Week 4 previews: In search of some momentum

It’s time for my weekly ranking of the Big Ten’s slate of games and Week 4 holds some intriguing matchups. See where your team’s game ranks on my list and get my complete preview of all ten Big Ten games (Purdue and Indiana are off this week).

Also, every Saturday BTN.com editors provide Rapid Recaps with quarterly updates from every game topped off with my Saturday Snap Reactions.

Coming this week: Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech; Iowa vs. C. Michigan; Michigan State vs. E. Michigan; Michigan vs. Notre Dame; Minnesota vs. Syracuse; Nebraska vs. Idaho State; Northwestern vs. S. Dakota; Ohio State vs. UAB; Penn State vs. Temple; Wisconsin vs. UTEP.

1. Michigan at Notre Dame | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is the last big non-conference game for the Big Ten in what has been a poor non-conference season for the league. A win also may stamp Michigan as the Big Ten favorite. This is an iconic rivalry between two of the sport’s classic programs. Last year’s game was a beaut, as the Wolverines took a 35-31 triumph on a game-winning touchdown pass with two seconds left.

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Keep an eye on: The Wolverine defense. It hasn’t played well overall, ranking just eighth in the Big Ten (369.0 ypg). The rushing defense is 11th (211.3 ypg); the scoring defense is last (26.3 ppg). Here come the Irish led by first-year coordinator Chuck Martin who no doubt gets help from Brian Kelly. ND’s attack is starting to emerge behind athletic signal-caller Everett Golson, whom Michigan must force into some turnovers.

Key matchup: Michigan QB Denard Robinson vs. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. Robinson is one of the most dangerous players in the nation, a true one-man gang who is capable of scoring each time he touches the ball. Te’o is coming off an emotional week in which his Irish allowed only 237 yards in a huge 20-3 at Michigan State following the deaths of a grandmother and girlfriend. The senior leads the Irish and ranks 35th in the nation in tackles, averaging 10.0.

Key number: 502, yards of total offense (258 rushing; 244 passing) Robinson notched the last time he played at Notre Dame. Michigan won, 28-24.

Key note: Denard Robinson has a combined 944 yards of total offense in the last two meetings. He’ll need another big day in a rivalry that Michigan has won the last three years in dramatic fashion by pulling the game out in the final 30 seconds.

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2. Syracuse at Minnesota | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: The Golden Gophers are one of just three Big Ten unbeatens. But this will be Minnesota’s toughest test by far. Northwestern won a shootout with Syracuse to open the season. And the Gophers may have to do the same. Is the offense capable of that if it happens?

Keep an eye on: QB Max Shortell. He came on for an injured MarQueis Gray last week and looked good in victory over Western Michigan. The sophomore has a big arm, meaning coaches may lean on the pass more with under center than they would have with Gray. But the o-line must protect Shortell, who lacks Gray’s mobility and elusiveness.

Key matchup: Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib vs. Minnesota secondary. Nassib directs the No. 3 pass offense in the nation (379.7 ypg), already tossing nine touchdown passes. The Gophers’ rank second in the Big Ten vs. the pass (162.7 ypg) and have five picks after making just four all of last year. This will be a big test for guys like Derrick Wells, Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter in the Gopher secondary.

Key number: 199.7, rushing yards allowed per game by Syracuse. That is last in the Big East and 97th in the nation. What’s it mean? The Orange could see a steady diet of Donnell Kirkwood and the other Gophers running backs, which would wear down a bad Syracuse defense and keep the high-powered Orange offense on the sideline.

Key note: Minnesota has eight sacks in three games. It had 22 all of 2011. End D.L. Wilhite has been a force off the edge with 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss for a defense that has gotten speedier and thus more aggressive.

3. Louisiana Tech at Illinois | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: Illinois is looking to build on a 44-0 shellacking of FCS Charleston Southern as the Fighting Illini want to finish non-conference play with a 3-1 mark. Offense, defense … it all worked last Saturday. But the Bulldogs figure to be a much more difficult test—especially for the defense–as Illinois needs to be on upset alert.

Keep an eye on: The Illinois defense. Yes, it has talent and is a strength. But it will be pushed by a Louisiana Tech offense that operates at a frenetic pace. The Bulldogs are averaging 56 points and rip off an average of 83 plays per game. The La Tech attack is similar in style to the offense of Arizona State, which notched 510 yards and 45 points vs. Illinois two weeks ago.

Key matchup: Illinois run game vs. Louisiana Tech front seven. The Illini offensive line still hasn’t come together, and the run game is suffering because of it. Illinois averages 153.3 yards on the ground to rank eighth in the Big Ten in rushing. And that is with a 231-yard rushing effort at ASU. The Illinois rushing game will be even more vital it QB Nathan Scheelhaase misses a third consecutive game with an ankle injury. True freshman running back Dami Ayoola is providing a spark.

Key number: 11, number of freshmen and sophomores on Illinois’ two-deep prior to last Saturday. This still is a young team in Tim Beckman’s first season.

