September 11, 2008

Big Ten: Northwestern, Minnesota thinking big

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Ohio State's looming clash with No. 1 USC and the continuing analysis and scrutiny of every breath and burp of the Michigan quarterbacks has dominated Big Ten talk. So, you are forgiven if you haven't noticed the fact that Northwestern and Minnesota both are 2-0.

It's true. Northwestern and Minnesota are perfect and dreaming big.

Northwestern is looking for its first bowl since the 2005 season. And Pat Fitzgerald 10-14 his first two years in Evanston just might deliver in his third season on the job since taking over following the death of Randy Walker. The Wildcats have a dynamic offense led by one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation in C.J. Bacher. However, the unit has sputtered so far as it adjusts to new coordinator Mick McCall's no-huddle, hurry-up scheme. That has been a shock. And so has the ability of the usually mild Wildcats defense to make plays at key times.

Northwestern opened with a convincing home victory over Syracuse and improved to 2-0 with a shaky 24-20 win at Duke last Saturday. The Wildcats were outgained 472-328 and had to stop the Blue Devils twice on fourth down in the fourth quarter. Still, in years past, the Wildcats have played such winnable road games only to lose.

"It's great to be here 2-0, but there is a lot of work to do," said Fitzgerald, whose club plays host to Southern Illinois on Saturday. "We look like a team that has played two games, eight quarters of football. There's a lot of room for growth."

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster is trying to resurrect the Golden Gophers. Minnesota went 1-11 in Brewster's debut, the school's worst record since a 1-10 mark in 1983. Minnesota opened with a narrow opening victory at home over Northern Illinois. The Gophers scored the winning touchdown in the waning seconds after converting a fourth-down play. Last Saturday wasn't as drama-filled, as Minnesota rolled 42-17 at Bowling Green. It was an emphatic victory that shocked many when you consider the Falcons were coming off a big win at Pittsburgh and Minnesota was a five-point underdog.

Credit new Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof for rehabbing a unit that ranked last in the nation (518.7 ypg) in 2007. There's still work to do, but Roof the ex-head coach of Duke has made key adjustments and inspired with his fiery approach. The Gophers' defense ranks 82nd in the nation (393.5 ypg). That's not stellar, but it's a major improvement. But the offense received a blow when it was announced running back Duane Bennett was out for the season with a knee injury.

"We're a 2-0 football team, we've played two solid football games, but it's a start and it's not an end," said Brewster, who faces Montana State on Saturday. "We're not overly excited, we're not too high and we're not too low. We've established how we've gotten to this point and that's through hard work on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We're going to work extremely hard and we're just going to just try to keep doing what we've been doing up until this point."

  • PLAYER TO WATCH
  • THE SCHEDULE
    Saturday
    Southern Illinois at Northwestern, noon
    Montana State at Minnesota, noon
    La.-Lafayette at Illinois, noon
    Florida Atlantic at Michigan State, noon
    Iowa State at Iowa, noon
    Penn State at Syracuse, 3:30 p.m.
    Oregon at Purdue, 3:30 p.m.
    Michigan at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
    Ohio State at USC, 8 p.m.
    Wisconsin at Fresno State, 10:30 p.m.
    Wisconsin QB Allan Evridge. He has looked solid in his first two games, completing 24 of 36 passes (66.7) for 383 yards with two TDs and an interception. But those numbers were built in victories at home vs. Akron and Marshall. Playing a night game at No. 21 Fresno State will pose myriad difficulties for Evridge and the No. 10 Badgers, the first Big Ten team ever to wade into the "Valley." Fresno State looked good in an opening win at Rutgers, limiting the Scarlet Knights to 20 of 39 passing for 263 yards with two interceptions and no TD passes.

  • MATCHUP TO WATCH
  • Notre Dame running backs Armando Allen and Robert Hughes vs. Michigan LB Obi Ezeh. The Irish had a meager 105 yards rushing on 34 attempts (3.1 ypc) in an ugly 21-13 victory over San Diego State. Yes, the same San Diego State team that lost to Cal Poly the week before. Yes, the same San Diego State that featured a makeshift defensive line and was a 21-point underdog. Ezeh has been a bright spot in Michigan's 1-1 start, leading a defense that's yielding just 83 yards rushing per game. If Michigan can sit on the ND offense the running game in particular it might allow the Wolverines' offense to come to life and steal what would be a huge victory.

