FB: Big Ten report

With Michigan State and Ohio State — two teams the Gophers are chasing — playing each other, it's a big weekend for Minnesota football away from the Metrodome. Get the inside report on all the Big Ten teams.


After weeks of suffering significant defeat after significant defeat, the battered Illini appear to have a legitimate chance at their first conference victory. They travel to Bloomington to face Indiana.

Neither team has beaten a Division I-A opponent this season.

It's not surprising that Indiana is in that position, but Illinois had hopes of a .500 season or better back in August, so it's somewhat shocking that it sits at the bottom of the Big Ten. There have been rumors about Ron Turner's job security since early October, and they continue to persist even though athletic director Ron Guenther has given Turner a vote of confidence.

Turner continues to scratch his head and ask "What else can we do?" His team has been besieged by injuries and Turner's attitude is that he's never seen a team hit this hard by injuries at any point in his coaching career.

The Illini will ask QB Dustin Ward to get that first conference victory of the season. He sat on the bench behind Jon Beutjer and Chris Pazan earlier in the year, but Turner believes that the fifth-year senior gives Illinois the best chance at competing for 60 minutes. Ward has a strong arm, but he lacks decisiveness and often holds on to the ball too long.

With injuries to E.B. Halsey, Morris Virgil and Pierre Thomas, Marcus Mason should get the start at the RB spot. Mason is big and strong, but may not have the quickness to make long plays.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: After giving up 55 points to Minnesota last week, the Indiana defense is in ruins. The Gophers, of course, have perhaps the most dangerous running game in the country. Illinois can't come close to Minnesota in that category, but the thought of going up a vulnerable defense after facing teams like Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue and Iowa should give the offensive line a bit of a jolt. If QB Dustin Ward can get off to a good start, this team may pull off its first win.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Illini defense doesn't have much to feel good about. After giving up 41 points to Iowa, the only thing Ron Turner and defensive coordinator Mike Cassity can point to is that the Illini did not give up a lot of big plays. Iowa was forced to methodically drive the ball downfield. The Illinois run defense has given up big points and yards all year, but the pass defense has not always been as bad. That's the nicest thing that can be said about this unit.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The good news is that there are no new injuries. That's the first time we could say that in a while." — Head coach Ron Turner on his beleaguered team.


As the Hoosiers prepare to try to get their first Big Ten win of the season against Illinois this week, their 55-7 loss to Minnesota continues to be a sore subject.

The Hoosiers knew that the Gophers had a devastating running game, and they tried to prepare for quite a few variations of the basic attack, but instead Minnesota came straight at them most of the game and were unable to do anything about it.

The Gophers ran the toss play to Laurence Maroney, sent Marion Barber between the tackles and mixed in seven reverses ... and it all added up to 435 yards on the ground.

"They've got good running backs, but I think we have to accept responsibility for a lot of the problems," IU defensive tackle Joe Clemons said. "With the scheme we run, when we're not in our gaps and we're not disciplined on cutbacks, it's just really hard to win football games."

As a result, the Hoosiers are concentrating much of their effort on stopping the Illini running game. While many of the Illini running backs are injured, the Hoosiers don't want to give up the big reverse plays that Minnesota was so successful with. If the Hoosiers can show some defensive improvement, they have an excellent shot at coming away with their first conference win.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Hoosiers are hoping that Matt LoVecchio will be cleared to play. LoVecchio expected to get the start at Minnesota, but head coach Gerry DiNardo was told the day before the game that LoVecchio's concussion would not allow him to compete. If LoVecchio can't play, Graeme McFarland will take over. McFarland has a decent arm and can move, but probably lacks the consistency to get the job done for four quarters.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Hoosiers have a couple of hard hitters in Kyle Killion and Josh Moore, but the team is vulnerable defensively. After the Indiana defense gave up big plays and big yards to previously dormant Ohio State, it was torched by Minnesota. If there's one team the Hoosiers should be able to stop, it's battered and bruised Illinois. The Illini are looking for their first Big Ten win of the season and have several key injuries at the RB slot.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to do a better job of stopping the reverse. It takes discipline to stay in your rush lane and that's what we have to do." — Indiana SS Will Meyers, after the Hoosiers were torched by Minnesota in the team's 55-7 loss last week.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL


The Hawkeyes are about to find out what kind of team they have.

After back-to-back wins over Penn State and Illinois, the Hawkeyes close the season with games against Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The only game in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium is Nov. 15 vs. the Gophers.

Purdue has an extremely well-rounded team that certainly has the attention of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. The Boilermakers run the ball well with Jerod Void and have one of the top quarterbacks in the conference in Kyle Orton. On the defensive side, they are capable of shutting down the run with a strong front seven or limiting the passing game. DE Shaun Phillips is tough, smart and athletic, and he is coming off a performance in which he won conference defensive player of the week honors.

"They just may be the most talented team in the conference," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They are very deep and they are not limited. I knew this team was going to be good last winter. They have played to their strength."

Ferentz's team is plenty good, too. In a 41-10 win over Illinois last week, the Hawkeyes did a great job of moving the ball on the ground — 244 yards — and Nathan Chandler threw for 243 yards. Chandler was very pleased about the diversity of the offense, but moving the ball at will against Illinois is one thing, doing it against Purdue is quite another.

The Hawkeyes do have a model to follow. Michigan ripped Purdue a couple of weeks ago as the Wolverine offensive line neutralized Purdue's speed and strength up front. The key for Iowa will be the play of the offensive line. If the Hawkeyes come out aggressive — and LT Robert Gallery is the key to that attitude — they have a chance to get things going on the ground.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Hawkeyes need to come out and set the tone with their offensive line. The Purdue defense is very strong, athletic and aggressive and the only time it has been truly pushed around was by Michigan on the road. That's not as likely to happen at home. Robert Gallery is one of the best left tackles in the game and he will go up against Purdue RE Kevin Nesfield.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Hawkeyes are aggressive on the defensive side of the ball — as they have been for each of the past two seasons. Purdue's offense is talented, but head coach Joe Tiller seems to rein in QB Kyle Orton from time to time. The Hawkeyes are excellent at forcing turnovers, and they will need to do that to have a good shot against Purdue.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's nice that we have a chance to be in it, but we've got three tough ballgames ahead of us." — Head coach Kirk Ferentz on the closing trio of games against Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin.


It's rest and regroup for the Wolverines. After dominating Purdue and Michigan State in its past two games, the Wolverines get a bye week to prepare for their final two games.

They return to action Nov. 15 at Northwestern and that is clearly a game they Wolverines should dominate. The regular-season finale — against hated Ohio State — is the one Michigan has had circled.

Win both games, and the Wolverines are headed for the Rose Bowl.

That's a lot to think about during the bye week, which comes at a bad time considering Michigan's momentum ... but it also comes at the absolutely perfect time for RB Chris Perry. He is coming off a 51-carrry effort in the 27-20 win at Michigan State. Perry ran for 219 yards and scored one touchdown.

Yeah... his sore body could use the break.

Carr was duly impressed with Perry's effort and knows that his running back has to rest.

"He'll need it," Carr said. "What he did on Saturday was not a typical Saturday afternoon for a tailback. He proved what he's made of."

In addition to the running of Perry, the defense has come on with a rush. The Wolverines held the Spartans to 36 yards rushing and kept quarterback Jeff Smoker from going wild.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Wolverines can light it up when they have everything going. John Navarre is capable of huge numbers, and is coming off a fine 223-yard, three-TD performance against Michigan State. Chris Perry is a great back who is proving that he can rise to the occasion to carry his team.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: While this unit had some lapses earlier this year against Oregon and Iowa, the Wolverines are now playing championship-caliber defense. They should shut down Northwestern before meeting Ohio State in the season finale.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The guys that I'm concerned about would be Jacob Stewart and Marlin (Jackson). I think the chance is good that they'll be ready." — Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr on how the bye week will help his injured players.


Disappointed over losing at home to hated Michigan, the Spartans have no time to feel sorry for themselves.

They need to quickly work on what went wrong — such as several dropped passes and committing too many foolish penalties that kept alive Michigan drives throughout the game. Receivers dropped nine passes in the game, and that help explains why MSU converted only 3-of-13 third-down opportunities.

"We know we dropped the ball," coach John L. Smith told the Detroit Free Press.

"We know we can catch the ball. We know we can keep the chains moving that we didn't do. It's just a matter of executing. We have to look at that more so than anything, and that's going to automatically restore your confidence."

If the Spartans can't improve on that aspect of the game immediately, they could pay a big price this weekend against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are struggling on offense, but their defense has been very good once again. The Spartans need to take advantage of their scoring opportunities in order to put pressure on an offense that has not played consistently.

Smith knows he can count on QB Jeff Smoker to get the ball to his receivers. Smoker is the No. 1 quarterback in the Big Ten, as he is averaging 258.2 yards per game and has a 13-6 TD-interception ratio. He has the arm strength to get the ball downfield on deep plays and can also thread the needle on short passes..

