After suffering its first loss of the season, Northwestern moves to 5-1, with a chance to secure its second Big Ten win at Minnesota next week. Check out our final thoughts on the Wildcats’ win, our look around the Big Ten and our preview of next week.
Final Thoughts on Northwestern's 39-28 Loss to Penn State
Pressuring the quarterback is paramount for this defense
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The gameplan Bill O’Brien manufactured to attack Northwestern was brilliant, and Penn State executed it to perfection. After watching the Wildcats get burned on screen passes and short crossing routes in weeks 1-5, he implemented a number of similar plays. NU was powerless against this dink-and-dunk strategy, unable to make in-game adjustments and figure out a way to eliminate their biggest defensive weakness to date. Lions quarterback Matt McGloin flinged short passes to open receivers, which – thanks to NU’s relaxed coverage – found room to pick up yards after the catch. The Wildcats were reluctant to use press coverage, and it cost them. It was a long day for the defense, and with each screen and completed short pass, you started to get the feeling they’d never get off the field.
The secondary certainly deserves part of the blame for yesterday’s poor showing, but the genesis of the problem falls on the defensive line for not getting consistent pressure on McGloin. The Wildcats recorded two sacks, but both came after McGloin had already surveyed the field, found no receivers open and simply gave himself up rather than risk a dangerous pass. NU didn’t earn those sacks as much as McGloin simply fell into them. There was much talk this offseason about an improved defensive line, particularly the defensive ends. That unit had exceeded expectations throughout most of the season, which covered up some of the problems in other areas of the defense. But the battle in the trenches was a lost cause against Penn State. That is not a formula for success going forward.
Get Colter and Mark involved
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
When Trevor Siemian came in on Northwestern's last drive, the result seemed all but certain. Siemian had a rough game and could never get anything going against the Penn State defense, so why would he suddenly find success on the final drive? This wasn't Syracuse, Vanderbilt or Boston College, and NU found that out the hard way. The Wildcats' game plan was puzzling, to say the least. Kain Colter didn't throw the ball, but after leading a successful drive, he was pulled in favor of Siemian, as NU's arbitrary switching of quarterbacks continued. Colter admitted he was "surprised" at how small of a part he played in the game plan, and I think everyone was. It's stunning that the team's best player isn't touching the ball on nearly every play, be it at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. NU took the game out of the hands of it's best player — that's why the Cats lost.
Without Colter in the game, the offense is extremely limited. Not only can Colter run the ball well and execute the zone read to perfection, but he also is a good thrower. For some reason, NU fans are set on the fact that Siemian is a better passer than Colter, and while that may be marginally true, it's not close to a big enough difference for NU to be playing Siemian more at quarterback. Colter can make throws — Siemian sure wasn't making them on Saturday – but he can also make things happen when plays seem broken. That's invaluable to an offense. Mark is also better off when Colter is in at quarterbacks, as the defense has to key in on two rushers, making the zone read even more effective.
Get Colter more involved, and in turn, bolster Mark's game. This offense has the be potential to be extremely versatile, but it's holding itself back.
Around the Big Ten
Well, this is awkward…
by Chris Johnson
When Ohio State’s impermissible benefits scandal broke last December, and damaging details leaked out in ensuing months – a process that culminated in former coach Jim Tressel’s firing – there were legitimate questions raised about why the Buckeyes didn’t self-impose a postseason ban last season. OSU finished 6-6 with interim coach Luke Fickell, and faced new head coach Urban Meyer’s former team, Florida, in the Gator Bowl. By OSU’s lofty standards, 2011 was a disappointing season with a disappointing postseason destination. The Buckeyes didn’t need to play in that bowl game. It would have made more sense to skip the postseason and clear the decks for Meyer’s new era, to give the new coach a motivational tool with which to inaugurate his extensive program-building plan. Had the Buckeyes recused themselves from a bowl game last season, the NCAA, which included a one-year postseason ban as part of its own punishment for the “Tattoos-for-swag” arrangement, may have allowed OSU to play in a bowl this season.
Based on how the rest of the Big Ten has looked so far this season, OSU would have been well on its way to Pasadena, or perhaps something greater. The Buckeyes trounced the one Big Ten team with credible designs on a Rose Bowl run who hadn’t completely embarrassed itself in nonconference play. It’s 63-38 victory over Nebraska was impressive on so many levels, none more striking than quarterback Braxton Miller’s dual-threat explosiveness. Ohio State’s postseason ineligibility may impede his Heisman campaign, but Miller is as strong a candidate as any this side of Geno Smith. He leads a dangerous Buckeyes team who will be favored in every game they play from here on out. If they finish the season undefeated, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will face the unfortunate predicament of keeping his league’s best team at home, while sending a mediocre Michigan State or Wisconsin or Michigan or Nebraska to get embarrassed by the Pac-12’s Rose Bowl participant.
