Key stretch: Northwestern

Sixth in a series that looks at stretches of games that can make or break the 2010 season for Big Ten teams.

Next up, Northwestern.

Key stretch: Purdue (Oct. 9), Michigan State (Oct. 23), at Indiana (Oct. 30).

Breakdown: Northwestern has played its best ball under head coach Pat Fitzgerald in November, but it can't rely on a late surge every year. The Wildcats were struggling entering a similar stretch in 2009 but rallied for wins against both Purdue and Indiana. Those victories kept the team afloat and set up a perfect November (3-0) that resulted in an Outback Bowl berth. All three games could go either way, but Northwestern likely needs two wins to ensure a school-record third consecutive bowl berth. The Wildcats typically drop a nonconference game they shouldn't, and they open Big Ten play at Minnesota before hosting Purdue in a night game. Purdue outplayed Northwestern last year, and the Wildcats will need a strong defensive effort against Robert Marve and Co. After a bye week, the Wildcats face a Michigan State team that owns back-to-back wins against them after dropping a 48-41 overtime game in 2007. Northwestern and Indiana have played some wild games in recent years, and the Wildcats won't take a trip to Bloomington lightly after being stunned there in 2008.

Prediction: Northwestern could enter this stretch at anywhere from 2-3 to 5-0, but new starting quarterback Dan Persa should be comfortable by early October. The Wildcats will have chances to put up points against three opponents that struggled defensively to varying degrees in 2009. All three opposing quarterbacks -- Marve, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Indiana's Ben Chappell -- are dangerous and will test a new-look Northwestern secondary. I can't see the Wildcats sweeping the stretch or going winless. They'll split the home games and find a way to beat Indiana in Bloomington.

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