Dienhart: My Week 2 Big Ten previews

Week Two brings us a blockbuster matchup: Notre Dame at Michigan, one of the sport’s iconic rivalries. This will be a great test for a Wolverines’ program that is on the rise and the pick of many to win the Legends Division. Since the series was renewed in 1978, it is tied 14-14-1. However, this will be the last time for the foreseeable future that the clubs will meet in Ann Arbor.

The series will go on a hiatus after a 2014 clash in South Bend. So, enjoy and savor every last drop of this game on Saturday night.

Here is a look at all 12 games involving Big Ten teams this Saturday.

[ MORE: Who wins Week 2 games? Cast your votes! | Power Rankings | Bowl Projections ]

Cincinnati (1-0) at Illinois (1-0) – noon ET

Why you should watch: Can Illinois keep the mojo going forward? Last Saturday, the Illini ended a nine-game losing skid with a 42-34 win over FCS Southern Illinois, which was throwing into the end zone in the waning seconds with a chance to tie. Still, there were positives to build on for Illinois—especially on offense. The defense? Eh.

Player on the spot: Nathan Scheelhaase. The senior quarterback is coming off a day to remember in the season opener, throwing for a career-high 416 yards. He looks like a good fit for new coordinator Bill Cubit’s quick-strike passing game. Scheelhaase needs to keep firing.

Key matchup: Illinois defensive line vs. Cincinnati offensive line. To say the Illini struggled on defense vs. Southern Illinois would be an understatement. And those struggles began up front. The Illini need to be stout in the trenches to have any shot of upsetting the Bearcats. And it begins with slowing down the run vs. a UC program that waxed Purdue, 42-7, last week.

Key number: 5, sacks allowed by Illinois, which also had pass protection issues in 2012. That must tighten up vs. Cincinnati for an o-line that lacks depth.

Listen to Tim Beckman’s teleconference:

[ MORE: Read Tom Dienhart's Nathan Scheelhaase Q&A ]

Missouri State (0-1) at Iowa (0-1) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: Yes, the Hawkeyes lost their opener, but there was no shame in the 30-27 loss in Kinnick Stadium to Northern Illinois. Iowa was primed to drive for the winning points before a killer late-game interception by Jake Rudock. There was a lot to build on for the Hawkeyes, who need to end a seven-game skid right now if they want to even think about going to a bowl. Missouri State opened with a 23-17 loss to Northwestern State.

Player of the spot: Jake Rudock. The Iowa quarterback acquitted himself well in his first career action, completing 21-of-37 passes for 256 yards with a touchdown and two picks. The sophomore showed poise in the pocket and a solid arm. Iowa can win with Rudock, who completed passes to nine different players.

Key matchup: Iowa linebackers vs. Missouri State running backs. The Hawkeyes have as good a trio of starting linebackers as any team in the Big Ten, with Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris leading the way. They need to contain the Bear backs to make Missouri State one-dimensional.

Key number: 5, losses by three points or less the last two seasons for Iowa. This team has to find a way to succeed in close games.

Listen to Kirk Ferentz’s teleconference:

South Florida (0-1) at Michigan State (1-0) – noon ET, ESPNU

Why you should watch: All eyes remain fixed on the still-evolving quarterback situation in East Lansing. Andrew Maxwell got the start in a workmanlike 26-13 win over Western Michigan and, frankly, looked average. He hit 11-of-21 passes for 74 yards. Connor Cook also played, doing his best work on the ground with 35 yards; he hit just 6-of-16 passes for 42 yards. Will there be any more clarity to the position this week?

Player on the spot: The Michigan State running backs. Let’s go with Jeremy Langford, since he looks like he may be the bellwether after running 20 times for 94 yards and a score. The Spartans must run well while the passing game develops.

Key matchup: Michigan State front seven vs. South Florida offensive line. This is a Bulls’ program that’s struggling. Check this out: South Florida is coming off a mind-numbing 53-31 home loss to FCS McNeese State in the debut of Willie Taggert, who said he thought some of his players quit on him. Seems awfully early in the season for that. The Spartan defense needs to smother this offense to help out the MSU offense as much as possible.

Key number: 6, drops by Michigan State receivers last week. That was an issue in 2012, as well. This wideout corps needs more big plays—less drops.

Listen to Mark Dantonio’s teleconference:

[ MORE: Video: Mark Dantonio doesn't want to hear your QB questions ]

Eastern Michigan (0-1) at Penn State (1-0) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Nittany Lions are coming off an impressive season-opening triumph over Syracuse, as the offense came to life in the second half. Don’t look now, but Penn State has a good chance to start 2-0, playing MAC weakling Eastern Michigan. And a 2-0 start would be a far cry from last season, when Penn State opened 0-2 with losses to Ohio and Virginia.

