NCF Nation: Bryant Browning

Miami and Ohio State on Jan. 3, 2003 provided one of the most exciting and talked-about games in recent college football history. Ohio State's double-overtime victory in the Fiesta Bowl secured a national title and marked the beginning of a surge under The Vest (Jim Tressel). It also signaled the end of Miami's amazing run of success. The teams reunite Saturday in Columbus (ESPN, 3:40 p.m. ET), as Ohio State continues its push for the national title and Miami aims for another signature win to prove that yes, The U is back.

Bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Heather Dinich break down the matchup in Columbus.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio's Terrelle Pryor is a Heisman Trophy candidate this season.
Adam Rittenberg: HD, always a pleasure. Tough first weekend for the so-close league, I mean the ACC. Both Ohio State and Miami looked impressive against weak competition Thursday night. We've got to start this off with the two quarterbacks, Terrelle Pryor and Jacory Harris. Both are Heisman Trophy candidates in my mind, and they're friends off the field who text each other from time to time. What are the big keys for Harris against an always stout Ohio State defense?

Heather Dinich: Ahh, Ritt, the pleasure is all yours. First, he has to get the protection he needs -- something he hasn't always had, but that appeared to improve in the season opener against Florida A&M. Second, Harris has to continue to play mistake-free like he did in the first half last week. Turnovers were a big issue for him last year -- 17 interceptions -- and Cameron Heyward and the rest of the Buckeyes' D are more than capable of getting him flustered. He’s got to stay on his feet and make smart decisions. What about Pryor? Miami's rushing defense is coming off its best performance in three years, with eight sacks against FAMU. Is Ohio State’s front ready to hold off the Canes and make Pryor look worthy of the Heisman Hype?

AR: Pryor looked much more comfortable with the offense in the opener, but he faced virtually no pressure from Marshall and could sit back and wait for wideouts Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey to get open. That should change against the Canes, and it'll be interesting to see how often Pryor takes off and runs -- his old method for dealing with pressure -- or stands in the pocket and makes a tough throw. Ohio State's offensive line finally seems to be coming together after several years of underachieving. It's a group filled with blue-chip recruits that boasts good experience now, especially at the guard spots with Justin Boren and Bryant Browning. A big key will be whether left tackle Mike Adams can protect Pryor's blind side.

Speaking of highly recruited offensive linemen and Ohio State, how is our pal Seantrel Henderson doing? Let's just say Buckeye Nation is waiting. Moreover, how do you see Miami's O-line matching up with Heyward, John Simon and Ohio State's front four?

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireJacory Harris had three touchdowns and 210 yards against Florida A&M.
HD: Miami’s pass protection was pretty good against FAMU, giving up just one sack, and Mount Henderson got some snaps in which he swallowed up some smaller, less athletic players. He's still got a learning curve, though, and the truth is it's too hard to judge that group until it lines up against the Buckeyes. Some might have made too much of the power versus speed plotline in the Champs Sports Bowl against Wisconsin, but I’m wondering if that won’t be a factor with Ohio State’s defensive front in putting the pressure on Harris. The Buckeyes' run defense is solid, but can they stop this deep backfield with or without Graig Cooper?

AR: Heather, I'm glad you brought up the Champs Sports Bowl. I know this is a different and supposedly better Miami team, but I have a hard time forgetting how Wisconsin outclassed the Canes in that game, and would have won by more points if not for a Garrett Graham fumble near the goal line. If Wisconsin's defense makes Harris look like that, I can't imagine what Ohio State's will do to him. You also bring up a good point about Cooper, who missed most of the Wisconsin game. He's a tremendous athlete and could be a big factor on Saturday if he plays. Ohio State running back Brandon Saine is another guy who looks better and better as time goes on and had a great performance in the opener.

OK, you're on the spot. What happens in this one?

