Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.
Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders. Continue reading
Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.
Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders. Continue reading
In case you were wondering, Nick Saban is still the worst secondary coach in Ohio State history – at least statistically.
The 2013 Buckeyes came close to setting a record for most passing yards allowed per game at 268.0 but fell short of the mark of 273.1 yielded in 1981.
Saban was Ohio State secondary coach that season as well as in 1980, when the Buckeyes allowed a school-record 621 yards passing in a game to David Wilson of Illinois. The only other 500-yard passing game by an Ohio State opponent also happened under Saban’s watch in ’81 at Purdue via quarterback Scott Campbell.
Head coach Earle Bruce fired Saban (along with defensive coordinator Dennis Fryzel and line coach Steve Szabo) after the ’81 campaign, but the Kent State graduate recovered nicely, as you may have heard.
He got his revenge on Ohio State in 1998 when as head coach at Michigan State he led an upset of what for my money is the best Buckeye team of the past 25 years at least. Oh yeah, then he won a total of four national championships at LSU and Alabama. Saban also was head coach at Toledo and served four seasons as defensive coordinator of the Browns before becoming the big boss of the Spartans.
As for his time in Columbus, Saban told the American Football Coaches Association convention last month the most memorable victory of his career was the Buckeyes’ 14-9 upset of No. 7 Michigan in 1981. Saban’s secondary was key in that victory as safety Todd Bell’s late interception prevented the Wolverines from adding to a 9-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Art Schlichter then engineered the game-winning touchdown drive for the Buckeyes.
You should check out the Buckeye Sports Bulletin football preview issue for my full view of the race, but here is how I see the top of each division shaking out.
The Division That Should Be the West:
Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska should stage an interesting battle for divisional supremacy.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will miss All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, but the front seven is remarkably deep as several years of strong recruiting seem to be paying off on the line and at linebacker. Worthy was a fine player, but some of his success might have been a product of the overall quality of the unit. William Gholston has the makings of an even bigger star at defensive end while Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are special talents at linebacker.
There are major questions on the other side of the ball in East Lansing, but I think they can get by with a so-so scoring unit thanks to the ‘D’. Dantonio claims to have supreme confidence in sophomore Andrew Maxwell, but he is an unknown at this point. All of his targets at receiver and tight end will be new, too, but new wideouts DeAnthony Arnett and Tony Lippett along with tight end Dion Sims are considered potential playmakers.
Junior running back Le’Veon Bell is an impact running back, but the Spartans have questions on the offensive front.
I was only one of many caught off guard by Michigan’s success last season, and I am still a skeptic of the Wolverines in 2012. They played far better fundamentally on both sides of the ball last season, but they also benefited from a remarkable run of beneficial bounces.
Even as a senior, I think Denard Robinson remains a wild card. He has dynamic talent but probably can’t get away with throwing another 15 interceptions this time around, as he did in 2011. Offensive coordinator Al Borges did an admirable job bending his pro-style attack to Robinson’s skills, and it will be interesting to see how that evolves this season.
Defensively, Michigan should continue to mature in the back seven, but the Wolverines will be green at key spots up front.
Ultimately, I believe the loss of All-America center David Molk and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Mike Martin will be tough to overcome, leaving the Wolverines vulnerable in the trenches, where depth remains a question until Brady Hoke’s recruiting classes get some seasoning. That could change if five-star defensive tackle prospect Will Campbell finally lives up to his billing. The bet here is that he won’t. Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum, to now seldom-used, is the choice to replace Molk.
Then there is Nebraska. I picked the Cornhuskers to win the Big Ten in their first season in the league, but head coach Bo Pelini’s team faltered down the stretch and finished a disappointing 9-4 with three conference losses.
Year two in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s unique option scheme should be better than year one, but will Taylor Martinez ever grow into a consistent passer? I am not sure that he will, but it might not be necessary if he and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead can scare teams enough on the ground. The offensive line, with its fondness for cut blocks, could become a plug-and-play unit, while a callow group of receivers could show some improvement this season.
Things could look a little different on defense with new coordinator John Papuchis in charge, and that might not be a bad thing after the famed Blackshirts gave up 44 more yards and six more points per game than in 2010. Pelini hopes more experience will help in the secondary while better depth improves the front seven. Expect the coaching staff to use the benefit of a year’s worth of familiarity with league opponents when it comes to game-planning.
Division That Should Be The East:
While many expect Wisconsin to run away with the division as Ohio State and Penn State (who will probably be terrible) ineligible, Purdue and Illinois both have some darkhorse potential.
The Boilermakers have never been able to quite get over the hump in Danny Hope’s three seasons at the helm, but things might break right for him in 2012. He has three quarterbacks with starting experience – Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry – and a handful of potential contributors at the skill positions. If the offensive line improves, Purdue could have a puncher’s chance to reach the top of the division. Nine starters return on defense, including defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen, two players among the best in the league at their positions.
Talent is less an issue than discipline and consistency for the Purdue during the Hope years.
Similar sentiments could apply to the Fighting Illini, but they are under new management this season in the form of head coach Tim Beckman. The former Ohio State assistant has solid building blocks on both sides of the ball: quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton on offense with linebacker Jonathan Brown, linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and cornerback Terry Hawthorne on defense.
The onus is on Scheelhaase to pick up a new spread offense and lead on his side. He should get some help from running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young as well as multitalented Miles Osei.
If the offense can improve from one of the worst in the country last season to even decent, it could offset graduation losses from what was a top 15 defense nationally in both yardage (seventh) and scoring (15th).
