Big Ten: Adam Decker

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Nostradamus didn't show up in the bowels of Kinnick Stadium late Saturday afternoon.

Even the great forecaster couldn't take credit for calling this one.

Michigan State and Iowa had produced three of the Big Ten's most exciting matchups the past three years. Iowa won a double-overtime contest in 2007. The Spartans preserved a 16-13 win the next year when Adam Decker stuffed Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene on fourth-and-1. Last year, Iowa won 15-13 on a touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to preserve its undefeated record.

[+] EnlargeAdam Robinson
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAdam Robinson and Iowa ran over Michigan State 37-6 on Saturday. It was the fifth-largest margin of defeat for a Top 25 team since 2000.
A day before Halloween, these two teams seemed destined to deliver another thriller.

Iowa had other ideas.

The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes dominated No. 5 Michigan State, ending the Spartans' quest for perfection in convincing fashion with a 37-6 victory at Kinnick Stadium, the graveyard for Big Ten unbeatens. The 31-point final margin represented the fifth-largest margin of defeat by an AP Top 25 team since 2000.

"I didn't see this coming," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "Our guys prepared mentally, emotionally."

Not far away in Iowa's interview room, coach Kirk Ferentz echoed his colleague.

"You never see that coming," Ferentz said, "not against a very good team like this. I never see those coming against anybody."

Ferentz often talks about how Iowa will never be confused with a true college football heavyweight. The Hawkeyes don't have a large margin for error. They don't just show up and dominate.

But Iowa had the potential to deliver a complete performance. Iowa entered the year with lofty expectations, but it hadn't met them.

After two losses that showed just how small the Hawkeyes' margin for error can be, the players responded, jumping ahead to a 37-0 lead and never looking back.

"That's the team you want to be," receiver Marvin McNutt said. "We have talent and the times we execute, we know we can do the right thing."

McNutt felt Iowa didn't execute well in practice leading up to last week's game against Wisconsin. It translated to the field, as the Hawkeyes suffered a 31-30 loss that left plenty of what-ifs.

If Iowa lost its third game Saturday, you could start talking about a season of what-ifs. But the Hawkeyes answered every question.

Ferentz didn't know how his team would respond from the Wisconsin loss.

"Absolutely not," he said. "You hope we practice well. You always hope that. My sense was our guys were preparing the way they were supposed to, watching tape and doing that kind of thing. ... But I also know [the loss] was back in everybody's minds. It was a tough week."

Michigan State, meanwhile, saw no clues of the impending disaster.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said the team had "one of the best weeks of practice ... all year." Head coach Mark Dantonio didn't feel the reinstatement of cornerback Chris L. Rucker caused any distraction. The Spartans had built their 8-0 record on resilient play, taking punches and countering and never giving up.

"Did we come unprepared? I don't think so," Dantonio said. "Did things snowball on us? I guess they did."

It's easy to pinpoint the moment the snowball picked up speed.

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTyler Sash's lateral, following an interception of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, resulted in a 66-yard return touchdown for Michah Hyde.
Not surprisingly, Iowa delivered the first punch and took a 10-0 lead. But Michigan State was moving the ball and reached midfield before a Kirk Cousins pass to B.J. Cunningham sailed right into the arms of Iowa safety Tyler Sash.

Sash had seen Michigan State run the same play last year and anticipated it, making the easy pick. He didn't anticipate what came next. After racing 6 yards upfield, Sash lateraled the ball over Cunningham's head to teammate Micah Hyde, who ran the remaining 66 yards to the end zone.

"It's like the point guard that pulls up from 40 feet deep and shoots a 3-pointer," Sash said. "If he makes it, it's alright. But if he misses it, what are you doing?"

Sash, by the way, was a standout basketball player in high school who received Division I interest. He first got on Ferentz's radar screen while playing AAU basketball in fifth grade against Ferentz's son, James.

The playmaking safety showed off his hoops skills with the lateral to Hyde.

