OSU Buckeyes: Venric Mark
We’ll keep it at five a week to give everyone a shot.
We encourage you to send your questions by Twitter at @bbournival, e-mail at email@example.com or by posting a question in the Horseshoe Pit forum.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.
Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.
We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.
The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.
To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.
For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.
No. 14 Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-7, 2-5), Noon, ABC: In the second installment of the Heroes Game, Iowa will need a heroic effort to pull off the upset, even at home. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight, while Nebraska comes in riding a five-game winning streak and just needing to take care of business here to win the Legends Division. It's hard to imagine the Huskers slipping up now, but as we saw this past weekend, sometimes crazy stuff happens.
No. 19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), Noon, ABC: Perhaps you've heard that these two schools have a little bit of a rivalry going on. The Game is always a big deal, and this year's edition looks like the biggest one since 2006. The Buckeyes are looking to finish off a perfect season, while the Wolverines would not only love to ruin that but need it to stay alive for a division title and for an outside shot at a BCS at-large bid. The Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo gives Michigan some crazy explosiveness, while Braxton Miller will try to rebound from his first subpar game of the season at Wisconsin. And it's Urban Meyer's first entry into this rivalry as head coach. Is it Saturday yet?
Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2: This game is meaningless in the big picture, but it won't feel that way for the Nittany Lions' seniors who have created a unique legacy. The Badgers no longer have a division title to play for and are going to Indianapolis regardless. Still, Wisconsin can help its bowl placement with a win and doesn't want to go into the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak. Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record.
Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: It's still a little hard to believe that the Spartans have to win their finale just to go bowling, but that's the predicament they put themselves in. At least they're on the road and not at home, where they went winless in Big Ten play. Will any Michigan State fan even want to travel to watch this team play another game? Minnesota could make that a moot point by winning on senior day and getting to seven wins, which would be a great achievement in Jerry Kill's second year. The Gophers' home finale could be overshadowed by the A.J. Barker controversy this week, however.
Indiana (4-7, 2-5) at Purdue (5-6, 2-5), Noon, BTN: The Old Oaken Bucket game takes on real meaning as Purdue needs to win to reach its second straight bowl. Indiana saw its bowl hopes end last week, but the Hoosiers will be fired up for this rivalry and would love to keep the Boilermakers home. Danny Hope could be coaching for his job. Purdue has won eight of the last 10 meetings between these two, but Indiana came out on top the last time they met in West Lafayette in 2010.
Illinois (2-9, 0-7) at Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Noon, BTN: Northwestern can wrap up a pretty impressive nine-win season and extend the misery of its top rival. The health of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will be the main angle to watch this week. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn't done much if anything to endear himself to Illini fans this season, but a win here could be a small step in that direction. His team is really thin, though, after enduring several more injuries last week. What are the chances Daniel Day-Lewis can show up in character to present the Land of Lincoln Trophy?
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
The league entered the fall under unique circumstances, as two of its premier programs (Ohio State and Penn State) couldn't compete in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. But with a surging Michigan State program, a Michigan team coming off of a Sugar Bowl championship, a Wisconsin team that had made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and a veteran-laden Nebraska squad, the Big Ten had ample reasons for optimism. Those soon vanished.
Things got off to a rocky start at JerryWorld, as Michigan was stomped 41-14 by defending national champ Alabama. It only got worse in Week 2, the Big Ten's worst regular-season Saturday in recent memory. Big Ten teams went 6-6, including three losses at Pac-12 venues, including two by ranked teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) against unranked foes (Oregon State and UCLA). The Big Ten went 6-9 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences plus Notre Dame, with three wins coming from one team (Northwestern). Although Ohio State hasn't lost a game under new coach Urban Meyer, the Big Ten removed itself from the national title talk earlier than anyone expected.
After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.
It's prediction time ...
IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17
NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24
Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20
Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24
ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10
No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24
Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21
Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)
Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
Bring that beat back.
Team(s) of the week: Ohio State and Michigan share top billing this week. The Buckeyes turned in an attention-grabbing 63-38 blowout of Nebraska on national TV and have climbed up to No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. An undefeated season remains a strong possibility. Michigan was also very impressive, going on the road to clobber Purdue 44-13 in a must-have win. Anybody else already looking forward to The Game this year?
Best game: Even though Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 in the fourth quarter, you just knew it wasn't over. In fact, the Nittany Lions were just getting started. They reeled off 22 fourth-quarter points in a game that featured several wild momentum swings and fourth-down plays.
