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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Things didn't exactly play out the way most expected in Week 1 of the Big Ten season. Penn State's emotional roller coaster continued and doesn't look to be slowing anytime soon. Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota escaped upset bids. And Michigan was thoroughly man-handled by the defending champions. More importantly, however, some key injuries could shape the Big Ten landscape for weeks to come.
Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 2:
1. Will Rex Burkhead play and will it cost the Huskers a win?
Other than possibly Ohio State, no team in the Big Ten gained more confidence about its 2012 championship hopes than Nebraska. Taylor Martinez was excellent and the defense did just enough to breeze past reigning C-USA champ Southern Miss while Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa struggled. However, some key injuries could impact the Big Red's Week 2 outlook. Star tailback Rex Burkhead left the game with a knee issue and is listed as questionable for the UCLA game as of Thursday morning. UCLA looked outstanding under new coach Jim Mora Jr. and new quarterback Brett Hundley provided a much-needed spark on offense. The Bruins have had a long week to prepare for Nebraska and stand a much better chance of winning at home than previously expected. If Burkhead plays, Nebraska should win a close one. If the heart and soul of the Big Red offense does not play, all bets are off.
2. How will the bruised Michigan run defense handle the option?
More than just the Maize and Blue egos got bruised last weekend in Dallas. Taylor Lewan left the game with a knee injury (but should be back) and starting corner Blake Countess is out for the season. Michigan's defensive line was the major concern heading into this season and Alabama's 232-yard performance on the ground only highlighted those issues. Now, Greg Mattison's defense is charged with stopping Air Force's triple-option offense that rolled-up 484 yards rushing last week. Idaho State certainly isn't Michigan, but the option always causes trouble to those who are unaccustomed to facing it. The Wolverines should win fairly easily as Denard Robinson should get back on track, but keep a close eye on how the front seven plays this Saturday.
3. The battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy
Week 2 in the Big Ten features many intriguing interconference match-ups, but none will carry as much emotion as the Iowa State-Iowa showdown in Iowa City. The Cyclones haven't won on the road in this series since 2002 but this Saturday will provide their best chance in years. Iowa's offense was rather inept last week against Northern Illinois while ISU scoffed at Vegas' odd-makers who pinned Tulsa as a 1.5-point favorite last week (Iowa State won 38-23). This game was a thrilling 3-OT victory by State in Ames last season and this season's meeting could feature another tight finish.
4. No rest for the weary Nittany Lions
It was a tough weekend for Penn State fans. Their embattled football program took a 14-3 halftime lead and Matt McGloin looked like a real quarterback. But then starting tailback Bill Belton got hurt and Ohio signal caller Tyler Tettleton went to work. Unfortunately, there is no rest for Bill O'Brien in Week 2 as a trip to Charlottesville looms large. Virginia has been markedly improved over the past few seasons and the Cavaliers defeated Richmond 43-19 in their opener last weekend. The two-headed backfield monster of Kevin Parks and Perry Jones helped UVa pile up 545 yards of offense, so PSU will have to be even better on offense this week than it was in the loss to Ohio. A tall order against a well-coached team that, as shocking as this sounds, simply has more talent.
5. Will Nathan Scheelhaase play against the Sun Devils?
The second major injury to keep track of this week will be that of Illinois' starting quarterback. He looked sharp in the early going last Saturday but left the game in the third quarter and the Illini offense came to a screeching halt. Tim Beckman said his QB needed to practice by Wednesday in order to play, but as of Wednesday evening, Scheelhaase's status was still up in the air. Meanwhile, Arizona State dropped 63 points and 554 yards of offense under new head coach Todd Graham and new quarterback Taylor Kelly. The Xs and Os match-up of the nation's No. 1 rushing defense that held Western Michigan to minus-6 yards and the Sun Devils' three-headed ground attack should be fun to watch. Keep an eye on ASU freshman DJ Foster, who touched the ball 12 times for 99 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in his first college game. That said, coaching may not matter if Beckman is forced to go to battle with Riley O'Toole under center.