Then there is Wisconsin. The Badgers are two-time Big Ten champs and a fashionable pick to go for three, but that will be easier said than done. Stopping senior running back Monte Ball is a formidable challenge for any defense, and the Badgers figure to be strong as usual on the front line. However, expecting Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to replicate the success of 2011 sensation Russell Wilson might be asking too much. O’Brien is a solid passer, but Wilson’s ability to freelance and create big plays after the initial plan broke down will certainly be missed. Will Jared Abbrederis step up as the No. 1 receiver with Nick Toon having graduated? Can Abbrederis, a former walk-on, replicate his 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns without Toon to draw attention on the other side?
My guess is the offense will not be as unstoppable as it has been the last two seasons, but it should still be quite good. The stop unit is another story. The propensity to put up huge point totals has masked a decline in defense the past two seasons, and another year of maturity might not do it for the six returning starters. Head coach Bret Bielema is banking on a big impact from defensive end David Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith from injury, but neither of them were exactly All-Big Ten Players before they were sidelined. Last year teams like Ohio State and Oregon made the Badgers look slow on defense.
I think Michigan State will get just enough on offense to ride that defense to a 7-1 mark in the league with its only setback coming against the Cornhuskers. That could include close calls against Michigan and Ohio State, however, not to mention the annually kooky contest with Northwestern (set for the penultimate game of the regular season and the Spartans’ Senior Day this time around).
Illinois’ conference schedule is front-loaded with trips to Wisconsin and Michigan in early October, but the Fighting Illini could lose those games and still find time to come together down the stretch and get back into the race with Wisconsin. However, because of tiebreakers the Fighting Illini will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way if they lose to the Badgers and Wolverines, and I am not ready to say they will be able to pull that off. Thus, I’m going with Wisconsin.
The Spartans prevail in Indianapolis this time and go on to the Rose Bowl while Nebraska benefits from sitting at home on championship weekend and having a huge fan base, thus getting an at-large bid to the BCS.
I re-watched the Buckeyes’ 17-7 win over the Fighting Illini so you didn’t have to…
The game ball certainly goes to the tailbacks. I counted at least four times Boom Herron or Jordan Hall were dead in the sights of a defensive player but made him miss, either turning a potential loss into a positive play or stretching a short gain into something longer. Both of them have impressive vision, quickness and agility. Zach Boren was his usual destructive self leading the way. He had a heck of a battle with Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, who I think proved himself to be a stud.
I think I owe Jim Bollman an apology for asking why there were no counters. I believe they tried to run one in the first quarter but Miller and Herron ran into each other. Hard to tell who was at fault on that play, but it seems more likely it was the freshman quarterback who made the mistake. They also went with a couple of counter trey’s while running out the clock at the end of the game.
Big shoutout also to the tight ends, who all had really effective moments blocking on the edge. Jake Stoneburner not only showed off his receiving and route running skills on his touchdown catch, he also continues to improve as a blocker.
Both tackles had some problems with the quickness of the Illinois defensive ends, but they also did good things when they could get their hands on those guys. That is particularly true of Mike Adams, who has become more of a road grader than I expected him to because I thought his game was more about athleticism until late last season. Andrew Norwell did not have the best day inside. I think those two are still working on getting on the same page, and he is still getting used to the different angles at guard. Very different style from Illinois than he saw last week against Nebraska. At the other guard, Jack Mewhort had a big challenge against Akeem Spence and did a pretty good job overall.
Not sure if any wide receivers actually took the field. They certainly had no impact. Stoneburner lined up in the slot a lot, and Boren was out there a few times as well. Boren said he played 55 plays, which would be all of them for OSU.
Defensively, you have to take your hat off to Johnny Simon. I marked down 11 plays he had a noticeably positive impact on the play, which is a pretty ridiculously high number for a defensive lineman. He is a stud whose effort was never in question but seems to be gaining skill every week.
Johnathan Hankins was nearly flawless, too. His strength and agility are ridiculous and he makes plays whether the ball is run his way or not.
Really, the whole defensive front played well aside from Solomon Thomas, who made a couple of appearances at Leo or “viper” in the dime defense and looked out of place. Good things from Adam Bellamy and Michael Bennett, however.
The linebackers were much better against the Fighting Illini than the Cornhuskers. Andrew Sweat and Storm Klein were solid while Etienne Sabino had the best game I’ve seen him play. He tackled better and was in better position most of the day.
Illinois definitely a defense built for speed, although there are a handful of guys on the team that seem to have bulked up, too, including both of those ends.
Barnett was almost exclusively the safety in the box while Bryant played deep when he wasn’t at Star. I am interested to know why they did this. I think Barnett is suitably skilled to play both positions, and I wonder if they dropped Bryant to the back to get him to see more of the field and force him to play more under control. Be interesting to see if that was some kind of lesson or if that is a permanent move.
Travis Howard was knocked during the game for giving up a handful of catches, but I think generally that was a result of having to bail in coverage. He looked good pressing A.J. Jenkins a few times and was there for the interception in the fourth quarter. You already know Bradley Roby had a big day.
Finally, I was surprised at how uncomfortable Braxton Miller looked in the pocket, although the pass rush obviously had an effect. I think the lack of opportunities ruined any chance he had of getting into any kind of rhythm. The coaches were wise to respect the wind, as evidenced by Roby’s interception that took off on Nathan Scheelhaase, but I still think a handful of short passes to get Miller going would have been a good idea.
What we learned last week: There’s life in the old bear’s alma mater yet*.
The title of this post refers not only to the title of a George Strait song but also Ohio State’s game-winning approach to the 17-7 decision they claimed against Illinois on Saturday.