Darron Cummings/AP PhotoMichigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge makes a reception while being defended by Indiana linebacker Forisse Hardin.
Best call: No one can accuse Bill O'Brien of playing it safe. Even though Penn State's kicking game is very shaky, most coaches would have settled for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the other team's 5-yard line when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter. O'Brien is not most coaches. He rolled the dice and went for it, and Matt McGloin scrambled into the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score. Penn State was 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts against Northwestern.
Second guessing: Indiana was humming along in the first half against Michigan State but got strangely conservative right before halftime. Kevin Wilson gambled and pulled off an onsides kick after going up 24-14 late in the half. But after driving to the Michigan State 6-yard line, the Hoosiers ran three straight running plays and gained only 4 yards. Wilson elected to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, even though Michigan State was on the ropes and a touchdown might have provided a knockout blow. That's not the reason Indiana lost, because the Spartans pitched a shutout in the second half. But I bet Wilson would at least throw a pass into the end zone if he had to do that over again. Maybe he and O'Brien should compare notes.
Big men on campus (offense): It's all about the quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards (more than Purdue's entire offense generated) and threw for 105 more in the win over the Boilermakers. Ohio State's Braxton Miller ran for 186 yards and threw for 127 more in the pasting of Nebraska. And McGloin threw for 282 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter comeback.
Big man on campus (defense): Ohio State's Bradley Roby had a pair of interceptions against Nebraska and returned the first one 49 yards for a touchdown to open the Buckeyes' scoring onslaught. Props also to Roby's teammate John Simon, who had five tackles for loss versus the Huskers.
Big men on campus (special teams): Northwestern's Venric Mark and Ohio State's Corey Brown each scored on punt returns. Mark went for 75 yards against Penn State, while Brown took his 76 yards to the house.
Worst hangover: Purdue. Yes, Nebraska isn't going to enjoy the next two weeks after getting steamrolled by Ohio State. But the Cornhuskers always knew that was going to be a tough road game they could lose and still win the Big Ten. The Boilermakers were fired up after a solid start to the season, and many around the team believed a breakthrough was coming for Danny Hope's program. Instead, Michigan waltzed into Ross-Ade Stadium, rolled out to a 28-3 first-half lead and put Purdue back in its place. Now there are questions again about whether the Boilers will ever turn the corner under Hope. A win over Wisconsin this week now becomes paramount.
Strangest moment(s): It was a painful day for some of the officials in the Big Ten on Saturday.
In the Northwestern-Penn State game, line judge Michael Mahouski suffered a ruptured quad tendon while avoiding a hit on the sideline and had to be carted off. Another line judge was carted off in the Illinois-Wisconsin game. Forget replacement refs. Big Ten officials might need some replacement hips at this rate.
But those weren't even the weirdest circumstances involving an official on Saturday. In that Illinois-Wisconsin game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to high-five back judge Mike Brown after scoring on a short touchdown run. Brown was not having any of it.
"Our deal is to hand the ball to the official," Scheelhaase explained. "But somehow the ball got loose -- I probably, like, threw it a little bit -- and in apology, I tried to give him a high-five. I almost knocked him over. He almost tripped.
“I don’t think they can [high-five players]. One of the refs told me they weren't able to do that.”
At least Mahouski got a handshake from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as he left the field on the cart.
Five games on tap, all in the Big Ten, and several that could play a huge role in which teams end up in Indianapolis. The games are getting tougher, and so are the predictions, especially this week with several toss-up games.
Adam Rittenberg holds a four-game lead on Brian Bennett entering Week 6, but things can change in a hurry.
Prediction time ...
