Week 5 Previews: What to look for in Big Ten play

Earlier this week I helped take a look at who might land in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship game. Well, the road to that big game starts Saturday as Big Ten teams put a rocky non-conference run behind them and focus on pounding on each other. In this post, I take a close look at all six games, and then I’m headed to East Lansing to cover Ohio State and Michigan State on Saturday.

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

Get those quarterly updates via these links on Saturday: Indiana at Northwestern, Minnesota at Iowa, Ohio State at Michigan State, Penn State at Illinois, Purdue vs. Marshall, and Wisconsin at Nebraska

1. Ohio State at Michigan State | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This could have been a preview of the Big Ten title game, if Ohio State wasn’t on probation. Regardless, this still is a Titanic battle between what many feel are the two best teams in the league. It also is a game that will feature arguably the Big Ten’s two best players in Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller and Spartan running back Le’Veon Bell.

Player on the spot: QB Andrew Maxwell. If the Spartans want any chance to win, they need to pass the ball. And that has been a struggle the first four games, with Maxwell having some accuracy and decision-making issues. But it’s not all on Maxwell, as the MSU wideouts need to do a better job catching the ball. The good news for the Spartans: The Buckeyes rank last in the Big Ten in total defense, and 11th vs. the pass.

Key matchup: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller vs. Michigan State linebackers. Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Chris Norman must contain Miller, who may be the top dual-threat quarterback in the land. The Spartans, who looked lethargic in a 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan last week, may have the best set of linebackers in the Big Ten. This is strength on the strength. Who is going to prevail? The winner of this battle within a battle figures to take the game.

Key number: 7, sacks Michigan State had vs. Ohio State last season in a gritty 10-7 win in Columbus. The Spartan defense, No. 1 in the Big Ten, will need a similar effort vs. Miller. MSU has just three sacks this year and only three interceptions. Now would be a good time for end William Gholston to have a breakout effort in what thus far has been a disappointing season.

Key note: Ohio State—making their first trip to Spartan Stadium since 2008–will play on grass for the first time in 2012. Last season, the Buckeyes went 0-3 on grass, losing to Miami, Purdue and Florida (Gator Bowl). Just two current Buckeyes have played in East Lansing—senior end Nathan Williams and senior linebacker Etienne Sabino.

2. Wisconsin at Nebraska | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: The Huskers are looking for revenge after getting ripped, 48-17, last year in Madison in this key inter-divisional matchup. Each team suffered an ugly loss to a Pac-12 school three weeks ago. And each rebounded with two wins vs. lesser foes. The winner will get a big and much-needed boost of confidence at the start of Big Ten play.

Player on the spot: QB Joel Stave. The redshirt freshman is making just his second career start. He looked solid last week in a workmanlike win over UTEP, hitting 12-of-17 passes for 210 yards with a touchdown and pick. But is he ready to wade into an environment like he will see on Saturday at Lincoln? Look for Nebraska—which will face a more traditional and physical attack after encountering spread schemes the first four weeks–to commit to stuffing the run and to come after Stave.

Key matchup: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez vs. Wisconsin front seven. The Badgers lack great athletic ability and speed. And the defensive ends are banged up. Still, the unit is 13th nationally vs. the run (80.8 ypg) and 33rd in scoring defense (17.8 ppg). Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are formidable. If Wisconsin can’t get a push off the edge and get heat on Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Huskers may have lots of success. This is the No. 1 total offense and scoring offense in the Big Ten that also is fueled by running backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah. But the Huskers must guard against penalties and turnovers, bugaboos last year.

Key number: 3, interceptions thrown by Taylor Martinez last year at Wisconsin. He’s now No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and maybe the best quarterback in the league.

Key note: Montee Ball suffered a concussion last week but has been cleared to play. Still, if he’s limited, the Badgers still have two nice backs in Melvin Gordon and James White, as Wisconsin plays at Lincoln for the first time since 1973. The tandem combined for 23 totes, 177 yards rushing and three scores last week.

3. Minnesota at Iowa | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: Floyd of Rosedale is on the line! Honestly, do you need another reason? The Golden Gophers are trying to move to 5-0 for the first time since 2004, as they already have eclipsed last season’s win total. The Hawkeyes need to protect their home turf, where they already have lost twice. A win would do wonders for Iowa’s listing confidence. A win would maintain the magical start for Minnesota.

Player on the spot: Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg. He ranks 112th in the nation in passing efficiency. The senior did, however, throw his first touchdown pass of the season last week. So, maybe that will be a spark. But Vandenberg may be under duress vs. a Gopher defense that ranks second in sacks (11) and has seven picks. Someone must block Gopher end D.L. Wilhite.

Key matchup: Iowa offense vs. Minnesota defense. One is struggling and seemingly full of self-doubt. The other is rolling, seemingly filled with self-confidence. The Hawkeyes—10th in the Big Ten in total offense–have gotten a surprising boost from walk-on running back Mark Weisman, who in the last two games has run for a combined 330 yards and six touchdowns. The Gophers—3rd in the Big Ten in total defense—are excelling at making big plays, notching 10 takeaways to pace the Big Ten.

Key number: 61.3, penalty yards per game for the Hawkeyes. That ranks 82nd in the nation. And that’s not good. Iowa had nine penalties for 106 yards last week in the stunning home loss to Central Michigan after having a total of 12 in the first three games.

