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College Teams Mon Sep 19 2011

Big Ten Football: Success is a Mirage

Thumbnail image for big ten divisions vertical.JPGIf we stare long enough, we can trick ourselves into thinking we can see it. The seeds of the Big Ten's season, "green" in only the most premature connotations of the term, are slowly digging their roots into the unforgiving sod of competition.

Ever so slowly, they're peeling back their shells just far enough to forfeit the tiny drops of potential required to survive, and then recoiling immediately before the score gets out of control or someone gets injured. Now you see it, now you don't.

Yet sometimes it takes a whole game for a petal or a leaf to open up and make a play so that a team finds a way to come out on top. Sometimes, it takes longer.

In these formative weeks of a football season, most teams try to strike a precarious balance between getting their pieces ready for more competitive action while still trying not to divulge enough of their schemes so as to help better opponents prepare to exploit them.

This was a tough week for the Big Ten in trying to survive that balance. Despite boasting far superior pedigrees than their opponents, Nebraska was forced into tough situations at home, Iowa and Penn State were in unexpected dogfights after losses last week, and Michigan State, Ohio State, and Northwestern all burst at the seams. And still we're only seeing fragments of potential that should give us a more clear idea of what the season's foliage will look like.

Actual Big Ten competition cannot come soon enough, because right now the field is looking awfully sparse. In Week 3, only four teams looked like they might be playing with seeds that could legitimately bloom into something resembling a Rose Bowl.

No. 7 Wisconsin 49, Northern Illinois 7

Northern Illinois had been running up more than 40 points a game behind quarterback Chandler Harnish and an up-tempo attack. Harnish was on-point for much of the game Saturday too -- he made at least one outstanding throw in a tight window downfield on their touchdown drive -- but the Badgers were bigger, stronger, faster, and everything else that denotes higher quality. One of these weeks we will finally get to see Russell Wilson for a full four quarters.

No. 11 Nebraska 51, Washington 38

Nebraska had their hands full for the first half against a surprisingly competent Washington squad. But they handled it with confident ease, scoring at least twice in each quarter and surviving an impressive three-touchdown fourth quarter by the Huskies. This is a preview of things to come for most of the Big Ten season: If (and that's a big if) Taylor Martinez can stay healthy to run that offense, there are very few teams that can keep pace.

Illinois 17, No. 22 Arizona State 14

So maybe the Illini are for real after all. The young team's first real test against a ranked opponent showed that there is a defense behind all that offense, racking up six sacks against the Sun Devils. No, we still do not have any idea how good they will be all season, but at least now we can be sure that they are more than capable of ruining your plans. The Big Ten has been put on notice.

Michigan 31, Eastern Michigan 3

The Wolverines are coming into their own ... as another iteration of a Rich Rodriguez-esque run-first offense. We've seen this all before.

But 198 rushing yards from your quarterback is nothing to spit at. Even if we know the wheels are destined to fall off sooner or later, that doesn't change the fact that this team is extremely dangerous when operating at full strength. Every game is a test of fate, which makes things awfully interesting for an otherwise uninterested spectator.

Notre Dame 31, No. 15 Michigan State 13

What the heck happened here? Just one week ago Michigan State looked like the class of the Big Ten and prepped to avenge the BCS overlords who ignored them last season, and Notre Dame was giving away late-game touchdowns like communion wafers. The Spartans had a chance to take one in the fourth quarter, too. Near the goal line, veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins had an apparent miscue that resulted in the Fighting Irish running the ball out in the other direction.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but here's the real difference: Michigan State still has the talent, experience, and a full conference schedule to climb its way back up the BCS ladder; Notre Dame has almost nothing that can make up for its losses to South Florida and Michigan.

Miami 24, No. 17 Ohio State 6

A week after barely eking out a win against Toledo, the Buckeyes turn around and get mashed by unranked Miami. We all knew Miami quarterback Jacory Harris could light it up, and we all knew Ohio State's offense was struggling from all the offseason turmoil. But wow -- the Buckeyes completed 4 of 18 passes for 35 yards and 1 interception. And people thought Donovan McNabb was having a rough go of it in Minnesota. But we can't forget that Ohio State has the talent and experience to turn it around any given week. Yep, good luck with that.

Penn State 14, Temple 10

Penn State probably should have lost to Temple, but was able to pull out a win in the end to stifle the hangover from last week's loss to Alabama. This time of year, that's really all you can ask of a team.

Iowa 31, Pittsburgh 27

Iowa was in the same spot as Penn State, though their fourth-quarter deficit against a good Pittsburgh team was even more ominous. But quarterback James Vandenberg put up 399 yards of passing with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to bring the Hawkeyes all the way back. It's been a rocky start for the Hawkeyes, and the more they play like this the harder it's going to be for disinterested observers like me to care about them. The Big Ten now has another state with nothing in it but corn, and the new Huskers look much better at football.

Army 21, Northwestern 14

Kain Colter fell back to earth. After looking great as Dan Persa's backup in the Wildcats' first two games, the sophomore completed just 12 of 23 passes for 89 yards. Army plays some ugly, ugly option-heavy football (quarterback Trent Steelman completed just 1 of 7 passes for 6 yards -- not a typo), but Northwestern was always just biding its time until their Heisman hopeful quarterback could suit up again. Reports say he'll be back for their next game, and they're definitely going to need him against Illinois.

Purdue and Indiana are taking full advantage of early season pillow schedules to boost their self esteem, while Minnesota welcomed back their head coach with a victory. They probably should not get used to those.

 
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Knute Rockne / September 19, 2011 3:29 PM

Good breakdowns. I enjoyed reading them.

"Notre Dame has almost nothing that can make up for its losses to South Florida and Michigan"

I disagree.

If Notre Dame wins out, that means victories over #23 USC and #5 Stanford.

10-2 and BCS bound baby!!! Go Irish!!

Jim Reedy / September 20, 2011 12:52 AM

Yes, and if the Irish win every game they play for the next 50 years, they'll be 600-2. Good prediction, Knute!

Knute Rockne / September 23, 2011 3:29 PM

Jim...I'm gonna look you up in 50 years and show you that 600-2 record, my friend. Go Irish!!

You may have just started watching College Football, so to expand on my point.

As it stands if the Irish win out, that means wins over 2 highly ranked teams...and that would mean a BCS bid, which was the goal from the beginning of the season...nothing more, nothing less.

Keep watching College Football, Jim! it's a great sport! You're gonna love it!

P.S. Is it required that all bloggers are bitches? ;-)

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