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BT Blast: Huskers Have Legends Edge

Welcome to Big Ten Blast!

This will be a regular weekly column where we will provide some news and notes from around the conference.

There will be four division games among the five Big Ten contests scheduled this weekend. The featured game sends new Legends Division front runner Nebraska to Michigan State. Nebraska is tied with Michigan for the division lead at 3-1, but the Huskers hold the tiebreaker after their 23-9 win over the Wolverines last week. MSU wants to build off the momentum it gained by knocking off Wisconsin 16-13 in overtime in Madison.

Ohio State took command of the Leaders Division lead with last week’s 35-23 win at Penn State, leaving the Buckeyes as the league’s only unbeaten team (both overall and in conference play).

There are two trophy games this weekend as Ohio State hosts Illinois in the Illibuck rivalry and Minnesota hosts Michigan in the annual Little Brown Jug game. Also, Penn State visits Purdue in a Leaders Division game. Iowa will travel to Indiana as well, while Northwestern and Wisconsin will be idle.

Below, we look at each of these match-ups. Here goes this week’s Big Ten Blast:

Nebraska (21) at Michigan State

Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) took the upper hand in the race for the Legends Division title and a spot in the Big Ten championship game with last Saturday’s win over Michigan. But the Huskers can ill afford to look past Michigan State (5-4, 2-3), which just knocked off Wisconsin in Madison after three heartbreaking Big Ten losses by a combined six points.

This will be Nebraska’s first visit to East Lansing since 1995. Nebraska won the schools’ first-ever Big Ten meeting last year in Lincoln (24-3).

“We have a lot of respect for their program and the football tradition they have,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. “I think Coach Dantonio not only runs a great program, but he is a class guy. He does a great job and has a great coaching staff. It will be a heck of a challenge for our team. We need to play well in all phases of the game and be prepared to win it any way you have to.”

After getting torched for 63 points by Ohio State on Oct. 6, the Nebraska defense has responded positively in wins at Northwestern (29-28) and over Michigan.

“I think we are getting better defensively,” Pelini said. “I think we are executing better. I still think there is more out there for us. But we have made some significant improvement. That’s a week to week thing. You are only as good as your last outing. I think our guys understand that.”

Pelini said he has been impressed with MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who led a drive to force the overtime at Wisconsin and then hit Bennie Fowler for the game-winning touchdown.

“He’s obviously gotten better,” Pelini said. “I think he is a young, up and coming, extremely talented young man. He’s cool and calm. He’s a good leader out on the field. Given time, he’s going to be really good. He can make all of the throws.”

Likewise, MSU coach (and defensive guru) Mark Dantonio said Nebraska’s offense – leading the Big Ten at 39.2 points and 489.1 yards per game – concerns him.

“They have so many different weapons with (Taylor) Martinez and all of the quarterback runs,” Dantonio said. “They do a good job of mixing things up and creating run/pass conflicts at times. They have outstanding tailbacks with (Ameer) Abdullah and (Rex) Burkhead. Then, they have a great group of receivers as well. They are a tough offense to defend. They are No. 1 in scoring, rushing and total offense. You don’t get there by accident.”

After tight losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan, Dantonio was glad to see his team break through – and resurrect its season possibly – with the come-from-behind win at Wisconsin.

“It was a great game for us because it was a game we finished,” Dantonio said. “We won a close game. We had beaten Boise State and Indiana in close games, but the past couple games we lost on the last play of the game. It sent a great message to our players that if you keep playing good things will happen.

“Our chemistry, energy and mind-set is all pretty good. We’ve always talked about November is when you finish things. You are always measured by what you do at the end. We have opportunities and challenges in front of us. Our message to our team is finish. It begins this weekend. We can’t look any farther than Saturday.”

Click here for more MSU coverage from Spartan Tailgate.

After the win over Michigan, Nebraska moved into this week’s AP poll at No. 21. Click here for more coverage from Huskers Illustrated.

Michigan at Minnesota

Michigan (5-3, 3-1) will get a chance to regroup as it visits Minnesota (5-3, 1-3). The Gophers notched their first Big Ten win with a 44-28 triumph over Purdue last Saturday in Minneapolis.

Michigan and Minnesota play for the Little Brown Jug. Michigan leads the all-time series 71-24-3 and has won 20 of the last 21 meetings, including a 58-0 blowout last year.

UM coach Brady Hoke said QB Denard Robinson, knocked out of the Nebraska game with an elbow injury, should start against Minnesota.

“He should be fine,” Hoke said. “It’s one of those things that flares up now and then depending on how he gets hit. He’s getting better every day and we think he will be fine.

