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October 28, 2010

Week 9 preview in the Big Ten

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Purdue at Illinois, noon
Northwestern at Indiana, noon
Michigan State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m.
Michigan at Penn State, 8 p.m.
Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has been down this road to perfection before. He was an assistant on the 2002 Ohio State team that won the national championship and finished 14-0.

"One thing about that [Ohio State] team is we found out how to win close games," Dantonio said. "All the games were very close, even starting with the fourth game against Cincinnati."

Michigan State may be in for a close contest Saturday when it takes its perfect record and No. 5 spot in the BCS standings to Iowa in a game that looks like the last big hurdle between the Spartans and a Big Ten championship -- and maybe even a trip to the BCS title game.

The 2010 season took on a magical feel for the Spartans on Saturday when Michigan State survived a close call by pulling out a 35-27 win at Northwestern after falling behind 17-0. After beating Notre Dame earlier this season with a fake field goal called "Little Giants," the Spartans used another gimmick play -- this time, a fake punt called "Mousetrap" -- for a first down on a fourth-quarter scoring drive.

"It was a very exciting game," Dantonio said. "It puts us in a position to move forward. That is one thing that we were able to do. The next step is what we thought was going to be one of our bigger challenges going into the season -- going on the road and playing at Iowa."

The Spartans will find an angry Hawkeyes team when they arrive in Iowa City. Iowa is coming off a 31-30 home loss to Wisconsin that dropped the Hawkeyes to 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten. Iowa had harbored national title dreams. Now, Iowa is just hoping for at least a share of the Big Ten crown.

"They are a very balanced football team," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who has won three of the past four against the Spartans. "They are playing very well right now. ... It's going to be a great challenge."

After the trip to Iowa, Michigan State's schedule features little heavy lifting. The Spartans, who don't play Ohio State, have back-to-back home games against Minnesota and Purdue before finishing the season at Penn State. Bottom line: A 12-0 season looks likely with a win at Iowa.

If some of the unbeatens ahead of Michigan State in the BCS standings stumble, the Spartans may find themselves playing in the national title game.

But if Michigan State is going to win at Iowa -- something it hasn't done since 1989 -- it must run better than it has in recent weeks. Michigan State ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing (193.5 ypg), and the Spartans struggled to establish a ground game at Northwestern last week, finishing with just 105 yards.

"We wanted to be more balanced," said Dantonio, whose team also struggled on the ground (93 yards) against Illinois earlier this month.

Michigan State's saving grace of late has been the Big Ten's No. 3 passing game (255.3 ypg), led by underrated QB Kirk Cousins. Being ranked No. 9 in the nation in turnover margin has helped mask some defensive deficiencies. The Spartans are No. 6 in the Big Ten in total defense (332.5 ypg), fifth against the run and seventh against the pass.

"When you look at playing in [Northwestern], when you look at playing at Michigan, when you look at playing Florida Atlantic, that is a different away game," Dantonio said. "When you look at playing at Kinnick Stadium, the majority, probably 95 percent of the people, will be dressed in black and gold."

That makes this Michigan State's toughest game yet.

Best matchup: Penn State's offense vs. Michigan's defense. The Wolverines rank last in the Big Ten in total defense (441.0 ypg) and the Nittany Lions rank ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (326.7 ypg.). Whichever unit wins this pillow fight will go a long way in determining which team wins. Michigan (5-2) and Penn State (4-3) still are striving to become bowl eligible in seasons that could veer out of control down the stretch.

Player on the spot: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase. He is ranked just 10th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, with a league-high seven interceptions and just six touchdown passes. But all he has to do is make just enough plays in the passing game to keep Purdue's defense honest. This is a game the Fighting Illini (4-3) must win if they hope to reach a bowl for the first time since 2007.

Numbers game: Michigan State has scored at least 26 points in each of its first eight games for the first time in school history. The Spartans had scored at least 30 points in their first six games for the first time.

What they're saying

"Sure, it's a concern. What else do you want me to say? We're trying to get a little better. I said after the Illinois game I didn't think we had played very well defensively. I thought we played a little better against Minnesota, but you got to give the other guys credit." -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on his defense, which has given up 840 yards in the past two games

"Every now and then, I reflect and think, 'Boy, this is what the master plan was going to be going into the season and it was a heck of a plan.' But it doesn't matter now. We have to take what we have, and we still have enough to score enough points and enough players to defend people's offenses and enough players to play good special teams and still win. But it's a challenge." -- Purdue coach Danny Hope, whose team has had numerous key players injured, including the quarterback, the top receiver and the leading rusher

"I thought it was funny there to watch Coach Paterno try to figure out who I was. You could see one of his assistants pointing at us over there. Originally, they were pointing at 'Cos' [defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove]. He looks about as old as I do, not quite as in good of shape. One fingered me. Coach and I met. I saw that going on. I ran over there, introduced myself to him, talked to him. That was really an honor. He really is an icon in the coaching profession." -- Minnesota interim head coach Jeff Horton, on his pre-game encounter with Penn State coach Joe Paterno last week

Etc.: Wisconsin is off this week. ... Michigan State is the eighth Big Ten team since 2000 to open with eight consecutive wins. Of the previous seven, six advanced to BCS bowls and four won at least a share of the Big Ten crown. ... Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern are one win from being bowl eligible. ... Purdue may be down to its third-string quarterback when it travels to Illinois. Rob Henry injured the index finger on his throwing hand in a 49-0 loss at Ohio State last week, making his status uncertain for the Illini game. If he can't go, true freshman Sean Robinson would get the nod. Earlier this season, junior starter Robert Marve suffered a season-ending knee injury; sophomore backup Caleb TerBush was declared academically ineligible in August. ... The Hyde brothers will face off when Michigan State plays at Iowa. Micah Hyde is a cornerback for the Hawkeyes. Marcus Hyde is a safety for the Spartans. ... Minnesota ranks 120th in the nation in sacks. The Gophers have just three in eight games. ... Penn State QB Rob Bolden may miss the Michigan game with a head injury suffered last week at Minnesota. If the true freshman can't play, the Nittany Lions will start either Matt McGloin or Kevin Newsome. And there is a chance both could see time. ... Minnesota is just 4-8 in TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz took blame for a pair of calls that helped Wisconsin beat the Hawkeyes 31-30 on Saturday. Ferentz said he should have told QB Ricky Stanzi to spike the ball instead of calling a timeout late in the game. He also says he should have called for safer coverage on a fake punt that Wisconsin executed en route to scoring the winning points.

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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