Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, October 2, 2014

It?s time for 4th & Long, a hard-edge look around the conference.


Everyone who sits in a cube at BTN HQ on 600 W. Chicago Ave., is fixated on the Nebraska at Michigan State game. Why not? It could be a preview of the Big Ten title game. While most are picking the Spartans, don?t discount the Cornhuskers. This team is built to beat mighty Michigan State. Few have run as well as Nebraska vs. the Spartans. Last year, the Cornhuskers rushed for 182 yards vs. MSU-but Big Red was doomed by five turnovers. In a 28-24 NU win at East Lansing in 2012, Nebraska ran for 313 yards. In a 24-3 Huskers? win vs. the Spartans in 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska ran for 190 yards. Add it up, and that?s 685 yards rushing (228 ypg) in the last three meetings. See where I?m going with this? Sure you do! Whatcha got, SpartanDawg defense?

What an amazing Saturday for Rutgers and Maryland. Each is 4-1, riding a wave of momentum into monster home games that could go a long way toward determining the height of the season. The Scarlet Knights welcome a reeling Michigan squad that lost three games before October for the first time ever. The Terrapins will play host to an Ohio State team that?s still a work in progress, especially on defense. It wouldn?t be a shock if both Rutgers and Maryland won vs. these iconic Big Ten brands. And, I never thought that was possible back in August.

With Charlie ?Schematic Advantage? Weis and his fat playbook out at Kansas, we already are seeing the names of some top Big Ten assistants get mentioned for the post. Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner are the Big Ten assistants mentioned most often. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman also has been floated as a possible target. I also think Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys should be on KU?s radar. He?s a native Kansan and graduate of Kansas State. Claeys has put together some good Golden Gopher defenses without blue-chip talent. The guy can flat-out coach, showing so when he stepped in as acting head coach for Jerry Kill last season and went 4-3 during a trying time.

The struggles of the Indiana passing game are fascinating. The Hoosiers are just 10th in the Big Ten in passing (209.0 ypg). The IU aerial game averaged 311.2 yards in 2012 and 306.7 in 2013. Losing wideouts Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, along with tight end Ted Bolser, can?t be the only reason for the struggles. (Coordinator Seth Littrell bolted for North Carolina.) This offense had eight starters back. Nate Sudfeld has been off his game. He ranks 11th out of 14 Big Ten starting signal-callers and last in touchdown passes with a scant two. Sudfeld hit just 14-of-37 passes for 126 yards last week against a Maryland defense that hasn?t been a steel curtain. With the way Tevin Coleman is running, you?d think there would be plenty of room for Sudfeld and the passing game to operate.

The second-half woes for Purdue are fascinatingly frustrating. Check this out: Over the past three weeks, the Boilers have tallied 52 first half points compared to a scant 10 in the second half. And all 10 of those points came in a victory vs. FCS Southern Illinois. The attack was goose-egged in the second half in losses to Notre Dame and Iowa. With the defense playing its eyeballs out, it?s time for the Purdue offense to pick it up.

What will be Michigan?s mind-set when it plays at Rutgers? It?s anybody?s guess. Will the Wolverines harbor a circle-the-wagons mentality amid the controversy that?s enveloping the program? Or, will Michigan continue to buckle and fold? The team isn?t playing well in any phase of the game. The offense continues to be most vexing, ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring (22.0 ppg), 11th in total offense (357.6 ypg) and 12th in passing (172.2 ypg) under $830,000-a-year coordinator Doug ?I coached at Alabama? Nussmeier. And issues with turnovers persist, as Michigan is last in the nation in turnover margin at minus 12.

Will the real Northwestern please stand up? The Wildcats opened 2014 with home losses to Cal and Northern Illinois, pushing NU to 1-9 dating to a 1-7 finish in 2013. Has Pat Fitzgerald lost it, some wondered? But the Wildcats have won two in a row since, downing FCS Western Illinois and Penn State. It was good to see NU come to life, but I won?t throw roses at Willie the Wildcat?s feet until I see how Northwestern does this Saturday vs. Wisconsin, which may be the best team in the Big Ten West. The Badgers have won three of the last five games vs. Northwestern, scoring at least 31 points in each meeting. In the last two games, the Badgers won 35-6 last year in Madison and took a 70-23 decision in Madison in 2010.

Really? Iowa is going to play two quarterbacks? When I heard this report, my shoulders slumped. This rarely-if ever-works. Someone put a history book on Kirk Ferentz?s desk. Just make a decision and don?t try to please everyone. An offense is better off if it has one voice, one leader to rally and build around. This offense needs some consistency and productivity. Playing two signal-callers doesn?t seem like an elixir for what to date has been mostly a disappointing offense. Jake Rudock, C.J. Beathard, just pick one. Me? I?d go with Beathard. Stats may lie. But film doesn?t. Go back and watch it.

Can a team face a must-win game the first weekend in October? Hmmm. Regardless, I think that?s exactly what Illinois will encounter when Purdue comes to Chambama this Saturday. Tim Beckman is in his third season, sporting a 1-16 Big Ten mark. And that lone victory came last year at Purdue, which went 0-8 in the conference. The Fighting Illini can?t afford a back slide vs. the Boilermakers. Perception matters.

No team in the history of byes needs one more than Penn State, which is off this weekend. The wheels came off in a rough 29-6 home loss to Northwestern last week. Honestly, it is a bit of a surprise they didn?t come off earlier for a program that has some significant personnel shortcomings-witness the offensive line. For the Nittany Lions to have started 4-0 is amazing. Kudos to James Franklin and Co. I hope fans enjoyed that fast start, because the sledding figures to get very tough the rest of the way for Penn State. The Nittany Lions still should get to bowl eligibility. But it may be a challenge.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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