Player on the spot: WR Allen Robinson sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons last week. Well, he made up for it in the second half, catching seven passes for 133 yards to rescue a sputtering offense. No doubt, the Penn State offense needs him, even vs. EMU, which opened with a 34-24 win over FCS Howard.

Key matchup: Penn State offensive line vs. Eastern Michigan front seven. The Nittany Lions need to become more efficient on third downs after converting just 1-of-16 (six percent) vs. Syracuse. And that begins up front with a line that could be among the best in the Big Ten.

Key number: 1.5, Penn State’s average yards per carry vs. SU. The Nittany Lions ran for just 57 yards and didn’t have a run longer than 11 yards. This must improve with backs like Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch.

Listen to Coach Bill O’Brien’s teleconference:

Indiana State (0-1) at Purdue (0-1) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Boilermakers must show some life after an abysmal season-opening 42-7 loss at Cincinnati in which virtually nothing went correct. Purdue needs to taste some type of success this week to bolster hopes and confidence vs. an Indiana State squad that got lambasted at Indiana last week in dropping a 73-35 decision.

Player on the spot: Every Boilermaker is on the spot. But none moreso than QB Rob Henry, who made his first start since 2010. Yes, he didn’t get much help from the line, backs or wideouts. But Henry needs to make better decisions and improve his accuracy. He can’t turn over the ball, either. Henry hit just 18-of-35 passes for 161 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Key matchup: Purdue defensive line vs. Indiana State offensive line. The Boiler d-line was purported to be a strength. Well, it didn’t look so good vs. Cincinnati. The big boys need to dominate the Sycamores’ o-line en route to stuffing the run and getting after the quarterback.

Key number: 7, penalties for Purdue vs. Cincinnati. The Boilers also had four turnovers. These were areas that haunted Purdue under Danny Hope. ‘Nuff said.

Listen to Darrell Hazell’s teleconference:

Tennessee Tech (1-0) at Wisconsin (1-0) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: Honestly, there really aren’t many compelling reasons to watch this game. Wisconsin should run roughshod over this FCS program a week after blanking UMass, 45-0. Can the Badgers pitch a second consecutive shutout while also scoring half-a-hundred? But know this: Tennessee Tech opened with a 63-7 win over something called “Cumberland.”

Player on the spot: No one, really. This will be one of those “clear the bench” days when even the backup long snapper gets into the game. I wonder if Wisconsin could win this game without throwing a pass. Look for the backups to get plenty of work, which will be good with a tough trip to Arizona State next.

Key matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Tennessee Tech defensive line. The Badgers big boys imposed their will on the UMass d-line last week, as three Wisconsin plays each eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark en route to 393 yards rushing. Expect Wisconsin to continue to hone its ground game and maybe rush for, oh, 400 yards.

Key number: 2,714, career rushing yards for James White. That leads all active FBS running backs. He also leads all active FBS players with 33 rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a career backup.

Listen to Gary Andersen’s teleconference:

San Diego State (0-1) at Ohio State (1-0) – 3: 30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

Why you should watch: Can Ohio State stay sharp for four quarters? The Buckeyes raced to a 23-0 lead through one quarter over Buffalo last week only to look average the rest of the way. National championship-caliber teams need to bury teams like Buffalo—and San Diego State, which got whipped at home in its opener by FCS Eastern Illinois, falling 40-19.

Player on the spot: Braxton Miller needs to sharpen up. He had his moments but eventually left the game with leg cramps. He also was sacked four times and made a bad decision on a screen pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Strut your stuff, Braxton. This is your season.

Key matchup: Ohio State running backs vs. San Diego State front seven. Jordan Hall ran for a career-high 159 yards last week. But the Buckeyes welcome back from suspension running back Rod Smith. This nice collection of backs needs to run roughshod vs. an overmatched Azetcs’ squad.

Key number: 20-17, the scoring edge Buffalo had on Ohio State the rest of the game after the Buckeyes jumped to a 23-0 first quarter lead. Stunning.

Listen to Urban Meyer’s teleconference:

Navy (0-0) at Indiana (1-0) – 6 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Hoosier offense looked to be in midseason form in last week’s opening 73-35 win over FCS Indiana State. Can the Indiana attack continue to click? It may need to vs. an always-confounding Navy offense that can eat up clock and keep opposing offenses on the sideline for extended stretches. To make things more difficult, Navy also will run some plays from the Pistol. Uh-oh.

Player on the spot: The Hoosier quarterbacks. Kevin Wilson is saying he could play three quarterbacks again. Really? How long can this go on? Just because you have three quarterbacks who can play doesn’t mean you should play three, does it? Tre Roberson? Cam Coffman? Nathan Sudfeld? Hmmmm.

Key matchup: Indiana defensive line vs. Navy triple option. It’s imperative that the Hoosier defense gets off the field. IU can’t afford to let the Midshipmen have extended, time-consuming drives that eat clock, wear down the IU defense and keep the Hoosier offense on the sideline for extended stretches. The Hoosiers have been working on defending the triple-option since the spring. By the way: This is Navy’s season opener.

