Friday, October 21, 2005

Some mid-October rumblings...

College football hits the midpoint of its season this week, and as usual, things have been as wild as ever. Last Saturday featured some of the most fantastic finishes you'll see on any gridiron, including three wild Big Ten games that were decided within the last two minutes and another, Ohio State-Michigan State, that the Buckeyes won despite not running 1 PLAY! in Michigan State territory until under six minutes remained in the game. Ridiculous.

Penn State had a chance to take a chokehold on the conference with a win at Michigan, but playing a Charmin Ultra defense and having to deal with some corrupt officiating for their second Big House visit in a row, the Nittany Lions lost, 27-25 on the last play of the game. Hats off to Michigan for playing a tough game, but if the Big Ten is going to continue to be the pioneers of instant replay they claim to be, then use it.

Nonetheless, it's on to Week 5 in conference play. First off, here are the current Big Ten power rankings.

1. Penn State
2. Ohio State
3. Wisconsin
4. Michigan State
5. Iowa
6. Minnesota
7. Michigan
8. Northwestern
9. Indiana
10. Purdue
11. Illinois

Teams 3-8 could realistically be flip-flopped in almost any order and it wouldn't be outlandish. Though Michigan will have a firm grasp on 8th place if they lose to Iowa this weekend. Purdue is an absolute disgrace considering some folks thought they were a preseason top 10 team. Indiana has shown improvement but still isn't more than a bottom-tier team in the league for now. And Illinois has been awful since conference play started.

Now, to the matchups.

IOWA (-2.5) over Michigan:
Iowa has a 22-game winning streak at home. Michigan should be sky-high after its last second heroics against Penn State. Michigan will also have to deal with Iowa's visiting pink locker rooms, which seem to have scared off the last 22 teams that have used them for the afternoon. At this point, it's safe to say we know less about Iowa than any other Big Ten team. They got smoked at Ohio State and have handled the three bottom-feeders with ease.
Pick: Iowa 30, Michigan 24

INDIANA (+16) over Ohio State:
Indiana has at least shown signs of competitiveness in its first season under Terry Hoeppner. Ohio State looked awful for most of the Michigan State game, and that was preceded by looking absolutely awful in Happy Valley for 60 minutes (save for one drive). Ohio State shouldn't have much to get up for in this one, and may in fact be looking ahead to a toughie at Minnesota next week. If the Buckeyes can't get their offense going in Bloomington, they may never get it going. But 16 points is just too much for a team this offensively challeneged.
Pick: Ohio State 27, Indiana 14

Northwestern (+12.5) over MICHIGAN STATE:
How this line is so big is a mystery to me. Northwestern has been one of the league's pleasant surprises, and Michigan State continues to be a mystery. Still, Michigan State's offense is prolific enough that the Spartans could win the league. This game will be extremely high-scoring and it may come down to whichever defense can come up with any sort of stop. A must-win for MSU to remain in the conference title race. Look for about 800 yards passing combined between Brett Basanaez and Drew Stanton.
Pick: Michigan State 48, Northwestern 38

Purdue (+7.5) over WISCONSIN:
No logical reason behind this one, other than Purdue is "due" to play well. While they're not the top 10 program some may have thought, they still have too much talent to go 2-5. Or do they? Wisconsin is playing over its heads and is coming off a miraculous last-minute win in Minneapolis last week. Still, it will be awfully tough for the Boilers to win this one in Madison. Purdue owes Wisconsin a little bit of payback for a heartbreaking loss last year in West Lafayette, and will be primed to play.
Pick: Wisconsin 33, Purdue 28

ILLINOIS (+18) over Penn State:
Same situation as the OSU-Indiana game. Penn State's offense, particularly now that they're missing Derrick Williams, is not good enough to trust as 18-point favorites on the road. This is Illinois' homecoming and would make their season, plain and simple, if they could pull the upset. Penn State has fallen apart in recent years after heartbreaking losses, most notably in 1999, the last time they were undefeated in October. It will say a lot about the Nittany Lions' mental toughness if they can come into Champaign and pound a hungry Illinois team.
Pick: Penn State 31, Illinois 16

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Doesn't get much bigger than this

As a Penn State alumnus who attended school from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2004, I was in State College for some lean years on the gridiron. Growing up a Nittany Lion fan, I came to expect nothing but the best out of Joe Paterno's teams year in and year out, and while, as a whole, everything following the undefeated 1994 season until the end of the decade was a bit of a letdown, the team would still win nine or 10 games each year.

