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BT Blast: Spartans Need A Win

Welcome to Big Ten Blast!

Andrew Maxwell and the Spartans need a win to qualify for a bowl

This will be a regular weekly column where we will provide some news and notes from around the conference.

We are down to the final weekend of the 2012 regular season. That means we will have a handful of rivalry games in the Big Ten. And we will also find out who will face Wisconsin in the second annual Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.

The race for that Legends Division spot is very simple. If Nebraska defeats host Iowa on Friday, then the Huskers will be headed to Indy. But if Nebraska loses, it would open the door for Michigan to go if the Wolverines can defeat rival Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday. If both teams win or both teams lose, Nebraska holds the tiebreaker with a head-to-head win over Michigan.

Aside from the on-the-field action, the overriding topic around the conference this week was expansion with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten.

Below, we will look at each of the six final weekend games and also have comments from various Big Ten coaches on expansion. Stay tuned later this week for our All-Big Ten team.

Here goes this week’s Big Ten Blast:

Michigan (20) at Ohio State (6)

Michigan (8-3, 6-1) and Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) will meet in the 109th reincarnation of The Game in Columbus. Michigan leads the all-time series at 58-44-6.

Last year’s 40-34 win for Michigan at home snapped OSU’s seven-game winning streak in the rivalry. Michigan will be going for back-to-back wins over OSU for the first time since 1999-2000. OSU has won nine of the last 11 meetings and will be going for a sixth straight home win over UM.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said it is difficult to emulate OSU dual threat quarterback Braxton Miller in practice.

“I don’t think we can ever find a guy that can give us the kind of look your going to get with Braxton and his athleticism and maturity,” Hoke said. “He has played a lot of football. That’s hard to find when you’re trying to replicate that. He is surrounded by a good cast as well.

“You look at the execution. Whether it’s the jet read or the zone read or making the good decision and maybe not throwing a football, I’m sure the coaches have to be happy with what he’s done at the line of scrimmage and get them in and out of plays.”

Hoke’s UM defense, maligned over the past several years, is No. 1 nationally against the pass (152.1 yards per game).

“I wish I could tell you what is responsible because we don’t get much pressure on the quarterback and we don’t have many sacks,” Hoke said. “Maybe people are running the ball and feel better doing that. Last week, we played terrible rush defense so maybe I’d feel good doing that as well.”

Ohio State will be attempting to become just the sixth team in the 123-year history of OSU football to finish a season unbeaten and untied. Hoke was an assistant on UM’s 1997 national championship team, which brought an unbeaten record to The Game and prevailed 20-14.

“I’ve been on that side before,” Hoke said. “I think you just go prepare your team. There is enough enthusiasm and fun in this week as you prepare because of the great respect you have for each other. We’re just worried about making sure we’re prepared and we have a great plan for our kids to play their best football.”

With Denard Robinson nursing an injured shoulder, Devin Gardner has started UM’s last three games at quarterback. In last Saturday’s 42-17 win over Iowa, Gardner threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for three scores.

“When you look at Devin’s maturity, I think playing receiver and being a part of that group and the mental part of the game from routes and coverages, I think that was something that helped him as a quarterback,” Hoke said. “Devin is one of those guys who loves to watch tape and learn. I think Al Borges has done a great job with him.”

OSU coach Urban Meyer offered a quick scouting report of UM. He expects both Gardner and Robinson (who took 13 carries for 98 yards as a running back last week) to play against the Buckeyes.

“Number one on offense, they are dynamic with those two quarterbacks in there right now,” Meyer said. “Those coaches are good coaches. They will be creative and we know something is coming with double passes. You have to be careful with how you defend them.

“I know their coordinator very well. I know they will run to the ball. They have good players who are relentless and run to the ball. That’s what gives us an issue on defense.”

OSU will bid farewell to 21 seniors with this final home game. Meyer credits them with helping him establish his new program.

“It is an incredible group,” he said. “They had blind faith when they did some things we asked them to do. They were told they’d be ineligible for a bowl game and they had a free pass to go anywhere they wanted to go. To a man, they stayed, they improved and had their best year of football.

“What they’ve done – I know this is a very proud tradition here at Ohio State – but if they find a way to win this last game, they should go down as one of the great senior classes of all time.”

Meyer, an Ashtabula, Ohio, native, was a graduate assistant for Earle Bruce at OSU in 1986-87. He desperately wants to be a winner in his first taste of this rivalry as a head coach.

