Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, October 16, 2015
The Big Ten is coming into focus at the halfway mark. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State basically will play a three-way tourney to decide the East, while Iowa is in the driver?s seat in the West with Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota in pursuit. With the second half of the season on deck, here are some hard takes entering Week 7.
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1. With six weeks in the books, who has been the Big Ten MVP? My vote goes to Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. He?s run for at least 100 yards in each game this season and for 11 straight dating back to last season. The junior has 16 career 100-yard rushing games, which is tied for the fifth-most in school history. Where would the Buckeyes be in 2015 without Elliott?s steady contribution? That?s a scary thought for denizens of Columbus. Alas, he still is chasing LSU running back Leonard Fournette in the Heisman hunt.
2. If Iowa can escape Northwestern with a win this Saturday, the Hawkeyes should cruise to the West title. Iowa is 6-0 and already has won at Wisconsin and vs. Illinois. After the trip to Evanston, the Hawkeyes play host to Maryland, go to Indiana, welcome Minnesota and Purdue and finish at Nebraska. Yes, there are some potential potholes along the way. But the path to the Big Ten title game still looks good even with a loss.
3. So, how does Iowa vs. Ohio State in the Big Ten title game sound to you? I likey.
4. The Michigan State at Michigan game drips with lots of intrigue and storylines. The teams look like mirrors of one another on many fronts: good defenses; strong offensive lines; solid running backs; great coaching. But the one area where the Spartans have an edge-a big edge-is at quarterback. Michigan State?s Connor Cook is a sage senior who showed his value yet again last week. The Spartans played from behind for an extended period for the first time all season this past Saturday at Rutgers. They rallied from a halftime deficit to win by seven. MSU got the win because Cook is cool under pressure and showed why he has the most wins in school history, throwing for a season-high 357 yards and two touchdowns. It?s clear that the Spartans aren?t playing at the level that many expected before the season. However, can Cook do enough to keep the Spartans undefeated? I think he?ll deliver a big fourth-quarter drive in the Big House to deliver a win for Michigan State.
5. The season is halfway over, and it is apparent this is the Year of the Running Back in the Big Ten. The league has four of the nation?s top 17 rushers. Ohio State?s Ezekiel Elliott is No. 4 (835 yards); Indiana?s Jordan Howard is No. 11 (709); Iowa?s Jordan Canzeri is No. 12 (697); Northwestern?s Justin Jackson is No. 17 (661).
6. While the running backs have been good, the quarterbacks have been less than good. Check out the NCAA stats for passing efficiency. You have to go all the way to No. 20 to find your first Big Ten signal-caller: Rutgers Chris Laviano, who is far from an All-Big Ten-caliber passer. In fact, there have been some Scarlet Knight program watchers who think backup Hayden Rettig should be given a chance. Michigan State?s Connor Cook is No. 27, and he?s widely considered the league?s best quarterback. No other Big Ten quarterbacks are among the top 30 most efficient in the nation.
7. Sticking with the mid-season theme here – who has been the most surprising player? How about Penn State DE Carl Nassib? Yep. He came to campus as a walk-on in 2011, long ? lean ? and years from making an impact-if ever. But look at Nassib now! He has developed into a pass-rushing force who through six games leads the nation in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (12), and has more tackles (27) this fall than in his previous three seasons combined. He also has an interception and has forced five fumbles. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
8. If Rutgers wants to make a bowl, it probably needs to win at Indiana tomorrow. The Scarlet Knights are 2-3 and they still have games against Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, vs. Nebraska. The season finishes at Army and vs. Maryland. Can RU scratch out four more wins?
9. Penn State is coming off a rare five-game home stand. And, the Nittany Lions won all five games-against a less-than-formidable set of schools in Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and a depleted Indiana team. Don?t be shocked if Penn State goes 1-5 or 2-4 the rest of the way, as a tough back-half of the schedule looms beginning with a game at Ohio State this week. Visits from Maryland and Illinois may be the only times the rest of the season the Nittany Lions are favored.
10. Football is a basic game. You have to block and tackle. If a team can?t, it?s doomed. The Boilermakers are No. 13 in the Big Ten in rushing (148.2 ypg), averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Purdue is last in the league vs. the run (215.2 ypg), allowing 5.1 yards per tote. More proof that football is won in the trenches by the big boys-not by the glamour boys in the backfield and on the perimeter.