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Sunday, October 26, 2008
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 9


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Penn State can handle adversity and win with defense -- Head coach Joe Paterno and many others held off on labeling Penn a great team until it faced some genuine pressure. Thanks to the Spread HD offense, the Lions had torched their opponents, never trailing in the fourth quarter through the first eight games. Adversity arrived Saturday night in Columbus, and Penn State overcame it and won in a new way. Swarming defense kept Ohio State out of the end zone, and senior safety Mark Rubin forced a Terrelle Pryor fumble that led to the go-ahead touchdown. Penn State won at Ohio Stadium for the first time as a member of the Big Ten and kept the national title game in the viewfinder.

2. Michigan State can use emotion to its advantage -- In years past, the Spartans were an emotional wreck, prone to meltdowns after the first sign of trouble. Many expected a similar collapse following last week's 42-point home loss to Ohio State. But Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and his players turned the page and focused on a game they had hyped up since the summer. Michigan meant more to Dantonio and the Spartans, and they weren't afraid to show it. An emotionally prepared team survived a bad touchdown call and some early adversity to rally for 35-21 win. Quarterback Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer stepped up as the Spartans snapped a six-game losing streak to Michigan and won at Michigan Stadium for the first time since 1990.

3. Terrelle Pryor is human -- In his first five starts at quarterback, the Ohio State freshman led a game-winning scoring drive on the road at Wisconsin, answered his doubters inside and outside the locker room with a superb effort at Michigan State and blossomed as a team leader. He was less than 11 minutes away from adding a win against a top 5 team to his resume before an ill-fated decision on a quarterback sneak led to the game's critical turnover. A more experienced and less talented quarterback likely would have gone up the middle on a quarterback sneak, but Pryor tried to make a play and got burned. "I thought I was scoring a touchdown," Pryor said, when a first down would have sufficed. The play epitomized Pryor's risk-reward nature at this stage of his promising career.

4. One game might sidetrack Northwestern's season -- It was bad enough that No. 22 Northwestern lost to Indiana, a banged-up team playing without its starting quarterback (Kellen Lewis) and riding a five-game losing streak (average margin of defeat: 24.4 points). But the turnover-prone Wildcats tumbled in Bloomington, and the loss came with a major toll. Star running back Tyrell Sutton injured his wrist and will undergo surgery this week that could end his season. Starting quarterback C.J. Bacher suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury and could barely walk after the game. Northwestern likely needs one more win to secure a bowl spot, and with Sutton and most likely Bacher sidelined, an improved defense and reserve offensive skill players have to step up.

5. Race for No. 2 heats up -- Penn State is positioned for a push to the national title game, which could open up a second BCS spot for the Big Ten, most likely the Rose Bowl. Three teams sit with one league loss after Ohio State fell to Penn State; Michigan State improved to 4-1 in conference play and Minnesota, one of the nation's best stories, added another victory at Purdue. The Spartans and Golden Gophers don't play one another, and both teams have lost to Ohio State, which remains the front-runner for the No. 2 spot. But Minnesota has a very manageable remaining schedule and could finish with 10 or even 11 wins after going 1-11 in 2007.