“It means everything from a person who grew up here and understands the rivalry and respects the rivalry,” Meyer said. “The thing I understand is the incredible obligation and responsibility we have to get this team ready to go.”

After the win at Wisconsin, Ohio State moved up two spots to fourth in this week’s AP poll. Click here for more Ohio State coverage from Bucknuts.com.

After the win over Iowa, Michigan moved up from 23rd to 20th in the AP poll. Click here for more coverage of Michigan from Wolverine 247.

Nebraska (17) at Iowa

Nebraska (9-2, 6-1) can clinch the Legends Division slot in the title game with a win at Iowa (4-7, 2-5) in the Heroes Game rivalry. Nebraska leads the all-time series 27-12-3 and won their first-ever Big Ten meeting with Iowa 20-7 in Lincoln last year.

The Huskers have a chance to join Penn State as schools that won the conference in their second season in the Big Ten. Penn State did it in 1994.

“We have a lot of respect for all the teams we have played,” said NU coach Bo Pelini. “You learn a lot in year two that you probably didn’t know in year one. It takes a few years to get up to speed and the type of teams you’re going to play.

“We have had a lot of transition in our program, leaving a conference and joining a conference. I think our guys have handled it well. At the end of the day, we just concentrate on improving every day and putting ourselves to win enough games to get into a championship game.”

Pelini talked about the dynamics of playing a game on Friday instead of Saturday.

“We’ve been through this before,” he said. “We had shorter weeks when we were in the Big 12 when we would play Colorado on Friday. We played (Iowa) in it last year. I think we have a good recipe. It’s more of a mental week. You don’t want to beat your guys down physically.

“We’ll be traveling on Thanksgiving Day. We will have a Thanksgiving dinner for the team Wednesday night. It will be business as usual on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of holidays in sports, especially when you are playing the day after.”

At Iowa, Kirk Ferentz eliminated Monday’s typical off day and his Hawkeyes got to work on Nebraska. At 4-7 overall, Iowa was dropped from bowl consideration after last week’s loss at Michigan.

“It’s the same as it would be if we were undefeated or if we hadn’t won a game,” Ferentz said. “We will do our best to get ready, knowing we are playing a good team. We are very impressed with them.

“I think we are all excited to have an opportunity to play a good football team. I think the players are excited about playing this week. Nebraska is playing a good team that is having a tremendous season. They are playing well in all three phases. They are well coached and playing at a high level right now.”

The Nebraska-Iowa series matches border rivals who have played sporadically in the past. Ferentz thinks it has the potential to be a good rivalry for the Big Ten in the years to come.

“We are border rivals,” he said. “It’s not quite like the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. But I think there is some attractiveness and the expansion definitely impacted us. It made perfect sense. It should grow into a great series.”

After the win over Minnesota, Nebraska moved down one spot in the AP poll to No. 17. The Huskers are also 14th in this week’s BCS rankings. Click here for more coverage from Huskers Illustrated.

Click here for coverage of Iowa athletics from Voice of The Hawkeyes.

Indiana at Purdue

Purdue (5-6, 2-5) hosts Indiana (4-7, 2-5) for the teams’ 115th meeting on Saturday with the Old Oaken Bucket up for grabs. The bucket has been awarded annually since 1925, with Purdue holding a 57-27-3 advantage with the trophy at stake.

Just as important for Purdue, which has won two in a row on the road over Iowa (27-24) and Illinois (20-17) is the chance to get to a bowl game for the second year in a row with a win.

“I am proud of the way our team has bounced back,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “To have a chance to wrap it up and get another win and get into postseason play, that would be something we have talked about and worked hard for. There was some rough sledding at the middle of the season. Hat’s off to our players for being able to manufacture some wins.

“It would be great to get a win and get into postseason play for the second year in a row.”

Purdue’s late-season improvement has coincided with Robert Marve replacing Caleb TerBush at quarterback. A fifth-year senior and former Miami transfer, Marve is completing a robust 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,174 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions this year.

“Everyone is rallying around Robert,” Hope said. “It is easy to do. He has a passion for the game and he has taken his game to a whole another level. He’s had some unfortunate circumstances in his career. He is inspirational to us all and he’s playing pretty well right now.”

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson will say goodbye to a small senior class that has helped bring the Hoosiers back to respectability after a 1-11 finish last year.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Wilson said. “We have great senior leadership. Those guys set a pretty good standard. We know we have to get better. We have a young enough team that I don’t feel nostalgic about what we’re doing. They have really competed and those seniors have helped us lay a good foundation.