“He’s a pretty special player. We’re confident he will be (fine) on Saturday.”

The Wolverines sputtered without Robinson. Backup Russell Bellomy was 3 of 16 passing with three interceptions.

“Did we pick ourselves up the way we wanted to? No,” Hoke said. “The line of scrimmage, we weren’t blocking as well as we need to. We mishandled a couple of balls in there.”

Hoke said that Devin Gardner, a former quarterback now repping at wide receiver, will also rep at quarterback this week in case Robinson can’t play.

After some down years defensively, Michigan’s defense is returning to form. The Wolverines are still giving up about 17 points a game – just as they did a year ago. But they have lowered their yards allowed per game by 30 to 290.4 per game this season.

“People are running it a little bit more and we don’t like that,” Hoke said. “I think our kids are playing hard and trying to do their job within the defense.”

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill discussed Michigan’s defensive improvement.

“Defensively, Coach (Greg) Mattison has been in the NFL and all over the place,” Kill said. “He’s done a good job with the defense. They are an under front, zone pressure defense that does a great job of keeping the ball in front of them. They do a good job of maintaining leverage on the ball and not giving up the big play.”

Kill has turned the reins at quarterback over to freshman Philip Nelson. He threw for 246 yards in the win over Purdue.

“He comes from a good high school program,” Kill said of Nelson. “That program won a state championship. He just has that knack for playing the game. He’s got a quick release. He is still learning. But for a freshman, he has played two pretty good games.”

Gophers cornerback Michael Carter came up big against Purdue with a pick-six interception. He also tied a Minnesota single-game record with six pass break-ups and had six tackles as well in earning Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.

“He’s played well all year,” Kill said. “He’s getting some opportunities and the ball is coming his way and he is taking advantage of it. But he’s played well all year for us. He worked hard over the summer and prepared for his opportunity. He practices hard all the time. He’s done what it takes to become a good corner.”

After the loss at Nebraska, Michigan dropped from 20th to out of the AP poll this week. Click here for more coverage of Michigan from Wolverine 247.

Illinois at Ohio State (6)

Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) will try and reach 10-0 for the 10th time in school history when it welcomes in Illinois (2-6, 0-4) in the annual Illibuck game. OSU leads the all-time series 64-30-4, although Illinois has won seven of its last 11 games at Ohio Stadium (dating to 1988).

OSU quarterback Braxton Miller struggled with some errant throws early at Penn State before settling down. He ended up accounting for 277 yards total offense and three touchdowns in the win. OSU coach Urban Meyer was asked about Miller’s progression as a passer.

“There is no ceiling,” Meyer said. “I hate to say it like this, but I am very disappointed. He could be better than he is. It’s just fundamentally he gets tied up in a knot. Saturday was not good. He’s a great player and he works hard. Mechanically, he can throw the ball really well.

“But we have to settle him down and work harder at developing his fundamentals. He has all of the tools. To say he doesn’t have the arm strength … he has the quick release and good vision. You’re not seeing anything close to what the final product better be because he can be a fine passer.”

Given the injuries and big play breakdowns the Buckeyes have had, Meyer was asked succinctly: “How is this team 9-0?”

“It’s an incredible group of players who find ways to step up,” Meyer said. “We’ve had some incredible moments on sidelines and in locker rooms. It’s about refusing to lose and believing in one another.

“There is a great story about (safety) Christian Bryant going up to our backup quarterback (Kenny Guiton) after he threw a pick against Purdue. The whole world thought it was over, but he rallied him back up. The power of teamwork, the power of truly caring for one another … I’ve always believed in it and we are witnessing it this year.”

Illinois has struggled with all five of its Big Ten losses by double digits. The closest was Illinois’ 31-17 home loss to Indiana last Saturday. The Illini have been hampered by various injuries, including to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

“He had the injury and he just hasn’t been as healthy as you would like him to be,” said Illinois coach Tim Beckman, a former Meyer assistant at Bowling Green. “Nathan Scheelhaase is an unbelievable person. He’s a great leader. He’s very important to our success of our offense and our team in general.

“It’s not all on his shoulders. It’s on our whole offense. I think he’s progressed and there have also been some situations that have kept him out and from where he wants to be.”

The mounting losses have taken a toll on Beckman, who estimates he has lost 22 pounds.

“I did need to lose some weight, so that has been a good thing in my wife’s eyes,” he joked. “You want to win and you’re in this profession to win. I’m proud of the way our players have handled this, but they want to win, too. I want to win and that’s just as easily as I can say it.”

After the win at Penn State, Ohio State moved up three spots from ninth to sixth in the AP poll. Click here for more Ohio State coverage from Bucknuts.com.

