It’s Michigan State’s biggest regular season game since they played Indiana in November, 1987 in a winner-take-all showdown for the Rose Bowl. Given the Spartans place in the national pecking order this go around, you can argue this contest is more important than that and that no game in MSU history has been as important to the program since the famous #1 vs #2 showdown vs Notre Dame all the way back in 1966. It’s the once every 20 years big game for the MSU football program!!
Dont be surprised, however, if this becomes more routine. In their gutty win a week ago against Northwestern, the
Spartans showed off some great depth offering proof that they’re going to be a contender for a while. They lost playmaker Keshawn Martin during the game, but his replacement Benny Fowler scooted for a TD on an end around and caught two huge passes. They were down a couple of men on the defensive line, but Tyler Hoover continued to emerge as a force and they dialed deep down on the depth chart and got a couple of sacks from Jonathan Strayhorn. They had to replace a suspended defensive back, plugged in freshmen Darqueze Dennard and didnt see much dropoff. Later in the game, they inserted another freshmen, Isiaih Lewis, in the nickel package and thwarted Northwestern throughout the fourth quarter with that alignment. It was a comeback that drives championship seasons. And MSU could not have completed it without signinficant contributions from their second string. This should not be a one-year Green wave soaking the Big 10.
By now, everyone knows the stakes here for MSU. Tuck away this monster road win at Iowa (Iowa -6.5, O/U 50.5) and it’s clear sailing to a 12-0 record. That’s no worse than a major bowl game and the best postseason destination since the 1987 Big 10 champs. They will be significant chalk in their final three against Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State. It could be a November coronation towards Pasadena, or with a little help, the BCS Title Game, if the Spartans can go into Iowa City and come out with a win. Iowa, however, isnt just playing a spoiler. They too still have valid BCS hopes despite the heartbreaking 1-point home loss to Wisconsin a week ago. Should the Hawks win out, which would include wins over the Spartans and Buckeyes, and the Badgers stumble once, then the conference title is all Iowa’s. Even by just winning out, the impressive wins down the stretch and final 10-2 record may very well parlay itself into a second straight BCS at-large bid.
Two keys to the game rest with the Green and White defense. Pay attention to red zone points for Iowa. The Spartans are the most cluth red zone defense in the conference. Their opponents only score touchdowns on half their trips into scoring range. The reason why Northwestern was able to push MSU to the final gun, while previous foes like Illinois and Michigan were done like dinner when the fourth quarter rolled around, is because they were able to convert long drives into TDs, whereas the Wolverines and Illini settled for field goals and turnovers. Yet, the Cats still lost because the Sparties were able to turn away some scoring drives. Northwestern fumbled at the one and twice settled for three points in the red zone. Those missing points loomed large once the dust settled and the final score emerged. Iowa, meanwhile, is solid in the red zone with only four totally empty trips all year and touchdowns on more than 75 percent of the chances. But in their two toughest games of the season–both losses to Arizona and Wisconsin–they have had one empty trip. Can they break that trend in one the league’s most important games of the year?
Also watch the Spartan pass defense. Ranked just 62nd in the nation in yards allowed the air, your first impression would be this an average defense against the pass. But those numbers are misleading. It’s a very effective passing defense. They’ve pretty much held every important foe below their season completion percentageas as well as below their season average for yards per attempt. They’ve gone more than 10 quarters since allowing a TD pass. Their starting secondary boasts three guys–Johnny Adams, Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde–who are in the top-5 in the conference in PBUs+INTs. They do an excellent job at taking your best aerial weapon and shutting it down. Three weeks ago against Michigan, Dayrl Stonum and Roy Roundtree were non-factors. In the Northwestern game, the Spartans held Jeremy Ebert, a personal JCB favorite, in check. Ebert leads the Big 10 in receiving yards per game, but was limited last week to just 20 yards on a pair of catches. Next up is Iowa’s Derrrell Johnson-Koulianos, who has been a big play gamer for Iowa for much of the last three season. It seems like everytime they need a big catch, he is there to deliver. He’s fifth in the Big 10 in receiving yards per game, goes for more than 17 yards per catch and has eight scores this season. He’s been on fire during Big 10 play. Can the Spartans contain him, like have other receivers this season, and can they maintain their trend of forcing mediocre passing performance out of their opponents? This is a different Iowa team than in past years as it brings a lot more offense to the table than in past seasons. Their QB, RB and top WR are all threatening Iowa records with the much-maligned Ricky Stanzi looking to kick Chuck Long out of the record books. Stanzi has completed more than 67 percent of his passes, 9.30 yards per attempt and just two INTs. If those numbers are repeated on Saturday, expect an Iowa win. But if those numbers are reduced, then dont be surprised to see Michigan State clear its last remaining legit hurdle en route to an undefeated season.
