The Great Lakes schools face serious road tests this weekend.
Northwestern at Indiana, Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
It’s likely the Wildcats are still licking their wounds from last week’s second-half letdown against Michigan State. An upset and all-important sixth victory slipped through their grasp. Funny, last year when the Wildcats and Hoosiers met it was Indiana that blew a big second half lead and lost on a last-second field goal, 29–28. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is a master at getting his guys to maintain focus, and he should be able to rally the Wildcats for this one. Indiana has its own reason for motivation: A look ahead on the Hoosiers schedule suggests their best chances to win the two games they need for a bowl berth are this one and Purdue in the finale. To win, Indiana must take better care of the football than it did in last week’s loss (five turnovers). One key stat that is in Indiana’s favor: The Wildcats rank 10th in pass defense. Ben Chappell and Indiana’s terrific trio of receivers will be dreaming about that fact this week.
Purdue at Illinois, Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
Purdue has already lost one quarterback, so it was good news this week when the coaching staff announced Rob Henry would probably play after slicing up his throwing hand in last week’s loss. Henry hasn’t been the most efficient passer in the Big Ten this year, but he has his moments, and his versatility as a runner makes him a tough assignment for opposing defenses. Of course, Illinois has its own dual threat player under center. Nathan Scheelhasse is making a strong pitch for freshman of the year honors, and he just might have his way against a Boilermaker defense giving up 24.4 points per game. It’ll be important for Ryan Kerrigan and the Purdue defense to keep Scheelhasse in check. Speaking of defenses, is there a more under-rated unit in the Big Ten than the Illini? The unit ranks fourth in sacks in third in scoring defense. That’s bad news for a Purdue squad that has managed just 32 points total in its three road contests this year.
Michigan State at Iowa, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT
The Big Ten’s best game once again features Iowa, which lost at home last week due to poor clock management. Kirk Ferentz won’t let that happen again, not with his team’s January bowl hopes hanging by a thread. The key matchup in this one pits Spartan backs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker against an Iowa run defense allowing just 92.1 yards per game. A total of five points has determined the last two games between the two teams — both played in East Lansing — and the last game in Iowa City was decided in overtime. Yep, this one is going to be a dandy. Too bad for Michigan State they may be without one of their best playmakers; receiver/returner Keshawn Martin is recovering from an ankle/foot injury that could keep him on the sideline.
Ohio State at Minnesota, Saturday, 7 p.m. CT
Another prime time game to showcase TCF Bank Stadium, another easy Big Ten test for the Buckeyes. Ohio State played with a chip on its shoulder in last week’s shutout of Purdue, and probably figures it has nothing to lose in its remaining games. Terrell Pryor’s arm should have success against a Gopher secondary allowing opposing passers a 69.5 completion percentage. Minnesota will need a mighty effort from its experienced passer, Adam Weber, because heaven knows the running game will have to be abandoned before half — at least if this game resembles recent ones in the series. Over the last four years Ohio State has beaten Minnesota by a combined score of 146 to 35, the closest margin being 13 points (two years ago).
Michigan at Penn State, Saturday, 7 p.m. CT
Pay no attention to the Nittany Lions’ woes this season — no team wishes to play in Beaver Stadium in an evening affair, and certainly not a Michigan squad that has dropped its last two contests by a combined 27 points. The Wolverines need to get back to the ground attack that earned them early favor among pollsters. For whatever reason, Denard Robinson has not been as dazzling — or as hard to catch — in recent weeks as he was at the season’s start. Penn State’s run defense could be a cure, as the unit is allowing an uncharacteristic 143.9 yards on the ground per game. The Nittany Lions offense has more problems than Michigan does on both sides of the ball combined. Evan Royster is still a no-show, and the unit has produced just seven scores through the air. Making matters worse, Penn State probably won’t have quarterback Rob Bolden in the lineup due to what has been labeled a head injury. The team must hope its rowdy crowd can offer the spark that’s been absent all season.