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Archive for the ‘Preview/Prediction’ Category

Michigan fifth in preseason Big Ten basketball media poll

Thursday, October 16th, 2014


Beilein(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Michigan has become one of the most consistent basketball schools in the Big Ten conference under head coach John Beilein. Over the past four seasons the Wolverines have racked up a 104-41 record en route to four NCAA Tournament appearances, two Elite Eights and a national championship game.

Michigan has been equally dominant within the Big Ten during that span, winning the conference by three games last season for its second title in three years. Beilein’s group is averaging over 12 wins in the Big Ten per season since 2010-11, never finishing below fourth place.

But an exodus of talent to the NBA and graduation has raised questions about the upcoming Michigan season. Sixty percent of the starting lineup is gone, including the team’s leading scorer and passer (Nik Stauskas) and top three rebounders (Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III).

The uncertainty is reflected in the Big Ten preseason media poll, released on Wednesday as the conference descends upon Chicago for Big Ten Media Day, which pinned Michigan at No. 5 in the league. Above Michigan are Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska.

You can see the full rankings, along with the point totals, below:

Preseason media poll
Rank Team Points
1 Wisconsin 378
2 Ohio State 322
3 Michigan State 305
4 Nebraska 299
5 Michigan 286
6 Minnesota 226
7 Iowa 214
8 Illinois 196
9 Indiana 163
10 Maryland 162
11 Purdue 95
12 Penn State 84
13 Northwestern 78
14 Rutgers 27

Wisconsin, the unanimous No. 1 team, returns nearly every major contributor from last season’s Final Four team. Ohio State struggled in 2014 and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to 11th-seeded Dayton, but brought in one of the top freshmen classes in the country. Michigan State, like Michigan, lost in the Elite Eight in March and waved goodbye to three of its starters: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Nebraska was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Baylor, but returns most of the team that finished the regular season 8-1.

Michigan fans can reasonably argue that the team should rank just behind Wisconsin, as Beilein has proven this team to be a mainstay among the top teams in the Big Ten. But it looks like the country wants emerging stars like Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. to prove themselves this season before investing in this team.

Perhaps the skepticism stems from the lack of size on Michigan’s roster. Freshmen Rocky Doyle and Mark Donnal check in at 6-foot-9, the tallest listings on the team. If they can hold their own next to a slew of talented guards, Michigan should finish much higher than fifth in the Big Ten standings.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 7

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

East Division
1. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 45-31 This Week: Sat at Indiana (3-3, 0-2), 3:30pm, ESPN

Purdue stayed much closer to the top-10 Spartans than most fans expected, scoring 31 points on the vaunted MSU defense. But Michigan State escaped by scoring 45 points and stayed perfect in the Big Ten

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Rutgers (5-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Ohio State had a week off to prepare for Rutgers this weekend after dropping 52 points on Maryland Oct. 4. The Buckeyes are likely the only team with a chance to battle Michigan State for the East Division.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at #13 Ohio State (4-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

After storming the field to celebrate the school’s first Big Ten win, Rutgers students took a week of rest before a difficult end to October. Rutgers will go on the road to face Ohio State and Nebraska before welcoming Wisconsin to town on Nov. 1.

4. Michigan (3-4, 1-2) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Penn State 18-13 This Week: Bye (10/25 at Michigan State)

Michigan sorely needed a victory to end a three-game losing streak, and it did so in dramatic fashion, holding on to beat Penn State 18-13 on Saturday night. The four teams that have beaten Michigan so far this season have a combined record of 20-3 and an average AP ranking of 22.5.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Iowa (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, ESPN2

A sellout crowd couldn’t have been more ready for Maryland’s first Big Ten home game last weekend, but the Terrapins were smashed by 28 points at the hands of the Buckeyes. Maryland will now battle Iowa at home following its bye week.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Michigan 13-18 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Ohio State)

Penn State has fallen mightily from its 4-0 start, dropping two straight conference games by a combined score of 47-19. Penn State will have the week off before a tough matchup against OSU.

7. Indiana (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 29-45 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), 3:30pm, ESPN

Indiana is 3-0 outside the Big Ten, but got blown out by both Maryland and Iowa. The Hoosiers are proof that it’s tough to win in this conference without a capable defense.

BIG East Week 7

West Division
1. Minnesota (5-1, 2-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 24-17 This Week: Sat vs Purdue (3-4, 1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Minnesota is on top of the West division after another victory, this time over a Northwestern team that just upset Wisconsin a week earlier. With Purdue and Illinois up next, Minnesota could stay atop the standings for a few more weeks.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Northwestern (3-3, 2-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Nebraska didn’t play in Week 7 after losing to Michigan State in Week 6. The Cornhuskers looked sluggish for much of three quarters against MSU, but should still battle Wisconsin for the West crown.

3. Iowa (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Indiana 45-29 This Week: Sat at Maryland (4-2, 1-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Iowa finally blew out an opponent this weekend, crushing Indiana 45-29. The Hawkeyes could realistically win every game left on their schedule and contend for the first West Division championship, but they have to put together some complete games.

4. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-28 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Maryland)

Illinois played Wisconsin tough on Saturday despite four touchdowns from running back Melvin Gordon. The Badgers just haven’t been impressive during the Big Ten season with a loss to Northwestern and a 10-point win over last-place Illinois.

5. Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 17-24 This Week: Sat vs #19 Nebraska (5-1, 1-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Coming off of two straight upsets to shake up the Big Ten standings, Northwestern couldn’t stay unbeaten in the conference this weekend, falling to Minnesota by a touchdown.

6. Purdue (3-4, 1-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #8 Michigan State 31-45 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Michigan State may have walked into West Lafayette looking past the lowly Boilermakers, but  Purdue still put up an impressive fight, racking up 31 points against the conference’s top defense.

7. Illinois (3-4, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Wisconsin 28-38 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Minnesota)

Illinois stuck with Wisconsin for much of the game Saturday, but just didn’t have the firepower to match Gordon’s outburst. The Fighting Illini are the only West team winless in the Big Ten.

BIG West Week 7

Michigan basketball Italy trip review and translation

Monday, October 13th, 2014


Michigan bball Italy(UMHoops)

Michigan fans, I have some good news for you: college basketball season is just around the corner. Practice has started, John Beilein is back at work with the team, and football will soon be a distant memory.

As everyone knows, the Wolverines took one of their every-four-years off-season trips this summer to play some lower-tier teams in Italy, and the results were encouraging, with four 20-plus point wins, a healthy dose of balanced scoring (eight players averaged more than eight points per game), and strong freshmen play.

About that last point, as Michigan fans have become accustomed to, the Maize and Blue will largely be looking to replace the lost production of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford with five freshmen and a sixth redshirt freshman. You’d be right to blame Beilein with continuous gripes of too much youth if not for his absurd record of turning these young (and often overlooked) Wolverines into high NBA Draft selections. Of those five departures, two were first-rounders, one was a second-rounder, another is off to play first division ball in Europe with Virtus Roma, and the last transferred to Florida. With this turnover comes new names and faces to follow, new games to drool over, and a bevy of prospects that are question marks waiting to become stars under Beilein’s tutelage.

Today, let’s take a trip back in time to analyze some tape of each projected rotation player in Italy and see how their style of play will translate this fall and what still needs to improve. Special thanks to UMHoops for the video.

#23 Caris LeVert – 6’7″, 200
Italy stats: 14.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.3 apg, 3 spg, 1.8 TOs, 50% FG, 40% 3pt., 64.3% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: After suffering a stress fracture in his foot over the summer, LeVert was thought to be iffy to even suit up in Italy. Instead, he looked completely healthy and ready to lead the team moving forward. The junior just turned 20 in August, but he certainly looked capable of being The Guy this season, even though his scoring numbers weren’t gaudy.

LeVert came to Ann Arbor two years ago as a late addition after John Groce left Ohio University for Illinois and was by most counts a frustrating, wiry, inconsistent human in jelly-in-basketball-player-mold. A year later, LeVert had easily become the second offensive option on a very talented squad. Now, he is fully expected to lead the team, and his play in Italy leaves few questions. His shot looks as smooth as ever, his passing is crisp, his off-the-ball and pick-and-roll play looks improved, and he can rebound and run with anyone. But what stood out most was his confidence.

In the past, LeVert would sometimes appear to be thinking two steps ahead of his feet and would carelessly turn it over or take an ill-advised shot, but now he is showing that he can take the ball, survey the defense, and take the smartest course of action with his long strides and terrific finishing ability. He is comfortable passing or shooting, he isn’t hesitating at all, and he can even be seen directing his comrades a couple times. By all means, expect an outstanding season from Caris.

