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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Week 2 wasn't any better than Week 1 for Big Ten fans. In fact, it was much worse. As stated in the weekly Big Ten recap, the league is 2-7 against BCS conference teams and Notre Dame. Those two wins are Northwestern's victories over Syracuse and Vanderbilt.
The bruised Midwestern egos are hanging in the balance this Saturday, and for many, redemption is a must. Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa all lost and all face tricky tests this weekend against teams they should beat. Don't be surprised if one trips up again.
The best medicine for the Big Ten, though, would be a great showing from Michigan State against Notre Dame...
Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 3:
1. Which Andrew Maxwell shows up this weekend?
If Michigan State is going to pull the upset over Notre Dame, its junior quarterback is going to have to play efficient and consistent football. That means the player who threw for 275 yards, two scores and no interceptions in Week 2 needs to be under center. Not the guy who threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in Week 1. Certainly, Boise State had something to do with his struggles, but Mark Dantonio is going to have to get big plays - and not turnovers - from Maxwell in order to beat a Notre Dame team that has allowed three touchdowns all season. Don't forget that Notre Dame handled the Spartans with relative ease last season, winning 31-13. This game features two of the best front-sevens in football and which first-year starter under center plays the most mistake-free football will likely win.
2. Bret Bielema and staff need to look in the mirror
Everyone knew losing offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was going to be extremely difficult for Wisconsin to overcome. But many glossed over the fact that Bielema had to completely rebuild his coaching staff this offseason as a total of six assistants left for jobs elsewhere. The UW staff didn't waste much time evaluating the new hires either. After the pathetic showing against Oregon State last weekend, Bielema replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson. While two games doesn't feel like the right amount of time to accurately judge his staff, one thing is certain, offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been overmatched. His gameplans have lacked creativity and the numbers have been startling. Try 207 total yards from the Big Ten's most potent offense a year ago against Oregon State. However, it's not just one guy's fault. The offensive line needs to play better, Montee Ball has looked uninspired and Danny O'Brien looks nothing like the player he was as a freshman at Maryland. There is no need to panic (Oregon State is a much improved team this year and UW was closer to an 8-4 team anyway), but the schedule is only getting tougher and a visit from upstart 2-0 Utah State isn't what the doctor ordered. Two non-conference wins before heading to Nebraska to begin Big Ten play is essential for the once-powerful Big Red of Madison.
3. Kirk Ferentz is coaching for his job every weekend
One could make the case Iowa should be 0-2 heading into its Week 3 showdown with Northern Iowa. Wait, a game against an FCS opponent and a Big Ten power is a "showdown?" With the way the Hawkeyes offense has played in two games — 24 total points, 112th in total offense (286.0 ypg) and six sacks allowed — the answer is most assuredly yes. James Vandenberg is a shell of his 2011 self, the offensive line isn't blocking and the skill players aren't making plays. And no one will forget how Northern Iowa nearly beat Wisconsin in Week 1 — or the last time these two met. In 2009, Iowa barely defeated its upstart in-state competition 17-16. Do not overlook the fact that a majority of the Northern Iowa roster likely grew up wishing for a chance to play for the Hawkeyes. Ferentz' job security seems tenuous and every week is important. A loss this Saturday could be nearly impossible to overcome.
4. Weekly Rex Burkhead injury update
The star tailback's injured knee will be one of the biggest storylines of the year if he cannot return soon. This week, he won't be needed against Arkansas State, but he was certainly missed in last week's upset loss to UCLA. Ameer Abdullah has been playing well enough that the Huskers should roll over the Red Wolves this weekend, but head coach Bo Pelini has been hush-hush about his stud running back. He is day-to-day and even if he does return, the plan should be to ease him back into action. Upcoming conference games with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are all vastly more important than Saturday's contest versus Arkansas State. Look for Pelini to do the right thing here and make sure No. 22 is fully healthy before bringing him back onto the field. He can claim all he wants that Burkhead's absence didn't cost Nebraska the UCLA game, but it is hard to believe the All-American running back isn't worth at least six points.
5. Bill O'Brien still looking for first win of his career
Penn State played well last weekend against a well-coached Virginia team. The Nittany Lions were/are shorthanded and they played well above their heads in the heart-breaking loss. If O'Brien wants to galvanize the fan base and notch a few wins this fall, he needs to do some damage over the next month, starting with Navy at home on Saturday. The betting public has its reservations, however, as the line opened at 8.5 in favor of PSU over the Midshipmen, but has since dropped to 5.5. With Temple coming up next weekend, the Lions have a chance to equal their record at 2-2, but a win over Navy is imperative for the psyche of this program.