“I’d like to get them a Bucket win in their final game and get us to five wins, three in the Big Ten and two on the road. We could go into the off-season with some momentum.”

Wilson said his message won’t be about trying to ruin Purdue’s shot at a bowl game.

“I’ve never been about spoiling or revenge,” he said. “It’s about what we have to do to have a good week and win a game.”

Click here for coverage of IU athletics from Inside Indiana.

Click here for more Purdue coverage.

Wisconsin at Penn State

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) will travel to Penn State (7-4, 5-2). With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, the Badgers have already clinched the Leaders Division spot in the title game.

But Penn State will be shooting to send out its senior class – a group that helped solidify the program amid the turmoil this past year – the right way.

“They will take away a lot,” PSU coach Bill O’Brien said. “They will take away the fact they were instrumental in keeping this program together last summer when the sanctions came out. They really helped the community move forward.

“They grew up a lot here. That’s a hard thing to deal with when you’re in your early 20s. They will always be remembered here for the leadership they showed. They set the tone for the future of Penn State football.”

One senior who will not be on the field is linebacker Michael Mauti, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week’s win over Indiana.

''For guys that live and breathe the game like that, it's very difficult thing to deal with,'' O’Brien said. “It’s a tough thing for anybody who plays the game the way he does and lives and breathes football. He’s been around all week and he’ll help with the guys who will take his place at the linebacker position. He loves it and wants to be around it. He’s been here all week.”

O’Brien was asked if this game with Wisconsin, which embarrassed PSU 45-7 last year in Madison, will serve as his team’s bowl game.

“I don’t know how many bowl games are played in front of 100,000 people like this game will be,” O’Brien said. “Every game for us this year has been like that, especially the home games.”

Coming off a tough overtime loss at home to Ohio State (21-14), UW coach Bret Bielema wants his Badgers to gain some momentum going into next week’s Big Ten title game.

“The things we’ve gone through will hopefully make us a stronger team in the end,” he said. “We are going to Penn State to play a tremendously well coached football team. It should be a great environment for college football.”

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball needs one touchdown to become the NCAA Division I-A all-time touchdown leader. He tied former Miami (Ohio) standout Travis Prentice at 78 career touchdowns with a score against Ohio State last week.

“Everything that man has endured and his numbers really aren’t far off from where they were last year, other than the touchdowns,” Bielema said. “The yardage, the production and the effect he’s had on our team, it’s been hard to be a 7-4 team. He’s on the verge of breaking an NCAA record that is truly mind boggling.

“There are a lot of great players in this league. But as his coach, I can be biased.”

Click here for more coverage of Penn State from Lions 247.

Click here for coverage of Wisconsin from Badger 247.

Illinois at Northwestern

Northwestern (8-3, 4-3) can match its best win total under seventh-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald with a home win over instate rival Illinois (2-9, 0-7). This will be their annual battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, with Illinois holding a 54-46-5 overall advantage in the series.

With wins over Illinois and in its bowl game, Northwestern could reach the 10-win plateau for the first time since its magical run to the Rose Bowl under Gary Barnett (and with Fitzgerald as the star linebacker) in 19995.

The Wildcats have been on the wrong end of several tight games this year, but they were able to pull out a 23-20 win at Michigan State last Saturday.

“We have been through a lot of games,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been close and gone down to the wire in a lot of games and I think that has helped us. The way we have been able to grow and improve, the credit goes to these young men. They have let us coach them.”

For Illinois coach Tim Beckman, this game represents a chance to snap an eight-game losing streak and go into recruiting and the off-season on a positive note. The three-point loss to Purdue was Illinois’ only single-digit defeat in that losing streak.

“It comes down to making plays,” Beckman said. “Purdue made those plays last week and we did not. That’s happened to us the last two weeks. We’re turning the ball over and not getting enough turnovers.”

Beckman provided his scouting report on Northwestern.

“Those quarterbacks (Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian) definitely stand out,” he said. “The running back, Venric Mark, has done a great job of having seven 100-yard games. Playing them in the past, you see how the team has been built around Fitzy and what he believes in football. They are a lot more athletic.

“This program has been built for the last seven years and you can see that as you see them progress year in and year out.”

