Week 8 Previews: Big Ten Legends battle brewing

In my preview of Saturday’s six games, I take closer looks at one big rematch (Nebraska at Northwestern), a pair of major rivalries (Michigan State at Michigan, Minnesota at Wisconsin), two more with some intriguing recent history (Penn State at Iowa, Purdue at Ohio State), and a non-conference game with a Big Ten team hungry for a win (Indiana at Navy).

I’ll be in Evanston on Saturday covering the Huskers as they seek revenge for last year’s loss to the Wildcats, so follow me on Twitter @BTNTomDienhart. I’ll also be tracking all of the other games with my usual Saturday Snap Reactions. Drop me your questions at the bottom of this post after you read each of my previews.

1. Nebraska at Northwestern | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: This is a pivotal Legends Division clash between the Cornhuskers and Wildcats. 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 Northwestern, 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? And, more vital, will it have its problems fixed?

Player on the spot: Pick a player on Nebraska’s defense. Any player will do. This is a unit that has struggled mightily from time to time, suffering two horrid efforts in 2012: UCLA ran up 653 yards while Ohio State rattled off 63 points. Perhaps the week off will result in an improved unit at Northwestern, which has a dynamic offense behind the two-headed quarterback duo on 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).

Key matchup: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez vs. Northwestern front seven. Martinez ranks 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 only four picks. Led by end Tyler Scott and linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and David Nwabuisi, the Wildcats are No. 2 in the Big Ten vs. the run (109.9 ypg); No. 9 in total defense (380.7 ypg) and No. 7 in scoring defense (22.1 ppg).

Key number: 10, fumbles lost by Nebraska. That leads the Big Ten. By the way, Northwestern leads the Big Ten with nine fumble recoveries.

Key note: Nebraska enters the game with Northwestern following an off Saturday. The Huskers have had success when coming off a bye, winning on the road each of the past three seasons. In 2009 and 2010, Nebraska followed a bye week with a Thursday night road game, winning 27-12 at No. 24 Missouri in 2009, and posting a 48-13 victory at Kansas State in 2010. Last season, Nebraska followed a mid-October bye with a 42-14 victory at Minnesota. Nebraska is 4-1 overall after a bye under Bo Pelini, splitting a pair of games in 2008 following an off week.

Big Ten Conference Standings
Leaders Conference Overall vs
W-L PF PA Home Road W-L PF PA Home Road Top 25
Ohio State 3-0 132 103 1-0 2-0 7-0 283 172 5-0 2-0 2-0
Penn State 2-0 74 35 1-0 1-0 4-2 162 96 3-1 1-1 1-0
Wisconsin 2-1 96 58 1-0 1-1 5-2 182 129 4-0 1-2 0-1
Purdue 0-2 27 82 0-2 0-0 3-3 197 165 3-2 0-1 0-1
Indiana 0-3 105 127 0-2 0-1 2-4 213 191 1-3 1-1 0-1
Illinois 0-3 21 111 0-1 0-2 2-5 127 215 2-2 0-3 0-1
Leaders Conference Overall vs
W-L PF PA Home Road W-L PF PA Home Road Top 25
Michigan 2-0 89 13 1-0 1-0 4-2 203 105 3-0 1-1 0-2
Iowa 2-0 50 29 1-0 1-0 4-2 132 103 2-2 1-0 0-0
Northwestern 2-1 93 81 1-0 1-1 6-1 218 155 4-0 2-1 0-0
Nebraska 1-1 68 90 1-0 0-1 4-2 262 166 4-0 0-2 0-1
Michigan State 1-2 63 63 0-2 1-0 4-3 147 110 2-3 2-0 1-2
Minnesota 0-2 26 52 0-1 0-1 4-2 145 119 3-1 1-1 0-0

2. Penn State at Iowa | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: A 19-16 double-overtime win at Michigan State last week has breathed life into Iowa, which sits atop the Legends Division along with Michigan. The Nittany Lions are hot, having won four in a row after an 0-2 start. Will an off week slow them down? Both teams play good defense, so points could be tough to come by.

Player on the spot: Iowa RB Greg Garmon. With Mark Weisman limited or unlikely to play after hurting an ankle last week, Garmon is listed as first team running back. The true freshman has flashed some potential, but can he carry the same load as Weisman against a strong Penn State front seven that ranks No. 6 in the Big Ten against the run (128.5 ypg)? Garmon, who has missed time with an elbow injury, has run 14 times for 35 yards. Weisman has 631 yards rushing and has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in each of the last four games.

Key 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.

Key number: 8, sacks yielded by Penn State. That’s a slim total when you consider that the Nittany Lions have attempted 229 passes. That’s an average of just one sack for 38.2 attempts per game. The only Big Ten with a higher average of passing attempts per game is Indiana with 45.3.

Key note: Four of Iowa’s first six games have been decided by three points or less, including two decided by one point each and another in double overtime.

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

3. Michigan State at Michigan | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: At the beginning of the year, this looked like it may be the top conference matchup of the year. Now? Not so much so, given the Spartans’ struggles in losing three of their last five games. A win would restore confidence and get Michigan State back in the Legends Division race. The Wolverines are coming off blowout victories over Purdue and Illinois and may be the hottest team in the Big Ten thanks largely to outstanding defense.

Player on the spot: Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. He continues to deal with consistency issues. Last week, the junior hit 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. Running back Le’Veon Ball can do only so much running the ball. The passing game needs to be more consistently productive.

