Northwestern-Minnesota makes rare appearance as league's most interesting game
The Big Ten doesn’t present many weeks to say this, so let’s get this out of the way: Northwestern-Minnesota is the most important game of the week.
Yes, more important than Penn State-Michigan.
There are a few caveats here: Ohio State and Nebraska are off, Michigan State is playing Purdue, and we all know why a game involving Michigan isn’t getting top billing, even against Penn State.
None of that is anything against Northwestern and Minnesota, two teams that are undefeated in the league so far. Perhaps both are longshots to win the Big Ten West, but for this week, they are in focus as they try to strengthen their case as legitimate division contenders.
Week 7 Previews and Predictions:
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Big Ten Week 7 Game Power Rankings
All times Eastern. All games Saturday.
1. Northwestern at Minnesota
Noon, Big Ten Network
Shocker of shockers, this game will determine the leader for the Big Ten West, or at least a share of it. Consider this: Northwestern and Minnesota are a combined 3-0 in the Big Ten with wins over Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. Northwestern has helped turn its fortunes by shutting down opposing passing games, holding both Wisconsin and Penn State to less than 50 percent passing. That said, Minnesota’s bread-and-butter is the run game behind David Cobb. The Wildcats were able to defeat the Badgers despite giving up 259 yards to Melvin Gordon, so the pressure will be quarterback Mitch Leidner to keep Northwestern’s defense honest. After an off week, Minnesota is hopeful Leidner and Cobb, who has exceeded 30 carries in each of his last two games, will be as healthy has they’ve been in a while.
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2. Penn State at Michigan
7 p.m., ESPN2
What should be a powerhouse matchup any other year has limited national appeal in 2014, mostly due to Michigan’s 2-4 start and three-game losing streak. Penn State is 4-1 but is coming off a 29-6 loss at home to Northwestern. Given offensive line woes for both teams, a low-scoring game in Ann Arbor seems to be a given. Penn State leads the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed per play and has a defensive front that should give Michigan’s troubled line a world of problems. Making matters worse for Michigan, leading rusher Derrick Green has been lost for the season to broken clavicle. Meanwhile, Michigan has held four opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing this season. The key storyline will be if Christian Hackenberg can turn his season after struggling during the last three games. Since Sept. 13, Hackenberg is 59-of-112 with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
3. Indiana at Iowa
No, this isn’t the most juicy game on the Big Ten slate, but it will match one team’s strength against another. Behind Tevin Coleman — who has rushed for 100 yards in seven consecutive games and a touchdown in 14 in a row — Indiana has topped 200 rushing yards in each game this season. At the same time, Iowa has held four of five opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The exception was a come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh in which the Hawkeyes shut down Panthers tailback James Conner in the second half. When Iowa’s offense is on the field, the Hawkeyes will be playing the dreaded two-quarterback system. Jake Rudock will start after missing the last game and a half with an injury. C.J. Beathard, who led the comeback against Pitt, will also see action. What shape will that take? “We’re not seven sure what the plan is right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters.
4. Illinois at Wisconsin
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen began the week with a defense of quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, who were a combined 19-of-29 with four interceptions against Northwestern last week. Whether the turnovers were due to the quarterbacks themselves, tipped passes or contested balls, the Badgers still have a team that’s too one dimensional to contend in the Big Ten. Against Northwestern, Melvin Gordon rushed for 259 yards on 27 carries yet the Badgers never led and trailed by as much as 13 until the final 4:16. The Badgers will try to find answers in the passing game against an Illinois team that ranks last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. Illinois, though, is in even more trouble. Tim Beckman may have needed a bowl game and a monster season from transfer quarterback Wes Lunt to save his job. Now, Lunt is out for four to six weeks with a broken leg, and Illinois is 3-3 and 0-2 in the Big Ten after a loss to Purdue.
5. Michigan State at Purdue
3:30 pm., ABC/ESPN2
Improvement is coming slowly at Purdue but probably not enough for an upset of Michigan State. Still, new quarterback Austin Appleby was able to lead the Boilermakers to their first Big Ten win since Nov. 24, 2012 in his first career start. The sophomore will face quite the increase in degree of difficulty in facing the Illinois defense one week to facing Michigan State’s a week later.
Big Ten Week 7 Staff Picks
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
Illinois at Wisconsin (-26)
|Wisc 42-10||Wisc 38-20||Wisc 45-17||Wisc 41-17|
Indiana at Iowa (-4)
|Iowa 28-21||Iowa 27-24||Iowa 30-27||Iowa 24-17|
Northwestern at Minnesota (-4)
|NW 38-35||Minn 30-27||NW 27-24||NW 27-21|
Michigan St (-22) at Purdue
|MSU 42-17||MSU 45-7||MSU 40-10||MSU 33-10|
Penn State at Michigan (-2)
|PSU 17-14||UM 21-20||PSU 24-20||PSU 17-13|