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BT Blast: Division Races Heating Up

Welcome to Big Ten Blast!

MSU's Le'Veon Bell and Iowa's Mark Weisman will collide Saturday in East Lansing in a key Legends Division game

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

There will be five more Big Ten games this Saturday with four of those as divisional match-ups (Northwestern-Minnesota and Iowa-Michigan State in the Legends Division and Ohio State-Indiana and Wisconsin-Purdue in the Leaders Division). The one cross-division game will send Illinois to Michigan.

Nebraska and Penn State are each idle this weekend.

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

Iowa at Michigan State

Two of the top teams in the Legends Division will go toe-to-toe as Michigan State (4-2, 1-1) hosts Iowa (3-2, 1-0) in East Lansing.

The Spartans bounced back from their tough 17-16 loss to Ohio State by rallying to defeat Indiana 31-27 last Saturday. At the halfway point of the season, MSU coach Mark Dantonio was asked what he likes the most and the least so far this year.

“I think I am most pleased with the way we continue to get ready to play,” Dantonio said. “We’ve had great weeks of practice. I’m most disappointed, like everyone, when you lose a couple of games and you lose a close one. The other guys have good players as well, though.”

Dantonio said he has been impressed with Iowa RB Mark Weisman, a walk-on and former fullback pressed into duty at tailback. He is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards at 103.0 ypg.

“He has great toughness and great vision,” Dantonio said. “He’s been extremely productive carrying the football. He is not a fumbler. He has good hands. He overachieves, which to me is a sign of greatness. He has demonstrated he is a talented running back. I think he is there for the long haul at tailback.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz talked about how Weisman ended up as a Hawkeye.

“He played fullback in high school in the Chicago area. His high school coach is somebody we have known since the early 1980s,” Ferentz said. “His daughter worked in our office. Mark played fullback, which is not a sexy position. He went to Air Force, but I think some of the challenges of military life … he decided that wasn’t for him.

“He ended up on our campus. He was on the scout team. This spring, he made a positive impression. With our running back situation, we are fortunate he made it to the forefront. It’s a neat story mainly because he has worked hard and is just a model team guy. You like to see guys who work hard and do things the way they are supposed to be done have some success.”

Iowa was idle last week after playing its best game of the season in defeating Minnesota 31-13 on Sept. 29.

“We had an off week last week that probably came at an opportune time for our football team,” Ferentz said. “It was a good week for us to work on some things and hopefully grow a little bit. We have a big challenge traveling up to East Lansing to play a quality football team in Michigan State.”

Iowa leads the all-time series with MSU 22-19-2 and has won four of the last six match-ups, although MSU won 37-21 last year in Iowa City.

Click here for more MSU coverage from Spartan Tailgate.

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

Wisconsin at Purdue

Only four of the Leaders Division’s six teams are eligible to play for the Big Ten championship this year. Arguably, the best two of those four eligible teams – at least the only ones with winning records so far – will collide this Saturday in West Lafayette as Purdue (3-2, 0-1) hosts Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1).

But Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema downplayed the importance of this single game in the big picture.

“Right now, every game matters in Big Ten play, whether it’s Leaders or Legends,” Bielema said. “We do know that Purdue is in our division. At the end, it may matter. But right now, it’s about Purdue and the task that is in front of us.”

Wisconsin had success on Saturday’s win over Illinois (31-14) by rotating running backs Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon.

“They probably all bring a different set of skills,” Bielema said. “Montee has the most experience and probably has the most durability. James White made the play last week that sparked the entire stadium and made things start to go our way. He is a selfless player. Melvin Gordon is a guy with a lot of talent who has just scratched the surface on how good he can be. All three give us some balance.”

Purdue comes in off a deflating home loss to Michigan (44-13). The Boilers are probably in a must-win situation here at home against Wisconsin if they have any hope of representing the Leaders Division in the title game. The Badgers have won the last six meetings with the Boilers, including a 62-17 drubbing last year in Madison.

“We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what is said in the media,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “There is a lot said out there. They have a fantastic program and have done a lot of great things the last several years. They’ve been a model team.

“It’s a team that we want to play well against. The fact they are in our division makes it even more of a key game and a key match-up.”

Hope reflected on the loss to Michigan, where the Boilers fell behind 21-0 and 28-3.

“I don’t think scheme was a factor and I don’t think effort was a factor,” Hope said. “Execution was a factor. We didn’t execute as well as we needed to against an outstanding Michigan football team.”

Click here for coverage of Wisconsin from Badger 247.

Ohio State (8) at Indiana

Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) will take its unbeaten record on the road to Indiana (2-3, 0-2), which is mired in a three-game losing streak. OSU coach Urban Meyer said IU coach Kevin Wilson is known in the profession as an offensive innovator.

