On one end of the Big Ten menu in Week 7, it’s circus time: No. 2 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) visits No. 8 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1). Toss Urban Meyer, J.T. Barrett, T.J. Watt, the Fifth Quarter and ESPN College GameDay into Camp Randall Stadium, stir vigorously and watch the magic unfold.
On the other end of the spectrum? A ticking clock.
Welcome to Desperation Saturday, in which the fortunes for a handful of teams could turn on a dime this weekend — or take a turn for the worst. And for these three squads in particular:
3. Minnesota (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten)
Opponent: at Maryland (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten)
Why it’s huge: Because coach Tracy Claeys and quarterback Mitch Leidner are making Kirk Herbstreit and Todd McShay look bad.
We jest, but the August bloom on Minnesota’s rose almost has withered after blown leads at Penn State and at home to Iowa. There’s time for the Gophers to secure bowl eligibility, but weren’t aspirations designed to be higher this season? If there are any fumes left in Claeys’ We-Can-Win-The-West tank, Team Goldy is going to have to figure out a way to steal one in College Park. Somehow.
2. Illinois (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten)
Opponent: at Rutgers (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten)
Why it’s huge: Because Lovie Smith is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. And by “it,” we mean lip from the scribes. When someone at a news conference this week asked the first-year coach if the fact the Illini led the Big Ten in penalties (46) and penalty yards per game (75.0) was because he was being too “lax” with them, this happened:
— Craig Choate (@craigwchoate) Oct. 10, 2016
It’s hard to believe after Ohio State and Michigan took turns routing them, but the Scarlet Knights have two victories. The two teams they defeated, Howard and New Mexico, are a combined 3-8.
Illinois needs a tonic — heck, Lovie needs a beer — after blowing a late lead at home to woebegone Purdue last week. Rutgers needs a hug. And now, what they both need most is one another. Because after this showdown, there might not be another win on the docket for either squad the rest of the way.
1 (tie). Michigan State (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) and Northwestern (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten)
Opponent: Each other (at Spartan Stadium)
Why it’s huge: Because the trend lines aren’t exactly on Sparty’s side if this one goes in the dumpster. Gang Green likely will be favored in three more games the rest of the year after Saturday (on Oct. 22 at Maryland; on Nov. 5 at Illinois; and on Nov. 12 vs. Rutgers). Even that visit to College Park in a few weeks is starting to feel a little dicey. Michigan State hasn’t started 0-3 in league play since 2006, the final season of the John L. Smith era and the 4-8 slog that brought about his ouster and the hiring of Mark Dantonio.
The Wildcats aren’t as consistently physical as BYU, but if Northwestern can crank up the same spirited pass rush in East Lansing that it showed in Iowa City (6 sacks, 4 by senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo), then its defense is capable of carrying the flag over the line. The Spartans are giving up 2.2 sacks per contest; the Wildcats, 3.2.
Michigan State comes in off arguably its worst performance of the season, a 17-point home loss to BYU. Northwestern comes in off a bye and, before that, its best showing: a 38-31 win at Iowa. Quarterback Clayton Thorson already has more touchdown throws (8) this fall than he managed all of last season (7). Thorson’s favorite target is wideout Austin Carr. Carr has turned 9 of the 10 balls he’s caught this season on third down and all 4 of his fourth-down receptions into first downs.
This is the first of two real swing games for the Wildcats. Indiana (3-2, 1-1) will visit Evanston on Oct. 22. Northwestern could sweep both, lose both or split, but an 0-2 mini-slide might well become an 0-4 one. The next two games after that are at No. 2 Ohio State and home against No. 8 Wisconsin.
The plus side for Sparty is that coach Pat Fitzgerald is 3-12 with the Wildcats after a bye. On the other hand, in the last nine meetings between the programs, the road team has won eight, including the last four in a row. Either way, something’s got to give — and one of these two fan bases soon might start giving up the ghost on 2016.