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Sunday, September 28, 2008
Big Ten lessons: Lions roar, Wolverines resurrected


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from a wild opening weekend of Big Ten Conference play:

Penn State is the league's best team -- Many of us had a sneaking suspicion this would be the case, but Wisconsin had the better nonconference résumé and fewer question marks entering the season. Yet the Badgers melted down at Michigan and No. 12 Penn State continued to roll with a 38-24 win against No. 22 Illinois. A talented Illini squad led by Rejus Benn gave the Lions their first true test, but the Spread HD offense was simply too much. Wideout/return man Derrick Williams had a historic night and running back Evan Royster and quarterback Daryll Clark showed why Penn State is one of the country's most explosive teams.

Don't count out Michigan -- There's no other way to put it. Michigan looked like the Big Ten's worst team in the first half against Wisconsin (21 net yards, 1 first down, 0 points). But then the well-conditioned Wolverines completely transformed themselves. A heroic and durable defensive performance bought enough time for Steven Threet and the offense to kick into high gear. Coach Rich Rodriguez's spread system showed just how quickly it can rack up points -- three touchdowns in 12 minutes -- and the Wolverines produced the second-biggest comeback in team history and the biggest in the Big House. Saturday's win could be the turning point for a team no longer stuck in transition.

Senior QBs step up -- Through the first four games, it looked as though Northwestern senior quarterback C.J. Bacher had regressed. The same held true for Michigan State's Brian Hoyer. But both players stepped up Saturday and led their teams to crucial road wins. Bacher had 224 yards passing and three touchdown strikes in the final three quarters as Northwestern overcame a 17-3 deficit to beat Iowa and secure its first 5-0 start in 46 years. Hoyer avoided major mistakes and had 261 yards passing and two touchdowns as Michigan State held off Indiana. Even demoted Ohio State sixth-year senior Todd Boeckman rebounded nicely against Minnesota with a 31-yard scoring pass to Brian Robiskie.

Buckeyes offense needs Beanie -- You're probably saying, "Duh," but Ohio State's offense seemed to have more problems than a hobbled Heisman Trophy candidate, particularly up front. Chris "Beanie" Wells seemed to provide the boost the Buckeyes needed against Minnesota, as the offense turned in its best performance of the season. Wells and quarterback Terrelle Pryor combined for 203 rushing yards and Robiskie caught two touchdown passes. The coaches didn't overwork Wells, who will take on a bigger role this week against Wisconsin.

Northwestern reclaims late-game poise -- After seeing a bowl berth slip away last fall because of fourth-quarter flops, the Wildcats have reclaimed their crunch-time composure. Iowa kept Northwestern in Saturday's game with five turnovers, but when the fourth quarter rolled around, the Wildcats took control. A playmaking defense briefly knocked Shonn Greene from the game and batted down Ricky Stanzi's fourth-and-goal pass. Bacher and his veteran wideouts made plays when it mattered. Northwestern improved to 16-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer.