The Almanac: Reaching The Halfway Point

The halfway pole either will be passed or reached by all 11 Big Ten teams Saturday, so what better time to break down who the contenders and pretenders are for the league? In addition, this week's column includes the Play of the Week and a breakdown of Ohio State's upcoming opponent, the Purdue Boilermakers.

Now that six weeks have elapsed since the opening of the 2008 college football season, it's time to check in with one of my favorite subjects: the Big Ten.

At this point, I believe that the Big Ten teams can be separated into clear divisions based on skill. With a nod to Bill Simmons, it's time to break down the league into a few tiers.

Before we begin, here's a blanket note: The quarterbacks in the league are not getting it done. Of the top 10 quarterbacks in the conference's passing efficiency rankings, only three have thrown two or more touchdowns than interceptions. Those three are Penn State's Daryll Clark (9 TDs-1 INT), Minnesota's Adam Weber (8-2) and Illinois Juice Williams (11-6).

Indiana: Playing 13 for a second year in a row looks like a major uphill task for the Cream and Crimson given its losses to Michigan State, Ball State and Minnesota.
What they can do: Move the ball. Kellen Lewis continues to run an explosive offense, an attack that has averaged 421.4 yards per game to place third in the Big Ten.
What they can't do: Play defense, it appears. Indiana is eighth in the league in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. Giving up 42 points to Ball State's offense isn't a ringing endorsement, although I'll admit the Cardinals do have talent.
What they might be able to do: Run the ball. For the past two seasons, the major question with Indiana's offense has been its ability to move the ball on the ground. So far this year, IU is fourth in the league in rushing. Marcus Thigpen has realized his potential as one of the more explosive players in the league.

Purdue: Joe Tiller's final year has been a sad sight mostly thanks to the inaccuracy of Curtis Painter's right arm.
What they can do: Give the ball to Kory Sheets. The senior has seized the No. 1 role. Though he's just shy of 100 yards per game, Sheets has shown he can make the big run and make the best of the space he's given.
What they can't do: Throw the ball, at least as well as they'd like to. Tiller called out his quarterback for his off-target throws earlier this week. For more, see the Purdue breakdown section below.
What they might be able to do: Defend with consistency. I'll give Purdue credit for hanging with Penn State, but the 38 points allowed by Notre Dame are problematic. The Boilermakers are last in the major yardage categories, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, as the defense hasn't looked like a total sieve in my viewings.

Minnesota: The win over Indiana shows that Minnesota has earned its place above the worst teams in the league.
What they can do: Simply, win football games. The Golden Gophers do the little things necessary to win games. Now, tests are on the horizon to show just how much those skills apply against some better squads.
What they can't do: Defend the pass. Minnesota certainly has more talent in the back end than it did a year ago, but the team's ninth-place Big ten ranking against aerial assaults leaves some questions to be answered.
What they might be able to do: Score against good teams. Minnesota had 21 points against Ohio State, but 15 of those came in garbage time. The output has to get better as the competition steps up.

Michigan: OK, the Wolverines move up to this level simply because of their win over Wisconsin, but they did show the ability to play well during that victory.
What they can do: Completely annoy their fan base. Michigan was outscored 19-0 through 42 minutes against Wisconsin, then outscored the Badgers and Fighting Illini 41-9 through the next 33 minutes. Illinois then took over and beat Michigan 42-6 over the final three quarters.
What they can't do: Hang their hat on anything offensively. Michigan sits last in the league in scoring offense (20.6 points) and total offense (291.8 yards) by wide margins.
What they might be able to do: Play defense. Illinois' record setting day against the U-M defense was humiliating, but Michigan has at least some talent on defense. Whether it will show up from drive to drive has been the question.

