Big Ten previews: A lot riding on Northwestern-Ohio State

Big Ten previews: A lot riding on Northwestern-Ohio State
October 3, 2013, 9:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

For the first time this season, Big Ten play is in full swing. After three prelude games over the past couple weeks, there will be five matchups between two Big Ten teams.

But all eyes will be on just one.

When No. 4 Ohio State and No. 16 Northwestern take the field on Saturday night in front of a national television audience the hype will finally cease, the build-up will be over and the two teams can finally play some football.

But until then? Let the hype machine keep on churnin'.

[MORE: Northwestern-Ohio State: A tale of four quarterbacks]

Ohio State wins, and the Buckeyes will be well on their way toward their goal of a berth in the national title game, as a criticized non-conference schedule will be wiped from memory thanks to back-to-back wins over ranked opponents to kick off conference play.

"I want to make sure it never gets tired of winning," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said on Monday's edition of "College Football Daily" on ESPN U. "We have something called a 'victory meal' after we win games, and I want people to appreciate that. Most importantly the head coach has to appreciate it and the coaches and the players. I want to make sure they enjoy a great win, enjoy one of the great settings in college football. The entire country got to see over a hundred-plus thousand people support their team (in Week 5's win over Wisconsin in Columbus). And the team played very hard against a very good team. We have great respect for Wisconsin. That's the biggest thing, I want our players to love playing this game, enjoy playing the game, enjoy winning, enjoy each other, and we are certainly doing that."

Northwestern wins, and Pat Fitzgerald's building of his program will reach new heights, the next step toward prominence following a 10-win season and a bowl victory last year.

"It's been terrific, the change in the climate here and the way that our fans have not only supported us here but the bowl experiences that we've had, our opening game in Berkeley, the fan support was just amazing. And we're very thankful for that," Fitzgerald said on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call. "With our season-ticket sales being at an all-time high and where we're at there's a lot of positive momentum. We're very thankful to be Chicago's Big Ten team. The city's really embraced us, and we've just got to continue to do our part."

[RELATED: For Northwestern, Ohio State brings big opportunity]

But perhaps the biggest question is this: Can the players avoid all this noise?

"In the Twittersphere? That's impossible. You have no chance," Fitzgerald said during his Monday press conference. "I think you embrace whatever it is that comes along with college football. It's why we have the structure in our program. Nothing changes for us this week. Our routine is our routine, we do what we do, and hopefully we put together our best week of preparation. That's been the hallmark of our program."

At this point, the storylines of the game itself have been hashed out. Will Ohio State keep making explosive plays on offense? Will Venric Mark have a big impact in his return to Northwestern? Can either defense adequately prepare for the possibility of a two-headed quarterbacking monster for both the Cats and Buckeyes?

Here are the relevant answers: The stakes are high, the expectations are high and the excitement level will be through the roof at Ryan Field.

Northwestern and Ohio State kick off at 7 p.m. on ABC.

[MORE: Mark's return sends Meyer 'back to the drawing board']

All Big Ten games on Saturday, Oct. 5. (Bye weeks: Purdue, Wisconsin)

Penn State at Indiana, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. The Nittany Lions haven't put up the offensive fireworks other Big Ten teams like Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin have, but quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State run game have definitely been solid. And, they'll get a favorable matchup when an underperforming Indiana defense takes the field Saturday in Bloomington. The Hoosiers rank in the bottom two in the league in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers' strength — their passing game — will run into a real tough Penn State defense which ranks second in the Big Ten with just 14.5 points allowed per game.

Illinois at Nebraska, 11 a.m., ESPN U. This will be the first time these two teams have played since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. The schools have met nine times prior, with the last meeting coming in 1986 in Champaign. Another favorable matchup for one team, the Illinois offense ranks as one of the league's best with the Nebraska defense ranking as one of the league's worst. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's leading passer at 290.5 yards per game, while the Nebraska passing defense ranks second-to-last, allowing 284.2 yards per game. Plus, the status of Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez is still in question after he missed Nebraska's last game two weeks ago. So could the stars be aligned for an Illini upset win in Lincoln? Tim Beckman is still looking for his first Big Ten victory.

[RELATED: Conditions right for Illini upset vs. Nebraska?]

Michigan State at Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN 2. Something's got to give this weekend in Iowa City. Perhaps no team in the country has played a stingier defense than the Spartans, who rank tops in the Big Ten in just about every defensive category. That includes rushing defense, where Michigan State is allowing a stunningly low 58.2 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes boast one of the conference's best running backs in Mark Weisman, who leads the nation with 119 carries this season and ranks fourth with 615 yards. He ranks second in the Big Ten with 123 rushing yards per game. Similarly, the Spartans rely on their running game to help provide some sort of life to their thus-far dismal offense. But the Hawkeyes' rushing defense is almost as good as Michigan State's, allowing just 79.2 rush yards per game and only 30 in their game last week against Minnesota. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We'll find out Saturday.

Minnesota at No. 19 Michigan, 2:30 p.m., ABC. There'll be a clear favorite Saturday when these two teams clash for the Little Brown Jug, but should there be? Sure, Michigan figures to play at a level fairly high above the Gophers, but that didn't stop the Wolverines from stubbing their toes in consecutive games against Akron and Connecticut, escaping both with last-minute victories. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner will have to do much better than the five interceptions he threw in those two close calls, and the bye week for the Wolverines would figure to help with some of their issues. Plus, the Gophers are coming off a drubbing against Iowa last weekend, in which their previously strong rushing attack was held to just 30 yards.