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Sunday, August 31, 2008
Five Big Ten lessons from Week 1


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The first round of Big Ten games are in the books and the conference landscape hasn't changed much, which could be a bad thing. Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin look like the class of the league, and all three squads rolled in games in which they should.

But the first month of the season provides the Big Ten ample opportunities to boost its deteriorating national reputation, and so far the league has failed to do so. For the second straight year Illinois fell way behind in the first three quarters against Missouri and couldn't recover. Michigan State couldn't keep up with Cal's running backs and fell short in Berkeley. Michigan's offense was generally a mess and the Wolverines couldn't knock off a solid Utah team.

It's time to look back at five revelations from Week 1. This will be a Sunday staple throughout the season.

1. Michigan offense under construction: The offense looked bland and basic in Rich Rodriguez's debut, and the simplistic system still prompted plenty of mistakes. Both quarterbacks had their share of struggles, though redshirt freshman Steven Threet made several plays down the stretch that could earn him the starting nod in Week 2. The quarterbacks will endure their share of growing pains, but Michigan can't afford getting next to nothing from its running backs. The talent is there on both sides of the ball, but the Wolverines won't win many games averaging 1.4 yards a carry.

2. Impact of Beanie Wells' injury: The foot/ankle/toe injury to the star running back overshadowed what otherwise was a brilliant day for Ohio State, which received nice performances from freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and many others in a 43-0 win against Youngstown State. X-rays were negative, but foot and toe problems can be tricky, especially for a running back who can now be labeled injury prone. The priority is getting Wells ready for a Week 3 matchup at USC, so if he has to sit out next week's game against Ohio, so be it. Given what the Trojans did to Virginia, Ohio State will need all hands -- or feet -- on deck at the L.A. Coliseum.

3. Michigan State still not clutch: Six close losses in 2007 fueled preseason hype for the Spartans. Well, add another near miss to the list. Quarterback Brian Hoyer completed only 20 of 48 passes, and though he found a capable target in Mark Dell (202 yards), the senior signal caller couldn't get his team over the top in a 38-31 loss. More unsettling for Michigan State was a defense that allowed 203 rushing yards. Good teams reflect their head coach, and though the Spartans have started to do so in many areas, a Mark Dantonio team shouldn't be this vulnerable on defense.

4. Running backs impress: For all the talk of pass-happy spread offenses in the Big Ten, the league still has quite a few guys who can run a bit. Led by under-appreciated junior P.J. Hill, Wisconsin unveiled arguably the league's most powerful rushing attack and racked up 404 rushing yards against Akron. Wells had 111 rushing yards on just 13 carries before his injury, and Penn State's two backs (Stephfon Green and Evan Royster) combined for five touchdowns. Iowa's Shonn Greene (109 yards) showed no signs of rust after a year away from football and the Hawkeyes found a Jewel, as in freshman Jewel Hampton (68 yards, 2 TDs). Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton showed why he's still one of the league's top backs, and Minnesota's Duane Bennett came up big when it counted. Quarterback Kellen Lewis continues to be Indiana's best running back, collecting 185 rushing yards Saturday.

5. Illini defense overvalued: I'll be the first to admit I bought into Illinois' defense too much this summer. Any defense that loses its core (two safeties, a middle linebacker and a tackle) will probably struggle at first, and Illinois certainly did against Chase Daniel and Missouri. A line that coach Ron Zook called the team's strength generated only one sack -- end Derek Walker did return an interception for a touchdown -- and Daniel passed for 323 yards. Linebacker Martez Wilson still looks like the real deal, but the Illini need more from others if they want to be considered an elite defense.