Best of Week 13: Here's what's at stake in Big Ten

What’s the best game for Week 13? The top quarterback matchup? What team is on upset alert? Who’s in a must-win situation? As usual, I line up all of that and more in the Best of Week 13.

Noon games on BTN/BTN2Go: Illinois (3-7) at Purdue (1-9) and Michigan (7-3) at Iowa (6-4). Don’t forget to use BTN GameFinder. Then the 3:30 p.m. game on BTN/BTN2Go: Nebraska (7-3) at Penn State (6-4). Full TV schedule info is on our football scoreboard page.

Let’s get to the best of the best.

Best game: It’s the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe between Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Twin Cities. TCF Bank Stadium will rock right off its foundations and slide into the Mississippi River in what is the biggest game in the history of the young venue. This is the most anticipated Axe battle in … well, a long time. The Golden Gophers still have a shot at winning the Legends Division. They need to win out and have Michigan State lose at Northwestern on Saturday. Wisconsin is still fighting in hopes of earning a BCS at-large spot in, say, the Orange Bowl vs. Clemson. Gonna be classic old-school football with lots and lots of runs.

[ MORE: Power Rankings | Bowl Projections | Mailbag | Week 13 Predictions ]

Upset alert: Wisconsin better brace for Minnesota. Yes, this has been a lopsided rivalry of late. How lopsided? Well, The Golden Gophers have lost nine in a row to the Badgers and are just 4-18 vs. Wisconsin since 1991 in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Minnesota’s last win was in 2003 under Glen Mason. Still, this is a salty group of Gophers that’s riding the school’s longest Big Ten winning streak (four games) since 1973. The Badgers have won five in a row since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State.

Michigan’s Offense (FBS Rank)
Yards: 3833 (79)
Passing Yards: 2476 (49)
Rushing Yards: 1357 (92)
Points per game: 34.3 (34)
Yards per game: 383.3 (77)
Touchdowns: 39 (43)
Field Goals: 16 (13)

Must win: Michigan can’t win the Legends Division, so it’s left to play for pride and bowl pecking order when it travels to Iowa. That means a lot in Ann Arbor. This is a program that has taken a lot of body shots this season, losing some ugly games (Michigan State and Nebraska) and suffering some near-disasters (Akron and UConn).

The Wolverines need to finish strong to re-establish their foundation moving forward. And that needs to begin in Iowa City vs. a solid Hawkeyes squad. Iowa has owned this series of late, beating Michigan three times in a row before falling last season in Ann Arbor, 42-17. Iowa is 3-1 vs. Michigan in the last four meetings in Iowa City.

Quarterback matchup to watch: Nothing really standouts, but let’s go with the battle between Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. Sudfeld is an emerging passer, while Roberson and Miller are among the most athletic signal-callers in the Big Ten. And each is a better thrower than advertised. The overall battle heavily favors Ohio State. Still, it will be fun to watch these QBs operate. Last year, the Hoosiers pushed the Buckeyes to the limit before succumbing 52-49. Can IU make a game of it again?

Player on the spot: Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. The redshirt freshman has had his moments—good and bad. And, that’s to be expected. He has seven touchdown passes and seven picks and is coming off his worst effort of the season. Armstrong completed just 42 percent of his passes vs. Michigan State. Yes, Penn State’s defense has had issues, but the Nittany Lions typically have played well at home. Armstrong will need to pass well to open room for Ameer Abdullah.

Keep an eye on: The Purdue defensive line—tackle Bruce Gaston, in particular. He and his defensive linemates have been a colossal disappointment. Time and again, they have gotten trucked despite the unit being a purported strength with veteran, mature talent. Gaston is gonna have to lead a charge to disrupt the timing of a good Illini offense that could rip apart Purdue’s defense.

Best coaching matchup: Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen vs. Minnesota’s staff. Andersen has enjoyed a smashing debut, displaying his ample coaching chops with style. The guy obviously learned well out west. He’s a good one. Minnesota has had to use a team effort with Jerry Kill tending to his health for the last five games. And, things have gone better than anyone could have anticipated, with acting head coach Tracy Claeys excelling. Kill attends meeting and practices, watching games from the press box and still having ample influence. It has been one of the best stories in the nation.

Michigan State’s Defense (FBS Rank)
Yards: 2285 (1)
Passing Yards: 1711 (3)
Rushing Yards: 574 (1)
Points per game: 13.2 (3)
Yards per game: 228.5 (1)
Touchdowns: 16 (4)
Field Goals: 7 (12)

Coordinator matchup to watch: Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi vs. Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Narduzzi’s talented crew will be pushed by a diverse and talented Wildcats’ offense. Lots of interesting matchups to watch, including the Spartan linebackers vs. NU running backs and quarterbacks.

But the Wildcat attack has had issues this season, as injuries have been a problem. McCall will be challenged facing a MSU defense that’s No. 1 in the Big Ten overall (228.4 ypg) and No. 1 vs. the run (57.3 ypg) but is coming off its worst effort of 2013 at Nebraska, allowing 392 yards and 182 yards rushing. The Spartans lost last year, 23-20, to the Wildcats in East Lansing. Before that, Michigan State had won four in a row vs. NU. It last lost two in a row to Northwestern in 2000-2001.

Ranking the games of Nov. 23:

1. Wisconsin at Minnesota
2. Nebraska at Penn State
3. Michigan at Iowa
4. Michigan State at Northwestern
5. Illinois at Purdue
6. Indiana at Ohio State

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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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2 Comments

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Rodney on 11/21/2013 @ 1:51pm EDT Said:

Why is this a must win game for Michigan, but not for Iowa? Seems to me that they both are playing for the same thing at this point.

Jeff on 11/21/2013 @ 3:02pm EDT Said:

Ski-U-Mah!!