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Friday, September 26, 2008
What to watch in the Big Ten: Hi-Def edition


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Ritttenberg

The curtain raises on Big Ten play this weekend, and you don't want to miss the show. Penn State attempts to validate its impressive start against a respectable opponent. Wisconsin tries to end a streak at Michigan, while the struggling Wolverines want to keep one going. Beanie's back in Columbus, but how much of a boost will he provide? Northwestern and Minnesota enter league play at 4-0, and no player is hotter than Michigan State's Javon Ringer.

Here are 10 things to keep track off Saturday:

1. Penn State HD-ready -- The Lions' new Spread HD offense has earned straight A's so far, but it has yet to take a real exam. Illinois' defense should provide one Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Penn State has showcased myriad weapons and had unparalleled production, but it will be interesting to see how first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark performs under pressure. Ron Zook called Illinois' defensive line the team's strength. It's time to prove it.

2. Going streaking in Ann Arbor -- No, not me. But I'll be on hand to see if Michigan can win its 23rd consecutive Big Ten home opener. The Wolverines are underdogs against Wisconsin, which tries to snap its own streak, a four-game slide at the Big House. The Badgers are stronger and more experienced, but they went 1-3 in league road games last season and suffered their only loss of 2006 at Michigan.

3. All is Wells again at Ohio State -- The Buckeyes haven't been the same team since star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells injured his right big toe in the season opener. After three tortuous weeks without the onetime Heisman Trophy candidate, Ohio State will get Wells back in the mix for its league opener against Minnesota. Wells probably will be limited to 15-20 carries, but he could provide the emotional spark Ohio State's offense has lacked.

4. Ringer goes for another 200 -- Running back Javon Ringer is the first player in Michigan State history to record consecutive 200-yard rushing performances. He aims for another big day against Indiana, which couldn't contain Ball State back MiQuale Lewis last week. Ringer will get his carries -- he always does -- but it's important for Indiana's front seven, led by end Greg Middleton and linebacker Matt Mayberry, to make Brian Hoyer beat them.

5. Boilers secondary on alert -- Notre Dame doesn't want to abandon the run, but the Irish were much more effective against Michigan State when operating in a shotgun, pass-happy offense. Expect more of the same against Purdue, which needs another strong performance from an improved secondary. Wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will stretch the field, putting pressure on Purdue's solid safety tandem of Frank Duong and Torri Williams.

6. Minnesota and Northwestern on the defensive -- The Big Ten's two worst defenses last season have stepped up big behind new coordinators Ted Roof and Mike Hankwitz. An influx of junior college talent has sparked Minnesota to a league-leading 13 takeaways, and Northwestern tops the Big Ten's sacks chart with 15, three behind its season total from 2007. Both defenses can validate their strong starts by stifling Ohio State and Iowa.

7. Lions D-line gets a boost -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno said defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma probably will play against Illinois after being suspended the last three games. Both players could be a bit rusty, but they give a depleted defensive line a big lift. Evans could be the league's most dominant pass rusher, and he'll help chase Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.

8. Hill back at the Big House -- Two years ago, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill went to Michigan as the league's leading rusher and was held to 54 rushing yards on 20 carries. Hill ranks ninth nationally and second in the league in rushing average this fall (126.3 YPG) as he returns to the Big House. His ability to wear down Michigan's veteran defensive line could give Wisconsin the edge.

9. Stanzi back on center stage -- Iowa desperately needs a starting quarterback, and sophomore Ricky Stanzi gets another shot to fill the role. Hawkeyes fans were infuriated when coach Kirk Ferentz stuck with struggling junior Jake Christensen in the second half of last week's loss at Pitt. Stanzi will have the support of the home crowd as he faces a much-improved Northwestern defense.

10. Indiana under pressure -- It's still September, but Indiana needs to rebound after a 22-point home loss to Ball State. The Hoosiers' opening schedule sets them up for a repeat bowl run, but another setback could sidetrack things. Quarterback Kellen Lewis faces an aggressive Spartans defense led by Big Ten interceptions leader Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones.