Big Ten report

Teams around the conference are struggling for survival in races for position in the standings. We take a look around the Big Ten.


Last-second losses are known to age head coaches prematurely. At least that's one problem that Ron Turner does not have.

His Illini team has been blown out in the first quarter of losses to Wisconsin and Purdue in consecutive weeks.

It may not get much better this week against Michigan State's resurgent Spartans. As Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker studies film of the Illinois defense, he may feel like a 10-year-old anticipating a Christmas Day haul of presents. There appears to be nothing that the Illinois defense can do to stop the Michigan State passing attack.

Smoker was named co-Big Ten player of the week after his sensational 32-of-40 performance against Indiana. The Illinois defense gave up 534 yards to the Boilermakers and have not shown any ability to stop upper-level Big Ten teams.

That does not speak well of Turner nor his defensive coordinator Mike Cassity. The Illini defensive scheme is simply not working. This is not a defense that goes up the field and attacks. The Illinois defense preached by Cassity calls for a lot of reading and reacting by the players ... and they have clearly struggled the past two seasons.

While Illinois simply might not be strong enough on either side of the line of scrimmage, it seems that players like DE Derrick Strong and MLB Matt Sinclair have more than enough toughness and power to get the job done. The secondary has been below par in coverage and has also struggled to tackle.

Illinois needs to find its pride this week or Michigan State may be in a position to hand out another painful defeat.

The Illini want to get their running game going again with E.B. Halsey. Purdue was much too tough defensively for the Illinois offensive line, but if the Illini offensive line can step up and play somewhat better, Halsey could have a solid game. Halsey has breakaway speed and scored on a 41-yard punt return vs. the Boilermakers. If Jon Beutjer can throw one scoring pass, he'll tie Jeff George for sixth place on the school's career TD pass list with 31.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:At some point or another it's got to be a matter of pride for this unit. If the Illini can follow last year's script, they should be able to play much better in the second half of the season. After starting 1-5 a year ago, the Illini won four of their final six games. The front seven needs to step up in a big way, or the Illini might not win a game until it faces Indiana on Nov. 8.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Jon is still our quarterback. Jon is a great guy." -- Freshman QB Chris Pazan on starter Jon Beutjer. With the Illini falling to 1-5, Pazan is likely to get several opportunities the rest of the season.


Two Big Ten games against Michigan and Michigan State resulted in two losses for the Hoosiers. Nothing surprising about those results.

But with Northwestern coming to Bloomington this Saturday, the Hoosiers have a legitimate chance to record a Big Ten win, and are just mild underdogs according to the oddsmakers.

Indiana has shown a somewhat improved offense -- especially from a long-play perspective. The Hoosiers have had 17 plays of 20 or more yards this season and most have involved the passing of QB Matt LoVecchio.

LoVecchio had six plays of 20 yards or longer in the loss to Kentucky last month and two more against Michigan State last week. The ability to go downfield should be a huge factor against the Wildcats, who allowed five touchdowns of 31 yards or longer against Minnesota. Gopher QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq connected with WR Jared Ellerson on TD passes of 96 and 82 yards.

That should get LoVecchio's juices flowing. Glenn Johnson, Aaron Halterman and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have made big plays throughout the season and they should get involved against the Wildcats.

Northwestern is one team that Indiana has tormented over the years. Indiana has averaged 40 points in the last four seasons against Northwestern and has often taken its frustrations out on the Wildcats.

Look for that scenario to play out again this week.

The Hoosiers are frustrated after venturing into Michigan State territory five times last week but coming away with only three points. The Indiana running game has been fairly solid with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brian Lewis getting the job done. WR Glenn Johnson has caught 21 passes for 249 yards and one touchdown and he could dramatically increase his totals against the Wildcats.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:After a very solid game against Michigan, the Hoosiers got destroyed by Jeff Smoker and the Michigan State passing game. Northwestern does not have a QB threat like Smoker, so the Hoosiers should be able to hang in there. If Indiana can play decent run defense and slow down Jason Wright, the Hoosiers have a great chance at picking up the home win.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought the first half our defense was playing hard. We gave up a couple of big plays but overall I thought we were doing OK. The same was true on offense." -- Head coach Gerry DiNardo on Indiana's effort in the first half against Michigan State.