Key matchup: Michigan State linebackers vs. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartans 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 play tough and be disciplined. MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi knows how to contain Robinson. Michigan State held Robinson to 42 yards rushing last year and 86 in 2010. Robinson leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks No. 4 in the nation (134.0 ypg). In the last two games, “Shoelace” torched Purdue for 235 yards rushing and Illinois for 128 yards. Can the Spartans contain Robinson again?

Key number: 11th, Maxwell’s rank in passing efficiency in the Big Ten. He’s 100th in the nation. The junior has completed just 54.3 percent of his passes, the lowest of any Big Ten starting quarterback. And he has just six touchdown passes with four picks.

Key note: Michigan State has won the last four meetings. It never has won five in succession over Michigan.

[RELATED: Check out BTN.com Connect, the top interactive online destination for fans on game day.]

4. Minnesota at Wisconsin | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: This is the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe! It doesn’t get much better when it comes to rivalries and trophies. But each team seems to be going in opposite directions. Minnesota has lost two in a row after a 4-0 start. Wisconsin has won two in a row and four of five.

Player on the spot: Minnesota QB Max Shortell. He figures to start a third consecutive game, but MarQueis Gray could see some action under center or at receiver as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. Regardless of who takes the snaps, the Gophers need better production to keep pace with a hot Wisconsin attack. Minnesota has scored 17, 13 and 13 points in its last three games.

Key matchup: Minnesota defensive front seven vs. Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. The Golden Gopher defense has had some holes punched in it lately. Last week, Northwestern ran for 208 yards; Iowa had 182 the week before. Add it up, and Minnesota is just No. 8 in the Big Ten in rush defense (150.7 ypg). Ball is starting to heat up, coming off a career-best 247-yard rushing effort at Purdue last week when he became the Big Ten’s all-time leader in touchdowns. Ball had 116 yards rushing the week before vs. Illinois. He is No. 4 in the Big Ten in rushing (116.6 ypg) with a league-high 11 rushing scores. In the Purdue game, Wisconsin ran for 467 yards and finished with 645 yards.

Key number: 8, Wisconsin wins in a row over Minnesota.

Key note: Wisconsin has won 20 consecutive home games dating back to a 20-10 loss to Iowa on Oct. 17, 2009. That is the second-longest active home win streak in the nation, trailing only LSU (21). Wisconsin has won 11 straight Big Ten games at home, the second-longest active home conference win streak in the nation. Only Northern Illinois (14) has a longer active streak of home wins in conference play.

5. Purdue at Ohio State | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: The Buckeyes are trying to move to 8-0 in what has been a fun maiden voyage under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes also remain motivated to finish unbeaten and to make a run at the AP national championship. The Boilermakers are seeing their season of promise slip away. What type of effort will we see after a 44-13 loss to Michigan and a 38-14 thumping by Wisconsin that really weren’t even that close?

Player on the spot: Let’s say the Purdue offensive line. The unit hasn’t gotten a consistent push all season, which has put too much pressure on quarterback Caleb TerBush. If the Boilermakers can’t establish some semblance of a rushing attack vs. the Buckeyes, they will be doomed. The Ohio State line is too talented and deep and will tee off on TerBush if it doesn’t have to respect the run.

Key matchup: Purdue defensive line vs. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. The Boilermaker front was billed in the preseason as one of the best in the Big Ten. Well, the last two weeks, the unit has gotten trucked to the tune of 771 yards rushing by Michigan and Wisconsin. And the linebacking at Purdue—to be kind—is pedestrian, at best. Now, here comes Miller, who may be the most elusive and difficult-to-tackle player in America. This looks like an epic mismatch.

Key number: 5.01, average yards per rush for Purdue’s foes. No other Big Ten squad is as generous. Tackling is a major issue, as Boiler staffers say the defense missed 27 tackles last week vs. Wisconsin.

Key note: Purdue hasn’t won at Ohio State since 1988. Since then, the Boilermakers have lost eight in a row in Columbus—often in lopsided fashion. 1989: 21-3; 1994: 48-14; 1995: 28-0; 1999: 25-22; 2001: 35-9; 2003: 16-13; 2008: 16-3; 2010: 49-0.

6. Indiana at Navy | Scoreboard & TV info
Why you should watch: The Hoosiers are looking to taste victory, having lost four in a row since a Sept. 8 win at UMass. The Midshipmen have won two in a row and three of four since an 0-2 start. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said earlier this week that he visited Air Force in the offseason to learn how the Falcons run their option offense in hopes of decoding a Navy attack that runs a similar scheme.

Player on the spot: Indiana LB David Cooper. He has played well since arriving from a JC, ranking second on the team in tackles with 39. Cooper will need a big game in Annapolis, as he must lead a defensive charge that slows down Navy’s triple-option. The Hoosiers can’t let the Midshipmen control the ball for extended stretches.

Key matchup: Indiana defensive line vs. Navy triple option. The 3-3 Midshipmen rank No. 17 in the nation in rushing (231.7 ypg). They are masters at executing the triple-option. It’s an attack that excels at ball control, too, which is good because Navy doesn’t want the explosive Hoosier offense to get its hands on the ball too often. It’s no secret: The Midshipmen won’t pass the ball (they rank 121st in the nation at 119.5 ypg), so Indiana knows what to focus on stopping. Can it do it?

Key number: 19.5, points per game Navy averages. That ranks 110th in the nation. If Indiana can jet to a lead, it could force the Midshipmen to abandon the comfort of the run game and have to pass. That’s exactly what Indiana must—and can–do.

Key note: Indiana has scored at least 24 points in each game this season, and the Hoosiers have tallied 29 or more four times.

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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