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November 24, 2011

Week 13 preview in the Big Ten

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Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley has declined to speculate on his team's bowl prospects, but he has noted that one possible destination interests the Nittany Lions.

"Right now we're fighting only for the Rose Bowl," Bradley said.

THE SCHEDULE
FRIDAY
Iowa at Nebraska, noon
SATURDAY
Ohio State at Michigan, noon
Michigan State at Northwestern, noon
Purdue at Indiana, 3:30 p.m.
Illinois at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
Penn State at Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m.
After defeating Ohio State 20-14 in Columbus last week, Penn State on Saturday faces Wisconsin in Madison for the Leaders Division title. The winner faces Michigan State in next week's Big Ten championship game with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.

Even before the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit, the Nittany Lions' Big Ten championship hopes were greeted with skepticism because of a lackluster offense. But a standout defense, statistically one of the best in the nation, has made a big impact. But Bradley acknowledged that winning with defense and special teams is not ideal in today's environment.

"It's getting harder and harder to do it [that way]," Bradley said. "The offenses are so good. Nowadays it's almost where your defense has to keep you hanging in until your offense starts going. The days of shutting people out and dominating totally are a long way off from what they used to be."

In Penn State's second game under Bradley, the Nittany Lions diversified their offense with wide receivers Curtis Drake and Bill Belton taking direct snaps in a "wildcat" package. The staff discussed the wrinkle during the summer, then more seriously around the sixth week of the season. When Belton took the role of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez on the scout team two weeks ago, Bradley added Belton to the mix.

The coaching change also gave a second chance to running back Stephfon Green. Green was suspended in August because of a violation of team rules. He was benched again after he was charged in September with furnishing alcohol to two minors during an incident in July. But with Silas Redd limited by injury, Green rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State.

"He's not in my doghouse," Bradley said. "Everybody got a clean slate. But I've told them. 'There is no strike one, strike two, strike three with me. There's only one strike.' [Green has] done everything I've asked him to do. He's worked hard. He's been great with the team. He's been a leader, so he's done everything I've asked him to do."

Ohio State may have been caught off-guard by the new wrinkles in Penn State's offense, but Wisconsin won't be.

Wisconsin is trying to cap a Big Ten title run that at one point appeared to be unlikely. Two fourth-quarter comebacks were spoiled by final-play heroics by Michigan State and Ohio State, resulting in back-to-back losses on Oct. 22 and Oct. 29.

As the Badgers slipped behind the Buckeyes and Penn State in the Leaders Division, there were questions about whether Wisconsin could recover emotionally from such dramatic losses. But Badgers coach Bret Bielema said there was no such concern inside the program.

"I get it, and I think people in the outside world who aren't in this program would have that feeling," Bielema said. "The way we lost those games was only going to make us stronger. If you don't have great kids and great coaches, you're not able to come out of it."

Best matchup: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller vs. Michigan's defense. The personnel around Miller is improving with the return of WR DeVier Posey, who caught four of Miller's seven completed passes last week. No one else caught more than one. That probably needs to change against a good Michigan defense. Miller can run a bit, too, but the Wolverines did a good job of containing other dual-threat quarterbacks, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, in the past two weeks.

Player on the spot: Wisconsin C Travis Frederick. The Badgers will be using their third starting center of the season - and their second in as many weeks - against Penn State. All-America candidate Peter Konz hurt his ankle against Minnesota and Ryan Groy started last week against Illinois. But Groy, a former fullback, was moved to left guard after a couple of shaky snaps. Frederick has started every game this season at left guard, but this is his first start at center. Penn State DT Devon Still has been dominant this season, and if the Badgers can't control him in the middle of the line, it bodes ill for their rushing attack.

Keep an eye on: Northwestern's defense. The Wildcats were dreadful on defense the first six games of the season, precipitating major personnel changes in the starting front seven before the Oct. 22 loss to Penn State. Kevin Watt and Quentin Williams became starters at end, David Nwabuisi moved from middle linebacker to the outside and Damien Proby took a starting role at middle linebacker. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald called the impact of the moves on the defense "overrated," but the results are there, especially against the pass. Northwestern has allowed only 181.8 passing yards per game, compared to 257.2 yards per game in the first five. The Wildcats have allowed 23.2 points per game in the past five games compared to 30.0 in the first six. Michigan State will feature the toughest passing attack Northwestern has faced this season.

Numbers game: If Purdue defeats Indiana, the Boilermakers move to 6-6 and give the Big Ten 10 bowl-eligible teams. The league has only eight bowl tie-ins, but the Big Ten has produced an at-large team to the BCS in six consecutive seasons and 10 of 13 seasons since the BCS began. A Big Ten team (or two) could fill a spot in a non-BCS bowl as an at-large if other conferences are not able to fill their contractual tie-ins. The Big Ten could become the second league to send 10 teams to bowl games in one season. The SEC did so in 2009 and 2010. The Big Ten had 10 bowl-eligible teams in 2007, but Iowa and Northwestern, both 6-6 that season, did not go to bowling.

What they're saying

"I know there's a game on Saturday and my ass will be there." - Interim coach Luke Fickell, on the coaching situation at Ohio State

"Where would we be without him? I guess I don't know what that means. If you take a good football player out of your defense, you don't play as good." - Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, on LB Lavonte David

"We've grown as a team. We've matured. Last week we had an opportunity to flinch a little bit. Hopefully we've learned a lot of lessons." - Michigan coach Brady Hoke, on the possibility of his team tightening up against Ohio State

"We'll do everything we can to win this football game. If a guy is nicked up and he can't play, he won't. But if our trainers say he can go, then he'll go." - Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on the possibility of resting players this week for next week's Big Ten championship game

Poll watch: The Big Ten's streak of having two teams in the final BCS top 10 is in jeopardy. The Big Ten has had two top-10 teams in the final BCS standings in each of the past two seasons, but may not have even one top-10 team in the final BCS standings for the first time since 2004. Michigan State is the Big Ten's highest-placed team in the BCS standings, at No. 14. The Spartans are followed by No. 15 Michigan, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 19 Penn State and No. 21 Nebraska.

Etc.: Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin are among 30 teams announced as in contention for a BCS game. Michigan is the only team of those four no longer in contention for the Big Ten's automatic BCS bid via the conference title game. ... Michigan went 5-3 against Ohio State when Brady Hoke was a defensive assistant with the Wolverines from 1995-2002. But the Buckeyes have gone 8-1 against Michigan since 2002. ... The Iowa and Nebraska game has been dubbed the "Heroes Game." The winner will claim the "Heroes Game Trophy," which will carry the name each of one Iowa citizen and one Nebraska citizen who has been voted a "citizen hero." ... Two Big Ten quarterbacks could set the single-season completion percentage record. Northwestern's Dan Persa is completing 74.6 percent of his passes, and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson is completing 73.6 percent of his passes. The record is held by Persa with a 73.5 completion rate last season. ... Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1991 under Hayden Fry. At the same time, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was a volunteer assistant and Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops was a graduate assistant. ... Michigan State could win the Big Ten title despite finishing last in the league in rush offense (136.6 yards per game). ... Illinois coach Ron Zook said QBs Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will play against Minnesota, but Scheelhaase is "definitely" the guy who will play. ... Iowa suspended freshman RB Mika'il McCall for a violation of team rules. Marcus Coker has carried 263 times for Iowa this season. No other Hawkeyes running back has topped 18 carries. ... Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead wore a protective boot on his right foot Monday, but Pelini said Burkhead should be ready to play Friday.

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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