Friday, October 31, 2008

Week 10 Big Ten Preview

Perhaps the biggest storyline of the week in conference play is that heavyweights Ohio state and Penn State have the week off. Many people are already saying Penn state is in the clubhouse with an undefeated season, but I wouldn’t be too hasty in declaring that. In 2000 we followed our own huge win over Ohio State with a bye week. People were already putting us in Pasadena, but we crapped the bed in a three touchdown loss at Michigan State two weeks later. Only Iowa upsetting Northwestern on the same day bailed us out. Penn State goes to Iowa in a week in a game that feels very similar to that Purdue-Michigan State game. Penn State is a better team though, and I think they’ll do fine.

Elsewhere, we will officially have our first team eliminated from the postseason in the Michigan-Purdue loser on Saturday. The Iowa-Illinois game is critical for bowl positioning (and maybe Illinois’ bowl hopes in general). Indiana steps out of conference to face Central Michigan, officially making us worried if they dispatch the Chips with ease. Other than that it makes for a very boring week with the championship mostly decided and the air taken out of the Northwestern-Minnesota game.

Michigan (2-6, 1-3) at Purdue (2-6, 0-4) Noon, Big Ten Network

To quote Cartman, CRIPPLEFIGHT!!!!

I think I am one of the few people left that believes we can win this game. We’re awful. Michigan is awful. This has the potential to be a 10 turnover slopfest where neither team wants to win. I am slightly encouraged by the fact that among our 6 losses, they have come to six teams that will be playing somewhere in the postseason. Michigan cannot say the same thing. They do have two losses to team that are currently undefeated in Utah and Penn State.

Our offense will be better. It has to be better. Even if Siller plays he will be better after a week of practice. If Painter plays I think we have a better shot of winning, but we’re not totally screwed if Siller plays because of his ability to runt he ball. Mostly I am confident because the Michigan offense is already awful and may be missing its one playmaker. The game may end up being reminiscent of Jim Colletto’s final win, a 9-3 ugly game over a much better Michigan team in 1996. Somehow I think we’ll find away to stay alive one more week. I am picking us only because the defense has played well in a few games and Michigan will turn it over close enough to get some points. At least as a bonus I'll get a chance to meet up with Maize N' Brew for a beer. Purdue 13, Michigan 6

Central Michigan (6-2) at Indiana (3-5) Noon, Big Ten Network

Indiana’s nearly dead postseason hopes have sudden life after the Hoosiers upset Northwestern last week. As a result, I want to bang my head against a wall knowing Indiana has more wins against ranked teams in the last five years than we do. All that stands in Indiana’s way is Central Michigan, a home game against struggling Wisconsin, and the Bucket game. Oddly enough, Central Michigan could be the toughest of the three. The Chips are hungry to get a BCS team, and very nearly did so against us.

Indiana’s victory last week was probably more the result of injuries and Northwestern blowing the game than anything. Indiana hasn’t seen anything like Dan LeFevour, and Central Michigan’s defense is better than most people think. Indiana’s offense is still awful with nearly no running game to speak of. This could turn into a fun shootout, but that’s even more in favor of Central Michigan. The chips may be better than Ball State, and we know what the Cardinals did in their visit to Bloomington. Central Michigan 38, Indiana 30

Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) at # Minnesota (7-1, 3-1) Noon, ESPN or ESPN2

This appeared to be a really good game before Indiana ruined things. The winner would have been a team that had an outside chance at Pasadena if Penn State stumbles along the way. Now Minnesota is playing for a Florida bowl while Northwestern with their poor attendance is playing to avoid Detroit. Northwestern could finish at 7-5, yet be passed over for bowls because of its attendance issues. It is because of that factor that we have our only realistic chance of missing out on Detroit if we win these last four games.

Minnesota appears to be a team of destiny. To go from 1-11 to 11-1 is an incredible turnaround no matter who they have played. With a little more help they can dream of Pasadena Even without winning the Big Ten. It would happen this way: Penn State wins out and goes to the National title game. Ohio State loses one more game (say Illinois) to fall to 9-3 and 6-2 in the conference. With an open Rose Bowl slot and anxious Gopher fans clamoring for a return to 1962 you had better believe the Rose bowl committee would pick them for Pasadena over Ohio State and keep the Big Ten/Pac 10 tradition. All they need to do is win the next four and Goldy can pack for California. It begins Saturday. Minnesota 31, Northwestern 23

Wisconsin (4-4, 1-4) at # Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) Noon, ESPN or ESPN2

Thanks to Penn State, Michigan State is once again alive for Pasadena. I originally thought this game could decide the Big ten title, but Wisconsin did not cooperate. Confidence is at all time high in East Lansing after Sparty shed the “Little Brother” moniker in style last week. They also proved they are a dangerous team because they can balance the running of Javon Ringer and the passing of Brian Hoyer. Even if we get past Michigan Saturday I think our bowl hopes die in east Lansing.

Wisconsin salvaged a bit of its season last week by beating Illinois in Madison. A bowl bit is all but assured now with Indiana and Cal Poly left on the schedule, but it is still a disappointing year for a team that expected to contend for the national title. Things still aren’t working totally smoothly, and going to Michigan State is not the way to work them out. Michigan State 24, Wisconsin 14

Iowa (5-3, 2-2) at Illinois (4-4, 2-3) 3:30 ABC

If Purdue is going to go anywhere for the holidays they had better cheer for Iowa Saturday. We need to get three teams non-eligible for the postseason even if we win the last four. Winning the last four eliminates Michigan and likely Indiana (they’ll at least get loss #6 at Penn State). The third team can be Illinois, but to do so they have to lose this game. We then must hope for Ohio state and either NW or Western Michigan to beat them and two teams go to the BCS. It’s bleak at the moment, but that is all that is preventing me from going over to basketball coverage totally.

Iowa can do it too. Shonn Greene has quietly had possibly the best season of any Big Ten running back. Considering the conference has Beanie Wells, Evan Royster, Javon Ringer, P.J. Hill, and Kory Sheets that’s a pretty good crowd to stand out from. It really all depends on which Illinois team shows up Saturday. They seem to do better at home, but Iowa hasn’t exactly been awful on the road. Iowa 21, Illinois 17

Quickie National picks:

# 7Texas Tech 41, #1 Texas 38 -
Home field advantage and the Red Raiders are due. This cannibalistic conference will get them before its over.

#8 Florida 21, #6 Georgia 14 - And two loss Georgia starts whining again about how they deserve to be in the title game without even winning their division.

Miami 21, Virginia 13 - Welcome back to the ACC race, Canes. Please make the game I am going to in two weeks worth something!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Michigan preview

Saturday could be the worst affront to American football since the Indiana game two years ago. At least Michigan was expected to struggle some this year. Purdue has been bad in a year when much more was expected. Because of overtime rules someone has to win this game. It won’t be two inept offenses ending in a 0-0 tie like the 1983 Oregon-Oregon State contest. Someone has to score once, even if it is by accident.

This could quickly be reduced to a slapfight. Both teams need to win to keep the faintest of bowl hopes alive. Even then, the future doesn’t look good with road games remaining for each against ranked opponents. I never thought I would see the day where I looked at the schedule and was more relieved to see Michigan coming to town more than Minnesota. The wolverines once again present us with a winnable game. Unfortunately, I have little confidence that we will be able to win it unless Michigan loses it.

Michigan offense:

One game in particular stands out for the Michigan offense. Toledo gave up 35 points in its home stadium in a 35-16 loss to Florida International. FIU is consistently one of the worst offensive teams in Division 1-A. That same Toledo team waltzed into the Big house just a few weeks later and won 13-10 without even scoring an offensive touchdown. Michigan helped them by allowing a 100 yard interception return and missing a game-tying field goal from inside the 10 yard line at the end. In my opinion this is worse than the Appy. State loss because at least the Mountaineers moved the ball and made some very big plays. At least Michigan moved the ball against them too!

If possible, Michigan’s offense may actually be worse than our own. We have turned the ball over 19 times and missed seven field goals to show our number of missed scoring opportunities. Michigan has 24 turnovers in eight games and is just 5 of 8 on field goals. In short, this game should be accompanied by paper bags being handed out to the crowd as they enter the stadium. Michigan ranks 111th nationally in total offense and 102nd in scoring. We carry a ranking of 71 and 93 in those respective categories. I would give us a slight edge based on that alone, but the quarterback situation handicaps us even more.

It is not like Michigan has a definite answer to its own quarterback woes. Steven Threet (89-172-6, 7 TD’s) and Nick Sheridan (29-54-5, 1 TD) have split time at the position with Threet getting most of the snaps. The Michigan passing game is downright awful with either player. Michigan quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times and have rushed for 217 yards in an offense designed to have the quarterback run the football. Neither player has proven to be effective at moving the ball against anyone, and the Wolverines will struggle until they find a quarterback that can. This can be laid solely at the feet of coach Rich Rodriguez because there is no excuse for a program with Michigan’s talent, tradition, and history to get this bad, his fast.

