Conference play is finally here. Nothing against the Tennessee Techs, Chattanoogas and South Carolina States of the world, but … actually, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. Maybe I do have something against them. Perhaps it’s time for some introspection, time to come clean…
Truthfully, I get why teams schedule the way they do in the non-conference, but we’re in the TV business and TV is better with more compelling match-ups. And we finally get that this week.
In addition, we start divisional play for the first time ever. It’s a brave new world. Remember, in determining the division champ, the first tie-breaker after head-to-head is your divisional record. So, if you’re a Michigan fan, are you now more concerned about beating Minnesota so you can make the Big Ten Championship or beating Ohio State so you can finally stop hearing about how long it’s been since you did so? I’m not sure Michigan is quite at the level of winning the Legends this year (though I give them a lot better chance than I would have a month ago), so my sense is a Michigan fan would be more concerned in this particular year with having a good season, even if it’s not a division championship season, and beating the Buckeyes. But I could be wrong. Gerry DiNardo and Chris Martin argued the exact opposite in one of our show meetings the other day.
Of course, the ideal situation is you win them both, and, as we get to the numbers this week, you have to like the Wolverines’ chances.
41 of 43: Michigan has won 41 of its last 43 Big Ten openers and has won every lid-lifter in that span that wasn’t played at Wisconsin. Their only two defeats came at Camp Randall in 1981 and 2005.
Their chances this week are greatly enhanced by the presence of Denard Robinson, who continues to rewrite the Big Ten record books.
6 of 10: After rushing for 200 yards in the Wolverines’ win over San Diego State, Robinson now has 6 of the 10 top single-game run totals for a QB in Big Ten history. He’s a big part of the reason that the Wolverines have now rushed for more than 300 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2003.
There is obviously not much positive that came out of Minnesota’s loss to North Dakota State, although the Gophers did show some progress in one area that has hampered them this season:
147, 156: The Gophers got 147 rushing yards from the running back position against the Bison. While far from overwhelming, it’s just nine yards shy of the 156 yards their running backs had gained in the first three games combined. Jerry Kill’s Northern Illinois team averaged a national-best 6.6 yards per carry last season. He wants to run it. It may get lost in the disappointment of the defeat – but it is a step in the right direction.
700th: This is Paterno’s 700th game since joining the Penn State staff in 1950. The Nittany Lions have won 508 of the 699 games Joe Pa has been involved in.
14-0: Fourteen of those wins have come against the Hoosiers. The Nittany Lions are 14-0 all-time against Indiana. Excluding series that include Nebraska, it’s the only current match-up of Big Ten teams in which one has never beaten the other.
The Hoosiers are coming off a road loss to North Texas – a defeat attributable, in part, to their ongoing inability to establish a run game.
6.6/1.6: The Mean Green had given up 6.6 yards per carry in its first three games – losses to Florida International, Houston and Alabama. The Hoosiers managed just 1.6 yards per carry against them.
If there is a positive to be taken from that game – and from IU’s season to this point – it’s that the Hoosiers’ more aggressive defense is paying some dividends.
5: Indiana recovered two fumbles against North Texas, giving them 5 fumble recoveries on the season. That equals IU’s total from all of last season.
It is an improvement, but nothing compared to what Michigan State has going:
1st: The Spartans are 1st in the nation in Total Defense this season, allowing just 172.3 yards per game. Contrast that to two years ago, when MSU finished 73rd nationally in Total Defense.
On the other side of the ball, MSU’s run game remains a bit of a work in progress – as evidenced in part by this number:
0: Through four games, Spartans backs have totaled 0 individual 100-yard rushing games this season. MSU had 7 such performances last year.
That’s not the only 0 the Spartans are trying to erase this week:
(0-2): Mark Dantonio is 0-2 against Ohio State as MSU’s Head Coach – meaning the Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team he has yet to defeat in his four-plus seasons in East Lansing. If you include two losses while the Head Coach at Cincinnati, Dantonio is 0-4 against the program he once served as Defensive Coordinator.
Of course, he’s not alone in his struggles against OSU.
5: The Buckeyes have suffered just 5 conference losses since 2005. No other Big Ten team has fewer than 15 in that span.
Over the last three years, 10 of the Buckeyes’ conference wins have come in true road games, most in the conference. Guess who’s next on the list?
8: Since 2008, Northwestern has won 8 true conference road games, tied with Penn State and Michigan State for the most in the Big Ten in that span.
That number would seem to favor Northwestern as the ‘Cats face an Illinois team they’ve beaten six of the last eight times they’ve squared off – as would this one.
16 of 17: The Illini have lost 16 of their last 17 Big Ten openers. Their only 1-0 start in that span came in 2007, when they kicked off conference play with a victory at Indiana.
The trends are one thing, but the more pertinent numbers are decidedly in Illinois’ favor.
226, 241.8: The Illini have allowed a total of 226 rushing yards in their four games this season. Meanwhile, their offense is pounding out 241.8 yards per game on the ground.
381: Northwestern allowed 381 rushing yards last time out in a loss to Army. That’s bad, but not nearly as bad as the staggering 519 the Illini rolled up against NU last season at Wrigley Field.
The run game will be also front and center for the marquee game of the day when Nebraska heads to Madison for its first-ever Big Ten game.
(14-0), (0-4): The Huskers are 14-0 dating to last season when they rush for 145 or more yards in a game. They are 0-4 when they do not.
8: Wisconsin’s top rusher, Montee Ball, has scored multiple TDs in 8 straight regular season games.
What makes the Badgers so dangerous, though, is that it’s not just about the run game.
28: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson has thrown at least one TD pass in 28 straight games, dating back to his days at NC State. That is the longest active streak nationally. He’s also the first Wisconsin QB to throw for multiple TDs in four straight games and the first to throw for three TDs in three straight.
600: Put it all together, and the Badgers have gone over 600 yards of total offense each of the last two weeks. It’s the first time they’ve ever hit that mark in consecutive games.
55: The Badgers are averaging 55 points over their last eight home games.
38: The Huskers, meanwhile, have scored 38 or more points in each of their first four games. It’s the first time they’ve done that since their 1995 National Championship season.
While Purdue hasn’t been nearly as explosive as those two, the Boilers have to be encouraged as they head into their game against Notre Dame – the week’s lone non-conference battle.
12, 9: In 12 games last season, the Boilers had just 12 pass completions that went for 20 yards or longer. They have 9 such completions in three games this season.
We’ll dive into all six games Saturday on the Big Ten Football Saturday Pre-Game Show, presented by Auto Owners Insurance. See you at 10:30 a.m. ET.