September 3, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the Big Ten

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Thursday's game
Eastern Kentucky at Indiana, 8 p.m.
Saturday's games
Montana State at Michigan State, noon
Towson at Northwestern, noon
Navy at Ohio State, noon
Akron at Penn State, noon
Toledo at Purdue, noon
Minnesota at Syracuse, noon
Northern Iowa at Iowa, 12:05 p.m.
Western Michigan at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.
Missouri vs. Illinois in St. Louis, 3:40 p.m.
Northern Illinois at Wisconsin, 7 p.m.
No Rose Bowl for Illinois and no Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin for Missouri means no buzz for this season's border rivalry between the Illini and the Tigers.

Maybe that's a good omen.

The two teams went into their 2007 opener both unranked in the preseason. Missouri took a 37-13 third-quarter lead but needed to hold off the Illini for a 40-34 win. The remainder of the season for both teams turned out to be just as exciting. Missouri won the Big 12 North and flirted with the national title game. Illinois upset Ohio State in November and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Missouri won the rematch 52-42, but both teams' 2008 seasons fizzled. Illinois slipped to 5-7. The Tigers soon slipped out of the BCS chase.

Before Illinois looks to return to Big Ten contender status, the Illini need to have a good showing against Missouri.

"We're going to have a pretty good idea at the end of the game of where we are," Illinois coach Ron Zook said.

The game will be a barometer for Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who had one of the best games of his career against the Tigers but remains 0-2 as a starter against rival Mizzou. Williams passed for 451 yards and five touchdowns in last season's loss.

The Illini have led the Big Ten in rushing in 2006 and '07 and led the conference in passing in 2008. This season, Williams is doing something he hasn't done in Champaign - learn a new offense.

Now a senior, Williams is plenty familiar with new coordinator Mike Schultz's plans for the offense.

"There's a guy who's come an awful long way, who can say why he went with the ball to a particular place and why did why he did and with no hesitation," Zook said. "Here's a guy who has a pretty good grasp what we're trying to do."

Best matchup: Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor vs. Navy's front seven. Navy is an extreme long shot to defeat the Buckeyes in Columbus, but the Midshipmen bring an underrated defense to the Horseshoe. Behind an experienced front seven, Navy was seventh in the nation in turnover margin last season while Pryor threw only four interceptions as a freshman. Ohio State fans are looking to Pryor to take ownership of the offense. That could start against Navy.

Players on the spot: Iowa RBs Paki O'Meara and Adam Robinson. Iowa's chances of competing in the Big Ten took a major hit with the season-ending injury to Jewel Hampton. No one is predicting Northern Iowa to beat the Hawkeyes (though Northern Iowa went 12-3 and reached the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals last season), but we'll have an idea how dire the Iowa offense will be. The top replacements for Hampton are motley crew: O'Meara is a former walk-on who won the Hustle Team Award; Robinson was heavily recruited by Northern Iowa before signing with Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes do have Brandon Wehger, a four-star recruit in 2009, on the roster.

Numbers game: Michigan hasn't lost three season openers since losing four consecutive openers to Notre Dame from 1987-90. The Wolverines have lost their past two openers, to Appalachian State in 2007 and Utah in 2008.

What they're saying:

"As a coach you hope somebody plays so well that is the case. I don't anticipate that being the case or it may have already happened. With young players and true freshmen, you won't know until they get in there. We're keeping an open mind about it." - Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on his hopes one of his three quarterbacks will win the job definitively, from the Big Ten teleconference.

"You see a lot of YouTube stuff on him. I evaluated him out of high school." - Minnesota coach Tim Brewster on scouting Duke point guard-turned-Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus, from the Big Ten teleconference.

"We're going to have some problems early. They're big and they can run. But right now we're not sure what we've got." - Penn State coach Joe Paterno on the wide receivers replacing Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

Etc.: Michigan State settled its starting backfield for the Montana State opener. Sophomore Kirk Cousins will start at quarterback, and redshirt freshman Caulton Ray will start at running back. Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol is expected to take snaps at quarterback at some point. ... Spartans sophomore Glenn Winston is listed as the No. 4 running back and No. 2 kickoff returner after he was reinstated during camp. Winston spent four months in jail for misdemeanor aggravated assault following a campus fight that left a Michigan State hockey player seriously injured. ... Illinois DT Josh Brent will play in the opener despite missing spring practice following a DUI arrest and a month in jail. Brent, who started eight games last season, was not sure if he would face a suspension until he was cleared on Tuesday. ... Illinois RB Daniel Dufrene (ankle) is questionable. ... For the first time in three seasons, Kellen Lewis will not lead Indiana in rushing after the quarterback was dismissed in April. Coach Bill Lynch isn't sure who will lead the Hoosiers in rushing, though. Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray, Darius Willis, Trea Burgess and Zach Davis-Walker will all play against Eastern Kentucky on Thursday. ... Indiana DT Deonte Mack and LB Ian Reeves were suspended for the season opener for violation of a team rule. ... A service academy will play in Ohio Stadium for the first time since 1931 when the Buckeyes beat Navy 20-0. Ohio State last played a service academy in the 1990 Liberty Bowl when Air Force defeated the Buckeyes 23-11. ... First-year Purdue coach Danny Hope will be greeted by smaller crowds than normal. Ticket sales are down 15 percent from last season, including 2,000 fewer student tickets. The Boilermakers went 4-8 last season. ... Northwestern opens with Towson (3-9 overall, 1-7 in the Colonial Athletic Association), and Minnesota is the only one of Northwestern's first six opponents that had a winning record in 2008. ... Wisconsin named Scott Tolzien its starting quarterback for the opener against Northern Illinois. The Badgers have used four different starting quarterbacks in the past four openers. Tolzien has thrown eight career passes while sitting behind former starters Tyler Donovan, Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer, who's now the third-teamer.

David Fox is a national writer for He can be reached at

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