Big Ten Links: Michigan in must-win situation

Welcome to the calm before the storm of football Saturday. First up on my Friday links is a look at Michigan. I’m gonna go ahead and call the Wolverines’ game at Minnesota a must-win if they want to stay in the Legends Division race – just look at the standings. So, what is it that the Wolverines must do to defeat the Golden Gophers? Kyle Meinke of MLive.com tells us here.

A big key: getting more production from running back Fitz Toussaint. Yes, the line may be having issues opening holes, but at some point, Toussaint has to make plays. He’s averaging 45.9 yards per game, a 47.1 percent drop in production from last year. He averages 3.3 yards per carry.

Toussaint has 321 yards overall. He had 503 yards at this point last year, despite not earning lead-tailback status until this time last year. And tailback production, or lack thereof, is a principle reason why Michigan has stumbled in the red zone, where the field shrinks and it becomes more difficult to pass.

Here’s other Big Ten news you need to know on this Friday.

Did a long snapper really help Ohio State win the Penn State game? Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer says it’s true.

After the Buckeyes had given up a blocked punt that put Penn State ahead 7-0, the Ohio State offense had been stopped and was giving the ball back with four minutes left in the half. Penn State would have a chance to take a two-score lead to halftime. Instead, the Nittany Lions were called for defensive holding on the punt. And Ohio State long snapper Bryce Haynes created the penalty. After retaining possession, the Buckeyes tied the score, 7-7. That’s a big difference, especially on the road, compared to 14-0, or 10-0 or even if it had stayed 7-0. So, take a bow, Haynes!!

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Penn State playing overseas? It could be. That’s what Bill O’Brien said recently, perhaps looking to play the game by 2014 or 2015. Think of it as a de facto bowl game for a team that can’t go to a bowl for four seasons because of NCAA probation.

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Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune thinks many Big Ten teams still are a mystery even though we are two-thirds of the way through the season. Take Indiana, which begins a fascinating two-game stretch Saturday vs. Iowa, which has lost two in a row and won’t have star running back Mark Weisman (ankle). Beat Iowa, then beat Wisconsin—which would give Indiana the tie-breaker over Wisconsin—and Indiana would be primed to perhaps go to the Big Ten title game. Just. Plain. Crazy.

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Speaking of Wisconsin, it is off this week, but it still has spent time prepping for Indiana’s fast-paced offense that it will face in a huge Leaders Division game on Nov. 10.

How fast do the Hoosiers play? They average 77 plays per game. That is the No. 2 mark in the Big Ten behind Penn State (78). By contrast, Wisconsin averages 65 plays per game.

The Badgers figure to get a boost from the return from injury of star left tackle Ricky Wagner when they play at Indiana. He has missed the last two-and-a-half games with a knee injury for a line that has had some issues. Last time out in an overtime loss to Michigan State, the Badgers had 52 yards rushing, allowed seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

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

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Recent strong play by the Nebraska defense offers hope that the once-maligned unit may have turned a corner.

The Huskers rank No. 5 in the Big Ten in defense (336.4 ypg) and have been at their best the last two games in a win at Northwestern and vs. Michigan by allowing 301 and 188 yards, respectively. In fact, the Huskers have allowed over 301 yards just twice all season—but each time it was a memorable debacle. Nebraska yielded 653 yards at UCLA and allowed 63 points at Ohio State.

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Loren Tate of the Champaign News-Gazette thinks Illinois’ options appear bleak. Tate has seen it all at Illinois, including a lot of low points like the Jim Valek and Gary Moeller eras. But Tate says even in those lean times, there was a feeling that with the right coach, Illinois be a Big Ten challenger. Now? Tate says that feeling has been replaced with an attitude of helplessness.

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With Nebraska coming to Michigan State, the Spartans have no margin for error in a game they must win to stay in the mix in the Legends Division. The good news: Michigan State thrives in November under Mark Dantonio, who is 13-3 in the month as Spartans coach.


TWEETS THAT MATTER

My take: This is why Penn State figures to struggle in coming years. This season may be the best in some time. Enjoy it.


My take: This isn’t good. It will improve, right?

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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