Iowa: Give the Hawkeyes credit for being fighters, but they just don't have the talent to beat good teams.
What they can do: Run the football behind Shonn Greene. Since being welcomed back to the squad, Greene is second in the league in rushing with 137.0 yards per game and has played well enough to deserve that ranking.
What they can't do: Score with any consistency. It looks like Iowa has found a quarterback in Ricky Stanzi, a Mentor, Ohio, native who sits fourth in the league in passing efficiency, but the Hawkeyes have been kept below 20 points in both Big Ten games.
What they might be able to do: Play defense. The Hawkeyes are first in the Big Ten in points allowed per game, but I'm not ready to anoint this as a very good unit. It was average against the last three opponents in Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Michigan State, which coincidentally are the only three teams Iowa has played with a pulse.

Wisconsin: This former top-10 team should be 0-3 in the Big Ten after Saturday. They might not lose again in league play after that, though.
What they can do: Run the football. Wisconsin moved the ball well against Ohio State on the ground and now sits third in the league in rushing offense. John Clay looks like a future star.
What they can't do: Pass the football to anyone not named Travis Beckum. Allan Evridge has shown he might not be the answer at quarterback, and no Badger has 50 yards per game or more in receiving yards.
What they might be able to do: Play defense. It's just a matter of consistency, as shown Saturday against Ohio State. It's fitting the Badgers are sixth – the exact middle – in the league in scoring defense.

Northwestern: A win Saturday against Michigan State jumps the Wildcats up to "for real" status.
What they can do: Keep teams from scoring. Northwestern is third in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 12.4 points. Teams have scored just seven touchdowns against NU.
What they can't do: Score consistently. Northwestern's experienced offense was supposed to be the team's strength this year, but the team is just 10th in scoring offense in the Big Ten.
What they might be able to do: Fix that last stat. C.J. Bacher is just 10th in the league in passing efficiency, but that mark would be a lot better had he not thrown four interceptions against Ohio. Still, he hasn't been spectacular, and neither has talented running back Tyrell Sutton. If either takes a leap forward, then watch out.

Michigan State: The Spartans have rebounded from the loss to Cal, and they'll have the chances to prove how good they are coming up.
What they can do: Give the ball to Javon Ringer and get out of the way. Ringer has 83 more carries than the next closest Big Ten back. He not surprisingly leads the league in yards per game and touchdowns.
What they can't do: Rely on Brian Hoyer to win a game. The senior isn't spectacular given that he's thrown just four touchdowns against three interceptions. If Ringer is shut down, the Spartans are in trouble.
What they might be able to do: Play defense the Mark Dantonio way. Cal certainly didn't have trouble scoring against Michigan State, which has battened down the hatches since then and improved to a points allowed average of 16.2.

Illinois: Last year's Rose Bowl team appears to have taken a step back, but it still could be pretty good once all is said and done.
What they can do: Let Juice Williams make plays. The junior is ninth in the league in rushing with 80.8 yards per game and is second in passing at 243.0. As a result, he's leading the league in total offense and has accounted for 15 touchdowns.
What they can't do: Many things on defense. The Fighting Illini were lit up by both Missouri and Penn State, and they've yet to keep a team below 15 points. The line hasn't done what some thought it would, the linebackers are inconsistent and the secondary isn't doing vaunted cornerback Vontae Davis any favors.
What they might be able to do: Put it together still. If Illinois keeps improving, they can finish 10-2. Head coach Ron Zook liked the team before the campaign, and a defensive improvement will help an offense that can get the job done.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions haven't looked vulnerable, but have they played a very good opponent yet?
What they can do: Score. Penn State has scored 44.8 points per game and has 12 more touchdowns than anyone else in the league. Daryll Clark looks like a solid quarterback, Evan Royster is rushing at a high level and the team's celebrated wideouts are having very good seasons.
What they can't do: Go back in time so they could make Clark the quarterback sooner. That might have helped a lot of the team's problems a year ago.
What they might be able to do: Play defense at a championship level. This was the biggest question mark coming into the year, and whether or not the team is at a high level is still a question given the opposition.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes boast some unbelievable talents, but how will this part veteran, part young team come together during the crucible of Big Ten play?
What they can do: Run the football. With Terrelle Pryor and Chris Wells part of the rushing attack, Ohio State looks like it can run the ball should it commit to the strategy against every remaining opponent.
What they can't do: Win the battle of the line of scrimmage in the passing game. Ohio State is last in sacks made and sacks against in the Big Ten.
What they might be able to do: Put it all together. The Buckeyes are looking for a third straight outright league crown, and the inconsistent team has the talent to make the leap necessary to get there.