HD: Well, one of two things: A.) Miami wins and is an instant surprise contender for the national title, or B.) The Hurricanes lose and ACC fans flip the channel to the Florida State game, clinging to desperation that somebody can represent on the national level. I think Miami is good, but I don’t think they're ready for Ohio State -- especially not in the Shoe. I'm still in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode with these guys when it comes to national relevance. Can they win the ACC? No doubt. But the Canes need to win the Coastal before they're in the same realm as the Buckeyes. Do you see any upset in the making?

AR: Miami certainly has the talent to win this game. The Canes must win the turnover battle, force Pryor into some bad decisions and hold the edge on special teams, which surprisingly might be Ohio State's biggest weakness this year. While I forecast a great game, I don't see the upset. Ohio State is simply too strong up front on both sides of the ball and wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State got over its big-game hump in the Rose Bowl against Oregon, and the Buckeyes aren't a slow Big Ten team, as they're often portrayed. The Buckeyes win this one by a touchdown.
The position rankings move to the offensive side of the ball, and the offensive lines are first up. Several Big Ten offensive lines are among the nation's best, while other units boast experience but must step up.

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Badgers' Gabe Carimi is entering his fourth season as a starter.
1. Wisconsin: If this group stays healthy, I don't believe there's a better offensive line in college football this season. Left tackle Gabe Carimi is a bona fide NFL prospect who enters his fourth year as a starter. The Badgers boast another All-Big Ten selection at guard in senior John Moffitt, who can play both guard and tackle. Josh Oglesby should be ready to take the next step at right tackle. All the injuries last season forced Wisconsin to use a lot of linemen, and Peter Konz's return makes this one of the league's deepest units.

2. Ohio State: The talent always has been there, and the physical play finally showed up late last fall. Ohio State's line finished 2009 on a very strong note and returns pretty much everyone for 2010. First-team All-Big Ten guard Justin Boren leads the group along with fellow guard Bryant Browning. Center Michael Brewster enters his third season as a starter, and right tackle J.B. Shugarts came along last year. If gifted left tackle Mike Adams effectively protects Terrelle Pryor's blind side, the Buckeyes will be extremely tough to stop.

3. Michigan: The Wolverines boast one of the Big Ten's best interior line tandems in guard Stephen Schilling and center David Molk, who returns from an ACL injury. When Molk was healthy in 2009, Michigan consistently moved the football. His return is a major boost. The Wolverines need to solidify the tackle spots but have experienced options in Perry Dorrestein and Mark Huyge. Michigan's offensive line recruiting also should pay off as redshirt freshmen like Taylor Lewan solidify the depth.

4. Penn State: The line had an average performance in 2009 and struggled against elite defensive fronts, but things should improve this fall. Stefen Wisniewski, who moves back to guard from center, is one of the nation's most experienced and polished offensive linemen. He leads a group that also features veterans Lou Eliades and Johnnie Troutman. Penn State needs big things from new starting left tackle Quinn Barham.

5. Northwestern: All five starters return from 2009, but there's competition at three spots in camp. I see this as a testament to Northwestern's strong O-line recruiting the past four seasons. While experience is great, the Wildcats need to be more physical in run blocking and could benefit from some new faces (or some old ones hardened by competition). Left tackle Al Netter and center Ben Burkett are All-Big Ten candidates, and watch out for Patrick Ward, a heralded 2009 recruit who steps into the spotlight at right tackle this season.

Up next: Running back/fullback

More rankings ...
Before the Rose Bowl, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and head coach Jim Tressel met and discussed how the game marked the halfway point of Pryor's career.

[+] EnlargeMichael Brewster
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIMichael Brewster has started the last 23 games at center for the Buckeyes and should be a Rimington Trophy candidate this season.
It was a midterm exam, in front of 92,000 proctors. And Pryor aced it.

But Pryor isn't the only member of Ohio State's decorated 2008 recruiting class to reach halftime in Columbus.

As Pryor delayed his college decision on national signing day in 2008, much of the buzz at Ohio State swirled around three decorated offensive line prospects: Michael Brewster, Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts. All three players were ESPNU 150 selections. ESPN recruiting ranked Brewster and Shugarts as the nation's No. 2 and No. 3 offensive tackle prospects, while Adams ranked No. 8.