Where he can improve: No basketball player is perfect, especially in college, but LeVert’s well-rounded game is hard to nitpick at. One area that I think he has the potential to be even better is his man-to-man defense. LeVert’s size (he grew an inch and gained plenty more weight this off-season) and length give him the prototypical shutdown defender mold, but he lacked aggressiveness at times on that end of the floor last year. His steal numbers are quite encouraging, and his free throw shooting shouldn’t be an issue.

#21 Zak Irvin 6’6″, 215
Italy stats: 20.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1 spg, 2.3 TOs, 68.8% FG, 66.7% 3pt., 83.3% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Shooting, shooting, and more shooting. Zak Irvin proved how big of a deep threat he is while shooting 42.5 percent from downtown as a freshman who did one thing. It’s pretty clear that his stroke didn’t take a summer break, and his outside shot should continue to make it easier for him to develop a dribble-drive game. In this video, we see some strong finishes, but Irvin really only takes it to the rack by himself a couple of times off two or three dribbles to his left. The majority of his two-pointers here are breakaway dunks and smooth backdoor cuts that won’t be as readily available against better competition. His rebounding numbers are also phenomenal.

Where he can improve: Coaches and players alike have been raving about Irvin’s game since the end of last season, and he has great potential, but his game still lacks LeVert-level diversification. Irvin’s shot is so good right now that I think he relies on it perhaps a bit too much. Look for him to continue to work on his handling and driving skills while using his outside shot to his advantage in creating inside for himself and others. Irvin, like everyone else on the team, needs to also be a little lighter on his feet defensively and use his athleticism and length to create havoc.

#10 Derrick Walton 6’0″, 185
Italy stats: 8.8 ppg, 3.3 apg, 4.5 rpg, 2.5 spg, 1.5 TOs, 44.8% FG, 27.3% 3pt., 50% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: If Caris LeVert is The Guy on this team and Zak Irvin is the dynamic sidekick, Derrick Walton needs to be the glue to hold everything together, and he looks the part to me. I love Walton’s creativity in the paint, his jump shot is worlds better from his high school days, and his acceleration and Trey Burkeian moves all point to No. 10 becoming the next great point guard out of Beilein’s factory. Walton’s high basketball IQ allowed him to learn the ins and outs of the offense rapidly as a freshman, and his grasp should only help the freshmen get up to speed that much sooner.

What he can improve: It’s tough to extrapolate too much from a few overseas blowouts, but Walton’s box scores seem to indicate that he may have spent some time away from the court this summer. His 10-2-9-14 scoring outputs point to a lack of consistency and his poor shooting certainly needs to improve, but I have no doubts that the small sample size and long off-season can take most of the blame here.

#34 Mark Donnal 6’9″, 240
Italy stats: 10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, .3 bpg, .3 TOs, 69.6% FG, 0% 3pt. (0-3), 81.8% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal displays great movement throughout this clip, and his soft touch around the basket will be a welcome addition after Jordan Morgan sometimes struggled throughout his career in finishing the bunnies. Donnal needs to be able to run the floor in this offense, and he looked more than capable of doing that, beating his man down on a couple occasions and then out-smarting a defender for position as well. Donnal’s high field goal and free throw percentages are exactly what this team needs out of him: smart, solid play and finishing. If he does that, his job is done. Lastly, Donnal’s 14 offensive rebounds to 12 defensive is something exciting to keep an eye on.

What he can improve: What intrigued me most about Donnal as a prospect was his outside shooting. Obviously as a big man you want Donnal to be able to play inside, and he appears to be picking that up pretty well, but his outside shot in high school made me drool over the possibilities in Beilein’s offense. The pick-and-pop would be a terrific addition to this offense, but unfortunately it looks like Donnal is still progressing inside before he thinks too much about stepping out for the trey. His 0-for-3 line from downtown is discouraging for me, and I think he has the talent to do a lot better than one block every four games.

#3 Kameron Chatman 6’7″, 210
Italy stats: 9.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2 spg, 1.3 TOs, 42.5% FG, 33.3% 3pt., 0.0% FT, 4 starts

What he showed: Chatman comes in this season as the most highly touted true freshman of the bunch, and his versatility should help contribute to Michigan’s excellent depth this season. Watching this video, I’m most impressed with Chatman’s vision and midrange game. For a big freshman, Chatman really zips off a few nice passes, and his confident stroke from just inside the deep line bring about memories of GRIII, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Trey Burke. Chatman’s role is just that, to be a role player who can score a few points, rebound well, defend, and provide value in different ways. He doesn’t need to fill up the stat sheet every night, but we should see a solid 6-9 points per game from the Oregon native. I feel like my keyboard is on replay, but Chatman also has great length and appears to have good, not great, athleticism.

What he can improve: Two things stick out right away in Chatman’s line after four games: low shooting percentages and zero attempted free throws. Chatman is most likely going to start from the beginning at the four spot for Beilein, meaning he’ll be going against guys his size on a regular basis. He is not going to be able to curtsy his way to easy one-dribble mid-rangers every night. Instead, Chatman needs to embrace aggressiveness, get to the hole a little more often, and either finish a layup or get fouled. His stroke looks very smooth right now, but he will need to up those shooting numbers a bit.

#32 Ricky Doyle 6’9″, 245
Italy stats: 11.5 ppg, 8 rpg, .3 apg, .3 bpg, 0 TOs, 74.1% FG, 60% FT

What he showed: Ricky Doyle was perhaps the biggest revelation of the Italy tour. In high school, Doyle played in a low-level league and was not active on the AAU circuit. Most of his development came from private lessons. Now in college, the book will be out soon that Doyle is a true big man in every sense of the word. Throughout his nearly three-minute long highlight video seen here, Doyle scored a number of strong buckets by finding open spots, running the floor well, and cleaning up misses, but the one thing that stood out to me was the number of times he put the ball on the floor – zero. Watch for yourself. Not once does Doyle put the rock to hardwood, even at the top of the key while waiting for the wings to complete their action. His field goal percentage is very impressive, and should stay pretty high this year considering the types of shots he’ll be taking, and his team-high eight rebounds per game are as encouraging a stat as any on this trip.

What he can improve: Doyle won’t be asked to do too much offensively this year other than finish off what Michigan’s skilled guards create for him, but some offensive versatility would be nice. He should be able to put the ball on the floor when going back-to-the-basket. Doyle’s free throw percentage is also a hair lower than what you’re comfortable with, and eventually he will work on his range. The Florida native will also want to improve his defensive footwork and mindset, as his 12 fouls were by far the most on the trip. With only him and Donnal really competing for minutes at the five, Doyle needs to be smart when it comes to foul trouble.

#12 Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman 6’4″, 175
Italy stats: 10 ppg, 2.5 apg, 3.3 rpg, 2.3 spg, 2.3 TOs, 47.8% FG, 20% 3pt., 64% FT

What he showed: Driving. If not for Doyle’s breakout performance, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s (you can’t expect me to write that out every time) impressive four-game stretch would be making the most headlines from the newbies. Michigan basketball’s Twitter account routinely went nuts over MAAR’s driving and finishing ability, and you spot a few glimpses throughout this clip. Abdur-Rahkman was a late pickup this off-season from the Philadelphia area, and while many questioned the scholarship offer, he already looks well on his way to providing immense value as that threat to get to the hole every time. I love his quickness on the dribble and his ability to keep his head up at all times. What’s more is that Abdur-Rahkman didn’t do all his damage in one game. He reached double figures in scoring three of four games and had multiple steals and assists in all four games.

What he can improve: Shooting. Abdur-Rahkman will earn minutes on the wing this season with his driving ability alone, and he should get to the free throw line often, but he will need to make defenders respect his outside shot if he is to bring his game up to the next level. Abdur-Rahkman made just two of his 10 three-point attempts on the trip, and he isn’t shown taking anything from distance in this video. The knock on his game in high school was always that shot, and it looks like he has a ways to go.

#24 Aubrey Dawkins 6’6″, 190
Italy stats: 9.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .5 apg, .3 spg, .8 TOs, 63.6% FG, 62.5% 3pt., 80% FT

What he showed: Aubrey Dawkins, the son of former Duke great and current Stanford coach Johnny, is probably going to be just a shooter this season if he plays at all, and that’s fine – especially when he is draining nearly two-thirds of his deep attempts. His stroke is smooth and his prep year on the East Coast should serve him well in transitioning to the college game. Dawkins does also showcase a good handle and a few nice finishes in this cut-up, but I expect his game to be pretty similar to Zak Irvin’s of last year. The skinny native Californian is also reputed to be a terrific athlete, which will serve him well down the road and perhaps bring some Glenn Robinson III comparisons eventually.

