'Changes' hold ominous signs for Bears


'Changes' hold ominous signs for Bears

At the three-quarter pole of a season, absolute numbers by themselves are one thing. Trend lines are another, and several key ones are trending in decidedly wrong directions as the Bears work to hold course for the postseason.

With three losses in the last four games against teams with winning records, falloffs should be no surprise. But the losses are the effect, not the cause.

Offensively the fact that the Bears are still 32nd in the NFL in yardage on first-down plays (4.28) after committing to improving in that area is concerning because it indicates that the Bears are still setting themselves with too much to pick up too often on subsequent downs.

A month ago, going into the Houston-San Francisco-Minnesota-Seattle stretch, the Bears were at 4.27 yards per first-down play. They were able to survive that as long as the opponents were Tennessee or Jacksonville; not the Texans or 49ers.

Bigger picture, the stunning receiving numbers of Brandon Marshall had the Bears at 29th in passing yards a month ago. Now the Bears are 31st even with Marshall catching 32 passes for 385 yards in the past quarter-seasons games.

Coach Lovie Smith rarely calls out players in public but he left no doubt that the receiver group has not been producing enough outside of Marshall.

I think weve been saying that for awhile, someone needs to step up, Smith said. I think the guys will say that. Hopefully, we still have time.

How much time really remaining?

Time and games, however, are running out, particularly if the trends are going in the wrong directions.

The Bears have a total of six offensive touchdowns over the last four games. They had 15 in the four second-quarter games, but that included six against Tennessee and five against Jacksonville, and five of the 15 were scored by the defense and special teams.

Questions about how good the Bears would be when the takeaway faucet ran a little dry have been answered. Not very.

Defense waning

A month ago the defense ranked No. 6 in rush yards allowed per game (88). Now it is 10th with 103.5, and 22nd in yards per attempt, up from 4.3 per attempt to 4.5.

Not surprising. After allowing only Cedric Benson and the Green Bay Packers to top 100 yards in the first six games, the Bears have held no team to fewer than 114 in the last six, with Houston, San Francisco and Seattle all netting more than 120.

The 3.6 per carry of the Texans went to 4.2 by San Francisco to 5.7 for the Vikings and 5.5 for Seattle.

Usually an optimist like Smith can point to a positive performance somewhere. In the 12th game of the season, when a defense should be hitting its stride, good was nowhere to be found.

Cant even point anybody out, Smith said. Just about every good defensive game weve played around here, weve all had something to do with that player-wise. And vs. Seattle we all had something to do with that performance that were not proud of.

We havent had many of those but it does happen. Got to make sure it doesnt happen again.

Buckeyes not dead by a long shot, but this much is clear: Michigan is Big Ten's top dog


Buckeyes not dead by a long shot, but this much is clear: Michigan is Big Ten's top dog

Make no mistake, Ohio State isn’t out of the championship running because it lost one game on an October night in Happy Valley.

But here’s perhaps the biggest thing we learned on Saturday night: Michigan is the team to beat in the Big Ten.

The Wolverines didn’t prove that all by themselves, of course, because a 41-8 win over lowly Illinois is nothing special to a team in the national-title hunt. But with the Buckeyes falling in stunning fashion to Penn State, a comparison can start to be drawn.

We got a glimpse last weekend, when Ohio State couldn’t turn in nearly the same shut-down performance against Wisconsin that Michigan had two weeks prior. The Wolverines almost completely silenced the Badgers when the two met in Ann Arbor, a 14-7 win for Michigan in which it looked absolutely unbeatable on the defensive side and was a few missed field goals away from holding a much bigger lead. In its matchup with Wisconsin, the Ohio State defense showed up, too, particularly after halftime. But the Badgers still scored more than triple the points they did against the Wolverines and racked up more than 300 yards in the first half alone. The Buckeyes won and looked good doing it, but they looked nowhere near as good as the Wolverines did.

Then came Saturday night, when Ohio State struggled on offense despite some good raw numbers in terms of yardage. And the Penn State defense pressured the heck out of Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett, sacking him six times including on Ohio State’s final two offensive plays of the evening. These Lions are the same that the Wolverines scorched by a 49-10 score in late September. Michigan allowed Penn State to gain just 191 total yards in that game and sacked Trace McSorley six times, all while scoring nearly 50 points on 515 total yards.

Now, a few points.

The main difference when it comes to comparing the two games against Wisconsin and Penn State is that Michigan was at home for both and Ohio State was on the road for both. That’s a big difference, sure.

But the other point is that the Wolverines are doing this to everybody. They are obliterating the competition. Outside of the Wisconsin game — a game against a top-11 team with one of the best defenses in college football — every win has been a blowout. Including the Wisconsin game, the average margin of victory is 38.7. Excluding it, the average margin of victory is 44.

Michigan ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 10 points a game, and ranks No. 3 in the country in scoring offense, averaging a whopping 48.7 points per game. There doesn’t seem to be a weakness to this team, and there are no “yeah, but” arguments to be found, especially after what Ohio State did against Wisconsin and Penn State, two teams Michigan effectively dominated.

Jim Harbaugh’s crew is barreling toward playing for a national championship, it would seem. Of course, those Buckeyes still stand in the way, and should Ohio State take care of its business between now and the regular season’s final week — easier said than done with undefeated Nebraska still on the schedule — then The Game will be the Big Ten title game play-in we all thought it would be.

That game will still be a clash of the titans. But right this second, there’s a favorite. And it’s Michigan.

Big Ten poll update: Michigan up to No. 2 in both polls, Penn State into AP poll


Big Ten poll update: Michigan up to No. 2 in both polls, Penn State into AP poll

When the No. 2 team in the country goes down, a lot of things tend to change.

Ohio State's loss at Penn State on Saturday night set off a bunch of changes for Big Ten teams in both the AP and coaches polls Sunday.

Michigan is the new No. 2 team in the country in both sets of rankings, taking Ohio State's spot in both polls. The Wolverines moved up a slot in the AP poll and leapfrogged Clemson in the coaches poll. Michigan scored a blowout 41-8 win over Illinois on Saturday and looks like the team to beat in the Big Ten following the upset in Happy Valley.

And speaking of that upset, the Nittany Lions were ranked at No. 24 in the AP poll Sunday, their first appearance in those rankings since 2011. Thanks to a blocked field goal attempt that was taken back 60 yards for a touchdown, Penn State scored its first win over a ranked opponent under James Franklin, a 24-21 upset of previously undefeated Ohio State. The Lions also received votes in the coaches poll.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes dropped after suffering their first loss of the season. In the AP poll, Ohio State fell four spots to No. 6, and in the coaches poll, Ohio State dropped six spots to No. 8.

Nebraska, after coming back to beat Purdue by a 27-14 score, climbed one spot to No. 7 in the AP poll and moved up three spots to No. 6 in the coaches poll. Fellow Big Ten West Division contender Wisconsin moved down a slot from No. 10 to No. 11 in both sets of rankings after picking up a 17-9 win at Iowa. The Huskers and Badgers get together on Saturday night in Madison for another huge showdown.