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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Week 11 should be a great weekend in the Big Ten. Northwestern heads to Ann Arbor to see if it belongs in the title discussion. Wisconsin visits Indiana in what could be a surprising Leaders Division elimination game. And the contrast of colors in Lincoln when Penn State comes to town should inspire any college football junkie.
Just don't tell any of this to the fans in Iowa City or West Lafayette.
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 11:
1. Taylor Martinez mistakes vs. big plays
Martinez is the Big Ten’s leading active passer — the injured Joel Stave is No. 1 — and is No. 2 in total offense behind only Braxton Miller. He contributed a pair of long touchdown runs (71 and 35 yards) as well as the game-winning drive against Michigan State. He also threw three interceptions. The Huskers quarterback giveth (12 TD in last four games) and taketh away (7 INT in last four games), and as usual, Nebraska’s Rose Bowl hopes hinge on their quarterback’s ability to make big plays. T-Mart struggled last year against Penn State (13-of-26, 143 yards, 0 TD, 18 carries, 56 yards) but still managed to eke out a 17-14 emotion-laden victory the first time Penn State took the field following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
2. Penn State must run for 160 yards and at least one touchdown
One way to keep Taylor Martinez at bay will be for Penn State to run the ball. It seems simple, but when Penn State runs the ball effectively, it wins. In its three losses, PSU failed to score a rushing touchdown and averaged 81.7 yards on 30.7 attempts. Conversely, Penn State has rushed for at least 160 yards in all five Big Ten wins. Moreover, the Nits have scored 14 rushing touchdowns in wins and no touchdowns on the ground in their three losses. This offense goes as Matt McGloin goes, however, the ground game has been the difference between winning and losing for Bill O’Brien.
3. Leaders Division Championship Game
Wisconsin has Ohio State at home and Penn State on the road to finish the 2012 regular season. It is fair to say both of those teams are better than the Badgers. And since Bucky has to play in Beaver Stadium to end the Nittany Lions' season, it is hard to see Wisconsin winning either. Indiana also has to visit Happy Valley before finishing up with Purdue. So assuming UW loses both and the Hoosiers split, the showdown between the two this weekend suddenly becomes the next Leaders Division Championship Game. Should the Badgers win, they clinch the best eligible record in the division and a trip to Indianapolis. A win for IU and they would be a win over the Boilermakers in the regular-season finale from playing in the title game.
4. Can Wisconsin get any production from the QB?
There has been some talk that the oft-injured but extremely talented Curt Phillips may get some looks at quarterback this weekend. That seems unlikely considering Danny O’Brien is healthy and Phillips' lack of experience. Either way, however, Wisconsin has to get production from its passing game it if wants to win this weekend. The Hoosiers have proven they can score and the Badgers offense will have to keep pace. However, this UW offense has been completely one-dimensional when Joel Stave has been out of the line up. With talented pass-catchers and an excellent running game, the throwing lanes should be available for whoever is under center for Bret Bielema. O’Brien just needs to be more efficient and accurate with the football.
5. Who will play quarterback for Michigan?
Denard Robinson missed his first career game last weekend when Devin Gardner started against Minnesota. Shoelace is battling a reoccurring nerve issue in his throwing elbow and while he wasn’t needed in the easy win over the Gophers, one has to believe Northwestern provides a much tougher test. Gardner, who should be the starter for Brady Hoke next fall, was productive and efficient in the win. Hoke isn’t tipping his hand as to who will be under center for Michigan, so it has forced Pat Fitzgerald to prepare for both. Either way, Hoke and his quarterback have to get more help from its running game. Thomas Rawls got 16 carries and scored last week and should be worked into the mix more since Fitzgerald Toussaint has struggled this year (3.5 yards per carry on 109 attempts this year). If needed, look for Hoke to mix up his offensive line rotation in an effort to kick-start the running attack.
6. How does Northwestern win on the road?
Run, run, run and run some more. Since Week 1, each time Northwestern has gotten to 190 yards rushing, they have won (6-0). Both times the Wildcats failed to reach 190 yards, they lost. This team rolled up 349 yards on the ground against Iowa two weeks ago and will turn to its two-headed monster to lead the offense. Venric Mark and Kain Colter both topped 160 yards rushing in the win over the Hawkeyes and both are ranked in the top 11 in the Big Ten rushing ranks. Michigan, after allowing 522 yards rushing in its first two games, has only allowed 109.6 yards per game since. This is where Northwestern can win the game.
7. Gophers last chance at the postseason
The Golden Gophers finish the season at Nebraska and with Michigan State at home. Minnesota will be hard pressed to win either of those two contests, so Jerry Kill’s search for the postseason may end with the road trip to Illinois this weekend. For an extremely young team, a bowl game — and the extra month of practice time — would be invaluable. Illinois, who has allowed at least 31 points in six straight games (all losses), hasn’t been competitive in league play this fall. The Illini are losing Big Ten games by an average of 26.8 points per game and have not played a single conference game closer than two touchdowns (14 point loss to Indiana). Kill has to view this weekend as the opportunity to tangibly build the future of Minnesota football. A loss could be devastating to a young team.
8. Who survives the game in Iowa City?
No, the fans watching on either side likely won’t make it out of Kinnick Stadium alive. The phrase ‘bored to death’ comes to mind. However, there is some serious intrigue in what could be deemed The Pink Slip Bowl. Barring a three-game winning streak to end the season, it is unlikely Danny Hope returns to West Lafayette next fall. Kirk Ferentz is much safer at Iowa, but giving Hope his first and possibly only Big Ten win of the year will make the already restless fans in Iowa City that much more uncomfortable. With Michigan and Nebraska left for the Hawkeyes, a loss would likely mean a 4-8 overall record with six consecutive defeats to end the year. I’ll take Ferentz to survive what will be an unwatchable game of mediocrity.
Week 11 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 11 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Wisconsin at Indiana||Wisconsin, 30-28||Wisconsin, 31-26||Wisconsin, 34-27||Wisconsin, 21-14|
|Purdue at Iowa||Iowa, 24-20||Iowa, 21-20||Iowa, 27-20||Iowa, 10-7|
|Northwestern at Michigan||Michigan, 30-27||Michigan, 33-24||Michigan, 31-24||Northwestern, 28-21|
|Minnesota at Illinois||Minnesota, 24-20||Minnesota, 27-23||Minnesota, 31-20||Minnesota, 38-20|
|Penn St at Nebraska||Nebraska, 27-24||Nebraska, 31-21||Nebraska, 27-24||Nebraska, 31-21|
Bye Week: Ohio State, Michigan State
by Braden Gall
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