Penn State at Purdue

Purdue (3-5, 0-4) will be looking for its first Big Ten win as it hosts Penn State (5-3, 3-1). The Nittany Lions had their five-game winning streak snapped by Ohio State last Saturday.

“We’ve got a big challenge,” said PSU coach Bill O’Brien. “We have to do a good job of getting back to fundamental football. We have to do a better job – as a coaching staff and as players – of competing than we did against Ohio State.

“Give Ohio State a lot of credit, but we missed some opportunities on both sides of the ball and on special teams.”

O’Brien talked about matching up with Purdue’s multiple offense.

“They present a lot of challenges,” he said. “The thing you have to do when you play against a Purdue offense, which does a lot of different things, is you have to play well within the framework of your defense. You have to play well on third down. They may have some things on third down that you maybe have not seen on tape.”

Purdue coach Danny Hope has pulled the plug on starting quarterback Caleb TerBush. Instead, Robert Marve will make his first career start against a Big Ten team. Marve was 11 of 19 for 97 yards and two touchdowns in a relief role against Minnesota.

“He completed almost all of his passes,” Hope said. “There are two kinds of stats. You have the official stats and you also have quarterback stats. The official stats are a snapshot of how many passes were thrown and caught. They don’t take into consideration tipped balls or dropped passes.

“When you take tipped balls and dropped passes out of the equation, then you have quarterback stats. Robert was really good with those last weekend. He was 15 of 18 in terms of quarterback stats. I thought the way he put the ball on the money was huge. He got the ball out fast and he did good with his reads and I thought he threw a catchable ball.”

Hope said that defensive tackle Kawaan Short, who was injured against Minnesota, may not be available.

“It’s still questionable,” he said. “I think he wants to play and I am optimistic.”

Click here for more coverage of Penn State from Lions 247.

Click here for more Purdue coverage.

Iowa at Indiana

Indiana (3-5, 1-3) will try and parlay its win over Illinois into another victory as it hosts struggling Iowa (4-4, 2-2). The Hoosiers snapped an 11-game Big Ten losing streak with last week’s win at Illinois. But the Hoosiers have not won consecutive conference games since wins over Iowa and Minnesota in 2007.

It was just one Big Ten win but, with Wisconsin’s loss to Michigan State, the Hoosiers have control of their destiny among eligible Leaders Division teams trying to get to the Big Ten title game. Of course, that would mean IU would have to win out in home games with Iowa and Wisconsin and road games at Penn State and Purdue.

But IU coach Kevin Wilson said the Hoosiers aren’t looking big picture just yet.

“Early in the year, you talk about that,” Wilson said. “But when we were struggling, we just talked about daily improvement and taking it a day at a time. Our whole deal is we finally had a scoreboard go our way on Saturday. We know we still have a lot of things to clean up and a long way to go in building our team.”

Wilson said he had not settled on a quarterback for this week’s game. Nate Sudfeld rode to the rescue last week after Cameron Coffman was pulled after an early interception.

“They both need to be better,” Wilson said. “We are doing some OK things offensively. Early, I thought Cam made an errant play. He kind of threw a ball up for grabs that I didn’t like. Nate got the hot hand. They are both young players that just need to play better.

“We really didn’t get that good of play at quarterback on Saturday, but we still came out with the W. We expect both of them to play and we’ll see how the week goes to see who goes out first.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team still needs two wins to become bowl-eligible, is looking for a quick turnaround after a rough loss at Northwestern (28-17).

“It was a tough road loss for us last Saturday and now we travel down to Indiana and play a team that is coming off a good win,” Wilson said. “As impressive as that is the improvement they’ve had. Four of the losses they have have been by a total 10 points. They are playing really well and playing with confidence.”

Ferentz talked about how Indiana has improved defensively.

“They have improved at linebacker,” he said. “They’ve got some new guys at linebacker who have given them some octane. Their secondary is talented and very athletic. If you look at their tackles-for-loss and their sacks, they are a very disruptive group.”

Ferentz said that RB Mark Weisman’s ankle injury will probably keep him out of action. But Damon Bullock should be able to fill that role after rushing for 107 yards last week against Northwestern.

“We don’t expect Mark to play,” Ferentz said. “He had to come out of the game last week. The good news is we finally got Damon back out there after six weeks. He was a little rusty, but I thought he played hard and really competed. Hopefully one of these days, we’ll have a chance to get both of those guys out there.”

Click here for coverage of IU athletics from Inside Indiana.

Click here for coverage of Iowa athletics from Voice of The Hawkeyes.