Then, Nov. 6, 1999 happened. The 1999 team was in many ways the inverse of the offensively superior 1994 squad - a dominant defense to go with a more-than-capable, if unspectacular offense. The only problem was that for one windy November afternoon, Penn State let Minnesota hang around just a bit too long, and it bit them after a game-winning field goal as time expired, following a miraculous fourth-down completion via a deflection. Tom Brady and Michigan came to town the following week and won, and the season ended with a blowout loss at Michigan State. They salvaged something with an Alamo Bowl win over Texas A&M, but those dreams of a national championship had been blown up two months before that day.

2000 began with a 29-5 Kickoff Classic loss to an awful, non-bowlgoing, pre-Pete Carroll USC team, followed by a 24-6 home loss to Toledo ... Penn State's first such trip-up to a MAC team, and really that game that sounded the alarm in Happy Valley.

From there, the unthinkable happened - a season without a bowl game to look forward to. It continued in 2001, though Joe Paterno's record-breaking 324th victory, a come-from-behind thriller over Ohio State, brought some solace to a 5-6 campaign.

2002 seemingly began a turnaround, as the team went 9-4 and could have easily been at least 12-1 had the Lions had a couple plays (and one very incorrect call) go their way. But that team's core was almost solely comprised of seniors, and in some dark recruiting times, 2003 began with the cupboard mostly bare yet again.

The wheels fell off again, as the team went 3-9, thus ending my tenure as a student with a 22-26 record and one disturbingly ugly bowl game defeat.

Last year was more of the same, with the team sporting a slightly improved 4-7 record but having an offense so bad, it once was outscored 4-0 by its own defense in a sickening 6-4 setback to Iowa.

And then, something happened.

On Dec. 22, 2004, Derrick Williams committed to "The University of Penn State." So he was an 18-year-old kid, probably nervous in front of a national audience on ESPNEWS ... no one in State College cared, because "UPS" had landed the No. 1 recruit in the nation.

Much like the real UPS, Joe Paterno had delivered once again.

Justin King was already on board. Two warm bodies with speed the Nittany Lions had previously only seen in the form of Ronnie Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. streaking past their defense. Two difference makers.

Throw in Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, who had spent 2004 in a redshirt and grayshirt respectively, and Penn State had an infusion of young talent and speed at wideout. Hell, this was a university that hadn't seen a legitimate threat to catch more than a 10-yard pass since Bryant Johnson graduated in 2002.

Five wins in 2005 later, and here we are: an undefeated Penn State team playing at home against what, to me at least, a lifelong Ohioan, is an anguishingly despicable Ohio State program coached by Mr. Rogers Jr., Jim Tressel. Only thing is, Mr. Rogers wouldn't have looked the other way if a cat was taking milk from a booster, or worse yet, being skinned in front of his eyes ... but that's neither here nor there.

To borrow from the inimitable Bill Simmons, let's break this under-the-lights, prime time spectacular down Dr. Jack-style.

Troy Smith (OSU) vs. Michael Robinson (PSU):
Robinson is a fifth-year senior who is playing quarterback full-time for the first time. It's been a mixed bag of results: he's 5-0 but he's turned the ball over eight times, including four times in a half against Northwestern. He really came into his own against Minnesota last week when he ran the ball, which is where he's clearly at his best. Smith is a junior who only now knows he's the guy in Jim Tressel's offense, but if he struggles in Happy Valley, don't think it will stay that way for long with Justin Zwick on the bench. Then again, Tressel lost the Buckeyes their game against Texas because he couldn't stick with one or the other. Smith is also an excellent runner, and is a SLIGHTLY more polished passer than Robinson. Robinson throws the deep ball better; Smith has more touch on shorter passes.
EDGE: Even

