Several games offer league teams real tests
By Michael Pointer
September 13, 2002
Big Ten officials will get a good idea this weekend of just how strong the conference is this year -- and a chance to quiet critics who say the league is down again.
The Big Ten is 3-1 against the five other major Division I football conferences (Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big East, Pac-10).
But the schedule toughens considerably on Saturday, led by No. 6 Ohio State (2-0) hosting No. 10 Washington State (2-0) in what just might be a Rose Bowl preview.
"We feel the responsibility on the behalf of the Big Ten to play as well as we can and to be successful this weekend," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
It's far from the only intriguing matchup of the day. No. 7 Michigan (2-0) plays at No. 20 Notre Dame (2-0); and No. 8 Nebraska (3-0) plays at Penn State (1-0).
Plus, No. 15 Michigan State (2-0) hosts much-improved California (2-0); and Iowa State (2-1) travels to Iowa (2-0).
Iowa and Iowa State have met every year since 1977, but in most years, one team had a significant talent advantage over the other. That shouldn't be the case on Saturday.
"Any intrastate rival game has an extra significance," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I'm not going to lie about that. We have some great rivals in the Big Ten and this is right up there with that."
Illini struggling <img border="0" title="" alt="[Frown]" src="frown.gif" />
Illinois coach Ron Turner said there's a lesson to take from the Fighting Illini's 23-20 loss at Conference USA-member Southern Mississippi last Saturday.
It's that Big Ten teams shouldn't play a team on the road that isn't from one of the power conferences. A victory means little in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, even against a decent team such as Southern Mississippi. A loss is devastating.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to do that," said Turner, noting the game was scheduled before he arrived at Illinois six years ago. "We don't have any plans to do that in the future."
Turner has decided to bench quarterback Dustin Ward, who started Illinois' first two games, in favor of Iowa transfer Jon Beutjer.
But quarterback isn't the only problem for the Illini (0-2), who lost Kirk Kittner to graduation from last year's Big Ten championship team, but returned 14 starters.
"We've got some senior leaders from last season that are gone and we still don't have the guys that can step up and consistently lead and give you that little bit of an edge," Turner said.
At first glance, Northwestern's Jason Wright setting a school record with 191 kickoff return yards doesn't appear overly impressive. The Wildcats lost 48-24 to Texas Christian on Saturday. Wright figured to have plenty of chances to rack up the yardage.
But Wright's performance came on just three returns. His 63.7-yard average set a Big Ten record and included a 100-yard return for a touchdown.
Still, the Wildcats are 0-2 and at the bottom of the league in total offense (248 yards per game) and total defense (482 yards). They have lost to Air Force and TCU, respectable teams, but hardly the caliber of most of their Big Ten opponents.
Despite looking overmatched, coach Randy Walker isn't giving up hope.
"There's a good football team in there somewhere," he said.
Chambers is tops
Thanks largely to his 76-yard punt return against Notre Dame last week, Purdue's Anthony Chambers leads the Big Ten with a 25.2 yard average. That's nearly nine yards ahead of the second-best returner, Ohio State's Chris Gamble (16.3).
Other local players leading the conference include Purdue defensive end Kevin Nesfield (sacks, 1.5 per game), Indiana linebacker Herana-Daze Jones (tackles, 13 per game), IU defensive tackle Kris Dielman (tackles for loss, three per game) and IU wide receiver Glenn Johnson (receptions, 14
Good luck to ALL Big 10 teams this weekend! <img border="0" alt="[Cheers]" title="" src="graemlins/cheers.gif" />