By DOUG GRIFFITHS
This will mark the third week of Big Ten play and it likely will feature the most important game of the season in the Leaders Division.
Wisconsin at Purdue.
The winner of Saturday’s game in Ross-Ade Stadium will have an inside track on a ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game in December in Indianapolis.
The interesting thing is the two teams are a combined 7-4 overall, including 1-2 in the Big Ten and haven’t beaten an opponent worth getting excited about. The two conference losses for Wisconsin and Purdue have come to Legends Division favorites Nebraska and Michigan, while the wins have been over the likes of Northern Iowa, UTEP, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan to name a few.
Unfortunately for the Big Ten Conference, which has been quite the punching bag and for good reason this college football season, the nightmare scenario of having a mediocre team represent the Leaders Division in its championship game will become a reality in a few months.
As you certainly know by now, Ohio State and Penn State are prohibited from playing in the postseason in 2012. It’s too bad, too, because the Buckeyes are the Big Ten’s best team — undefeated at 6-0 and ranked eighth nationally in this week’s Associated Press poll.
Even Penn State has been a pleasant surprise. To Bill O’Brien’s credit, he has gotten his Nittany Lions to rally from an 0-2 starting and are currently winners of four straight as they enjoy a bye on Saturday.
Ohio State and Penn State are the only teams in the league with 2-0 Big Ten records. But regardless of what they do in their final six conference games, they know they’ll be home watching as the title game is played in Indy.
It’s very likely that Ohio State wins the Leaders Division and even Penn State finishes runner-up, but a third-place Purdue or Wisconsin team goes to Indianapolis to play for a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Imagine Wisconsin or Purdue against USC or Oregon in Pasadena. Wow!
To say Saturday’s game between the Badgers and Boilermakers in Ross-Ade Stadium is an important one is an understatement. The winning team will know it has the tiebreaker over the loser (head-to-head competition is the first tie-breaker).
Badger coach Bret Bielema is fully aware of the importance of his team’s game against the Old Gold and Black.
“Believe me, I understand that at the end of the year, you can look back and say, It’s the decisive game in the division,” he said.
Right now, it’s just about Purdue and the task and opportunity that’s in front of us. There’s just a lot of football still out there.
Spin it however you wish, but you know behind closed doors Bielema and his coaching staff have talked about how their team would be in the driver’s seat with a victory over Purdue. After all, the only other teams in the Leaders Division eligible for the Big Ten title game are Indiana, who hasn’t won a conference game since 2010, and Illinois, who hasn’t had a pulse the last three weeks and appears to be the worst team in the Big Ten.
For Boilermakers coach Danny Hope, Saturday’s game may be even more important to he and his program.
Hope, now in his fourth season guiding Purdue, has led his team to one bowl appearance — last year’s Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (not exactly something to brag about). A win over Wisconsin would easily be the most significant victory the program has enjoyed since Joe Tiller was making Purdue somewhat relevant in the Big Ten.
“It’s certainly a game that could impact our team and our season,” Hope said. “It’s a huge game, one that both teams will be up for and excited to play in.”
The problem for Hope and his Boilermakers is Bielema’s Badgers are used to playing in big-game scenarios. Purdue, on the other hand, hasn’t had a game of this magnitude in quite some time.
So off we go as per usual, IndySportsLegends.com helps you decide which of those Big Ten contests you’ll want to keep an eye on and which ones aren’t DVR worthy.
(I was more impressive in Week #2 of Big Ten play, going just 4-1 with my lone defeat being Ohio State over Nebraska. I just didn’t quite believe in the Buckeyes, but I sure do now. For the season, my record stands at a pretty solid 47-10.)
Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) @ Purdue (3-2, 0-1)
West Lafayette, Ind. (Ross-Ade Stadium 62,500)
Yes, two unranked teams make the Game-of-the-Week. Why? Because for all practical purposes the winner of this one will take a stranglehold as far as representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship Game.
I’ve been less than impressed with what I’ve seen from Purdue QB Caleb TerBush this season. Hope says he’s performed head-and-shoulders above all others in practice. The fact is he’s just an average quarterback at best and Robert Marve, even on a knee that has a torn ACL, has a better arm and more big-play potential than TerBush. Yet, Hope continues to stand by TerBush and says he will start against the Badgers and for that you can bet Wisconsin says, ‘Thank you.’
Defensively, Purdue has a lot to improve on as Denard Robinson and his Wolverines dismantled the Boilermakers a week ago thanks to 304 yards rushing. It’s a safe bet Wisconsin will try and do the same thing.
Perhaps the Badgers’ traditional style of offense will play more in the hands of Purdue’s defense, which to say the least struggled mightily to defend Michigan’s spread and Robinson. The good news for the Boilermakers is that Wisconsin doesn’t have a playmaker like Robinson and will try to run the ball right at Purdue with its usual might.
