As the Big Ten heads into its final weeks of the regular season, it lacks a team undefeated in conference play following Michigan State”s upset of now No. 12 Michigan. This should come as no surprise to fans who have witnessed the great increase of parity in the conference over the past few years.

Paul Wong
Purdue and Brandon Hance fell to Illinois last week, but can remain in the Big Ten title race with a win over Ohio State this Saturday in Columbus.<br><br>BRENDAN O”DONNELL/Daily

Despite their loss, the consistently powerful Wolverines are still in the driver”s seat along with Illinois, which also has one conference loss to Michigan. Lurking in the shadows are Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, each tied for third with two losses apiece. At least one of these two-loss teams will fall this weekend as Purdue heads to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes in this week”s most important Big Ten matchup.

Penn State (2-3 Big Ten, 3-4 Overall) at No. 14 Illinois (4-1, 7-1) 2:30 p.m. ABC: The Illini square off at home against Penn State coach Joe Paterno and the rejuvenated Nittany Lions. Illinois coach Ron Turner”s team is coming off a huge road win over Purdue, while the Lions are riding a three-game winning streak sparked by Paterno tying the all-time wins record with an upset at Northwestern.

Though Penn State leads 9-1 in the brief series, it will be difficult to continue that success. Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner possibly the best quarterback in the Big Ten has led the Illini to a 7-1 record by averaging 267 passing yards per game, which leads the conference. His favorite target is sophomore receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has had five 100-yard games.

After starting 0-4, and being ranked dead last in scoring, rushing and total defense nationally, Paterno”s team has found new life. With freshman quarterback Zack Mills at the helm, the Nittany Lions have scored 105 points and gained 1,475 total yards in the last three games, greatly improving their averages.

While history and momentum seem to favor the Nittany Lions, they will struggle against Illinois” explosive offense and much improved defense. Expect Penn State”s magical streak to end, as the Illini win the matchup for the first time since 1960.

Illinois 35, Penn State 14

Indiana (2-3, 2-5) at No. 23 Michigan State (3-2, 5-2): Cam Cameron”s Hoosiers have quietly become the team nobody wants to play in the Big Ten. They have lost five games, yet they scored at will against both perennial heavyweight Wisconsin and fast-fading Northwestern, beating the Wildcats 56-21 in Bloomington. With Antwaan Randle-El leading the attack and surprise star Levron Williams in the backfield, Indiana can put up enormous numbers. But the Badgers and Wildcats have proved to be much weaker than originally expected. The Hoosiers are plagued by a porous defense that allows 31.4 points per gamelast in the conference.

Meanwhile, the Spartans are coming off a big victory over the Wolverines. Explosive running back T.J. Duckett had a breakout game, rushing for 211 yards and one touchdown, as well as the game winning receiving touchdown. Duckett”s rushing is complimented by quarterback Jeff Smoker, who has thrown for over 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. On defense, the Spartans are strong at linebacker with senior Josh Thornhill leading the way with 79 tackles. Despite an injury-ridden secondary, Michigan State still managed two interceptions against the Wolverines” normally accurate quarterback.

While the Spartans could have a slight letdown after last week”s emotional victory, their tough rushing defense should stop Randle-El and Williams in their tracks and Duckett should have another big game against the Hoosiers” poor defense. Expect the Spartans to stay undefeated at home and gain bowl eligibility.

Michigan State 41, Indiana 21

No. 24 Purdue (3-2, 5-2) at Ohio State (3-2, 5-3) 12:10 p.m. ESPN: Ohio State looks to keep its conference title hopes alive by upending No. 24 Purdue in Columbus. Jim Tressel”s Buckeyes can still win a share of the Big Ten title by winning out, a daunting task considering their final two games are against conference co-leaders Illinois and Michigan.

The series has been dominated by Ohio State which has won 32 of 45 games. However, Joe Tiller”s Boilermakers won in a thrilling 31-27 comeback last year in West Lafayette. The Buckeyes are coming off a tight road win over lowly Minnesota, while Purdue suffered a crushing loss to Illinois. The Illini scored 38 unanswered points after going down 13-0 to win 38-13.

Both teams have strong defenses, led by two of the Big Ten”s best defensive backs in Purdue”s Stuart Schweigert (10 career interceptions) and Ohio State”s Mike Doss. Throw in two inconsistent quarterbacks in Ohio State”s Steve Bellisari and Purdue”s Brandon Hance, and you get a close, low-scoring affair. However, the Buckeyes are 3-1 at home, having only given up 18.8 points per game, second in the Big Ten and 20th nationally. Look for Doss and Ohio State to stop Tiller”s spread offense and win a close one at home, gaining bowl eligibility just before facing the gauntlet of the Illini and Wolverines.

Ohio State 21, Purdue 17

Iowa (2-4, 4-4) at Northwestern (2-4, 4-4) 12:00 p.m. ESPN-Plus: Last year when Iowa beat Northwestern in Iowa City 27-17, it was a huge upset and it cost the Wildcats a trip to the Rose Bowl. This year, both teams have four losses and are struggling to stay in the bowl picture. This was expected of the Hawkeyes, but many picked Northwestern coach Randy Walker”s Wildcats to win the Big Ten. However, despite being the Big Ten”s No. 1 offense, the Wildcats have allowed 30.3 points per game (10th in the conference) and have lost the last three straight. As if things weren”t bad enough in Evanston, star rusher Damien Anderson separated his shoulder against Indiana and will not play this weekend. Northwestern will become uncharacteristically one-dimensional as they rely heavily on the capable arm of senior quarterback Zak Kustok.

The Hawkeyes boast the league”s best defense and its second-most accurate quarterback in senior Kyle McCann (63 percent of passes completed). Each of their four losses have been by less than 10 points. Kirk Ferentz”s team is still looking for a big win, and they may succeed against Northwestern, although a win against the Wildcats is quickly becoming less impressive.

While Iowa has it”s share of injuries, the Hawkeyes have enough offensive know-how to blast through the gaping holes in the Wildcats” defense, and will have a much easier time stopping Northwestern”s running attack without Anderson in the mix. Look for Iowa to chalk up their first road win of the season, keeping their bowl hopes alive and sending the Wildcats even deeper into their downward spiral.

Iowa 28, Northwestern 21

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