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October 20, 2011

Week 8 preview in the Big Ten

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

Penn State is 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten, sitting on top of the Leaders Division. But it's a flimsy 6-1 because of a dubious offense.

The Nittany Lions average just 21.7 points per game, which ranks 10th in the conference. The attack ranks ninth in the Big Ten overall (373.1 ypg). The lone bright spot: Tailback Silas Redd has provided a strong rushing attack, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (100.7 ypg) while carrying 147 times for 705 yards and five touchdowns.

Indiana at Iowa, noon
Illinois at Purdue, noon
Nebraska at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
Penn State at Northwestern, 7 p.m.
Wisconsin at Michigan State, 8 p.m.
If not for a great defense that ranks second in the league overall (264.1 ypg) and has forced 17 turnovers (tied for 10th in the country), Penn State wouldn't be sitting so pretty.

"I feel like we're way better than what we were in the beginning of the season," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "We're actually putting together drives. I don't think we're real good yet, but we're close to being real good and that's what Joe [Paterno] tells us every day.

"We know what we can do. We know we can move the ball and put up points. We do it in practice all the time, but we just have to carry it over to the games."

One of the issues is Paterno's insistence on continuing to play two quarterbacks. The results have been spotty.

Whether it is junior Matt McGloin or sophomore Rob Bolden at quarterback, Penn State's offense has suffered peaks and valleys - but mostly valleys.

McGloin has been the better of the duo, but neither has impressed. McGloin ranks sixth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, while Bolden is 12th. Combined, they have gone 108-of-210 (51.4 percent) for 1,429 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

[Video: Is Penn State ripe for an upset?] "I think they're really confident," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "I think they're a lot more confident than people think because we're moving the ball."

Red zone woes have exacerbated the situation. Penn State has just 115 points on 28 trips inside the 20, an average of 4.1 points per trip. The offense has totaled just 13 touchdowns and eight field goals while failing to score on six other occasions.

Helping mask the sluggish offense has been a favorable schedule. Penn State has beaten FCS member Indiana State, Temple, Eastern Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. Not exactly a murderer's row. But following the trip to Northwestern on Saturday, the rest of the schedule will feature a lot of heavy lifting.

[Olin Buchanan audio mailbag: Should JoePa step down?]

There are visits from Illinois and Nebraska followed by season-ending trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin. Unless the offense begins to show more consistency, especially with the pass, the Nittany Lions will become an afterthought in a Leaders Division that also includes powerhouse Wisconsin.

"It's not anything magical that you can do," Brown said. "It's football. You got to go to work and just try to be a little tougher in the red zone and try to make plays. I feel like our team and our offense, we stick to ourselves and we have belief in ourselves that we can put points on the board and put together good drives. I feel like that just shows you the character of our team."

Wisconsin at Michigan State is our game of the week, and we'll have a more in-depth look at that game Friday.

Best matchup: Wisconsin offensive line vs. Michigan State defensive line. Wisconsin has scored at least 35 points in each of its six games and leads the nation in scoring offense at 50.2 points per game. The Badgers average 257.5 rushing yards and 265.7 passing yards. This formidable attack gets its biggest test of the season at Michigan State. The Spartans are No. 2 nationally in total defense (186.2 ypg), No. 3 in rush defense (67.0 ypg) and No. 4 in scoring defense (10.8 ppg). The battle in the interior, especially, will be worth keeping an eye on.

Player on the spot: Northwestern LB David Nwabuisi. Northwestern's defense has been abysmal, which is why the Wildcats have been one of the most disappointing teams in the Big Ten. If a porous defense that ranks 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (30.0 ppg) gets shredded by a pedestrian Nittany Lions offense that ranks 10th in the league in scoring (21.7 ppg), the Wildcats four-season run of bowl eligibility will be in serious jeopardy. Nwabuisi needs to be tough against the run.

Keep an eye on: Illinois. How will the Fighting Illini react following their first loss of the season? The trip to Purdue could be dangerous. The Boilermakers, coming off a 23-18 loss at Penn State, could be dangerous if they can avoid the self-inflicted wounds that seemingly haunt them each Saturday. Illinois' defense did its job in the 17-7 home loss to Ohio State. But the offense flopped and needs to get back on track. This will be a great indication of QB Nathan Scheelhaase's moxie and leadership.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase]

Numbers game: Illinois has 26 sacks, which is tied with Texas A&M for the highest total in the nation; the Illini had 23 sacks last season. Junior E Whitney Mercilus leads the nation in sacks (10.0) and sacks per game (1.86). He also is tied for the national lead with five forced fumbles.

Quotes of the week

"It's the home runs over our head that have killed us. It's not like you're putting a pin into a balloon and it's a slow leak. It's like taking a machete and taking all the air out of every balloon that you have." - Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, on his defense's propensity for giving up big plays

"They have an opinion. Doesn't carry much weight, but they have an opinion. We're with him every day." - Michigan coach Brady Hoke, on the calls by some fans to have Devin Gardner take over for Denard Robinson at quarterback

[Video: Dienhart's midseason Heisman invitations]

"I know there was a Tweet early on when Russell [Wilson] signed. I already made a point of that so they're aware of it. I know some stuff popped up on Saturday. Our guys are kind of in a mode. I don't really worry about policing these guys. I think they know the difference between right and wrong." - Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on advising his players to avoid saying anything inflammatory before the Michigan State game

"Absolutely. I certainly think so; so do the players. We just have to win enough games. We're good enough, and we're going in that direction. And I believe that, when it's all said and done, we're going to have a heck of a football team if we can stay healthy. Again, we're a lot better than we were three weeks ago." - Purdue coach Danny Hope, on whether his 3-3 team can reach a bowl with games left against Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana

Poll watch: The Big Ten leads all conferences with six teams ranked in the initial BCS poll. Wisconsin is highest at No. 6. After the Badgers are Nebraska (13th), Michigan State (16th), Michigan (18th), Penn State (21st) and Illinois (23rd).

Etc.: Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis acknowledged in a written statement Tuesday that the Big Ten has notified the university of a possible unsportsmanlike conduct violation, stemming from the Spartans' 28-14 victory over Michigan on Saturday. Michigan State officials confirmed that the punch thrown by Spartans DE William Gholston at Michigan OT Taylor Lewan during the second half of last week's game is the act that is being investigated. Michigan and Ohio State are off this week. Minnesota lost its first two Big Ten games by a combined 103-17 and plays host to Nebraska this week. Damarlo Belcher needs three receptions to become Indiana's career leader in the category. Wisconsin has won eight consecutive Big Ten games, with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points. That includes three victories against teams ranked in the top 15. Northwestern hasn't beaten Penn State since a 14-7 win in 2004. Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins leads the nation with 895 receiving yards. Minnesota QB Marqueis Gray is expected to be ready to go Saturday against Nebraska after being nagged by a toe injury. Wisconsin WR Nick Toon missed last week's game against Indiana with a sore foot, but practiced this week and should be ready to go at Michigan State.

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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