Best of Week 6: Northwestern at Michigan headlines Big Ten action
This is the first week of full-scale Big Ten action, with seven conference games. And the headliner is Northwestern at Michigan. But there are other enticing clashes.
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Wisconsin at Nebraska is a meeting of desperate teams. Nebraska is 1-3 vs. the Badgers since joining the Big Ten. And the Huskers often have lost in spectacular fashion, falling 48-17 in Madison in 2011; 70-31 in the 2012 Big Ten title game; 59-24 last year in Madison. This will be a clash between first-year coaches in the Huskers’ Mike Riley vs. the Badgers’ Paul Chryst, who also happen to be good buddies.
Illinois will be making its first trip to Iowa City since 2007 because of scheduling quirks. No matter the venue, the Hawkeyes have dominated of late by winning six of the last seven vs. Illinois. The Fighting Illini’s last win in Kinnick Stadium came in 1999 under Ron Turner.
Michigan State won 45-3 last year vs. Rutgers in East Lansing. This will be the Spartans’ first trip to RU since 2004, when it lost 19-14. Kyle Flood will miss his third and final game due to suspension. MSU is looking for a dominant performance.
Minnesota has won four of the last six vs. Purdue. This will be the Golden Gophers’ first trip to West Lafayette since 2011. Minnesota’s last win in Ross-Ade Stadium came under Tim Brewster in 2008. Boiler boss Darrell Hazell is looking for his first Big Ten home win (0-8). And, it could come vs. a struggling Gopher squad whose offense is a mess.
Penn State is 17-1 all-time vs. Indiana. The lone loss came in Bloomington in 2013. This will be the Hoosiers’ first trip to State College since 2012. IU is 0-8 all-time at Penn State.
OSU beat the Terps, 52-24, last year in the first meeting ever between the schools. Will the Buckeyes dominate like they should? Here is a tip for Ohio State: Give the ball to RB Ezekiel Elliott … a lot.
BEST GAME: Back in August, no one saw Northwestern’s trip to Michigan as being the biggest game of this week. But, here we are, and now this tilt will be more scrutinized. The Wildcats are a national darling, off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 13 by the AP. The Jim Harbaugh hype is growing to monstrous proportions behind a 4-1 start that has seen the Wolverines win four in a row. Both teams have used the same M.O.: strong defense and a tough rushing game. Each is coming off a shutout. In fact, Michigan has blanked its last two foes. NU is No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (7.0 ppg); Michigan is No. 2 (7.6 ppg). NU is No. 1 in rushing (248.8 ypg); the Wolverines are No. 5 (201.4 ypg). This may come down to which QB can make the most plays: Michigan senior Jake Rudock or Wildcat redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: If Nebraska wants to get its season back on track when Wisconsin visits this Saturday, Tommy Armstrong must play big. He struggled in difficult conditions last week in an excruciating 14-13 loss at Illinois, hitting only 10-of-31 passes for 105 yards with no TDs and an interception to go with 38 yards rushing (32 came on one run). His last two incompletions were killer, as they stopped the clock and left the Illini with enough time to rally for the winning TD. Armstrong has been stellar most of the season, ranking No. 1 in passing in the Big Ten (274.2 ypg) with a league-high 11 TD tosses. He also is first in total offense (305.4 ypg). But he will be challenged by a rugged Wisconsin defense. The Badgers allowed just one touchdown vs. Iowa, the only touchdown they have allowed in the last four games to go with nine total points yielded in that span. Wisconsin is No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (9.6 ppg) and total defense (278.0 ypg).
BEST MATCHUP: Yes, the Nebraska offense was stifled in a 14-13 loss at Illinois last week with just 292 yards. Still, the Cornhuskers are No. 2 in the Big Ten in total offense (474.0 ypg). Can the unit rebound vs. a Wisconsin defense that is No. 3 in the league (278.0 ypg)? The Badgers allowed just 221 yards to Iowa last week and have yielded one TD in the last four games.
BEST QUARTERBACK MATCHUP: There are some good ones. If Nate Sudfeld plays for Indiana, he’ll have a good clash with Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg. And Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong vs. Wisconsin’s Joel Stave looks good, but both are coming off difficult outings. So, let’s go with Illinois’ Wes Lunt vs. Iowa’s C.J. Beathard. Lunt is No. 3 in the Big Ten in passing (221.4 ypg) with eight TDs and just two picks while completing 58 percent of his passes. He has engineered game-winning drives in each of the last two weeks. Beathard is coming off an uneven effort at Wisconsin (9-of-21 passing for 77 yards with 89 total yards) but has otherwise been a revelation. He’s connecting on 64 percent of his attempts for 1,039 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Let’s go with Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald vs. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. There was a time not too long ago when Fitzgerald was a candidate for the Wolverine job. But he is in his 10th season at his alma mater. And he’s doing some of his best coaching this year. Like Fitz, Harbaugh is a former BMOC at his alma mater—and he’s already created a massive buzz. Two smart, class acts whose love for their schools adds extra juice and emotion to what they do.
BEST COORDINATOR MATCHUP: Illinois head coach Bill Cubit runs his own offense. And, he’s good at it. What will he have for Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker? The Fighting Illini have been plagued by myriad dropped passes, but the passing game still is potent with the West Lunt-Geronimo Allison hook-up. Not having RB Josh Ferguson will hurt. The Hawkeye defense is coming off a lights-out effort in a 10-6 win at Wisconsin. Iowa has excelled vs. the run, ranking No. 2 in the Big Ten (84.4 ypg) with zero rushing TDs allowed. Illinois has the No. 5 offense in the league (400.2 ypg).
UPSET ALERT: Indiana is an underdog at Penn State. But, don’t be shocked if the Hoosiers fly back from State College, Pa., with their first win ever at Beaver Stadium (0-8). This would be the signature victory Kevin Wilson has been aching for since arriving in Bloomington in 2011. Indiana may be compromised by injuries to QB Nate Sudfeld and RB Jordan Howard, but the replacements are capable. It will be interesting to see how IU plays coming off an emotional near-win vs. No. 1 Ohio State. Can the Hoosiers get fired up? This is a Nittany Lions squad that has gotten consistently good play from the defense. The offense? It’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.
Ranking October 10th Games
1. Northwestern at Michigan
2. Illinois at Iowa
3. Wisconsin at Nebraska
4. Indiana at Penn State
5. Minnesota at Purdue
6. Michigan State at Rutgers
7. Maryland at Ohio State