Big Ten previews: Another important game for Northwestern

Big Ten previews: Another important game for Northwestern
October 10, 2013, 1:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

There won't be nearly as much hype this weekend. No "Gameday," no nighttime atmosphere, few columns about the fate of the program riding on one game. But is it possible that Saturday's trip to Madison could hold a similar amount of importance for Northwestern?

College football uses the "next-game-is-the-most-important-game" cliche ad nauseum, but it might be true in this short stretch for the Wildcats. After the "all-important" contest vs. Ohio State ended in a disappointing yet impressive loss, there isn't any talk of avoiding a letdown. Instead it's another Big Ten powerhouse on the schedule and another chance for a big statement win.

Pat Fitzgerald's group heads to Wisconsin for a big game for both teams. For Northwestern, maybe there's a chance to salvage some of the glory that could have come from a win against the Buckeyes. For the Badgers, they need a win to avoid falling to 3-3.

For Northwestern, the big task is stopping the run. It's something the Cats defense couldn't so last week, and Carlos Hyde's 168-yard, three-touchdown day was more than the difference in the game. Now it's Melvin Gordon, James White and the rest of the conference's best rushing team, which is going for more than 300 yards per game.

[MORE: Wisconsin's weapons allow no rest for Northwestern defense]

If the Wildcats couldn't stop Hyde, will they able to stop Gordon & Co.?

"I think last week was a deal where we didn't fit very well, we didn't get off blocks, we didn't tackle and we didn't get enough population to the ball. If we do that again this week, we'll give up the same amount of yards," Fitzgerald said on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches teleconference. "I'm not very happy with the way we performed, and we've got to perform better if we want to beat a very physical, a very dominant, in my opinion, Wisconsin offense."

In the end, however, the biggest thing that was proven in the loss to Ohio State is that Northwestern can hang with even the biggest boys in the Big Ten. They'll have to go out and prove it again this week, and they're hoping they'll have the same opportunities to win they did in Evanston last week.

Now they just need to cash in on those opportunities.

"We've got to finish games, we've got to execute in the moment down the stretch," Fitzgerald said. "We had plenty of opportunities to get the job done and didn't, and that's on us. We've got to collectively make a commitment to getting that done in the future."

No. 19 Northwestern and Wisconsin kick off at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.

[RELATED: Top defense, improving offense have Michigan State on rise]

All Big Ten games on Saturday, Oct. 12. (Bye weeks: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State)

Indiana at Michigan State, 11 a.m., ESPN 2. Michigan State leads the country in total defense and rushing defense, and it leads the Big Ten in every defensive stat you can think of. So why should the Spartans be worried about Indiana coming to East Lansing this weekend? Well, the Hoosiers, despite their tendency to give up a ton of points, are halfway to bowl eligibility after their 42-22 stomping of Penn State this past weekend. It was the first time Indiana had ever topped the Nittany Lions. And while the dominant Spartan defense should still be expected to slow down a high-powered Indiana offense, look out for Hoosier QB Nate Sudfeld, who's the conference's leading passer with 293.4 yards per game.

Nebraska at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. Though quarterback Taylor Martinez is still nursing his turf toe, there isn't a lot to be concerned about in Lincoln. Not anymore, at least, following a 39-19 drubbing of Illinois last week. The numerous defensive question marks that accompanied the Huskers entering the contest were at least temporarily answered in a game that saw the Big Ten's leading passer shut down and a previously prolific offense held completely in check. The Husker offense was pretty dominant, too, with running back Ameer Abdullah rushing for 225 yards. Meanwhile, Purdue comes off a bye week with some excitement thanks to the installation of Danny Etling at quarterback. But they're still the same team that's been for the most part shredded at every turn this season.

[MORE: Time for new Purdue quarterback Etling to shine]

No. 18 Michigan at Penn State, 4 p.m., ESPN. Penn State, coming off an embarrassing blowout loss to Indiana, is not in the mood to face a top-20 team. The good news for the Lions is that Christian Hackenberg is looking better each week, and perhaps he could keep Penn State competitive with Michigan. But the Wolverines reestablished themselves as one of the conference's top teams with a big win over Minnesota last week, one that almost completely erased the memories of a pair of near losses to inferior opponents. Michigan's pass defense ranks in the middle of the conference (214.6 yards per game allowed), so there's opportunity for Hackenberg to do some damage. But this would figure to be a contest in which the Wolverines will be favored.