What to watch in the Big Ten, Week 11
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Here's your weekly checklist for Saturday's exciting six-pack of games.
1. Penn State's national title quest resumes: Big Ten teams have struggled after bye weeks, and it will be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions respond at Iowa (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Quarterback Daryll Clark is looking forward to taking on contact again after sustaining a mild concussion at Ohio State. Saturday marks Penn State's final road trip of the season, and an Iowa team that has lost four games by a combined 12 points should keep things close.
2. Quarterback conundrums with Northwestern and Purdue: Both teams received impressive performances from backup quarterbacks in victories last week. But both are expected to go back to starters C.J. Bacher (hamstring) and Curtis Painter (shoulder) if they recover from injuries. Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Purdue's Justin Siller should still be part of the game plan as their teams take on No. 11 Ohio State (ESPN2, noon ET) and No. 18 Michigan State. How head coaches Pat Fitzgerald and Joe Tiller mix and match will be key.
3. Big Ten weather is here: It will be cold, wet and potentially snowy in Iowa City, Evanston and East Lansing, and the conditions could play a major role in Saturday's games. The Big Ten has been a league of running backs this fall, and players like Shonn Greene, Evan Royster, Javon Ringer and Chris "Beanie" Wells should take center stage. Field position and turnovers will loom large and scoring could be down.
4. Linemen in the limelight at Kinnick Stadium: If you enjoy line play, make sure to watch the Penn State-Iowa game. Iowa boasts the Big Ten's top tandem of defensive tackles in Mitch King and Matt Kroul, who go against a dominant Penn State offensive line that ranks fourth nationally in fewest sacks allowed. Big Ten sacks leader Aaron Maybin and the Nittany Lions defensive linemen have stepped up all season and will set their sights on stopping Iowa's Greene.
5. Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes offense searches for an identity: After 10 weeks of experimenting with formations and personnel, Ohio State enters the stretch run needing to find some definitive answers on offense. Pryor took the Penn State loss especially hard, and his resiliency will be put to the test against a confident Northwestern defense. Ohio State ranks 97th nationally in total offense and tied for 95th in sacks allowed, two categories that must improve.
6. Minnesota goes for the Jug-u-lar: Golden Gophers head coach Tim Brewster placed the empty display case that would hold the Little Brown Jug outside the players' lounge in Minnesota's football building this week. After a tough loss that in the past would trigger a collapse, the Gophers need all the motivation they can get for Saturday's matchup against Michigan (ESPN, noon ET). Brewster said Minnesota-Michigan won't be a rivalry until the Gophers start winning again. They have an excellent chance Saturday at the Metrodome, where Michigan has never lost.
7. Beleaguered Bielema heads to Bloomington: Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has been under fire for much of the last six weeks, with his latest misstep an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in an ill-fated fourth quarter last Saturday at Michigan State. Bielema and the Badgers desperately need a strong performance at Indiana. A win restores hope for a minor bowl, while a loss will only increase criticism for the 38-year-old coach.
8. Illinois tries to break pattern in an odd environment: The Illini haven't won consecutive games since Sept. 6-13, a disturbing pattern for such a talented team. They can continue a win streak and get bowl eligible by beating Western Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit (ESPN Regional, noon ET). It won't be a typical college atmosphere and the crowd could be small, so Illinois' ability to get energized will be vital. Western Michigan can wing it a bit with quarterback Tim Hiller, so Juice Williams and the Illini need a strong showing.
9. Spartans can continue under-the-radar push for the league title: Michigan State is still alive in the Big Ten title race and can set the stage for a huge matchup Nov. 22 at Penn State by taking care of business against Purdue. Not much has come easy for the Spartans this season, but with Ringer getting healthy, quarterback Brian Hoyer making strides and the emotion of Senior Day, Michigan State should be in good shape against the Boilers.
10. The response of Indiana defenders to linebacker Will Patterson: The Hoosiers' co-captain called out the defense after last week's loss to Central Michigan, saying, "We got certain guys that will go out and play like warriors every Saturday, and then [we] got the few guys that just kind of do their own thing." Head coach Bill Lynch didn't mind Patterson's comments, and the Hoosiers' disappointing defense could use a boost right now. Indiana will need to contain Wisconsin running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay, or its bid for a second straight bowl game will be officially over.