What do you know? The famous saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” rings true once again.
Five weeks have passed in the Big Ten conference race, and the top of the standings has a familiar ring to it. Just like last year, Michigan and Ohio State are the only two teams in the Big Ten without a conference loss. In fact, the Wolverines and Buckeyes are the only Big Ten teams to have fewer than two losses within the Big Ten.
But don’t go circling Nov. 17 – the date No. 1 Ohio State and No. 19 Michigan will play – as the deciding game in the conference race just yet.
We all know what lies ahead for the Wolverines – road games with Michigan State and Wisconsin – but the Buckeyes have a test of their own when they travel to State College to face No. 25 Penn State and its notoriously raucous home crowd Saturday night. A loss there, and the Big Ten race becomes wide open again.
So without further adieu, here’s the two Big Ten games you should be aware of heading into the weekend.
No. 1 Ohio State at No. 25 Penn State, 8 p.m. – ABC
I’m not really sure what to make of this Ohio State team. It clearly isn’t as good as the 2006 version led by Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr. And yet eight weeks into the 2007 season, their records are identical.
Part of that is because of the soft schedule the Buckeyes have navigated through. Their most impressive win up to this point is probably last week’s 24-17 victory over Michigan State.
And in that game, some of Ohio State’s deficiencies were finally revealed. After building a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Buckeye quarterback Todd Boeckman threw an interception and lost a fumble on consecutive possessions, both of which were returned for Spartan touchdowns.
Both were caused by pressure from Michigan State’s front seven, revealing a sieve in the Ohio State offensive line that nobody knew about. So expect a lot of blitzes Saturday from the Nittany Lions’ talented linebacking corps led by senior Dan Connor.
But Ohio State’s offense doesn’t need to be perfect – not with a defense allowing just six points per contest, excluding Michigan State’s two scores off giveaways.
That doesn’t bode well for a Penn State offense led by inconsistent quarterback Anthony Morelli, who hasn’t progressed as many thought he would as a senior. And it can’t help that the Nittany Lions starting running back at the beginning of the season – senior Austin Scott – is suspended indefinitely because of impending rape charges.
But lest we forget, the last time Ohio State stepped into the unfriendly confines of Beaver Stadium in 2005, it lost a 17-10 heartbreaker at night that catapulted Penn State to the Big Ten title that year. After the game, Buckeye apologist and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called the Nittany Lions’ faithful “the best home-field advantage in the country.”
Since becoming coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel has lost two of three in Happy Valley, and something tells me Saturday will make it three out of four. Troy Smith had trouble handling the crowd two years ago, so I certainly don’t trust Boeckman against the boisterous Penn State faithful, who will be liquored up and wild under the bright lights. This could be the defining moment for Morelli, the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten from the state of Pennsylvania behind Chad Henne, of course.
Penn State 20, Ohio State 14
Indiana at Wisconsin, Noon – Big Ten Network
The Badgers are the perfect example of underestimating the importance of a veteran quarterback. They collected all sorts of preseason accolades because they returned so many starters from a one-loss team a year ago.
But everyone forgot about quarterback John Stocco. While not overly impressive, Stocco kept pass defenses honest a year ago and allowed running back P.J. Hill to run wild.
Although Hill has amassed more than 1,000 yards already this season, he couldn’t crack 100 yards in either of Wisconsin’s consecutive losses to Illinois and Penn State. In the defeats, new quarterback Tyler Donovan was far from impressive, throwing two interceptions in both games.
The Badgers rebounded last week against Northern Illinois, but a loss against the Hoosiers eliminates any chance of returning to the Big Ten title race. A win, coupled with my predicted Ohio State upset, puts the Badgers right back in it with upcoming games against the Buckeyes and Michigan.
I don’t expect Wisconsin to overlook the very capable Hoosiers, especially after its 38-7 thrashing at the hands of the Nittany Lions two weeks ago.
Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis will surely make things interesting with his multi-dimensional game as a passer and runner. But I think the Badgers realize they have the opportunity to redeem themselves in upcoming weeks, so overconfidence shouldn’t be an issue.
Wisconsin 31, Indiana 17
Expect Iowa to take advantage of visiting Michigan State. The Spartans will be looking ahead to next week’s matchup with measuring stick Michigan. Look for Purdue to get its usual victory over an inferior team like Northwestern. And Illinois should get back on track against David Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State.