Best of Week 6: All eyes on Evanston

This is the first Saturday that features exclusively Big Ten games, with five on the slate. All eyes will be on Evanston, Ill., where a national TV audience will tune in for the Ohio State at Northwestern game.

The Michigan State at Iowa tilt also drips with intrigue, as each program is looking to climb over the other in the Legends Division pecking order.

The Little Brown Jug is on the line with Minnesota playing at Michigan. And Illinois’ trip to Nebraska is fascinating on many levels, with the Illini coming in hot and the Huskers dealing with a defense that’s a work-in-progress. Wisconsin and Purdue are off. Here’s the best of Week 6.

[ MORE: Week 6 Power Rankings | Week 6 B1G Previews | Who wins Week 6 games? Vote here! ]

BEST GAME: Ohio State looks like the best team in the Big Ten until we see otherwise. The Buckeyes passed a big test last week at home vs. Wisconsin. Now, a big visit to Northwestern looms in what could be a preview of the Big Ten title game. At the least, this will help set the tenor for the Big Ten title chase. Per usual, the Buckeyes will get every team’s best shot. And they need to be on guard when they travel for a prime-time game to unbeaten Northwestern, which has its best team in years. The Wildcats were off last week, giving them extra prep time. The Buckeyes have bullied Northwestern for generations. Since losing to NU in consecutive seasons in 1962-63, the Buckeyes have gone 33-2 vs. the Wildcats. The losses have come in 1971 and 2004, when the Wildcats took a 33-27 decision in Evanston. If this turns into a scoring contest, the Wildcats could prevail.

UPSET ALERT: Discounting vacated wins, Penn State is 16-0 all-time vs. the Hoosiers since joining the Big Ten in 1993. And many of those verdicts have been lopsided. But that perfect run may be in peril when the Nittany Lions open Big Ten play in Bloomington. The Hoosiers have the Big Ten’s top offense, but defense remains an issue. A big issue. Indiana is 2-2 and has its back against the postseason wall, as it needs to go 4-4 in Big Ten action to reach bowl eligibility. Protecting home turf vs. PSU may be a necessity. Both teams are well rested as they come off bye weeks.

MUST WIN: Nebraska. No doubt, Indiana probably needs to dispatch Penn State in Bloomington to keep its bowl hopes alive. But the Cornhuskers have bigger stakes when Illinois visits. If Nebraska really is a legit contender for the Big Ten crown, it must win at home against an Illinois team that has a dangerous offense, is hot and has nothing to lose. Is the shaky Husker defense buttoned up? This will be the first time the schools have met since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Nebraska has played Illinois 10 times, as the Huskers lead the series 7-2-1.  The last time they played was in 1986, with Nebraska taking a 59-14 triumph in Champaign. Illinois last played in Lincoln in 1985, falling 52-25.

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QUARTERBACK MATCHUP TO WATCH: Ohio State’s Braxton Miller vs. Northwestern’s Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Miller came back last week from a knee injury that cost him almost three full games. He didn’t look like he missed a beat, showing once again in a big win over Wisconsin that he’s the most athletic quarterback—and player–in the Big Ten. He also has an improving arm. NU continues to defy the football gods by using two quarterbacks in Colter and Siemian. Each complements the other, with Colter being the athlete and Siemian the thrower. They will test an OSU defense that has had issues with spread offenses in the past.

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 in Chicago. He must pass better for an attack that doesn’t run extremely well. Scheelhaase’s cause will be complicated facing a decent Nebraska secondary. But this is a Husker defense whose struggles are well-chronicled. Bottom line: This could be interesting.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. Yes, better line play would help, but Gardner has to do more himself. His turnover issues must cease and desist. In four games, Gardner has tossed eight interceptions. And he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire the last two games. In a 28-24 win vs. moribund 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. Yes, the o-line can play better to help Gardner. It’s also time for him to make better decisions.

[ MORE: Player Rankings: See who makes first list of 2013 ]

BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio vs. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. These are two teams coming off of disappointing 2012 seasons. And each is looking for a fast start to league action. The Hawkeyes opened with a nice win at Minnesota last week while Michigan State was off. Iowa has had the Spartans’ number lately, winning three of the last four and five of seven. Iowa won in East Lansing in double overtime last season. But MSU won the last time it visited Iowa City in 2011. Each team plays good defense, so this one may come down to whichever squad’s offense can make a few plays. The Hawkeyes’ offense is gaining steam; the Spartans’ offense remains clouded.

COORDINATOR MATCHUP TO WATCH: Keep an eye on Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell taking on Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Fickell is a bright, young star who is destined to be a head coach. And he pushed the buttons on an uber-talented defense. McCall is one of the most underrated coordinators in the Big Ten, deftly balancing a two-quarterback system to give NU a top offense. There is nice depth at receiver and running back in Evanston, giving McCall a lot of weapons. And he’ll add stud running back Venric Mark to his arsenal this week after the diminutive speedster has missed most of the season with injury. Are the Buckeye linebackers up to the task? And Fickell’s line needs to make some plays, too.

RANKING THE GAMES

1. Ohio State at Northwestern

2. Michigan State at Iowa

3. Illinois at Nebraska

4. Minnesota at Michigan

5. Penn State at Indiana

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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1 Comment

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (1 Comment)
hadley smith on 10/3/2013 @ 3:30pm EDT Said:

This I think is the best matchup of BT games I’ve seen in quite awhile. All the games have intriguing storylines and sanarios. And all are pretty important to the BT race. One change I would make to the ranking of the games is that the Minn/mich game should be num 3 (maybe even num 2). It’s for the jug of pete’s sake..the oldest trophy in all of college ftb!! At least in the B1G Ten. Illinois/nebraska aren’t playing for anything except not to lose!!

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