Thursday, September 24, 2009
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4
By ESPN.com staff
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Conference play kicks off on Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.
1. Health in Happy Valley -- Both Penn State and Iowa could be without key players when they meet Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Nittany Lions star linebacker Sean Lee (knee) is iffy for the game and Navorro Bowman (groin) likely won't be 100 percent, putting a lot of pressure on Josh Hull and Nate Stupar. Iowa could once again be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness), while pass-catching threats Tony Moeaki (ankle) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring) are questionable.
2. Illinois hopes The Shoe fits -- After a bye week, the Illini make their first trip to Ohio Stadium since shocking the top-ranked Buckeyes back in 2007. With a brutal stretch of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, the Illini need another minor miracle against a tough Buckeyes defense. Illinois' high-powered offense is finally healthy, while the defense plays its first game without starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck, out for season).
3. Spartans face must win -- Like Illinois, Michigan State can't afford a prolonged losing streak to open conference play. The Spartans have dropped back-to-back close games, and they now head to Wisconsin, where the Badgers rarely lose. Head coach Mark Dantonio still likes his team's poise in defeat, and quarterback Kirk Cousins handled the Notre Dame loss extremely well, but the Spartans need to get over the hump and win. Cousins' response against a vulnerable Wisconsin defense will be key, and Michigan State's defense needs to step up against the Badgers' rushing attack.
4. IU turns up the heat in the Big House -- Indiana is off to a surprising 3-0 start, but the Hoosiers are three-touchdown underdogs heading to Michigan. To have any shot at an upset, Indiana needs standout defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to harass Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier all game long. Kirlew and Middleton have combined for 40 career sacks, the most for any tandem in the FBS, and both have to make plays to slow down Michigan's offense.
5. Boilers run game tries to get back on track -- After being shut down by Northern Illinois, sophomore running back Ralph Bolden and the Purdue offense try to rebound against Notre Dame, which ranks 74th nationally against the rush (149.3 ypg). The Irish offense won't be quite as explosive with Michael Floyd out and Jimmy Clausen a bit hobbled, but Purdue will need to put up points like it did in Weeks 1 and 2 to keep pace. Quarterback Joey Elliott wants to revive the downfield passing attack, but he refuses to abandon the run.
6. Clark vs. Stanzi -- The Penn State-Iowa game features a fascinating matchup at quarterback. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi prevailed last year in a game where he began a trend of slow starts and fast finishes. Stanzi really struggled in the first half before leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He has followed a similar pattern this year but likely can't afford to make the same early mistakes in Happy Valley. Clark was still battling the effects of a concussion and really struggled at Kinnick Stadium, completing just 9 of 23 passes with an interception. The senior will be determined to bounce back Saturday night.
7. Northwestern's defense vs. Decker -- Wide receiver Eric Decker has done it all for Minnesota's offense to this point, and he'll look for another big day in Evanston. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse star wideout Mike Williams last week, but the Wildcats should get top cover corner Sherrick McManis back from a leg injury. Decker could be limited by a sprained ankle, and Minnesota needs to spark its rushing attack, which ranks last in the Big Ten (85.7 ypg). Northwestern has struggled with tackling and fundamentals so far, so the unit that gets on track Saturday likely will prevail.
8. Pryor vs. Juice -- Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Illinois' Juice Williams both came to college amid lofty expectations. Both were thrust into starting roles as true freshmen and endured their ups and downs. The two talented quarterbacks meet at Ohio Stadium in a key game for both teams. Pryor performed well last year at Illinois (110 rush yards on 13 carries), while Williams had a career day in his last trip to Columbus (4 TD passes). "There’s a lot of similarities," Williams said. "Last year he did a great job of leading his team to the Fiesta Bowl. He did an extraordinary job. This year, he just got better. ... It’s hard to play against another great player."
9. Wisconsin's revolving door at running back -- It seems like the Badgers' situation at running back changes every week. Zach Brown was a surprise starter for the season opener, while John Clay leapfrogged him after the Fresno State game. But Clay's three fumbles (one lost) last week against FCS Wofford put Brown back on the top of the depth chart. Both Brown and Clay will compete for carries this week, and it'll be interesting to see who emerges against the Spartans, who rank 25th nationally against the run (87 ypg).
10. Lions, Buckeyes try to change history -- It's hard to explain why certain teams fare better against others, and Big Ten title contenders Penn State and Ohio State both face tricky tests Saturday. Penn State has dropped six of its last seven meetings to Iowa, including last year's last-second loss at Kinnick Stadium. Ohio State has dropped seven of its last 10 home games against Illinois, including three of the last four. Will history repeat or be rewritten Saturday? Stay tuned.