"I'll do it again if the same thing happens," Sash said with a smile.

"I liked the outcome," Ferentz said. "He's an older guy, I trust our guys. I don't think we practice that."

Sash's magic propelled the Hawkeyes, but their performance wasn't sleight of hand.

A defense that allowed 59 points the past two weeks kept Michigan State off the scoreboard for three quarters. Three Hawkeyes' defensive backs picked off Cousins, who entered Saturday with just four interceptions in 212 pass attempts this season.

Iowa's offense also surged, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi delivered another near-spotless performance (11-for-15 passing, 190 yards, 3 TDs) and got help from running back Adam Robinson (69 rush yards, TD, 32-yard receiving TD), tight end Brad Herman (3 receptions, 80 yards) and others. The Hawkeyes effectively mixed plays and personnel, and just about everything clicked.

"It's a great football team," Narduzzi said. "We knew emotionally, they'd be fired up, [defensive coordinator] Norm Parker was back in the house. ... We expected them to be a well-coached team and come play their tails off because they're fighting for a piece of the Big Ten championship."

Michigan State is right there, too, but Iowa's win ensures the Hawkeyes remain in the title fight heading into November.

"We weren't hitting on all cylinders in previous weeks," Sash said. "I think we did today."
After a brief break, the spring superlatives series marches on with Michigan State, which opens spring practice next week. Obviously, a lot hinges on whether seven suspended players are reinstated, but I would expect most of them to be back before the season. Although four of the suspended players are wide receivers, most or all should return for 2010, making the position less of a concern.

Here's a look at the strongest position and weakest position for the Spartans, who return a lot at the skill spots but look thin on both lines.

Strongest position: Linebacker

  • Key returnees: Greg Jones (154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery); Eric Gordon (92 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked kick); Chris Norman (11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss).
  • Key losses: Brandon Denson (68 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception); Adam Decker (14 tackles, 1 fumble recovery).
  • The skinny: Jones' return for 2010 provides a major jolt to a defense that must improve upon last year's performance. The Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year owns 359 career tackles, and he's constantly in the opposing backfield. Jones wants to become a bigger factor in pass coverage, which would help a suspect Spartans secondary. Gordon is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and should be ready for a big senior season. The Spartans must fill one starting spot, and Norman will compete with Steve Gardiner and several others for playing time there.
Weakest position: Offensive line

  • Key returnees: Guard Joel Foreman, guard Jared McGaha, right tackle D.J. Young, tackle/guard J'Michael Deane (suspended)
  • Key losses: Center Joel Nitchman, left tackle Rocco Cironi, guard Brendon Moss
  • The skinny: Some might point to the secondary, which significantly underachieved last fall, or spots like defensive end or kicker as greater concerns, but Michigan State must replace three fifth-year senior starters up front. I wasn't blown away by the Spartans' offensive line last year, but Nitchman stood out and Cironi's value showed after he went down with a fourth-quarter injury in the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. You never want to replace both your left tackle and your center in the same year, so Michigan State has a big challenge ahead this spring. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2009, needs to lead the group this fall.

Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
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National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:

ILLINOIS

Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.

INDIANA

Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.

IOWA

Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.

MICHIGAN STATE

Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.

MINNESOTA

Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.

NORTHWESTERN

Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.

OHIO STATE

Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.

PURDUE

Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.

WISCONSIN

Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten was well represented on the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District teams, presented today by the College Sports Information Directors of America (COSIDA). It's especially nice to see several of the league's star players succeeding in the classroom.

