- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as conference play finally gets under way:
1. Miller Time vs. The Green Monster: The Big Ten's most dynamic offensive player goes up against the league's top defense Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State will see a very different Braxton Miller than the one it bottled up last year in Columbus in a near-shutout victory against the Buckeyes. Miller, who leads the Big Ten with seven rushing touchdowns, faces by far his toughest test in a Spartans' defense that ranks in the top 11 nationally in scoring, rushing and pass efficiency. Despite Michigan State's stingy defensive numbers, it looks to make more game-changing plays after recording just six takeaways and three sacks in the first four games.
2. Big Red redemption: After its Big Ten debut turned into a disaster last year in Madison, Wis., Nebraska finally gets a chance for redemption Saturday night as Wisconsin comes to town. Huskers junior quarterback Taylor Martinez once again will be in the spotlight after throwing a career-high three interceptions last year against the Badgers. Martinez has looked like a different player this season, throwing nine touchdown passes and just one interception and ranking 10th nationally in passer rating (180.9). With a healthy Rex Burkhead back in the fold, Martinez leads the Big Ten's top offense against a Wisconsin defense that has looked strong so far.
3. Poaching season in Champaign: Coach Bill O'Brien and his Penn State players held their tongues this week, but they haven't forgotten what Illinois' coaching staff did last summer. Illini coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to State College to recruit Penn State players after the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on the Lions' program. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and his teammates will be geared up to make Beckman's team pay Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both teams. While it's important for Penn State to control its emotions -- "You never want to take it too far," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said -- the Lions visit Memorial Stadium with some momentum after back-to-back wins.
4. Three little pigs: The landscape could be shifting in the Minnesota-Iowa series. After losing eight of nine games to an obviously superior Iowa program, Minnesota has won consecutive games. The Gophers carry a perfect record into Iowa City, while the Hawkeyes are reeling after falling apart late in last week's loss to Central Michigan. Although Iowa is favored, Minnesota comes in with the momentum following a strong defensive effort last week against Syracuse. The Gophers aim for their first win at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and try to bring home the bacon (Floyd of Rosedale) for the third consecutive year, something they haven't done since 1998-2000.
5. Bell tolls for Buckeyes: Tackling has been a problem for Ohio State's defense, which inexplicably ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed heading into league play. Luke Fickell's unit had better tighten things up before Saturday, or Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will steamroll the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, Bell can batter his way through decent tackling attempts, so Ohio State will need to swarm the Big Ten's leading rusher (610 yards). The Buckeyes can expect a steady diet of Bell, who leads the nation in rushing attempts with 117 (29.25) through the first four games. On the flip side, Michigan State likely needs to generate some offense outside of Bell to win.
6. Making his Mark: While more heralded Big Ten running backs have struggled with injuries or poor production, Northwestern's Venric Mark has put himself on the radar as an early Offensive Player of the Year candidate. Mark ranks third among Big Ten running backs with 399 rush yards and has recorded more than 120 all-purpose yards in all four games this season. The Wildcats have been much more of a run-driven offense this year, thanks to Mark and an improved line. Saturday, Mark takes aim at Indiana as Northwestern tries to improve to 5-0.
7. Stave symphony: Joel Stave showed in April that he could play piano under pressure. He showed last week he could handle himself in his first career start (210 pass yards, 1 TD). But how will the Wisconsin quarterback handle a hostile environment like Nebraska's Memorial Stadium? Find out Saturday night as Stave makes his first career road start against Nebraska. Stave certainly benefits from having top receiver Jared Abbrederis on the field, and he could have a full complement of running backs if Montee Ball passes his concussion tests. Wisconsin went with Stave as its starter because of his steadiness. The Badgers need the redshirt freshman to limit mistakes and make plays when they're available in a pressure-packed situation Saturday night.
8. Iowa, Illinois get defensive: Both Iowa and Illinois saw their defenses gashed last week in humbling home losses to Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech, respectively. Iowa's defense performed well in the first three games and better than expected up front before caving against the Chippewas last week. Illinois' defense, pegged to be among the Big Ten's best, has been shockingly poor in the team's two losses, surrendering a combined 97 points to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech. With both teams not getting enough from the quarterback position, the defenses need to tighten up Saturday for crucial Big Ten openers against Minnesota and Penn State.
9. Wilson returns to roots: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson built his reputation as an offensive genius at Northwestern, where he coordinated one of the nation's best offenses in 2000, before moving onto more success at Oklahoma. "I stand here today because of what those kids did for us in 2000," he said Tuesday. Wilson returns to Evanston on Saturday with an Indiana team searching for its first Big Ten victory on his watch. The Hoosiers have looked good on offense this year, despite losing top quarterback Tre Roberson to a season-ending broken leg. Cameron Coffman makes his first career road start at quarterback as he leads the Big Ten's top passing attack (326 ypg) against a Northwestern team that hasn't been tested much through the air since struggling in its opener at Syracuse.
10. Marshall plan: Purdue wraps up non-league play Saturday against Marshall, which should provide a nice test for a Boilers' defense that has played well to date. The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing offense (383.5 ypg) and offensive plays (371). Purdue has surrendered only one passing touchdown this season. Although it's important for Boilers quarterback Caleb TerBush and the offense to capitalize on a weak Marshall defense, it's also vital for Purdue to contain Marshall as it prepares to face other spread offenses in Big Ten play.