Running back:
Antonio Pittman (OSU) vs. Tony Hunt (PSU):
When Big Ten running back discussions take place, every conversation starts and ends with Laurence Maroney, as it should. But last I checked, Mr. Maroney ran for 48 yards last week while Hunt gained over 100. Hunt is a big, powerful back who is light on his feet and can make people miss, and is one of the most underrated players in the conference. Similarly underrated is the 5'11", 195-pound Pittman, who emerged last year when the Buckeyes realized that Maurice Hall was more of a gargoyle than a tailback. Pittman is smaller but is very shifty and has a nose for hitting the hole at precisely the right moment.
EDGE: Penn State

Wide receiver:
Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez, Ted Ginn Jr., Roy Hall, etc. (OSU) vs. Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Justin King, etc. (PSU):
A year ago, this would have been more of a mismatch than Texas Tech and one of the all girls' high schools the Red Raiders call a non-conference game. Penn State had Mark Rubin, who emerged as a moderate possession receiver, and a bunch of kids whose position had changed more times than George W. Bush had mispronounced the word "nuclear." Now, it's at least up for discussion. While the Buckeyes may have the best receiving corps in the country, Penn State has, potentially, its best group since 1994. Holmes will be the best receiver on the field Saturday, and would still be the best even if Ted Ginn wasn't serving as a "decoy," as some seem to think. Frankly, Holmes is just that good. Butler has been Penn State's best receiver thus far, and is the most viable deep threat. Ginn, Williams and King are all more effective at this point getting the ball on gadget plays and utilizing their superior speed to make defenders miss. Gonzalez has emerged as Smith's No. 2 target and has responded rather well, while Norwood was Robinson's go-to guy for a large portion of the Northwestern game. These two groups have easily the most talent that will be on the field during a Big Ten conference game this season, though OSU has a major edge in experience.
EDGE: Ohio State

Offensive line:
Doug Datish, Rob Sims, Nick Mangold, T.J. Downing, Kirk Barton (OSU) vs. Levi Brown, Charles Rush, E.Z. Smith, Tyler Reed, John Wilson (PSU):
Neither offensive line is anywhere near as dominant as both programs have come to expect over the years. Mangold may be the best of the bunch, and he paves the way for the Ohio State ground game up the middle. Rob Sims is no slouch either. The right side of the line, with Downing and Barton, is the place to attack. Penn State's line was porous last year and looked average through the season's first four games, particularly at Northwestern when anyone thrown out there was being pushed back into Robinson's face. That said, the group rebounded to absolutely tear through Minnesota, paving the way for 100-yard rushing days from Hunt and Robinson. Brown is a solid player at left tackle, and Smith and Reed are effective in the middle. Rush is up and down and Wilson is not good.
EDGE: Even

Tight end:
Ryan Hamby (OSU) vs. Isaac Smolko (PSU):
Hamby is a better receiving tight end than Smolko and is utilized more often in the passing game. Smolko is the better blocker and can be counted on if needed to make a big catch here or there. Will often get wide open only to find Robinson looking for anyone but him.
EDGE: Ohio State

Defensive line:
David Patterson, Marcus Green, Quinn Pitcock and Mike Kudla (OSU) vs. Tamba Hali, Jay Alford, Scott Paxson and Matthew Rice (PSU):
Both solid groups but much like their counterparts on the offensive line, not quite as intimidating as some of what we've seen from these schools over the years. No Courtney Browns or Will Smiths in the group, but lots of toughness throughout. Kudla has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble and Pitcock led the defensive line in tackles last year ... Patterson and Green are relatively unspectacular. Hali is the best of the bunch for Penn State talent-wise, though Paxson gets the most out of what talent he has, and he is, quite frankly, a behemoth in the middle. Rice is quick and Alford is turning into a quality tackle.
EDGE: Penn State

Anthony Schlegel, A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter (OSU) vs. Tim Shaw, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny (PSU):
Two of the very elite groups in the country. Hawk is an All-American to the tee and Carpenter is nearly as good. Schlegel doesn't get the glory the other two do, but he's no slouch either. Connor should be back in the lineup for good after missing the first three games due to suspension. Posluszny may turn out to be every bit the player Hawk is by his senior season and Shaw has gained a reputation as a big hitter. You couldn't go wrong going into battle with either of these groups, but OSU's threesome is more experienced and better in coverage as a whole.
EDGE: Ohio State

