Well Billy and I are back with three more big games to preview on "Rivalry Week", and the three games in this piece all have conference title implications. One of those game will have a direct impact on the national title hunt, while another is a rivalry marked by its hatred spiced up by a possible BCS berth on the line. The third game features the nation's largest rivalry trophy that can be carried (the Fremont Cannon between UNLV and Nevada has them beat) along with the stakes of a Rose Bowl berth. And in case you were wondering, we won't be talking about the Apple Cup (Washington/Washington St.) in this article either. Enjoy.
#15 Michigan State @ #8 Penn State 3:30 PM on ABC (regional)
Billy Palmer: This game is huge! It may not have a lot of national title implications but it still has the prize of the Big 10 title possibly at stake. If Michigan were to somehow shock Ohio State then the winner of this game would be the Big 10 champ. If Penn State wins they are the conference champions no matter what the outcome of the Ohio State v Michigan game is. Michigan State wants to upset Penn State and hope their in-state rivals will upset Ohio State. Look, I'm not going to play around here. Penn State is definitely the better team right? Not necessarily! Throw out the Ohio State clunker and they haven't played a bad game all year. I don't think this is necessarily a walk in the park for the Nittany Lions.
Michigan State needs to copy exactly what Iowa did against Penn State. They need to use Ringer a lot (which they have no problem doing), protect the ball, and good consistent quarterback play from Hoyer. Penn State is a blue collared team and their own kryptonite is doing the blue collared thing to them. You know, a little of the "give them a dose of their own medicine" thing. Penn State's defense is pretty salty so that will be a very hard task to accomplish for the Spartans. So you could just say the key to the game is the Spartans ability to just play solid and mistake free football.
Raphielle Johnson: Billy, how about we clear one thing up right now: Michigan will not beat Ohio State. As for this one, Penn State hasn't looked the same since that Ohio State win. Darryl Clark, who was spectacular early on, has not played as well since that concussion that sent him to the bench in that game. Completing just eight passes in the loss to Iowa and a mediocre effort against a bad Indiana team last week would have me worried if I were a Nittany Lion fan. But that's where running back Evan Royster comes into play. Royster has run for 1,123 yards and twelve touchdowns this season and will be key in keeping Javon Ringer off the field. Receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood can do some serious damage through the air, but that Spartan secondary is nothing to scoff at.
Another player to watch is Michigan State QB Brian Hoyer. Given his uneven play this season, along with the absence of a big-play receiver, what's stopping Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley from sticking eight in the box and forcing Hoyer to beat them through the air? Hoyer will have to play the best game of his season in this one, making the Lions pay for such a strategy. Ringer's one game in which he was subdued was against Ohio State, where the Buckeyes held him to sixty-seven yards and no touchdowns in a 45-7 drubbing in East Lansing.
Key to the Game
BP: Michigan State's ability to play mistake-free football
RJ: Brian Hoyer vs. Penn State secondary
BP: Well, it's Senior Day in Happy Valley so don't expect the upset. Michigan State will keep this a tight game well into the 3rd quarter when Evan Royster hits a long run. Penn State D will then get momentum and cash in a couple of Hoyer turnovers. Penn State wins 27-17.
RJ: I have to agree with your pick here. Hoyer hasn't shown enough throughout the year to lead me to believe that he can take advantage should Penn State load the box. Nittany Lions win 21-10 and send Joe Paterno to Pasadena for the second time.
#14 BYU @ #7 Utah 6 PM EST on The Mtn.
BP: Utah has survived up to this point. They've remained undefeated for 11 games so far. One team stands between Utah and a likely BCS game, and that is the BYU Cougars. Both of these teams have played pretty good football all season. However, both have shown that they have a tendency to sometimes play like they are bored. Both teams have played close games against teams that shouldn't even compete with them. Well, throw that all out the window.
This is a big profile game and the game has serious meaning. I think the key to the game is if Utah will be to wound up and too tight. They are playing for a perfect season and sometimes for teams that haven't been there that often they tend to press a little when the spotlight is on them. If Utah stays calm and plays their type of game they will be headed to a BCS game. If not, BYU could keep it close with Max Hall and pull off a huge dream-crushing win.