The Buckeyes can be dangerous when they put their mind to it, especially on defense. Illinois has bona fide threats at quarterback, running back and out wide. The offensive line is not bad, but it was dominated by the Ohio State defensive front.
Ohio State’s linebackers looked more active and sound this week, too, and the continued maturation of a secondary starting two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a junior has to be an encouraging sign with the Buckeyes’ biggest test of the season next on the schedule.
We also learned about the value of tackling and breaking tackles, but we probably should have known about that already.
The biggest challenge for the 2011 Silver Bullets is mental. They can compete with a lot of people from a raw talent standpoint (we’ll find this out for certain in two weeks).
Ohio State running backs Boom Herron and Jordan Hall exploited a lot of only so-so holes and left more than a couple unblocked defenders grasping air, turning potential no-gainers into positive plays that kept the chains moving and the clock rolling.
Their creativity with the ball in their hands often made up for the lack of creativity from those calling the plays.
I understand the need to be conservative given the wind and the state of their freshman quarterback, but I think they overdid it again. I can’t shake the idea that in protecting Braxton Miller they are stunting his growth (as I referenced in my last post). Maybe I’m giving the kid too much credit for what he can do at this point in time, or maybe he was more gimpy than they let on, but I still believe he would be better if he had a longer leash. I never thought confidence was an issue for him – and they still talk about his unflappable demeanor now – but he seems uncomfortable with what he is looking at in the pocket, and I think part of that can be attributed to the limited situations in which he is allowed to do it. Time will tell.
Even if Miller (or perhaps the wide receivers) cannot handle anything more than they have asked of them, I continue to be mystified at the lack of versatility in the pro-style running game.
Certainly it will be interesting to see if any evolution takes place between now and the next time the Buckeyes take the field.
*That’s a Jack Nicklaus 1986 Master’s (check in around the 3:3o mark) reference probably only a handful of people – including Jeff Svoboda and Kyle Roland – will get, but I’m comfortable with that.
What we can expect to learn this week: With Ohio State given the week off, the focus shifts to East Lansing for a huge showdown between Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Buckeye fans who warmed up for their team’s win in Champaign last weekend with a noon viewing of Michigan State’s win over Michigan probably felt like they had seen that game before. The young Spartan front seven continued to prove it is for real as it ran roughshod over the Wolverine offensive line and terrorized quarterback Denard Robinson. They eventually knocked him out of the game, and for the second year in a row shut down the vaunted Michigan offense.
Michigan State was something of an enigma in the first month of the season, but I think the Spartans are for real now. The defense is young, but probably the most talented to inhabit East Lansing in quite some time. They are coached by a proven defensive mind, play hard and play sound. They also seem to have the secondary to really bring it with the front seven when they feel like it, as they did against Ohio State and Michigan.
Standing toe to toe with the Badgers figures to be an entirely new challenge, of course. While Wisconsin’s almost unbelievable statistics are certainly an indication of a talented group, they are a bit inflated by the weakness of the Badgers’ schedule to date.
It will be interesting to see how they respond to their first big boy opponent of the year, one that is willing to punch them in the mouth and see what happens.
The wild card in this game is the Michigan State offense. I’m still not sure what to make of that group. I love the running backs and wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, but I’m still not sold on the offensive line. MSU will also have to get a much better effort against the Badgers than it got against Ohio State from Kirk Cousins, the Spartans’ surprisingly erratic senior quarterback.
Pretty much the only thing at which Wisconsin has not excelled this season is forcing turnovers (at least until last week), and giving the ball to the Badgers would seem to make them pretty much invincible at this point.
I’ve seen some Ohio State fans talk about wanting to be the ones who end Wisconsin’s bid for a perfect season, but the better scenario has the Spartans knocking off the Badgers first. If that happens, Ohio State would be very close to controlling its own destiny in the divisional race by upsetting Wisconsin next week. The only other thing the Buckeyes would need is one more Illinois loss, and the Badgers will probably take care of that next month.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown was as good as advertised with 17 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. The same can be said for Illini defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan, who combined for two more sacks.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins both had moments they flashed their ability, but neither quite solved the OSU defense, so we are leaving them off the list.
DVR Directions: The Buckeyes are not playing so there’s no need to record anything this week. The best game of the week is the one that also happens to involve Ohio State’s next opponent, anyway. Save that hard drive space!
Big Ten Picks: Iowa has been a bit of an enigma so far this season, but I will take the Hawkeyes at home against Indiana. Look for Illinois to bounce back against Purdue, although that should be a close one. I think Ohio State exposed the Fighting Illini a little bit, but there is some real talent on that team, more than resides in West Lafayette.
Nebraska should enjoy its second straight off week, this one against hapless Minnesota, and I think Northwestern gets some revenge on Penn State for its second half collapse last season in what turned out to be Joe Paterno’s 400th win.
And what about the big nightcap? I would not be surprised to see the Spartans knock the Badgers from the ranks of the unbeaten, but I just cannot pick Cousins in this one. I always look at the revenge factor, and Wisconsin has that working in its favor as well. The matchup of the Badger offensive line and the Spartan defensive front should be fun to watch, but I think Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson will make a couple of plays that prove to be the difference.
Record last week: 4-0. Season record: 10-2
Cus Words Power Poll
Things are starting to come together. Obviously we will know more about the top two after this coming weekend, and it will be interesting to see where the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes go from here. Ditto Illinois. How will the Illini bounce back from their first loss of the season?
I think Michigan’s downward spiral is just beginning, and Penn State is due a reality check or two. Not sure what to make of Iowa and Northwestern, yet, but they are solidly ahead of the bottom quarter of the league. Purdue does have a chance to shoot past a couple of teams, but will Danny Hope’s squad do it? Time will tell.
