Which B1G teams should choose to audit this semester?
The most rewarding thing about conference play is that the smoke and mirrors of the non-conference schedule are gone and we can see what teams are really made of.
We saw Indiana give Michigan State sixty minutes of hell as the team nearly pulled off the stunner. Penn State rallied past Northwestern. Finally, there was Wisconsin grinding down Illinois. All in all, it was a great weekend of Big Ten football. And here are the weekly grades. Iowa hit the bars (stupid Micah Hyde—more about that in the power rankings tomorrow) and Minnesota...well, I don’t know what the Gophers did with the bye week. Ice fish?
Illinois Fighting Illini: D
The Illini played better this week, and the difference was just a field goal at the half, but then their own deficiencies as a team got in the way, yet again. Illinois was held to a paltry 284 yards of offense, and 5-of-16 on third down plays won’t win many games. Two turnovers also won’t help. Last, but certainly not least, a 10-yard punt in the second half gave Wisconsin a very short field, which the Badgers took advantage of two minutes later to go up 17-7. Illinois can’t afford to make mistakes like that. In a cruel twist, the team roster is loaded with inexperienced and under-talented players who make those kind of mistakes far too often.
Indiana Hoosiers: C-
The Hoosiers raced out to a 17-0 lead in the opening quarter. The final three quarters were the exact opposite, as the young Hoosiers slowly gave away the victory.
Let’s state the obvious: this is a vastly improved team. Kevin Wilson was always an offensive guru and with the ability of his back-up QB to score points on Michigan State, the future looks bright for Indiana. The team also committed fewer penalties and zero turnovers. Those types of gaffes used to plague Indiana.
Now for the realities of Saturday’s loss: 317 yards of offense and 4-of-15 on third down simply isn’t good enough. This can be traced to an awful day on the ground. Thirty-five yards on 19 carries doesn't allow a team to have balance, and when you have a large lead (it was 27-14 at half), the lack of a ground game prohibits the team from running down the clock.
Lastly, I have talked about the defensive issues in the past. Well, they are back. The IU defense simply could not get off the field as MSU held the "rock" for nearly 38 minutes. What's even worse is that they gave up three conversions on fourth down. I love the direction the Hoosiers are going, but they need to clean up a few things before they can start winning these games.
Michigan Wolverines: A+
To put it simply, Michigan "beat the stuffing out of the train." They forced four turnovers, held Purdue to 1-of-11 on third down attempts, 56 total rushing yards and under 24 minutes of possession. This is, of course, before the offensive performance: 409 yards, great third down percentage, over 300 yards on the ground and just one turnover.
Michigan winning wasn’t a surprise, but to dominate the way the team did (on the road, I might add) against a Purdue team that looked like a quality team sent shockwaves around the league. Michigan still might be up and down, but as of today, the Wolverines are looking as good as anyone in the conference.
Michigan State Spartans: B-
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. There would be no classic Hoosiers' underdog tale in this one, and the win evened Sparty’s mark in the conference.
For the green and white, hopefully this game was a much needed wake-up call. The takeaway from this game is that MSU can stop the run with the best of them (35 total yards), however they need to work on their own rushing attack. For a talent like Le’Veon Bell needing 37 carries to get 121 yards against one of the weaker teams in the league is a joke. That line needs to be put on notice. A 2.9-yard per carry average against Indiana's group of high schoolers is downright criminal.
Michigan State has to, let me re-phrase that, HAS TO run the ball effectively if the Spartans want to get back to Indianapolis. The team can make a bowl with a sub-par running attack but the Spartans faithful were thinking Roses this off season, not the TicketCity Bowl. To the big uglies up front who are on notice, I have just one message for you: wake up, get your head out of wherever you put it in and hit somebody.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: F
Having the most consistent offense (whatever that means for a Big Ten team this season) doesn’t mean jack when your defense gives up almost 500 yards of offense (371 on the ground) and your offense gives up four turnovers.
Even with scoring 38 points, there isn’t a Huskers fan in the world that would, or could, find a silver lining in Saturday's beat down. NU prides itself on defense - i.e. the whole "black shirt" persona - and yet that side of the ball continues to let them down.
