It’s fitting that “The Walking Dead” season premiere aired Sunday night. We’re at the point in the Big Ten Conference schedule where it seems like we have a couple zombies wandering the Midwest. There are still more teams alive than aren’t, but some hopes are dashed.
Some teams are down, others performing well below expectations. The easy answer is firing coaches or hitting the recruiting trail harder, but I’d suggest that in almost every case, one of the easiest things to adjust would be sports medicine. The team that stays healthier (and thus better keeps its star players on the field) is usually going to have an advantage.
That type of adjustment is often a long play and thus harder for coaches and athletic directors to invest in, especially when their jobs are on the line. That doesn’t make it a bad idea, and the teams that do make that investment — the Alabamas, the Ohio States, the Stanfords — are seeing a consistent advantage.
For now, there are plenty of injuries, so let’s look at the key injuries that could most impact this weekend:
Tyler O’Connor, QB, Michigan State
It’s been an up-and-down season for O’Connor and the Spartans, with the senior being replaced in the starting lineup by Brian Lewerke against Northwestern two weeks ago. O’Connor did play in that game, and responded with the team looking its best (13 of 21, 281 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception). Unfortunately, an injury suffered in that same game against the Wildcats kept him out last week’s game against Maryland (a 28-17 loss) — and it keep the ball in Lewerke’s hands longer. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio will only say that O’Connor is “nicked up,” but given Lewerke’s struggles making the right reads and staying in the pocket, the upcoming game against Michigan’s defense is one that Dantonio would like to have in more experienced hands. There are rumors (noted here at Land of 10) that O’Connor has a foot injury. Look to see if he’s able to practice normally as this week’s work will be key for either quarterback.
Mitchell Leidner, QB, Minnesota
Leidner was a bit of a surprise start on Saturday. The medical and coaching staffs watched him in warmups and decided that he gave the team the best chance to win despite his lack of practice time. Leidner was cleared from the Big Ten concussion protocol and did not have symptoms, so the decision was one made solely on a football basis. Leidner made it through the 34-32 win over Rutgers without any issues, which is what we should always see if the protocol is handled properly. Specific concussions don’t recur, but they can happen again, so the Gophers would do well to keep Leidner upright as they try to get bowl eligible over the next couple weeks against Illinois and Purdue, then fight for bowl position with three tougher games to close out the season.
Wes Lunt, QB; Chayce Crouch, QB, Illinois
If Jeff George Jr. is the future for Lovie Smith and the Illini, the future has some work to do. Illinois losing to Michigan isn’t a surprise, but with both Lunt and Crouch out, Smith had to go to George. With a 4-of-15 performance, Smith isn’t going to stay with George unless Lunt or Crouch are out again — and that’s possible. Lunt’s back (injured against Purdue on Oct. 8) has made some progress, but as with any back injury, setbacks are common and the timeline for return is very difficult to predict. For Crouch, who apparently injured his shoulder against Rutgers the following week, the team is still holding out some hope that he can return this season. Ultimately, a decision will be made on surgery this week. Like it or not, the future might be now.
Rob Wheelwright, WR, Wisconsin
Wheelwright went through warmups with the team Saturday, but a decision was made to hold him out against Iowa while he continues to heal up from his leg injury. The Badgers continue to spread both touches and targets around, getting enough out of their depth to make up for the lack of one star player. Wheelwright wasn’t putting up big numbers this season, but that’s more a function of how this team plays than his lack of production. With Nebraska looking like the last ranked team that the Badgers will face in the regular season, Saturday’s game is a big one for Wisconsin. A win gives the Badgers a chance to make a run to the Big Ten Championship with some help, but a loss ends that hope. Wheelwright should be back at practice and the top target this weekend.