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Big Ten week 4 in review

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This week is the last shot for the Big Ten to get a good non-conference win before the bowl season, and that is only because Notre Dame is still a "name" win. It was good enough to get Michigan State a surprising ranking. That is the coming week though, and this past week was the first week of conference play. It was a good week to be the road team as three of the six teams playing on the road went home with a win. Since it looks like most teams are going to be evenly matched this season each win is important, especially if you can steal one on the road. Ironically though the team many were saying was the best in the conference was one of the three teams that had a long bus ride home.

Penn State now faces the unenviable task of having to play catch up against Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois. At least they won't get another one of those god-awful Lou Holtz pep talks again. With Michigan they doubled their pleasure by not only getting their season back on track and announcing they would stay in the conference race, but they essentially have a two game lead for the Rose bowl berth by holding the tiebreaker over Penn State. The Nittany Lions now face no margin of error with home games still against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Purdue, but a trip to Illinois isn't as easy with the Illini running game rolling. They will drop in this week's power rankings.

1. (2) Ohio State (4-0, 1-0)

I probably would have moved the Buckeyes up to number 1 even if Penn State hadn't lost. Good criminy was that a message they sent to the rest of the league not just this week, but the past two weeks. The win in Seattle was impressive, even if only for the fact that it's always tough to play well on that long of a road trip. The home win against Northwestern was simply a demolition. Northwestern usually has at least some pop to its offense, but only 120 yards, 0 yards rushing, and the only score coming on a 99 yard kickoff return to start the second half? These guys are the front-runners now, and only we stand in their way of a 7-0 start. Even then I don't know if we can stop them.

They get Minnesota this week, and the Ohio State defense has to be licking its chops to face an offense that can't hold on to the ball so far. Minnesota has enough of an offense to get a few scores and we should have an idea of how well Purdue will perform a week later, but right now this Ohio State defense is playing at another level. It's getting to the point that if the offense can just score three touchdowns, maybe even two, it's game over.

Of course, Northwestern could just be that bad.

2. (3) Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0)

Gritty could describe that win over Iowa. With a weapon like P.J. Hill and a defense that can keep most games in the teens though you can afford to simply gut out a win over another defensive minded team. The Badgers turned the ball over three times, but had enough left in the tank to get a come from behind win in the fourth quarter. They now have a very interesting game against Michigan State that should take on a similar tone as the Spartans are playing fairly decent on defense and have a nice running game.

This attitude is going to come back to bite them eventually though, and this may be the week. Michigan State can throw the ball a little better than Iowa can, and Wisconsin has yet to have a real impressive game to live up to their ranking. Right now I just kind of feel, "meh" about the Badgers, and it is mostly because their style of play isn't real impressive. It does, however, get results.

3. (8) Michigan (2-2, 1-0)

I think the Michigan defense might have finally woken up, either that or Penn State just had a really, really bad day offensively. How can Appalachian State and Oregon run up and down the field against them, but Penn State can barely move the ball? This week's game made it just that much harder to rank the Big Ten. Because Penn State got exposed on the road, but Michigan still has those two glaring losses and a lot to prove yet. Purdue and Michigan State still have incomplete grades because they haven't played solid teams yet, and no one else measures up to the number three spot. It is a big jump, but that was a big win and much needed for the Wolverines.

The big question now is should Chad Henne start when he returns from injury? Ryan Mallett has already showed a ton of poise, but it helps that Mike hart is having a Heisman-worthy season so far. Now Michigan needs to hold serve against Northwestern and Eastern Michigan before the next real test comes against Purdue.

4. (1) Penn State (3-1, 0-1)

That was a crap game from Anthony Morelli, and it looks like he will be the Achilles heel for Penn State this year. There's no excuse for him not stepping up to the moment and not finding the end zone against a Michigan defense that has struggled early this season. The running game didn't do a whole lot either and Penn State really should be ashamed of its offense right now. It's not like Michigan blew them out, but the Nittany Lion offense did nothing all day. The defense is too good to have that crappy of an offensive performance.

Now Penn State needs to be careful, because if they were susceptible to a running game this week Illinois could cause some problems with as well as they are moving the ball on the ground. It's not like the Illini are moving the ball through the air with regularity right now. Illinois' defense hasn't been too bad either and they did a good job of shutting down a good Indiana offense this week. Of the top four, Penn State suddenly looks the shakiest.

5. (4) Purdue (4-0, 1-0)

I am very nervous for this week, because this is the type of game that Purdue always seems to lose. Many Purdue fans are riding high and expecting them to crush Notre Dame on Saturday. By all rights we should. Notre Dame can't score, and I am confident our defense will put together an entire game to keep them from having a breakout week. Our offense should feed off the home crowd, shake off a lackluster week (by our lofty standards this season) and get rolling. You get the sense though that if Notre Dame keeps it simple can run the ball for a full game like it did early against the Spartans it could be a tricky game. It shouldn't be a difficult win for Purdue, but people are saying it will be and is just one of four tough wins in a row.