What success Michigan has had comes from a ground game that has the potential to be good, but often gets in its own way. Sam McGuffie is a promising young back with 470 yards rushing and three touchdowns on the season. Purdue fans will remember Brandon Minor coming in and having a field day last season after Mike Hart left with an injury at halftime. Minor has 258 yards and five touchdowns. Other than Threet (183-2) no one else ahs done much on the ground for the Wolverines. Michigan could be even more limited as McGuffie is questionable for this week’s game with a head injury sustained last week.

The good news is that we get a break from facing a great running back before facing Javon Ringer and Shonn Greene in the next two weeks. It should be simple, especially since the run defense has preformed admirably of late. Unfortunately, I remember the Notre Dame game. We are more than capable of turning Brandon Minor into LaDainian Tomlinson for an afternoon like we did with Armando Allen.

The passing game should be even less of a threat. The operative word there is should. In addition to having thrown 11 interceptions, Michigan doesn’t boast a receiver with more than 350 yards. The Wolverines’ passing game is probably less effective than our own. Martavious Odoms leads the team with 32 catches for 329 yards, but hasn’t found the end zone. Greg Mathews (22-259-1) and Odoms are the only two receivers with more than 100 yards receiving. McGuffie (18-136-1) is questionable as mentioned, and we actually figured out how to defend a running back screen last week. Because of that we might be able to stop Michigan entirely with a defense that hasn’t play too poorly of late.

My bet is that Rich Rodriquez was waiting for this game alone to spring his secret weapon against us as far as the passing game goes. His name: Roy Roundtree. Had Roy kept his commitment to Purdue he could be one of our leading receivers. Instead, the only thing #16 has caught this year is a series of splinters in his butt since he hasn’t moved from the bench.

Michigan’s defense:

Michigan’s defense has been much like our own in that it has had stretches of good play only to be left out to dry by the offense. As poorly as he has played this year, Curtis Painter at least gives us a chance to win this game if he plays. If he is in there, Michigan must at least respect he pass. If not, they will load up to stop the run like the Gophers did and dare Siller to beat them through the air. Siller will need to show marked improvement with the additional reps he gets this week if we want to move the ball through the air with him playing.

Both Painter and Siller will need to spend the day running from Brandon Graham. The defensive end is a beast with 8 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He will be in the backfield most of the day, especially since our offensive line is currently in shambles. Michigan also has a balanced pass rush behind him. The Wolverines have 19 sacks on the season spread amongst ten players, but Graham is the only player with more than two sacks.

The run defense is also respectable at 126 yards given up per game. I maintain that Kory sheets is not the problem when it comes to running the ball. The fact that no one else is a threat to run the ball for us is the problem. Sheets has 806 yards on the season, but the next highest total of anyone on the team is Siller with 55. 17 of those came last week. The Michigan run defense doesn’t have to be that good when it already knows Sheets is the only one that will be rushing the ball. Defensive Tackle Terrance Taylor leads that attack against the running game by plugging up almost anything in the middle. He is allegedly the team’s best NFL prospect.

Linebacker Obi Ezeh leads the defense with 75 tackles and an interception. He has six stops for loss, but has yet to record a sack on the season. Safety Brandon Harrison is also pretty good at defending both the run and the pass. He has 53 tackles, two for loss. The secondary as a whole can be passed on. Michigan ranks 101st in the country in pass defense, meaning that if Painter can play and finally have a successful game it will help our chances immensely. Brian Hoyer threw for 282 yards and three scores last week. The defense also allowed 194 yards and two scores to Javon Ringer.

Where Michigan struggles defensively is that its offense barely gives the defense any time to rest. Opponents have the ball almost seven minutes more per game than the Wolverines do. We’re in almost the same boat ourselves, but to have success we must have sustained drives and keep the Michigan defense on the field. If we can quickly end their drives and build a lead the Wolverines do not have enough of an offense to come back. The Wolverines have given up almost a 3rd of their points in the fourth quarter. They have scored only 14 points all year in the third quarter, so that is where we must make our move.

Michigan Special Teams:

The Wolverine offense has been a little like Northern Colorado’s in that they often don’t get close enough for field goal attempts. This group is often a touchdown or bust group, especially since it has trailed most of the season. Even so, K.C. Lopata is just 5 of 8 on field goals. His miss from 26 against Toledo shows he is far from reliable even when the Wolverines do get close.

Michigan does have the best punter in the league in Zoltan Mesko. Aside from having a badass name like Zoltan that makes it sound like he should be crushing skulls with his bare hands, Mesko averages 44.6 yards per kick and has buried opponents inside the 20 yard line 18 times on 53 kicks. He only has two touchbacks as well, so he is very good at what he does. Teams are only returning punts for an average of 2.7 yards per return. We shouldn’t expect anything from the punt return game, but it’s not like we had anything anyway.

Michigan’s own return game isn’t stellar. The Wolverines are averaging 21.2 yards on kickoffs and 5.1 on punt returns. Odoms returns most of the kicks, while Donovan Warren handles punts. This is a departure from what has been a major strength for Michigan in the recent pass, but remember last year’s game turned quickly on a muffed punt of our own. We can’t afford mistakes on returns because we’re certainly going to have them elsewhere.

Final Thoughts:

I think this game will be very simple. If Curtis Painter plays and can even be marginally effective we will win. He has been far from his best this year, but he at least gives us a threat in the passing game. The downside there is we lose a running threat with Siller. This is our last chance to salvage something from this season. It is time to play both Siller and Painter at the same time so teams must prepare for both. If we get a similar effort this week from our defense as we got against Minnesota we can stop Michigan’s pitiful offense. If that is the case all we need is a couple of drives from the offense that result in points.

I like playing Siller and Painter both because Siller gives them another thing to think about on the ground. Kory Sheets has provided 86% of our yards on the ground this year. That’s way too high of a percentage. We’ve got to develop other rushing threats to capitalize on his big play ability. Unfortunately, Siller is not any kind of a passing threat yet unless he shows dramatic improvement in practice this week. Plus, if Painter can’t go and Siller gets dinged up we’re down to scout team quarterback Chris Bennett.

Michigan is also banged up in its own right. McGuffie is their most dangerous offensive weapon, and he may be out. This could easily turn into a punting contest between Chris Summers and Zoltan Mesko.

Both teams are mistake prone. The winner of this game will be the team that capitalizes most on the other team’s mistakes. I know I am crazy at this point, but I am not giving up. In football, momentum can change in a hurry. With just one win this week we can start turning things around and at least have a small chance going into Michigan State next week. To do so we have to get something going our way. We have to get a lead. We have to get a small break our way. We have to get a big defensive stop. Anything can start things going in the other direction again. We haven’t played a complete game all year, so we’re due.

I don’t even think we need a complete game. We just need a win to have something positive to talk about. I don’t care if we win 3-0 on a 55 yard field goal from Wiggs because that’s as close as either team can get to scoring. A win would wash away some, but not all of the stink of the past five weeks. The defense is capable of doing its part, and I think the offense can do just enough to not be as craptacular as theirs. A win also means the bowl hopes, however faint they are, can stay alive for another week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Boilermaker basketball preview, part 2

Yesterday of the back court was exciting. Today's look at the frontcourt and general outlook on the season is a bit more questionable. Rebounding was a major issue last year. In the second round of the NCAA's we ran into a team that was very similar to us in Xavier. The main difference was experience and strength. Their guys were able to outmuscle in the paint based on their experience. They were a good look at what we want to be in the future.

Purdue didn't bring in any massive players in order to bang down low with the bigger teams it will face. If all reports are to be believed, it didn't need to. Robbie Hummel has already been named as the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, while While JaJuan Johnson is expected to have developed into a solid true post presence in his sophomore year. A couple of key contributors, one a former starter, are expected to round an area that needed improvement, and got it in a big way.


Robbie Hummel, So

JaJuan Johnson, So

Hummel is a guy that has enormous hype placed on him this season. Fortunately, there are enough weapons around him that we don’t necessarily need him to perform at a high level each and every night in order to win. That is why I think this team will be great. They all feed off of each other. They all played together successfully last year and when one was down, the others picked him up. It’s almost like something clicked in the loss in East Lansing. When we played the Spartans very close in a game no one gave us a chance in its like everyone began believing. Robbie can do everything. He can shoot, rebound, and defend. The biggest play he made all year may have been the block at the end of the Wisconsin game in Mackey.

That is not to say we don't need Robbie Hummel. He missed the first Michigan State game last year with the flu, and had he played it might have been the difference between victory (and later, a Big Ten championship) and defeat. Against Xavier he was held to just seven points on 2 of 10 shooting from the field. No one is irreplaceable, but losing Hummel would be a more serious blow than losing about anyone else on this team because of his versatility.

