Best of Week 8: It's Denard v. Narduzzi Part III
This shapes up as an interesting week, with two key Legends Division clashes on a Big Ten menu that has six games. The headline clash is Nebraska at Northwestern.
The Cornhuskers are coming off a bye week and still may be licking their wounds after allowing 63 points in a loss at Ohio State last time out. The Wildcats are coming off a gutty win at Minnesota that pushed them to bowl eligibility. The loser of this game will have two Big Ten losses and be behind the proverbial eight ball.
The two front-runners in the Legends are in action at home, with Iowa welcoming Penn State—which was off last week–and Michigan State traveling to Michigan. The Hawkeyes and Wolverines are both 2-0 in Big Ten action and want to keep pace with each other. Each is coming off a strong victory, with Iowa winning in double-overtime at Michigan State and Michigan crushing Illinois in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State will look to stay unbeaten and fix its defense with a visit from Purdue. The Boilermakers have been outscored, 82-27, the last two times out in home losses to Michigan and Wisconsin. The Buckeye offense is rolling, scoring an aggregate 115 points the last two games. But Ohio State’s defense has yielded a combined 87 to Nebraska and Indiana. Purdue hasn’t won at Ohio State since 1988.
Minnesota plays at Wisconsin in a battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. These seemingly are teams headed in opposite directions, as the Golden Gophers have lost two in a row, while the Badgers have won two in succession and four of their last five to take command of the Leaders Division.
Indiana wraps up Big Ten non-conference play at 3-3 Navy, which is 1-2 at home. Illinois, losers of four in a row, is off this week.
I set the table for the Best of Week 8.
BEST GAME: Nebraska at Northwestern. This is a pivotal Legends Division clash between the Cornhuskers (4-2 overall/1-1 Big Ten) and Wildcats (6-1/2-1). Nebraska is looking for revenge after getting stunned, 28-25, last year in Lincoln by 17-point underdog Northwestern. Wildcats signal-caller Kain Colter came on for an injured Dan Persa (shoulder) and sparked NU, running for 57 yards and two scores, passing for 115 and a touchdown and catching three passes for 57 yards. Nebraska was off last week after getting whipped, 63-38, at Ohio State. What will be the mind-set of the maligned Husker defense, which allowed 653 yards to UCLA back in September?
BEST MATCHUP: Michigan State linebackers vs. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. For all of their struggles as a team, the Spartan defense has played well all season and still ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 8 in the nation vs. the run (91.3 ypg). Max Bullough and Denicos Allen must lead the way. MSU held Robinson to 42 yards rushing last year and 86 the year before. Robinson paces the Big Ten in rushing and is No. 4 in the nation (134.0 ypg). He has been on fire the last two weeks, ripping Purdue for 235 yards rushing and Illinois for 128 yards. Can the Spartans bottle up Robinson again and get back on track after losing three of their last five games? The Spartans have won the last four encounters.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Pick a player on Nebraska’s defense. Any player will do. This unit has had its struggles this season, suffering two abysmal performances in 2012: UCLA ran up 653 yards vs. the Huskers, while Ohio State rattled off 63 points. Perhaps the week off will result in an improved unit at Northwestern, which has a varied and effective offense behind the two-barreled quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. And Wildcat running back Venric Mark is a handful, too. The Huskers are No. 10 in the Big Ten vs. the run (189.2 ypg) and No. 10 in scoring defense (27.7 ppg).
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Michigan State passing game. Again. The numbers don’t look bad, as the Spartan aerial game is No. 3 in the Big Ten (236.3 ypg). But quarterback Andrew Maxwell continues to struggle with consistency, ranking just No. 11 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. He really struggled last week, hitting just 12-of-31 passes for 179 yards with no touchdowns and a pick in a 19-16 double-overtime loss at home to Iowa. And the receiving corps remains a work in progress. It hurts with tight end Dion Sims out with injury. Will he be back? At least true freshman wideout Aaron Burbridge continues to impress.
BEST COORDINATOR MATCHUP: Bill O’Brien vs. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The Hawkeye defense has played well all season, ranking No. 4 overall in the Big Ten (317.2 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring (17.2 ppg). O’Brien pushes the buttons on what has been a surprisingly effective Nittany Lion offense that ranks No. 6 in the Big Ten (390.2 ypg). The passing game has been the cornerstone, ranking No. 2 in the Big Ten (251.8 ypg). But the ground game still lags, ranking 11th (138.3 ypg). Better balance may be needed to beat this underrated Hawkeye defense.
BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio vs. Michigan’s Brady Hoke. The Spartans have won the last four meetings in the battle of bitter rivals. Yes, Dantonio’s team is struggling and has two of its last three, but he remains a good coach who will have a sound plan. Hoke—one of the Big Ten’s rising stars–is motivated to get his first victory vs. MSU.
BEST QUARTERBACK MATCHUP: Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez vs. Northwestern’s Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Martinez is No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, completing 66 percent of his attempts for 1,273 yards with a Big Ten-high 12 touchdown passes and just four picks. Colter and Siemian have been an effective duo, playing off each other’s strengths. Colter is the Big Ten’s most versatile player, passing for 432 yards, running for 421 and catching 13 passes for 152 yards. Siemian has hit 62 percent of his passes 816 yards.
|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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