Week 12 previews: Five games on tap for Saturday

This Saturday features some intriguing clashes. All eyes will be on Lincoln, Neb., for Michigan State’s visit to Nebraska in what essentially is a de facto Legends Division championship game. If you aren’t stoked, then I feel sorry for you.

Other Big Ten fans will fixate on the Michigan at Northwestern game. Like a car crash, we won’t be able to take our eyes off a game that features two desperate teams. Who will rise up in the face of adversity? Here is a look at each game this Saturday.

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PURDUE (1-8, 0-5) at PENN STATE (5-4, 2-3) – noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: There aren’t many compelling reasons, to be honest. The Boilermakers are in the midst of a seven-game losing skid … with no end in sight. The offense has been particular horrid, ranking last in the Big Ten (259.1 ypg). Even if Purdue averaged 100 more yards, it still would be last in the conference. The Boilers have three—yes, three—rushing scores. The Nittany Lions are coming off a humbling loss at Minnesota, as they are playing for pride while serving a bowl ban. Bill O’Brien sternly challenged his team last week after the loss in the Twin Cities.

Player on the spot:
Penn State RB Zach Zwinak. The bullish back ambled for 150 yards rushing last week, his first 100-yard game since Sept. 14. If he, or Bill Belton, for that matter, gets rolling, the Nittany Lions offense should cruise. Belton ran for 201 yards two weeks ago vs. Illinois. The Boilermaker defense is a mere speed bump, yielding 223.6 rushing yards per game.

Key matchup: Purdue QB Danny Etling vs. the Penn State secondary. At times this season, the Nittany Lions have looked lost in coverage. PSU is No. 7 in the Big Ten vs. the pass (232.7 ypg). Etling represents the Boilermakers’ best chance to move the ball. The true freshman is coming off perhaps his best game yet, hitting 53 percent of his passes with a touchdown. He also didn’t throw a pick for the first time in four starts.

Key number: 5-1, Penn State’s record at home. The lone loss was to UCF. On the road, the Nittany Lions are 0-3.

OHIO STATE (9-0, 5-0) at ILLINOIS (3-6, 0-5) – noon ET, ESPN

Why you should watch: This is a tale of two markedly different programs. Ohio State is in the midst of a 21-game winning streak, as it hopes to propel to the BCS title game. The Illini are fighting for their bowl life; one more loss and those dreams are over. But the school’s dubious Big Ten losing streak figures to reach 20, which would be the second longest in conference history.

Player on the spot:
Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He had a big game last week in a loss at Indiana, hitting 38-of-57 passes for 450 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. He also had a career-high 495 yards of total offense. Scheelhaase will need a similar effort for the Illini to have any chance of keeping this apparent mismatch close.

Key matchup: Illinois defensive line vs. Ohio State offensive line. The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense (530.9 ypg); the Illini are No. 11 in total defense (482.7 ypg). If Illinois gets blown off the ball on a consistent basis, this team will have no shot at winning this game. In fact, it will be a blowout. This is a Buckeye attack that’s rolling and will face an Illini defense that yielded 650 yards and 52 points last week.

Key number: 23, rushing touchdowns allowed by Illinois. That’s the second most in the Big Ten ahead of only Indiana (24). Ohio State has 27 rushing scores, second in the league to Wisconsin’s 28.

INDIANA (4-5, 2-3) at WISCONSIN (7-2, 4-1) – noon ET, ESPN2

Why you should watch: The Hoosiers have to win two of their last three games to go to a bowl for just the second time since 1993. So, if IU loses this one, it must win at Ohio State next Saturday in addition to beating Purdue in the finale. See what Indiana is up against? Nonetheless, it will be fun to watch this high-powered attack take on a strong Wisconsin defense, as the Badgers still cling to hope of earning an at-large BCS bowl bid. IU will be without RB Tevin Coleman, who is out with injury. There may not be a more underrated player in the Big Ten. Coleman has 958 yards rushing with 12 touchdowns, coming off a 215-yard effort in a win vs. Illinois.