Bill O'Brien for coach of the year
by Kevin Trahan
At this point in the season, the Big Ten Coach of the Year race has already been decided, and it goes to the coach whose team was left for dead by the NCAA and now has a 2-0 record in Big Ten play and sits on top of the Leaders Division. What Bill O'Brien has done with Penn State has been nothing short of amazing. He lost his first two games — one at home to Ohio and the other on the road to Virginia — but has since won four straight and got a solid win on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions lost their star running back and their kicker. This team has very little depth and is forced to go for it on most fourth downs in enemy territory because it doesn't have a reliable kicker. Yet O'Brien's team is clicking on all cylinders. Perhaps the most impressive part of O'Brien's coaching this season is how well he has managed quarterback Matt McGloin. McGloin is clearly lacking the talent of a typical Big Ten quarterback, and he struggled in his first two years. However, O'Brien has masterfully developed a game plan around short, easy throws that don't ask McGloin to do too much. Combine that with a solid running back committee, the development of receiver Allen Robinson and a stout-as-usual defense, and O'Brien has a legitimate Leaders Division contender in State College, especially with Wisconsin and Ohio State both visiting. Don't look now, but this could be one of the top two teams in the Big Ten.
Around the Big Ten: Recapping the week's biggest games
by Kevin Trahan
No. 12 Ohio State 63, No. 21 Nebraska 38 — Remember when everyone was picking Nebraska to go to the Rose Bowl last week? Honestly, in the current state of the conference, that's still a possibly, but Nebraska's defense was exposed again on the big stage, as the Cornhuskers gave up 60 points for the second time this season. The Huskers can move the ball well, but in a league full of good offenses, they may end up getting in a lot of shootouts, and considering coach Bo Pelini's offensive style, it may be hard for them to keep up. Meanwhile, Ohio State looks likely far the best team in the Big Ten and could potentially run the table.
Michigan State 31, Indiana 27 — The Hoosiers went out early and held a lead until they were outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter. Michigan State escaped with the win, but this team clearly isn't what many expected it to be this year. The Spartans' offensive struggles continued against a brutal Indiana defense and the MSU defense even looked susceptible against a respectable, but not great, offense. The Spartans can still win the division and go to the Rose Bowl because, well, anyone can. But this Saturday's game against Iowa will help us learn a lot about both teams.
Michigan 44, Purdue 13 — I was cautious to praise Purdue too early and Saturday showed why. The Boilermakers are clearly not ready for the big stage after being stomped at home by Michigan. Next week's game against Wisconsin will all but decide the Leaders Division, so Purdue still has a lot to play for. However, the Boilers have some major holes in their defense to work out and they have to get the offense clicking in order to beat a struggling, yet still formidable Wisconsin team. And how about Michigan? The Wolverines are 3-2, but those two losses came to two of the 10 best teams in the country – Alabama and Notre Dame — the latter of which they almost pulled out on the road. At this point, Michigan might be the best team in the Legends Division.
Around the Big Ten: Looking Ahead
by Chris Johnson
Wisconsin at Purdue – Since Ohio State and Penn State don’t qualify for the Big Ten Championship game, it’s up to Purdue (or some other Leaders Division team) to steal Wisconsin’s bid to Indianapolis. It seemed unfathomable that the Badgers wouldn’t qualify for the Championship game this season. Now that Bret Bielema’s squad has clearly proven less formidable than advertised, the Boilermakers have a legitimate chance to steal the division crown. Beating the Badgers at home is crucial if Purdue hopes to realize that goal. After getting waxed at Ross-Ade stadium by Michigan, Danny Hope needs his team to rebound in a big way. Wisconsin’s win against Illinois, judging by the scoreboard (31-17), looked like a blow out. It wasn’t. The Badgers’ are not back-to-back Rose Bowl juggernaut we all came to know the past two seasons. Wisconsin is vulnerable, and Purdue needs to seize the moment.
Northwestern at Minnesota – If Minnesota plans on reaching its first bowl game in three seasons, beating Northwestern at home is critical. What’s also critical, according to head coach Jerry Kill, is the return of injured quarterback Marqueis Gray, not just for the versatility and explosiveness he brings to the offense but so that heralded freshman quarterback Philip Nelson can save his redshirt. Gray is a dynamic player who can singlehandedly change the course of games if not defended properly. His return would require a massive gameplan adjustment for the Wildcats. Whether or not Gray suits up, this is an important divisional showdown for both teams. If NU wins, it’s guaranteed a fifth consecutive bowl game. If Minnesota wins, it will need just one more victory to secure that same outcome.
Illinois at (25) Michigan – Coaching changes are always tough. There are new schemes, philosophies and instructional practices that need to be reconciled with the old coaches’ recruits. The early going is usually rough. Appreciable changes often don’t emerge until two or three years into the new coach’s tenure. New Illini boss Tim Beckman has bottomed out, and he’s only coached six games, two of them against Big Ten competition. Illinois has loads of talent, especially on defense, which makes its awful start even more maddening. It won’t get any easier at Ann Arbor next week, where an improving Michigan team will be looking to strengthen its position in the Legends Division title race. Illinois, unless it can reverse this nightmarish downslide, will not be a factor in that race.