  • WHO'S HOT
  • In his first career start, Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi threw three touchdown passes in a 42-0 pasting of Florida International. Stanzi got the start over Jake Christensen and did his damage in less than one half. Stanzi will start Saturday when Iowa State comes to Kinnick Stadium in the battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy. But look for Christensen to play. Minnesota QB Adam Weber completed 21 of 25 passes for 233 yards with three TDs and a rushing score in a 42-17 win at Bowling Green. He's one of the hottest passers in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's offense is clicking. After falling behind Marshall 14-0 the Badgers proceeded to rip off 51 points. Evridge passed for 308 yards. Penn State's defense didn't miss a beat despite playing without end Maurice Evans and tackle Abe Koroma, who both were suspended. The Nittany Lions whipped visiting Oregon State, 45-14. The Beavers passed for 250 yards but tossed two interceptions and ran for only 92 yards. Michigan State's Javon Ringer might be the Big Ten's top back. He ran for 135 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in a 42-10 triumph over Eastern Michigan. Ringer, who also had a career-high 34 carries, almost had a sixth TD but fumbled before crossing the goal line on the first drive. Purdue FB Frank Halliburton blocked two Northern Colorado punts with one being recovered for a touchdown and nearly blocked a third. Iowa DE Karl Klug made a career-high nine tackles with two sacks with a forced fumble and helped limit Florida International to 56 yards rushing. Penn State RB Evan Royster had a career-high 141 yards on 17 carries despite playing less than three quarters against Oregon State.

  • WHO'S NOT
  • The Ohio State offense was flat in 26-14 home win over Ohio. The Buckeyes generated just 272 yards. Quarterback Todd Boeckman completed 16 of 26 passes for 110 yards and was sacked three times. OSU running backs Dan Herron (50 yards), Maurice Wells (48) and Brandon Saine (15) inspired little confidence that they can carry the rushing load if Chris Wells struggles with injured toe. The Michigan quarterbacks continue to flounder. Steven Threet got the start in a 16-6 home win over Miami University, but he completed just six of 13 passes for 63 yards. Nick Sheridan, who started the opener, went 4-for-5 for 40 yards. Yes, the Boilermakers opened the season by beating Northern Colorado 42-10. But they hardly impressed. Northern Colorado had more first downs than Purdue (24-20) and outrushed the Boilers 123-113. Fifth-year senior quarterback Curtis Painter completed 15 of 28 passes (53.6). Joe Tiller's next win will make him Purdue's all-time victory leader with 85. But, it might not come Saturday. The Boilermakers play host to Oregon.

  • WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
  • "We've got three natural rivalries with Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. We're probably one of the unique schools in the country to have three that intense. There's no question Notre Dame-Michigan is a great rivalry and has been throughout the years."
    Michigan's Rich Rodriguez on facing the Fighting Irish

    "He made steps this week and is getting better. Martez is ahead of Jevon (Kearse) at this point in their careers."
    Illinois coach Ron Zook on linebacker Martez Wilson:

    "I wanted us to have an eastern conference. Syracuse and a couple other people were all wrapped up in basketball. Big East basketball. I thought I had almost pulled it off and then Pitt backed out and the Big East ... contrary to what anybody tells you from the Big East, they tried to get us to go in it with them, except for basketball. I said, no we want an all-sports conference and I couldn't swing it. So, we took a shot at the Big Ten and the Big Ten took us and that was the end of it."
    Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on how the series with Syracuse and other Eastern schools ended

    "It doesn't matter if it's top-20 or bottom 20. Winning a game is what's important. I've not placed the measuring stick on who the opponent is and how we did there. I think all our friends in the media do a marvelous job in making those comparisons, which saves me in making those comparisons."
    Purdue coach Joe Tiller, on the importance of beating a ranked foe

  • ETC.
  • For the first time in league history, the Big Ten went 11-0 last week. Wisconsin has won 16 games in a row at Camp Randall Stadium. The only school with a longer current home winning streak is Oklahoma (20). Michigan's win over Miami University attracted just 106,724 fans. That was the smallest crowd in the Big House since it was expanded in 1998. Illinois QB Juice Williams broke his single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 174 in a 47-21 triumph over Eastern Illinois. Indiana, 2-0, is off this week before playing host to Ball State on Sept. 20. The Buckeyes' win over Ohio was the program's 800th. Ohio State is just the fifth school to crack that barrier, joining Michigan (870), Notre Dame (825), Texas (822) and Nebraska (810). Wisconsin LB Jonathan Casillas will play at Fresno State after missing the first two games with a knee injury. Also, TE Travis Beckum (hamstring) is expected to debut. Iowa TE Tony Moeaki is ready to go vs. Iowa State after being out for almost a year with various ailments. Ferentz is 3-6 vs. Iowa State but has won the last two in Iowa City. Purdue has lost its last 14 games vs. ranked teams, falling by an average score of 30-19. No. 16 Oregon visits this week. Purdue's last win vs. a Top 25 team was on Nov. 8, 2003, vs. No. 10 Iowa. Illinois pass rusher Will Davis will continue to play tackle after excelling at end in 2007. The Illini say they want their four best linemen on the field. DT Josh Brent remains out for undisclosed reasons. Michigan figures to be without starting left offensive tackle Mark Ortmann, who dislocated an elbow in the win over Miami University. He should be back Sept. 27 against Wisconsin. With Bennett out, look for Minnesota to turn to freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon, along with junior Jay Thomas. Rodriguez took his first West Virginia team to Notre Dame in 2001, losing 34-24. The Wolverines will be seeking their third win in a row vs. the Irish. That hasn't happened in this series since Michigan won the first eight meetings from 1887-1908.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

    Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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