All three are now preparing for their junior seasons at Ohio State.

"They're at the midpoint of their careers, not unlike Terrelle," head coach Jim Tressel said. "You'd like to think that they can be real good leaders and good veterans."

Pryor's development in the second half of his career likely will determine whether Ohio State wins a national title for the first time since 2002, but equally as important, if not more so, is the progression of his classmates on the offensive line.

"Adams, Brewster and Shugarts have now all gotten their feet more than wet now for a couple years," offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Bollman said. "Going into their third year, now it's time for them to really start kicking it in."

Brewster certainly has done so, having started the last 23 games at center for the Buckeyes. The 6-5, 293-pound junior from Orlando will contend for the Rimington Trophy this fall and serve as one of the line's leaders along with guards Justin Boren and Bryant Browning.

Shugarts also saw the field as a true freshman but missed six games with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He earned the starting right tackle spot in 2009 and will start at either right tackle or left tackle this season.

Adams has battled injuries and spotty play his first two seasons, but enters the summer with a decent to strong chance of landing the starting left tackle spot.

"Those guys work extremely hard, those three," Browning said. "They've got kind of a brotherhood. You see those guys in the weight room together, watching extra film together, and I feel like they're close on and off the field. They're doing anything they can to be great offensive linemen."

Since Brewster is a proven player at center and Shugarts took a step in that direction last fall, Adams found himself in the spotlight this spring. Adams failed to grab the starting left tackle spot last year, forcing Ohio State to shift versatile veteran Jim Cordle to protect Pryor's blind side.

The Dublin, Ohio, native has been an enigma early in his college career. One look at the 6-8, 300-pound Adams reveals the obvious physical gifts he possesses, but entering spring practice, he had yet to produce consistent results on the field. Adams missed Ohio State's first two games last year -- sources said he was suspended for a violation of team rules, though Tressel never confirmed it -- and didn't see much action during Big Ten Play.

"There's competition at his position right now," Browning said, "but he's working hard, doing whatever it takes so he can get a chance to get out there."

This spring, the Buckeyes opened the competition at left tackle, as Adams, Andrew Miller, Marcus Hall and Shugarts all saw time. Adams seemed to make strides toward the end of the session and drew praise for his performance in Saturday's spring game.

Ohio State star defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is doing all he can to help linemen like Adams, Shugarts and Brewster take the next step.

"It's a work in progress, it's not going to happen right away," Heyward said. "They'll have good days, and they'll also have bad days. And our guys are pushing them. We're not just going to let them sit back and enjoy it because it's going to be a rough battle.

"They were highly touted offensive linemen coming in, and they really want to step up and be great this year."
LOS ANGELES -- Oregon head coach Chip Kelly and his Ohio State counterpart, Jim Tressel, had their final meeting with the media Thursday morning at the Los Angeles Downtown Marriott.

Here are some notable nuggets from what they had to say:

[+] EnlargeRose Bowl
Kirby Lee/US PresswireOhio State's Jim Tressel, left, and Oregon's Chip Kelly talked about their FCS roots on Thursday.

