- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 7:
1. Follow the Leaders: Neither Wisconsin nor Purdue is the best team in the Leaders Division -- that'd be Ohio State -- and the two squads own just one Big Ten win between them. But since both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, it's a good bet that the Badgers or Boilers will represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. That likelihood puts an added emphasis on Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium. "It's a huge game for both teams," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. Wisconsin has dropped both of its road games this season, while Purdue comes off of a feeble performance at home against Michigan.
2. Big backs on display: The Big Ten has become a spread league, but Iowa-Michigan State games turn the clock back a few decades to the league's glory days. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Iowa's Mark Weisman both resemble some of their Big Ten predecessors at the running back spot. Both are power backs in the truest sense who have bulldozed defenders in their path. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (776), while both average more than 100 rush yards per game and have been MVPs of offenses that have struggled with the pass game. More than 650 pounds of running back will be on display Saturday at Spartan Stadium, and the defense that best slows down the boulder coming its way likely records a victory.
3. Northwestern's blueprint: Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Northwestern got away from its blueprint in last week's loss to Penn State, as the Wildcats ran far fewer plays than the Lions and wore out the defense with too many three-and-outs. Northwestern is still getting the hang of an offense that features two quarterbacks, one of whom is also an outstanding receiver (Kain Colter), as well as multiple threats in the run and pass game. Northwestern needs to do a better job of staying on the field and getting the ball to its top playmakers -- Colter and running back Venric Mark -- against a Minnesota team that has shown improvement throughout its defense.
4. Buckeye 'backers: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer didn't downplay the loss of senior linebacker Etienne Sabino to a leg injury, calling it a "tremendous blow." The Buckeyes lack veteran depth at linebacker and will need to lean on younger players for the next month. Although Ohio State is heavily favored at Indiana, the Hoosiers' dynamic spread offense provides a good test for a defense that has mediocre numbers on the season (60th nationally in yards allowed, 34th in points allowed). Indiana will make Ohio State's linebackers tackle in space, and it'll be interesting to see how freshman Joshua Perry performs as he fills in for Sabino.
5. Hope floats: Saturday could be a defining game for Purdue's Hope, who appears to have his best team in West Lafayette but needs to show he can turn a corner in a season filled with opportunity. Hope's decision to stick with quarterback Caleb TerBush as his starter continues to upset a portion of Boilers fans, who want to see the bionic-armed, ACL-less Robert Marve get more opportunities to lead the offense. TerBush will start against Wisconsin, but Hope could rotate Marve or make changes depending on the flow of the game. One thing is certain: Purdue needs to come out a lot stronger than it did last week against Michigan.
6. Illini try to stop bleeding: The Tim Beckman era is off to a very rocky start as Illinois has dropped four consecutive games by double digits, and Beckman last week committed an NCAA secondary violation when cameras caught him chewing tobacco on the sideline at Wisconsin. Saturday's forecast calls for more pain as Illinois heads to Michigan as more than a three-touchdown underdog. The Illini played decently for three quarters at Wisconsin, and Beckman is stressing the need for a 60-minute effort from his team, which still needs more offensive playmakers to develop and must regain its swagger on defense after allowing a league-worst 28.3 points per game through the first half of the season.
7. Gray day: Minnesota fans are anxiously awaiting the return of quarterback MarQueis Gray from a high ankle sprain. Could it happen Saturday? Coach Jerry Kill says there's a chance, and Gray practiced at about 60 percent on Tuesday. It's unlikely Gray will have his typical mobility, but his presence, even in a limited role, could spark Minnesota in a critical division home game against Northwestern. Max Shortell has passed for 616 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions in place of Gray in Minnesota's last three games.
8. Ferentz eyes 100: The dean of the Big Ten coaches aims for his 100th victory at Iowa as the Hawkeyes visit Michigan State on Saturday. Kirk Ferentz is 99-68 in 14 seasons at the helm in Iowa, and while it looked as though he'd reach the 100-win plateau a little faster back in 2009, it's still a significant achievement. In fact, Big Ten fans could be waiting awhile to see this again. After Ferentz, the coach with the second-most wins at a Big Ten school is Wisconsin's Bret Bielema with 64, followed by Nebraska's Bo Pelini with 42 (36 wins came in the Big 12). Ferentz is 13th on the all-time list of Big Ten victories with 58. He's 18th in all-time win percentage (.593) among coaches who spent at least 10 seasons in the Big Ten.
9. Toussaint's time: Michigan's Denard Robinson got back on track last week against Purdue (235 rush yards), but the Wolverines are still trying to spark top running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. After being suspended for the season opener, Toussaint has just 169 yards on 53 carries (3.2 ypc average) this season. Coach Brady Hoke continues to support Toussaint as the starter and wants to get the junior more opportunities with the ball. Toussaint has recorded no more than 17 carries in a game this season after recording 20 or more carries in four of the final five regular-season games in 2011. Illinois boasts a talented defensive front and has been strong against the run, but Wisconsin had success late in last week's game and Michigan hopes to replicate it with Toussaint.
10. Indiana's opportunity: The wins aren't coming yet, but Indiana is competing a lot better in Kevin Wilson's second year than it did last fall. The Hoosiers dominated the first half against Michigan State and played well during the second half against Northwestern. They need to put four quarters together to finally get over the hump in the Big Ten, where they have dropped 10 consecutive games. Indiana gets another big opportunity to measure up Saturday against Ohio State, which has won 16 straight against the Hoosiers. Although an upset seems tough to fathom, Indiana can hang around in the game because of its offense. A strong performance should boost the Hoosiers before they enter a much more manageable stretch (Navy, Illinois, Iowa).
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 7:1. Follow the Leaders: Neither Wisconsin nor Purdue is the best team in the Leaders Division -- that'd be Ohio State -- and the two squads own just one Big Ten win between them.