Overview: Written off after two losses to open the season, Michigan appears to have righted itself. Back-to-back victories over Notre Dame and Penn State have the Wolverines, the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, again being mentioned among the top contenders for the conference championship. They're entering a seemingly advantageous stretch of the schedule, which begins with Saturday's game against struggling Northwestern. Of course, the schedule appeared advantageous when Michigan opened the season against Appalachian State, and you know how that turned out. Meanwhile, unbeaten Ohio State appears to improve each week, Wisconsin keeps winning in unimpressive fashion and unbeatens Michigan State and Purdue aim to stay on pace to be this year's "surprise" team..
Best matchup: Illinois vs. Penn State. It's been a while since Illinois seriously could be involved in a "best matchup," but the clash of Illini tailback Rashard Mendenhall and the Penn State defense is intriguing. Mendenhall has rushed for 503 yards in the past three weeks, which includes a 214-yard outburst last week that marked the first time since 1998 an Illinois player reached 200 yards. Yardage doesn't figure to be as easily accumulated this week against Penn State, which is sixth in the country against the run. The Nittany Lions have allowed just 219 rushing yards through four games, but 153 were surrendered last week to Michigan's Mike Hart.
The pressure is on: Wisconsin's offensive line. The Badgers already have allowed eight sacks, including three last week against Iowa. This week's opponent is Michigan State, which leads the nation with 21 sacks. Defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic has six sacks, and three other players have two.
Who's hot: Purdue is known for its wide-open passing game, but tailback Kory Sheets has put together back-to-back 100-yard efforts. He followed up a 144-yard effort against Central Michigan with 111 against Minnesota. This week he faces Notre Dame, which ranks 112th in the nation in run defense. Every starting tailback the Irish has faced this year has rushed for more than 100 yards. Three have their season-high output against Notre Dame.
Who's not: Penn State tailback Austin Scott has lost four fumbles in the past three games. In last week's loss to Michigan he fumbled on first-and-10 at Michigan's 11 with Penn State trailing 7-3 late in the third quarter. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams was just 13 of 28 for 98 yards and two interceptions in last week's win over Indiana. But he did throw two touchdown passes.
Freshman to watch: Last week against Wisconsin, Iowa redshirt freshman wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos caught four passes for 45 yards, including a one-handed 21-yard touchdown grab. Injuries among the Iowa receiving corps figure to enhance his role in the offense. He could have a big game against Indiana, which has had some problems in pass defense. Michigan State linebacker Eric Gordon has stepped into the starting lineup and should play a key role in the Spartans' quest to contain Wisconsin tailback P.J. Hill. Minnesota true freshman tailback Duane Bennett may get his first career start this week after rushing for 81 yards and a touchdown in the second half of last week's loss to Purdue. Bennett is from the St. Louis area, just like former Golden Gophers star Laurence Maroney.
Numbers game: Northwestern's offense managed just 120 total yards and no rushing yards in last week's loss to Ohio State. The Wildcats also allowed five sacks. ... Michigan's defense has not allowed a touchdown in two games. Unbeaten Purdue is seeking only its second 5-0 start since 1945. The Boilermakers' most recent 5-0 start was in 2004. Eight Purdue players have caught at least one touchdown pass. Indiana wide receiver James Hardy has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive games. His personal-best streak is six. The Hoosiers have forced 13 turnovers seven interceptions and six fumbles. Ohio State ranks second nationally in total defense and is allowing an average of 57.5 rushing yards per game. Penn State linebacker Sean Lee had 12 tackles last week against Michigan. Michigan tailback Mike Hart leads the nation in total rushing yards with 655 and is second in average per game at 163.75.
Keep your eye on: Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman is getting more comfortable and productive with each game. Last week, he was 11 of 14 for 179 yards and four touchdowns against Northwestern. He may be able to duplicate that feat and perhaps better it on Saturday against Minnesota, which statistically has the worst pass defense in the nation. The Gophers are allowing more than 400 passing yards per game and already have given up 14 touchdown passes.
They said it: "We're coming off two losses and this is definitely a pivotal game in how the season is going to go, much like how it was last year with this game. Things went kind of downhill after. It's definitely big."
Iowa tailback Albert Young on this week's game against Indiana
"I judge every loss the same way, and I don't like losing. I wouldn't say they have my number. They just play a strong game against us."
Penn State coach Joe Paterno on the Lions' ninth consecutive loss to Michigan
Etc.: For the first time in school history, Purdue has had two players return kickoffs for touchdowns this season. Dorien Bryant scored on a return in the season-opener against Toledo, and Desmond Tardy did it on the opening kickoff last week against Minnesota. Northwestern redshirt freshman Stephen Simmons scored his first career touchdown last week on a 99-yard kickoff return to open the second half against Ohio State. It was the second longest kickoff return in Northwestern history. Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, who has been slowed by a sprained knee, has been cleared to play. Also, guard Tim McAvoy, a native of the Chicago area, may get his first start this week against Northwestern. Michigan State's Mike Gyetvai is back from a shoulder injury, but he'll have to move from tackle to guard to fill in for another injured starter. . Minnesota has faced 21-point halftime deficits in all three of its losses. Iowa offensive tackle Dace Richardson is returning from knee surgery and will be back in the starting lineup this week. Michigan State and Wisconsin have not played for two years. In the last meeting, Wisconsin was undefeated and ranked fourth. Michigan State, which was 4-5, rolled to a 49-14 win. Ohio State third-string quarterback Anthony Henton was suspended after being arrested earlier this week for allegedly soliciting a prostitute. A Detroit judge issued an arrest warrant for Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, who skipped his trial for disorderly conduct.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.