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Week 4 Preview (Man up, Dawg!)

It’s conference time. Most of the teams in the Big Ten have salted away enough non-conference wins that they can now realistic look at the conference slate and say, "Hey, we’ve got a bowl game locked up with just these games." While I doubt we’ll have another year like a few years ago when Wisconsin went 2-6 in the Big Ten and still qualified for a bowl thanks to a spotless out of conference record, it is conceivable with the new 12 game schedule to get eight and even nine teams bowl eligible now. The Big Ten did send eight a few years ago when only Illinois, Indiana, and Penn State stayed home for the holidays in 2003. If teams continue to schedule cupcakes (and not get bitten by them, will we eventually have year where nine and maybe even 10 teams go bowling? If Indiana and Northwestern had not already choked against 1-AA foes and assuming they would have already come out of this Saturday with a win, this could have been that year.

As it stands now, six teams are already halfway to bowl eligibility and still haven’t stepped on the field in conference play yet. Most of those, like Michigan (Ball State), Wisconsin (Buffalo), and Ohio State (Bowling Green) still have a relatively easy non-conference game left to fatten up on as well. Iowa still has Northern Illinois who may post a challenge, but the Hawkeyes will still likely win in Iowa City. Considering everyone but Michigan and Minnesota don’t play a horrible Illinois team means another win for everyone else. With the remaining schedules of the 3-0 teams, only Purdue looks the shakiest to get to bowl eligibility. Thanks to a 13th game in ending the season at Hawaii, the Boilermakers must get to seven wins.

As I have mentioned before, this is a critical weekend for the Boilermakers. They haven’t exactly been impressive in beating teams that are a combined 1-8, but they have gotten he job and with a team this young, that is really all you can ask. They have improved each week and they are ready for a crack at a Big Ten team. Since Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana lie later on the schedule, and the Boilers have likely already passed them anyway, there is only one team they can perfectly match up against right now, and that team happens to be the one coming into Ross-Ade Stadium for homecoming in two days: Minnesota.

Before I get to that game though, I wanted to finish my thought on the bowls. This year, the Big Ten once again has seven spots to fill. If things break like they did in 2003, when Ohio State and Michigan both grabbed BCS bids, the potential is there to get eight teams in like that season. That year, Northwestern snuck into the last spot at 6-6, beating out several other more deserving teams because of that Motor City bowl contract.

Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State (by virtue of games left against Illinois, IU, and Northwestern) and Wisconsin can probably safely assume they will be making trips to the postseason to take the first five slots. Penn State has Temple remaining, and I can easily see them getting three more wins in conference to be #6. Illinois has too much ground to make up, needing to go 4-4 and get a win over Ohio to qualify, which likely won’t happen. That leaves Purdue, Minnesota (likely win left over North Dakota State), Indiana, and Northwestern needing to go either 3-5 or 4-4 in conference to qualify for a spot. So when we look at that, and seeing that Indiana and Northwestern are likely underdogs this weekend in non-conference action, as well as for the rest of the year, this weekend’s Minnesota-Purdue is huge for both teams. Before we get to that though, let’s look around the rest of the conference.
Northwestern (2-1) at Nevada (1-2) – Northwestern has not looked very good so far this year. They barely snuck past a bad Eastern Michigan team, lost to a 1-AA team, and won on the road against a Miami (OH) team that seems to play better on the road. To entertain any hopes of a bowl game, made tougher when the Wildcats don’t face Indiana or Minnesota who are considerably closer in weight class, they have to win this game.
Going on the road out west is always tough for Big Ten teams, however. The fact this is also on a Friday night, getting them even more out of their normal rhythm could become a factor for the Wildcats as well. Nevada plays well at home too, having won six straight in Reno, and just knocked off an unbeaten Colorado State team. The losses have been to Fresno State and Arizona State on the road, so they aren’t bad losses by any means. Combine that with an unorthodox pistol offense, and the Wildcats could be in trouble.

