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Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013


1. Ohio State (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Florida A&M 76-0 This Week: Saturday vs #23 Wisconsin (3-1), 8pm, ABC

Does Ohio State have a quarterback controversy? Unbelievably, Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller may be in a fight for his job after Kenny Guiton’s performance Saturday against the lowly Florida A&M Rattlers. The senior threw for a school record six touchdowns on Saturday, and the Buckeyes won by a score of 76-0. This team has firmly established itself as the squad to beat in the Big Ten so far.

2. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 41-10 This Week: Saturday at #4 Ohio State (4-0), 8pm, ABC

Wisconsin was the first team in the Big Ten to get a conference win when they throttled Purdue on Saturday. The Badgers failed to have three 100-yard rushers in this game, but made up for it by picking up a total of 388 yards on the ground. At 7.5 yards per carry, the Wisconsin rushing game allowed the offense to dominate the time of possession and run Purdue right out of Madison. Though all five touchdowns were on the ground, Joel Stave was efficient in the passing game going 12-for-19 for 183 yards. This team should be undefeated, and has the best chance to unseat the Buckeyes, and they will attempt to do so this weekend in Columbus.

3. Penn State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Kent State 34-0 This Week: Bye (Sat. 10/5 at Indiana)

Christian Hackenberg finally had a bad game for Penn State, going 13-for-35 and only one touchdown. Even with the freshman’s struggles, the Nittany Lions dominated Kent State 34-0 and go into conference play boasting a strong defense and riding on the coattail of a talented freshman quarterback. Teams traveling to Happy Valley will have their work cut out for them even though Penn State can’t win the conference in 2013.

4. Illinois (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Bye This Week: Saturday vs Miami OH (0-3), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Being idle during week four wasn’t the worst thing in the world for a Big Ten week this season. Illinois didn’t join the teams that struggled for the conference this week, as they used their first bye week to prepare for Miami (OH) this Saturday. The Fighting Illini are 2-1 with a loss to Washington and will ride the arm of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase this season because of a weak defense and questionable rushing attack.

5. Indiana (2-2, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Missouri 45-28 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Penn State)

The Hoosiers got trounced by Missouri at home this week, as the defense continued to give up yards on the ground. Mizzou rushed for 280 yards and the potent Indiana offense couldn’t get on the field enough to keep the team in the game. Unfortunately for Indiana, this game revealed the perfect game plan for their defeat: run the ball and let the clock run to keep the ball away from their offense. With a sieve of a defense, Indiana stands basically no chance to win more than a few Big Ten games.

6. Purdue (1-3, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #24 Wisconsin 41-10 This Week: Saturday vs N. Illinois (3-0), 12pm, ESPN2

Fresh off a strong showing in its loss to Notre Dame, Purdue reverted to old ways on Saturday and dropped the Big Ten opener to Wisconsin. The Boilermakers gained just 180 total yards and one touchdown. Running back Rob Henry had the 22-yard touchdown run, yet still managed to finish the game with seven carries and zero total yards. Things could get even uglier for Purdue during the conference schedule following a 1-3 start. They will take on a Northern Illinois team that beat Iowa earlier in the year in their final preconference game this Saturday.

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1. Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Maine 35-12 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs #4 Ohio State)

Maine gave Northwestern more than they bargained for on Saturday, as the previously-undefeated Black Bears outgained Pat Fitzgerald’s team in total yardage. Two defensive touchdowns saved the Wildcats, as Damien Proby and Dean Lowry each returned interceptions for touchdowns. Northwestern’s offense was incredibly one-dimensional as they ran the ball 49 times and threw only 17 passes while still losing the time of possession battle. This team enters Big Ten season as the highest-ranked Legends team in the polls and should be considered the favorite based solely on preconference play.

2. Minnesota (4-0, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat San Jose State 43-24 This Week: Saturday vs Iowa (3-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

While by no means should fans consider Minnesota a real threat to win the Legends Division, they were the second-strongest team during non-conference play, winning games by an average of 21.75 points and absolutely dominating in the running game. Minnesota’s most recent game against San Jose State was a prime example of how proficient they have been on the ground, as they gained over 350 yards on 67 attempts. If Minnesota finds semblance of a passing threat, they could be very pesky in the Big Ten.

3. Michigan (4-0, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat UConn 24-21 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Minnesota)

The Maize and Blue have a very important question to answer during the next two weeks before their conference opener: who are they? The team has dropped in the polls two straight weeks after scares against Akron and Connecticut, two of the worst teams in the country. But does this really mean that Michigan can’t contend for a conference championship? So far, the Wolverines have played to the level of their competition in almost every contest, which means that although some wins may look ugly, they can’t be counted out of any game. Brady Hoke needs to find a way to help the offensive line, which not only has trouble keeping quarterback Devin Gardner protected but also can’t open up any holes for the running game. One the other side of the trenches, the defensive line will have a hard time getting into Big Ten backfields after struggling to do so against Akron and for the majority of the game in Connecticut.

4. Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #22 Notre Dame 17-13 This Week: Bye (10/5 at Iowa)

Despite looking offensively inept for the first two weeks of the season, Michigan State has looked strong two weeks in a row. Last Saturday they dropped 55 points on Youngstown State and this weekend they proved that their defense is legit. In their first real contest, the Spartans held Notre Dame to 17 points and made a statement that they will be a tough opponent in the Big Ten. If this team can support the defense with even a slightly below-average offense then it could have a chance to play Ohio State in Indianapolis this December.

5. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat San Diego State 59-20 This Week: Bye (10/5 vs Illinois)

Following a tough home loss to UCLA, Nebraska bounced back to roll South Dakota State 59-20. The Cornhuskers showcased their potent balanced offense by gaining over 300 yards both on the ground and through the air. Ameer Abdullah lead the charge on Saturday, rushing for 139 yards, one touchdown and an average of over nine yards per carry.

6. Iowa (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Western Michigan 59-3 This Week: Saturday at Minnesota (4-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

The Hawkeyes have now won three games in a row to establish themselves before conference play. This weekend, Iowa got huge contributions from B.J. Lowery and Kevonte Martin-Manley. Lowery had two interceptions and returned them both for touchdowns while Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in under a minute! Obviously these types of contributions are unlikely to happen very often, but the past few weeks have restored confidence to a program that expects to play spoiler in the Big Ten.

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Most of the nonconference games are over in the Big Ten with the exception of a few teams that have one more remaining. It was a rough year for the conference as a whole, as only four teams remain undefeated. Wisconsin fans will argue that they should have beaten Arizona State, which is probably true, but many teams showed that their preseason rankings were far too high. Nebraska lost a tough game against UCLA at home, but it was the 38 straight points they gave up that made it look so bad. Teams like Indiana, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa look weak this year and take away from the depth that the conference can usually boast, while Minnesota and Penn State remain relatively unproven.

Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the teams that determine the strength of the conference as a whole in 2013. Ohio State will be a national contender, and if two of these four teams can add themselves to the mix then it will help regain the Big Ten’s reputation as a top power conference. The Legends Division race should be fun to watch; it seems to be wide open thus far. In contrast, anyone but the Buckeyes winning in the Leaders Division would be a surprise, and their game in Ann Arbor on November 30th could be the final audition for a trip to Indianapolis or Pasadena. No matter what Michigan does in the weeks leading up to The Game, the Maize and Blue will be tough to beat in the Big House, where they haven’t lost under Head Coach Brady Hoke.

Michigan vs Northwestern game preview

Friday, November 9th, 2012


Three games remain in the regular season and Michigan must win all of them to stay in the Big Ten title hunt. And just like last week, the Wolverines might have to do it without Denard Robinson. All week, Brady Hoke has been coy about Denard’s status. When asked about Denard’s status on Thursday morning, Hoke said, “We’ve got a plan in place and we’ve been running through it all week.” When asked again, he replied simply, “I don’t know. The plan is to go out and win a football game.”

Michigan Stadium  -  Ann Arbor, Mich.
12pm EST  -  ESPN
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Northwestern Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (6th season)
Coaching Record: 47-38
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Last Season: 6-7 (3-5)
Last Meeting: Michigan 42 – Minnesota 24 (2011)
All-time Series: Michigan leads 53-15-2
In Ann Arbor: Michigan leads 33-6-2
In Michigan Stadium: 29-6-2
Current Streak: Michigan 1

Michigan did win a football game last week without Denard thanks to a solid performance by Devin Gardner and the receiving corps stepping up. But this week’s opponent, Northwestern, is a better team than Minnesota.

Northwestern enters at 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad holds onto extremely slim Big Ten championship hopes, needing to win out and get a lot of help, so the Wildcats will be fighting for their season. The two losses were at Penn State (39-28) and against nebraska (29-28). In that Nebraska game, Northwestern blew a 12 point lead in the fourth quarter. The seven teams Northwestern has beaten have a combined record of 25-38. So is the 7-2 record indicative of a solid squad, or is it more of a reflection of an incredibly weak schedule? Let’s take a look.

When Northwestern has the ball

Quarterback Kain Colter is a version of Denard Robinson that also plays other positions. Sophomore Trevor Siemian started a handful of games at quarterback to allow Colter to play receiver, but Colter has taken back the quarterback job. He has completed 62-of-89 passes for 517 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. But he’s even more dangerous with his feet. He’s the second leading rusher on the team with 622 yards and 11 touchdowns on 114 attempts.

What’s even more dangerous is his backfield mate Venric Mark who is the Big Ten’s second leading rusher in terms of yards per game (119.7). He has eclipsed 100 yards in six of the nine games, including each of the past three. He had 182 yards against Minnesota and 162 yards on 16 carries against Iowa two weeks ago. He’s only 5’8″ but works perfectly in the zone read offense.

The receiving corps doesn’t have a standout, but has several players that contribute. Seven different players have double digit receptions and six of those have over 100 yards. The leading receiver, Tony Jones, hails from Grand Blanc, Mich. and was high school teammates with Justice Hayes and an AAU basketball teammate with Gardner. Oh, and his cousin is Thomas Rawls. He’ll be looking to impress his home state, but the Wildcat passing game isn’t one to be overly concerned with.

