- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Four games are on the slate in Big Ten play this week as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue take a break. Here's a dose of fact and figures to preview the final weekend of October:
A victory for Nebraska on Saturday over Minnesota would make the Huskers eligible to participate in a bowl game. And not just any bowl game. It would be the Huskers' 50th. Only Alabama and Texas have appeared in 50 bowl games. The Huskers have outscored three opponents 142-46 since losing to UCLA on Sept. 14. That's an average victory margin of 32 points. Impressive, but it's not as dominant as the Huskers' recent history against Minnesota. Nebraska has won 16 straight in the series -- the last 12 by an average margin of 40.2 points.
Minnesota, meanwhile, needs a win, too, to gain bowl eligibility, a milestone that hasn't exactly been kind to the Gophers over the past decade. They've lost five straight bowl games since 2004. Still, the progress in Minneapolis is difficult to ignore. Minnesota has won 11 of its past 20 games, averaging 24.7 points. In its previous 20 games, it was 5-15 and scored 19.7 points per game. Much of the improvement can be traced to growth in the Gophers' ground game. Four players this year have rushed for 100 yards or more in a game -- a feat Minnesota last accomplished in 1967.
Michigan State, attempting to start 7-1 or better for the second time in seven seasons and third time in the past 46, is on some kind of a roll defensively. The Spartans rank first nationally in total defense, yards per play, rush defense and yards per rushing attempt. MSU has won 11 of the past 12 meetings with Illinois, and all but two of those 11 victories have come by 10 points or more.
Defensively, Illinois could not present more of a stark contrast to the Spartans. The Illini, in the same categories mentioned above, rank 104th, 110th, 106th and 111th nationally. Not good. Neither are the Illini's 16 straight Big Ten losses. That's the worst run in school history. But Illinois must do a lot more work to reach Northwestern's Big Ten record of 38 consecutive league losses, set from 1978 to 1982.
Penn State has defeated Ohio State in two of the team's past three meetings at the Horseshoe -- wins in 2008 and 2011 that were later vacated. Since 2004, the Nittany Lions are the only team with more than one win in Columbus. The rest of the Big Ten, in fact, has combined for just three over that time.
Ohio State has won a national-best 19 straight games since Urban Meyer's arrival. A victory on Saturday over Penn State would make Meyer the sixth coach in major-college history to open his tenure at a school with 20 consecutive wins. Pop Warner holds the all-time record with 30 straight to open his time at Pitt from 1915 to 1918. Others ahead of Meyer include Fielding Yost (Michigan), Walter Camp (Yale), Larry Coker (Miami) and Terry Bowden, who won his first 20 games at Auburn in 1993 and 1994. Meyer has won 20 straight games, including his final contest at Florida, for the third time in his career. He is among nine coaches ever to record more than one 20-game winning streak. None of the others are active.
The best barometer through which to gauge Northwestern's success, aside from injuries, might be turnovers. Last week in losing 20-17 to Minnesota, perhaps the most disappointing of three consecutive defeats for the Wildcats, Northwestern failed to force a turnover for the first time since a win over Iowa one year ago this weekend. The Wildcats rank first in the conference and 14th nationally this year with 17 takeaways. Before last week, they had snagged an interception in 10 consecutive games. Northwestern has converted its 17 turnovers into 72 points on nine touchdowns and three field goals.
Want to believe Iowa can't lose on Saturday -- or for that matter, to another Big Ten team this season? The Hawkeyes' three losses this year have come against teams with a combined record of 20-1; its five remaining foes are 21-13. Iowa's defense has held every opponent this season under its rushing average. Iowa foes have scored four red-zone touchdowns, the fewest of any team in the country. The two rushing touchdowns it has allowed ties Iowa with Alabama and Florida State for the fewest nationally. Last one: Iowa has allowed just five sacks this season, the seventh-lowest total nationally.