  • LeGarrette Blount remains Oregon's third-string running back entering the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET), slotted behind starting LaMichael James and backup Kenjon Barber. Blount, who requested not to meet with the media this week, saw his first action since the season opener against Oregon State on Dec. 3, carrying nine times for 51 yards and a touchdown. Kelly said he doesn't have anything scripted for Blount, who will get more opportunities if James gets banged-up. "We've ridden No. 21 [James] for the whole season, and we're going to continue to do that," Kelly said. "But you'll see LG [Blount]."
  • Ohio State enters the game as healthy as it's been all season, particularly on offense. Tressel said quarterback Terrelle Pryor (knee) is fine -- the coach didn't sound thrilled about Pryor's injury revelation Monday -- and the offensive line has gotten some continuity down the stretch. Ohio State will stick to its same starting lineup for the line: LT Jim Cordle, LG Justin Boren, C Michael Brewster, RG Bryant Browning, RT J.B. Shugarts. Marcus Hall and Mike Adams will be the first subs at right tackle and left tackle, respectively. Andrew Moses would be Ohio State's eighth lineman if they need him.
  • As they posed behind the Rose Bowl trophy, Kelly and Tressel briefly discussed their common roots in the FCS. Just three years ago, Kelly served as the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, his alma mater. Tressel built his reputation as a head coach at Youngstown State, where he won four national championships. "We were laughing over there that we didn't have that many flashbulbs when we played in the I-AA playoffs," Tressel said. Kelly stressed that "the big time is where you're at" and that it's important to enjoy coaching at any level. But he doesn't take his meteoric rise for granted. "I had absolutely no idea three years ago that I'd be sitting in front of a press conference at the Rose Bowl," he said.
  • Two of Ohio State's last three losses -- Sept. 12 against USC and the 2009 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Texas -- came in games where the defense allowed a late score and lost a lead. Fatigue likely played a role in both games, as USC ran 17 more plays than Ohio State (72-55) and Texas ran 23 more plays (87-64). Ohio State should win the time-of-possession battle against Oregon, but the Ducks' offensive pace could be tough to match. "When you leave your defense on the field that long against good football teams, there is going to be a wearing factor," Tressel said. "I know this: chasing Oregon around will make them tired, too, so it's going to be a great challenge."
  • Asked if Oregon is the nation's best comeback story after its disastrous opener against Boise State, Kelly took the opportunity to defend his players and trumpet Boise State's success. "Mark Twain once said, 'The news of my death was greatly exaggerated,'" Kelly said. "We lost 19-8 to the No. 6 team in the country, which hasn't lost a game in a long time. Chris Petersen and Boise State is an outstanding football team. The one thing about that night that bothers me is they got slighted."
  • And, finally, some words from each coach on the stakes on Friday.
    Kelly: "
    I want our players to savor the moment. That's what it's all about. They've earned this opportunity, and they're going to create memories. ... We have fun. Our staff has fun. This is what it's all about. It's not worrying about what's next. There is no next. This is it."
    Tressel: "Our seniors know that this is the last time out. But how deeply do you know that? Maybe not until that clock ticks to zero does it become very real. ... That's the beauty of the game of football. It's really what happens that day, not what you're capable of or what you could have done, what happens that day."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Fifteen spring practices still don't mask all the warts a team has, and every head coach has a position group that keeps him awake at night. After looking at where each Big Ten team got help this spring, here's a look at the positions that still look a little shaky around the league.

Illinois' offensive line -- The Illini boast arguably more offensive firepower than any Big Ten team, but they'll struggle without improvement up front. There's youth throughout the front five, and while players like Jeff Allen boast loads of potential, there are a few unknowns heading into the fall. The line allowed five sacks and 16 tackles for loss in the spring game.

Indiana's wide receivers -- Kellen Lewis' dismissal from the program after spring practice creates a major void at receiver. Lewis was pegged to be Ben Chappell's top target, and with Ray Fisher moving from wideout to cornerback, the Hoosiers need big things from young players like Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher.

Iowa's defensive tackles -- This position will be a question mark for the Hawkeyes right up until the season opener, and most likely beyond. Iowa must find a way to replace mainstays Mitch King and Matt Kroul, and it lacks much experience besides Karl Klug. The team needs continued development from guys like Mike Daniels and Cody Hundertmark.

Michigan's defensive line -- Brandon Graham should be one of the nation's top pass-rushers this fall, but he needs some help up front. Michigan likes what it has in young linemen like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and incoming freshman Craig Roh. Those players will need to grow up fast so the defense can generate consistent pressure.

Michigan State's running backs -- Few players meant more to an offense than Javon Ringer did to Michigan State last fall, and the search for a replacement remains a bit murky. Aside from a brief surge by Ashton Leggett, the running back room remains very crowded as Caulton Ray entered the mix this spring. Two heralded freshmen arrive during the summer in Edwin Baker and Larry Caper.

