The sixth week of the season is on our doorstep. And all eyes are on Evanston, where Ohio State will play at Northwestern in a game with national and Big Ten championship implications. But even beyond that Titanic clash, there are several interesting games. Here are previews of each contest in this first full-blown Saturday of conference action.
Why you should watch: Each team should be well-rested coming off a bye week. But each is coming into this clash off far different circumstances. The last time out, the Nittany Lions shut out Kent State, 34-0. The last time out, the Hoosiers got ripped by Missouri, 45-28. Penn State is on probation, so it’s playing for pride. Indiana still has bowl aspirations, but it must go 4-4 in Big Ten action to reach 6-6. Winning at home vs. an opponent it never has beaten may be a must.
Player of the spot: The Indiana quarterbacks. Nate Sudfeld started the last game, but Tre Roberson also played. No matter what happens under center, the Hoosiers need good play. And that means sound decisions for what is the No. 1 aerial attack in the Big Ten (348.5 ypg). No doubt, the IU passing game would be helped by a strong effort on the ground from Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston for what’s the No. 7 rushing game in the league (198.8 ypg).
Key matchup: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg vs. Indiana secondary. The Hoosier defense is limping into this game, ranking last overall in the Big Ten (463.8 ypg). Missouri notched 623 yards, the most ever for an opponent in Memorial Stadium. And 343 of those yards game through the air. What will Hackenberg do?
Key number: 38, wins for Penn State vs. teams from the state of Indiana. The Nittany Lions are 38-12-2. PSU is 16-0 against Indiana, 1-0 vs. Indiana State, 9-9-1 vs. Notre Dame and 12-3-1 against Purdue.
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Why you should watch: These appear to be two programs heading in opposite directions. The Hawkeyes are rolling, winners of four in a row as they come off a convincing 23-7 win at unbeaten Minnesota. The Spartans? The defense has been spectacular, but the offense is a mess. Questions nag at quarterback. And no real answer has been found at running back. The receivers also haven’t distinguished themselves. The winner of the game will be positioned to make a push in the uber competitive Legends Division.
Player on the spot: Michigan State QB Connor Cook. C’mon, can it be anyone else? The last time we saw Cook, he was getting yanked in favor of Andrew Maxwell for Michigan State’s final possession in a disappointing loss at Notre Dame. The move left many scratching their head and couldn’t have done much for Cook’s psyche, causing more consternation about the quarterback spot. Cook remains the starter. But how will he deal with a Hawkeye defense that is tough, physical and playing well?
Key matchup: Iowa offensive line vs. Michigan State defensive line. This will be a classic battle. The Hawkeye front is coming together nicely after injury wrecked the crew in 2012. Big tackle Brandon Scherff is the bellwether and true stud. I hope Scherff and MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun lock horns often. The Spartans are No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing defense (58.2 ypg); the Hawkeyes are No. 5 in rushing (244.4 ypg).
Key number: 0, plays of 40 yards or more this season for Michigan State’s offense. Every other FBS offense has at least one.
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Why you should watch: Nebraska was off last week. And, presumably, the Cornhuskers spent time tightening a leaky defense that ranks 10th in the Big Ten vs. the run (179.5 ypg), No. 11 vs. the pass (284.2 ypg) and No. 12 overall (463.8 ypg). Here comes Illinois! The Fighting Illini will arrive in Lincoln with some glide in their stride, coming off a 50-14 demolition of Miami (Ohio). Yes, the RedHawks are a few ticks worse than horrible, but who cares? Illinois needed another confidence building victory, which is what it got, and looked good on both sides of the ball. The Cornhuskers need to protect home field—and look good doing it. An Illinois win would stamp this team as a real threat in the Leaders Division.
Player on the spot: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. If the Fighting Illini want any shot at victory, the senior signal-caller must excel. In Illinois’ lone loss this season, Scheelhaase hit just 9-of-25 passes for 156 yards with a touchdown and interception in a 34-24 loss to Washington. He must pass better for an attack that doesn’t run extremely well. Scheelhaase’s cause will be complicated facing a decent Nebraska secondary.
