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Friday, August 31, 2007

One More Day...

I am sitting here at a Panera Bread in the Indianapolis area continuing to wait anxiously. The few college football fans that have a game tonight on the opening Thursday night are the lucky ones. As a Purdue fan though were a little less than 48 hours from the kickoff of what I feel will either be a season in which we surprise a bunch of people, or fall further into obscurity. There will be no middle ground this year. There has been enough middle ground over the past three seasons.


I have talked quite a bit about other teams recently. I have gone in depth into the rest of our schedule, the Big Ten Conference as a whole, and even my wife’s Miami Hurricanes. I have neglected going into detail about Purdue because I feel like so much has been said by the good folks at GBI and on the message boards that my readers would like to hear a little about who we are going to be facing.


Since some teams are kicking off tonight and we still have almost 48 hours to go the anxiousness is growing. Because of that I feel compelled to write about what I view are the keys to the season, and how I view things playing out.


The Defense


I know, I know, great analysis there Travis. Obviously it needs to play better. What I would like to see more of though is aggressiveness from all 11 players on the field. Not only has youth, injuries, and inexperience limited production the past few seasons, it has taken away the aggressive, blitzing style of defense that has made our good defensive units even better throughout Tiller’s tenure as coach. Think of the 2003 defense: not only were there several very talented guys playing, they were also very experienced. This experience allowed us to have a more aggressive style, blitzing from the linebackers and secondary, and producing turnovers. We have been unable to do that the last few seasons.


Last year we almost never blitzed from the linebacker position, and as a result teams were able to run all over us because their offensive lines could simply dominate our undersized defensive front. I never thought the secondary did that bad last year because so many teams had such success running the ball against us. When teams like Penn State and Wisconsin can run on you it’s expected, when a team like Indiana State runs all over you it’s a serious problem. At times last year it seemed like we all expected Anthony Spencer was going to do everything. I think this year’s defense will benefit from having him out of the lineup because it will force them to play more as a team. The experience factor will also play a huge role as we’ll be able to do more advance stuff rather than playing a basic package.


I am pleased that there is more size in the middle, and I like the motor and toughness of Ryan baker and Jermaine Guynn. If the front seven plays better the whole defense will play better. Let’s face it, they can’t play much worse. They don’t even need to play significantly better. The way our offense is capable of playing they only need to play well enough to keep teams at about 20-25 points. Anything more than that and there really is no reason we shouldn’t be able to win.
Finishing Drives


Last year we were fantastic at moving the ball. Painter broke Drew’s Big Ten record for passing yards in a season (it should be noted he had one more game to do it in), we had a good but not great running game to compliment things. This year we should be even better as the Sheets-Taylor combo in the backfield is as good as the Void-Jones combo we had a few years ago, probably even better. Painter has plenty of options to throw to, including one of the best tight ends in the conference. I am not too worried about the offensive line replacements because that never seems to be an issue with us.


Where we need to show improvement is in finishing drives. The most deflating feeling last year was the first quarter of the Hawaii game, when we took over at the ten yard line, drove all the way down to the one and overcoming to ten yard penalties along the way only to fumble the ball away on the final play. We gained more than 100 yards on that drive and came away with absolutely nothing. What’s worse is it took the Warriors all of four plays to go the length of the field and score on us. I believe this is the sole reason we lost the game.
If the offense can finish drives with points and Painter can cut his interceptions in half we should have a fantastic unit. Last year I wish we had tried to runt he ball more in order to keep our own defense off the field, but I recognize we’ll never be a ball control team. This year we might be able to do more of that, and that can only help the defense.


The Kicking game


It needs to be better, plain and simple. I am not going to jump all over Chris Summers though because I recognize he was a true freshman walk-on thrust into the role. I also know he has worked incredibly hard since the end of last season to get better. If he is no better on the field this year it is certainly not for lack of effort. It’s unfortunate that we don’t really have any other options if he doesn’t work out this year, but he still has a chance so we should support him. It’s not like he is going out there and missing kicks on purpose.


He certainly has the leg, so hopefully accuracy can be learned. People are making a huge deal about the kick he missed in the bowl game, but the truth is that we had much bigger problems in that game. None of his misses directly cost us a game either, unlike Dorsch who directly caused us to lose at least five games with misses during his time here. Summers has also hit a couple from 45 yards or more, so that is a nice bonus. If he gets the accuracy down he should develop into a fine kicker.


Remember, at one time everyone hated Travis Dorsch too. By the time he was a senior he was one of the best kickers in the nation. I am not saying that is going to happen with Chris Summers, but he can certainly be better. It may even be a good thing he will begin on the road and potentially get a few kicks under his belt before coming home.


Confidence


Much is made about the “swagger” of players from the University of Miami. While it can go overboard in some instances (such stomping on an opponents’ logo at midfield), there is something to be said for having confidence on the field. I have sent hat sorely lacking from our team of late, and I think we could benefit from having a bit more of an attitude when playing. I’m not saying we should go over the top, but we should at least be more aggressive. Winning the first game on the road at Toledo may not seem like much, but I think it will be a huge confidence booster simply because it will be a tough road game to start the year.


The surprise factor


Some of Tiller’s best teams at Purdue have come completely out of left field. No one expects us to do much of anything this year simply because Michigan and Ohio State are back on the schedule. My answer to that is simply, “so what?” Look, we play in the Big Ten, we’ve been there for over a century as a charter member. It’s not exactly a surprise that we have to play Michigan or Ohio State once in awhile. We’ve been doing it for years because it comes with the territory. Sure, they have stood in our way, but our best teams have still been able to beat them. We backed into the Rose Bowl in 2000 not because we lost to those two teams, but we because we lost a close road game to a bad Penn State team and got smoked by a bad Michigan State team. We’ve beaten them before and we will beat them again. As far as Notre Dame goes we play them every year, so it’s not exactly a surprise there. We know what needs to be done; we simply need to do it.


So I am finishing this on Friday morning now, knowing there is nothing else to do but play the games. We’ll know a lot more about our team in 36 hours than we know right now. The only thing we can do until then is wait and Boiler Up!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Week 1 Big Ten Preview

It's nice to finally be able to talk about real games being played in less than a week. As usual, the conference begins with a very light slate, but I doubt that last season's perfect 11-0 start in week one will be repeated. There aren't a ton of good games, but the Missouri-Illinois game looks like it is the leading candidate to be a spoiler for a perfect league record at the moment.

There has been quite a bit of bashing against the Big Ten this offseason because of the way Michigan and Ohio State bombed in their bowl games last year. As a result many are accusing the conference of being weak, while being stupid for having such a long layoff between the final game and each team's bowl game. Well, Purdue can refute the second part of that argument, as we had the shortest time between season finale and bowl game last year and it didn't matter since we didn't show up for our bowl game anyway. The first part of the argument can only be refuted during the out of conference and bowl season.


Unfortunately this year's non-conference slate won't offer a ton of chances to prove the conference's strength. In the 44 non-conference games the 11 Big Ten schools are playing this year the Big Ten school will likely be favored in all but a handful of them. Notre Dame is usually a strong non-conference opponent, but because of their expected struggles this year they will only be favored in two of their four games at best against Big Ten foes. Other than the previously mentioned Missouri-Illinois game everything else is a toss-up or the Big Ten is heavily favored.


Of course, week 1 is meant for teams to merely get their feet wet, and since almost everyone is playing at home against a weaker opponent we should expect a ton of blowouts.


Florida International (0-0) at #17 Penn State (0-0) 12pm Saturday


The Golden Panthers were winless last year, but still made the season highlights because of their infamous brawl in the Orange Bowl against Miami. This season they will actually be sharing a stadium with the Canes, as their own on-campus facility is undergoing a major renovation and expansion to get it up to Division 1-A standards. Though they were winless last year, they still lost five games by less than a touchdown, including a 14-10 game at the same Maryland team that tore us apart in the Champs Sports Bowl.


This is still one of the newest teams to Division 1-A though, and as a result they are taking their lumps as they grow into the division. They have a pretty good defense, but their offense was among the worst in the country last year finishing dead last in scoring. Since Penn State can play just a little bit of defense don't expect an upset.


PREDICTION: Penn State 38, Florida International 3


Youngstown State (0-0) at #11 Ohio State (0-0) 12pm Saturday


Jim Tressel faces his former team where he won a couple of National Championships at the 1-AA level before moving on to Ohio State. That's about as much drama as this game will make as Ohio State will have little trouble in beating the Penguins.


Much like their hated rivals to the north, Ohio State is tuning up with one of the top 1-AA teams in the country. This year the Penguins begin the season ranked fourth in the polls. Youngstown State has long been one of the better teams in the lower division, and because of that they could probably hold their own with the dregs of the Sun Belt or MAC, but this is Ohio State. It's a better test than playing someone like Indiana State, but still shouldn't be much of a test. Look for the Ohio State offense to have a nice shakedown with so many new faces.


PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Youngstown State 7


Northeastern (0-0) at Northwestern (0-0) 12pm Saturday


I didn't even know that Northeastern had a football team before seeing this game on the schedule. Of course, this is yet another Division 1-AA guaranteed win, but that's what Northwestern thought last year when New Hampshire beat them. The Huskies aren't nearly as good, but they have some experience and some good size on their offensive line.


Still, that shouldn't matter as this is probably a gross mismatch in nearly every category. Northwestern rarely has this large of an advantage over someone, and fortunately for them this isn't hockey. Northeastern usually has a pretty good hockey team competing in the annual Beanpot tournament in Boston. I expect Northwestern to roll in this one like any Big Ten team should.


PREDICTION: Northwestern 35, Northeastern 10


UAB (0-0) at Michigan State (0-0) 12pm Saturday


If the Big Ten is going to lose a game this Saturday, then this is probably the pick if one goes with the Illini over Missouri. That's not really saying much though as I only think this will be close if Michigan State is as bad as some people are saying. At least Michigan State is playing a Division 1-A team this week, automatically making them have one of the stronger opponents in week one.


UAB finished 3-9 last year and has little experience returning on offense. At this point they haven't even selected a starting quarterback and will likely rotate a few guys in this game. Michigan State is expected to do one thing really well this year, and that is run the football. They too will be breaking in a relatively new quarterback and a new defensive scheme, so it's a good test early on.


Michigan State should be able to exert its will against a smaller team and have a relatively easy win, but as we know the Spartans never do anything the easy way.


PREDICTION: Michigan State 32, UAB 14


Appalachian State (0-0) at #5 Michigan (0-0)


The season gets underway with a top five matchup! Well, technically it is at least. The Mountaineers have won back-to-back Division 1-AA titles and begin this season at #1 in the polls. They have a ton of experience returning from those teams and a pretty strong running game. It would be the upset of the century, but if Michigan isn't paying attention they could be in for some trouble. Remember, the Wolverines are replacing some key stars on defense, and if Appalachian State can manage to hang around long enough with a smart team and clock-eating running game you never know what can happen.


Still, this is Michigan, and with that comes a certain amount of respect and expectations. As mentioned in my preview of Michigan, this is the first time in 74 years they have played a non-Division 1-A opponent. This game will show that the difference between the top of both divisions is still very large. Appalachian State has absolutely nothing to lose, but the overall depth and strength just isn't there to get a win.


PREDICTION: Michigan 42, Appalachian State 20


Illinois (0-0) vs. Missouri (0-0) at St. Louis 3:30pm Saturday


This is the most interesting game of the week because if all of Illinois' talent starts to pay dividends then this is the perfect opportunity to make a big statement. Missouri is expected to be a contender in the Big 12 North Division and because of that looks to be heavily favored. You can't ignore the boatloads of talent Ron Zook has brought to Champaign though, and sometime this year that talent is going to break through for a shocking win.


This is easily the biggest game of the week for the conference as no one else is playing anyone that good. The Tigers have a ton of expectations this year, but historically Missouri has been a program that should always do more than what it actually does. It doesn't matter who is coaching, they always seem like the Purdue of the Big 12: A team that is just good enough to be in games and just about to turn a corner before crashing back to earth.


If Illinois can figure out how to hold on to the football they have a real chance here. Last year turnovers were a huge problem and they need to get away from that. If Juice Williams starts to figure things out then watch out, Missouri won't be the only team he scares. I am tempted to go for the upset, but Missouri is the better team for the moment at least.


PREDICTION: Missouri 24, Illinois 21


Washington State (0-0) at #7 Wisconsin (0-0) 3:30pm Saturday


Based solely on my gut feeling this is a dangerous game for the Badgers. Washington State is a program that is sometimes sneaky good and tends to bite people when they least expect it, a lot like Northwestern. Regular season Pac10-Big Ten games are usually pretty fun affairs to watch as well, since each one could potentially be a Rose Bowl preview if everything broke right.


Wisconsin's P.J. Hill is a great running back and one that can control the pace of the game. Wisconsin's receiving options aren't all that bad either, meaning new quarterback Tyler Donovan should have a pretty comfortable debut as a starter taking over for John Stocco. Wisconsin needs to put this team away early, as the Cougars are not the kind of team you want to hang around. Big things are expected of the Badgers this year, and if they aren't careful hey could come crashing down early.


Wisconsin has too many offensive weapons though and will be able to control the pace with Hill. If they hang on to the ball they win.


PREDICTION: Wisconsin 27, Washington State 17


Iowa (0-0) vs. Northern Illinois (0-0) at Chicago 3:30pm Saturday


I am not biting on Iowa this year after pumping them up all of last year. Everyone seems to be falling all over themselves predicting them as a sleeper because of an easy schedule, but I am not buying it. They're a good team, but I don't think they are as great as everyone is picking them to be. They don't play Michigan or Ohio State this year either, and we all know how well that played out for us.


Iowa finished last year on a horrible slide and they have to replace a ton of starters to boot. They also lost two of their best receivers to suspension recently and they won't play in this game. Both Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman are suspended indefinitely, and while that probably won't matter in this game, it will play a big role down the line if they can't come back.


Albert Young will be the difference, and also the fact Northern Illinois will no longer have Garrett Wolfe.


PREDICTION: Iowa 21, Northern Illinois 10


Purdue (0-0) at Toledo (0-0) 7pm Saturday


Finally, it is put up or shut up time. On paper we are a better team than Toledo, but they are a formidable opponent playing at home. Defensively we have to show improvement in this game or the season won't matter. A statement needs to be made from the opening kick. We look to be bigger, more aggressive, and more experience, but it is time to get results on the field.


It's the perfect early test because we'll be tested by a good early running game when we could barely stop the run last year. We'll face a decent defense that can slow us in the red zone when we struggled to score points in the red zone last year. We'll be in a rough road environment when we struggled in difficult road games last year. All told it is the perfect test.


If we lose or struggle to win with another bad defensive effort we can't expect to be better than last season. If we come out and make a big statement by dominating a game many are predicting will be close if not an outright loss, then watch out. Since I haven't seen us yet I am not changing my prediction from the Toledo preview.


PREDICTION: Purdue 31, Toledo 21


Indiana State (0-0) at Indiana (0-0) 8pm Saturday


The Hoosiers open at home with their best overall team in more than a decade. They will be dedicating the game and their season to their fallen coach in what is sure to be an emotional opener. They are also facing one of the worst programs in the country no matter what division.


It's a shallow preview, but that's all that is needed. Even a Bill Lynch coached Indiana team can't screw this one up. These are not the same Hoosiers of old, but even the old Hoosiers would win this in a walk.


PREDICTION: Indiana 52, Indiana State 10


Bowling Green (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0) 8pm Saturday


Bowling Green has pulled off a number of big upsets over major conference teams to start the season in recent years, so knocking off the Gophers in Minneapolis would not be something new for them. Minnesota is breaking in a new coach and a new quarterback, so it's not the ideal way to begin on either end. They will be one of a handful of Big Ten teams fighting for one of the last bowl slots, so they need all the wins they can get.


This year's edition of Bowling Green isn't as good as previous years, however, but it still has enough to get the win if things go right. What happens here will say a lot about what to expect from the Gophers, so expect many coaches to keep an eye on this one to find out a little bit more about a team that is somewhat of a mystery coming into the season. If Minnesota loses this game you can probably forget about them as a bowl threat.


PREDICTION: Minnesota 17, Bowling Green 13


NATIONAL GAMES OF THE WEEK:


The first national game of interest is Georgia Tech at Notre Dame. Most Irish fans are already counting this game as a win, but Georgia Tech is a very tough team and it won't be easy. The Irish have a ton of questions, while the Yellow Jackets don't have nearly as many. It is in South Bend though, and Georgia Tech hasn't won there in more than 50 years. Get ready to hear about the genius of Charlie Weis and how wonderful this year will be if the Irish pull off the win. It will be close, but I'll give Tech the edge because of experience. Georgia Tech 24, Notre Dame 21


The second national game features #15 Tennessee at #12 California, and the Bears have to remember how badly they were spanked last year in Knoxville. This year Tennessee is just one of many good teams in a loaded SEC, while California wants to finally break through to a BCS bowl after several good but not great seasons. This should be a fantastic game between two really good teams and dark horse contenders for the national title. The winner gets a huge bonus with the pollsters for later. Cal is good, but I still think most of the SEC is better. Tennessee 31, California 30

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Travesty in South Florida

Greed apparently is more important than tradition, and that is sad. The news from South Florida today is grim as the Miami Hurricanes are leaving the historic Orange Bowl for the greener pastures of Dolphin Stadium to the north. The price is a mere $1.5 million more annually to the University of Miami.

