Big Ten Train Wreck

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Last updated: 09/26/2012 5:35 PM
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Football Recruiting
Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: The Train Wreck That Is Big Ten Football
By Jeff Rapp

(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).

Early in the afternoon on Sept. 22, several Big Ten teams were engaged in what were supposed to be tune-ups before league play began the following weekend.

And then it dawned on me just how bad this conference is.

In one fleeting moment, on the first Saturday of fall, Ohio State was trailing lowly UAB 9-0 early in the second quarter of an allegedly meaningless game at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes had allowed a jailbreak on punt “protection” and suffered a blocked punt for a touchdown to go with a UAB field goal.

But the early hole was more than a result of a couple mistakes. The visiting Blazers were the aggressor and held a yardage advantage of 147 to 42 over a confused-looking Ohio State team.

The Buckeyes were a 37-point favorites, but it was becoming obvious they were merely in survival mode.

Meanwhile, with OSU looking anything but dominant and worthy of its national ranking, Wisconsin was messing around with UTEP and word had come around to other press boxes that star running back Montee Ball had been knocked out of the game with a head injury. And of course, Iowa was trailing 17-14 to Central Michigan.

The Hawkeyes ended up losing at home to Central on a last-second field goal, while the Badgers got past UTEP in uninspiring fashion and the Buckeyes didn’t put away UAB until there were five minutes left in the game.

During our pregame coverage on WTVN, I also fired off a warning for Illinois, reminded listeners that Minnesota was “no lock” at home against 1-2 Syracuse, and said that Michigan could be in trouble at Notre Dame.

Sure enough, Louisiana Tech overwhelmed Illinois and Notre Dame completely shut down Denard Robinson and the UM offense just as it had done the week before at Michigan State. Minnesota slid by Syracuse, 17-10, which now stands as one of the conference’s most impressive wins along with Michigan State’s survival against Boise State and Northwestern’s home win over Vanderbilt.

The second week of the season, Illinois was clobbered at Arizona State, Penn State couldn’t make a simple placement in a one-point loss at Virginia, Wisconsin was suffocated by Oregon State, Iowa lost at Iowa State, and Nebraska lost a shootout at UCLA.

And so it has gone for the sad-sack Big Ten, which actually has a dozen teams and has been anything but “big” in the preconference.

How bad is the Big Ten? Matt McGloin is currently the conference’s leading passer and is the only quarterback with more than 1,000 yards.

How bad is the Big Ten? James Vandenberg, the league’s leading returning passer, has thrown just one touchdown in four games.

How bad is the Big Ten? Only four players are averaging more than 100 yards rushing and only four have managed to average 70 yards receiving a game.

How bad is the Big Ten? Only three teams are 4-0 to this point and just three are ranked going into league play – Ohio State at No. 14, Michigan State at No. 20, and Nebraska at No. 23.

How bad is the Big Ten? Ohio State, the league’s lone supposed elite team, currently has the worst-ranked defense in the conference – a first in my lifetime, best I can tell.

Hey, I’ve got a hundred of these.

This a league that went 4-6 in bowl games at the end of last season and saw power teams Ohio State and Penn State rocked with scandal and coaching changeover.

Five conferences fared better in 2011-12 bowls and even independents Notre Dame and BYU, by virtue of a 1-1 mark, put up a better winning percentage.

Three of those 10 league teams were rewarded with bowl berths after posting regular-season marks of 6-6 – Illinois beating UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl, Purdue beating Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl, and Ohio State losing to Florida in the Gator Bowl.

Michigan beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and Michigan State topped Georgia in the Outback Bowl, but the other five games all came up snake eyes.

Penn State lost to Houston (TicketCity), Wisconsin to Oregon (Rose), Iowa to Oklahoma (Insight), Nebraska to South Carolina (Capital One), and Northwestern to Texas A&M (Meineke Car Care).

The year prior, Big Ten teams went 2-5 in bowl games, including a woeful 0-5 in New Year’s Day bowl games. That was the first time the league went oh-for in New Year’s games since 2002 – and Ohio State made up for much of that ineptitude by winning the national championship that winter.

Since 2000, the Big Ten has gone 34-52 in bowl games (a 39.5 winning percentage), including a mark of 7-13 in BCS showcases.

Even with Penn State and Ohio State dealing with NCAA sanctions and with the loss of key personnel such as Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson, Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Northwestern QB Dan Persa, Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy, Ohio State WR DeVier Posey and Nebraska LB Lavonte David, the Big Ten appeared to have a healthy amount of star power going into 2012.

Among those on major award watch lists were Robinson, Ball, Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, Penn State RB Silas Redd, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Michigan State DL William Gholston, Ohio State DE John Simon, Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, Ohio State CB Bradley Roby, Michigan State CB Johnny Adams, Purdue DL Kawann Short, Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis and Wisconsin LB Chris Borland.

Almost none of them appear to be living up to billing. Redd transferred to USC. Ball, Burkhead, Scheelhaase, Roby and Abbrederis all have been slowed because of injury. Simon has been dealing with a sore shoulder and several double teams. Gholston sat the entire first half last week, for reasons MSU coach Mark Dantonio wouldn’t divulge, and has been largely disappointing. Toussaint was arrested for DUI and suspended for the Alabama game.

To make matters worse, Indiana QB Tre Roberson and Purdue QB Robert Marve joined the growing list of early-season casualties.

Ohio State’s back seven can’t tackle. Michigan State’s receivers can’t catch the ball. Wisconsin’s offensive linemen suddenly can’t block. Iowa can’t distinguish itself against MAC competition. Penn State can’t kick. Northwestern can’t slow down anybody. Indiana can’t go a series without suffering a penalty.

It’s look-away bad, worse than even the biggest Big Ten basher could have imagined.

The conference could conceivably begin to change that severely tarnished image on Saturday with standout performances in nationally televised games such as Penn State at Illinois (noon Eastern, ESPN), Minnesota at Iowa (noon Eastern, ESPN2), Ohio State at Michigan State (3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC), and Wisconsin at Nebraska (8 p.m. Eastern, ABC).

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing Michigan is taking the week off – and that basketball season is just around the corner.

*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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