Dienhart: Week 10 Big Ten Previews

Michigan’s trip to Iowa is without a doubt the biggest Big Ten clash of the weekend. It’s a key battle in a Legends Division race that is wide open and features four schools still in the thick of the hunt: Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa. Suffice it to say, neither the Wolverines nor the Hawkeyes can afford to lose. And the fact it’s a road game makes matters more difficult for Michigan, playing just its third game away from the Big House this season and in the midst of playing four road games in a five-game stretch.

“I think it, obviously, is an important part — going into hostile environments to see what kind of poise and composure your team plays with,” said Hoke. “In this league, you’re going to get punched in the mouth, and you better be able to punch back.”

Iowa got punched hard last week, suffering a stunning 22-21 loss at Minnesota—its third road loss in three road games in 2011. But maybe the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa is 5-0 this year, will help the Hawkeyes get back on track.

Do you get the Big Ten Network on TV? Watch BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart discuss the divisional races for the Legends and Leaders title this Friday on our weekly show The Big Ten Football Report at 8 p.m. ET.

“I’m not as much into the road-home conspiracy as much as some people,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “To me, it’s about playing well and not playing well. We haven’t played well enough to win in our three road losses. In five wins, we’ve played well enough to win.”

Following is a look at each Big Ten game this Saturday.

MICHIGAN AT IOWA, 12:00 PM ET ESPN/ESPN3

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is a key Legends match that neither club can afford to lose if it wants to win the division crown. The Wolverines got back in the win column following an off week, looking for a fast finish after fading in November in recent years. Conversely, Iowa enters the game coming off a crushing 22-21 loss at Minnesota that may have done irreparable psychological damage to Iowa.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Michigan DT Mike Martin. Martin and his linemates can’t let Iowa RB Marcus Coker run wild. Last week, Coker gashed Minnesota for 252 yards rushing. If Coker has a hot hand, it will open play-action for Hawkeye QB James Vandenberg, keeping the Wolverine defense off balance and the dynamic Michigan offense on the sideline for extended stretches.

KEY MATCHUP: Michigan’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line. The Wolverine ground game got even deadlier last week with the emergence of RB Fitzgerald Toussaint, who ran for 170 yards in a win over Purdue. Couple him with QB Denard Robinson, and Michigan’s formidable rushing game now ranks eighth in the nation (253.3 ypg). That is bad news for an Iowa defense that has struggled to stop the run. The Hawkeyes are yielding 163.6 rushing yards per game, allowing over 200 yards on the ground in two of their four Big Ten games.

NUMBER’S GAME: 4-10, Michigan’s record on the road the last three seasons. And save for a win at Notre Dame in 2010, the road victims aren’t impressive: Minnesota in 2008; Indiana and Purdue in 2010.

KEY NOTE: Iowa has beaten Michigan two times in a row; the Hawkeyes never have toppled the Wolverines three times in succession.

PURDUE AT WISCONSIN, 3:30 PM ET ABC/ESPN2

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: In just two weeks, the Badgers have gone from national championship contender to a team that will need a strong finish to win the Leaders Division. How far have the Badgers fallen? At one point, Wisconsin ranked No. 4 in the nation but tumbled to No. 19 in the AP poll this week. The Badgers will look to end a two-game skid and get back on track against Purdue. The Boilers still harbor bowl hopes but saw their momentum end with a 36-14 drubbing at Michigan last Saturday that really wasn’t even that close.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Badger special teams. Last week, Ohio State blocked a punt, setting up a touchdown. The week before, Michigan State blocked a field-goal attempt and turned a blocked punt into a touchdown.

KEY MATCHUP: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Purdue defensive line. Led by star T Kawann Short, Boilermakers’ front has shown flashes of being good. If the unit plays its a game, it could pose some issues for the physical Badger front, disrupting the timing of Wisconsin’s explosive attack. Still, look for the Badgers to get physical and try to pound Purdue with RB Montee Ball.

NUMBER’S GAME: 10th, where Wisconsin ranks in the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense. The only other school that can claim that distinction is Boise State.

KEY NOTE: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson paces the nation and is track to break the NCAA mark for passing efficiency with a 197.0 mark. Wilson has done his part the past two weeks, rallying the Badgers from double-digit point deficits vs. Michigan State and Ohio State. Alas, Wisconsin still has lost.

