Buckeyes face tough road tests in Big Ten

COLUMBUS, Ohio – How will Ohio State fare this year in its final eight regular-season football games, the Big Ten portion of the Buckeyes’ schedule, especially if they start off with a 4-0 record?

Road games are always the No. 1 nemesis, and OSU has some tough ones to deal with in Northwestern and Michigan. But you can’t forget about Purdue too, because West Lafayette is a place where the Buckeyes haven’t done real well lately against the Boilermakers, dropping two straight decisions.

First things first though as Ohio State kicks off its Big Ten slate at home against an always good test for the Buckeyes in Wisconsin.

Sept. 28 vs. Wisconsin,

8 p.m. (ABC, ESPN

or ESPN 2)

The Badgers, who OSU downed in overtime last season in Madison, have a new head coach in Gary Andersen from Utah State after Bret Bielema left to take over at Arkansas.

Andersen, who needed only four seasons to turn around Utah State’s football fortunes, is hoping to direct Wisconsin to its fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

Offensively, Wisconsin has a three-way quarterback duel going between a pair of returnees in sophomore Joel Stave and sixth-year senior Curt Phillips who both started last year and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy.

The Badgers don’t have running back Montee Ball any more, but do have returning playmakers in tailbacks James White and Melvin Gordon, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen. They are lacking, however, in overall offensive line depth. And at wide receiver beyond Abbrederis, who averaged 17.1 yards on 49 catches last year, are a group of unproven players.

On defense, the up-front personnel should ease the pressure on a green secondary with only one returning starter in safety Dezmen Southward. The strength of the prevent unit is a trio of end/outside linebackers in Brendan Kelly, Vince Biegel and Tyler Dippel along with linebacker Chris Borland,, who can be a disruptive force in the Badgers’ multiple-front blitz packages.

Oct. 5 at Northwestern,

8 p.m. (ABC, ESPN

or ESPN2)

For the Wildcats, they could put one of the conference’s best offenses on the field if the line comes together. That’s the key as Northwestern return almost all of their top skill players, headed by running back Venric Mark, who rolled up 1,366 yards rushing last season.

The Wildcats will continue to employ a two-quarterback system of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian that proved effective for much of 2012. But the line has to replace three starters, although Brandon Vitabile is the anchor at center.

On defense, Northwestern is led on the line by end Tyler Scott, who paced the team in sacks (9), tackles for a loss (12 1/2) and forced fumbles (3) last season, and returns two starters at linebacker, veteran Damien Proby in the middle and ball-hawking outside backer Chi Chi Ariguzo.

The secondary boasts of such quality players as safety Ibraheim Campbell and cornerback Nick VanHoose.

Northwestern’s kicking game is a strength as well with sure-legged kicker Jeff Budzien, who booted through 19 of 20 field-goal attempts last year, and Mark, an All-American punt returner in 2012.

The ‘Cats have most of their core pieces back from a 10-win team last fall, so are looking to really contend in the Big Ten in 2013.

Oct. 19 vs. Iowa,

3:30 p.m. (ABC,

ESPN, ESPN2)

The Hawkeyes are coming off their worst season since 2000, ending with six straight losses en route to a 48 record that was emphasized by a woeful passing attack,

Jake Rudock, who didn’t play a down last year despite being the backup quarterback, will probably be the starter this fall. He is a pro-style quarterback who threw for over 5,000 yards in high school.

His returning top two aerial targets caught 52 and 45 passes last fall, but scored only a total of three touchdowns. So several receivers from Iowa’s 2013 recruiting class will have an opportunity to play right away.

The Hawkeyes should, though, continue to run the ball effectively with Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock back pounding the ball behind another rock-solid offensive line, headed by left tackle Brandon Scherff.

On defense, the line has depth, but put little pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year, although only one full-time starter has to be replaced in the secondary.

For 15-year Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz, his once-proud legacy at Iowa could be tarnished even further this season if things don’t start to turn around.

Oct. 26 vs. Penn State, 8 p.m. (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2)

First off, the Nittany Lions need a quarterback this season after Matt McGloin finished his college career with a bang in 2012, The candidates are junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, one of the top recruits in the nation.

Otherwise, Penn State appears to be in pretty good shape on offense as returning running back Zach Zwinak led the team with 1,000 yards rushing last season. The Lions are also looking for redshirt freshman speedster Akeel Lynch to provide a boost as a breakaway threat.

In addition, back for the Lions are five of their top wide receivers from last year, headed by Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson. Plus, they are deep at tight end too with the trio of Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James returning.

Up front on offense, a solid threesome of guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach and left tackle Donovan Smith are all back.

Penn State is known for putting a solid defensive front on the field. This year, it’ll be spearheaded by DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson along with Deion Barnes, last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year who recorded six sacks.