What he can improve: Again, like Irvin, Dawkins will continue to work on his dribble-drive game so that defenders cannot simply stick to him in the corner and erase him from the picture. Dawkins will need to move around a lot to create open looks for himself while also improving on his ability to get to the rack and the free throw line (just five attempts in four games).

#2 Spike Albrecht 5’11″, 175
Italy stats: 5 ppg, 2.5 apg, 2 rpg, .8 spg, .8 TOs, 46.7% FG, 37.5% 3pt., 75% FT

What he showed: At 22 years old and in his junior season, Spike is pretty safely expected to be the ever-reliable backup point guard. He’s never going to be the biggest, strongest, or most athletic player on the court, but he is calm and collected with the ball in his hands and usually makes the right pass. I’d like to see him shoot a little bit more this season with his terrific numbers, but Albrecht can most definitely be counted on to dribble under the basket and somehow find that open guy on the opposite wing at least once a game. His cool approach to the game and quiet, relaxed demeanor should do well to keep the team playing their style.

What he can improve: There was one really nice behind-the-back, pull-up elbow jumper drained in this video that I’d love to see more from out of Spike, but other than perhaps increased aggressiveness, Albrecht has a very defined game and a somewhat defined ceiling.

# 5 D.J. Wilson 6’9″, 220
Italy stats: N/A

Unfortunately, D.J. Wilson broke his pinky just before the trip to Europe and was unable to take part in gameplay, so I will hold off scouting for now, but if you follow me on Twitter (@SamSedlecky), you’ll see that I have some very high hopes for this lanky Sacramento native.

M&GB Staff predictions: Penn State

Friday, October 10th, 2014


StaffPicks_banner

Michigan has lost three straight games and 10 of its last 14 dating back to last year’s Penn State game. Many fans are planning a protest of kickoff and more than 150 former players are coming to town in solidarity of the current team. Can Team 135 rally around the adversity and pull off the magic that it created in the previous two Under the Lights games? Or will Penn State hand Michigan a fourth straight loss, essentially ensuring a third losing season in seven years? Let’s take a look at our predictions.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Penn State
Justin 24 23
Sam 21 20
Derick 20 24
Josh 17 38
Joe 14 30
M&GB Average 19 27

Justin: Christian Hackenberg will get his yards like he does every week against a Michigan pass defense that made Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova look like Peyton Manning a week ago. But the Penn State offense has had trouble finding the end zone this season, instead settling for field goals. Kicker Sam Ficken has attempted more field goals than any other kicker in the conference.

Michigan’s offense will struggle to move the ball on the ground against a Penn State defense that leads the nation in opponent yard per carry (1.99), especially without Derrick Green. Penn State has allowed two of five opponents to break 100 yards and both of them barely got there. The most an individual rusher has gained against the Nittany Lions is 51 yards by Rutgers running back Paul James. So don’t expect De’Veon Smith to have a big game. It will be up to Devin Gardner to make the right decisions through the air and pull the ball down and run when there is space. Penn State is vulnerable over the middle, so look for Jake Butt to be targeted often.

Overall, I expect a fairly low-scoring affair. Penn State will win the yardage battle, but if Michigan can force them to settle for field goals, that won’t matter. Michigan will play with a spirited effort in a home game under the lights with 150-plus former players behind them for support. Michigan pulls it out by a hair.

Michigan 24 – Penn State 23

Sam:When will this nightmare end? I don’t think anyone could have predicted this football season would get this bad this fast, but here we are at 2-4 and 0-2 in conference play. Sure, Hoke may still believe that there’s a chance to add to those 42 Big Ten championships, but do his players? Does anyone?

Heading into the season, tomorrow’s Under the Lights game was supposed to be the big shebang. Now I think most Michigan fans are just hoping that prospective recruits aren’t watching. Penn State is not good…as in very bad not good. They eked out a three-point win at Rutgers (something Michigan barely failed to do) and got trounced by a Northwestern team that seemed like it was also very not good until last week they proved that they were maybe not that bad not good by beating Wisconsin at home.

Anyway, I am excited about a couple things. We all know who our quarterback is, and it seems like Michigan is starting to deploy Gardner a little bit as a running weapon, and I think De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes should fill in for Derrick Green’s unfortunate season-ending injury nicely. I really thought the defense had top-10 (overall, not Big Ten) potential this season, but that unit has really let the team down over the past few weeks. Penn State is also coming off a bye that makes things a little more interesting.

Lastly, can we please get Devin Funchess the ball? PLEASE?!

I actually like Michigan to pull it off at home this week in a game that will only be fun because it’s close.

Michigan 21 – Penn State 20

Derick: With three straight losses to average opponents, the 2014 season has started to slip away from Brady Hoke and his 115 sons. Michigan has lost in a variety of ways during the stretch, struggling to score against Utah and Minnesota and falling apart in pass coverage against Rutgers.

The most important matchup to watch Saturday night is perhaps the most talented quarterback in the conference against one of the most underperforming cornerbacks in the conference. Christian Hackenberg has taken the reins of this Penn State offense as a sophomore, and he will likely throw toward Blake Countess all game. Countess allowed all three touchdowns against Rutgers, so his play will likely be the most important factor for the defense.

Michigan will battle hard against a night game crowd, but the PSU offense will outlast the Wolverines for a win.

Penn State 24 – Michigan 20

Josh: Well, I really don’t know what to say anymore. This team is bad, very bad. The good news is Penn State doesn’t look all that great either, although their record is much better than Michigan’s. Last week we saw some fight in this team and were it not for a catch that was ruled not a catch (and they even reviewed it!) Michigan may have pulled out a win. Alas, it was not to be. I would love to see this team come out with some fight again and I expect them to come out pumped up. It’s a night game and they’ll be sporting some hideous uniforms that shame the classic Michigan maize and blue, but I digress.

Tesm 135 will come out hyped and ready to play. Sadly, they are quite possibly the worst-coached team in the country, have a starting cornerback who is routinely beat deep (Countess gave up all 3 touchdowns last week) and face Christian Hackenberg and his rocket arm. It’ll be close for a quarter or two then the floodgates will open and then we can officially kiss a bowl game goodbye (I never thought they’d beat Michigan State or Ohio State, and I KNOW they won’t now). This will be the third losing season in the past seven years, after going 33 years without a losing season. Sad days for Michigan football and it will get worse as I expect several of the 2015 commits to jump ship with uncertainty surrounding Hoke and Co., though I’m not sure why there’d be uncertainty, the odds of Hoke keeping his job are slim to none. How many days until basketball?

Penn State 38 – Michigan 17

Joe: I am having a tough time with the predictions lately as it’s starting to get a little depressing. I wanted to focus on the running game with Derrick Green last week and that turned out to be a curse. The defense has sprung a leak and is not able to stop anyone at the key point in games. I fear that this may get even worse when Michigan faces off against a quarterback averaging over 300 yards a game in Christian Hackenberg. Granted, he has not thrown a touchdown pass in three straight games and is tossing in a few interceptions along the way, but he still scares me. He carved us up last year and unfortunately, I expect the same this week. The defense is injured and seems to have lost a lot of confidence that it had in the early going. Without a solid running game, I think the Nittany Lions offense can run and pass at will and will put pressure on Gardner to keep up from the get go. This could spell doom if the offenssive line continues to let guys waltz on through. As much as I would like to predict a big Wolverines victory, I will go with Penn State.

Penn State 30 – Michigan 14

Michigan-Penn State game preview

Friday, October 10th, 2014


Game Preview_Penn State_banner

Prior to the season most assumed that if Michigan could get by Notre Dame in South Bend in Week 2, tomorrow’s showdown with Penn State would be a huge game. In a season in which all three rivals are road games, the night game against Penn State — the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history — was supposed to be the marquee game on the home slate.

Instead, Michigan has lost three in a row, four of its last five, and 10 of its last 14 dating back to last year’s matchup with Penn State. When Michigan traveled to State College last Oct. 12, the Wolverines were 5-0, ranked 18th nationally, and Penn State was just 3-2 and coming off a 44-24 loss to Indiana. What a difference a year makes.