PREDICTION: Nevada 24, Northwestern 10 – Northwestern has yet to do much offensively, and that doesn’t bode well for a long road trip. This one just feels like it could get out of hand.

Iowa (3-0) at Illinois (1-2) – Iowa goes to Syracuse and struggles without Drew Tate, winning only in double OT thanks to a great defensive stand against a Syracuse team that had not won in a year. The same Orange team then goes to Illinois and easily handled the Illini in last week’s CRIPPLE FIGHT! special. Drew Tate is back this week, and Iowa is light years better with him than without him.
It’s not like Memorial Stadium is intimidating as a road venue either. I am more scared of the cramped corridors and dim, dingy restrooms than of the Illini football team. If this game was being played at halftime in said corridors, there’s no way Iowa could move the ball amidst the trapped masses. Unfortunately for Illinois, this game gets to be played in the wide open spaces of the field.
PREDICTION: Iowa 49, Illinois 3 – I am sure the Illini will manage a sympathy drive for a score or two, but this game may be one of the largest mismatches of the Big Ten season.

Minnesota (2-1) at Purdue (3-0) – In my opinion this will be the most exciting game of the week. I don’t know what we can take from the fact that Minnesota smoked a Kent State team that went in and beat Miami (OH) 44-0, but the Gophers weren’t seriously challenged in that game. Were they just hot at the right time? Who knows? With a bye week against Temple last week, the Gophers have only been truly tested once in a 42-17 road loss at California. Again, Big Ten teams playing on the west coast never do well.
As previously stated, my Boilers haven’t set the world on fire either, but they appeared to have turned the corner last week. The National media only saw the final score and yardage and assumed Purdue had to struggle again to be another sub-par opponent. What they don’t see, however, is that the game was 38-13 with less than 10 minutes to go. The Boilers let off the throttle and gave up two long drives for 15 points to cosmetically make things better. A turnover and two costly penalties also led to Ball State’s 10 first half points, and once again the defense stiffened when it mattered most with a goal line interception in the second quarter. With an offense like Purdue’s if the defense can just give up field goal drives as opposed to touchdown drives it will be in a lot of games.
As usual, Minnesota will be running the football, but do not underestimate Bryan Cupito. Drew Brees’ Big Ten records are safe from the senior, but he’s a game-manager who can control the tempo. If he is on and can get the ball to his receivers Minnesota will be in it all day. This game has to the potential to be an epic shootout like the record-setting 59-56 Gopher win in Minneapolis in 1993.
I like the way Purdue is improving right now, and I get the sense that we’ve been holding back on a lot of defensive schemes just for this game. There is also the motivation last year. Purdue’s double-OT loss in Minneapolis started the downward spiral last season, as the Boilers had an eight point lead very late only to give up a tying TD drive and 2-point conversion, as well as a 7-point lead on 4th and goal in the first overtime that would have won the game with one play. GBI talked about Purdue felt lucky to be in last year’s game, but it is crap. Minnesota was lucky to win it as Purdue had the game and threw it away, plain and simple.
This is a tough one to call, and ultimately it will come down to turnovers. If Curtis Painter can take care of the football this week, Purdue has an excellent shot. He was cash money in the second and third quarters last week, but can he do it for a full game?
PREDICTION: Purdue 45, Minnesota 42 – It will be a shootout, but I think Purdue turned a corner last week. They know this is close to a must win. A win puts us 4-0 and likely headed somewhere in December, which is a plus, a loss and you’re likely looking at a critical Northwestern game with a 3-3 record in three weeks. A young defense will feed of the home crowd and do just enough.

