SjT: View of Week 4 and a Loss to Minny

Tough game for Cats fans to swallow - it seems like we have the pieces in place (a dangerous inference to our old friend Wanny), but just don't have that confidence to close the deal. And NU's Loss wasn't the only "question raiser" this weekend.

The Early Games:
We just don't seize momentum on offense -- it's a double-whammy where most of the game, we're more comfortable playing catch-up and then at the end, we're caught like a deer in the headlights. In the past, we've embraced the former but done the opposite for the latter, but we can't play with fire this year.

For example, after the opening drives of each team left the score at 7-3 Minny, our D makes a stand and it's a great time to take control ... but fizzle. Again, we come out after halftime with a great chance to seize the lead and ... zip, nada, punt. It was the same story with Syracuse. We do a decent job ANSWERING them (until the final minutes), but can't get over that hump when we aren't playing from behind.

But this is not solely an offensive problem - the D can be described as schizophrenic at best, looking great one series and terrible the next. And toward the end, we just got wore down. And the special teams lost the battle of field position all day. So the late turnovers hurt again, but this loss -- like last week -- was a team effort in all three areas. At least this time it's to a better team, but on the bad side, it's a conference loss.

We're a team in need of Kyra Sedgwick -- someone to close the deal. We hung right there with Minnesota despite that horrible start and we had every opportunity to win this game, but we just couldn't seal the deal on those key drives late (though the 4th and 1 touchdown play was a step in that direction). Time to dig deep and suck it up for Purdue next week.

On the plus side, PURPLE FIELDS FOREVER! We need to find ways to get the ball to Arby Fields and Demetrius Fields as many times as possible - Dunsmore, too. And it was nice to see Wootten get some pressure as well. Good, but not good enough.

On the bad side, besides the special teams and boom-or-bust defense, it was nice to see SOMEONE (alum Chris Martin) notice how stupid a call it is to have Kafka roll to his left and throw a floater across the body that is interception bait ... yet we call that play time after time.

As for Minnesota, I think we can safely say that Eric Decker is the best receiver in the league and perhaps even the nation. They need to find a less predictable way to use their version of the Wildcat, but with the opening jitters of the new stadium over and their physicality to go along with Decker, Minny could be a big factor in the Big Ten race. They get a couple winnable games at home and should be 5-1 before a brutal two-game road stretch at OSU and PSU. After that, though, they could run the table if they win at Iowa and be 9-3 with all losses against top 10 teams.
Around the league ...
* Along with Decker on the all-league team, I think we can reserve a spot for Brandon Minor of Michigan as the best running back ... at least until Royster at PSU decides to step up and play.

* Speaking of Michigan, welcome to the gut-wrenching world of the spread offense, Michigan fans. Ask your friends in Evanston for tips on stocking up with extra TUMS. The spread can help you win just about any game you're in, but it can also make every game a close one - even against teams like Indiana that you should beat handily. It took another gutsy performance by Forcier and a homer official call on a late interception to put away Indiana. Still 4-0 looks darn good.

* On the flip side, I think we can start to forecast a Sparty slide -- and it's coming earlier than usual this year. I honestly thought MSU was past this and had the mental toughness, but after two heartbreakers, they laid an absolute egg in Madison. With Michigan and a road trip to Illinois up next, it could quickly go to 1-5 and those Eagles-fan-like boos could rain down in Spartan Stadium.

* Wisconsin, on the other hand, finally looked like a decent team after a sluggish cupcake schedule. It should be real interesting to see the Badgers/Gophers next week and see who steps up as a darkhorse and who is relegated to Motor City Bowl watch status.

Frustrating morning, but we've got the Illini and Buckeyes on deck from Columbus in what is usually a good ole' slobberknocker and then the main event in Happy Valley with the Hog-eyes and Nits. I sure hope the rain stops so we can see the White Out in full effect. It is, far and away, the best atmosphere in sports and an incredible setting for a game -- hopefully the play on the field matches the surroundings.
In the Afternoon:
Not much of a game in Columbus for the afternoon. The Illini just do not have this "team concept" down yet and looked completely disorganized and disinterested. Also, Ohio State's defense is looking better than last year, despite all those losses to the NFL draft. The D played well enough to beat USC save for one drive - if the offense ever starts playing ball, they could be back in the top spot and get a rematch in Pasadena.

Elsewhere ...

- Miami and FSU have to come north to play in the weather in Blacksburg. Pity we can't force the SEC schools to travel up north for some weather games.

- Out west, whaaaaaaaaaa??? Cal blew a big time chance to set up the SC game next week and once again, the Ducks because USC's best friend (last year vs. Oregon State) to help the Trojans back to the Rose Bowl. But after the suspension of that KO-throwing punk and the payback for the fan's trip to Boise, Chip Kelley is quickly becoming a popular coach and this is a nice turnaround from week 1!

So does that mean Minny and Cal are all overrated ... or that Purdue has a chance tonight with the DOH!mers? What a crazy game.
On to the main event in Happy Valley!
A couple of good ole' defensive games among the late games.

* Kirk Ferentz is the new Lloyd Carr and just has JoePa's number. Talk about a great first quarter for PSU ... but when they couldn't go up 14-0 and settled for three and Iowa hung around, you kind of got the feeling where the story was going. The Nittany Lions' senior leadership faded down the stretch while Iowa's youth came up with a big win. Should be a fun game with Michigan in two weeks under the lights at Kinnick.

As for PSU, it will be interesting to see how they rebound. Their schedule is still set up well for a Rose Bowl run with OSU visiting, but they can't afford any more slips.

* Meanwhile in West Lafayette, both of the offensive juggernauts somehow played a low-scoring game. Every time I flipped over, it seemed like the Irish were getting some help from the zebras, but Purdue still had plenty of chances. After three straight tough losses, it will be interesting to see how the Boilers respond next week against NU. Hopefully for us, they take the Sparty route and some out emotionally flat.
So what do we know of the Big Ten after this reshuffling first week?
* Team to beat: Ohio State. The big question coming into the year was the D, but it appears to be better than ever. If Pryor and Herron catch fire, it's tough to see anyone staying close until their big stretch run in November of PSU, Iowa and Michigan.

* Darkhorse: Michigan. I know Iowa's been the popular pick for weeks and will be even more now, but I still don't believe in them. They just have PSU's number. The Maize and Blue have much more fire and explosiveness - they get PSU and OSU at home and if they can survive their next two against Sparty and the Hawkeyes, they could move up to the team to beat.

* Pretender: Wisconsin. I'm not a Hawkeye believer, but Iowa's a 9-win team. The Badgers are living a charmed existence right now and the clock could strike midnight in Minneapolis next week.

* Still in the hunt: Penn State and Minnesota. The Lions still have a favorable schedule and I like the Gophers' physicality for the October and November home stretch.

* Stick a fork in them: Illinois and Michigan State. I haven't put NU in here yet, but that could change after next week. However, Sparty and the Illini both have a recent history of packing it in after tough losses and they're on the verge of collapse.

And one thing we know for sure is that nothing will be easy in the Big Ten this year. Purdue and especially Indiana appear much better than expected. I don't expect either to be bowling this year, but I could see an upset or two from each.
Should be a fun ride - hopefully Fitz can get NU back on track next week.


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