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November 6, 2008

Big Ten: Title race hits home stretch

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

Down the stretch they come, with five teams still in the hunt for the Big Ten title.

Is that a sign of parity, or mediocrity? You can decide. Regardless, it's great theater.

Over the final three weekends of the season, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern will battle for the championship. The Nittany Lions can clinch a share of their first Big Ten crown since 2005 with a win at Iowa Saturday coupled with losses by Ohio State (at Northwestern) and Michigan State (Purdue).

But Penn State has so much more on the line. The Nittany Lions (9-0) are thinking national championship as they gear up for their final three regular-season games. Penn State's BCS dreams took a hit while the Nittany Lions were idle last week, as top-ranked Texas lost and Texas Tech jumped from seventh to second, with Penn State staying at third. But Penn State coach Joe Paterno isn't worrying about it.

"We've got to play Iowa," said Paterno, who hasn't won a national title since 1986. "Iowa is a good football team. In fact, year in and year out, I think Iowa is as well-coached and has as tough kids as anybody that we play against. So, I haven't even thought about the other part of it.

"I can't do anything about the other part. The only thing my team and I can do anything about is Iowa."

The Nittany Lions look to be a cinch to earn their first BCS title-game berth if they finish 12-0 and are one of only two unbeaten teams. But if both Alabama and Texas Tech finish unbeaten, Penn State likely would be left out of the title game.

"I haven't got the slightest idea what the BCS is it the BCS or the BSC?" said Paterno, a playoff proponent. "I don't know. They are going to do what they are going to do and it won't make any difference what I say or comment on. I'm telling you what I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about Iowa, period. I mean, you guys ask me 58 questions about something else, but I haven't got any opinion about what's going on."

    Illinois vs. Western Michigan (at Detroit), noon
    Ohio State at Northwestern, noon
    Michigan at Minnesota, noon
    Wisconsin at Indiana, noon
    Purdue at Michigan State, noon
    Penn State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m.

    Michigan's pride vs. Minnesota's short-term future. The Wolverines' loss at Purdue last weekend guaranteed the program its first losing season since 1967 and ended the school's 33-year bowl streak. Now what? Michigan wades into Minnesota with pride and the Little Brown Jug at stake. The Wolverines never have endured an eight-loss season. It will be interesting to see how the Golden Gophers respond following a heartbreaking home loss to Northwestern and talk that coach Tim Brewster may be a candidate for the Tennessee and Washington jobs.

  • Iowa RB Shonn Greene . He has run for 100 yards in each game, totaling 1,257 rushing yards and 11 TDs. He'll face a tough test against a Penn State team that leads the Big Ten in rushing defense (99.1 ypg) and total defense (265.9 ypg). Penn State's offensive mojo may have been impacted by the off week, and Iowa has a stout defense (301.6 ypg, third in the Big Ten). Couple that with Greene's ability to run the ball which would drain the clock and keep the ball away from the Nittany Lions' potent offense (459.8 ypg, first in the Big Ten) and you have the makings of an upset. Plus, Iowa has a sense of urgency coming off a tough defeat at Illinois. The Hawkeyes need one more win to become bowl-eligible.

  • Filling in for injured starter C.J. Bacher (leg), Northwestern QB Mike Kafka ran for 217 yards in a win at Minnesota. It was the most rushing yards in a game by a quarterback in Big Ten history, breaking the mark set by Purdue's Gary Danielson. In his first career start, Purdue redshirt freshman QB Justin Siller was 21-of-34 for 266 yards and three TDs in a 48-42 win over Michigan. Earlier this season, Siller was moved from quarterback to running back, but was switched back after injuries hit the Boilermakers' first- and second-stringers. Michigan State's 5-1 start in conference play is its best since a 5-0-1 start in 1987. If the Spartans win out, they will claim a share of their first Big Ten title since 1990. Minnesota WR Eric Decker set a school single-season record last week with his 73rd reception.

  • The MAC has been rough on the Big Ten this season. Indiana's loss last week to Central Michigan was the Hoosiers' second this year to a MAC team, the first time that has happened in school history. Earlier this year, IU lost to Ball State. Toledo beat Michigan last month, and this week, Illinois plays a dangerous 7-2 Western Michigan team in Detroit. Michigan has lost five in a row. Indiana has scored more than 20 points just twice in Big Ten action. Purdue's 48 points last week were more than it had scored in October (41). Iowa's four losses have been by a combined 12 points. Indiana had just 26,140 fans attend last week's loss to Central Michigan, which toppled the Hoosiers with a backup quarterback throwing for 485 yards.

  • "Well, all you can do is look at the numbers, and those numbers would indicate, you know, that this year we're a more-penalized football team than ever before, since I've been here. I think this week we broke into the 11th spot as the most-penalized team in the league with with 12 penalties last week."
    Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, when asked if his criticism of officials is resulting in the Badgers being called for more penalties this season.

    "I asked anybody if they had any questions, if anybody wanted to bring up anything like that. You all want to make everything so much drama. I mean, this is unbelievable. Every time there's something said, everybody wants to make a big deal out of something, make so much drama about everything. That's why I don't tell you too much. You think I tell you a lot. I think I've been pretty transparent. But sometimes I don't because I don't know what you are going to take and make a big deal out of a wee little thing."
    Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on whether he asked any players if they wanted to speak after last week's loss at Purdue guaranteed the program's first losing record since 1967.

    "We had a lot of guys who just played like they wanted it. And then there were a select few that just didn't at times. And that was pretty much the outcome."
    Indiana LB Will Patterson, after last week's 37-34 home loss to Central Michigan.

  • ETC.
  • Purdue coach Joe Tiller says he doesn't know if he'll start Siller or Curtis Painter, who missed last week's game with a shoulder injury, when the Boilermakers travel to Michigan State on Saturday. Purdue must win its final three games to become bowl-eligible. Northwestern isn't saying if Bacher or Kafka will start this weekend. There is something about Penn State and color-themed games. Iowa will have a "blackout" when the Nittany Lions visit this weekend. Well, a blackout with an asterisk students are supposed to wear green in homage to star Hawkeyes RB Shonn Greene. Ohio State had "Scarlet Fever" against Penn State. When the Nittany Lions played at Purdue, the Boilermakers had a "blackout." Not to be outdone, Penn State had a "whiteout" for its game vs. Illinois. Wait, there's more: Minnesota is encouraging fans to wear "solid gold" in the Metrodome for its game vs. Michigan. Penn State will be the first ranked team Iowa will play this season. With a win at Northwestern, Jim Tressel can tie Earle Bruce for third place on Ohio State's career victories list with 81. Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure suffered a broken jaw Saturday night following an incident that involved a teammate and will miss this weekend's game. The police weren't contacted, and Illini coach Ron Zook says the matter will be dealt with internally. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio's 15 victories are the most by a Spartans coach in his first two seasons since Chester Brewer won 14 from 1903-04.

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

    Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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