October 11, 2007

Little room for error in Big Ten

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Saturday's games
Overview: Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana all have one loss. That's why they desperately need a victory. Only once in the past 16 years has a team with two conference losses won a share of the Big Ten championship. Therefore, history indicates the championship aspirations for the Badgers, Boilermakers and Hoosiers are at stake this weekend. Staying in the race won't be easy. All three must go on the road against opponents with something to prove. Penn State, ranked in the top 10 just three weeks ago but out after losing two of its past three, hopes to prove it's still a formidable team when it faces Wisconsin. Michigan State, which takes on Indiana, aims to prove it can avoid another midseason collapse. Michigan, which faces Purdue, is hoping to prove a team can lose to a Division I-AA opponent and still win the Big Ten.

Best matchup: Purdue vs. Michigan. There often are two ways to get to the same destination. For example: Michigan runs, Purdue throws. The vastly different offensive approaches of the Wolverines and Boilermakers set up perhaps the most interesting matchup in the Big Ten. Purdue has not allowed an opposing running back to reach 100 yards, but Michigan's Mike Hart leads the nation in rushing yardage and has hit triple digits in every game. The Wolverines' defense has struggled against wide-open spread offenses, the kind Purdue runs. The Boilermakers average 302.8 passing yards per game to rank 16th nationally, and QB Curtis Painter has passed for more than 200 yards in every game.

The pressure is on: Coach Mark Dantonio and Michigan State. They have to prove history isn't repeating itself. The Spartans have a tendency to start fast, then collapse. They appear to be following that trend after losing two in a row following a 4-0 start. The Spartans can take a major step toward bowl eligibility and quiet some rumblings if they can post a victory over 5-1 Indiana.

Who's hot: Illinois TB Rashard Mendenhall has exceeded 100 yards rushing in three of the past four games, including last week's 160-yard performance against Wisconsin. He's averaging 6.8 yards a carry this season and has scored at least one touchdown in every game. Michigan junior WR Adrian Arrington has at least six receptions in each of his past three games and has 19 catches for 262 yards in that span. Michigan State TB Javon Ringer has rushed for 330 yards on just 22 carries in the past two weeks.

Who's not: Dating to last season, Iowa has lost its past eight Big Ten games. The Hawkeyes' most recent conference victory was 47-17 over Purdue on Oct. 7 of last season. They play Illinois this week.

Keep your eye on: Indiana QB Kellen Lewis has thrown for more than 220 yards in five games and has thrown three touchdown passes in four games. He could come up big against Michigan State, which has allowed 767 passing yards and seven touchdown passes in the past two games.

Ohio State3-06-0
Penn State1-24-2
Michigan State0-24-2
Numbers game: Ohio State's victory over Purdue last week extended to 24 its school record for consecutive regular-season triumphs. It's the longest regular-season victory streak by a Big Ten team in more than 50 years. Wisconsin QB Tyler Donovan threw 49 passes in last week's 31-26 loss to Illinois. That's 20 more than he's attempted in any other game this season and obviously more than the run-oriented Badgers want to throw. Michigan's next six opponents are a combined 26-10 and three are ranked. Minnesota starts three true freshmen in the secondary. Michigan has allowed just one touchdown pass in its past four games. Michigan has seven more turnovers (12) this season than at the same point last year, but still ranks 11th nationally in turnover margin because it has forced 19. Iowa has had 29 first-year players 11 true freshmen, 18 redshirts see action this season.

Freshman to watch: Season-ending injuries to Paul Hubbard and Luke Swan have left Wisconsin without its two starting receivers. Freshman Kyle Jefferson, a starter since Hubbard was lost in the second week, figures to have a more prominent role in the offense. Jefferson has just 10 catches, but has scored a touchdown in each of the past two games. He figures to get many more passes thrown his way this week against Penn State, which is ranked eighth nationally in run defense and could force the Badgers to throw more frequently.

Injury update: Wisconsin WR Luke Swan tore a hamstring and is out for the rest of the season. Illinois WR Arrelious Benn (shoulder) and QB Juice Williams (knee) are probable this week. . Indiana FB Josiah Sears (concussion), TB Marcus Thigpen (ankle) and TB Demetrius McCray (foot) are questionable. Michigan DT Will Johnson (undisclosed) is questionable. Minnesota LB Nathan Triplett (shoulder) is questionable. Ohio State LB Ross Homan (toe) is questionable. Iowa OT Dace Richardson (knee) is out and LB Mike Klinkenborg (concussion) is questionable.

They said it: "I have talked to (Illinois athletic director) Ron Guenther and, yes, it looks like I have a chance to be here for a long, long time and that is what I want."
Illinois coach Ron Zook on an impending contract extension

"People were hard on us. People are still hard on us, but every day we come to work and we keep getting better and getting some wins."
Michigan G Adam Kraus

"I don't know what the boosters are paying their players. They've done a better job recruiting. They have plenty of athletes. I've been around them for four years, and they are leaps and bounds from where I saw them."
Wisconsin CB Jack Ikegwuonu about Illinois. Laughing, he later said he was joking

Etc.: Michigan TB Mike Hart, who recorded his fifth 200-yard rushing game last week, became the school's career leading rusher with 4,655 yards. Michigan DE Brandon Graham has at least one sack in four consecutive games and seven overall. He's on pace for a school-record 14 sacks. Northwestern QB C.J. Bacher set a school record with 520 passing yards last week against Michigan State. It's the fifth-highest passing total in Big Ten history. He also equaled a school record with five touchdowns. Illinois has called exactly twice as many running plays (240) as passing plays (120) during its five-game winning streak. Injuries to three running backs thrust Indiana's Bryan Payton into the starting lineup last week, and he responded by rushing for 90 yards and three touchdowns against Minnesota.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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