October 13, 2011

Week 7 preview in the Big Ten

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Saturday's Michigan-Michigan State game will go a long way toward determining the early pecking order in the Legends Division, which looks to be a wide-open race.

The Wolverines have jetted to a 6-0 record under first-year coach Brady Hoke. The Spartans (4-1) have won three in a row over the Wolverines and lead the nation in total defense.

THE SCHEDULE
Purdue at Penn State, noon
Michigan at Michigan State, noon
Indiana at Wisconsin, noon
Ohio State at Illinois, 3:30 p.m.
Northwestern at Iowa, 7 p.m.
"It is a great opportunity," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Obviously we are glad that the past three years, things have gone our way. We expect Michigan to come in here and present a really, really tough challenge."

Hoke was a Michigan assistant from 1995-2002 and remembers the physical nature of the rivalry.

"I'm a defensive line coach," he said. "They were going to try to pound you off the football. You had to match that intensity. They were going to punch you in the face, and you've got to punch back."

Michigan State is punching hard in 2011, allowing just 173.4 yards per game. Some Spartans watchers think this may be the best defense that Mark Dantonio has had in his five seasons in East Lansing. The unit is led by tackle Jerel Worthy, a potential future first-round pick, linebacker Max Bullough and a strong secondary that has seven interceptions in five games.

That defense will be put to the test by a Michigan offense that ranks second in the Big Ten and 14th in the country (491.4 ypg). For the Wolverines, it's all about running the ball. The ground game ranks first in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation (270.4 ypg).

After allowing 35.2 points per game in 2010, Michigan is allowing 12.5 points, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and tied for eighth in the nation in scoring defense. In addition, the Wolverines have forced 17 turnovers - they forced just 19 in 2010 - including multiple turnovers in all six games.

[Expert picks: Week 7 predictions]

Quarterback Denard Robinson, arguably the most exciting player in college football, leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth in the country in rushing (134.8 ypg). But Robinson remains iffy as a passer, having tossed a Big Ten-high nine picks.

While Michigan State's defense has excelled, the offense still is looking for consistent production from a ground game that ranks 11th in the Big Ten (128.8 ypg) and hasn't gotten on track because of a line that has been in flux.

"Would we like to be scoring 50 points a game?" Cousins asked. "Yeah. Right now we are moving the ball. We will be OK, and I expect for us to continue to grow as an offense, and I expect for us to continue to improve from week to week."

Best matchup: Michigan QB Denard Robinson vs. Michigan State's defense. Robinson remains in the Heisman race, pacing the Big Ten in total offense and ranking eighth in the nation (341.2 ypg) while also leading the conference in rushing and ranking fourth in the country (134.8 ypg). "Shoelace" will face off against a rugged Michigan State defense that leads the league and is third in the country in scoring defense (10.2 ppg).

Player on the spot: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. For the Fighting Illini to maintain their perfect start, he must continue to excel. This week's challenge is a desperate Ohio State team that's coming off consecutive losses and in need of a victory. The Buckeyes' defense still has some bite and will challenge the dual-threat abilities of Scheelhaase, who has run for 347 yards and passed for 1,238.

[Video: Which Big Ten unbeaten should be on upset alert?]

Keep an eye on: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. It's clear the Buckeyes need him under center if they want any chance to win. After he left last week's game at Nebraska with an ankle injury with 4:46 left in the third quarter and Ohio State holding a 27-13 lead, the Buckeyes fell apart. Joe Bauserman came in and Ohio State foundered. Bauserman was 1-of-10 for 13 yards, was sacked once and tossed an interception for a quarterback rating of 0.9. With Bauserman at the controls, Ohio State scored no points, gained 41 yards and had just three first downs. The Buckeyes are 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, with a game vs. Wisconsin after this week's trip to Illinois. Miller is expected to play against Illinois, which is great news for the Buckeyes.

Numbers game: Michigan has allowed just seven fourth-quarter points this season. The Wolverines are outscoring foes 141-21 in the second half, a tribute to keen adjustments made on the fly by standout coordinator Greg Mattison.

Quotes of the week

"Coach Dantonio said when he got here that the team that wins that game walks the streets, not the alleys. We have been able to walk the streets the past few years. I know that Michigan is tired of walking the alleys and they are ready to get back out there, so it is going to be tough." - Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, on the Spartans' rivalry with Michigan. Michigan State has won the past three in the series

"All the major awards are won on the field. I don't think you can put a poster up in the middle of New York City or anything like that. I think it's about what you do on the field. I think Russell buys into that." - Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on the need not to promote QB Russell Wilson for the Heisman

"I think it's ridiculous, especially when you consider what Mike did and where that program was when he took over and where he brought it to. People criticize coaches for their lack of loyalty or whatever, but the reality is just look at what happened to him. Loyalty goes both ways, you know what I'm saying?" - Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on the firing of Arizona coach Mike Stoops, a friend and fellow native of Youngstown, Ohio

"I think it's worked for us in the sense that both kids have done well. I'm not convinced one is better." - Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on why he won't settle the quarterback derby between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden even though McGloin has the superior stats over the past four contests.

[Game tickets: Watch your favorite team in action]

Poll watch: Wisconsin deserves its No. 4 ranking in the coaches' poll. Michigan has risen to No. 10, which seems a bit high. Nebraska (14th) and Illinois (15th) are rated about right, while Michigan State (19th) and Penn State (25th) seem too high. No other Big Ten teams are receiving votes - and none deserves to.

Etc.: Nebraska DT Jared Crick will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. ... If Ohio State loses at Illinois, the Buckeyes will be below .500 for the first time since they lost the 1999 season opener to Miami. The Buckeyes haven't been below .500 in October or later since 1988, the last time Ohio State finished with a losing record. ... Nebraska and Minnesota are off this week. ... Wisconsin has won eight consecutive Big Ten games, with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points. That includes three wins over teams ranked in the top 15. ... At 6-0, Illinois is off to its best start since the 1951 team opened the season 7-0 en route to a 9-0-1 record and a share of the national championship. The Illini are one of 13 remaining unbeaten teams in the nation and one of just seven that already is 6-0 and bowl eligible. ... Indiana QB Dusty Kiel isn't expected to play at Wisconsin after injuring an ankle last week against Illinois. That means the Hoosiers likely will start Edward Wright-Baker. Freshman Tre Roberson also could see some time. ... Northwestern has won five of the past six against Iowa, and three in a row in Iowa City. ... Some hardware is on the line this week. Illinois and Ohio State compete for the Illibuck Trophy, and Michigan and Michigan State battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. ... Illinois has won seven in a row dating to last season, which is the third-longest current streak in the nation and is the longest Illini winning streak since the 2001 Big Ten championship team also won seven straight. An Illinois team has not won eight games in a row since the 1983 Big Ten champs won 10 in succession. ... A national-best six Big Ten teams rank in the top 20 in scoring defense, each allowing less than 18 points. Michigan State and Wisconsin are tied for third in the country, allowing only 10.2 points. Penn State joins the Spartans and Badgers in the top five at 10.5 points per game. Michigan is the fourth Big Ten team in the top 10, ranking ninth in the nation at 13.0 points. In addition, at least four units rank in the top 25 in total defense, pass defense and rush defense. ... Ohio State DE Nathan Williams is expected to miss the rest of the season with a left knee injury. He initially hurt the knee in the season opener and hasn't played since. Williams had surgery Sept. 13 and is expected to need another operation. ... Illinois WR Darius Millines could play against Ohio State after missing two games with a foot injury.

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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