Key note: Louisiana Tech’s defense ranks dead last in America (585.0 ypg). The rush defense is 96th (192.5 ypg) and the pass defense is dead last (392.5 ypg). What’s it mean? The Illinois offense should have lots of success and needs to run the ball to shorten the game and keep the ball from the Bulldogs’ dynamic attack. The Illini are 14th in the nation in time of possession (33:36). That must continue.

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4. Temple at Penn State | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is a chance to see if Penn State can build on the momentum of last week’s win over Navy and even its record at 2-2. The defense has played with consistency, but it’s a surging offense led by a developing passing game that has created some excitement at Penn State.

Keep an eye on: The Penn State offense. After the unit combined to score 30 points in the first two games, it notched 34 in a win over Navy last week. The attack must continue to be prolific for this to be a strong season in State College, Pa. QB Matt McGloin has some nice targets in wideouts Allen Robinson, Alex Kenney and Trevor Williams. And TE Kyle Carter is a rising force.

Key matchup: Penn State offensive line vs. Temple defensive line. The Nittany Lion front has had its issues. And not having young stud tackle Donovan Smith (leg) hurts, as he may miss another game. A better push is needed in a ground game that ranks last in the Big Ten (107.7 ypg). RBs Bill Belton (ankle) and Derek Day (shoulder) should be back from injuries. Stay tuned.

Key number: Plus-five—Penn State’s turnover margin, which paces the Big Ten. The 1.67 turnover margin ranks 11th in the nation. Penn State and Purdue lead the Big Ten with eight takeaways apiece.

Key note: Temple hasn’t beaten Penn State since 1941. A fast start will help and is likely needed for the Nittany Lions, who have outscored foes 41-6 in the first half but been outscored 42-23 in the second half.

5. Central Michigan at Iowa | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: The Hawkeyes are 2-1, but it hasn’t been a pretty 2-1. The defense has played relatively well—ranking 23rd in the nation–but the offense still is searching for a rhythm. This is the third of four consecutive home games, as Iowa opens Big Ten action next week vs. Minnesota. The Gophers have won the past two meetings and are 3-0. Iowa needs to enter that game with confidence coming off a huge win over a bad Central Michigan team.

Keep an eye on: RB Mark Weisman. The sophomore walk-on who transferred from Air Force saved the day last week after Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon went down with injuries. Weisman ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns in a win over FCS Northern Iowa. Central Michigan is just 86th in the nation vs. the run. Uh-oh. Bullock (concussion) and Garmon (elbow) could play this week, with Garmon the most likely. But Weisman is expected to carry a big load.

Key matchup: Iowa vs. itself. The Hawkeyes should beat this overmatched MAC team. But how impressive will Iowa look? Will it be dialed in? Will it be motivated? This team could use a resounding victory led by the offense to boost its confidence and sagging mojo.

Key number: 12.3, tackles per game for LB Anthony Hitchens. That ranks sixth in the nation.

Key note: Iowa still doesn’t have a touchdown pass. The only other FBS schools that can say that are Buffalo and Southern Miss. The Hawkeyes didn’t throw a touchdown pass until the fifth game of the 1999 season, which was Ferentz’s first.

6. UAB at Ohio State | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is the Buckeyes’ last tune-up before playing a huge game at Michigan State to open Big Ten action next Saturday. Ohio State needs to show a killer instinct, put teams away, reduce penalties and limit big plays.

Keep an eye on: The Ohio State defense. It needs to tackle better and cut down on the big plays. Cal gouged the Buckeyes last week for plays of 36, 81, 30, 16 and 15 yards in a 35-28 OSU win. For the season, Buckeye opponents have executed 13 plays of 20 yards or more. If not for three missed Cal field goals and touchdown nullified by a penalty, the Golden Bears may have left Columbus with a victory.

Key matchup: Ohio State defensive line vs. UAB offensive line. Look, this is a mismatch of epic proportions, so the Buckeyes must dominate. Tackle Jonathan Hankins is playing great football and should lead the charge to mute UAB quarterback Jonathan Perry. Last week in a loss to South Carolina, the Blazers ran 42 times for 27 yards.

Key number: 220.5, rushing yards allowed per game by UAB. And the Blazers permit 5.8 yards per tote. What’s it mean? Braxton Miller could have another big day on the ground. Ditto Jordan Hall.

Key note: Ohio State has scored 30 or more points in each game, marking just the 10th time in schools annals it has turned that trick in the first three games of a season.

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7. UTEP at Wisconsin | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is another chance to see if the struggling Badger offense can get on track. The attack is last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.3 ppg); last in total offense (276.0 ypg); last in pass offense (156.3 ypg) and 11th in rush offense (119.7 ypg). Get the picture?

Keep an eye on: The Wisconsin quarterbacks. The coaching staff knows who is going to start. But it isn’t saying after Danny O’Brien gave way to Joel Stave after halftime last week. Neither looked overly impressive in the 16-14 win over Utah State. For O’Brien to be the man, he must protect the ball and eliminate turnovers. Or, he won’t play. Signs point to Stave, a redshirt freshman, getting the nod.

