Michigan Wolverines: Big 10
Byes were aplenty Oct. 12 and 26 when only four games were played. No currently ranked teams played one another. (Although, OK, the Northwestern-Ohio State game was good at the time.) And only three of the 18 Big Ten matchups were decided by single digits.
But divvy up those Halloween treats, toss that costume to the back of the closet and rejoice. Boring, old October is no more. And the month of November is sure to be a much, much more entertaining one for the Big Ten.
Of course, there's also The Game to look forward to, while Buckeyes fans have plenty of other football to keep track of since they'll need outside help to rise to No. 2 in the BCS standings. There are plenty of other storylines, too. Nebraska and Northwestern are trying to reclaim their lost magic, Wisconsin is trying to prove it still deserves a major bowl bid, and other teams such as Iowa and Minnesota are trying to show they're capable of pulling the upsets.
October was a month to forget. File that away. Pretend it never happened. And enjoy November.
Team with the most to prove: Michigan. Are the Wolverines the kind of team that wins championships or just talks about them? We're still not entirely sure what their identity is. Their signature win, against Notre Dame, happened in Week 2 when Devin Gardner was a 14-to-1 Heisman wager. Oh, how things have changed. They slipped past nonconference cupcakes Akron and UConn before dropping a quadruple-overtime game against PSU that they never should've lost. UM's identity will be formed this month; its season will be remembered based on what it does in November. Look at the slate: MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State. This is the heart of the Wolverines' schedule, and we're still awaiting the verdict of just how good this team is. It still has the potential to finish near the top and spoil Ohio State's season -- or finish in the middle of the pack and be a nonfactor.
Team with the most to lose: Ohio State. This answer is obvious for obvious reasons. The Buckeyes are riding a national-best 20-game winning streak right now. With some outside help -- we're looking at you, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State -- the Buckeyes could play in the national championship. When the title's on the line, that's a lot to gain -- and it's certainly a lot to lose. One loss is all it's going to take to crush the Buckeyes' hopes.
Three players to keep an eye on: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Penn State WR Allen Robinson and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. Let's touch on each one. Miller finally appears to be a quarterback doubling as an athlete instead of the other way around. Said Urban Meyer: "Braxton is officially a quarterback at Ohio State now. He wasn't last year." Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien called him one of the five best players in the nation and, now that he's healthy, he could be in for quite the month.
So could one of O'Brien's top players, Robinson. The junior wideout could leave early for the NFL, but not before breaking some more single-season records at Penn State. He's on pace to shatter Bobby Engram's record for receiving yards (1,084), as he needs just 207 yards over the next five games. And he needs just 23 receptions to break the single-season receptions record, which is held by a pretty good PSU wideout in, well, Robinson himself. (He set it last year with 77.)
And Gordon? Well, he has a shot to be the nation's leading rusher as he currently sits fifth (1,012 yards). And he already boasts the nation's best yards-per-carry average at 9.5, more than 2 yards better than Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Gordon is the best running back in the Big Ten and belongs in the conversation as the best overall player.
Biggest trap game: Indiana vs. Ohio State on Nov. 23. It's the week before The Game, so it's a conference contest that could easily be overlooked. The Hoosiers are a 3-4 team right now and don't exactly strike fear into the Buckeyes. They're not balanced, not great and not defensively good. But, if the Buckeyes have an Achilles' heel, it's their pass defense. And Indiana has the most up-tempo passing offense in the conference. The Hoosiers might be able to match the Buckeyes' penchant for scoring. And, if the defense can string together a few big plays, maybe -- just maybe -- Indiana has a shot. At the very least, it's a trap game.
Fearless November prediction: Michigan State and Ohio State will end up playing each other in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes are the easy pick, and the Spartans' Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford have taken big steps forward since the beginning of the season. Michigan State's defense is easily the best in the Big Ten, maybe in the country, and the offense is no longer anemic. The Buckeyes are the best team in the conference, no doubt. But the Spartans are No. 2. And they'll face OSU in the conference championship.