The running game was completely shut down by Michigan and is not likely to dominate against Ohio State. However, the Spartans have to do better than the 16-carry, 36-yard game they put on the board against the Wolverines. Jaren Hayes had 23 yards on 10 carries ... and that will not get the job done.

If the Spartans can show just a little improvement on offense, they should have a reasonable chance of pulling off the upset.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Call it a bad game against Michigan. The running game was completely shut down and the receivers looked nervous as they dropped nine passes. Jeff Smoker continues to put the ball on the money, but the receivers have to do a better job of relaxing and looking the ball into their hands.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Spartans didn't play with their usual toughness against Michigan. The Wolverines have the biggest and strongest offensive line in the Big Ten and they muscled and mauled the Spartans. Ohio State has struggled offensively this season and their offensive line has been a surprising weakness. Michigan State needs to do much better at holding the point of attack than they did against the Wolverines.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Robert Flagg is competing. He's getting better. He had some production this past week. Doggone him. We have to keep patting him on the back and keep him focused." — Michigan State head coach John L. Smith on the improved play of Flagg, a defensive back. The blitzing Flagg forced a John Navarre fumble that Clifford Dukes picked up and ran in for a 65-yard touchdown against Michigan.


There is little doubt that Northwestern head coach Randy Walker would like to see a bit more productivity from his passing game. QB Brett Basanez has thrown just three TD passes, with nine interceptions. In the past two games — a win over Wisconsin and a loss to Purdue — Basanez has turned the ball over five times.

Despite those mistakes, Walker has no intention of replacing Basanez with backup Alexander Webb.

"It is not close," Walker told the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald. "Alexander is making progress. But let's not forget, he played one spring game, played 12 plays in another game that was over and a mythology was created about him."

Basanez is not about to lose faith in himself. He believes he can do anything his coach asks of him.

"You can't let stuff bother you," Basanez said. "If you start doubting yourself, you re not going to play to the best of your abilities. You can't let one or two mistakes bother you."

Walker is hoping Basanez can keep mistakes to a minimum in this week's game against Penn State. If Jason Wright can recover from his sprained ankle, the Wildcats should be able to do some damage with the running game. Even if Wright is not at full strength, look for Noah Herron to pick up the slack.

The Nittany Lions have lost five in a row and have rarely showed any offensive consistency. While the Wildcats are underdogs, they are playing at home and would appear to have a good shot at winning and keeping their bowl hopes alive.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The offense was the key to this team's success in the 2000 season, the last year the Wildcats went to a bowl game. Not any more. Randy Walker no longer plays a wide-open, no-huddle attack that produced points by the boatload. Instead, Northwestern now uses a "conventional" offense that depends on the running of Jason Wright. If Wright's balky ankle prevents him from running at full speed, Noah Herron has a chance to get the job done.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Wildcats are getting better. Even though they suffered a 34-14 defeat at Purdue, the defense gave up just 390 total yards and tried to keep the team in the game. The Wildcats might have had a chance at the upset if the offense had not lost four fumbles. Northwestern still has the No. 1 run defense in the Big Ten.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Mark was really making some strides. It's unfortunate. He was hitting that part of his game where you could really see he was getting it. He was learning how to play at the Big Ten level." — Northwestern head coach Randy Walker on WR-RS Mark Philmore's MCL injury. Philmore might not be back until the season finale at Illinois on Nov. 22.


In a season with a myriad of distractions, head coach Jim Tressel's burden got a little bit lighter. Former star RB Maurice Clarett has dismissed his $2.5 million complaint against Ohio State for releasing information from an NCAA investigation to prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge George Smith granted the dismissal and criticized Clarett for seeking the federal action in the first place a month ago.

"OSU has presumably expended resources responding to the motion to intervene, and it seems unfair at the eleventh hour to allow Mr. Clarett to dodge a potential adverse result in this lawsuit and on a whim shift the focus of this matter to another forum," the judge said.

Clarett is still seeking relief against the university from the U.S. Department of Education.

While Tressel and his coaches have never used the Clarett controversy as an excuse, the distractions can't have been good, and, for sure, Clarett's absence on the field has hindered the offense all season.

Even without him, thanks to a fabulous defense and much late-game heroics, Ohio State is still in a position to win the Big Ten title. But the Buckeyes' magic could falter in the final three games against Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan if the offense doesn't show major improvement.

The Buckeyes registered another come-from-behind triumph against Penn State last week, but the final three foes are all much tougher than the Lions.