And I know we are fully capable of making this a difficult game. How well Purdue plays against the Irish will say a lot. Saturday night people were in panic mode because of the second half performance of the defense and nationally people are questioning it again, but the important fact is this. When games have been close (i.e. only in the first half) the defense has been dominant and very good. Only with a big lead have they slacked, and it's not like Minnesota didn't know how to move the ball. Purdue should be able to roll over a weak Notre Dame this week, as even Irish fans are saying we should rare in a rare concession. Then the Boilers will finally have a chance to make a statement with everyone watching. Why wait a week though? Make one this week too.

6. (5) Michigan State (4-0, 0-0)

Barring a total collapse Michigan State will make a bowl game, and that marks them down as the biggest surprise of the season so far in the conference. While many teams were lining the Spartans up as a win before the season started, who really wants to play them now? That running game can control the clock and the defense is playing with a lot of confidence. They haven't really played anyone yet, and they have a big chance to show how far they have come with a visit to Wisconsin this week.

Brian Hoyer had a pretty good week and so far hasn't done anything to cost Michigan State. He really only needs to do just enough each week to keep teams from keying on the running game, and four TD's against Notre Dame was more than enough. They now get into the conference but catch a bad break by missing Minnesota and Illinois. Still, they'll get someone this year they aren't supposed to.

7. (7) Illinois (3-1, 1-0)

It's weird to say this, but the win over Indiana could be a turning point. With northwestern, Minnesota, and Ball State still on the schedule, plus enough of a defense and running game to put a scare into someone like Iowa or Penn State Illinois can seriously think about making a bowl. If Juice Williams can figure out the concept of the forward pass they will be even more dangerous. Most importantly the win over Indiana gives them priority in the bowl selection order if the teams each finish with six wins (more on that in a moment).

Rashard Mendenhall is making an argument for being the most underrated running back in the Big Ten, but Illinois will need more than just him to pull off a big upset. He already has 536 yards on the ground in four games.

8. (6) Indiana (3-1, 0-1)

Indiana needs to gain some respect back in a hurry and a win at Iowa this week would do the job. If the Hoosiers lose they may face the agony of winning six games, yet not going to a bowl game simply because there are not enough spots out there. Think about it for a moment. The Big Ten has seven guaranteed slots. Right now Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, and Penn State are obviously going to take five of them. Michigan is a good bet to take a sixth, and now Illinois with the exact same Northwestern-Minnesota-Ball State trifecta of hopeful wins to get to six is a slot ahead of them. Should Iowa win this week that puts eight teams ahead of the Hoosiers if they get those three and only three wins. Even if the Big Ten gets two teams into the BCS (unlikely) the Hoosiers would be the odd team out, hoping that another conference has an empty slot.

Obviously this is all speculation at this point, but if it happens Indiana could be forced to stay home even with six wins. Ball State's performance at Nebraska this week shows even that won't be automatic for the Hoosiers or Illini. If Indiana wants to be safe they had better get two out of their next three just to slot themselves above an Iowa or Michigan State just to be safe.

9. (9) Iowa (2-2, 0-1)

Iowa seems to be suffering from the same problem as Penn State only more pronounced. The Indiana game will be big for them because they can't afford to go to 2-3 or 0-2 in the conference with a very difficult stretch following the game against the Hoosiers. If Indiana's offense wakes up the Hawkeyes are in serious danger because they may not be able to score enough to keep up with the Hoosiers. A finishing kick against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Western Michigan is as easy as they come, but Iowa needs to at least get one of its next five to make those matter.

There is still no word on the suspensions of the Hawkeyes best two receivers, and even if they return at this point it will take some time to get back into an offense that has played four games. The Iowa-Indiana game may be one of the most to watch on Saturday, as both teams suddenly really need the game for postseason hopes.

10. (10) Minnesota (1-3, 0-1)

That Minnesota offense can do just enough that if two things happen, namely they hold on to the ball and the defense stops someone, they could be dangerous. Much like my colleague over at Gopher nation said in his wrap-up of the Purdue game though, they need to learn to be ready to play before they fall behind 24-0. The play on the blocked field goal really shows how rough of a season Goldy is having. Jamal Harris simply dropped the ball with no one anywhere near him. It wasn't even like he had to catch it or anything; he already had it and merely needed to do two things: 1. Hold on to ball, 2. don't fall down.

This season is clearly a wash as even the game against North Dakota State, who simply annihilated Central Michigan and isn't even eligible for the D-1AA postseason yet (they are transitioning from D-2), isn't looking easy. They have enough firepower though to bite someone not paying complete attention if the defense can just get them the lead early.

11. (11) Northwestern (2-2, 0-1)

Northwestern fans should take heart: the Ohio State loss still only counts as one in the standings. They still have Eastern Michigan as a likely win on the schedule, and if Tyrell Sutton can come back to give the offense a little more pop they might, might be able to snag three wins in the conference to get to a bowl game. My best advice is to simply throw out the tape from this week and start over. Northwestern needs to set its sights on Eastern Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana as wins if they want to salvage a bowl this year, but those are all no guarantees.