Thursday, October 22, 2009
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The home stretch begins Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.
1. Iowa's quest for perfection continues: The Hawkeyes are halfway through one of the nation's toughest road schedules, and it doesn't get much easier Saturday night at Michigan State (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). Spartan Stadium recently has posed problems for the Hawkeyes, who have dropped four consecutive games there, including a 16-13 decision last year. A win Saturday night will convince any nonbelievers left that Iowa is for real and move the Hawkeyes to at least No. 5 in the BCS standings. Iowa has shown no fear of tough environments and tough situations so far, but the Hawkeyes are now the team to beat in the Big Ten, which can bring unique challenges.
2. Penn State enters (Big) House of Horrors: Iowa isn't the only Big Ten team trying to end its struggles in the state of Michigan on Saturday. Penn State can't buy a break in Michigan Stadium, where it has lost five consecutive games stretching back to 1995. Head coach Joe Paterno is still haunted by the 2005 loss in Ann Arbor, the lone blemish on his team's record. The jury remains out on this Penn State team, which has looked very impressive against weak competition and seems to be getting stronger each week. The Lions can validate their record and end a rough run at Stadium and Main with a victory Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
3. Pryor under pressure: Ohio State's offense and sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor are under the gun after a mistake-filled loss to Purdue last week. Critics and fans are questioning the scheme, the coaching and Pryor. Head coach Jim Tressel said this week that no major changes are coming and Pryor's teammates remain in his corner. Pryor handled himself well in responding to his critics this week. Still, the offense must bounce back strong against Minnesota (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers boast an improved defense led by three excellent linebackers (Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence) and a playmaking cornerback (Traye Simmons). If Ohio State's offense starts off slowly, it could be a rough afternoon.
4. Postseason implications in Evanston: Northwestern and Indiana bring identical 4-3 records into Saturday's game at Ryan Field, and quite frankly, it's tough to see both squads reaching the postseason. The winner of the game should be in good shape for at least an invitation to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, while the loser will have an uphill climb. Northwestern's banged-up yet improving defense faces a confident Indiana offense led by quarterback Ben Chappell and wide receivers Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Mitchell Evans. The series usually produces plenty of excitement, as the last five meetings all have been decided by seven points or fewer.
5. Desperation at Boiler Station: The Big Ten's bottom two teams meet at Ross-Ade Stadium with very different mindsets. Purdue comes off an energizing upset of Ohio State, its first win against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Boilermakers hope the victory springboards them into a big second half as they try to turn those near misses into wins. Illinois, meanwhile, seems to be falling apart after its fourth consecutive double-digit loss and its fifth this season. The Illini remain undecided at quarterback and might soon need to make a decision about head coach Ron Zook's future at the school unless things turn around fast, beginning Saturday.
6. Jones vs. Sash: Two of the leading contenders for Big Ten defensive player of the year will be on the same field Saturday night in East Lansing. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones had a monster first half, leading the nation with 85 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He'll try to slow down Iowa's young running backs and put pressure on quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Hawkeyes safety Tyler Sash hopes to build on his Big Ten interceptions lead against Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown only four picks in 156 attempts. Sash leads the most opportunistic secondary in the country, which faces a talented crop of Michigan State tight ends and wide receivers.
7. Wolverines offense vs. Lions defense: Something's got to give as the Big Ten's top scoring offense (37.3 ppg) takes on the nation's No. 2 scoring defense (8.7 ppg). Both units are getting healthier, as Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier has recovered from head and shoulder injuries, while Penn State star outside linebacker Sean Lee should see his reps increase despite tweaking his knee against Minnesota. The Wolverines will use multiple quarterbacks and mix personnel behind an offensive line that gained confidence from the Iowa game. Penn State hasn't faced an FBS offense ranked higher than 79th nationally, but the Lions are receiving excellent play from their front four and linebackers Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.
8. Gophers offense looks for a spark: Pryor isn't the only quarterback feeling the heat in Columbus on Saturday. Minnesota junior Adam Weber has struggled in recent weeks, and some are calling for backup MarQueis Gray to get more playing time. Weber could certainly use some help from his running backs, but it won't be easy against a dominant Ohio State defensive front. The Buckeyes undoubtedly will gear their defense toward Minnesota star wideout Eric Decker, so Weber must find other targets and do a better job of freelancing to make plays. Ohio State already owns two shutouts this season, and the Gophers were blanked last week at Penn State.
9. League title race taking shape: It's pretty easy to size up the Big Ten title race right now, with Iowa as the league's lone unbeaten team and in the driver's seat for the Rose Bowl and possibly more. But if Michigan State knocks off the Hawkeyes, things could really get interesting. You could have four one-loss teams by the end of play Saturday (Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State), and an Iowa loss would open the door for some two-loss teams as well. Michigan State has a favorable schedule down the stretch and could legitimize itself as a league title contender. Losses by Penn State and Ohio State could really turn things around in the standings, given the preseason forecast for the league.
10. Star search on offense: The Big Ten is clearly a defense-oriented league this season, but the lack of stars on offense is really stunning. Things weren't much better in 2008, but at least the league boasted the nation's best group of running backs. As the stretch run begins, who will emerge at quarterback, running back or wide receiver? Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark has played well since the Iowa loss and needs a big performance at Michigan. Forcier, Stanzi, Purdue's Joey Elliott, Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Chappell also have had their good moments. I'm interested to see if the league's unheralded wide receivers (Keith Smith, Zeke Markshausen, Doss, Blair White) can keep up their strong play.