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October 7, 2010

Week 6 preview in the Big Ten

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

Illinois at Penn State, noon
Indiana at Ohio State, noon
Minnesota at Wisconsin, noon
Michigan State at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.
Purdue at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m.

The leaves haven't begun to fall off the trees in West Lafayette, Ind., but Purdue's season already looks poised to dry up and blow away.

Blame it on injuries, a category in which Purdue seemingly leads the nation. The Boilermakers already have lost their top running back (Ralph Bolden), top receiver (Keith Smith) and top quarterback (Robert Marve) to season-ending knee injuries.

On top of that, key reserve running backs Al-Terek McBurse (toe) and Keith Carlos (foot) also have missed significant time. And receiver Justin Siller (foot) will be out three to six weeks.

"It's unfortunate that we've lost key players, but we certainly haven't lost hope," said coach Danny Hope, who is in his second season on the job.

This was supposed to be a breakout season for a program that has missed a bowl in each of the past two seasons. Purdue had a promising offense, a good-looking defensive front seven and arguably the easiest schedule in the Big Ten. But now, just four games into the season, the wheels have come off.

Purdue is 2-2. It should be 3-1, but a 31-20 home loss to a Toledo team that came in with the worst offense in the nation has draped the Boilers in even more doubt.

"I thought the team really responded after the Toledo game as far as where we were at as a football team and where we needed to go and what we had to do in order to get there," Hope said. "We had a list of goals and objectives that we wanted to address during the off week. We didn't play near as physical as we need to on the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball, on a consistent basis."

A lack of physicality isn't Hope's only issue. Seats in Ross-Ade Stadium sit empty and interest on campus is waning to levels not seen since the insufferable Jim Colletto (1991-96) huffed and puffed on the sideline.

But Hope still has ... well, hope.

"We're still very optimistic about the season, but it was really rough sledding early based on young guys we have and the loss of key players," Hope said. "We lost some of the best players on our team, experienced top players on our team."

Purdue will have to finish 4-4 in Big Ten action to qualify for a bowl. The Boilermakers open league play Saturday at Northwestern. While the Wildcats are 5-0 and have won the past two meetings with Purdue, they are beatable.

If the Boilers lose in Evanston, there will be no margin for error the rest of the season in Purdue's bowl quest, making games against Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana must wins because there's little chance Purdue will beat Ohio State, Wisconsin or Michigan State.

In fact, some may argue that a loss at Northwestern will doom Purdue's bowl hopes.

"We like what we have right now ... in regards to potential," Hope said. "We haven't tapped out all of our resources yet. We can play a lot better in a lot of spots with the same guys that are out there that are very talented."

One of those guys is redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry. Purdue used its off week to get Henry up to speed and adjust the attack around his ample running skills. The offense ranks ninth in the Big Ten but has shown sparks even as it has dealt with the injuries. To wit: Purdue has run for more than 200 yards in three consecutive games for the first time since 1995.

While the offensive struggles are expected because of attrition, the defensive foibles are not. This has been a healthy unit. End Ryan Kerrigan has played like a star, but everyone else has room to improve.

The defense ranks ninth in the Big Ten against the run (148.0 ypg), and only one Big Ten team has forced fewer turnovers than Purdue's six. Is this unit capable of stepping up in the wake of the offensive injuries?

"We can be a more physical football team up front defensively," Hope said. "We have some big, good-looking guys that are very talented, that are strong and courageous and want to win, but they haven't played very much and that's a position where sometimes some tenure can help you."

Best matchup: Michigan QB Denard Robinson vs. Michigan State LB Greg Jones. Without a doubt, Michigan State's will be the best defense that Robinson has seen. He leads the top-ranked Big Ten rushing attack (324.4 ypg), and the Spartans are third in the Big Ten in rush defense (101.2 ypg). Jones may be the top linebacker in college football. Look for more on this big game Friday, as it will be featured as Rivals.com's Game of the Week.

Player on the spot: Penn State QB Robert Bolden. He must make some plays downfield to keep an underrated Illinois defense honest. Bolden, a true freshman, still is learning, ranking ninth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and leading the conference with six picks. Illinois' two losses this season (Missouri and Ohio State) have come by a combined 21 points against teams that are in the top 25 and a combined 9-0.

Numbers game: Penn State is 114th nationally in red zone offense, the lowest for any Big Six school. Against Iowa last week, the Nittany Lions didn't reach the end zone for the second time in five games, causing some to call for sophomore Kevin Newsome to take over quarterback duties from Bolden.

What they're saying

"That is the biggest game of the year, bottom line. It just is. There isn't much more to say." -- Michigan State's Greg Jones, on this week's game against Michigan in a battle of 5-0 teams

"I'm excited because I really do believe, just because I know what John Clay can do, we probably have ... the best running back combination I've been around. I've been around some pretty good backs." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on his running back duo. Clay is backed up by true freshman James White (243 yards rushing, 11.5 yards-per-carry average in past two games)

"Ludicrous." -- Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, when asked if he has thought about losing his job. Minnesota is 15-28 overall and 6-19 in the Big Ten under Brewster

Etc.: It was announced Wednesday that Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker had his right foot amputated earlier in the week because of complications from diabetes. Iowa is off this week. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is expected to be in the press box at Michigan after suffering a heart attack last month. He was supposed to be in the press box for last week's Wisconsin game, but a blood clot in a leg hospitalized Dantonio. ... Northwestern is aiming for its first 6-0 start since 1962. ... Jim Tressel's next win will be his 100th at Ohio State. ... Minnesota and Wisconsin will battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe; they are involved in the most-played rivalry (119 meetings) in FBS history. The Gophers haven't possessed the Axe since 2004. ... Indiana never has beaten a No. 1 or No. 2 team (0-26). The Hoosiers play No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday. Indiana hasn't beaten the Buckeyes since 1988. ... Michigan's Denard Robinson leads the nation in rushing (181.0 ypg), running 98 times for 905 yards (9.2 ypc). And by running and throwing for 200 yards at Indiana last week, Robinson became the first player in FBS history to turn the trick twice in a season. He also burned Notre Dame for 200 yards passing and rushing. ... Illinois is 0-6 all-time at Penn State. ... Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor injured his left quad at Illinois last week, leaving the game for several series. He is expected to start Saturday vs. Indiana. ... Ohio State S/LB Tyler Moeller will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery for a torn pectoral muscle. ... Indiana will be without CB Richard Council (knee) for an extended period of time. ... Illinois' defense has made big strides this year under new coordinator Vic Koenning. The Fighting Illini rank 29th nationally in points (18.0 ppg), 37th in total defense (322.3 ypg), 42nd in rushing defense (130.0 ypg) and 65th in pass-efficiency defense (125.66). At the end of 2009, the Illinois ranked 96th in scoring defense (30.2 ppg), 91st in total defense (403.3 ypg), 76th in rushing defense (154.4 ypg) and 103rd in pass-efficiency defense (142.77).

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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