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2007 Schedule Preview (Beware the ides of October)

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As I said in my previous couple of entries, I am very nervous heading into next season. To me, there are more questions surrounding next season than there were coming into this season. Most of that stems from the fact that many of this year’s questions were never answered. I would like to say the defense was appreciably better at the end of the season, and it certainly showed signed against Wisconsin and Penn State. We still gave up a ton of yards against Indiana and Illinois. We also didn’t even come close to slowing down the best offense in the country in Hawaii, when the very next week an Oregon State team that is comparable in terms of talent, prestige, and recruiting ability came in and slowed them down enough to get the win.

Painter had a solid season, but turnovers were still a problem. We didn’t seem to fumble much, but some of the interceptions that Painter threw were downright awful throws. Still, with even a modest bowl performance Painter will go over 4,000 yards passing and break Drew Brees’ school and Big Ten single season passing record. Yes he had an extra game to do it (Brees played 13 games in 1998), but it is still an impressive record.

The kicking game will still be a question next year, where at the very least Summers will have to win the job again over Tim Daugherty. At least we have found a punter in Jared Armstrong. In an interesting note about special teams, we actually are currently ranked 3rd in the nation out of 119 teams in terms of kick return defense. We trail only Air Force and Ohio in this, giving up just 15 yards per kickoff return. When I think of that it makes sense because the biggest return we gave up came against Illinois when Summers had to make a tackle around the 45. People say he kicks it short when it comes down on the 20, but the coaches ask him to do that by design. If the returner is fielding a high kick at the 20 with the coverage there by the time he gets the ball, its easier to stop than if he had a 20 yard running head start from the goal line with the coverage set up. Considering we faced some very good returners in Miami (OH)’s Ryne Robinson and Indiana’s Marcus Thigpen and never gave up a big one that’s a good sign. Maybe we need to kickoff every defensive play.

Those are the biggest questions we faced this season, and most of them are still lingering going into next year. And next year our schedule take a major step up in weight class. Let’s face it: We blew it the last two years with the easy schedules we had. Now it is up to us to improve while playing tougher competition, and it begins right off the bat.

Sept. 1 at Toledo – This will be our first game against the Rockets since they began the Tiller Era with a 36-22 loss in 1997. We should get used to seeing them too because according to nationalchamps.net they are on the schedule for three of the next four years. The Rockets had a down season this year finishing only 5-7, but they were dangerous. They lost a 3OT game at Iowa State to start the season and beat Kansas at Toledo in two overtimes. They also went 9-3 with a bowl win in 2005 and they are almost always at the top of the MAC. There is the possibility we’ll get them on a downturn like we did Miami (OH) this year, but what are the chances?

I never like playing a MAC school at their place, and this is the first time we have done it in 10 years. This will be Toledo’s season next year, but at least they have another BCS home game with Iowa State coming to town. They also have to overcome the disappointment of finishing 5-7 last year when they were expected to contend for the MAC title.

Fortunately, we will go into next year with the tag of being ‘experienced,’ something we must be expected to pick up at Wal-Mart in the off-season. This year we fared very well on the road against teams we had superior talent against, going 3-0 against such teams that we were probably better than. We need to have an attitude of taking care of business in this one, and setting the tone early. Minnesota began 2006 with a 45-0 shutout at Kent State, and we need to have that type of dominating performance. This game is still very dangerous though, and I don’t like it to start things off. PREDICTION: Close win

Sept. 8 vs. Eastern Illinois – The Panthers boast a couple of head coaches in the NFL and qualified as one of 16 teams in the 1-AA playoffs this past season, losing to Illinois State in round 1 24-13.

I don’t care.

It’s the home opener and they are a 1-AA team. While they are a step up from Indiana State, they still got blasted by Illinois 42-17 this year. There’s no excuse, period, for losing to a 1-AA team unless you are another 1-AA team.

If we lose this game I am giving up my season tickets and not going to a game the rest of the year. PREDICTION: Resounding win

Sept. 15 vs. Central Michigan – Another dangerous MAC team, and the defending MAC champions. The Chips play both Indiana and us next year, and they have a real shot to win both games. Hopefully we will be 2-0 coming into the game, and we should be if we’re going to be as good as some expect. I like that this is not the first game, so it eliminates the first game letdown like we had against Bowling Green in 2003.