- A victory for Nebraska on Saturday over Minnesota would make the Huskers eligible to participate in a bowl game. And not just any bowl game. It would be the Huskers' 50th. Only Alabama and Texas have appeared in 50 bowl games. The Huskers have outscored three opponents 142-46 since losing to UCLA on Sept. 14. That's an average victory margin of 32 points. Impressive, but it's not as dominant as the Huskers' recent history against Minnesota. Nebraska has won 16 straight in the series -- the last 12 by an average margin of 40.2 points.
- Minnesota, meanwhile, needs a win, too, to gain bowl eligibility, a milestone that hasn't exactly been kind to the Gophers over the past decade. They've lost five straight bowl games since 2004. Still, the progress in Minneapolis is difficult to ignore. Minnesota has won 11 of its past 20 games, averaging 24.7 points. In its previous 20 games, it was 5-15 and scored 19.7 points per game. Much of the improvement can be traced to growth in the Gophers' ground game. Four players this year have rushed for 100 yards or more in a game -- a feat Minnesota last accomplished in 1967.
- Michigan State, attempting to start 7-1 or better for the second time in seven seasons and third time in the past 46, is on some kind of a roll defensively. The Spartans rank first nationally in total defense, yards per play, rush defense and yards per rushing attempt. MSU has won 11 of the past 12 meetings with Illinois, and all but two of those 11 victories have come by 10 points or more.
- Defensively, Illinois could not present more of a stark contrast to the Spartans. The Illini, in the same categories mentioned above, rank 104th, 110th, 106th and 111th nationally. Not good. Neither are the Illini's 16 straight Big Ten losses. That's the worst run in school history. But Illinois must do a lot more work to reach Northwestern's Big Ten record of 38 consecutive league losses, set from 1978 to 1982.
- Penn State has defeated Ohio State in two of the team's past three meetings at the Horseshoe -- wins in 2008 and 2011 that were later vacated. Since 2004, the Nittany Lions are the only team with more than one win in Columbus. The rest of the Big Ten, in fact, has combined for just three over that time.
- Ohio State has won a national-best 19 straight games since Urban Meyer's arrival. A victory on Saturday over Penn State would make Meyer the sixth coach in major-college history to open his tenure at a school with 20 consecutive wins. Pop Warner holds the all-time record with 30 straight to open his time at Pitt from 1915 to 1918. Others ahead of Meyer include Fielding Yost (Michigan), Walter Camp (Yale), Larry Coker (Miami) and Terry Bowden, who won his first 20 games at Auburn in 1993 and 1994. Meyer has won 20 straight games, including his final contest at Florida, for the third time in his career. He is among nine coaches ever to record more than one 20-game winning streak. None of the others are active.
- The best barometer through which to gauge Northwestern's success, aside from injuries, might be turnovers. Last week in losing 20-17 to Minnesota, perhaps the most disappointing of three consecutive defeats for the Wildcats, Northwestern failed to force a turnover for the first time since a win over Iowa one year ago this weekend. The Wildcats rank first in the conference and 14th nationally this year with 17 takeaways. Before last week, they had snagged an interception in 10 consecutive games. Northwestern has converted its 17 turnovers into 72 points on nine touchdowns and three field goals.
- Want to believe Iowa can't lose on Saturday -- or for that matter, to another Big Ten team this season? The Hawkeyes' three losses this year have come against teams with a combined record of 20-1; its five remaining foes are 21-13. Iowa's defense has held every opponent this season under its rushing average. Iowa foes have scored four red-zone touchdowns, the fewest of any team in the country. The two rushing touchdowns it has allowed ties Iowa with Alabama and Florida State for the fewest nationally. Last one: Iowa has allowed just five sacks this season, the seventh-lowest total nationally.
- Melvin Gordon isn't the only tailback to watch for Wisconsin. As a team, the Badgers are setting some precedent here with their success on the ground. They're currently averaging a national-best 7.07 yards per rush, which is the third-highest average -- through six games -- in the last decade. Only 2011 Oregon (7.24) and 2008 UL-Lafayette (7.55) have fared better.
