Dienhart: Previewing Saturday's Games
This is it, the final weekend of the season. Penn State will play at Wisconsin to decide which school will represent the Leaders Division vs. Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game. Michigan is looking to end Ohio State’s run of seven wins in a row in their iconic rivalry. Purdue is looking to win back the Old Oaken Bucket and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. Iowa and Nebraska kick off the start of what could become a great rivalry. And Illinois is looking to end a five-game losing streak before the postseason. Following below is my look at all six Big Ten games this Saturday.
And don’t forget my work from earlier this week. On Monday I posted my Big Ten bowl projections and my best suggestions for this weekend’s games. On Tuesday did you see who ranked tops in my weekly Big Ten player rankings? And if you didn’t drop me a note for my mailbag, read my latest answers and send me a question for next week. And come back Friday for more as I’m headed to Ohio State vs. Michigan.
PENN STATE AT WISCONSIN
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: After 11 games, it has come down to this: A de facto Leaders Division title game. The winner will advance to play Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game next Saturday night in Indianapolis. This is exactly what Jim Delany had in mind with two-division football.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Penn State QB Matt McGloin. He has emerged as the Nittany Lions starter over Rob Bolden, and McGloin looked workmanlike last week in a 20-14 win at Ohio State by hitting 10-of-18 passes for 88 yards with an interception. Most vital: McGloin avoided the huge gaffe. For the Nittany Lions to have any chance to prevail at Wisconsin, McGloin must be effective and limit mistakes. That may be difficult vs. a Wisconsin defense that leads the Big Ten and is No. 3 in the nation vs. the pass (146.8 ypg).
KEY MATCHUP: The Wisconsin offensive line vs. the Penn State front seven. This is pure power on power in the clash that figures to decide the game. The Badgers rank No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense (479.6 ypg), while the Nittany Lions are No. 3 in total defense (287.4 ypg). Each team has that lofty ranking because of these units in the trenches.
NUMBER’S GAME: 86.4, percent of times Wisconsin scores touchdowns in the red zone. It’s the highest percentage (51-of-59) in the nation.
KEY NOTE: Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson has thrown a touchdown pass in 35 consecutive games.
MICHIGAN STATE AT NORTHWESTERN
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: There really is little on the line. The Spartans already have wrapped up the Legends Division and will play in the Big Ten title game. Northwestern got bowl eligible last week, so it’s playing to improve its postseason resume. Otherwise, it’s all about fine-tuning and maintaining momentum for both squads. MSU has won three in a row; Northwestern has won four in a row.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Northwestern defense. The unit struggled earlier this year but has come on during the aforementioned four-game winning streak. For the third game in a row last week, Northwestern held its foe to three or less points in a half. Minnesota scored only three points in the second half last week vs. the Wildcats.
KEY MATCHUP: Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins vs. Northwestern’s Dan Persa. We probably also should throw in Wildcat signal-caller Kain Colter, a valuable and versatile change-of-pace weapon who also sees action at receiver. Cousins is the No. 3 most efficient quarterback in the Big Ten, hitting 63 percent of his passes for 2,521 yards with 19 touchdowns and five picks. Persa has thrown for 1,918 yards with 15 touchdowns and is coming off two big games that have seen him throw for 588 yards with six touchdowns vs. Rice and Minnesota.
NUMBER’S GAME: 10-4, Northwestern’s record in November since the start of the 2008 season.
KEY NOTE: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert needs only 14 yards receiving to become just the fourth player in school annals to have 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Ebert just missed last year with 953 yards receiving. He is third on the school’s all-time receiving yardage list with 2,326 yards.
OHIO STATE AT MICHIGAN
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Do you really need a reason? It’s Ohio State-Michigan, one of the nation’s most iconic rivalries. This year’s meeting drips with intrigue, as the Wolverines are trying to end the Buckeyes’ seven-season winning skein in this storied rivalry. A Michigan triumph not only would stop the bleeding for the Wolverines, but it also will enhance the team’s chances in its bid to earn a BCS at-large bowl slot.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Like any true freshman, Miller has been up and down. He ranks sixth in the conference in passing efficiency, hitting 53 percent of his attempts for 762 yards with nine touchdowns and three picks. But he paces the Buckeyes with 595 yards rushing. Miller needs to hit just enough passes to keep a surging Michigan defense honest. The problem: Miller is struggling. He has completed less than half his passes in each of the last three games (20-of-46 for 270 yards with three touchdowns and a pick), as the Buckeyes have gone 1-2 to see their division title hopes vanish.
KEY MATCHUP: Michigan run game vs. the Ohio State front seven. The Wolverine ground game is strong with QB Denard Robinson at the controls. But it’s even stronger when RB Fitzgerald Toussaint is clicking, as he was in running for 138 yards last week vs. Nebraska. A strong Buckeye front seven must contain Toussaint, putting the rushing burden on Robinson and then hitting him as early and often as possible. In the loss to Penn State, the Buckeyes could not stop the rush, as the Nits ran for 239 yards.
