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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Michigan State and Ohio State transported Big Ten fans back last Saturday to an era of physical play the league has been missing this season. Trash talk, big hits, recruiting storylines and even some gamesmanship concerning pre-game film created a truly great football atmosphere that lived up to the hype.
This week there are loads of storylines across the league. Ohio State-Nebraska could feature the league's top two teams. Northwestern tries to stay unbeaten. Michigan looks to get back on track with a tough road test. And something will happen at Camp Randall this weekend, right?
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 6:
1. Which QB plays better: Braxton Miller or Taylor Martinez?
These have been the best two players in the league on what could be the best two teams in the Big Ten. And since Ohio State can't play in the title game, this could be the de facto Big Ten championship game for all intents and purposes. Martinez is leading the league in passing efficiency and passing touchdowns for the league's top offense. Miller is the MVP of the league, willing his team to victory last week against Michigan State. However, Miller turned the ball over and has been frequently banged up while T-Mart has a two-year resume that is loaded with poor throws and inefficient play. Whoever protects the football, makes smart decisions and converts on key third downs will emerge victorious Saturday night.
2. Who steps up around Miller on the Buckeyes' offense?
Ohio State has the edge for a variety of reasons in this game. The Bucks have the home field edge, the head coach edge, a slight defensive edge and the revenge edge. However, Nebraska has tons of support players on offense for Martinez while Urban Meyer is still looking for consistent play-makers with which to surround Miller. So who steps up and makes the play this weekend for the Buckeyes? Jordan Hall is doubtful so Rod Smith or Carlos Hyde will have to play well in the running game. The roster of non-descript pass-catchers also needs to be there for Miller. The O-Line is playing much better for Ohio State, so if Miller can get solid production from his peers on offense, Ohio State should remain unbeaten.
3. Can Michigan overcome road woes in West Lafayette?
Reading MLive.com this week, it is obvious that the fans in Ann Arbor have major concerns about their road trip to Purdue this weekend. Michigan averages 40.1 points per game at home under the Brady Hoke coaching regime, but only 20.9 per game on the road. Denard Robinson has been dramatically less efficient and productive on the road, including five turnovers the last time he was out on the field against Notre Dame. Look for offensive coordinator Al Borges to reestablish the ground game early this weekend against a solid Boilermakers team in an effort to make Robinson's job easier. Because if...
3. The Boilermakers control the pocket, they will win
Danny Hope's defense, led by Kawaan Short, is allowing just over 100 yards rushing per game. This matters because if Robinson can be contained within the pocket, Purdue should be in this one. When Shoelace has been held to less than 100 yards rushing this season, Michigan has lost. When he has topped the century mark, the Wolverines have won. Additionally, despite two relatively easy wins (36-14 and 27-16) previously over Purdue, Robinson has struggled to pass the ball against the Steamers (1 TD, 3 INT, 173 ypg). This should be a high-scoring game, but Purdue has the horses on the D-Line to keep No. 16 between the tackles. If the defense can do its job, the Boilers will pull off the upset and begin Big Ten play 1-0.
4. Northwestern's bid for 6-0 hinges on defense
After five weeks of play, the Wildcats are leading the league in rushing defense at 90.0 yards allowed per game. But this will be its toughest test yet. Penn State's rushing attack has totaled 173 yards in each of its last two games and has accounted for six touchdowns in victories over Temple and Illinois. The turnaround can be attributed to the emergence of burly power backs Zach Zwinak and Michael Zordich and the return of starter Bill Belton from injury. In front of Nittany Nation at Beaver Stadium, Pat Fitzgerald knows his defensive front has to be physical and disciplined this weekend if the Wildcats want to stay unbeaten.
5. Bill O'Brien's offense continues to improve
If you would have said that after five weeks Matt McGloin would be leading the Big Ten in passing yards, would be second in passing touchdowns, second in attempts and second in completions, I would have called you a liar this summer. But O'Brien's offense has continued to improve each week, showing innovation and creativity not seen in a Happy Valley passing attack in years. McGloin should be productive once again against Northwestern's secondary, so it's the PSU defense that must deliver this weekend. Northwestern quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian create unique match-up issues for most teams and Michael Mauti and co. will have their hands full stopping the dynamic and versatile Wildcats offense.
6. Big Ten's worst two offenses battle in Madison
Illinois and Wisconsin are ranked 97th nationally in scoring offense as each team is generating 22.6 points per game. They are 11th and 12th respectively in the Big Ten in total offense. And both team's struggles can be attributed to major quarterback issues. Nathan Scheelhaase returned last week as the turnover-prone, inconsistent passer Illini fans have grown accustomed to. If he is fully healthy, he needs to prove to Tim Beckman that he belongs under center. Meanwhile, Joel Stave appears to be the answer for Wisconsin, but he took so many hits last week, he was unable to play during critical fourth quarter drives against Nebraska. The Badgers appear to be in better shape and look to be improving — especially if Stave can play this weekend — so it falls to Scheelhaase if Illinois wants to win in Madison for the first time since 2002.
7. Who starts at QB for Indiana? Does it matter...
Kevin Wilson has seen everything this season from his quarterbacks. Tre Roberson was off to an excellent start before a season-ending injury pushed Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld into action. Both have had success and both have looked shaky at times. The head coach has stated he would like to settle on one guy, but both have shared reps this week evenly and both should see time against Michigan State. That said, will an angry 3-2 Spartans team allow either passer time to throw the ball effectively this weekend? It's highly unlikely.
Week 6 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 6 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Michigan St (-15.5) at Indiana||Mich. St, 34-10||Mich. St, 30-13||Mich. St 34-13||Mich. St, 35-14|
|N'Western (+3) at Penn St||Penn St, 27-17||Penn St, 17-13||Penn St 24-20||Penn St, 17-14|
|Illinois (+14) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 30-21||Wisconsin, 28-21||Wisconsin 34-17||Wisconsin, 20-10|
|Michigan (-3) at Purdue||Michigan, 27-24||Purdue, 24-20||Michigan 31-24||Purdue, 21-20|
|Nebraska (+3) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 28-24||Nebraska, 24-21||Ohio St 27-24||Ohio St, 28-21|
Bye Week: Iowa, Minnesota
by Braden Gall
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