Wednesday, November 23, 2011
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13
By Adam Rittenberg
Coming at you a little early during this holiday week, here are 10 items to track in the Big Ten this weekend.
Russell Wilson and the No. 16 Badgers face No. 19 Penn State on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
1. Leaders of the pack: Before getting to the main course next week in Indianapolis, we're treated to a delicious championship appetizer Saturday afternoon in Madison. The Leaders Division title and a trip to Naptown are on the line as No. 19 Penn State visits No. 15 Wisconsin. The winner improves to 10-2 and moves one step closer to Pasadena. Wisconsin has been unshakable on its home field the past two and a half seasons, and the Badgers are averaging 52.3 points at Camp Randall Stadium this year. Penn State is 4-0 on the road this season and has allowed more than 14 points away from State College just once.
2. Michigan's mission: Michigan has exceeded outside expectations in its first season under coach Brady Hoke. But it won't matter much unless the Wolverines get over the hump against their archrival Ohio State -- or "Ohio," as Hoke and his players now call the Buckeyes. After dropping seven consecutive games in the series, Michigan has a golden opportunity to beat Ohio State. In fact, if the favored Wolverines can't beat Ohio State this year, when the 6-5 Buckeyes are sputtering, will they ever? It'll be interesting to see how a Michigan senior class that has been through a lot performs in its final home game. By the way, a Wolverines win puts the team in a great spot for a BCS at-large berth.
3.The Bucket Bowl: After a mistake-filled loss to Iowa, Purdue has backed itself into a corner for postseason play. The Boilers must beat rival Indiana on Saturday in the Bucket game to reach six wins and become bowl-eligible. A loss would ensure Purdue stays home for the holidays for the fourth consecutive season -- a troubling stretch for a program that reached bowls in 10 of Joe Tiller's first 11 seasons as coach. Another bowl-less winter and a second consecutive loss to IU, especially a 1-10 Hoosiers team, would turn up the heat on Purdue's third-year coach Danny Hope.
4. Different incentives for Wildcats, Spartans: Northwestern likely has locked up a bowl spot, but Pat Fitzgerald and his players are taking nothing for granted entering their final regular-season game. A victory gives Northwestern seven wins, a five-game win streak and most likely a decent bowl destination in the Big Ten's lineup. The Wildcats should have no problem gearing up for Senior Day. Michigan State, meanwhile, already has clinched the Legends Division and will head to Indianapolis next week. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio plans to keep the pedal down and play his starters, but it will be interesting how his players respond in a game they really don't need to win. With one exception, Michigan State has brought the right emotion to every game this season.
5. Zook's last stand: Illinois hasn't won a game since Oct. 8, and the clock is ticking for embattled seventh-year coach Ron Zook. The Illini have dropped five straight games heading into their regular-season finale at Minnesota. Some believe that, win or lose, Illinois will dump Zook -- but the Illini will be playing for their coach as they head to Minneapolis. A win moves Illinois to 7-5 and ensures the Illini of a second consecutive bowl appearance for the first time since 1991-92. It also could make the decision on Zook a bit more difficult for first-year athletic director Mike Thomas. Minnesota is the worst team Illinois has faced since its last Big Ten win against Indiana.
6. Devon Still vs. Wisconsin's offensive line: Penn State's defense must play its best game of the season to slow down Wisconsin at Camp Randall, and for the Lions, it all begins with Devon Still. The senior DT is a finalist for both the Bednarik Award and the Outland Trophy, and he's the frontrunner for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Still dealt with the flu last week and his play suffered at Ohio State, but he's healthy now and faces a Wisconsin offensive line playing without star center Peter Konz. The Badgers struggled to rush the ball between the tackles for chunks of the Illinois game before Montee Ball broke through. It will be interesting to see how Travis Fredrick or Ryan Groy handles Still and an improved Penn State front four.
7. A rivalry reborn: Nebraska and Iowa last played in 2000, but all the ingredients are in place for a terrific new Big Ten rivalry. The teams kick off rivalry weekend in the Big Ten on Black Friday, as the Hawkeyes visit Lincoln for the inaugural Heroes Game. While the game has no bearing on the Legends Division title race, both teams are fighting for bragging rights and a better bowl destination. It's a big game for Iowa CB Shaun Prater, an Omaha native, while the game's top individual matchup features Iowa WR Marvin McNutt going up against Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard. McNutt needs 12 receptions to become Iowa's all-time leader.
8. Swan song for Ohio State's seniors, possibly coaches: Ohio State's senior class has a complicated legacy, but one thing that can't be disputed is their ability to dominate Michigan. The Buckeyes have thumped Michigan by a combined score of 100-24 in the past three years. Although this has been no ordinary year for Ohio State, which sits at 6-5, the seniors still can produce the standard result against Michigan and salvage a bit of their final season. Maintaining The Streak in The Game also resonates for the coaches, whose futures at Ohio State are very much in doubt as the Urban Meyer talk heats up. Head coach Luke Fickell can earn a lot of points with Buckeye Nation by beating a favored Michigan squad in Ann Arbor.
9. WildLion and MoneyBall: Penn State added an effective new wrinkle to its offense for the Ohio State game, as the coaches emphasized the Wildcat, or WildLion formation, with former high school quarterbacks Curtis Drake and Bill Belton calling signals. It will be interesting to see how much Penn State uses the WildLion against the high-powered Badgers, or whether a suddenly intrepid coaching staff has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Wisconsin will have no such mystery in how it attacks Penn State. The Badgers will rely on Montee "MoneyBall" Ball, arguably the nation's most productive running back in the past year and a half. Ball has scored 30 touchdowns this season -- at least two in every game -- and needs nine more to tie Barry Sanders' record.
10. Looking for positives: Minnesota and Indiana are the only Big Ten teams guaranteed to end their seasons Saturday afternoon. There haven't been many positives for either squad, but the Gophers and Hoosiers can end on a good note, spoil some bowl plans for others and enter a critical offseason on a good note. First-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has seen "a different group of kids" since halftime of the Nebraska game on Oct. 22. "We're taking baby steps," he said. Beating Illinois for the second straight year would represent another step. Indiana, meanwhile, can ensure Purdue doesn't go to a bowl with a win Saturday; it would be Indiana's first victory this season against an FBS opponent. "With the way our season has went," Hoosiers first-year coach Kevin Wilson said, "we're using this week to try and find some positive motivation for our seniors to try and end it on a high note."