So, for the most part, Big Ten football the 2009 edition is upon us! Huzzah! Three yards and a cloud of dust, power football, conservative gameplans, DEFENSE! AHH! The way football was meant to be played right? Or was I simply describing the Nebraska/VT and Florida/Tennessee games from over the weekend? You be the judge. Forgive my tangent, anyways after months and months (and more months for us Michigan fans) we finally have some on-field product to evaluate! The leaves here in the Midwest are starting to hint that October is indeed right around the corner, and with it a new chapter of the football season awaits. Sure it's still early, but at least there are plays and results and trends that can at least be noticed at this early juncture of our season.
So with conference play mere days away (except of course for you Purdue), why not take a quick look at this week's matchups and where the teams find themselves at this juncture?
Iowa @ #4/5 Penn State - This being, by far, the most intriguing match-up in the conference this week, I'm going to delve a little deeper into this one than the others. For further reading please refer to the excellent leading blogs for both teams: Black Shoe Diaries and Black Heart Gold Pants. Alright, so I think it's fairly safe to say, without upsetting the constituents of either program, that neither team can feel entirely comfortable that they "know what they've got" so far this year. Penn State has looked comfortable in all of its matchups thus far, but no single performance has been the dominating one that many likely expected when glancing at the non-conference schedule. Iowa managed to survive one of the single oddest sequences I can remember in college football against Northern Iowa and has since managed to take care of business against ISU and Arizona. Let's look at the matchup shall we? Respecitve national rankings:
Penn State's defense has done exactly what it was supposed to do against it's opponents thus far, of course this is what one would hope for when playing the 106th, 100th, and 74th total offenses in the country respectively. Meanwhile Iowa has come up against the 5th best offense in FCS, as well as FBS' 55th and 39th total offenses respectively. I don't think I'd be stretching it too much to say that Iowa has been tested a little more than Penn State, but I have a real hard time faulting any team that's given up less than a TD a game thus far. Of course, Happy Valley's mood likely will also swing on the statuses of Bowman and Lee.
Penn State has faced the 54th, 89th, and 73rd ranked total defenses thus far in their schedule. Iowa has come up against *20th (FCS), 84th, and 14th ranked total defenses thus far.
So yes, lies, damn lies, and statistics I know. It's being kind to say that Penn State has played effectively nobody while Iowa has played... well they've played Arizona. The key questions that jump out from that analysis? If the Penn State D is in fact that good (and if their LBs are healthy) will Iowa be able to move the football? On the other side of the coin, how is that Nittany Lion O-line going to perform? Will Penn State be able to move the ball on the ground or is Daryll Clark going to be forced to make plays to move his team down the field? A few intangibles to add in here: Penn State and their homogeneously attired crowd will be ready to go Saturday night after watching their MNC chances fade into the darkness last year in Iowa City, they also have a nice 24 for the last 24 streak going for them at home against unranked opponents. Curiously, since Iowa upset Penn State last November, they themselves are undefeated @ 7-0. Iowa also has created their own amount of Michigan voodoo against JoePa, winning 6 of the last 7 meetings. The visiting team has 13 of the 21 meetings and Kirk Ferentz is 6-2 against PSU in his career... Including an EPIC 6-4 eye-gouger back in 2004. Penn State finds themselves a double digit favorite at this juncture (-11), but I'd be curious to see if the general mood of the fanbases matches that line. From this standpoint, I don't see a double-digit victory in the mix, but hey, I've been wrong before.
#22/23 Michigan vs Indiana - IU blog Crimson Quarry has their breakdown of the match-up posted as well. Let me just get this out of the way to start: fair warning to everyone... this game is on ESPN2 which means, yes you guessed it, Pam Ward. Sigh. But, BUT! No Andre Ware!!! So it's a trade off you see? I really wish I could somehow stream the Beckmann/Brandstatter broadcast in-sync with the TV. This will be the 60th time the Hoosiers and Wolverines have clashed, with Michigan holding a slight edge in the series at 50-9... and is 30 for the last 31 (last dropping one to the Hoosiers in 1987). Interestingly the Michigan game notes are incorrect in stating that Michigan has won its last 23 home conference openers, seeing as how we lost our first conference home game to Minnesota in 2005. Perhaps they're really having fun with stats and mean true conference openers... at home? Who knows. Last pointless historical anecdote of this writeup (maybe): anyone care to guess the last time Michigan played in front of crowd smaller than 100,000 at home? October 25th, 1975 against Indiana, the Wolverines prevailed 55-7 in front of a meager 93,857.
