Monday, October 7, 2013

Around the Big Ten: Week 6

With only half of the conference playing football last week, the Week 6 Big Ten slate was a bit more action-packed. Five conference games took place this past weekend, including big wins for Michigan State and Ohio State on the road and Nebraska and Indiana at home. Michigan's 42-13 win doesn't qualify as "big" so much as it was one small step toward a righted ship. In any case, on to the games:

Michigan 42, Minnesota 13. There's not much use saying too much here (see the previously linked Maize n Brew recap). The game was close for a little while due to the molasses-esque pace, and then it very quickly became not so close. Fin.

Penn State 24, Indiana 44. Penn State is not exactly the Penn State of old, but that doesn't make this score any less strange to look at. The Nittany Lions entered the fourth quarter down just 21-17. Penn State missed an opportunity to get on the board early when its first drive stalled at the Indiana 26 on 4th & 5. Christian Hackenberg later hit Allen Robinson for a 46-yard touchdown to tie it at 7-all in the second quarter. Indiana added two more field goals before the half to take a 13-7 lead into the break. All in all, holding Indiana to just 13 points is a solid accomplishment, and Penn State would need a few more big strikes to Robinson to come away with a victory.

Of course, that last sentence was all theory, as it did not play out that way. Hackenberg did hit Robinson again, this time for a 26-yard score, but the Hoosiers answered back via a Tevin Coleman 44-yard run. Penn State added a field goal in the third, but, once again, the Nittany Lion defense gave again, this time on an 11-play, 75-yard IU touchdown drive.

Thus, on PSU's next offensive drive, Bill O'Brien elected to go for it on 4th & 2 from PSU's own 33. The Hackenberg attempt fell incomplete, and the Hoosiers summarily scored on its second play from there. To make matters worse, Penn State's Eugene Lewis fumbled the ensuing kickoff, allowing the Hoosiers to start from PSU's 9-yard line. Another touchdown score made it 42-17 (the Hoosiers later added a safety).

The Nittany Lions got decent production from tailback Zach Zwinak (17 carries, 72 yards), but getting into a passing contest with a freshman quarterback against Indiana is not ideal. Hackenberg threw a whopping 55 times under the circumstances, completing 30 for 340 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Had the defense (and later the special teams) not thoroughly failed Penn State, people might be talking about Hackenberg's excellent performance on the road and Allen Robinson's monster day (12 receptions, 173 yards, two touchdowns).

Indiana is not a good football team overall, but they can score against most Big Ten defenses. I'm not sure Michigan can duplicate that sort of offensive production against the Nittany Lions, who will almost certainly put up a better defensive performance this Saturday at home. On the other hand, Michigan will have to be ready to check Allen Robinson and prevent Zwinak and company from chipping away at the now Pipkins-less front seven.

Once again, it's a sign of the times that I'm worried about a game against a team that just lost to Indiana by 20.

Jump for the rest of the Big Ten slate. 

Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, this one told a familiar story. Northwestern ran with the Buckeyes all game, only to lose it in the fourth quarter. The NU defense showed its resolve early on, holding Urban Meyer's offense to a field goal on its opening drive.

The Wildcats built on that accomplishment, recovering a Braxton Miller fumble and setting up a short field for Trevor Siemian and Co. Siemian hit Kain Colter for a nine-yard score to take the lead. However, after forcing the Buckeyes to punt, disaster struck for Northwestern.

NU punter Brandon Williams, backed up in his own end zone, got his punt blocked, and Bradley Roby recovered it for a touchdown. Nonetheless, the Wildcats marched down the field on a 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a Colter 2-yard touchdown run. Several field goals later, the Wildcats held a 23-13 lead about five minutes into the third quarter.

Another Miller fumble at the NU 7 stalled what would have been a Buckeye drive ending in points; the Wildcats were riding high, with a 10-point lead and Miller coughing it up to the point that Kenny Guiton started to warm up on the sideline.

