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Thursday, October 29, 2009
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 9


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Trick or treat.

1. Iowa in search of style points: After rising to No. 4 in the BCS standings, Iowa can help its cause and possibly win over more pollsters with a convincing win against Indiana (ESPN, noon ET). The Hawkeyes have fallen behind in seven of their eight wins and own only one victory by more than 11 points this fall. Indiana isn't a pushover this season, but the Hoosiers are vulnerable in the secondary. Iowa is banged up entering the game, as freshman running back Brandon Wegher makes his first career start in place of the injured Adam Robinson. The Hawkeyes also could use true freshman backs Brad Rogers and Josh Brown.

2. Bowl play-in game at TCF Bank Stadium: Minnesota and Michigan State both sit at 4-4 entering Saturday night's clash (Big Ten Network, 8 p.m. ET). Much like last week's Indiana-Northwestern game, this contest could determine a postseason berth. Michigan State is clearly the hotter team but must bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Iowa. Linebacker Greg Jones leads a rapidly improving Spartans defense against a Gophers offense that has produced just seven points in its last two games. Minnesota can't afford a late-season collapse for the second straight season, especially with so much experience on the roster.

3. Joey Elliott vs. Scott Tolzien: One quarterback struggled with turnovers early in the season but has turned things around; the other started fast but has thrown five interceptions in his last two games. Elliott really seems to be hitting his stride, and he leads a confident Purdue team into Camp Randall Stadium, where it won in 2003. Wisconsin has dropped consecutive games and needs Tolzien to limit mistakes against an opportunistic Boilermakers defense. The Badgers' banged-up offensive line should be well rested coming off a bye week and needs to keep Big Ten sacks leader Ryan Kerrigan away from Tolzien.

4. Lions try to avoid Cat trap: Penn State snapped its losing streak at Michigan Stadium in convincing fashion last week. Now the Nittany Lions head to Northwestern's Ryan Field (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET), which hasn't been the easiest place to notch big wins. Since joining the Big Ten, Penn State is 4-2 in Evanston, but three of the victories have come by five points or fewer. The Lions rallied for a dramatic win in 2005 to spark their Big Ten title season. Penn State comes in hot, while Northwestern is banged up but revived after the biggest comeback in team history.

5. Quarterback questions in Champaign: Big Ten play hasn't been kind to Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who has completed just 38 of 81 attempts with two touchdowns and three interceptions in losses to Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State. Forcier and classmate Denard Robinson need to redeem themselves against Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in both total defense and rush defense. Illinois' starting quarterback once again remains a mystery, as senior Juice Williams and freshman Jacob Charest both will see action.

6. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor: The Buckeyes don't have much to gain from Saturday's game against New Mexico State, which owns the nation's worst offense and will have a rough time putting up points. But it does provide Pryor another opportunity to make strides before next week's huge trip to No. 12 Penn State. Ohio State needs to decide how it wants to use Pryor the rest of the way. My plan? He runs the ball 17-22 times a game and throws deep when the opportunity presents itself.

7. Gophers begin life without Eric Decker: Minnesota's star senior wide receiver is out for the rest of the regular season after straining his foot in Saturday's loss to Ohio State. Decker has been the Gophers' only consistent weapon on offense this season. Minnesota needs a better performance from junior quarterback Adam Weber and an offensive line that has endured inconsistency throughout the season.

8. Indiana's ends vs. Iowa's tackles: For Indiana to have any shot at an upset in Iowa City, defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton must apply steady pressure to Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Iowa entered the year with the Big Ten's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, though the Hawkeyes rank eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (17). Kirlew ranks fourth in the league in both sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (13.5), so keeping him away from Stanzi will be key.

9. Zook's reception at home: Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther says Ron Zook will be back in 2010, a decision that didn't sit well with much of Illini Nation. It will be interesting to see if the team can show some sign of progress on its home field against a sputtering Michigan team. If it's more of the same, you can bet the boo birds will be out for Zook, whose team is headed to a last-place finish for the third time in his five seasons in Champaign.

10. Penn State vs. Northwestern on money downs: Tom Bradley's defense leads the Big Ten in preventing conversions on both third down (30.4 percent) and fourth down (25 percent). Northwestern has attempted and converted more third downs (51.1 percent) and fourth downs (58.3 percent) than any other league team this season. If the Wildcats' offense can control the clock and stay on the field, it might hang around for a while. If Penn State holds its ground on the money downs, it should pull away.