Get the Ford Probe that's sitting next to your garage a new set of break pads and rewind your favorite Led Zeppelin tape to the beginning of the B-Side. After four weeks of out of conference courtships, we're ready to begin Big 10 play. And already, the song's not the same.
A short summer month ago, Midwestern-city preps were gushing about the Ohio State Buckeyes. The depth, the talent, and the strength we swore, made OSU the runaway favorites.
But as we stand on the threshold of intra-conference competition, the Big 10 is uniquely deciduous. What do I mean? There's no constant. This run is anybody's to make. Okay, not anybody's -- but there's at least five teams that will take the race to the top: 1. No. 12 Penn State is point-powered, 2. No. 8 Wisconsin is road tested, 3. No. 14 Ohio State has Beanie back, 4. No. 22 Illinois has a passing game, and 5. Michigan State is just plain mean.
Nice guy? I don't give a sh*t. Franz thinks Sparty is plain mean. And you thought it was just Alec Baldwin.
The best matchup of this weekend, without question is No. 22 Illinois at No. 12 Penn State.
Wait, two ranked teams in the Big 10 are playing?
Yeah, we know -- it's frustratingly rare. But the rise of the conference waist line means we'll be force fed a lot more competitive bravado starting with a State College spectacular.
The No. 22 Illini have returned to underdog status after last season's stint as a marigold. Ron Zook has turned Illinois into an offensive springboard -- see Juice run, see Juice pass. But hopes of avenging last year's Rose bowl blowup dissipated with an August 30 opening loss to No. 5 Missouri -- which saw an Illini passing defense ranked 69th get cut and bled out in a 42-52 loss that wasn't that close.
Still, Missouri is scary good. Might it be that Juice and Co. lost a shootout against a national power?
I'd buy it, but for their Week 3 showing against Louisiana-Lafayette that was all pulp and no pulse. In straining out a 3 point win (Juice) Williams went 13/35 for 147 yards, throwing one interception and leading his team on only a single touchdown drive.
They'll have to do better against a high definition Penn State team that's scored more points in four games than any squad in the history of the program. That's 122 years for those of you also trying to figure out how long Paterno's been at the helm. The Nittany Lions are the most dynamic team in the Big 10 at present -- showbusiness that's given them a liquid-crystal start and an "also receiving votes" mention in the national championship conversation.
They're averaging 538 yards a game and the nation's top scoring differential (42.8 points), but they haven't been challenged.
They're also shaky in the secondary and just plain tepid on special teams.
This game will come down to defensive vigor. We know the Illini can explode on offense, can their defensive line put pressure on Daryll Clark -- who fumbled five times last week against Temple? If Illinois can force turnovers and steal the momentum early in State College they'll stand a chance.
But The Rivalry, Esq. thinks this one will belong to the team that's won 23 of their last 25 at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions are not only the team to beat in the Big 10, they're the team to beat in the North.
That's got to count for something.