What to watch in the Big Ten, Week 7

October, 10, 2008
10/10/08
11:06
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It should be another revealing week of Big Ten football, particularly in Madison and Evanston. Here are 10 things to track as you watch the action Saturday.

Quarterbacks are popular on this week's rundown.

1. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Bacher -- The man who plays better likely will determine the winner of the Michigan State-Northwestern game. Both players share backfields with capable running backs (Heisman Trophy candidate Javon Ringer and Tyrell Sutton), but both signal-callers have struggled with consistency this season. Bacher has dominated the Spartans in two meetings but faces a much-improved defense. Hoyer is starting to hit his stride but still owns an unsightly completion percentage (47.7).

2. Joe Paterno's whereabouts -- With questions looming about the 81-year-old's coaching future beyond this season, Paterno could end up in the press box for the second consecutive week because of a right leg injury. He also might tough it out on the Camp Randall Stadium field, where he suffered a broken left leg in 2006. Penn State has continued to win no matter where Paterno ends up, but the Nittany Lions face a big test against the browbeaten Badgers.

3. Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge -- Evridge remains the Badgers' starter, but head coach Bret Bielema hardly gave him a ringing endorsement this week. The fifth-year senior needs to improve his accuracy and limit mistakes. All-American Travis Beckum had six receptions last week against Ohio State, and Wisconsin could get talented tight end Garrett Graham back in the mix. Aaron Maybin and Penn State's talented defensive line likely will pressure Evridge, who needs to keep his poise.

4. Eric Decker vs. Vontae Davis -- The nation's leading wide receiver goes up against one of the top cover corners in FBS. Decker and Minnesota have a great chance to validate a surprising start against Illinois, which comes off its best game of the year last week at Michigan. Ohio State and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins held Decker in check two weeks ago, and the talented Davis will try to do the same.

5. Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter -- After being replaced in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to Penn State, Painter gets the start against No. 12 Ohio State. Coach Joe Tiller wondered this week whether Painter has been trying too hard after seeing his completion percentage drop (57.6) and his touchdown-to-interception ratio balance out (5-5). Painter's career stats are impressive, but he struggles in big games and needs a strong showing against the Buckeyes.

6. Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe -- Head coach Kirk Ferentz has defended O'Keefe and shielded him from the media, but another poor offensive performance against Indiana will turn up the heat on both men. Fans are concerned that Iowa has fallen behind the times with its offensive structure and play calling. O'Keefe can quiet the critics -- momentarily, at least -- if the Hawkeyes capitalize on a Jekyll-and-Hyde Hoosiers defense and end a three-game slide.

7. Michigan's defense -- When Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez ripped his team for playing "soft" against Illinois, he was speaking directly to a veteran defense that had answered the bell before last week. Top pass rusher Brandon Graham (leg infection) could be sidelined, but Michigan needs to regain its defensive edge against Toledo, which has scored just 16 points the last two weeks after a 54-point effort against Fresno State.

8. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster -- He didn't play up his return to his alma mater, but you can bet Brewster would like nothing more than to beat Illinois. Illini players said Brewster wanted the Illinois head-coaching job that went to Ron Zook, and they expect a fired-up Golden Gophers squad on Saturday. Zook asked Illini fans to turn out in force this week -- and to bring their "Zook Zone" towels -- to cheer on a team that played its last two games in two tough environments (Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium).

9. Northwestern's coaching staff -- Pat Fitzgerald and his assistants have had two weeks to prepare for one of the more anticipated games in recent program history. The extra time should help veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz figure out a way to contain Ringer, but Fitzgerald's ability to keep his players grounded will be the biggest key. Fitzgerald knows what it's like to play with expectations at Northwestern, something the team has struggled with since 2000.

10. Offensive play calling at Camp Randall -- Penn State fans hope the Lions offense went conservative in last week's unstylish win at Purdue and will open things up again against Wisconsin. Galen Hall and Jay Paterno likely will expand the playbook, particularly with top wideout Jordan Norwood back, but quarterback Daryll Clark must continue to play smart on the road. Wisconsin reserve running back John Clay has provided a lift in each of the team's last two losses. Clay has to touch the ball more for the Badgers to have a chance at an upset.

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