Play Of The Week
There's just no viable candidate other than Terrelle Pryor's game-winning touchdown run with just over a minute remaining during the 20-17 truimph over then-No. 18 Wisconsin.

The story getting major play about the play is Wisconsin's apparent confusion at the time of the snap, which didn't help the Badgers. At the same time, you have to give credit to Pryor, who made a fantastic read and run to get OSU the win.

The Buckeyes lined up in the shotgun with Chris Wells in the backfield next to Pryor. Two wideouts were split to the right side, while DeVier Posey was out to the left. Jake Ballard was next to Alex Boone on the line.

At the snap, four Wisconsin players – strongside linebacker DeAndre Levy, middle man Jaevery McFadden, weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas and safety Jay Valai – were scrambling to reach their positions from a cluster in the middle of the field. As Casillas ran toward the weak side of the field, the ball was snapped, effectively taking him out of the play.

Pryor and Wells advanced toward the left side of the field while the line – and Posey, who sealed off cornerback Allen Langford – began to do its job. Boone latched onto end Dan Moore and began leading him toward the sideline with a block that Boone's grandmother later told him probably was holding.

In the middle, Jim Cordle and Michael Brewster didn't have to do much. Cordle at most got in the confused Levy's way, slowing him down as Pryor sped toward the corner. Brewster neared McFadden to lay a block, but Ballard came screaming in from the left side and shoved the Badger into the end zone. Meanwhile, the defensive tackle on the play side of the field, Mike Newkirk, broke inside at the snap, rendering him useless to the UW defense.

The only player Pryor really had to take into account was Valai, who made a beeline for Wells, never considering that the OSU quarterback would keep the ball. Valai hit Wells at the 12-yard line, but Pryor was unscathed as he cut inside and raced toward the goal line. Langford came free enough to hit him at the 1, but Pryor's momentum carried him into the end zone for the all-important score.

Purdue Breakdown
Before the season, I had an inkling that the Boilermakers could be in for a year of struggle during Tiller's final season. Unfortunately for Purdue, that has proven to be true.

A large portion of my concern about Purdue's ability was centered on Curtis Painter, a player with which I was largely unimpressed a year ago. Painter's struggles have come to a head recently after he was benched for Joey Elliott last week against Penn State. Later, Tiller would acknowledge to reporters that his accuracy throwing the football was leaving something to be desired.

That much was obvious against Penn State, as Painter simply didn't put the ball in the right place enough times for the Boilermaker offense to be successful. The final straw was a pass over the middle that was too high for his intended target and that instead was intercepted easily by Drew Astorino.

The best indictment of Painter was painted, so to speak, by Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose blog yesterday included a note that Painter has compiled a career record of 1-12 against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and all other ranked teams. In those 13 games, he has 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Simply put, he has not been a good quarterback against good opposition.

I almost feel bad for Painter, by all accounts a quiet, unassuming and polite senior who is originally from one of my all-time best-named cities, Washington Court House, Ohio. He became the face of a Heisman campaign that before the season seemed like wishful thinking and now seems like an embarrassing reach.

Of course, he can redeem himself against Ohio State, a team that totally controlled what he was trying to do a year ago at night in West Lafayette. To do that, the Buckeyes used some different alignments and put pressure on Painter all night while keeping an eye or two on his No. 1 target, Dorien Bryant.

