NCF Nation: Curtis Painter

It's Super Bowl week, and here in Chicago, we're celebrating the hiring of Mike Martz as Bears offensive coordinator after a month-long search. Hope Jay Cutler has a life insurance policy.

OK, moving on to less depressing topics, like the Big Ten and Super Bowl XLIV.

Once again, the Big Ten has plenty of connections to the game, including 20 former players on the two teams, more than any other conference.

All 11 member schools will be represented by a player and/or coach participating in the game. Michigan has the highest number of former players (four), followed by Ohio State (three) and then six teams -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin -- each with two former players. Penn State and Minnesota will have former coaches on the sideline Sunday.

Both head coaches have Big Ten roots, as the Colts' Jim Caldwell played at Iowa and served as an assistant at Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. The Saints' Sean Payton had a one-year stint as an Illinois assistant in 1996.

Here's the full lineup of Big Ten links to Super Bowl XLIV, courtesy of the league office:

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Players

Kelvin Hayden, DB, Illinois
Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa
Bob Sanders*, DB, Iowa
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Marlin Jackson*, DB, Michigan
Ervin Baldwin, DE, Michigan State
John Gill, DL, Northwestern
Anthony Gonzalez*, WR, Ohio State
Curtis Painter, QB, Purdue
Jim Sorgi*, QB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Jim Caldwell, Head Coach (Played at Iowa from 1973-76; Assistant at Iowa in 1977, Northwestern in 1981 and Penn State from 1986-92)
Larry Coyer, Defensive Coordinator (Assistant at Iowa from 1974-77 and Ohio State from 1991-92)
Gene Huey, Running Backs (Assistant at Ohio State from 1988-91)
Tom Moore, Offensive Coordinator (Played at Iowa from 1957-60; Assistant at Iowa from 1961-62 and Minnesota from 1972-73 and 1975-76)
Ray Rychleski, Special Teams (Assistant at Penn State in 1991)
Bill Teerlinck, Defensive Assistant (Assistant at Indiana from 2003-04)
John Teerlinck, Defensive Line (Assistant at Illinois from 1980-82)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Players

Pierre Thomas, RB, Illinois
Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana
Courtney Roby, WR, Indiana
Adrian Arrington, WR, Michigan
Jonathan Goodwin, C, Michigan
Zach Strief, OT, Northwestern
Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
Will Smith, DE, Ohio State
Drew Brees, QB, Purdue
Jonathan Casillas, LB, Wisconsin

Coaches

Sean Payton, Head Coach (Assistant at Illinois in 1996)
Greg McMahon, Special Teams (Assistant at Minnesota from 1983-84 and Illinois from 1992-2004)
Bret Ingalls, Running Backs (Assistant at Northwestern from 2006-08)
Aaron Kromer, Offensive Line/Running Game (Assistant at Northwestern from 1999-2000)
Mike Mallory, Assistant Special Teams (Played at Michigan from 1982-85; Assistant at Indiana from 1986-87 and Illinois from 2001-05)
Terry Malone, Tight Ends (Assistant at Michigan from 1997-2005)

*-Injured reserve

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Check out the Big Ten's spring prospectus, if you haven't already. One item that stood out to me is the fact that the Big Ten returns its six-most efficient quarterbacks from 2008.

Is this a good thing?

The easy answer is yes. Who doesn't want an experienced and efficient quarterback taking snaps for another year?

On the flip side, as stated countless times in this blog, quarterback play is the biggest factor separating the Big Ten from rejoining college football's elite.

Last year was downright miserable for Big Ten quarterbacks, as all-conference candidates like Purdue's Curtis Painter, Ohio State's Todd Boeckman and Indiana's Kellen Lewis really struggled. Northwestern's C.J. Bacher was average, at best, and both Iowa and Wisconsin replaced their opening-day starters.

So as you look at this list, keep in mind that at least five of the six players (Penn State's Daryll Clark is the exception) need to improve on last year's numbers to truly elevate quarterback play around the league.

The Big Ten's Returning Quarterbacks (2008 Statistics)
Quarterback, School Rating Pass yards TD INT
Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State 146.5 1,311 12 4
Daryll Clark, Penn State 143.4 2,592 19 6
Juice Williams, Illinois 138.1 3,173 22 16
Ricky Stanzi, Iowa 134.8 1,956 14 9
Adam Weber, Minnesota 126.9 2,761 15 8
Dustin Sherer, Wisconsin 120.7 1,389 6 5

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten took a beating this bowl season, but rather than gripe about unfavorable locations and matchups, it's time to acknowledge a fact about the league.

