Divisional Play Arrives

By Jeff Rapp, September 30th, 2011

When the calendar flips to October on Saturday and a decided chill will be in the air throughout the Midwest, the Big Ten football season, appropriately, will begin.

But this fall will be unlike the previous 115 that have involved league play. That’s because there are now two divisions – the Legends and Leaders – and the winners from those six-team alignments will meet in the first-ever Big Ten Football Championship Game in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 3 (8:17 p.m. Eastern, FOX).

Since 2000, nine different teams have earned at least a share of the Big Ten title, a group that includes Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin.

The Buckeyes, though, have dominated the conference of late and claimed at least a piece of the last six titles under head coach Jim Tressel. A lengthy NCAA probe and Tressel’s admission that he knew of the potential ineligibility of several key players last season and did not forward the information cost him his job and cost the program its 12-1 2010 season, league co-championship and Sugar Bowl win. Now 38-year-old Luke Fickell is charged with reclaiming OSU’s glory.

But Ohio State, like everyone else, will have to earn its way to Indy and win a December game to be called a Big Ten champion. The winner of that game would move on to either represent the conference in the Rose Bowl or play for it all in the BCS National Championship Game.

Perhaps the top candidate for that achievement is Wisconsin. The seventh ranked Badgers (4-0) are averaging 48.5 points per game and are allowing just 8.5 ppg, both Big Ten bests, and have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Russell Wilson, an N.C. State transfer who leads the conference with 311.0 yards of total offense per game. Wilson also leads the league in pass efficiency and passing yards per game (284.0) and is getting plenty of help on the ground from running back Montee Ball, who already has compiled 360 yards rushing and a league-best 10 touchdowns in four games.

Wisconsin, though, has a major test right out of the Big Ten gate in the form of league newcomer Nebraska. The eighth-ranked Cornhuskers (4-0) will play in their first-ever Big Ten game in prime time on Saturday (8 p.m. Eastern, ABC) at Wisconsin. Nebraska leads the Big 10 in rushing offense at 272.5 yards per game with 105.2 of it coming from quarterback Taylor Martinez and an almost identical figure (105.0) the result of the churning legs of runner Rex Burkhead.

Those two players rank second and third in the league in rushing but are still well behind Michigan QB Denard Robinson, who leads the nation with 138.0 ypg. Robinson, though, has struggled throwing the ball for new coach Brady Hoke. He is slightly under 50 percent in terms of pass completions (35 of 72, 48.6 percent) for 624 yards, six TDs and a like number of interceptions.

No. 19 Michigan (4-0) could get the elixir it needs, however, this week when Minnesota comes to town, “armed” with a pass defense that ranks 108th among FBS schools. The Golden Gophers and Indiana Hoosiers, who host Penn State Saturday, each are just 1-3 and are decided underdogs in their Big Ten openers.

While Michigan and Nebraska are the two 4-0 teams in Legends Division, Leaders Division kingpin Wisconsin is joined by a surprise fourth undefeated squad – Illinois. The No. 24 Illini have shut down the run better than anybody, allowing just 56.5 yards per game on the ground, good for fifth in the nation. That is especially impressive considering Illinois has had tough battles with Arizona State and Western Michigan the past two weeks, winning each game by a field goal. Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase has blossomed. So far he has completed 47 of 66 passes (71.2 percent) for 637 yards and four TDs compared to just two interceptions.

The following is a sneak peek at the six games involving Big Ten teams for the first weekend of the league season (Purdue is facing FBS independent Notre Dame and Iowa has an open week):

Penn State (3-1) at Indiana (1-3)
Sat., noon Eastern (ESPN)

The Nittany Lions have had trouble getting their running game in gear and also can’t seem to settle on a quarterback as coach Joe Paterno has pegged Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden to share the role for now. Still, tailback Silas Redd and wideout Derek Moye should be a handful for an IU defense that ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten in terms of yards allowed per game (386.8). The Hoosiers will try to expose the middle of the field with linebacker Michael Mauti out for the year with a knee injury and Indiana could manage to stay in the game via the air. QB Ed Wright-Baker already has amassed 925 passing yards. Still, IU is facing an uphill battle, especially considering the early struggled on special teams and the fact that the Hoosiers have drawn the most penalties of any Big Ten team – 35 for 277 yards.

Minnesota (1-3) at No. 19 Michigan (4-0)
Sat., noon Eastern (Big Ten Network)

The Wolverines are staring at a 5-0 start if they don’t slip up in this battle for the Little Brown Jug. Hoke improved his career coaching mark to 51-50 last week and is hoping Michigan can turn the corner at the start of Big Ten play. Even though Michigan’s passing game is spotty, receiver Junior Hemingway has 211 receiving yards on just five receptions and is clearly a big-play threat when Robinson actually looks to throw. Like Robinson, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray carries the offense. The nimble QB is the team’s leading passer (521 yards) and rusher (351) and can make plays out of small openings. Defensive back Kim Royston leads the Gophers defense – and the Big Ten – with 41 tackles. Coach Jerry Kill has suffered from seizures during the season and was hospitalized recently but returned to practice Wednesday and has vowed to be on the sideline at Michigan Stadium. “I’m in a position where right now I can’t take two weeks off,” Kill said.

