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October 2, 2008

Big Ten: How good can Ohio State's Pryor be?

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

The maturation of Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor continues. The world watches and waits and wonders: How good is this kid going to be?

Pryor flashed the skills that made him the No. 1 recruit in the nation in his first two starts, displaying a dynamic ability to run and a strong arm in workmanlike victories over Troy and Minnesota. Pryor the first Buckeyes true freshman to start at quarterback since Art Schlichter in 1978 was 18-of-29 for 209 yards with five touchdowns and an interception in those starts. He also ran 22 times for 163 yards and two scores.

Now comes the first real test for Pryor: a game at Wisconsin in raucous and rollicking Camp Randall Stadium. It will be the first road start of his career. There will be few adoring fans and no overmatched foe. Instead, a talented group of Badgers with Big Ten title dreams will be waiting. And they are angry, coming off a 27-25 loss at Michigan that saw Wisconsin blow a 19-0 halftime lead.

There's a sense of urgency for Wisconsin, whose 16-game home winning streak is second in the nation to Oklahoma's 21. This is the second of a brutal three-game start to the Big Ten season for the Badgers, who play host to Penn State on Oct. 11. No Big Ten school ever has started league play with those three conference heavies. If the Badgers lose to Ohio State, they probably are out of the Big Ten race.

What's on the line for Ohio State? Only the Buckeyes' hopes and dreams of winning a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship. If Ohio State wins out and it could the Buckeyes may find themselves in a third consecutive BCS title game. So, like Wisconsin, Ohio State is in a must-win situation.

"From what I hear, everyone keeps saying, 'Wait 'til you get to Wisconsin and hear the crowd,' " said Pryor, who faced hostile conditions in a 35-3 loss at USC and was 7-for-9 for 52 yards and ran 11 times for 40 yards while splitting time with Todd Boeckman. "When away teams come here, they've got to have (electricity) going through their body. Like, 'OK, this crowd is against us, let's play.' When we get there, we're just going to be so pumped up, we're not going to care. We're going to see little pockets of red Ohio State fans, and that's all that matters."

The Buckeyes will focus on stuffing Wisconsin's running attack, putting the game into the hands of Badgers quarterback Allan Evridge. Ohio State leads the Big Ten (251.8 ypg) and ranks 12th nationally in total defense.

Can the Pryor-led Ohio State offense do its part? So far, the attack has struggled, ranking 10th in the Big Ten (339.4 ypg) in total offense and ninth in scoring (26.8 ppg). Hitting its stride in Camp Randall Stadium is asking a lot.

Pryor won't be the only Buckeye whose knees will be knocking when the game kicks off. No one on the Ohio State roster has played at Camp Randall. In fact, Ohio State hasn't played at Wisconsin since 2003 and it wasn't pleasant. The Badgers beat the Buckeyes 17-10, snapping Ohio State's 19-game winning streak. The series has been close of late, as Ohio State holds a 6-5-1 edge in the past 12 meetings.

    No. 6 Penn State at Purdue, noon
    Iowa at Michigan State, noon
    Indiana at Minnesota, noon
    Illinois at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.
    No. 14 Ohio State at No. 18 Wisconsin, 8 p.m.
    Illinois at Michigan. Make no mistake about it: This is a must-win for each team. Keep an eye on whether Illinois' defense can stop Michigan's offense. We all expected the Wolverines to struggle as they transitioned to Rich Rodriguez's offense. But no one could have anticipated the Illinois defensive problems. Before the season, Illinois' staff boasted about the depth and athletic ability of the defensive line. But the Illini are 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (182.5 ypg). The Wolverines' rushing attack ranks 10th in the Big Ten (136.3 ypg). Who will win this pillow fight?

  • Penn State QB Daryll Clark. Keep an eye on Clark. True, Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium isn't a house of horrors, but the Boilermakers will be a step up in competition compared to Penn State's only road trip so far: at Syracuse. This will be more of a mental hurdle than a physical one for Clark. He has been nothing short of spectacular thus far, ranking first in the conference and 11th nationally in passing efficiency. He is 62 of 98 (63.3 percent) for 896 yards, with nine touchdowns and just one interception.