Who knew that sacrificing one's most dearly held traditions carried such a low, low price.


I have never seen a game at the Orange Bowl, but I do hold on my refrigerator tickets to the November 3rd Homecoming game against North Carolina State. That will now likely be the second to last game in the history of the stadium that dates back to 1937. The Hurricanes are the Orange Bowl, and the Orange Bowl is the Hurricanes. What happens now is a loss of identity, home field advantage, and a place that Canes fans can truly call their own. Dolphin Stadium was not the home of the longest home winning streak in college football history, as that honor belong to the 58 straight wins by the Canes in the Orange Bowl. It is also not the home of five national championships. The most championships won at Dolphin Stadium, two, belong to a team that is getting kicked out because the owners refuse to share, but now they want o share with someone else. Ironically the Marlins may benefit from this the most, as suddenly there is land for the long sought after Marlins Stadium in Miami.


Recently our own Ross-Ade Stadium, which is older than the Orange Bowl by the way, underwent a series of major renovations entirely paid for by Purdue University. It went from an aging facility to a fine Big Ten venue in less than three years. The Hurricanes, with a much stronger history than our own Boilermakers, didn't expect to offer a single dime in either renovating the Orange Bowl or moving to Dolphin Stadium. They instead waited to see who would offer the most for them. They do not realize the home-field advantage that could have been saved if they had only cooperated and (gasp) even helped the city renovate a place that certainly needed some work, but could have been saved. Apparently though Miami would rather invest in its basketball team with a new arena on campus than the football team that has put it on the map.


I will agree that business-wise the decision makes sense. Miami gets more money to play in a better facility than they currently play in. Sometimes decisions need to be made with more than business in mind. Did they consider the fact that Dolphin Stadium has absolutely zero public transportation linking it until 2014 when the Metrorail finally gets there, while the Orange Bowl does? How about the fact that it is significantly further from the Coral Gables campus? In the best of traffic it takes an hour to get across Miami from Coral Gables to Dolphin Stadium.


Let's remember one of the most recent times a team abandoned a stadium steeped in tradition to move into a professional venue. It happened in the early 80's when Minnesota moved from the on campus Memorial Stadium to the Metrodome, where they became the third child in line in their home stadium. It is a decision that many fans regret making, so much so the Gophers are in the process of moving back to campus after less than 30 years in their "new state of the art venue." Is there where Miami will be in 25 years, with even less room on campus to build a stadium? Remember, the Gophers had one a few National titles in their old building too. Now they had to fight for years to raise money for a new stadium.


How about the field itself? Right now the Canes are the sole tenant and have tons of flexibility when it comes to scheduling their games. How often will they get marquee Saturday night home games when the Dolphins will play just 12 hours later on Sunday afternoon? What if the Marlins, who are there through 2010, make the playoffs again, moving the Canes to Friday nights? How will the field itself hold up to that kind of abuse? They say Dolphin Stadium is a "State of the art" NFL Stadium. I'll give you the new video boards are nice, but unless the ongoing renovations start replacing the seats they are some of the most uncomfortable seats I have ever sat in. It's a nice place to watch a game, but it's far from being one of the best in the NFL.


And really, what do all these amenities get you? Whatever happened to the game on the field being enough for the crowd? Why is it we need flashy video boards and graphics to accompany every play, pandering to our shortened attention spans? Even though I think all of that crap is stupid and unnecessary, it easily still could have been added to the Orange Bowl.


Here in Indiana we know a little something about tradition and our deeply help sporting venues. Go to a basketball game at new Castle's Crisler Fieldhouse or the Anderson Wigwam and ask them how they feel about their aging facilities. My high school plays its games in a 60-year old gym that used to seat more than 7,000 fans and was one of the largest high school gyms in the country. It is still generally regarded as one of the finest gyms to play in despite its age. Now imagine if the High school administration, or any of the administrations with these gyms decided to say, "You know what, we're going to forget this grand place we have that's full of so much history and go play our games at Purdue/Ball State/Butler/Indiana because it's a bigger place and has better amenities." I doubt that school board would be re-elected that November. That is what this is like right now.


I love Indiana High School Basketball more than most anything else on this earth, and it would be a tragedy if they tore my gym down. Right now I feel the pain my wife is feeling because I can relate. She is losing the Orange Bowl, something that she as an undergrad at UM treasured despite its faults. Her thoughts are reflected here. To her it is more than a building that needs some work; it is a home of sorts, just like my gym. She's not the only one as the vast majority of Miami fans are against this move.


Sure, the place needs a little work done, but it is work that could have easily been done. I am not surprised it wasn't done though, considering who is in charge of the University of Miami; one Donna Shalala.


Let me share a personal story that shows that this woman is not the progressive, sympathetic figure that this morning announced, ''This is a painful and sad decision. We all love the Orange Bowl, its history and tradition.''
For all that she cares about the Orange Bowl; she obviously does not care about Miami fans. One year we were on our annual Miami trip and attending a baseball game on campus. Shalala came by and nearly shoved me down the steps because I happened to be in her way. She is incredibly rude and does not care a single iota what the fans think. She cares only about her own interests, and will now be vilified as the woman who killed one of the most venerable college football stadiums in the country.


The Hurricanes may be on their way back with a great new head coach and a recruiting upswing on the way, but today they lost part of their soul. All of this was for the price of a few luxury boxes and a devil's agreement with the Miami Dolphins.


I hope it was worth it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Off the Tracks Big Ten Preview



Now that the individual previews are done and I know a little bit more about each team we are facing it is time to look at the conference as a whole. When I was comparing schedules yesterday I couldn't help but noticed that the Big Ten as a whole has some really weak non-conference competition this year. As a result, we could see about nine teams get the six wins necessary in order to qualify for a bowl game, as many of the teams that would be right on the edge have super soft non-conference schedules and would therefore only need two wins to get to a bowl game. This is good because it means more money for the conference, especially if we get two teams into the BCS yet again, but bad because we could have some teams playing in the postseason that have no business being there.


Notre Dame is the strongest opponent played outside of the conference by any team, and they are shared by of course Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. The highest rated opponent a Big Ten team is facing outside the conference is Missouri, who opens in St. Louis against Illinois and is ranked at the top of the "Others receiving votes" category of the AP poll. Other games that look good on paper but in practice don't look so well are both Iowa and Illinois playing Syracuse, who has been at the bottom of the Big East for years. Michigan hosts an Oregon team that could be tricky, but the Ducks aren't as dangerous as when they beat the Wolverines a few years back at Autzen Stadium. Wisconsin has an opener against Washington State that could be a little dicey, but I expect the Badgers to take care of business in Madison. Other than that and the aforementioned Notre Dame games it is series of schedules that features a ton of guaranteed wins.


Only Michigan State, Iowa, and Penn State do not have games against 1-AA teams. Everyone has at least one game against the MAC, while Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota each have two and Indiana has three. Nearly everyone should be able to come up with at least a pair of non-conference victories, and most should get at least three. Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern hope to get a huge boost by having four very easy non-conference game, meaning just two conference wins could have them playing in December. Since these three all play each other as well that means at least one of them will likely sneak into a bowl game depending on how their games pan out.


With all that being said, what follows is my prediction on how the Big Ten Standings will finish up, with projected bowl games and records, from the bottom up. We begin with the end, 11th place.


11. Michigan State (2-10, 0-8)


It's going to be a looooooong year in East Lansing as they get used to a new system, struggle to find a passing game, and try to build a defense where there wasn't much of a defense before. Mike Dantanio is a pretty good coach and has a better head on his shoulders than John L. Smith, but I honestly am not expecting much from Sparty this year.


The best chances for a couple of wins come against Bowling Green and UAB at home, but outside of that it will be a struggle. Northwestern and Indiana are the best hope for a conference win, but a cruel twist of fate sees Michigan State not playing Illinois or Minnesota, and that's not good for a team like this. The home game against Pittsburgh is another chance for a win, but I'm picking the Panthers in that one. Northwestern and Indiana are both better than last year, and if not for an epic collapse by Northwestern both would have beaten the Spartans.


They are about a year away, and with Dantonio's new defensive style they could pull an upset, but don't expect a bowl game this year from them.


10. Illinois (4-8, 1-7)


This is one of the hardest teams to call because all that talent has to pull off a few victories, but there are two things that keep holding me back. First of all, Ron Zook can recruit, but couldn't lead a team to consistent W's with a map, a compass, an Indian guide, and a GPS system. Secondly, when I saw Illinois last year they consistently had trouble with the simple concept of holding on to the football in critical situations. Against us last year they fumbled the ball so many times I began to wonder if they ever knew how to hold onto the thing. All those fumbles directly led to us winning the game since we kept getting good field position from them, and even recovered one for a touchdown.