We often do not give the opponent enough credit, be it after a win or a loss, but I do think Ohio State exposed Illinois somewhat.
The Fighting Illini are a good team – better than I expected them to be – but their opposition has not been great.
Give them credit for making plays to win games in the first half of the season, but there are more holes on that team than were apparent.
I’m not sure they faced a team that could or was determined to attack their rebuilt defensive front the way Ohio State did, and that showed.
Stopping the run can be a mindset as much as anything else. It is tough to have a team smashing straight ahead at you nonstop just as much as it can get mentally draining to spend the whole game running from sideline to sideline against option and spread passing teams.
I was among the many criticizing Ohio State for being too one-dimensional – and I still think those criticism are valid – but they get credit for believing in what they were doing and sticking to it. I still think they need to believe they can do a couple more simple things, and that could make life a lot easier for them and their young quarterback.
The Buckeyes’ very simple attack is flawed because it does not seem as if Miller is comfortable with the basic parts of it. The straight play action, throw-it-deep pro-style offense is somewhat foreign to him. I think there are simple things he can do, but they don’t fall into that family of plays. Marrying spread and pro-style offenses can be difficult – as we have well learned watching Ohio State the past six years or so – but I think they could do a better job.
I also think they would be better served to try to get Miller involved earlier in the game. He did not look comfortable at all in the pocket, and I wonder if that had something to do with going out there and waiting about a quarter and a half before he was asked to drop back and look down the field. Of course, Illinois’ front four was doing a good job of bringing some heat, so I’m sure that didn’t help. It seemed like Ohio State’s offensive line was hanging on for dear life in pass protection.
A win is a win is a win, but all is not well with the offense. The importance of three turnovers cannot be discounted much like how field position dominated the Colorado game. Perhaps they have other ideas about what to do when the unique wind situation at Memorial Stadium is not present – and that is valid because there’s no other place like it since most of the other stadiums they play in are bowls or horseshoe shapes that keep the wind off the field better – but I’ll believe that when I see it.
I think they were far, far more conservative than they needed to be and unlike last week the defense bailed them out.
About that defense… The front seven really brought it. John Simon and Johnathan Hankins were men possessed, and Etienne Sabino seemed to play much better than he did in Lincoln.
It was also important for fellow veterans Tyler Moeller and Travis Howard to come up with big plays. Those guys did not have the impact on the first half of the season that was expected of them – and I kind of think scheme was at least somewhat to blame, especially for Moeller – but they really came through in Champaign.
The Silver Bullets not only took the ball away twice, they made the Illini earn everything they got on offense. That was another key difference. Big plays have been pretty much the whole problem the defense has faced this season. Long run to start the game at Miami. 36-yard touchdown pass by Michigan State that set the tone for that game. Two 30-or-more-yard TD passes at Nebraska plus a quick-strike TD run by Taylor Martinez. That’s the story of the year.
Of course I must mention Bradley Roby being Johnny On The Spot, too. His comment about A.J. Jenkins probably didn’t make it as far out of the interview room as it might have been expected to, but regardless he has had a great year so far. He seems to have a good sense about where to be and when to make a play. He has been taking care of his opportunities. He is not afraid to attack in the running game, either.
Overall, that is what Ohio State defense is supposed to look like. They found that balance of where to take away plays and still attack. There were a lot of silver helmets around the ball at all times, another key to the season. If you want to know what kind of game this OSU defense is having, start by counting the hats within spitting distance as the pile starts to unravel. The more the merrier.
Ohio State’s head coach said obviously everyone is disappointed with how they finished the game at Nebraska, but they are ready to move on and will continue approaching the season with the same energy and passion they had before.
Braxton Miller looked more comfortable before begin injured, and that was in part because they did things to make him more comfortably by making plays around him. You could see him growing. He said Miller looked OK physically to start the week but they would have to see how he ran around on it during practice.
Quarterback Kenny Guiton has been getting more reps with the first team offense recently and that would continue. He could also play some special teams (he didn’t say what unit or units).
Someone asked essentially if Joe Bauserman looked as bad on film as he did live, and Fickell said yes. Nebraska changed how it was defending Ohio State when Bauserman came in the game, and that made things more difficult. But everyone could have played better. It wasn’t just him. His attitude is still right, and he wants to do better.
He was asked if the game plan gave the team its best chance to win and he said they evaluate everything, especially when things don’t work. They just needed one more play somewhere along the line to get over the hump. If his interception had been better executed it might have been a touchdown and then been a great move to check out of the run that was called.
The defense was the victim of an unbelievable snowball effect, and it comes down to tackling. The first half they were lights out, played sound. In the second half, Nebraska brought out a different formation and gashed them and the Buckeyes never adjusted. Their tackling then went down the drain. They might have been tired, and they might have been drained mentally.
Asked what the biggest challenge has been so far since he took over as head coach, he said it’s keeping balance in his life and the program. He has to make sure he divvies up his time with the defense well with the rest of the team, and has to do a lot more media and club speaking engagements. That means re-hashing a lot of stuff over and over again. All an assistant coach usually does is go back to work after a game like that. There is nothing else for them to worry about.
Boom Herron will play this week, and the first time we see him might be on special teams. He is a big part of who they are because of his enthusiasm and leadership.
The coaches can help the defense stay mentally strong by being consistent themselves, staying the course. He also said for about the 1,000th time they need to play more guys so they can get as much out of everyone as possible.
