Loren Tate: Is the Big Ten good? Check with Irish

Loren Tate: Is the Big Ten good? Check with Irish

When the Michigan-Notre Dame series concludes in 2014, it’ll leave an empty space on the football landscape.

This annual shootout, which is deadlocked 14-14-1 since it resumed in 1978, is coupled with Notre Dame’s dates with Michigan State and Purdue to provide the nation’s fans an annual September reading on the Big Ten.

Is the conference good this year? Check the Notre Dame games.

Only once in 10 seasons have the Irish swept all three, and that led to last year’s unbeaten regular season and the failed title-game showdown against Alabama. Meanwhile, with Ohio State and Penn State under 2012 sanctions, and Wisconsin winning the conference title after a 7-5 regular season, the Big Ten was a forgotten league.

“Bo (Schembechler) always said you gauge your team in the great games versus Notre Dame,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I hope for the sake of college football that the series comes back. I grew up loving these big games. The atmosphere here two years ago was as intense as any I’ve been around. After the Ohio State series, this is next.

“We opened with Alabama last year and, even though we lost (41-14), I thought it was one of the best things we could have done. It taught us a lot as a staff.”

The Wolverines look to a beckoning path if they can get win No. 2 Saturday. They follow Notre Dame with Akron (38-7 loser to Central Florida) and UConn (33-18 loser to Towson) before entering league play against Minnesota, Penn State and Indiana.

Michigan had prevailed in three straight pulse-pounding finishes against Notre Dame before committing six turnovers in a 13-6 loss to the Irish last year. Although linebacker Manti Te’o is gone, the Irish front seven is loaded with returnees who held their first seven opponents without a rushing touchdown. It was, in many ways, a miraculous run for Brian Kelly’s team as the Irish edged Purdue and BYU by the margin of a field goal, and Stanford and Pitt in overtime.

So the Irish, who declined the Big Ten in favor of a part-time football arrangement with the less-demanding ACC, are headed for three straight Saturdays of Big Ten play.

And mark down Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio as wanting to make it permanent, saying: “We feel an affinity to Notre Dame because they were the first big-time program to play Michigan State home and road, and thereby helped get us into the Big Ten Conference. We respect that tradition.”

Since that series became permanent in 1997, Michigan State has won 10 of 16, two of them in overtime.

The fuss over scheduling will become increasingly loud as Big Ten members move toward a nine-game conference schedule that will allow just three nonconference games, and none with the FCS members who pulled eight stunning upsets in openers.
Notes from Big Ten coaches
— Only a coach with great support and self-confidence can say what Penn State’s Bill O’Brien did after beating Syracuse: “Christian Hackenberg has poise for a freshman, but I put him in some bad positions. The key this week (against Eastern Michigan) is me. I’ve got to quit calling bad plays. When I improve, the running game will improve.”

— Perhaps copying Illinois’ communications breakdowns on defense last year at Arizona State, Purdue had similar troubles on offense in losing (42-7) at Cincinnati. Said coach Darrell Hazell: “We had trouble communicating in and out of the huddle. I didn’t foresee this coming. We had verbiage problems relating to the quarterback (Rob Henry, who apologized on Twitter after the loss). We only ran 28 plays in the first half. We’re adjusting the language. We’ll correct it in several ways.”

— “New Mexico State beat us two years ago (28-21), so anybody who isn’t locked in is not concentrating,” Minnesota’s Jerry Kill said. The Gophers are the only Big Ten travelers this week, apparently journeying to Las Cruces because Aggies athletic director McKinley Boston formerly served at Minnesota.

— “We’ve got to find ways to free up our defensive ends, (Houston) Bates and (Tim) Kynard, in the pass rush,” Illini coach Tim Beckman said. “SIU got the ball out quick, and we had no sacks.” Beckman noted that Tim Banks, UI defensive coordinator, helped recruit many Cincinnati players before coming to Illinois last year. But a new Bearcats staff has made too many changes for that to be an advantage.

— Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz said sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock “did a lot of good things, his demeanor, his feedback.” Rudock was OK for three quarters but was outplayed by Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch in the final stanza, Lynch firing a 33-yard strike to tie the game and Rudock throwing a bad interception to set up NIU’s winning field goal.

— “We got lucky a year ago at Syracuse. I don’t know how we did it,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said in anticipation of Saturday’s 5 p.m. rematch. The Wildcats won 42-41 at Syracuse on a last-minute TD pass by Trevor Siemian, who took over for Kain Colter. Siemian came off the bench early for an injured Colter in Saturday’s 44-30 win at Cal. Colter expects to be cleared to play against the Orange.

— Bud Golden, one of more than two dozen UI signees who could be members of this squad — add soph Dami Ayoola’s name — is listed as Tennessee Tech’s No. 1 running back against Wisconsin on Saturday, although Golden did not play in the opener.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.