- Northwestern is hoping to get back on track following back-to-back losses. But what's the big reason for those losses? Take a look at the points per drive. The Wildcats scored 2.6 points per drive in the first four games. In the last two, that number decreased to 1.2. More than one-third of their drives against Ohio State and Wisconsin also resulted in a three-and-out. The defense isn't a strength, but the offense needs to do better for Northwestern to rebound.
- If the Golden Gophers win and climb to 5-2, this would be their best start since the 2008 season, when they sat at 7-1 and found themselves at No. 20 in the AP poll. Back in 2008, though, Northwestern closed the chapter on Minnesota's success. The Wildcats beat the Gophers, and Minnesota then dropped five straight games to finish the year at 7-6.
- Braxton Miller has been absolutely key for the Buckeyes ever since he took over in 2011, and his success has also dictated OSU's success in large part. Ohio State is 13-1 when Miller reaches the 200-yard mark in total yards. When he is held to less than 200 yards? The Buckeyes are 7-5.
- We knew the Hawkeyes' defense was good -- they're No. 9 nationally in total defense -- but their red-zone defense has been just ridiculous. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 11.1 percent of their red zone trips, the best margin in the nation. By far. Oregon is second at 33.3 percent. Iowa's percentage is the best for an FBS team through six games in ... let's see here ... the last 10 years.
- Michigan has several streaks to keep an eye on this week. Wideout Jeremy Gallon has posted a reception in 32 straight games, the defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games, and linebacker Desmond Morgan has recorded at least four tackles in 21 straight regular-season games.
- Illinois' Josh Ferguson probably isn't the first name that jumps to mind when thinking about versatile running backs. But he currently leads the nation in receiving yards by a tailback with 344 yards on 20 receptions.
- True freshman quarterback Danny Etling is the starter for Purdue now -- but he's hardly the only freshman to get playing time. The Boilermakers started six freshmen on offense alone last week, 17 freshmen earned playing time, and 34 of Purdue's 70 players on the travel roster are underclassmen. The Boilermakers don't have much to celebrate right now, but they're certainly young.
- Offenses don't stay on the field long when they're playing Michigan State. The Spartans boast the nation's top defense, statistically, when it comes to yards allowed -- but there's a much more interesting stat behind that one. Mark Dantonio's squad has forced opponents to three-and-outs on 40 of 82 possessions, which is also the nation's best. Teams are averaging 6.7 three-and-outs per game when they're forced to go up against Michigan State.
- The Hoosiers' up-tempo offense is setting all sorts of records this season. Here's just a few notable records and stats: Indiana has scored 28 points in a program-best seven straight games; IU's school record of seven 300-yard passing games ended last week; Ted Bolser leads the nation's tight ends with five TDs; and 20 of the Hoosiers' 60 scoring drives have taken five or fewer plays.
2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.
3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.
4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.
5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.
7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.
8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.
9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.
10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.
Mike Dudek: Seven receptions, 97 yards, one touchdown, 103 kick return yards and a touchdown in a 40-25 win over Waubonise Valley.
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- Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda noticed some big differences when he took a look at the Badgers' defensive stats in wins vs. stats in their losses. Wisconsin TE Sam Arneson is still learning his job, but he's also showing a lot of promise.
- There's plenty of praise to go around when trying to figure out just how Northwestern manages to have two quarterbacks who rank first and third in conference pass efficiency.
- Michigan State is preparing to host its 500th game at Spartan Stadium on Saturday. Past players took a look back at the stadium and how it ha's evolved.
- Michigan's pass defense has fared pretty well so far this season but, Bob Flounders writes, it hasn't gone against a wide receiver quite like Penn State's Allen Robinson. Here are five keys for the Wolverines as they get ready to enter a sold-out Beaver Stadium on the road.
- Penn State safeties coach Anthony Midget lives by a personal philosophy that he tries to pass on to his players -- "Forget it, drive on."
- If there's one likelihood at Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend, it's that Nebraska fans will be there in full force.
- Nebraska DE Randy Gregory grew up near Purdue's campus and, at one point, was committed to the Boilermakers. Now, he's looking to give headaches to the team from his home state.
