IU Special Teams vs. MINN Special Teams - On paper, this weekend's game looks to be a mismatch. It pits an Indiana team that's won three out of four and is fresh off a 25-point walloping of MSU, a victory so convincing the Spartan brass decided it needed a new football coach soon afterwards. Minnesota, meanwhile, is in a dreadful tailspin, having lost five of six, with the lone win being a 10-9 victory over a I-AA foe.
While that might suggest the Hoosiers should be a prohibitive favorite this weekend, they aren't. Oddsmakers have tabbed the Gophers as 5 ½-point favorites in a game that Indiana desperately wants to win to secure its bowl eligibility. The fact Indiana is looking for a victory on the road in the Big Ten – something it's accomplished successfully only once in its last 19 attempts – is likely the biggest reason why prognosticators see this game being a close one.
If that is in fact the case, special teams will likely play a big role. This game features two of the Big Ten's best kickoff returners in IU's Marcus Thigpen and Minnesota's Dominic Jones. Thigpen averages 35.0 yards/return and has taken back three for scores, while Jones ranks third at 24.2/return and has scored once. Jones is also second in the conference in punt returns at 11.2 yards/return, while Indiana leads the conference as a team at 12.9/return.
Indiana's specialists also have an edge. Tyson Beattie is averaging 40.3 yards/punt compared to Minnesota's Justin Kucek's 38.7; while IU's Austin Starr has converted 9-of-11 field goals this season compared to the Gophers' Jason Giannini, who is 6-of-9.
A big play on special teams could help propel Indiana to a hard-to-come-by win on the road, or it could provide the sort of spark Minnesota needs to kickstart a team that still has a mathematical chance to qualify for a bowl game. If the game is close, special teams will likely have a big impact.
IU Offensive Line vs. MINN Defensive Line - There was a time when the Hoosiers' front five was the team's biggest cause of concern, but when they take to the field in the Metrodome Saturday, they'll have a chance to control this contest with their play against the Gophers.
From Indiana's perspective, they've settled on a rotation and they've continued to get better each week. True freshmen Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon have gotten better each and every week on the left side of the line, while center Justin Frye and right tackle Charlie Emerson have adapted to their new positions and have performed well in recent weeks. The result has been an IU rushing attack that is averaging 133.6 yards/game since Big Ten play opened. While that's a long way from Ohio State's league-best 214.0/game, it's also much better than during the non-conference portion of the schedule when IU averaged only 73.5 yards rushing/game.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has been more than generous against opposing tailbacks. Three of Minnesota's last five opponents have eclipsed the 200-yard mark as a team, including Michigan (234), Wisconsin (208) and Ohio State (266). Each of Minnesota's five league foes have rushed for at least 140 yards, and the Gophers are giving up 207.2 yards/game on the ground since league play opened.
IU's Kellen Lewis has shown on several occasions he can lead the Hoosiers to victory when called upon to do so, but this week's match-up is one where the Hoosier offensive line can lead the way to an IU victory and a sixth win on the season.
What's coming up:
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Tuesday - Four Players to Know
On Wednesday - Three Big Concerns
On Thursday – Two Key Matchups
On Friday – One Bold Prediction
Two Days and Counting
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