The quarterback position stinks.

And in this age of college football, that equals competitive suicide.

All it took was a look across the field during bowl season to realize how far the Big Ten must progress at the quarterback spot.

The list of quarterbacks the Big Ten faced included:

  • Texas junior Colt McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist who ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and ninth in passing yards.
  • USC junior Mark Sanchez, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency and 20th in pass yards.
  • Georgia junior Matthew Stafford, who ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency and 14th in pass yards.
  • Missouri senior Chase Daniel, who ranks fourth nationally in pass yards and fifth in total offense.
  • Kansas junior Todd Reesing, who ranks eighth nationally in both passing yards and total offense.

Of the Big Ten quarterbacks competing in bowl games, only one, Penn State's Daryll Clark, ranks among the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency (Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor did not qualify). Minnesota's Adam Weber had the most passing yards (2,761), which ranks 35th nationally.

Granted, the Big Ten's best statistical passer, Illinois' Juice Williams, didn't reach the postseason, but this league is losing the arms race.

The Big Ten had by far the best stable of running backs in the country this season, boasting three of the nation's top six ball carriers (Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells).

Who cares?

College football has become a quarterback's game, and the Big Ten has fallen way behind. For the Big Ten to restore its place among the nation's top conferences, the fix must begin under center. It takes more than adopting the spread offense, which most Big Ten teams have done. Quarterbacks must be better developed in this conference.

And despite the league's sagging national reputation, there is hope.

The quarterback spot figures to be stronger in 2009 than it was in 2008.

(Read full post)

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2008
11/23/08
11:52
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Wow. A lot of big-time performances in the league this week, so a few more stickers than usual.

These guys saved their best for last.

Penn State QB Daryll Clark: As he promised, Clark got his swagger back in a big way against Michigan State. The junior passed for a career-high 341 yards and four touchdowns, marking Penn State's first 300-yard passing performance since Michael Robinson in 2003. Clark completed seven passes of 26 yards or longer as No. 8 Penn State crushed No. 15 Michigan State, 49-18, to reach the Rose Bowl. Penn State had a school-record 419 pass yards.

Purdue QB Curtis Painter: Painter ended a disappointing season on an extremely high note, completing 38 passes for 448 yards and five touchdowns in a 62-10 rout of Indiana. The fifth-year senior connected with five different players for touchdowns and moved into third place on the Big Ten's career list for total offense.

Iowa RB Shonn Greene: He capped a remarkable year by setting Iowa's single-season rushing record with 144 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-0 victory over Minnesota. Greene became the first back to eclipse 100 yards in all eight Big Ten games since Penn State's Curtis Enis in 1997. The junior should win the Doak Walker Award and might earn an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Penn State WR Deon Butler: Butler had only three receptions, but all of them went for touchdowns, marking a career high. He had scoring receptions of 70, 59 and four yards and registered the third 100-yard game of his career (133 yards).

Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: Like many of his Hawkeyes teammates, Johnson-Koulianos had a huge night at the Metrodome, racking up seven receptions for 181 yards and a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The sophomore came on strong in Iowa's final three regular-season games.

Northwestern defense: The Big Ten's most improved unit shut down the league's top offense, holding Illinois to a season-low 10 points in a 27-10 victory. Defensive end Kevin Mims (2.5 sacks, forced fumble) led the way as Northwestern held Illinois to 113 yards below its average.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final week of the Big Ten regular season is upon us. Here are a few weekend leftovers and some items looking at the upcoming games.

  • Daryll Clark's mind-set is a cause for concern as Penn State enters its most critical game of the season, Bernard Fernandez writes in the Philadelphia Daily News. Nittany Lions center A.Q. Shipley is serving as Clark's defacto psychologist, but the Penn State quarterback needs to relax and forget his mistakes, David Jones writes in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

"He's rushing every movement, all jerks and abrupt stops. Nothing is smooth or relaxed. Worse, he's begun throwing either off his back foot or with no stride at all, feet flat as if entombed in set cement.

Groping through a tunnel of doubt like this is a learning process. Unfortunately for Clark, this is his rookie year as a starter and a lot of the mental/emotional part of fighting through a slump is still new."