The Hawkeyes could not be in a better frame of mind for their Oct. 18 confrontation at Ohio State.

Both teams ran undefeated through the Big Ten schedule last year -- and avoided each other in the process. Neither team appears to be as talented as they were a year ago, but both continue to win with regularity.

Preparation and game-planning likely will go a long way in determining this year's winner. That's a big strength of Ferentz, who is highly thought of around the country and throughout NFL circles.

WR Maurice Brown has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and his status for Ohio State have not been determined. Without Brown in the lineup, Ramon Ochoa has been asked to step up and make big plays. He was solid against Arizona State and Michigan, but his failures against Michigan State played a key role in Iowa's only loss.

The Hawkeyes need to get their passing game going against the Buckeyes, because the Ohio State defense is extremely tough against the run. The Buckeyes will be a super test for RB Fred Russell, who is one of the best runners in the Big Ten and is coming off a 110-yard day against Michigan.

The question is, can QB Nathan Chandler get the passing game going in a tough environment against a fabulous defense? We'll soon find out.

After a horrible performance against Michigan State and a rough start against Michigan, the Iowa offense surged in the 30-27 win over the Wolverines. QB Nathan Chandler, booed by the home crowd after three three-and-out series early in the game, threw two TD passes and ran for another score. Head coach Kirk Ferentz was impressed with his courage and character after coming back from the slow start.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:The Hawkeyes were sharp early in the season, shutting down Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger and Arizona State's Andrew Walter, two of the finest gunslingers around. But Iowa was beaten badly by Michigan State's Jeff Smoker and Michigan's John Navarre in consecutive weeks. If Michigan's special teams had not broken down, the Hawkeyes probably would have lost, as Michigan threw for 389 yards.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We deserved to be booed. Three straight three-and-outs -- we weren't looking too good at that point. It's frustrating for the players as well." -- Iowa QB Nathan Chandler on the Hawkeyes' rough start against Michigan. Chandler and the offense woke up and Iowa walked away with its second straight win over Michigan.


After a sensational 5-1 start that includes impressive wins over Notre Dame and Iowa, the Spartans will have to prove their worth as they go on the road for four of the next five games.

They should be able to handle their first road trip against an underperforming Illinois team. While Illini QB Jon Beutjer has a strong arm and reads defenses well, the Illini are getting beaten on both sides of the line of scrimmage and regularly get out-hustled.

That has definitely not been the case for the Spartans, who are getting better and growing more confident every week.

Michigan State's weakness to this point in the season has been its pass defense, which is ranked last in the Big Ten. Perhaps some of that is due to the fact that it is very difficult to run against Michigan State. The Spartans stopped Notre Dame and Indiana cold in that area and held down Iowa's running game in the win Sept. 27.

QB Jeff Smoker is at the top of his game, coming off a performance in which he completed 32-of-40 passes against Indiana. While the Illinois pass defense is probably better than Indiana's, that unit has not shown any ability to stop hungry offensive teams -- and that's just what the Spartans are. This game could get ugly if the Spartans play well in the first quarter.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:The Spartans are a force on defense. Nobody ever suspected that John L. Smith would produce a nasty, physical defense, but that is just what has happened in East Lansing. With Mike Labinjo packing a big punch at the MLB spot, the Illini are likely to be on the wrong end of another whipping.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was really disappointed in myself that (Louisiana Tech) game. Those were makeable field goals and I didn't make them and we lost that game by one. Since then, my own little personal battle has been to do as much as I can to help us win games." -- Michigan State PK Dave Rayner, who has made eight straight FG attempts after missing three in the early-season home loss to Louisiana Tech.


In addition to all his other duties as coach, Randy Walker knows he has to be a psychologist as well.

The Wildcats were sky-high when they took the field against Minnesota last week and quickly went out to a 14-0 lead. Since the Gophers were undefeated and perhaps looking forward to a confrontation with Michigan, the game appeared to have upset written all over it.

However, the Northwestern defense started giving up huge passing plays and the game quickly went the other way. Instead of intense, focused players, Walker saw the blank expression of the thoroughly beaten on his sideline.

