Badgers, Spartans Lead

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Michigan State, Wisconsin top the Big Ten conference.

Michigan State, Wisconsin top the Big Ten conference.

The only six games that matter

With five weeks remaining, Michigan State fans have already begun to trace their team’s necessary steps to a BCS berth and, perhaps, a crack at the national title. To get there, Michigan State will need to win its remaining games and get some help from the nation’s other top 10 teams. It’s a long shot, even when one considers just how easy the path gets for the Spartans after this weekend.

But Michigan State is not the only team remaining in the Big Ten race, nor are the Spartans the only club with a shot to climb up the polls. Wisconsin is not out of anything, nor is Ohio State. Iowa would need a lot of help, but a strong finish (including games against two ranked foes) could propel them back into the top 10 by season’s end.

Here is a look at the most important six games remaining on the Big Ten schedule. All of these contests could have an impact on the conference race.

(Oct. 30) Michigan State at Iowa – If the Spartans thought the Wildcats were unfriendly, wait until they step into the pink locker room and prepare for a hungry Iowa squad.

(Nov. 13) Iowa at Northwestern – A little history in this one. The Hawkeyes have lost the last two to Northwestern, including last year after beginning the year with a 9–0 record.

(Nov. 20) Ohio State at Iowa – This contest was decided in overtime last year.

(Nov. 20) Wisconsin at Michigan – The only blemish on Bret Bielema’s first season (2006) was the loss in Ann Arbor. When the Badgers visited Michigan last, they blew a 19–0 lead.

(Nov. 27) Michigan at Ohio State – There would be more drama and build-up if this game was not in Columbus, but when these two programs take the field nothing can be taken for granted.

(Nov. 27) Michigan State at Penn State – Imagine the Spartans do win out and have to finish the season in Beaver Stadium with 110,000 fans right on top of them. Lots of pressure.

Week 8 Scoreboard
Penn State 33, Minnesota 21
Illinois 43, Indiana 13
Ohio State 49, Purdue 0
Michigan State 35, Northwestern 27
Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30

Bielema’s play-of-the-year candidate
With Wisconsin facing a fourth down deep in its own territory, and trailing 30–24, coach Bret Bielema made one of the year’s gutsiest calls. Punter Brad Nortman caught the snap and took off running into the open field for the first down. It allowed Wisconsin to keep the ball and ultimately led to a Montee Ball eight-yard touchdown run later in that series.

No contest in Columbus
Ohio State rattled off 42 first half points, including 21 in the final five minutes of the second quarter, in its blowout win over Purdue. Even more lopsided than the score was the total yardage — 489 for Ohio State to 118 for the Boilermakers.

Wasn’t pretty, but Penn State will take it
The Nittany Lions were out-gained and out-performed on third down by an inferior Minnesota squad on Saturday. But Penn State still won the contest, 33–21 — its first win of October. Backup quarterback Matt McGloin threw two touchdowns for the Nittany Lions.

One left & One Right Image
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Athlon looks back at Week in the Big Ten. The Badgers pulled off a second big upset while Michigan State rallied in the 4th quarter.

Team of the Week: Wisconsin
For the second week in a row, the Badgers prevailed under intense circumstances. Trailing late in the game, the team moved the length of the field to score the go-ahead points, then held off a late Iowa surge. And other than a late interception, Scott Tolzien was brilliant on a day when the Badger rushing game was not. The win cemented Wisconsin as a top 10 team.

Disappointment of the Week: Northwestern
The score was 17–0 at one point in the second quarter, and 24–14 heading into the fourth. What happened? The Wildcats got tricked on a fake punt and couldn’t defend the pass worth a darn in the second half. Northwestern could have left the game bowl eligible; now Pat Fitzgerald’s club will have to go back to work.

Offensive Player of the Week: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
Cousins has had to take a back seat to other storylines this year — his coach, All-America linebacker Greg Jones, the Spartans terrific running back tandem — but Saturday was finally his to savor. Cousins guided Michigan State on an exciting second half comeback and finished with 329 yards passing and three touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Week: Adrian Clayborn, DL, Iowa
It’s rare for a player from a losing team to win this award, but Clayborn stood out, even on a day in which his counterpart (Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt) was tremendous. The senior chased down Badger ball carriers from behind and was disruptive on passing downs. Even after he was the victim of a vicious block to the back of his knees Clayborn came back out onto the field for more.

Freshman of the Week: Nathan Scheelhasse, QB, Illinois
Both of Scheelhasse’s touchdown passes came within the first 21 minutes of the Illini’s victory over Indiana. The first-year signal caller completed 13 of 21 passes and averaged 7.5 yards per carry.

The Week Ahead

Upset Alert: Michigan State
Our same pick as last week, although a loss to Iowa is not as big of an upset as a loss to Northwestern would have been. Michigan State is not playing like a team of destiny — at least not for all four quarters — and Iowa is far too good and too desperate to make the same mistakes the Wildcats made last week. If the Hawkeyes’ running game gets going this Saturday, the Spartans may start falling come Sunday.

Player to Watch: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
A week off probably did Robinson’s ailing body some good. Now he can use that rest to run through a Penn State defense ranked eighth against the rush in the Big Ten. Last week, the Nittany Lions allowed DeLeon Eskridge to gain 111 yards on 26 carries.

Additional Notes

Northwestern’s line needs to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. Through seven games the unit has allowed a Big Ten-worst 25 sacks (123 sack yards). The next closest Big Ten line has given up just 18 sacks.

Five teams have at least one receiver with 35 or more catches this season. Indiana has three such players: Damarlo Belcher (47), Terrance Turner (37) and Tandon Doss (36). Freshman tight end Ted Bolser, who had four catches for 77 yards this past week, has 16 catches.

Predictions
Northwestern 28, Indiana 10
Illinois 27, Purdue 13
Iowa 24, Michigan State 21
Michigan 20, Penn State 17
Ohio State 56, Minnesota 7

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