"You know what? We have three potential deals," [head coach Tim] Brewster said of the Gophers' bowl picture. "The Insight [in Tempe, Ariz.], the Motor City [Detroit] and possibly the Alamo [San Antonio]. If you win, you improve your bowl status."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

1. Daryll Clark's response -- The Penn State quarterback took the blame for the Iowa loss and admits he's struggling right now. There has also been some ridiculous talk about replacing Clark with Pat Devlin. Clark shouldn't have to worry about his job, but he needs to get on track again against a woeful Indiana defense that has been hit hard by injuries in the secondary. This is the perfect game for Clark and the Nittany Lions to revive the big-play attack.

2. Ohio State defense vs. Juice Williams -- Williams toyed with the Buckeyes last fall in Columbus, throwing four touchdown passes and racking up 70 rush yards. He almost single-handedly ran out the final eight minutes to preserve a 28-21 upset. You can bet Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis and Ohio State's other defenders are itching to face Williams again in Champaign (ESPN, noon ET). Ohio State's defense is hitting its stride, but Williams will provide a good test.

3. Bret Bielema and Tim Brewster -- Something is bound to happen in the already simmering Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, and it will be interesting to see what the two head coaches say and do during and after Saturday's game. Bielema's dash to midfield after last year's Wisconsin win made waves this week, and Brewster has already declared Wisconsin as Minnesota's top rival. There should be some fireworks in Madison (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

4. Makeshift offensive backfields at the Big House -- Both Northwestern and Michigan are dealing with injuries at quarterback and running back heading into Saturday's matchup (ESPN2, noon ET). Given both teams' problems with turnovers this season, the group that takes better care of the football likely comes out with the win. Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan tries to build off a strong performance last week in his second straight start, while Northwestern senior quarterback C.J. Bacher likely will return to the field after sitting out the past two weeks with a hamstring injury. Michael Shaw (Michigan) and Stephen Simmons (Northwestern) likely get the starts at running back.

5. Illinois tries to continue crazy pattern -- Since Sept. 13, Illinois has alternated wins and losses. It's not what head coach Ron Zook had in mind, but he wouldn't mind if it continued Saturday against No. 11 Ohio State. Illinois lost last week against Western Michigan and needs a win to get bowl eligible. The Illini usually play the Buckeyes tough, but Ohio State has won 14 straight Big Ten road games.

6. Purdue's quarterback situation -- Fifth-year senior Curtis Painter should return in some form at Iowa, but redshirt freshman Justin Siller is expected to start for the Boilermakers. Head coach Joe Tiller hinted at having a quarterback rotation, with Painter being used for the two-minute drill. The quarterbacks' differing skill sets could present some problems for Iowa, but both players will need to perform well to give Purdue a chance for the upset.

7. Minnesota tries to survive without Eric Decker -- The Gophers' offense was downright awful last week, and they'll be without star wide receiver Eric Decker (high ankle sprain) at Wisconsin. Freshmen Brandon Green and Brodrick Smith and sophomore Ralph Spry will have to step up, but perhaps more important, Minnesota must generate a running game outside of quarterback Adam Weber.

8. Derrick Williams -- If Penn State had held on to beat Iowa, Williams would have been a big story. Penn State used Williams in the "Wildcat" formation, in part to protect Clark, and the senior showcased his speed and versatility. In addition to running for a touchdown, Williams completed a 23-yard pass to Mickey Shuler for Penn State's only play of longer than 20 yards. The Lions likely will continue to expand Williams' role and maximize his versatility against Indiana.

9. Shonn Greene -- Expect to see the Iowa junior running back on this list for the rest of the season. He's just that good, and I don't think we'll see him in college next fall. Greene aims for his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game against Purdue, which ranks 90th nationally in rush defense (172.8 ypg). He got a bit banged up on a fourth-quarter touchdown run last week against Penn State but is expected to be fine for Saturday's game.

10. Michigan's final home appearance -- The Wolverines won't be going bowling, but a second straight win and a favorable send-off for the seniors would dull the pain for their fans, who have booed quite a bit this season. Obviously, an upset next week in Columbus would be bigger for the Wolverines, but another victory against a team with a winning record will help matters.

Big Ten picks for Week 12

November, 13, 2008
11/13/08
10:52
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The weather forecast around the Big Ten calls for snow, rain and wind on Saturday. Here's hoping this forecast turns out a little sunnier. November has been a dark and dreary month for the picks so far (5-6).