Here's the breakdown by school of who made the teams, as well as their GPAs and majors:

Illinois

  • G Jon Asamoah, 3.82, community health
Iowa
  • G Julian Vandervelde, 3.47, religious studies/English
Indiana
  • QB Ben Chappell, 3.7, accounting
  • RB Trea Burgess, 3.47, telecommunications
  • LS Brandon Bugg, 3.62, Master's of business administration
Michigan
  • P Zoltan Mesko, 3.65, business administration (marketing & finance)
  • WR Jon Conover, 3.54, political science
Michigan State
  • WR Blair White, 3.89, human biology
  • RB Andrew Hawken, 3.44, supply chain management
  • LB Adam Decker, 3.62, finance
Minnesota
  • WR Eric Decker, 3.41, business and marketing education
  • C Jeff Tow-Arnett, 3.79, business and marketing education
Northwestern
  • WR Zeke Markshausen, 3.46, mechanical engineering and design & innovation
  • G Doug Bartels, 3.45, anthropology (pre-med)
  • K Stefan Demos, 3.49, communication studies
Ohio State
  • RB Marcus Williams, 3.86, physical therapy
  • OL Bryant Browning, 3.33, marketing
  • OL Andrew Moses, 3.86, political science
  • DT Todd Denlinger, 3.3, construction systems management
Penn State
  • OL Andrew Pitz, 3.93, journalism/telecommunications
  • LB Josh Hull, 3.56, environmental systems engineering
  • C Stefen Wisniewski, 3.89, secondary education
  • P Jeremy Boone, 3.33, elementary education
Purdue
  • LB Joe Holland, 4.0, movement & sports science
  • DE Ryan Kerrigan, 3.38, math education
Wisconsin
  • P Brad Nortman, 3.64, finance

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The position rankings march on with the linebackers, another position that looks fairly stacked throughout the Big Ten. Much like the D-lines, I don't see many truly weak groups here, though there's a drop-off after No. 4. 

1. Penn State -- The Lions return the Big Ten's most explosive linebacker from a year ago (Navorro Bowman) and one of the league's most productive 'backers from 2007 (Sean Lee). If Lee returns to form, he and Bowman will form arguably the nation's best linebacker tandem and anchor a Nittany Lions defense that led the Big Ten against the run. Josh Hull adds experience at the third starting spot, while hopes are very high for sophomore Michael Mauti. 

 
  Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  Greg Jones, the Big 10 preseason Defensive Player of the Year, leads Michigan State's linebacking corps.

2. Iowa -- Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds lead a group that always seems to get it done. Angerer tied for the league lead in interceptions last year and led the team with 106 tackles in a breakout junior season. His production overshadowed the solid play of Edds, who should have a big senior season. Jeremiha Hunter also returns for his second year as the starter. Depth might be a bit of a concern here, but the top three are very good. 

3. Michigan State -- Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones is the headliner, and he has a nice supporting cast around him. Jones has led the Spartans in tackles in each of his first two seasons and consistently finds his way into the offensive backfield. Eric Gordon has developed into a fine outside linebacker, and Brandon Denson takes on a bigger role this fall. The Spartans also can look to their bench for Adam Decker, who made the game-clinching tackle against Iowa's Shonn Greene last year.

4. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lose one of the more productive linebacker tandems in recent Big Ten history, as James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman move on to the NFL. The good news is Austin Spitler, Tyler Moeller and others have waited their turn and probably would have earned starting jobs on any other team. Spitler and Moeller step into bigger roles along with Brian Rolle, and Ohio State needs bigger things from Ross Homan in his second year as a starter. There are some question marks, but this should be a good group.

5. Michigan -- Linebacker figures to be Michigan's strongest area on defense. Obi Ezeh has proved to be a reliable Big Ten defender, and he'll benefit from having a healthy Jonas Mouton in the fold. The big question is whether Stevie Brown makes a smooth transition from safety and builds on a strong spring. If Brown steps up, the Wolverines should be fine here. Hopes are also high for Brandon Herron and Marell Evans.   

6. Minnesota -- This group could take a major step forward in 2009, but the Gophers must defend better against the run. Lee Campbell quietly had a nice junior season, recording 80 tackles and four sacks, and Simoni Lawrence proved himself as a playmaker with 10.5 tackles for loss (4 sacks), two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Minnesota boasts a ton of speed at linebacker, and it'll be interesting to see how Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley perform. Sam Maresh could provide an emotional lift after his amazing return from heart surgery. 