Illinois’ success on offense begins with their quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase. The rest of the offense is similar to last year, but he is better as a sophomore. He is a threat as a runner and a passer, and his confidence looks like it is very high. Their defense is sound and mixes up what it does.
The Ohio State offensive line will probably look a lot like it did last week, but it’s nice to have guys available to roll through if they want to.
Nathan Williams is likely out for the year and will need another surgery on his knee, but that was all the information he wanted to give out. Storm Klein is sore after getting banged up at Nebraska but needs to play through it.
Fickell had no explanation for why Illinois has always played Ohio State tough even when there was a big disparity in the teams’ talent level. It goes all the way back to his playing days in the early ’90s.
Guiton has shown them he has a passion to play, and they like to find ways to get guys like that on the field. They tell them to always be ready because they never know when they might be called upon.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins is Illinois’ big playmaker, but his chances are often a result of the threat of the running game and the quarterback. He does a good job of taking advantage.
He kind of avoided a question about the defensive line getting handled at Nebraska. He said it was really the whole group struggling. He has been there and knows what it is like when things aren’t going well up front. They needed to settle down and have someone make a play. The coaches need to help them with that, too.
The team overall has been through a lot, but they must get tougher every week. He is confident they are all together. He knows they are hard workers, and that helps him sleep better at night.
They will not revisit the idea of setting permanent captains during the season. They want to keep emphasizing the importance of the group.
Asked abut Jaamal Berry, he said the tailback has ability but is behind some others on the roster based on how they have played. He needs to be ready when the time arises for them to need him. He has a good attitude.
He doesn’t have a problem with the pressure from the fans. He knows there is a lot of passion around the program. That’s why there are 106,000 fans cheering for them every home game. They know who is with them and who is not.
Tight end Jake Stoneburner said Miller looked OK at practice, although he seemed to hold back when he was in scramble mode. He expects Miller to be good to go.
Illinois has a lot of good athletes, and their 6-0 start is no fluke.
Boom Herron is excited to be back with the regular offense and has been his usual vocal self.
The offense struggled late at Nebraska because no one executed like they needed to.
They don’t feel like they are losing a handle on the season. There is still a lot to overcome and a lot to play for. The mood of the team is fine.
Guiton practiced some with the first team, but it was less than a 50/50 split with Bauserman. He is sure Guiton would do a good job if pressed into action.
Stoneburner has a good relationship with fellow tight end Reid Fragel, and they have their own roles on the team.
Cornerback Bradley Roby said the defense did not feel any effect from Miller’s absence at Nebraska. He sees a lot of positives from the loss to the Cornhuskers, and it is a shame they had to come in a loss. The most important lesson is they have to finish games.
Illinois’ receivers are playing with great confidence, and Scheelhaase looks like he is throwing the ball better than last year.
The defense believes it can play with anybody, but they have to do a better job of maintaining their composure. There were guys who seemed to lose their focus as things started going badly in Lincoln. They were gassed because of how fast the offense was moving, but that is part of the game. That just means they should have worked harder to maintain their focus.
A.J. Jenkins is one of those confident receivers. They get him the ball by moving him around in the formation and creating mismatches with linebackers and safeties. Someone asked if his 7.7 catches and 135.8 yards per game is an indication he is a big-time player, Roby said he looks decent on film but is nothing special. They will want to locate him before every play since he moves around.
The team did not watch the Nebraska film as a unit because they know what they did wrong, but he watched the whole game because he always does. That is because he wants to be perfect in everything always. Asked to name one thing he needs to work on. he said playing lower.
He felt like they did a good job against the Nebraska option until late in the game.
The defense did not change anything schematically, it just stopped executing like it did in the first half.
He sees Guiton as a good quarterback who makes the right reads and does not turn the ball over in practice.
Center Mike Brewster said the team needs to keep winning and see what happens. Their pride is hurt by this losing, but sometimes it happens. They had a great week of practice after the debacle against Michigan State and thus played better against Nebraska.
Herron is a powerful back, and we might see him on the field at the same time as fellow tailback Jordan Hall.
Guiton can run and pass, and Brewster is sure he would be fine if they had to put him in a game. Bauserman is not begin negative right now, he is still moving forward, doing what he can. It’s got to be hard dealing with all the criticism and negativity from the fans, but coming in cold off the bench is harder than people probably realize.
Linebacker Andrew Sweat said Guiton is a great competitor.
He said lack of execution was more of an issue against Nebraska than missed tackles. They did not beat enough blocks up front.
Nebraska changed things up schematically, going with some unbalanced line formation to run their toss play out of and getting the zone read going out of that pistol triangle formation. The Buckeyes knew they could do that but did not execute what they had worked on against it.
He feels terrible for Nathan Williams, who is a good friend of his. He is sure he will be back eventually. He missed part of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, so Sweat knows what rehabbing a bad knee is all about.
Defensive tackle Garrett Goebel said the team’s spirit is good. They need to keep it up.
Scheelhaase is a dual threat, and there is some carry over this week from the Nebraska offense because both runs various types of option plays.
They have good players behind Williams, but he is a big loss. He is disappointed but will get back to working hard. He is still leading in the locker room.
The defense has a lot of vocal guys, even some of the younger members.
Quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano said Miller looked good in practice these past couple of days and seems to have no physical limitations.
He would not say who is going to be the No. 2 quarterback this week because he didn’t want Illinois to get an advantage in preparation.
The main thing that would limit Guiton if they needed to use him would be inexperience. He knows the offense and what they want to do.
The coaches told Bauserman he needs to keep competing. Sometimes things don’t go your way, and you have to keep your head up. That’s a message for the whole team, too.