Penn State 48, Indiana 7 -- No hangover here, as the Nittany Lions respond from last week's somewhat surprising loss to Iowa by beating up on a beat-up Indiana team. The Hoosiers' secondary has been decimated by injuries, and Penn State will look to revive its big-play offense before Michigan State comes to town next week. Expect big games for Daryll Clark and do-it-all wide receiver Derrick Williams.

Ohio State 28, Illinois 21 -- Those who watched last year's game will appreciate the score prediction. Illinois always plays the Buckeyes tough and will do so again in a desperate situation, but Ohio State simply doesn't lose Big Ten road games. Plus, the Buckeyes are hitting their stride on offense to complement a defense that has played well since the USC game. Running back Chris "Beanie" Wells and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins have big games for the Bucks.

Iowa 23, Purdue 17 -- The Hawkeyes could struggle early after an emotional win last week, and Purdue's defense has done a good job against traditional offenses this season. Joe Tiller rotates quarterbacks Justin Siller and Curtis Painter and has some success, but Iowa running back Shonn Greene proves to be too much with his 11th consecutive 100-yard rushing game. Iowa's defense clamps down late to seal the win.

Northwestern 27, Michigan 24 -- Easily the toughest game to pick this week. It's tempting to say Michigan has turned a corner with a complete performance against Minnesota last week. Both teams are banged up on offense, and Northwestern hasn't taken many risks with Mike Kafka at the helm. But the Wildcats have been more consistent on both sides of the ball, and Michigan has had some trouble with spread offenses. Both teams are prone to turnovers, but Michigan commits the critical giveaway in the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 14 -- Minnesota will play hard in this heated rivalry and the score could be closer, but it's hard to see the Gophers keeping pace without star wide receiver Eric Decker (high ankle sprain). Wisconsin should be on a three-game win streak -- the Badgers totally gave one away in East Lansing -- and seem to be gaining confidence on offense. The bottom line is one team runs the ball well, while the other can't get the ground game going. Running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay lead the way for Wisconsin.

Bye: Michigan State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten)

Season record: 61-16 (79.2 percent)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Happy hump day. Quarterbacks dominate today's lineup of links. 

  • Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark continues to blame himself for last week's loss to Iowa, but head coach Joe Paterno hopes the junior starts to ease up a bit, Ron Musselman writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"This is a test of my will," Clark said in a conference call. "Like I said, I did some soul-searching on Sunday. I'm like: 'OK, the past couple of games you really haven't come to the party. What are you going to do?' It's not like I haven't prepared enough or taken the teams lightly or anything like that. It just happened.

"But you have two games left. 'What are you going to do to help this team out? Are you going to step it up or are you going to be mediocre?' I can't accept that. I have to play the best possible way that I can. My efforts were terrible Saturday. It would be unacceptable for it to continue."

  • Quarterback Curtis Painter is optimistic about returning to action this week, and the Boilers could use him, particularly for the two-minute drill, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier. 
  • Standout prep quarterback MarQueis Gray is returning to Minnesota after passing the  ACT, the Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood writes in his blog. Gray plans to re-enroll in January so that he's ready for spring practice. 
  • A strong finish could take the sting off of Michigan's poor season, Lynn Henning writes in The Detroit News.
  • Wisconsin cornerback Allen Langford is sorry he won't be seeing Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker on the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. Langford watched last year's game from home because of a knee injury.

He was watching when television replays caught Decker punching [Jack] Ikegwuonu in the groin in the second quarter, causing Ikegwuonu to temporarily leave the game.

"I was disappointed, I was upset," Langford said of his reaction. "That was my guy, to see him out there and see something like that happen, I was hoping he would bounce back and, eventually, he did."

"Apparently the idea of having Buck-whipped second-string quarterback Todd Boeckman take a knee on the final play still hasn't crossed Tressel's troubled mind."

Big Ten internal affairs: Week 11

November, 12, 2008
11/12/08
11:05
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to look inside five Big Ten teams.

Minnesota -- Wide receiver Eric Decker will miss Saturday's game at Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) with a high ankle sprain, and the Gophers are working to find ways to replace the Big Ten's receptions leader. Freshman Brandon Green will play a much more prominent role, and Minnesota also will turn to freshman Brodrick Smith and sophomore Ralph Spry, who comes off a two-game suspension for violating team rules. Green, listed as a starter this week, has 12 receptions in his last three games and could blossom into a top-end wideout with extra playing time.