UM-PennState-small-final
Quick Facts
Michigan Stadium – 7 p.m. EST – ESPN2
Rutgers Head Coach: James Franklin (1st season)
Coaching Record: 28-16 (4-1 at Penn State)
Offensive Coordinator: John Donovan (1st season)
Defensive Coordinators: Bob Shoop (1st season)
Brent Pry (1st season)
Returning Starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)
Last Season: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Last Meeting: PSU 43 – UM 40 3OT (2013)
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 10-7
Record at Michigan Stadium: Michigan leads 5-3
Current Streak: Penn State 4
Last Michigan Win: 2007 (UM 14 – PSU 9)

At this time last year, there were certainly concerns after Michigan squeaked by Akron and UConn, but the vast majority of the fan base was still on board. Now, exactly a year later, the Michigan family is fractured. After a “Fire Dave Brandon” rally on the Diag two weeks ago, some students and fans have planned a boycott of kickoff tomorrow in order to project an empty stadium on the national televised broadcast. On the other side of the coin, more than 150 former players are descending upon Ann Arbor in a show of support for the current team.

Penn State, meanwhile, started the season 4-0 before getting stomped at home by Northwestern, 29-6 two weeks ago. In that game, Northwestern’s defense held Penn State to just 266 total yards, 50 rushing, and only two field goals. Not exactly the first home Big Ten game that first-year head coach James Franklin envisioned.

Penn State opened the season with a  26-24 win over Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland on a last-second 36-yard field goal. The Nittany Lions returned to the states with a sluggish 21-3 win over Akron that wasn’t really put away until the fourth quarter, and then scored 13 unanswered second half points to hand Rutgers its first Big Ten loss, 13-10. In Week 4, Penn State got its first convincing win of the season, rolling over UMass 48-7, but UMass is 0-6 and just yielded Miami (Ohio) its first win in 22 games. So while Penn State has a better record than Michigan and beat the only common opponent so far, Rutgers, the gap between the two teams is very minimal.

Like Brady Hoke, Franklin has his own share of issues to deal with stemming from a sexual assault case at his previous stop, Vanderbilt. That Franklin had to testify again on Wednesday is surely not the kind of distraction he wanted heading into a road night game against a team fighting for its postseason life.

Michigan has lost its last four to Penn State after winning nine straight from 1997 to 2007. Last season’s meeting took four overtimes and three Brendan Gibbons missed field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime to decide the outcome. So what is in store tomorrow? Let’s take a look at the match ups.

Michigan defense vs Penn State offense: When Penn State has the ball

Offensive coordinator John Donovan has been with Franklin for a while. At Vanderbilt, he put together three of the top four offenses in program history with a school record 4,936 total yards in 2012. That was also the first season in school history in which the Commodores averaged 30 or more points per game. He still has work to do at Penn State with an offense that currently ranks 96th nationally in points per game (22.8), 72nd nationally in total offense (407.8 yards per game), 25th in passing (306.8 yards per game), 113th in rushing (101.0 yards per game), and 104th in sacks allowed (14).

Christian Hackenberg is second in the Big Ten is passing yards per game, but has just four touchdowns and six interceptions and a quarterback rating lower than Devin Gardner (Alex Goodlett, Getty Images)

Christian Hackenberg is second in the Big Ten is passing yards per game, but has just four touchdowns and six interceptions and a quarterback rating lower than Devin Gardner (Alex Goodlett, Getty Images)

He has a great piece to build around in sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg who is going through a bit of a sophomore slump so far this season, but has all the tools to be a star for years to come. After finishing third in the Big Ten with 246.2 passing yards per game last season, Hackenberg has raised that number to 295.4 through the first five games of 2014, second only to Illinois’ West Hunt. But despite the yards, Hackenberg has thrown just four touchdown passes and six interceptions. His touchdown per pass attempt ratio of 48.8 is second-worst among the conference’s top 10 passers, behind only Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian (58.7). For comparison, Devin Gardner’s ratio is 24.0. Hackenberg’s six interceptions are also the second-most among the top 10 passers, better than only Rutgers’ Gary Nova (seven). In terms of efficiency, Hackenberg ranks 10th in the Big Ten, two spots behind Gardner.

Hackenberg has been held below 200 passing yards just once through five games, but that was in the blowout of UMass when he attempted just 23 passes and the Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards. He has eclipsed 300 yards in three of five games with a high of 454 in the opener against UCF. But his completion percentage has gone down in each game, from 68.1 to 61.1 to 56.8 to 52.2 to 48.9. In that most recent game, the loss to Northwestern, Hackenberg completed 22-of-45 passes for 216 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. His quarterback rating for the game was 84.8, lower than any game Devin Gardner has had this season.

Hackenberg has a pair of good receivers in redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton and redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis. Hamilton leads the conference in receptions per game (7.2) and ranks second in yards per game (100.4). He has caught 36 passes for 502 yards, but has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Lewis is tied for third in receptions per game with Devin Funchess (5.8) and ranks third in yards per game (99.0). He has caught 29 passes for 495 yards and one score. Tight end Jesse James is the only other pass catcher with double-digit receptions. The junior has caught 15 passes for 178 yards and leads the team with two touchdowns.

While the passing game is racking up yards, the running game is second worst in the Big Ten, ahead of only Illinois, averaging 101 yards per game, and has the worst yards per carry (3.1) in the conference. Senior running back Bill Belton hasn’t even sniffed 100 yards, his best performance being a seven carry, 76-yard, two touchdown game against UMass. He carried 10 times for 16 yards against UCF and 15 times for 36 yards against Rutgers. He is the team’s fourth-leading receiver, however, with 14 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch and fifth-year senior Zach Zwinak are the other ball-carriers with 133 and 105 yards, respectively. Lynch has been much more efficient, doing so on just 18 carries (7.4 yards per carry), but Zwinak, who is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, is tied with Belton for the team lead with three rushing touchdowns.

The starting offensive line has been the same all season with the exception of right guard against UMass when redshirt sophomore Derek Dowrey got the start instead of redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia, who moved from defensive tackle this season. The leader of the line is redshirt junior left tackle Donovan Smith, who has 25 career starts. He’s by far the most experienced member of the line. Left guard Brendan Mahon and right tackle Andrew Nelson both redshirted last season and center Angelo Mangiro is a first year starter who served as the top reserve the last two years. The group ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 104th nationally in sacks against (14), and as mentioned above, hasn’t paved the way for much of a running game at all.

Michigan offense vs Penn State defense: When Michigan has the ball

Despite a struggling offense, Penn State’s defense has been one of the best in the Big Ten and the nation so far this season. Like Donovan, co-defensive coordinators Bob Shoop and Brent Pry were with Franklin at Vanderbilt, where they guided the Commodores to Top 25 defenses all three seasons. Last season, Shoop’s defense ranked 10th nationally with 30 forced turnovers, and in 2012, it ranked 15th nationally in scoring defense. This year, the two have Penn State’s defense ranked 10th in scoring defense (14.6 points per game), ninth in total defense (288.8 yards per game), second in rush defense (60.2 yards per game), 58th in pass defense (228.6 yards per game), and eighth in red zone defense (11-17, 65 percent).

Mike Hull and the Penn State defense rank second nationally against the run (Jason Piotkin, York Daily Record)

Mike Hull and the Penn State defense rank second nationally against the run (Jason Piotkin, York Daily Record)

Much of the reason the defense is so good this season is because it’s an experienced group with only one full-time starter that has less than three years in the program, outside linebacker Brandon Bell, a true sophomore. While he has started all five games, he’s the least productive linebacker of the group with just 11 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack, and an interception. Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Mike Hull finished fifth in the Big Ten last season with 9.1 tackles per game in conference play and currently leads the Nittany Lions with 53 total tackles and leads the conference with 10.6 tackles per game. He also has 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack. The other starting linebacker is redshirt sophomore Nyeem Wartman, who missed the Northwestern game two weeks ago with an arm injury. Still, he’s the third-leading tackler on the team with 20 tackles, and will be back in the lineup tomorrow. True sophomore Von Walker filled in for Wartman against Northwestern and finished with three tackles, while true freshman Jason Cabinda also saw his first extended time and recorded eight tackles. But that’s about it for depth.

The defensive line is a big reason Penn State has been so stout against the run, holding opponents to a Big Ten and national best 1.99 yards per carry. Redshirt junior three-tech Anthony Zettel leads the team with seven tackles for loss and three sacks and ranks fourth with 17 total tackles. The nose tackle is mammoth redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson, who at 6’4″, 313-pounds, has 15 tackles and 2.5 for loss, but more importantly, draws consistent double-teams. The ends are senior C.J. Olaniyan and redshirt junior Deion Barnes, who have a combined 29 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and four sacks.

The secondary is a group that has been around a while, led by junior cornerback Jordan Lucas, who leads the team with four pass breakups to go along with 17 tackles, one for loss, and one sack. He will likely draw the main coverage responsibilities on Devin Funchess. However, Doug Nussmeier would be smart to try to get Funchess matched up on the other corner, junior Trevor Williams, who isn’t nearly as good, although he does have two picks. Senior safety Ryan Keiser, a former walk-on, is the team’s second-leading tackler with 23 and also has an interruption and three passes defended, while fellow senior strong safety Adrian Amos has two picks and three passes defended.