I look for Illinois to beat 1-AA Western Illinois, Syracuse, and probably Ball State, but don't count the Cardinals out this year as they should be pretty good in the MAC. I have a hard time seeing the Illini beating Missouri out of conference though, putting a strike against them before they even get started. Inside the Big Ten I think they can beat Northwestern to finish the season at home, and I have a feeling they can grab another game somewhere, but I am just not sure where yet. Minnesota is a good chance, so is Indiana, but I like the Hoosiers and Gophers in both right now. What sucks for them is that three of their four home games, where they could make some noise, are against three of the toughest teams in the conference in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State.


If Illinois is feisty they could surprise in one of those games, but that's a rough stretch to expect more than one. Iowa and Ohio State on the road are near certain losses as well, leaving only Minnesota and Indiana as other potential wins. If they get both though the Northwestern game could be for a bowl bid, and that would be a good step for this team.


9. Minnesota (5-7, 1-7)


This is another new coach, new quarterback team that is probably about a year away from having a good year. Minnesota really struggled at times last season and this year will be more of the same once they get inside the conference. Still, they will be right there for a bowl game with a very easy non-conference slate. If Minnesota can't go 4-0 against Bowling Green, Miami (OH), Florida Atlantic, and North Dakota State then they have no hope of doing much in the conference.


Once there things get a little tricky, however. Missing Michigan State is bad while missing Penn State is good. Ohio State and Wisconsin at home aren't good games to have, and will probably be losses, as will trips to Michigan and Iowa. That leaves home games against Purdue and Illinois and road trips to Indiana and Northwestern. The games against Indiana and Northwestern will likely be bowl elimination games, while I think Purdue will be favored against the Gophers.


This team is certainly capable of getting two wins in the conference against that schedule, but Northwestern and Indiana will need it more to get to bowl games. If they were at home in the Dome I would give them to Minnesota. The game at Indiana will be critical because if Minnesota runs all over the Hoosiers again I'll move Minnesota up and Indiana down.


8. Northwestern (6-6, 2-6) Motor City Bowl


Northwestern has an almost identical schedule to Minnesota, but I will give them the edge against the Gophers at home and therefore the last bowl bid. Northeastern, Nevada, Duke, and Eastern Michigan is about as easy as you can get, but Nevada was a bowl team a year ago, beat the Wildcats in Reno, and could be tricky.


Once you get into the conference schedule having Michigan State and Minnesota early is a big factor. Northwestern won't beat Michigan or Ohio State the previous two weeks, but having the Spartans and Gophers next makes for a 5-2 start and several good chances to get win #6. That win should come the very next week in a pseudo-road game against Eastern Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit.


Northwestern always bites someone unexpectedly though, and the back half of the schedule presents several opportunities. I expect Iowa to win, but the Hawkeyes have struggle mightily with Northwestern recently and I could see them leaving Evanston with a loss. Indiana and Illinois are good candidates as well, while Purdue certainly can't count them as a win. This could be the type of Northwestern team that gets on a roll and, without Penn State or Wisconsin on the schedule, have a very high conference finish.


7. Indiana (7-5, 3-5) Insight.com Bowl


And honestly, this type of a finish would and should be met with celebration and a parade in Bloomington. If Hep were still coach I'd be tempted to go even higher, but I am not swayed by Bill Lynch's coaching abilities. The non-conference slate has a guaranteed win against Indiana State and a probable win against Akron. A trip to Western Michigan isn't easy, but the Hoosiers should win, while getting Ball State late in the season could be dangerous.


If Indiana can become more than a two man team on both sides of the ball this is the year they will get a few more conference wins. Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota at home look like great chances to win, while they have a trip to play Michigan State, whom they throttled last year. No team has an easier home conference slate than the Hoosiers, and they need to take advantage of it and defend the Rock.


6. Iowa (9-3, 5-3) Champs Sports Bowl


Yet another team with a fairly easy schedule this year, as they miss Ohio State and Michigan and have a fairly weak non-conference schedule. Northern Illinois, Syracuse, Iowa State, and a season finale against Western Michigan should all be wins. How well Iowa does will be determined by three games: Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin.


Iowa is also breaking in a relatively new quarterback, albeit one with some starting experience. He's a little more polished than the new signal callers at Michigan State and Minnesota, and has more talent behind him thanks to a solid running game. Unfortunately their toughest three games are all on the road. Iowa will be good, but I don't think they have quite enough to get those three wins on the road. Don't be surprised if they get one though.


5. Purdue (9-3, 5-3) Alamo Bowl


It's time for the excuses to stop and to actually have results. There are a hundred reasons why this team can't finish this well, but there's also enough talent for them to do this well if not better. It's quite a simple formula: win the five non-Ohio State/Notre Dame home games, win the three road games that aren't Michigan or Ohio State.


Anything less than that is a disappointment with what we have coming back offensively. Defensively we have to be better simply from experience. The defense will still be the key to a season this good. The non-conference schedule has a surprising amount of teeth with Central Michigan and of course Notre Dame, but Toledo and Eastern Illinois need to be wins. Trips to Minnesota and Indiana in the conference are tough, but not overwhelming.


Really, we have a shot in every game except Michigan, at least as far as I see. Whether we do it or not remains to be seen.


4. Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) Outback Bowl


Of the top four teams in the conference I think Wisconsin has the best shot to underperform just a bit. The season opener against Washington State could be a little tougher than expected, and with a new quarterback it's not the type of opponent you want to open against. A trip to UNLV, The Citadel, and Northern Illinois aren't so tough.


It could end up being a two game season for the Badgers if they get past Penn State in game number seven, but I like the Nittany Lions to win in Happy Valley. A loss there and a loss to Ohio State on November 3rd would mean Wisconsin doesn't have much to play for when Michigan comes to town the next week, but I still think Wisconsin will beat the Wolverines and knock them out of the national title game.


No one else should be able to touch Wisconsin on their schedule.


3. Ohio State (10-2, 6-2) Capital One Bowl


The defense is too good for Ohio State to lose more than three games, but the offense is too bad for them to think about another undefeated season. Still, there is plenty of time to tune things up before any big games. Only Purdue provides a significant test in the first eight games, and I still like the Buckeyes in that one. Youngstown State, Akron, a trip to Washington, and Kent State form an easy non-conference schedule.


The last four games have, in my opinion, the three best teams in the conference, and two of them are on the road. Only Wisconsin comes to the Horseshoe, and that is why I am picking the Buckeyes over the Badgers in a battle of reds. Don't be surprised if Wisconsin gets the win on the road though.


2. Penn State (11-1, 7-1) BCS Bowl


Florida International, Notre Dame, Buffalo, and Temple: one of these things is not like the others. If Penn State goes 3-1 outside of the conference and the one loss isn't to Notre Dame it will be one of the biggest upsets of the season. Inside the Big Ten two of the three toughest games are at home, and I like Penn State over both Ohio State and Wisconsin in Happy Valley.


Unfortunately for JoePa and co., they have to go to Michigan, and I think it will be a repeat of two years ago when the Wolverines won on the final play to prevent a perfect season. It will also be the difference in the Big Ten championship, as it will give Michigan the edge via tiebreaker.


Historically Penn State has not played Michigan well, but a win this year and the Nittany Lions can seriously entertain thoughts of a National Championship.

1. Michigan (11-1, 7-1) Rose Bowl


Yawn, another trip to Pasadena for the Michigan faithful. If this team stays focused there is no reason they can't make it this far, if not further. They open the season with the number one team in the country…in Division 1-AA. At least Appalachian State is a 1-AA team with some chest hair. Oregon and Notre Dame provide strength of schedule boosts out of conference.

Penn State and Ohio State come to the Big House, and the toughest game is at Wisconsin, which is the only place I predict a loss. If Wisconsin beats Ohio State then we may have a round-robin three way tie for first place between Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. Since, for the sake of this prediction, they would all be 1-1 against the other two, the tiebreaker would go to Wisconsin based on length of time since they got the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid.


No one else is really a threat to Michigan other than Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State, and it would be a major upset if they lost a game outside of those three. Still, this is the team that nearly dropped one to Ball State late last year.


So that is that, just one man's prediction of the Big Ten this year. I very easily could and probably will be wrong, but that's what makes life fun.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Indiana Hoosiers

We're finally to the end of the schedule and I am going to make a bold prediction: The Bucket game will not matter when it comes to us making a bowl game. I predict that at this point in the season we will either already have the requisite six wins needed to qualify for a bowl game, or will have already lost seven games and have no chance of playing in the post-season. The feeling of this year's team is one of extremes. Either it will be very good and surprise most people, or will be very bad and fall apart quickly.

