Athlon Sports previews every contest, identifies the most pivotal players and picks every Big Ten game.
It wasn’t supposed to be a dramatic weekend in the Big Ten. There wasn’t a single-digit favorite on the board but that didn’t stop a few teams from upsetting the apple cart.
Iowa put a scare into Ohio State on the road and Michigan set all sorts of records against Indiana. But the big news came in Evanston where Minnesota won one for The Gipper in a big upset over Northwestern. It all but eliminated the Wildcats from division contention and leaves the Michigan schools and Nebraska still standing — two of which will be on upset alert this weekend.
Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue are off this weekend.
Big Ten Week 9 Game Power Rankings:
1. Penn State (+14.5) at Ohio State (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Two of college football’s most historic programs will meet in the Horseshoe on Saturday night with the Buckeyes’ 19-game winning streak on the line. Penn State has won just two of the last seven meetings but both victories have come in the Nittany Lions’ last three trips to Columbus (2011, '08). Braxton Miller is coming off the best game of his season in the tight win over Iowa last weekend while PSU and star freshman Christian Hackenberg have had two weeks to celebrate the upset win over Michigan. Miller struggled to throw the ball against the Lions a year ago, completing just seven passes. But he was his usual electric self on the ground, rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the 35-23 win. The talented Penn State linebacking corps will have to stop more than just Miller, however, as Buckeyes tailback Carlos Hyde has rushed for 402 yards and five scores in three Big Ten games.
2. Michigan State (-10.5) at Illinois (3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2)
The Illini and head coach Tim Beckman need a marquee win and the Spartans offer one of their best remaining chances in 2013. Illinois has lost 16 consecutive Big Ten games and 11 of the last 12 meetings with the Spartans. Mark Dantonio’s team comes to town with the nation’s top defense and an offense that is back to puzzling the fans in East Lansing. Sparty mustered only 294 yards of offense last weekend at home against lowly Purdue and Connor Cook will have to be better against an improved Nathan Scheelhaase. The Orange Crush quarterback is No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing (257.7 ypg) and No. 2 in efficiency (157.98), so MSU should be forced to score some points on the road. These two haven’t met since 2010 when State intercepted Scheelhaase three times in the 26-6 home win for the Spartans.
3. Northwestern (+4) at Iowa (Noon, BTN)
The wheels have officially come off the Wildcats bandwagon. After an excellent start to the year, Northwestern has lost three straight Big Ten games. Losses to more talented and more physical Ohio State and Wisconsin are understandable, but the way the Cats played against Minnesota last week has to baffle Pat Fitzgerald. And things aren’t getting any easier as Coach Fitz takes his team to Iowa City to face yet another solid defense and power rushing attack. And he will be without star tailback Venric Mark once again. Kirk Ferentz' squad limps home after a valiant but losing effort against Ohio State in the Shoe last week. Look for the Hawkeyes to take advantage of Northwestern’s inability to stop the run by feeding Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman the football on the ground. Iowa won every meeting between the two from 1974-94 but has since watched Fitzgerald level the playing field. The Cats won 28-17 last year and have taken four of the last five.
4. Nebraska (-10.5) at Minnesota (Noon, ESPN)
The Gophers are riding high off a surprising road victory over Northwestern while Nebraska finds itself squarely in the Legends Division driver’s seat. Star quarterback Taylor Martinez returned to practice this week but his status for this game is still uncertain. He’s been out for five weeks and the Huskers are 3-0 during that span, as they have turned to freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior Ron Kellogg III. The Cornhuskers haven’t lost without Martinez but neither backup has the same type of ability as the 43-game starter. Minnesota, still without head coach Jerry Kill, was outgained by Nothwestern but used a plus-3 turnover margin to win on the road. Martinez is 2-0 against Minnesota with 470 yards passing, 74 yards rushing, no interceptions and three touchdowns in two blowout wins over the Gophers.
Big Ten Week 9 Pivotal Players
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox talk Miami sanctions, the BCS standings and preview Week 9 in this week's Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
The Big Ten’s leading passer will have to be at his best if Penn State is going to win in C-Bus this weekend. He has obvious special ability as the true freshman is leading the league in passing at 278.7 yards per game, completions (132) and attempts (226). Additionally, Hackenberg and head coach Bill O’Brien have had two weeks to prepare for the talented Buckeyes defense. Near perfection will be needed to pull an upset and both are talented enough to deliver that type of a performance.
2. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
The Spartans tailback is seventh in the Big Ten in rushing at 78.7 yards per game, but Langford has quickly developed into one of the league’s best backs. He has back-to-back 100-yard games against Indiana and Purdue with four total touchdowns in the two wins. With Connor Cook back to his mediocre ways under center, Langford should play a huge role against an Illinois team that just allowed 289 yards on the ground to Wisconsin.
3. Iowa’s linebackers
Northwestern will be without tailback Venric Mark but that doesn’t make the Wildcats offense any less diverse. Anthony Hitchens leads the Big Ten in tackles (70), James Morris (55) is seventh and Christian Kirksey is 13th (49). Pat Fitzgerald’s offense puts a lot of pressure on linebackers with multiple sets and versatile play-calling, so this trio of tacklers will need to come up big for the Hawkeyes.
4. Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The All-Big Ten defensive lineman registered his first career interception last week in the big upset of Northwestern. He is a stalwart in the middle of the Gophers' defensive line and is tied for fifth in the league in tackles for a loss (6.5). He will be tasked with slowing down a Nebraska rushing attack that is multifaceted with Ameer Abdullah — No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing — as well as power backs Imani Cross (8 TDs) and Terrell Newby (5.8 ypc). Hageman will have to play extremely well if Minnesota wants to pull the upset.
5. Iowa’s running backs
The blueprint for beating Northwestern has been pretty clear to this point. The Wildcats have been pummeled by power rushing attacks, in particular, in the second half of games. They have allowed 248, 286 and 176 yards rushing during the three-game losing streak and will face the tandem of Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman this weekend. Kirk Ferentz should lean on these two at home against the Cats.
Big Ten Week 9 Prediction Grid:
|Game||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Penn St (+14.5) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 34-28||Ohio St, 31-20||Ohio St, 38-20||Ohio St, 35-13|
|Michigan St (-10.5) at Illinois||Mich. St, 27-17||Mich. St, 21-10||Mich. St, 31-13||Mich. St, 24-10|
|Northwestern (+4) at Iowa||N'Western, 34-27||Iowa, 24-21||Iowa, 31-30||Iowa, 27-21|
|Nebraska (-10.5) at Minnesota||Nebraska, 38-24||Nebraska, 33-13||Nebraska, 34-17||Nebraska, 38-28|