Johnson has been dubbed as the guy that can send this team into the stratosphere. He probably has the most pressure on him to perform, but again, others are there to pick him up. Everyone was excited when he gave us just a taste of what he could do with a 10 point, 8 rebound effort against Baylor in the NCAA's. He is stronger this year and had a very good performance during hte Australian tour.

I don’t think his play will be as critical as those who will be giving him a few minutes of rest each night. Two years ago against Florida we went with one post player against their huge line and nearly pulled off a major upset. Carl Landry was very good. He is getting well-compensated this year in the NBA as well. JaJuan could be better, and if he can get help from Calasan and even Reid for a few minutes a night it makes us better. If Calasan and Johnson can both log minutes at the same time that gives us even more versatility. Then we can go big if we need to or small if we need to.

Key bench contributors:
Nemanja Calasan, Sr.
Chris Reid, Sr.

Even if Johnson develops into an absolute beast in the post we are still a team without an overwhelming amount of size. I think it is amazing that we won as many games as we did last year when we continually got owned on the boards. Despite Johnson’s development we still need these two guys to contribute in case of foul trouble, injury, or simply just to give him a break every few minutes. Teams that rely on a dominant big man and only one always run into trouble when that big man gets taken away for any of the reasons above. Because of overall talent we won’t suffer as much, but we will suffer less if these two can play.

I really like Calasan as a player. I think he will take a major step forward now that he has a year of Division I basketball under his belt. He is another guy like Marcus Green that can step forward and provide 10-12 points of unexpected offense any given night. He also has a great attitude and is almost like a Bosnian Brian Cardinal. Calasan can hit hte occasional three as well, meaning he is not chained tot he paint when he is in there. I would love to see him get low and bang with some of the bigger bodies out there to take some of the heat off of Johnson.

With Reid, his expectations are so low that any contribution will be a bonus. His size alone is reason enough to give him a look every now and then even if only to take up space and absorb fouls. Hell, Chris Dudley had a long NBA career for the Knicks based on taking fouls instead of Patrick Ewing. As far as I know, that was Dudley’s only useful basketball skill. If Reid can just give us five good minutes a night with a couple rebounds it takes a little pressure off of everyone else.

The schedule:

It is tougher this year, but most of the difficult games are at home or on a neutral court. The Duke game is going to be absolutely huge. For some reason we have always played the Blue Devils very well. Who can forget the cold night in Alaska five years ago when we ran the Blue Devils off the court for a big early season win? As the number one seed in the preseason NIT we are favored there, and I certainly like our chances to beat Duke in Mackey. I cannot wait for that game, because it will be rocking. Even my non-college basketball loving wife is excited to go. In her own words, “You’ve been talking about it so much I’m excited to go and I think college basketball is boring.”

If we win the NIT and get past Duke there is a strong chance we will be unbeaten going into Big Ten play. Considering what will be a very high preseason ranking, we could be #1 in the country by then. I am dreaming of course, but this team is just that good. The Big Ten looks to be top heavy again with four heavyweights of Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State at the top, but Illinois and Minnesota are good enough to get us in road games. Penn State could be tricky too.

Much has been made about how this team will handle being the hunted. I am of the school that thinks the Australian trip with a couple of tough losses were good for this team. That, and the fact that coach Painter is already reminding them that preseason expectations mean exactly diddle squat. He is not going to let them sit back and rest on last year. Despite all the praise heaped on them in the past few weeks they have yet to accomplish a single thing. There will be the unavoidable rough spots, but I am confident coach Painter will get through them. 18 home games will helps, especially since Mackey Arena is once again a home court advantage again. Only an Ohio State team two years ago with multiple first round draft picks and the unexplainable Wofford game a year ago have been losses in the last 24 months.

The Off the Tracks official prediction for the year is a 27-4 record, going 15-3 in the Big Ten and winning the title. That should be good enough to get a top 3 seed in the NCAA’s and a trip to nearby Dayton for rounds 1 and 2. As for that tournament, I am saying we make the sweet 16, with a berth in the elite 8 depending on draw and matchup.

Final thoughts:

I love this team. I love the way they play egoless basketball and work to get everyone involved toward a common goal. In the 2006 tournament I hated Connecticut. I hate the way they were a team of incredible talent, but didn’t play together. They looked like they were only in it for themselves and trying to get to the NBA. They were incredibly talented yes, but if they had played like Purdue plays they would have destroyed everyone in their path on their way to the title. Instead, they very nearly became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 and won two more games they should have lost before losing to George Mason.

Purdue is not like that. These guys would bleed for each other. They scrap, fight, and make teams play their style of basketball. Based on talent alone Florida should have wiped the floor with us two years ago. Instead we forced a better team to play our pace and we nearly pulled it off. The good teams are the ones that can do that. The great ones are the ones that can not only do that, but adapt to play a number of styles. Last year we were a grind it out team. Against Baylor in the tournament we played their style and ran them out of the gym. I love that versatility.

Mostly I like this team simply because it is fun to watch. Basketball has always been my first love both as a sport to play and watch. Growing up in Indiana it is hard not to have that. It is one of the few areas where I can totally lose myself in the joy and flow of the game and forget about anything else that is going on at that time. When the game is played as beautifully as this team can play it when it is on it very nearly brings me to tears. Not only are these guys talented, they love playing with each other. Everyone compliments everyone else very well. Scott Martin apparently had a problem with this and removed himself from the equation. I don’t think we will even miss him. If he turns another ankle he will miss Nemanja Calasan carrying him off the floor.

The dream of a national championship may still be a little far off, but who would have dreamed a Big Ten title was ours for the taking last year? It would have been a Big Ten title if not for the loss in Bloomington just before Indiana imploded. I think this season will be a step toward two real shots at the 2010 and 2011 titles. As brother-in-law has always said though, “We’re here, the fans are here, they came to see us, they’re keeping score. Why don’t we go out and try to win this thing now?”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Boilermaker basketball preview, Part 1

I was originally going to do a one part preview, but its original incarnation was almost 2,800 words. That left me with two choices: either cut something out or split it into two parts and expand on it. As a result, tonight we'll be dealing with the backcourt on a team laden with guards. The second part of the preview will deal with the front court, which is the area of largest for the team. This certainly beats writing another article on the struggles of the sinking football team. Right now, basketball is giving me faith in Purdue sports.

If this is the final season that I will be living in Indiana it is setting up to be a dream season. My beloved Kokomo Wildkats appear to have their best team since the 1997 state finals appearance that I had a very small part in. Purdue looks to have a team that could get a top 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. That would make for a very cozy (and highly tempting) Dayton-Indianapolis-Detroit route to the Final Four right here in the Midwest. The women's teams for both schools, especially Purdue, look to be loaded as usual. It's an exciting time to be here, and it could only be a preview for an even bigger 2009-10 season for all four teams.

It has been a long time since there has been this much excitement around Purdue basketball. Even my sophomore year, when the Boilers made an unexpected run that very nearly put them in the Final Four right here in Indy, there wasn't that high of expectations coming into the season. As a senior, I was one of about 10 people still in the student section as we watched John Allison get outrebounded by just about everyone on our way to the first losing season under Gene Keady. That season was painful to watch. We had quite a bit back from an injury-plagued NIT-worthy season in 2000-01. It wasn't a good sign early when Butler came in to Mackey Arena and looked totally confident even when down 14. They ended up winning by six for their first win in West Lafayette since 1954. I didn't think it could get worse than that, but it did. I don't even mean the final 13-18 record for that season.

But things are so much better now. I find myself envious of the Paint Crew after going through what we went through in the first years of the Gene Pool. If this team continues to play selfless basketball the sky is absolutely the limit for them. Even North Carolina, a team that many are already handing the national title to, would be beatable if we play to the maximum of our abilities. We are no longer the Baby Boilers. We're not even the Toddler Boilers. We are the Boilers, and we are back.


The Starters:

Chris Kramer, Jr

Keaton Grant, Jr

E'Twaun Moore, So

A shooter, a stopper, and a scorer. What a combo if you're going to go with a three guard lineup. These three complement each other in so many ways that it is a shame we can only play three guards at a time. The real question is who goes to the bench when freshman point guard Lewis Jackson comes in to run the offense?

Kramer is everything you want from a team captain. He reminds me of the type of player I am, except he actually has basketball talent. God did not bless me with a ton of talent, but he did bless me with more than enough heart. Yes, I was the type of player that played with reckless abandon diving after loose balls and generally acting like my very life depended on each possession. I now have two bad feet and a twingy knee to thank for this, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Kramer is that type of player. He is a "play in the other guy's jersey" type of defender that is hated by every opponent, but loved by our own fans. He is a blue-collar player that plays Purdue style of basketball. That's why we love him so much. To me, it seemed as if his scoring was off ever since his concussion at Clemson last year. It was almost like he was just a little hesitant offensively. If he is healthier this year (I doubt he will ever be completely healthy) and can score we will be just that much better.

