Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, September 25, 2013
Conference play kicked off last week, with Wisconsin blasting Purdue. This Saturday, there are two more Big Ten games: Iowa at Minnesota and Wisconsin at Ohio State.
Otherwise, there are just two other tilts, both non-conference games: Miami (OH) at Illinois and Northern Illinois at Purdue.
But, quantity of games is compensated for by the quality of games. Wisconsin?s trip to Ohio State is an unabashed marquee contest that will go a long way toward determining the Leaders Division title. And Iowa?s junket to Minnesota is a key Legends Division clash that will help determine early pecking in order in a wide-open division. It?s also a fun rivalry game, as Floyd of Rosedale is on the line.
Here is a preview of Week Five.
Why you should watch: The Fighting Illini were off last week, presumably giving coaches a chance to tighten a leaky defense that allowed 615 yards to Washington the last time out in a loss. This is a game Illinois must win if it wants to reach the bowl season. Miami isn?t just bad. It?s awful, getting outscored 107-21 in starting 0-3. Illinois is 2-0 all-time vs. Miami, but the schools haven?t played since 1941. MAC teams have had some fairly recent success vs. the Illini, as Ohio (2006) and Western Michigan (2008) have toppled Illinois. Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit coached that WMU team.
Player on the spot: QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He should have another big day working against this porous defense. He just must avoid turnovers that would keep the RedHawks in the game. Scheelhaase?s numbers may not be huge, as Illinois should be able to run with aplomb with RBs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Still, Scheelhaase needs to be on his game after hitting just 9-of-25 passes for 156 yards with a touchdown and pick vs. Washington.
Key matchup: Illinois defense vs. Miami offense. A battle of two struggling units. The Fighting need to get a strong effort from a line that has had issues all season for a defense that ranks last vs. the pass, ninth vs. the run, 10th in scoring and last overall. This may be just the opponent to spark the confidence of the line-and the entire defense-which gave up 273 yards rushing to Washington in the last game.
Key number: 21, plays of 20-plus yards for Illinois this season (27th in the nation). The Fighting Illini had 34 such plays all of 2012 (122nd in the nation).
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Why you should watch: Opportunities for victory may be few and far between for the Boilermakers this fall. Alas, this may not be a good one, as Northern Illinois is one of the best programs outside the power conferences. Northern Illinois has a first-year coach, but this still is a strong program that returns star quarterback Jordan Lynch and is coming off an Orange Bowl season. And Purdue fans no doubt recall the Huskies strolling into Ross-Ade Stadium and dumping Purdue the last time they visited in 2009. Jerry Kill coached that NIU team. Interestingly, Boiler coach Darrell Hazell (Kent State) and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson (Florida State) coached vs. the Huskies last season, so they know this foe-for what that?s worth.
Player on the spot: QB Rob Henry. God bless him. Henry is trying. He?s just not a gifted passer. And his supporting cast can best be described as ?middling.? Still, Henry is the offense?s best playmaker. He has to hit the short passes and spark the ground game with his feet. It will help if the line plays better. Good news for Henry: The NIU defense is rotten, allowing 33.7 points and 491 yards per game.
Key matchup: Purdue defensive line vs. Northern Illinois offensive line. If there is one strength on this Boiler squad, it?s the d-line led by Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. But you may not have known it based on last week?s dismal effort at Wisconsin that saw the Boilermakers allow 388 yards rushing. For Purdue to have any shot of beating the Huskies, it must slow down the run game and get after Lynch, who opened the season by leading Northern Illinois to victory at Iowa.
Key number: 70.5, Purdue's rushing average, ranking 116th in the nation. That average sinks to 49.3 in three games vs. FBS foes.
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Why you should watch: Floyd of Rosedale is on the line! And the possibilities seem endless for each team in what looks to be a wide-open Legends Division. Minnesota is 4-0. Iowa has won three in succession after dropping its opener to Northern Illinois. So, the winner could be in good shape. That?s a far cry from the beginning of the year, when it looked like these teams may end up fighting to avoid the Legends Division cellar. Well, that still could happen, but let?s stay positive for now, OK?
Player on the spot: Gophers? QB Mitch Leidner. He made his first career start last week and excelled, running for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-24 win over San Jose State with Philip Nelson (hamstring) out with injury. Leidner looks to be the starter again with Nelson?s status still murky. Leidner will need to continue to run the ball well, while also hitting some passes to keep a solid Iowa defense off balance.
Key matchup: Iowa passing game vs. Minnesota passing game. Each team has a strong ground game. The Gophers are No. 3 in the Big Ten in rushing (282.2 ypg); the Hawkeyes are No. 6 (244.0). Neither team is great at chucking the ball. So, whoever can pass with some consistency figures to have a good shot at victory. Know this: Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock is further along as a passer than Leidner and may have a slightly better collection of receivers.
Key number: 10, penalties for Minnesota, which are the fewest in the Big Ten. Conversely, Iowa has 26 penalties.
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Why you should watch: No matter what anyone on either coaching staff may try to tell you, this is a de facto Leaders Division title game. No doubt, the winner will be in the driver?s seat to win the division and advance to the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin has what Ohio State wants: Big Ten supremacy, as the Badgers have been to the last three Rose Bowls. This game may come down to which team passes the best. The last time Wisconsin won in Columbus? 2004.
Player on the spot: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Yes, all eyes will be on the Buckeye quarterbacks. But their contributions won?t matter if Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon and James White are able to run free. Shazier must spearhead a strong effort vs. a Badger ground game that paces the Big Ten with a 349.8-yard average. The Buckeye front also must withstand a physical Wisconsin front. Are Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Co., up for the challenge? If the Buckeyes can mute the Badger rushing attack and make Wisconsin signal-caller Joel Stave pass, they?ll have a great chance at victory-and control of the division.
Key matchup: Wisconsin defensive front seven vs. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. Most assume Miller will get the call under center, as he was cleared to play earlier in the week coming off a knee injury that basically cost him the past three games. The Badgers will have no shot if they can?t contain the uber-athletic Miller. Conversely, if Miller is rusty, the Badgers could corral his vast skills. But, OSU can always turn to Kenny Guiton, who figures to have some role on Saturday no matter what Miller does.
Key number: 243.3, yards per game that Wisconsin?s defense is allowing. That ranks sixth in the nation. The Badgers are 10th in the country in scoring defense (10.5 ppg) playing a new 3-4 under coordinator Dave Aranda.
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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.|