Big Ten teams use last nonconference games to clean up acts

The last Saturday in September will be the last chance for Big Ten teams to work out their kinks before conference play begins.

Minnesota is desperate for more offense. Nebraska needs better play from its defense. Even defending national champion and top-ranked Ohio State has problems.

The Buckeyes' most talked-about issue, of course, has been quarterback. Just as disconcerting to coach Urban Meyer have been the struggles of the players around Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.

Meyer, whose team hosts Western Michigan ahead of its conference opener against Indiana, is looking for improvement in all areas from an offense that accounted for 13 points and five turnovers in last week's 20-13 win over Northern Illinois.

''One of the worst-executed performances since we've been here, so we'll get that corrected,'' Meyer said.

Minnesota (2-1) hopes what's been a woeful offense starts moving against Ohio before opening Big Ten play at surprising Northwestern. Injuries have forced shuffling on the offensive line. As a result, the running game has been stymied and Mitch Leidner has been forced to throw too much. Leidner's two interceptions in a 10-7 win over Kent State led to calls for him to be replaced. Coach Jerry Kill has offered no hint that will happen.

''Nothing is ever easy, but I think we can certainly improve this week. I really do,'' Kill said. ''I'm looking forward to it because controversy sometimes makes you better. I've had a lot of that in my life, and kids, it makes them mentally tougher.''

Nebraska (1-2) needs to shore up a pass defense that ranks among the worst in the country before next week's Big Ten opener at Illinois. The Huskers will get a good test Saturday against Southern Mississippi's spread offense.

Some other Big Ten teams' areas of concern as nonconference play winds down:

- Illinois (2-1) had its rushing defense exposed when North Carolina ran for 254 yards.

- Indiana (3-0) has the same problem as always - defense. The Hoosiers have given up an average of 544 yards and 35 points against undistinguished competition.

- Iowa (3-0) had a punt blocked and threw an interception against Pittsburgh last week. Coach Kirk Ferentz said those areas must be cleaned up.

- Maryland (2-1) seeks more steady play from new starting QB Caleb Rowe, who threw for 297 yards and four TDs against South Florida last week but also was intercepted three times.

- Michigan (2-1) is showing improvement under Jim Harbaugh, though the Jake Rudock-led offense isn't nearly consistent enough.

- Michigan State (3-0) didn't close games against Western Michigan and Air Force as strong as coach Mark Dantonio would like. ''In both cases, though, we were comfortably ahead so it didn't cost us anything. In the Oregon game, we needed to finish, and we did,'' he said.

- Northwestern (3-0), led by a stout defense so far, is going to need Clayton Thorson to be better than a 50-percent passer.

- Penn State (2-1) gave up 10 sacks against Temple and none the last two weeks. Still, the offensive line figures to remain an issue throughout the season.

- Purdue (1-2) has been turnover-prone, and coach Darrell Hazell will give redshirt freshman David Blough his first start against Bowling Green ahead of next week's visit to Michigan State.

- Rutgers (1-2) has problems everywhere and won't get much out of playing Kansas. Michigan State and Ohio State are two of the Scarlet Knights' first three Big Ten opponents.

- Wisconsin (2-1) is humming along, but any injuries along an offensive line that has three new starters could spell ruin.

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