After taking Ohio State to the wire last weekend at home, Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats have the unenviable task of traveling to Wisconsin. The Cats need a breakthrough win against the big boys of the Big Ten and this weekend offers that opportunity.
However, there are two other sneaky good contests to keep an eye on. Michigan visits Penn State in a blue-blooded matchup of NCAA powerhouses while both Indiana and Michigan State look to build upon quality victories last weekend.
Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois are off this weekend.
Big Ten Week 7 Game Power Rankings:
1. Northwestern (+10) at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
One look at the point spread should tell fans in Evanston all they need to know about what Northwestern is facing this weekend in Madison. Ohio State turned to a power rushing attack to put the Wildcats away last weekend and Pat Fitzgerald’s squad has an even harder task this weekend on the road. The Badgers boast the No. 1 (Melvin Gordon), No. 5 (James White) and No. 8 (Corey Clement) rushers in the Big Ten and Gary Andersen isn’t afraid to lean on them — especially, after an extra week of rest. The Cats are consistently a thorn in Wisconsin’s side (4-3 in the last seven meetings) but hasn’t won in Camp Randall since 2000. This should once again be a fierce battle of Brains vs. Brawn. Look for Fitzgerald to get his star running back Venric Mark even more involved after 21 touches against the Buckeyes in his return to action.
2. Michigan (-3) at Penn State (5 p.m., ESPN)
From a historical and chromatic standpoint, it doesn’t really get any better than the Wolverines and Nittany Lions. After nine straight wins for Michigan from 1997-07, Penn State has owned the Maize and Blue of late, winning three straight since. Brady Hoke and Bill O’Brien have never met before as head coaches and this likely means a feeling out process. Especially, when you add a tentative Devin Gardner and inexperienced Christian Hackenberg into the equation. Michigan played an extremely clean game against Minnesota by converting on third down (10-of-13), staying out of the penalty box (two penalties) and taking care of the football (no turnovers). The Lions, meanwhile, couldn’t run the ball (38 att., 70 yards) or stop the Hoosiers in the second half. The wild card is PSU’s superstar wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is torching opposing defenses for 124.2 yards and more than seven catches per game in 2013. This should be an epic blue-collar showdown — both literally and figuratively.
3. Indiana (+9.5) at Michigan State (Noon, ESPN2)
Both the Hoosiers and Spartans are surging into this game based on huge wins last weekend over Penn State and Iowa respectively. Historically, the Spartans own the series, winning 13 of the last 15 meetings with Indiana’s last win coming in 2006. More relevant to 2013 is a matchup of the Big Ten’s top offense and the Big Ten’s top defense. Indiana averages 535.0 yards per game and hung 44 points on Penn State last weekend while Michigan State allows just 203.8 yards per game on defense and held Iowa to 23 yards rushing last week. A 2-0 start in Big Ten play is on the line for both and the Hoosiers need to prove they can match the physicality of the Spartans in the trenches to have any shot at pulling the unlikely road upset.
4. Nebraska (-14) at Purdue (Noon, BTN)
The Huskers and Boilermakers have met only once in history — a 28-0 Purdue win in 1958. The score could be similar this time around but odds are Nebraska will be the winner. Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who hasn’t played since the debacle against UCLA at home in Week 3, is still questionable to play this weekend. With a bye coming next week, it makes sense for Bo Pelini to rest his star signal-caller, especially considering how Tommy Armstong and his running game have played of late. Look for one of the best third-down offenses in the nation (Nebraska, 49.2 percent) to take advantage of one of the nation’s worst third-down defenses (Purdue, 46.4).
Big Ten Week 7 Pivotal Players
1. Kain Colter, AP, Northwestern
The Wildcats' do-everything talent might be the most dynamic player on the field for either team this weekend against Wisconsin. He was on full display last weekend by completing all 12 of his passes and scoring as both a runner and receiver. Colter will need to play that type of triple-threat game out in space against a Badgers defense that prefers physical interior football.
2. Northwestern’s linebackers
The Wildcats' top three tacklers are Pat Fitzgerald’s trio of experienced linebackers. Chi Chi Ariguzo (8.2 tackles per game), Damien Proby (7.2) and Collin Ellis (7.0) got pushed around last weekend by Carlos Hyde, and Wisconsin’s running game is even more powerful. The Badgers have a long track record of massive offensive lines and talented runners and the 2013 version might be one of the deepest and most talented running games ever seen at UW. Northwestern’s backers will need to play better than it did last week to get a win in Madtown.
3. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
Hackenberg broke his own freshman passing record last week with 340 yards (and 3 TDs) in a loss to Indiana. His running game gave him zero support against Indiana and it may fall to the young signal-caller to once again carry his offense against rival Michigan. Wide receiver Allen Robinson is virtually uncoverable and will feature heavily into PSU's game plan. Hackenberg will be asked to play flawless football — which he is capable of doing — to defeat the Wolverines at home.
4. Indiana’s offensive line
The Spartans' front seven is one of the best in the nation with big run-stuffers (Tyler Hoover), edge pass-rushers (Shilique Calhoun), physical linebackers (Max Bullough) and general playmakers (Denicos Allen). And if the Hoosiers can neutralize this group, there is a lockdown cover corner to deal with (Darqueze Dennard). The Hoosiers' offensive line will face its toughest test of the season this weekend and will have to play near perfect football if IU wants to pull the upset.
5. DaQuan Jones, DL, Penn State
The Nittany Lions defensive lineman will have his hands full this weekend against the physical Spartans offensive line. Jones is leading the team in tackles for a loss and sacks and is No. 2 in tackles — from his interior line position. Holding his ground against the run and disrupting Connor Cook in the passing game should give the rest of the talented PSU front seven a chance to make plays.
Big Ten Week 7 Prediction Grid:
Northwestern (+9.5) at Wisconsin
Michigan St (+3) at Penn St
Penn St, 28-27
Indiana (+9.5) at Michigan St
Mich. St, 24-21
Mich. St, 24-17
Mich. St, 34-27
Mich. St, 21-17
Nebraska (-14) at Purdue