Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Iowa and Penn State all bounced back in Week 3 with wins. The problem, however, is that Utah State was the best win of the bunch and it took a missed field goal as time expired for the Badgers to hold on to the win.
Otherwise, the tragic story continues for the Big Ten as Michigan State got man-handled against Notre Dame in the marquee showdown of the weekend. It wasn't pretty and to top it all off, Ball State defeated Indiana to wrap up the week of action.
This weekend does not offer a large slate of compelling games either as all but one team is at home and all but one is favored to win over middling competition. That one road team, however, is in for a nationally televised battle in the final noteworthy non-conference game of the year for the Big Ten.
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 4:
1. Denard Robinson vs. Notre Dame's front seven
Brian Kelly has clearly reinvented the Irish defense. Notre Dame enters the game ranked eighth nationally in scoring defense at 10.0 points per game allowed and has already held three solid opponents to less than 300 yards of offense per game (288.7 ypg, 18th nationally). Meanwhile, Robinson has bounced back from the loss to Alabama in fine fashion with 324 yards rushing and eight total touchdowns in two wins. Shoelace is 3-0 against ND (2-0 as a starter) and should be the best player on the field Saturday night. But staying on the field against that big, physical, nasty Irish front seven might be easier said than done. This is where the game figures to be won or lost.
2. Enjoy this great rivalry while you can
We all remember the way the this game finished last season. Robinson capped a miraculous final quarter with an improbable game-winning touchdown heave that made the 2011 edition of Michigan-Notre Dame one of the greats in the series' illustrious history. But for how much longer will these two Midwest rivals square off? The Irish recently joined the ACC in all of its other sports and could be playing its five-team ACC football schedule as soon as 2014. This could mean the end of Big Ten-ND play. This series is set to play until 2017 before a break — which could become a permanent one — to one of the great rivalries in college football. So enjoy it while you can.
3. Rex Burkhead returns to the field
Nebraska fans could not be more excited to welcome back starting tailback Rex Burkhead. He was back at practice on Monday and should get some snaps this weekend against lowly Idaho State. But don't expect a heavy workload as Bo Pelini, who also returns to the sidelines this weekend, will likely ease his running back into action. Get him some contact, maybe get him into the endzone, and then turn it over to the capable hands of Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard.
4. Who will start at quarterback?
Pick a Big Ten town, any Big Ten town. Wisconsin watched Danny O'Brien un-inspire his way to the bench and Joel Stave has taken the majority of first-team reps this week. Neither was good last week, but Stave has more upside and could kick-start the lethargic Badgers offense. Down in Chicago, Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter are having the opposite time under center than up in Madison. Both Northwestern signal callers have been productive and both are still battling for time. An MRI on Minnesota's MarQueis Gray's left leg revealed no damage to the knee but a high ankle sprain could press Max Shortell into action this week. He actually ignited the offense last week and should be able to find space in the Orange secondary. Finally, down at Illinois...
5. Nathan Scheelhaase expects to play
If it were up to him, he would be the starting quarterback against "as good a team as we've seen." The quarterback hasn't played since Week 1 and is giving Louisiana Tech a healthy amount of respect. As he should with a team that has scored 112 points in two games. Head coach Tim Beckman hasn't announced who will start as of Thursday morning but he has admitted that his starting QB is "close to 100%." This is a tricky game for Illinois' defense and the Fighting Illini need No. 2 under center if they wish to emerge victorious against the defending WAC champs.
6. What is wrong with the Wisconsin offense?
Certainly, quarterback play has been less than adequate. Matt Canada's switch to Stave hopefully will help. But the offensive line has been as big, if not a bigger, issue for this unit. Bret Bielema made a switch after two games, firing Mike Markuson and elevating 27-year old Bart Miller to the position. The line was slightly better against Utah State than it was against Oregon State — but not by much. Four times this team failed to convert on third-and-2 or less and had four penalties (three holding, one false start). This defense has been solid, but dead last in the Big Ten in scoring (113th nationally) and total offense (276.0 ypg) is completely unacceptable in Madtown.
6. Big Ten tries to improve BCS record
The league's record against AQ teams and Notre Dame hasn't been pretty. Against BCS conference teams and the Irish, the Big Ten is a well-documented 4-8. And while Week 4 isn't a huge weekend in the Big Ten, there are some key match-ups that Big Ten faithful need to help them sleep. Illinois will be pushed to the limit by La. Tech, Penn State can't lose to Temple for the first time since 1941 and Minnesota will have its toughest test with Syracuse coming to town. And by the way, Michigan heads to South Bend. A 4-0 mark in those games would stabilize a league teetering on the brink of obscurity this fall.
7. Lots of work for Ohio State in final tune-up
The Bucks open up Big Ten play in Week 5 with a road trip to East Lansing before welcoming Nebraska to the Horseshoe the following week. This means that Urban Meyer needs to iron out several kinks this weekend against UAB. Jordan Hall and the running game has to get more consistent. The pass rush and secondary needs to build on its six-sack performance last weekend. And the defense has to tackle better. All of these issues will come to light in conference play, so this Saturday is the final chance to correct these problems. One thing Meyer doesn't have to fix? His quarterback. Braxton Miller refuses to allow the Buckeyes to lose.
8. Weisman for Heisman!
How can you resist not screaming that at the top of your lungs if you are in the stands at Kinnick Stadium this weekend? He pushed Iowa to victory last week by scoring three touchdowns — two more than any other Hawkeye this season... combined. The passing game is completely inept with no touchdown tosses in three games, and so the offense will likely lean once again on the ground game this weekend. The big fullback had two career rushing attempts before carrying the load 23 times for 113 yards in the win over Northern Iowa and should once again get plenty of touches even with Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon set to return from injury. Heck, three more touchdowns this week and this rhyme may not be that far-fetched.
Week 4 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 4 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|UTEP (+17.5) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 30-20||Wisconsin, 24-10||Wisconsin, 38-13||Wisconsin, 21-10|
|C. Michigan (+16) at Iowa||Iowa, 28-10||Iowa, 38-10||Iowa, 34-10||Iowa, 24-9|
|UAB (+37) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 45-10||Ohio St, 44-3||Ohio St, 45-7||Ohio St, 42-14|
|S. Dakota at Northwestern||N'Western, 45-10||N'Western, 41-13||N'Western, 41-7||N'Western, 35-10|
|Temple (+9) at Penn St||Penn St, 21-14||Penn St, 24-13||Penn St, 24-20||Penn St, 28-17|
|Idaho St at Nebraska||Nebraska, 41-7||Nebraska, 51-3||Nebraska, 51-7||Nebraska, 38-7|
|E. Michigan (+33) at Michigan St||Mich. St, 41-10||Mich. St, 30-10||Mich. St, 45-13||Mich. St, 28-10|
|Michigan (+5.5) at Notre Dame||Michigan, 28-27||Notre Dame, 24-21||Notre Dame, 27-24||Notre Dame, 35-28|
|Syracuse (+2) at Minnesota||Syracuse, 34-28||Syracuse, 41-39||Syracuse, 31-27||Syracuse, 31-17|
|Louisiana Tech (off) at Illinois||Illinois, 27-21||La. Tech, 31-23||Illinois, 27-24||La. Tech, 35-27|
by Braden Gall
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