“He is a tremendous coach, always on the front edge of everything,” Meyer said. “He was on the staff at Northwestern with Randy Walker. He made that transition there from a pro-style offense to a spread. We studied them. When I first became a head coach, we visited with them and Purdue and also with Rich Rodriguez (at West Virginia).”

“We were researching the spread and he was very helpful. I have always had a lot of respect for Kevin. They have the right coach at Indiana.”

Meyer coached against Wilson when Florida played Oklahoma for the national championship after the 2008 season. He recalled taking his Bowling Green team to Northwestern in 2001 and pulling out a 43-42 win.

“Our game against Northwestern in 2001, we couldn’t stop them,” Meyer said. “I don’t know what the yardage total was. We went for a two on the last play of the game. We got it and we won.”

Indiana is second in the Big Ten in total offense this season at 472.4 yards per game. Meyer said his defense, which has given up some big yards and big plays this year, needs to be on guard.

“It is very alarming,” Meyer said. “I think we will find out on defense that they are very good on offense. They are second or third in scoring offense in the Big Ten. We have not done well against that type of offense this year. I’m concerned about execution and stopping them.

“We’re not at the point where we can overlook anybody.”

Wilson is 0-10 as the IU coach in Big Ten games. Last week’s four-point loss to Michigan State is the closest conference loss the Hoosiers have had during that losing streak. The task gets no easier as Ohio State has won its last 17 games over Indiana. Wilson was asked if he considers this game a benchmark for his program.

“We have a long way to go in building our program,” Wilson said. “Ohio State is in our division and we will play them every year. We have to get our program to where we are going to be competitive week in and week out in Big Ten football. My first year, we weren’t there and we weren’t even close.

“Our benchmark is every day to get better. We did not get the result we wanted (against Michigan State) the other day. It’s hard when you’re coming up short on the scoreboard, you don’t want to lose your kids. We have a long way to go. We have a young team that is getting better.

“We want to start becoming a winning team in this league. That’s what we’re trying to get going here. We have to keep climbing that mountain.”

After splitting time with Nate Sudfeld against Northwestern, Cameron Coffman started and played the entire game against MSU. He completed 33 of 48 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns. Wilson was asked about that rotation.

“That thing is so close,” Wilson said. “I thought last week Cam was just a little better on Wednesday and Thursday. We started Cam and the team started hot. We had good rhythm. Cam was managing the game.

“This week, both of them will play. We don’t know which of them will start. Cam has played three games, but we haven’t won any of them. Cam has played well and Nate just keeps getting better and better.”

Ohio State moved up from 12th to eighth in the AP poll after its win over Nebraska. Click here for more Ohio State coverage from Bucknuts.com.

Click here for coverage of IU athletics from Inside Indiana.

Illinois at Michigan (25)

Illinois (2-4, 0-2) will try and snap its own three-game losing streak as the Fighting Illini visit Michigan (3-2, 1-0).

The Illini have had a number of injury issues. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is hopeful that QB Nathan Scheelhaase is rounding back into form. He accounted for 262 yards total offense and two touchdowns in the loss at Wisconsin.

“He is back to himself,” Beckman said. “We as an offensive football team have to protect Nathan. Nathan has to recognize pressure better in the pocket. I was happy to see him respond in the fourth quarter with a drive. But we have to protect him better.”

Losing three games in a row and heading to Michigan Stadium could be a bad recipe for the Illini. Michigan has won 11 of its last 14 games against Illinois. But Beckman said his players are staying positive.

“No one is playing up to where we want to be,” he said. “But everything off the field has been positive. The players are going to class. They’re doing what they have to do. We haven’t won a football game in the past three weeks. Now we have to be able to finish off football games.”

Michigan came out of a bye week and played extremely well at Purdue. Well, for the most part, according to UM coach Brady Hoke.

“They played solid last week,” Hoke said. “I don’t think they were where we need to be at the line of scrimmage. We’re still not getting much production from our tailback position. Some of that is what people are trying to take away from us. We need to get more there.

“That is an issue with the offensive line first and then we have to do a good job when we have the ball in our hands.”

Two years ago, the Michigan defense was a laughingstock. But the Wolverines are second in the conference in total defense at 311.80 yards allowed per game.

“I think we’re making progress,” Hoke said. “I don’t think we are near the defense we need to be to win Big Ten championships. We’ve got a lot of guys who have not played a lot of football up front for us. We’re looking for consistency. In the back end, there are some guys who have played some football who are doing a nice job for us.

“But the game of football starts up front. That’s probably where we need to improve the most as a team.”