7. Indiana -- It's time for Matt Mayberry and his fellow 'backers to lead this defense to better results in 2009. Mayberry has the talent and the experience to turn in a monster senior season, but he needs to show up every week and make big plays. Will Patterson provides leadership at middle linebacker, and Tyler Replogle steps into a bigger role. If Indiana turns things around on defense, the linebackers must lead the way. 

8. Northwestern -- Head coach Pat Fitzgerald identified his top three linebackers in spring, which bodes well for a group that loses Malcolm Arrington and Prince Kwateng. Outside linebacker Quentin Davie has quietly put up some very impressive numbers, and Nate Williams will be more comfortable in a major role. Fitzgerald is excited about speedy sophomore Ben Johnson, and safety Brad Phillips might see more time in a hybrid role. There are some lingering questions here, but this group could make a big jump.

9. Wisconsin -- The jury's out on the Badgers after they lose DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, who combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last year. I like what Jaevery McFadden brings at middle linebacker, but he'll need some help from Culmer St. Jean, who saw increased time down the stretch in 2008. Aside from McFadden and St. Jean, the group is unproven and needs to show it's not the weak link of the defense.

10. Illinois -- Ron Zook thinks this will be the year Martez Wilson emerges as an elite Big Ten defender, and history is on his side. The move to middle linebacker worked out well for Brit Miller last year, and Wilson showed some promise in the middle this spring. Illinois needs big things from Wilson because it lacks much experience around him. Junior college transfer Aaron Gress might be a key addition, but I'm far from sold on this group.

11. Purdue -- The Boilers lose an extremely productive and underrated linebacker in Anthony Heygood, and a lot of questions remain with this group. As much as Purdue wants to see Jason Werner healthy, the team can't rely on a guy with a history of back problems. Joe Holland and Chris Carlino need big seasons this fall, and Purdue must build some depth around them.  

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mark Dantonio is changing the culture at Michigan State. In his first two seasons as Spartans head coach, Dantonio has gone 16-10 and guided the team to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1996-97. A program known for midseason collapses and a lack of mental toughness made a push for the Big Ten title last fall before stumbling Nov. 22 at Penn State. The Spartans ended a six-game slide to archrival Michigan in October, and Dantonio and his staff have made major upgrades in recruiting. More challenges lie ahead, as Michigan State must replace All-American running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and standout safety Otis Wiley, among others.

Dantonio sat down last week to discuss the upcoming season and his vision for the program.

 
  Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE
  Mark Dantonio has produced a 16-10 record since taking over as the Spartans' head coach.

You mentioned last year that this team overachieved a bit. Do you sense it will have to be like that again this year?

Mark Dantonio: It's something we constantly talk about here. I don't care where you're at and the status of things, how long you've played, whether it's [All-Big Ten linebacker] Greg Jones or whoever, it's always important to overachieve because you're always going to face adversity. You want to be known as that type of player, regardless of your ability level. We'll continue to concentrate on that.

Are you about where you thought you'd be as far as your short-term and long-term plan for the program?

MD: I've never really said, 'This is what we need to do in Year 1 or Year 2.' We've set goals, tried to get to those points and places, and we've accomplished some goals. We haven't won a championship yet. That's the goal that we set out for every single year. Why coach if you're not excited about trying to make those goals? Why play if you just say, 'I hope we can win seven games this year?' So I never really put a timetable on that. I've always said, 'This is what we've done. Now what are we going to do next year?' I've never felt like we've arrived. But the culture is changing, which is important. The ability to stay in games and play hard, I hope we're changing that. I look at the 26 games that we've played since I've been here, and there's two games -- the Ohio State game and the Penn State game [in 2008] -- where we've been out of the game. I would hope that perception is changing. But you can always slip right back into it if you're not careful.