Northwestern -- Running back has become the Wildcats' primary concern after season-ending injuries to starter Tyrell Sutton (dislocated wrist) and backup Omar Conteh (torn knee ligament). Sophomore Stephen Simmons will make his second career start Saturday at Michigan (ESPN2, noon ET), but he'll get help from freshman Jeravin Matthews, a special teams standout who has been moved from wide receiver to running back. Both Simmons and Matthews are small, quick backs, but they'll need to be effective in the passing game, an area where both Sutton and Conteh excelled.

Iowa -- Daniel Murray converted the biggest field goal in recent team history Saturday against Penn State, but he's once again listed as the backup kicker on this week's depth chart. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has confidence in both Murray and freshman Trent Mossbrucker, though it would be hard to see Iowa go against Murray with the game on the line. Mossbrucker, to his credit, has made 13 of 15 field-goal attempts and all 24 extra-point attempts this season. "We went from a situation not knowing where we were at in the spring to feeling confident right now that both guys plan an important role," Ferentz said.

Purdue -- The Boilermakers could use a quarterback rotation Saturday at Iowa. Fifth-year senior Curtis Painter is improving from a separated throwing shoulder, while redshirt freshman Justin Siller has shown enough promise to remain part of the game plan. Painter returned to practice this week, but head coach Joe Tiller said Siller likely will start against the Hawkeyes. Siller is practicing full-go this week after sustaining a bruised sternum against Michigan State. "What I'd really like in a perfect scenario this week would be for Curtis to get healthy enough to execute the two-minute game," Tiller said. "Justin isn't prepared to do that. It's not that he can't do it in the future, it's just how much are you going to heap on this guy now and what are you going to expect him to do."

Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch hasn't pinpointed the reason for his team's rash of injuries, but it isn't the playing field at Memorial Stadium. Indiana had to install new turf late this summer after flooding damaged the old surface. Though several players have sustained knee injuries on the home turf, Lynch sees no different between what Indiana has and other fields around the Big Ten. The health watch on offense looks better this week, but Indiana will need to do more shuffling in the secondary as cornerback Richard Council battles a leg injury. The Hoosiers already have lost three secondary starters to season-ending injuries, and walk-on wide receiver Collin Taylor has been moved to free safety, where he'll back up Brandon Mosley.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In addition to the big news that Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker will miss Saturday's game at Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), here are some other injury updates from around the Big Ten.

MICHIGAN
Head coach Rich Rodriguez said quarterback Steven Threet (concussion) is improving and should return to practice today. If Threet practices, he will split first-team snaps with Nick Sheridan. Threet made eight consecutive starts before sitting out last week as Sheridan helped Michigan to a 29-6 win at Minnesota.

Running back Brandon Minor (shoulder, wrist, ribs) also is improving but won't practice today. Rodriguez hopes Minor can practice later this week, though it's unlikely the junior will start Saturday against Northwestern (ESPN2, noon ET).

"Obviously he's very questionable for this weekend," Rodriguez said. "We'll see how he responds [Wednesday] and Thursday. He's definitely not going to practice today. He's a tough guy and I'm sure if he's able to go at all in practice this week, he will."

INDIANA
Quarterbacks Kellen Lewis (ankle) and Ben Chappell (head) both should be fine for Saturday's game at No. 8 Penn State after leaving last week's loss to Wisconsin with injuries, head coach Bill Lynch said.

Linebacker Will Patterson (knee) will miss the Penn State game, while cornerback Richard Council (ankle) is questionable and likely will be replaced in the starting lineup by Donnell Jones. Indiana already has lost three starters in the secondary -- cornerback Chris Phillips and safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk -- to season-ending knee injuries.

WISCONSIN
Starting middle linebacker Jaevery McFadden (concussion) has been cleared and will practice today. Right tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel will undergo an MRI on his lower right leg and could return to practice Wednesday.

PURDUE
Fifth-year senior quarterback Curtis Painter (separated throwing shoulder) is improving and should return to practice today. Painter told head coach Joe Tiller that he threw about 50 passes Monday -- the team is off that day -- and experienced minimal pain.

Tiller said Purdue likely will start redshirt freshman Justin Siller for the third consecutive game but could rotate Siller and Painter from series to series against Iowa.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's your weekly checklist for Saturday's exciting six-pack of games.

