staff, September 27, 2012

Each year, the Big Ten is arguably the most competitive conference top to bottom. Every team believes they have a legitimate chance to win the conference. Not only do all seven teams usually believe they can win, in many years, all seven truly do have the ability to take the Big Ten crown. As I look at the action shaping up this weekend, this year may be a little bit different story with three haves and four have-nots.

In the early going, it looks like the two teams picked to finish atop the standings, Indiana and Northwestern, are the class of the Big Ten, with Penn State as a dark horse contender, having a combined win-loss record of 18-5-4. On the other end of the spectrum, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State have a cumulative record of 11-19-5 thus far

There were no surprises in week one of Big Ten play. Will any of the four struggling teams begin to turn it around in week two? Can Penn State prove they are a real contender with a result versus Indiana? The second week of conference matches take place this weekend with multiple games live on BTN/BTN2Go.

No. 11 INDIANA (6-2-1, 1-0) @ PENN STATE (6-2-1, 1-0)
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET

Indiana admittedly did not play their best against Ohio State in Columbus last weekend, but picking up a 2-0 win when not playing to their standards is a testament to their overall quality as a side. They need to tighten it up in the back as they were fortunate to not give up a goal or two to the Buckeyes. Nonetheless, the midfield is incredibly deep with the likes of A.J. Corrado, Harrison Petts and Jacob Bushue. Goalkeeper Luis Soffner is also playing with confidence and making big saves.

Penn State has had a great start to the season, but may have been looking ahead to the Hoosiers with a 1-0 setback Tuesday at the hands of the previously winless Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Head coach Bob Warming, who has an extensive winning background from his time at Creighton (read Warming's full bio here), will need to refocus his troops for the showdown with Indiana. The Hoosiers will give up chances and seem to be a bit susceptible on the counter and down the flanks where Ohio State was able to get crosses in and generate a few dangerous chances. In the end, I think IU will take their game to another level and defeat the Nittany Lions in a hard fought match.
Prediction: Indiana 2, Penn State 1

No. 18 NORTHWESTERN (6-1-2, 1-0) @ MICHIGAN STATE (3-5-1, 0-0)
Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go

I talked about Grant Wilson (1 G, 5 A) as an unsung guy in last week?s preview, but people will start singing if the Big Ten assists leader keeps this up. Wilson would still be contributing just fine if he had no stats, but the fact that he is getting up the field with overlapping runs, whipping in balls and also serving well on set pieces (along with scoring the game-winner versus Michigan) is a huge bonus.

The defense, as usual, was very organized against the Wolverines only needing one breathtaking, diving save from Tyler Miller on a point blank header from inside the six. One thing to keep an eye on for NU, is whether they can produce goals consistently from the run of play as both goals came off set pieces and Joey Calistri looked stifled in his first Big Ten competition.

As good as the Wildcats have been playing, there is no such thing as an easy game on the road in the Big Ten, especially in East Lansing. The Spartans always have a good alumni fan base and a strong student showing at DeMartin Stadium along with some assistance on the way from Detroit FC Supporters, Northern Guard for their conference opener. Tim Kreutz (1G, 1 A) provided a spark for MSU in a much needed win against Western Michigan last week. Overall, I don?t think they have enough to knock off a hot Wildcat team, though.
Prediction: Northwestern 1, Michigan State 0

OHIO STATE (4-5-1, 0-1) @ MICHIGAN (2-5-0, 0-1)
Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go

This one is a battle of two porous defenses who need to get organized in order to turn their respective seasons around. The Ohio State back four looked disconnected against Indiana letting Corrado and the Indiana midfield play penetrating balls between the gaps often. The offense has talent, but frustration seems to be setting in, especially for Chris Hegngi, who leads the Big Ten in shots, but is still scoreless.

He headed a wide open shot right at Soffner that he almost certainly would have buried a year ago, and I think having zero goals is mentally starting to wear on him. Hegngi could use a PK goal or tap in to get his confidence back. Austin McAnena has shown signs and freshman Raymond Olavarria looked active on the right flank, but the Buckeyes are desperately searching for production.

While Ohio State was dangerous at times last week, Michigan struggled to really get anything going. Latif Alashe looked strong in the center of the pitch against NU, however the forwards did not generate many chances. The defense appeared shaky with stalwart Kofi Opare out with an injury and their set piece defense is a major concern giving up two goals and seemingly a good chance on every attempt.

Head coach Chaka Daley will surely need his team to be more disciplined in not allowing as many fouls in the defensive third, defending set pieces better and not picking up unnecessary cautions such as the red card that forced them to play the final 37 minutes against Northwestern a man down. Ohio State could be ready to finally finish their chances against an sometimes lackadaisical Michigan defense.
Prediction: Ohio State 3, Michigan 2

WISCONSIN (2-4-3, 0-1) vs. Cleveland State (4-4-1)
Saturday 9/29, 8 p.m. ET on the Big Ten Digital Network

The Badgers take on Horizon League foe, Cleveland State, but they better not take their conference bye weekend off or else they?ll end up with a bad non-conference defeat (see: Penn State losing Lehigh). A mistake in the back third cost them versus the Nittany Lions so they must regroup after losing their conference opener at home.
Prediction: Wisconsin 1, Cleveland State 0

It appears that there may not be the parity there usually is in the Big Ten this year, but nobody can be counted out after one week. The three teams that lost in Week 1 all made costly errors in the back and will have to do better to make teams earn their goals moving forward. Meanwhile, Indiana, Northwestern and Penn State will look to make slight adjustments and stay the course.

About Cody Stanley contributor Cody Stanley is a former captain of the Northwestern men's soccer team. He'll be offering his weekly previews of Big Ten men's soccer this season