He came in saying he felt like the guy wearing a meat poncho in a deodorant commercial, so someone asked if he is feeling any pressure from fans and the media and he said no he was just joking. He doesn’t know what people are saying about him, but he understands the quarterbacks have not played extraordinarily well so far this season and that falls on him.
Miller was more calm at Nebraska than he was when the Buckeyes played Michigan State.
He was asked if Miller might be a guy who needs to learn the difference between being injured and being hurt, and Siciliano said no. He doesn’t know how much pain he’s going through right now, but he assumes he is gutting it out some because he’s been practicing this week.
The biggest thing for a freshman is adjusting to the speed of the game. He thinks Miller understands what it takes to be great at this level.
Ideally they could let a guy wait until his third year to play, but things are what they are. You never really want to have to play true freshmen at any position, but sometimes you have to.
Asked how Miller is handling the overall experience of being a college freshman and a quarterback, Siciliano said pretty well so far. He is very mild-mannered and takes everything in stride.
Philly Brown is improving and will continue to with time. He didn’t have much experience as a wide receiver in high school even.
Siciliano thinks Miller saw the MSU tape and came to practice the week after that realizing someone needed to step up and lead the team and provide a spark, and he seems to have tried to do that.
Lastly, he was asked if the offense misses the influence of Jim Tressel, and he said he isn’t sure. Jim Bollman called 97 percent of the plays last season with Tressel occasionally vetoing. It was always nice to have a guy like Tressel with 40 years in the profession to bounce things off of, though.
Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel said they are seeing a lot they like about the defense. They are giving a great effort and showing toughness but need to play smarter. They do have a lot of guys seeing things for the first time.
Asked about the fourth quarter at Nebraska, he said it just comes down to getting a stop. The momentum changed, and they needed to force a punt but couldn’t do it.
He thinks they are getting better and looking forward to getting to show it.
Scheelhaase is a mobile quarterback who looks to pass first this year. He runs, but his passing differentiates him from Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.
Vrabel is still learning as a coach, and he is constantly bugging Fickell and Heacock with questions about how to do things and what is going on.
The main difference he has seen between the NFL and college is in college you don’t get to spend nearly as much time with the players. You have to be careful in how you present information to them in a way they can grasp it in a short amount of time.
He is more worried about helping them improve and be ready to play than whether or not this is a fair chance for Fickell to show if he is worthy of being head coach here for more than a year.
Asked about leadership, he said it is still developing. Sometimes it only takes one play for a guy to become one. They are looking for guys who want to win and will call people out when necessary.
Ryan Shazier’s role is developing each week. He is a confident kid, smart and athletic. He smiles a lot and brings a breath of fresh air to the facility. He slithers around blocks. They joke he hits ball carriers a lot harder than he does blockers.
Asked about advice to the players for getting over a gut punch like the loss at Nebraska, he said he called upon the example of his losing the 2006 AFC Championship game with the Patriots. That team went on to win its next 18 games (then lost in the Super Bowl). So they should know they can overcome this adversity.
The guys need to understand that what happened last week or on the last play doesn’t matter for the next play. The next play is the most important.
Illinois’ 6-0 start looks pretty legitimate to me.
The Fighting Illini have no glaring weaknesses, and a defense that was expected to struggle to replace a handful of big names who headed to the NFL has been a strength so far.
Last year, Illinois looked like it was about halfway to being a competent team thanks to the addition of new coordinators on both sides of the ball. They played harder, they seemed to have more of a plan but they still had fairly regular lapses that set them back.
In 2011, they seem to have continued to mature on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, this is no surprise. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase flashed some ability last year as a redshirt freshman, and he has made incremental improvements this year. He was always a dangerous runner, but he has added the ability to read defenses and make accurate throws this season.
His top target is senior A.J. Jenkins, whose game might remind you some of Santonio Holmes. He’s not a big guy, but he has some explosion, and he will fight for the ball when it is in the air. He leads the Big Ten in catches and receiving yards, but he is the only guy to make any type of impact at all in their passing game.
They lost running back Mikel Leshoure, but there has been a steady stream of talented runners in Champaign, and this year is no different. Jason Ford’s spring left some doubters, but he is a solid option as a big back, and freshman Donovonn Young is an exciting prospect they are bringing along. Troy Pollard is the leading rusher, but I see him as the least dangerous of the three.
The offensive line doesn’t really wow you, but it is effective. I think some damage can be done against it. They are not maulers by any stretch, but they will get in the way and lock people out and let people read and cut to daylight.
Schematically, they are kind of all over the map. Like Nebraska, they run some option, but not so much out of the I. They like the zone read with Scheelhaase and will run basically a triple option out of the pistol. Unlike Nebraska, Illinois is almost exclusively a zone blocking team, although they will run the occasional power play or counter with a pulling lineman.
They have a more a more mature downfield passing game, too, and I think they are more concentrated on attacking vertically than they were in the post.
Defensively, they have followed what appears to be a trend and pretty much play nickel all the time. Their SAM linebacker is a lot like Ohio State’s Star, and in fact is played this year by former safety Trulon Henry, who is a fine player. He was replaced in the back end by Steve Hull, who did not impress me at all last year as their fifth defensive back but looks to have improved this season.
Like their entire secondary, Hull will come up and make a hit. Their leading tackler is cornerback Tavon Wilson, a really physical guy who likes to play near the line of scrimmage but can cover, too. He has 41 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. I thought he and Terry Hawthorne, the other corner, were both impressive against Arizona State’s passing attack.
At linebacker, Ian Thomas continues to be a rock, and sophomore Jonathan Brown was one of the surprise success stories of the first half of the season before having to sit out the Indiana game for delivering a cheap shot to a Northwestern player the week before.
