot better or we won’t win next week (against Michigan State),” he said. “I think we seem like a very passive team … we have to be better in all three phases.”The offense is one-dimensional – OSU has yet to show it can stretch the field and has not demonstrated any semblance of a mid-to-long range passing game. Elusive Buckeyes sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is the main offensive provider, having run for 510 yards with seven touchdowns on 67 carries.On defense, OSU hasn’t been able to get off the field in its previous two games against California and UAB, respectively. The Buckeyes allowed 915 yards combined against the Golden Bears and Blazers.Hope remains for OSU, which is still eligible to win the Big Ten Leaders Division title despite the postseason ban. Meyer first established winning the divisional championship as the goal for his team Sunday as it began preparing for its conference opener against MSU Saturday in East Lansing.“Are we playing for something? You’re darned right we are,” Meyer said of chasing the Leaders Division crown during a Monday press conference. “It’s really important here. Look around. Really important.”It’s an uncertain situation around the OSU football camp, but the team’s goal has been clearly defined. Given the state of the Big Ten, it would seem the Buckeyes have as good a chance as any to upset the conference’s bowl-eligible programs and win a piece of hardware along the way.–Patrick Brennan, The Lanternlast_img read more

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