Week 6 previews: Close looks at all 5 games

There are plenty of storylines for this weekend’s batch of games, including a very intriguing game for Nebraska in Columbus. Does Ohio State stay perfect? Is this the weekend when Northwestern and Purdue win over a doubting sports press corps? What’s in store for Illinois when they kick off in Madison? I preview all five Big Ten games in this post.

As for this Saturday, I’m headed to watch Purdue take on Michigan (noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go). Follow me on Twitter @BTNTomDienhart and be sure to bookmark any of these links and get in-game updates on Saturday: Illinois at Wisconsin, Michigan at Purdue, Michigan State at Indiana, Nebraska at Ohio State, and Northwestern at Penn State.

Now, here is my ranking of the five Big Ten games.

1. Nebraska at Ohio State | Full Saturday scoreboard
Why you should watch: This matchup pits what looks like the two best teams in the Big Ten. Each is coming off a big victory, with the Cornhuskers storming back from a 17-point hole to win 30-27 at home against Wisconsin and Ohio State taking a methodical 17-16 victory at Michigan State. This could have been a preview of the Big Ten title game if the Buckeyes weren’t on probation. Still, it’s a big matchup. Can the Huskers win a game like this on the road? Ohio State proved it could last week.

Player on the spot: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez. It’s this simple—if the junior doesn’t play well, the Cornhuskers will have no chance to win. Martinez has been a revelation thus far in 2012, pacing the Big Ten in passing efficiency. He likely also will need to use his feet to extend plays and make some yards against a Buckeye defense that is filled with athletes up front. If you recall, Martinez rallied Nebraska from a 21-point deficit to 34-27 victory last year vs. Ohio State, which still needs to tackle better.

Key matchup: The Husker linebackers vs. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Nebraska defense was ripped for 653 yards (second most ever in a game in school annals) at UCLA last month, but the group has rallied. In the last three games, Nebraska has yielded 286, 210 and 295 yards, respectively. But Miller—who was knocked out of last year’s game in the third quarter with an ankle injury–is unlike any weapon the Huskers have faced in 2012. And spread offenses like Ohio State’s have posed some issues for Nebraska. Linebackers Will Compton and Alonzo Whaley, among others, must rise to the occasion.

Key number: 19, sacks by the Cornhuskers through five games. Last season, Nebraska had 21 … total. And the Huskers are first in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 51 after finishing last in 2011.

Key note: The last time Nebraska played at Ohio State? It was 1956. This also marks the return of Bo Pelini, a Youngstown, Ohio, native who played defensive back at Ohio State from 1987-90 when Urban Meyer was a graduate assistant coach with the Buckeyes.

[RELATED: Read BTN.com's Tom Dienhart's latest answers to your football questions.]

2. Michigan at Purdue | Full Saturday scoreboard
Why you should watch: Two programs looking to take the proverbial next step in the Big Ten opener for each. The Wolverines are coming off a disappointing 2-2 non-conference schedule, looking to assert themselves as a top Big Ten program amid big preseason expectations. The Boilermakers look primed for a breakthrough with what appears to be the best team of the Danny Hope era. In fact, this may be the biggest Purdue game since the infamous Kyle Orton fumble game against Wisconsin in 2004. A win here would give Purdue needed mojo with Wisconsin coming to West Lafayette next followed by a trip to Ohio State.

Player on the spot: Purdue QB Caleb TerBush. The senior threw for four touchdowns in a 51-41 win over Marshall last week and appears to be coming on. Good thing. He has hit 63.8 percent of his passes for 531 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions in three games for a rising team and Leaders Division dark horse. TerBush will need to have a strong outing if the Boilermakers want to topple Michigan, which was off last week. Purdue also could get a boost from the return of quarterback Robert Marve from yet another knee injury.

Key matchup: Michigan offensive line vs. Purdue defensive line. Brady Hoke called out the Wolverine front at halftime of the Notre Dame game, a contest in which Michigan failed to score a touchdown. The unit has struggled with chemistry and cohesion much of the season. It must protect Robinson vs. a fearsome Boilermaker front that includes stalwarts like tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston along with end Ryan Russell. Wolverine tackle Taylor Lewan must dominate.

Key number: 38, career interceptions for Michigan signal-caller Denard Robinson. He has tossed a Big Ten-high eight this season and most recently hurled four at Notre Dame. The senior must play smart and make some big plays with his feet, while also getting help from running back Fitz Toussaint. Look for Boilermaker linebacker Will Lucas to shadow “Shoelace.”

Key note: Purdue is 3-1 for the first time since 2007, while Michigan looks for its first Big Ten crown since—get this—2004.

[RELATED: Read the latest Big Ten football "Numbers" column for BTN host Dave Revsine.]

3. Northwestern at Penn State | Full Saturday scoreboard
Why you should watch: Two of the Big Ten’s most surprising squads face off. The Wildcats are one of just two unbeatens left (Ohio State is the other) in the Big Ten and climbed into the polls this week. The Nittany Lions—who haven’t lost to NU since 2004–have ripped off three straight wins after an 0-2 start but are relegated to playing the role of spoiler due to NCAA sanctions.