NUMBER’S GAME: Ohio State had won at least a share of every Big Ten title since 2005. But that streak is over.
KEY NOTE: Robinson has passed former Texas star signal-caller Vince Young on the all-time NCAA quarterback rushing list, and needs just seven yards to reach 1,000 yards for a second consecutive season.
IOWA AT NEBRASKA
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is the first meeting of what could develop into a fierce season-ending rivalry. With dreams of playing in the Big Ten title game dashed for both teams, each is left to play for pride and the chance to improve its postseason positioning.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nebraska special teams. They struggled mightily last week, as the Huskers fumbled two kickoffs, had a punt blocked, got burned on a fake field goal and had a roughing the punter penalty. At least K Brett Maher has been a star. At Michigan, he nailed a career-long 51-yard field goal (his third field goal from 50 or more yards this year) and also has a 69-yard punt.
KEY MATCHUP: The defenses. Both units have had issues this season. The Huskers are coming off an especially tough outing in a 45-17 loss at Michigan in which nothing seemingly worked in allowing 418 yards. The Cornhuskers rank No. 7 in the Big Ten in total defense (358.0 ypg), while the Hawkeyes rank No. 8 (387.8 ypg). And stopping the run has been the biggest issue for each team, with Iowa ranking No. 7 (153.8 ypg) and Nebraska No. 8 (168.2 ypg).
NUMBER’S GAME: 12, number of years that have passed since Nebraska won a conference championship. You have to go back to 1999 and the Big 12 to find the Cornhuskers’ last league crown.
KEY NOTE: Hawkeyes QB James Vandenberg has 23 touchdown passes in 2011, the third-most in school history in a season. He has a shot at Chuck Long’s school record of 27 set in 1985.
ILLINOIS AT MINNESOTA
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The Golden Gophers are trying to end the season on an up note, having lost three in a row and seven of their last eight. And Gopher coach Jerry Kill continues to deal with health issues, as he suffered another seizure on the plane trip back from Northwestern last week. The Fighting Illini know how it feels to struggle, having lost five in a row after jumping to a 6-0 that had some thinking division title. Now, title talk has morphed into grumbling in Champaign.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The offensive lines. Which one can assert its will? The Fighting Illini front has lacked consistency all season, which has been a reason why the team has struggled down the stretch. And Minnesota’s front has been spotty. But the Golden Gophers are coming off a 269-yard rushing effort in a loss at Northwestern last week. Illinois ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing (179.3 ypg), while Minnesota is 10th (152.0 ypg).
KEY MATCHUP: Illinois QBs Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole vs. Minnesota signal-caller MarQueis Gray. Gray looked bad in a loss vs. Wisconsin two weeks ago but bounced back last week in running for 147 yards at Northwestern. Scheelhaase completed 15-of-19 passes for 99 yard and a pick in a home loss to Wisconsin last week, as he split time with O’Toole, who hit 7-of-12 passes for 53 yards and two interceptions. Whichever signal-callers can limit mistakes and generate some consistent passing will go a long way toward leading their team to a much-needed victory.
NUMBER’S GAME: 14, sacks for Minnesota this season. That’s five more than the Gophers had in all of 2010.
KEY NOTE: After being shutout in the first half of the last four games, Illinois tallied 17 in points in the opening half last week vs. Wisconsin. Alas, the Illini were shutout in the second half as they turned over the ball on four of five possessions.
PURDUE AT INDIANA
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It’s the Bucket game! While the Hoosiers’ bowl dreams perished weeks ago in an eight-game losing skid, the Boilermakers are still dreaming of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 with a victory in Bloomington. And a triumph also would bring the Old Oaken Bucket back to West Lafayette for Purdue, which has prevailed in six of the last eight trips to Indiana dating to 1995 with losses coming in 2001 and 2007. Indiana’s motivation? The chance to ruin the Boilers’ bowl hopes and retain the Bucket. That would be a big salve in this tough season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Purdue offense. Consistency has been an issue all season. Recently, the attack has gotten off to good starts—scoring on its opening drive in each of the last four games– only to bog down in the second half. That was the issue last week in a 31-21 home loss to Iowa. It was the third game this season that Purdue gained less than 300 yards.
KEY MATCHUP: Purdue’s struggling offense vs. Indiana’s porous defense. The Boilers rank ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (359.0 ypg). Indiana is last in the league in total defense (454.2 ypg). How bad has the defense been in recent years in Bloomington? Since 2005, the Hoosiers have allowed 40 or more points 28 times, and 50 or more on 10 occasions.
NUMBER’S GAME: 0, points in the third quarter for Purdue in its last five games. The Boilers last scored in the third quarter at Penn State on October 15.
KEY NOTE: Boilermaker quarterbacks combined to throw for just 181 yards last week, the seventh time in 2011 that Purdue has thrown for less than 200 yards.
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, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.