6. Big Ten bounces back in a big way
Okay, so "big" might be pushing it. However, anytime six teams in a 12-team league lose non-conference games like the league did last week, any victory is big. Purdue lost a heart-breaker and one of its quarterbacks to Notre Dame. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois all return home from the West Coast with their tails between their legs and mid-major programs coming to town. Penn State's chances of winning this weekend have been documented above and Iowa is in complete disarray at the moment. All 12 Big Ten teams are at home this weekend and all 12 are favored to win. A 12-0 week would be just what Jim Delany needs to cure his heartburn.
7. 3-0 against BCS competition
Northwestern faces Boston College at home this weekend. The Wildcats are the only Big Ten team with two wins over BCS conference competition thus far and would obviously be the only team with three such wins if Pat Fitzgerald's bunch can topple the Eagles. No, none of the wins are marquee victories over top 25 competition, but beating an SEC bowl team, an ACC team and Big East team to start the season for a team of Northwestern's stature is nothing to overlook. The defense showed massive improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 and Coach Fitz' squad should be able to handle BC at home.
8. How will Ohio State's secondary play against Cal's passing attack
The cross-country trip to Columbus has Cal more than a two-touchdown underdog to Ohio State. But if there is one area of concern for Urban Meyer this Saturday, it will come on the arm of Zach Maynard and the Golden Bears' passing attack. Through two games, the Buckeyes are ranked 96th nationally against the pass (281.0 ypg). Some of that can be attributed to the two teams trailing in both games, but UCF and Miami (Ohio) aren't exactly world beaters. Cal has a trio of pass-catchers that will stretch the field vertically as Keenan Allen, Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper are talented and over-looked in a league loaded with receiving talent. This might be Cal's only hope to pull off a miraculous upset over Ohio State. Because that Braxton Miller guy could easily run for another 150-plus yards and score four more times.
9. Could it be? Minnesota and Indiana a combined 6-0?
The Gophers and Hoosiers won a combined four games last fall, and through two weeks, they have already matched that total. And there are no signs that anything will change this weekend as Minnesota hosts Western Michigan and Indiana hosts Ball State. However, both of these MAC teams are more than capable of competing, so if both coaches expect to prove to the rest of the league that their starts are less fluke and more sustained growth, these are two games they have to win. This will be much tougher for IU now that starting quarterback Tre Roberson is expected to miss most, if not all, of the season after breaking his leg last weekend. The injury could not have come at a worst time and the Hoosiers must move forward with Cameron Coffman as their starter.
10. Michigan's Achilles Heel is pretty obvious
It won't mean much this weekend against the dramatically overmatched UMass Minutemen, but the yardage being surrendered by the Wolverines' front seven is concerning. Alabama and Air Force took whatever they wanted in the first two weeks and it nearly resulted in an 0-2 start for predicted Big Ten frontrunner Michigan. Certainly, the triple-option will skew stats but 261.0 yards rushing allowed per game is atrocious. Again, it won't play a role in what should be a blowout win over UMass, but this is easily the storyline to track for Brady Hoke's bunch in Week 3.
Week 3 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 3 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|W. Michigan (+2.5) at Minnesota||Minnesota, 31-20||Minnesota, 28-20||Minnesota 31-27||Minnesota, 21-17|
|Arkansas St (+24.5) at Nebraska||Nebraska, 41-24||Nebraska, 37-20||Nebraska 40-24||Nebraska, 35-28|
|Cal (+17) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 45-24||Ohio St, 28-14||Ohio St 34-20||Ohio St, 28-14|
|E. Michigan (+24) at Purdue||Purdue, 31-10||Purdue, 37-15||Purdue 38-13||Purdue, 21-10|
|Charl. Southern at Illinois||Illinois, 34-10||Illinois, 41-10||Illinois 45-7||Illinois, 31-14|
|Navy (+5.5) at Penn St||Penn St, 17-14||Penn St, 17-13||Penn State 27-20||Penn St, 28-14|
|UMass (+46.5) at Michigan||Michigan, 45-10||Michigan, 51-0||Michigan 52-7||Michigan, 42-7|
|N. Iowa at Iowa||Iowa, 21-17||Iowa, 20-17||Iowa 27-20||Iowa, 21-14|
|BC (+3.5) at Northwestern||N'Western, 30-20||N'Western, 30-21||N'Western 31-24||N'Western, 31-17|
|Ball St (+2.5) at Indiana||Indiana, 24-20||Indiana, 21-20||Ball State 31-27||Indiana, 24-17|
|Utah St (+14) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 30-21||Utah St, 24-23||Wisconsin 34-27||Wisconsin, 35-21|
|Notre Dame (+6) at Michigan State||Mich. St, 21-14||Mich. St, 23-21||Mich. St 24-20||Mich. St, 28-21|
by Braden Gall
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