Big Ten previews: Seasons on the line for Michigan, Nebraska

Big Ten previews: Seasons on the line for Michigan, Nebraska
November 7, 2013, 4:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

When 60 minutes of football (pending overtime, of course) are through in Ann Arbor this weekend, both the Wolverines and Huskers will know what kind of season they're headed for.

Obviously, seasons are decided in November, and for Michigan and Nebraska, that deciding game could come Saturday, when the pair of two-loss teams meet up at the Big House.

Though one loss can't really send a team reeling, Michigan is as close as it gets following a pounding at the hands of in-state rival Michigan State. And, if it weren't for a successful Hail Mary as the clock ran out in Lincoln last weekend, Nebraska would find itself in a similar situation. Where both teams sit is at two conference losses in a Legends Division that hasn't quite been decided but sure is close to being that way. The Wolverines, with a win, can cling on for dear life in the division race. The Huskers, with a win, can set themselves right in the thick of it, especially with their contest against the division-leading Spartans still waiting down the road.

[MORE: Shortening injury report No. 1 goal during Northwestern bye]

In other words, it's a big game.

"I’ve played in Ann Arbor before, and they’ve got a good fan base," Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said during his weekly press conference Monday. "The place will be loud. It’s 110,000 people, so obviously that gives them an advantage at home. We have to understand that going in. We have to play that much better to come out of there with a win.”

"This was not the way you want to start a five-game stretch on the meat of your schedule," Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said at his weekly press conference Monday. "It is something that we're all disappointed with, and everything that we have to do from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint is evaluated, and we all need to do a better job, and that's just part of it."

This big-picture stuff, however, won't be on the minds of the guys on the field during those 60 minutes, however. Both teams have issues at quarterback, with Nebraska still without Taylor Martinez and therefore shuffling its backups and Michigan in need of a bounce-back performance from Devin Gardner, who was constantly hounded by Michigan State and finished the game with a rushing total of -46 yards.

[RELATED: Illini talk frustrations, positives of loss at Penn State]

A difference lies at running back, though. Michigan couldn't get anything done on the ground against the Spartans, with Fitzgerald Toussaint getting just eight carries and rushing for 20 yards. Meanwhile, Nebraska back Ameer Abdullah picked up another 127 yards last week vs. Northwestern and now ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 138.5 yards per game.

"From a plan part of it, I really thought it was a very good plan," Hoke said of his team's negative rushing day vs. Michigan State. "Would we have liked to run the ball better? That's kind of dumb, yeah — we'd like to, we'd all like to do stuff better. As far as getting (Touissant) more touches, it would've been great to."

Pelini, meanwhile, had a much easier task, praising his running back. He was asked if Abdullah is the best back in the Big Ten.

“I know one thing. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody," Pelini said. "I know there are other good backs out there. Obviously I believe so much in Ameer that, like I said, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the country. Not only as a player but as a person, as a leader and what he brings. To me, he embodies what this program and this culture is all about here.”

The stakes are high, and the game kicks off Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.

[MORE: Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 10]

All Big Ten games on Saturday, Nov. 9 (Bye weeks: Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State)

Penn State at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN 2. This is an interesting one, as observers wonder just how much magic Minnesota has left. The Gophers have been the talk of the Big Ten during their three-game conference winning streak, which started after Jerry Kill took his leave of absence. Minnesota seems to be firing on all cylinders, too, with quarterback Philip Nelson (Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week) and running back David Cobb (three consecutive 100-plus-yard rushing days) put on a show vs. Indiana. Penn State didn't look too hot last week vs. Illinois, but the Lions did come away with an overtime win. Though Bill Belton ran for more than 200 yards against the Illini, quarterback Christian Hackenberg will need to be much better if Penn State wants to stop Minnesota's hot streak.

Iowa at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. Neither of these teams had a good week a week ago, so both will be looking to bounce back with a win Saturday. Purdue was scorched for the most recent time in this rough season, falling to Ohio State, 56-0. The Boilermakers couldn't do anything on either side of the ball to slow down the Buckeyes, a common theme this season regardless of whether the opponent is the No. 4 team in the country or not. The bad news for the Hawkeyes last week was the mid-game injury to quarterback Jake Rudock, despite the fact that he wasn't having a banner day against the Wisconsin defense. But that bad news now shifts to the Boilermakers, as Rudock is expected to play this week.

[RELATED: BYU 'follows' Andersen to Wisconsin in Badgers' next bout]

Illinois at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Something's got to give here. Either the Indiana defense will finally play well enough to get a win in one of the team's patented shootouts, or the Illini will finally snap their 18-game Big ten losing streak. Like every time the Hoosiers take the field, expect a high-scoring affair in Bloomington. Regardless of which quarterback — Nate Sudfeld or Tre Roberson — is calling the signals, Indiana's offense has always seemed to flourish this season. The problem for the Hoosiers has been stopping people, and Illinois' at-times explosive offense could be a lot for Indiana to handle. The Illini under Nathan Scheelhaase have looked vastly different in Big Ten play than they did during the non-conference portion of the schedule, when they looked like one of the country's most dynamic offensive teams. That's since changed, but perhaps a date with the Hoosier D can re-spark those early-season ways.

Brigham Young at No. 24 Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m., ESPN. It's an odd out-of-conference matchup for the Badgers, and it might be their biggest test since their last loss against Ohio State. BYU has just two losses themselves this year and come into Camp Randall on a five-game winning streak. It's the play of quarterback Taysom Hill that's led the Cougars. Hill is an incredible dual threat, ranking near the top of the list when it comes to the nation's total offensive yardage leaders. Wisconsin's defense has been strong, but it'll have its hands full with Hill. Thankfully for the Badgers, they boast their own set of offensive weapons. Even when star running back Melvin Gordon had an unusually bad day last week vs. Iowa, James White stepped up with a huge day on the ground. Wisconsin will need one or both of its backs to be their usual producing selves if they want to avoid an out-of-conference loss this late in the season.