Special teams: The other third

Senior kicker Sam Ficken is one of the best in the conference. He made 29-of-44 (65.9 percent) in 2012 and ’13, including a school record 15 straight, and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention last season. He began this season in dramatic fashion with a 36-yard game-winner as time expired to beat UCF, his fourth field goal of the game. He’s 10-of-12 on the season, leading the Big Ten with an average of two made field goals per game. He also has a big leg, having made a 54-yarder last season.

Redshirt freshman punter Chris Gulla averages 38.3 yards per punt, which ranks outside the top 10 in the conference. Of his 19 punts, six have been downed inside the 20, seven have been fair caught, four have gone for more than 50 yards, one has been blocked, and only one has gone into the end zone for a touchback.

The return game is average nationally, led by fifth-year senior safety Jesse Della Valle, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with an average of 10.5 yards per punt return. True freshman kick returner Grant Haley ranks 10th in the conference with an average of 22.0 yards per return. Punt and kick return coverage is an area where Michigan could hope to take advantage of as Penn State ranks 100th nationally, allowing 12.0 yards per punt return, and 111th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten, allowing 24.7 yards per kick return.

Prediction

The first two night games in Michigan history, against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013, both produced thrilling victories for the Wolverines, and Michigan hopes the bright lights can do the same tomorrow. The team has its back up against the wall, but will get a boost of confidence that it has been lacking from a big group of former players who will form a “welcome line” on the field for t he current team. As Howard put it, “former players told me that the ‘current players need to know we are here for them even if nobody else is.”

Last year’s matchup produced a high-scoring, four-overtime shootout, but neither team is setting the world on fire with its offense this time around. Michigan will have trouble moving the ball against Penn State’s defensive front, especially without running back Derrick Green, who is out for the season with a broken clavicle. It will be up to De’Veon Smith to carry the load, but only two opponents have topped 100 yards against Penn State so far — Rutgers with 102 yards and Northwestern with 103. Rutgers’ Paul James is the only individual running back that has topped 50 yards (51). So it will be up to Gardner to make the right decisions in the passion game. Penn State’s defense is vulnerable over the middle, so look for Gardner to hook up with Jake Butt often.

Defensively, it’s hard to see Michigan slowing down Hackenberg and the Penn State passing game, considering the Wolverines made Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova look like Peyton Manning last week. But while Hackenberg will get his yards like he has all season, Penn State has struggled putting the ball in the end zone, and Michigan will hope to force Ficken, who has attempted more field goals than anyone else in the conference, to kick often. In addition, this game provides a great opportunity for Michigan’s defensive line to have a big game, putting pressure on Hackenberg and forcing him to make mistakes.

Michigan’s offense has been pretty good in the first quarter this season, and Penn State’s inability to score touchdowns make it hard for the Nittany Lions to come back, although they did come back from a 10-point second half deficit against Rutgers. If Michigan can score a touchdown or two on its first two or three possessions, I like the Wolverines’ chances in this one. But if Michigan falls behind by halftime, it will be very hard to come back against such a strong defense. I’ll go with the Big House night game magic in this one and take a narrow Michigan win.

Michigan 24 – Penn State 23

Big Ten power rankings: Week 6

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Big Ten conference play is in full swing and last week saw its first big-time matchup of the season with Michigan State and Nebraska. It also saw Rutgers get its first ever Big Ten victory and Northwestern pull off its second upset in as many weeks. Here are this week’s rankings.

East Division
1. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat #19 Nebraska 27-22 This Week: Sat at Purdue (3-3, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

In maybe the biggest conference matchup of the season on Saturday, Michigan State took down Nebraska, the lone undefeated team in the Big Ten, to cement itself as the runaway favorite to win the conference. Michigan State is one win over Ohio State away from likely playing in the first college football playoff.

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Maryland 52-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Rutgers)

Many thought Maryland’s talented defense would give the Buckeyes a battle last weekend, but the Terps couldn’t hold up against Urban Meyer’s resurgent squad, and OSU blew Maryland out of its own building 52-24.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Michigan 26-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 at #15 Ohio State)

Rutgers picked up its first conference win as a member of the Big Ten with a close victory over a reeling Michigan team on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are 5-1 halfway through this season.

4. Penn State (4-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-4, 0-2), 7pm, ESPN2

Penn State took a week off after an awful loss to Northwestern at home. The Nittany Lions will travel to Ann Arbor for a chance to get back on track this weekend in the first ever Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to #20 Ohio State 24-52 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Iowa)

Just when Maryland was gaining some momentum, Ohio State ended the modest two-game winning streak by putting up 52 points on the “vaunted” Terrapin defense.

6. Indiana (3-2, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat North Texas 49-24 This Week: Sat at Iowa (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Indiana finished up the non-conference season a week later than most, smashing North Texas at home 49-24.  This weekend will bring a challenge as the Hoosiers travel to Iowa City.

7. Michigan (2-4, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Rutgers 24-26 This Week: Sat vs Penn State (4-1, 1-1), 7pm, ESPN2

It’s disappointing for Michigan fans that perhaps the team’s most complete effort of the first half of the season came in a loss to Rutgers. Turnovers, third down defense, consistency in the rushing game, field goal kicking, and any semblance of a kick return weapon are among the qualities lacking for the Wolverines thus far.

BIG East Week 6

West Division
1. Northwestern (3-2, 2-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat #17 Wisconsin 20-14 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, BTN

Northwestern’s resurgence since Week 2 has been one of the most shocking developments in the Big Ten. One week after waxing Penn State on the road by 23, the Wildcats took down the mighty Wisconsin Badgers to take an outright lead in the West.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #10 Michigan State 22-27 This Week: Bye (10/18 at Northwestern)

Michigan State handed Nebraska a tough first loss of the season Saturday night, after the Cornhuskers failed to show up for much of the first three quarters of the game. But MSU is the most talented group in the conference, so Nebraska still owns the inside track to a rematch in Indianapolis.

3. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Purdue 24-10 This Week: Sat vs Indiana (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPNU

Week 6 was a resounding success for Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes had the week off, they sat at home and watched both Wisconsin and Nebraska drop their first conference games of the season.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Northwestern 14-20 This Week: Sat vs Illinois (3-3, 0-2), 12pm, ESPN2

A quiet trip to Evanston turned very ugly for Wisconsin as it dropped its first conference game after scoring just 14 points. The Badgers rushing attack hasn’t been enough to manufacture points in important spots this season, and now the West Division favorite has fallen to 3-2 overall.

5. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (3-2, 2-0), 12pm, BTN

Minnesota took an extra week off to celebrate the return of the Little Brown Jug. The 4-1 Gophers welcome the first-place Wildcats to town this weekend.

6. Purdue (3-3, 1-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-27 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (4-1, 1-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Purdue took perhaps its only chance at a Big Ten victory this season and ran with it Saturday, topping Illinois on the road 38-27.

7. Illinois (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Purdue 27-38 This Week: Sat at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

A tough start to the season got much worse Saturday when Illinois fell to Purdue at home to remain winless in the Big Ten. A quick glance at the remaining schedule raises the distinct possibility that Illinois could finish 3-9.

BIG West week 6

First Look: Penn State

Monday, October 6th, 2014


FirstLook-PennState

The third Under the Lights game is coming up on Saturday, but unlike the previous two, the excitement surrounding Michigan football has turned into apathy and consternation. A team that entered the season with hope and promise has struggled to a 2-4 start and hasn’t beaten a power-five team in regulation in nearly a full calendar year. This week, Penn State comes to town for the first Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium history. The Nittany Lions enter with a 4-1 record, 1-1 in the Big Ten, with wins over UCF, Akron, Rutgers, and UMass, and a loss to Northwestern. Let’s take a look at how Michigan and Penn State compare through the first six weeks of the season.