QB Craig Krenzel will play against Michigan State despite the concussion he suffered at Penn State. Scott McMullen directed the game-winning drive against the Nittany Lions, but Ohio State is a better offensive team when Krenzel is healthy and behind center.

Since pummeling Washington in the opening game of the season, the Buckeyes have only had one impressive offensive game this year, and that was two weeks ago against Indiana. The Spartans were pushed around by Michigan a week ago, but their defense has been solid most of the year, meaning it could be another long day for the Ohio State offense.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Buckeyes likely will play it conservatively against Michigan State, especially if Craig Krenzel is less than 100 percent. Lydell Ross is coming off a 110-yard effort against Penn State and should get plenty of work against the Spartans.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Ohio State defense has been sensational for the better part of two years. DEs Simon Fraser and Will Smith (10 sacks) can bring pressure and put the heat on Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "A lot of teams put the backup in and they button it up. We call him 'The Gunslinger' because he doesn't get flustered and he can put it right on the money." — Ohio State TE Ben Hartsock on backup QB Scott McMullen.


The Nittany Lions are in the midst of a five-game losing streak — the first of Joe Paterno's coaching career. But they may have rediscovered their quarterback.

Zack Mills had his first good game of the year last week in a 21-20 loss to Ohio State as he threw for 253 yards and a touchdown. It was the first time Mills threw for more than 200 yards since a 35-14 win over Virginia last November.

"It does feel good to have a game like that," Mills said. "But it would mean a lot more if it had come in a win. That would have brought a lot more redemption."

Mills was averaging 105 yards passing this season. He sprained his left knee in the Big Ten opener against Minnesota and missed two games before coming on in relief of Michael Robinson in a 26-14 loss at Iowa.

Mills, who didn't know until late last week that he would start against the Buckeyes, entered this week knowing he is, again, "the man."

"I thought he played a hell of a game," said Paterno.

Mills regained the confidence of his teammates with his solid performance.

"Zack is such a cool guy as far as his demeanor in there," senior fullback Sean McHugh told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "He's always calm. He's always poised. He brings you in there and makes you believe. That's what he did [Saturday] and that's what he's always done."

If Mills can pick up from where he left off, the Nittany Lions have a great chance at ending their losing streak against Northwestern.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The offense is not close to setting any records, but it took a step in the right direction against Ohio State. If Zack Mills can follow up on his 253-yard effort against the Buckeyes with another positive game, he could make life difficult for Northwestern.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Penn State defense is led by its secondary. DBs Alan Zemaitis and Yaacov Yisrael have each provided big plays during the last two weeks. Yisrael had an interception return for a touchdowns two weeks ago against Iowa, while Zemaitis had a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I made most of the reads I needed to make. Guys were out there making plays for me. Before, either I wasn't putting it on the money or they were dropping them. It finally came together." — QB Zack Mills on his solid passing day against Ohio State.


One of the big keys to Purdue's success has been the ability to protect the football. Last year, the Boilermakers were minus-10 in turnover margin. This year they are a robust plus-14.

That's one of the reasons that head coach Joe Tiller is so happy with this year's team. They are taking care of the football and the defense is making big plays as well. Tiller has not asked QB Kyle Orton or RB Jerod Void to do the impossible — just to protect the football and take advantage of what the defense gives them.

Void has been a very pleasant find this season. RB Joey Harris was supposed to be the primary ball carrier, but he was ruled academically ineligible before the start of the season. Void is a solid runner who has gained 568 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

The Boilermakers need him to provide steady running this week against Iowa, one of the strongest defenses against the run in the Big Ten. If he can get just a little push against a team that is allowing just 72.0 rushing yards per game — second to Ohio State — that will take some of the heat off of Orton.

Tiller has praised Orton consistently this year, but he knows that his quarterback is usually not going to carry his team for 60 minutes. While he has a pair of great receivers in John Standeford and Taylor Stubblefield, the passing game will work much better if the Boilermakers can get a bit of a crease from the running game.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This a huge test for Purdue, much like the one it failed two weeks ago at Michigan. This time, the Boilermaker offensive line must trade punch for punch with the Hawkeyes. If they can win the battle up front, look for Kyle Orton to make several big plays downfield.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense is tough and nasty and should be right in its comfort zone since the game is in West Lafayette. DE Shaun Phillips is one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten and won player of the week honors because he forced a pair of fumbles and added 1.5 sacks against Northwestern.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The final weeks of the season, there are some (top teams) in the Big Ten that have to play each other. It's going to get very interesting. What we need to do is not worry about who is playing who, but rather who we're playing." — Head coach Joe Tiller on how the Big Ten race will sort itself out.

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