Defensively, all I can say is that we have the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year for two more seasons. Our defense rallies around Kramer's leadership on that end of the floor. Most nights we can stick him in the jersey of the other team's best guard and worry about playing four on four when Kramer is in the game. That is a huge advantage, and will need to be exploited if we are going to have a deep tournament run. We may actually struggle more against versatile teams that don't have one guy designated as "the man".

Keaton Grant reminds me of Cuonzo Martin. He can be a lights out shooter that does most of his damage when teams are distracted elsewhere. He's the type of guy that will kill you if you try to stop Hummel, Moore, and Johnson down low. Simply put, you cannot stop everybody. When we have scorers like Moore and Hummel out there someone is going to get lost in the fray. Grant ended up getting lost enough times last year to end up as team MVP. He is also supposed to be even healthier after offseason knee surgery. A healthier knee means he can create some space for himself and get open more quickly off of screens.

Part of what makes Moore dangerous as a scorer is because we don't have to rely solely on him to score points. We are not a one man show with him as the star. Part of the reason my Kats lost in the 1997 state finals is because we had one player, Herman Fowler, go for 27 points while our next highest scorer had five in a 50-43 loss. Having a great supporting cast that will carry their weight makes having a dangerous scorer like E'Twaun Moore all the more fun. If we're getting the regular contributions from everyone else and happen to have a game where E'Twaun goes nuts I have a very hard time seeing us losing that particular game. Even then, E'Twaun only needs 12-15 points per game to make us more than successful. Like Grant above, teams can't concentrate solely on him because we have so many other weapons. As long as Moore plays within this system we'll be fine. How many other teams don't have to rely on a preseason first-team All-Big Ten player? It is a luxury I am glad to have.

Key bench contributors:
Lewis Jackson, Fr
Marcus Green, Sr

LewJack, as the Boiled Sports guys like to call him, may have more anticipation surrounding him than the fab four freshmen of a year ago. I have yet to see him play, but people are raving about his athleticism and ability to distribute the ball. When he is in the game he is expected to be the conductor of our symphony of offense. He also has the ability to break down his defender and get a quick score if needed. I am thinking he is an Austin Parkinson type only with a much better ability to create his own shot. My only worry is how he as a freshman will respond to a step up in weight class. If he responds like last year's freshmen he will be fine.

Marcus Green is another "lost in the system" type of guy. He is one of our few seniors as we're projected to start five guys who could still be starting next year. Last year he did a little bit of everything and we need him to serve in that role once again. He is listed a guard/forward, so his rebounding and picking up the easy second chance points will be an area that he can contribute nicely. I'd love him to play like I do in this respect. The one niche I have had in my game is the ability to come flying in from the perimeter, grab a missed shot from amongst the trees, and lay it in before anyone even realizes I am there. There is no better feeling than watching two guys on the opposing team taller than my 5'11" size look at each other in shock as I head back down the court after doing that. Marcus needs to do that.

Possible contributors:

Ryne Smith, Fr

Bobby Riddell, Sr

John Hart, Fr
Mark Wohlford, Jr

This group of four are all good players and probably would have been starters in the late Keady years. Coach Painter has already said that it is likely that one of either Hart of Smith will be redshirting, but we won't know for sure until after the exhibition games. It is nice that they have that luxury. Both have the looks of being big role players in 2010 and beyond as we have another stellar class behind them. They are in a bit of a sandwich class with last year's group in front of them and next year's group behind them, but they will likely serve as critical glue that will help hold a championship team together.

Smith is more of a pure shooter and a two guard. I can see him being a 3-point specialist off the bench and someone who can take some of the long-range burden from Keaton Grant's shoulders. He averaged 18 points per game a year ago mostly from the perimeter, so he has been known to fill it up.

Hart was a late signee from Beech Grove, one of the suburbs of Indy here. He is probably more athletic than Smith, but not as much of a distributor as Jackson. With all the good players in the Indianapolis area recently he was named the Marion County Player of the Year, so that is worth something. He also attended the same high school as women's team great Katie Geralds. He's another guy that can create his own shot as well as run the break.

Riddell is a former walk-on who has seen his minutes decrease from earlier in his career. He's one of the final holdovers from the dark times of Painter's first season, where he was often playing starter's minutes. He is the picture of "student section favorite" as townie walk-on that can shoot the ball fairly well. Chad Kerkhoff played a similar role during the 1999-2000 season. I don't expect Riddell to play a lot, but when he does get in a game, especially at Mackey Arena, expect the students to go nuts.

Finally there is Wohlford. He is in his second year as a walk-on, and I sincerely hope he at least gets his name on his jersey this year. He's not going to be playing significant minutes unless there is a huge rash of injuries, but he will make some major contributions in practice. His game action will be among the most limited on the team, but expect him to play at least a couple of times this year.

Final Thoughts:

I am very encouraged that many of these guys played last year and will be back next year. They will teach Hart, Jackson, and Smith what it means to play unselfish basketball, which is the most key aspect of this team. Our offensive style is one that actually struggles with a "me first" type of player. Fortunately, we don't have a single player here with that attitude, and painter would rip him a new one if we did. Last year Indiana fell apart after the Sampson firing because the players had the "me first" attitude, we won't have that problem.

These guys also compliment each other extremely well. We have a good balance of shooters and slashers. With Jackson we have a better ball-handler and distributor. If their was one weakness of the backcourt last year it was the lack of a true point guard. Tarrance Crump played very well in the NCAA tournament games, but was a non-factor for much of the season. Jackson is expected to be a better fit than Crump from day one. This backcourt will be able to shoot, drive, distribute, and even rebound some if asked. There is some good size here with all three projected starters over 6'3". If they can crash the boards it will assist the front court even more.

Paying some more bills:

If in New York, L.A., or Boston, you might be interested in some of these:

Gillette Stadium Tickets

Staples Center Tickets

Nassau Coliseum Tickets

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Week 9 Big Ten wrap and blog poll ballot

Since starting this blog just before the 2006 season it has primarily been a football blog. Even in the offseason I have primarily focused on the football team. Last year I made the move to year round coverage starting with the breakthrough season by the basketball team. Despite the fact that the football team is in a nosedive it cannot seem to pull out of, I have stayed with them as the primary focus.

That will begin to shift this week as the basketball team tips off it exhibition season Friday night in Mackey Arena. I'll still do write ups on the final four games of the season, but since the Big Ten is already decided I'll probably step back from doing Big Ten football stuff as a whole and start doing some more basketball stuff. This starts tomorrow, as I will release the first of my two (maybe even three) part preview on the basketball team.

As mentioned, the Big Ten is all but decided now. There is little reason to go into much detail as Penn State has all but officially won the conference, the other bowl bids have been decided in terms of the teams that will go bowling, and the Boilers will be done in short order. Even if we beat Michigan at home this week we won't survive a two game road trip to Michigan State and Iowa. Therefore, as I rank the Big Ten this week, I will let the other bloggers in the Big Ten bloggers' network comment on this week's performances. I'll also post the likely bowl destination for each team.

The basketball rankings will bring about the return of funny comparisons, I assure you.

11. Purdue (2-6, 0-4) Result: Minnesota 17, Purdue 6 - no bowl - Ugh, we're just terrible right now.

10. Michigan (2-6, 1-3) Result: Michigan State 35, Michigan 21 - no bowl -
At least we will now have company at home in December. The loser this week gets a stay of execution.

9. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) Result: Indiana 21, Northwestern 19 - Motor City Bowl -
Someone has to go, and Northwestern just stated their case for Detroit. I almost put htem in 11th so they would think about what htey did for a week, but after seeing Lake the Posts I am just not that cruel.

8. Indiana (3-5, 1-4)
Result: Indiana 21, Northwestern 19 - no bowl - I still think that Indiana will probably lose its last four games, but at least they put up a fight against Northwestern. Will we against them?

7. Illinois (4-4, 2-3) Result: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 17 - Insight Bowl -
I wouldn't be too hasty to put the Illini in a bowl yet. Iowa is playing well, they won't beat Ohio State, and Northwestern at home in the finale could be our ticket to the postseason if we pull off a four game miracle. Let's all calm down now about Ron Zook as a savior.

6. Wisconsin (4-4, 1-4)
Result: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 17 - Champs Sports Bowl - Really, the Big Ten still isn't very good at this point. It was good to see Dustin Sherer, a kid I wrote about quite a bit in high school, play well.

5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2) Result: bye - Alamo Bowl -
I officially apoligize for thinking Iowa would be where we are right now and vice versa. Black Heart Gold Pants seems to be much more realistic about Purdue at the moment than me.