Anyways, on to the matchup: Defenses:
Also of note, Indiana is 17th in the nation in sacks thus far this year. Who have they faced? Michigan has gone up against the 94th, 14th, and 109th total offenses in the country thus far this year (yowza). IU has clashed with the *42nd (FCS), 94th (woo common opponent woo!), and 106th total offenses this year. Michigan's pass defense comes in at a HOLY GOD 111th which, well, there's just no sugar coating that one. Both teams faced Western, with Michigan giving up 7 points in the opener and IU surrendering 19 points the following week. Overall this will be as stout of a Hoosier defense as we have faced in a long time. Their defensive ends, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton are seriously solid players, Kirlew's honors list especially stands out (Ted Hendricks DE of the year watch list, Bednarik watch list, Lombardi watch list, Sporting News 1st team All-Big Ten, Athlon Sports 1st team All-Big Ten). With Michigan having to replace starting center David Molk, the offensive line is going to have its job cut out for it Saturday.
What about the offenses?
Michigan has gone up against the 100th, 96th, and 79th total defenses in the country and has played pretty much accordingly. Indiana has faced the *43rd (FCS), 100th, and 54th total defenses. In the common opponent category, IU put up 23 points against Western while Michigan put up 31 against the Broncos (albeit all of them in the first half). Of note, Michigan's lack of a need to actually throw the football against Eastern last week dropped the passing attack from 61st in the country to that 97th ranking you see now.
Michigan finds themselves a 3 touchdown favorite heading into this game. The main concerns I have are dealing with Indiana's excellent defensive ends, who between them own 40 career sacks. I actually got to watch IU's opening win against Eastern Kentucky as it was FAR more entertaining than the South Carolina vs North Carolina State snoozefest that was going on at the same time. Chappell is not the most mobile of QBs out of this new pistol attack, but he does have a couple of decent outside receivers in Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher. I would imagine that Donovan Warren will line up on Doss and Boubacar Cissoko on Belcher, although as Belcher is 6'5'' I am curious to see how the Michigan secondary handles the coverage... and by curious I really mean, somewhat nervous, we haven't really given our corners a ton of safety support thus far in the season. IU will easily be the second best team, from a talent standpoint, that we have faced this year, and with road trips looming to East Lansing and Iowa City the next two weeks, it's unbelievably important that the Wolverines not get caught looking ahead here.
A quick check of the pulse of the Michigan fan base reveals a near universal raised eyebrow regarding the defense. Two positions have featured prominent play from walk-ons, the depth is razor thin in many spots, and a number of guys thought to be big-time contributors in the preseason have not quite stepped up to expected form yet. That's not to say there haven't been pleasant surprises (Roh), but I think it would go a long ways to see the Michigan D return to the opening game form in terms of fundamental execution. Tackling guys on first contact, filling gaps, not over-pursuing, etc. I have little concern regarding the passing attack despite what the national media has been saying this week, Michigan's offensive skill players are going to present mismatches across the field, and I would love to see us continue to work the ball to Kevin Koger as much as possible. Another key matchup will be to watch the field position battle as Indiana has one of the worst net-punting rankings in the nation (95th).
Again, I think the primary concern here is that I would like to see the Michigan defense put in 60 minutes against an opponent. Our second halves have been, for the most part, very solid defensive efforts, but it would be awfully reassuring to see a complete game out of this unit heading into the conference slate.
#11/13 Ohio State vs Illinois - Which Juice Williams shows up? Does he show up at all or does Eddie McGee step in? Without Arrelious Benn does it even matter? Which Terrelle Pryor shows up? Will Tressel continue to assuage Buckeye fans by letting his uber-recruit QB run the football? Ohio State favored by 15 and I see no reason to doubt that one, Buckeyes roll.
Purdue vs Notre Dame - I wish I foresaw this one going better for the Boilers, but I don't. Even without Michael Floyd I think ND is going to march up and down the field on Purdue, who's defense hasn't exactly been stout thus far this year (100th overall, 101st in scoring). ND's O-line will max protect all day and give Clausen time to do his best Kurt Kittner impression, lob the ball towards the sidelines time and time again. It will be interesting to see if Purdue's offense can get Bolden on track and make an attempt to control the clock, but this is one where I don't quite understand the spread only being 7 for ND. Yes, yes 3 points for home field and all, but again, I think there are a LOT of matchup problems here for the Boilermakers.
Minnesota @ Northwestern - Minnesota hung tough against Cal until a late pick sealed their fate, and you have to love Decker. Northwestern appears to have been walking a tightrope all season. Without delving deep into anything at all I'll take the Gophers in this one.
Michigan State @ Wisconsin - My only point here is that I'll be very, read VERY interested to see how Sparty responds after the last two weeks. For the chic preseason conference pick by many, a 1-3 start would have to rank up there with one of the bigger surprises of the year, plus it would put Dantonio that much closer to the ledge heading into the Michigan game in two weeks. I won't even comment on Wisconsin playing Wofford, and yes, I know we have Delaware State on the schedule (single tear down cheek here).
So there you have it, the Big 10 season officially underway on Saturday!!! Go Blue!