What to watch in the Big Ten: Running backs galore

October, 3, 2008
10/03/08
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The closer it gets to Saturday, the more excited I get about this five pack of games. A lot of good stuff going on around the league this weekend.

Here are 10 items to track.

1. Chris Wells vs. P.J. Hill -- Two of the league's biggest and most established ball-carriers meet at Camp Randall Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Wells still thinks he has a shot at the Heisman but needs a huge game against Wisconsin to back it up. Hill missed last year's game against Ohio State with injury and got stuffed in the second half last week at Michigan. The 236-pound junior will be pumped for a strong performance at home.

2. Shonn Greene vs. Javon Ringer -- Two of the nation's top six rushers will share the field at Spartan Stadium, as they try to carry their respective teams to a crucial win. Iowa can't afford a third consecutive loss and needs a big game from Greene, who has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all five games this season. Ringer continues his Heisman push against the best defensive front he has faced this season.

3. Pryor leads road show -- Ohio State freshman Terrelle Pryor has backed up the buzz so far in claiming the starting quarterback job faster than anyone thought he would. Though Pryor displayed good poise in a reserve role Sept. 13 at USC, he makes his first career road start in arguably the Big Ten's roughest environment -- Camp Randall Stadium at night. Communication will be a challenge for Pryor, and his ability to stay calm will determine whether Ohio State ends Wisconsin's 16-game home win streak.

4. Michigan's defensive front seven -- This group has been fabulous so far, keeping opposing offenses in check while the Wolverines' own offense endures tortuous performances in the first half of games. A tougher challenge arrives Saturday in Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who will test Michigan's speed on the edges (ends Tim Jamison, Brandon Graham). Limiting Illinois' big-play ability will be critical for Michigan to carry over the momentum it generated last week.

5. Daryll Clark hits the road -- Penn State's first-year starting quarterback has exceeded expectations early on, but he has done almost all of his damage within the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium. Purdue's banged-up defense shouldn't provide too much of a test, but the Boilers held Oregon in check nicely and can force turnovers. If Clark and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green attack a shorthanded linebacking corps, Penn State should be fine.

6. Indiana doubles up at QB -- Minnesota had a hard-enough time defending Kellen Lewis last year, as the Indiana quarterback racked up 310 total yards (235 pass, 75 rush) in a 40-20 victory. The Gophers now have to worry about Lewis catching passes as a wide receiver. Indiana likely will continue to use Lewis and fellow quarterback Ben Chappell on the field together in an effort to spark its offense after back-to-back losses.

7. Illinois' beleaguered defense -- Head coach Ron Zook called this group out this week, saying he would make changes and increase the rotation of personnel at several spots. It's easy to see why, as the Illini allow a league-worst 32 points a game and rank next to last in rushing defense (182.5 ypg). Michigan has been very vulnerable in the first half but boasts some talented running backs (Sam McGuffie, Brandon Minor, Michael Shaw) who will challenge Illinois.

8. Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber -- The sophomore called the Indiana game the biggest of Minnesota's season, and he could be right. The Gophers must prove to themselves that they can win in league play, and a home matchup with slumping Indiana provides a great opportunity. Indiana's secondary remains banged up, so Weber and star wideout Eric Decker will have opportunities to stretch the field in what is shaping up to be a shootout.

9. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz -- The 10th-year Hawkeyes coach and his coordinators are under fire after back-to-back losses. He was cleared of any cover-up in the alleged sexual assault case involving two former players, but his ultimate fate will be determined on the field. A win at Michigan State would keep the bloodhounds at bay and boost confidence for a team with a strong running back (Greene), an emerging quarterback (Ricky Stanzi) and a solid defense.

10. Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter -- The senior will move into second place on Purdue's all-time career passing list Saturday, but he's still searching for a signature win. Beating No. 6 Penn State would certainly qualify. If the Nittany Lions have a weakness, it's the back half of their defense, and Painter is building a nice rhythm with wideouts Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy. Purdue needs its captain to step up.

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