4. Minnesota (7-1, 3-1) Result - Minnesota 17, Purdue 6 - Outback Bowl -
I kind of feel bad for the Gophers. They won because we had no offense at all yesterday and they brok two big plays to set up touchdowns. other than that, we kind of outplayed them. They're going to dominate a weak schedule and probably get killed by someone like Florida or LSU on new Year's Day. I know it is sour grapes, but the prickish Gopher fan in front of me yesterday set me off.

3. Michigan State (7-2, 4-1)
Result: Michigan State 35, Michigan 21 - Capitol One Bowl - Michgian State is probably going to finish 9-3 with their only losses to teams that will likely finish in the top 15. Not bad at all. I also predict they will end our bowl hopes after we beat Michigan. I hope I enjoy East Lansing.

2. Ohio State (7-2, 4-1) Result: Penn State 13, Ohio State 6 - Rose Bowl -
Can I please have a 10-2 season that ends in the Rose Bowl be a disappointment? It is entirely possible both losses will come to the teams playing for the national championship. Since the Rose Bowl wants to keeps the Big Ten-Pac 10 matchup at all costs except the Buckeyes to be there if they win out and Penn State plays for the title.

1. Penn State (9-0, 5-0)
Result: Penn State 13, Ohio State 6 - National Championship game - Iowa could be tricky this week, but Indiana and Michigan State will not touch the Lions in Happy Valley. Not with what's at stake. They must take care of business and simply wait for Texas or Alabama to lose. That will happen.

Blogpoll draft ballot:

Once again, there wasn't much change at the top my rationale for the top four remains: no undefeated BCS conference team should be behind a 1-loss team. If the one loss team wants to complain they shouldn't have lost their game. As usual, there is chaos at the bottom with four teams dropping out. I have decided the #25 spot must be cursed.

What is interesting is how Boise State, Tulsa, Utah, and Ball State are climbing in both this poll and the BCS poll. If mass chaos erupts, Boise State is already high enough to sneak higher and higher until they get some moderate consideration for a titel shot themselves. Since I love chaos, I hope a Penn State-Boise State championship happens.

And yes, placing Miami at #25 is complete homerism. They've played well lately and are still alive in the ACC.

1 Texas --
2 Penn State --
3 Alabama --
4 Texas Tech --
5 Oklahoma 1
6 Florida 1
7 Georgia 1
8 Southern Cal 1
9 Oklahoma State 4
10 Utah 1
11 Boise State 2
12 Tulsa 3
13 Ohio State 3
14 Missouri 6
15 TCU 1
16 Ball State 1
17 LSU 5
18 Brigham Young --
19 Oregon 3
20 Minnesota 3
21 Florida State 5
22 South Florida 8
23 North Carolina 3
24 Michigan State 2
25 Miami (Florida) 1

Dropped Out: Kansas (#19), Boston College (#21), Northwestern (#24), Arizona (#25).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bucket or Bust

In my Know thy Team series from this summer I mentioned a very far-fetched scenario. On the quarterbacks’ entry, I mentioned how scout team quarterback Chris Bennett and incoming freshman Caleb TerBush would only see the field in an absolute disaster.

Both quarterbacks were warming up in the second quarter. When Justin Siller was hobbling around after getting knocked around all day one of them came close to actually going into the game. A position that has been this team’s strength in every season under Joe Tiller (save 2001) has been a glaring weakness all year. We have a 10,000 yard passer that is injured and has been benched for two different guys. The weakness of the position showed itself as we easily had our worst day throwing the ball since Jim Colletto roamed the sidelines. Being down to our third string quarterback, who was far from prepared after a questionable move to running back earlier, any kind of a passing game was eliminated. The offense did nothing, and another great effort by the defense was wasted.

I said it after the Notre Dame game, but this season is now over. It would take a four game winning streak just to get marginally bowl eligible now. Even if that miracle did happen there is no guarantee of a spot being open for us. We’re playing for pride now. We need to win the bucket back in the game’s final season and begin building for next year.

Positives from the Minnesota game:

The defense – Basically, we win this game 6-3 if not for two huge plays that gave the Gophers nearly a third of their yards and set up both touchdowns. On the first, Weber made a great throw (aided by a missed blatant hold) and Brandon Green had a good run after the catch. The second was Weber making a back-breaking run that finished the game with a final touchdown. We had a couple of chances to get a stop on that drive and get the ball back only down four. Weber was the best offensive player on the field today.

The rest of the time Minnesota got nothing. Even the field goal was set up by a defensive play that gave them a short field. Eskridge was contained so much that we shockingly stopped a couple of running back screens. We held the Big Ten’s leading receiver to 50 yards below his season average. You can’t ask for more from this group, but they need offensive help. I still maintain that there is no reason we should lose any game that we hold a team to 20 points or fewer without it being the fault of the offense. Maybe Brock Spack deserves to stay a little longer after all.

Justin Siller – He is still very raw. He needs some coaching and he was holding on to the ball way too long any time he looked down field. Still, it was exciting to see he had an elusiveness we have sorely needed from the position. I don’t know how badly Painter was hurt, but when we needed to pass late he was probably the better option (if healthy). Earlier though Siller was moving the team until Minnesota adjusted. I was really hoping he would do some spread option stuff with Sheets and Bolden combined. That would have been fun. I think it would actually have been nice if he had stayed at QB this year and learned even mroe backing up Elliott next year. He is obviously the future, but we will have some growing pains and we may have to have him play through them.

Kory Sheets and Ralph Bolden
– Sheets obviously played more than Bolden, but both did very well when they were in there. Credit should be given to the Minnesota defense. They knew we couldn’t pass the ball in the second half and adjusted accordingly. As a result, they met Sheets any time he had the ball. Still, Kory’s first fumble of the year came at the absolute wrong time.

Jeff Lindsay – Something needs to be said for the way he fought for that first down in the fourth quarter. It’s too bad we followed it with a missed field goal.

Playcalling -- Whether it was desperation or what, at least we got a little creative. The two fake handoffs and bomb to the end zone by Siller was a well run play. It was only off timing-wise from being a huge touchdown at a big moment. The Tardy throw was still in double coverage, but at least it was downfield.

Negatives from the Minnesota game:

Turnovers – We experienced a rarity in that Weber threw an interception, but our turnovers were far worse. The first interception was not Painter’s fault. Whitest had the first down but couldn’t corral the catch. It, along with both fumbles, came at the worst time. They only resulted in three points for the Gophers, but they all came as we were on good drives of our own. Unfortunately, this is just the mark of a bad football team. We hurt ourselves just when we’re beginning to do something good.

– It was obvious today that Siller has the tools to be a very good quarterback some day. This means he should never have been moved to running back. Ralph Bolden has emerged as a good player in that regard. Siller lost two months of preparation at the position, and struggled throwing the ball today. It’s almost like no one imagined he would actually have to play the position. He did very well running the ball, but once Minnesota played to stop the run he was ill-prepared to throw.

On a related note, how can we have unprepared backup QB's at a school known for the position?

The officials – It was obvious we didn’t have the A crew from the Big Ten. It wasn’t so much some missed calls, as only one in the aforementioned missed hold actually hurt. The officials never seemed to have control of what became a very feisty game. I am not one to call a team a “dirty team”, but there were a few instances where Minnesota players went a little far today. The officials never seemed to discourage this and it felt like something was brewing the whole game.

Minnesota fans – I’ve been to several Minnesota-Purdue games in West Lafayette and even one in Minneapolis. From my experience, they have been some of the most cordial fans in the entire conference. Not today. There was one fan in particular that was in my section that was openly confrontational with the Purdue fans around him. At one point he actually was yelling for the Gophers to hit Painter in the arm again and knock him out of the game after he came back. This was absolutely uncalled for.

Purdue fans – Speaking of poor fans, we need to be held accountable for booing a hurt Minnesota player as he was hurt. We also had no need to boo Painter after he came back. I gained a new measure of respect Painter when he tried to fight through that injury. He deserved to be cheered for at least giving it a shot. I now have no question about his effort anymore.

Final thoughts:

Is this rock bottom? It’s the same story every week. We let a winnable game slip away because of our mistakes. For the third time in four weeks the defense played well enough to win, but we couldn’t even get across the 15 yard line, let alone score a touchdown. Now we are in dead last place in the Big Ten. We are the only team in the conference without a conference win and we face a game next week where the loser will be the first Big Ten team officially eliminated from postseason consideration.

I’m not quitting though. I said I would not quit believing we can do something until we’re mathematically eliminated. We can beat Michigan. The defense is good enough to limit Michigan State and Iowa, meaning we need to find some offense somehow. I still think we’ll win again Indiana too. It is highly improbable at this point, but I won’t give up.

We just need to concentrate on Michigan and Michigan alone this week. If we cannot beat the Wolverines this year we probably won’t be beating them for some time. All we need is one thing, one game to give us some positive momentum and we can start turning thing around. The seniors deserve better. Tiller himself deserves better. I keep hoping we’ll come out and play with some pride to get a win. That can happen this week.

