I was going to be a rogue of a college football writer this week. There is a certain event that everyone is talking about and we journalists are legally bound to address first. It is a game that was circled on a lot of calendars before the season even began. I wanted to rage against the machine and save it for last, but burly men came to my door when they discovered my plan (they must be able to read my thoughts or something. They are that powerful.) So, in accordance to their wishes, I will address this week's epic matchup that everyone has been waiting for since the end of September. I figure everyone wants to hear about it, so I might as well address this first.
Illinois (2-9, 1-6) at Northwestern (3-8, 1-6) - On the shores of Lake Michigan two epic powers will collide Saturday afternoon at 1pm as the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois take on the Wildcats of Northwestern University for the Tomahawk traveling trophy. Really, these two play for more than the right to be called the best Division 1-A football team in the state of Illinois. I would say in all of division 1, but there are some pretty good 1-AA teams (Southern Illinois?) in the state of Illinois and if there were more than two 1-A teams they would automatically be better than these two.
They do play for a trophy though. It's about as well known as the Cannon, which Illinois played for last week, but it is still a trophy game. I did some research on the University of Illinois website and the Northwestern website. Listed here, the Illini also play Ohio State for a wooden turtle called the Illibuck. That means that this is Illinois chance to end the season not only on a seven game losing streak, but they get to lose three straight trophy games. Way to build momentum going into next year, Zooker!
As far as I can tell, this is Northwestern's only trophy game. They only talk about the Tomahawk as a trophy game on their website, but it the 100th overall meeting between the two. It's funny that this is only really being promoted by Northwestern. Illinois leads the all-time series 51-43-5. Maybe Northwestern became disappointed that they were the Big Ten's doormat for years and simply forgot about any other trophy games because they never saw them anyway.
I don't have any further in depth analysis about this game, and I don't think it really needs it. It's a couple of bad teams playing in a windy stadium next to a large body of water in Chicago at the end of November. You're either a die-hard fan of these two teams or you have absolutely nothing better to do if you're watching them. Hopefully this fulfills my legal obligation as a Big Ten writer to say something about this game.
PREDICTION: Illinois 21, Northwestern 14 – It's going to be a long winter for both teams regardless. If Northwestern had just held on against Michigan State and beaten their 1-AA team at home, they would actually have been playing to go to a bowl in this game.
Okay, now that that is out of the way, we can talk about bigger and better things this week. Every other game involving Big Ten teams, except for Buffalo (2-8) at Wisconsin (10-1), have bowl implications or better. If possible the Buffalo-Wisconsin game is an even worse game to preview than the Northwestern-Illinois game. At least the game in Evanston will likely be competitive. I'm not going to say anything else about Wisconsin and Buffalo except that the Badgers will get plenty of chance to play backups before the bowl game. Wisconsin 52, Buffalo 3.
Everywhere we have a slate of very competitive games topped off by the Ohio State-Michigan game that I am bound to qualify as 'epic.' We also have our battle of the Old Oaken Bucket. I'll get to my preview of the actual game here in a moment, but let's get to the rest of the Big Ten games first.
Michigan State (4-7, 1-6) at Penn State (7-4, 4-3) – What on earth does Michigan State have to play for? It certainly cannot be pride, as they lost that in the second half of the Notre Dame game. They don't have a bowl to play for, and their senior class has to be one of the most underachieving senior classes ever. Drew Stanton has one last chance to do something with his career, which probably means he won't do anything. In each game this year he has been built up as having 'one last chance' to do something big, be it knock off Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, get his team to a bowl game, go to class and graduate, finish dinner first, etc. Stanton will likely get to lead them into the locker room this week, as he most likely will be out with a concussion.
Still, we need Michigan State to find something to play for, even if it is to spite John L. Smith, to have a hope of getting to the Outback Bowl in Tampa. It is still not likely going to happen, but our only real shot is if the Spartans can pull the upset.
It's not going to be easy when there will be 100,000+ rowdy Penn State fans supporting JoePa as he returns to coaching after his injury two weeks ago. Penn State finally got moving offensively last week against Temple, and Michigan State's defense has played at about Temple's level in every game except against us. Even then, we left a lot of points on the field. A quarterback making his first start can't ask for a much worse venue to get that first start in than Happy Valley.
PREDICTION: Penn State 32, Michigan State 20 – Michigan State's season is finally, mercifully put to an end, while the Nittany Lions clinch a spot in Tampa. This game is actually a pseudo-rivalry game for the Land Grant trophy. I think it was made up in an attempt for Penn State to feel more welcome in the Big Ten, but it is still a trophy game.
Iowa (6-5, 2-5) at Minnesota (5-6, 2-5) – As Purdue fans we need to watch this game to figure out where we may go bowling. As I said earlier this week, an Iowa loss almost assuredly sends us to Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl regardless of what we do against Indiana. Iowa has played so poorly of late it may not matter what happens in either game. Still, I don't like their chances here.
Minnesota has come alive of late, and they are making a nice little push to get to a bowl game. They whipped Indiana, who handled Iowa to start this downward spiral. The Gophers finally abandoned the ground game that wasn't working like it traditionally has for them, and they have found a pretty potent passing attack in return. They haven't beaten Iowa since 2000, and they have to remember what happened in 2002 when Iowa clinched the Big Ten championship in Minneapolis. The Iowa fans somehow managed to get on the field at the Metrodome and tear down the goal posts. That's pretty sad when the opposing team does that, and I know I would be offended.