1. Penn State's national title quest resumes: Big Ten teams have struggled after bye weeks, and it will be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions respond at Iowa (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Quarterback Daryll Clark is looking forward to taking on contact again after sustaining a mild concussion at Ohio State. Saturday marks Penn State's final road trip of the season, and an Iowa team that has lost four games by a combined 12 points should keep things close.

2. Quarterback conundrums with Northwestern and Purdue: Both teams received impressive performances from backup quarterbacks in victories last week. But both are expected to go back to starters C.J. Bacher (hamstring) and Curtis Painter (shoulder) if they recover from injuries. Northwestern's Mike Kafka and Purdue's Justin Siller should still be part of the game plan as their teams take on No. 11 Ohio State (ESPN2, noon ET) and No. 18 Michigan State. How head coaches Pat Fitzgerald and Joe Tiller mix and match will be key.

3. Big Ten weather is here: It will be cold, wet and potentially snowy in Iowa City, Evanston and East Lansing, and the conditions could play a major role in Saturday's games. The Big Ten has been a league of running backs this fall, and players like Shonn Greene, Evan Royster, Javon Ringer and Chris "Beanie" Wells should take center stage. Field position and turnovers will loom large and scoring could be down.

4. Linemen in the limelight at Kinnick Stadium: If you enjoy line play, make sure to watch the Penn State-Iowa game. Iowa boasts the Big Ten's top tandem of defensive tackles in Mitch King and Matt Kroul, who go against a dominant Penn State offensive line that ranks fourth nationally in fewest sacks allowed. Big Ten sacks leader Aaron Maybin and the Nittany Lions defensive linemen have stepped up all season and will set their sights on stopping Iowa's Greene.

5. Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes offense searches for an identity: After 10 weeks of experimenting with formations and personnel, Ohio State enters the stretch run needing to find some definitive answers on offense. Pryor took the Penn State loss especially hard, and his resiliency will be put to the test against a confident Northwestern defense. Ohio State ranks 97th nationally in total offense and tied for 95th in sacks allowed, two categories that must improve.

6. Minnesota goes for the Jug-u-lar: Golden Gophers head coach Tim Brewster placed the empty display case that would hold the Little Brown Jug outside the players' lounge in Minnesota's football building this week. After a tough loss that in the past would trigger a collapse, the Gophers need all the motivation they can get for Saturday's matchup against Michigan (ESPN, noon ET). Brewster said Minnesota-Michigan won't be a rivalry until the Gophers start winning again. They have an excellent chance Saturday at the Metrodome, where Michigan has never lost.

7. Beleaguered Bielema heads to Bloomington: Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has been under fire for much of the last six weeks, with his latest misstep an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in an ill-fated fourth quarter last Saturday at Michigan State. Bielema and the Badgers desperately need a strong performance at Indiana. A win restores hope for a minor bowl, while a loss will only increase criticism for the 38-year-old coach.

8. Illinois tries to break pattern in an odd environment: The Illini haven't won consecutive games since Sept. 6-13, a disturbing pattern for such a talented team. They can continue a win streak and get bowl eligible by beating Western Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit (ESPN Regional, noon ET). It won't be a typical college atmosphere and the crowd could be small, so Illinois' ability to get energized will be vital. Western Michigan can wing it a bit with quarterback Tim Hiller, so Juice Williams and the Illini need a strong showing.

9. Spartans can continue under-the-radar push for the league title: Michigan State is still alive in the Big Ten title race and can set the stage for a huge matchup Nov. 22 at Penn State by taking care of business against Purdue. Not much has come easy for the Spartans this season, but with Ringer getting healthy, quarterback Brian Hoyer making strides and the emotion of Senior Day, Michigan State should be in good shape against the Boilers.

10. The response of Indiana defenders to linebacker Will Patterson: The Hoosiers' co-captain called out the defense after last week's loss to Central Michigan, saying, "We got certain guys that will go out and play like warriors every Saturday, and then [we] got the few guys that just kind of do their own thing." Head coach Bill Lynch didn't mind Patterson's comments, and the Hoosiers' disappointing defense could use a boost right now. Indiana will need to contain Wisconsin running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay, or its bid for a second straight bowl game will be officially over.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Both Penn State and Ohio State are off this week, but plenty of interesting subplots remain throughout the Big Ten. Here's your weekly checklist to follow as you watch the games on Saturday.

