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November 10, 2011

Week 11 preview in the Big Ten

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

If one team has become an avid fan of divisional play in the Big Ten, it's Iowa.

Just two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes collapsed in the fourth quarter in a 22-21 loss at Minnesota and fell to 2-2 in the Big Ten.

Ohio State at Purdue, noon
Nebraska at Penn State, noon
Rice at Northwestern, noon
Michigan State at Iowa, noon
Wisconsin at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
Michigan at Illinois, 3:30 p.m.
But drop a few dominoes - Iowa's 24-16 win over Michigan, Northwestern's 28-25 upset of Nebraska - and Iowa is relevant again in the Big Ten race.

If the Hawkeyes defeat Big Ten Legends Division leader Michigan State this week and Purdue and Nebraska on the road in the final two weeks of the regular season, Iowa is playing for a Big Ten championship.

That's a lot of "ifs." Still, any other year in the Big Ten's history and Iowa would be all but irrelevant by now.

"Last week, basically, we were toxic, and now people are talking about conference races again," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We won one game. We have three really tough games ahead of us. That's what we're worried about at this point."

Iowa is by no means a favorite for the Big Ten title; the road ahead is difficult. Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in total defense despite a loss to Nebraska and a close call with Minnesota, and even if Iowa can defeat the Spartans in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes have been a different team on the road, where they lost to Iowa State, Penn State and Minnesota.

Still, there is reason for hope. In the past four games, tailback Marcus Coker has been running more decisively, Ferentz said. He has been one of the top offensive players in the Big Ten in that span, rushing for 647 yards and eight touchdowns.

Iowa's defense, which has been lackluster by its standards, had its best performance of the season last week, holding Michigan to 323 total yards.

[Huguenin: Breaking down the Big Ten races]

While Iowa frustrated Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan State presents different challenges with a pro-style offense and a better passer in Kirk Cousins.

The only one-loss team in conference play in the Legends Division, Michigan State, too, is preparing for a stretch run that it hopes will end with a Rose Bowl berth. The Spartans put all players off-limits for media interviews this week, its second media ban of the season. The first was the week before Michigan State's 10-7 win over Ohio State on Oct. 1.

Michigan State has not won in Iowa City since 1989. That seven-game losing streak includes Michigan State's only regular-season loss last season.

"There's been so much talk about divisional play and conference races, but the one thing that hasn't changed is that the more you win, the better off you are, and the more you lose, the worse off you are," Ferentz said.

Best matchup: Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus vs. Michigan QB Denard Robinson. Containing and pressuring Robinson has been the key to slowing Michigan's offense the past two seasons, especially later in the season. Mercilus, the Big Ten's leader in sacks, could help this effort as Illinois tries to end a three-game losing streak.

Player on the spot: Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead. Burkhead took a hit early in last week's lost to Northwestern game, Huskers coach Bo Pelini said, and it looks to have bothered him the rest of the game. Burkhead had his second-lowest rushing total of the season: 49 yards on 22 carries. Nebraska needs him to return healthy against Penn State's defense.

Keep an eye on: Michigan State's tailback rotation. Edwin Baker rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. This season, he's struggling to approach even half of that yardage total. He rushed for 167 yards against Michigan on Oct. 15, but in the past three games, Baker has run for 73 yards on 29 carries. He also has lost a fumble in three of the past four games. In his place, Le'Veon Bell has been Michigan State's top rusher, with 241 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries in the past three games.

[Week 11 viewer's guide: Best games to watch]

Numbers game: Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray has been hot of late, going 30-of-49 passing for 488 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa and Michigan State. He also rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown in this two-game span. Gray set career highs in completions (19), attempts (49) and yards (295) in the loss to Michigan State. Gray was recruited as a quarterback but spent last season as a wide receiver.

Quotes of the week

"All the clips you've ever seen of him, you never saw him break down and cry. And he was crying the whole time today." - Penn State backup QB Paul Jones, on Joe Paterno's retirement address to the team

"There were some things that we saw from our film study of them that [Taylor Martinez] gave away that we thought we could take advantage of. When they were confirmed, I think we took advantage of some of those things. We didn't do anything different than we do at any other game of the year. If we could steal their signals and get lined up, we'd be undefeated. We'd shut everybody out." - Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, on the idea of stealing signs last week

"Anything that comes our way, I think we can handle. We dealt with so many things on the field, off the field this year. If something happens, I think guys are doing a great job of handling it, kind of just shrugging it off, handling it face up." - Ohio State safety Tyler Moeller

Poll watch: Nebraska's loss to Northwestern last week means Penn State is the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the BCS standings at No. 12. The Huskers dropped from No. 11 to No. 19 after losing 28-25 to Northwestern. Also ranked in the BCS standings: No. 17 Michigan State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 24 Michigan.

Etc.: Ohio State is 2-3 at Purdue since 2000. The Buckeyes have more losses at Ross-Ade Stadium in that span than any other Big Ten road venue. Northwestern QB Dan Persa expects to play against Rice after being sidelined with a shoulder injury in the second quarter against Nebraska. When Ohio State's Braxton Miller faced Indiana's Tre Roberson, it was the first time since Oct. 29, 1988, that two true freshman quarterbacks started a Big Ten game. The quarterbacks in that game were Wisconsin's Lionell Crawford and Purdue's Brian Fox. The Big Ten has eight bowl-eligible teams, the most of any conference. Wisconsin TB Montee Ball has 24 total touchdowns this season, matching the school's single-season record and two behind the conference's single-season mark. Ohio State's Pete Johnson (1975), Indiana's Anthony Thompson (1988) and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter (1994) each scored 26 touchdowns in a season. Ball's 24 touchdowns are the most in the Big Ten since former Badgers TB Brian Calhoun set the school record in 2005. Minnesota and Wisconsin are meeting for the 121st time; it's the most-played rivalry in the nation. Illinois has lost three in a row and has scored just 28 total points in the losses. The Illini have committed eight turnovers in the three losses. After last week's win at Nebraska, Northwestern has won 30 of its past 41 games decided by seven or fewer points. Minnesota has come from behind in each of its past 11 victories, dating to the 2009 season. Since being held to 35 rushing yards against Michigan State, Ohio State has averaged 267.0 rushing yards per game in its past four outings.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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