He needs to find a way to wake up his players this week against Indiana. The Wildcats don't have many chances to win Big Ten games, and if this game slips through their grasp, they could suffer through a winless Big Ten season.

Look for RB Jason Wright to have a solid game against the Hoosiers, who rank near the bottom of the league with 156.5 rushing yards allowed per game. However, if the Northwestern defense can't get up off the mat, Walker may have another miserable afternoon.

Northwestern could have a distraction since two offensive linemen -- Bill Newton and Scott Crohn -- were arrested after they tried to enter a private house in Evanston while posing as police. Both players were suspended by Walker.

"We had two football players make a bad choice," Walker said. "This isn't a unique thing. It has happened before and we'll continue to review their case and go from there."

RB Jason Wright has the speed and quickness to torment Indiana, but head coach Randy Walker needs QBs Brett Basanez and Alexander Webb to demonstrate consistency and accuracy in the passing game.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:The Wildcats were outscored 42-3 after taking a 14-0 lead against Minnesota. The defense got obliterated by Minnesota's passing game and Wildcat defenders were left with a "what happened" look. MLB Pat Durr is the leader on this unit and he needs to find a way to lift his teammates' spirits so they can perform well in a winnable game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to find a spark. We need to find a way to play solid football for 60 minutes." -- Northwestern MLB Pat Durr on the Wildcats' tendency to fall apart after a bad play or two.


The numbers don't lie. There is Ohio State, the defending national champion, sitting last in the Big Ten with an average of 298.4 yards per game.

The Buckeyes hope that number can start to climb -- and fast -- because Big Ten play is starting hot and heavy with Saturday's game at Wisconsin.

Last week's bye allowed QB Craig Krenzel, who had missed two games with a sore elbow, time to get healed. Barring any late-week setbacks, he will be in the lineup Saturday for Ohio State's first road game of the year.

Early in the season, Krenzel's passes lacked zip and accuracy and the Buckeye offense struggled to move the ball. If the Buckeyes have any hope of staying unbeaten in the Big Ten this season, they must get some improvement in the passing game because it's clear that the running game is nothing close to what it was a year ago without Maurice Clarett.

The running chores are being handled by Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall. Both are dependable, useful players, but neither has the power nor the explosiveness that Clarett brought to the table, which has helped make the Ohio State offense one-dimensional. Hence, the last-in-the-Big-Ten ranking.

Another problem: The Buckeyes are converting 32.9 percent of their third-down opportunities, last in the league.

But emblematic of how this team just finds a way to win: Ohio State is first in the conference in red-zone offense, converting on 18 of 19 opportunities, 94.7 percent.

"We have seen a little bit of improvement," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said of his offense. "But not nearly as much as I think we need to have to be a Big Ten championship team."

The Buckeyes aren't exciting and tend to deliberately play it close to the vest so that defense and special teams can win the game. They need QB Craig Krenzel to come back from his elbow injury throwing sharp, crisp passes. If he is rusty, the Wisconsin defense will be in position to steal the game.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:No problems here. This is why the Buckeyes remain undefeated. There is strength all over the defense, but the front four is the key. Ohio State brings pressure throughout the game and causes a ton of havoc.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think Maurice Clarett brought a dynamic to the team. It's hard to deny that. He could take a play that wasn't blocked perfectly and maybe take it for a little bit longer. But we can't allow ... we don't allow ourselves to dwell on things like that." -- Ohio State TE Ben Hartsock, to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Even though Penn State has not played Purdue since 2000, the Nittany Lions might be familiar with the Boilermakers' style when they travel to West Lafayette this Saturday.

The Boilermakers are stout and experienced on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They have a nasty, hard-hitting defense that will cause problems for 60 minutes. They have a big, strong quarterback who can throw over the top of the defense and also hit the short passes. They have a multi-faceted ground game that can pick up touchdowns in the red zone and grind out first downs in the fourth quarter.

Hey ... isn't that the way Penn State used to play football.

The Nittany Lions are coming off home losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin and now must go on the road against a team that should contend for the Big Ten title. Penn State has been close in its Big Ten losses, but couldn't get the play it needed to get over the top in the fourth quarter,

"There's a lot of character in a lot of kids on this team," coach Joe Paterno told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"They may get down. And they may not play every game the way you like to see them play it, but they don't go out there on Mondays and mope around. They're out there trying to get better."