The predictions I have made here are what I think is our best-case scenario. The wins I have predicted are games I feel like we should win if we play to the best of our ability, and the losses are to teams that I honestly think are better teams than us. I very easily could be, and probably will be, wrong. By the time we reach the IU game though I doubt we will have much to play for except bowl positioning, if that.


Indiana will be a very interesting team to follow this year. They have just about the easiest schedule of any team in the Big Ten, and if coach Hep were still around they would be a shoe-in for a bowl game. Now I am not so sure. How this team responds will decide their fate. It won't be the best team in the league and won't be a threat to win the Big Ten title, but these guys are from being the same old Hoosiers.


Last Season for the Hoosiers:


Southern Illinois and Connecticut: Two losses, each by a touchdown that should not have happened. The Connecticut one is more excusable, as at least they are another struggling BCS conference program that had beaten Indiana before in 2003. It wasn't a good loss, but it was far from a crippling one. The Southern Illinois loss was different though. Even with the Hep crisis going on at that point there was no excuse for it. It's a shame that the team couldn't get it done that day, because Hep deserved a bowl game and that would have got it done.


There were other missed opportunities as well. Facing Minnesota Indiana had a golden chance to get win #6 and was on a bit of a roll before the Gophers started their own bowl push with a 63-26 thumping. The bucket game was an affront to American football as neither team seemed to want that game. Twice Indiana fumbled inside the five yard line going in to score, costing them the game. Most importantly, the Hoosiers showed some hope for the future.


They got a win on the road in the Big Ten for the first time since 2001. They won five games for the first time since 2001. They beat a ranked team for the first time since a shocking upset over Oregon in 2004 that made me double check my phone to make sure the score feature was working right. There was enough success that there is plenty to build on this year.


The key to Indiana getting to a bowl game this season will be its non-conference slate. A very bad Indiana State team is a win regardless of what happens, and is the perfect warm-up for a team that will need football to merely be a game again. A road trip to Western Michigan is not automatic, but if Indiana wants to be considered as improved they need to win it. Akron will be a win at home, while Ball State could be a little tricky after the Cardinals nearly knocked off Indiana last year. If Indiana gets past all four of those games unscathed they will scrounge together at least two wins from Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan State.


Indiana Offense:


This will be the strength of the team, and the reason it has a chance to be the first Hoosier squad in 14 years to go to a bowl game. If Indiana can develop any kind of a running game they will be even more dangerous. Indiana's leading rusher last year was Kellen Lewis with only 441 yards. Nearly a quarter of those yards came in the bucket game as he ran for 103 against us. Indiana can pass the ball fairly well, but its running game is rather anemic and will need to be much, much better to have success this season. Marcus Thigpen, Demetrius McCray, and Josiah Sears have to be able to move the ball so Indiana doesn't become one dimensional on offense.


Of course, having Kellen Lewis as an Antwaan Randle El clone back there will help the running game. As a running quarterback there is always the danger of injury, and if he goes down with an Indiana doesn't have many other options. He's a god leader and makes IU very dangerous with both his legs and his arm. What's even more dangerous is that he has two years left after this year. If he can't lead Indiana to a win in the bucket game, then I don't know who else can.


The receivers that Lewis has to throw to are pretty good, with James Hardy leading the way. Hardy may be the best receiver in the Big Ten, but he's been inconsistent for most of his career. He's the type of guy who either torches a team for 150 and three TD's, or is barely heard from. Last year his best day yardage-wise came against us with 151 yards, but he only got in the end zone once. James Bailey is back as a consistent number 2 option, but other than that there isn't a ton of proven production. In Indiana's spread offense someone else like Brandon Walker-Roby, Terrance Turner, or Andrew Means will need to contribute greatly.


By Big Ten standards Indiana still has a very small offensive line that is going to get pushed around by bigger and better teams. This is where Lewis' mobility comes in handy, but it also still makes him more open to injury. Pete Saxon is the biggest lineman at 315 pounds on the left side, but only Cody Faulkner at 300 pounds is over three bills. Everyone else is young, undersized, but has plenty of potential to grow. Pass protection will be an issue, as there are about nine guys vying for the five starting spots right now. Saxon and Rodger Saffold appear to be the only locks to start at the moment.


Indiana simply has to become more than the Kellen Lewis and James Hardy show. Those two are great talents to have, but if you can close them off suddenly the Hoosiers become very ordinary. The two are good enough to do some special things against unprepared teams though.


Indiana Defense:


IU's defense has been an afterthought for years in Bloomington, and this year the strategy is merely to survive with some young guys while the offense tries to simply outscore the other team. To me, this sounds an awful lot like our strategy last season. While the offense struggled to protect the quarterback last year, the defense struggled to reach the quarterback by gaining only 14 sacks in 12 games. Still, there are some strengths defensively.


Two of those strengths are Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors at cornerback. Porter was second team All-Big Ten last year and had four interceptions, while Majors is incredibly fast on the other side. He was a sprinter for IU's track team and will never be out of any play. Both starting safeties are probably as much of a liability in pass coverage as Porter and Majors are strengths. Nick Polk and Austin Thomas are sophomores and should be decent against the run. Polk is a former receiver that will be a first year defensive starter and Thomas has been terrible in pass coverage.


The linebackers are small but built for speed and should be pretty good. Geno Johnson, Adam McClurg, and Will Patterson are projected as starters, but a couple of freshmen in Tyler Replogle and Dane Conwell will likely push for playing time. Whoever is playing in the three linebacker spots will be all over the field as Indiana plays a swarming style of defense. It sacrifices size for speed, and is a risky gamble.


The defensive line needs to have a night and day better year, much like our own. Last year Indiana could hardly stop the run or get to the quarterback and this year appears to be more of the same. Tackle Greg Brown is the best returning lineman and has some good size and strength. Joe Kremer is the other tackle and is over 300 pounds, but needs to do more. Jammie Kirlew needs to use his quickness on the end more to get into the backfield, while a loss for us in the recruiting wars looks to be emerging as the other starter up front in the person of Greg Middleton. Fabiene Boone will also rotate with Middleton to provide more depth off the bench. Kremer is the only senior so if the line can get better, it will be good for awhile. The potential is there for them to come together and surprise a few teams.


Indiana Special Teams:


While Thigpen hasn't done a whole lot as a running back he is more than dangerous as a kicker returner. In his career he has taken three kicks to the house and is averaging more than 30 yards per return. While he'll obviously be working after the defense has given points he has the talent to either get them back immediately or put the offense in position to do so quickly. Porter is almost as good returning punts with an 18.6 yards per return average. Both are huge advantages that the Hoosiers will have over us unless Sheets and Bryant can break a few.


Austin Starr is the kicker and has a game-winner to his credit by hitting the kick that beat Illinois last year. He hit on 12 of 15 field goals but didn't show a ton of range. Michael Hines will take over for Tyson Beattie, who was one of the better punters in the conference last year. This is big because he'll need to perform well to help out a shaky defense.


Intangibles:


This is where the Coach Hep factor comes in. How will the team respond? Even I, a long time Purdue fan, would love to see the Hoosiers break through to a bowl game this year in honor of Hep, as long as it doesn't come at our expense. Turning the reigns over to Bill Lynch helps with a dose of continuity, but I am not convinced he is nearly as good of a head coach as Hoeppner. As I wrote earlier this summer I was a big admirer of what Terry Hoeppner did at IU. He took a job barely anyone wanted and actually was beginning to make it work when so many others had failed. It's huge though that this team believes in itself for the first time in years, and it is all because of him. It's still short on talent compared to many teams on its schedule, but that gap will not matter as much this year. It's a crucial year for the Hoosiers, and missing a bowl game again could kill all the momentum they have gained.


Obviously they had a shot to get to one last year and couldn't close the deal against us. This year, in the same situation but at home they could be even more dangerous. Both teams played very poorly in last year's game, and I would love to see a hard fought, well-played game in Bloomington this year. We may have an easier time if Indiana has already clinched bowl eligibility, but I doubt it.


Indiana is closing the gap because they are getting better while we are getting worse. This is a crucial year for the in-state recruiting wars as well. If we struggle and slide past the Hoosiers we could be in for a free-fall. I will not be counting them out this year at all. They are a lot like us in that they could have a big year and win about eight games just as easily as they could lose eight games.


Game Outlook:


Who knows? This one is so far down the line and so many variables will come into play by then that I can't even think of right now that it's hard to say what will happen. We could potentially see one of the great bucket games ever in terms of both teams having good years. The last time (and so far only time) Purdue and Indiana have met with both teams headed toward a bowl game was 1979. Seeing as how I was barely a month old then I don't really remember seeing the game. This year could easily be the second year this happens.


Right now I only see Indiana as a two man team on both sides of the ball, but they have enough youth for someone to emerge and make a difference. It should be a great atmosphere in Bloomington regardless, as I think Indiana has enough to at least finally get to a bowl game this year, and so do we.