The big deal is up front, where they don’t appear to have lost a beat despite the loss of Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget. Akeem Spence moved inside and has had a great start to the season, but the big stars are Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan at end. Spence had a good year at end last year, but Mercilus and Buchanan were nobodies. Buchanan is noticeably bigger but still plenty athletic for their weakside end position while Buchanan has been a terror who leads the Big Ten in sacks.
This does not look like a good matchup for Ohio State. I think Illinois is a more complete team than Nebraska. Throwing the ball is not going to be a picnic in the wind tunnel that is Memorial Stadium against a secondary that is aggressive and likes to mix things up. The Fighting Illini aren’t huge up front, so the Buckeyes are going to have to bring their hard hats to try to make some hay in the running game and create some chances to stretch the defense if they can get them creeping up toward the line of scrimmage.
We might also call this the Division Formed To Accommodate Ohio State (DFTAOS), but I’m still working on proper titles for the new divisions. At any rate, here’s how I judge the teams on talent/experience/etc. without consideration of the schedule just yet:
As with the other division, I am pretty torn at the top. Ohio State and Wisconsin both have holes to fill but seem to be the most talented on paper in a division that should never have been allowed to take this form (but that’s for another time).
The Buckeyes have been outrecruiting the rest of the conference for years, but Wisconsin has done a nice job finding players who fit its specific needs as well as grabbing diamonds in the rough from recruiting hotbeds such as Ohio and Florida.
How crazy a year is it at the top in the Big Ten?
The favorites in this division might both be quarterback by players who have never taken a snap for their respective schools before this season. That means two drastically different things for Ohio State and Wisconsin, however. While the Buckeyes might turn to a youngster such as Braxton Miller or Taylor Graham if less-talented veterans Joe Bauserman and Kenny Guiton don’t impress in preseason practice, Badger fans are hoping N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson will give them reason to jump around all afternoon and into the night. He’s a great talent, but his time to work with his new teammates will be limited before the bullets start flying – and there will be a particular set of silver ones hoping to unleash hell in Columbus one evening in October.
Of course, both quarterback situations could turn out to be mediocre and both offenses might still be pretty good because both look like they could have stellar lines and deep backfields.
What either team gets out of its wide receivers is a question mark heading into the season, particularly with OSU senior DeVier Posey suspended for the first five games. Badger senior Nick Toon is the only other player from either unit to bring much name recognition into this campaign.
Defensively, there will be many new faces, but I am giving the nod to Ohio State at all three levels of the defense.
The OSU line got pushed around in Madison last season, but 3/4ths of Badgers’ defensive front wasn’t all that intimidating for the majority of the year. Without stud J.J. Watt this year, I am having a hard time anticipating this Wisconsin group being better. Ohio State lost an all-conference performer itself in the form of Cameron Heyward, but there is hope sophomore Johnathan Hankins can become a true force this year after brief flashes during his sophomore season, and Nathan Williams and Johnny Simon both look ready to break out in their second seasons as starters.
Linebacker is a push. Andrew Sweat of Ohio State should be one of the best in the conference, as is the case with Wisconsin’s Mike Taylor. Then we have both units figuring to depend heavily on getting big plays from players who missed most of last season with upper body injuries. Can Badger Chris Borland (shoulder) and Buckeye Tyler Moeller (pectoral) hold up this season? They will be crucial.
Both teams like to play bend-but-don’t-break in the secondary, but I’m giving the early nod to Ohio State based on the standout play of its new cornerbacks in spring ball (This is of course an example of some of the limitations of previewing an entire conference while specializing on one team, but this is all pretty much for fun anyway, right?).
Ultimately, I gave Wisconsin the overall nod in the preseason rankings because it’s probably better to rely on a new veteran quarterback than a new young one.
Moving on: Penn State could be a darkhorse here. The Nittany Lions have two quarterbacks with experience back, but they might end up confirming one of John Cooper’s favorite sayings: A coach who thinks he has two quarterbacks often has none.
The more talented of the pair looks to me like Rob Bolden, but can he beat out Matt McGloin? We shall see. Signal-caller figures to be the key to success there because there is a lot to like about new starter Silas Redd at tailback and there are several receivers with the potential to be productive players. The offensive line has some questions but brings back three starters, and contributions from the tight ends should be improved this year with better health and more experience.
Defensively, there were few offseason signs a sub-par front will be better this year, but linebacker could improve thanks to the graduation of a pair of starting stiffs from last season and the potential of a healthy Michael Mauti. The secondary has solid corner D’Anton Lynn and a potential standout in young Malcolm Willis to build around.
I am willing to believe Purdue could be significantly better this year, but I don’t think the Boilermakers can overtake PSU. Head coach Danny Hope’s team has to be due for some better health, right? He says he feels good about all his quarterbacks, but they have to stay out of the training room before they can prove him right. They should get help from a running game that welcomes back Ralph Bolden. Defensively, Purdue was surprisingly competent last year and despite the loss of super end Ryan Kerrigan has three good-looking players to build around in tackle Kawann Short, linebacker Joe Holland and cornerback Ricardo Allen.
Illinois had a nice comeback last season, and I like young quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but I’m not convinced the Fighting Illini can overcome the heavy losses they suffered to early entry into the NFL draft, especially on defense.
The future might be bright with Indiana under new head coach Kevin Wilson, but breaking in a new starting quarterback, finding a No. 1 running back who can stay out of trouble and rebuilding what was an awful defense last season is a lot to take care of in one year.
