What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 9

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track in the Big Ten this weekend as every league member is in action.

1. Legends of the fall: Not to downplay Michigan State's dramatic win against Wisconsin, but the Spartans play an even more important game Saturday at No. 14 Nebraska. The winner will have the inside track for the Legends division title. Michigan State can complete a daunting October schedule at 4-0 and record three consecutive wins against ranked teams for the first time in school history. Nebraska, meanwhile, must win to stay alive in the Legends, as freshman receiver Kenny Bell astutely pointed out this week. The Huskers' November schedule is tougher than Michigan State's, so Big Red must defend its home turf.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Zuma Press/Icon SMITaylor Martinez made some comments that caught the attention of the Michigan State defense this week.
2. Badgers try to avoid hangover: Wisconsin suffered one of the toughest losses imaginable at Michigan State, especially considering what was at stake for Bret Bielema's team. But there's no time for a hangover as Wisconsin enters a huge Leaders division road game against Ohio State under the lights. A second consecutive loss, particularly one within the division, could drop Wisconsin two games behind first-place Penn State. This is a veteran Badgers team led by a fifth-year senior quarterback in Russell Wilson. It will be fascinating to see how Wisconsin comes out against an Ohio State team playing for its season and its coach, Luke Fickell.

3. Redd zone: Penn State might be fighting an uphill battle for national respect, but Nittany Lions sophomore running back Silas Redd is getting some well-deserved attention. Redd has been terrific for an inconsistent Penn State offense, racking up more than 125 rush yards in each of the past four games. He has transformed himself from an ankle-breaking freshman, who dazzled fans with his moves, to a no-nonsense, downhill runner who embraces the featured back role. Redd suffered a shoulder stinger last week at Northwestern, but will be ready to go against a punishing Illinois defensive front seven.

4. Michigan's response: Michigan has backslid after its first loss in each of the past two seasons, as strong Septembers turned into rough Octobers and Novembers. The Wolverines struggled Oct. 15 at Michigan State and now come off of a bye and play a crucial home game against an improving Purdue team. Players say they'll break the pattern this year. "The leadership is different," defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "The attitude is different. I think the main reason why it won't happen is because we won't let it happen. There's a sense of 'will not.' There's not going to be a crash and burn." We'll find out against Purdue, and many eyes will be on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who needs to bounce back as a passer after throwing four interceptions in his past two games.

5. Buckeyes' last stand: Ohio State's season likely comes down to Saturday night's game against Wisconsin. A win would change the vibe around the Buckeyes' program and Fickell, who some fans have already written off as they pine for Urban Meyer or another Scarlet and Gray savior. If Ohio State beats Wisconsin and Penn State loses to Illinois, the Buckeyes would have a very real shot at a Leaders division title (pending the NCAA infractions committee's ruling, of course). Ohio State hosts Penn State on Nov. 19 and would have momentum on its side entering the season's decisive month. Coming off of a bye week, Ohio State is holding a Scarlet-Out in The Shoe in what should be an electric atmosphere Saturday night.

6. T-Magic vs. Spartans D: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez got some attention in Sparta this week when he attributed Denard Robinson's struggles in East Lansing to blustery conditions in the stadium rather than the Michigan State defense. "Hopefully," Martinez said, "we can exploit what Denard Robinson didn't do." Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy responded, saying, "We play football how we play football, no matter what the weather is. We go out in the rain, sleet, snow or sun. Hopefully there's no wind so he can make no excuses when we go out there and do our thing." Martinez made plays against Ohio State's solid defensive front, but Worthy and the Spartans will provide a huge test for T-Magic.

7. Bringing home the bacon: That's what Iowa hopes to do as it visits Minnesota on Saturday afternoon. The Hawkeyes stumbled last year at TCF Bank Stadium, losing the Floyd of Rosedale to their rival for the first time since 2006. Iowa is expected to get the pig back as James Vandenberg, Marvin McNutt and Marcus Coker take aim at a Minnesota defense that has surrendered 144 points in its first three Big Ten games. Minnesota is still looking for its first competitive performance in a league contest. Perhaps coach Jerry Kill's oddly timed contract announcement will get the Gophers geared up.

8. Reunion in Bloomington: The spread offense has come to define Northwestern, and on Saturday the Wildcats face the man who helped bring the system to Evanston. Former Northwestern offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will be on the opposite sideline, looking for his first Big Ten win as Indiana's head coach. Speaking of offense, there should be plenty at Memorial Stadium as both teams rank near the bottom of the FBS in key defensive categories. Hoosiers freshman quarterback Tre Roberson looks to build on a nice performance in his first career start, while Dan Persa is expected to play despite suffering a turf toe injury last week.

9. Illini getting loose: Illinois coach Ron Zook said his team played tight the past two weeks and paid the price, dropping division games to both Ohio State and Purdue. The offense in particular has looked out of sorts, failing to score in the first three quarters of either game. Zook's message this week has been to loosen up, stop pressing and remember what got the team to a 6-0 start. It might be easier for Illinois to play loose as an underdog Saturday afternoon at No. 19 Penn State. "It's probably a little bit easier to relax [against Penn State] than playing a team where [people say], 'Oh, you're supposed to beat these guys,' and all that kind of stuff," Zook said. Hmmmm. If Illinois drops a third straight game, it can get used to underdog status in November.

10. Willie freed: One of the best signs at the "College GameDay" show last week in East Lansing recognized suspended Michigan State defensive end William Gholston. It read "Free Willy." While Gholston sat out the Wisconsin win, he'll be back Saturday at Nebraska, and his presence could be huge against the Huskers' high-powered run game. The defensive end spot is critical against any sort of option (traditional, zone read), and Michigan State will benefit from Gholston's size and speed on the edge. Nebraska has rushed for 200 yards or more in six of seven games and 300 yards or more three times this season. Michigan State, meanwhile, ranks eighth nationally against the run (88.9 ypg).

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