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Big Ten Review: A Week of BIG Defense

The BIG is not known for their high-scoring, highlight filled games, but this week was particularly notable for tough defense and sloppy or completely missing offense, with some bad weather thrown in.

The story line going into the week was whether the four Top 10 teams in the conference could win games they were expected to win against unranked opponents. Michigan’s failure to do so became the big BIG story of the week.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

The Wolverines became the first of the big four teams to stumble when they dropped a 14-10 decision to visiting Michigan State. This was a showdown of two very strong defenses (Michigan #1 nationally, Michigan St. #4 in average yards allowed), and they had their way with the opposing offenses, who were not ready for the first prime-time meeting in the 110 game history of this rivalry. The difference in the game, as it so often is, was turnovers. Michigan coughed up five of them, including a couple of bad interceptions thrown by QB Jack O’Korn. Michigan State, on the other hand, was turnover free.

Despite being -5 in the turnover battle, the Wolverines still had a chance to pull the game out, but a last gasp drive came up short. It featured a late-hit by the Spartans and a crucial dropped pass by Eddie McDoom (I put that in here just because I love the name), pretty much reflecting the tone of the game, which wasn’t helped by a second-half downpour.

Afterwards, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said “We’ve done it eight times, so I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt.” Often referred to as the “kid brother” in this rivalry, the Spartans have gone 8-3 against Michigan under Coach Dantonio, including a particularly impressive 4-1 at the Big House. Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, is now 1-2 against the Spartans and still seeking a statement win as Wolverine head coach.

Michigan should bounce back next week at Indiana-they now have no margin for error if they want to stay in the hunt for the division championship. Michigan State must now be taken seriously as a contender in the East division, and should continue their momentum when they visit the reeling Golden Gophers in Minnesota next week.

Staying with this week’s theme, Wisconsin, (#1 nationally against the run, #10 overall) rode their defense and the legs of running back Jonathan Taylor (249 yards rushing) to a 38-17 win at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers put up a fight, tying the game at 17-17 early in the third quarter on a pick-six. Other than an 80-yard touchdown pass, however, their offense was not able to cross the goal line against the Badgers, who controlled the final 25 minutes of the game. Taylor, a freshman, is now averaging 7.9 yards per carry and is fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game. Interestingly, he has yet to catch a single pass this season.

Wisconsin is well positioned to continue their steady rise up the polls when they host Purdue next week, while Nebraska hosts Ohio State with the Buckeyes on a roll. The Cornhuskers are 3-3, an average record representative of what appears to be an average team.

Ohio State’s defense shone against Maryland, holding the Terps to 66 total yards in their 62-14 win, the fewest yards the Buckeyes have allowed in a game since 1960. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Terps had another quarterback knocked out of the game when Max Bortenschlager took a late-hit to the head. Maryland still has not had a QB start and finish back-to-back games this season. Hopeful that Bortenschlager won’t miss much if any time.

After all the gnashing of teeth about Ohio State’s problems making plays in the passing game, they are the #1 ranked passing offense in the BIG and 14th in the nation. Their special teams, however, need work after giving up a kickoff return for a touchdown, messing up the snap on an extra point, and having a field goal blocked.

Maryland faces a must win game next week, possibly with their fourth-string QB Caleb Henderson starting, not a promising combination. The Terps have three winnable games left on the schedule, one of them next week when they host Northwestern (the others are home against Indiana and Rutgers at Yankee Stadium). If they lose one of them, getting to six wins would mean posting a win against either Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, or Wisconsin. Doubtful. The QB carnage is making it very difficult to evaluate how much progress the program has made this season.

Northwestern will be looking to bounce back from a 31-7 spanking at the hands of Penn State. The Wildcats hung with the Nittany Lions for a while, trailing only 10-0 at halftime after holding Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley to -1 yard rushing. Barkely lived up to comparisons with Barry Sanders in his knack for being held down, then suddenly exploding with a big play, when he ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that put the game away. Penn State QB Trace McSorley also set a new school record with 15 straight pass completions-he has not been flashy but quite efficient. Penn State gets next week off to prepare for a visit from Michigan in two weeks, then their trip to Ohio State for a potential mega-game the following week.

