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This is when we start separating the boys from the men in the Big Ten. Here are three things I’m watching for this weekend.
Northwestern…what are you?
Through the first five weeks, Northwestern could not stop a nosebleed defensively, couldn’t get Justin Jackson going and had offensive line troubles like never before. Last week against Maryland, everything changed completely. The holes were wide open for The Ballcarrier, as he’s known in Evanston, they slowed down a pretty solid Maryland rushing attack, and crowned a new all-time leading rusher. This week, they face a tough-as-nails Iowa team at home in a pivotal game. A win would put them above .500 with a fairly weak remaining schedule, but a loss would put them a step back from the major progress of last week.
The key here for Northwestern? Do what they did last week. I know, that’s pretty awful analysis, but if they can run the ball against this Iowa defense, it would open up their playbook offensively. Scoring won’t be too easy for the Hawkeyes, as they’ve struggled to do so all year, and if the Wildcats can establish a running game, they will be in a great position to win this one. They won’t win the division, but they certainly could find eight wins if they win this one.
Purdue…what are you?
I was high on Purdue after three weeks. The previous three weeks have been a different story. For a little while, it looked like they were on pace to be the second-best team in their division, but now they look very middle-of-the-pack. They travel to face a Rutgers team that just beat Illinois, and should cruise to a win. Should.
Rutgers made a quarterback change and it ignited a (very, VERY small) fire in their offense. Their players will be riding high after their win, and Purdue is in search of an offensive spark after single-digit point performances in two of their previous three games. The Boilers should win this one, but at this point in the season, that is all the reason to believe it may not.
Just how not-great is Michigan?
Face it, Michigan fans: the Wolverines are not a top-20 caliber team. Granted, they are without Wilton Speight, but even with him they aren’t much better. Their defense is absolutely elite, but their lack of playmakers and leadership on offense is a serious anchor to this team holding them back from further success. Yes, they replaced a lot of talent this year, but to be honest, that’s not an excuse.
Their defense lost every single starter going into this season, and they haven’t missed a beat. The offense brought back more productivity, and is still struggling. Again. At what point do we put the blame on Jim Harbaugh? He can run a dominant ship defensively, but his offenses have been pretty underwhelming at Michigan. Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, and even Jabrill Peppers have provided sparks in the past couple of years for the Wolverines on offense, but relying on elite athletes to make plays is not an effective way to win. Not in this Big Ten, which is dominated by elite defenses. There are three of them in Michigan’s division, and that’s not including Indiana, who has taken the Wolverines into overtime two of the past three years.
This game could be a turning point for me in my view of Jim Harbaugh and his role at Michigan. If he can string together an effective gameplan to compete in this one, great. But if the offense, as I expect, is dominated, there will be a lot of heat coming from me on the next podcast. Penn State is a very good team, and their defense doesn’t get enough credit. They have playmakers on offense that are tough for any defense to stop. The pressure is absolutely on Jim Harbaugh in this one. Three years of producing elite defenses and underwhelming offenses will not get you to Indianapolis. He has a perfect chance to right the ship on Saturday.