Known commodities: Among seven returning starters on offense are quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, top receiver A.J. Jenkins and talented tackle Jeff Allen. Six starters back on defense include productive linebacker Ian Thomas and playmaking safety Trulon Henry.
Questions: Tackle Corey Liuget, end Clay Nurse and linebacker Martez Wilson are all significant losses on defense. Wilson led the team with 112 tackles while Liuget was a pain for the interior of every offensive line in the Big Ten and Nurse was an effective penetrator on the outside. Who will step up to replace All-Big Ten running back Mikel Leshoure? How will Scheelhaase progress in his second year as a starter? Can the offense and defense continue to improve in year two under the respective units’ coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koening?
Spring game recap: The offense topped the defense 26-21 in a controlled scrimmage similar to the spring game Ohio State held this year. Scheelhaase had a 32-yard run late to help the offense hold onto its lead. Redshirt freshman tailback Ean Davis ran for a touchdown, and senior cornerback Miami Thomas picked off a Scheelhaase pass.
Issues addressed: The overriding task for head coach Ron Zook is to get his team to continue the improvement enjoyed last season when the Fighting Illini went 7-6 and won the Texas Bowl.
Sophomore Akeem Spence takes over at defensive tackle for Liuget and has the staff excited.
“Corey sort of groomed Akeem in terms of work ethic and leadership, and we’re very, very pleased with the way he has worked it and pulled the defensive line together,” Zook said.
He looks for senior Craig Wilson, a 320-pound former offensive lineman, to help inside as well.
As for linebacker, senior Ian Thomas moved back to the middle, where he started two years ago when Wilson was injured, and junior Ashante Williams took Thomas’ spot on the strong side.
“Ashante Williams has had a great spring taking over at the Sam position for Martez, as has Ian Thomas,” Zook said. “The two outside ‘backers, Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, we’ve been very happy with the way they’ve played.”
Scout.com reports Brandon Denmark to be in the mix as well.
Zook also looks for bigger and better things from Scheelhaase in his second season as the starter.
“Nathan is a great leader and competitor who made big strides last year,” Zook said. “He has improved and gotten better every day. I think Nathan threw more passes last year than he did in his entire life, so his arm is stronger.”
The Fighting Illini are working this spring to improve passing game in all facets, including protection and yards after the catch, and Zook is pleased with what they’ve accomplished.
“Nathan gets them the ball quick enough they can make a cut or have more room to maneuver, then they become the ball carrier in the open field. They’ve gone through some great strides this spring.”
As for replacing Leshoure, he said Jason Ford had a good spring despite missing tine with a knee bruise.
“He’s dropped a few pounds and needs to lose a few more but when he’s got that weight down, he’s an awfully, awfully good back,” Zook said. “We felt like a year ago at this time we weren’t sure who would carry the ball more, Jason or Mikel.”
Behind Ford, who is listed 6-0, 235, the staff is impressed with senior Troy Pollard and sophomore Bud Golden.
Advanced statistical revelations*: The Football Outsiders numbers are kind to the Fighting Illini, showing they played well enough to win two more games (against Ohio State and Michigan, incidentally) and thus finish 9-4. They confirm a preference for running the ball and playing at a fairly high tempo. Though pass protection was poor, previewer Bill Connelly attributes that potentially to a young quarterback holding the ball too long. They relied more on big runs than on consistently biting off chunks of yards, and it should come as no surprise to find the passing game was not very consistent. A PPP+ of 47 reveals some explosiveness to Illinois’ passing, however.
Defensively, the Illini come across quite well in almost every category, particularly against the run. (Trouble is, they lost A LOT on defense.)
Pro prospects**: Ford runs hard but is a little easier than you might expect to take down at the end of runs. Could stand to drop some weight to perhaps add quickness, but is a good runner in general.
Jenkins isn’t really physically gifted (or big) but does a lot of things well, especially get open against zones and snag the ball with his hands as opposed to letting it get into his body. Adequate speed for college but perhaps not the NFL, given his size. Lacks experience against press man.
Allen is effective with good strength but does not use leverage as his friend often enough and looks like a guard in the NFL.
Henry shows really good instincts, has good size (6-1, 215) and excels both in coverage and run support. Has a spot on an NFL roster but must continue to distance himself from past legal problems.
Fellow defensive back Tavon Wilson also is a big guy but lacks speed, hurting him in against the run and the pass. Not a great tackler, either, (but it’s worth pointing out he was selected the team’s best defensive back last season).
Issues remaining/other thoughts: Despite Zook’s vote of confidence, at least one local writer believed Ford’s tendency to be nicked up had rubbed Petrino the wrong way. The offensive coordinator declared the running back job open and said a couple of incoming freshmen could make impacts, too.
I have never been impressed with Pollard, who seems like a ‘tweener, but Golden seems like an intriguing prospect out of the Cincinnati area.
I like Scheelhaase a lot and am interested in seeing how he develops as a dual threat.
Although Zook is known as a quality recruiter, I’m not sure I’m ready to trust his team’s depth, and the losses of major talents like Leshoure, Liuget and Wilson are just not going to be easy to overcome.
Last year they seemed much more disciplined, especially on defense, so it will be interesting to see if that continues after years of sloppy play to start the Zook era.*SBNation has spent the summer previewing teams across the country using Football Outsiders’ advanced stats. They’ve started a movement not unlike SABRmetrics in baseball, and while I don’t agree with all of the tenets they are establishing, I find them often informative and always interesting. This is just my takeaway from the lengthy preview for this squad. **These are culled from evaluations published by Wes Bunting of The National Football Post. He goes in-depth on a handful of draft-eligible players on every team, and I have significantly boiled them down, so I recommend you read the whole thing.