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Nebraska-Wisconsin tops first weekend of Big Ten matchups

Quarterback Dan Persworks out as Northwestern University begins football practice Monday August 8 2011 Evanston. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Quarterback Dan Persa works out as Northwestern University begins football practice Monday August 8, 2011 in Evanston. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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SUN-TIMES’ BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS

Badgers, Cornhuskers keep rolling. Gophers, Hoosiers keep bumbling. And the middle remains a jumble.

                       LW

1. Wisconsin (4-0)       1

2. Nebraska (4-0)        2

3. Michigan State (3-1) 3

4. Michigan (4-0)        5

5. Iowa (3-1)            6

6. Penn State (3-1)      7

7. Illinois (4-0)        9

8. Ohio State (3-1)      4

9. Northwestern (2-1)   8

10. Purdue (2-1)         11

11. Minnesota (1-3)      10

12. Indiana (1-3)        12

Updated: December 1, 2011 5:27AM



Now we get down to business. After a month of polishing their acts against outsiders, Big Ten teams will keep it in the family when conference play begins Saturday.

The headliner, of course, is that
big showdown between No. 7 Nebraska and No. 8 Wisconsin. It’s the most ballyhooed Big Ten game since Red Grange — well, at least since Michigan and Ohio State both were good.

Northwestern’s trip Saturday to Illinois ought to stir local interest. The No. 24 Illini are 4-0 for the first time in 60 years, and Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa says he’s ready to make his season debut.

Illinois is among the 22 (out of 122) remaining unbeaten teams. That number will drop by at least five Saturday, when 10 of the unbeatens go head-to-head.

Beyond Nebraska-Wisconsin,
No. 3 Alabama’s trip to No. 12
Florida is a game with big implications in the Southeastern Conference. No. 13 Clemson visits No. 11 Virginia Tech in an Atlantic Coast Conference showdown. The other unbeaten matchups are in the Big 12, where No. 17 Texas is at Iowa State and No. 15 Baylor plays at Kansas State.

Poised for Persa

Illini coach Ron Zook isn’t surprised that Persa plans to play in Saturday for the first time since his right Achilles injury last November.

‘‘I figured if he was going to play, he’d be playing against us,’’ Zook said Sunday. ‘‘Obviously, he’s a very good quarterback who can move around and throw. But the quarterback we played Saturday is a pretty good player.’’

Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder ran the Broncos’ quick-release offense well in the first half, completing 22 of 34 passes for 206 yards, before Illinois’ defense put the clamps on him in the second half (8-for-14, 100 yards).

Asked if Western Michigan’s passing game was a good warmup for NU, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sighed.

‘‘I think the best preparation for Northwestern is getting in the ice tubs, trying to getting our bodies fresh,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘We’re going to have to find a way of matching their freshness. They’ve had a week off, and we’ve had two pretty physical down-to-the wire games in a row. We’re going to have to find a way of playing smart football.’’

Zook said he expects the Wildcats to have payback on their minds after being manhandled by the Illini 48-27 without Persa last fall at Wrigley Field.

‘‘[Our players] understand the importance of this game,’’ Zook said. ‘‘They know Northwestern is going to try and make amends from what happened last year. We have to be ready to go.’’

SEC adds Aggies

Texas A&M will join the SEC next season, conference officials announced, ending speculation that legal roadblocks from the Big 12 would delay the Aggies’ move.

That should ease the anguish in College Station, where A&M blew a 20-3 halftime lead Saturday and lost to Oklahoma State 30-29.

The No. 14 Aggies have no time to lick their wounds. They play Saturday in Dallas against No. 18
Arkansas, which is likely to be feeling ornery after losing to Alabama. Although stuck behind No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Alabama in the fierce SEC West, the Razorbacks remain a solid team.

Texas A&M and Arkansas would give most of those 22 unbeatens a game. The trouble is, one of them is going be on a two-game losing streak after Saturday.

2-2 trumps 1-3

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly can exhale for a moment. The Irish’s 2-2 record isn’t scintillating, but it beats the 1-3 they avoided in their narrow 15-12 escape from Pittsburgh. Looks like Kelly won’t be a savior until he finds a big-time quarterback.

At UCLA, Rick Neuheisel has to be feeling good about a modest 2-2 start after surviving a dangerous trip to Oregon State 27-19.

Another Kill setback

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is heading to the Mayo Clinic for further tests after suffering another seizure Sunday. Kill, who was hospitalized for five days after suffering a seizure on the sideline of the Golden Gophers’ home opener Sept. 10, is in good condition, team physician Pat Smith said. Smith didn’t speculate on how long Kill would be at Mayo.



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