This is the biggest week yet in the Big Ten with many marquee matchups. Each division features a headlining game with the big Legends Division matchup of Michigan State at Nebraska and the key Leaders Division clash between Wisconsin and Ohio State. Here are my 12 things to watch for this Saturday.
1. Michigan State’s emotions. The Spartans are in the midst of a brutal stretch the last three weeks that has seen them play at Ohio State, and Michigan and Wisconsin at home. Now comes a trip to Nebraska, a team in a must-win mode that has won two straight and plays in one of the most intimidating environments in the nation.
2. Nebraska’s passing. No one denies that the Cornhuskers can run the football behind quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead. But can Nebraska pass enough to keep the rugged Michigan State defense off balance? The Spartans pace the league and rank second in the nation in total defense (222.9 ypg). The Huskers rank just 10th in the Big Ten in passing (171.7 ypg).
3. Nathan Scheelhaase’s productivity. The Illini quarterback needs to regain the form he displayed in pushing Illinois to a 6-0 start. Since then, Scheelhaase has hit 42-of-69 passes for 386 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions while running 29 times for 65 yards and a touchdown.
4. Penn State’s quarterback duo. Joe Paterno has insisted on using two quarterbacks all season, unwilling to anoint either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden the starter. The offense has been uneven, ranking just ninth in the Big Ten (375.1 ypg). But the lack of an anointed starter hasn’t hurt the results, as the Nittany Lions are 7-1 and on top in the Leaders. But the offense will need to be more productive against a desperate Illinois team.
5. Wisconsin’s resolve. The Badgers were hit with adversity for the first time last week in a heart-breaking loss at Michigan State. Now Wisconsin has to go on the road to a hostile environment for a second week in a row. The Badgers’ leadership and moxie will be put to the test with another potential punch in the nose.
6. Ohio State’s offense. To be kind, the Buckeye attack has struggled. The offense ranks 11th in the Big Ten (302.9 ypg). And the passing has been even worse, ranking last in the conference (127.9 ypg). No way Ohio State can beat Wisconsin completing just one pass, as the Buckeyes did in their last game at Illinois. Time for Braxton Miller to grow up.
7. Michigan’s front seven. The Wolverine defense has made great strides in one year under new coordinator Greg Mattson. If the front seven can mute the Purdue ground game that ranks fifth in the Big Ten (195.0 ypg), it will go a long way toward pushing the Wolverines to victory and keeping them in the Legends race.
8. Purdue QB Caleb TerBush. Slowly but surely, he has emerged over Robert Marve and is rounding into form. In the last three games, TerBush has completed 42-of-71 passes (59 percent) for 480 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Not bad for a guy who was third-string in training camp.
9. Iowa’s sharpness. The Hawkeyes can’t get sloppy and lose their focus and edge playing a struggling Minnesota team. The Hawkeyes have a bit of momentum, having won two in a row. They need to take care of business against an overmatched foe to stay sharp for a tough and critical stretch run in November.
10. Northwestern’s pass blocking. The veteran offensive line has struggled to pass protect, allowing the most sacks (24) of any Big Ten team. That maintains a trend from last season. Not good for a line trying to protect Dan Persa as he continues to battle through recovery from an Achilles injury. The front doesn’t figure to get tested too much by a sluggish Indiana defense, so this is a good week to iron out issues as Northwestern tries to stop a five-game skid.
11. Minnesota’s pride. With one more loss, the Golden Gophers will be eliminated from bowl consideration. A second win in a row over rival Iowa would help Minnesota keep Floyd of Rosedale and go a long way toward buoying hopes for the struggling program.
12. Indiana’s psyche. It’s five losses in a row and counting for the Hoosiers, who already are out of the running for a bowl with seven defeats. Rookie coach Kevin Wilson must keep the team motivated while developing young players. It’s all about pride now.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed. You can send him your football questions to his Big Ten mailbag, too.