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October 6, 2011

Week 6 preview in the Big Ten

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With league play starting to heat up, two things look apparent in the Big Ten.

One: Wisconsin is the class of the Leaders Division.

Minnesota at Purdue, noon
Illinois at Indiana, 2:30 p.m.
Iowa at Penn State, 3:30 p.m.
Michigan at Northwestern, 7 p.m.
Ohio State at Nebraska, 8 p.m.
Two: The Legends Division looks wide open.

Ohio State? Penn State? They don't look capable of challenging a Badgers team coming off an impressive 48-17 shellacking of Nebraska. A 5-0 Illinois team, one of the nation's biggest surprises, may be Wisconsin's chief threat. Still, how good are the Fighting Illini? We may not find out until Nov. 19, when the Badgers visit Champaign.

Most felt Nebraska would be the class of the division. But doubts cloud that notion following the Huskers' loss in their Big Ten debut in Madison. Nebraska's defense has leaks. And the offense is hurt by quarterback Taylor Martinez's inability to pass.

Iowa (3-1) and Michigan State (4-1) could be factors, but each has shown vulnerabilities in ugly losses (the Hawkeyes to Iowa State and the Spartans to Notre Dame).

And what about Michigan under first-year coach Brady Hoke? Most felt the Wolverines had a good chance to return to the postseason after playing in the Gator Bowl last season. But few felt Michigan had a chance to win the Legends.

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The offense again is explosive behind quarterback Denard Robinson. But it has been the defense that's fueling big thoughts in Ann Arbor.

"There's a swagger about our defense," Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said. "When you're playing the way we're playing, it's a lot more fun to play. We have guys that are excited to be out there, excited for other guys to be making plays. It's a lot of fun. I'm having a great time with the other 10 guys out there. We just have to keep going."

The unit is tied for the Big Ten lead in scoring defense (10.2 ppg), which ranks second nationally. The Wolverines also are first in the nation in red-zone defense and plus-seven in turnover margin after posting a minus-32 the past three seasons.

It's all a far cry from the Rich Rodriguez era, which was ruined by horrible defenses. Michigan had an historically awful effort in 2010, yielding 458 points and 5,860 yards. Now, that seems like eons ago.

"As far as confidence in the unit, I think is kind of a newer thing," Van Bergen said. "We have confidence that, regardless of who's in at what position, guys are capable of shutting down whoever they're supposed to shut down. That they'll complete the assignments they're supposed to complete. And that confidence transfers into being more productive and having better games overall."

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Much of the credit goes to new coordinator Greg Mattison, whom Hoke hired from the same post with the Baltimore Ravens. Mattison ditched Rodriguez's 3-3-5 scheme for a more conventional 4-3. It has worked.

"I think when you look at our front from the last two weeks, I think they've been a little more disruptive," Hoke said. "I think we put a little more pressure at times on the quarterback. We still don't blitz worth a dog, period. That's going to improve.

"[But] guys are playing together. I think they're understanding their roles. I think the defensive staff has done a very good job in preparation."

Best matchup: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez vs. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Martinez, a sophomore, has hit just 50.5 percent of his passes for 823 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Miller, a true freshman, has connected on 51.3 percent of his attempts for 291 yards, with three touchdowns and two picks. The focus will be on both as the Buckeyes visit the Huskers with each team coming off a brutal loss and looking to right itself. Whichever quarterback passes best figures to be on the winning team.

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Player on the spot: Penn State TB Silas Redd. Truthfully, it's the entire Nittany Lions offense. But since Redd is the best weapon, it's incumbent on him to excel with Iowa in town. He has looked good at times, running 91 times for 432 yards and four touchdowns. But QBs Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin haven't looked so good for an attack that ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total offense (370.0 ypg) and 11th in scoring (23.2 ppg). The unit could have success against a Hawkeyes defense that ranks ninth overall (385.8 ypg) and eighth in scoring (23.8 ppg). And it needs to start with Redd.

Keep an eye on: Purdue. If the Boilermakers (1-3) lose at home to a Minnesota team that's coming off a 58-0 whipping at Michigan, they may not win another game. Interest and attendance are at their lowest levels in West Lafayette since the Fred Akers era (1987-90). Add it all up, and it puts more pressure on third-year coach Danny Hope, who finds his seat growing warmer by the second.