On the other side of the ball, it begins and ends with the Iowa defensive line. The last couple of weeks, the Spartans have really struggled a bit running the football, coming up empty on a lot of third and short runs. And a week ago, the Northwestern defensive line proved more disruptive than the more talented Illini front was against the Spartans the week before. In an otherwise glorious season, those are signs of regression that might come back and haunt them as they go up against what many consider the most talented defensive line in the league. But all is not well with the Hawks. Michigan and Wisconsin really did a lot of damage against this line. The Hawks were able to get big plays from their line–like the Klug forced fumble against Michigan and Clayborn sack and fumble that should have clinched the game a week ago–but their last two Big 10 opponents had little trouble moving the football against this defense. There’s a growing thought that parts of this line are a beast when rushing the passer, but are just average against the run. Some of the less-than-stellar run D in recent weeks, however, might be the injuries to Iowa’s linebacking corps that has forced freshmen into the starting lineup. Those injuries are not healed yet, so look for Dantonio and his three-headed tailback attack to test that weakness.
I cant see Iowa losing two weeks in a row at Kinnick Stadium. But given how well MSU is clicking, I think I might end up taking those 6.5 points. Maybe even buy the hook up to a full touchdown just to be safe. I dont see this game being decided by more than a touchdown. I would be shocked if we’re not on the edge of our seats watching the fourth quarter dwindle down. It should be a fun game to watch.
Purdue +17 at Illinois, noon, ESPN2. O/U 42
Fellow degenerate gambler Pete over at The Only Colors asks do you trust Ron Zook to cover a 17-point spread even ? Uh, no, not really. He was terrible chalk when he was the head man in Gainesville, compiling an 8-15 ATS mark when laying chalk. His tenure in ChamBana is more of the same: 9-15 ATS as the favorite. That’s a 17-30 ATS mark in his career as a head coach when he team is favored. That’s nearly two out of every three times over an 8-season span where the Fighting Zookers burn money as chalk. This season? They lost to the number against Northern Illinois, but a week ago covered as chalk against the Hoosiers. So, that’s one up and one down, with a third attempt coming this weekend. Interesting. Do we play the percentages, Strawberry? We might do just that on principle alone. Of course, doing so puts us on a Purdue team that’s changing QBs again after an injury and off a 49-point loss to Ohio State. The Boilers had looked solid before last weekend, having found an offensive identity with dual threat QB Robert Henry, but you have to wonder if that ID has been shattered into pieces now that another QB is making their first career start for Purdue. The new blood would be true freshman Sean Robinson. He has some guru bonafides as Rivals ranked him the 10th dual threat QB in the 2010 class, but he has not seen speed and power from a defense like Illinois, armed with Marquez Wilson and Corey Leguit, before. This game is the best chance for Purdue to get a fifth win before the IU closer, but I dont know how much they can score against this Illini D that’s one of the more dominant stop units in the midwest. I know the Illini can work their way down the field behind the legs of Mikel LeShoure. And they most certainly can make life miserable for Robinson and force turnovers to give their offense a short field. This game could end up a lot like their game with IU a week ago. The Illini were in control all the way, but the spread was in doubt until late in the game. If the steady passing hand of Ben Chappell cant generate enough offense for a back door cover, how will Purdue? Maybe when things breakdown, Robinson can scramble his way into some nice gainers to set the Boilers up? Maybe the Illini are caught napping and looking ahead to Michigan next week? I dont know. I do know that’s a rare game on the Illini’s slate this year where they have an experience and talent advantage at the QB position. For a team that’s overachieved all season, that’s a prety good sign.