  • The Big Ten and the Big 12 are the only conferences that have no teams with losing records. Michigan State RB Javon Ringer tops the nation in all-purpose yards (235.6 ypg), while also pacing the country with 12 rushing touchdowns. Ringer also leads the Big Ten with 187 carries. Iowa's Shonn Greene ranks second with 99. Can Ringer hold up at that pace? ... Northwestern ranks fifth in the nation in sacks (3.4 pg). Penn State's Derrick Williams ranks second in the nation in kickoff returns (36.0 ypr), returning two of his nine attempts for touchdowns. Michigan's Brandon Graham leads the country in tackles for loss (2.4 pg). He ranks third in the nation in sacks (1.25 pg). Michigan State has allowed one sack. Penn State has won eight of its past nine games.

  • While the Big Ten has no teams under .500, it has just as many teams (two, Penn State and Ohio State) ranked in The Associated Press top 15 as the Mountain West (BYU and Utah). Northwestern is 5-0 despite tepid play from an offense that has scored just 14 touchdowns and ranks ninth in the Big Ten (363.0 ypg). The only Big Ten school with fewer touchdowns is Michigan (11), which has played one less game. Wildcat QB C.J. Bacher is tied with Illinois' Juice Williams for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (six). Northwestern is the lone Big Ten team off this weekend. Illinois has yielded a Big Ten-high 17 touchdowns. Big plays having been missing from Ohio State's defense. The Buckeyes rank last in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (4.6 pg) and 10th in sacks (1.4 pg). Purdue's defense ranks last in the Big Ten overall (439.3 ypg), last vs. the run (194.5 ypg) and last vs. the pass (244.8 ypg). The Boilermakers are 10th in scoring defense (26.3 ppg). Michigan's offense ranks 115th in the nation in time of possession (26:15). Third-down conversions also have been a problem, with the Wolverines ranking 115th in the nation (26.4 percent).

  • "Whatever people say about our team, we don't really care. The media and ESPN sit there and talk stuff about our team, saying we're dead. We'll find out this week coming up who's dead. We're out to show the world something and we're going to." Ohio State's Pryor.

    "I think it is big, I really do. We have put a lot of emphasis on the Big Ten and this is our first opportunity to get a win together. It all has to do with confidence, and winning breeds winning." Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, who is 0-9 in the Big Ten and plays Indiana on Saturday.

    "That is amazing and a real tribute to him. It says a lot about his conditioning and mental toughness. That is a full load." Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on the workload of Michigan State's Ringer, who averages 38 carries.

  • ETC.
  • In addition to Pryor, Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi will make his first career road start when the Hawkeyes travel to Michigan State. Illinois has beaten Michigan just three times in the past 40 years. The Fighting Illini's last win against the Wolverines came in 1999. Penn State plays at Purdue, the first of three road games in October that will make or break the Nittany Lions' run for the league title. Penn State also has trips to Wisconsin (Oct. 11) and Ohio State (Oct. 25). The lone game at home is Michigan (Oct. 18). Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team with a winning record against Ohio State coach Jim Tressel (3-2). Indiana hasn't won at Minnesota since 1993. The Hoosiers are the last Big Ten team to play a road game after opening with four in Bloomington. Last season, Illinois allowed just three runners to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark. Through just four games this season, that number already has been matched. Iowa has won seven of the past 10 meetings with Michigan State. But the Hawkeyes haven't won in East Lansing since in 1995. Ringer needs 103 yards this Saturday to become the fastest Spartan back ever to reach 1,000 yards rushing. It took Lorenzo White seven games to reach 1,000 in 1985. Purdue has failed to score an offensive touchdown in its past two meetings with Penn State. Northwestern and Penn State are two of only seven teams in the nation that are 5-0. The others: Connecticut, USF, Utah, Alabama and Ball State.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

    Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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