Sep 21, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter (2) is tackled by Maine Black Bears defensive back Troy Eastman (6) during the first quarter at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Preview: Week 6 – Time to Separate the Men from the Boys

With the majority of the conference schedule kicking off in a big way this week, we can begin to sort out the contenders from the pretenders. Ohio State made their intentions felt with a strong win over Wisconsin last week, while the Badgers looked sloppy (out of character) for much of the game. Iowa put Minnesota to the sword, and have the look of one to watch, maybe not as a contender, but as a spoiler at least. Minnesota may be fighting for bowl eligibility all season after the loss, which could make them dangerous, and they have enough speed on both sides of the ball to be a factor in some games. Illinois thumped Miami of Ohio, but so has everyone else, so it’s hard to read into. Purdue, well, Purdue just look sad right now.

Sep 14, 2013; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman (6) scores a touchdown against the Bowling Green Falcons at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State @ Indiana

12:00 PM ET

The skinny: a good-looking Lions team (UCF aside) take on an inconsistent but potentially explosive Hoosier outfit.

 

What Penn State needs to do:

  • Avoid the speed trap: in their three non-UCF games, the Nittany Lions allowed 188 total yards rushing and 445 total yards passing. Against the Knights, they allowed 219 yards rushing and 288 yards passing. Indiana is rebuilding, but they have enough speed to cause problems.

  • Get Hackenberg back on track: the freshman has been playing great football, but struggled against Kent State, completing just 13 of 35 passes. Indiana’s secondary was solid the first three games, but got ripped by James Franklin of Missouri. Don’t be concerned about Hackenberg’s bad day at the office (yet), but he has to take advantage of the opportunities that will be there against the Hoosier secondary.

  • Make the Hoosiers one-dimensional: the Hoosiers like to run the ball to set up the pass, and when their running game is rocking, they are far more effective through the air. But in their two losses, Indiana have run for a total of 216 yards. Penn State’s forte is run defense, so they need to be on top of their game to make the Hoosier’s pass because they have to, not because they can.

 

What Indiana needs to do:

  • Play some defense: the Hoosier defense isn’t very good, giving up big plays and points to everyone except Bowling Green. The Falcons put up 406 yards, but scored no offensive TDs, as the Hoosiers got stingy when it mattered. But that was against a MAC team – can they revert to that kind of form against a powerful team like Penn State, who will attempt to ram it down their throat? Based on the Mizzou game, I’d say no, but IU and the Lions are (relatively) old foes.

  • Get Coleman untracked: Tevin needs to see daylight to have an impact on the game, and the Hoosiers will need his running skills to keep Penn State off-balance. In IU’s two wins, Coleman ran for 298 yards. In the two losses, 88. That is a huge disparity, and one that needs to be solved if Indiana plan to contend, not just against Penn State, but in the whole conference. Indiana’s experienced offensive line should be performing at a higher level.

  • Pick a QB, any QB: with no official starter, Kevin Wilson gave Nate Sudfeld the majority of snaps, and he responded well over the first three games, passing for 917 yards and 10 TDs, with a mere 2 interceptions. Then he hit a brick wall against Missouri, throwing 3 interceptions and was replaced by Tre Roberson, who had only seen spot duty over the first few games. Roberson passed for a TD and ran for another to make the scoreline more respectable, but more importantly, looked better against better opposition. Wilson has a big decision to make heading into B1G play, although playing both is an option.

 

Prediction: Penn State 34, Indiana 20

 

Sep 21, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers defender Avery Moss (94) sacks South Dakota State Jackrabbits quarterback Austin Sumner (6) in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois @ Nebraska

12:00 PM ET

The skinny: the improving Illini take on the troubled Cornhuskers.

 

What Illinois needs to do:

  • Just keep getting better: the Illini are night and day better than last year’s squad, and despite struggling against Washington, could push Big Red. Illinois certainly has a long way to go before it’s a factor in the conference, but does have enough to make life hard for some opponents. Nebraska better watch their backs.

  • Pick your poison: it’s almost hard to believe that the Illini had one of the best defenses in the country in 2011. This year, they have issues in the secondary and were run over by Washington. Nebraska, despite their issues, could have similar success. Illinois’ defense has to try to stuff the pass or the run, as they don’t have to horses to do both (feel free to prove me wrong though). Standard practice is to limit the run and force teams to pass, but that may not be advisable with this secondary (991 passing yards allowed in first 3 games).

  • Back the Haase: the Husker defense has plenty of holes, but I’m not sold on the Illini running attack – they just can’t pound it out when yards are needed. That leaves it to Nate Scheelhaase and the passing game. The fifth-year senior is good enough to take advantage of the opportunities presented him, but the team as a whole isn’t good enough to get away with leaving too many points on the pitch.