The offense got a major lift from the presence of QB Michael Robinson against Wisconsin. Penn State was struggling through the air with Zack Mills at quarterback, but Robinson threw for 379 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State could be a much better scoring team in the second half of the season as Robinson takes flight.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:The run defense was non-existent against Wisconsin. Purdue head coach Joe Tiller has two solid backs in Jerod Void and Jerome Brooks, so look for the Purdue running game to test the Penn State defense, which ranks last in the conference against the run (216.7 yards per game).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think sometimes that every guy on the team doesn't believe. We're starting to get more people believing because we're going down to the wire with some pretty good teams. Once we get everyone on that sideline believing, we'll start coming away with some wins." -- Penn State QB Michael Robinson.


Head coach Joe Tiller has built a team that is solid in every area and may be excellent in most of them.

While Purdue has not faced a lot of high-level teams to this point in the season, the Boilermakers have played a suffocating brand of defense (a Big Ten-low 12.8 points per game) and have a versatile, if not exactly high-flying, offense that is averaging 33.4 points per game.

It should be more of the same when a flawed Penn State team comes to West Lafayette.

The Nittany Lions are a team in transition after losing a boatload of talent to the NFL, and Purdue's experience edge should be apparent on both sides of the line.

The Boilermakers have a first-rate passing game with Kyle Orton at quarterback. They can run the ball very well with Jerod Void and Jerome Brooks. The defense is tough and nasty. It's nearly impossible to run the ball against Purdue because of DE Shaun Phillips and MLB Niko Koutivides, and S Stuart Schweigert anchors a tremendous pass defense.

The Boilermakers have also gotten a big lift from special teams -- an area that was a weakness last season.

It all should add up to Purdue's fifth straight win this weekend.

The offense was a bit sluggish against Notre Dame, so Joe Tiller rode them hard last week and the Boilermakers had a tremendous three-TD first quarter against Illinois. The running game is solid with Jerod Void, who gained 119 yards and scored four TDs against Illinois.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:This unit is sound everywhere. The Purdue front seven refused to give the Illinois running game any room -- just 38 rushing yards allowed -- and they should be able to slow down Penn State as well.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "A team's rushing game is like their manhood. As a defense, we want to make a team one-dimensional. We take a lot of pride in our front seven in saying they're not going to run the ball on us. If they're going to beat us, they're going to have to beat us through the air." -- Purdue linebacker Niko Koutouvides on his team's defensive goals.


The Badgers have one of those measuring-stick games this week as undefeated Ohio State heads to Madison.

The Badgers will learn just how good they are against the defending national champions, and have been looking at this game since the start of the season.

"I always look at this game when the schedule comes out," WR Lee Evans told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It is always fun to look ahead. We wanted to make it a big game. And the stage is set."

The Badgers have gone to the running game as the main focus of their offense during three straight wins. However, RBs Anthony Davis and Dwayne Smith have ankle injuries, meaning freshman Booker Stanley may get most of the carries.

But the Badgers are going to have to go to the passing game quite a bit. Ohio State is very strong in the front seven and Barry Alvarez knows he can't just ram the ball down the Buckeyes' throats. As a result the Badgers might open things up early with the hope that the running game will take hold later on.

The Badgers have a bunch of talent at the RB spot, but Anthony Davis has been slow to recover from an ankle injury and so has Dwayne Smith. As a result, Booker Stanley has carried the load in two of the last three games. Stanley rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown against Penn State. Jim Sorgi will also have to go to the air against Ohio State. Sorgi is coming off an awful game at Penn State -- he was just 9-of-26 -- and isn't exactly a proven commodity in a big game.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE:The Wisconsin defense has allowed just 109 rushing yards the last two games against Illinois and Penn State. The Ohio State offense has struggled this season, and the Badgers should be able to contain the Buckeyes much as most teams have.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're pretty riled up. We're going to come out and give it our all." -- Wisconsin TE Tony Paciotti on the mood of the team heading into their confrontation with Ohio State.

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