How hard is it to do that, to avoid slipping back to the culture that was here before?

MD: That culture where things would fade quickly on us, that existed when I was here before [as an assistant from 1995-2000]. The Wisconsin game, boom, in 1999 [a 40-10 loss], or you beat Ohio State and lose to Minnesota, or whatever the case it was. Or whether it was getting shellacked by Nebraska or going out to Oregon [and getting beat]. That was here. What we have to do is make sure we're changing that perception. And I think we are. Our players need to understand they truly need to play one play at a time. That's a coaches' adage, but you have to do that in this day and age because one slip-up -- you don't take advantage of an offensive opportunity, or you have a poor special-teams performance, or one mental assignment on defense -- can cost you. You have to be able to play with attention to detail or you can't play. There's too much parity in college football. You hear the perception about the Southeastern Conference versus the Big Ten, but you look at it and you look at how close the game was between us and Georgia, it could have went the other way. Texas-Ohio State could have went the other way. So it's just tight out there. You better be ready to play. It's mental toughness. I believe that.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As spring practice approaches, it's time to take a look at the strongest and weakest positions for each Big Ten team. A team could have several strengths or weaknesses, but this series will identify the least and most questionable areas entering a crucial evaluation period this spring.

And rather than go in alphabetical order or reverse order, I'll choose teams completely at random, to keep you guessing. Important to note: these rankings will only include freshmen if they're already enrolled and on the official roster for spring ball.

The Michigan State Spartans are up first.

Strongest position -- Linebackers

Key returnees: Junior Greg Jones, senior Adam Decker, junior Eric Gordon, senior Brandon Denson

Key departures: Ryan Allison (50 tackles 2.5 TFLs, forced fumble)

The skinny: Michigan State's defense should be an improved unit in 2009, and the linebackers are the biggest reasons why. All three starters return, led by All-Big Ten honoree Greg Jones, the team's leading tackler the last two seasons. Adam Decker provides a veteran presence in the middle, and Eric Gordon quietly had a very solid sophomore season with three sacks, a forced fumble and 7.5 tackles for loss. The Spartans' wide receivers would have been the pick here, but I need to see fewer dropped passes from them. Cornerback also should be a strength in 2009.

Weakest position -- Running backs

Key returnees: Sophomore Andre Anderson, sophomore Ashton Leggett, senior A.J. Jimmerson

Key departures: Javon Ringer (390 carries, 1,637 rush yards, 22 touchdowns)

The skinny: After losing a smallish senior class, Michigan State doesn't have a clear-cut weakness entering 2009. But you can't underestimate what Javon Ringer meant to the Spartans' offense last year. He carried the team at times and had 23 more rushing attempts than any other FBS back. Michigan State didn't develop a true backup, and while Anderson and others have shown flashes during practice, this group is questionable entering the spring. Other potential weak spots include defensive line and offensive tackle.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The seemingly interminable wait for college football gets a little easier about a month from now, when Michigan steps on the practice field for spring ball. The other 10 Big Ten squads will follow soon after as spring practice gets in full swing.

There are no shortage of spring story lines around the league, from Danny Hope's first workouts as Purdue head coach to six new coordinators to teams like Ohio State and Penn State trying to replace sizable senior classes. Six teams will feature some degree of competition at the quarterback spot, and position battles abound throughout the league.

Here's some can't-miss information about spring ball and a team-by-team look at what to watch:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The defense needs leaders to emerge after a subpar year and with the graduation of first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Brit Miller. Martez Wilson is an obvious candidate to claim a greater role, but the immensely talented linebacker comes off surgery in December after being stabbed outside a bar. The defensive line loses three starters and top cover man Vontae Davis left early for the NFL draft, creating opportunities for young players to step up.
  • For the second consecutive spring, the running back position will be in the spotlight. Illinois never truly got settled at running back last year, as Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford split carries. Both players had their moments, as Dufrene averaged 5.7 yards a carry and Ford scored eight touchdowns, but it would be nice to see one man emerge as a featured back alongside quarterback Juice Williams.
  • New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz steps in, and former outside receivers coach Kurt Beathard will work directly with Williams, who was extremely close with former coordinator Mike Locksley. It's vital for Williams and his teammates to jell with Schultz and the offensive nuances he'll bring to spring practice. Illinois remains one of the league's most talented offenses, but the players must get on the same page this spring.