The Wildcats couldn't do much on the next drive, and offered up a short field for the Buckeyes, who scored to cut the lead to 23-20. After a Siemian interception, OSU added another score on a very short field to take the lead; at that point, NU's 10-point lead seemed like a distant memory.

The Wildcats weren't done yet. Powered by a 67-yard pass to Siemian to Rashad Lawrence, the Wildcats eventually punched it in from 12 yards out on third & goal to take the lead once again with 9:10 to go. Now, it was all about the Wildcat defense.

Mike Hankwitz' side of the ball couldn't hold, as Miller and Carlos Hyde powered the Buckeyes down the field on an 8-play-, 81-yard scoring drive.

On the ensuing drive, Northwestern drove down to the OSU 34, where they were met with a 4th & 1 and what would be the most controversial play of the game. Colter seemed to have the first down (after fumbling the snap), but the referees though otherwise; Northwestern's comeback effort fell 33 yards and an inch or two short.

The Wildcats had one more chance with 21 seconds left but zero timeouts and 84 yards to go. The final play craziness resulted in a Venric Mark fumble returned for a touchdown, making the final score look not quite as close as that game truly was.

In Northwestern's biggest game in some time, the Wildcats fell just short in the fourth quarter yet again. Nonetheless, from the Michigan perspective, this game did nothing to assuage Michigan fans' concerns about the trip to Evanston. The Wildcats took the best team in the conference and the No. 4 team in the country down to the wire; anything less than Michigan's best game will result in a Wolverine loss.

Nebraska 39, Illinois 19. I didn't catch much of this one, but this was a solid victory for the Cornhuskers, especially given the fact that backup QB Tommy Armstrong got the start.

Nebraska jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and the Illini simply never had a chance to catch up. The Illini got solid rushing production from Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young (combined 34 carries for 175 yards, good for 5.1 YPC), but it wasn't enough. Nathan Scheelhaase was just 13/26 on the day for 135 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception.

Meanwhile, Armstrong Jr. was an efficient 8/13 for 135 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. However, tailback Ameer Abdullah stole the show, rushing for 225 yards on 20 carries, good for a whopping 11.3 yard per carry.

Nebraska finished with 521 yards of total offense, while the Illini went just 4/15 on third down. As always, that is not a recipe for success on the road, at home or on the Moon.

In any case, it was a relatively encouraging performance for the Huskers defense, especially against an Illini offense that has looked fairly solid to date.

Michigan State 26, Iowa 14. With the Hawkeyes looking to build on their rout of Minnesota, the Spartans came to town with other ideas.

After a predictably scoreless first quarter, the Spartans veritably zoomed to a 10-0 lead in the second, one that seemed insurmountable in a game between these two teams (especially with last year's contest in mind).

That actually wasn't the case, as the Hawkeyes impressively put up two touchdown scores in the second to go up 14-10 into the halftime break.

However, the Hawkeyes wouldn't get on the board in the second half. A second long touchdown pass from Connor Cook gave the Spartans the lead, which they wouldn't relinquish. MSU PK Michael "The Counter" Geiger added three more field goals for good measure, giving the Spartans a comfortable 12-point victory on the road against a divisional foe.

The Spartan offense has been the butt of jokes all season, but Connor Cook gave the Spartans their best performance at quarterback since Kirk Cousins was in East Lansing. Cook went 25/44 for 277 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Cook also tossed touchdown strike of 46 and 37 yards, giving the Spartans a vertical aspect to the offense for the first time in a while.

MSU managed just 3.6 yards per carry, but defense and big plays through the air were more than enough to land the Spartans a big conference win. The Hawkeyes did even worse on the ground, managing just 1.4 yards per carry. Running at the Spartans on first down is just asking for a 2nd & 12...sound familiar?

Although many Michigan fans might scoff at the notion of the MSU offense, you have to wonder: If the Spartans put up 26 on the Wolverines in East Lansing a few weeks from now, can Michigan match that total against that defense. I'm not so sure, but there's a lot of football to be played between now and then.

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