Some items to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:
1. Whether Taylor Martinez plays: The Nebraska quarterback returned to practice this week after being out more than a month with a turf toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez looked good in Sunday’s practice but whether that translates into getting game snaps Saturday at Minnesota remains to be seen. With Martinez out, senior Ron Kellogg III has stepped in and played well. The Cornhuskers have picked up three consecutive wins since the UCLA loss, but they definitely aren’t the same team without Martinez calling the shots. Nebraska has a favorable schedule to run the table in conference play, but the Cornhuskers will have to make sure they don’t slip up anywhere, and those kind of slip-ups seem much more probable with Martinez on the sideline. If he’s 100 percent, he should play this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how he takes the field.
2. Opportunities for big nights: There are a few matchups this weekend that provide interesting pairings and could produce big nights for a few individuals. Michigan State faces Illinois, the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Of late, MSU running back Jeremy Langford has really come into his own (two consecutive 100-yard games). Northwestern has the No. 9 rushing defense in the Big Ten, and Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who has had a few disappointing games in a row but is looking for a chance to rebound -- will have the opportunity to face a defense that he could tear apart. But it’s not just Weisman who could have a big night. Northwestern also has the No. 11 pass defense in the Big Ten, so QB Jake Rudock could look to take shots of his own downfield.
3. Young QBs with road trips: Michigan State redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg are two years apart, but they’re both in their first full seasons of commanding their offenses. This weekend, the two will look for big wins on the road. Cook has gone 1-1 in the Spartans’ road games (lost at Notre Dame, won at Iowa), while Hackenberg’s task in Columbus will be a bit more difficult. The true freshman has never played in an environment quite like The Horseshoe. Penn State’s only road game this season was three weeks ago at Indiana. This weekend, he’ll be thrown into a very hostile environment. He’ll have the chance to see and feel what every opposing QB has to go through when they come to Beaver Stadium.
4. Northwestern looking to pick up its first Big Ten win: Did anyone bet on the Wildcats going through the first month of their conference schedule without a single win? Bueller? Bueller? It has definitely been a surprise to see how flat the Wildcats have fallen after their Big Ten opening loss to Ohio State. The way in which they lost to Wisconsin and the fact they lost to Minnesota came as big shocks and so now, a month after the conference season began, we’re still waiting on the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win. They’ll play at Iowa, which is a difficult environment as the fans are basically on top of the players. But the Buckeyes took care of business in Iowa last weekend, so if Northwestern can replicate that kind of play (or the play the Cats had against Ohio State), we might see a mark in the W column.
5. Relapse or improvements -- it could go either way for some teams: Northwestern isn’t the only team that wants to improve on its most recent performance(s). Add the Buckeyes and Michigan State to that list as well. Ohio State trailed Iowa at the half last weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes offense got off to a bit of a slow start as it scored only 10 first-half points, and Carlos Hyde rushed for just 43 yards. Michigan State suffered similar issues but worse. The defense scored its fifth touchdown of the season, but the Spartans offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter and it was on a trick play. Michigan State heads to Illinois. The Illini are giving up more than 32 points per game and are winless in Big Ten play. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wildcats respond after performances that were less than inspiring.
6. Minnesota picking up momentum ... sort of: It’s hard to say the Gophers are starting to put it together since their win against Northwestern came when the Cats were missing running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. But it was a road win that brought Minnesota quite a bit of confidence. This weekend, they’ll welcome Nebraska to Minneapolis. The Cornhuskers might be without their QB, which would obviously benefit the Gophers defense and be another situation that could produce a “they won, but ...” situation.