Week 11 previews: Five games on tap for Saturday

The games in November are the ones we all remember. And, there are a few interesting clashes this Saturday that will go a long way toward determining the pecking order in each division, especially atop the Legends Division. All eyes will be on Ann Arbor, where Nebraska will play Michigan. For all intents and purposes, the loser likely will be out of the division race. Here’s a look at the games of Week 11.

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Iowa (5-4, 2-3) at Purdue (1-7, 0-4) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: This is Iowa’s best chance to earn a sixth win and qualify for a bowl after missing the postseason last year. After this trip to Purdue, the Hawkeyes play Michigan and at Nebraska. So, Iowa needs to make this trip to West Lafayette count. Plus, Iowa should be steaming mad after getting dumped by the Boilermakers last year in Iowa City. To say Purdue is struggling would be inaccurate. Purdue is drowning quickly, as not one aspect of the team is playing well.

Player on the spot:
Iowa QB Jake Rudock. He had to leave the last game with an injury, but he’s fine for this tilt. And Rudock needs to play better than he did before going out in a 28-9 loss to Wisconsin last week. He hit only 12-of-24 passes for 109 yards with an interception, as Iowa had just three field goals and 289 yards of offense. If Rudock can’t pass, Purdue will be able to focus on stopping an Iowa run game that has struggled as of late.

Key matchup: Purdue QB Danny Etling vs. Iowa secondary. Honestly, the Boilermakers’ best chance to win probably will be to pass early and often because the rushing game is anemic and Iowa has a strong front seven. The Hawkeye secondary has been vulnerable at times, but it should get help from a strong d-line that figures to have success rushing the passer. The Boilermakers are 11th in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (26), epitomizing the struggles of the line all season. But if the unit can give Etling time, he may be able to find some holes in the Iowa defensive backfield.

Key number: 34.5, average points the Boilermakers have lost their first four Big Ten games by.

Penn State (5-3, 2-2) at Minnesota (7-2, 3-2) – noon ET, ESPN2

Why you should watch: The Golden Gophers have become one on the sport’s best stories, rallying behind coach Jerry Kill and his battle to stabilize his health. Since Kill stepped aside, Minnesota has gone 3-1 under acting head coach Tracy Claeys. The Gophers will bring a three-game winning skein into their game with the Nittany Lions, who are overcoming their share of adversity as they deal with a roster that has only 61 scholarship players. With each successive victory, Minnesota’s postseason prospects improve.

Player on the spot:
Penn State running back Bill Belton. He’s coming off a 201-yard rushing effort in an overtime win vs. Illinois, the school’s first since Larry Johnson turned the trick in 2002. Belton, a former receiver, needs another big game on the ground to make Minnesota’s front respect the Penn State rushing attack so quarterback Christian Hackenberg will have room to throw vs. a vulnerable Gophers secondary. A strong PSU rushing game also would keep the ball away from Minnesota’s ground-pounding/clock-eating offense.

Key matchup: Minnesota quarterbacks vs. Penn State front seven. The Gophers have found a comfortable blend of Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner. Each is a dual-threat, with Leidner being more of a force on the ground and Nelson—who hurt his hip last week during a big performance at Indiana—a better passer. With the Nittany Lions likely poised to stuff a strong Gophers’ rushing attack, the Minnesota quarterbacks will need to hit some passes to open up things.

Key number: 2, losses in true road game for Penn State in 2013. The Nittany Lions have lost at Indiana and at Penn State by an aggregate, 107-38.

Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) at Michigan (6-2, 2-2) – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Why you should watch: A key Legends Division clash between schools that are chasing Michigan State. The Spartans have no Big Ten losses; the Huskers have one; the Wolverines have two. So, the loser will be in a bad spot. A win by Michigan would be a big boost to MSU, giving it a two-game lead over the Wolverines and Cornhuskers down the stretch with a trip to Nebraska next Saturday. The mind-sets of these teams will be markedly different. The Wolverines are coming off a 29-6 beatdown suffered at Michigan State, Michigan’s worst loss in the series since 1967. The Cornhuskers are coming off a miracle Hail Mary win over Northwestern that has energized what was a listing team that has been hampered by injury and inexperience. Taylor Martinez may not play again as he continues to recover from myriad maladies.