MICHIGAN STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: Mark Dantonio says he wants to see his team come out and make a statement, and I think the Spartans will. Indiana's defense should be just what Michigan State's scuffling passing game needs, as Andrew Maxwell fires two touchdown passes and Johnny Adams has a pair of interceptions. ... Michigan State 28, Indiana 13
Adam Rittenberg: A nonfactor a week ago, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell gets back into the mix in a big way in Bloomington. The Spartans junior goes for 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Indiana once again has some success in the passing game early, but Michigan State takes control in the third quarter as Aaron Burbridge hauls in a touchdown catch in his first start. ... Michigan State 34, Indiana 20
No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at PENN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Matt McGloin has torched Northwestern while quarterbacking a bad offense, and though the Wildcats are better defensively, so is McGloin. The Penn State senior connects for three touchdown passes to three different receivers. Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter keep Northwestern in this one, but McGloin leads the way in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 28, Northwestern 24
Brian Bennett: I'm way behind in the standings, so I need to take some chances. And while Penn State's defense has been playing very well, the Lions haven't exactly played stellar offenses the past three weeks. Northwestern's two-headed quarterback monster and Venric Mark will get their yards and points, and an improving Wildcats defense comes up with an interception of McGloin in the final minute to seal the deal. ... Northwestern 23, Penn State 17
ILLINOIS at WISCONSIN
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has its share of issues but looks like a top-10 team compared to the hot mess at Illinois. Jared Abbrederis hauls in two touchdown passes, and the Badgers stuff the wobbly Illini offense to get a much-needed Leaders Division victory.... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14
Adam Rittenberg: Both teams need a win, and while Illinois can't be this bad week after week, I can't see the Illini pulling off the upset. Wisconsin gets multiple backs involved and gets three rushing touchdowns, two from Montee Ball. Joel Stave gets Jacob Pedersen more involved as Wisconsin pulls away in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17
MICHIGAN at PURDUE
Adam Rittenberg: Tough one to call, and I've been going back and forth on it all week. Purdue will be geared up for its biggest game in recent memory and take an early lead. But Denard Robinson eventually finds enough gaps in the Boilers' defense and records two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally the Wolverines. Caleb TerBush fires two early touchdown passes, but his interception in the closing minutes seals it for Michigan. ... Michigan 27, Purdue 24
Brian Bennett: I agree that this is an intriguing game. My biggest question: Is Purdue ready to take that next step? I think the Boilermakers are close, but ultimately not quite there yet. As disastrous as Michigan's turnovers were against Notre Dame, I saw improvement on both lines in that loss. And after a week off, I expect the Wolverines to come out with a better game plan, and to feature Robinson's legs much more. Robinson runs for 175 and three scores as Michigan gets a badly needed win. ... Michigan 35, Purdue 28
No. 21 NEBRASKA at No. 12 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: It seems like most weeks I'm wondering how Ohio State just won. The Buckeyes have been getting by on a little good fortune and a whole lot of Braxton Miller in their 5-0 start. Nebraska will be by far the best offense Ohio State has faced. But the Huskers still seem a little too loose with the ball and too susceptible to mobile quarterbacks. Miller gets it done again with 350 yards and four total touchdowns as the Buckeyes work their magic once more. ... Ohio State 31, Nebraska 30
Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State took a nice step in Week 5, but the Buckeyes have been a pretty fortunate team so far this season. They've survived turnovers on the road and defensive breakdowns at home. Saturday night, their luck runs out as Nebraska records its first true signature road win in the league. Miller does his thing and records two rush touchdowns and a passing touchdown, but he also throws a costly interception in the fourth quarter. Taylor Martinez rebounds from an early turnover to spark the Huskers against the Buckeyes, who haven't seen an offense like this. Martinez records his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and Brett Maher nails a 50-yard field goal to win it for Big Red. ... Nebraska 30, Ohio State 28
Iowa and Minnesota both are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 41-11 (.788)
Brian Bennett: 37-15 (.712)
1. Miller Time vs. The Green Monster: The Big Ten's most dynamic offensive player goes up against the league's top defense Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State will see a very different Braxton Miller than the one it bottled up last year in Columbus in a near-shutout victory against the Buckeyes. Miller, who leads the Big Ten with seven rushing touchdowns, faces by far his toughest test in a Spartans' defense that ranks in the top 11 nationally in scoring, rushing and pass efficiency. Despite Michigan State's stingy defensive numbers, it looks to make more game-changing plays after recording just six takeaways and three sacks in the first four games.
2. Big Red redemption: After its Big Ten debut turned into a disaster last year in Madison, Wis., Nebraska finally gets a chance for redemption Saturday night as Wisconsin comes to town. Huskers junior quarterback Taylor Martinez once again will be in the spotlight after throwing a career-high three interceptions last year against the Badgers. Martinez has looked like a different player this season, throwing nine touchdown passes and just one interception and ranking 10th nationally in passer rating (180.9). With a healthy Rex Burkhead back in the fold, Martinez leads the Big Ten's top offense against a Wisconsin defense that has looked strong so far.
3. Poaching season in Champaign: Coach Bill O'Brien and his Penn State players held their tongues this week, but they haven't forgotten what Illinois' coaching staff did last summer. Illini coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to State College to recruit Penn State players after the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on the Lions' program. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and his teammates will be geared up to make Beckman's team pay Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both teams. While it's important for Penn State to control its emotions -- "You never want to take it too far," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said -- the Lions visit Memorial Stadium with some momentum after back-to-back wins.