Bo Pelini is a defensive-minded coach so if any team can get out of this type of funk, I would expect the Huskers to do so. They need to fix it in a hurry, though. Nebraska has a bye followed by a road game at Northwestern, who can score in a hurry, and then Michigan a week later. This was the worst time of the season for the defense to lose confidence and stop making plays.
Northwestern Wildcats: C-
It wasn’t a cakewalk since Penn State was hot and the 'Cats were the road, but Northwestern has to feel as if they let this one get away nonetheless. After falling down 10-0 early, Northwestern started making plays on both sides of the ball and took a 28-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Twenty-two points later, PSU celebrated the win, and Wildcats fans, coaches and players were left scratching their heads. The most obvious cause for concern is inconsistent defensive play. The team has had good games (Vanderbilt) and good stretches (Saturday against Penn State to come back from an early deficit), but overall, the unit just isn’t reliable.
When all was said and done, and the dust had settled, Penn State out-gained NU by 200 yards, converted 15 times out of 28 on third and fourth down plays combined, and controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes. Until that side of the ball can become reliable, comebacks against the team will be expected, and Northwestern will in turn be forced to retain their 'Cardiac Cats' moniker.
Ohio State Buckeyes: A
I could be a really hard professor and slam the Buckeyes for giving up 38 points at home; but guess what, winning by 25 points and scoring 63 points absolves all sins.
The Buckeyes blew the doors off the Huskers and made great adjustments at the half to hold Nebraska to just 14 points in the second half (seven of which came very late when the win was already assured). The team also forced four turnovers, so it wasn’t all bad defensively. I focused on that side of the ball because 63 points and 500 yards of offense speaks for itself.
Penn State Nittany Lions: B
Well it wasn’t pretty for the first three quarters, but the team got the job don. When you look at the stats, it shouldn’t have been as close as the game was. Penn State dominated in all three facets of the game. Even struggling kicker Sam Ficken had a perfect day, tallying seven points.
It may be a bit cliche, heck it may have been said a million times, but the old adage remains true here like it has throughout the history of sport: good teams find ways to win. That is exactly what Penn State did. The defense shook off a horrid end to the third quarter to dominate the fourth, and Matt McGloin put the team on his back and carried the Nittany Lions to a great win.
Purdue Boilermakers: F
The "Threats out of West Lafayette" (yes, we made that nickname up, but Purdue could use all the help it can get these days) had a horrid day all around, but what makes it truly pathetic are the ramifications of the loss.
This was Purdue’s league opener. It was a chance to make a statement to the rest of the league. It was at home. Home field in the Big Ten is supposed to mean you play beyond your talent and make games close (a la Indiana), or if you are evenly matched, give you the edge.
Instead, Michigan came in, made themselves a sandwich, tracked dirt all over the place, plugged the toilet and then stole a couple of DVDs before leaving. This was while Purdue watched on, powerless to stop anything. Finally, this was against a reeling team. Purdue should have been confident, while Michigan should have played tight. It was the complete opposite. I am very disappointed in Purdue’s lack of effort on Saturday; I can’t imagine the taste in the mouths of real Purdue fans this week. Pathetic game.
Wisconsin Badgers: B-
A sloppy (and slow) start had me nervous as I watched the ol' alma mater, but it was clear that the team was wearing the Illini down with the running game.
Eventually, that patented Badgers running game managed to break through.
Twenty-one fourth quarter points and one Montee Ball, who ended up with 116 yards on 19 carries (six-a- pop average) along with two scores indicate that the game plan worked. Going forward though, two turnovers and a woeful 20-percent conversion rate on third down will not cut it against the cream of the Big Ten crop.
Joel Stave also made some plays that left you shaking your head in shame, but like Ball, had a nice day once it was done. The offensive line continues to struggle, which is inexcusable. The two headliners from last year that opened the season on national-award watch lists aren’t playing up to their billing, and the new faces have not shown much progression. Time to start knocking on wood and hoping that the next few weeks (@ Purdue, Minnesota) can provide a safer learning environment before Michigan State comes calling.