 

What Nebraska needs to do:

  • Play like a contender: seem like a no-brainer? Tell the Cornhuskers that. After the second-half manhandling at the hands of UCLA, and the subsequent string of vitriol/apologies from Bo Pelini, Big Red needs to do something to get fans back on their side. Losing to Illinois will not do that. There is no reason they should, as they outman the Illini in nearly every area of the field.

  • The quarterback question: will Taylor Martinez play? The senior gives the Huskers their best opportunity to win, despite what his detractors say. If he can’t go, or he’s not 100%, Illini could have a chance here. The pairing of Tommy Armstrong Junior and Ron Kellogg III did well against South Dakota State, but that was, well, against south Dakota State.

  • Bring the heat: Nate Scheelhaase is the key to Illinois, and he’s a decent quarterback. Nebraska’s pass defense is struggling right now. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good – the Illini offensive line isn’t great and has allowed 10 sacks so far; Nebraska’s pass rush is pretty good and has 10 sacks. The moral of the story, boys and girls? Don’t give Scheelhaase time to set his feet, let alone look downfield.

 

Prediction: Nebraska 42, Illinois 31

 

Sep 28, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Jake Rudock (15) dives for a touchdown past Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Antonio Johnson (11) in the second quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State @ Iowa

12:00 PM ET

The skinny: want to see the air filled with footballs? Unless you mean punting, this is not the game for you. Want to see two gnarly defenses busting heads? Step right up!

 

What Michigan State needs to do:

  • Establish the run: the defense may have been the principal reason for the Spartans early success this season, but having a semblance of a running attack certainly helped them through the first three games. Of course, being only a “semblance” of a running game, Sparty had nothing to fall back on against Notre Dame when the passing attack failed. Iowa’s defense has been rock solid since the week 1 loss to Northern Illinois, and will give the Spartans fits if they can’t get into a rhythm from the start.

  • Time for the passing attack to work: Andrew Maxwell; Connor Cook; the ghost of Kirk Cousins past – it doesn’t matter who throws the ball, as long as they can the keep the Hawkeye defense honest. But it’s a tall order. In five games, only two teams have passed for more than 135 yards and completed over 50% of their passes, and only NIU looked good doing it. This is despite an Iowa team that mustered just 6 sacks, 4 against Minnesota. The secret of their success? Turnovers – the Hawkeyes have 11 already (and 3 TDs), including 8 interceptions. This is not the team to throw errant passes against.

  • Get after Rudock: Iowa has a strong bunch of running backs and a good line, but the awesome Spartan defense will keep them under control (I imagine). Rookie starter Jake certainly hasn’t shredded defenses in Manziel-like form, but he has done everything the coaching staff has asked of him, playing (mostly) efficient football and moving the chains when required, both through the air and on the ground. He has made mistakes though (goal-line pick against Minnesota, for example), but Iowa can’t help but be impressed with his play. The Spartans sack count has reduced each week, with a goose egg against ND, and if Rudock has time, he could make MSU pay.

 

What Iowa needs to do:

  • A Weisman once said “run the damn ball”: at the risk of sounding like I’m repeating the MSU pointer, the Hawkeye running attack is far more effective than Michigan State’s. The Spartans defense is outstanding, so it will be important for Iowa to make the running game effective enough to keep Sparty from teeing off on Rudock. They don’t have to gouge out huge chunks of yardage (although it would be nice), but they have to keep the young guy in manageable passing situations.

  • Make/avoid big plays: Iowa have played five games. They’ve had 5 TD returns. Granted, 4 came in one game, but it shows they have the ability to score from anywhere. With scoring on offense likely to be heavy sledding, points will be at a premium, so a TD return could be a dealbreaker. Of course, Michigan State have shown some ability here too, with 4 TD returns.

  • Make Cook/Maxwell beat you: this is a good Iowa defense, and I can’t see either Spartan QB beating them through the air, so the mission is this – don’t let them run the ball. The backs are solid, as is the line, but MSU don’t have anyone close to Le’Veon Bell’s class. The Hawkeyes have allowed just 396 yards on the ground all season, 163 of which came against NIU. I think Iowa are the better team here, which will probably doom them.

 

Prediction: Iowa 16, Michigan State 10

 

Sep 7, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (21) makes a catch while being defended by Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) during the second quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota @ Michigan

3:30 PM ET

The skinny: A battle of pretenders? Do you hear that, Michigan?

 

What Minnesota needs to do:

  • Watch the game film: somehow, UConn and Akron, a combined 1-8 this year, managed to cause a few clenched sphincters against the talent-laden Wolverines. Michigan pulled both games out in the end (no pun intended), but both games should have been over in the 1st quarter, not the 4th. Turnovers definitely hurt the Wolverines, but the Zips passed for 311 yards, and 2 more would have won them the game. If the Wolverines play like they did against the Huskies and Zips, Minnesota wins.

