Published Friday, October 4, 2013 at 9:11 pm / Updated at 9:19 pm
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: B1G opportunity for Wildcats

Big game?

Absolutely. The Ohio State-Northwestern matchup Saturday is huge.

This is the national spotlight game of the week, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” on hand in the morning and ABC televising it at night. Both teams are ranked and undefeated: No. 4 Ohio State (5-0, 1-0) and No. 16 Northwestern (4-0, 0-0).

Ohio State has won 17 games in a row. Northwestern is on a seven-game winning streak. Those are first and fourth on the list of active winning streaks in the FBS.

But is this really the biggest game in Northwestern history, as many media outlets are arguing?

I can’t go there.

No way is this bigger than the Wildcats winning the 1995 Big Ten title outright and going to the Rose Bowl under Gary Barnett after the Wildcats suffered through 23 straight losing seasons. Nor is this bigger than sharing the Big Ten title in 1996.

What I can buy is that Saturday night could move Northwestern — coming off just its third 10-win season in history — from lovable, plucky underdog to legitimate conference title contender.

Which is exactly what eighth-year Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald wants.

“We’ve developed as a program,” he said. “But we’re far from where we want to be.

“There’s an expectation level now not to just win football games, but to compete and win championships. The next step is to put the big trophy in the case.”

The fact that Ohio State is the opponent adds intrigue because no one has had Northwestern’s number like the Buckeyes.

Ohio State has won 28 of the past 29 against Northwestern. The only blip was a 33-27 overtime setback in 2004.

While the Big Ten office might cringe at seeing what likely is the lone true national title contender get sidetracked the first week of October, the Northwestern story would get a ton of play. And the Wildcats have a tougher schedule, which would help them in the event they go undefeated.

Those who like to wager are taking note that Northwestern is at home and coming off an open date while Ohio State had an emotional night game against a ranked opponent last week — a 31-24 win over Wisconsin.

I don’t think that will matter. And with the weather forecast for rain and wind, Ohio State’s ability to run the ball with workhorse tailback Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller outweighs Northwestern’s ability to bulldoze for yardage.

My pick: OSU 38, Northwestern 25

Other Big Ten games

Illinois (3-1, 0-0) at Nebraska (3-1, 0-0), 11 a.m., ESPNU: Who would have guessed in August the betting line here would be single digits? Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has suffered plenty of physical and mental duress in his four years, is willing this team to success. Nebraska’s want-to has been questioned. How will the Huskers respond and how will Tommy Armstrong handle a Big Ten foe? Nebraska 30, Illinois 26

Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) at Iowa (4-1, 1-0), 11 a.m., ESPN2: If you like demolition derby, Kinnick Stadium is the place to be. These two teams will plow head-on into each other until one can’t go forward anymore. Iowa has newfound confidence, but no signature win yet. Michigan State has arguably the country’s best defense but zero confidence offensively. Iowa 16, Michigan State 13

Penn State (3-1, 0-0) at Indiana (2-2, 0-0), 11 a.m., BTN: After Indiana stumbled twice in nonconference play, consider this a must-win for the Hoosiers in trying to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions are 16-0 against the Hoosiers. But in PSU’s lone loss this season, Central Florida flourished in the passing game. Indiana can throw it even better. And PSU’s tackling has been an issue. Indiana 34, Penn State 32

Minnesota (4-1, 0-1) at No. 19 Michigan (4-0, 0-0), 2:30 p.m., ABC: Nobody needed the open date last week more than Michigan. The Wolverines, coming off messy victories over lowly Akron and Connecticut, have to get quarterback Devin Gardner to quit turning the ball over and invigorate their running game. Minnesota has lost 13 of its past 15 Big Ten road games. The only two wins were over Illinois. Michigan 31, Minnesota 10

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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