- The Buckeyes are using the bye week to tweak the offense, such as designing more plays to get the ball to receivers on the run and increasing Dontre Wilson's workload.
- The Badgers boast two standout players on offense who pile on the yards, which puts them in pretty elite company. Wisconsin is one of just three teams in the country who have a player averaging 100 rushing yards a game (Melvin Gordon, 139.6) and another player averaging 100 receiving yards a game (Jared Abbrederis, 114.4). Those other two teams? LSU and Baylor.
- Northwestern has scored at least 30 points in every game this season. Actually, going back to last year, the Wildcats have done that in seven straight games -- the longest such streak in school history. Only one team in the FBS currently boasts a longer streak, and that's the Baylor Bears who have scored between 69 and 73 points in four games this season.
- Wisconsin's Gordon has played the role of home-run threat this season and, outside of averaging more than a first down every carry, he also leads the FBS in rushes of 25 yards or more. He's broken long runs like that seven times already this season, including a nation-best four TD runs of 25 yards or more. He didn't have one such long rush against Ohio State last week, the first time all season.
- Devin Gardner obviously hasn't been the most consistent of quarterbacks, but the Michigan offense has been pretty steady at keeping drives alive thanks to its incredible third-down numbers. Last season, it was sixth in the nation -- and first in the Big Ten -- when it converted just over half (87-of-173) of its third-down attempts. This season so far? It's even better. U-M is converting 54 percent (36-of-67) of its third-down attempts and still ranks atop the conference.
- Michigan's defense hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season -- and that's pretty rare. The Wolverines are one of only two teams that can say that; the other is Iowa. On the flip side, Penn State has rushed for 11 scores already this year and is averaging a little more than two a game.
- Penn State wideout Allen Robinson was asked this week about whether he'd declare early for the NFL -- he said it's not yet on his mind -- but that opportunity really shouldn't have been a surprise. He's currently on pace for the best receiving performance ever by a Penn State player. By far. He currently owns the school's single-season receptions record with 77 catches (from last year), and Bobby Engram boasts the single-season receiving yards record with 1,084 yards (from the 1995 season). Well, if you take Robinson's current numbers (38 catches, 621 yards) and average them out to the course of a season, A-Rob is on pace for a record-breaking 91 catches and 1,490 yards.
- Indiana coach Kevin Wilson takes pride in his uptempo offense, and the numbers certainly seem like cause for satisfaction. Twenty-six of the Hoosiers' 32 scoring drives -- which went for 23 TDs -- have taken three minutes or less. Eleven scoring drives, all of which went for TDs, have taken under 60 seconds. And Indiana runs one play, on average, every 19.9 seconds. That's enough to tire out just about any defense.
- Where do we even begin when it comes to putting into words and numbers how dominant Michigan State's defense has been? Well, first of all, it ranks No. 1 in total defense (203.8 yards per game), rushing defense (51.2 yards per game), passing efficiency defense (81.16 rating) and opponent third-down conversions (22 percent; 17-of-77). Oh, and it's also near the top of the nation, within the top 10, in scoring defense (13.4 ppg) and passing defense (152.6 yards per game). Basically, think up a defensive stat and there's a pretty good chance the Spartans are ranked at the top of the Big Ten.
- True freshman quarterback Danny Etling will grab his first career start for Purdue this weekend, but he's hardly the only young player seeing time for the Boilermakers. Just look at the roster to begin with -- Purdue has 52 freshmen (29 true, 23 redshirt) on the roster, while there are just 60 sophomores, juniors and seniors. Sixteen freshmen have already played this season, including five true freshmen. So it seems as if it should only get better in West Lafayette, Ind., in the coming seasons.
- Most offenses try to strike a nice balance, and no team in the Big Ten has done a better job in the last two years -- at least statistically -- than Nebraska. Yes, the running game has been its forte in the early going. But its part of an exclusive club that has thrown for at least 200 yards a game while also running for more than 200. Last season, it was one of just 19 teams in the country to join the 200-200 club. So far this season, it's one of 31 schools in the country.
What's the X-factor for the Michigan-PSU game?
