Off weeks have me wondering. I know why college football ends in early December. Once upon a time, college football matched the academic calendar. However, I think we can all acknowledge that with bowl games throughout December, there’s really no set stop point for practice.
Adding a couple more weeks wouldn’t be a burden on the athletes above and beyond what they’re expected to do now. Adding a few more off weeks, on the other hand, could be a big deal. Teams love off weeks for getting healthy and for game planning. Maybe we’d have a few less games per week, but adding a couple weeks into the season (rather than adding games) would actually make the game significantly healthier, and that will always make the game better. For now, let’s look around the conference:
Jordan Westerkamp, WR Nebraska
It’s a very tight matchup between the Huskers and Badgers, so something as simple as having Jordan Westerkamp back could shift things. Westerkamp has missed the last few games with back spasms, but he’s been back at practice and showed that he can take contact without having the back act up. The Nebraska medical staff will keep working to keep him loose, before and during the game, so look for them in action. Team sources tell me that Westerkamp is still not 100 percent, but there’s some question as to whether that’s more a matter of confidence rather than physical. The same sources think the crowd, the atmosphere and the adrenaline will help Westerkamp. Look for him to be involved early.
Chris Evans, RB Michigan
Evans has become the clear first choice at running back for Jim Harbaugh, but he may have to tap into his depth if Evans isn’t cleared from the Big Ten’s concussion protocol by Saturday. It’s difficult to get a good read on any concussion; every one is different and there’s nothing visible. Evans was back at practice on a limited basis Thursday, so having him back on Friday would be a positive indicator. If Evans is cleared, he’ll take on his normal role, though coaches do have a tendency to go a bit light on players who are returning. That said, it’s a rivalry game, and it is Harbaugh, so the normal rules don’t apply.
Tyler O’Connor, QB Michigan State
It’s Brian Lewerke for the Spartans as they try to get a rivalry win that would turn their entire season. Sure, 3-5 isn’t much better, but as any fan knows, beating a rival, especially as a significant underdog, can save jobs as well as season narratives. O’Connor is unavailable this week and probably wouldn’t have gotten the start anyway. It’s not a good assignment, and doing much of anything against Michigan’s defense isn’t something anyone has figured out yet. The Spartans could be back on the quarterback carousel next week, when O’Connor is expected to be available.
Lovie Smith refuses to discuss injuries with the media, but it’s easy enough to dig in and find out that the team expects Jeff George Jr. to start this week. There’s a chance that Wes Lunt, who’s been dealing with severe back spasms for a couple weeks, could go or even start if he’s very good in warmups, but the expectation is it will be George. He was … not good in his first start. But Illinois’ season is one that’s building for the future, so even if Lunt can go, seeing if George can improve is important as well. Having seen George a lot in high school, I certainly expect him to be a lot better than what we saw vs. Michigan in a really tough first look at the Big Ten.
T.J. Watt, LB Wisconsin
Big brother J.J. is out for the season, but with Wisconsin’s big matchup this week, the Badgers’ Watt might come out from under wraps. Not much is known publicly about Watt’s injury, which has kept him out a couple games, but my sources tell me he’s struggled with his legs and back since making the switch to defense. It’s a very different position that makes different demands, especially with the burst required to come off the line and jam into a lineman. Since J.J. Watt has always struggled with similar injuries, there’s a question as to whether this is something genetic, just as some have asked about the Mannings and their neck issues. For now, it’s a maintenance issue, and Watt should be back in at least a limited fashion for this game.