Overview: Michigan State lost twice after winning its first four games, venerable Penn State coach Joe Paterno is drawing criticism and Illinois is coming off a loss to Iowa. Ah, seems like old times. What really inspires feelings of nostalgia, though, is that Ohio State and Michigan top the Big Ten standings. That qualifies as a return to normalcy in an abnormal season in which Illinois has been nationally ranked and Indiana is closing in on bowl eligibility. Indeed, the top-ranked Buckeyes and Wolverines again could decide the conference championship when they meet in Ann Arbor on Nov. 17. Each faces a difficult test this weekend as the Buckeyes take on Michigan State (5-2) and Michigan faces Illinois (5-2). Illinois hasn't beaten Michigan in Champaign since 1983, and Michigan State defeated No. 1 Ohio State in 1998. No doubt, the Illini and Spartans are thinking about old times, too.
Best matchup: Michigan State run offense vs. Ohio State run defense. No running back has rushed for 100 yards against Ohio State, which ranks second nationally in run defense. In fact, only Washington QB Jake Locker has reached triple digits against the Buckeyes, who allow 62.9 rushing yards per game. Michigan State, which averages 247.7 rushing yards to rank ninth nationally, should be the Buckeyes' strongest test to date. Shifty Javon Ringer has rushed for 677 yards in the past four games, and Jehuu Caulcrick adds a powerful change of pace for the Spartans.
The pressure is on: Ohio State, of course. Six teams ranked in the top 10 the past two weeks have been upset, so the Buckeyes – the only Big Ten team in the top 10 – must be careful to avoid that occurrence. Ohio State is the third team to occupy the No. 1 position in The Associated Press poll this season. The others, LSU and USC, were upset by opponents they blew out a year ago. Kentucky avenged last season's 49-0 loss to LSU in 2006, while Stanford got revenge for a 42-0 loss to USC. Last season, Ohio State defeated Michigan State 38-7. (Cue spooky X-Files music).
Who's hot: Northwestern QB C.J. Bacher has been named the Big Ten's top offensive player each of the past two weeks after throwing for 990 yards and nine touchdowns, with no interceptions. The Wildcats posted overtime victories over Michigan State and Minnesota in those games. … Michigan junior WR Mario Manningham posted a career-high 147 receiving yards and caught two touchdown passes against Purdue last week. … Indiana leads the nation in sacks with 32.
Who's not: Purdue TB Kory Sheets has rushed for just 39 yards in the past two games and was benched for most of last week's game against Michigan after fumbling. … Iowa has allowed a league-high 27 sacks, 10 more than any other Big Ten team. … Minnesota has a minus-15 turnover margin.
Keep your eye on: The status of Michigan TB Mike Hart, the nation's leading rusher, won't be determined until game time. Hart, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game this season, sprained his ankle in last week's victory over Purdue. If he cannot play, sophomore Carlos Brown likely will replace him in the starting lineup.
BIG TEN STANDINGS
Numbers game: Minnesota's Ernie Wheelwright and Eric Decker are statistically the Big Ten's most productive receiving duo. They have combined for 85 catches, 1,064 yards and 14 touchdowns. … Since 1980, Illinois is 3-20-2 against Michigan. Illinois last beat Michigan in 1999 in a come-from-behind victory in Ann Arbor. … Northwestern is 8-1 in overtime games and 13-3 in its past 16 games decided by seven or fewer points. … Purdue has scored just 28 total points in the past two weeks and 21 of them were scored in the final 47 seconds of games. … Penn State's defense has allowed just two touchdowns and two field goals over the past 10 quarters and a total of 12 touchdowns over the past 13 games. … Ohio State's regular-season winning streak has reached 25 games.
Freshman to watch: Penn State DE Aaron Maybin's role figures to increase substantially because of the injury to Jerome Hayes, who was a good pass rusher. Maybin, who has four sacks this season, could be key against Indiana. The Hoosiers have allowed 16 sacks this season.
"I definitely don't want to do that. I am just going to go out there and play my game." — Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman when asked if he's ready to declare his Heisman Trophy candidacy
"We wore blue pants against Penn State two years ago (a 61-10 loss), so I don't think you will be seeing the blue pants on Saturday." — Illinois coach Ron Zook. The last time Illinois defeated Michigan, in 1999, the Illini wore blue pants
"I apologize to some of the old fans or anybody with heart problems." — Northwestern linebacker Adam Kadela on the Wildcats' overtime victories the past two weeks
Etc.: Iowa reserve TB Dana Brown was arrested on Tuesday for assaulting his girlfriend. … Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz voiced his displeasure with articles in Des Moines and Iowa City newspapers in which former Hawkeyes quarterback Drew Tate was critical of the Iowa program. … Penn State's Brent Carter has switched from safety to running back, which helps to ensure freshmen Stephfon Green and Joe Suhey can redshirt. … Wisconsin WR Paul Hubbard, who has missed five games with a knee injury, practiced this week and could play against Northern Illinois.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.