Big Ten: Mike Wells

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
AM ET
It's an interesting weekend for the Big Ten. On one hand, we have an intra-state rivalry on tap along with a nationally televised night game at one of the best atmospheres in the country.

On the other, only one of the conference's five games is expected to be close. Four of the underdogs are picked to lose by double digits this week, and the closest game isn't exactly a hot ticket: Minnesota at Illinois.

For the first time all season, we Big Ten writers all picked the same winners. But will there be an upset? Can someone surprise in the Big Ten? Let's take a closer look at the matchups:

Noon

Minnesota (6-1) at Illinois (3-4), ESPNU: The Gophers are still fighting for respect, as they appear at No. 24 in the USA Today poll -- but they're still left out of the Associated Press' top 25. They've quietly put together a solid season, with their only loss coming against TCU, and running back David Cobb could be the most underrated player in the conference. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is fighting for his job, and he and his offensive coordinator can't even seem to agree on whether a two-quarterback system is best for the team. The Illini have a plethora of defensive problems, and they can't afford to have their offense stumble.

Maryland (5-2) at Wisconsin (4-2), BTN: Melvin Gordon is one of the most dynamic backs in all of college football, and the Terrapins are one of the worst rushing defenses in all of college football. That's not exactly a recipe for success for the Terps. That being said, Wisconsin's woes through the air have been well-documented, and it would be no surprise to see the Terps dare Wisconsin to throw. Randy Edsall needs to get his own house in order, too. Maryland has a lot of firepower on offense, but C.J. Brown needs to find more consistency for this team to hang with the Badgers. Backup Caleb Rowe is out for the season, so it's Brown or bust. And Brown has thrown three picks to zero touchdowns in the last two games.

Rutgers (5-2) at Nebraska (6-1), ESPN2: The Scarlet Knights just can't catch a break with their schedule. They were dismantled by Ohio State 56-17 on Saturday and they play Wisconsin next week. Rutgers was the surprise team of the conference in the first half of the season, but it will have to show something in this second half to retain that title. It won't be easy. Like the Buckeyes, Nebraska boasts a balanced offense -- and Ameer Abdullah is the best back the Knights have seen since ... well ... it's been years. With one Big Ten loss already, Nebraska can't afford a slip-up. But it might just have the most talented team, overall, in the West.

3:30 p.m.

Michigan (3-4) at Michigan State (6-1), ABC: Since 2008, this rivalry has basically been owned by the Spartans. Mark Dantonio's team has won five out of the last six, with the Wolverines winning only once in a 12-10 game in 2012. Michigan is coming off a bye week -- and actually won its last Big Ten game, against Penn State -- but the Spartans are on another level. If U-M can pull off this upset, maybe Brady Hoke has an outside chance to save his job and the Wolverines really have sparked a turnaround. If not, expect the same Michigan storyline that you've heard since Week 2.

8 p.m.

Ohio State (5-1) at Penn State (4-2), ABC: The Buckeyes have scored at least 50 points in four straight games, but they haven't faced a defense quite like Penn State's. On the flip side, the Nittany Lions haven't faced any offense resembling Ohio State's, either. The key to an upset here is two-fold: Penn State's weak offensive line must somehow keep one of the nation's best front fours at bay (unlikely), or Penn State's defense has to play out of its mind and force turnovers (more likely). Ohio State pounded Penn State 63-14 last season, and the Lions would like nothing more than to avenge the worst loss in program history since 1899 (a 64-5 loss to Duquesne). This game will act as a good measuring stick for both J.T. Barrett and the PSU defense.

Required reading

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

One of Bret Bielema's most treasured football mementos is a photo snapped on the field at Ohio Stadium in the wake of a 1991 game.

Flanked by his Iowa defensive linemates, Mike Wells and Ron Geater, a smiling Bielema sat on a bench, celebrating an emotional Hawkeyes win as three downtrodden Ohio State fans walked behind them. The day before, a graduate student killed five people and wounded another on Iowa's campus before turning his gun on himself.

"We had taken the decals off our helmets and played with only black helmets," Bielema said. "It was something that was very unique in my playing career. And that's a special picture just because it was my d-line group."

Bielema hasn't shown the photo to Wisconsin's defensive linemen but admits it might be a good idea to do so.

 
 David Stluka/Getty Images
 Matt Shaughnessy has earned All-Big Ten honors in each of his first three seasons.
The Badgers coach hopes that the team's defensive linemen will forge their own memories by the end of the season.

"Not only do they have respect for what each other goes through on the field," Bielema said, "but a lot of times those guys have huge weight gains once they get here, so they're going through that together. Every team, every university I've been to, the d-line is a special group."

Despite a subpar performance in 2007, Wisconsin's front four could be one of the team's strengths this fall.

The Badgers lost only one starter (Nick Hayden) and return three seniors -- standout end Matt Shaughnessy and tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk -- who have started in multiple seasons. Sophomore end Kirk DeCremer led the team in sacks last season (5.5), and he's penciled in as a backup. Shaughnessy has earned All-Big Ten honors in each of his first three seasons, racking up 33.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

"Just having each other's back is a big issue," said Chapman, who has 31 career starts. "You go out there and do certain things individually, focusing on your key, but at the same time, you have to be able to fend for your (teammate) next to you."

Unfortunately for the Badgers' linemen, the field isn't the only place where they've had time to jell.

Injuries swept through the entire team but hit the line especially hard. Chapman tore his ACL against Ohio State last season, while DeCremer (back), Shaughnessy (leg), Newkirk (shoulder) and junior-college transfer Dan Moore (knee) missed part or all of spring ball. DeCremer and Newkirk have been somewhat limited in preseason practice, but all the linemen are expected to be ready for the opener Aug. 30 against Akron.

"We've bonded and we've also gotten a lot smarter, too, just knowing basically the ins and outs of the defense because we've had that time to sit back and watch everything," DeCremer said. "That's really helped."

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