Minnesota's offensive line -- The Gophers have the bodies up front, but they've still got a long way to go in picking up the new offensive system/philosophy. It's a fairly dramatic change for returning starters like Dom Alford and Ned Tavale, so growing pains are expected. But a talented Gophers team can't take another step forward if its offensive line doesn't come together.

Northwestern's wide receivers -- Three starters are gone at receiver, and no one really wowed during spring practice. Northwestern should get better here as Jeremy Ebert returns from hip surgery, but it's time for experienced players like Andrew Brewer and Sidney Stewart to step up as primary targets for new starting quarterback Mike Kafka.

Ohio State's offensive line -- Michigan transfer Justin Boren undoubtedly had a positive effect on the offensive line this spring, but questions remain about a group that underachieved for most of 2008. Can Mike Adams complement his physical gifts with a toughness needed to play left tackle in the Big Ten? How will Jim Cordle and Bryant Browning adjust to new positions when the games begin? Stay tuned.

Penn State's secondary -- Head coach Joe Paterno didn't hide his concern for this group, which lost all four starters from 2008. Breakdowns in the secondary doomed Penn State in its only two losses last fall. Safety Drew Astorino should be ready for big things, but cornerback A.J. Wallace must find a way to stay healthy and become a legit shutdown guy on the outside.

Purdue's quarterbacks -- Joey Elliott boasts the knowledge to be an effective Big Ten starter, but does he have the skills to get it done? He has spent a lot of time on the sideline during his college career, and Purdue would benefit from having another viable option at quarterback. Justin Siller's dismissal really stings, and the development of backup Caleb TerBush looms large this summer.

Wisconsin's linebackers -- The Badgers lose a lot of production in DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, and they don't have much proven depth at linebacker. They can ill afford an injury to Jaevery McFadden or Culmer St. Jean, and it's imperative to develop more linebackers during preseason camp.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Midway through an interview Thursday, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel received a text message from former Buckeyes star James Laurinaitis.

 
  Leon Halip/US Presswire
  Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knows it's not the name that wins championships.
Laurinaitis, a standout hockey player in high school growing up in Minnesota, was looking for tickets to a Columbus Blue Jackets NHL playoff game next week. Tressel and Laurinaitis were supposed to attend a Jackets' game together several weeks ago, but Laurinaitis backed out at the last minute to attend a family function in Dayton.

"He threw me under the bus," Tressel joked. "Now they're in the playoffs, so now he wants to go. I'm going to ignore him for a couple hours."

Laurinaitis had to suffer for a while, but he'll probably get his wish from Tressel. After everything he gave to Ohio State during the last five seasons, the linebacker deserves it.

Tressel's current players don't share the same sense of entitlement as Laurinaitis.

Ohio State got a lot younger during the offseason, and the spring depth chart is filled with underclassmen. Though the Buckeyes have won or shared the last four Big Ten titles and maintain the same expectation for 2009, championships don't just magically appear by wearing scarlet and gray.

"If we've got a room full of guys that think, 'Well, that's what you do. You come to Ohio State and you're Big Ten champs,' if that's the reality in their mind, then we're going to have a problem," Tressel said. "Because it is hard. People that know just how hard it is are gone. Because they're the ones that traversed that mountain.

"It's our job to get guys to understand how difficult it's been. It's not, 'Wish upon a star and I'm entitled to that.' That's the fun of raising kids up, helping them understand that goals are wonderful, but the plan and the action taken toward those goals it what it's all about."

Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has never seen a problem with work ethic during his tenure at Ohio State. But to hammer home the importance of going to work every year for a goal, he tells the defenders to simply look around.

"This year, it's easy," Heacock said. "You lose Malcolm [Jenkins] and you lose James [Laurinaitis] and you lose Marcus [Freeman], big production guys. You lose the key, main names that everybody has been hearing.

"And you end up with a group of guys, you had to use the cliché, no-names, but guys that don't have quite the reputation. This group is a very young group, but boy, they're energetic and they're anxious to learn."

Some other notes from my conversation with Tressel (who wore a pullover fleece, not a sweater vest), Heacock and several Buckeyes players.

