October 27, 2011

Week 9 preview in the Big Ten

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The celebration from "Rocket" may still be near its apex in East Lansing, but Michigan State players can't afford to spend too much time remembering the Hail Mary pass that defeated Wisconsin last week.

THE SCHEDULE
SATURDAY
Michigan State at Nebraska, noon
Purdue at Michigan, noon
Northwestern at Indiana, noon
Iowa at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
Illinois at Penn State, 3:30 p.m.
Wisconsin at Ohio State, 8 p.m.
Michigan State is the Big Ten leader, regardless of division. The Spartans, though, could lose that lead if they're not careful. Michigan State travels to Nebraska this week with the Legends Division lead on the line.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, for one, knows his team can't spend too much time thinking about last week's win.

"If you're going to have a great football team, you've got to be able to let things go, whether you win or lose," Dantonio said. "You've got to be able to deflate during the week and build toward enthusiasm on the weekend."

Coaches can plead until they're blue in the face, but the onus for moving on ultimately falls to the players.

"The coaches can help," Dantonio said. "In the end, the players have to shut out all the outside noise they're hearing from all the other people, but the coaches can help put things into perspective."

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On the other sideline, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is trying to accomplish the same thing. His Huskers have an identical overall record to Michigan State (6-1), but at 2-1 in the league, Nebraska likely won't get to the Big Ten championship game should it fall to Michigan State. Michigan and Iowa also are 2-1 in the Legends Division.

"Every game's a must-win as far as we're concerned," Pelini said. "It's a division game, so you look at all division games as must-wins, but we approach every week the same. It doesn't really make a difference."

Perhaps the toughest task will be for Nebraska's offense. In the past two games, Michigan State's defense harassed Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Wisconsin quarterbacks Russell Wilson into their worst games of the season. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in total defense, rush defense and pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez's inconsistency as a passer could play into Michigan State's hands, but the Spartans' front seven first must stop Nebraska's rushing attack. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in rushing at 261.0 yards per game. Tailback Rex Burkhead and Martinez are among the top six rushers in the league.

"It's going to be important to look forward regardless of what happens in this game; this is not the end-all," Dantonio said. "But the chips get bigger the farther you go."

Best matchup: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase vs. Penn State's defense. Scheelhaase had a standout performance against Penn State in last season's 33-13 win in Happy Valley, going 15-of-19 including a touchdown to A.J. Jenkins. Scheelhaase has been OK in Illini's two losses, but he will have to be better if the losing streak is going to end. Penn State's defense has given up the fewest touchdown passes (five) and intercepted the most passes (12) in the Big Ten.

Player on the spot: Michigan QB Denard Robinson. The Wolverines are looking to return to form after their first loss of the season. Robinson struggled mightily against Michigan State, and has thrown four interceptions in the past two games. Purdue's isn't the best defense in the Big Ten, but the Boilermakers have some playmakers who could give Robinson trouble. NT Kawann Short has 9.5 tackles for loss this season, including two sacks in last week's upset of Illinois. CB Ricardo Allen has three interceptions in his past two games.

Keep an eye on: Ohio State's balance. The Buckeyes have run the ball far more effectively since the return from suspension of OT Mike Adams and TB Dan Herron. At the same time, they all but gave up on the pass against Illinois. In the past two games, the Buckeyes have rushed for 454 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. After a week off, it will be interesting to see if Ohio State continues to focus almost exclusively on the run or if the Buckeyes will give QB Braxton Miller more responsibility against Wisconsin.

Numbers game: With three touchdown catches against Indiana last week, Iowa WR Marvin McNutt reached eight TD catches for the season. He finished with exactly eight touchdown catches in each of the past two seasons. McNutt also had his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season against IU. He had three 100-yard receiving games in his career coming into the season.

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What they're saying

"This has happened to us a couple years in a row. We're mature enough. We understand what it is, we understand how to come back from it. We know what to do and we're doing it. So I don't see it affecting us any longer." - Michigan C David Molk, on the Wolverines struggling after their first loss in each of the past two seasons (from TheWolverine.com).

"I appreciate their passion and respect their opinion and freedom of speech. Like anything else, I think people should do their homework and research all the facts, especially young people because emotion can weigh heavily on their decision-making." - Purdue coach Danny Hope, on a handful of his players signing a petition to pressure the NCAA and college presidents into giving players a cut of TV revenue. More than 300 football and basketball players from Arizona, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Purdue and UCLA signed the petition

"Ever since [A.J.] Edds and [Pat] Angerer graduated, it seems like we've been playing a guy short. Last year, we had injury problems. ... We've had some good players ready to go, but we can't keep them on the field. It seems like we're right in that situation again." - Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on linebacker depth

"If you look at us the last two weeks, we played tight, particularly on the offensive side. Part of that comes from trying too hard and pressing. As a coaching staff, we have to relax and let them play. It's the same football team that's won six games." - Illinois coach Ron Zook

Poll watch: Michigan State is the top-ranked Big Ten team in the BCS standings, at No. 11. This is the first time the Big Ten hasn't had a team ranked in the BCS top 10 since the final week of the 2004 regular season. Wisconsin dropped from No. 6 to No. 16. Nebraska dropped one spot to No. 14 despite a win over Minnesota. Michigan stayed at No. 18, and Penn State moved up two spots to No. 19.

Etc.: Purdue held Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus last week; it was his first game without a sack since a Sept. 30 rout of South Dakota State. Mercilus still had two tackles for loss and four overall tackles against the Boilermakers. ... Former QB A.J. Derby played his first game at linebacker for Iowa against Indiana, recording one tackle on special teams. Derby was a four-star athlete in the 2010 signing class. An Iowa City (Iowa) High graduate, he was the top recruit in the state. ... The status of Iowa WR Keenan Davis (ankle) will be decided later in the week. ... Ohio State RB Jaamal Berry was named as a suspect in an altercation in downtown Columbus last Friday. Coach Luke Fickell declined to elaborate on his status. This is the second time Berry has been named in an altercation in four weeks. He was not charged for the Sept. 29 incident. ... Minnesota coach Jerry Kill finally signed his contract, adding two years (now at seven) to the original contract Minnesota and Kill agreed upon when he was hired in December. ... Purdue coach Danny Hope says Caleb TerBush is Purdue's No. 1 quarterback, but backup Robert Marve is "too good not to be in the games." ... Northwestern's five-game losing streak is the Wildcats' longest since losing six in a row in 2006, Pat Fitzgerald's first season. ... Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and Fitzgerald were on the same staff at Northwestern in 2001. Wilson was offensive coordinator for the late Randy Walker, and Fitzgerald was the secondary coach. .. Indiana's Tre Roberson was the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Hoosiers when he started in last week's 45-24 loss to Iowa. He was 16-of-24 for 197 yards with a touchdown, and led touchdown drives of 88 yards and 73 yards to start the game. He also rushed for 84 yards on 16 carries.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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