Athlon Sports previews every contest, identifies the most pivotal players and picks every Big Ten game.
The Legends Division championship hangs in the balance this weekend in Lincoln as Michigan State visits Nebraska. Certainly, the Golden Gophers may still be in the mix, but for all intents and purposes, the winner in this game will represent the division against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot to watch in the Big Ten this weekend. Minnesota and Iowa are off and will get to watch the Spartans-Huskers game from the couch.
Big Ten Week 12 Game Power Rankings:
1. Michigan State (-6.5) at Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
The biggest star of a thrilling 28-24 Nebraska win in East Lansing last season won’t be available for Bo Pelini in this winner-take-all Legends Division showdown. Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is likely out for the rest of the year, rushed for 205 yards, threw for 160 and scored all four Huskers touchdowns in a big-time, fourth-quarter comeback last season. Having said that, Pelini is 5-0 this season when Martinez doesn’t start. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III will likely split time against what is statistically the best defense in the nation. Michigan State has had two weeks off since holding Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing and has allowed just nine points in their last three games. Look for either Nebraska signal-caller to lean heavily on the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah (134.8 ypg). The Black Shirts defense, however, will likely be the deciding factor, having posted its best performance in years against Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend (175 yards allowed). The Spartans are 0-7 all-time against Nebraska.
2. Michigan (+3) at Northwestern (3:30 p.m., BTN)
Both teams in this game are reeling and teetering on the brink of complete collapse. Michigan has lost only once since 2000 to the Wildcats but this is a must-win situation for Pat Fitzgerald if he wants to return to the postseason. Northwestern has had two weeks to stew over a painful Hail Mary defeat in Lincoln and should be healthier than it has been all season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have combined for minus-69 yards rushing the last two weeks and offensive coordinator Al Borges is on the hot seat after 343 yards of offense and 19 total points over the last two games. Michigan has lost three out of four and is in danger of losing out the rest of the way. The Maize and Blue have to visit Iowa and host Ohio State to cap the year. Quarterback Devin Gardner is still leading the Big Ten in total offense but has been tentative and inefficient lately, so Borges needs to get his signal-caller back on track.
3. Indiana (+21.5) at Wisconsin (Noon, ESPN2)
The Hoosiers rank 122nd in total defense (519.1 ypg), 109th in rushing defense (217.4 ypg) and 113th in scoring defense (37.4 ppg). This is the defense Kevin Wilson is taking with him to Madison to face one of the nation’s most powerful rushing attacks. Melvin Gordon and James White are both top five in the Big Ten in rushing and quarterback Joel Stave has played just well enough to give UW plenty of balance. To reach a bowl game for just the second time since 1993, Wilson likely has to figure out a way to upset the Badgers as Indiana needs two wins over its final three with a road trip to Ohio State looming next week.
4. Ohio State (-32) at Illinois (Noon, ESPN)
The last time Illinois topped Ohio State, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the nation and Juice Williams led the Illini to an improbable 28-21 win in the Horseshoe. Otherwise, OSU has owned this series, winning 13 of the last 16 overall dating back to 1995. There is no chance at a similar upset this time around as Tim Beckman has lost every Big Ten game he has coached in over his first two campaigns. Illinois has lost 18 straight conference games overall. Nathan Scheelhaase posted nearly 500 yards of offense last weekend against Indiana and the Illini still couldn’t get a win. So how will this team even be competitive against the No. 3 team in the nation?
5. Purdue (+21.5) at Penn State (Noon, BTN)
This is exactly what the doctor ordered in Happy Valley. Penn State has alternated wins and losses for eight weeks in a row, and after losing to Minnesota on the road last weekend, all signs points to an easy win in Week 12. With Nebraska and Wisconsin looming in the final two weeks, a home win over a completely uncompetitive Purdue team is a must if Bill O’Brien wants to get his team to “bowl eligibility” — even if the Lions are not allowed to play in one. A win over the Boilermakers guarantees that O’Brien won’t have a losing record in either of his first two seasons in Happy Valley — an impressive thought considering the heavy-handed NCAA sanctions.
Big Ten Week 12 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox discuss the winner-take-all matchup between Nebraska and Michigan State and debate where Ohio State should be ranked in this week's Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
The Huskers' defensive lineman exploded for 3.0 sacks last week in the upset win over Michigan on the road. He leads the league in sacks and will be counted on once again this weekend to pressure the quarterback. Michigan State brings a balanced attack on offense, topping 200 yards rushing and passing in two of the last four games. If Connor Cook has time to throw, it could be a long day for the improving but spotty Nebraska defense.
2. Nebraska’s offensive line
Sparty gets after the quarterback and will shut down the running game, so it falls to the Nebraska front line to protect an inexperienced quarterback and generate running lanes for Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher has come up big in huge spots over the last two weeks for the Huskers, but he and his offensive line will have their toughest test of the season. Michigan State is giving up 43.4 yards per game rushing, 210.2 yards per game of offense and 11.6 points per game. Meanwhile, Nebraska is in the top 30 nationally in both rushing offense (246.8 ypg, 15th) and sacks allowed (12.0, 27th).
3. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
The Spartans' running back has developed into one of the top workhorses in the Big Ten, posting four straight 100-yard games over the last month. He has scored six rushing touchdowns over that span and has carried the ball 95 times. Nebraska is coming off of its best defensive effort in years, after holding Fitzgerald Toussaint to just six yards on nine carries last weekend. Look for Langford to once again be the focal point of the Spartans offense this weekend.
4. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Let’s not overthink this one. Gardner is easily the most important player in the Michigan-Northwestern battle. He leads the Big Ten in total offense but has failed to produce during the Wolverines' two-game losing streak. He posted a season-low 164 yards of offense against Michigan State and then posted exactly 164 yards again in the home loss to Nebraska. He has eliminated his turnovers — just one over the last three games after 14 in the first six — but simply hasn’t produced (0 total TDs in last two games). Gardner produced in a critical spot last year against Northwestern and might have to again to save Michigan’s season.
5. Michigan’s offensive line
Northwestern posted 4.0 sacks against Nebraska in the soul-crushing loss in Lincoln and has had two weeks to prepare for an offense that is clearly lacking at the moment. It falls to Taylor Lewan and company to pick up the slack for a running game that is in shambles. The Wildcats have been punished on the ground in key spots during their five-game losing streak — giving up 208.2 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play.
Big Ten Week 12 Prediction Grid:
|Game||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Michigan St (-6.5) at Nebraska||Mich. St, 27-20||Mich. St, 24-20||Mich. St, 27-20||Mich. St, 21-17|
|Michigan (+3) at Northwestern||N'Western, 34-30||Michigan, 31-28||Michigan, 31-27||Michigan, 24-17|
|Indiana (+21.5) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 45-24||Wisconsin, 44-17||Wisconsin, 48-24||Wisconsin, 56-28|
|Ohio St (-32) at Illinois||Ohio St, 52-13||Ohio St, 48-0||Ohio St, 55-10||Ohio St, 42-14|
|Purdue (+21.5) at Penn St||Penn St, 31-13||Penn St, 28-7||Penn St, 34-13||Penn St, 35-10|