Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, October 6, 2014

You have Big Ten questions, and I have answers. As we approach the midpoint of the 2014 season – yes, already – fans are wondering if the Northwestern hype is legit and where Ohio State fits in the playoff picture, among other things. Keep those letters coming.

Not so fast on the Northwestern hype. The Wildcats still have games at Minnesota, vs. Nebraska, at Iowa, at Notre Dame. – Jeff Hinsley

I think the praise for NU is merited, considering what the Wildcats have done the last two games in wins at Penn State and vs. Wisconsin. No one saw Northwestern winning both of those games. NU not only won-it dominated. The defense is coming on, ranking third in scoring (16.2 ppg) in the Big Ten. At one point, the Wildcats went nine consecutive quarters without allowing a TD before Wisconsin scored in the third quarter last week. And the offense is coming on, too, as it?s developing a running game to give the attack balance. The game this Saturday at Minnesota, another team on the rise, will be interesting.


If Ohio State runs the table, do the Buckeyes have a chance at making the playoffs? – Kevin

Without a doubt they do. Look, it?s still early. Many crazy things can happen. Just look at last weekend and all of the upsets of top-10 teams. I think if the Buckeyes run the table and win the Big Ten with just one loss, they would have a good shot to make the playoffs. This team is getting better and better. It?s scary. The trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8 looms large.

Knowing how they've played to this point in the season, do you think (in retrospect) that Ohio State would be an AP Top 5 team had it not lost to Virginia Tech? – Jacob

Most likely, especially with the upsets that have taken place recently. That loss to Va Tech in Columbus is maddening when you consider the Hokies have gone on to lose at home to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. But, maybe the loss was good in some respects for Ohio State, as it refocused the players and staff while taking some pressure off, too.

Thanks for giving the Spartans their just due after the win vs. Nebraska. I was at the game. The Spartans looked good, but Connor Cook needs to learn how to finish a team off in the second half. MSU needs to learn how to close out a game. – Mike Donnelly

Yes, Cook didn?t have his best game, completing just 11-of-29 passes for 234 yards with a TD. But I wouldn?t put the onus on him for Nebraska ripping off 19 unanswered fourth-quarter points and throwing a scare into the Spartans. Cook has been the face of this Spartan offense, which has been the most prolific in the Big Ten. The defense could have made some plays late to wrap up the Huskers? game. And how about the punt return the Spartans allowed for a TD? Regardless, MSU can use the adversity to learn, right? Never let up on the accelerator.

How do you only mention Mike Dudek's 200 yards receiving as a ?look at the numbers? and not a ?top performer? in your Saturday night story? He has been the surprise of the conference as a true freshman. He is fast and has great hands. C?mon man!! – William Riesner

I made sure I mentioned Dudek?s effort, right? I try to spread things around and mention as many top performers as I can each Saturday. I often reserve ?top performers? for guys whose teams won. Regardless, there is no denying Dudek?s efforts. He is No. 5 in the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards with 33 grabs for 539 yards and three TDs. The kid is gonna be special.

Can you shed some light on this? Despite the controversial call going in the favor of RU vs. Michigan, the Scarlet Knights were a better team throughout last Saturday night and deserved the W. But everywhere I look, it is Michigan this, Michigan that, referees this, referees that. How about Rutgers leading the nation in sacks? How about Gary Nova playing well? Do people really just not want to believe that RU belongs in the B1G? – Ben K.

The ?Rutgers is good? narrative may be difficult for some to embrace, given the program?s history. If that?s the case, that?s too bad. Kyle Flood has a nice team that deserves the accolades. Believe me, the adulation will come with more wins. And there will be many great opportunities to impress with games at Ohio State and at Nebraska coming up. Win either of those, and I don?t think anyone will hold back on praising and embracing RU. This program has been the Big Ten?s biggest surprise and is just three points from being 6-0.

Purdue desperately needed that win at Illinois and the performance of Austin Appleby. Had Appleby entered the game early against Iowa the week before, the Boilermakers might have won and thus been 2-0 in the conference. Regardless, Purdue has had a proud program that just a few years ago had three quarterbacks starting in the NFL. The defense has a lost a leader and good player in Sean Robinson, who got hurt vs. Illinois. But with an offense that is finally stepping up, Purdue will be competitive. As a fan, there is finally a reason to care. Look for a ?Spoilermaker? later this year! – Steve

No doubt, that was a huge and much-needed win for Purdue. As you noted, the victory gave fans-and the players and staff, I?m sure-hope. Progress has been tangible this season. But victories were needed coming off a 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten) season in Darrell Hazell?s debut. Purdue already has three victories overall. The offense got a spark from Appleby. Now, will it continue? If the Boilers can get another win or two this season to finish 4-8 or 5-7, the program will have plenty of mojo entering recruiting. And that can?t be understated.

It seems the Badgers need to start Joel Stave and maybe have certain packages for Tanner McEvoy. Agree? For not playing at all this year, Stave was able to open things up and get more players involved vs. Northwestern when he took over. Yes, he made some poor throws and choices, but we seemed more balanced with Stave. Thoughts? – Doug G.

I agree. Individually, these two don?t bring much to the table. But collectively, Wisconsin may have something to work with from a run/pass/athletic ability/experience standpoint. Coordinator Andy Ludwig needs to do a deft job of managing these guys to get max performance and productivity. What?s on the line? The entire season ? that?s all.

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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