We have a major advantage in that his game is at home, but we’ve proven in the past we’re not invincible at home against non-Big ten, non-Notre Dames teams (see Bowling Green 2003, Wake Forest 2002). The Chips are punchy enough to come in and pull off the upset too.
This should be a great test for us before the schedule gets serious. The Toledo-Central Michigan combo is much stronger than the Ball State-Miami combo from this season, and I look forward to getting tested but still winning convincingly in a game like this one. Central Michigan has played some BCS teams like Indiana and Boston College tough of late, but they have yet to break through. If we take the game seriously, we should still win easily. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win

Sept. 22 at Minnesota – This is where the 2005 season started to go into the tank, and we need a win in this game in order to avoid the same thing in 2007. Still, this is a team we beat this season and they will be breaking in a quarterback that will be seeing his first Big Ten action. I like starting the Big Ten season, as we often do, against the Gophers, because it makes for a very winnable game.

This is everything you can ask for in a Big Ten road opener. It’s a decent team, but one we can still beat. They will have experience, but not an overwhelming amount. There isn’t a whole lot expected of them year in and year out, and 2007 looks to be the same. They finished this year on a strong note, but they face a daunting challenge in their bowl game. This will once again be out toughest challenge in an opening four game set, setting things up for our most difficult stretch of the season. The Metrodome is also not an overly daunting venue, and has been a place where we have had a lot of success lately. Along with Indiana and Michigan State, Minnesota has only beaten us once under Tiller, and we can generally consider them a win.

This will be a statement game to see if we haven’t fallen further back in the pack. It won’t prove we belong at the top, but it will certainly prove that we belong in the middle. This will be our easiest road game in the conference, and maybe the easiest road game on the schedule because of the challenge that Toledo is sure to bring. If there is going to be a modicum of success next year, this game is a must win again. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win.

Sept. 29 vs. Notre Dame – This needs to be a must win if we hope to continue being competitive against Notre Dame. The pundits are already predicting a top 15 ranking for the Irish next year, but they simply have to replace WAY too much offensively to merit that high of a ranking. With the talent they have coming in the Irish could be very good in a few years, but they still haven’t beaten a good team under Charlie Weis outside of Georgia Tech this year. Losing what they lose, they are bound to take a step back as the incoming starters take their lumps.

We get the Irish back at home, and I know we’ll be looking to erase the memories of the horrible 2005 game. Since Tiller became coach that is the only time we haven’t even been competitive against Notre Dame at home. Look for the atmosphere around this game to be huge, as we should be 4-0 again at the time and will feel the pressure of our first big home game in a few years. This is our first chance to truly make some national noise since the Fumble, and we can’t pass it up.

I am calling this one as the biggest game of the season. If we win it, we have a chance at a really good year and maybe an outside shot as a BCS bowl if things fall right. A loss means another trip to a mid-tier bowl. PREDICTION: close win

Oct. 6 vs. Ohio State – I can’t say too much about this game right now because of the ambiguity of the Buckeye offense next season. Right now they have four juniors who aren’t sure if they will return to campus. If all four go, our chances suddenly get a whole lot better. Their defense should return in tact, but they didn’t have to stop many good offenses this year. They will be better, but Michigan still scored plenty of points against them. It will be interesting to see what they do in the title game.

We have played Ohio State very well in Ross-Ade recently. So well that we own a pair of wins and a four point, final two minute loss in their last three trips. That’s more than many teams in the conference can say about their history. Of the big two, we have played the Buckeyes the best, and that gives us a real chance.

This is forecasting 10 months in advance though, and hundreds of things could change in the five games leading up to this one. If we come out of this game 6-0, or even 5-1 with the loss being to Notre Dame, we might seriously talk about a Big ten championship. No win against Ohio State is automatic though, and I don’t see us beating them until I am proven wrong. This is our best chance to get a win again the top of the league. PREDICTION: close loss

Oct. 13 at Michigan – this game is the day after my birthday, and no matter how good we end up being next year, I don’t see us winning this. Michigan has way too much coming back, especially if Mike Hart decides to return. We never play well at Michigan, and haven’t won there in 40 years. While we seem to match up favorably with Ohio State for some reason, we always seem to match up poorly with the Wolverines.

It will take an absolutely perfect game for us to win this one, and even then I don’t know if it will be enough. Our best-case scenario for winning the Big Ten is to win the other seven games, and hope Wisconsin gets a loss AND beats Michigan. Even then we would lose the tiebreaker head-to-head.

