The noon EST time slot on Saturday features three teams facing must-win games if they're going to keep themselves in the hunt for a New Year's Day bowl game. Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois all need to get W's in road tilts. In the case of the former two teams, they can theoretically afford to lose these games and still bounce back. However, practically speaking, a loss in either case would signal alarm bells about their ability to win out the rest of the way. And Illinois put itself up against a wall when they lost at home to the Gophers two weeks ago, and unless they plan on beating Ohio State a second straight year, they can't afford to be losing in other spots.
Northwestern goes to Indiana. The one thing certain in what's been a chaotic year amongst the eight teams situated between the elites and the basement is that IU's holding down the #11 hole. Terry Hutchens of The Indianapolis Star reports that the Hoosier faithful is none too optimistic about even winning a single Big Ten game. In the meantime, the Wildcats are rolling along at 6-1 and getting good offensive balance between C.J. Bacher at quarterback and Tyrrell Sutton in the backfield. The latter has not had the kind of superstar season I was watching for, but he's still been pretty good and the 'Cats have more then filled in around him.
Minnesota travels to Purdue. This is a test game for the Gophs. They are coming off a bye week and the Boilermakers look ready to unravel after being routed by Northwestern last week. But keep in mind that Rick Brewster's team has been far from dominant. They built their early season record on a soft schedule, struggled to get past Indiana at home and beat Illinois primarily on the strength of turnovers. Whether they can maintain their focus and come up with a big win on the road against a very beatable team will be a key test of how fast they are progressing. Kent Youngblood of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune opines that the offensive line is now starting to stabilize, after injuries and lineup changes. A win here would signal that Brewster has the team back to its Mason-era level where they were a team that might not have been championship-level, but was one no contender wanted to mess with.
Illinois goes north to Wisconsin. The Badger defense is going to have to play vastly better then they have for the past two weeks and realistically need their best game of the season. With the quarterback position in flux and the running game far from its customary dominant self, UW has no hope of winning a scoring race with Juice Williams' offense. If the Illini don't beat themselves, I can't see the Badgers slowing them down sufficiently in this ESPN2 telecast. Herb Gould of The Chicago Sun-Times declares that receiver Aurelious Benn has been even better in his encore performance.