Big Ten previews: Spartans, Wolverines play for Legends edge

Big Ten previews: Spartans, Wolverines play for Legends edge
October 31, 2013, 4:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

One wonders how many battles Paul Bunyan had that carried as much as importance as this weekend's meeting between Michigan and Michigan State.

The giant of American legend is brought up solely because the winner of Saturday's tilt takes home the Paul Bunyan Trophy. But the winner will also be taking home something more important, for whichever team comes out on top becomes the Legends Division team with the best chance to play for a Big Ten championship.

"This game means more than just winning and losing in state. It's an opportunity to really sort of take control of the Legends a little bit or at least push forward," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "The stakes get higher as we go. I think it's a national game, too, because it'll have a meaning in terms of bowl implications and those type of things."

The Spartans head into Saturday with an unblemished 4-0 conference record — one of two lossless marks in the conference, the other being Ohio State — and the title of first place in the division. The Wolverines, meanwhile, sit at 2-1, but a win over the Spartans would give them the tiebreaker. Though a team like Nebraska might have something to say about this division race, the two teams from the Great Lakes State are playing better than the rest right now, and a win for either would mean the inside track to a division championship and a spot in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

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But when there's that added element of the in-state rivalry, things can get real intense in a hurry.

"No. 1, there is so much passion for this football game for Spartans and Wolverines. It's something that you as a coach or competitor that you understand and you look forward to it," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said at his weekly press conference Monday. "The other part of it, the other piece of the puzzle, it is an important football game when you look at where we want to be and where they want to be at the end of November."

The rivalry has already seeped into the comments of both coaches earlier this week, illustrating that this is no ordinary game to determine the fate of the Big Ten race.

Coach Dantonio, do you respect coach Hoke?

"Yeah, that's accurate. But I will say this, so you guys can print all this: Just because you like somebody in the family doesn't mean you like the whole family. But I have a great deal of respect for Brady and his coaching abilities. Very close with his brother back in the day. Good man," Dantonio said.

Coach Hoke, Michigan State doesn't seem to like you very much.

"Well, we don't necessarily like them, either," Hoke said. "This isn't an admiration society. It's a great rivalry. You've got two teams that are about 45 miles apart and that's what it is."

OK then.

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But while the coaches were tasked with showing exactly how much they disliked the opposing team early in the week, it'll be the game on the field that will actually have the most impact come Saturday. Michigan State has the No. 1 defense in the country, and the Spartans are a tough team that's grinder out the majority of its wins. Michigan hasn't won a lot of games in blowout fashion, either, but the Wolverines has a ton of stellar offensive weapons. It makes the Michigan State defense vs. the Michigan offense the real matchup to watch Saturday.

"You hope your team does the same thing (as Michigan State)," Hoke said. "We've been inconsistent in that department. They all know — the guys who have been here, I think there were 27 of them who were in East Lansing two years ago — they understand that it is physical next five weeks and it starts with the physicality that Michigan State will play with."

"I think when you look at them, they have a winning identity. They find a way to win. I think they've done that throughout the year. I think they play a tough brand of football. Their defense flies around. … They're very well coached football team. Offensively they want to run power football now, which talks about toughness. I mean, that is a form of toughness. … They're going to try and go at you, and I think that's their mentality. I think they're right on."

Notice a few buzzwords there? Tough. Physical. Both teams are expecting a big-time collision of two traditional Big Ten football teams when the Spartans host the Wolverines at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.

"It's a physical football game," Dantonio said. "Football is a physical game, and if you have two opponents playing what I believe is their best performances, usually it's with physicality involved in it."

A game Paul Bunyan himself would surely be proud of.

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All Big Ten games on Saturday, Nov. 2

Illinois at Penn State, 11 a.m., ESPN. The Nittany Lions are tasked with picking up the pieces following a 63-14 demolition at the hands of Ohio State last week. Thankfully for them, doing so might not be too difficult against an increasingly poor-performing Illinois defense. The Illini let up 42 points to an at-times offensively challenged Michigan State team last week, which has to have Bill O'Brien and Christian Hackenberg licking their chops. But, on the flip side, Illinois might see this week as an opportunity against a team that has shown it's susceptible to the same kind of bad losses the Illini have been. Before last week's drubbing in Columbus, the Lions had bad losses against Indiana and Central Florida.

No. 24 Wisconsin at Iowa, 11 a.m., ABC. The Badgers are well rested after yet another bye week, and Iowa is coming off a 17-10 overtime win against reeling Northwestern last week. The red flag for the Hawkeyes might be the quality rushing day yielded to the Wildcats, with the trio of Kain Colter, Mike Trumpy and Stephen Buckley going over 200 yards. Wisconsin obviously has its own group of talented rushers that figure to have another huge day against this Iowa defense. And if the Hawkeyes hope to drive their offense using their own talented backs, good luck. The Badgers rank second in the conference — trailing only the immortal Michigan State — allowing just 87.6 rushing yards per game.

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No. 4 Ohio State at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. Though Ohio State's 63-point outburst likely sent shivers down the spines of their closest competitors for the Big Ten title, perhaps no team should be as concerned as Purdue, next in the Buckeyes' path. It doesn't seem to matter who Ohio State plays these days, but the Boilermakers are a particularly welcome sight for a team looking to score some style points in a quest for a berth in the national title game. No Big Ten team is scoring more than the Buckeyes, at 47.2 points per game, while Purdue ranks second-to-last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing more than 34 points each week. The outcome of this one seems all too clear, with the only question being if Ohio State dropped 63 against a team that isn't Purdue, how high will it go against the Big Ten's worst team?

Minnesota at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Perhaps call it the battle for the fifth-best team in the Big Ten. The middle of the conference has been pretty unimpressive this season, with Northwestern falling flat on its face and Nebraska disappointing at seemingly every turn, as well. So after the big four — Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan — could one of these two teams emerge as the leader of the conference's second tier? Minnesota has been a great story, picking up back-to-back wins over the aforementioned Wildcats and Huskers. The Gophers are playing uninspired football since Jerry Kill took a leave of absence, with a strong running game carrying the load again. The Hoosiers offense has been astounding — expect another shootout this weekend — but no Big Ten is surrendering more points than Indiana's weak defense.

Northwestern at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Which team can avoid further embarrassment? Each team is in desperate need of a win to salvage something from a rough go this season. The Cats are probably more in need given their losing streak has extended to four games, every one of its Big Ten contests this season. Nebraska, though it only has two losses, was knocked off by Minnesota last week, something the folks in Lincoln aren't to used to. The good news for Northwestern? Nebraska's defense has been bad this season, and a solid rushing team in Minnesota tore the Huskers up last week, meaning the Cats could unleash their rushing attack, which was effective vs. Iowa. The good news for Nebraska? See Northwestern's last three games.