PREDICTION:


I still think we are the better team, but that is my prediction on August 13th. On November 17th I very easily could change my mind. There could be quite a few offensive fireworks that day, but I think we have more weapons on both sides of the ball and will get the job done again. Things could change in a few years. Purdue 34, Indiana 28.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Michigan State Spartans

By the time the Michigan State game comes around we should already have the six wins necessary to be bowl eligible. We'll be 10 games into the season and should be 6-4 at the very least. That is my worst case scenario. Anything less than that will call for a serious examination of the current coaching staff and will certainly bring with it quite an upset fan base. Fortunately for us, game 11 will be against Michigan State, and will like be our least challenging conference opponent. Hopefully we'll be playing for bowl positioning and won't need another win just to get to the post-season at this point.



Recently we have played very well against the Spartans. We are 7-1 against Michigan State came to West Lafayette, with the one loss ironically coming in the year we went to the Rose Bowl. Many of these games have been exciting finishes where we have somehow managed to pull out a game we probably had no business winning. For whatever reason the tables are reversed for us when it comes to Michigan State, because they seem to be the one team we can pull out one miraculous win after another against.



Not much is expected of the Spartans this year, but at least for their sakes John L. Smith is gone. New head coach Mike Dantonio now takes over a program that has an unfortunate history of completely melting down after one close loss in the middle of the season. For Michigan State fans' sake I hope he is the man to turn things around, because no program has collapsed more in the Big Ten recently than Michigan State. Hopefully it will no longer be a situation of the later you play them the better, because this can be a very good team in time.



Last Season for the Spartans:



The last two seasons have started off very well for the Spartans, as they were 3-0 last year and 4-0 the year before. Afterward, however, is a completely different story. In 2005 a 34-31 overtime loss at home against Michigan started a 1-6 finish that saw the Spartans miss a bowl game. Last season it was an epic choke job against Notre Dame that got things started, and the only salvation the rest of the year was an even more epic choke job by Northwestern in a 1-7 finish. I have no idea why this team has fallen completely apart in late September the last two years, because there is no valid reason for it with the experience they had. At least four games last year (Notre Dame, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue) could and probably should have gone in Michigan State's favor, and in all but the Indiana game the Spartans beat themselves. When get absolutely throttled by Indiana you have a serious problem.



This year that experience is gone as long-time starter Drew Stanton and his top three receiving targets have departed. The defense also must adjust to a new coach that is very defensive minded and will demand a lot out of his players. 2007 certainly doesn't look good for Michigan State, but there is a chance at a winning year. UAB and Bowling Green need to be wins to start, while Pittsburgh is a toss-up game. Last season the Spartans won in Pittsburgh, so they certainly should be able to win at home. After that is a trip to Notre Dame that will probably be a loss, but Michigan State has won five straight in South Bend so you can't totally write them off. Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue in that order are all toss-ups within the conference. In what is a blessing many people aren't expecting much from Michigan State this year, and that could work in their favor.



Michigan State Offense:



Last year Drew Stanton had to run the ball quite a bit. Part of this comes from the fact he is a mobile quarterback, while the other part comes from having to run for his life because he wasn't getting any protection. For any team to be good they need a good offensive line, especially when they are breaking in a new quarterback like the Spartans are. This year Michigan State will likely have a more run-oriented attack as they have a massive line to run behind and a couple of pretty good running backs to power the ball.



Four of the five projected starters up front are more than 300 pounds, with only 6'4" 285 John Masters at center being under the 300 pound mark. Last year the line was hit with some injuries that gave multiple guys experience. Still, the unit gave up 28 and will need to me much better with an inexperienced quarterback under center. Mike Gyetvai and Pete Clifford are both 6'7" monsters on the left side of the line, while Roland Martin and Jesse Miller form a solid right side.



Running behind them will be Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick who offer differing styles. Ringer is a burner who played well before hurting his knee last year, while Caulcrick is a power runner that will be used to simply pound the ball against opposing defenses. With this experience and the size of Michigan State's line our run defense is going to be tested severely, but we will have already faced serious tests at this point in the season. Either we will learn from those tests, or we will get shredded by yet another good running game. To complicate matters Dwayne Holmes will be a 275 pound fullback paving the way for Ringer and Caulcrick.



Brian Hoyer is the new quarterback and played quite a bit last year against Minnesota and Penn State. He is the only real option for the Spartans because of experience, but he's not all that bad. Much of what I have read about him reminds me of Minnesota's Bryan Cupito. He's the type of guy that won't blow up for 450 yards a game, but plays very smart and won't lose the game for you. He throws the ball fairly well, but there is very little experience to throw the ball to.



The leading returning receiver was T.J. Williams who had 25 catches for 281 yards and three scores. He's expected to be behind Terry Love, who had 18 catches for 234 yards. He and Deon Curry are both speedy deep threats, while Kellen Davis needs to have more production at tight end. There are some true freshmen who might see the field, but they really aren't ready yet and may likely redshirt. The passing game will likely be more of a compliment to the running game, and the Spartans will be in trouble if they fall behind.



Michigan State Defense:



This group was pretty bad at times last year. It couldn't hold an 18-point lead with less than nine minutes to go against Notre Dame. It gave up at least 38 points in successive weeks to Ohio State, Northwestern, and Indiana. It was aggressive without actually doing much, and will be entirely rebuilt under Dantonio. Still, there are some key pieces left to work with.



Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick are the next two in line of pretty good safeties we will see this year. Both are hard hitters who play well against the run and will be better against the pass this year. Wiley had 10 pass breakups last year, but no interceptions. Both corners are new, but have pretty good size and may be better than what Michigan State had last year. Rose Weaver and Kendall Davis-Clark are physical with receivers, but have little playing time under their belts.



Kaleb Thornhill and SirDarean Adams are both back at linebacker and should be the backbone of a good but not great unit. Adams is a converted running back and will use his speed to be all over the field. This will be critical against us in pass coverage, as Michigan State likely won't need to go into a nickel package much because of him. All told seven letter winners return at linebacker, so there are plenty of options to go around beyond the starting three. Andrew Hawken, Josh Rouse, and Eric Gordon (I thought he was playing basketball at IU?) all look to factor in as far as playing time.



The defensive line, however, has been a liability of late and has done next to nothing as far as a pass rush goes. Ervin Baldwin had four sacks last year, but he is the most proven pass rusher on the team. Justin Kershaw and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are the starting tackles that have to do more than simply be there against the running game. The front four is pretty set, and anyone who rotates in outside of Jonal Saint-Dic hasn't seen too much of the field. This is far from the team's strength, and if our line can protect Painter we should have time to pick this defense apart.



Michigan State Special Teams:



Brett Swenson was a pretty solid kicker as a true freshman last year and proved it by nailing three field goals against us. He doesn't have a ton of range, but he is fairly accurate. Aaron bates takes over the punting duties as a true freshman, but performed fairly well in high school. Both return games don't offer much, but the overall speed is there to do something if it can develop.



Intangibles:



Michigan State can't have a third straight season fall completely apart, can they? The last two years expectations have been fairly high when the wheels came off. This year with a new coach and all the other circumstances many people are picking Michigan State to be the worst team in the Big Ten. Because of that, they may not have a whole lot to play for by the time they come to West Lafayette. I like to think that with a new coach the collapse of the past two years won't happen, but a similar record may be in order simply because the Spartans are about a year away.



This will also be our senior day, and it will be the last time we get to see Dustin Keller, Dorien Bryant, and the rest of the seniors play at Ross-Ade. We have played fairly well on senior day lately, in fact we're 8-2 under Tiller (in 2001 Senior Day was officially against Michigan State, not the rescheduled Notre Dame game), and having Michigan State as an opponent will help.



This should be a breather by comparison to the stretch before it, but we know how well we handle that. In 2000 it was also supposed to be smooth sailing after the Ohio State game and we ended up getting crushed 30-10 by a Michigan State team that finished 5-6. Thankfully Iowa bailed us out by beating Northwestern that day.



One final factor to consider is the sheer wackiness this series has produced the last ten years. In 1997 and 1998 we needed two late touchdowns each time to pull out a miraculous win. In 2002 Kyle Orton sat in the freezing cold, came off the bench and completed a 40 yard bomb to John Standeford on 4th and 8 and followed it up with a two-point conversion for a 45-42 win. Even last year we needed a 19-yard field goal by a kid who had only attempted an extra point in his five year career. What will it be this year?



Game Outlook:



Michigan State has the size and the talent in the running game to give us fits if our run defense isn't better, but if our run defense isn't better will have had a ton of more problems before this game. Their defense isn't anything special, but isn't horrid either. Our offense should have a pretty good game against them and our defense should know they are rather one dimensional. Holding their ground game in check and getting the defense off the field will be huge.