This game is also for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy, which is basically a giant pig. That's right. Minnesota plays for a jug, an axe, and a pig. So do they get liquored up with some 'shine from the jug and slaughter pigs? At least we play for a bucket, a cannon, and a stick. Iowa has been the most disappointing team in the conference short of us last year, and I feel really bad for hyping them all season. Unless they pull it together in a real hurry, they are in trouble.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 30, Iowa 28 – Minnesota wins on a late field goal to take home the pig. Would you pick a team that has already lost to Indiana and Northwestern this year? I didn't think so. At least if Minnesota wins we'll have beaten a bowl team this year.
Indiana (5-6, 3-4) at Purdue (7-4, 4-3) – Many people have knocked our schedule this year as being weak. A number of those people have been IU fans. One thread on the Purdue message boards said that had we played Michigan and Ohio State this year we would be just like them, barely hanging on to qualify for a bowl game. Well, they have no right to bitch because if they had taken care of business against the teams they were supposed to beat they would already be in a bowl game.
If you look at the schedule, we have played six games we all thought we should win coming into the season no matter what. Outside of the Miami game, we have won all six rather easily. Even taking into account what has happened with Iowa and Michigan State falling apart, we're 1-1, and Iowa played a fantastic game against us. So we have done our jobs.
Indiana, however, has not. They were given a very weak non-conference schedule. Yes, it is probably strong than ours, but still not exactly a murderer's row. They beat what may have been the best team in that stretch, Western Michigan, rather handily. They then barely survived against Ball State by a point because of some bad kicking, and lost to a 1-AA team and a beatable Connecticut team. I'll give them Illinois, as well as Michigan State and even Iowa since the good Iowa went home after we played them, but Minnesota was still a winnable game and they got drilled. That makes Indiana 5-3 in "business" games. 5-3 versus our 7-1, and they are talking shit.
I feel we match up very well against Indiana. We torched them last year with our option game, and that is what we need to do to set the tone against them. We have a history of running backs throwing up career games against them (Mike Alstott, Brandon Jones, Montrell Lowe), and Kory Sheets did just that last year against them. Once their defense tries to creep up to stop the run, we'll just throw deep to Orton, Keller, Lymon, or Bryant. If we continue to employ a two back shotgun set, we should be able to roll against them.
We'll have to limit our drops again, as they were almost our undoing last week. If we're catching the ball we should be able to do what we want, when we want on offense. Defensively I expect Anthony Spencer to be all over the place. IU fans are making Randle El comparisons to Kellen Lewis, but he has still shown he can't do much when playing from behind. If you take a look at their message board he's the second coming of Christ, and we don't have a prayer because or 7-4 record is overinflated. At least we can take care of business.
We will need to worry about James Hardy, and that is about it. The Indiana running game is an afterthought outside of Lewis scrambling out the pocket. He'll have plenty of that all day running away from Spencer. They are a one dimensional team with one receiver, and we're supposed to fear them?
The best part is that their fans are excited. They feel like they have a shot this year. I am happy to say my wife and I will be watching from the Shivley Stadium Club thanks to my dad's business, and I hope that whoever bought my season tickets for $125 is an IU fan that leaves at halftime because they are getting destroyed.
This is a matchup nightmare for Indiana. They have won four times in the last five years on the road, and of those only Oregon could be concerned a good win. Ball State, Central Michigan, and Illinois don't exactly inspire fear in opponents. Even when you look at those four wins, only one was in the Big Ten. That's one conference road win in five seasons, against the worst team in the conference during that span. And they are saying we have an inflated schedule?
They cannot run the ball, they can't defend the pass, and they can barely defend the run, and we are supposed to fear them? There are four reasons I don't think Indiana has a chance on Saturday. 56-7, 41-13, 34-10, and 63-20. Those are the scores the last four times Indiana has come up to West Lafayette. They won't win unless they hold us under 34 points.
PREDICTION: Purdue 45, Indiana 28 - It will be a closer game than in the past, as Indiana is improving as a team. They are too inconsistent and just don't play well on the road. If we come out and get up a few scores early it will be over. This could be dangerous, but we're due for a complete game and what better time than now.
Michigan (11-0, 7-0) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) – This is the big one. I know this game is getting covered ad nauseum this week, so there's not much else I can say about it. If you go over to ESPN.com you can see the coverage from every angle short of dorm room cams for every single player and back-up punter. After going to college, I don't know if I want to see what goes on in said dorm rooms.
Ohio State has a killer offense, while Michigan has a great defense. There are the national title implications; of course they may play again for the title anyway. Why not just have Ohio State play Wisconsin for their 8th conference game and have Michigan take on Illinois, then let them meat in the national title game. The only team that has a right to play them right now is Rutgers, and even they may not make it to the end unbeaten.
My question is this. If they have a rematch in the title game, and the loser of the regular season game wins, then what happens? Do we split the title? Do we make them play yet again? Asking for a rematch could be the worst thing to happen, especially if said Rutgers team finishes undefeated, gets shut out of the game, and goes on to win their BCS bowl.
I don't know what is going to happen in this game. It likely is going to be a close game, and that is not good for Wisconsin's tiny BCS bowl hopes. I am going to stand by my pick of Ohio State in a close one though based on home field advantage. If I were a Michigan fan I don't even know if I would want to go to the game this weekend after seeing video from the 2002 game on YouTube. The scenes from the street were like scenes from Beirut, and after going to the 2003 Purdue game in Columbus I know the Ohio State fans are among the rudest in the country.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 21, Michigan 20 – This is too close to call. Hopefully I'll be watching this game in Harry's with a celebration Long Island in hand.
National games: I know I have already gone really long, but I'll make my traditional two national picks in quickie fashion. USC 38, Cal 17, as the Golden Bears are becoming the Michigan State of the Pac-10. Wake Forest 24, Virginia Tech 20 – The Deacons are on a roll. Who can stop them?
NEXT UP: We add a link to the bucket and prepare to take it to the islands. My reactions posted Saturday night as I pack to head to Honolulu.