Player on the spot: Penn State QB Matt McGloin. The senior has emerged as the heart and soul of this Nittany Lions squad, pacing the Big Ten in passing yards (1,217) and ranking second in touchdown passes (10). And McGloin will work against a Wildcat defense that is last in the Big Ten vs. the pass (289.0 ypg). Hmmm. If McGloin—who has great chemistry with wideout Allen Robinson and his tight ends–has a big game, Penn State may roll.

Key matchup: Northwestern QBs Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter vs. Penn State front seven. This should be as entertaining as any matchup of the day, as both units are playing well. The Wildcats are deftly employing two quarterbacks, using the strengths of each with Siemian passing and Colter running. Colter also lines up at receiver and is as versatile an athlete as you will see for an attack that had a school single-game record 704 yards of offense last week. Nittany Lions linebacker Michael Mauti is coming off national defensive player of the week honors following a sterling effort at Illinois. He teams with Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson to form a strong linebacker corps that must mute the Northwestern signal-callers in the Wildcats’ spread/up-tempo attack.

Key number: 9, first-half points allowed by Penn State. And all of those have come on field goals. And Penn State–which is No. 1 in the Big Ten turnover margin–has outscored foes, 49-0, in the first quarter.

Key note: 90.0, yards rushing per game Northwestern is allowing. That’s No. 1 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats must continue to stuff the run vs. a Penn State offense that has seen its rushing game come to life the last two weeks in gaining 173 yards vs. Temple and Illinois.

[RELATED: Get the latest weather reports for every Big Ten football stadium.]

4. Illinois at Wisconsin | Full Saturday scoreboard
Why you should watch: Both teams are looking to get back on track after tough losses. The Badgers blew a 17-point lead at Nebraska to fall 30-27; The Illini were whipped 35-7 at home by Penn State. Wisconsin has won 11 conference games in a row at home, facing an Illinois team that has to lack confidence coming off back-to-back home blowout losses.

Player on the spot: Wisconsin QB Joel Stave. He has started the past two games but was replaced late last week by Danny O’Brien, who opened the season as the starter. Stave will get the start vs. Illinois. But what will be his state of mind? Stave has nice chemistry going with wideout Jared Abbrederis, who has back-to-back 100-yard receiving games.

Key matchup: Illinois defensive line vs. Wisconsin offensive line. Both units were supposed to be strengths this season. Alas, each has disappointed. The Illini is seventh in the Big Ten in rush defense (118.8 ypg); Wisconsin is last in rush offense (125.6 ypg). Each unit needs to get more physical. Look for Badger back Montee Ball to get a heavy work load. He ran for a career-high 224 yards vs. Illinois last year and carried 32 times last week at Nebraska. Illini linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan need to play well.

Key number: 0, interceptions for Wisconsin. And it has only eight sacks. A lack of big plays has hurt a defense that also is struggling in the second half. Get this: The Badgers have been outscored 65-54 in the second half this season. Wisconsin needs to learn how to close games.

Key note: Illinois hasn’t won in Madison since 2001. The fact the Illini offensive line has been a turnstile won’t help the team’s chances in Madison. And QB Nathan Scheelhaase still doesn’t look totally right after suffering an ankle injury in the opener.

5. Michigan State at Indiana | Full Saturday scoreboard
Why you should watch: It’s a battle for the Old Brass Spittoon! That’s reason enough to tune in, right? Each team is trying to get on track after a loss. The Spartans still harbor Legends Division title hopes but must get on track after losing last week at home to Ohio State, 17-16. The Hoosiers? They are just looking for their first Big Ten win since 2010, coming off a 44-29 loss at Northwestern.

Player on the spot: Pick a Spartan receiver. Any Spartan receiver. The unit has been maligned all season for inconsistency, as drops have been a huge issue. Purported star Bennie Fowler has lost his starting job to true freshman Aaron Burbridge. Will he step up? Will anyone? Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery had their moments last week. Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell hasn’t tossed a pick since having three in the opener vs. Boise State,  and he’s coming off his best game of 2012. Maxwell must take advantage of an Indiana defense that is last in the Big Ten overall and vs. the run, and is ninth vs. the pass.

Key matchup: Indiana defensive line vs. Michigan State offensive line. Both units have disappointed for various reasons. Well, here’s a chance to shine. If Hoosier tackles Larry Black Jr., and Adam Replogle get run over and can’t stop star Spartan back Le’Veon Bell, it will be a long day for Indiana. If Michigan State—which has lost right tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson to injury–can’t run, it will put too much pressure on a spotty passing game. Bottom line: Look for the Spartans to run Bell—the Big Ten’s top rusher (655 yards)–early and often. Whatcha got, Hoosiers?

Key number: One, number of field goals missed in each game for Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy. His missed 42-yarder in the second quarter last week proved to be the difference in a one-point loss to Ohio State.

Key note: The Hoosiers haven’t beaten the Spartans since 2006. In fact, Indiana has beaten Michigan State just five times in the last two decades. To have any shot to win, Indiana will have to score—a lot—with an offense that is No. 2 in the Big Ten (510.0 ypg). It isn’t known who will start at quarterback for the Hoosiers, but don’t be shocked if Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld each sees action vs. a Spartan defense that is No. 1 in the Big Ten (263.4 ypg).

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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