What to watch in the Big Ten

October, 24, 2008
10/24/08
11:14
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. Terrelle Pryor and Daryll Clark -- The two quarterbacks lead their teams into Saturday night's unofficial Big Ten championship game, and neither man has lost as the starter. Pryor quieted his doubters in the locker room and in the stands with an efficient and effective performance last week at Michigan State. Clark has triggered the Spread HD offense for eight games but faces an Ohio State defense playing its best football of the season.

2. Michigan State's mood in the Big House -- Coach Mark Dantonio and his players have never shied away from discussing the importance of the Michigan game. Star running back Javon Ringer said he'd be embarrassed to go through his entire career without beating the Spartans' archrival, and many of his teammates feel the same way. But the Spartans can't get over-emotional, especially after an uncharacteristically sloppy performance against Ohio State. This is their chance to beat Michigan, but they've blown chances like this before.

3. Big-game Beanie -- Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells said he's made for big-stage games like Saturday night's clash with No. 3 Penn State. Wells has a strong big-game track record and wants to carry the team, but will his right foot hold up? He has been extremely sore after several games despite increasing his carries total. Penn State has looked a little vulnerable against the run in recent weeks, so Wells could have a big night.

4. Minnesota and the bye-week bugaboo -- Bye weeks haven't been kind to Big Ten teams this season, but Minnesota hopes to break the pattern. The week off came at a good time for several banged-up standouts (Adam Weber, Eric Decker, Marcus Sherels), and head coach Tim Brewster has a lot of faith in his approach to the bye. A trip to struggling Purdue seems like the perfect way to restart the season, but the Boilers are desperate for a win and could come out hot against the Gophers.

5. Rich Rodriguez and a rivalry game -- Better days are ahead for Michigan and Rodriguez, but patience is wearing thin in Ann Arbor after a 2-5 start. Beating in-state rival Michigan State would do wonders for Rodriguez, his players, his assistants and a restless fan base. First-year coaches have struggled in this series, and Michigan is still searching for a complete game. Rodriguez's ability to inspire his team and amend the offense could lead to an upset of the Spartans.

6. Bret Bielema under siege -- Windbreaker sales are down, criticism is up and Bret Bielema's approval rating could use a major boost against Illinois. Bielema's charmed coaching career at Wisconsin has been sidetracked with four consecutive losses, the last two being blowouts. The losing streak has only reinforced Bielema's core beliefs, but he needs Wisconsin to play smarter against a dangerous Illini team.

7. Northwestern's offense and maintaining momentum -- Quarterback C.J. Bacher and the Wildcats offense settled into a nice rhythm in the final three quarters last week against Purdue. They now head to Indiana and face a Hoosiers team susceptible to big plays, particularly in the passing game. Bacher is a streaky player and could capitalize on Indiana's cornerbacks for another big game. But his interceptions habit still concerns Wildcats fans, who have seen their team lose games like this before.

8. Illini D-line must get physical -- Illinois coach Ron Zook had a great line this week about the challenge of facing Wisconsin's mammoth offensive line. "When their offensive line stands up, the sun goes away," he said. "We told [Illini players], 'You better put on the big boy pads.' They're going to need them. ... We call this Wisconsin power. Going back to last year, that was as hard hitting and physical a game as I've been around in a long time. Both teams lined up and knocked the crap out of each other." The Illini defensive front was branded the team's strength before the season. It needs to prove it against the struggling Badgers.

9. Purdue's team unity -- Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller doesn't sense any splintering in the locker room, though you have to wonder after running back Kory Sheets criticized quarterback Curtis Painter for not finding him in the passing game last week at Northwestern. Sheets has since been prohibited from speaking to the media, and his comments likely came out of frustration. But Purdue needs a morale boost on Homecoming, and it would help if Painter provided one with more polished play.

10. Penn State offensive line -- The veteran-laden group took a bit of criticism this week and needs a strong response on the field at Ohio Stadium. Clark has been extremely well protected and the rushing lanes have been there for Evan Royster, but Ohio State's defensive speed, particularly at linebacker, could pose problems. If Penn State's front five controls the line of scrimmage like it has for most of the season, the Lions should prevail.

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