Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, October 20, 2016

Doing a little bit of thinking out loud as Saturday approaches quickly. Earlier this week I already handed out my midseason awards for coach of the year as well as defensive and offensive stars of the season

The loser of the Wisconsin at Iowa game figures to have a tough time to win the Big Ten West, especially the Badgers. Wisconsin already has two Big Ten losses, falling at Michigan and to Ohio State. After the visit to Iowa City, the Badgers have to play host to Nebraska and then play at Northwestern. So, you can see why there is a big sense of urgency for Wisconsin this weekend if it wants to keep its division title dreams afloat.


Northwestern may be the most dangerous team in the Big Ten West. And to think NU began the year 0-2. The Wildcats' offense is coming to life, scoring 38 points in a win at Iowa and 54 last week in a victory at Michigan State. NU had 490 yards in East Lansing. And the 54 points were the most the Spartans ever had allowed in a home game. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is playing the best football of this career. He is hitting 58 percent of his passes after connecting on just 50 last year. And his yards per attempt have jumped from 5.16 to 6.87. Want more wow? OK. NU has won four straight Big Ten road games for the first time since 2009-10. Long story short: Don?t count out the Wildcats in the West race. They?ve already beaten Iowa and have only one conference loss. They still have games with Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Does Ohio State have a potentially fatal flaw? Keep an eye on the defense. The unit had some issues with the Wisconsin offense last week. The Buckeyes allowed 450 yards including 236 on the ground. It?s the most rushing yards they?ve allowed in a road game since 2011 when they allowed 277 yards rushing at Michigan. That was also the last time Ohio State lost a road game. However, they made plays when it mattered. The Buckeyes had a season-high four sacks and held the Badgers to 137 total yards after halftime. Still, keep an eye on the Buckeye defense down the stretch.

Penn State?s James Franklin needs a signature win. The third-year Nittany Lions boss is 0-7 against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Taking down the No. 2 Buckeyes this Saturday night would be a big boon to Franklin and his program. Penn State?s best shot is to try to make the game a shootout-and generate multiple turnovers. It also would help if the Nittany Lions can notch a touchdown on defense or special teams.

Much is made about the success of the Nebraska offense. But the play of the defense has been every bit as key to the Huskers? 6-0 start. The unit held the Hoosiers to just 333 yards and forced two turnovers. The Cornhuskers have 11 interceptions this season, which is tied for the fifth-most nationally. Nebraska had 10 interceptions all of last season. And new d-line coach John Parrella has done a boffo job for a unit that had a lot of questions when 2016 dawned.

Speaking of defense, that has been a big issue in the decline Michigan State, which has lost four in a row. The Spartans allowed 54 points to Northwestern, which is the most they?ve ever allowed in a home game. In their last four games, they?ve allowed 107 points in the second half. Michigan State has allowed 45 points combined in the first half this season. The MSU defense allowed over 200 yards rushing for the second straight week last Saturday. It?s the first time the Spartans have allowed 200-plus yards on the ground in consecutive games since 2007. The Michigan State defense has been even worse on third down. In their last four games, the Spartans have allowed 36 third down conversions on 67 attempts, which is nearly 54 percent. Add it all up: The defending Big Ten champs are 2-4 and in peril of missing a bowl.

How good will Wisconsin redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook be? The kid almost pulled off a huge upset last week at home vs. mighty Ohio State, hitting 16-of-28 passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and interception. It was a big improvement from his 9-of-25 effort for 88 yards with a touchdown and three picks in a loss at Michigan the last time out. Hornibrook has a nice touch and savvy that is beyond his years. I can?t wait to see how Hornibrook develops the next few seasons under Paul Chryst?s steady hand.

Until Rutgers gets its quarterback job sorted out and settled, the Scarlet Knights will continue to struggle. Rutgers has scored just two touchdowns in four Big Ten games in 2016. The Scarlet Knights have been outscored 174-14 in conference play. They were held without a touchdown for 11 straight quarters before scoring in the fourth quarter against Illinois last week. This week, Gio Rescigno will get the start over Chris Laviano. RU also has played Zach Allen and Tylin Oden this year-that?s four signal-callers in seven games. That?s not good.

Purdue had to move on from Darrell Hazell now. It was incumbent on new athletic director Mike Bobinski to take action, send a message and end a disastrous three-and-half-year run that saw Hazell go 9-33. Now, can Bobinski make a program-saving hire? I think the school needs to hire a proven head coach who has an offensive background. The new coach needs to embrace Purdue?s heritage as the ?Cradle of Quarterbacks.? Western Michigan?s P.J. Fleck and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would be home run hires. I also like Illinois State?s Brock Spack, a former Boilermaker player and assistant who would be perfect for the job. He should have landed the job in 2009 after Joe Tiller retired, a decision that I believe haunts Purdue to this day.