Northwestern (2-1) at No. 24 Illinois (4-0)
Sat., noon Eastern (ESPN2)

This could prove to be a highly entertaining conference game, even on a day when Michigan State is visiting the Horseshoe and Nebraska is awaiting battle with Wisconsin. The Illini rolled up more than 500 yards rushing in last year’s encounter at Soldier Field and some UI players proclaimed Chicago as their town. The Wildcats, of course, didn’t like that and the bad blood that rivalries produce might rise in temperature in this one. NU is coming off an open week and claims it can again rely on QB Dan Persa, who was a preseason All-Big Ten candidate until being slowed down by a still-sore Achilles tendon that he ruptured at the end of last season. If Persa stumbles, coach Pat Fitzgerald will call on dual threat Kain Colter. Illinois is reaping the rewards of a hot start by Scheelhaase and a potent rushing attack led by Troy Pollard. Northwestern ranks dead-last in the league in both rushing defense (205.7 ypg) and total defense (394.3 ypg), which doesn’t help the cause.

Michigan State (3-1) at Ohio State (3-1)
Sat., 3:30 p.m. Eastern (ABC or ESPN)

It’s hard to believe neither of these teams is ranked in The Associated Press poll, although the Spartans are 25th in the USA Today coaches poll. They looked mortal in a lopsided 31-13 loss at Notre Dame and the Buckeyes struggled the same evening at Miami (Fla.) to the tune of 24-6. Still, this should be a rock’em, sock’em affair with the team that can unleash its running game standing the best chance. MSU has been stingy in terms of points allowed (11.0) and total defense, allowing a nation-best 172.3 yards per game. The Spartans are sure to present different blitzes and looks for Braxton Miller in an attempt to confuse the freshman QB. Jordan Hall will look to provide another spark to the OSU run game but Michigan State has shown better offensive balance and has a senior signal caller who has seen it all in Kirk Cousins. Wideout B.J. Cunningham of nearby Westerville, Ohio, already MSU’s all-time leading pass receiver, is on pace for a big senior year with 26 catches for 428 yards. The Buckeyes, though, might be able to change matters in their favor on special teams, where Sparty has sputtered.

Notre Dame (2-2) at Purdue (2-1)
Sat., 8 p.m. Eastern (ESPN)

The Fighting Irish have been an enigma thus far, producing moments of high-level football and also unexplained ineptitude. After a home defeat to South Florida and last-minute meltdown at Michigan they put it together against Michigan State and managed to escape Pittsburgh with a three-point victory. Still, head coach Brian Kelly is searching for elusive consistency. Tommy Rees looks to be the answer at QB. He’s thrown for 988 yards and seven TDs in four games and has one of the nation’s best weapons at his disposal in wide receiver Michael Floyd (35 catches for 424 yards and two TDs). Purdue is trying to keep it together after losing QB Robert Marve to a season-ending knee injury in the season opener and losing in Week 2 at Rice, of all places. The Boilermakers will try to run clock by keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible, and they rank second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (258.7), Leading the way are running backs Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers.

No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) at No. 7 Wisconsin (4-0)
Sat., 8 p.m. Eastern (ABC)

This is the biggee of the week. The Cornhuskers have overwhelmed foes with their uptempo offense and varied rushing attack with Martinez at the epicenter of it all. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been downright dominant on both sides of the ball and UW has been especially adept at finishing off drives, converting a gaudy 23 of 24 trips to the red zone, 21 of them resulting in a touchdown. Wisconsin also leads the league in third-down conversions (28 of 46, 60.9 percent). Wilson has been the key, seemingly making all the right decisions and plays. Linebacker Chris Borland has led the Badgers’ charge on defense with 35 tackles, including five for loss, and defensive end David Gilbert has added three sacks. Nebraska, though could counter some of that star power with special teams weapon Ameer Abdullah, who leads the Big Ten in both punt returns (12.0 yards per attempt) and kickoff returns (42.5). The ’Huskers also have a terrorizer of their own on defense in the form of senior linebacker David Lavonte (38 tackles).

B1G Notes

* Paterno, Penn State’s legendary coach, of course, leads all Big Ten coaches in most league wins with 90, reaching that mark in 144 conference games. Kirk Ferentz of Iowa (53-43) is next, followed by Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema (27-13). No other head coach has more than 20 Big Ten wins and five of them – including Nebraska’s veteran boss, Bo Pelini – are set to coach in their first conference game. Along with Fickell and Hoke are newcomers Kill at Minnesota and Kevin Wilson at Indiana.

* With the beginning of divisional play, the Big Ten has instituted a new tiebreaker to determine the Big Ten Football Championship Game participants, if necessary. After head-to-head matchups, the next tiebreaker is records within the division, which makes winning divisional games an important part of the Big Ten title chase. There are only two divisional games this week: a Legends Division matchup between Michigan and Minnesota and a Leaders Division clash between Indiana and Penn State.

* The Big Tenn announced Co-Offensive Players of the Week for games of Sept. 24: junior quarterbacks Robinson and McGloin. A product of Deerfield Beach, Fla., Robinson rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan’s win over San Diego State. McGloin, who hails from Scranton, Pa., completed 14 of 17 passes for 220 yards and three TDs in PSU’s win over Eastern Michigan. The Defensive Player of the Week was Iowa lineman Tom Nardo, a senior from Lancaster, Pa. He logged a career-high 12 tackles in helping Iowa defeat visiting Louisiana-Monroe.