November 3, 2011

Week 10 preview in the Big Ten

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At one point this year, it appeared that the time to shine for Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller would be 2012.

When Miller signed with Ohio State, Terrelle Pryor was the Buckeyes' starting quarterback. But as with much that has happened at Ohio State this season, things didn't go as planned.

THE SCHEDULE

Indiana at Ohio State, noon
Minnesota at Michigan State, noon
Michigan at Iowa, noon
Purdue at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m.
Northwestern at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m.
Rather than serving an apprenticeship, Miller was thrown into the fray in September after Pryor's departure and the poor play of senior Joe Bauserman. But in recent weeks, Miller is cementing himself as more than just the quarterback of the future. He's a pretty good quarterback for the present.

"I see him growing up and getting better as a football player," Ohio State running back Dan Herron said. "He's getting better every week. And the more experience he gets, the better he gets. And I think he's definitely going to be a great player, a special player."

Last week's 40-yard, game-winning pass against Wisconsin was only the most visible evidence of Miller's progression. Against Nebraska, he helped Ohio State to a 27-6 lead before leaving the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter. Miller passed for 95 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 91 before his injury. After he was injured, Ohio State's offense fell apart and the Buckeyes went on to lose 34-27.

In the following game, against Illinois, Ohio State almost exclusively ran the ball. One of Miller's four pass attempts, though, was a touchdown in the Buckeyes' win.

Against Wisconsin, Miller again was primarily a ground threat primarily, rushing for 99 yards and two touchdowns. He was 6-of-11 for 49 yards before the game-winning touchdown.

Miller has a ways to go before he's a bona-fide Big Ten quarterback, but he's already starting to carry himself with the cool confidence of a veteran. Before the final possession against Wisconsin, with the Buckeyes trailing 29-26 with less than two minutes to go, Miller assured coach Luke Fickell he was ready for his moment by winking at the coach.

"He's grown and he's continuing to grow," Fickell said. "You can't say he didn't lack confidence in what he did, but when your preparation meets where your performance is expected, you begin to gain that confidence."

[The Forde-Yard Dash: Pat Forde's take on college football]

BEST MATCHUP: Northwestern's pass offense vs. Nebraska's pass defense. Northwestern finally put an end to it five-game losing streak last week with a 59-38 win over Indiana. The Wildcats are facing about as drastic turnaround as possible in going from facing the Hoosiers' lax defense to now playing Nebraska. The Huskers have struggled at times, but they've tightened up their pass defense since losing to Wisconsin on Oct. 1. In the three games since, Nebraska has held opponents to 316 total passing yards and a 41.3 percent completion rate. Last week, Huskers CB Alfonzo Dennard was instrumental in holding Michigan State senior WR B.J. Cunningham without a catch for the first time since Cunningham's third college game. Northwestern comes in hot, and TE Drake Dunsmore caught four touchdown passes against Indiana last week.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Iowa QB James Vandenberg. Even after last week's stunning loss to Minnesota, Iowa still controls its own destiny in the Legends Division, starting with a home game against Michigan this week. Vandenberg is among the nation's leaders in passing efficiency, thanks in great part to his play at home. Vandenberg is completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,365 yards and 14 touchdowns (against two interceptions) in five games at Kinnick Stadium. With Michigan and Michigan State visiting Iowa City, Vandenberg can make the Big Ten race interesting if he can continue that trend at home.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. He is on a pace to set the NCAA single-season pass-efficiency record with a rating of 196.95. Hawaii's Colt Brennan set the single-season record with a 186.0 rating in 2006. But three of the Badgers' final four regular-season opponents (Purdue, Illinois and Penn State) rank in the top five in the Big Ten in pass-efficiency defense. With 21 rushing touchdowns, Badgers TB Montee Ball is threat to break the Big Ten's single-season record of 26 jointly held by Indiana's Anthony Thompson (1988) and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter (1994).

NUMBERS GAME: The Big Ten has had six 30-carry performances by running backs this season, and four of them were last week: Nebraska's Rex Burkhead rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries against Michigan State. Ohio State's Dan Herron rushed for 160 yards on 33 carries against Wisconsin. Iowa's Marcus Coker rushed for 252 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries against Minnesota. And Penn State's Silas Redd rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries against Illinois.

[Video: Upset watch: Michigan could be in trouble against Iowa]

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"It was business as usual. We don't talk about it a whole heck of a lot." - Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on handing out "Blackshirts" to as many as 20 players, according to HuskerOnline.com

"[Nebraska] covered things well and they knew what was coming, so credit them. There were times where, if I throw that ball a little bit farther, maybe we get a completion, or if we catch the ball when we get a drop, maybe we can get a drive going, or if a guy runs a route a little bit different, maybe it is open. Overall, you have to credit Nebraska and the job that they did, and we will have a much better plan and be much more focused in our attention to detail going into this week." - Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, to SpartanMag.com

"Slaps like me aren't playing linebacker right now because we wore neck rolls and had to go tackle to tackle. These mobile guys make you have to defend the length and width of the field. It's completely changed the dynamic." - Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, on mobile quarterbacks in the Big Ten

POLL WATCH: Wisconsin, which was the No. 6 team in the BCS standings two weeks ago, now is No. 5 among Big Ten teams. The Badgers are 20th after losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Wisconsin has the greatest discrepancy between the human polls and the computer rankings. The Badgers are ranked 18th by the Harris voters and 17th by the coaches, but Wisconsin's average ranking in the six computers is 29th. After defeating Michigan State last week, Nebraska is the highest-placed Big Ten team in the BCS, moving up four spots to No. 10. The Huskers are followed by No. 15 Michigan, No. 16 Penn State and No. 17 Michigan State.

ETC.: Six Big Ten teams are among the top 16 in the nation in scoring defense, and four (Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin) are in the national top 10. Five Big Ten teams are in the top 17 nationally in total defense. ... Penn State RT Silas Redd led the nation in rushing yards during the month of October with 703. ... Big Ten teams are 8-18 in conference road games. Penn State (2-0) is the only team without a Big Ten loss on the road. Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin are winless in league road games. ... Michigan anticipates S Jordan Kovacs (knee) to return against Iowa after missing last week's game against Purdue. ... Ohio State backup TB Jaamal Berry has been suspended after he was charged with assault and disorderly conduct stemming from a confrontation in downtown Columbus on Oct. 21. ... Indiana dismissed WR Damarlo Belcher for a violation of team rules on Monday, two days after being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Belcher was 28 catches short of Indiana's career record held by James Hardy. ... Illinois has been outscored 24-0 in the first half in the past three games, all losses.

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David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.



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