Big Game Hunting: Illinois, Northwestern getting ready for quite the ’dog day

Penn State and Michigan, respectively, are favored against the Illini and Wildcats by the same bloated number.

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Michigan v Nebraska

Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are 6-0.

Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It’s “23 and Me” week for both Illinois and Northwestern.

OK, fine, “23½ and Me.”

Each team is on the business end of a giant point spread — yep, 23½ — in Week 8 of the college football season.

Oddly, both presumed mismatches will play out under national spotlights, too, and at the same time. We’ll see how many viewers stay with Illinois at No. 7 Penn State (11 a.m., Ch. 7, 890-AM) and Northwestern at No. 6 Michigan (11 a.m., Fox-32, 720-AM) until their bitter ends.

“This is by far, probably, the best team we’ve played all year to this point,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of the 6-0 Wolverines. “It’s not even close, in my opinion, watching everybody on tape that we’ve seen, that we’ve prepared for.”

Illinois coach Bret Bielema could say the same thing about the Nittany Lions (5-1), and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration whatsoever in either case. Penn State’s and Michigan’s defenses — ranked fourth and eighth, respectively, in points allowed — will be expected to thoroughly dominate the Illini’s and Wildcats’ plodding, herky-jerky offenses. So much so, in fact, 23½ would also be a good over/under for combined points scored by Bielema’s and Fitzgerald’s teams.

Run defense, meanwhile, has been a major problem for Northwestern (3-3) since Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III raced up the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the season opener.

“There are some times that I’ve kind of looked at some plays and just wondered to myself: What in the wide world of sports are we doing?” Fitzgerald said.

If he can channel “Blazing Saddles,” I’m joining in with six words about the hapless Illini (2-5): I get no kick from Champaign. Sorry, young readers, but sometimes ancient movie references are just plain perfect. (YouTube it if you have to.)

Penn State has quarterback issues. Michigan, it could be argued, hasn’t really beaten anybody yet. And both favorites have giant Big Ten East games next weekend — at Ohio State and at Michigan State, respectively — that could be distractions against the Illini and Wildcats.

Nittany Lions, 26-10. Wolverines, 24-13. And print it.


Northern Illinois (+5) at Central Michigan (11 a.m., ESPNU): No team in the MAC runs it better than NIU. No team in the MAC stops the run better than CMU. The Huskies have dropped three straight in Mount Pleasant. Chippewas, 31-24.

Wisconsin (-3½) at No. 25 Purdue (2 p.m., BTN): The Boilermakers — ranked for the first time since 2007 — have dropped 14 straight to Wisconsin and haven’t beaten the Badgers in West Lafayette since 1997. Ranked, shmanked? Boilers, 17-16.

No. 8 Oklahoma State (+7) at Iowa State (2:30 p.m., Fox-32): We’ll leave it to the Talmudic scholars to figure out and explain how an unbeaten, top-10 team can be a decisive underdog against a two-loss, unranked foe. But wait — Cyclones by 14.

No. 10 Oregon (+1) at UCLA (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): Does America really want to see Chip Kelly get his smirk on with a “W” against his old school? Quack, 31-27.

USC (+7) at No. 13 Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5): USC folks want to believe the football coach opening is the best job in the country, but LSU opening up (at season’s end) was a jolt — merely the latest thing to go wrong for the down-and-out Trojans. Irish by 10.

My favorite favorite: No. 5 Ohio State (-21) at Indiana (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Big Ten is still the Buckeyes’ world. Both feet are on the gas pedal from here.

My favorite underdog: Clemson (+3½) at No. 23 Pittsburgh (2:30 p.m., ESPN): The upstart Panthers will be large and in charge in the ACC Coastal if — big “if” — they can kick Clemson while it’s down. Tigers fight back, 27-17.

Last week: 5-4 straight-up, 6-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 45-21 straight-up, 39-26-1 vs. the spread.

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