Penn State Statistics & Michigan Comparison
Penn StateMichigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 22.8 | 22.3 96 | 101
14.6 | 22.8 10T51
Rushing Yards 505 | 1,085 301 | 601
Rush Avg. Per Game 101.0 | 180.8 113 | 55 60.2 | 100.2 2 | 12
Avg. Per Rush 3.1 | 5.0
2.0 | 2.9
Passing Yards 1,534 | 1,039 1,143 | 1,292
Pass Avg. Per Game 306.8 | 173.2 25 | 107 228.6 | 215.3 58 | 38
Total Offense 2,0392,124 1,444 | 1,893
Total Off Avg. Per Game 407.8 | 354.0 72 | 100 288.8 | 315.5 9 | 19
Kick Return Average 22.1 | 18.0 48 | T111 24.7 | 19.6 111 | 48
Punt Return Average 8.0 | 7.8 64 | 68 12.0 | 15.2 T100 | 114
Avg. Time of Possession 33:04 | 30:54 20 | 43
26:56 | 29:06
3rd Down Conversion Pct 44.0% | 42.0% 44 | 67
34.0% | 36.0% 36 | 51
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 14-72 | 12-82
104 | T74
13-88 | 12-110
T37 | T65
Touchdowns Scored 12 | 17
9 | 15
Field Goals-Attempts 10-12 | 5-9
4-7 | 11-12
Red Zone Scores (16-20) 80% | (15-15) 100% 77 | T1
(11-17) 65%(17-19) 89% 8 | 98
Red Zone Touchdowns (8-20) 40% | (13-15) 87% (7-17) 41% | (10-19) 53%

Michigan and Penn State’s offenses are similarly bad at scoring points — Penn State averages a half point more — but that’s about where the similarities end. While Michigan’s offense is balanced — 180.8 rushing yards and 173.2 passing yards per game — Penn State’s is extremely pass heavy. The Nittany Lions have half as many rushing yards as Michigan, but 50 percent more passing yards despite playing one less game. And Penn State is averaging 54 more total yards per game than Michigan. So basically, Penn State is decent at moving the ball, but not very good at putting points on the board.

Hackenberg’s passing totals have gone down every game so far this season. In the opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Hackenberg threw for 454 yards and a touchdown. The next week against Akron, he threw for 319 and three touchdowns. Against Rutgers, it was 309. Against UMass it was 236 and one score, and against Northwestern it was down to just 216. And while he has thrown for a lot of yards, he has just four touchdown passes — one fewer than Devin Gardner — and six interceptions. In fact, his quarterback rating (122.2) is lower than Gardner’s (128.4.).

Schedule
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 30 UCF W 26-24
Sept. 6 Akron W 21-3
Sept. 13 at Rutgers W 13-10
Sept. 20 UMass W 48-7
Sept. 27 Northwestern L 6-29
Oct. 11 at Michigan
Oct. 25 #15 Ohio State
Nov. 1 Maryland
Nov. 8 at Indiana
Nov. 15 Temple
Nov. 22 at Illinois
Nov. 29 #9 Michigan State

The running game has failed to top 100 yards in three of the five games and barely surpassed 100 in one of the others. The only game in which Penn State had success on the ground was against UMass when the Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. Penn State managed just 57 yards on 28 carries against UCF, 64 yards on 33 carries against Rutgers, and 50 yards on 25 carries against Northwestern. Remember how bad Michigan’s running game was last season? Through five games it had 385 more rushing yards than Penn State has through its first five games this season. Yes, Penn State’s passing game is better than Michigan’s was, but Michigan averaged 4.4 yards per carry through the first five, while Penn State is averaging just 3.1.

Part of the problem is the offensive line which has given up 14 sacks, two more than Michigan has allowed in one less game. That hurts the rushing totals and also affects the passing game by not giving Hackenberg time to throw.

Another big reason the offense is averaging just 22.8 points is that it settles for a lot of field goals. Penn State has scored on 16 of 20 trips in the red zone, but only half of those were touchdowns. The other eight were field goals. Michigan, meanwhile, has had trouble getting to the red zone, but has converted 13 of 15 red zone appearances into touchdowns with just two field goals.

On the other side of the ball, Penn State has the best defense Michigan has faced so far this season. The Nittany Lions rank 10th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 14.6 points per game, 8.2 more than Michigan. Only two of five opponents have scored more than 10 points against Penn State so far this season. Central Florida scored 24 in a losing effort in Week 1 and Northwestern scored 29 two weeks ago.

The rush defense is Penn State’s calling card so far, holding opponents to just 60.2 yards per game, which is second-best nationally behind only Louisville’s 58.3. Only Rutgers (102 yards) and Northwestern (103 yards) have broken 100, while two opponents have averaged negative yards per carry. UCF rushed 29 times for 24 yards and UMass rushed 28 times for just three yards. What a week for Michigan to lose its leading rusher, Derrick Green, for the season.

On the other hand, the pass defense is worse than Michigan’s, allowing 228.6 yards per game through the air. However, Penn State held Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova — who just shredded Michigan’s defense — to just 192 yards, no touchdowns, and five interceptions. And while the Nittany Lions have given up a lot of yards through the air, they have allowed just two passing touchdowns all season.

One area in which Penn State is not very good is kick and punt coverage. PSU is allowing 24.7 yards per kick return — five more than Michigan allows — and 12 yards per punt return. Those numbers rank 111th and 100th nationally.

Penn State will be a stern test for Michigan this week and this game is a must-win for the Wolverines to have any hope of reaching the postseason. Perhaps the Big House lights will spark the same type of magic as the previous two Under the Lights games.

Key Players
Passing Comp-Att Yards TD INT Average/Game
Christian Hackenberg 113-195 1,477 4 6 295.4
Rushing Attempts Yards TD Long Average/Carry
Bill Belton 49 189 3 24 3.9
Akeel Lynch 18 133 1 46 7.4
Zach Zwinak 37 105 3 18 2.8
Christian Hackenberg (QB) 35 34 0 17 1.0
Receiving Receptions Yards TD Long Average/Game
DaeSean Hamilton 36 502 0 51 100.4
Geno Lewis 29 495 1 79 99.0
Jesse James (TE) 15 178 2 44 35.6
Bill Belton (RB) 14 129 1 24 25.8
Chris Godwin 9 79 0 14 15.8
Defense Solo Assisted Total Tackles TFL-Yds Sacks-Yds
Mike Hull (LB) 32 21 53 2.5-6 1.0-5 (1 FF)
Ryan Keiser (S) 16 7 23 0-0 0-0 (1 INT, 3PD)
Anthony Zettel (DT) 11 6 17 7.0-26 3.0-18 (1 FR)
C.J. Olaniyan (DE) 6 7 13 4.5-18 2.0-13
Adrian Amos (S) 8 3 11 1.0-1 0-0 (2 INT)
Kicking FG Made FG Att Long XP Made XP Att
Sam Ficken 10 12 42 12 12
Punting Punts Yds Avg. In-20 50+
Chris Gulla 19 728 38.3 6 4
Full Stats

Stay tuned for more on Penn State in the coming days.

Michigan-Rutgers game preview

Friday, October 3rd, 2014


Game Preview_Rutgers_banner

It has been a trying week for the Michigan football program after a loss to Minnesota — just the fourth in 46 years — and the controversy that has followed from a hit taken by quarterback Shane Morris that resulted in a concussion. It has been talked about not only on ESPN, but NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, and more. For the players and coaches, Saturday can’t get here soon enough, but the big question is whether the team can use the adversity as a galvanizing force or whether the distractions will sink the team even further.

UM-Rutgers-small-final
Quick Facts
High Point Solutions Stadium – 7 p.m. EST – BTN
Rutgers Head Coach: Kyle Flood (3rd season)
Coaching Record: 19-12 (all at Rutgers)
Offensive Coordinator: Ralph Friedgen (1st season)
Defensive Coordinator: Joe Rossi (1st season)
Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)
Last Season: 6-7 (3-5 AAC)
Last Meeting: 1st meeting
All-Time Series: 0-0
Michigan in New Jersey: Michigan leads 2-0
Brady Hoke vs Rutgers: 0-1 (Ball St. lost 52-30 in 2008)

The road has been a thorn in Hoke’s side since he arrived in Ann Arbor and that’s just where the team is headed this week. Perhaps it can become a place of calm away from the circus that Ann Arbor has become. The venue, however, will be anything but calm, as Rutgers announced its second sellout of the season and just the fifth since 2009. It’s also a night game and has been denoted as this season’s “blackout game”, which means although small compared to the Big House (52,454 capacity), High Point Solutions Stadium will be electric.

It’s the first ever meeting between college football’s two oldest FBS programs. Michigan calls itself Team 135 because this is the 135th season of Michigan football. But Rutgers began playing in 1869, 10 years earlier, known then as the Queensmen. Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 in the first game and then lost to Princeton 8-0 a week later. Those were the only two games played between the only two college football teams at the time, and both claim a national title.

Head coach Kyle Flood is in his third season at Rutgers and his third straight season in a different conference. The former offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Greg Schiano took over in 2012 when his predesessor left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In his first season, Rutgers tied for first in the Big East, but the caveat would be that four of the eight teams in the conference shared the title, all with 5-2 records. Rutgers had a chance to win it outright by beating Louisville in the final week, but the Cardinals won 20-17 and ultimately earned the conference’s BCS berth. Rutgers then lost to Virginia Tech 13-10 in the Citrus Bowl. Flood shared Big East Coach of the Year honors with then-Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.