Honestly, this isn't a team we should have a ton of trouble with if things hold serve throughout the rest of the schedule. If we are strong enough to beat Notre Dame this year and be competitive with Ohio State and Penn State we shouldn't have any trouble with Michigan State. Still, they won't have anything to lose at this point and that may be bad for us.



PREDICTION:



Only if we are beaten up pretty badly coming into this game do I see us having a problem. Their defense will be very vanilla and as long as we don't turn the ball over a lot we'll be fine. Purdue 38, Michigan State 20.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Penn State Nittany Lions

At least at this point in the season we'll know if we have anything going, or if it will be another shattered season. As a result, I think much of the pressure will be off of us as we head into State College for this game. The only way we will have any pressure in this game will be if we pull off an upset by beating Michigan or Ohio State and get some help with being in the Big Ten championship race. Losing both of those will likely mean we're out of the race and will have only bowl positioning to play for. With some of the early news about training camp, including early injuries (Dan Bick, Torri Williams) and suspensions (Brian Ellis) to a defense that could use those three players I doubt we'll be in much of a position to contend for a Big Ten championship at this point.

I was originally planning on heading to State College for this game. Some close friends of ours are Penn State alums and came to West Lafayette with us last year and we were going to return the favor. Two good high school friends of mine are also finishing up doctorate work at Penn State after completing their undergrad at Purdue, so I have a ton of respect for the Nittany Lions. Unfortunately our plans fell through as our friends are moving to Nashville and something more important came up. Since this may by Miami's last season in the Orange Bowl and my wife is an alum and hardcore fan, we will be heading to Miami that weekend for homecoming. It will be my first (and hopefully not last) game in the Orange Bowl. I will be finding a TV somewhere in Coconut Grove for our game, however, and changing jerseys as appropriate. It's a shame too, as I have heard that Penn State fans are among the most hospitable in the Big Ten.


Last Season for the Nittany Lions:


Last year the Nittany Lions did something that had not been done in 10 years, and that is shut us out. For 127 straight games we had at least managed a few points, and at the time it was the third longest active streak in the nation. As a result Penn State finished tied with us in the conference and rightfully got the higher bowl positioning. Their game plan against us was perfect. They stopped our offense cold and pounded the ball on the ground with Tony Hunt to control the clock. It's pretty sad when our most memorable play of the game was the lateral-frenzy on the final play in order to get a desperate score.


The rest of Penn State's season was fairly successful, as a 9-4 record and New Year's Day bowl win is a good year for most programs. What made things better was the fact Penn State was expected to struggle after winning the conference in 2005. All four losses were to quality opponents in Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, while the best win was over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. In reality their season wasn't much different from ours in that they beat who they were expected to beat. Only Minnesota and Tennessee joined us as teams that Penn State beat that went to bowl games and it's not like the Gophers or we were terribly inspiring. We were probably their best regular season win a year ago.


This year Penn State picks up Iowa and Indiana on its Big Ten Slate and loses Minnesota and Northwestern. Outside of the Notre Dame game the non-conference schedule is three guaranteed wins with FIU, Temple, and Buffalo. Penn State will go bowling again, it's just a question of where. More importantly, Penn State plays Wisconsin and Ohio State at home before this game, with a road trip to Michigan earlier in the year. They will already be through the worst of their schedule, and our game may be the last serious hurdle toward another conference championship.


Penn State Offense:


Last season it was a simple equation for the offense. Run Tony Hunt and have Anthony Morelli make a few plays to give the defense just enough to finish the job. It was quite an effective strategy as Hunt had a 1300 yard, 11 touchdown season and Morelli started to show some signs of playing up to his vast potential. He is back this year and has a fantastic group of receivers to throw to. Much of the offense will be up to him as Penn State will probably open things up quite a bit, at least by Penn State standards.


Last season Morelli threw for 2,424 yards and just 11 touchdowns. He struggled in big games, but had a pretty good bowl game against Tennessee. This year he is expected to have a much better year thanks to three fantastic receivers in Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood. All three are juniors with speed to be deep threats, and the hands to be possession receivers as well. Oh yeah, they all have a ton of experience as juniors as well. This may be the sternest test our secondary will face all year, and the only reason I see for diminished production from all three of them is if Morelli has a bad year. Andrew Quarless also a quality tight end and is certainly talented enough to draw his own coverage.


Replacing Hunt will be Austin Scott, who missed all of last year with an ankle injury. He ran for 110 yards in the Orange Bowl two years ago and was recruited to be the next great Penn State running back in the same line as Curtis Enis, Ki-Jana Carter, Larry Johnson, and Hunt. Backing him up will be Rodney Kinlaw, while Matt Hahn will be used as a fullback that can both run the ball and catch a few passes out of the backfield. The running game will certainly be strong enough to complement what should be a dynamic passing game, and Penn State has always been able to run the ball.


Up front the offensive line will need to replace Levi Brown at left tackle, who was only the fifth overall pick in April's NFL draft by the Cardinals. Gerald Cadogan looks to be the top candidate to replace him, and is a good athlete at 6'5", 313 pounds. Dennis Landolt is the other tackle and may shift over to the left side because of his experience. A.Q. Shipley returns at center and started every game last year, so there is plenty of experience in the middle. Both guard spots are a little questionable, but John Shaw and Lou Eliades look to be the starters as of right now. The questions are minor, however, and the line should be fine.


Penn State Defense:


What else should from a university that prides itself on being Linebacker U.? Dan Connor is simply next in line now that Paul Posluszny has moved on to the NFL. Connor played on the outside last year and registered 113 tackles and five sacks. Now he is in the middle and will be a traffic cop that no one wants to run into. He plays all over the field and will possibly be the best linebacker in the country. CFN has him listed as Penn State's best player and star of the defense. Sean Lee is number two on that list and will stay outside after being third in tackles for the team last year, and provides a nice balance of hitting and tackling ability. The third spot has several talented prospects and certainly won't be a weakness.


The defensive line is the weakest part of the defense, and that is only because they lack experience. Graduation and a nasty off-the field incident involving Chris Baker have left the line fairly thin. Baker could play, but must clear up his issues first. Josh Gaines is the only returning starter at end, and had a pair of sacks last year. Phil Taylor (337 pounds) and Abe Koroma (312 pounds) provide a solid wall that no one will want to run against. They may not get into the backfield much, but they are still huge guys to go around.


The secondary also faces some off-the-field issues as Anthony Scirotto was involved in the same incident as Baker and faces stronger charges. At safety he had six interceptions last year and it would be a huge blow to the defense if he is unavailable. Justin King is a true #1 lockdown corner and will be a guy that can shut down almost anyone he's paired up with, leaving the rest of the defense free to concentrate on everyone else. Tony Davis is moving over to the other safety spot, but the strength of this unit will depend on Scirotto's availability.


The unit at a whole features just enough questions to make it a bit of a concern after being very strong last year. Still, we have never been able to exactly move the ball at will against Penn State no matter who they have had, and this year will be no different.


Penn State Special Teams:


Kevin Kelly attempted an astounding 34 field goals last year, nearly three a game. He was able to hit on 22 of them, including two of three against us that proved to be the difference in our game. He's got good range and may be the best kicker in the Big Ten. Jeremy Boone is the new punter, and is unproven at best.


The return game will be a test for us as Derrick Williams is a fantastic punt returner and A.J. Wallace is expected to be a fantastic returner on kickoffs. Last year we did a good job of containing almost every return game, but we will be tested this year.


Intangibles:


I can't believe I have written almost 1,700 words already and not once mentioned JoePa. He's an institution at Penn State, one of the best coaches to ever walk the sidelines, and truly one of the classiest guys in all of football. Penn State fans love him, and I have never had a negative thought or word about the man. I am glad to him bounce back strong after his knee injury on the sideline last year, and honestly there isn't a coach I like more in college football than JoePa. He provides a huge edge for Penn state in almost any game, as he's probably forgotten more about the game of football than most coaches know.


Penn State also will have another 100,000 plus crowd on hand in what is one of the loudest venues in the country. If they hold serve at home before this game they will likely be playing for the Big Ten championship at the time, and with that on the line. It is also senior day for the Nittany Lions to add even more of a festival atmosphere.


Game Outlook:


The outlook doesn't look very good, but I feel we have a much better shot at winning than we do at Michigan. This could be a shootout with two pretty good offenses, or it could be a blowout. I honestly feel like much of it depends on how well each team is doing at this point in the season. A split between Michigan and Ohio State for us and Penn State holding serve at home likely makes this an unexpected big game as far as the conference title race goes. If both teams have just one loss in the conference at this point, the winner will be right there with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in the discussion. Penn State could actually go a long way in helping us by beating those three.


