September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the Big Ten

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Conference play and a new era of Big Ten football kick off this weekend.

For the first time, the conference will play two-division football that will culminate with a league title game.

THE SCHEDULE
SATURDAY
Northwestern at Illinois, Noon ET
Penn State at Indiana, Noon ET
Minnesota at Michigan, Noon ET
Michigan State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m. ET
Notre Dame at Purdue, 8 p.m. ET
Nebraska at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET
The opening weekend of league play is highlighted by what many feel could be a preview of the inaugural Big Ten title game to be played on December 3 in Indianapolis: No. 8 Nebraska at No. 7 Wisconsin. This will be the first test for either program, as the Cornhuskers will be playing their first Big Ten contest since defecting from the Big 12 in a game featuring two 4-0 squads. And this is the first meeting between Wisconsin and Nebraska since 1974.

It also will be the first Big Ten contest pitting top 10 teams since No. 10 Ohio State played host to No. 3 Penn State in 2008.

"We've worked very hard to get ourselves in the position we're in today," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. "I saw that this is the first time since 1962 that two top-10 teams played here. We're here. We don't plan on leaving. So let's take advantage of some of the opportunities that are in front of us."

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The questions for each team are intriguing.

Can Nebraska pass, and will the defense finally play up to expectations?

Is the Badger defense championship caliber?

Is true freshman Braxton Miller the answer at quarterback for an Ohio State offense that has struggled passing the ball?

Can Penn State find any consistency on offense from a maligned line and continuing quarterback rotation?

Is Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa ready to go after missing the Wildcats' first three games recovering from an Achilles injury suffered late in 2010? Persa had an extra week to recover, as Northwestern was off last week.

Can Illinois' defense continue to excel behind the play of rising star end Whitney Mercilus?

Will Jerry Kill's continued health woes impact Minnesota as it searches for on-field positives in a season that quickly is about to circle the drain?

Can a soft Purdue defense stiffen while the offense searches for a consistent passing game?

Will the line play on both sides of the ball improve for Michigan State?

Can first-year Indiana coach Kevin Wilson find some leaders and playmakers – especially on defense – for a Hoosier squad that may be in peril of not winning another game?

Can Michigan's defense continue to improve in what could be a surprise season for rookie coach Brady Hoke?

"There are a lot of concerns," said Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "There really are. Any great defense is going to come out every series and play at a high level and with great technique, sound defense. That's been our M.O. so far. We haven't really, play in and play out, played the way we're supposed to play."

Time is on the side of Michigan and every Big Ten team as a new season begins with conference play.

Best matchup: The Wisconsin offensive line vs. the Nebraska defensive line. Even without Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy – all NFL draft picks – the Badgers once again have one of the nation's most physical lines. Led by right guard Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin's big boys are paving the way for the Big Ten's No. 1 total offense (532.3 ypg) and scoring offense (48.5 ppg). The group will square off vs. a good Husker d-line that has underachieved thus far. But the strong tackle tandem of Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler could break out, while Cameron Meredith is a force off the edge.

Player on the spot: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez. For the Huskers to have any chance to beat Wisconsin, Martinez must throw well. Nebraska has struggled, possessing the Big Ten's 11th-rated (106th nationally) passing attack with a 166.5-yard average. Martinez is the 10th-rated passer in the league, hitting just 50.6 percent of his passes for 647 yards with four touchdowns and two picks. Count on the Badgers sticking an extra man in the box and daring Martinez to throw.

Keep an eye on: The Michigan State offensive line. The big fellas need to come together for the Spartans to have any shot to win at Ohio State. The unit entered the season with issues, trying to replace three starters. And the group has gotten off to an uneven start, including a poor performance in a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame. Starting right tackle Skyler Burkland was lost to injury, and redshirt freshman center Travis Jackson and JC transfer right tackle Fou Fonoti made their first career starts last week. The left tackle spot remains iffy, too. Micajah Reynolds saw some action last week after a recent switch from defense and again will see time this week along with starter Dan France.

