- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Without Penn State or Ohio State on the slate, the Big Ten looked strapped for storylines on Saturday. But an entertaining five-pack of games produced top-shelf highlights, fantastic finishes and important lessons. It's time to study up.
1. Michigan State has turned the corner -- Those not quite convinced of the Spartans' renaissance after the Michigan win had to be sold after Saturday's dramatic victory against Wisconsin. In the past, Michigan State wouldn't survive sluggish starts or an opponent shutting down its best player (Javon Ringer). The Spartans would have lost a game like this one. But head coach Mark Dantonio has instilled a stronger mind-set with his team, and Michigan State surged in the fourth quarter.
2. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez hasn't delivered -- Rodriguez might be fine once he gets his own recruits, but his failure to successfully adapt to Michigan's current personnel raises some serious doubts. Sure, the offseason transition was tumultuous, the program's culture changed significantly and the holdovers were largely untested. But Michigan had found ways to reach bowls in 33 consecutive seasons and had posted winning records for four decades. Both of those streaks are history, and a segment of Michigan fans are left wondering whether the school made the right choice with RichRod.
3. Northwestern boasts greater depth than in past seasons -- The Wildcats lost starters at arguably the three most important positions on the field -- quarterback, running back and middle linebacker -- and they still found a way to beat No. 17 Minnesota on the road. Mike Kafka became the latest Big Ten backup quarterback to step up in a tough situation, raising hope for the program's future beyond the season. Despite the season-ending loss of Malcolm Arrington at middle linebacker, Northwestern's defense shut out Minnesota in the second half and forced the decisive turnover in the final minute.
4. Inconsistency continues in Big Ten's second tier -- The Big Ten hierarchy seems clear after 10 weeks, with Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State at the top and positioned to play on Jan. 1 or, in the Nittany Lions' case, even later. But the next cluster of teams has been wildly unpredictable. Minnesota joined the Jekyll-and-Hyde posse after a Homecoming loss to Northwestern, which rebounded from an unsightly setback last week at Indiana. Illinois continued its win-one, lose-one pattern with a big win against Iowa, which looked flat on offense after a bye week. Wisconsin blew another fourth-quarter lead at Michigan State and needs a win next week to boost its bowl hopes.
5. Quarterback play could be better in 2009 -- It hasn't been a good year for Big Ten quarterbacks, particularly fifth-year seniors, but better days are ahead. Kafka's running ability makes him an excellent fit for Northwestern's spread offense. Purdue's Justin Siller shined in his first career start, accounting for four touchdowns in a shootout win against Michigan. Wisconsin's Dustin Sherer gave his team a chance to win. All three players will be in the mix to start next season.