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Ohio State at Illinois highlights this week of action.
Northwestern at Minnesota
Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
After a brief absence, the Gophers reinstated wide receiver/returner Troy Stoudermire this week. Good thing, too, as Minnesota will need all the help it can get against a Wildcat squad that remains perfect. One reason for Northwestern’s early success has been its ability to get off to a fast start; through four games Northwestern has outscored opponents 33–9 in the first quarter. Here’s an odd stat to chew on: Minnesota ranks eighth in both scoring and rushing offense, yet leads the Big Ten in time of possession (35:34 per game). The Gophers hope to place this contest on the shoulders of Duane Bennett (371 yards, 4.7 yards per carry) and watch him carry the club to a second straight win over the Wildcats.
Ohio State at Illinois
Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
On paper, this is no contest. The Buckeyes rank third in the country in scoring offense (49.3 points per game) and their defense ranks among the top 20 in points allowed. Illinois — that’s another story. After a disappointing showing against Missouri, Ron Zook’s club has won its last two games by a combined 63–25. But who did they play, really? (Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, in case you’re wondering.) Now facing a test much stiffer than the Tigers, Illinois’ only hope is for its two-headed ground attack (freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse and junior running back Mikel Leshoure) to control the clock in the first half, allowing the Illini to stick around long enough for something to break in their favor. And last year it was reasonable to expect Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor to make a mistake or two, but not this year; so far Pryor has thrown just two interceptions as compared to 10 touchdown passes. Michigan at Indiana
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT
If an imposter is lurking in this contest, it will be exposed on Saturday afternoon. Both clubs have averaged 40-plus points, but neither has a flawless attack (Indiana’s playmakers are still suspect). Michigan’s Denard Robinson is expected to suit up one week after a knee injury kept him on the sideline for the final three quarters of the team’s win over Bowling Green (as well as he was playing, chances are Robinson would have sat out the second half anyhow). Indiana’s quarterback, Ben Chappell, gives his team a fighting chance. Not only does the senior signal caller lead the conference in passing (296.7 yards per game), but this week he’ll also be treated to a pass defense that ranks last in the Big Ten, allowing 264.8 yards per game.
Wisconsin at Michigan State
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CT
In one of the more intriguing Top 25 matchups this weekend, the Badgers will attempt to pound the football against a Michigan State run defense allowing just 2.7 yards per carry. In fact, the most an opposing back has gained against the Spartans this year has been 71 yards (Notre Dame’s Armando Allen Jr.). Those numbers won’t sit well with Wisconsin’s backfield trio: John Clay (6.5 yards per carry), James White (7.9) and Montee Ball (4.5). Because of the efforts of those three — and Wisconsin’s mammoth offensive line — fans can expect UW to win the war in the trenches. Another battle to pay close attention to is at quarterback, where two of the Big Ten’s finest will both attempt to get their teams to 5–0. Last year, Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien had the better day (243 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions) but the Badgers secondary knows it must do a better job of containing Spartans speedster Keshawn Martin (34.8 yards per catch last year). Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is expected to sit in the booth for this contest after rejoining the team following his minor heart attack.
Penn State at Iowa
Saturday, 7 p.m. CT
Think blue-collar tough. No-name defensive players and grind-it-out offense — these programs help to define Big Ten football. And it’s probably no surprise that both clubs rank Nos. 1 and 2 in points allowed so far (Iowa leads the Big Ten with 12.0, followed by Penn State at 12.8). The outcome of their meeting on Saturday will help to determine the conference’s early rank-and-file. Both suffered a road loss in September leaving each club near the back end of the Top 25 polls. One thing Penn State must do if it hopes to be successful is take better care of the football; the Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in giveaways (nine), and a major reason for their loss to the Hawkeyes last year were their four turnovers. Iowa senior linebacker Jeff Tarpinian may lead the conference in tackles (10.7 per game), but this defense still revolves around defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn. Penn State fans will remember Clayborn returned a blocked punt 53 yards for a score last year that swung the game in Iowa’s direction.