In the secondary, the Lions will sport more experience with a starting cornerback and both safeties returning.

But at linebacker, depth is sparse, although outside linebacker Mike Hull came into his own last fall with 58 tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, a blocked punt and an interception, and middle backer Glenn Carson led all returnees from last season with 85.

And of course, optimism is running high this year in State College after last season’s surprising 8-4 mark under new head coach Bill O’Brien.

Nov. 2 at Purdue (time and TV to be announced)

Former Jim Tressel OSU first lieutenant Darrell Hazell takes over a Purdue program that has given the Buckeyes fits the last three years, including having go to overtime to pull out a 29-22 win over the Boilermakers in Columbus last season.

At quarterback, it could be Rob Henry, a good runner and the most experienced candidate with seven career starts, but none since 2010. Redshirt freshman Austin Appleby and true freshman Danny Etling are also getting long looks.

If Purdue decides to rely on the run a little more than in recent years, Akeem Hunt is probably who Hazell is looking to for that. Hunt had a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD against Ohio State last year.

The offensive line returns three starters, with the key being Robert Kugler moving from guard to center. A collection of solid receivers is led by Gary Bush, who scored seven touchdowns on only 41 receptions last year.

On defense, Purdue lost standout defensive tackle Kawann Short to the NFL, but talented Ryan Russell returns at defensive end and Bruce Gaston, who at nose tackle “makes a world of difference inside,” said Hazel.

Overall, eight defensive starters return, but remember Purdue finished 11th in the Big Ten and 77th nationally in total defense last season. Hazell and his staff weren’t exactly left with an abundance of talent, particularly on offense. But a winning record this fall would equate to a very successful season for the Boilermakers,

Nov. 16 at Illinois (time and TV to be announced)

The Fighting Illini were, to put it mildly, horrid last season, 2-10 in Tim Beckman’s first year at the Illinois grid helm.

Ranked last in the Big Ten in every major offensive category brought about an 08 conference mark, and resulted in bringing in former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit to run the offense. And Cubit’s got an experienced quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase to do it.

Scheelhaase, sixth on the school’s career passing list and fifth in total offense, needs 3,504 yards in 2013 to pass Juice Williams at the top of the Illinois total offense list.

But the real trouble for the woeful Illini offense in 2012 was up front, with the O-line surrendering 39 sacks. And switching over to defense, the D-line lost starters to the NFL, leaving end Tim Kynard as its only experienced player, although freshman Mason Monheim led the team with tackles last season. Plus, three of the four starters, including both corners. in the secondary will be new.

Beckman had inherited an Illinois team that won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. But after last season’s debacle, his second team will need to show improvement with maybe four or five wins a realistic expectation.

Nov. 23 vs. Indiana (time and TV to be announced)

The Hoosiers have turned into a point machine under offensive guru/head coach Kevin Wilson in just two years.

Despite losing quarterback Tre Roberson to a broken leg in Game 2 last season, Indiana still finished on top of the Big Ten in passing offense and was second in total offense.

And most of the essential offensive pieces return this year, headed by Roberson, whose ability to scramble puts him ahead of Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld whose passing accuracy made them effective as a tandem last season,

But defense is a different story for the Hoosiers, who the Buckeyes barely staved off 52-49 last year.

Indiana was last in the Big Ten in rushing, total and scoring defense, so look for a major youth movement on that side of the ball.

But winning with freshmen is difficult in the Big Ten, so offense will remain Indiana’s main calling card. But if the defense can make several-much needed improvements, Indiana could quite possibly notch a half-dozen wins.

Nov. 30 at Michigan (time and TV to be announced)

It could come down to this always big game to decide who’s playing for the Big Ten title the following week.

Michigan has a different quarterback this year in Devin Gardner, who got to play the final five games in 2012 after Denard Robinson was injured – and did pretty well, 75-of-126 passing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The Wolverines, though, do have some uncertainties, beginning with the offensive line having three new starters. The running game has to improve after averaging just 72.8 yards per game last fall.

On defense, Michigan has to replace their best lineman in Craig Roh, defensive back in Jordan Kovacs and linebacker in Jake Ryan, sidelined until at least mid-October with a torn ACL. Last year, Ryan led the team in tackles (88), tackles for a loss (16), sacks (4 1/2) and forced fumbles (f4).

Still however, the Wolverines too have an almost sure thing in placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who has connected on 29 of his last 35 field-goal attempts and had made 13 straight.

For Michigan, which hasn’t won a Big Ten title in eight seasons, all but two of its toughest games this fall are at home, where the Wolverines are 140 under third-year head coach Brady Hoke. But in the end, the reworked offensive line and a renewed running game seem to be the keys to the season for Michigan.