Thursday, September 3, 2009
What to watch in the Big Ten in Week 1
By ESPN.com staff
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Let the games begin. Here are 10 things to watch as Big Ten football kicks off in 2009.
1. Michigan's response -- Head coach Rich Rodriguez and the program have been in the cross-hairs all week, but Michigan can ease some of the pressure by beating Western Michigan and showing tangible improvement. Team chemistry is a question mark after current players spoke publicly about possible NCAA rule violations involving time limits, but the Wolverines need a united effort Saturday. Michigan simply isn't good enough to win if the team is splintered.
2. Juice vs. Weatherspoon -- Missouri star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon targeted Illinois quarterback Juice Williams in some Twitter trash talk last month. Williams gets a chance to answer in the Edward Jones Dome, where he set a total offense record (461 yards) last year against Mizzou. This is a pivotal game for Williams and the Illini, who have the more experienced team and need to get over the hump against the Tigers.
3. Defending Paulus -- Minnesota co-defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee face an unusual scouting challenge against Syracuse, as they prepare their players for a quarterback who spent the last four years shooting baskets on Tobacco Road. Greg Paulus plays a meaningful football game for the first time in four years, and it's up to cornerback Traye Simmons and the Gophers to make sure he doesn't find a rhythm.
4. New Hope at Purdue -- The Danny Hope era begins as Purdue opens the season against Toledo. Outside expectations are low for the Boilermakers, but Hope has brought plenty of energy and a faster pace to just about everything in the program. The Big Ten's mystery team will use plenty of freshmen and other newcomers right away, while heady quarterback Joey Elliott finally gets a chance to be the starter.
5. Paterno back where he belongs -- You can probably switch off the Penn State-Akron game shortly after the opening kickoff, but it's worth tuning in to see Joe Paterno run on the field for his 44th season as Nittany Lions head coach. Paterno hasn't coached from the sidelines since Sept. 27, but he'll be back as Penn State begins its Big Ten title defense at Beaver Stadium.
6. Captain Kirk at the controls -- Michigan State's quarterback competition isn't over, but sophomore Kirk Cousins gets the first shot in the opener against Montana State. Named just the second sophomore captain in team history last week, Cousins has the intangibles and the polished passing skills to be a star in this league. But he needs a strong debut Saturday since Keith Nichol isn't far behind.
7. A surprise backfield in Madison -- Few would have pegged quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back Zach Brown to be Wisconsin's opening-day starters when preseason camp began, but both players earned the top jobs over more heralded competitors. Tolzien must continue his steady play at a position where Wisconsin simply can't afford mistakes, and Brown looks to build on an excellent preseason as he'll likely share carries with John Clay.
8. Terrelle, Take 2 -- Ohio State should have little trouble with Navy, but it needs to see tangible signs of progress from quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The gifted sophomore spent the offseason improving his footwork and passing mechanics to become a more complete quarterback. This is Pryor's team now, and he needs a strong opening statement before facing USC in Week 2.
9. Locked and loaded in Bloomington -- Indiana's pistol formation makes its debut Thursday night against Eastern Kentucky, as the Hoosiers try to jumpstart a downhill rushing attack. Without Kellen Lewis on the field, the Hoosiers need a reliable run game and will look to an improved offensive line and a deep group of running backs led by Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis.
10. New backs on the block -- Iowa and Northwestern are among several Big Ten teams starting unproven running backs. The Hawkeyes likely won't find another Shonn Greene this fall, but they need decent production from former walk-on Paki O'Meara and redshirt freshman Adam Robinson to ease concerns after Jewel Hampton's season-ending injury. Northwestern will start junior Stephen Simmons at running back, but true freshman Arby Fields generated plenty of buzz in camp and should get plenty of work against Towson.