Michigan State at Minnesota

Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) finds itself in a must-win situation at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5). A loss means the Spartans would miss out on a bowl bid for the first time in coach Mark Dantonio’s six seasons in East Lansing. It has been quite a fall for an MSU team ranked 13th in the preseason polls. The Spartans have dropped their five Big Ten defeats by a combined 13 points.

“We feel like it will be a program game for us,” Dantonio said. “We have lost some close games, but we have rallied back every single week and played hard. We expect to win. That’s the mind-set we bring when we come.

“This is significant in terms of getting the sixth win and getting to our sixth straight bowl game. We need to be motivated by that and find a way to finish.”

Dantonio knows it will not be an easy task against a Minnesota team that, although it has not beaten a I-A team with a winning record, has already clinched its own postseason berth.

“Minnesota is an improved team,” Dantonio said. “They are using a true freshman at quarterback (Phillip Nelson) and I have been impressed with him how he has run the ball and functioned as the quarterback. MarQueis Gray continues to be a guy who you have to know where he is at all times.

“Defensively, they play extremely hard. They are definitely improved from last year in all the statistics and everything. They will get guys down to stop the run and force you to become one-dimensional.”

The game is almost on the back burner at Minnesota, where the program was rocked by allegations of abuse by wide receiver A.J. Barker. Barker, UM’s leading receiver with 30 catches, quit the team on Sunday after claiming that coach Jerry Kill had verbally abused him. Barker alleges his ankle injury was not diagnosed properly and that Kill demanded that he practice even as he was injured.

Kill has had to answer some tough questions this week as Barker posted his claims in an extensive and detailed letter online.

"I feel bad for A.J. I feel bad that that's the way he feels about the situation," Kill said Monday. "I'll do anything I can to help him in the future, whatever he decides to do. I'm all in it for the kids. I want to see kids be successful and do well.

Kill said it was Barker’s behavior toward a Minnesota trainer that prompted him to react.

"Nobody wants to see a kid not play or get his dreams or those kinds of things,” Kill said. “But at the same time, I can't let him do something different than everybody else. You can't be having a confrontation with an adult trainer and it's OK. That's not what we ask of everybody else.”

Back on the field, Minnesota can reach seven wins for the first time since 2008 with a win.

“It’s a big week for us,” Kill said. “We have 15 seniors who have been through a lot and we are proud of them. We have work cut out for us. We are looking forward to it. We want our team to be able to take a step forward.”

Click here for more MSU coverage from Spartan Tailgate.

Expansion Talk

Big Ten coaches were caught in a reactionary posture as discussion of the addition of Maryland and Rutgers came up this week.

NU’s Fitzgerald believes that the Big Ten will get it right when it comes time to set up the new divisions.

“I thought when we added Nebraska to the league, the discussions we were able to be a part of as coaches, it made a lot of sense to us how they broke the divisions up,” he said.

The Big Ten figures to realize increased revenues as a part of these additions. Fitzgerald hopes some of that new largesse trickles down to the players.

“I think the top priority should be the players,” he said. “That’s what we’ve said all along as a coaching body. Hopefully we’ll be able to make a decision to distribute some of this money to the players. We’re getting ready to go to postseason play. It would be great to take care of the families and be able to fly them to the bowl game. That’s my focus.”

Asked how these new schools will impact his recruiting, Fitzgerald said, “We have always recruited the nation once we leave the Chicagoland area. We already have coaches who have built relationships in those areas.”

Nebraska just arrived in the Big Ten last year, but Pelini said all concerned believe that commissioner Jim Delany has the best interest of the conference schools at heart.

“I think they have done a good job of addressing those things in the Big Ten,” Pelini said. “I trust Commissioner Delany and everybody involved to get together and make the decisions that are the best for the conference.”

MSU’s Dantonio said it only makes sense to broaden the reach of the Big Ten – including television sets and recruiting – to the East Coast.

“We recruit Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic area,” Dantonio said. “When I was at Michigan State before, I recruited D.C. and the Baltimore area. We had some great players from there.”

Iowa’s Ferentz, with 14 seasons in the league, is the dean of coaches.

“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “The landscape of college football has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. This is a continuation of that. The people who make those decisions in our conference do an outstanding job, starting with Commissioner Delany. It will be a good thing for our conference, just like adding Penn State years ago and Nebraska last year.”

One rumor had Maryland and Rutgers joining natural geographical rival Penn State in the Leaders Division with Illinois moving to the Legends to provide two seven-team divisions.