Unfortunately, we’re just a bad, bad football team now. The in-game coaching wasn’t bad today, but injuries and general poor play cost us. It’s really a perfect storm of injuries, lack of talent, underperforming talent, and coaching at this point. We can overcome some of those for a time, but we haven’t overcome all of them except for maybe the first half of the Oregon game.

At least now we know that a loss next week means we can start building for next year. I already have in a way. I took advantage of the Follett’s 25% homecoming offer and purchased a Jaycen Taylor jersey because I knew it would get some good use next year. It joins my Kory Sheets and David Pender jerseys in the closet.

If this entry seems disjointed it is because I really don’t know what else I can say at this point. I find myself paying more attention to Miami since I am going down there for a game in two and a half weeks and preparing for basketball season. Since that officially starts Friday night it is appropriate that football’s hopes will likely officially end on Saturday.

#24 Minnesota at Purdue Open Thread

How far have we fallen? This week marks the 8th anniversary of the Holy Toledo play. That was easily the height of the Tiller Era. If we fall to Minnesota today, it was be the low point of his tenure. Thanks to the generosity of Boilerdowd, I have a tape of that 2000 game against the Buckeyes. As I am getting ready this morning to head to West Lafayette, I have that tape int eh VCR.


The comments are open. I leave you with three things. A pair of videos to give us some hope, and the speech given by one of my readers before the Oregon game this year.

To every diehard Boilermaker within driving range of Ross-Ade Stadium...let's do something about it. I don't know about you, but my weekend will be a lot happier with a big serving of ROAST GOPHER. Let's rally together and make Saturday a special day that will go down in Boiler/Tiller history with Notre Dame '97, Kansas State '98, Michigan '00, and every other huge win that lives in our memories later. COME TO THE FOOTBALL GAME. WEAR BLACK. BE LOUD. PULL AN UPSET.

Quit worrying about if it's going to rain or's just water.

Don't wait for the students to fire the crowd up. Fire the students up.

Don't complain about whether or not the game sells out...just make sure YOU buy YOUR tickets.
Don't be the last person to stand up on the Gophers' 3rd and the first one.

Don't be the last person to yell on a the first one.

Don't be the quietest wettest crowd in Ross-Ade Stadium the loudest one.

We're waiting on that signature win...some of you say we've been waiting way too long. Let's do our part to go and get it.

Make our own magic.

Need to get fired up? Go watch some Spoilermaker clips...check out the Rose Bowl celebration on that Alamo Bowl classic on BTN one more time. Whether there's 40,000 or 50,000 or 60,000 in the stands tomorrow, let's be an insanely loud Boilermaker faithful.

Time for some Gopher hunting.

See you tomorrow.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Week 8 Big Ten Preview

My answers to The Daily Gopher's questions went live this morning, so check them out. TDG does a great job promoting a rising team in this conference.

Depending on what happens this weekend, I may be turning my attention to basketball more and more beginning on Monday. This is clearly our final chance to salvage anything out of this season., I am one of the dwindling few that thinks it can happen, let alone believes that it will. It’s a damn shame too, because the seniors and Tiller himself deserve better than this. They deserve better, but for the most part it is their own making.

Our own struggles aside, this is likely the weekend where the Big Ten title is decided. Barring some major upsets along the way, the winner of Saturday night’s Ohio State-Penn State game will represent the conference in the Rose bowl (or more?). The loser also stands a good chance of going somewhere because of an excellent record and devoted fanbase. That is good for our own fading postseason hopes. I don’t want to say they are on life support, but by kickoff of the Ohio State-Penn State game we’ll either be in improved condition or they will be calling family members in asking to pull the plug.

#24 Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) at Purdue (2-5, 0-3) Noon, ESPN Classic

The Gophers cracked every top 25 near the bottom this week including the CBS Sports blogpoll. I even had them ranked on my final ballot. That factor along makes me want to pick them by at least a touchdown given our own 0-17 streak. If we win, we not only give ourselves a temporary reprieve on the season, but we finally get that elusive win over a ranked team. Sure, it would be viewed as one of the cheaper wins over ranked team, but none was cheaper than Notre Dame’s 2005 win in Ross-Ade over us (yes, we were ranked at kickoff).

Since this game is being played on ESPN Classic it is only fair that we get to use Drew Brees. Brees lit up Minnesota for more than 1,000 yards in his three games against them. He was so dominant that Glen Mason almost personally drove him to New York for the Heisman ceremony as a senior just so he wouldn’t have to face him again. Despite a 9-1 record against the Gophers under Tiller, a win would only even the overall series at 31-31-3. It has also been 18 years since the Gophers won in West Lafayette. Unfortunately, that won’t be a worry. This will come down to what both teams do best. Minnesota has confidence and doesn’t make mistakes. We are not confident, and we make mistakes. Minnesota 31, Purdue 20

#22 Northwestern (6-1, 2-1) at Indiana (2-5, 0-4) Noon, Big Ten Network

Indiana joins Purdue and Michigan as teams at the bottom seeking a final shot at redemption his week. Their game is almost a mirror image to own, but everyone is giving them less of a chance to win. The Hoosiers have been about the only team worse than Purdue this season, so hopefully we can manage to get the bucket back where it belongs on November 22nd. The Hoosier defense has been non-existent and the offense almost as bad. I have a hard time seeing them pull this off.

Northwestern, meanwhile, gets another week to tune up for what could be a huge game with Minnesota next week. Advertisers may not like a Gopher-Wildcat showdown meaning big news in the Big Ten, but fans of parity (like myself) do. Tyrell Sutton should have little trouble getting going here. Northwestern will only struggle if their turnover problems from earlier in the season appear. A healthier Kellen Lewis at least gives Indiana the marginal threat of a running game, but not enough. Northwestern 38, Indiana 17

Illinois (4-3, 2-2) at Wisconsin (3-4, 0-4) Noon, ESPN or ESPN2

As part of our fading postseason hopes, I say go Illini. Part of the formula for a bowl game is getting as many teams in the conference as possible with seven losses so one of the Big Ten bowls has no choice but to take us. Illinois can help in that regard by beating a demoralized Badger team that seems to have given up on its season. If Wisconsin wins, we can likely forget about a bowl no matter what we do anyway because they will get to six wins and be a much more attractive choice.

Unfortunately, Jekyl and Hyde Illinois is in line for a Hyde week. Two weeks ago turnovers cost them an unexpected loss to Minnesota. Last week the Illini could do no wrong against Indiana. It is a matter of which team will show up. Illinois has not been good, especially defensively, away from Champaign. They have gone 0-2 and have surrendered a ton of points. Those games were against Missouri and Penn State though. What Wisconsin does is anyone’s guess. I say the Badger finally pull out a close one at home to stop the spiral. Wisconsin 20, Illinois 17

Michigan State (6-2, 3-1) at Michigan (2-5, 1-2) 3:30pm, ABC

This one could be quite delicious to watch. Michgian State is anxious to go into Ann arbor and silence the taunts of “Little Brother”. Michigan is probably not going to a bowl game, but short of ruining Ohio State’s title hopes at the end of the year they would love to have even more ammo in the “little Brother” debate by beating Michigan State. The Spartans also want to make amends for last week after Ohio State walked into their stadium, pulled their pants down, and spanked them in front of the most excite MSU crowd in years. It was worst than our blackout debacle against the Buckeyes a year ago.

On paper the Spartans should win handily. Crazy things happen in this rivalry though. Michigan State takes it more seriously than Michigan, and that is one of the reasons that “Little Brother” bugs Spartan fans so much. If Michigan pulls the upset I have hope that my tickets for the game up there in two weeks might be worth something. Basically, it is the annual “will Michigan state crumble” test. They passed it last year by crushing us in Ross-Ade, and I think they will pass it this year. Michigan State 30, Michigan 10.

#3 Penn State (8-0, 4-0) at #9 Ohio state (7-1, 4-0)

Abject terror are the words I would use to describe the thought of Terrelle Pryor playing in this conference for at least two more years. After what he did to a motivated Michigan State team in East Lansing last week I am sure I am not alone in thinking that. Ohio State has been at the top of the Big Ten mountain for several years now. If Penn State does not knock them off in Columbus Saturday night they will likely be on top for a long time to come. Even if they do, the Buckeyes won’t need a long time to get back.