Numbers game: Seven. That's how many Big Ten defenses that rank among the nation's 25 best, as each permits 16 points or less per game. No conference has more teams ranked in the top 25 in scoring defense. Wisconsin ranks third in the nation, allowing just 8.5 points per game, while Michigan State (eighth, 11.0) and Penn State (10th, 12.5) also are in the top 10. Illinois ranks 11th (13.0), Michigan is 13th (13.7), Ohio State is 18th (15.8) and Purdue is 20th (16.0).

What they're saying

"I know Coach Pelini really don't get into the media and things, but if something does pop up in the media and things like that, he will hold something up and tell us to get us pumped or he'll find an article that says something like we're not good enough, things like that." – Nebraska offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, on whether Bo Pelini uses opponents' quotes as motivation.

"From a program standpoint, it is important. You want to point and say we can measure up against anybody in this conference. That's been our goal since we came here, to be able to measure up against anybody in this conference." – Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on beating an Ohio State program that he is 0-2 against.

"We had 28 loafs and I think it was 18 missed tackles. That was an embarrassment. We didn't come to play. That's on me. I take it very personal. I'm embarrassed that that tape is out there on how we looked on defense. We had guys playing like they were scared, scared to put their face on somebody." – Indiana co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler, on his unit's effort in a 24-21 loss at North Texas last week.

Poll watch: In the Coaches Poll, Wisconsin is No. 7; Nebraska is No. 8; Michigan is No. 19; Illinois is No. 22; Michigan State is No. 25. The Badgers and Wolverines are ranked correctly, as Wisconsin has been impressive vs. weak competition, while Michigan has a nice win over a very good Notre Dame team. Illinois may be a tad low, as it has a quality win over a ranked Arizona State team. At this time of year, few ranked squads can say that. Nebraska and Michigan State are overrated. The Huskers haven't looked like a top 10 while playing lesser foes. And what exactly have the Spartans done to be ranked? Nothing.

Injuries: Nebraska DT Jared Crick didn't dress last week at Wyoming because of an apparent head injury but is expected to play this week for a defense that saw CB Alfonzo Dennard play for the first time in 2011 last Saturday after battling a leg injury. ... Penn State LB Michael Mauti is out for the year with a left knee injury suffered last week vs. Eastern Michigan. He missed the 2009 season with a right knee injury. Nate Stupar must step up. ... The Nittany Lions also may be without CB D'Anton Lynn, who was carted off the field and taken to the hospital last week after trying to make a tackle. His status for the Indiana game is unknown. ... Michigan LB Cam Gordon is questionable with a back injury that has kept him out the past two games. ... Michigan State may be without offensive linemen Blake Treadwell and Jared McGaha. ... Indiana WR Damarlo Belcher, the Hoosiers' top wideout, may be out a second game in a row with an unspecified injury.

Etc.: Iowa is off this week. ... Joe Paterno will coach his 700th game as part of the Penn State program this Saturday. ... Minnesota coach Jerry Kill endured another seizure on Sunday and checked into the Mayo Clinic. It's not known if he'll be on the sideline for the Michigan game. Kill also suffered a seizure on the sideline on September 10. ... Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush is expected to make his fourth consecutive start, but look for Robert Marve to play vs. Notre Dame with the Boilermakers coming off an off week. Marve saw his first action two weeks ago vs. Southeast Missouri State after missing the first two games recovering from a knee injury. ... Michigan State closed off interviews with players this week, a first in the Mark Dantonio era. "I feel like I don't want our players in a compromising position," said Dantonio. "They don't need the additional pressure." ... Michigan State paces the nation in total defense (172.25 ypg) and pass defense (101.0 ypg). ... Three trophies are on the line: Michigan and Minnesota will battle for the Little Brown Jug; Northwestern and Illinois will play for the Land of Lincoln Trophy; Purdue and Notre Dame will wage for the Shillelagh. ... Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was a grad assistant on a 1991 Iowa team that included Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema as a junior defensive lineman and captain for the Hawkeyes. Also, each coach shares the same agent: Neil Cornrich of Beachwood, Ohio.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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