Key note: The Gophers have won the last two meetings, but both of those were at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers haven’t won in Iowa City since 1999. To win three in a row over the Hawkeyes, Minnesota will need to have Donnell Kirkwood run well so quarterback Max Shortell doesn’t have to carry a huge load with MarQueis Gray out with injury.

4. Penn State at Illinois | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is a tale of two programs under first-year coaches that seemingly are going in opposite directions. Penn State has won two in a row after an 0-2 start. Illinois also is 2-2 but has looked bad in losses to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech.

Player on the spot: Illinois quarterback—whoever it is. Tim Beckman has said Nathan Scheelhaase (who started the opener and last week after returning from an ankle injury) is the starter. But will his ankle hold up after flaring up vs. La Tech? Reilly O’Toole (who started two games and has had his moments) again would assume command if Scheelhaase is out. The Fighting Illini need a big effort after a 52-24 debacle vs. Louisiana Tech in Champaign. This is about defending their turf vs. a hot Penn State team that has won two in a row following a 24-13 win over Temple.

Key matchup: Penn State run game vs. Illinois front seven. The Illini have some legit NFL prospects in end Michael Buchanan, tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Jonathan Brown. They must contain a spotty Nittany Lion run game that will be bolstered by the return of Bill Belton and Derek Day. If Penn State can run, that will make it easier for hot quarterback Matt McGloin—who has been sacked just three times and paces the Big Ten in passing yards and passing touchdowns–to do his work. And that would be bad news for Illinois.

Key number: 19, yards per completion Illinois allowed last week vs. Louisiana Tech. The secondary must improve, and that starts with cornerback Terry Hawthorne. The big plays must stop if the Illini—who had six turnovers last week–hope to win vs. a good passing Penn State squad.

Key note: Over the summer, Illinois dispatched coaches to State College, Pa., to recruit Nittany Lions who were free to leave as part of NCAA violations amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Many presume there’s bad blood between the staffs because of it. Think the TV cameras will be focused on the postgame handshake between Bill O’Brien and Tim Beckman?

5. Indiana at Northwestern | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: The Wildcats have been one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten, moving to a 4-0 start and thinking big. The Hoosiers were off the week following a last-second home loss to Ball State. Indiana is seeking its first Big Ten win since knocking off Purdue, 34-31, in overtime to end the 2010 season.

Player on the spot: Indiana running back Stephen Houston. He is part of a deep corps of Hoosier backs that includes Tevin Coleman, Isaiah Roundtree and D’Angelo Roberts who must establish a ground game in the fast-paced Kevin Wilson offense. If Indiana can control the ball, it can grind down Northwestern’s defense and keep the Wildcat attack on the sideline for extended stretches.

Key matchup: Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman vs. Northwestern defensive line. Coffman, a JC transfer who is an underrated athlete, made his first career start vs. Ball State in place of Tre Roberson, who is out for the year with a broken leg. Coffman flashed potential but will be facing a tough Wildcat front led by end Tyler Scott—who has three sacks—for a defense that ranks second in the Big Ten vs. the run (72.8 ypg). If the Wildcats don’t harass Coffman and let him throw, he’ll test a Northwestern secondary that has played well but still could be vulnerable.

Key number: 221.2, yards per game Northwestern is averaging rushing. That ranks third in the Big Ten. The strong ground game is a contrast to Wildcat offenses of recent vintage that often favored the pass. The rushing attack is led by Venric Mark, a quick dynamo who excels in space. Mike Trumpy works between the tackles, while quarterback Kain Colter is another threat who can get to the edge. The Hoosiers rank 10th in the Big Ten vs. the run (153.3 ypg). Uh-oh.

Key note: Two of Indiana’s last three wins have been vs. FCS schools, the only exception being this year’s victory over UMass, which is in its first season as an FBS team.

6. Marshall at Purdue | Track this game | Big Ten Scoreboard
Why you should watch: This is the Boilermakers’ final tune-up before Big Ten action begins next week with a visit from Michigan. Purdue was off last week, which allowed some players to get healthy to play what will be a challenging opponent. The Boilers must reduce turnovers (nine already) and protect better (seven sacks allowed) in their first meeting with Marshall.

Player on the spot: Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell. He and the rest of a standout d-line need to contain and get pressure on Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, who leads the nation in passing yards (1,481). Russell has been a bit banged up. Tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston also could have a field day getting into the backfield to disrupt the timing of the go-go Thundering Herd offense.

Key matchup: Boilermaker cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson vs. the Marshall receivers. This is one of the top corner tandems in the Big Ten and will get tested time and again vs. this prolific Thundering Herd passing game. Purdue can’t allow big plays and easy scores and get into a scoring competition with this Marshall attack.

Key number: 117th, Marshall’s rank in the nation in total defense. The Thundering Herd also is 97th vs. the pass, 112th vs. the run and 118th in scoring defense. Get the picture? The Boilermakers should be able to run, run and then run some more like they did in romping over Eastern Michigan 54-16 two weeks ago en route to ripping off 392 yards rushing and notching 576 yards overall.

Key note: Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg knows a thing or two about Purdue, serving on Joe Tiller’s staff from 2003-07. The last two, Legg was offensive coordinator for the Boilermakers.

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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