NORTHWESTERN AT NEBRASKA, 3:30 PM ET BTN/BTN2Go

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The Cornhuskers are looking to stay on a roll, having won three in a row since a humiliating 48-17 loss at Wisconsin. Nebraska has no wiggle room in its chase to win the Legends Division. A 59-38 win at Indiana kept the Wildcats’ bowl hopes alive and ended a five-game losing streak. Can Northwestern, which has led in the second half of all five of its losses, continue its momentum behind a hot offense?

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Husker passing game. With the defense rounding into form in recent weeks, the aerial game is the biggest issue in Lincoln. Nebraska ranks 10th in the Big Ten in passing (160.3 ypg). The only team with fewer than its eight touchdown passes is Minnesota, which has six.

KEY MATCHUP: Northwestern QB Dan Persa vs. Nebraska secondary. The Husker defense had some issues earlier this year, but its starting to round into form. But the secondary will be tested by Persa. Nebraska ranks fifth in the Big Ten in pass defense (179.6 ypg). Persa has hit 75 percent of his passes for 1,251 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. And he throws to an underrated group of pass catchers led by wideout Jeremy Ebert and tight end Drake Dunsmore.

NUMBERS’ GAME: 7, Wildcat wins vs. four four losses in the last month of the season since 2008. In that span, Northwestern is 4-2 on the road in November.

KEY NOTE: This will be Northwestern’s first visit to Lincoln, Neb., since 1974. The schools met in the 2000 Alamo Bowl, with the Huskers winning 66-17.

MINNESOTA AT MICHIGAN STATE, 12:00 PM ET BTN/BTN2Go

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The Spartans are coming off a suffocating loss at Nebraska, which was Michigan State’s first Big Ten defeat of the season. The loss created a scramble at the top of the Legends Division between the Spartans, Nebraska and Michigan. To remain in the hunt, Michigan State must take care of business against a Minnesota team that’s feeling confident coming off a 22-21 win over Iowa that ended a four-game losing skein and was the Golden Gophers’ first Big Ten victory.

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Michigan State offense. After a 24-3 drubbing at Nebraska, Husker players and coaches said it was easy to diagnose the Spartan offense. The result: a season-low 187 yards. The Michigan State attack will try to get back on track vs. a Golden Gopher defense that ranks 10th in the Big Ten (430.8 ypg).

KEY MATCHUP: Michigan State’s front seven vs. Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray. The Golden Gophers’ best shot at victory will be if Gray can run wild and hit a few big passes to underrated receiver Da’Jon McKnight. Spartan DE Williams Gholston will have to remain hot and keep an eye on Gray. Gholston is coming off a career-high 15-tackle effort vs. Nebraska. CB Darqueze Dennard also must rebound from some gaffes last week. SS Isaiah Lewis has picked off four passes, running back two for scores.

NUMBER’S GAME: 5, turnovers generated by Minnesota in eight games. The Golden Gophers notched a turnover for the first time in four games last week vs. Iowa.

KEY NOTE: Michigan State is 9-3 in November under Mark Dantonio, highlighted by a 3-0 record in 2010. MSU could enjoy another strong November with games against Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern. The Spartans deserve a break after a brutal October that saw them play Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

INDIANA AT OHIO STATE, 12:00 PM ET BTN/BTN2Go

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Can Ohio State stay hot? The outlook for the Buckeyes looked bleak just a few weeks ago, opening the season 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten. But following consecutive victories over Illinois and Wisconsin, Ohio State is in the thick of the Leaders Division race. In fact, if the Buckeyes win out, they will play in the Big Ten title game. What a comeback.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Ohio State’s intensity. Will the Buckeyes overlook a 1-8 Indiana team that has lost six in a row and could start as many as eight true freshmen, looking ahead to big games with Penn State and Michigan? Ohio State must stay dialed in, especially a defense that’s playing very well.

KEY MATCHUP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller vs. the Indiana defense. This is a moribund Hoosier defense that allows 36.2 points and 458.3.6 yards per game, both figures last in the Big Ten. This will be a good chance for Miller to gain more confidence. But, he may not get much passing work, as the Buckeyes likely will pound Indiana with RBs Dan “Boom” Herron and Carlos Hyde.

NUMBER’S GAME: 39, number of passes caught by Ohio State receivers this year. There are 66 receivers in the nation who have more catches than the Buckeye squad. The passing game has struggled all season for an offense that ranks 116th in the nation in passing.

KEY NOTE: Indiana has lost 18 in a row to Ohio State. Wait, it gets worse: The Hoosiers have beaten the Buckeyes just three times—1951, 1987, 1988–in the last 52 meetings.

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.

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