Matchup to watch: Nebraska quarterbacks vs. Illinois front seven. This is a dynamic and deadly Cornhusker offense that can run and pass with equal aplomb. Martinez missed the last game with a toe injury. And, it looks like he may miss this game, too, with Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg at the ready. Whoever is under center must pass with some aplomb vs. an Illinois defense that has issues. The Illini are 10th in the Big Ten in total defense (432.0 ypg), ranking ninth vs. the run (160.5 ypg) and 10th vs. the pass (271.5 ypg).
Key number: 161, points through four games for Illinois. That eclipses the previous record of 158 points in the first four games of 1914, when the Illini won Big Ten and national titles.
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Why you should watch: It’s the battle for the Little Brown Jug, one of college football’s most iconic trophies. The Wolverines are coming off a bye. During the time off, Michigan presumably worked on shoring up an offensive line that has had issues on the interior. That has impacted the running game, along with quarterback Devin Gardner. The Gophers are coming off a tough home loss to Iowa that has some questioning Minnesota’s offense. Another loss here could really send things sideways for a Gopher program that must decide if Philip Nelson or Mitch Leidner is its quarterback. Let’s hope Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman line up against each other often.
Player on the spot: It’s Michigan QB Devin Gardner. His turnover issues are well-documented. In four games, Gardner has tossed eight interceptions. There also have been fumbles, too. In a 28-24 win vs. Akron, Gardner hit 16-of-30 passes for 248 yards with two touchdowns, three picks and a sack. In a 24-21 win at UConn, Gardner hit 11-of-23 passes for 97 yards with no touchdowns, two picks and three sacks. He must regain the form he displayed in opening wins vs. Central Michigan and Notre Dame.
Key matchup: Minnesota offensive line vs. Michigan defensive line. The Golden Gophers fashioned a strong, physical rushing game the first four games of the season. Alas, vs. Iowa, Minnesota’s rushing attack got stuffed, running 27 times for 30 yards. More is expected from a seasoned Gophers line. The unit will face a Michigan d-line that has yet to live up to its hype, but the Wolverines are No. 2 in the Big Ten vs. the run (79.0 ypg). If the Gophers can’t run and have to rely on their quarterback to pass, they likely are in trouble.
Key number: 9, wins or Michigan in its last 10 games following a bye.
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Why you should watch: This is a clash between arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten. In fact, it may be a preview of the Big Ten championship game. It’s true. The Buckeyes have their sights set on not just winning the league—but the national championship. So, this likely is a must-win game. The Wildcats are looking to take the proverbial next step toward becoming a consistent factor in the Big Ten title chase each season as the program searches for its first league title since 2000. Can NU protect its home field in this prime-time national television clash? The Wildcats last beat the Buckeyes in 2004, with Randy Walker leading Northwestern to victory.
Player of the spot: Northwestern RB Venric Mark. The star has missed almost all of the 2013 season dealing with an ambiguous “lower-body injury.” The Wildcats can use his versatile skills, as Mark ran for 1,371 yards last season. He’s a threat as a runner, pass catcher and returner. NU needs his playmaking skills. Treyvon Green has been good in Mark’s absence, but he’s a bruiser who lacks Mark’s big-play ability.
Key matchup: Northwestern linebackers vs. Braxton Miller. This is an athletic crew for the Wildcats led by Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis and Damien Proby. This group must try to limit Miller’s effectiveness as a runner. If not, it will be a long night for the Northwestern defense, which could see Miller, Dontre Wilson and Carlos Hyde in the backfield at the same time.
Key number: 2, number of wins for Northwestern vs. Ohio State since the Wildcats won back-to-back games vs. the Buckeyes in 1962-63. In that span, the Buckeyes are 33-2 vs. NU.
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|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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