Key number: 61, the average time in seconds of Indiana’s first nine touchdown drives last week. Blink, and you missed a touchdown.

Listen to Kevin Wilson’s teleconference:

Southern Miss (0-1) at Nebraska (1-0) – 6 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: Nebraska needs to tighten up on defense vs. a Southern Miss team that opened the season with a 22-15 loss to Texas State. On Sept. 14, the Huskers welcome UCLA, which notched 653 yards vs. Nebraska last year. This defense needs confidence entering that game after getting gashed for 602 yards by Wyoming.

Player on the spot: The Huskers running backs. They need to continue to dominate. The trio of Ameer Abdullah (114), Imani Cross (105) and Terrell Newby (76) looked good. Nebraska needs to be physical and keep its defense off the field as much as possible while controlling the ball and the clock with its go-go offense.

Key matchup: Nebraska defense vs. Southern Miss offense. The Huskers did nothing to quell concerns about their defense in a too-close season opening win vs. Wyoming, which had the ball and chance to win late in the game.

Key number: 8, number of combined true and redshirted freshmen who played on Nebraska’s defense that surrendered 602 yards to Wyoming. Youth was served. Now, it needs to grow up fast.

Listen to Bo Pelini’s teleconference: 

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Syracuse (0-1) at Northwestern (1-0) – 6 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Wildcats notched perhaps the most impressive victory of any Big Ten team in the opening week of action, taking a 44-30 victory at Cal. Syracuse is coming off a 23-17 loss vs. Penn State in the Meadowlands. If this is to be a magical season, NU must protect Ryan Field vs. teams like the Orange.

Player on the spot: RB Treyvon Green came on when Venric Mark got dinged up and excelled, rushing 16 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns to carry NU to victory. With Mark’s status iffy, Green may have to come up big again. He’s a physical back who’s capable.

Key matchup: Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian vs. Syracuse secondary. Penn State freshman QB Christian Hackenberg riddled the Orange for 278 yards and two touchdowns; Siemian could, too. After Kain Colter suffered a concussion early last week, Siemian came on to hit 18-of-29 passes for 276 yards with a touchdown and two picks. Colter’s status could be murky, meaning Siemian may go the distance this Saturday.

Key number: 74, games in a row that Northwestern has scored in double-figures.

Listen to Pat Fitzgerald’s teleconference:

Notre Dame (1-0) at Michigan (1-0) – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why you should watch: Do you have to ask? In the AP poll, Notre Dame is ranked No. 14; Michigan is No. 17. Each is looking for an early-season win that will serve as validation that it’s an elite program. Forget all the talk of “chickening out” and “historic rivalry.” It’s time to play football and worry about the future and significance of this rivalry later.

Player on the spot: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. This is his chance to begin building his legacy. The junior showed some flashes last year, but he hasn’t beaten a team of this ilk yet. We know Gardner can run, but he’ll need to hit some big passes to beat ND. Will he deliver?

Key matchup: Michigan defensive line vs. Notre Dame offensive line. The Wolverine front can make a statement in this game and show it’s a force. That means players like Frank Clark, Ondre Pipkins and Co., need to control the trenches, mute the run and get pressure on Irish QB Tommy Rees, who isn’t the most mobile and athlete signal-caller. The Wolverines need to sit on the Irish running game, then get after Rees.

Key number: 14, consecutive field goals made over the last two seasons by Michigan K Brendan Gibbons, a school record. This game could be close, meaning Gibbons may have to nail a big kick late.

Listen to Brady Hoke’s teleconference:

[ MORE: Tom Dienhart ranks his top 5 Big Ten rivalries ]

Minnesota (1-0) at New Mexico State (0-1) – 8 p.m. ET, BTN2Go

Why you should watch: This could be a tricky game for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers need to take care of business vs. an inferior team on the road, which is the next stage in the development of this program. The last time it played the Aggies, Minnesota lost. Even worse: Jerry Kill had a seizure near the end of the game and was away from the team for several days, but he didn’t miss any games. New Mexico State opened with a 56-7 loss at Texas.

Player on the spot: The Gophers running backs. With Donnell Kirkwood and Berkley Edwards likely out with ankle injuries, David Cobb and Rodrick Williams need to step up as ball carriers. A passing game that netted just 99 yards needs help.

Key matchup: Minnesota offensive line vs. New Mexico State defensive line. The Gopher front can play better than it did vs. UNLV. Yes, the front did OK, but it needs more consistency and should dominate a lesser foe. This is a veteran crew that should control the line of scrimmage vs. teams like New Mexico State.

Key number: 2, special teams touchdowns for Minnesota in its opening win over UNLV. The Gophers also scored on defense. Repeat this each week, and Minnesota will win a lot of games.

Listen to Jerry Kill’s teleconference:

About Tom Dienhart 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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