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Thursday, November 12, 2009
What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 11


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ten things you don't want to miss Saturday in the Big Ten.

1. Vandenberg vs. Silver Bullets: Ohio State's defense has been the single most dominating unit in the Big Ten this season, boasting three shutouts and nearly notching a fourth last week against Penn State. The Buckeyes pose a major challenge for a seasoned quarterback, much less a signal caller making his first career start like Iowa redshirt freshman James Vandenberg will on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Vandenberg had some expected struggles last week against Northwestern, and he'll need a heroic performance and plenty of help against the Buckeyes. If he pulls it off, he'll go down as a hero as Iowa will be heading to the Rose Bowl.

2. Bowling at Ross-Ade: The Michigan State-Purdue contest could serve as a bowl play-in game as both teams are trying to squeak into the postseason after battling inconsistency. Purdue must beat the Spartans and archrival Indiana to reach six wins, which would be an incredible accomplishment after a 1-5 start. Michigan State needs to gain at least a split in its last two games, but the Spartans finish against No. 18 Penn State, so they likely need a win Saturday. MSU is trying to reach three consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1995-97, while Purdue tries to avoid consecutive bowl-less seasons for the first time since 1995-96.

3. Michigan needs a Madison miracle: OK, that might be a bit extreme, but a Wolverines win against No. 20 Wisconsin in Madison would certainly qualify as a major upset. Michigan has dropped six consecutive Big Ten games and doesn't want to face Ohio State needing a win to become bowl eligible. The Wolverines' defense fares better against the run than the pass, but it faces a difficult test in Wisconsin sophomore running back John Clay, the Big Ten's leading rusher (108.1 ypg). Michigan has dropped its last two meetings at Camp Randall Stadium.

4. Quarterback questions in Champaign: Both Northwestern and Illinois enter Saturday's game (ESPN Classic, noon ET) with some uncertainty under center. Wildcats senior Mike Kafka will get the start, but his pulled hamstring remains a concern after his mobility was limited last week at Iowa. Backup Dan Persa played most of the snaps against the Hawkeyes, but he's still dealing with a hand injury suffered in Iowa City. Illinois starter Juice Williams sustained a sprained ankle last week against Minnesota and is listed as doubtful. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest likely will make his first career start. So it could be survival of the fittest at Memorial Stadium.

5. Penn State still in BCS at-large mix: The Nittany Lions lost their two biggest games of the season, but they still could squeak into the BCS mix based on their national name, their legendary head coach (Joe Paterno) and their sizable fan base. But they need to finish with two impressive victories against Indiana and Michigan State. Daryll Clark and the Spread HD offense must regain its swagger against the league's worst defense, and a secondary that struggled at times last week must keep pace with talented Hoosiers sophomore Tandon Doss. Penn State might not deserve a BCS bowl berth, but it can still get one.

6. Minnesota faces must-win vs. SDSU: After a pathetic first-half performance against Illinois, Minnesota better come out with a purpose against South Dakota State. The Gophers should not look past the Jackrabbits, who are 7-2 this season and own a 10-point win against the great Northern Iowa Panthers. Most of Minnesota's players were on the field in 2007 when another FCS team, North Dakota State, beat them in the Metrodome. A win makes the Gophers bowl eligible for the second straight season heading into a rivalry game against banged-up Iowa on Nov. 21.

7. Iowa's opportunistic defense: No Big Ten team forces turnovers better than Iowa, which leads the league in takeaways with 26 and is tied for the national lead with 19 interceptions. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been more turnover prone this season, throwing nine interceptions in 10 games, five more than he had all of last fall. Iowa's defensive front seven needs to force Pryor into obvious passing situations, which could give sophomore safety Tyler Sash, the Big Ten's interceptions leader, more chances to make plays.

8. Clay vs. Minor: I really hope Brandon Minor gets healthy before Saturday because we'd get to see the Big Ten's two most dominant running backs on the same field. Wisconsin's Clay is a serious candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after his fifth 100-yard rushing performance of the season last week against Indiana. Clay should be recovered from a head injury and faces a Michigan defense that has allowed 4.3 yards per carry this fall. Minor looks like an NFL back when he's carrying the ball.

9. Defensive POY race heats up: I touched on this in Tuesday's video post, but it will be interesting to see who distinguishes himself in the crowded race for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, the frontrunner at this point, needs to lead an inconsistent Spartans defense to just its second road victory. Two of the league's top defensive ends -- Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield and Michigan's Brandon Graham -- square off at Camp Randall Stadium. Iowa needs big things from defensive stars Sash, Adrian Clayborn and Pat Angerer as it faces safety Kurt Coleman and the Buckeyes. Purdue end Ryan Kerrigan and Indiana end Jammie Kirlew also are looking for big performances.

10. Bowl eligibility at stake: All 11 teams remain alive for bowl bids, but three teams (Illinois, Indiana and Purdue) face must-win situations Saturday. If Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan fall short this week, all three teams will need to beat ranked opponents (Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State) on Nov. 21 to become bowl eligible. The bottom half of the league's bowl picture could change dramatically depending on what takes place on the field.