After the win at Purdue, Michigan moved back into the AP poll at No. 25 this week. Click here for more coverage of Michigan from Wolverine 247.

Northwestern at Minnesota

Two teams coming off losses – Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) and Minnesota (4-1, 0-1) – will meet in Minneapolis. Northwestern fell from No. 24 to out of the poll after its 39-28 loss at Penn State.

“We look at it from a coaching standpoint that maybe we tried to do too much,” said NU coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We didn’t execute. We looked back at our teaching and the coaching for the week and we were very critical of ourselves. I thought our guys battled. We led at the half. We went against what we value. We had our blueprint used against us. We didn’t execute on third down. We didn’t get off the field on third down.

“That’s how we ended up on the short end. But we learned a lot about our team. We have a young team. We scratched and clawed and were a play or two from coming away with the win. That should help us get better as a team and move forward.”

Fitzgerald said the Wildcats are working under the assumption that both Max Shortell and MarQueis Gray will play at quarterback for the Gophers. Gray missed each of UM’s two previous games before the open week due to injury.

“You have to prepare for both,” Fitzgerald said. “I have been impressed with the way Max has stepped in there for them. MarQueis is a great player. He is a difference maker. We will expect him to play and go from there. The challenge is on us.”

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he does not know just yet if the dynamic Gray will be available.

“It’s too early to say in the week,” Kill said. “He got no reps last week. We did some things on Sunday and he was moving around. We will see how he moves around and what he can and can’t do. He has a chance to play, I do believe that. We will see how the week goes.

“Any player who gets injured – and certainly when you’re a senior and you only have so many games left – you are eager to get back. He’s a tough kid. He wants to do well and he wants to play.”

Kill was asked about scheming to face Northwestern’s offense, led by QB Trevor Siemian and QB-RB-WR Kain Colter. NU is third in the Big Ten in rushing offense (255.8 ypg).

“Both quarterbacks make it very difficult,” Kill said. “They are an offensive unit that has been very well designed and put together. They know who they are and what they do. It presents a lot of match-up problems. It makes it difficult when a guy lines up in a lot of different places.”

Minnesota was idle last weekend after suffering a 31-13 loss to Iowa on Sept. 29. Northwestern has won nine of its last 14 games with Minnesota, including a 28-13 win last year in Evanston.

Sittting This One Out: Nebraska, Penn State

Nebraska (4-2, 1-1) and Penn State (4-2, 2-0) will be idle this weekend. Nebraska is coming off its loss at Ohio State, while Penn State won its fourth game in a row by defeating Northwestern.

The Huskers lost RB Rex Burkhead to an injury during the loss to Ohio State.

“The injury wasn’t bad,” said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. “We expect him to be full-go for Northwestern (on Oct. 20). He’s fine.”

Nebraska gave up seven offensive touchdowns, 371 yards rushing and 498 yards in total offense in the loss at Ohio State.

“Stopping the run is a team thing,” Pelini said. “A lot of our problems were self-imposed. We had guys playing individual techniques a certain way and not getting to their responsibilities. That’s a teamwide thing. We had some guys who were unblocked who didn’t make plays at times. We lost our composure and didn’t play the way we were supposed to play.”

At Penn State, national pundits are heralding Bill O’Brien as a possible national coach of the year candidate with the way he has dealt with adversity on and off the field in State College.

“Oh, we’re 4-2,” O’Brien said. “We have Murderer’s Row coming up here starting with Iowa (Oct. 20). There are a lot of great coaches in this country. I’ve only coached six games my whole career. That is the farthest thing I have from my mind.”

O’Brien talked about the challenges so far.

“Having never been a head coach, it’s been like drinking water from a firehose,” he said. “Something new happens every day. You just have to try and budget your time the best that you can. We have a veteran staff that has done an excellent job of coaching these kids. We have a great group of players here, a bunch of high character guys who enjoy practicing and playing the game.

“You can’t be up and down in this business. You have to go to work every day in this business, understanding that each week brings a new opponent. We started 0-2, but I thought we did a lot of good things in those games.”

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

Nebraska dropped from No. 21 to out of the poll after its loss at Ohio State. Click here for more coverage from Huskers Illustrated.

Quick Hitters

* Nebraska’s Pelini was asked for his take on new athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who was hired away from Miami (Fla.) to replace the retiring Tom Osborne. Pelini attended a department-wide meeting with Eichorst earlier this week.

“I’ve heard nothing but great things about Shawn,” Pelini said. “I look forward to working with him.”

* Pelini also reflected on how Ohio State played against his team. OSU had 17 yards total offense and fell behind 17-7 before exploding in the final three quarters in that win.