“Our SID, Kent Brown, brought that up to me,” Illinois’ Beckman admitted. “I like what we are doing collectively here in the Big Ten. If that happens, I will comment on it then.”

And, naturally, Penn State’s O’Brien was glad to see the conference add some neighboring rivals for his school.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “Any time you add competitive teams to a conference, it’s a good thing. You have the East Coast represented in the Big Ten. I coached with Randy Edsall at Georgia Tech. He is a very good coach and Maryland will be a competitive team in the Big Ten. Kyle Flood has done a good job at Rutgers and they are having a great year.

“Those are two good teams to add and it just adds to a fantastic conference.”

Also Notable

* Nebraska’s Pelini was asked to comment on WR Kenny Bell, who had nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns in his team’s 38-14 win over Minnesota. Bell is now third in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game (71.7 ypg) and second in touchdown receptions (eight) this year.

“Kenny has played at a really high level,” Pelini said. “He is a pretty good football player and has become a good weapon for us. He brings it day to day and week to week. He practices and prepares well. He’s a leader in our program. He has been really big for us.”

* MSU’s Dantonio talked about the performance of quarterback Andrew Maxwell. He is third in the Big Ten in passing average per game (221.4 ypg) but is not among the league’s top 10 quarterbacks in efficiency. Victimized by drops, Maxwell has only completed 53.5 percent of his passes this year.

“Andrew has been asked to do a lot in his first year as quarterback,” Dantonio said. “He assumed a role as a captain and he also had had to run the offense and run the huddle. At the line of scrimmage, he has had to get us in and out of the plays.

“I think he has done a good job of throwing the ball. We need to be a little bit more productive, whether it is catching the ball better or some errant throws. I’ve been impressed with how he has handled the tough situations he’s been put in.”

* Adding to the pomp and pageantry of Saturday’s game with Michigan, OSU’s 2002 national championship team will be recognized on the field. That, of course, includes former coach Jim Tressel, who figures to return to Ohio Stadium for the first time since his messy departure from the school in May 2011.

* Players selected as Big Ten players of the week included:

Offense: Michigan QB Devin Gardner (threw for 314 yards and three TDs and ran for three TDs vs. Iowa) and Penn State QB Matt McGloin (threw for 395 yards and four TDs vs. Indiana).

Defense: Ohio State DE John Simon (six tackles and four sacks vs. Wisconsin).

Special Teams: Ohio State PR Corey “Philly” Brown (68-yard punt return TD vs. Wisconsin).

Freshman: Michigan LB James Ross (12 tackles vs. Iowa) and Northwestern SB Dan Vitale (nine catches for 110 yards vs. Michigan State).

Big Ten Standings

Leaders Division

*Ohio State (11-0, 7-0)
Penn State (7-4, 5-2)
#Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3)
Purdue (5-6, 2-5)
Indiana (4-7, 2-5)
Illinois (2-9, 0-7)

Legends Division

Nebraska (9-2, 6-1)
Michigan (8-3, 6-1)
Northwestern (8-3, 4-3)
Minnesota (6-6, 2-5)
Michigan State (5-6, 2-5)
Iowa (4-7, 2-5)

*-Clinched tie for division title
#-Clinched Big Ten Championship Game berth

Nov. 17 Games

Michigan (23) 42, Iowa 17
Northwestern 23, Michigan State 20
Penn State 45, Indiana 22
Ohio State (6) 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT)
Nebraska (16) 38, Minnesota 14
Purdue 20, Illinois 17

Nov. 23 Game (All times Eastern)

Nebraska (17) at Iowa, noon (ABC national)

Nov. 24 Games

Michigan (20) at Ohio State (4), noon (ABC national)
Illinois at Northwestern, noon (Big Ten Network)
Indiana at Purdue, noon (Big Ten Network)
Michigan State at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Wisconsin at Penn State, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional, ESPN or ESPN2 outer market)

Dec. 1 Game
Big Ten Championship Game at Indianapolis

Wisconsin vs. Nebraska or Michigan, 8:17 p.m. (FOX)

Picks Update

In Week 12, I ended up 19-7 straight-up and 13-12-1 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 222-74 SU and 141-141-4 ATS.

In Big Ten games, I was 5-1 straight-up and 2-4 ATS. Through 12 weeks, I am 72-18 straight-up and 43-39 ATS.

Stay tuned this week for our Picks for Week 13 and our All-Big Ten team for 2012 later this week.

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