Jennings: Whether Michigan can get control early. If this is close going into the fourth quarter, I don’t like Michigan’s chances. It should come as no surprise -- especially with a young QB like Christian Hackenberg -- that Penn State gets better as the game goes on. The Nittany Lions have scored 21 first-quarter points but 65 fourth-quarter points. The crowd will be behind Hackenberg and his offense so if it comes down to a fourth-quarter stand from the Michigan D I just don’t see it happening.
Moyer: Turnovers. I know, I know -- they're an X-factor in every game. But bear with me here. Neither of these teams often finds itself on the right side of the turnover battle -- both are tied for 97th this season in turnover margin -- and they've both managed to win in spite of that. And it's a toss-up Saturday to see who'll take advantage. Michigan is turning the ball over, on average, a little bit more than twice a game. Only 17 FBS teams are worse. On the flip side, only a dozen teams in the FBS have forced fewer turnovers than Penn State. Something has to give. For either team to finish even plus one would be big.
Which player is the most important?
Moyer: Gardner. The opponent's passing games have dictated a lot for PSU. Just look at their two losses: Blake Bortles was the key in the UCF-PSU game, and Indiana's passing game posted 336 yards. Gardner might not be a better passer than Bortles, but he's easily the best athlete under center that PSU has faced. If he escapes the pocket, Penn State is in trouble. If Gardner plays like he did against Akron and UConn, Penn State wins. If he plays like he did against Notre Dame and Minnesota, Penn State loses.
What's the matchup to watch?
Jennings: Penn State’s secondary against wide receiver Devin Funchess. After the Minnesota game, teams are going to key in on Funchess. Physically, I can’t really see many defensive backs in the country having the inherent advantage in this battle, but I think it’ll be very interesting to see how the sophomore handles the added pressure and coverage.
Moyer: DT DaQuan Jones vs. U-M interior. The 318-pound tackle is Penn State's most dominant defensive player, and the Wolverines' interior isn't exactly a strength. Graham Glasgow made his first start at center last week, and Jones has the ability to take over a game. He's second -- yes, second -- on the team in tackles with 30, and he leads PSU with two sacks and 6.5 stops in the backfield. If Penn State's defensive line gets a good push Saturday, or U-M's tailbacks have difficulty running up the middle, it'll almost certainly be due to Jones.
Which team has the advantage?
Jennings: If all things were equal and it just came down to each team playing to its potential, I’d say Michigan would have the advantage. However, the Wolverines have not played well on the road and Beaver Stadium is going to provide a huge challenge. Communication issues are going to pop up and considering this will be just the second start for this group as a unit on the offensive line -- and just the second start with Glasgow and Gardner together -- I have to believe mistakes will be made that will heavily favor Penn State.
Moyer: Michigan. The main issue surrounding the Wolverines seems to be which Gardner will show up. The main issue surrounding Penn State is ... well ... there's a lot more than one issue. That's the problem. There has been no No. 2 receiving threat, the running game has been inconsistent, the linebackers have looked lost at times, and the secondary remains a weakness. To me, that seems to be too many question marks against a ranked team. Inconsistent or not, the Wolverines have made the plays when they've needed to. The same cannot be said of Penn State. Could Penn State pull this one out? Absolutely. But it would most certainly be an upset.
There are still a ton of prospects on the board for Big Ten teams, so conference recruiting reporters Tom VanHaaren and Brad Bournival take a look at the best and worst case scenarios remaining for each team.
Best-case scenario: Illinois picked up an offensive line commit on Monday with Peter Cvijanovic (Great Barrington, Mass./East Coast Prep), which gives the Illini two offensive line commits. Despite having four wide receiver commits on board, it looks like the staff would take another receiver in this class.
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- OSU coach Urban Meyer admitted that cornerback Bradley Roby "didn't play up to Roby standards" last week, but Meyer and teammates said it's not quite time to hit the panic button. With 19 passing touchdowns through five games, Ohio State is on pace to surpass a school record. Bill Rabinowitz outlines five key factors for the OSU-Northwestern game.