“They are a good football team and we made them look even better,” Pelini said. “We didn’t play very well. The quarterback is a good player. They have some good talent and they played well.”

* MSU’s Dantonio was asked about the proliferation of the spread across the Big Ten. He said that scheme can work, but it takes certain basic tenets to win in this conference.

“You see those all over the league,” he said. “We are a traditional offensive team with one back or two backs and sometimes some spread. I think Wisconsin parallels that very much. Those were the two teams that were in the conference championship game last year.

“If you can control the ball, play good on defense and play great on special teams, good things are going to happen for you. There are all different ways of getting to the top. It’s just a matter of what philosophy you’re going to take. In the end, I think it is execution and the ability to adapt.”

* Northwestern’s Fitzgerald was asked about his team’s trip to Penn State and what has changed after all of the turmoil in State College.

“It was frankly like every other time we’ve gone to Penn State,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s one of the farther trips we have to take. We played a team we had a ton of respect for. I have a ton of respect for Bill and the way his guys play for him.

“It is a tragic set of circumstances, but we are focused on us and getting our team better.”

* Once again, we have to note how the Big Ten continues to be a bankable commodity for its television partners.

There were two sets of conflicting ratings information. One site reported that the OSU-Nebraska game drew nearly five million viewers on ABC, while West Virginia-Texas drew 4.1 million on FOX and Miami-Notre Dame had 3.5 million viewers on NBC.

But another site reported that Texas-WVU nipped Nebraska-OSU by one-tenth of a rating point (3.2-3.1) in overnight ratings. Two blowout games came next with Miami-Notre Dame at 2.4 in overnight ratings and ESPN’s Georgia-South Carolina at 2.3.

* The Big Ten’s television partners are exercising their prerogative for a six-day window in deciding start times and TV assignments for some games on Oct. 20.

ABC/ESPN will decide between Purdue-Ohio State, Nebraska-Northwestern and Michigan State-Michigan on whether they will be played at noon or 3:30 p.m. ET. Of the two remaining games, one will be televised by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 and the other will be televised by BTN at noon or 3:30 p.m. ET. Selections will be made following results of this Saturday's games.

The prevailing wisdom is if Michigan and Michigan State win this week, that game would be in the 3:30 p.m. slot on ABC.

Games already set for that weekend include: Minnesota-Wisconsin (noon, ESPNU), Indiana-Navy (3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network) and Penn State-Iowa (8 p.m., Big Ten Network).

The networks should also announce the assignments for Oct. 27 on Monday.

* Weekly award winners from the Big Ten included:

Co-Offensive Players of the Week: Michigan’s Denard Robinson (235 yards rushing, 105 yards passing vs. Purdue) and Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (140 yards rushing, four TDs vs. Nebraska).

Defensive Player of the Week: Penn State’s Gerald Hodges (11 tackles, 1-1/2 TFLs vs. Northwestern).

Special Teams Player of the Week: Ohio State’s Corey “Philly” Brown (76-yard punt return touchdown vs. Nebraska).

Freshman of the Week: Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge (eight catches for 134 yards vs. Indiana).

Big Ten Standings

Leaders Division

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

Legends Division

Iowa (3-2, 1-0)
Michigan (3-2, 1-0)
Northwestern (5-1, 1-1)
Nebraska (4-2, 1-1)
Michigan State (4-2, 1-1)
Minnesota (4-1, 0-1)

Oct. 6 Games

Michigan State 31, Indiana 27
Penn State 39, Northwestern (24) 28
Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14
Michigan 44, Purdue 13
Ohio State (12) 63, Nebraska (21) 38
Idle: Iowa, Minnesota

October 13 Games (All Times Eastern)

Wisconsin at Purdue, noon (Big Ten Network)
Iowa at Michigan State, noon (ESPN)
Northwestern at Minnesota, noon (ESPN2)
Illinois at Michigan (25), 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional; ESPN outer market)
Ohio State (8) at Indiana, 8 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Idle: Penn State, Nebraska

Oct. 20 Games

Minnesota at Wisconsin, noon (ESPNU)
Indiana at Navy, 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Michigan State at Michigan, noon or 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 or BTN)
Nebraska at Northwestern, noon or 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 or BTN)
Purdue at Ohio State, noon or 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 or BTN)
Penn State at Iowa, 8 p.m. (Big Ten Network)

Picks Update

On Thursday, I made my picks for Week 6.

I ended up 18-6 straight-up and 12-12 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 118-36 SU and 70-73-1 ATS.

In Big Ten games, I was 5-0 straight-up and also 4-1 ATS. Through six weeks, I am 47-10 straight-up and 24-25 ATS.

Stay tuned this week for Picks for Week 7 on Thursday and a Chat later this week.

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