The Rivals, Part VIII: Midterms

It’s the halfway point of the regular season for most Big Ten teams, and the East division has settled into two tiers, comprised of exactly the teams everyone expected when the new format was introduced prior to last season. Ohio State and Michigan are joined by Michigan State and Penn State at the top of what could turn out to be the toughest single division in college football. Today is the first of three weekends this season where these four teams will be playing each other. The second and third rounds will close out the regular season, so while today’s winners will get an early jump on the division title, there will be plenty of time for the losers to get back into the race.

The big story of the first half of the season has been Michigan’s defense. The unit has posted three consecutive shutouts and is in the top 3 nationally in every defensive category, including #1 in scoring. The Wolverines seem to be putting all of their eggs in the defensive basket, as their offense doesn’t even crack the top 30 in any category. Since a disastrous three-interception performance in the opener at Utah, QB Jake Rudock throwing the ball has essentially been erased from the offensive game plan. Rudock has scored just 3 of the team’s 18 offensive touchdowns since the Utah game through the air, while he’s added another 3 on the ground.

For Ohio State, the storyline of the first six games was unsurprising: the quarterback situation. Urban Meyer faced constant criticism over his handling of the Buckeyes’ two top-notch talents, but finally seemed to settle into a solution last Saturday against Maryland. By inserting J. T. Barrett as a red-zone specialist, Meyer simultaneously found a suitable way to feature both QBs and shore up Ohio State’s ineffectiveness inside the 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on all six opportunities. It would be surprising if this approach didn’t continue for the remainder of the season, and it may be the key to returning the offense to the explosive level they achieved last year.

This afternoon, Michigan hosts Michigan State, a rivalry that has been just as lopsided as The Game over the past seven years, with the Wolverines snagging just one victory in that span. The Spartans are undefeated but also play the underdog role in this game, which gives the match up an interesting twist. To this point in the season, Michigan has been playing with house money, but now they will see how things feel on the other side of the table. One of the reasons Michigan State was able to wrest control of the rivalry from the Wolverines in the first place was Coach Dantonio’s ability to fuel his players’ fire with the shoulder-chip of disrespect (whether real or manufactured). It must bring a smile to his stone face to be able to play that same card while still on top.

Tonight, Penn State visits Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions’ story has been similar to (albeit not as impressive as) Michigan’s. After an opening road loss to the currently undefeated Temple Owls, Penn State has rallied to win their last five games. All of those wins were in the comfort of their home stadium, however, and they won’t have that luxury tonight. The last time the Lions beat an Ohio State team ranked higher than them was in 2005 in State College. They have never won when the Buckeyes were ranked #1.

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