Jim Delany knows what he’s doing.
Half of his conference won’t play football this weekend, including most of his highest profile programs. Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana are all off this weekend and will be sitting at home focused on The Horseshoe like the rest of the nation.
With all due respect to a sneaky good Iowa-Minnesota contest, Delany wants no excuses as the entire conference is focused on what could be the biggest divisional game of the season for the Big Ten. All eyes nationally should be centered on Wisconsin at Ohio State Saturday night.
Big Ten Week 5 Game Power Rankings:
1. Wisconsin (+7) at Ohio State (8 p.m., ABC)
This is the biggest Leaders Division game of the year and could end up being the second biggest Big Ten game of the year (Ohio State at Michigan). Wisconsin’s defense has been a pleasant surprise through four games, ranking sixth nationally in total defense (243.3 ypg), fourth nationally in yards allowed per play (3.8 ypp) and 10th nationally in scoring defense (10.5 ppg). And Gary Andersen hasn’t changed the offense all that much — the Badgers already have had nine 100-yard games from their talented backfield trio. But facing the Buckeyes with Braxton Miller under center in Columbus is a totally different beast. Ohio State has owned UW of late, winning five of the last six overall and three straight in The Shoe. Even if Miller isn’t 100 percent, Kenny Guiton has proven to be not only capable of filling in, but extremely gifted in his own right. To pull the upset, Wisconsin’s front seven will have to play perfectly disciplined football and quarterback Joel Stave will have to complement the running game. Both of which would be considered unlikely on the road.
2. Iowa (+1.5) at Minnesota (3:30 p.m., ABC)
The Hawkeyes won just four games last year and just twice in the Big Ten, but one was a surprising 31-13 win over the Gophers. However, Iowa has lost its last two trips to the Twin Cities at the hands of two 3-9 Minnesota teams. Something has to give for two teams desperately trying to get to the postseason. Both teams feature dedicated and reinvigorated rushing attacks as both teams rank in the top 25 nationally at over 240 yards on the ground per game. So, as usual, the outcome hinges on quarterback play. Jake Rudock has had his good and bad moments for Iowa, failing to top 200 yards in three straight games but tossing four touchdowns and no interceptions over the last two. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Mitch Leidner — and his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame — likely will get his second start of his career after a monster performance last week against San Jose State.
3. Northern Illinois (+3.5) at Purdue (Noon, BTN)
The Boilermakers have serious issues on offense, ranking last among BCS (automatic qualifying) conference teams and 123rd overall with just 246.0 yards per game. So for a team struggling to score points, stopping NIU’s star quarterback Jordan Lynch becomes imperative. The Huskies are averaging 516 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play on offense behind the dual-threat abilities of Lynch. After the Boilers allowed nearly 400 yards rushing last week to Wisconsin, signs aren’t pointing towards the upset. This would be a devastating Homecoming loss to the MAC for Darrell Hazell.
4. Miami-Ohio (+24.5) at Illinois (Noon, BTN)
A game with the winless Redhawks is a perfect spot for Illinois’ star power to shine. The Big Ten’s leading passer is quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (294.7 yards per game) and he should get back on track after completing just 36.0 percent of his passes in the loss to Washington. On defense, the league’s top tackler is linebacker Jonathan Brown (12.7 tackles per game) and he should be able to lead a unit capable of shutting down the worst offense in the FBS (149.3 yards per game, 125th).
Big Ten Week 5 Pivotal Players
1. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
The All-American linebacker has been making big plays for the Badgers for years but stopping the Buckeyes' versatile offensive attack might be his tallest order. He constantly disrupts opposing backfields and makes big special teams plays — he even completed a 23-yard pass on a fake punt against Arizona State. Borland has missed two of the last three meetings with Ohio State but he posted 10 tackles in the historic 2011 Hail Mary game. Fans can bet the original Honey Badger will be fired up for this trip to Columbus.
2. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
The hard-hitting linebacker was all over the field for the Buckeyes last year against Wisconsin. He registered 12 tackles, 3.0 tackles for a loss and forced a fumble in last year’s win over the Badgers. He’s right back at it again this season, topping the team in tackles (30). It will fall to the explosive junior to stop the three-headed monster in Wisconsin's backfield.
3. Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin
The lanky Badger signal-caller was excellent in the first two games of the year against lowly UMass and Tennessee Tech (6 total TD, 72.0 percent passing). But Stave hasn’t been nearly as sharp in the last two games, completing just 50 percent of his passes against Arizona State and failing to throw a TD against Purdue. Now, he wasn’t needed against the Boilermakers but will be needed in a hostile road environment. The Buckeyes' secondary is loaded with talent and fans can bet Urban Meyer will be loading up to stop the run. Stave’s ability to make clutch second-half throws on third downs will determine the outcome of this showdown.
4. Iowa’s linebackers
Regardless of who plays quarterback for Minnesota (all signs point to Mitch Leidner), the talented Hawkeye linebackers will be asked to play well on the road. Gopher signal-callers Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson have combined for 472 yards rushing and eight touchdowns this season. Anthony Hitchens (9.3 tackles per game), Christian Kirksey (7.5) and James Morris (5.8) are all top-25 tacklers in the Big Ten and will be asked to contain the much-improved Gopher running game.
5. Ra’Shede Hageman, DL, Minnesota
The star defensive lineman has been stellar for the Gophers this season. In four games, Hageman has 16 total tackles, is leading the Big Ten with 5.5 for a loss, registered one sack, and has two blocked kicks. He had an extremely quiet game against the Hawkeyes last fall and will need to be ready to star against the burly and physical Iowa rushing attack.
Big Ten Week 5 Prediction Grid:
Wisconsin (+7) at Ohio St
Ohio St, 31-21
Ohio St, 34-24
Ohio St, 34-27
Ohio St, 35-28
Iowa (+1.5) at Minnesota
N. Illinois (-3.5) at Purdue
N. Illinois, 30-21
N. Illinois, 33-24
N. Illinois, 34-24
N. Illinois, 28-24
Miami-OH (+24.5) at Illinois