Venric Mark and Kain Colter form a dangerous backfield duo

The offensive line is experienced, led by center Brandon Vitabile and seniors Brian Mulroe and Pat Ward on the left side. They have helped pave the way for the Big Ten’s third best rushing offense. They’ve also allowed just 12 sacks, which is second best only to Michigan’s 10. However, a lot of that is a result of the lack of a passing game.

Northwestern runs a zone read offense that aims to get the playmakers – Colter and Mark – to the edge where they can beat cornerbacks and outside linebackers in space. It’s a fast-paced offense that rarely huddles and will sometimes split Colter out wide with Siemian behind center. Similar to last season’s matchup, the Wildcat offense will probably have some success early in the game before Greg Mattison adjusts.

When Michigan has the ball

Northwestern’s defense is slightly above average at stopping the run, but last in the conference against the pass. As mentioned in yesterday’s Friend vs Foe, both Penn State and Nebraska were able to put up gaudy numbers through the air in their wins over NW. In the season opener, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib threw for 482 yards on 66 attempts.

The strength of the defense is the linebacking unit. Middle linebacker Damien Proby leads the ‘Cats with 86 tackles. David Nwabuisi is second with 75 and Chi Chi Ariguzo ranks third with 67. They’re a major reason for the success of the run defense, but they’re don’t excel in pass coverage, which is one of the reasons Northwestern has such a weak pass defense.

The line is led by end Tyler Scott who has a Big Ten best seven sacks to go along with 8.5 tackles for loss, leading the team in both categories. The other end is Quentin Williams who has 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. The guys in the middle are small and don’t make a lot of impact. Brian Arnfelt has three sacks, but Sean McEvilly has one, but that’s about it.

Safety Ibraheim Campbell is the leader of the secondary. He has 67 tackles and loves to come up in run support. The Wildcats have just three interceptions and only one of them is from a defensive back, Nick VanHoose.

The nation’s 108th-ranked pass defense gives up 272.2 yards per game and it’s a good bed Michigan will have success as well.

The other third

Kicker Jeff Budzien has made 11-of-12 this season with a long of 44. His lone miss was over 50 yards, so he’s about as reliable as it gets in the Big Ten this season. He made 6-of-10 last season. Punter Brandon Williams averages 39.9 yards per punt, which ranks eighth in the Big Ten. In the return game, Northwestern is dangerous with Mark averaging 25.1 yards per punt return. He has already returned two four touchdowns this season.

Prediction

Rushing Attempts: 12 – Denard will pass Tyrone Wheatley for 6th in career rushing attempts.
Rushing Yards: 4 – Denard will pass Tyrone Wheatley for 4th in career rushing yards. With 115, he could pass Missouri’s Brad Smith (2002-05) for 2nd in NCAA FBS history. With 219, he could pass Jamie Morris for 3rd in Michigan history.
Rushing Touchdowns: 1 – Denard will pass Mike Hart for 3rd in career rushing touchdowns.
100 rushing yards: Denard will pass Jamie Morris for 4th in career 100-yard rushing games.
Pass Completions: 17 – Denard will pass Tom Brady for 5th in career completions.
Pass Yards: 211 – Denard will pass Elvis Grbac for 3rd in career passing yards.
Total Yards: 170 – Denard will pass Illinois’ Juice Williams (2006-09) for 6th in career total yards in Big Ten history.
Field Goals: 1 – Brendan Gibbons will tie Bob Bergeron for 6th in career field goals made. With 3 he will tie Ali Haji-Sheikh for 5th.

Like I said yesterday, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Gardner to play tomorrow. Northwestern can be torched through the air and if Denard’s throwing elbow is still at all bothersome, Hoke won’t risk the possibility of Denard playing against Ohio State. Michigan is more of a passing threat with Gardner at the helm and with the aggressiveness of Northwestern’s linebackers, he should be able to find a healthy dose of Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo, and Devin Funchess underneath. Regardless of who is behind center, expect a big passing day.

Defensively, Michigan will give up some yards in the first half, adjust and clamp down. It will be tough to slow down Colter and Mark, but with no major passing threat to worry about, Mattison can hone in on the run, and he has the advantage of going up against the same type of offense in practice day in and day out.

It will be close through the first half and into the third quarter, but Michigan will be too much for the Wildcats and will keep its title hopes alive.

Michigan 28 – Northwestern 17

Notes

As Michigan has done every game this season, another player (or set of players) will be given “legends” distinction prior to kickoff. This time, it is the Wistert brothers – Francis, Albert, and Alvin – who all wore number 11 in the 1940s. All three were first team All-Americans. One Michigan player will be awarded the number to go along with the previous numbers that have been given out: 47 to Jake Ryan, 87 to Brandon Moore, and 48 to Desmond Morgan. The Wistert brothers played offensive and defensive tackle, so my guess as to which player will get the honor is Quinton Washington, who has stepped up this season and been good off the field.

Bonus: the brothers’ nicknames were Whitey, Ox, and Moose.