Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, October 14, 2015
Lots of juicy matchups dot this week?s menu, but there is just one headliner: Michigan State vs. Michigan. Jim Harbaugh will get his first shot at Michigan State when the Spartans come to Ann Arbor. That will be must-see TV.
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Unbeaten Iowa plays at Northwestern in a key West Division clash. Even though NU lost at Michigan last week, it still controls its destiny in the West. If the Wildcats can beat the Hawkeyes, the potential remains for a special season. If they can?t, they could sputter towards the finish line with games at Wisconsin and Nebraska and a home visit from Penn State. NU has lost the last two meetings-both in Iowa City. The Wildcats won the last time Iowa came to Evanston in 2012, taking a 28-17 triumph.
There also is another important Big Ten West clash that has Nebraska at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have passed the Cornhuskers on the Big Ten West food chain. It?s true. The proof is in the last two seasons, when Minnesota dumped Nebraska not once ? but twice. The Gophers took a 34-23 decision in 2013 in the Twin Cities and prevailed, 28-24, last year in Lincoln. Before that, Minnesota had lost 16 in a row to Nebraska.
And, don?t forget about Penn State playing at Ohio State. The Nittany Lions will bring a five-game winning streak to Columbus. The Lions have lost three in a row and five of six to the Buckeyes. PSU?s last win in Columbus came in 2011 with Tom Bradley as interim head coach.
Rutgers at Indiana is interesting, pitting two teams trying to push their way up the food chain in the competitive Big Ten East and fight for a bowl slot. The Hoosiers fell at Rutgers last season, 45-23, despite getting 307 yards rushing from Tevin Coleman. This will be the Scarlet Knights? first trip to Bloomington. RU coach Kyle Flood is back from his three-game suspension.
The Badgers have won nine in a row vs. the Boilermakers-often in dominating/crushing fashion. Purdue?s last win in Madison came in 2003 when Joe Tiller beat Barry Alvarez. Tiller is now retired in Wyoming, while Alvarez is Wisconsin's A.D. Wisconsin typically is too tough, too strong and too physical for Purdue. When will the embarrassing losses to the Badgers end for the Boilermakers? Purdue will arrive in Madison fresh off one of its most humiliating losses in the last 25 years, a 41-13 drubbing at home to Minnesota. The defeat has many questioning the direction of things in West Lafayette.
Illinois and Maryland are off.
BEST GAME: No doubt, it?s Michigan State?s visit to Michigan. No need for a lot of Don King hype. This boffo matchup stands on its own merits. Michigan State has won six of the last seven games against Michigan, with the only loss coming in 2012 in Ann Arbor, which was the last time these two teams played at Michigan. This is the first time these teams are meeting when both are in the Top 15 since 2003. How good have the Wolverines been since opening with a loss at Utah? They have been dominant since the first quarter of the Oregon State game and are outscoring opponents, 157-7, in their last 19 quarters. Michigan State has won 11 straight Big Ten road games, with the last loss coming in the aforementioned 2012 tilt at Michigan. But the Spartans are banged up.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong. If the Cornhuskers want to end their misery and perhaps turnaround their season, they need to win at Minnesota. And, to do so, Armstrong must excel. Nebraska?s offense has struggled to move the ball recently. The Huskers have scored 21 or fewer points in each of their last two games. That?s mostly due to the play of Armstrong. He?s completing just 21-of-59 passes for 234 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception.
BEST MATCHUP: Iowa RB Jordan Canzeri vs. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson. Northwestern?s defense will have its hands full with Canzeri, who ran for a school single-game record 43 times for 256 yards last week vs. Illinois. He has run for 697 yards this season (116.2 ypg), which is third in the Big Ten and is 12th in FBS. He also has nine rushing touchdowns, which is 11th in FBS. Jackson is No. 4 in the Big Ten in rushing (110.2 ypg) but was held to just 25 rushing yards last week at Michigan. Whichever back has the biggest game figures to lead his club to victory.
BEST QUARTERBACK MATCHUP: Penn State?s Christian Hackenberg vs. Ohio State?s Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. Hackenberg is playing some of his best football of the season recently. He has thrown for 714 yards with six touchdowns in his last three games and hasn?t thrown an interception. Jones had his most efficient passing game of the season last week vs. Maryland, completing 75 percent of his passes for 291 yards and didn?t throw an interception. Barrett came in as mostly a red zone option last week, and it worked well. He ran for 62 yards and three touchdowns.
BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Here comes Jim Harbaugh and his ?M? ball cap, khakis, Sharpie, play sheet, bifocals, glossy resume and swagger. He is set on making Michigan matter-and it has been a while for a program that last won the Big Ten in 2004. Michigan hired its former BMOC Harbaugh for a few reasons. One of them: Start beating the Spartans, who have come away with a win in six of the last seven meetings. Good luck with that. Mark Dantonio has built one of the nation?s top programs, notching at least 11 wins in four of the last five seasons. The Spartans have finished No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, in the final AP poll in each of the last two seasons.
BEST COORDINATOR MATCHUP: Gotta love Ohio State offensive coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck vs. Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. The inconsistencies of the Buckeye attack have been well-documented, but the squad finally may have figured out how to use its QBs last week: Cardale Jones between the 20-yard lines; Barrett in the red zone. Warinner has taken over as the play-caller with Tom Herman off to coach Houston. Warinner is a sage vet who worked at Kansas with Beck and ran some good attacks at Nebraska under Bo Pelini. Last season, Shoop directed a Penn State defense that allowed just 278.7 yards per game, good for No. 2 in FBS and the Nittany Lions? second-lowest average since 1990. Shoop?s defense is excelling this season, ranking No. 3 in the Big Ten (275.7 ypg). San Diego State is the only team to score more than 20 points in the last five games–and one of those touchdowns came on a kickoff return.
UPSET ALERT: The Spartans are unbeaten, but an underdog, at Michigan. This will make the chip on Mark Dantonio?s shoulder even bigger. He has built this MSU program on being overlooked. The disrespect and slights fuel him and drive his inner being. If the Spartans fall in the Big House, it won?t be because they are out played, out hustled, out prepared or out coached. It will be because Michigan is just the better team.
Ranking Oct. 17 games
1. Michigan State at Michigan
2. Iowa at Northwestern
3. Penn State at Ohio State
4. Nebraska at Minnesota
5. Rutgers at Indiana
6. Purdue at Wisconsin