Week 3 Previews: Spartans-Irish headline slate

Every week, I rank the Big Ten’s slate of games. Where does your team’s Week 3 game fall on my list? Find out in this post. Remember, on gameday, BTN.com editors provide Rapid Recaps with quarterly updates from every game. And at the end of each game, I post my Saturday Snap Reactions.

Bookmark your game now and come back to track it: Illinois vs. Charleston Southern; Indiana vs. Ball State; Iowa vs. Northern Iowa; Michigan vs. Massachusetts; Michigan State vs. Notre Dame; Minnesota vs. Western Michigan; Nebraska vs. Arkansas State; Northwestern vs. Boston College; Ohio State vs. California; Penn State vs. Navy; Purdue vs. Eastern Michigan; Wisconsin vs. Utah State.

1. Notre Dame at Michigan State | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This is a battle of unbeaten ranked teams. The Spartans look like the best team in the Big Ten. And this will be their most stern test. ND gets back suspended RB Cierre Wood, but the quarterback situation is dicey. Michigan State needs to make a statement to the nation that it is a legit elite team.
Keep an eye on: Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. After a rough debut, Maxwell looked good in a win at Central Michigan, hitting 20-of-31 passes for 275 yards and two scores. He could be emerging, as Bennie Fowler is coming on as a go-to wideout.
Key matchup: Michigan State RB Le’Veon Bell vs. Notre Dame defensive front seven. Bell is a workhorse back that the Spartans rode to a season-opening triumph over Boise State (44 carries!). He is second in the Big Ten in rushing (tops among running backs) with 62 totes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. Bell can augment his Heisman resume with a big prime-time effort vs. the Fighting Irish, which has their best defense of the Brian Kelly era. Manti Te’o, Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore are key members of a formidable front seven.
Key number: 9, as in nine of the last 12 meetings between these foes have been decided by one score or less. The last encounter in East Lansing was a doozy, as the Spartans called a fake field goal (Little Giants) for a touchdown in overtime to win.
Key note: Notre Dame hasn’t won in East Lansing since 2006. The Spartan defense has yet to yield a touchdown, with foes scoring on two interception returns.

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2. Cal at Ohio State | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: Ohio State has looked good in dispatching Miami (Ohio) and Central Florida. But this will be the Buckeyes’ first test vs. a team from a BCS league. Cal has a potentially strong defense that paced the Pac-12 last year. But, know this: Cal opened the season with a loss to Nevada and its lone win is over Southern Utah.
Keep an eye on: The Buckeye tailbacks. Jordan Hall has been cleared to play after missing the first two games with a foot injury, but will he get on the field? Carlos Hyde is out with a knee injury. That means true freshman Bri’onte Dunn is in line to be the top option. Whomever is tailback needs to take the burden off Braxton Miller, who has been carrying too big of a load.
Key matchup: Ohio State defensive line vs. Cal offensive line. The Buckeyes have struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks. And Cal’s Zach Maynard is good. Through two games, the Buckeyes have 1.5 sacks and rank last in the Big Ten in tackles for loss. Where are the big plays? This despite having what looks like one of the top fronts in the Big Ten. Facing a tepid Golden Bear front could allow this unit to finally turn up the heat.
Key number: 80.5, plays the offense is averaging in two games. This is reflective of the pace and tempo of the new no-huddle, spread attack.
Key note: Ohio State hasn’t played the Golden Bears since 1972.