RJ: In a lot of rivalry games, the word "hate" is thrown around more as lip service than as fact. That doesn't apply here, with a history of brawls, comments about which school's grads will be pumping the other's gas, and usually a conference title on the line. Utah may be the undefeated team with a shot at the BCS should they win, but are they really that much better than the Cougars? Of course Utah beat TCU while the Cougars were whipped on national television, but I think BYU is finally snapping out of that post-TCU hangover that stuck with them for so long. The offense is still prolific, led by QB Max Hall, WR Austin Collie and RB Harvey Unga. And tight end Dennis Pitta is one of a few contributors who could be back for this one after missing time due to injury.
Utah, on the other hand, has encountered little adversity besides having to come back and beat TCU at home. QB Brian Johnson is well on his way to being named Mountain West Player of the Year, and if this one comes down to a kick late there's no one you'd rather send out there than the Utes' Louie Sakoda. The question for the Cougars is what they can do to slow down the Mountain West's third-ranked offense, given the fact that they rank 6th in the conference (54th overall) in total defense. But with the stakes as high as they are, BYU will show up on that side of the football.
Key to the Game
BP: Utah's state of mind
RJ: BYU's defensive execution
BP: Utah will take control of this game from the beginning. BYU is loaded with offensive talent but Utah has just as much defense. Max Hall will struggle all day and Utah plays a perfect game with the result of a perfect season. Utah wins going away 30-13.
RJ: I see this one being tight for four quarters; the last time Utah was playing this game for a BCS berth was 2004 when they blew out the Cougars 52-21. But this Utah team isn't that dominant, and BYU isn't playing for a lame duck coach like the 2004 team was. Utah wins 34-31 with a touchdown late. Too bad this game isn't on a network that the majority of the nation has easy access to.
#2 Texas Tech @ #5 Oklahoma 8 PM EST on ABC
BP: This has been the year of the Big 12. Loaded with dominating teams, offenses and quarterbacks. This week is Texas Tech visiting Oklahoma. This is unfamiliar water for Texas Tech; ranked #2 this late in the season with their destiny in their own hands isn't something they have ever had to deal with. Oklahoma, on the other hand has had to deal with big games like this nearly 2 or 3 times a year and has only lost 2 times at home in the career of Bob Stoops. I love the Tech passing game but I think their running attack is definitely underrated. They are loaded at WR but nobody talks about the running backs. Shannon Woods and Baron Batch have combined for over 1200 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. In fact, the Red Raiders are very close to having more rushing yards than they've ever had under Leach.
I think both teams are going to score points but I think the ability of Texas Tech to run the ball will be the key to this game. Historically, Texas Tech has had a tough time running the ball well on Oklahoma (and in Norman especially). I think the young Oklahoma linebacker corps needs to be on there game and make the right reads on draw plays that Tech loves to use. If OU shuts down the run and forces Texas Tech to pass and be completely one dimensional they will win the game. If Texas Tech can establish the run and keep the Sooner D off balance then I believe the Red Raiders have a chance to pull off an upset.
RJ: Yes the Red Raiders have had trouble running against the Sooners in recent meetings, but a key component in those games is out with a knee injury (MLB Ryan Reynolds). Austin Box performed well in his stead against Kansas State, but the Wildcats have nowhere near the talent on offense that rolls into Norman on Saturday night. Graham Harrell is racking up big numbers as usual, thanks to an outstanding receiving corps and an offensive line that people started talking about early in the season for their idiosyncrasies, only to come to the realization that they're very good blockers as well.
But the vastly-improved Red Raider defense will go up against its stiffest test of the season, given how balanced that Oklahoma attack is. Sam Bradford seems to rarely make mistakes in reading defenses, picking foes apart with pinpoint throws to the likes of Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias among others (Jermaine Gresham is one of the best tight ends in the country as well). And the backfield has a number of options from which to choose, from DeMarco Murray to Chris Brown and even Mossis Madu. Texas was quite the test for Ruffin McNeill's defense the day after Halloween, but their running backs (Colt McCoy doesn't count) aren't as productive as Oklahoma's.
Key to the Game
BP: Texas Tech's rushing offense
BP: Texas Tech's defense
BP: I think that Oklahoma will shut down the Texas Tech run game. This game will get out of hand in favor of the Sooners early but I think Texas Tech makes a late rally to make the game look closer than it really was. OU wins 52-40.
RJ: Wow. That's a lot of points right there. Both offenses will have their share of success, but I don't see the wheels falling off the Tech bandwagon like many are expecting. For those who think the touchdown pass to Crabtree against Texas was his defining moment, watch Harrell do it again in a 45-41 win and just about seal the Red Raiders' first-ever Heisman Trophy.