Wisconsin is about to go where no Big Ten school ever has gone before. The Badgers open Big Ten play Saturday at Michigan before playing host to Ohio State and Penn State in back-to-back weeks.
Never before has a league school opened against those three powerhouses.
If the Badgers can pull off the sweep, they could cruise to the school's first Big Ten championship since 1999. If Wisconsin emerges with a 2-1 mark, it still figures to have a shot at the league title. The toughest remaining games after that come on back-to-back weekends: Oct. 25 vs. Illinois and Nov. 1 at Michigan State.
For now, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is focused on Michigan.
"The biggest thing we have in front of us is an opportunity to go play Michigan at the 'Big House' in an environment, in a stadium, that is storied in college football," said Bielema, whose team was off last week after pulling out a 13-10 win at Fresno State. "There's been a lot of championships won there, a lot of great players have run across that field, but the only guys that are playing on Saturday are the guys that they're going to suit up and the guys that we're going to suit up. I'm excited to see what happens."
Playing in the "Big House" usually hasn't been pretty for the Badgers, who are 6-26 all-time in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin has dropped its last four at Michigan, last winning in 1994. But Wisconsin has won two of the past three meetings overall after winning just twice over the Wolverines from 1982-2002.
Michigan, which also was off last weekend, could care less about history. First-year coach Rich Rodriguez is worried about today – namely finding answers for an offense that ranks last in the conference in yards per game (290.7) and points (18.7 ppg). Turnovers also have been a problem in the Wolverines' 1-2 start. Michigan has given away the ball a Big Ten-high nine times.
"There's no question it would help the confidence a little bit, but more importantly starting off the Big Ten play with a win would be huge," Rodriguez said. "Everybody is starting with the same (clean) slate. … It starts off 0-0. I'm anxious to see how we compete against this football team."
Minnesota's passing game vs. Ohio State's secondary. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in pass defense (149.0 ypg). Minnesota paces the conference in passing efficiency and is fourth in passing offense (241.8 ypg). It will be fun to watch red-hot Gophers quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker – who leads the Big Ten with 32 catches for 454 yards and four TDs – battle a good Buckeyes secondary led by cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams. All eyes will be on Williams when the Fighting Illini head into Penn State's Beaver Stadium after a bye week. Williams was spectacular in a season-opening loss to Missouri, going 26-of-42 passing for 451 yards with five touchdowns and two picks. But in wins over Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette, Williams has gone just 29-of-50 for 271 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. If Williams, the fifth-rated Big Ten passer, flops, the Illini have no chance. The Nittany Lions' pass defense ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten (222.2 ypg); Penn State has seven interceptions and has allowed four touchdowns overall and just two passing TDs.
Michigan State running back Javon Ringer is No. 2 in the nation in rushing (174.8 ypg) and leads in carries (143) and rushing TDs (11). … Northwestern is 4-0 for the first time since 1962, when Ara Parseghian led the Wildcats to a 6-0 start, a No. 1 ranking for two weeks and 7-2 record. The defense has been great, ranking in the top 30 in scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (28th), pass efficiency defense (26th), tackles for loss (fourth) and sacks (fourth). … Penn State's lines are excelling for a program that paces the Big Ten in rushing offense (273.0 ypg) and rushing defense (52.3 ypg). The Nittany Lions have 17 rushing TDs. Penn State leads the conference and ranks seventh in the nation in total defense (222.2 ypg). … Minnesota has committed just two turnovers and has a plus-11 turnover margin. The Gophers lead the league in interceptions (eight) and fumble recoveries (five). … Penn State end Aaron Maybin ranks second in the nation in sacks (six). … Illinois linebacker Brit Miller is tied for third in the nation in tackles (12.0 tpg). … Northwestern has scored in all 16 trips into the red zone, producing 84 points on nine touchdowns and seven field goals. … Michigan State safety Otis Wiley is tied for the national lead in interceptions with four and leads the nation with 10 pass breakups. … Wisconsin has yet to yield a sack. … Iowa is one of three teams not to have allowed a passing touchdown. Boston College and USC are the others.
Ohio State's offense ranks 10th in the Big Ten and 92nd nationally (320.8 ypg), and has just four rushing touchdowns. The Buckeyes look to regain their stride against an improved but still untested Minnesota defense. … Turnovers are hurting Illinois, which has handed over the ball eight times. The only school with more giveaways is Michigan (nine). The Fighting Illini, which have the conference's worst scoring defense (30 ppg), must protect the ball to have any chance to win at Penn State. … Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen got his second start of the season last Saturday, and he struggled. Christensen lacked accuracy and poise, taking sacks when he should have thrown the ball away. … No league school has allowed more sacks than Ohio State's 10. … Wisconsin's foes are converting 44.2 percent of their third downs (19-of-43). … Purdue has the only Big Ten defense that yields more than 400 yards per game (427.0). The next worse is Illinois (371.3). … Michigan State has just one touchdown pass.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"I think any college football player needs to be careful who he listens to, whether it's the students, the people back home, the family, the media or themselves. I learned that as a student-athlete here, when things weren't going so well and the sky was falling and then we got better and everyone wanted to be your friend and tell you how good you are." – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on his players' ability to stay focused after a 4-0 start.
"I think it's more what teams are (doing) going against us. Notre Dame, for instance, was a lot of quick game – get the ball out quick on some play-action stuff, throwing the ball very quickly. In the other two games, they were in the shotgun, getting rid of the ball quickly. We haven't had a lot of drop-back passes so far. Teams have done a good job against us, protection-wise, but some of it is their schemes and how they're getting rid of the ball so quick." – Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on the Wolverines' struggles to make sacks and tackles for loss.
"The Michigan preparation is always special. … Michigan is one of the 'sexiest' schools in our conference and they're always going to have that label." – Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema on preparing for Michigan
"It's really being hammered ... that Painter's in danger of being benched, Painter was threatened to be benched. It was a matter of us just stating a fact. If we weren't successful, we were going to give (Joey Elliott) a shot. That's part of the game itself." – Purdue coach Joe Tiller on his comment after last week's victory over Central Michigan that he considered pulling starting quarterback Curtis Painter.
Ohio State running back Chris Wells is listed as probable, so he'll likely play when Minnesota visits Columbus. He has missed the past three games with a right big toe injury. … The quarterback juggling may be over at Iowa. Ricky Stanzi will start for the third time this Saturday. He has been more impressive and consistent than Christensen. … Penn State defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma are back at practice after being suspended for the past three games. Each played in the opener against Coastal Carolina. The players were later suspended when police found a small amount of marijuana in their apartment. It's unknown if they'll play against Illinois. … Iowa running back Shonn Greene has rushed for 100 yards in all four games. The last time Iowa had a 100-yard rusher in four consecutive games was Albert Young in 2005. The last time Iowa had a running back start the season with four 100-yard games in a row was Tavian Banks in 1997. … Since 1995, Northwestern has won six of 11 games against Iowa. … Illinois is 0-6 at Penn State, and Ron Zook is 3-10 vs. ranked teams as Illinois' coach. … Michigan has won 22 consecutive Big Ten home openers, last losing in 1967 to Michigan State. … Minnesota has lost 21 of its past 22 against Ohio State. … Purdue's Joe Tiller is 1-4 at Notre Dame. If Purdue can topple the Irish this week, he'll have a 6-6 overall record against Notre Dame. Before Tiller took over, Purdue had lost 11 in a row to the Irish. … Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill has averaged just 34 rushing yards in two games against Michigan.