1. Illinois' response to head coach Ron Zook -- The Zooker wasn't pleased after last week's loss to Wisconsin and said personnel changes would be forthcoming against Iowa (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Illinois has been the league's least consistent team, and it needs to beat the Hawkeyes to boost its bowl hopes. Running back Daniel Dufrene might not be available, so quarterback Juice Williams and others need to step up. Zook is looking for his first win against Iowa.

2. Purdue's quarterback situation -- Head coach Joe Tiller said Curtis Painter will make the call on whether he can play against Michigan after sustaining a first-degree separation of his throwing shoulder last week. Painter has struggled this season but still seems like Purdue's best option. Backup Justin Siller has spent most of the season practicing at running back, and the Boilers are coming off their worst passing performance (109 yards) in Tiller's 12-year tenure.

3. Northwestern's new-look offense -- Running back Tyrell Sutton (wrist) will miss at least the rest of the regular season, and quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) is questionable for Saturday's game at No. 17 Minnesota (ESPN2, noon ET). If Bacher can't go -- a strong likelihood given his limited participation in practice -- junior Mike Kafka would start for the first time in two years. Kafka gives Northwestern another rushing threat, but his inexperience could prove costly against an opportunistic Gophers defense.

4. Michigan bowl streak in jeopardy -- The nation's longest current streak of consecutive bowl appearances (33) could end Saturday at Purdue. A Michigan loss ends the run and ensures the team's first losing season since 1967. First-year coach Rich Rodriguez maintains that no one has quit, but Michigan's repeated struggles to put together a complete game have to be taking a toll on the players.

5. Shonn Greene vs. Brit Miller -- Arguably the Big Ten's top running back takes on one of the league's most productive defenders at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Greene is slowly gaining national attention but needs another big performance against Illinois to fuel his Heisman campaign. The 235-pound Iowa junior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all eight games this season. Miller leads the Big Ten in tackles and ranks third in tackles for loss, but he'll need help from other defenders to slow down Greene.

6. Mystery man leads Indiana offense against Central Michigan -- Hoosiers head coach Bill Lynch has a tough decision to make at quarterback. Junior Kellen Lewis is expected back from a high ankle sprain that ended his streak of 27 consecutive starts. Sophomore Ben Chappell filled in nicely last week, leading Indiana to its first Big Ten win and committing no turnovers against Northwestern. Lewis has struggled this season, but if healthy, he remains the team's top offensive threat.

7. Michigan State's mood following the Michigan win -- The Spartans got over the hump against their archrival, but their emotional state always seems to be a hot topic, given late-season collapses in recent years. Michigan State is in position for a New Year's Day bowl but needs to continue its momentum against Wisconsin (ESPN, noon ET), which has won five of the last seven games in the series. Coach Mark Dantonio emphasizes mental toughness, and the Spartans should avoid a letdown against the Badgers.

8. Minnesota tries to continue nation's top turnaround -- Head coach Tim Brewster regularly recites Minnesota's history -- six national championships and 18 Big Ten titles -- even though the last four decades have produced few milestones for the program. But Minnesota has the chance to connect to its storied past on Saturday. A win against Northwestern makes the Gophers 8-1 for the first time since 1960, the year of their last national title and Brewster's birth. After going 1-11 last season, the Gophers can continue to march toward a New Year's Day bowl berth.

9. Wisconsin's running back rotation -- Redshirt freshman John Clay is listed as the top running back on this week's depth chart after making his first career start in last week's win against Illinois. But three-year starter P.J. Hill is getting healthier and could play a greater role against Michigan State. It will be interesting to see how head coach Bret Bielema divides the carries between Clay, considered the team's back of the future, and the more experienced Hill.

10. The Big Ten bowl picture shapes up -- Several teams can either take a step toward bowl eligibility or make things tougher for themselves down the stretch. Illinois needs two more wins to get bowl eligible and enters a closing stretch featuring four teams with winning records. Iowa has looked good as of late, but a loss to Illinois could make things tough with a home date against No. 3 Penn State up next. Wisconsin tries to get above .500 again, while Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern can move closer toward better bowls. Indiana can keep its slim postseason hopes alive by beating Central Michigan, while Michigan and Purdue likely are playing for pride.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Check these out after we chat

  • With Purdue at 2-6 and coach Joe Tiller weeks away from retirement, the question begs to be asked: Have the players tuned out Tiller? Several Boilermakers say no, but former Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady says Tiller has a tough task, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier.