  • There has been a lot of buzz about Ohio State overhauling the offense in Year 2 of the Terrelle Pryor era, but Tressel downplays the changes. Though a player like Pryor challenges the coaches to be more flexible, the Buckeyes won't look like a completely different offense in 2009. Running back Dan "Boom" Herron smiled and shook his head when I brought up the Wildcat offense, but he admitted the team continues to run some plays out of the pistol formation, which Ohio State used last fall.
"With Terrelle, you're tempted to say, 'Hey, I wonder if we can do this or that,'" Tressel said. "But you reign it back in and say, 'OK, let's look at the whole group. What are the things the whole group can be best at.' What is it that [Dane] Sanzenbacher does best? What it is that [DeVier] Posey does best? But we haven't gotten crazy."
  • Senior tackle Jim Cordle said the offensive line is ahead of where he thought it would be at this point after a "disappointing" 2008 performance. Cordle, a former center and left guard, is working at both tackle spots this spring but likely will line up on the right side. Former right tackle Bryant Browning moves to right guard, and Michigan transfer Justin Boren has all but locked up the left guard spot. Despite sophomore starting center in Mike Brewster and sophomore Mike Adams working at left tackle, the group is playing with more of an edge.
"Fights will break out and those types of things, but that's just how we compete now," Cordle said.
  • Heacock said Andre Amos is the frontrunner in the competition for the starting cornerback spot opposite Chimdi Chekwa, but Devon Torrence also has had a good spring. Safety Anderson Russell singled out redshirt freshman cornerback Travis Howard and safety Orhian Johnson for their performances this spring.
  • Ohio State has been relatively injury-free this spring. Pryor is fine after overworking his throwing arm, and safety Kurt Coleman returned to practice Tuesday after an ankle problem. Sanzenbacher has a high ankle sprain.
  • Before our interview Heacock was watching film of NFL defenses scoring touchdowns and planned to make a highlight tape for his players. He also has a sign in his office that reads: "No Ohio State team has defeated Michigan 5 times in a row," with the 5 crossed out and replaced by a 6. Interesting.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Greetings from the banks of the Olentangy, where the stadium JumboTron is showing Ohio State's national championship win over Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Craig Krenzel was a beast in that game.

This has been the first true carnival-like atmosphere I've seen this season. Ohio State fans followed Jim Tressel's advice and wore scarlet to the game. The parking lots surrounding the stadium are filled with scarlet and some blue-and-white. Several members of the Cleveland Glenville High School football team, which produced Ted Ginn Jr. and other Buckeyes standouts, were milling about one of the parking lots. Brutus the Buckeye also was making the rounds. And for the second time this season, I was recognized outside a stadium, this time by a Penn State fan who said he reads the blog daily.

OK, onto the game.

First, the all-important weather report. The forecast calls for chilly temperatures (45-53 degrees) throughout the game, but thankfully no rain. Most of the wet stuff cleared out of here last night, though it wasn't a fun flight from Chicago.

Penn State enters the game 8-0 and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings. The Nittany Lions have won all eight games by 14 points or more and rank among the top 25 nationally in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, turnover margin and kickoff returns. In other words, this might be the most complete team in the country. We'll find out tonight.

Ohio State comes in at 7-1 and ranked No. 9 in the BCS standings. The Buckeyes have won five straight since their disastrous loss at USC and played by far their best game of the season last week at Michigan State. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor hasn't lost as the starter, and running back Chris "Beanie" Wells seems to be getting stronger after missing three games with a right foot/toe injury. The defense also has stiffened in the last two games, rising to 12th nationally in points allowed and 10th in yards allowed.

And finally, here are some things I'll be watching tonight:

Quarterback play and pressure: Both Pryor and Penn State's Daryll Clark haven't looked like first-year starters so far. Neither has lost a game and both engineered big wins on the road. Pryor seems to welcome pressure, whether it was the be-a-man challenge from Wells before the decisive drive at Wisconsin or teammates speculating about a two-quarterback system last week. The freshman's ability to limit mistakes and keep his cool will loom large tonight. Clark has brought a swagger to the huddle and answered questions about his passing ability (152.7 quarterback rating). But Ohio State is the best defense he's seen this season, and his poise on the road will be tested.

