|ESPN.com: Big Ten||[Print without images]|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Clear your Saturday schedule, especially the afternoon and evening. This week brings us the best Big Ten games of the nonconference season, if not the entire fall. Aside from a few more interleague matchups later this month, Saturday will be the biggest chance for the Big Ten to prove it isn't overrated and can compete on a national stage.
Here's a look:
Florida Atlantic at Michigan State (noon ET)
The defending Sun Belt champs come to East Lansing, and this shouldn't be an easy game for the Spartans. Quarterback Rusty Smith and wide receiver Cortez Gent will test a Spartans secondary led by safety Otis Wiley, who looks like the player we saw in 2006 (10 PBUs, 6.5 TFLs). Nobody has been able to touch Smith so far, and Saturday will be a chance for Spartans end Trevor Anderson to back up his preseason hype. Coming off a five-touchdown performance, Michigan State's Javon Ringer should have another big day against the nation's 97th-ranked rushing defense.
Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 24 Illinois (noon ET)
It's important for the Illini to stop a somewhat disturbing pattern on defense and start stuffing the run. Illinois ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense after the first two weeks, a troubling sign for a team that lists the defensive line as its strength. Louisiana-Lafayette has the nation's No. 1 rushing quarterback -- and 10th leading rusher overall -- in senior Michael Desormeaux (146 ypg). Expect another big day from Illini quarterback Juice Williams, but getting the run defense in order has to be the top priority.
Southern Illinois at Northwestern (noon ET)
Northwestern needs a rebound performance from C.J. Bacher and the offense after being fortunate to escape Duke with a 24-20 win on Saturday. Bacher's timing looked off against the Blue Devils and the offense still could be adjusting to new coordinator Mick McCall. Igniting Tyrell Sutton would be a good first step after the senior running back cramped up against Duke and finished with just 66 rushing yards on 16 carries. Southern Illinois, an FBS powerhouse under former coach Jerry Kill, allowed 403 passing yards in a narrow win against Hampton last week.
Montana State at Minnesota (noon ET)
A perfect nonconference season looks likely for the Gophers, but they can't get complacent against FBS Montana State. Keep in mind that Minnesota lost to North Dakota State last year. Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber won't let that happen again, but the spotlight will be on the Gophers' running backs after starter Duane Bennett went down with a knee injury last week. Montana State opened the season by routing my favorite college team, Adams State, before getting the tables turned last week in a 69-10 loss to Kansas State.
Iowa State at Iowa (noon ET)
The Hawkeyes are off and running, ranking 18th nationally in rushing offense (243 ypg) despite the losses of Albert Young and Damian Sims. Their in-state rivals have been susceptible to the run so far (211.5 ypg allowed), but Iowa State still provides the first significant test for Kirk Ferentz's team. Ferentz listed sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi as the starter on this week's depth chart, and though junior Jake Christensen could still play, signs suggest the job is Stanzi's. Another strong performance against the Cyclones could cement things for him.
No. 16 Oregon at Purdue (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Get ready for some offense. Word has it Oregon can move the ball a bit, and the Ducks have scored 110 points in their first two games. Purdue used to put up numbers like those, and the Boilermakers are still pretty potent behind record-setting senior quarterback Curtis Painter. This will be a major test for the Boilermakers linebackers, particularly first-year starter Kevin Green in the middle. If Green and Anthony Heygood somehow find a way to contain Jeremiah Johnson or LeGarrette Blount, Purdue will hang around.
No. 17 Penn State at Syracuse (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Desperate teams can be dangerous, but the Orange and embattled coach Greg Robinson have too many problems to keep pace with Penn State and the high-powered Spread HD offense. Penn State ranks third nationally in scoring and eighth in rushing, which doesn't bode well for an Orange defense allowing 243.5 rush yards per game. Depending on the outcome of the suspensions for starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma, Penn State should use this game to audition several young players, as line depth has become a concern after the season-ending loss of end Jerome Hayes (torn ACL).
Michigan at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET)
The two traditional powerhouses look anything but so far this season, particularly on offense. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez plans to stick with Steven Threet at quarterback but will need continued production from running backs Sam McGuffie and Brandon Minor. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdowns last week but struggled with his decision-making at times. Clausen likely will face pressure from Michigan's veteran defensive line, which manhandled him last year in Ann Arbor (eight sacks).
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET)
If you're just tuning in -- from Mars -- Ohio State and USC will meet at the L.A. Coliseum to likely determine the nation's No. 1 team and the early national title favorite. The teams have combined for 18 national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners, and both rank among the top seven all-time in winning percentage. The game's biggest factor could be Ohio State junior running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, a big-game player who comes off a toe injury. The Buckeyes looked lost on offense without Wells last week against Ohio and need him near 100 percent. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez faces a senior-laden Ohio State defense that intercepted four passes last week.
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET)
This one is worth staying up for in Big Ten country. Wisconsin has an excellent chance to validate itself as a BCS bowl contender by beating the Bulldogs where few dare to play them -- in their own backyard. P.J. Hill and the Badgers' backs face a Fresno State defense that held Rutgers to seven points in the opener. Hill could wear down the Bulldogs, but Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge likely will need to make several big plays and will search for tight end Travis Beckum, expected to make his season debut along with standout linebacker Jonathan Casillas.