What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.

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