Flood lost both of his coordinators following the 2012 season and brought in former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince to run the offense. After a 52-51 overtime loss at Fresno State to open the season, Rutgers won four straight, including a four-point win over Arkansas and a 55-52 triple-overtime thriller over SMU. But then the wheels fell off. They went 2-6 the rest of the way with a 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl to end the season.

Prince’s time in Piscataway would be short-lived as he jumped to the Detroit Lions following the season, and Flood replaced him with former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. Flood also fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, who had been promoted from linebackers coach prior to the 2013 season, and promoted special teams coach Joe Rossi. Needless to say, Flood has faced plenty of turnover in his short tenure thus far and hopes the move to the Big Ten will provide more stability.

Rutgers comes into this game with a 4-1 record, but is still looking for its first Big Ten win. Penn State came to New Jersey and beat the Scarlet Knights 13-10 in Week 3 in their first ever Big Ten contest. Rutgers has wins over Washington State (41-38), Howard (38-25), Navy (31-24), and Tulane (31-6). Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Michigan defense vs Rutgers offense: When Rutgers has the ball

Friedgen’s offense currently ranks 66th nationally in scoring (30.2 points per game), 67th in total offense (416.8 yards per game), 56th in rushing (176.2 yards per game), and 63rd in passing (240.6 yards per game). They also rank 73rd in third-down conversion percentage (40.3).

Gary Nova threw five interceptions against Penn State but has just two in the other four games (Mel Evans, AP)

Gary Nova threw five interceptions against Penn State but has just two in the other four games (Mel Evans, AP)

Quarterback Gary Nova has been a hot and cold quarterback his entire career and that’s no different this season. He has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,197 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But five of those interceptions came in a 13-10 loss to Penn State, a game in which he completed just 15-of-30 passes and no touchdowns. Aside from that game and a Week 4 win over Navy in which Rutgers rushed for nearly 300 yards, Nova has thrown for an average of 285 yards with 10 touchdowns and just to picks in the other three games.

Like Michigan with Devin Funchess, Nova has one very good receiver to throw to and a bunch of others. Junior Leonte Carroo is already just three yards short of his 2013 season total with 475 receiving yards on 25 receptions and five touchdowns. He has had two 100-yard-plus games, including a six-catch, 140-yard, three-touchdown performance last week against Tulane. The only other player on the team with double-digit receptions is sophomore Janarion Grant, who has 10 catches for just 90 yards. Fellow sophomore John Tsimis has nine for 110 yards and two scores, while senior Kansas transfer Andrew Turzilli is second on the team in receiving yards with 182 yards on just four catches. His total is aided by a 93-yard touchdown. Junior tight end Tyler Kroft entered the season as one of the Big Ten’s best, but has been held without a catch in three of the first five games and played just six snaps last week due to an injury. He should be healthy and ready to go tomorrow, however.

The Rutgers offense took a huge hit when starting running back Paul James tore his ACL against Navy two weeks ago. He had 363 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) and five touchdowns to go along with 120 receiving yards and two more touchdowns prior to his injury. Last season, James rushed for 868 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing four games with a leg injury. This is a huge loss to the Scarlet Knight offense. In his place is 5’8″, 175-pound sophomore Desmon Peoples, who has 288 yards (4.3 yards per carry) but no touchdowns so far this season. His production has picked up since James went down, as he is averaging 82.5 yards, but just 4.1 yards per carry the past two weeks. Fellow sophomore Justin Goodwin filled in for James in the four games he missed last season, but moved to cornerback in fall camp. He started the season opener and recorded an interception, but switched back to his old position in Week 3. In two games played at running back the past two weeks, Goodwin is averaging 93 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.

The offensive line is an experienced unit that returned all five starters from last season with 99 career starts between them.

Michigan offense vs Rutgers defense: When Michigan has the ball

The defense returned just five starters from last season and currently ranks 66th nationally in scoring defense (30.2 points per game), 80th in total defense (408.8 yards per game), 49th in rush defense (130.4 yards per game), and 105th in pass defense (278.4 yards per game). And while the Rutgers defense allows opponents to convert third-downs 43.4 percent of the time (91st nationally), it leads the nation with 21 sacks.

Tackle Darius Hamilton leads Rutgers with 3.5 sacks and will be a big test for Michigan's offensive line (Rich Kane, Icon SMI)

Tackle Darius Hamilton leads Rutgers with 3.5 sacks and will be a big test for Michigan’s offensive line (Rich Kane, Icon SMI)

A year ago, Rutgers had the fourth-best rush defense and fourth-worst pass defense in the country. The disparity isn’t so stark through the first five weeks of this season, but as you can see from the rankings above, the Scarlet Knights are still much more adept at defending the run than the pass. The sack yardage certainly helps the rush defense numbers, but it also shows that when they can’t get to the quarterback, they’re vulnerable through the air.

The defensive line is anchored by junior tackle Darius Hamilton. The 6’4″, 255-pounder has 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss so far. Joining Hamilton in the middle is nose guard Kenneth Kirksey, who has nine tackles and one for loss. Fifth-year senior David Milewski and redshirt junior Djwany Mera are the ends. Milewski has three sacks and six tackles for loss, while Mera has a half sack.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Steve Longa is the leading tackler with 37 in addition to 1.5 for loss and one sack. The strong side linebacker, redshirt junior Quentin Gause, has 27 tackles, three for loss, and a sack, while the middle linebacker, sophomore L.J. Liston and senior Kevin Snyder, have a combined 27 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Fifth-year senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters is the leader of the secondary with 24 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. Fellow fifth-year senior Gareef Glashen is one starting cornerback and has 29 tackles, one interception, and leads the team with seven passes defended. The other corner spot is a rotation between sophomores Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, and freshman Dre Boggs. The three have combined for 22 tackles, two for loss, and two passes defended.

Special teams: The other third

Junior kicker Kyle Federico has converted 6-of-8 field goals with a long of 42. He made 12-of-18 last season with a long of 48. Junior Tim Gleeson and redshirt junior Joseph Roth have shared the punt duties, averaging 40.8 and 37.2 yards per punt, respectively. Gleeson’s total ranks eighth in the Big Ten.

Grant is the main return man for both kicks and punts. He’s averaging 20.5 yards per kick return and seven yards per punt return, although Rutgers has just three punt returns all season.

Prediction

Michigan received a big send off from the coaches and athletes of other Michigan teams as they left for New Jersey. With all the animosity swirling around the program after its third loss of the season and a concussion controversy, perhaps the one place Brady Hoke has struggled to win the most — the road — can serve as a rallying point and a springboard for the rest of the season.

Something tells me Devin Gardner will come into the game with a renewed purpose, similar to what we saw when he came in in relief of Shane Morris in the fourth quarter last week. We know he’s capable of putting up big numbers, and the Rutgers secondary provides a great opportunity to get back on track. But he will need protection from the nation’s leader in sacks.

Defensively, Michigan will need to find a way to put pressure on Nova and force him into the mistakes he is prone to make. The loss of James puts more pressure on Nova and the young running backs to step up. If Michigan’s offense doesn’t put the defense in tough positions, it should be able to hold Rutgers offense in check.

When all is said and done, I’m not confident in the line being able to protect Gardner well enough to allow the offense to sustain drives, especially since Rutgers’ defense has been pretty good against the run. Expect a close, back and forth game that goes down to the wire, but Michigan comes up just short. I hope I’m wrong.

Rutgers 24 – Michigan 20

M&GB staff predictions: Rutgers

Friday, October 3rd, 2014


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After losing the Little Brown Jug to Minnesota, Michigan now hits the r0ad where they have struggled under Brady Hoke. Tomorrow, they travel to New Jersey, where they haven’t played in nearly a century, to battle college football’s oldest program, Rutgers, who they have never faced.

Staff Predictions
Michigan Rutgers
Justin 20 24
Sam 17 29
Derick 21 27
Josh 13 38
Joe 20 28
M&GB Average 18 29

Justin: The adversity swirling around the program right now will serve as a galvanizing force that the team will rally around in New Brunswick. Devin Gardner will play with a purpose like he showed in his brief time last Saturday in relief of Shane Morris, and the Michigan offense will look better than it has all season against power-five teams.

Unfortunately, it won’t be enough. Rutgers leads the nation in sacks and Michigan’s offensive line hasn’t shown it is capable of protecting the quarterback yet. While the offense will move the ball, it will get bogged down by untimely sacks. The defense will look to capitalize on Gary Nova mistakes, but the home crowd will carry Rutgers to a narrow win.

