There are five games on the Big Ten docket this week. But none of the clashes figures to have a big impact on the league race—unless we have some major upsets. Still, there will be a lot to keep an eye as we begin to wade into the second half of the season.
Here’s a look at each game.
Why you should watch: These are two teams headed in drastically different directions. The Spartans are on a roll, coming off wins at Iowa and vs. Indiana that saw the once-struggling offense come to life. Now with a seemingly capable offense and outstanding defense, MSU looks like a true force. Purdue? The blowout losses just keep coming in what has been a miserable start to the Darrell Hazell era.
Player on the spot: Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford. He’s coming off a breakout performance in 42-28 win over Indiana last week, perhaps signaling that he could be the go-to back MSU has been looking for. Langford ran 23 times for 109 yards and three touchdowns. If he keeps running well, it will open more room in the passing game for QB Connor Cook, who continues to emerge himself.
Key matchup: Purdue offensive line vs. Michigan State defense. The Boilermaker front has struggled to get a consistent push all season. And the unit isn’t overly physical or athletic, a big reason why Purdue has the worst rushing attack in the league (77.8 ypg). So how on earth can the Purdue expect to have much success vs. a Spartan d-line that helps pace a rush defense that ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten (58.0 ypg)?
Key number: 14, freshmen or true freshmen listed on Purdue’s two-deep this week.
Why you should watch: Plenty of intrigue. The Golden Gophers will be playing their first game since Jerry Kill announced he was stepping away for an in determinant time to deal with his health issues. Minnesota has lost two in a row before being off last week. Is this a sign of things to come? The Wildcats are coming off consecutive losses at home to Ohio State and at Wisconsin that seemingly have let the air out of Northwestern’s tires. What’s this team’s mind-set?
Player on the spot: The quarterbacks for both teams. NU’s Trevor Siemian struggled at Wisconsin, hitting just 13-of-34 passes for 163 yards. And Kain Colter suffered what the school described as a “lower-body injury.” Neither Minnesota quarterback (Mitch Leidner, who will start, nor Philip Nelson, who likely will play) has had great success for a Gophers’ passing game that ranks last in the Big Ten (116.8 ypg). Which team’s signal-caller can make some plays?
Key matchup: This game may come down to Minnesota’s ability to run, and Northwestern’s ability to stop the run. The Gophers can pound it—and no doubt will try to vs. a Wildcat club that is No. 9 in the league vs. the run (168 ypg). Minnesota is No. 4 in rushing offense (215.8 ypg) with strong, physical collection of backs to go with capable running quarterbacks.
Key number: 17, takeaways (13 picks; four fumble recoveries) for Northwestern, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 5 in the nation.
Why you should watch: Typically, Indiana vs. Michigan games don’t have a lot of appeal. But this year’s clash is interesting. The Hoosiers are on the rise in their third season under Kevin Wilson. The Wolverines’ life on the edge finally ended with an exhausting four-overtime loss at Penn State last week that had critics howling about the Michigan offense. How will the Wolverines respond?
Player on the spot: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. His issues are well-documented. Gardner has struggled with his decision-making and ball security. But facing an Indiana defense that ranks seventh in the Big Ten vs. the pass (239.5 ypg) and last overall (456.0 ypg) may be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Gardner, who can’t continue to carry a massive load on offense. But if he doesn’t, who will? The power attack just isn’t working.
Key matchup: Indiana receivers vs. Michigan secondary. It’s this simple for the Hoosiers: They must try to outscore the Wolverines if they want to win. And, it’s a possibility. IU has perhaps the best set of wideouts in the league, led by Cody Latimer. And quarterback Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson can sling it around. The Hoosiers have the Big Ten’s top passing attack (331.5); Michigan is No. 6 vs. the pass (229.7 ypg). Michigan corners Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor need to be ready.
Key number: 17, wins in a row for Michigan over Indiana. In fact, the Wolverines have won 32 of the last 33 meetings. The lone Hoosier victory in that span came in Bloomington in 1987.
Why you should watch: The Buckeyes are riding a national-best 18-game winning streak, with Big Ten and national championship dreams dancing in their heads. Ohio State was off last week following a gutsy 40-30 win at Northwestern. Iowa also was off last Saturday after it fell at home to Michigan State. A win in Columbus would be one of the biggest in Kirk Ferentz’s career and could propel Iowa to a big second-half run.
Player on the spot: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed almost three games with a knee injury before returning last week. But Miller didn’t look sharp vs. the Wildcats, completing just 15-of-26 passes for 203 yards and an interception and running 17 times for 68. Miller wasn’t sharp on his passes and was loose with the ball, too, in committing three turnovers. He’ll need to play better—beginning vs. this stout Hawkeye defense.
Key matchup: Iowa running back vs. Ohio State linebackers. The Hawkeyes have one of the stronger corps of backs in the Big Ten, led by Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. They lead the No. 5 rushing attack in the Big Ten (207.5 ypg). The sledding may be tough vs. an OSU defense that’s No. 2 in the league vs. the run (86.2 ypg). If Iowa can’t run vs. Ryan Shazier and Co., it will have little chance for victory.
Key number: 0, rushing touchdowns allowed by Iowa this season. Every other FBS team has allowed at least one. Ohio State has 17 rushing TDs this season.
Why you should watch: The Badgers and Illini are both chasing Ohio State in the Leaders Division. A loss here would be very damaging to any title hopes—however faint they may be. Wisconsin is looking like perhaps the second-best team in the Big Ten, coming off a 35-6 annihilation of Northwestern. Illinois was off last week following a blowout 39-19 loss at Nebraska. A win here no doubt would be the signature victory of the Tim Beckman era—and his first Big Ten triumph.
Player on the spot: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. As he goes, the Fighting Illini go. He has adapted well to new coordinator Bill Cubit’s short-passing game. But in Illinois’ losses to Nebraska and Washington, Scheelhaase has struggled. He hit 9-of-25 passes for 156 yards with a touchdown and pick vs. the Huskies. Against Nebraska, Scheelhaase hit 13-of-26 attempts for 125 yards with no TDs and a pick. He has to be on his game.
Key matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Illinois defensive line. This looks like a mismatch of epic proportions. The Badgers pace the Big Ten in rushing offense (298.2 ypg); the Fighting Illini are No. 11 vs. the run (195.4 ypg). Badger backs Melvin Gordon and James White could run wild.
Key number: 15, Big Ten losses in a row for Illinois. The Illini last won a Big Ten game on Oct. 8, 2011, a 41-20 win 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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