It was a rough opening week for the Big Ten. The league went 1-3 in four key intersectional tests. Michigan fell to Utah. Michigan State lost at Cal. Illinois came up short against Missouri. Only Northwestern's 30-10 win over Syracuse provided any solace, and I'm probably stretching it by calling the Orange a "key intersectional test." On top of it, the premier Heisman candidate in Chris Wells is now uncertain, down to a foot injury in Ohio State's otherwise easy win.
Any hopes that Michigan would latch on to Rich Rodriguez's system quicker then expected, or that the defense might carry them were quickly dashed by Utah. Ute quarterback Brian Johnson shredded the secondary for 305 yards. And offensively, Michigan got nothing at quarterback from either Nick Sheridan or Steven Threet. The completion percentages weren't bad, but it was mostly rinky-dink stuff. And the running game was appalling, netting only 36 yards. Michael Rosenberg of The Detroit Free Press calls the game a reality check for R-Rod's supporters.
Michigan State's 38-31 loss at Cal wasn't quite as bad. The Spartans do have people to replace and they were on the road against a good program. And they did a lot of good things, particularly in the air. Mark Dell showed he's ready to step in for Devin Thomas by producing an astounding 202 yards receiving. But the defense's inability to stop the run was alarming. Given that running games typically take longer into the season to find their stride, this surely is going to tick off the hard-nosed Mark Dantonio. And quarterback Brian Hoyer adds that he's sick of losing the close ones.
Illinois' 52-42 loss to Missouri was hardly anything to be ashamed of. The Illini tried to rally from a 45-20 deficit in the third quarter, but couldn't quite close the gap. How one reacts to this game will largely depend on how high one was on Ron Zook's team to begin with. Those expecting a repeat of last year and seeing this game as a benchmark will walk away disappointed. Those expecting a completely matured Juice Williams will not be happy with his overthrows and interceptions. But those who expected a rebuilding team saw a team that will be ready to compete and play with most Big Ten teams, and those who were skeptical of Williams saw a quarterback keep his cool and ring up a stunning 451 yards against a defense that brought back ten starters. He still needs a running game to help him out, as the loss of Rashard Mendenhall was apparent last night. But still, not a bad outing against a national championship contender and Herb Gould of The Chicago Sun-Times adds that Illinois now knows where it stands.
Northwestern actually trailed Syracuse by a point into the second half, before reeling off three touchdowns to take the win. Tyrrell Sutton produced 144 yards on the ground and C.J. Bacher was efficient in the passing game. The Wildcats need to sweep their non-conference games to have a good shot at a bowl game. Duke was the only game beyond this that NU was likely to lose. They are halfway home.
The three conference favorites--Ohio State, Wisconsin & Penn State--all took care of business in their tuneups. The news reports are abuzz with speculation about Wells' foot injury, but as of now all we know is that the MRI was negative. Until we get more information, I'm not going to assume he's going to miss the Southern Cal game in two weeks. Buckeye fans also got a look at Terrelle Pryor, who apparently will be a contributor as a role quarterback in his freshman year. Pryor ran 9 times for 52 yards and hit 4/6 passing. He's a new variable that could shake up the equation in Los Angeles on September 13.
Wisconsin overpowered Akron on the ground. P.J. Hill rushed for 210 yards. Given Hill's history of nagging injuries, it was also good news for UW that they didn't skip a beat when Zack Brown or John Clay stepped in. Penn State cruised past Coastal Carolina 66-10.
Kellen Lewis set the Indiana career record for touchdown passes in leading his team past Westerk Kentucky. Lewis also got it done with his feet, scampering for a 75-yard touchdown run that got the scoring underway.
Iowa blew out Maine 46-3, but seeing the Black Bears rush for 137 yards is enough to make one raise an eyebrow. Big Ten Country will be watching Iowa's rush defense carefully in the coming games before conference play starts. And Minnesota showed it has problems on pass defense. The secondary was vulnerable all night long against Northern Illinois, coughing up a 24-13 lead before Adam Weber's offense bailed them out with a last-minute drive that pulled out a 31-27 win. Weber's 24/37 for 298 yards and zero picks is a major shot in the arm for those who hoped that the sophomore's second season as a starter would see greater consistency.