If this game were in State College I would probably go with Penn State more readily. They are probably playing for more because win also means a clear path to a national championship game. I won’t even buy the argument a one loss Georgia team should get ahead of them. If Georgia was that interested in playing for the title ahead of another unbeaten team they should have beaten Alabama (of course, if they beat Alabama in the SEC title game that could be moot). I think Penn State has an edge because they are more balanced one both sides of the ball. I think that gives them an edge, but they won’t crush skulls as they have in the eight games to this point. They have the defense to slow the running game and make Pryor throw. Penn State 17, Ohio State 16

Quickie national picks:

#6 Oklahoma State at #1 Texas -
one team loses a shot at the national title until there are fewer than two unbeaten teams. Texas is at home, but if OK State pulls an upset it will be huge. Texas 31, Oklahoma State 24

#7 Georgia at #13 LSU -
See above, only each team already has one loss and is done at this point. I always go with the home team in the SEC. LSU17, Georgia 13

#8 Texas Tech at #23 Kansas -
The Red Raiders play a real team for once, and they get shocked on the road. Kansas 31, Texas Tech 30

GUEST BLOGGER: The Daily Gopher

I am celebrating this 300th post in OTT history by sitting on my butt and letting someone else take over. Tom over at the Daily Gopher approached me this week with some questions about the Boilers for our homecoming contest this Saturday. Tom does a great job of compiling the Big Ten bloggers' pick 'em standings each week. He is the former publisher of Gopher Nation, which joined with Paging Jim Shikenjanski to form the Daily Gopher over at SB Nation. Here is what Tom had to say about the Gophers, with his answers to my questions going up tomorrow morning. This is an excellent comment to yesterday's Minnesota preview.

Off the Tracks: 6-1 is certainly a departure from 1-11 last year. Are the Gophers way ahead of schedule by your perspective? Will things continue to grow from here?

The Daily Gopher: If the team can keep up with the growing expectations then this team will play in Pasadena sooner than even the most optimistic Gopher fan thought. Realistically though, this team is much further along than any of us imagined. In August I think most Gopher fans would have been pleased with 5 or 6 wins including a conference win or two. That would show improvement and would greatly aid in recruiting. It is amazing how expectations have changed over a couple months. At this point people will be disappointed if we don't get to eight wins.

Will things grow from here? Things are looking good. We start one senior (TE-Jack Simmons) on offense and just three on defense. Combine the return of nearly all of our impact players with the experience gained by this year's freshmen (a top 20 recruiting class) and things are looking up for Gopher football.

OTT: Much has been made of the difference in turnover ratios from last year to this year. How has the defense gotten that much better after being so awful?

TDG: There are a number of reasons why the defense is better. First of all Brewster added a few JUCO transfers who immediately brought a new level of athleticism and talent to the defense. Secondly there were two position changes that have had a significant impact on the defense. Most notably is the move of the former walk on, wide receiver Marcus Sherels to corner. Sherels is arguably our best cover corner and a undoubtedly an upgrade over anything we threw out there in 2007. Thirdly I think there is a comfort and confidence with this defense. They are no longer wondering about what to expect from Brewster and his new staff and can focus on their responsibilities. Then they had some early success which has given them a confidence they never had last season. I think that Ted Roof has been a great teacher and is the reason they are playing with this comfort and confidence.

OTT: Describe the maturation process of Adam Weber and the rest of the offense if you would please. Eskridge seems to have emerged as a very nice surprise in this.

TDG: This is once again all about being comfortable in the system and with the coaching staff. The 2007 offense was led by a r-freshman QB trying to learn a system that couldn't be more different than what was run the year before and they were adjusting to a brand new coaching staff. There were many quotes this August about how a year ago they spent their practices trying to figure out how to line up but now they are able to focus on execution. Brewster is fortunate that he inherited a QB who is capable and well suited for a spread offense, Rich Rod is facing the same issues as the 2007 Gopher offense but he is lacking a QB. Weber has matured and grown into the offense. He is is a rare sophomore captain who is leading the offense on and off the field.

Eskridge has been a pleasant surprise. He is dangerous out in space but isn't the kind of back who will wear down a defense. He is dangerous on screens and flares (Ed. note: great, we can't defend screens for ANYTHING!) but it is hard to get a good read on just how good he is because our offensive line has really struggled for much of the season and his holes have not been very big.

OTT: Seriously, what is Tim Brewster doing to lure such good recruits to Minneapolis? Is it the new stadium? Big City campus? Free bags of crack? j/k

I have no idea how he was able to get some of the recruits he did. First of all his positivity and infectious personality is contagious plus he worked at it very hard. He stated a year ago over and over that EVERYTHING they do was done to boost recruiting. The previous staff treated recruiting with disdain and routinely pointed out the challenges faced at Minnesota (Ed note: this refrain sounds familiar). Brewster constantly talked about the benefits of Minnesota, that attitude change had as much to do with the recruiting turnaround as anything else. The new stadium helped, but a year ago it was just a hole in the ground. The crack helped with the Florida kids. The Twin Cities helped a lot too. I think he was fortunate to get some good weather on key recruiting weekends so the Texas kids who thought it was winter up here year round.

OTT: Finally, how exciting is it to have a new stadium in the wings when no one else in the conference can come close to claiming such a feat (renovations don't count, everyone else)?

TDG: I can't even tell you how excited I am for the new stadium. I would bet you anything there is more atmosphere and electricity at an Indiana or Northwestern home game than there is for any Gopher game in the Metrodome. Having a stadium on campus will be a blast and be something that an entire generation of Gopher fans has not been able to experience. It will quickly become one of the toughest tickets in town. Which says a lot when you factor in the Wild, Gopher hockey and the Vikings.

It will continue to help with recruiting but most importantly it will be like the athletic department has won the lottery with the revenue it will produce. In their current metrodome lease they get only a portion of concession revenue and zero suite revenue. Starting next year they will get more money per seat and 100% of the revenue from suites and concessions. This will go a long way for the entire athletic department.

Quickie Boilermakings:
  • I got my basketball preview issue today and my tickets yesterday. Let's just say it is like waiting for a release from prison after what has happened this football season. I'll probably start working som more basketball stuff in here over the next couple of weeks. There will be more coverage than last year's last second discussion to move from football-centric coverage to Boiler-centric coverage.
  • Boilers hoping to keep foes guessing. Somehow I doubt we have beent hat confusing offensively. Boiled Sports, as usual, offers a better take. At least we won't have to worry about Kory Sheets talking to the media any longer. This seems kind of Ministry of Truth-esque if you ask me.
  • The women's soccer team is currently in 4th place in the Big Ten, but has a pair of huge games against Penn State and Ohio State in West Lafayette this weekend. Winning both will likely put them in the driver's seat for the Big Ten title.
  • The volleyball team continues to play well, but was swept by Illinois in Champaign last night. They are still a top 25 team at 16-5, 5-4 in the Big Ten and likely headed to the NCAA's. First place Penn State is also #1 in the country and has yet to lose a set on the year. They visit West Lafayette November 15th.
  • In a very cool gesture, the Bucs retired Mike Alstott's jersey last week. Alstott is probably my favorite Boilermaker short of Drew Brees. He was the one bright spot of the infamous Colletto years, and I have always wondered what kinds of teams we would have had if he had played in the early Colletto years. This is a great honor for a Boiler that may end up in Canton some day, and should be in South Bend for the college hall of fame.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Minnesota preview

This could be the week our streak against ranked teams ends. We get the gift of an unexpected game against a ranked team that we were expected to beat when the season started. Unfortunately, we are running out of must win games if we are going to make a bowl this season. I am well aware that it is delusion at this point, but I am not giving up on a bowl bid until it is no longer mathematically possible. I know this team is capable of reeling off four of the next five to sneak into some game, but it certainly doesn’t look like it will happen.

At least basketball practice has started.

Minnesota offense:

Lost in last season’s dismal 1-11 campaign was the fact that Minnesota’s offense really wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately, they often had score about 45 points in order to have even a chance at winning. This year it is more efficient. Northwestern has been careless with the ball and continued that trend somewhat last week. Minnesota gets the ball and keeps it until they score or punt. They don’t score an avalanche of points at just under 30 per game, but normally they win the time of possession battle simply by not turning it over. Minnesota has lost only 6 fumbles on the year and Adam Weber has thrown just two interceptions.

Weber has been the picture of that efficiency with good, but not overwhelming play from the quarterback position. He is completing nearly 68% of his passes and has 10 touchdowns against 1,624 yards. He averages only 230 yards through the air per game. As a runner he has been up and down. In terms of yards gained he is second on the team with 178 yards and two scores, but 131 of those yards have been erased do to tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He is not quite the running threat that Terrelle Pryor, any of the Oregon quarterbacks, or Daryl Clark is, but he is probably about on par with C.J. Bacher from last week.

That running game is not great, but it is steady at 129 yards per game. The loss of Duane Bennett was originally thought to be a major setback at the tailback position, but DeLeon Eskridge has emerged to be a very good back in his first season for the Gophers. Eskridge has 478 yards and seven touchdowns through seven games, but has been especially good lately with 124 yards and two scores against Illinois. He is also a weapon in the spread attack, ranking second on the team in receptions with 17 for 128 yards. Assisting him in the backfield is Shady Salamon (136 yards, 3 TD’s)

The receivers present us with, at least on paper, a simple task. If we can stop Eric Decker, the Minnesota offense will grind to a halt. Decker already has 59 catches for 782 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Big Ten in all categories. He has more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than the next four highest receivers combined for the Gophers. This means we actually must read a scouting report, make a defensive adjustment to cover him (possibly even double team him since he is a good receiver, you know) and force the Gophers to throw elsewhere. That means we pretty much have to do everything we flat out refused to do against Michigan State’s Devin Thomas last year.