Rutgers 24 – Michigan 20

Sam: It’s amazing what a couple weeks of college football can do, eh? Just about a month ago, Ann Arbor was a frenzy of excitement, a melting pot of hope for the football team. Fast forward five games and we have easily the most discontent fan base in America, a massive concussed-player-left-in-the-game controversy on our hands, an athletic department and coaching staff that contradict each other on every possible occasion, a petition with more than 11,000 signatures calling for Dave Brandon’s removal making the rounds, and students marching on the (U of M) president’s lawn. And, oh yeah, Brady Hoke is the deadest of dead men walking.

With two straight embarrassments on the football field, Michigan faces what looks to be a serious uphill battle to even make a bowl game. What’s even worse is that Devin Funchess and Jabrill Peppers’ statuses are still up in the air. With a road game at Rutgers this Saturday, I’m not hopeful at all despite a growing sentiment that the players will certainly be fired up for this one. I’ll take the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers 29 – Michigan 17

Derick: Michigan needs to get away from Ann Arbor, where the fans and media are up in arms about the team’s actions both on and off the field. Though the team has struggled on the road under Brady Hoke, it may benefit from getting away from the distractions and playing far from home.

That being said, the Michigan team that showed up each of the last two weeks is nowhere near strong enough to compete with teams in the Big Ten, and Rutgers finished off an unbeaten non-conference slate last weekend. I think Michigan will fall in New Jersey, despite a much cleaner performance with Devin Gardner back under center.

Rutgers 27 – Michigan 21

Josh: I want to believe Team 135 has some fight in them and will rally around their coach and go out and win one for the Hokester. I want to believe but what we’ve seen on the field is just about the polar opposite of fighters. The offense has regressed at a pace no one thought possible and now even the defense is stepping back. Rutgers isn’t all that great, but Michigan’s road woes (and offensive woes this season) spell doom for our beloved Wolverines.

The good news is Rutgers’ defense isn’t all that great, yardage wise anyway. The bad news is they can get to the quarterback, which basically means Michigan will lose. More good news is one of Rutgers’ running backs (Paul James) is out for the season so that might help ease the pain of the beating they’ll get. Aside from the monstrosity that was the Penn State game (five interceptions) the Knights’ quarterback, Gary Nova, has been pretty solid and I expect more of the same against a Michigan secondary that will likely be without its best player, Jabrill Peppers, who Desmond Howard said was the only kid on the roster who looked like he wanted to be great and wasn’t just going through the motions.

If the Penn State version of Gary Nova (turnover happy like Gardner can be) shows up, then Michigan might actually stand a chance. How much of a chance is anyone’s guess and at this point I’d be willing to bet there aren’t many of us going out on a limb to say it’s a good one.

Michigan can win this one. I know I was down on this team heading into the season (8-4) and I’ve been vocal on Twitter that Hoke may be in over his head and can’t develop these kids to save his life and Devin Gardner is basically Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but hear me out. We’ve seen what Devin Gardner can do when he’s on (Notre Dame and Ohio State last year). If, and it’s a BIG IF, he’s on he could single-handedly win this one. However, when he’s bad he’s so bad it’s like a car wreck you can’t look away from. That said, Gary Nova was Devin Gardner bad against Penn State. So if that Nova shows up AND good Gardner shows up Michigan can win this game.

That said, I don’t think either of those happen and Michigan falls farther into the abyss. Sadly, it’ll just make the Harbaugh supporters even louder. Honestly, I don’t see why either of them would come to Michigan and I’ve set my sights on more realistic (though still optimistic) targets, like Dan Mullen. Anyway….Michigan loses and we all look forward to basketball season and another potential Final Four run. Thank God for John Beilein. This must be how Sparty felt until recently: great basketball and horrendous football.

Rutgers 38 – Michigan 13

Joe: This is becoming more and more difficult to predict, watch and ultimately, enjoy on my Saturday afternoons. As much as it hurts to watch this team go through their offensive struggles and defensive lapses, I’m still a die hard fan and will pull for them no matter what.

I’m looking for something to hang my hopes on each week and have decided to concentrate on two of the young guns. Derrick Green on offense and Jabrill Peppers back on defense. They have shown some promise, in bunches at times, and they will need to keep it up this week against a “pumped up” Rutgers squad.

Rutgers senior quarterback Gary Nova has been extremely accurate at times but can also turn it over when pressured. The key for Michigan will be to get some pressure from the defensive line and mix in some corner blitzes. If they are not able to get in his face, it will be a long night. I think this will be a close game but will only make Hoke’s seat even hotter. As much as it hurts to say, I thing the Scarlet Knights pull one out over our Wolverines.

Rutgers 28 – Michigan 20

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014


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After four weeks of non-conference play, Week 5 was the first week of conference games for most of the Big Ten. It is now when the best teams start separating themselves and the conference picture really starts to become clearer.

East Division
1. Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Wyoming 56-14 This Week: Sat vs #19 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0), 8pm, ESPN

Michigan State finished the non-conference season with a flourish, whooping Wyoming for its third win of the year. The Spartans will face a huge test Saturday when undefeated Nebraska comes to town.

2. Maryland (4-1, 1-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Indiana 37-15 This Week: Sat vs #20 Ohio State (3-1, 0-0), 12pm, ABC

Maryland picked up a big in their first Big Ten matchup, routing Indiana on the road 37-15. If the Terrapin defense can hold Indiana’s high-powered offense to just 15 points, it will keep this team in most games this season. It faces another big test this week in Ohio State.

3. Ohio State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Cincinnati 50-28 This Week: Sat at Maryland (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ABC

A tough Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech is long behind the Buckeyes, who seem to have worked out their offense in time for the conference slate. Look for OSU to at least put up a fight in the East.

4. Penn State (4-1, 0-1) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Northwestern 6-29 This Week: Bye (10/11 at Michigan)

A great start to the season came to a screeching halt Saturday when Northwestern pounded Penn State in Happy Valley, 29-6.

5. Rutgers (4-1, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Tulane 31-6 This Week: Sat vs Michigan (2-3, 0-1), 7pm, BTN

Rutgers finished off a perfect non-conference season Saturday and has a chance to inch within one game of bowl eligibility with a win over struggling Michigan this weekend.

6. Indiana (2-2, 0-1) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Maryland 15-37 This Week: Sat vs North Texas (2-2, 0-1), 2:30pm, BTN

After stunning Missouri the previous week, losing at home to Maryland by 22 was a major setback for the Hoosiers.

7. Michigan (2-3, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 14-30 This Week: Sat at Rutgers (4-1, 0-1), 7pm, BTN

Michigan lost its second straight home game to an unranked opponent Saturday and now the off-the-field issues have blown up in the program’s face. Simply put, 2014 has been a disaster for the Wolverines.

West Division
1. Nebraska (5-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 45-14 This Week: Sat at Michigan State (3-1, 0-0), 8pm, ESPN

Nebraska is the only undefeated team remaining in the conference, and can cement itself as the favorite with a huge win in East Lansing on Saturday.

2. Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat South Florida 27-10 This Week: Sat at Northwestern (2-2, 1-0), 3:30pm, ESPN2

The Badgers cruised to a 3-1 record after a devastating loss to LSU and now control their own destiny in the Big Ten. If Wisconsin can run the table and beat Nebraska it will find itself on the fringes of playoff consideration.

3. Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Penn State 29-6 This Week: Sat vs #17 Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0), 3:30pm, ESPN2

Pat Fitzgerald’s crew pulled off the shock of the week by storming into Penn State and blasting the undefeated Nittany Lions by 23 to kick of their conference season.

4. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 24-10 This Week: Bye (10/11 vs Indiana)

It’s never pretty for the 2014 version of Iowa football, but in the end the Hawkeyes picked up their first Big Ten win in West Lafayette last Saturday, 24-10. Iowa will play a bunch of ugly games this season, but could be a pesky out in the West.

5. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Beat Michigan 30-14 This Week: Bye (10/11 vs Northwestern)

The Gophers are off to another great start in 2014 with four wins before October and a victory over Michigan to reclaim the Little Brown Jug.

6. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #21 Nebraska 14-45 This Week: Sat vs Purdue (2-3, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Illinois played punching bag for Nebraska on Saturday, falling 45-14 to start the conference schedule. The Illini struggled throughout September and should finish near the bottom of the West.

7. Purdue (2-3, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 10-24 This Week: Sat at Illinois (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

The only other team in the Big Ten besides Michigan with a losing record might have a hard time picking up a win, even in a weakened conference.