3. Boston College at Northwestern | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Wildcats are pushing for a 3-0 start, already having toppled Syracuse and Vanderbilt with comeback efforts as they play the second of a four-game home stand. No other Big Ten has a win over a school from a BCS league. And only seven other teams in the nation have opened vs. two BCS league foes. But know this: The Wildcats also opened 2-0 last year before then dropping five in a row.
Keep an eye on: The quarterback situation. Pat Fitzgerald has deftly used Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. The two complement each other, with Colter (the starter) being more of an athlete and Siemian (the reserve) being more of a passer. Imagine if the receiving corps started to step up?
Key matchup: Northwestern defense vs. Boston College offense. The Wildcat defense was a maligned unit last year. And it struggled in the opener vs. Syracuse, allowing 470 yards. But the defense looked good last week vs. Vanderbilt with three sacks and eight tackles for loss. Guys like LB Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Tyler Scott, Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams have excelled. The Wildcats need to guard against a strong BC pass game that averages 330 yards to rank 14th in the country.
Key number: 11, consecutive home victories in non-conference games for the Wildcats, the 15th longest such skein in the nation. NU won at Boston College last season.
Key note: RB Venric Mark has been a revelation. The diminutive back (5-8) is used in a variety ways to get him on the edge and utilize his speed. Mark is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (102.5 ypg), coming off a 123-yard effort vs. Vandy. And he paces the conference with 439 all-purpose yards.

[Related: Who's going to win Saturday? Vote for your Big Ten Week 3 winners]

4. Utah State at Wisconsin | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: It will be interesting to see how Wisconsin responds to the moribund effort at Oregon State, which was proceeded by a sleepy outing over FCS Northern Iowa. At 1-1 and with the coaching staff already shaken up, the Badgers face an early crossroads vs. an underrated Utah State team. What’s it gonna be, Bucky?
Keep an eye on: The Badgers front seven vs. Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton. He almost engineered a win at Auburn last year and has dumped Utah this season. The kid is a threat to run and pass. Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland must contain him.
Key matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Utah State front seven. The struggles of the Badger rushing attack are well-documented. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson paid for it with his job; G.A. Bart Miller has taken over. Wisconsin still has talent up front, led by T Ricky Wagner. And Montee Ball remains an elite back. But the Aggies are rank 20th in the nation vs. the run (76.0 ypg). This won’t be easy.
Key number: 35, rushing yards last week in an ugly 10-7 loss at Oregon State. Ball ran 15 times for 61 yards. Wisconsin also was just 2-of-14 on third-down conversions for an offense that ranks last in the Big Ten and 103rd in the nation in rushing.
Key note: The Badgers have won 17 games in succession at Camp Randall Stadium, and Bielema is 40-3 at home.

[Related: Nebraska, Wisconsin enter Week 3 with most sense of urgency]

5. Arkansas State at Nebraska | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Cornhuskers were beaten soundly last week at UCLA and need a confidence-building triumph. What will be their mind-set? Has the defense tightened up? Has Taylor Martinez regained his form of the opener? Oh-by-the-way: Martinez needs 39 rushing yards to become only the second Husker and 25th in NCAA annals to record 4,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards.
Keep an eye on: The defense was utterly embarrassed, allowing 653 yards. That was the second most ever yielded by a Cornhusker defense. And UCLA ran an astounding 94 plays. The staff spent the week tinkering with the lineup, as LBs David Santos and Zaire Anderson are running with the first team. And some freshmen may emerge on the line, as the Huskers look for more speed.
Key matchup: The Cornhusker front seven vs. Arkansas State QB Ryan Alpin. No doubt, Nebraska needs to tackle better as it faces its second spread offense in succession in the start of a three-game home stand that the Huskers need to take advantage of.
Key number: 574.5, yards per game that Arkansas State is averaging to rank seventh in the nation under Gus Malzahn and his quick-paced attack.
Key note: 10, points scored in the second half of losses last year to Wisconsin, South Carolina and Michigan. Vs. the Bruins last week, Nebraska managed just six points on a pair of field goals in the second half. Those second-half blues must end. The Huskers likely will be without RB Rex Burkhead a second week in a row as he recovers from a knee sprain.

