- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten slate is a major snoozer this week, but there always are some intriguing story lines when league teams take the field.
Here are 10 of them.
1. Running back roulette: The Evan Royster situation at Penn State will continue to be a major issue until No. 22 starts looking like the running back we saw in each of the last two seasons. Stephfon Green seems to be gaining on Royster, although Penn State guard Stefen Wisniewski tells me Royster doesn't have to worry about his starting job. It'll be interesting to see how the run game fares against unbeaten Temple.
2. Missing their Mark: Michigan State will play its first game without head coach Mark Dantonio, who has returned home from the hospital after suffering a minor heart attack and undergoing surgery Sunday. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell handles the head-coaching duties Saturday against Northern Colorado. Treadwell still will call the offensive plays, but he'll be on the field rather than in the coaches' booth. It'll be interesting to see how the Spartans handle the emotions and unfamiliarity of not having Dantonio leading them.
3. Must win for Minnesota: It's still September, but Minnesota can't come out of the month 1-3 and have a realistic expectation to reach a third consecutive bowl game. In fact, most of Minnesota's recent bowl appearances have been fueled by strong nonconference performances. The Gophers made some strides last week against USC but couldn't finish. They have to put it all together against a Northern Illinois team that will test the defense with quarterback Chandler Harnish.
4. Wolverines on the defensive: After letting UMass pile up 37 points and 439 yards last week, Michigan's defense had better buckle down Saturday against Bowling Green. The Wolverines are struggling to sack the quarterback (two sacks in three games) or stop the run (169.7 ypg allowed). Bowling Green will be without starting quarterback Matt Schilz (shoulder), so Michigan should have an opportunity to improve before Big Ten play begins.
5. Men down: Both Iowa and Wisconsin received some bad news this week, as the teams announced that Hawkeyes running back Jewel Hampton (knee) and Badgers linebacker Chris Borland (shoulder) both will miss the rest of the season with injuries. Iowa has only one healthy proven running back in Adam Robinson, and it'll be interesting to see how the offense changes, if at all, Saturday against Ball State. The Badgers shouldn't struggle too much with Austin Peay, but the game provides the opportunity to evaluate linebackers like Blake Sorensen, Kevin Claxton, Kevin Rouse, A.J. Fenton and others as they likely take on enhanced roles.
6. Wildcats aim for rare sweep: Between 1964-2007, Northwestern suffered at least one nonconference loss in every season. The Wildcats can sweep through non-league play for the second time in the last three years if they beat Central Michigan on Saturday. Despite road trips to Vanderbilt and Rice, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald calls the Chippewas "our stiffest test of the year, no question." Northwestern has been solid in Big Ten play for the last decade, but it needs to get over it annual hiccups in non-league play.
7. Et tu, Brute?: There should be plenty of Ohio State highlights Saturday against Eastern Michigan, though it shouldn't be very competitive on the field. The real intrigue lies with Brutus Buckeye, who returns to the field after being ambushed by Ohio University's mascot last week. Eastern Michigan's mascot, Swoop the Eagle, looks friendly enough, but Brutus had better beware.
8. MAC attack: Eight Big Ten schools take on opponents from the Mid-American Conference on Saturday. Although most Big Ten fan bases aren't too worried about this, the MAC recorded four wins against its big brother league in 2008 and two in 2009. Temple, Toledo and Central Michigan all bring winning records into Big Ten stadiums Saturday. Don't be shocked if the MAC secures at least one win Saturday.
9. Show some ID, please: Several Big Ten offenses are still searching for their identities as league play beckons. Purdue is trying to overcome a rash of injuries and figure out what works best in the Robert Marve era before a bye week. Penn State boasts tremendous talent at wide receiver but has lacked consistency in the run game. Minnesota and Michigan State have been run-first teams so far this season, but both squads also boast some weapons in the passing game, as they showed last week. We should get a better idea of what these units are all about after Saturday.
10. Hoosiers on the ground: Indiana needs to improve both its rushing offense and rushing defense before Big Ten play kicks off next week against Michigan. The Hoosiers rank last in the league in both categories, making Saturday's game against winless Akron all the more critical. As good as Ben Chappell can be this season, he needs some help from Darius Willis and the running backs. And IU's defense has to lock it down better against the run before Denard Robinson comes to town.