4th and Long: Dienhart's Week 2 bold predictions, observations

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

4th and Long: Dienhart's Week 2 bold predictions, observations

It’s only the second week of the season—but this Saturday’s matchups figure to go a long way toward shaping the Big Ten picture. There’s Michigan State at Oregon … Michigan at Notre Dame … Virginia Tech at Ohio State.

I have some predictions and observations to make in “Fourth-and-Long.”

See our recent Week 2 posts:

Worst-case scenario for Michigan State at Oregon: falling behind. Yes, the Spartans have a good offense. In fact, it’s one of the better attacks in the Big Ten led by QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford and a fleet of good wideouts. But Michigan State must avoid getting into a shootout and trying to trade points with Oregon. It can’t do it. No one can. The Spartans probably need to keep this game in the 30s to win.

It’s difficult to call a team’s second game of the season a “must win.” But that may be the case for Northwestern. The Wildcats didn’t look great in an opening 31-24 home loss to Cal. Now comes MAC power Northern Illinois, which beat two Big Ten teams last season. Lose to the Huskies, and it could be a long season in Evanston. FCS Western Illinois is next. But three of the first five Big Ten games are on the road for NU.

[ MORE: Watch Northern Illinois at Northwestern on BTN2Go ]

Illinois needs to be very careful with Western Kentucky coming to Champaign. This one has “upset” written all over it. The Hilltoppers are a good program led by first-year coach Jeff Brohm, who debuted by bombing Bowling Green, 59-31. WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty hit 46-of-56 passes for 569 yards and six touchdowns for an attack that notched 702 yards. Illinois struggled to put away FCS Youngstown State last week. The Illini may need to score a lot of points to win this one. Thanks goodness they have an offense that may be capable of doing just that behind QB Wes Lunt. This should be a fun game to watch.

[ MORE: Watch Western Kentucky at Illinois on BTN2Go ]

Speaking of being careful … Penn State needs to stay focused vs. Akron. This is a program that is on the uptick under Terry Bowden. The Zips have nothing to lose, so expect a surprise or two. Remember: Akron came very close to winning at Michigan last year. The Zips won’t be intimidated by Beaver Stadium. Christian Hackenberg may have to throw for over 400 yards again, but I think the Nittany Lions would like to win with their ground game to give the unit some confidence.

I expect Wisconsin to score no fewer than 50 points vs. FCS Western Illinois. Poor Western Illinois.

[ MORE: Watch Western Illinois at Wisconsin on BTN2Go ]

I believe Ohio State will take care of business in impressive fashion vs. Virginia Tech. No disrespect to Frank Beamer’s crew. But I just think the Buckeyes want to send a statement in their toughest non-conference game. Look for Ohio State to run the ball. And then run it some more. And some more. It’s about establishing a hard-edge mentality for a line that was criticized last week by Urban Meyer.

Nebraska will roll over FCS McNeese State on Saturday. And, I like the Huskers’ chances to win at Fresno State and vs. visiting Miami (Fla.) after that—given how poorly those teams looked in their opener. Then, Big Ten play opens with a visit from Illinois. My point: The Cornhuskers may be 5-0 when they go to Michigan State on Oct. 4.

[ MORE: Watch Howard at Rutgers on BTN2Go ]

Michigan’s trip to Notre Dame isn’t a must-win for the Wolverines. But, a victory certainly could serve as a nice table-setter. It’s important for Michigan to play well, especially on the offensive side of the football. The running game must have success—win or lose. That may be the most important take-away from the game. Worst-case scenario: a loss by Michigan in which the ground game flounders.

I will be watching the Iowa running game closely when the Hawkeyes welcome Ball State. The leading rusher last week was wideout Tevaun Smith, who ran once for 35 yards. More is needed from Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman. And QB Jack Rudock ideally isn’t throwing the ball 41 times as he did vs. Northern Iowa in the opener. The formula Iowa needs each week: around 200 yards rushing with Rudock throwing no more than 25 passes.

It may be only Middle Tennessee State, but Minnesota needs to show more balance on offense. QB Mitch Leidner hit only 9-of-17 passes for 144 yards and a TD last week vs. FCS Eastern Illinois. Defenses have to be made to respect the Golden Gophers’ pass game. And more explosive plays are needed overall. Last week, the longest run was 42 yards; the longest pass was 35. A trip to TCU looms on Sept. 13. And if there’s one thing the Horned Frogs typically always do well, it’s play defense. Minnesota needs to hit Fort Worth with some offensive mojo. And that must begin Saturday vs. the Blue Raiders.

[ MORE: Watch Middle Tennessee State at Minnesota on BTN2Go ]

Maryland’s trip to South Florida is a lose-lose for the Terrapins. Win, and few will give Maryland much credit for topping a Bulls squad that went 2-10 last year. Lose, and the Terps will be downgraded. And, make no mistake about it: This is a developing USF program that could pose issues for Maryland. It’s a trap game, too, with a visit from West Virginia next week.

Purdue will undo all the momentum it established with a win vs. Western Michigan last week if it loses to visiting Central Michigan on Saturday. The Boilermakers have the makings of a nice offense that should be enough to beat a middle-of-the-pack MAC team like CMU. (It would be nice if the front seven on defense made a few plays.) Wins will be hard to come by in 2014 for the Boilers. Bottom line: This is a game the rebuilding Boilers must win. Up next is a trip to Indianapolis to play Notre Dame, amping up the urgency in West Lafayette.

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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