Northwestern’s offensive woes continue. They have not finished higher than 80th in the nation in scoring since 2012, and currently sit at 88th. The Chicago Tribune was calling for changes in their offensive coaching staff today. Against the Terps, they will be without two starters on defense for the first half-both were ejected this week for targeting. The Wildcats come to College Park also in a must-win situation, again needing a strong second half of the season to qualify for a bowl.

Purdue withstood four turnovers and a weather delay to defeat visiting Minnesota 31-17. While not an artistic gem, this was a very competitive game with the lead changing hands four times in the fourth quarter. The Gophers are also struggling on offense, and a visit from Michigan State is not likely to help that. Purdue has only their second road game of the season coming up with their trip to Wisconsin, which should be a good indication of how much progress this surprising team has really made.

Iowa struggled for three quarters before finally putting away Illinois 45-16, and Indiana’s defense put up zeroes against Georgia Southern-a 27-0 win and zero pass completions allowed. Iowa is off next week, Indiana hosts Michigan trying to bounce back from their first loss, and Illinois travels to Rutgers (God bless ‘em) to determine which team is likely doomed to finish the season winless in conference play. BTN was lucky enough to snatch up rights to show this game between two of the lowest scoring teams in the nation.

BIG Notes

By defeating their in-state rival, Michigan State regained possession of the Paul Bunyan Trophy. There are several of these trophies that are decided in BIG rivalry games, and this was the first to be awarded this season. This trophy goes back to 1953, when the governor of Michigan initiated it to commemorate Michigan State joining the BIG. The four-foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan reflects Michigan’s history as a major-lumber producing state-I did not know that.  

Under things that make you go hmmm, Jim Harbaugh’s record at Michigan now stands at 24-7, exactly the same as his predecessor, Brady Hoke at that point, who Wolverine fans eventually couldn’t get rid of fast enough.

It looks like Michigan will have to ride it out with John O’Korn at QB. Wilson Speight, who began the season as starter, is reported to have three broken vertebrae and is likely (and wisely) out for the season.

Nebraska celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1997 national championship team that featured RB Ahman Green (1,877 yards, 22 TDs) and QB Scott Frost, currently the head coach at Central Florida and rumored to be a candidate for Nebraska’s job should they part ways with Mike Riley. Given the current state of Cornhusker football, I’m sure the nostalgia was a welcome diversion.

Michigan State (#22) became the fifth BIG team ranked in the Coaches’ Poll, joining Penn St. (#3), Wisconsin, (#6), Ohio State (#8) and Michigan, which fell to #16.

Maryland (9-0-3), Indiana (10-0-2), and Michigan State (9-1-2) continue to dominate in men’s soccer and stay secure in the Top Ten of both national polls. The Hoosiers have a ridiculous 30-2 goal margin so far-yes, only two goals allowed in twelve games. The Terps are no slouch either with a 23-7 goal margin and chasing their second straight undefeated regular season.

Don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter @The_BIGBlog and reach me by e-mail at [email protected] I also hang out on the message boards, mostly in the University of Maryland & NCAA sections, where I periodically post links to BIG news stories you might find interesting. You can also go there to find the Deified Dozen football national rankings by the experts (?) here at BSL.

Is the big four down to the big three, or should Michigan State be the new fourth? Answers to these questions and more in next week’s column. Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone

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Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is a life-long Maryland Terrapins and college sports fan and a proud U of Md. alum. Jim started writing about the Terps on his own blog during the Steve Francis season of 1998-99. He then moved on to cover ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker "The Courtmaster" and becoming a frequent "expert" guest on Bob Haynie's old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. You can find some of his classic (?) work on his old blog. Jim laid down his gavel in 2007 and is returning to sportswriting after a sabbatical he spent furthering his career as a non-profit executive and senior accounting professional, becoming an ordained minister, and gnashing his teeth/sulking about Maryland joining the Big Ten. He figured the best way to scratch his sportswriting itch was to dive in head first to learn about the Big Ten, the current teams, schools, and history, and share what he learns with our readers. Jim enjoys interacting with readers, exchanging ideas, and most of all having fun. You can chat with him on the message boards or by e-mail at [email protected]

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