Northwestern, Minnesota play biggest game of week while Michigan hopes to finally win at home

A look at what to watch in the Big Ten this weekend:

GAME OF THE WEEK: OK, show of hands: Who had Northwestern at Minnesota as a matchup with first place on the line?

Sure, some will claim they knew that the Wildcats and Golden Gophers were destined for greatness all along. But they're undoubtedly members of the head coaches' families.

Northwestern (3-2, 2-0) lost its first two games of the season to sink to 1-9 in its previous 10 games. There were murmurs that coach Pat Fitzgerald, a star on the field and the sidelines for the Wildcats, might soon be unemployed. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) closed last year with three disappointing losses and then was bludgeoned 30-7 at TCU in its toughest test of this season's first four games.

But then the Wildcats won three in a row, including their first two Big Ten games in surprises, at Penn State and at home against Wisconsin on Saturday. And the Gophers, now in their 47th season since they last won even a scrap of a title, toppled struggling Michigan at the Big House.

Voila! Now the winner is assured of having at least a share of the West Division lead on Saturday night.

BEST MATCHUP: There have been a lot of years when Penn State at Michigan was a classic. This meeting does not fit that description. The Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1) have a good defensive team and a terrific young quarterback in Christian Hackenberg who has not had vintage games recently. The Wolverines (2-4, 0-2) are desperate for a win, not because of title aspirations or bowl hopes so much as simply to have a short respite from all of the questions about the star-crossed tenure of head coach Brady Hoke. They've lost three in a row — incredibly, two of them at The Big House — and will be hard pressed to finally get back in the win column.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS: It was already an uphill task for Illinois (3-3, 0-2) when it visits Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1). Then the 17th-ranked Badgers were stunned last week at Northwestern, 20-14. Now coach Tim Beckman not only leads his Illini against an angry team but also is facing some tough questions after a 38-27 defeat by his own team at Purdue last week. And he's also going into the game without promising sophomore QB Wes Lunt, who broke his leg last week. Confidence is at a low for the Illini, and the Badgers will be trying to make a point. Not good. Look for Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who has 871 yards rushing on the year, to top the 1,000-yard mark — possibly by halftime.

LONG SHOT: Coming off perhaps the biggest victory of coach Darrell Hazell's two years — it almost has to be since he's only 4-14 — Purdue (3-3, 1-1) might have hoped for another opponent other than the defending Big Ten champions. The eighth-ranked Spartans (4-1, 1-0) are favored by three touchdowns heading into a three-game set (the Boilermakers, then at Indiana and then home with Michigan before a bye week) leading up to the conference's premier game of the season, at home against No. 15 Ohio State on Nov. 8. The tough part for Hazell and the Boilermakers is following up the win at Illinois, which featured first-time starting QB Austin Appleby throwing for a TD and running for two as Purdue rushed for 349 yards. Recreating those numbers will be extremely difficult against the Big Ten's best defense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Indiana's Tevin Coleman has carried 105 times for 841 yards and eight TDs. Nate Sudfeld has completed 97 of 158 passes for 1,066 yards and five scores. They'll both have to have huge games when the Hoosiers (3-2, 0-1) travel to Iowa (4-1, 1-0). Unfortunately for Indiana and coach Kevin Wilson, it's not his top performers on offense who most worry him. The defense is giving up more than 33 points a game to FBS opponents. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes are ranked 15th in FBS in total defense, seventh against the run and 16th in points per game. So, who wins: skill players or gritty defenders?


Rusty Miller can be reached at