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
No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin
These two teams have taken very different paths to become top-11 teams in the nation.
Nebraska hasn’t been ranked this high since mid-October in 2010, but the Cornhuskers have played one ranked team (then-No. 22 Oregon), and the Ducks are now 2-5. Two other opponents have fired their coach, and the composite record of the seven teams they’ve beaten is 20-30.
This will be Wisconsin’s fifth game against a top-10 team, which is something straight out of the 1960s in the Big Ten. The Badgers have lost by a touchdown to two teams currently ranked ahead of Nebraska, No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State. Their seven opponents have combined for a 32-19 record, and they have three wins over teams with at least five victories.
If the Cornhuskers do win this game, they will be clearly in control of the Big Ten West. Even a loss the following week at Ohio State would still leave Nebraska on top of the West.
The Badgers bounced back from back-to-back losses to the Wolverines and Buckeyes with a win at Iowa last week. Running back Corey Clement was injured earlier this season, but he’s carried the ball 60 times in the past two weeks and rushed for nearly 300 yards.
Nebraska has the No. 3 offense in the conference in total yards behind Ohio State and Michigan, and it will face Wisconsin’s third-ranked defense. Indiana’s defense, at No. 49 nationally, is the only one the Cornhuskers have faced rated higher than No. 70. The Badgers check in at No. 9.
This is Nebraska’s big chance to prove it belongs among the nation’s elite. Wisconsin has proven that several times, but the Badgers could be worn out from all of these top-10 clashes.
Maryland (+4) at Indiana
Indiana has lost four of five, and its biggest win of the season, a 24-21 victory against Michigan State, has lost a lot of luster. The Hoosiers have been competitive against Ohio State and kept it very close against Nebraska. They’ve also held two pretty good offenses, Nebraska and Northwestern, to less than 28 points each.
Maryland rebounded from two straight losses with a 28-17 win against those same Spartans this past week. Quarterback Perry Hills was injured during the Penn State game and missed Minnesota, but is 5-0 in the other games and leads the Big Ten in completion percentage and passer rating. Teams are only completing 51.3 percent of their passes against the Hoosiers, but expect the Terps to rely heavily on the run anyway.
Make or Break
Indiana vs. Maryland
The defense is definitely improved this season for the Hoosiers, but the offense has regressed from Kevin Wilson’s typically terrific teams on that side of the ball. When Indiana was 3-1, with only a weird loss to Wake Forest that included a ton of yards but five interceptions for quarterback Richard Lagow.
Now the Hoosiers are 3-4 and a glimpse at the rest of the schedule makes it pretty clear why this game is so important. There are games against Penn State and Michigan still to play, so if they lose to the Terps, the Hoosiers would have to win one of those (plus beat Rutgers and Purdue) to reach six wins and guarantee a bowl game.
Best Individual Matchup
Northwestern WR Austin Carr vs. Ohio State CBs Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley
Carr has been the most productive wideout in the conference, and over the past five weeks, one of the best in the country. He leads the conference with 50 catches, 720 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s tied for fifth in the nation in touchdown catches.
Lattimore and Conley are one of the best cornerback tandems in the country. Ohio State is fifth in the nation in passing yards per game allowed and opponent’s quarterback rating. If the Buckeyes contain Carr, they will bounce back from a loss to Penn State in a big way.
Next Man Up
Nate Wozniak, TE, Minnesota
Tight end Brandon Lingen caught 33 passes in 2015 as one of Minnesota’s top receiving targets for quarterback Mitch Leidner. Lingen missed the start of this season with a broken clavicle, and now he’s out against Illinois this weekend because of a foot injury. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Lingen is out for the rest of the season.
Wozniak, who is listed at 6-foot-10 and 275 pounds, has eight catches in seven games. He and freshman Colton Beebe have played plenty this season when Lingen was injured and working his way back. The Golden Gophers could use another reliable target to emerge opposite Drew Wolitarsky, and one of these two guys could be it.
Will Penn State play down to its competition against Purdue?
The Nittany Lions have not won away from Beaver Stadium this season, though trips to Pittsburgh and Michigan were a little more daunting than playing against the Boilermakers. That said, Penn State just collected its biggest win in more than a decade.
This is a pretty young Nittany Lions team, so this is a maturity test. Will they remain focused and build off a huge victory against the Buckeyes, or will a letdown leave them in a precarious spot against Purdue?
Will Michigan State salvage its season?
The better question might be, “Will Michigan try to top the 78 points it scored against Rutgers?” The Wolverines have plenty of pent-up frustration after four straight losses to the Spartans. Two of them were blowouts in East Lansing, and then there was the crushing defeat on the final play at home in 2015.
Michigan State is 2-5 with five straight losses. There are games against Ohio State and Penn State left on the schedule. If the Spartans want to reach a bowl game, they’ll likely need to beat either the Wolverines or the Buckeyes (and the Nittany Lions). Even if they don’t play in the postseason, ending rival Michigan’s undefeated season and continuing their hex on the Wolverines might be the most satisfaction available in 2016 for the Spartans.
Is Minnesota going to play up to its potential at some point?
The Golden Gophers have been a weird team to figure out this season. They have a veteran quarterback, a great one-two punch at running back and the talent to have a solid defense. They also have a disturbing legal issue involving several players and a woman who works at TCF Bank Stadium.
The players aren’t allowed to play at home because of restraining orders, though one of the six has been overturned and the other five players involved have a hearing next week before the next home game. Coach Tracy Claeys has said the players, which include two key members of the secondary, are eligible to travel and play at Illinois.
Maybe it’s been a distraction. Even if it hasn’t, the Gophers barely beat Rutgers last week, and their only convincing win against an FBS team was against Maryland, which was playing a backup quarterback. The Illini might still be going with third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr. Minnesota will be bowl eligible with a win, but whether or not the Gophers can challenge Wisconsin or Nebraska later in the season remains to be seen.