Athlon Sports previews every contest, identifies the most pivotal players and picks every Big Ten game.
For the second straight week, Ohio State and Minnesota took center stage with big conference wins. The Buckeyes proved once again they are the class of the league and the Gophers once again pulled an upset as a double-digit underdog.
That said, the last two weekends have been fairly lackluster in terms of matchups. That won’t be the case in Week 10. A critical Legends Division rivalry takes place in East Lansing. An embattled coach tries to keep his title hopes alive against a cornered Wildcat. And an old-school Big Ten rivalry gets renewed in Iowa City with more on the line than expected.
Big Ten Week 10 Game Power Rankings:
1. Michigan (+5.5) at Michigan State (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The Wolverines have never taken this game as seriously as the Spartans but Brady Hoke’s squad better be focused this weekend or his season could unravel quickly. Michigan State won four straight before Hoke broke through in this rivalry last season in an ugly 12-10 home victory. Michigan is not the same team on the road as it is at home, averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per game in the Big House (489.4 ypg) and just 339 yards per game away from home. Now Devin Gardner and company must face the nation’s top-rated defense (215.5 ypg). In fact, both teams are excellent against the run, as each rank in the top 10 nationally. So whichever quarterback can limit turnovers — something Gardner hasn’t been able to do this year — and stretch the field vertically will have a huge advantage in this critical Legends Division showdown.
2. Northwestern (+7) at Nebraska (3:30 p.m., BTN)
Pat Fitzgerald entered this season with eyes on a Big Ten title but is now looking at a tough road just to get to six wins and become bowl-eligible. Nebraska and embattled head coach Bo Pelini limp home to Lincoln after an extremely disappointing loss at Minnesota. This is a must-win for both coaching staffs in what has been entertaining games the last two seasons. The Big Red won in Evanston by one point last season but lost at home to the Wildcats by three two seasons ago. Taylor Martinez returned to the lineup last weekend but was clearly rusty as the offense posted a season-low 328 yards. Against a Northwestern defense that has been gashed by the running game (211.5 ypg allowed in Big Ten play), the Huskers should return to basics on offense. That means a heavy dose of Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. On the flip side, expect the same game plan from the Cats after watching the Gophers successfully pound the ball against the Black Shirts.
3. Wisconsin (-9.5) at Iowa (Noon, ABC)
One of the more underrated rivalry games in the Big Ten was forced off the schedule when the league split into divisions. The road team has won the last two meetings and Wisconsin has won two of the last three in Iowa City. This old-school, Midwestern bout will feature two power rushing attacks and two great linebacking corps. Gary Andersen deploys a nasty 1-2 punch in the backfield while Iowa boasts one of the best trios of tacklers in the nation. The game within the game between Kirk Ferentz' defensive front and UW’s rushing attack is the matchup to watch. Iowa must hold the line of scrimmage on defense to give itself a chance to win. Otherwise, the Badgers will roll their way to a third straight Big Ten win. More on the individual matchup in a minute.
4. Minnesota (+9) at Indiana (3:30 p.m., BTN)
This has quietly turned into a very intriguing matchup between a surging team without its head coach and an explosive offense starved for a postseason appearance. The Gophers used a power rushing attack to defeat the Huskers at home last weekend after their opportunistic defense defeated Northwestern on the road two weeks ago. A win over Indiana would shift expectations in the Twin Cities to a division crown and a win for the Hoosiers puts a bowl game within reach. All three wins this season for IU have come at home and the Hoosiers have had two weeks to prepare for a team that, shockingly, it has not faced since 2008.
5. Illinois (+10) at Penn State (Noon, ESPN)
The Nittany Lions are reeling on defense after allowing at least 40 points in three straight games for the first time in school history. The 408 yards rushing, 686 total yards and 63 points at the hands of Ohio State were a new low for the proud program. A winnable battle with a teetering Illinois team in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium might be just what this program needs. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg must be better than he was last weekend, but against an Illini team that has allowed 297.7 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play, fans should expect a heavy dose of handoffs in what should be a bounce-back win for Penn State.
6. Ohio State (-31.5) at Purdue (Noon, BTN)
The best team in the Big Ten travels to take on the worst team in the league in what could be the most lopsided game this conference sees all season. West Lafayette has been a house of horrors for the Buckeyes of late, losing the last two and three of the last four in Ross-Ade Stadium, but there is nothing about these two teams that indicates this game will be anything but an ugly blowout.
Big Ten Week 10 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox discuss Bo Pelini's future and the big Michigan-Michigan State game in this week's Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
The Spartans are great on defense and can run the football like most Mark Dantonio teams. But this team can be a Big Ten title contender when Connor Cook is efficient and productive. He completed 15 of 16 passes last week against Illinois and has led Michigan State to more than 30 points per game in Big Ten play. The Wolverines are solid against the run so it will fall to Cook to make plays more so than usual. This is his first meeting against Michigan.
2. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
It is cliché to point to quarterback play as the deciding factor in any game but this in-state battle hinges on both signal-callers. Cook is asked to be more of a game manager while Gardner is asked to do pretty much everything. He is the Big Ten leader in total offense (328.4 ypg) by a wide margin over Braxton Miller (247.7) but he also has turned the ball over 14 times — a Big Ten-leading 10 interceptions and four lost fumbles. If Gardner plays well against the nation’s best defense, Michigan can win. If he turns the ball over, they have no chance.
3. Randy Gregory and Avery Moss, DE, Nebraska
Gregory is fourth on the team in tackles (31.0) and is leading the Huskers in tackles for a loss (7.5) and sacks (3.5). Moss, the freshman, is No. 2 on the team in sacks (2.5) and tackles for a loss (4.5). The Northwestern offense puts a lot of pressure on strong edge play and this defense needs to be more physical after the Gophers ran it right down Big Red's throat last weekend.
4. Iowa’s linebackers
There is no secret to Wisconsin’s offensive attack, be it Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen calling plays. Melvin Gordon is a special player with rare size, power and explosiveness while James White is as steady as it gets with the ball in his hands. Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey are as good a trio at linebacker as there is in the nation. It falls to this group to hold the Badgers' power running game in check and force UW to use the pass to beat them.
5. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, QB, Minnesota
Nelson has returned to the starting lineup in strong fashion. He completed over 70 percent of his passes against Northwestern, scored three total touchdowns against Nebraksa and didn’t throw an interception in either game. But backup Leidner hasn’t been eliminated from the game plan, scoring his sixth rushing touchdown last week. He has attempted 18 passes and carried the ball 11 times in those two games and both will likely be needed to play well to earn a win on the road against a porous Indiana defense.
Big Ten Week 10 Prediction Grid:
|Game||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Michigan (+5.5) at Michigan St||Mich. St, 24-21||Mich. St, 24-14||Mich. St, 27-24||Mich. St, 24-17|
|Northwestern (+7) at Nebraska||Nebraska, 38-31||Nebraska, 34-21||Nebraska, 34-31||Nebraska, 35-28|
|Wisconsin (-9.5) at Iowa||Wisconsin, 35-21||Wisconsin, 31-17||Wisconsin, 31-20||Wisconsin, 38-17|
|Minnesota (+9) at Indiana||Minn., 34-31||Indiana, 30-27||Indiana, 38-34||Minn., 31-24|
|Illinois (+10) at Penn St||Penn St, 34-17||Penn St, 21-20||Penn St, 38-24||Penn St, 41-28|
|Ohio St (-31.5) at Purdue||Ohio St, 51-13||Ohio St, 51-10||Ohio St, 52-10||Ohio St, 52-10|