The offense will give us a puncher’s chance, but only if they are perfect. The defense will need to play out of its mind and get a few turnovers in order to keep hope of an upset alive. If we can get a lead early and hang on to it we might get this one. If we fall behind though, you can probably forget it. PREDICTION: 10-20 point loss

Oct. 20 vs. Iowa – I just don’t think Iowa is going to be that good next year, and this will be a necessary bounce back game at home after three straight brutally tough games. Not much will be expected of Iowa next year, and it will be a good year to get them at home as they attempt to rebuild. Again, we’re facing a new quarterback, our fourth in five weeks at this point, and we really need to take advantage of that with the veteran team we have.

This will be another game to prove we’re above the middle of the pack, and with the way the Hawkeyes finished this year I don’t see us dropping this game unless things fall apart. By this point we should know exactly what kind of team we have, and we’ll be through the meat of our schedule. There’s a decent chance we’ll be sitting at 6-1 as well, with the chance for a January bowl game if we can merely hold serve from this point on. When this is potentially our third-toughest home game, we need to win it. PREDICTION: 7-10 point win.

Oct. 27 vs. Northwestern – They will be better, as they closed 2006 very well, but we still should handle the Wildcats with ease if we’re any kind of a good team. This is the type of game that a good Purdue team at home will have no trouble winning, as I am not sure they will be better than Central Michigan next year. Only a letdown could give us trouble. If we had little trouble beating them this year, next year should be no different.

We need to keep the trend of winning the games we should. This is a game we should win. PREDICTION: 14-20 point win

Nov. 3 at Penn State – This is a very, very tough game late in the year, and we could still be in the hunt for the Big Ten title at this point. Penn State could also have a lot to play for, and that is why I am strongly considering this as my road trip next year. Of all the mega-venues we’ve played in, Penn State is the only one where we have walked away with a win in recent history. Penn State will be good, but not overly good and we can win this game.

Being so deep into a season of unknowns, this game is the hardest to call, but I am leaning toward a loss. Even if we are playing well at this point in the season we have a history of mental let downs on the road late in the season (see Michigan State 2000). If the Nittany Lions still have something to play for, we could be in serious trouble. They will need more offensive consistency though. PREDICTION: close loss

Nov. 10 vs. Michigan State – The short and sweet preview here. They will likely be the worst team in the conference next year as they will be breaking in a new coach and new players at several positions. Mark Dantonio is a defensive-minded coach, and getting them late in the year is worse than getting them early in the year. Still, they will likely be a very bad team next year, and the worst team we face at home outside of Eastern Illinois.

We also have not lost since 2001 in our final home game of the year, and I don’t see that happening in 2007 no matter how the season turns out. I fully expect next year’s seniors to leave Ross-Ade for the final five as the previous five groups have. PREDICTION: 14-20 point win

Nov. 17 at Indiana – And now we come to the Hoosiers. Kudos for the basketball team accomplishing what the football team couldn’t do, and that is beat Southern Illinois. What’s even more impressive is that it was probably a more difficult win for the basketball team to pull off.

We will get Indiana’s best shot in years next year, and we need to be ready. They could be primed for their first bowl in a long time, and they would love to get the bucket back for it. We should already be bowl eligible, with an outside chance of playing for a very nice payday coming into this game. The Big ten is going to be very mediocre next year behind the top two or three teams. With Indiana missing Michigan and Ohio State, they very well could have a whole lot to play for in this game if things go right. It would take an awful lot of breaks, but say they somehow split with Penn State and Wisconsin, while beating the rest of a conference that isn’t that good. That puts them at 6-1 in the conference coming into this game.

Now we all know that likely won’t happen and I am not saying it will. I am just saying that there’s a chance, however small, that it could. I fully expect Indiana to go to some bowl game next year, because if they can’t make it next year they never will. That would make for the best bucket game we have seen in some time, and certainly erase the memories of this year’s sloppy affair.

Still, it is our bucket, and they need to prove to me they can beat us and take it from us. They’ve lost five straight, and couldn’t even do it this year in a game where we had terrible quarterback play and they had the motivation of a rare bowl bid. It is ours until you take it from us. PREDICTION: close win.

So that is my call for next year at 9-3. It’s not an overwhelmingly good year, as it’s 5-3 in the Big Ten, but it would be a big step in the right direction. We need to get back to beating some good teams next year, and the schedule affords that. It has to be a priority to take at least one of the four games against Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan. If we finish 8-4 while losing those four we have accomplished nothing and it will be exactly like this year.

NEXT UP: A look at the Terps and our bowl preview.