Photo: Northwestern Athletics
It’s a big week for a couple of teams in the Big Ten. Some teams have big opportunities to position themselves in their division race, and others have a chance to make a statement. Here are the three biggest things I’m watching for this weekend.
Northwestern vs. Wisconsin
The Wildcats are completely unpredictable. I’m not going to pretend to tell you I know what’s going to happen this weekend–no one can. But I can tell you that if Northwestern wins in Madison, it will end up being the biggest win of the season. And it wouldn’t even be close. A win would give them a two game buffer over the Badgers for the divisional race. One game for the victory, and one game in case of a tie at the end of the season.
Northwestern can earn a win against the Badgers if it utilizes Justin Jackson. Testing Wisconsin’s thin linebacking group could prove to be the edge in this one. Alex Hornibrook has been really impressive so far for Wisconsin, and if his play continues, Northwestern will have to put points up in mass.
Just how good–or bad–is Michigan State?
Last week didn’t tell us much about Michigan State. They got handled my Notre Dame at home, but we also don’t know how good the Irish are. This weekend, the Spartans get an Iowa team fresh off a heartbreaking loss at home to Penn State.
For Iowa, this has hangover game written all over it. Coming off a crazy home environment and going on the road against a far-from-spectacular opponent in Michigan State calls for an underwhelming performance. Regardless of which Iowa team shows up, this is a must-win game for the Spartans. They may only be the favorite in one or two more games for the rest of the season depending on how this one goes.
We talked about what they need to improve on specifically on the podcast, but if Michigan State wants to find themselves back in a bowl game, it absolutely has to win on Saturday.
Can Maryland show signs of life?
It’s been a weird season for the Terps. They went on the road to beat Texas, but lost their starting quarterback. They thumped Towson the following week under the leadership of freshman Kasim Hill, but then get trounced by UCF. Oh, and they lost Kasim Hill to a knee injury. Maryland has played 3 games and lost its starting quarterback in two of those. They are now down to Max Bortenschlager (candidate for first-team All-Big Ten names), and will rely on running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison going down the stretch.
It will be an uphill battle for Maryland to return to a bowl game, but all is not lost. They still have tremendous perimeter speed and running back play, along with a solid linebacking corps led by Jermaine Walker. This week, they travel to face a Minnesota team that is clicking right now under PJ Fleck. The Gophers seem to have found their identity under quarterback Connor Rhoda, and as important as this game is for Maryland, it could be equally or more important for Minnesota.
After this matchup, the Gophers’ next three opponents are Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois, the latter two at home. Coming out of that stretch undefeated–or even one loss–gets them into a bowl game just seven games into the season, a potentially tremendous start for the Fleck era.