Week 7: What Tom Dienhart thinks he knows ahead of Saturday
We learn a litle bit every week but we never know it all. That said, here’s what I think I know as we head into Week 7 of the Big Ten football season.
The Ohio State at Wisconsin game will be close. In fact, it may be up for grabs in the fourth quarter. The Badgers will have had two weeks to prep for the Buckeyes, who are coming off their worst offensive effort of the season vs. Indiana (38 points and 383 yards). And Wisconsin will have the best defense that Ohio State will have seen all season. The Buckeyes also have a great defense that is the only unit in the nation that has yet to yield a rushing TD. The key to victory for both teams: Which team’s offense can make the most plays? That figures to be Ohio State, thanks to the Buckeyes’ huge edge at quarterback with J.T. Barrett. Still, this is gonna be a close one. And a slugfest.
Don’t be shocked if Iowa wins out. Yes, I said “Wins out.” The offense found some life last week at Minnesota after the line was altered. And the defense was tough against the run, allowing just 102 yards vs. the Gophers. The Hawkeyes’ remaining slate: at Purdue; Wisconsin; at Penn State; Michigan; at Illinois; Nebraska. Win out or not, here is the bottom line: The Big Ten West is Iowa’s to lose. And if the Hawkeyes aren’t in Indianapolis for the league championship game, I’ll be surprised.
I’m not really sure how good Nebraska is. Yes, the Cornhuskers are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. But who have they beaten? That win over Oregon has lost a lot of luster given how much the 2-4 Ducks have struggled. The other wins: vs. 1-5 Fresno State; 4-2 Wyoming; 2-3 Northwestern; 1-4 Illinois. The game this week at Indiana probably will be Nebraska’s toughest test yet. And, NU better be careful—especially if the Cornhuskers get behind. The Indiana defense has some teeth this year. How will Nebraska respond if it faces late-game adversity in Bloomington?
Michigan State may not make a bowl. I can’t believe I just typed that. But, it’s true. The Spartans are 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten. The two victories have come vs. FCS Furman and a 2-4 Notre Dame team that may be the school’s worst in a decade. Northwestern comes to East Lansing this weekend for what shapes up as a big game for Michigan State. Let’s call it a “must win” for Sparty. Fall to the Wildcats, who are coming off a bye week after mounting a big 38-31 win at Iowa the last time out, and full-scale panic may set in around campus. Win, and the Spartans may be able to get their season back on the rails.
I’m still not sure how great 6-0 Michigan is right now. Yes, the Wolverines look formidable. But they have gotten fat on a favorable schedule that has had very little heavy lifting. Michigan has opened with victories vs. Hawaii, Central Florida, Colorado, Penn State, Wisconsin and at Rutgers. That’s five of six games at home. And the Wolverines were pushed in a 14-7 win vs. the Badgers, validating concerns many have about the Michigan offense. This is essentially a three-game schedule for the Wolverines, whose fate will be determined in three games after this week’s bye: at Iowa; at Michigan State and at Ohio State. So, put down the pitcher of Kool-Aid.
Speaking of Michigan, Jabrill Peppers is a legit Heisman contender. His effort last week at Rutgers served as a calling card for his candidacy. Peppers’ skill set and growing resume is eerily similar to that of former Wolverine legend Charles Woodson, who of course won the Heisman in 1997 with an almost identical profile as Peppers. But the one thing that cemented Woodson’s run to the coveted Heisman 19 years ago were a couple signature plays: the stunning one-handed interception at Michigan State and the punt return for a TD vs. Ohio State. Peppers needs at least one mind-numbing, game-changing play in a big contest—in addition to helping Michigan to an unbeaten or one-loss season—to cement his resume.
The loser of the Illinois at Rutgers game may not win again in 2016. I know that may be harsh, but it may be reality, too. The Fighting Illini will arrive in Piscataway with four losses in a row; the Scarlet Knights have lost three in a row. Not much is going well for either school. Illinois lost a game it probably should have won last week in falling in OT at home to Purdue. RU is coming off an incredibly brutal two-game run, falling by a combined 136-0 at Ohio State and to Michigan.
Purdue’s dubious stretch of not winning back-to-back games since 2012—when it closed the regular season with three victories in succession–probably will remain intact. The Boilermakers are coming off an inspiring 34-31 overtime win at Illinois. Up next: A visit from Iowa, which looks like it has found its groove coming off a 14-7 Floyd of Rosedale win at Minnesota last week. Purdue has really struggled after wins under Darrell Hazell. This year, the Boilers have followed wins with 38-20 and 50-7 defeats. Last year, Purdue got drubbed 51-24 and 48-14 after its two victories. In 2014, the Boilers followed wins with 38-17, 24-10 and 45-31 losses. In 2013, it was a 31-24 defeat after the lone win.
Don’t underscore the importance of Minnesota’s game at Maryland for the Gophers. They need this one. Two weeks ago, Minnesota blew a 13-3 halftime lead at Penn State, losing 29-26 in overtime. Last week, the Gophers fell 14-7 at home to Iowa. Minnesota has lost seven of its last eight Big Ten games and four of those losses have been by seven points or fewer. Can the Gophers finish? Minnesota may be letting a golden opportunity slip away playing the most favorable schedule in the Big Ten. It’s time to start winning.