- USA Today's Dan Shanoff outlines how Northwestern evolved from a losing program that dropped all of its conference games in 1993 to where it is today. There's a buzz in Evanston, Ill., and the moniker "biggest game in program history" might just ring true for the Wildcats this weekend. Bob Hunter writes that if this is a top Big Ten game, then that's a problem because this isn't exactly Alabama-LSU.
- Nick Baumgardner looks at five keys for Michigan, including whether Derrick Green might just be the answer for a slumping offense. The Wolverines will change up their offensive line after a shaky start. Jeremy Gallon and Co. don't want Minnesota to walk over to their sideline and take away the Little Brown Jug.
- Former Gophers quarterbacks Adam Weber and Bryan Cupito offer analysis on their alma mater's quarterback situation and say that a rotation is not the answer. Minnesota players, coaches and fans still can't forget their meeting with Michigan back in 2003 when the Wolverines rallied from a three-touchdown deficit in the final quarter to win the game.
- A brown house in Georgia awaits PSU offensive line coach Mac McWhorter when he decides to return to retirement but, for now, he's enjoying his time up north. Bob Flounders reflects on six thoughts about the Nittany Lions in time for their game against Indiana.
- The Hoosiers are looking for their first-ever victory against Penn State. Cornerback Michael Hunter cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman, then redshirted -- and now he's bigger and more physical than ever (subscription).
- Iowa's three wideouts are silencing second-guessers, as each player is bringing something unique to the table -- there's the reliable one, the big-play threat and the physical presence. DT Carl Davis, a Michigan native, still has people upset with him for not playing for the Spartans -- and he's not treating this week just like any other as a result.
- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he's considering playing true freshman tailback Delton Williams, who is now listed on the depth chart. Connor Cook worked on his footwork this past week and is preparing for his second road start. Pat Caputo writes that it's time for Michigan State and Michigan to step up and answer questions about their teams -- and that starts with quarterback.
- Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong will get the nod at quarterback for Nebraska, as Taylor Martinez will not play due to turf toe. Former walk-on Ron Kellogg III always knew Nebraska was the right fit for him, and now he could play a big role in its success. No recruit is making an official visit for the Cornhuskers this weekend, but the coaching staff isn't panicking.
- Illinois has undoubtedly improved from last season, but Loren Tate writes that the Illini need a defining Big Ten win to take the next step. Illinois' and Nebraska's offensive coordinators have crossed paths before -- about 30 years ago -- and have long since developed a mutual respect. A roundtable discussion centers on whether Nathan Scheelhaase can be consistent this season.
- Purdue's bye week is crucial to turning its season around, not unlike how Darrell Hazell turned around Kent State during his first season there on the bye. Rob Henry is no longer the starting quarterback, but he -- and Sean Robinson -- still deserve a "tip of the cap."
- Football isn't the only important aspect of Jared Abbrederis' life. The Wisconsin wideout also leans a lot on his faith. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez will be named to the new College Football Playoff Committee, a source told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
1. Will the real Devin Gardner please stand up: The Michigan quarterback has been an anomaly in the last three weeks. He exceeded expectations against Notre Dame, the toughest test so far this season, but struggled against two cupcake opponents. He competed 64 percent of his passes against the Irish; he went 11-of-23 against UConn. He threw four touchdowns to one interception against Notre Dame; he posted three picks against Akron. He's going up against a middle-of-the-road Minnesota defense Saturday, and no one's quite sure what Gardner is going to show up. Is he finished struggling against mediocre competition? Or is this just the new normal?
2. Sixteen tries, zero wins: Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State 16 times. And, since 1993, the Hoosiers have beaten the Nittany Lions a grand total of … zero times. They've come close on six occasions -- losing by just one score -- but Indiana's hoping to reverse that trend this weekend. Redshirt senior Ted Bolser has watched his team fall to Penn State four times now, and he doesn't want to make it five. This will be the most up-tempo team PSU faces all season, and Indiana's hoping to catch the visitors off guard.
