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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
Fans knew the Big Ten Leaders Division race could be lacking in excitement this year due to two power programs not being eligible to play for the championship. So Wisconsin at Purdue in Week 7 leaves a bit to be desired on a national level when it comes to big-time title bouts. But that is what Big Ten fans are getting this weekend.
Otherwise, any outlandish outcomes this weekend will come as major surprises as Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all heavy favorites.
Big Ten's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 7:
1. De facto Leaders Division championship game
Wisconsin will visit Purdue this weekend in what will likely decide one half of the 2012 Big Ten championship game. While Penn State and Ohio State are the two best teams in the Leaders Division (possibly the entire league), neither will be allowed to play in Indianapolis. And with Illinois imploding in Champaign, the Boilermakers and Badgers are left to battle for the division crown. Stop the presses. Drop what you are doing. There is a championship on the line in West Lafayette this Saturday.
2. Caleb TerBush and Company vs. Joel Stave
Danny Hope is sticking with TerBush as his starter but Robert Marve is sure to see time. The two combined for 153 yards passing and both threw an interception in the ugly loss to Michigan last weekend. Neither has played all that well, but Hope needs to get production from his quarterback to win this weekend. Meanwhile, Stave missed the end of the Nebraska game and it cost Wisconsin the win. He returned last weekend to throw for 254 yards and two scores in the easy win over Illinois. The redshirt freshman makes his second career road start against the Boilers. Both defenses will have to stop the run in an effort to force these suspect signal callers into passing situations, so whichever passer can complete clutch third-down throws will emerge victorious.
3. Look for Northwestern to go back to the ground
The Wildcats have made a concerted effort to run the football in 2012. And for most of the year, they have been extremely successful. Try 974 yards in the three games prior to visiting Penn State last weekend — where Northwestern totaled 112 yards on 25 attempts. Venric Mark and Kain Colter form a dynamic 1-2 punch that rushes for 168.3 yards per game, and moving the football against Minnesota's defensive line on the ground will be key. The Gophers' defensive front had allowed under 130 yards rushing per game until Iowa gashed them before the bye. Who wins the battle in the trenches will decide who stays with one loss and who becomes a Big Ten after-thought.
4. What type of impact could MarQueis Gray make?
Head coach Jerry Kill is "cautiously optimistic" that his star senior quarterback will play this weekend in a huge game against Northwestern. While Kill is it playing close to the vest, as he should, Pat Fitzgerald knows Gray is a totally different monster to account for than the young back-up Max Shortell. Gray's dual-threat capabilities and veteran presence give the Gophers a dramatically more complicated offensive look. Shortell failed to throw a touchdown against Syracuse and tossed three interceptions against Iowa, so any production Gray can offer will be a huge upgrade this weekend. The Gophers will need to score points against the Cats and No. 5 gives them the best chance to do so.
5. Heavy favorites need to avoid major letdowns this weekend
Michigan State hosts Iowa and is a 10-point favorite. Michigan hosts a reeling Illinois team. And Ohio State visits overmatched Indiana in an effort to pad Braxton Miller's Heisman Trophy statistics. All three, if they expect to compete for the best record in the league, have to hold serve this weekend. Obviously, the Spartans have the toughest test with the Hawkeyes coming off their best performance of the season — a 31-13 win over Minnesota — and resting over the bye week. That said, Sparty has no business losing this type of game at home if it expects to win the Legends Division.
6. Nearly 500 pounds of running back on display
Walk-on fullback Mark Weisman is listed at 6-foot and 230 pounds. He is a load to bring down and has sparked the once-dormant Iowa rushing attack with 507 yards rushing and seven scores in his last three games. Meanwhile, Michigan State counters with the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Le'Veon Bell who has proven to be a workhorse with three games of at least 36 carries this season already. The ground game will be heavily featured in a game with two struggling quarterbacks, so my condolences go out to both Iowa and Michigan State linebackers and safeties charged with tackling these two beasts. It should be fun to watch, however, if you like big hits and truck sticks.
7. Watch Denard Robinson drive a stake into Illini
Robinson got back on track last weekend with a statement road performance against Purdue. He posted his fifth career 200-yard rushing game with 235 yards on 24 carries, and much to Brady Hoke's delight, didn't throw an interception (even though he did fumble). The Wolverines under Shoelace are nearly unbeatable at home, so this weekend should, for all intents and purposes, signal the end of the Illini's 2012 season. Illinois would be 2-5 and 0-3 in the Big Ten with a loss and still have Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern remaining on its schedule.
Week 7 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 7 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Iowa (+10) at Michigan St||Mich. St, 20-17||Mich. St, 13-10||Mich. St, 27-17||Mich. St, 38-14|
|N'Western (-3) at Minnesota||N'Western, 30-24||Minnesota, 33-30||N'Western, 31-24||N'Western, 21-14|
|Wisconsin (+2.5) at Purdue||Wisconsin, 27-24||Wisconsin, 23-17||Wisconsin, 27-20||Purdue, 17-14|
|Illinois (+23.5) at Michigan||Michigan, 41-20||Michigan, 38-13||Michigan, 38-13||Michigan, 42-14|
|Ohio St (-17) at Indiana||Ohio St, 45-27||Ohio St, 48-17||Ohio St, 38-17||Ohio St, 56-10|
Bye Week: Nebraska, Penn State
by Braden Gall
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