Tradition takes a back seat in the Big Ten

Originally Published: October 12, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Few leagues are as rife with traditionalists as the Big Ten, and it has been a jarring fall for those folks. Instant replay is in effect, and neither Michigan nor Ohio State command the lead story lines at the midway point of the season.

But at least Joe Paterno is no longer having to chase officials off the field. And the league has not disbanded without maize-and-blue or scarlet-and-gray as the dominant color schemes.

  Can Northwestern contain Michigan's balanced attack? Will injuries finally catch up to the Hawkeyes? Will Michigan State QB Drew Stanton return this season? Our Big Ten notebook answers these questions and more.
  • Inside the Big Ten
  • The Big Ten is plugging along decently right now on the strength of Kyle Orton's right arm and Wisconsin's defense.

    The Purdue quarterback is a live candidate to deliver his school's first Heisman Trophy winner after three runner-ups (Bob Griese, Leroy Keyes and Mike Phipps). After three straight road victories, Orton has taken the 5-0 Boilermakers to No. 5 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, their highest ranking in 25 years.

    And Wisconsin's 'D' looks even better than the 1998 and '99 units that helped take the Badgers to consecutive Rose Bowls. Ohio State became the first opponent to break double digits against 6-0 Wisconsin last Saturday, but still could get no higher than 13. Last time opponents scored fewer than 39 points on the Badgers through six games: 1951.

    Now those two headline entities are coming together in a showdown game in West Lafayette on Saturday.

    The winner of that classic offense-vs.-defense battle (Purdue is No. 3 nationally in total offense, the Badgers No. 1 in total defense) becomes the Big Ten's leading -- and perhaps only -- national championship contender. But there will be much work yet to do in the second half of the season.

    Purdue has its three toughest games still ahead, but all are in Ross-Ade Stadium: Wisconsin Saturday, Michigan Oct. 23 and Ohio State Nov. 13. Wisconsin has Purdue, then gets Minnesota at home and bypasses Michigan altogether.

    But watch out for both the one-loss teams skulking just off radar: Michigan, which is unbeaten in league play, and Minnesota, which narrowly missed its chance to win in the Big House. By winning percentage, Penn State is the only Big Ten team with an easier remaining schedule than the Wolverines and Gophers.

    Which means there is hope yet for traditionalists. If Michigan keeps winning, the league title again could be in play when the Wolverines visit Ohio State Nov. 20.

    Biggest Surprise
    Nobody has shocked the world yet in the Big Ten. Indiana looked like a surprise team when it won at Oregon, but since then the Hoosiers have reverted to uninspiring form.

    So the honor tepidly goes to Northwestern, if for no other reason than its upset of Ohio State. Actually, there is one other reason: The Wildcats are a place-kicking disaster against TCU away from 4-2 against a difficult schedule (18th toughest in the country to date). Quarterback Brett Basanez continues to be a handful for opposing defenses.

    At the very least, Northwestern fans are getting their maximum RDA of thrills this season. Three of the Wildcats' games have gone into overtime, and four have been decided by a touchdown or less.

    Biggest Disappointment
    Ohio State hasn't started Big Ten play 0-2 since 1992 -- a team captained by Kirk Herbstreit -- but the Buckeyes are there now. Inconceivably, some fans in Columbus are ripping into Jim Tressel (record at OSU: 35-9, including a two-year-old national title). But grumbling happens when you lose to Northwestern and barely beat Marshall.

    The running game simply isn't there for the Buckeyes, and that's a problem with Craig Krenzel no longer around to make bailout plays at quarterback. Senior tailback Lydell Ross continues to get most of the carries -- and continues to do little. It's past time to give the ball to freshman Antonio Pittman more often.

    The Buckeyes have hemorrhaged talent to the NFL in recent years, and this looks like the year it catches up with them.

    (Penn State is 2-4, but only a disappointment if you believe the annual wishful thinking that the Nittany Lions are coming back. The back half of the schedule is manageable, and could give JoePa a chance at a winning record and bowl bid. Then he and the university need to take a serious look at a graceful exit strategy.)

    Midseason MVP
    Despite throwing his first two interceptions of the season last week at Penn State, Orton has a great shot at becoming the Big Ten's fourth Heisman winner in the last 10 seasons. One out of every 10 passes is a touchdown for the senior from Iowa, who already has surpassed last year's 15 TD tosses. He's come into full command of Joe Tiller's offense, and his chemistry with Taylor Stubblefield makes those two the best pass-catch combo in the country.

    Midseason Coach of the Year
    Barry Alvarez has played half of Wisconsin's six games without his best offensive player, tailback Anthony Davis. In his absence the Badgers simply won with defense.

    Since coming back, Davis has rolled for 213 yards against Illinois and 168 against Ohio State -- but he might not be the only offensive option anymore. In the first big showdown game of the year, aerially anemic Wisconsin found its passing game in Columbus. Jim Stocco completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns -- raising the Badgers to 110th nationally in passing offense.

    But that's OK with no-frills Alvarez. Give him quality linemen on offense and defense and a go-to back, and he's a threat to win the Big Ten every year.

    Bowl Bound
    Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State.

    Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.