Special teams: This is a truly fascinating component of tonight's game. Tressel coaches special teams better than arguably any coach in the country, and the Buckeyes are always solid in the third phase. But it's hard not to give Penn State the edge with senior return man Derrick Williams, who ranks fifth nationally in kick return average (32.2 ypr). The Lions also boast one of the nation's top kickers in senior Kevin Kelly. The team that prevails in special teams likely will be the one walking away with a W.

Offensive line play: Several pundits have targeted Penn State's offensive line as a potential weakness. I just don't see it. The Lions rank sixth nationally in sacks allowed, and their primary running back (Evan Royster) averages 7.7 yards per carry and 111.6 yards per game. Ohio State's front seven will provide a stern challenge, but Penn State's veteran line should be up for it. The Buckeyes offensive line certainly stepped up last week, but this group has underperformed most of the season. Lions defensive Aaron Maybin will be tough to contain, and the Buckeyes need big games from tackles Alex Boone and Bryant Browning.

Intangibles: The stat has been stated throughout the week, and its bears repeating: Penn State has never won at Ohio State as a member of the Big Ten. These current players have nothing to do with that streak, but it could play a role. Ohio State hasn't played a home night game since 2005, when it fell to Texas. But the Buckeyes are 6-1 in home night games since 1959.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.

Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). LinebackersRussell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy , who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safetiesKevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."

Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety afterRoderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).

Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."

Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.

Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.

 
 AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato
 The Buckeyes expect Chris "Beanie" Wells to be in action Saturday against USC.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Chris "Beanie" Wells watched from the sideline last Saturday, his value to Ohio State's offense rose with every stalled drive and stuffed rushing attempt.

Wells undoubtedly would have provided a lift for the Buckeyes against Ohio. Ultimately, they didn't need him to win the game.

Saturday's matchup against top-ranked USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) is a different deal. Wells adds credibility to the Buckeyes' offense whenever he steps on the field, but his worth in big games is especially noteworthy.

Wells finished the 2007 season by playing his best at the most critical points. After Michigan State rallied to make things interesting last year in Columbus, Wells took over in the second half and finished with 221 yards. He had three second-half rushing touchdowns as Ohio State rallied against Wisconsin, and he saved his top performance for archrival Michigan, racking up a career-high 222 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The BCS national championship wasn't a shining moment for many Ohio State players, but Wells still finished with 146 rushing yards, including a 65-yard touchdown scamper, against an LSU defense that ranked ninth nationally against the run.

"He's such a great player," Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "He can do so many things for you. He's got speed, he's powerful, he's strong, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. It just helps us out so much."

Wells will play Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum. His effectiveness remains a question after a right foot/toe injury, but his big-game track record heightens hopes for the Buckeyes.

"He's a great leader," tackle Bryant Browning said. "When he thinks the offense is down, he gets after us. ... Him playing is going to be a real big help. He's a great player, as everybody knows. He makes big plays. Just having him around really helps the team."

But what if Wells can only help in a limited role? Unlike USC, famous and feared for its annual stable of running backs, Ohio State drops off a bit after Wells.

Redshirt freshman Dan "Boom" Herron likely will get the first shot behind Wells on Saturday after taking the bulk of the carries against Ohio. Senior Maurice Wells is the most experienced reserve but hasn't shown the ability to take over. Expect a greater role for sophomore Brandon Saine, who had only five carries last week and missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury.

"I don't think you can diminish the effect of missing 20-plus practices in the preseason that has slowed Brandon a little bit," head coach Jim Tressel said. "That was good to get him back in there, plus the practice time, he picked up this past week and this particular week."

Chris Wells told Tressel on Monday that he wanted 45 carries against the Trojans. That's wishful thinking coming off an injury, and Ohio State has faith in its other runners.

"Danny Herron is an extremely tough kid," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "We have other guys that can carry the load."

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