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September 30, 2010

Week 5 preview in the Big Ten

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Northwestern at Minnesota, noon
Ohio State at Illinois, noon
Michigan at Indiana, 3:30 p.m.
Wisconsin at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m.
Penn State at Iowa, 8 p.m
The games of patty-cake with the likes of Eastern Michigan, Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and Northern Colorado -- among numerous overmatched non-conference foes -- are over. It's time for the opening of league play.

The big question: Can anyone knock off Ohio State?

Seven schools (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue) have won at least a share of a league championship since 2000. But the Buckeyes have won at least a piece of each of the past five league titles. The last Big Ten team to enjoy such a run of dominance was Michigan from 1988-92.

"Historically, if you're hanging around waiting for Ohio State to lose three, four games, maybe even two, I think historically that could be proven as a bad strategy," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team has a good chance to win the Big Ten crown. "If you're talking about playing at the top of the league, you better be at your best every week."

Ohio State is aiming to tie its own Big Ten record by winning at least a share of a sixth consecutive championship, a feat the Buckeyes also turned from 1972-77 under Woody Hayes.

Ohio State is coming off a dominating 73-20 beatdown of Eastern Michigan, its most impressive offensive showing since an 83-21 flogging of Iowa in 1950. The Buckeyes want more, though.

"Obviously, we have to get better," quarterback Terrelle Pryor said after scoring via the pass, the run and the reception against Eastern Michigan. "The fun starts with the Big Ten."

And Ohio State should have a lot of fun playing at Illinois, a program that's coming off consecutive losing seasons and looks like little more than a speed bump for a Buckeyes team making its first road trip of the season.

"I know we're getting better," Buckeyes center Michael Brewster said. "But the standards are getting higher."

So are the stakes.

Not only is Ohio State's streak of Big Ten titles on the line, but so is a possible run to the BCS title game. The Buckeyes played for the national championship after the 2006 and '07 seasons, getting walloped on each occasion. Ohio State relishes another crack at the BCS title game after last winning it all in 2002.

The Buckeyes know bigger tests loom beyond this Saturday, including visits to Wisconsin and Iowa. But the first step toward greatness must be taken in Champaign, Ill., this weekend.

No school can be overlooked, not even Illinois, whose coach, Ron Zook, has a 5-4 record against top-five teams. Ohio State knows that after getting unceremoniously dumped at Purdue last season. The Buckeyes entered that game 5-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation but lost by 13. Ohio State rebounded from the stunning loss to play in the Rose Bowl, where it beat Oregon, but the Buckeyes might not be as fortunate if they lose this season.

"It's a whole different world when you go into conference play," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, whose team is 36-4 in conference play in the past five seasons. "It's more heavyweight bout than it is a style show."

Best matchup: Wisconsin at Michigan State. This will be black-and-blue battle. The Badgers are No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing (257.5 ypg) and Michigan State ranks No. 4 (231.5 ypg). Whichever team can impose its ground-pounding will on the other will triumph. Wisconsin will ram John Clay (501 yards rushing) at the Spartans, who will counter with the 1-2 punch of Edwin Baker (449 yards) and Le'Veon Bell (396).

Player on the spot: Penn State RB Evan Royster. Finally, he enjoyed a breakout game last week, running 26 times for a career-high 187 yards in a 22-13 victory over Temple. Royster, a senior, entered the game with only 110 yards. He must have another big game if the Nittany Lions hope to win at Iowa and show that they are Big Ten contenders. Penn State hasn't forgotten the last time it visited Iowa City. In 2008, the Nittany Lions were 9-0, ranked No. 3 and thinking national championship. But the 5-4 Hawkeyes knocked off Penn State 24-23 on a last-second, 31-yard field goal by Daniel Murray. This season, the Hawkeyes' Big Ten aspirations could go out the window with a loss to the Nittany Lions -- as could Penn State's with a loss.

What they're saying

"Yeah, I was scared, just like anybody would be scared. But the key is moving forward, getting stronger every day and dealing with the consequences and dealing with the things that you have to do. ... Hopefully, it is going to make me a wiser person and a more compassionate person and a better coach." -- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, on his return to the team following a heart attack

"This is a physical game, quarterbacks get hit. Sometimes they get hit when they're running. A lot of times, they get hit when they're drop-back passers. You see that every day in the college and the NFL." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on not lessening the workload for QB Denard Robinson even though Robinson tweaked his left knee last week and played less than a quarter in a win over Bowling Green

"I was a young guy in awe of him [Joe Paterno]. I'm past 50 and still in awe of him. I had such great respect as a young person growing up in that part of the country. You had him and Chuck Noll, too -- very local, very prominent coaches to watch. Then I played for two high school coaches that were extraordinary. Very lucky that way." -- Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on growing up in Pennsylvania among strong coaching figures

Etc.: Dantonio is expected to be in a coaching box when the Spartans play host to Wisconsin. Dantonio missed last week's victory over Northern Colorado after suffering a heart attack Sept. 18. ... Purdue is off this week. Good thing, because the Boilermakers may have to begin adjusting to life without QB Robert Marve. An injury suffered to his left knee in a loss to Toledo last week may force Marve to miss an extended period. Redshirt freshman Rob Henry would take over. ... Michigan's Robinson is expected to play at Indiana. He leads the nation in rushing (172.0 ypg) and has 79 carries for 688 yards (8.7 ypc). ... Northwestern is making at change at running back with Jacob Schmidt or Mike Trumpy starting in place of Arby Fields, who averages just 2.9 yards per carry and has had fumbling issues. ... The Big Ten is 34-8 in non-conference action. ... Illinois has fared as well against Ohio State as almost any Big Ten team recently, going 9-11 mark against the Buckeyes since 1988. Only Michigan has more victories (11-10-1) over Ohio State during the span. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is 7-2 vs. Penn State. ... Michigan has won 16 in a row over Indiana and 31 of the past 32 meetings. The lone Wolverines loss in that span was a 14-10 setback in 1987. ... Wisconsin's offense will get a boost from the return of WRs Nick Toon (toe) and David Gilreath (concussion) from injuries. ... The Hagerup brothers will have a punting battle Saturday in Bloomington. Will punts for Michigan, while older brother Chris punts for Indiana. ... Four Big Ten unbeatens will tangle, with Wisconsin at Michigan State and Michigan at Indiana. ... The last time Indiana opened 4-0 was 1990. ... Michigan State is looking for its first 5-0 start since a 6-0 beginning in 1999, when Nick Saban was coach. ... With last week's win over Temple, Paterno became the fifth coach with 150 Big Ten victories. ... When Ohio State and Illinois meet, the Illibuck Trophy will be on the line. ... Minnesota has reinstated WR Troy Stoudermire after he was suspended for last week's game for conduct detrimental to the team. ... Illinois may be without starting G Hugh Thornton after his arrest last weekend for battery and criminal damage to property.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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