Big Ten Football: Game-by-Game Picks for Week 6
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Week 6 is rapidly approaching, and it's going to be a good one. Intriguing games abound (even Michigan State-Indiana could get interesting), and it's capped by a strong candidate for the Game of the Year: Nebraska at Ohio State at 8:00 under the lights of the 'Shoe.
We've only got five games on the docket, as Iowa and Minnesota are off for the week...after playing each other. Also, Purdue and Michigan are opening up their conference slates this week...and against each other. Coincidence or conspiracy? SPOILER: Coincidence.
At any rate, we've got a lot to look forward to this week. Let's get at it.
Noon: Michigan State at Indiana
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The Old Brass Spittoon is at stake this week, as Michigan State travels to Indiana for one of a trio of noon games.
First, the good news for the Hoosiers: They're giving up about 30 fewer rushing yards per game this year than they did in 2011. Bad news: It's still 216 yards per game and it's still outside the top 100 of college football rushing defense. And now, Le'Veon Bell and company are coming to town with a serious mind to push that average yardage up just a bit.
Indiana's defense needs to regain a bit of pride after Northwestern just dropped over 700 yards from scrimmage on it the week prior, and a huge effort against a rather predictable offense like Michigan State's would be a step in the right direction. Granted, that involves Indiana daring opponents to beat it by throwing the ball, and that never seems to end well, but it's about the only shot the Hoosiers have.
Expect this one to stay closer than Michigan State wants for a while as the offense gets warmed up—think 9-3 Spartans at the break—but that Hoosier defense can't shut down MSU's running game for 60 minutes. Not without giving Dion Sims 20 yards a pop on play action whenever Michigan State wants. Expect this one to be a no-doubter by the time the fourth quarter begins, even if the score doesn't look like a blowout at that point. Give it time. It will.
Final score: Michigan State 37, Indiana 9
Noon: Northwestern at Penn State
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This is a huge game for both teams. Northwestern's got an undefeated season on the line, and undefeated Big Ten teams have a tendency to rocket up the national rankings, especially once they start doing it in the conference.
But Penn State's favored here, and the Nittany Lions would get into a four-game winning streak of their own with a victory—to say nothing of getting to a nice 2-0 start in conference play. Not to overstate the obvious, but if Penn State can mark its first season of sanctions with a winning record, it'll be an enormous sign to players, fans and recruits that this won't be an impossible situation.
Look for a shootout in this one. Northwestern still struggles on defense, which makes an offensive-minded guy like Bill O'Brien very happy. But the Penn State defense is also going to have its hands full with one of the most inventive, unconventional offenses in all of college football, and if teams like Ohio can catch Penn State's defense flat-footed, don't be surprised if and when Northwestern does too.
Final score: Northwestern 31, Penn State 28
Noon: Illinois at Wisconsin
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Illinois seems to look worse by the week, and that's pretty difficult to pull off when Week 2 features Arizona State dropping a 45-14 bombing on the Illini. So it follows that the Illini have no chance in this contest, yes?
Well, if this were 2011 Wisconsin, we'd certainly be looking at a blowout. But 2012 Wisconsin has a funny way of letting teams hang around—and that was the case even before the Badgers blew a 17-point second half lead against Nebraska last week.
Moreover, for all the fault you can find with this Illinois team, the one thing it's been able to do pretty reliably is stop the run—Illinois is ranked 30th nationally in rush defense and allows just 3.24 yards a pop. Granted, the pass defense is a horror show, but opponents have still tried rushing the ball about 35 times a game on the Illini, so it's not as if nobody ever even wants to run.
So look for Wisconsin to stall out more often than you'd think in this one, and while the Badgers should still win, it'll be nothing like the blowout one would have expected in a situation like this last year.
Final score: Wisconsin 23, Illinois 13
3:30 P.m.: Michigan at Purdue
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The last time Michigan played at Purdue, the Wolverines came out of West Lafayette with a 27-16 win in 2010. That seems pretty unremarkable—and the game wasn't exactly a showcase of great football—but it did mark the first time since 1994 that Michigan was able to win at Purdue by more than one possession.
That includes some backbreaking losses, as a matter of fact, such as a 9-3 loss to a Purdue team that won three games all year in 1996 and a 32-31 loss in 2000 that kept Michigan out of the Rose Bowl.
And the worst for Michigan is this: This year, Purdue might be the better team even on a neutral field.
Both teams are lacking for a marquee win thus far, but Purdue probably hasn't gotten enough credit for consistently shredding the mid-major competition it has faced. Yes, Marshall came back and made it a 10-point game last week, but that game belonged to the Boilermakers the whole way, and Rakeem Cato's 439 passing yards and five touchdowns lose a good deal of luster when you see that he also threw three interceptions and needed 68 pass attempts to get there.
Make no mistake, Michigan needs this victory to keep pace with even its more modest of season goals. But there's a difference between what a team needs and what it ends up getting.
Final score: Purdue 27, Michigan 17
8 P.m.: Nebraska at Ohio State
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Once the end of the season rolls around, will we look back on this game as the Game of the Year in the Big Ten? The case can be made, especially if both teams end up atop their respective divisions when it's all said and done. Shame we won't be able to see a rematch in Indianapolis.
At any rate, this is a most deserving choice for prime-time games, because it offers not only the arguably two best teams in the conference, but a host of intriguing matchups as well. Can Braxton Miller get free against a Nebraska defense that hasn't given up 300 yards of offense since the UCLA debacle? Can Spencer Long hold his own against Johnathan Hankins on the interior?
And most importantly: Can Taylor Martinez throw effectively against a back seven like Ohio State's?
Yes, the game's in Columbus under the lights, but this is by no means a guaranteed win for Ohio State—especially on the heels of a physical game like what Michigan State gave it. Nebraska's going to come after the talented but green OSU linebackers like nobody else has or will all year long.
This should be a four-quarter affair, and if it's not, we've got a new king of the Big Ten this year. We're probably getting one anyway. Expect a slugfest with big plays, big hits and big drama down the stretch.
Final score: Ohio State 31, Nebraska 30