Key matchup: The Wisconsin offensive line vs. the UTEP defensive line. Look, the Badger behemoths should dominate an undersized UTEP front. Anything less than 200 yards rushing will be a big disappointment. Montee Ball has a Big Ten-high 84 carries for 320 yards and two touchdowns. After three games last year, Ball had 48 carries for 272 and seven touchdowns. Look for Wisconsin to try to muscle up and have Ball run the ball 25-30 times. The unit needs success. This unit needs confidence.

Key number: 0, turnovers generated by Wisconsin’s defense. Southern Miss and Buffalo are the only other FBS schools that haven’t notched a turnover.

Key note: The Badgers have won 25 consecutive non-conference home games. And Wisconsin is 41-3 at home under Bret Bielema. The lone losses have been to Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State.

8. South Dakota at Northwestern | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: After opening with wins vs. three schools from BCS leagues—Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College—the Wildcats catch a break with FCS South Dakota. Will Northwestern dominate like it should? Pat Fitzgerald has said this is his deepest team yet.

Keep an eye on: The quarterback situation. Fitzgerald says it’s an open competition between Kain Colter—who has started the first three games—and Trevor Siemian—who has come off the bench and performed well in each game. Whomever is under center looks for Tony Jones, who is emerging as a top target.

Key matchup: Northwestern front seven vs. South Dakota offense. Look, the Wildcats should be able to overwhelm this foe. And the NU defense is playing well, allowing Vanderbilt just 318 yards and Boston College only 315. Players like Tyler Scott, Brian Arnfelt and Chi Chi Ariguzo are playing well. In the back end, Ibraheim Campbell and Jared Carpenter are excelling. Yes, there really is a defense in Evanston.

Key number: 1927, the last time Northwestern played South Dakota. Where were you?

Key note: Chi Chi Ariguzo is emerging as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. The sophomore has 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a pick and two fumble recoveries.

9. Eastern Michigan at Michigan State | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: How will the Spartans respond coming off an ugly 20-3 home loss to Notre Dame in which the offense struggled mightily? The good news: Eastern Michigan is horrible. MSU didn’t even reach the red zone vs. the Fighting Irish, scoring only on a 50-yard field goal.

Keep an eye on: The offensive line. It must play better. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell—who is playing better than many think–was harassed often and sacked four times last week by ND. The unit is a bit banged up with tackle Fou Fontoi (foot) out but must step it up.

Key matchup: Le’Veon Bell vs. the Eastern Michigan front seven. When all else fails on offense, Michigan State can turn to Bell. He could enjoy a huge day vs. a soft Eastern Michigan defense that ranks 116th in the country. Bell needs 90 yards to become the 16th MSU player with 2,000 career yards rushing. The Spartans need a big offensive effort to restore confidence coming off the program’s fewest points tallied in a home game since a 20-3 loss to Central Michigan in 1991.

Key number: 8, number of drops by Michigan State receivers last week vs. the Fighting Irish. The unit needs to hang onto the ball, especially Bennie Fowler, who didn’t make a catch last week and dropped a pass in the end zone.

Key note: 0, turnovers generated last week. The Michigan State defense ranks first in the Big Ten (250.3 ypg), but more big plays are needed. The Spartans rank last in the Big Ten in sacks and 10th in tackles for loss. And MSU is eighth in turnovers generated.

10. Idaho State at Nebraska | Full Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is Nebraska’s last chance to work out kinks before Big Ten action. FCS Idaho State doesn’t figure to pose much of an issue. Last week against Arkansas State, Nebraska ran 59 times and passed 14. I would expect a similar ratio this Saturday. But the attack can’t turn over the ball four times like it did last week.

Keep an eye on: RB Rex Burkhead. He has missed the last two games after suffering a knee injury in the opener. Burkhead is expected to play so he can get back in the groove with Big Ten action set to start September 29. Just having his presence will be a boost.

Key matchup: Nebraska secondary vs. Idaho State pass game. The Bengals run a spread scheme that will throw, throw and throw some more. Expect the Husker defense to employ a similar scheme as it did vs. Arkansas State, when it played a three-man front. Eric Martin is coming off a big game and could have another playing a hybrid linebacker/end spot developed to combat offenses like this.

Key number: 81.9, percentage of passes Taylor Martinez is completing at home. The junior has hit 39-of-48 passes for 534 yards and seven touchdowns in Memorial Stadium.

Key note: How bad is FCS Idaho State? It is 5-40 over the past four seasons. Nebraska should be able to name its score.

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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2 Comments

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nichole degn on 9/22/2012 @ 1:55pm EST Said:

I live in Minnesota about 2 hours from Iowa and i am trying to figure out why I have to watch the Ohio game and not the Iowa game? Not happy.

    BTN.com staff on 9/22/2012 @ 1:57pm EST Said:

    Have you checked to see if your TV provider offers the overflow channels? We offer them to all TV providers. Use this page to see if BOTH games are offered from your TV provider: http://btn.com/about/btn-gamefinder/