The receiving numbers become even more skewed when you consider that Bennett with 12 catches for 125 yards and a score is currently fifth on the team despite having only played in two games. Jack Simmons (15-174-1), Ben Kuznia (17-155-0), and the aforementioned Eskridge are the other biggest threats, but they don’t even come close to Decker’s production. Even my low IQ can see that Decker is going to get the ball. We know Weber will be looking his way first 90% of the time. I know this, you know this, hell, DOGS know this. We must be prepared for this, and if we act like we are surprised he is getting the ball yet again as he goes for 20 receptions, 220 yards, and 3 scores I will be incredibly upset. On the other hand, obviously Minnesota is doing something right if they are 6-1 and he continues to stand out for more than 8 catches and 100+ yards per game.

The Minnesota offensive line is not as stout as Northwestern’s, giving up about 2 sacks per game. They also allow about 5 tackles per loss each time out. We should be able to generate some pressure, but it depends on if the Purdue defense vs. Ohio State shows up, or the Purdue defense against Notre Dame. The numbers that Minnesota puts up offensively shows me that if we can get a similar effort from our D that we got against the Buckeyes our chances of winning will greatly increase. They aren’t particularly flashy, but they are just an incredibly efficient attack.

Minnesota defense:

Simply put, the Gophers are just night and day better from last year. The Minnesota offense isn’t doing a whole lot better than a year ago, and may actually be a little worse in terms of production. Of course, those numbers could be down simply because it is not playing catch up every week, or moving because the defense couldn’t keep stop fast scoring drives. Everyone scored on Minnesota last year, including the freshman foreign exchange student in the band. This year the numbers are drastically better as the Gophers allow a modest 122 yards on the ground, 260 through the air, and 18.7 points per game. They have been outgained by their opponents, but the defense simply allows fewer points.

A large part of the explanation of giving up fewer points comes from the fact that the Gopher defense has become a den of thieves. They have intercepted opposing quarterbacks 10 times and recovered 10 fumbles. Combined with the offenses propensity to hold on to the football, that gives the Gophers a Big Ten leading +12 in turnover ratio. It is bad news because we tend to gain a lot of yards while not getting many points. We also turn the ball over, playing right into the hands of the Minnesota defense that gives up yards but not points and takes the ball away.

There is no true leader of the defense in terms of a tackling machine like we have seen in James Laurainaitis or anything like that. This is a very balanced, team-oriented group that sees a number of players get involved. Seven players have at least 30 tackles on the season, with none higher than Tramain Brock’s 42. Lee Campbell has stuffed the stat sheet a number of ways with 40 tackles and two each of sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries. We also need to watch out for Simoni Lawrence, who is a big play threat on defense. He has 2.5 sacks to with 31 tackles and seven pass breakups. He also has returned both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns.

Another reason Minnesota has gotten better is the development of a solid pass rush. They have 17 sacks on the season, and no one on the team is better at getting to the quarterback than defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg. He has 6.5 sacks on the season and has been a menace along the line by batting down passes. Quite frankly, he is one of the league’s better D-ends, and our beat up offensive line must be ready for him since Painter can’t run away. Eight players on the Minnesota roster have at least had a hand in a sack at one time or another, so VanDeSteeg is far from the only threat.

Much of the improvement has come in the Minnesota secondary. A year ago teams took turns burning an overmatched secondary like the LA riots of the early 90’s. This year players like Traye Simmons (2 INT’s, 25 breakups and passes defensed) are hounding opposing wide receivers into incompletions. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 56% of passes against the Gophers and have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

The Gophers are somewhat vulnerable to the running game. They give up 122 yards per game, and that is without having faced a really good rushing team other than Ohio State. The running game is the only area of the game where we are moving the ball with any regular success. Even then, we have one of the league’s better running backs, but we’re near the bottom of the conference in rushing as a team. Kory Sheets has carried more than his share this year, but he needs some help. It is blatantly obvious that the passing game is not working. To say it is not working because the running game hasn’t helped is ludicrous when Sheets is on pace for the best season ever from a Tiller back.

Minnesota Special Teams:

Like the rest of Minnesota’s teams, the Special Teams have been capable but not overwhelmingly spectacular. Joel Monroe has been an adequate kicker hitting 7 of 9 field goal attempts with a long of 42 yards. He is also 24 of 26 on extra points, so he’s not quite as automatic there as one would like. Still, he is far from a liability in the kicking game.

Minnesota has had to punt almost as much as it has forced opponents to punt, and that is a little more than five times per game. Justin Kucek is a pretty good punter at just a hair below a 42 yard average per kick. Opponents are only returning those punts at less than 8 yards per return, but it has been ages since we have had a threat to return a punt anyway. Minnesota has been pretty good at defending kickoffs, but they have given up a big return for a score. Remember, Desmond Tardy did burn them a year ago to start the game, so this may be a plus.

The Gophers’ own return game is slightly above average. Marcus Sherels is a dangerous punt returner at almost 12 yards per return. He has yet to break one for a score, but our coverage could let one slip at the wrong time like it did against the Oregon game. Troy Stoudamire is averaging a little more than 28 yards per kickoff return, but also has yet to break a big one. Since field position was such a large issue last week we cannot let these give the Gophers a short field like we did against Northwestern.

Final Thoughts:

If I were to use one word to describe the Gophers so far it would be the word adequate. There isn’t one thing that they do better than anyone else unless you count turnover management, but there isn’t a whole lot that they do really poorly. That is going to win you a lot of football games at this level. The opposite has been Purdue’s story this year. Of our five losses I think there is just one game in which another team simply asserted its will and flat out beat us. That was the Penn State game. Even then, we still played well and held the number three team in the country well below its scoring average. We still had plenty of mistakes in that game that kept us from having a chance.

Part of this comes from Minnesota’s level of competition. The two road wins are pretty good. They handled a good Illinois team in Champaign and throttled Bowling Green at home. A visit to a MAC stadium is always tricky, and Bowling Green did beat a pretty good Pittsburgh team to start the season. Outside of that, home wins against Indiana, Northern Illinois, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic aren’t exactly wins against college football’s elite. The point is that Minnesota has won those games where last year they may not have. They needed a late touchdown to beat Northern Illinois in the opener, and that ending seemed to give this team a ton of confidence.

Bowl eligibility is already locked up for them. Now they can play for positioning. With Ohio state already gone and no Penn State in sight the Gophers can actually think of a pretty good bowl game if they finish strong against some weaker teams. Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin remain after this game, and they certainly can win all four. If they do that and get some help, the gophers could end up in Pasadena this year as crazy as it sounds. All they need is two Ohio State losses and a Penn State loss. One of those three losses will happen this weekend.

What especially gives Minnesota an advantage is the aforementioned consistency and efficiency. They are doing that right now, while we are not. Nothing would really surprise me at this point. The defense could come in and throw a near shutout like it did in Columbus. Curtis Painter could remember, “Hey, I’ve thrown for 10,000 and maybe I should throw to receivers instead of over them or at their feet.” Kory Sheets could openly rebel against coach Tiller, shoving Painter out of the way and taking the snaps in a Wildcat formation on his way to a 250 yard game. What it really amounts to is that we have to change a large number of things in order to win, while Minnesota needs only to play its consistent style of play in order to win. That is the mark of a good football team, while ours is the mark of a bad one to put it in the simplest of terms.

Finally, the weather could be a factor. Minnesota has ventured out of the dome only twice this year, and played in perfect conditions both times. We played our best (against Oregon) in the worst conditions of the year. If it is windy and rainy we could see a mano-a-mano battle of Sheets vs. Eskridge. I would give the edge there to Sheets for now, but Eskridge has still been impressive.

Unfortunately, I feel like this team has ventured past the point of playing for anything. Many people commented how listless they looked last Saturday in Evanston. We got worked by an above average, but not great team when we should have at least competed. Minnesota is very similar to the Wildcats in that regard. The only common opponent we share so far is Ohio State. They couldn’t stop the Buckeye offense that day, but at least they moved the ball and scored points. Minnesota has even impressed some in defeat. We cannot say the same thing.

Saturday is one final chance to salvage something from this season. Even then, one win won’t totally turn things around. It will only start them. Right now, outside of a few individuals, everyone from the coaching staff on down doesn’t look interested in even starting a turnaround. On a team with this many seniors that is just sad, especially for homecoming. The official prediction will come in the Big Ten preview, but it likely won’t be favorable.