Sitting This One Out: Northwestern, Wisconsin

Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) will be idle this week after a costly overtime loss at Michigan State. Starting quarterback Joel Stave was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in that game.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said previous starter Danny O’Brien and Curt Phillips will compete for that role during the open week.

“Curt and Danny both have some game experience,” Bielema said. “They are both veteran quarterbacks. Our players will know by Tuesday of next week where we’re going.”

The Badgers will return to action Nov. 10 at Indiana. Bielema admitted he will be studying the Hoosiers, but he has not thought about IU threatening Wisconsin in the Leaders Division race.

“My last thoughts are about Indiana,” Bielema said. “We are thinking about Wisconsin. We will take this bye week and then we go to Indiana. Obviously, that game is critical for the race to (the title game).”

Click here for coverage of Wisconsin from Badger 247.

Northwestern (7-2, 3-2) hit its stride last week, jumping on Iowa for a 28-3 lead before settling for the 11-point win.

“We have had two big wins,” said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald, pointing to wins over Minnesota and Iowa. “But they came off the heels of two games we let slip away. I think our team has matured and we have grown. We took some positive steps (in October). But we know we have to be a lot better if we want to achieve our goals. We obviously have three big weeks in front of us.

“We needed this week to recover and get back to being as healthy as we possibly can.”

Also Notable

* UW’s Bielema was asked about senior linebacker Mike Taylor, who is tied for the Big Ten lead with 92 tackles and leads the conference with 11 tackles-for-loss.

“He is a guy we are really going to miss,” Bielema said. “We only have one more game with him here at Camp Randall and three more guaranteed games. He is a tremendous worker. He is extremely gifted. It was a disappointment to not see him on the Butkus Award list. He’s led the Big Ten in tackles now for two years in a row.

“He is one of our best leaders as well as a captain. I think he will have a great NFL career.”

* Ohio State’s Meyer can only bristle at the thought his team has had three punts blocked this season.

“It has been mix and match during this whole special teams debacle,” he said. “We have to get this solidified.”

Due to injuries, the Buckeyes have used true freshmen in some key spots. Last week against Penn State, two players blocked the same PSU player allowing another to block a punt that was recovered for a touchdown. Meyer has vowed to simplify the blocking schemes.

* Players selected as Big Ten players of the week included:

Offense: Northwestern QB Kain Colter (accounted for all four touchdowns, rushed for 166 yards in win over Iowa)

Defense: Minnesota CB Michael Carter (pick-six interception vs. Purdue), Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier (pick-six interception, two sacks vs. Penn State)

Special Teams: Nebraska K-P Brett Maher (3 of 3 on field goals, 42.3 average on punting vs. Michigan; this is his fifth player of the week award in his career, tying for the most in Big Ten history)

Freshman: Minnesota QB Philip Nelson (246 yards, three TDs vs. Purdue), Nebraska LB David Santos (10 tackles, one TFL vs. Michigan).

Big Ten Standings

Leaders Division

Ohio State (9-0, 5-0)
Penn State (5-3, 3-1)
Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2)
Indiana (3-5, 1-3)
Purdue (3-5, 0-4)
Illinois (2-6, 0-4)

Legends Division

Nebraska (6-2, 3-1)
Michigan (5-3, 3-1)
Northwestern (7-2, 3-2)
Iowa (4-4, 2-2)
Michigan State (5-4, 2-3)
Minnesota (5-3, 1-3)

Oct. 27 Games

Northwestern 28, Iowa 17
Indiana 31, Illinois 17
Michigan State 16, Wisconsin 13 (OT)
Minnesota 44, Purdue 28
Ohio State (9) 35, Penn State 23
Nebraska 23, Michigan (20) 9

Nov. 3 Games (All Times Eastern)

Michigan at Minnesota, noon (Big Ten Network)
Iowa at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Nebraska (21) at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional; ESPN2 outer market)
Illinois at Ohio State (6), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Penn State at Purdue, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Idle: Northwestern, Wisconsin

Nov. 10 Games

Purdue at Iowa, noon (Big Ten Network)
Wisconsin at Indiana, noon (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
Northwestern at Michigan, noon (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2)
Minnesota at Illinois, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Penn State at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional; ESPN2 outer market)
Idle: Michigan State, Ohio State

Picks Update

On Thursday, I made my picks for Week 9.

I ended up 14-7 straight-up and 11-10 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 169-53 SU and 104-107-1 ATS.

In Big Ten games, I was 3-3 straight-up (I hit Indiana-Illinois on the score, 31-17) and 4-2 ATS. Through nine weeks, I am 59-15 straight-up and 35-31 ATS.

Stay tuned this week for Picks for Week 10 later today.

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