- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Storylines to watch this week in the Big Ten:
1. Legends eliminator: Michigan State has the lead and its feet up on the couch during its bye week. It can simply relax and watch as Michigan and Nebraska fight to stay alive in the division race, with the loser effectively out of the picture after just two weeks in November. The Wolverines, in particular, are barely hanging on and would need a lot of help after dropping the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Spartans. Meanwhile, after nearly having their chances extinguished a week ago, but surviving with a Hail Mary, the Huskers have a chance to make the most of their good fortune. Consecutive games against Michigan and Michigan State -- with a couple of wins -- could surprisingly put them in first place.
2. Resume building: The Badgers can’t get the help they need in the Leaders Division with Ohio State on a bye week, and they can’t make a move within the conference anyway as they step outside the Big Ten for a late-season date with BYU. Gary Andersen just can’t seem to escape the Cougars after four encounters with them at Utah State and 11 more as an assistant at Utah, and he could use a win over his old foe as the Wisconsin coach tries to keep his program in the running for a potential BCS at-large bid. A win over the Cougars won’t do anything to change their fate in the league, but it could provide a boost nationally for the perception of the Badgers.
3. Digging into the mix: The Gophers need some help if they’re going to win the division, but the way they’ve handled their own business to even stay in the picture in the middle of November is impressive enough no matter what happens. Given all the potential distractions that could have come with coach Jerry Kill’s health or playing multiple quarterbacks, the work Minnesota has done to get to 3-2 in the league and within striking distance if things break its way is one of the better stories of the season. It also won’t be over if it can take care of Penn State at home.
4. B.B. firing: There is no uncertainty in the Penn State backfield now, and it’s safe to assume that any chance of a road win over the Gophers will involve a heavy dosage of Bill Belton. The Nittany Lions junior is coming off a career-best 201-yard performance in a win over Illinois that made it quite clear that he’s the best option for Bill O’Brien’s rushing attack. And while Minnesota hasn’t been a slouch on defense during its surprising run, it has allowed more than 142 yards per game on the ground, which Belton would be more than willing to exploit.
5. Postseason plans: With Penn State again ineligible for a bowl bid due to its NCAA sanctions, only Iowa can clinch a postseason appearance with a win this weekend. And if the Hawkeyes can’t get it done against Purdue, they probably don’t deserve to go anywhere but home for the holidays. The Boilermakers have been shut out for two straight games, and Iowa has appeared more than capable of extending that scoring drought with its solid defense against Ohio State and Wisconsin in recent weeks, even in losing efforts. Struggling Purdue could put an end to that losing skid and ensure the Hawkeyes get an extra game this season.
6. Worst nightmare for a scoreboard operator: The two worst defenses in the Big Ten are set to do battle on Saturday, and the first unit to get a stop as Illinois visits Indiana might just get a win. The Hoosiers have been far and away the least productive defensive team in the league this season in allowing more than 500 yards per game, almost 50 more than the Illini. Indiana does balance that out with an offense that is putting up 40 points per game, which ranks second only to Ohio State’s ruthless scoring machine in the Big Ten. But points figure to be easy to come by this weekend, so forcing a turnover or two could decide the outcome.
7. Purdue is searching for the red zone: Forget about scoring points. The first thing the Boilermakers need to do is just move the football inside the 20-yard line. The Boilermakers have made a total of only 16 trips into the red zone all season, an average of just two visits per game and obviously a major factor for an offense putting up just 11.5 points every week. That’s still just half the battle, though, and three missed field goals and three interceptions have ended scoring threats for the Boilermakers even when they do put together a deep drive into opposing territory.
8. Rushing title up for grabs: There’s enough distance now to officially call it a two-man race for the season rushing title, and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are once again going to see plenty of the football with lots at stake for both teams this weekend. Abdullah holds the lead by just 34 yards, though Gordon has a decisive edge in yards per carry thanks to his 33 fewer attempts. Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is in the discussion with those two tailbacks for All-Big Ten honors, but his three-game suspension early in the season leaves him lagging behind the leaders for the rushing crown.
9. Dueling defensive backs: The co-leaders atop the Big Ten in interceptions obviously won’t be on the field at the same time, but if either Michigan’s Blake Countess or Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste are able to pull ahead with a pick on Saturday, it could be critical in determining which team keeps its division hopes alive for another week. There’s obviously a chance they could both add to their total of four interceptions since the Wolverines and Huskers have combined to throw 21 of them already this season, but turnovers figure to be decisive and those guys have proven they can force them.
10. Ohio State looks for help: Even without a game, the Buckeyes could still be a big winner on the off date as they cheer for a few upsets to boost their national title case. In order, Ohio State will be tuned in looking for Oklahoma to knock off Baylor, Stanford to beat Oregon or Alabama to lose to LSU as it continues to wait for some assistance to climb higher than No. 4 in the BCS standings. Within the Big Ten, and with Michigan State off, the Buckeyes figure to be most interested in Wisconsin extending its winning streak to continue making their win in September look better.
3dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy
4dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy
5dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman