Tate: Big Ten misery makes this a fall to forget
Woe is us.
Saturday’s opening of the 117th Big Ten football campaign has never seen the conference wallowing in such disarray and drawing such disrespect.
We live in Rodney Dangerfield’s world.
Nobody is happy. The Associated Press poll shows Michigan has dropped from No. 8 to unranked, Wisconsin from 12 to unranked, Michigan State from 13 to 20 and Nebraska from 17 to 22. Northwestern and Minnesota are undefeated, but the polls won’t recognize them. Ohio State is also 4-0 and No. 14 with AP, but it is unrecognized by the coaches’ poll and ineligible for postseason play. Penn State is ... well, you know the story.
What a great year for Illinois to have a good team! More on that later. For now, we turn to SportsCenter’s Trevor Matich and Todd McShay for an explanation of what’s happening to a beleaguered conference. They point to: (1) coaching turnover that shows just Northwestern and Purdue with the same head coaches and both coordinators for the last two years, (2) Midwest population stagnation while Florida grew by 18 percent and (3) lack of Big Ten offensive skill players with no quarterbacks and only two other skilled players drafted in the top two rounds the last two years.
Look at Michigan and Michigan State. Both programs are heavily reliant on athletes, fans and donors from Detroit, now known as the vanishing city by the lakeside. Detroit population peaked near 2 million, and it’s now at 714,000, smaller than Jacksonville, Fla.
Don’t try to pick Saturday’s winners.
Minnesota at Iowa: The Gophers are overachieving under Jerry Kill, but without senior QB MarQueis Gray they’re one-TD underdogs against a Hawkeye team that barely edged Northern Illinois 18-17 and lost to Iowa State 9-6 and Central Michigan 32-31. Floyd of Rosedale can barely hide his embarrassment.
Ohio State at Michigan State: With the 20-3 loss to Notre Dame still grinding his gears, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio was so upset after Saturday’s 23-7 defeat of Eastern Michigan that he answered media questions with a strict “yes” or “no.” It’s clear the Spartans miss QB Kirk Cousins and may not be able to match the bursts of Buckeye Braxton Miller. The fleet quarterback is averaging 110 yards on the ground.
Wisconsin at Nebraska: If Nebraska didn’t have enough problems, athletic director and icon Tom Osborne, once named by ESPN as “the greatest college coach of all time,” has announced he will retire Jan. 1. Osborne has been criticized for extending Doc Sadler’s basketball contract before firing him, and his football choice of Bo Pelini (four losses each of his four years) still falls in the wait-and-see category. On the Badger side, Bret Bielema’s decision to fire offensive line coach Mike Markuson after a 10-7 loss at Oregon State was meant to awaken the defending Big Ten champions. But they didn’t exactly respond two weeks ago against Utah State, the Badgers surviving 16-14 when Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard field goal on the final play. Last we heard, Bielema was switching QBs.
Indiana at Northwestern: You could hear the basketballs start to bounce in Hoosierland with Indiana’s third straight football loss to Ball State and the ongoing search for a quarterback to take over for injured Tre Roberson. Northwestern can move within one game of bowl qualification as the opportunistic Wildcats seek to take advantage of a favorable schedule that continues with IU, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Penn State at Illinois: These teams mirrored each other in preseason evaluations, but the 2-2 Illini have fallen farther from expectations than the 2-2 Nittany Lions.
Absences have played a role. Among nine departures, Penn State most seriously misses running back Silas Redd and kicker Anthony Fera. But the Nittany Lions have improved at quarterback with Matt McGloin (1,006 yards, nine TDs) and present the same tough defense that marked Joe Paterno’s teams. The offense is boosted this week by the return of powerhouse tackle Donovan Smith (6-5, 316) and running backs Bill Belton and Derek Day.
Said Illini offensive co-coordinator Chris Beatty: “Penn State is hard-nosed defensively with downhill linebackers. Nos. 40 and 42 (Glenn Çarson and Michael Mauti) are real tough guys ... backyard brawlers who’ll hit you in the mouth. When you play Penn State, you have no choice. It’s a physical game.”
Meanwhile, Beatty noted he wouldn’t have expected to have Nathan Scheelhaase “for just three quarters out of 12,” much less the loss of veteran blockers Graham Pocic, Hugh Thornton and Evan Wilson, receiver Darius Millines, linebacker Houston Bates and safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, all starters. Some will return this week, but it isn’t clear how many.
Playing it safe
With Scheelhaase back at the controls, the big question is: Can Illinois loosen the Nittany Lion defense with a productive passing attack?
“First,” offensive co-coordinator Billy Gonzales said, “no balls on the ground. We can’t have six turnovers.
“Offensively, our job is to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers. We move our guys around in search of mismatches, and that’s what we did with Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young last week.”
In a short-passing scheme, three running backs caught 17 passes, two receivers caught seven and tight end Jon Davis one. Gonzales explained:
“You can draw up a pass play and say, ‘I’d like for this to happen,’ but it is still based on what the coverage shows. There has to be an out for man coverage, zone quarters, zone halves ... you have to have something built in where the quarterback says, ‘If they’re in this coverage, here’s my out.’ Louisiana Tech was playing a quarters look, and we kept going to the drives. If they had given us a different look, we would have gone to something else.”
Gonzales called Davis “a playmaker,” saying they want to get him more involved but emphasizing that QB protection is a consideration that sometimes requires the tight end to stay in and block.
Scheelhaase has completed 19 of 29 passes for 211 yards, Reilly O’Toole 57 of 73 for 514 yards.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.