Numbers game: Illinois is 5-0 for the first time since 1951. Michigan is 5-0 for the second year in a row and looks to move to 6-0 for the first time since 2006. Wisconsin is 5-0 for the sixth time in the past 10 seasons and for the first time since 2009; the Badgers haven't started 6-0 since 2004.

Quotes of the week

"Most of the time when I read these things or these things come to me, I'm trying to figure what the big deal was all about." - Purdue coach Danny Hope, on a critical Tweet by QB Robert Marve in which he didn't "understand how I was not playing in the system! It was rough [the Notre Dame game] from the get-go, don't understand how that was on me."

"In Big Ten play, we'll empty the drawer more as we go now. Our first four games, we're learning the offense and that's still not a done deal. We're a work in progress, but we're going to have our deals. They're not all going to work. Some are going to be good and some aren't." - Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, on opening up the playbook

[TheWolverine: OC Borges ready to empty the drawer]

"He just told me he's sick of it. These next seven games, he just wants the world to get off his back, so he's going to have to do something about it. That's pretty much what he told me in a text last night. ... He just wants all the negativity away from him wherever he goes and stuff like that. Like I know in our class, some girl told him ‘stop throwing those interceptions' and things like that. It was just too much. He was in a Spanish class and they're talking about interceptions." - Nebraska OL Jermarcus Hardrick, on how QB Taylor Martinez is dealing with critics of his passing ability

"It's a dilemma. I'm very reluctant to point out that one is better than the other ... so I'm going to play them both. It's one of those things where people might not agree with it, and that's fine. I'm not sure I agree with it." - Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on QBs Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin

Poll watch: The Big Ten is one of three conferences with at least five top-25 teams in the latest AP or coaches' poll. The Big 12 and SEC are the others.

Etc.: Ohio State expected the return of OT Mike Adams, DE Solomon Thomas, WR DeVier Posey and RB Daniel "Boom" Herron after serving five-game suspensions. But only Adams and Thomas will suit up when the Buckeyes play at Nebraska. An investigation found that Posey and Herron violated an employment rule, being compensated for more work than they performed in a job set up by a booster. OL Marcus Hall and DE Melvin Fellows also have been implicated and suspended for the Nebraska game. ... Michigan State and Wisconsin are off this week. ... Illinois LB Jonathan Brown has been suspended for this week's game at Indiana after he appeared to intentionally knee a Northwestern player in the groin last week. ... Northwestern RB Mike Trumpy suffered a season-ending knee injury in the loss at Illinois last week. He was leading the Wildcats in rushing. Senior Jacob Schmidt will take over. ... Indiana's starting quarterback job may be up for grabs. Edward Wright-Baker missed last week's loss to Penn State with an ankle sprain and Dusty Kiel made his first start. IU coach Kevin Wilson hinted that true freshman Tre Roberson could be on the verge of more playing time. Roberson, the 2010 Indiana Mr. Football, has seen action in two games. ... Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray was unavailable last week at Michigan because of a toe injury but is out of a walking boot and may play this week. If not, true freshman Max Shortell again will get the call. ... Northwestern QB Dan Persa will start after being pulled in the fourth quarter last week at Illinois after hurting his foot. ... Ohio State WR Verlon Reed is out for the season after injuring a knee in last week's loss to Michigan State. He was second on the squad with nine catches for 132 yards. ... Illinois' past three wins have been narrow. It marks the first time in school history that the Fighting Illini have won three consecutive contests by three or fewer points and is only the third time in school history that three consecutive games have been decided by a total of nine or fewer points. ... Minnesota CB/KR Troy Stoudermire missed last week as he deals with a fracture in his left arm. He's questionable this week at Purdue. ... Illinois will continue to be without WR Darius Millines, who has a foot injury. ... In non-conference play, the Big Ten has gone 0-1 vs. the SEC; 4-1 vs. the Pac-12; 1-2 vs. the ACC; 1-0 vs. the Big East; 0-1 vs. the Big 12. That's a 6-5 mark vs. "Big Six" leagues.

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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