Player on the spot:
Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He and the Wolverine offense need a bounce back effort from a 29-6 drubbing suffered at Michigan State last week.  Michigan had just 168 yards of offense, as Gardner hit 14-of-27 passes for 210 yards with an interception while being sacked seven times. He also ran 18 times for -46 yards, as Michigan had an all-time low -48 yards rushing as a team. Gardner needs to make plays with his feet and arm.

Key matchup: Michigan offensive line vs. Nebraska defensive line. Each unit has had its share of struggles this season. The interior of the Wolverine front has been the issue in Ann Arbor, with the coaches shuffling personnel and looking to get a steady push. A true freshman, redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore have been in the mix. Not ideal. The Huskers’ front is deep and talented, but there has been a lack of consistent big plays. Which unit will step up?

Key number: 5, years before the next scheduled meeting between Michigan and Nebraska, which is slated for 2018. That’s too long between meetings of two of the Big Ten’s most iconic programs.

Illinois (3-5, 0-4) at Indiana (3-5, 1-3) – 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: This is a must win, as each team fights for its postseason life. Each club is coming off a tough loss, with Illinois falling in overtime at Penn State and Indiana succumbing after being on the threshold of scoring the winning points before committing a killer turnover in the waning moments. The Fighting Illini are back at the scene of their last Big Ten triumph. It was way back on Oct. 8, 2011, when Illinois traveled to Bloomington and left with a 41-20 triumph. Since then, the Illini have lost 18 Big Ten games in a row. Another loss would give Illinois six for the season, putting it on the proverbial brink of bowl elimination. This also would be loss No. 6 for Indiana if it falls. Win or lose, the Hoosiers’ bowl hopes are likely cooked with that defeat last Saturday. What will Indiana’s mind-set be?

Player on the spot:
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown. He’s one of the best in the league but often is overshadowed because the Illini defense has struggled in 2013. Brown needs to make some negative plays. In particular, he must contain the strong Indiana running back tandem of Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston. If they run wild—each went for over 100 yards last week—the go-go IU offense will be almost impossible to stop.

Key matchup: Indiana quarterbacks vs. Illinois secondary. The Hoosiers have a blitzkrieg offense that runs plays in bunches. Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson are capable triggermen, throwing to a fleet of dangerous receivers. The Illini secondary is riddled with lots of youth and inexperience. If the unit doesn’t get help via a pass rush, the Illinois defensive backs could be in for a long day.

Key number: 3, touchdown passes needed by Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase to reach 50 in his career. He would be the fourth Illini signal-caller to reach the milestone.

BYU at Wisconsin – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Why you should watch: An odd late-season non-conference game in the Big Ten. And, this won’t be a layup for the Badgers. BYU is 6-2 and was off last week, giving the Cougars extra prep time. BYU has won five games in a row, dumping Boise State, 37-20, the last time out. BYU has also beaten Texas and Georgia Tech. The Badgers are coming off an impressive 28-9 win at Iowa in which they excelled on both sides of all ball, especially on defense, en route to allowing only 289 yards and just three field goals. BYU is a familiar foe for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who faced the Cougars as an assistant at Utah and head coach at Utah State.

Player on the spot:
Wisconsin QB Joel Stave. He has proven to be a steady hand under center but at times has had some accuracy issues. He must find tight end Jacob Pedersen often, especially if BYU commits to trying to take out star wideout Jared Abbrederis. Stave must avoid the big mistake, allowing Wisconsin to try and establish its deadly ground game behind James White and Melvin Gordon to keep the ball away from BYU’s strong offense that works at a quick pace.

Key matchup: Wisconsin defensive line vs. BYU offensive line. The Cougars have a balanced attack, averaging 252 yards rushing and 258 yards passing. If BYU can keep the Badger front off balance, this Cougar attack could thrive. Ask Texas, which allowed 679 yards and 550 yards rushing in a 30-21 defeat that cost the Longhorn defensive coordinator his job. Standout BYU QB Taysom Hill must be contained.

Key number: 10, consecutive seasons Gary Andersen will have faced BYU. This will be the 16th time in 17 years the first-year Wisconsin coach will have faced the Cougars. Andersen went a combined 6-5 against BYU during two stints as an assistant coach at Utah and 1-3 against the Cougars as head coach at Utah State.

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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