Penn State (9-2, 6-1) #20 AP/#19 Coaches
The most compelling â€“ if not off-putting â€“ story of the B1G season continued last weekend as the Penn State Nittany Lions continued their star-crossed run through their conference slate, knocking off the favored Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus to move within one game of the division championship.
â€œExcited about the way our team played last week and hung in against a very tough Ohio State team on the road,â€ said interim coach Tom Bradley. â€œThis week we have some big implications going up to Camp Randall Stadium playing against a great team like Wisconsin on both sides of the ball. Itâ€™s going to be daunting but the atmosphere doesnâ€™t get much better than that and weâ€™re looking forward to playing them.â€
As Bradley alluded to, this Saturdayâ€™s contest with Wisconsin will feature a raucous atmosphere, an awful lot of attention and (last but not least) a Badger team that many penciled in at the beginning of the year as the favorite to win the division. Most of the public belief in Wisconsin came from their offenseâ€™s ability to not only beat opponents, but also embarrass them. From the start, Russell Wilson and Montee Ball have done their part to make the Badgers one of the best offenses in the conference. The Penn State linebackers, Devin Still in particular, will be tasked with slowing both of them down.
â€œDevinâ€™s very important,â€ Bradley confirmed. â€œIf weâ€™re going to be able to stop these guys, our front four has got to do an excellent job. Theyâ€™re hard to stunt, theyâ€™re very efficient on offense so Devinâ€™s going to have his work cut out for him.â€
The dichotomy that exists between Wisconsin and the Nittany Lions is compelling. Despite a reputation as an old-school team, the Badgers thrive on scoring a lot of points and scoring them quickly, while Penn State focuses on stopping teams on defense. Bradley commented on the teamsâ€™ stylistic differences.
â€œItâ€™s getting harder and harder (to win with defense),â€ he said. â€œBecause the offenses are so good. Nowadays the defense needs to keep you hanging in until your offense starts going. The days of shutting people out and dominating totally are a long way off from what they used to be when you could go out and do that.â€
Just like their former coach, the Nittany Lionsâ€™ style of play is a throwback to bygone era. Penn State wonâ€™t be favored up in Madison but if they can manage to win this weekend, they could prove that smash-mouth football is still a viable option.
Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2) #15 AP/#12 Coaches
On the other side of the coin is Bret Bielema, the head man for the highly ranked, heavily favored Wisconsin Badgers. Bielemaâ€™s squad had the Leaders crown all but handed to them by the national media after beating down Nebraska to open the conference year, but lost two games in the last minute to find itself in this situation. Not surprisingly for a coach whoâ€™s been so close, so far, and is again within reach, Bielmaâ€™s not taking anything for granted.
â€œWe have a chance to earn a chance to go to the championship game,â€ he said. â€œAnd the only thing in front of us now is Penn State and all that they bring on offense defense and special teams. Itâ€™s going to be a tremendous challenge.â€
For all the credit the Badger offense has gotten, the defense is lead by a stout pair of linebackers â€“ Mike Taylor and Chris Borland â€“ who are leading the conference in tackles.
â€œYou want your linebackers to lead the team in tackles and theyâ€™re actually leading the conference in tackles,â€™ Bielema remarked. â€œBoth are very athletic and have battled through some tribulations. Theyâ€™ve both been through adversity so when theyâ€™re healthy, they play with a little extra motor and theyâ€™re really fun to watch.â€
As locked in as Bielema is, he also has the perspective to sympathize with what Tom Bradley is going through on the opposite sideline while trying to replace Joe Paterno.
â€œIâ€™ve known Tom a long time,â€ he said. â€œHeâ€™s recruited South Florida so Iâ€™ve had a chance to be around him and shoot the breeze with everything but football so I know heâ€™s a good human being. To watch from afar how heâ€™s handled it isnâ€™t surprising to anyone who knows him. Heâ€™s a class act.â€
November 26th will see a game that decides the division championship, but it will also witness a contest between two coaches who deeply respect one another. No matter the result, both teams have worked hard to make it to this point.
May the best team win.
Purdue (5-6, 3-4)
Purdue coach Danny Hope was likely hoping (no pun intended) for his team to take care of business against Iowa on Senior Day at Ross Ade Stadium so as to remove the question of bowl eligibility from the equation. Instead, the Boilers didnâ€™t play to their potential against the Hawkeyes and were forced to swallow a bitter loss in the seniorsâ€™ last game in front of their home crowd.
â€œWe needed to play better to beat a good Iowa team this past Saturday and we did not,â€ said Danny Hope. â€œWe did some things well but not enough. Iowa played hard and were very physical, they were well coached and executed better than our team did across the line of scrimmage. We did some good things but not enough to beat Iowa.â€
The loss wasnâ€™t necessarily surprising, as Purdue has been preposterously inconsistent this season, something Hope was ready to admit and tried to explain.