Wisconsin (3-0) at Michigan (3-0) – Both teams are 3-0, but a very different 3-0. Michigan was dominant over a team that I thought it would struggle mightily against last week. Is Michigan really that good, or is Notre Dame as overrated as many thought? The jury is still out there. Wisconsin will look at this game as a chance to prove it belongs at the big boy table this year. With no Ohio State on the schedule for the Badgers, a win could mean serious thoughts of a Big Ten title.
Seriously though, the Badgers have been just as underwhelming as anyone outside of Columbus or Ann Arbor so far. It’s starting look like there is a big gap between the top two and everyone else that only Iowa may be able to leap. Are the Badgers merely the best of the rest, contended to dogfight everyone else for 3rd or 4th place? We’ll know after this game.
PREDICTION: Michigan 28, Wisconsin 17 – It will be methodical, but the Wolverines get the job done at home. There will be some let down from last week, but not enough.

Connecticut (1-1) at Indiana (2-1) – As mentioned previously this week, I am no longer taking the same old, sorry-assed Hoosiers seriously until they give me reason to do so. They have another shot next week with Hoeppner coming back for the Big Ten opener, but if they get this game and two Big Ten wins they will have to be kicking themselves for getting pushed around by Southern Illinois.
Seriously, how can you get out-rushed 244 to 76 by a 1-AA team? Does IU have Special Olympians for running backs? This just boggles my mind that a Big Ten team (arguably) cannot run against a 1-AA team. And don’t give me this 85-scholarship limit crap. The bad teams under DiNardo and Cameron would still have won going away this past Saturday. It just so happens that Connecticut specializes in running the ball.
PREDICTION: UConn 32, Indiana 20 – With D.J. White not coming back Kelvin Sampson’s team will struggle… Oh wait, this isn’t a marquee basketball match up. Although apparently if Uwe Blab suited up for this year’s football team he could simply fall down for more yards than the any current same old, sorry-assed Hoosier running back can gain.

Penn State (2-1) at Ohio State (3-0) – Ohio State took a half off last week and still won easily over Cincinnati, while Penn State got fat against Youngstown State. Honestly though, the Nittany Lion offensive attack has been way too erratic to pose a serious threat, especially since this game is in Columbus.
Penn State’s defense hasn’t done too much yet, as it needs to clone Paul Posluszny in order to be good enough to stop Ohio State’s offense. The Lions may hang around in this one, but Ohio State is fast becoming a scary good team, while Penn State hasn’t been that impressive yet. Much like the Wisconsin-Michigan game, this one will be big to see how well the top two can be tested this year.
PREDICTION: Ohio state 35, Penn State 14 – Again, much like the Michigan-Wisconsin game, Ohio State will go out and simply get the job done, no more, no less. It has Iowa to look forward to next week.

Notre Dame (2-1) at Michigan State (3-0) – This game should be just as entertaining as the Purdue-Minnesota game, only with much more at stake. Michigan State has already essentially punched a bowl ticket, but they can lock it up even more with a win and prove that they want to be a big boy this year too. Notre Dame is reeling after the whipping it took, and with a loss this week, the national title dream will be delightfully over even for the most deluded of fans.
Brady Quinn played like the real Brady Quinn last week, as any time he faces a real, live defense he struggles. Michigan State’s pass defense isn’t that great, and for some reason, the Spartans play a lot better in South Bend than at home against the Irish. Also, curiously enough, Charlie Weis is still unbeaten on the road for the Irish. This game will say a lot about both teams, and the real question is: Is it time for Michigan State’s annual meltdown?
PREDICTION: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 30 – I want to pick the Spartans at home, I really do, but I just can’t. I’m not all that convinced yet and I think Notre Dame has the better overall team.

NATIONAL GAMES OF THE WEEK: There’s not a whole lot that is blowing my skirt up as far as national games this week, but if I had to pick two one would be Arizona State at Cal. I’m not totally sold on the golden bears yet, and this could be a statement game for the Sun Devils in the Pac-10 race. Arizona State 31, Cal 27.
My second national game would be Hawaii at Boise State. Our season ending game at Hawaii is far from a slam-dunk as it feature a crazy passing attack that will keep them in every game. The Warriors hung tough at Alabama a few weeks ago and could surprise on the blue turf of Boise. Hawaii 35, Boise State 32
NEXT UP:
Homecoming reactions on Saturday night.