Each week, Land of 10 will check some of the top story lines, matchups and players to watch in The Forecast. Big games, potential upsets, important questions: This is the place for all of that looking ahead to the weekend in the Big Ten.
The B1G One
Minnesota at No. 19 Nebraska
Nebraska has lost two straight, including a humiliating 62-3 defeat at Ohio State this past week. Minnesota has won four in a row, but that includes edging past Rutgers, victories against Purdue and Illinois, and beating Maryland without starting quarterback Perry Hills.
Just as the past two games have been “prove it” time for the Cornhuskers, this is a chance for the Golden Gophers to no longer be off the radar despite a 7-2 record. Minnesota also closes with Northwestern and Wisconsin, so the Gophers can forge their own path to the Big Ten championship game.
The loser of this contest is almost certainly out of the Big Ten West race. Nebraska needs to win out and for Wisconsin to lose again.
Minnesota played Purdue without half of its one-two punch at running back because Shannon Brooks did not dress. Rodney Smith finished with 153 yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Mitch Leidner added 74 yards and two scores on the ground. Gophers coach Tracy Claeys told reporters earlier this week that Brooks is expected to return against the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska did not finish the game against Ohio State with starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. after he was knocked unconscious at the end of a run. He left the stadium in an ambulance but later returned to the sideline, and coach Mike Riley hasn’t ruled him out against the Gophers. Ryker Fyfe, who has completed 7 of 23 passes this season, would play if Armstrong is held out.
Minnesota’s defense has been shaky against the pass, but pretty stout against the run. That could be a problem for Nebraska, whether Armstrong plays or not.
Rutgers (+14) at Michigan State
Nebraska should probably be in this spot, because Minnesota might win that game regardless of who plays quarterback. This is a very surprising line for a battle of the two Big Ten teams without a conference win this season.
Michigan State has lost seven straight games, including to Illinois, which was playing a third-string quarterback. Rutgers has lost by two to Minnesota and six to Indiana since making Gio Rescigno the starting quarterback.
The Spartans should win this game, but the quarterback situation remains uncertain. The Scarlet Knights have figured that position out.
Make or Break
Northwestern at Purdue
It’s been a pretty wild ride for Northwestern this season. Starting 0-2 with a loss to an FCS team looked terrible, but only losing by a field goal to still undefeated Western Michigan looks a lot better now. Since then, the Wildcats have close losses to Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
The wins, particularly against Duke, Michigan State and Iowa, all looked better the day of them than they do now. So what should we make of this Northwestern team? There is no shame in four of the five losses, but a team with a top-three quarterback, a top-three running back and the best wide receiver in the league is 4-5.
The Wildcats could win at Purdue, at Minnesota and against Illinois, or it could be a struggle to reach bowl eligibility.
Best Individual Matchup
Wisconsin LT Ryan Ramczyk vs. Illinois DE Carroll Phillips
Phillips is fifth in the nation in tackles for loss with 15, which includes seven sacks. Ramczyk is considered one of the best NFL prospects among offensive linemen in the conference.
Illinois has a strong bookend to Phillips with Dawuane Smoot on the other side. An interesting note, neither Ramczyk nor Phillips began their careers in the Big Ten. Ramcyzk spent two seasons at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III program, before transferring to Madison. Collins went to junior college out of Miami (Fla.) Central High School.
Next Man Up
Penn State RT Chasz Wright
Penn State played without all three starting linebackers (and a couple of backups) at one point this season. Now the Nittany Lions are down two starting offensive tackles. Left tackle Andrew Nelson is out for the season, but Paris Palmer has filled in well on that side of the line.
Right tackle Brendan Mahon left the game this past Saturday against Iowa and was, according to multiple reports, admitted to the hospital at one point this week. But coach James Franklin hasn’t provided any further details. Chasz Wright replaced Mahon as the Nittany Lions racked up 599 yards against the Hawkeyes.
While one true freshman, Connor McGovern, is starting for Penn State at right guard, classmate Will Fries is up to second on the depth chart at one of the tackle spots and also could see action for the first time this season.
Has Ohio State figured everything out on offense?
The Buckeyes went into a bit of a funk (by their standards) in the middle of the season. The passing attack was out of whack against Indiana. They couldn’t run the ball effectively against Penn State. Nothing was particularly impressive against Northwestern.
Then Nebraska came to Columbus and Ohio State beat a (then) top-10 team by 59 points. Last season, the Buckeyes finished the season with back-to-back 42-plus point games against top-15 teams. Two years ago, it was the final five games, including three with backup quarterback Cardale Jones en route to a national championship.
Maryland’s defense isn’t likely to provide a lot of resistance, but Ohio State could show this past week was the start of another season-ending surge.
Will Iowa rally after being throttled a week ago?
Penn State beat Iowa 41-14, and it could have been worse. James Franklin probably did the Hawkeyes a favor by not going for it on fourth and short a couple of times in the first half, because the Nittany Lions did whatever they wanted on offense en route to 599 yards.
Michigan is averaging nearly 500 yards per game. Quarterback Wilton Speight has had back-to-back great games. The Wolverines defense is either the best or second-best in the nation, along with Alabama’s.
Iowa is 5-4 and this season is already a huge disappointment after a 12-0 regular season in 2015 and a lot of key players returning. If the Hawkeyes do not regroup and muster a better effort at home than last week, the Wolverines are going to embarrass them worse than the Nittany Lions did.
Is Indiana’s much-improved defense slipping away?
After years of great offense and shoddy defense, the Hoosiers made significant strides without the ball in the first half of the season. The offense has also regressed, but the defensive improvement had been encouraging.
Since playing well against Ohio State and Nebraska and decently against Northwestern, Indiana’s defense has allowed more than 500 yards to Maryland and 351 to Rutgers. The next two opponents, Penn State and Michigan, might have the two best offenses in the Big Ten right now.
A couple more big performances by opposing teams, and some of those gains from the first half of the season could look like ancient history.