6. Northern Iowa at Iowa | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: Can the Hawkeyes rebound from a numbing 9-6 home loss to rival Iowa State? And, in the process, awaken the offense from a two-game slumber? This is an offense that needs some confidence, but FCS Northern Iowa won’t be a push-over.
Keep an eye on: The offense. To say it has struggled would be an understatement. The Hawkeyes have scored one touchdown. And in six trips inside the red zone, Iowa has failed to tally a touchdown. For the year, Iowa has 24 points. The lone score came on Damon Bullock’s 23-yard scoring jaunt that proved to be the winning points in a season opening escape vs. Northern Illinois.
Key matchup: Iowa offensive line vs. Northern Iowa defensive line. This is where it all begins for a struggling Hawkeye attack. The big fellas haven’t gotten a consistent push. The line must open lanes for Bullock, who had just 53 yards on 22 carries last week after a 150-yard effort in the opener. If Bullock is running, that will create space for QB James Vandenberg to pass—or at least that’s the hope. Some wideouts need to step up, however.
Key number: 112th, Iowa’s rank nationally in total offense out of 120 schools. The Hawkeyes are 111th in scoring, 116th in passing efficiency, 102nd in rushing, 97th in passing … you get the picture.
Key note: The Hawkeyes never have lost to a FCS team, going 8-0. Well, that string could be in jeopardy vs. a salty Northern Iowa squad that gave Wisconsin a scare in the opener in a five-point loss.

[Related: Check out Dave Revsine's Week 3 Numbers]

7. Western Michigan at Minnesota | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Golden Gophers have a chance to move to 3-0 for the first time since a 4-0 start in 2008. And a win over the Broncos would equal Minnesota’s victory total for all of 2011. By the way: Jerry Kill and Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit met three times in the MAC, and Kill went 2-1.
Keep an eye on: The Minnesota defense. The formerly toothless unit ranks second overall in the Big Ten (258.0 ypg). The big plays are back, with the Gophers ranking third in the Big Ten in tackles for loss and sacks. NT Ra’Shede Hageman is looking like a beast.
Key matchup: Gopher defensive line vs. Western Michigan QB Alex Carder. The Minnesota front has shown life this season, notching six sacks in two games after totaling 22 in 2011. Carder is proficient in the Broncos’ spread attack. The Gophers must get pressure.
Key number: 139.5, passing yards per game allowed by the Gophers. That ranks first in the Big Ten and 12th in the nation. Minnesota has allowed one touchdown pass. And Minnesota already has four picks, equaling its total from all of last season. S Derrick Wells has been a star.
Key note: MarQueis Gray ranks first in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (171.6). Last season, he ranked 11th in efficiency (114.5).

8. Navy at Penn State | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Nittany Lions have fought hard in their first two games but lost them both by a combined 11 points. Is this the week Penn State’s grit, moxie and determination pay off? Navy always is well coached, so it will be a tough task for the Nittany Lions.
Keep an eye on: Penn State K Sam Ficken. He went 1-of-5 on field-goal attempts in last Saturday’s 17-16 loss at Virginia, misfiring on a potential game-winning 42-yard attempt in the waning seconds. Ficken also missed an extra point. The Nittany Lions need him to get into a groove, as big kicks will need to be made if Penn State hopes to steal a few wins.
Key matchup: Penn State defensive front seven vs. Navy run game. The Nittany Lion defense played great vs. Virginia in giving up just 295 yards—32 on the ground–and generating four turnovers. But the unit will be put to the test by a hard-charging Navy option attack, though the offense ranks just 87th in the nation this season. But the Midshipmen have played just one game, a 50-10 loss to Notre Dame in Ireland.
Key number: 61, percent of third downs that Penn State’s foes have converted. That ranks 117th out of 120 schools.
Key note: Navy will have had two weeks to prepare for this game after opening on Sept. 1 vs. the Fighting Irish in Ireland. The teams haven’t met since 1974.

9. Ball State at Indiana | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Hoosiers look to continue momentum from a 2-0 start. And they should be motivated to beat a Cardinals squad that dumped it last season and has beaten it two times in a row. If Indiana has any bowl dreams, it must win this game.
Keep an eye on: QB Cameron Coffman. The JC transfer looked good after Tre Roberson left last week’s game with a season-ending broken leg. Coffman can have accuracy issues and lacks Roberson’s athletic skills. Still, he can make this offense go.
Key matchup: Indiana defense vs. Ball State ground. The Cardinals’ rushing attack will be a big step up from anything the Hoosiers have seen this season. So, tackles Adam Replogle and Larry Black, linebacker David Cooper and safeties Mark Murphy and Drew Hardin need to excel vs. Ball State backs Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks.
Key number: 7, sacks by Indiana, which leads the Big Ten. The Hoosiers also pace the Big Ten in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (23.3).
Key note: For three weeks in a row, true freshman tackle Jason Spriggs has graded out as the Hoosiers’ top offensive lineman.

