Dienhart: What to watch for Saturday

With the potential for each division to be wrapped up this Saturday, there will be plenty to keep an eye on. Can Michigan State continue to run well? Is Penn State dialed it despite all of the off-field turmoil? Wisconsin must guard against a letdown when it plays at Illinois. Will the Badgers remain focused? Here’s what you should watch for each team this Saturday.

1. Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez. Can he continue to play well at Michigan? The last two weeks, he has excelled. He hit 13-of-26 passes for 143 yards and ran for 56 yards in a 17-14 win at Penn State last week. Martinez connected on 28-of-37 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 53 yards in a 28-25 home loss to Northwestern two weeks ago.

2. Michigan’s defense. The unit has played a big role in the Wolverines remaining in the Legends Division race. Brady Hoke’s unit ranks 17th in the nation in total defense (322.2 ypg). And the defense has become adept at generating turnovers, ranking second in the Big Ten with 20 takeaways.

3. Wisconsin’s focus. In October, the Badgers’ prospects of playing in the Big Ten title game looked bleak. Now, amazingly, Wisconsin controls its destiny. The Badgers can’t lose focus at Illinois playing a Fighting Illini team that is slumping. A win Saturday would set up a de facto Big Ten title game next week in Madison vs. Penn State.

4. Michigan State’s ground game. The Spartans still rank last in the Big Ten in rushing (132.8 ypg), but the ground game showed life last week in a big win at Iowa by running for 155 yards in a 37-21 triumph. Le’Veon Bell is the hot hand, running for 112 yards vs. the Hawkeyes. He’s big, physical and tough. Love it.

5. Purdue defensive line. The Boilermaker front needs to repeat the strong effort it enjoyed last week in a win over Ohio State. It’s all about trying to slow down Hawkeye RB Marcus Coker, who had just 57 yards rushing (2.7 per carry) last week in a home loss to Michigan State. If Coker gets going, it could be a long day for Purdue, which is trying to become bowl eligible.

6. The Illinois offense. The unit has struggled during a four-game losing streak that is threatening to ruin a once-promising season that opened with a 6-0 mark. QB Nathan Scheelhaase needs to regain his September groove as a passer and runner. During the four-game losing skein, Scheelhaase has connected on 57.8 percent of his passes for 619 yards and only two touchdowns. He has run 59 times for 168 yards, only 2.8 yards per tote.

7. Iowa’s mental state. The Hawkeyes are coming off a demoralizing 37-21 home loss to Michigan State that for all intents and purposes knocked Iowa out of the running for the Legends Division chase. The Hawkeyes already are bowl eligible. Will Iowa be dialed in and motivated as it plays at Purdue? Fascinating.

8. DeVier Posey. Ohio State welcomes back its top playmaking wideout, who has sat out the first 10 games serving two different suspensions. The Buckeye wideout corps has been plagued with youth and inexperience, hampering the offense and true freshman QB Braxton Miller. Posey, who has 124 career receptions for 1,793 yards and 16 touchdowns, will cause defenses to respect the deep pass, creating more room for a strong ground game. Penn State better be ready.

9. Penn State’s mental state. The Nittany Lions saw a seven-game winning streak end last week. Even worse: Off-field scandal that has claimed Joe Paterno looms ominously. Penn State could clinch the Leaders Division with a win at Ohio State and loss by Wisconsin at Illinois. Will the Nittany Lions be focused and dialed in as they play a Buckeye team that is hurting after suffering an overtime loss at Purdue? A loss could send PSU into an irreversible tailspin for the season.

10. Northwestern defense. While much is made about the Wildcat offense, which is on a roll, it’s the defense that has keyed Northwestern’s late-season surge. The Wildcats rationed Rice six points last week, while limiting foes to an average of 121 yards rushing in the last two contests. NU must keep it up vs. Minnesota, as it continues its quest to become bowl eligible.

11. MarQueis Gray. The Minnesota signal-caller played with a back injury last week and floundered, completing just 6-of-14 passes for 51 yards with an interception. He also ran 19 times for 68 yards in the loss to Wisconsin. Gray was playing some of his best ball prior to last week. He needs to regain his form if Minnesota wants any chance to win at Northwestern.

12. Indiana QB Tre Roberson. The true freshman is one of the Big Ten’s most exciting young players. If he’s on his game, Roberson may be able to keep the Hoosiers in the game at Michigan State, which is a battle for the Old Brass Spittoon. Indiana needs to stay focused even though it hasn’t won since September. The Hoosiers could sidetrack the Spartans’ run to the Legends Division title by scoring a huge upset.

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.

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MrSpartan.com on 11/18/2011 @ 11:13pm EST Said:

Plenty to look for this week Tom. My biggest questions are:

1) Will Michigan continues to take the ball out of Shoelaces’s hands and into Toussaint’s? He had a great week last week against the Illini but did nothing against any team with a half decent defense. Against Illinois, Minn & Purdue he has a combine 470 yards…impressive. Against MSU, NW & Iowa 90. Denard is a dynamic play maker and Brady Hoke is fencing him in to fit his offense. That is a recipe for disaster. Got to let you best player play. Expect Blue to be shut down on the ground.

2) How long will Bret Bielema keep his starters in against Illinois? Bret has a terrible habit of racking up the points on reeling teams, keeping his starters in for jsut about the entire game. I expect this one to be over early with Wisconsin scoring multiple times in the first two quarters. With so much to play for against Penn State, it would make sense for him to sit his star QB, RB, and others to protect against injury. Unfortunately for Illinois (and the UW trainers) I don’t see him being able to do it, possibly jeopardizing his teams chances. Someone or something is going to have to teach him some humility.