6. Notre Dame begins Big Ten schedule with Boilermakers
The Fighting Irish looked as good as they have in six years in their 50-10 win over Navy in Dublin, Ireland last weekend. However, the schedule gets much tougher for ND as it begins a three-week Big Ten slate this weekend against Purdue. A quarterback controversy could be brewing in West Lafayette as Caleb TerBush returns from suspension this week after watching Robert Marve carve up the Eastern Kentucky defense in Week 1. Settling on a signal caller has to be a top priority for Danny Hope if he expects to pull the upset. Keep an close eye on how these two QBs play this week against a nasty ND front seven. On defense, the Boilers struggled to stop the Irish rushing attack in the 38-10 loss last year as they allowed 287 yards on the ground to Brian Kelly's bunch. Eastern managed only 190 yards of total offense last weekend against Purdue, giving the Boilermakers the top total defense in the Big Ten after one week. But while Purdue is improved on defense, there is a reason Notre Dame is a two-touchdown favorite.
7. SAT Bowl eligibility
Northwestern and Vanderbilt are two of the most prestigious academic institutions in this great country. But, of late, these two programs are achieving on the football field at unprecedented levels. So as two rising programs scrap and claw for bowl eligibility each year, a win this weekend over the other could be the difference between playing in the postseason or sitting at home during Christmas. Vandy endured a tough home SEC loss to South Carolina in the rain last Thursday while the Wildcats overcame an atrocious second-half collapse to beat Syracuse on the road. Both offenses have big-time play-makers, so offense should be plentiful in this key swing contest.
8. Big Ten heads out to the West Coast
Notre Dame and Virginia offer some interesting East Coast non-conference tests for Big Ten teams, but most fans will be watching the Western seaboard this Saturday. Illinois heads to Arizona State, Nebraska heads to UCLA and Wisconsin heads to Oregon State in a trio of Pac-12/Big Ten showdowns. All three games could be toss-ups and one league could exit Week 2 with a decided head-to-head advantage. The Huskers and Badgers have Big Ten title hopes and have to show well in these type of road tests if they expect to be in Indianapolis at season's end.
9. Look for improved play from Andrew Maxwell
Le'Veon Bell was a workhorse. The defense was stout. Now, Mark Dantonio needs the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place. New quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in 38 pass attempts in his first game as the Spartans starter. Certainly, Dantonio doesn't want his first-year starter throwing the ball that much, but when he does, Maxwell needs to be more efficient. Against a Central Michigan team that allowed 27 points against Southeast Missouri State last week, he should be able to find more windows to throw. It could be a long day for the Chippewas.
10. Minnesota, Indiana should start 2-0
The Golden Gophers and Hoosiers combined for four total wins last season. After two weeks of action, these two could easily match that total. With a win over UMass, Kevin Wilson would double his win total from last year while New Hampshire should pose little threat to Minnesota. These four wins wouldn't mean postseason play is in sight this fall, but it would be a sign of progress for both.
Week 2 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 2 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|New Hampshire at Minnesota||Minnesota, 31-17||Minnesota, 34-20||Minnesota, 34-24||Minnesota, 28-17|
|Penn St (+10) at Virginia||Virginia, 28-13||Virginia, 27-14||Virginia, 27-17||Virginia, 27-10|
|UCF (+18) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 41-17||Ohio St, 31-14||Ohio St, 38-13||Ohio St, 35-10|
|Indiana (-14) at UMass||Indiana, 24-17||Indiana, 28-7||Indiana, 38-10||Indiana, 21-7|
|Iowa St (+5) at Iowa||Iowa, 27-21||Iowa St, 21-20||Iowa, 27-24||Iowa St, 21-17|
|Purdue (+14) at Notre Dame||Notre Dame, 35-24||Notre Dame, 28-17||Notre Dame, 31-20||Notre Dame, 24-21|
|Air Force (+21) at Michigan||Michigan, 38-20||Michigan, 37-17||Michigan, 40-17||Michigan, 28-13|
|Michigan St (-22) at C. Michigan||Mich. St, 35-3||Mich. St, 38-10||Mich. St, 38-10||Mich. St, 42-10|
|Wisconsin (-8) at Oregon St||Wisconsin, 27-17||Wisconsin, 28-17||Wisconsin, 34-24||Wisconsin, 21-14|
|Nebraska (-5.5) at UCLA||UCLA, 24-21||Nebraska, 27-21||Nebraska, 31-27||Nebraska, 35-28|
|Vanderbilt (-3.5) at Northwestern||Vanderbilt, 41-38||Vanderbilt, 34-24||Vanderbilt, 34-27||Vanderbilt, 38-35|
|Illinois (+3.5) at Arizona St||Arizona St, 24-21||Arizona St, 30-24||Arizona St, 30-27||Illinois, 28-14|
by Braden Gall
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