Indiana Hoosiers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

Watch to watch:

  • Healthy bodies, at least a few more than at the end of last season. Indiana's roster was wiped out by injuries during Big Ten play, and the Hoosiers should get a better gauge of their strengths and weaknesses this spring. Quarterback Kellen Lewis struggled with injuries for much of the season, and it will be interesting to see if he regains the form he showed in 2007, when he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Lewis might need to reclaim the starting job after splitting time with Ben Chappell last fall. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk will miss spring ball with injuries, giving other players a chance to shine.
  • The Hoosiers' defense must take a step forward this spring, especially with so much experience and talent returning in the front seven. Defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton each have had breakout seasons, and Matt Mayberry at times looks like one of the league's best linebackers. With weak-side linebacker Will Patterson and others back in the fold, there's no reason Indiana can't be serviceable on defense in 2009.
  • Lewis can't continue to be Indiana's primary rushing option, and with Marcus Thigpen gone, a capable back or two must emerge. The competition this spring will feature players like Bryan Payton and Darius Willis, a heralded recruit who redshirted last year. Demetrius McCray will be limited in spring practice.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: TBA

What to watch:

  • Everyone knows Shonn Greene is gone, but the more damaging departures likely will come at defensive tackle, where Iowa loses four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul. The spotlight will be on the interior defensive line as players like Karl Klug try to fill the void. Arguably no position competition matters more than the one at defensive tackle, especially since Iowa appears strong everywhere else on defense.
  • Ricky Stanzi established himself as the starting quarterback, but Iowa would like the rising junior to take another step and become more consistent. Interceptions were a problem at times for Stanzi last fall, but he should benefit from a full spring as the starter and being able to work with the first-team wide receivers.
  • Rising sophomore Jewel Hampton is the likely choice to succeed Greene after rushing for 478 yards and five touchdowns as his backup last year. But head coach Kirk Ferentz likely wants to see what he has with the other backs, namely Jeff Brinson, who redshirted in 2008. There should be some healthy competition for carries throughout the spring and into preseason camp.

Michigan Wolverines

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:

  • Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, quarterbacks. Any improvement on this team must start with the quarterback spot, and the competition during spring ball will be crucial. Steven Threet's decision to transfer shifts the spotlight to true freshman Tate Forcier, who enrolled in January and will practice this spring. Nick Sheridan remains in the mix after starting four games last season, but Forcier seems better suited to run Rich Rodriguez's offense. A strong spring could make him the frontrunner when fellow freshman Denard Robinson arrives this summer.
  • New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson starts working with a unit that finished 10th in the league in points allowed (28.9 ypg) last fall. Robinson seems less concerned about scheme changes and more focused on instilling a new attitude with the group. There could be an adjustment period on both sides, as players get to know a new coach and Robinson works as an assistant after overseeing an entire program the last four seasons at Syracuse.
  • Robinson undoubtedly will devote much of his attention to the defensive line, which loses three starters, including both tackles. The spotlight will be on young players like Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin and even early enrollee William Campbell as Michigan looks for answers up front. The Wolverines also need increased leadership from All-Big Ten end Brandon Graham, their only returning starter on the line.