  • Now would be a swell time to develop a passing attack: The Gophers didn’t have much cause to throw the ball during their 4-game win streak, running the ball 197 times compared to 62 passes. However, when the running attack was a stuffed by Iowa, QB Phillip Nelson couldn’t get it done through the air. Maybe it had something to do with his return from injury, but he’ll have to throw more from here on in. Michigan has allowed just 316 yards rushing in 4 games.

  • Can the defense hold up?: the defense gave up a lot of yards to everyone except little Western Illinois, but the Gophers won because they made stops when they had to. Even in the loss to Iowa, the defense stymied the Hawkeyes in the red zone a couple of times. If the Wolverines keep tossing the ball up for grabs (9 interceptions already), the Gophers can take advantage of their mistakes.

 

What Michigan needs to do:

  • Time to go Green: Fitzgerald Toussaint is having a nice season (319 yards, 5 TDs), but he can’t carry the team on his own, especially if QB Devin Gardner is off form. Getting another back to share the load will help keep Fitz fresh and keep the pressure off Gardner. So, why not get the freshman (13-60-1) involved more now? Iowa showed the Gophers are susceptible to a power running game, and Derrick certainly provides that.

  • Get some help for Gallon: Jeremy is also having a fine season, catching 22 passes for 328 yards and 4 scores, but the number 2 target is tight end Devin Funchess, who has only 8 receptions. Even with teams focusing their attention on the senior, none of the other receivers have stepped forward to take advantage of the extra freedom. As a result, Gardner is forcing passes. I’m not absolving the QB of the blame, just not dumping him with 100% of it.

  • Time to be Michigan: Big Blue have been a pale shadow of themselves lately (okay, except 2011), but some stellar recruiting suggests that may be about to change. They already have to horses in place to be a factor in the Big Ten race, but they have to start playing like it. I don’t believe it’s a problem with coaching, but something has to be done to raise the Wolverines up out of their current slump. Another 8-5 season won’t cut it in Ann Arbor.

 

Prediction: Michigan 38, Minnesota 21

Ohio State @ Northwestern

The skinny: conference powerhouse travels to upstart hellbent on an upset.

 

What Ohio State needs to do:

  • It’s Miller time: Braxton certainly looked gimpy at times last week as he tried to protect his knee (and wore a pretty hefty brace) when running, but he was about as rusty as a brand new nail throwing the football, picking apart the Badger secondary, and throwing for 198 yards and 4 TDs. He’ll have to be sharp against an NU pass defense that gives up a lot of yards, but makes plays on the ball. With 10 picks on the season, and 4 going for 6 points, this is not a defense to take unnecessary chances against.

  • How much will Christian Bryant be missed?: there’s no shortage of talent in Columbus, but there is a lack of experience on defense, and it has shown at times this season. The senior safety wasn’t just a secure tackler and timely playmaker, but a leader and steadying influence on the younger guys around him. Ryan Shazier and those few other vets can fill the leadership role, but Bryant’s consistency at the back end of the defense will be missed.

  • Maintain momentum: this is what is known in the business as a “trap” game. With the Buckeyes coming off an important win against Wisconsin With a couple of tough games to follow, it would be easy to overlook Northwestern. The Wildcats are a solid team, but they’ve only beaten Ohio State 14 in 74 attempts, with just ONE win in the last 29 attempts (since ‘73). Could number 2 come on Saturday? If the Buckeyes are caught peeking ahead, the possibility is there.

 

What Northwestern needs to do:

  • Kain is able: I have waxed lyrical on Colter’s ability many times, possibly to the point of boring readers, but he is one of the most underrated athletes in the FBS. Not only can he wing the ball around a bit, he creates a double-edged sword in NU’s running attack with Treyvon Green and currently gimpy Venric Mark. When he’s not playing QB, he’s a useful member of the Wildcat receiving corps, where his open-field running skills give defensive backs fits. He will the key to NU’s success.

  • Start fast, finish strong: Ohio State may not be the second best team in the country, but they are good. Really, really good. Northwestern can’t let this game get out of control early or it could get ugly in a hurry. The Wildcats need to get the Buckeyes off the field in a hurry and mount tiring drives, or hit some quick TDs to frustrate their young defense. Their sleight-of-hand offense will be a key, especially a week after OSU played power-running Wisconsin.

  • Been a while, hasn’t it?: previous results aren’t always the best indicator of success – at least Northwestern hopes so – but how many guys on the Buckeye roster have any inkling about what Northwestern does outside of game film (and vice versa)? Be prepared to hear about the Wildcats 2004 victory a lot over the next few days, but since that game, the Buckeyes have beaten NU 205-34 over 4 games. The Wildcats are fired up for this game, deemed to be the “biggest in their history”, but can that carry them to just their 15th win over mighty Ohio State?

 

Prediction: Ohio State 41, Northwestern 33

 

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