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireJerry Kill aims to lead Minnesota to its third consecutive win over Iowa, something the Gophers haven't done since 1998-2000.
5. Bell tolls for Buckeyes: Tackling has been a problem for Ohio State's defense, which inexplicably ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed heading into league play. Luke Fickell's unit had better tighten things up before Saturday, or Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will steamroll the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, Bell can batter his way through decent tackling attempts, so Ohio State will need to swarm the Big Ten's leading rusher (610 yards). The Buckeyes can expect a steady diet of Bell, who leads the nation in rushing attempts with 117 (29.25) through the first four games. On the flip side, Michigan State likely needs to generate some offense outside of Bell to win.
6. Making his Mark: While more heralded Big Ten running backs have struggled with injuries or poor production, Northwestern's Venric Mark has put himself on the radar as an early Offensive Player of the Year candidate. Mark ranks third among Big Ten running backs with 399 rush yards and has recorded more than 120 all-purpose yards in all four games this season. The Wildcats have been much more of a run-driven offense this year, thanks to Mark and an improved line. Saturday, Mark takes aim at Indiana as Northwestern tries to improve to 5-0.
7. Stave symphony: Joel Stave showed in April that he could play piano under pressure. He showed last week he could handle himself in his first career start (210 pass yards, 1 TD). But how will the Wisconsin quarterback handle a hostile environment like Nebraska's Memorial Stadium? Find out Saturday night as Stave makes his first career road start against Nebraska. Stave certainly benefits from having top receiver Jared Abbrederis on the field, and he could have a full complement of running backs if Montee Ball passes his concussion tests. Wisconsin went with Stave as its starter because of his steadiness. The Badgers need the redshirt freshman to limit mistakes and make plays when they're available in a pressure-packed situation Saturday night.
8. Iowa, Illinois get defensive: Both Iowa and Illinois saw their defenses gashed last week in humbling home losses to Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech, respectively. Iowa's defense performed well in the first three games and better than expected up front before caving against the Chippewas last week. Illinois' defense, pegged to be among the Big Ten's best, has been shockingly poor in the team's two losses, surrendering a combined 97 points to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech. With both teams not getting enough from the quarterback position, the defenses need to tighten up Saturday for crucial Big Ten openers against Minnesota and Penn State.
9. Wilson returns to roots: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson built his reputation as an offensive genius at Northwestern, where he coordinated one of the nation's best offenses in 2000, before moving onto more success at Oklahoma. "I stand here today because of what those kids did for us in 2000," he said Tuesday. Wilson returns to Evanston on Saturday with an Indiana team searching for its first Big Ten victory on his watch. The Hoosiers have looked good on offense this year, despite losing top quarterback Tre Roberson to a season-ending broken leg. Cameron Coffman makes his first career road start at quarterback as he leads the Big Ten's top passing attack (326 ypg) against a Northwestern team that hasn't been tested much through the air since struggling in its opener at Syracuse.
10. Marshall plan: Purdue wraps up non-league play Saturday against Marshall, which should provide a nice test for a Boilers' defense that has played well to date. The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing offense (383.5 ypg) and offensive plays (371). Purdue has surrendered only one passing touchdown this season. Although it's important for Boilers quarterback Caleb TerBush and the offense to capitalize on a weak Marshall defense, it's also vital for Purdue to contain Marshall as it prepares to face other spread offenses in Big Ten play.
League play opens up at five Big Ten venues Saturday, while Purdue returns from an open week to wrap up its nonleague slate against Marshall. Week 4 was a rough one for Brian Bennett, who went 6-4 in predictions and fell three games behind Adam Rittenberg in the season standings. The good news: The entire Big Ten slate remains, so Bennett, like most Big Ten teams, has time to improve his record.
Let's get started ...