Instead of Robinson, the Boilermakers will see redshirt freshman Joel Stave under center for Wisconsin. He helped the Badgers to a 21-point fourth quarter last week against the Illini. In that game, Wisconsin’s rushing attack generated 173 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. It will need similar production against Purdue if the Badgers are to win, something they’ve done six straight times against the Boilermakers, including four in a row in Ross-Ade Stadium.
If Purdue loses this game, expect the Boilermaker faithful to really be hard on Hope. He will have lost Purdue’s three biggest games of the season to date, including back-to-back home games that were measuring sticks for his program. A loss will simply give Hope’s critics more ammunition saying his program is middle-of-the-pack at best in the Big Ten. A Purdue win, however, will make the blowout loss to Michigan pretty much forgotten. More importantly, it would make the Boilermakers the favorite for getting to Indianapolis.
With that said, last week against the Wolverines, the Boilermakers lost two fumbles that proved costly, including one on special teams. They must win the turnover battle and cannot have any miscues on special teams if they expect to beat the Badgers. However, don’t count on Hope’s club playing a mistake-free game. On Wisconsin! Badgers 27-24.
Iowa (3-2, 1-0) @ Michigan State (4-2, 1-1)
East Lansing, Mich. (Spartan Stadium 75,005)
The Spartans can’t afford the kind of start they had at Indiana last week and expect to beat Iowa. Not that the Hawkeyes are overly impressive, but this appears to be a decent matchup for them.
Both teams don’t have very good passing attacks. I don’t think you can count on Iowa’s James Vandenberg or MSU’s Andrew Maxwell to win you a game.
Both feature defenses good against the run (MSU is No. 1 in the Big Ten, while Iowa is third). I think the Spartans’ overall defense is better, in particular because they’ve faced Notre Dame and Iowa hasn’t gone against a team even close to the top-25 yet.
Michigan State appears to have the better running game with Le’Veon Bell, but you have to question the Spartans’ motivation these days. I still believe home losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State are hurting this team’s psyche. The Green and White better snap out of it soon or they’ll slip up. However, I don’t expect the Spartans to lose their third home game of the season this week. Go MSU, but in a close one, 21-17.
May Be Worth A Look-see
Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) @ Minnesota (4-1, 0-1)
Minneapolis, Minn. (TCF Bank Stadium 50,805)
Call this matchup “The Contender/Pretender Bowl.” The winner will stay in contention in the Big Ten’s Legends Division, while the loser will be pretty much what we always thought they would be a non-factor in the Legends Division race.
Northwestern needs to put its fourth-quarter collapse at Penn State a week ago behind it. If the ‘Cats don’t leave the Twin Cities with a W, they could continue their recent pattern of getting off to very good starts only to see the bottom drop out as the season progresses. That’s a very likely scenario when you consider games against Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa are on the horizon.
Minnesota may get a boost as quarterback MarQueis Gray could final return from a high ankle sprain.
Overall though I don’t think the Gophers are as good as their record may indicate and I have faith in Pat Fitzgerald’s team bouncing back. Go ‘Cats, 31-21.
Illinois (2-4, 0-2) @ #25 Michigan (3-2, 1-0)
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Michigan Stadium 109,901)
The Wolverines came out of their bye week and looked like one of the Big Ten favorites, which we thought they would resemble in the preseason, by pounding overmatched Purdue. Robinson looked like his old self, too (that’s bad news for the Big Ten teams on Michigan’s remaining schedule), rushing 24 times for 235 yards and throwing for a score.
Don’t expect much of a fight from Tim Beckman’s Fighting Illini. His defense is one of the nation’s worst, allowing 28.3 points per game. Get this — in Illinois’ four losses this season, it has allowed 163 points, an average of 40.75 points per game. The Illini offense isn’t much better either, scoring just 21.2 points a game (ranking 103rd out of 120 FBS teams).
Expect another big day from Robinson, especially considering Illinois has struggled slowing down spread teams this season. Give the 25 points as Michigan rolls, 49-14.
#8 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) @ Indiana (2-3, 0-2)
Bloomington, Ind. (Memorial Stadium 52,929)
If Ohio State hung 63 points on Nebraska last week, imagine what its going to do in Bloomington, which might as well be called Ohio Stadium West as thousands of Scarlet and Gray fans will take over IU’s home stadium to make it more of a home game for Ohio State.
The Hoosiers, who feature the top-rated passing offense in the Big Ten, did give the Buckeyes quite a game in Columbus a year ago. A repeat performance of that effort though may be just too much to ask for an Indiana team that has to be doubting itself, knowing it has lost 10 Big Ten games in a row. Plus, IU hasn’t beaten Ohio State in the last 19 tries (0-18-1), dating to a 1988 win over the Buckeyes in Bloomington. All Ohio State, 44-10.
(All times ET)
Follow Doug Griffiths on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ISLgriffiths.