[Related: Dienahart's Q&A with Indiana's Greg Heban]

10. Eastern Michigan at Purdue | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Boilermakers are looking to rebound from a tough loss at Notre Dame. How will Purdue respond? And it must move forward without QB Robert Marve, who for the third time is dealing with a knee injury and is out indefinitely. Purdue should overwhelm an overmatched Eastern Michigan team. If not, it’s a concern.
Keep an eye on: The quarterback situation. With Marve out, Caleb TerBush is the starter—but Rob Henry has moved into the No. 2 role. He was the starter in 2010 before suffering a knee injury in camp in 2011, which opened the door for TerBush. Neither is a sharp passer. Expect both to play.
Key matchup: Boilermaker offensive line vs. Eastern Michigan front seven. The Purdue offensive line doesn’t look overly powerful. It allowed four sacks to the Fighting Irish, as the Boilers ran for only 90 yards. This is a Purdue attack that needs more explosive plays. And it begins with good line play.
Key number: 52, rushing yards Purdue allowed to Notre Dame. This is a dominating Boilermaker front led by T Kawann Short, T Bruce Gaston and E Ryan Russell.
Key note: Purdue had eight penalties last week. It must sharpen its focus and learn to play smart, disciplined and mistake-free football with Big Ten play just around the corner.

11. UMass at Michigan | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This is a game that Michigan should dominate. This is a game that Michigan MUST dominate. UMass, in its first season as a FBS member, has been outscored 82-6 in its first two games. The Wolverines’ maligned defense should dominate, while the offense can work on developing complements to QB Denard Robinson. He almost single-handedly beat Air Force with 218 yards rushing and 208 yards passing.
Keep an eye on: The Michigan tailbacks. They need to be more productive to take pressure off Denard Robinson, who can’t continue to carry a heavy load for fear of injury. RB Fitz Toussaint debuted last week after missing the opener with a suspension—and he had only seven yards rushing.
Key matchup: Michigan defense vs. UMass offense The Wolverine defense has taken its lumps opening with two tough foes in Alabama and Air Force. The rush defense is ranked 117th in the nation, having yielded 522 rushing yards the first two games.
Key number: 16, consecutive home games won in September by Michigan.
Key note: Denard Robinson has made 32 runs of 20 or more yards in his career. But offensive diversification is needed, with guys like WR Devin Gardner, RB Fitz Toussaint and TE Devin Funchess, who had 106 yards receiving last week, getting more involved. A big game next week at Notre Dame looms. This is the last tune-up.

[Related: Big Ten trends: How many points will Michigan score?]

12. Charleston Southern at Illinois | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: I want to see if the Fighting Illini are back on track after that disastrous game at Arizona State. Can the offense move the ball? Can the defense stop anyone? Illinois can’t just beat this FCS team. It must dominate in all phases of the game to restore confidence.
Keep an eye on: The quarterback situation. QB Nathan Scheelhaase looks like he may be available after missing the ASU game with an ankle injury. But, why risk him vs. the team? If Scheelhaase sits again, Illinois will turn to Reilly O’Toole and Miles Osei, who both looked iffy last Saturday night.
Key matchup: Illinois offensive line vs. Charleston Southern front seven. Look, the Illini better be able to impose their will on the Buccaneers, with RBs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson having big games running. The Illini line remains a work-in-progress.
Key number: 13, losses in a row for Charleston Southern.
Key note: O’Toole had two delay-of-game penalties last week, showing his inexperience. He also had a pick. Perhaps getting him an extended look this week would be a good thing for the offense and program moving forward.

[Clothes Call: Illinois adds helmet stickers]

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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