Northwestern -3 at Indiana, noon, BTN. O/U 59
I’d be willing to bet that most folks dont realize how exciting this series has been in recent years. I mentioned it earlier in the week, but it bears repeating. The last six games between these teams has been decided by a touchdown or less, with the last three contests seeing final margins of 3, 2 and 1 point. When the Cats and Hoosiers square off expect a lot of points, momentum swings and a win for the team with the ball last. I dont want to hear anyone bemoan this week’s schedule of nooners because this one should be a fun game. Besides, it oozes with Pizza Pizza Bowl implications, what else more do you want? With Ben Chappell and Dan Persa you have two skilled passers that know how the move the ball downfield against average defenses. Between IU’s Demario Belcher and Tandon Doss and the Cat’s Jeremy Ebert, we have three of the top four receivers in the league in yards per game. Expect a lot of air mails to those three and more. Northwestern, regardless of foe, always plays close games and they’ve been terrible favorites over the years. Their poor work as chalk is negated some by their excellent work on the road in recent seasons. The Purple have actually won seven of their last nine Big 10 road contests. Indiana? After the last two weeks, can any of us really trust them with just a 3-point head start? I cant. I doubt that Ben Chappell’s flirtation with game and point spread killing interceptions will continue like we saw last week against Illinois. But, I also doubt the Northwestern offense is going to be contained at all by the Hoosier D. What do we do when we struggle identifying a side to play? We look at the total. And with these offenses and playmakers going up against average at best defenses, it might be prudent to take the Over and just pull for both offenses. The total is 59, which is pretty high, but this game could easily see both teams score into the 30s.
Ohio State -25.5 at Minnesota, 8:00, ABC. O/U OTB
What is this? The 1930s? Why is Minnesota getting a primetime slot? Is the Ghost of Bud Wilkinson coming back as player coach or something? I dont expect much out of this game. A week ago, we saw the Buckeye team we expected all along. Pick any generation of Buckeye football and their 49-0 dismantling of Purude was vintage Scarlett and Gray. Expect more of the same in Minneapolis Saturday night. Sure, the Gophers rolled up over 400 yards in offense against Penn State a week ago, but they still lost by 12. They wont come close to 400 yards against the Bucks. And, they will lose by more than 12. I think the Bucks could go on a roll the next few weeks as they begin peaking in November leading up to their showdown at Iowa and the closer against Michigan. For that roll to happen, the Bucks need to get more out of star DE Cameron Heyward and WR Devier Posey. Both are huge talents and mismatch problems for most of the Big 10, but their play has cooled off inexplicably during the last month. I think it’s 50/50 this game ends up as another 49-0-like pasting. I hate heavy chalk, so I wont be playing. But, its OSU or nothing here. The Over might be an interesting play. If we can squeak a couple scores out of the Adam Weber offense, you could see this game exceeding 50 points. As of now, no total has been released, but anything in the 40s or really low 50s could go Over in a game that has 42-10 written all over it.
Michigan -3 at Penn State, 8:00, ESPN. O/U 52.5
Election Day may be next Tuesday, but the referenda on Rich Rodriguez begins in earnest Saturday night in Happy Valley. The Wolverines begin a 3-game stretch where they’ll be favored in each contest. They need to win at least one to qualify for a bowl game, but if they stumble during this stretch, then I dont think we’re seeing a fourth year in Ann Arbor out of Rodriguez. I’ve thought all along that a bowl qualification would be enough, but if they cant win two out of their next three games, then I think his future at the school could go either way, despite making a 13th game. As for the contest against Penn State, it’s worth repeating something the JCB has been tracking all fall. The line on this game is 13 points different than it was in the summer. Just eight weeks ago, the Nits were -10 in this contest. Now, it’s Michigan favored by a field goal. It’s a three ring circus at the QB position for the Lions right now. The battle between the PSU offense and Michigan defense is a pillow fight. The Lions will hit one or two long ball haymakers, but the Wolverine D will find its overall an offense it can play with. They might even force their first turnover in over 10 quarters. It’s the other side of the ball that’s worth watching. The PSU D vs the UM O ought to be worth more than price of admission. But I think its advantage Wolverines on this one. I dont know if the Lions have enough team speed on the defensive side to hang with Michigan. Their average rushing defense is going to have major problems checking the Wolverines. If Michigan plays its A-game offensively, the Nittany Lions can not keep up. I agree with WLA comrade Mad Max who said during a WLA Live session, that the Michigan’s offense will win or lose this game for the Wolverines. I am checking the win column. But, if the Wolverines struggle in the red zone, turn it over and squander their scoring chances like they did against MSU and Iowa, then this game could slip away from Michigan and Rodriguez, leading to an ugly and tense November in Ann Arbor.