Player on the spot:
Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld. He has endured ups and down as a sophomore. Still, he paces the Big Ten with 19 touchdown passes and can be a difference maker throwing against a sometimes suspect Wisconsin secondary. Hoosiers wideouts Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes, along with tight end Ted Bolser, could all thrive vs. this Badgers defense and keep IU in the game.

Key matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Indiana defensive line. This looks like a mismatch of epic proportions. The Badgers are No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing (280.6 ypg); the Hoosiers are 10th in the conference in rush defense (217.4 ypg). How on God’s green earth will IU slow down Wisconsin backs James White and Melvin Gordon, who operate behind a big, physical line? If IU can’t slow things down, the Badgers will thrive.

Key number: 8, wins in a row for Wisconsin over Indiana. The Badgers have won 14 of the last 16 meetings, with the Hoosiers’ lone victories coming two years in a row, 2001-02. During this run of dominance, Wisconsin has scored over 50 points on Indiana seven times. No one soon will forget the 2010 game won by the Badgers, 83-20.

MICHIGAN (6-3, 2-3) at NORTHWESTERN – 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: This is the S.O.S Bowl, as each team is desperate for a win. The Wildcats have lost five in a row; the Wolverines have lost two in a row. Something has to give, right? Michigan was the pick by many to win the Legends, while NU was a dark-horse choice by some. Not now. Northwestern was off last week, so it has had extra time to prep. Each team’s struggles have been defined by offenses that have gotten off track.

Player on the spot:
Northwestern QB Kain Colter. When he’s playing well, the Wildcats are difficult to beat. But he has battled injury, which has kept him out of the lineup at times. Colter’s athletic ability makes him a dynamic threat, as his mere presence makes everyone else better. He can make something out of nothing and is an underrated passer.

Key matchup: Northwestern defensive line vs. Michigan offensive line. The woes of the Wolverine front are well-documented. The interior has really struggled. How bad has it been? Michigan has -69 yards rushing the last two weeks and has allowed 14 sacks. Northwestern has a salty front led by end Tyler Scott. You can bet the Wildcats will press this front to stuff the run and see if Devin Gardner can pass.

Key number: 11th, Michigan’s Big Ten rank in rushing. The Wolverines average 135.3 yards per game. The only team worse is Purdue.

MICHIGAN STATE (8-1, 5-0) at NEBRASKA (7-2, 4-1) – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Why you should watch: It doesn’t get any better than this, as the Spartans and Cornhuskers meet with the Legends Division pennant on the line. The Husker offense is beat up—especially up front—but it still is formidable, ranking No. 4 in the Big Ten (446.0 ypg). Michigan State has the nation’s top defense (210.2 ypg). It’s the classic irresistible force vs. the immovable object matchup.

Player on the spot:
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory. The JC stalwart is coming off arguably his best game of the season in a win at Michigan. Gregory recorded four tackles, including three sacks. He also added a pair of quarterback hurries. Gregory’s play paced an outstanding effort by the Blackshirts that limited Michigan to -21 rushing yards and recorded a season-high seven sacks. Gregory leads the Big Ten in sacks with 7.5, including seven in conference games. Because of that, Nebraska ranks fourth nationally with 3.3 sacks per contest. Gregory is an athletic freak who needs to wreak havoc vs. a strong Spartan o-line, creating negative plays and not letting the underrated MSU ground game led by Jeremy Langford to get started.

Key matchup: Nebraska offensive line vs. Michigan State defensive line. The Cornhuskers front has been beat up, but the unit continues to step up and deliver as its depth is tested. But this will be the ultimate test vs. a Spartan d-line that’s the best in the league. MSU paces the nation in rush defense (43.4 ypg), while Nebraska averages 246.8 yards rushing to rank No. 3 in the Big Ten. If the Huskers can get Big Ten leading rusher Ameer Abdullah (1,213) going, the offense could have success vs. a defense that’s allowing a scant 11.6 points. Abdullah has rushed for 100 yards in six straight games and eight of nine overall.

Key number: 7, wins all-time for Nebraska vs. zero losses vs. Michigan 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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