4. Epic defensive matchup: At the final whistle, the Michigan State-Iowa score might just end up looking like a baseball tally. The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked defense, while Iowa isn't too far behind at No. 7. No other game so far this year has pitted two top-seven defenses against one another, and this should be an exciting one for fans who prefer low-scoring contests. The Spartans have come up with nine sacks and 24 tackles-for-loss in just four games, while Iowa ranks 12th in the country by forcing 11 turnovers.
5. Tailoring a game plan without Taylor Martinez: Martinez is still battling turf toe, and the Nebraska QB is questionable for Saturday's game against Illinois. If he can't go, offensive coordinator Tim Beck could opt to go with the same two-quarterback system he utilized against South Dakota State. That means redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III would split reps. Martinez started 32 consecutive games before the streak ended two weeks ago, so neither backup is exactly a proven commodity. Martinez could still play but, if he doesn't, there'll be quite a few extra question marks for the Huskers on Saturday.
6. Can Nathan Scheelhaase keep up this pace?: The Illini have already surpassed last season's win total, and Scheelhaase has been a big reason for that. He leads the conference in passing yards (1,162) and quarterback rating (174.8). Plus, he's second in completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt (9.5) and passing touchdowns (12). At this point, it certainly seems as if he belongs on the All-Big Ten team. And it'll be interesting to see if Scheelhaase's huge numbers can continue. He's going up against Nebraska's 105th-ranked passing defense this weekend.
7. Seventeen and counting Ohio State's 17-game winning streak is on the line against No. 16 Northwestern, and this matchup is once again the Big Ten game of the week. A convincing win here would help boost the Buckeyes' No. 4 ranking in the polls, while a Northwestern victory would help cement the Wildcats' status as a title contender. Pat Fitzgerald has been looking for his gritty team to take the next step, and this is the perfect opportunity. Urban Meyer, meanwhile, hopes to increase the nation's best winning streak and to pave the way to the national title game. Ohio State's the favorite, but no one's counting out the Wildcats.
8. Redeeming the secondary: OK, there are a few Big Ten teams that could fit under the title of "struggling secondary," but there's one team where that identity isn't quite clear yet -- Penn State. The Nittany Lions actually boast the No. 23 passing defense, BUT they were absolutely dominated by Blake Bortles and UCF. Indiana's eighth-ranked passing attack will be a tough test for the PSU secondary. And this will go a long way in determining whether UCF was an anomaly, or whether big passing numbers will be the new norm for Penn State's defense.
9. Forgetting the pig in favor of a jug: After starting out 4-0 and then losing the Floyd of Rosedale to Iowa, the Golden Gophers will get another chance at a trophy -- in the battle for the Little Brown Jug against Michigan. Of course, Minnesota has only won the trophy three times since 1968. Still, Jerry Kill keeps a replica of the trophy on his desk, and this would be a program-defining upset. The Gophers need one of those, as they have a difficult schedule coming up and a bowl berth certainly isn't guaranteed. Four of their next five opponents are Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State.
10. Bradley Roby trying to get back on track: He gave up a few big plays against Cal and then, against Wisconsin, Jared Abbrederis lit him up to the tune of 207 yards for the biggest game a Badgers receiver has had in a decade. Roby wasn't made available to the media this week, but his teammates voiced confidence in the preseason All-American. He is -- was? -- considered one of the nation's top cornerbacks, but that title might be in jeopardy. He's undoubtedly looking for a big play or two to help silence the doubters. Northwestern doesn't have the most high-powered passing attack so, if Roby struggles this weekend, those critics will only get louder.
Mike Dudek: Committed to Illinois, Dudek helped his team, Neuqua Valley (Ill.), to a 54-28 win over St. Charles East. Dudek had 335 all purpose yards, 5 receptions, 154 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. He also had a 94-yard kick return for a touchdown in the win.
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As the season is getting into full swing, teams are recognizing needs and holes that need to be filled. Every team in the Big Ten still has some areas of improvement that can be fixed with recruiting.
Here is a look at some important targets remaining for each Big Ten team.
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Matt Domer: The Illini commit took the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. He had 11 rushes for 84 yards in a 42-0 win over Bishop McNamara.
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