Ashton Youboty, Tyler Everett, Nate Salley and Donte Whitner (OSU) vs. Alan Zemaitis, Anwar Phillips, Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry (PSU):
Yet another reason why these are two of the better defenses in the nation. Penn State's starters are all seniors, and Zemaitis is the best of the bunch. While he doesn't appear to be a true shutdown corner in some people's eyes, he doesn't have to be, because he is rarely challenged by opposing QBs. Phillips is more athletic but doesn't quite have the football instincts of Zemaitis. Harrell and Lowry are solid center-fielders and Harrell especially isn't afraid to the lay the wood. Youboty has blossomed into a nice player and is a likely future first-round draft pick, but he is not quite as reliable as Zemaitis. Everett is impressive as well but isn't the true corner that Youboty is. Salley is a safety to be feared in the secondary and is the best hitter of the bunch for either team, while Whitner may be the most athletic of the group, a safety who was formerly a cornerback.
EDGE: Even

Special teams:
KR Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr., PR Ginn; K Josh Huston and P A.J. Trapasso (OSU) vs. KR Derrick Williams and Justin King, PR Calvin Lowry; K Kevin Kelly and P Jeremy Kapinos (PSU):
Speed, speed and more speed. Four of the fastest players you'll find make for a strong possibility that a game this close could be decided on special teams. Then you throw in Calvin Lowry, who has as much business returning punts as Weird Al Yankovic has being nominated for a Grammy. The only borderline logical explanation for his returning kicks is that Paterno simply wants a safe choice who he can trust to hang onto the ball ... only problem is, Lowry fumbled more in the last two years than a greased-up Tony Banks or Kurt Warner. Ginn is the man to watch ... he has yet to get going this season but is too talented to avoid the endzone much longer. If you're interested in gambling, call up the MGM Grand and see what kind of odds you can get on Calvin Lowry scoring on special teams before the aforementioned fantastic four. Huston is no Mike Nugent but he's awfully good and Kevin Kelly is 8-for-10 for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman, including a 47-yarder last week.
EDGE: Ohio State

Jim Tressel (OSU) vs. Joe Paterno (PSU):
Yes, Jim Tressel won a national championship three years ago, and yes, Joe Paterno has had four losing seasons in five autumns in State College. But if there's one thing that can be taken away from watching this team in the new millenium, it's that even though his teams may not have 1/3 of the talent that some of the teams in the mid-80s or mid-90s had, Paterno isn't afraid to try things. First the shotgun, then the option and now the spread offense. Meanwhile, Tressel continues to play things as close to the (sweater) vest as possible for a Division I college coach with national title aspirations. Yes, he accomplished in three seasons what John Cooper couldn't do in 13, but if someone tells you Tressel is full utilizing all his talen, he's drunk or lying. The difference now for Paterno is that while he's still trying innovative things, he now has some true talent to help run things. Certainly Galen Hall, Penn State's offensive coordinator, deserves a large portion of that credit, but it's as if Paterno is living on borrowed time and he knows it. He's recognized that going out with a bang, even if it's not the Rose Bowl peg he'd like to hang it up on, is a hell of a lot better than three yards and a cloud of dust. He understands that college football has changed and he has to change, grudgingly or not, along with it.

Tressel is a wonderful college football coach who seems to have his teams as well-prepared as possible most Saturdays for what they're about to face. But the Texas game showed the nation that he doesn't always have it together when it comes to making adjustments within the context of a game. Outside of Ryan Hamby having about 13 chances to bring one simple Troy Smith pass down in the end zone, Tressel's coaching was the primary reason Ohio State didn't walk away winners that night in Columbus. He didn't adjust to Vince Young's success throwing the ball to take away the pass and he didn't settle on one quarterback or get Antonio Pittman as involved as he could have. And Ginn has really been nowhere to be found through four games. Of course, all that could change this week. But, as of yet, it hasn't.
EDGE: Penn State

After 23 years of obsessive fanatacism following sports, I've learned two things: when you think you're right, you're wrong, and when you get too excited about your team, bad things happen. Both reasons typically preclude me from picking games in which I have more than a vested rooting interest.

With that said, all things considered, Ohio State should win the game 20-16. They will strike once on special teams, once through the air, and Josh Huston will boot two field goals. Penn State will have a chance late in the game, but a late fumble from Michael Robinson will prove too much to overcome.

Just remember ... I've been wrong before.