Dienhart: What to Watch For This Saturday
Many eyes will be on Michigan State’s game at Iowa, arguably the biggest tilt this weekend in what will be a matchup that goes a long way toward determining who wins the Legends Division. And what type of scene will unfold at Penn State, where Nebraska is playing? Following lower in this post is a look at what the other Big Ten teams need to do to enjoy success this Saturday. Note: Indiana is off.
1. Michigan State’s ground game. The Spartans’ rushing attack ranks last in the Big Ten (130.3 ypg), averaging a league-low 3.7 yards per carry. It must run better to beat Iowa.
2. Penn State’s psyche. Forget about the middling offense. The Nittany Lions’ chief issue will be their mind-set, given the sordid revelations of child sex abuse this week. The games must go on, but it will be trying under these circumstances.
3. Iowa’s defense. The unit has struggled most of 2011, especially with stopping the run. But the Hawkeyes are coming off a strong effort in a win over Michigan last week, limiting the Wolverines to 127 yards rushing on 37 carries (3.4 ypc).
4. Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead. The rough-and-tumble running back got dinged up early in last week’s stunning home loss to Northwestern, running 22 times for 69 yards (3.1 ypc). Burkhead needs to be at top form facing a tough Penn State defense that is No. 3 in the Big Ten overall and vs. the run.
5. Illinois offense. The unit has been shut out in the first half in each of the last three games. Bottom line: The Fighting Illini have scored an aggregate 28 points in their last three games.
6. Michigan big plays. Wolverine coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have said the lack of big, explosive plays were a major reason why Michigan lost at Iowa last week. Time for QB Denard Robinson to be himself.
7. Ohio State’s focus. The Buckeyes got beat the last time they visited Purdue. They can’t let it happen again if they want to stay in the Leaders race. Ohio State is on a roll, winning three in a row behind a tough defense and physical ground game.
8. Wisconsin killer instinct. The Badgers need to keep the pedal to the metal, which means not overlooking a Minnesota team that is playing its best ball of the season. Wisconsin can’t afford a slip up and showed how powerful it can be in a 62-17 demolition of Purdue last week.
9. Purdue defense. The unit was shredded last week, allowing a school single-game record 62 points in a loss at Wisconsin. The rushing defense has been abysmal, ranking 10th in the Big (191.1 ypg). That’s bad news facing an Ohio State team that likes to pound the rock (204.3 ypg).
10. Minnesota’s defense. The group is playing well, especially up front. That will need to continue vs. a prolific Wisconsin offense that leads the Big Ten (503.2 ypg) and is No. 1 in rushing (246.4 ypg). The Badgers were on fire last week in a 62-17 win over Purdue, notching 605 yards of offense.
11. Northwestern front seven. The Wildcats are coming off one of their better defensive efforts of the season in a 28-25 victory at Nebraska. Northwestern must maintain its intensity vs. a Rice attack that can run the ball.
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.