Surprise! Big Ten big on running, defense
With the 113th Big Ten season getting under way on Saturday, it's a good time to gauge the trends that are affecting the conference.
League teams are 31-8 in non-conference games. There have been some high points in the young season (Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin are unbeaten) and some low ones (Michigan's 1-2 start under Rich Rodriguez, Ohio State's embarrassing 35-3 loss at top-ranked Southern California).
A quick look at the NCAA statistics gives some insight into what to expect over the next couple of months:
- The Big Ten remains a running conference. Five teams are ranked among the top 30 in rushing among the 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, led by Penn State at No. 8 and Indiana a notch below that. In terms of passing, no conference team ranks among the top 25 in the nation.
- Trouble for the Big Two? Michigan and, surprisingly, Ohio State, have gotten off to slow starts. The Wolverines rank 88th in rushing and 105th in total offense. The Buckeyes are 3-1 but have beaten up on lesser lights. The Buckeyes rank No. 104 in the nation in passing and are No. 92 in total offense.
- The conference still is stout on defense. Six Big Ten teams rank among the top 24 in scoring defense, led by Iowa at No. 5 and Penn State at No. 9.
MESKO ON MONEY: Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko, a business-school student, was asked to explain what is happening in the troubled American markets:
"Basically the Wall Street era is over. The government has regulated some things on them, which means they're going to be taking less risk, so less profit," he said.
Asked for a prediction, to much laughter he added: "What am I projecting? Well, Morgan Stanley is up 10 percent this morning; I checked my portfolio. Yeah, I think it's something that will affect the market in the long run because people will be taking less risk. But people tend to forget about things that happened in the past. I believe 10 years down the road, we'll be back on track."
TOO MANY PICKS: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has been preaching ball security to his team and it paid off with only two turnovers in the first three games.
But Northwestern took a step back against Ohio when it turned the ball over five times, including four interceptions by quarterback C.J. Bacher, who had gone 11 straight quarters without an interception.
"I thought Saturday was a little out of character for the entire offense with the way we turned the ball over," Fitzgerald said.
THE GREENE MONSTER: Iowa's quarterback situation has been in flux since the opener, with sophomore Ricky Stanzi set to get his third start Saturday against Northwestern. That's why the emergence of running back Shonn Greene has been so critical to the offense.
Greene, who didn't play football last fall while attending junior college, is eighth in the nation with 126.5 rushing yards per game. He's the first Iowa back to rush for over 100 yards in four straight games since 2005, and he's done it by averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
Asked where the Hawkeyes would be if Greene hadn't rejoined the team, Ferentz responded with some of his trademark dry humor.
"I didn't think about that. I didn't think about our plane crashing the other day either," Ferentz said. "I try to avoid topics like that. I have enough things that are bringing me down."
BAD RETURNS: No. 12 Penn State's offense has been superb in the early going, while the defense has shut down opponents. Special teams have not been special, at least when it comes to kickoff coverage.
The Nittany Lions allowed Temple 36.8 yards a kickoff return last week, including a 74-yarder to Travis Shelton.
There's more potential trouble this week against No. 22 Illinois and dangerous return man Arrelious Benn. In last season's victory over Penn State, Benn had a 90-yard kickoff return for a score that swung the momentum.
"They ran right down our throats for a touchdown on the kickoff," Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno said of the 2007 game. "We're going to work hard on it this week and try to do a little better job, if we can."
LICKING HIS CHOPS: You can't blame Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer if he's salivating over the prospect of playing Indiana on Saturday.
MSU backs have made it a habit of picking on the Hoosiers: three of the top five rushing days ever for a Spartan have come against IU.
Ringer, who has carried 30 times more than anyone in the Football Bowl Subdivision, could become the first player to be named Big Ten player of the week four times in a row. Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny won defensive honors three weeks in a row in 2005.
THE TARGET: Minnesota's Eric Decker has quickly become the conference's top pass catcher, leading the way with 32 receptions, 454 yards and four TDs. He has caught more than 40 percent of Adam Weber's passes.
Coach Tim Brewster has repeatedly dismissed questions about whether the offense is too reliant on Decker.
"If I was the opponent, I would concentrate on Eric Decker," Brewster said. "People say to me, 'Why don't you throw to other people?' If Decker's open, we're going to throw him the ball. It's that simple."
QUICK-HITTERS: The rest of this week's schedule: Minnesota at No. 14 Ohio State, Northwestern at Iowa, No. 9 Wisconsin at Michigan and Purdue at Notre Dame. ... Sharing Big Ten defensive player of the week honors were Northwestern DE Vince Browne and Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, with Northwestern K Amado Villarreal the honoree on special teams. ... Lame-duck coach Joe Tiller moved to 85-55 with a 32-25 win over Central Michigan last week, making him Purdue's wins leader.
AP Sports Writers Luke Meredith, Dave Campbell, Rick Gano, Genaro Armas and Associated Press Writers David Mercer contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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