Conference play finally kicks off this week, and here are 10 things to track on Saturday.
1. John Clay vs. Greg Jones: The Big Ten's top running back (Clay) goes up against the league's top linebacker (Jones) in a matchup football purists will love. Clay has rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in two career games against Michigan State, while Jones has recorded 27 tackles in those matchups. After limiting Clay's carries a bit during nonconference play, Wisconsin likely will feed him a lot at Spartan Stadium, particularly in the second half. If Jones and the Spartans defense keep Clay in check, they'll have a good chance to win.
2. Roles reverse for Hawkeyes, Lions: Iowa's recent dominance against Penn State is well known, as the Hawkeyes have claimed seven of the teams' last eight meetings. Unranked Iowa teams have knocked off top 5 Penn State squads in each of the last two seasons. This time, Penn State is the acknowledged underdog heading to Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has the senior quarterback (Ricky Stanzi) and the more accomplished team, but it also has the pressure to win. Penn State certainly boasts the talent to shock the Hawkeyes.
3. Fireworks in Bloomington: Expect a ton of points in the Michigan-Indiana game, as quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Ben Chappell lead potent offenses against shaky defenses at Memorial Stadium. Robinson will play after suffering a bruised left knee against Bowling Green, and he faces an Indiana defense that ranks 10th in the league against the run (177 ypg). Chappell leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally in passing (296.7 ypg). He and his talented receiving corps face the Big Ten's worst pass defense in Michigan (264.8 ypg allowed). This could easily become a basketball score.
4. Improved Illini defense tested: All the early signs point to some genuine improvement with an Illinois defense that finished last in the league in both points allowed and yards allowed in 2009. But as coach Ron Zook said this week, "This will be the first major, major test." Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor leads the nation's No. 8 offense into Champaign on Saturday, and Illinois will be challenged to slow down the Heisman Trophy candidate, who accounted for six touchdowns (4 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving) last week. To have any shot, the Illini need continued playmaking from defensive backs Travon Bellamy, Tavon Wilson and Justin Green.
5. Gophers on life support: There's little joy in Minneapolis about the Golden Gophers after a 1-3 start that includes three consecutive home losses. Despite coach Tim Brewster's perpetual positivity, players are aware of the gloom on the outside. Minnesota really needs something good to happen early in Saturday's Big Ten opener against Northwestern. If things start to go bad, the boos likely will rain down and it's hard to imagine the team turning things around. Minnesota really could use some big plays to lift the mood in TCF Bank Stadium.
6. Clayborn digs in: Penn State hasn't forgotten what Adrian Clayborn did last September at Beaver Stadium. Lions left tackle Quinn Barham put a picture of Clayborn on his cell phone as a reminder of what he'd face this fall. But Clayborn has been relatively quiet this season, as constant double teams have limited him to 15 tackles and no sacks through the first four games. Clayborn is due for a big night and he'll set his sights on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. Penn State has protected Bolden well, allowing only one sack, but the Lions are shorthanded after losing right tackle Lou Eliades to a season-ending torn ACL.
7. Dantonio begins his return: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio will be in the coaches' booth Saturday at Spartan Stadium less than two weeks after suffering a mild heart attack and undergoing surgery. Dantonio said Tuesday that offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will continue to handle head-coaching duties as needed, as Dantonio eases into his full-time role again. "Guys are really excited to see him around," Greg Jones told me. "You feel like the tempo's picking up even more. Guys are going to really, really feel his presence more than they did last week."
8. Northwestern turns to Trumpy: Northwestern has been looking for an answer at running back for a year and a half. As good as quarterback Dan Persa has been, the Wildcats need a legit ground game to join the Big Ten's elite this fall. After Arby Fields' early struggles, Northwestern will turn to redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy, who provided a boost with 53 second-half rush yards last week against Central Michigan. Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt were elevated to co-starters on the depth chart, as Northwestern faces a Minnesota team that allowed Northern Illinois' Chad Spann to run wild (223 yards) last wek.
9. Cousins, Tolzien in crunch time: Both Michigan State and Wisconsin are run-first teams boasting a multitude of capable backs, but I really believe Saturday's game comes down to which quarterback makes plays in the fourth quarter. Both Kirk Cousins and Scott Tolzien have played well the last two weeks, combining for 998 pass yards with eight touchdowns and only one interception. Cousins needs to prove himself in the clutch, while Tolzien looks for a signature road win in a place where Wisconsin has struggled. He'll get top receiver Nick Toon back from a toe injury.
10. Buckeyes need answers at RB: Perhaps Buckeyes fans are nitpicking, or maybe they have a point about Brandon Saine and Dan Herron. Either way, Ohio State fans want to see more production out of the veteran running backs, or increased opportunities for dynamic redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry, who has 15 carries for 177 rush yards (11.8 ypc) this season. Coach Jim Tressel is loyal to his veteran players, and it will be interesting to watch what he does if Saine and Herron start slow against Illinois.