Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Season Countdown: #2 and #1

With only two spots left, we will unveil the number one and two spots since once you know the first, the second is evident by process of elimination. Here's the season countdown from the easiest to the hardest game to win:

12. Eastern Illinois
11. Syracuse
10. Akron
9. Temple
8. Indiana
7. Minnesota
5. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
3. Northwestern
2. Iowa
1. Illinois

Now before you get bent out of shape, let me explain something about this countdown. It is not merely an ordering of the worst team to the best team that we will face. You can pick up the polls and any number of sports magazines to tell you that.

And most of those analysts have Ohio State ranked higher than Northwestern, and Iowa over Illinois for that matter. So why do I have them ranked here in this particular order?

Because this is not a ranking of how tough the opponent is, but how difficult the game will be to win. As such, I take into account other things such as the venue, the positioning of a game in relation to other games on the schedule, the possibility of emotional let-downs, factors like revenge which might instill more emotion in the team, and how well I think we match up against that team.

So looking at Iowa . . . the game is at home. Prime Time. Whitehouse. It just doesn't get any better than that. It's early in the year--we're not tired from a grueling Big Ten schedule, but will we have worked out the kinks yet?

Contrast that with to Illinois . . . away. We lost the last time we played in Champaign--our last victory there a lopsided blow-out in 2005. I don't think there is a Penn State fan out there that believes that will happen this year. This game is the first road game of the year and it follows a difficult test with Iowa at home. These two games will set the tone for the rest of the Big Ten season.


The Hawkeyes put a hurt on Penn State last year. No, that's not quite right. We put a hurt on ourselves last year, blowing a 9-point fourth quarter lead in a game that was fraught with questionables. Why no heaters on the sideline? Why let Iowa have the wind in the fourth quarter? Should Clark have been playing so soon after his concussion in Columbus?

Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

So this is a revenge game for the Lions and the atmosphere will be electric--not Ohio State 2005 or Nebraska 2002--but maybe more than Illinois 2008. You won't want to miss this one.

Penn State will be coming off a game against Temple, if you can call that a game. Iowa, on the other hand, will have played Arizona the week before. Certainly not USC, but also not Temple if you know what I mean. Iowa has a scrimmage against Arkansas State the week after us, but we may be thinking ahead to a tough road trip to Illinois. I think shceduling favors Iowa, other than the fact that it isn't a home game for them. They will have been better tested at this point than us.

Stanzi is a capable quarterback--we should know, as he drove his team nearly effortlessly in the fourth quarter to quash any national title hope we might have harbored last year. But gone will be Shonn Green. Those shoes will likely be filled by Jewel Hampton, but he suffered a knee injury this summer and it isn't clear what impact this will have on his game. Early reports were that he will be ready to start the opener and doesn't have much of a limp. Not exactly a glowing endorsement as a replacement. And this more recent article suggests he had further injury that has him sitting out of practice, and questionable for the season opener.

Defensively, the Hawkeyes have some work to do on the line, replacing Kroul and King. They will still field a capable defense. According to Adam Rittenberg (ESPN Blogger) Iowa ranks in the top three units for defense: Defensive Line (3), Linebackers (2) and secondary (1). For the record, PSU is first for Linebackers and 2nd fro defensive line behind Ohio State.

Let's just say that no one is questioning whether Iowa will have a good defense. The question is: just how good will it be? If this game were away, it would be number one because, well, for all the Juicester and Bennster at Illinois, the Illini don't have the talent across the board to compete with Iowa on a neutral field.

This game is an early challenge for Penn State offensively. I don't see Stanzi directing a comeback in Beaver stadium like he did last year. But can Penn State score against Iowa--that is the question that will need answering. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the first three games will really tell us much, since none of thoe defenses are anywhere close to the quality that Iowa puts on the field.

So why isn't Iowa #1 as the most difficult game?


While Illinois might not stack up well head to head on a neutral field with Iowa, they will play Penn State on a very un-neutral field in Champaign.

Here is what we have accomplished @ Illinois:

1994 W 35-31 the "comeback" led by Collins to preserve an undefeated season
1997 W 41-6
1999 W 27-7
2001 L 28-33
2005 W 63-10 Michael Robinson
2007 L 20-27

Overall, it is not a bad record. But this may be one of the best Illinois teams we have faced over that duration.

According to ESPN's Rittenberg, Illinois has the Big Ten's top QB unit and WR unit--a combination that gives Penn State fans nausea, especially with the many question marks in our secondary. (Iowa is not ranked in the top three in either of those categories, but comes in #1 for offensive line.) The running game will be led by Dufrene. All is not lost, as the Illinois line has some revamping to do.

The big question will whether the Illini defense has improved or not. Last year, Illinois ranked 56th in total defense, 67th in scoring defense, 49th in pass defense, and 77th in rushing defense. The secondary, which was supposedly strong (and the best rated last year as above for pass defense) suffered the loss of Miami Thomas to an ACL.

Despite all that, and playing the Illini at home last year before a white out crowd, we still only won by 14 points, 38-24. Playing on the road, against the Big Ten's best QB-WR combo with a suspect/rebuilt secondary spells ROLAIDS to me.

And thus concludes our countdown. NEXT UP: My prediction(s) for the season.

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