What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 19, 2009
11/19/09
10:36
AM ET
Final week of conference play. Let's make it count.

1. Buckeyes try to bowl over Michigan: After a 4-0 start, Michigan looked like a sure bet for the postseason and possibly even a Jan. 1 bowl. But the Wolverines have been a mess in Big Ten play, especially on defense, dropping six consecutive league games. Now they must end a five-game slide against Ohio State merely to get bowl eligible. A win Saturday won't salvage the season, but it will put Michigan in a bowl game and momentarily turn down the heat on head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has been under siege both on and off the field.

2. Boren returns to the Big House: Michigan has bigger things to worry about than Justin Boren, like finally beating Ohio State, but the guard's return to his old stomping grounds should be interesting. Boren expects a rough reception from Michigan fans after leaving the school to play for its arch-rival. He didn't depart quietly from Michigan and caused a stir by dressing up as Rodriguez for Halloween last year. Boren leads an improved Buckeyes offensive line against Brandon Graham and the Michigan defensive front, so it should be an interesting matchup in the trenches.

3. It's Fiesta time at Kinnick Stadium: Iowa won't be going to the Rose Bowl, but the Hawkeyes still are well positioned for a BCS at-large berth, most likely to the Fiesta Bowl. To keep the door open for Glendale, they must take care of Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium (ESPN, noon ET). Iowa comes off an emotional overtime loss to Ohio State and must regain its swagger on defense after allowing 229 rush yards. Redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg exceeded all expectations in his first career start. He needs to follow it up against a decent Gophers defense.

4. Penn State aims for double digits: Much like Iowa, Penn State remains in the BCS at-large mix but must take care of business Saturday to have any chance. The Lions visit Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), where they fell in 2007. Joe Paterno's squad hasn't lost on the road this season, but it has started slow the last few weeks, paying the price against Ohio State. It's important for quarterback Daryll Clark and his wide receivers to take advantage of an inconsistent Spartans secondary.

5. Hankwitz getting defensive: During his introductory news conference as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in January 2008, Mike Hankwitz mentioned Saturday's game, the first time he'd get a crack at Wisconsin. The Badgers surprisingly dumped Hankwitz after the 2007 season, as head coach Bret Bielema gave Dave Doeren full control of the defense. The move has worked out well for both sides, as Hankwitz transformed Northwestern's defense the last two years and Doeren is getting excellent results from the front seven this fall. But you can bet it'll be personal for Hankwitz as the Badgers visit Ryan Field (Big Ten Network, 3:30 p.m. ET).

6. Drop in the Bucket: Indiana and Purdue each have seven losses, so Saturday's meeting at Memorial Stadium serves as a bowl game for both teams. At stake, the Old Oaken Bucket, as well as a chance to finish the season on a good note. Both teams seem to be better than their records indicate, as the Hoosiers led in all four of their Big Ten road games, while the Boilers own five losses by seven points or fewer. Purdue crushed Indiana 62-10 last season in Joe Tiller's final game, but Saturday's contest (Big Ten Network, 3:30 p.m. ET) figures to be much more competitive.

7. Title race still undecided: Ohio State has earned the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth, but the Buckeyes need a win in Ann Arbor to claim the league title outright for the third time in the last four seasons. A Buckeyes loss opens the door for Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin to earn a share of the league crown, provided those teams win their games Saturday. Penn State could earn back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time, while Iowa can claim its first championship since 2004 and Wisconsin can claim its first since 1999.

8. Linebacker showcase in East Lansing: If you enjoy linebacker play, tune into the Penn State-Michigan State game. Spartans linebacker Greg Jones, one of the leading candidates for Big Ten MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors, squares off against Penn State's standout tandem of Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee. Jones ranks second nationally in tackles with 126, while Bowman is eighth in the league in tackles for loss (12). Bowman and Lee combined for 22 tackles, five pass breakups and an interception in last week's win against Indiana.

9. Gophers head to hardware store: They take their trophies seriously at Minnesota, and third-year head coach Tim Brewster hasn't won one yet. Brewster's struggles in rivalry games are certainly a concern going forward, but he can really help his cause by beating No. 13 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, a place Minnesota hasn't won since 1999. Minnesota already has beaten two bowl-bound Big Ten teams in Michigan State and Northwestern, but a signature win against Iowa would validate the progress being made.

10. Tate vs. Terrelle: Many think Terrelle Pryor would have had much more success in Rodriguez's spread offense at Michigan, and they might be right. But Pryor ended up with Ohio State, and he has a chance to become the latest quarterback to shred Michigan's defense on Saturday. The Wolverines, meanwhile, will turn to freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who turned in a solid performance last week against Wisconsin. Forcier said he'd spend as much time as possible this week studying film to try and get Michigan's seniors a win against the Buckeyes. He'll need a big performance against the Big Ten's most dominant defense.
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