Friday, October 23, 2009

Big Ten Picks Week 8

Indiana @ Northwestern (11am Big Ten Network)
So what if Indiana won last week? They were at home, and they beat Illinois. Illinois has not beaten a 1-A opponent all season. Do you remember what happened the last time Indiana went on the road? They got beat 174-0 by Virginia two weeks ago (ok it was 47-7, but still). Sure, Ryan Field isn't exactly what you'd call a "home field advantage" for Northwestern. Libraries are louder than Ryan Field and the librarians are more intimidating when they tell you sternly to "shhhhh!" than Wildcat fans when your team gets in the red zone, but still- it's a road game for the Hoosiers.

Illinois @ Purdue (11am ESPN2)
I've seen a few people touting upset here because Illinois will be playing to save Ron Zook's job. Really? You don't think The Zooker's job hasn't been on the line in the previous games? You think the Illini haven't had a chance to "save their season" multiple times this season? Remind me how that's turned out- oh right, they're 0-5 against 1-A opponents. Purdue has the Big Ten's second best passing offense while Illinois' pass defense is dead last. Purdue averages 4.3 yards per rush while Illinois run defense is...yep, dead last. Expect a lot of points, a lot of turnovers (on both sides- they're ranked 1 & 2 in worst turnover margin), and a Boilermaker win.

Penn State @ Michigan (2:30pm ABC)
To start the week, I was leaning towards Penn State, but after looking at the stats, I'm going with Michigan. Sure, Penn State is #1 in the Big Ten in the following categories:
Total offense, total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, rush defense, first downs, opponents' first downs, sacks, 3rd down conversions, 3rd down %, and the all important time of possession.

That's the sign of a pretty dominant team, right? Well consider they've played 1-AA Eastern Illinois (where they racked up season highs in points with 52 and total yards with 553), and three schools (Akron, Syracuse, and Illinois) who have four wins combined. Yes, they have played three other schools with winning records (Minnesota and Temple each have four wins), but lost to their only ranked opponent, an Iowa team that has proven to be really, really good. But what I hadn't realized until I looked at their schedule today is this: we're eight weeks into the season, and this trip to MEEchigan will be only their second road game of the year. The first? Illinois, who they hammered 35-17. They haven't had to play one big road game yet, and they also haven't faced an offense ranked higher than 79th nationally.

Hmmmm....Now consider the case for theWolverines.
- They have played a tougher schedule than Penn State (then again, who hasn't?), including two very tough road environments at rival Michigan State and at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa. Sure, they did lose both, but both were close games with an overtime loss to Michigan State and a two point loss to Iowa two weeks ago, which was tougher than Penn State played the Hawkeyes- and they got to do it at home!

- They have the top scoring offense in the Big Ten by a wide margin, and before you say "yeah of course they do. They scored 63 points on 1-AA Delaware State last week!" I'll tell you that if you remove that game from their totals, they'd STILL average a conference best 33 points per contest (and I'll also point out that while Penn State's second in scoring offense at 29.6 per game, if you remove their 52 points in their lone 1-AA matchup, their scoring average drops to 25.8 per game).

- They also have the top rushing offense in the Big Ten by a wide margin at 235 yards per game, and are the only Big Ten team that average over 200 yards per game- or over 190. Passing offenses can be effected by weather and cold and crowd noise- you can take a good rushing offense anywhere.

- They've also played two much better offenses than anything Penn State has seen in Notre Dame (12th in yards per game at 452.8- and they played them when they had a healthy Michael Floyd) and Michigan State (32nd in the country in yards per game and 3rd in the Big Ten in scoring offense and total offense).

Michigan isn't as flashy as Penn State and they don't have some of the big names on offense, but they've got the top rushing offense in the conference, have had to play in three big games (winning one and being very close in the other two), and played Iowa on the road much tougher than Penn State did against the Hawkeyes at home. I know I'm overthinking it and should probably stick with the Joe Pa's, but I'm going with RichRod and the Wolverines in the upset.

Iowa @ Michigan State (6pm Big Ten Network)
So not only can Iowa not get any respect nationally, but they can't even get respect in their own conference. Yes, the Spartans are much improved from their 1-3 start and yes, Iowa has struggled at Spartan Stadium the last few years, but for Iowa to be 7-0 with that defense and to be favored by barely a touchdown? Wow. I hate Iowa as much as anyone hates Iowa, but even I have to admit that seems pretty ridiculous. It's even more ridiculous when you consider that the passing is the one thing Michigan State does really well (tops in the Big Ten in passing offense and passing efficiency), and Iowa has the best pass defense in the conference (well ok, they're second to Penn State, but when you consider Penn State hasn't played anybody yet they average only 3.6 yards less per game than the Hawkeyes, Iowa's pass defense is better). The Hawkeyes DO lead the conference in picks (15), opponents completion % (49.3) and are second in fewest TD passes (5). The Spartans are going to be tough, but they haven't faced a defense like this one.

It just goes to show how much perception shapes reality- it's not just that you win, but HOW you win. They win low scoring games and don't always win pretty, but they're a legit 7-0. Yet you have to think that because they've had some close games against bad teams (the not-loss to Northern Iowa and the squeaker against Arkansas State), people think they're a fluke. Yet they've beaten Arizona (third in the Pac 10 and rising) by 10, Penn State ON THE ROAD by 11, Michigan by two and last week Wisconsin ON THE ROAD by 10. Sure they don't play pretty football, but it's effective, and they're every bit as good as their record indicates.

Ricky Stanzi has also been getting better as the weeks go by. I feel the same way about Ricky as Wes Mantooth does about Ron Burgandy- I hate him, but dammit do I respect him. Stanzi's numbers haven't been great, but he's been good when he's had to be, especially in the big aforementioned wins against Arizona, Penn State, Michigan and Sconnie. It kills me to say this, I hope this acts as the biggest reverse-jinx in histoy and nothing would give more joy than to be wrong about this pick (well with the exception of my next pick) but Iowa will beat Michigan State Saturday night.

Minnesota @ Ohio State (11am ESPN)
Yes, Ohio State's offense sucks as almost as badly as ours right now (2nd to last in the Big Ten in total offense and dead last in passing offense), and yes Terrelle Pryor is REALLY struggling (although, for the umpteenth, time I'll note his numbers are still better than Adam Weber's!!), but there's just no way Ohio State plays that badly two weeks in a row. Last week's loss to Purdue was the only time all season the Buckeyes have turned the ball over more than twice in a game, and Purdue controlled the clock as they had the ball for over 36 minutes. We know the Gophers haven't done much right on offense this year other than get the ball to Eric Decker, and unfortunately one of the things we're not good at is controling the clock, as we're last in the Big Ten in time of possession. So in order to win we're going to have to hope Pryor plays as bad or worse than last week, and our offense suddenly comes alive against probably the best defense we'll see all season. Really, not much at all to ask. Like with the Iowa prediction, I'd love to be wrong, but I don't think I will be.

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