After watching Penn State, it seemed like the Nittany Lions just weren't impressed with the Boilermakers' passing game. The Nittany Lions varied coverages but for the most part stuck with a nickel package that trusted its players' ability to both make plays in space and stay close to a Boilermaker wideout group that seems to lack a true game-breaker.

Penn State also had a field day stopping Purdue's mostly one-back rushing attack. I think Kory Sheets is a heck of a player, but he simply didn't get past the line of scrimmage on too many carries. The jury is out on Penn State's linebackers to many, but they had a big day against Purdue simply because the Boilermaker offensive linemen had trouble getting to the second level to put a hat on them. As a result, Josh Hull ended with 11 tackles, including two for loss, and Navorro Bowman added seven stops, including two more behind the line.

Sheets finished with 59 yards on 18 carries for a 3.3-yard average. On his best run of the day, freshman Ken Plue was able to get to the second level to block a Penn State linebacker, allowing Sheets to get into the secondary. Once Sheets, who has hit some home runs this year, gets to that point he is dangerous, but that type of play was the exception, not the rule, against Penn State. Ohio State's linebackers could have huge days if the D-line can play as well as Penn State's did.

One of the major themes of the game will be how Ohio State will deal with the one-on-one battles in space. Purdue, like any good spread offense, excels when it can get its playmakers matched up individually against the defense. Sheets is his best when he can get into the open field and shake a man, while the receivers often are matched up thanks to screen passes and stop routes.

Safeties coach Paul Haynes said Ohio State has done well with tackling for the most part this year.

"I would say that we've done a decent job," he said. "We haven't had, knock on wood, a ton of missed tackles. That's one thing that we've emphasized just defensively, period, is our tackling. We did have a couple of weeks where we weren't very good tackling, but last week we were actually pretty decent."

Defensively, the game against Penn State was a mixed bag for the Boilermakers. Penn State piled up 422 yards and at times looked as though it could push Purdue around all day, but the Nittany Lions could finish with only 20 points.

Part of that had to do with the fact that Penn State had only nine drives on the day, a ridiculously small number. The first ended when Purdue's Ryan Baker made a great play to get through the line on a third-and-1 to stop Royster. On the next drive, another third-and-1 was stopped when Royster slipped to the turf before hitting a gaping hole.

From there, PSU went touchdown, field goal, punt (after a 40-yard drive), touchdown, punt (after a 40-yard drive), field goal, end of game. The pace of the game and a couple of drives that got into Purdue territory but stalled just shy of scoring range kept Penn State from adding points to the board even though they moved the ball very well.

Players like Baker and ends Ryan Kerrigan and Alex Magee jumped off the screen for the occasional nice play along the line, but Penn State's line won its fair share of battles as well.

It's easy to see why the linebacker unit is struggling at the moment. Anthony Heygood has the capability to make some plays, but he doesn't have any experience around him. There were plenty of huge holes for Royster to run through, and Penn State's line had little trouble getting to the second level to move the smallish Purdue linebackers.

And Finally…
**A much deserved non-revenue shoutout to the men's golf team, which won the rain-shortened Memphis Intercollegiate Monday. After two rounds on the tournament's opening day Monday, Ohio State held the lead with a team score of plus-12, while senior Vaughn Snyder was atop the individual leaderboard with a score of 2-under. When rain canceled the final day, the results became final and the Buckeyes had the title. OSU has moved into the nation's top 25 with the win, the 158th career tourney victory for head coach Jim Brown, who will be retiring after the season.

**Here in Columbus, Ohio State's 12th-ranked football team isn't the only squad that is experiencing success. The Columbus Crew soccer squad already has clinched the Eastern Conference title and needs just one win in its last three games to clinch the best regular-season record in the game and the Supporters Shield. Columbus is 7-0-1 in its last eight games and hasn't lost in more than two months. The Columbus Blue Jackets begin play tonight believing that they can reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history following a number of solid offseason acquisitions. Not bad for a town that once inspired the local weekly alternative paper to write that the worst team in a town full of losers should win the mythical "Suck Cup" trophy.

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