Big Ten powers cower in season openers
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com September 2, 2012 10:48PM
The Alabama defense swarms Michigan running back Vincent Smith on Saturday. | Leon Halip~Getty Images
SUN-TIMES BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
Beyond Urban renewal, more questions than statements in openers.
FINAL 2011 RANK
1. Ohio State (1-0) 6
2. Nebraska (1-0) 4
3. Michigan State (1-0) 2
4. Wisconsin (1-0) 1
5. Michigan (0-1) 3
6. Iowa (1-0) 7
6. Northwestern (1-0) 8
6. Illinois (1-0) 11
9. Purdue (1-0) 9
10. Minnesota (1-0) 10
11. Penn State (0-1) 5
12. Indiana (1-0) 12
Updated: October 4, 2012 6:23AM
Supposedly revived, No. 8 Michigan wasn’t ready for prime time.
There were no style points, either, for the Big Ten’s reloading division champions, No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 13 Michigan State, in scruffy opening victories.
But there’s plenty of time for the trio that’s expected to lead the Big Ten charge this fall to polish their acts.
Alabama, which throttled the Wolverines 41-14, is going to steamroll a lot of teams. Benching running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who pleaded guilty to drunken driving, gives Michigan coach Brady Hoke a partial alibi.
Meanwhile, Michigan State made four turnovers but survived Boise State 17-13 while outgaining the Broncos 461-206. The 210 yards by rusher La’Veon Bell were very encouraging.
If Wisconsin, which held off Northern Iowa 26-21 after blowing a 26-7 fourth-quarter lead, lacked a killer instinct, it handed coach Bret Bielema a very tangible teaching tool.
The league’s other two ranked teams went about their business much more efficiently. No. 17 Nebraska did a number on what’s likely to be a pretty good Southern Miss team 49-20, with Taylor Martinez throwing for a career-high 354 yards.
Braxton Miller rushed for 161 yards, an Ohio State quarterback record, as the Buckeyes made Urban Meyer’s debut look easy in a 56-10 victory against Miami (Ohio).
Perhaps the most worrisome development of the opening weekend is that the Buckeyes, who are barred from postseason play, could upset the Big Ten’s bowl apple cart if they wind up elbowing their way into a lofty perch in the standings.
The first weekend of the season didn’t dispel the notion that Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin and the two Michigan schools are the Big Ten’s best bets.
Among the other seven, the most disappointing might be Penn State, which wasted a 14-3 lead and lost to Ohio 24-14. The beleaguered program desperately could have used a victory.
Since the state’s two schools aren’t shy about hyping their rivalry, Illinois’ season-ending trip to Northwestern ought to be an interesting one if their opening-game trends continue.
The Illini clearly are going to hang their hat on defense after a 24-7 win over Western Michigan. That’s the fewest points Illinois has allowed an FBS opponent since it lost to UCLA 6-3 in 2003. The Illini lead the nation in rushing defense (minus-6 yards) and are tied for fourth in turnover margin (plus-3) after making three interceptions.
‘‘One of the worst games of my career,’’ muttered accomplished Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder after being throttled by Illinois’ defense.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats, who pulled out a 42-41 win at Syracuse, are back to their Cardiac Cats ways.
‘‘I’m incredibly happy to get out of here with a win,’’ Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
The Illini and Wildcats have two things in common: a pair of quarterbacks — Nate Scheelhaase (ankle) and Kain Colter (left shoulder) — who were nicked up Saturday, and a pair of coaches — Fitzgerald and Tim Beckman — who would rather do up-downs than talk about injuries.
Two key Heisman candidates, USC quarterback Matt Barkley and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, handled the hype. Barkley threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns in the Trojans’ 49-10 rout of Hawaii. Smith threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns in the Mountaineers’ 69-34 rout of Marshall.
Two prominent Big Ten Heisman hopefuls didn’t fare as well. Montee Ball ran for 120 yards and one touchdown as Wisconsin held off Northern Iowa. Dual threat Denard Robinson floundered along with the rest of the Wolverines, managing 27 rushing yards against Alabama’s stout defense.