"Any time you hire another coach, the coach that is being replaced is a lame duck toward motivating [the players]," Keady said. "They know they don't have to listen to you the next year. It's tough. I can sympathize with Joe. It's not any fun. After you've coached 50 years, you would like to go out a winner, and that's not going to happen. ... You feel like you've let everybody down when that happens."

Big Ten picks for Week 10

October, 30, 2008
10/30/08
12:29
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Both Penn State and Ohio State are off this week, but the Big Ten slate still has plenty of intrigue. For all the talk about the spread offense, this league has been dominated by defense and running backs. Some of the scores below reflect those trends.

Not an easy week to forecast, but that will be the case from here on out.

Central Michigan 27, Indiana 24: Kellen Lewis should be back from a high ankle sprain, but backup Ben Chappell performed well last week in leading the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten win. Who should coach Bill Lynch start at quarterback against Central Michigan? Indiana's offense makes some plays, but Central Michigan and standout quarterback Dan LeFevour have things rolling right now. A strong second half lifts the Chippewas to their fifth straight victory.

Michigan State 21, Wisconsin 17: Expect a quick game with lots of running from Javon Ringer, John Clay and P.J. Hill. Wisconsin gained some confidence last week behind quarterback Dustin Sherer, but Michigan State has a better defense than Illinois and will limit the Badgers' scoring chances. For the Spartans, there's some concern about an emotional letdown following the Michigan win, but this team is mentally tough and will win a close one.

Minnesota 24, Northwestern 14: The Gophers have played virtually mistake-free football, going 7-1 despite being outgained. A letdown could come soon, but not against a Northwestern team likely playing with a new starting offensive backfield (quarterback Mike Kafka and running back Omar Conteh). Both teams are improved on defense, but Minnesota forces tons of turnovers and Northwestern is prone to giveaways. The Gophers march on.

Michigan 19, Purdue 14: The Big Ten's two worst offenses meet at Ross-Ade Stadium in a game that could be hard to watch. Both teams are dealing with injury issues (Purdue's Curtis Painter, Michigan's Sam McGuffie), and both struggle in the red zone, so the game likely will come down to defense and turnovers. This could go either way, but Michigan forces a late turnover and sends Purdue to its sixth straight defeat.

Iowa 27, Illinois 21 -- This one was a real struggle, as both teams desperately need a win to boost their both hopes. Illinois Ron Zook called out his team and promised changes this week, which could ignite what has been a very inconsistent product. But Iowa's defensive line will pressure Juice Williams and force mistakes. The Hawkeyes are becoming more balanced and wear down Illinois' defense with Shonn Greene. Plus, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has owned Illinois.

Byes: No. 3 Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), No. 12 Ohio State (7-2, 4-1)

Season record: 56-10 (84.8 percent)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Key injuries are piling up around the Big Ten as the season's most critical month kicks off Saturday. Here are some health updates and other happenings around the league. 

  • Avoiding the "Same Old Spartans" label isn't easy for Michigan State, and even after ending its losing streak to Michigan, another test awaits this weekend, Joe Rexrode writes in the Lansing State Journal. 

    "From this perspective, comparing the culture of MSU football now with MSU football 22 games ago is like comparing modern America with medieval France. Saturday's home game with Wisconsin, though, will serve as one more test of whether the Spartans champion democracy, have electricity and use deodorant."
  • C.J. Bacher's injured hamstring is improving, but Northwestern backup quarterback Mike Kafka is taking the snaps with the first-team offense at practice, Lindsey Willhite writes in the Daily Herald.
  • Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter didn't do much at Tuesday's practice and could be a game-time decision Saturday against Michigan, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier. 
  • Iowa knows all about Illinois running back Jason Ford, who twice committed to play for the Hawkeyes before changing his mind, Scott Dochterman writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
  • Penn State officials aren't commenting on Joe Paterno's future at the school, but the 81-year-old head coach has every intention of coming back in 2009, Bob Flounders writes in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.
  • Dustin Sherer sports a camouflage huntin' hat, Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts and the personality Wisconsin needs at the quarterback position, Mike Lucas writes in The Capital Times.

    "I don't really like hats," Sherer confessed. "It's the only hat I've ever worn, actually. And I wear it everywhere. The guys are always making fun of it. I'm called the redneck on the team. I don't know why. (Pause). Actually, I do know why. But we have some rednecks on the team besides me."

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