Unlike Michigan, we've also actually won in Happy Valley recently, and have a few players that remember what is like. Because of the weird quirks of the schedule it will be the third trip there for many of our seniors, and that can only help. It will take a strong effort by our guys, but I think we certainly can pull off the victory, whether we actually will or not is another matter.


PREDICTION:


I don't think we will win, but I hope to celebrate a bit on South Beach after being proven wrong. Penn State is too strong, especially at home. We have a chance, but it will take a lot. Penn State 31, Purdue 24.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Know thy Opponent 2007: Northwestern Wildcats

Our next opponent is one that could be marketed by the term "rollercoaster success". When the Wildcats are good, they run off a pretty good string of victories and qualify for a fairly high bowl as they did in 1995, 1996, and 2000 by sharing the Big Ten crown each time. When the Wildcats are bad, they are pretty dismal and usually get pushed around by the rest of the league. As one of our protected opponents we see the Wildcats every year in the same manner that we see Indiana each year. This year will be the 75th time we have played Northwestern, and, shock of shocks, it will be our homecoming game.

I think a large portion of the Rosetta stone is dedicated to the explanation of Northwestern being our homecoming game, as they have been our opponent for homecoming more than any other school. Every two years it seems like the Wildcats are our opponent on that day. It probably goes back to the days when they were the only team in the Big Ten we could beat with any regularity, so the administration decided to make them our opponent in order to give our returning fans a rare victory.


Those days are long gone though, and if we're not careful we could get bitten by the Wildcats again like we have two of the past three years.


Last Season for the Wildcats:


You can't discuss last year's Northwestern team without touching on the Randy Walker issue. They were only 4-8, but I think they were a dangerous 4-8 in that they were only a few played from being 6-6 and getting into a bowl, which would have been a minor miracle considering the circumstances. Northwestern was plagued by quarterback issues, injuries, and a defense that struggled to close out opponents. Still, this was a much, much better team at the end of the season than it was at the end of the season, and that is mostly because the quarterback issue was finally settled.


Early on Northwestern was understandably a mess. A win over a bad Miami (OH) team was followed by a 17 point home loss to 1-AA New Hampshire. Though New Hampshire was one of the best 1-AA teams in the country last year, it was still embarrassing. A win over a punchless eastern Michigan squad was the last victory before a six-game losing streak that saw winnable games against Nevada, and certainly Michigan State go by. For the sake of my colleague at Lake the Posts I won't go into the Michigan State game. Northwestern did finish on a strong note by shocking Iowa in Iowa City and winning a rivalry game against Illinois to end the year. Considering New Hampshire, Michigan State, and Nevada could easily have been wins had Northwestern played as well as it did at the end of the year this team was very close to being 7-5.


This year the Wildcats have every excuse to be thinking bowl game, as the non-conference schedule is charmin-soft. Northeaster, Nevada, Duke, and Eastern Michigan should all be wins, meaning Northwestern would only have to scrounge together two conference victories to get to six. With their spread offense that's always a little more quirky than ours that shouldn't be a problem, as Michigan State and Illinois are prime targets for those conference victories, but both are on the road. The November 10th game in Evanston against Indiana could mean the winner goes to a bowl, while the loser stays home for the holidays.


Northwestern Offense:


The Wildcats usually know how to move the ball and move it well. In seasons that they have had success it has been because of the offense moving the ball and scoring in bunches. C.J. Bacher settled into the quarterback role nicely late last season. He missed the first half of the season with a broken leg, but showed some promise in the spread offense late in the year. Northwestern's offense is about throwing the ball around, having a solid tailback to mix it up, and having a mobile quarterback for good measure. When it works it keeps defenses guessing, and that is what the Wildcats want to do this season. Mike Kafka played quite a bit at QB last year and is a better runner than Bacher, but not a better passer.


The main player in the offense will be running back Tyrell Sutton. Sutton ran for exactly 1,000 yards last year and ran for 1,474 as a freshman in 2005. He's also quite accomplished at catching passes out of the backfield with 84 career grabs for 657 more yards. Last year was disappointing for him but he looks to be more of the focal point of the offense this year. Mark Woodsum will likely play in what Northwestern calls a "superback" role, which is kind of a tight end/fullback hybrid. Still though, the running game will be dominated by Sutton and whoever is at quarterback.


In Northwestern's spread offense there usually isn't one star guy, but several capable pass catchers. This year's squad looks to be no different as there are several talented options for Bacher to throw to. Ross Lane, Rasheed Ward, and Andrew Brewer appear to have settled into the top three receiving roles, while senior Kim Thompson will look to contribute after an injury-filled season last year. Overall there is a lot of versatility to this group as there is a good mix of size, speed, and hands. Brewer also played a little at quarterback last year, meaning there is an element on the field for some trick plays we'll need to watch out for.


The offensive line is good and experienced, but there isn't a ton of proven depth. Trevor Rees, Dylan Thiry, Adam Crum, and Joel Belding all return after being starters last year and only the right tackle position will feature someone new. The best compliment I can say about Northwestern's line is that it gets the job done and won't be a liability, which is all you can ask for from an offensive line.


Northwestern Defense:


They haven't been great the last couple of years, but this is an experienced group that needs to turn a corner if Northwestern is to have success this year. This season the Wildcat defense should be good enough to perform well against the bad, but they may struggle against the good. Fortunately for us we should be very good on offense.


Up front the Wildcats have a big front four led by Cory Wootton. As a defensive end this guy is 6'7" and weighs 275 pounds, proving he is a load for any tackle to handle. He had 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last year and even managed a couple of interceptions for good measure. John Gill and Adam Hahn should be solid tackles in the middle, while the other end spot will rotate between Mark Koehn and Kevin Mims. All the guys average 280 pounds and are expected to have a big year getting into the backfield.


The line backers are also big, led by Adam Kadela in the middle. Kadela is being hyped as an all-Big Ten type of guy, and if he stays healthy should have a very good year. It also helps for all the linebackers that their head coach was one of the best linebackers in school history, and he didn't exactly play all that long ago. The rest of the unit is fairly deep with good size, but not a ton of speed. Once again, our speed will be an advantage here we need to exploit. If our line can keep them from getting in the backfield Painter should have plenty of time to pick them apart.


Finally in the secondary where Reggie McPherson and Brandon Smith will be a solid duo at both safety positions. Still, the unit only had eight interceptions all of last year and will need more this year. Surprisingly much of the damage against Northwestern came on the ground last year, as only Troy Smith threw for more than two TD's against them. It's not a great unit, but it is far terrible.


Overall the defense looks like a unit that could surprise and give some teams trouble. It may not be able to completely stop the best offenses it will face, and is certainly not the Steel Curtain, but the Northwestern defense could prove to be very frustrating. If the offense is clicking Northwestern could shock a few teams. Remember, the head coach has a defensive mentality and was the star of a team that came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten in 1995. He was a leader then and will be now.


Northwestern Special Teams:


Northwestern needs to break in an entirely new kicker as Stefan Demos and Arnado Villarreal will compete for the job. Demos is also competing with Kyle Daley for the punting job, and probably has the biggest leg. The returners last year didn't do a whole lot so look for Northwestern to mix things up here to try and provide a spark.


Intangibles:


I think Northwestern, even though they have had some very good years lately, still doesn't get much respect because the program was dormant for so long before 1995. Every time they sneak up on someone and beat them the team is left with a look of, "How the hell did we just lose to Northwestern?" The Wildcats have gotten very good at biting teams that are looking ahead, and this year should be no different. Trust me on this: they will beat someone this year in a total shocker of a game, as they seem to do it every year. I think much of it comes from that fact many teams look at their schedule and still see Northwestern as a win. Even fans don't get as excited when the Wildcats come to town as much as when Ohio State, Michigan, etc. visit. Northwestern has learned to play that to their advantage.


It will also help that the simple passage of time has somewhat eased the loss of coach Walker, who was one of the class guys of the Big Ten. This is more Fitzgerald's team now, and I can see he is shaping up the defense to what he wants it to by, while not tinkering much with an offense that has worked well in the past.


Game Outlook:


This feels like one of our trap games. It feels like it could be the game that everyone has down as a win going into the season, but we somehow lose it. It doesn't help matters that two out of the last three years have been under the same circumstances, and we lost those two times. Still, this is our Homecoming, and we usually play fairly well at homecoming under Tiller.


I can see our offense getting frustrated with a defense that is better than many will think it will be. I can also see our defense having trouble against a unit that mixes it up well and has a solid running back. This one could be more difficult than many expect.


PREDICTION:


I still like us with our offense playing at home. Northwestern is a good team, better than a lot of people are giving them credit for, but they still aren't the best team we will face all year. This could be a nice breather for us, or a dogfight. Purdue 34, Northwestern 24.