The month of September is in the books, which means that conference play is ready to take center stage. The Big Ten opens league action this weekend with two big matchups, highlighted by Penn State at Iowa in the nightcap.
Both the Nittany Lions and the Hawkeyes suffered nonconference losses that took some of the national luster off of this contest — Penn State fell at Alabama and Iowa lost on the road against Arizona.
But as we know in the Big Ten, it’s all about the roses. And these teams have a chance to put their early season woes behind them and start positioning themselves on the road to Pasadena with a strong primetime effort.
In ’09, Ohio State made it five straight seasons of sharing or winning the Big Ten championship. But keep in mind that Iowa started off 9-0 last year before quarterback Ricky Stanzi injured his ankle and the Hawkeyes fell to Northwestern and the Buckeyes in consecutive weeks.
ICONCould the Hawkeyes have won the Big Ten last season with a healthy Ricky Stanzi for a full season?
Might Iowa have won the conference with a healthy Stanzi? Of course, we will never know. But the Hawks returned much of their nucleus this fall, and the real 2010 season now begins for the Big Ten.
As always, Iowa’s fortunes start on the defensive line. Although Adrian Clayborn's statistics don’t resemble that of a preseason All-American — 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries — keep in mind that he wasn’t filling up the stat sheet in the first month of ’09, either.
The Penn State game last season, however, seemed to change the course of the year not just for the 6-4, 285-pound Clayborn — but for the Hawkeyes, as well.
Clayborn became a household name on a primetime stage in Iowa’ victory at Happy Valley with a blocked punt and a return for a touchdown that helped propel the Hawkeyes to their run up the rankings.
And he helped make believers out of many fans who weren’t quite sold on Iowa as a national contender.
With the Hawkeyes falling to Arizona in Tucson, the doubters are out again. And that’s a big mistake.
Iowa will get Ohio State at home this year. So despite the early-season loss, there is plenty to play for when the Hawks navigate through the Big Ten slate.
Meanwhile, this isn’t your typical Joe Paterno-led Penn State squad. Why? Well, the offense is being run by a true freshman, as quarterback Robert Bolden won the job after an impressive fall camp. He is still learning on the fly, looking solid for the most part but looking like a freshman at other times. In the first big test of his career in Tuscaloosa, he finished 13 of 29 through the air with two interceptions. The biggest problem against the Tide was not connecting down the field — and Bolden had some chances to do so. An aerial attack for the Lions will be needed Saturday night even if Evan Royster is able to find some running room.
However, Iowa’s defensive line, which continues to produce despite the constant double-teaming on Clayborn, is likely to harass Bolden all night. Mike Daniels recorded four tackles for loss and a sack last week against Ball State to earn Big Ten co-defensive player of the week. Daniels joins Karl Klug, Broderick Binns and Christian Ballard to form the nation’s best line, which has helped Iowa lead the country in total defense (227.5 yards per game), rank third in rushing defense (65.5 yards per game) and fifth in scoring defense (12.0 points per game).
ICONPenn State's Robert Bolden will feel the pressure from Iowa's front four.
And Bolden thought the Crimson Tide’s defense was a difficult unit to conquer? Throw in a banged-up offensive line and the Nittany Lions could be in trouble.
Penn State should expect a heavy dose of Adam Robinson and just enough Stanzi to position Kirk Ferentz for his eight win over Paterno in the last nine meetings.
In addition to the Penn State-Iowa tilt, here are the other Big Ten contests taking place on Saturday.
Ohio State at Illinois: The Fighting Zooks aren’t expected to contend in the Big Ten this season, but it should be fun watching running back Mikel LeShoure all year long in conference play. He’s gone over 100 yards in all three contests and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry to go along with three touchdowns. Vic Koenning’s defense will have to be ready from the start for this one against Terrelle Pryor’s dual-threat attack. In the end, the Buckeyes have too many weapons on offense.
Northwestern at Minnesota: This is turning into a disastrous 2010 season for Tim Brewster and the Gophers. After barely squeaking by Middle Tennessee and losing to South Dakota, the Gophers fell to Northern Illinois last week. Three consecutive home losses at your brand new facility? Not good. Major hot seat material. Wide receiver Troy Stoudermire has been reinstated, but that’s about the only good news for Minnesota fans. Meanwhile, I think NU could put together another solid campaign. I’ve seen the Wildcats in their two home contests, and quarterback Dan Persa looks like the real deal — even taking into consideration the weak competition. The schedule is right for the Wildcats to sneak into yet another January 1 bowl game.
Michigan at Indiana: Denard Robinson is expected to play, but all eyes will be on his knee. And it’s worth wondering whether Robinson will hold up for a full season carrying quite the load offensively for the Wolverines. We should see more SportsCenter moments from the sophomore signal caller in this one. But Indiana should put up points, as well, as Ben Chappell and the Hoosiers aerial attack have the weapons to expose Greg Robinson’s defense — particularly a secondary that will remain a weak spot all season long.
Wisconsin at Michigan State: This may end up being the best Big Ten game of the week. Mark Dantonio will return and be in the coaching booth upstairs for the Spartans. Meanwhile, wide receivers Nick Toon and David Gilreath return to the lineup for the Badgers, while the Spartans will likely see a lot of running back John Clay as Wisconsin tries to pound the ball. Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker form a deadly rushing duo in the Spartans backfield, so the Badgers aren’t the only team poised to run the rock. Quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and Kirk Cousins will have to make a play or two in the passing game to keep the defenses honest.
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