â€œI think weâ€™ve had inconsistency across the season,â€ he admitted. â€œWeâ€™ve done good things too, won some games, had good play but we started off slower than we wanted to. We had some attrition off the bat, losing our top two quarterbacksâ€¦ We kept things simple early and Caleb (TerBush) kept us out of trouble but he wasnâ€™t as far along. We started slow defensively as well, and weâ€™ve played tough competition on the road. Weâ€™ve been inconsistent for different reasons.â€
Heâ€™s hoping that inconsistency comes to an end this weekend against Indiana, as a loss would not only keep the Old Oaken Bucket in Bloomington for a second straight season, but would also hold the Boilermakers out of postseason play for the fourth straight season. A loss would be devastating for the reasons just mentioned, but a win would be just as much of a boon.
â€œWeâ€™ve had rough sledding, he said. â€œBut a win Saturday lets us have a successful season and it would be a great reward for our team to be able to get involved in postseason play so thereâ€™s a lot on the line. Weâ€™re developing, so postseason play would be great for our team and our program right now.â€
So there it is â€“ a win gives the Purdue football program a much-needed boost and sets the table for desired growth. On the other hand, a loss is a major setback for the program and could leave Coach Hope on the â€˜hot seatâ€™. The game for The Bucket has high-stakes again. What else is new?
Ohio State (6-5, 3-4)
Rivalry week is a little different in Columbus this season, as a usually top-notch Ohio State team has had its fair share of ups and downs, most recently a disappointing Senior Day loss to Penn State. It shouldnâ€™t surprise anyone though to learn that Luke Fickell and his Buckeyes arenâ€™t preoccupied with the past weekâ€™s result, especially considering this weekâ€™s opponent.
â€œMichigan week is what itâ€™s always about,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a one game season, thatâ€™s how weâ€™ve always looked at it and thatâ€™s how weâ€™ll continue to look at it. Theyâ€™re more consistent, theyâ€™ve gotten better statistically on defense and theyâ€™ve been more balanced on offense. Theyâ€™ve got players who have weathered the storm and theyâ€™re a lot more resilient.â€
Fickell has a sizable legacy to live up to, as Jim Tressel went 8-1 against Michigan in his time there and fans arenâ€™t accustomed to losing games to the Wolverines. Despite the pressure that may be on him, Fickell seems to believe his role in the rivalry isnâ€™t as big as itâ€™s made out to be.
â€œIt comes down to playing,â€ he said. â€œYou canâ€™t blame a coach, as a player I didnâ€™t have much success but you canâ€™t point to finger at the coach. It comes down to guys playing, your seniors need to play great in the Michigan game and your great players need to play great in the game.â€
Ohio State hasnâ€™t lived up to expectations this season, but that inconvenient fact could be heavily mitigated with a triumph in what is easily the most important game of the Buckeye season.
â€œThis is always the one game season,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s what people always talk about, thatâ€™s what people remember and thatâ€™s what our guys need to understand. We have guys who have experienced great things in this rivalry and they need to remember what itâ€™s all about.â€
Thereâ€™s no bigger rivalry in the conference â€“ maybe the country â€“ and this weekend itâ€™s renewed once again.
Illinois (6-5, 2-5)
Early in the conference season, there was no team that more greatly exceeded expectations than Illinois. Ron Zookâ€™s Fighting Illini rushed out of the gate to a 6-0 start and a top-25 national ranking. Now, as the season winds down, Illinois has lost five straight games and â€“ after early dreams of a Rose Bowl â€“ is in danger of missing a bowl game entirely in the crowded B1G standings.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing we can do about that,â€ Zook replied. â€œWeâ€™ve just got to go out and win seven. Our guys want to go out and win seven for several reasons and the bowl situation is one of them.â€
One reason for the Illiniâ€™s late-season swoon has been Nathan Scheelhaaseâ€™s declining play. During the six-game winning streak, Scheelhaase threw 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Since the losing streak began, heâ€™s thrown only two touchdowns compared to four interceptions. Heâ€™s struggled enough that Zook has experimented with playing Reilly Oâ€™Toole, a freshman quarterback who hasnâ€™t been any better. Despite Oâ€™Tooleâ€™s struggles, Zook said that while Scheelhaase will see the majority of the time, Oâ€™Toole would see the field.
â€œYouâ€™ll see both,â€ he said. â€œBut I think Nathanâ€™s the guy weâ€™re going to see. It depends on how they practice but I think weâ€™re going to see both of them this week.â€
When asked to evaluate the play of Minnesota, Illinoisâ€™ final opponent, Zook singled out the quarterback position that has given his team so much trouble.
â€œOn offense their quarterback is playing really well,â€ he said.Â â€œTheyâ€™re doing what their players do. When youâ€™re in a new situation you want to do what your players do best. Theyâ€™re playing extremely hard and they keep getting better.â€
Despite the Gophers playing hard, the results have not gone their way this season, as their record stands at only 2-9 and 1-6 in conference.
For people close to either program, this might be a compelling game. From the outside looking in though, itâ€™s a nearly meaningless game between teams with a composite 3-11 conference record.
Feel free to adjust your dials.