INDIANA (2-1) at NORTHWESTERN (4-0)
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are apt to hang around in this one, and their passing game could give the Wildcats' still somewhat shaky secondary a big test. But Northwestern has shown too much toughness so far this season to slip up now. Venric Mark rushes for two scores and Kain Colter throws for two more as Pat Fitzgerald's team moves to 5-0. ... Northwestern 35, Indiana 21
Adam Rittenberg: These teams typically play close games, and Indiana's passing game, led by quarterback Cameron Coffman, will challenge Northwestern's secondary more than the Wildcats' past few opponents did. Northwestern's offensive line is in a good rhythm, though, and Mark will record another 100-yard rushing performance and two touchdowns. The Wildcats open up their passing game a bit in the second half and improve to 5-0. ... Northwestern 34, Indiana 26
PENN STATE (2-2) at ILLINOIS (2-2)
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State is hitting its stride under Bill O'Brien, and the Lions will be fired up to face poacher coach Tim Beckman and the Illini. Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson connect for two more touchdowns, and running back Bill Belton adds another score in his return. The Lions bottle up Illinois' run game in the second half and win their third straight. ... Penn State 21, Illinois 17
Brian Bennett: The Nittany Lions' offense isn't going to give the Illini defense as many fits as the spread teams have this season. But McGloin is slinging it pretty well, and I don't know what the offensive identity is for Beckman's club. This one won't be pretty, but Penn State gets out to an early lead and hangs on with a defensive stand in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 17, Illinois 10
MINNESOTA (4-0) at IOWA (2-2)
Brian Bennett: Somehow, Iowa is favored in this game. But even though it's at Kinnick Stadium, all the good vibes belong to Minnesota going into Saturday. The Gophers' pass defense has been strong, while James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' passing attack has sputtered. Mark Weisman will batter his way to 160 yards, but the Gophers come up with two picks and a special teams score to hogtie the Hawks. ... Minnesota 21, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: I went against the Gophers last week and paid the price. Not happening again. The Gophers' defense contains Weisman and forces some mistakes from Vandenberg, while the run game surges behind Donnell Kirkwood. It'll be an up-and-down day for Max Shortell, but he finds senior tight end and Iowa native John Rabe for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. ... Minnesota 24, Iowa 20
MARSHALL (2-2) at PURDUE (2-1)
Adam Rittenberg: After dealing with a migraine in the Eastern Michigan game, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush bounces back nicely with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Thundering Herd. The Akeems run all over a woeful Marshall defense and Purdue pulls away in the second quarter and cruises to another easy win. ... Purdue 38, Marshall 21
Brian Bennett: The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing, so they'll have a puncher's chance in West Lafayette. But they also have one of the worst defenses in the country, which should help TerBush and company enjoy a big day. Kawann Short and the Purdue defensive line are too much here, sacking Rakeem Cato five times. ... Purdue 48, Marshall 24
No. 14 OHIO STATE (4-0) at No. 20 MICHIGAN STATE (3-1)
Brian Bennett: At some point, the Spartans have to start catching balls thrown right at them. How about this week? This is a better matchup for the scuffling Ohio State defense, but I think Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will devise a plan to contain Braxton Miller. An actual touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell and a 100-yard day from Le'Veon Bell will be just enough for Michigan State to escape at home. Next prediction. ... Michigan State 19, Ohio State 17
Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State looks like a team waiting to be beaten one of these weeks, but Miller Time refuses to lose. Miller starts slowly but turns in a big fourth quarter and breaks free for two touchdown runs to rally Ohio State for the victory. Michigan State's passing woes continue, and the Buckeyes' defense forces a key third-quarter turnover and starts looking a bit more like the silver bullets again. ... Ohio State 20, Michigan State 17
WISCONSIN (3-1) at No. 22 NEBRASKA (3-1)
Adam Rittenberg: Although Wisconsin started to look like its old self a bit at the end of the UTEP game, I don't see how the Badgers win this one. Nebraska has more weapons on offense, the home-field advantage and no shortage of motivation after being embarrassed last year in Madison. Chris Borland and the Wisconsin defense keeps this close for a while, but Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez goes off in the second half, and Rex Burkhead adds another long touchdown run. ... Nebraska 34, Wisconsin 21
Brian Bennett: I don't like where this is headed for the Badgers. They've got a quarterback making his first start on the road, a banged-up Montee Ball and injuries on their defensive line. These are all bad signs against a Huskers team that is averaging 54 points per game at home this season. Martinez (three touchdowns) and the Nebraska defense get redemption by pulling away in the third quarter. Call it an early retirement gift for Tom Osborne. ... Nebraska 35, Wisconsin 17
Michigan is off this week.
Rittenberg: 36-10 (.783)
Bennett: 33-13 (.717)
This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.
It's prediction time ...
WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24
Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24
ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21
Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24
CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21
Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3
Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0
EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE
Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14
Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17
BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28
Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27
MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0
Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3
NAVY at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13
NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA
Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16
Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9
BALL STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28
Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30
No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10
Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17
UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN
Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14
Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17
Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)
Bennett: 17-7 (.708)