Michigan State Spartans

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Spartans feature arguably the Big Ten's most intriguing quarterback competition. Third-year sophomore Kirk Cousins performed well behind Brian Hoyer in 2008 and seems to have the intangibles to lead the offense. Keith Nichol is a dual-threat quarterback who has a year in the system after transferring from Oklahoma. A decision on a starter might not be made until preseason camp, but the two players will start competing this spring.
  • Running back also is a mystery after the departure of Doak Walker Award finalist Javon Ringer. Michigan State didn't develop a second option behind Ringer, so players like Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett will get a chance to prove themselves before true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper arrive this summer.
  • Michigan State doesn't lose much on the defensive side, but co-captains Otis Wiley and Justin Kershaw both depart, leaving a void in leadership. The coaches will lean more on linebackers Greg Jones and Adam Decker this spring, and the secondary needs a new front man to replace Wiley, who led the team in interceptions (4) and ranked third in tackles (78). Danny Fortener came on strong last year, but the Spartans will look for another safety to emerge.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The offense begins a new chapter under new coordinator Jedd Fisch and new line coach/run game coordinator Tim Davis. Minnesota wants to return to its roots as a running team and employ a pro-style offense. It will be interesting to see how players adjust in practice, and how Fisch and the influential Davis work together.
  • New arrival Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee take over a defense that made major strides under Ted Roof but showed some cracks down the stretch. Cosgrove will be working with experienced players at linebacker and in the secondary, and their ability to grasp his scheme will be huge this spring.
  • Starting quarterback Adam Weber will be held out of contact drills following shoulder surgery, giving the coaches a chance to evaluate heralded recruit MarQueis Gray. The multitalented Gray left the team last year because of questions about his ACT score. He has returned and will get a chance to learn Fisch's offense and establish himself as the team's No. 2 option.

Northwestern Wildcats

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • It has been at least four years -- and likely more -- since the running back position has been so wide open. Stephen Simmons will get a chance to establish himself as the top back this spring after filling in behind Tyrell Sutton late last season. Scott Concannon and Jacob Schmidt also will be in the mix before several freshmen arrive in the summer.
  • Mike Kafka enters the spring as the starting quarterback after helping Northwestern to a season-turning win last year at Minnesota. But Kafka must develop as a passer to complement his excellent running ability. With a mostly unproven group of wide receivers, Kafka needs to establish a rhythm and become consistent on the short throws that make the spread offense move.
  • Two starters are gone and star end Corey Wootton is nursing a surgically repaired knee, putting pressure on Northwestern to identify another playmaker on the defensive line. The defensive tackle spot will be in the spotlight as Northwestern looks for an elite run stopper to replace John Gill.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • Ohio State needs a featured running back, and Dan Herron has a chance to be the guy. A strong spring from Herron would be beneficial before heralded recruits Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde arrive. The Buckeyes could go with a committee system this fall, but Herron showed promise at times last year and could claim the job.
  • The offensive line was one of the team's bigger disappointments last year, and the group must come together this spring. Michigan transfer Justin Boren should step into a starting role right away, and sophomore tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts could join classmate Mike Brewster on the first team. This group has a ton of young talent, but it must be molded.
  • Keep an eye on the linebacker and cornerback positions all the way until Sept. 5. Ohio State loses national award winners James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, as well as All-Big Ten selection Marcus Freeman. Three and possibly four starting spots are open, so the competition should heat up.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Spring practice starts: Week of March 30

Spring game: April 25

What to watch:

  • The Big Ten's best offensive line loses three all-conference starters, including Rimington Trophy winner A.Q. Shipley. Line coaches Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney have plenty of work to do this spring as they try to build around holdovers Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt. With a formidable run game in place, replenishing the line will be
    Penn State's top priority.
  • Penn State's young wide receivers are gearing up for a wide-open competition as the team loses multiyear starters Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Can Brett Brackett and Graham Zug emerge as reliable possession-type guys? Can Chaz Powell be Penn State's deep threat? Those answers could come this spring.
  • Lions fans are confident that defensive line coach Larry Johnson will develop another first-rate pass rusher. The process begins in spring ball as Penn State must replace starters at both end spots as well as reserve Maurice Evans, a former All-Big Ten selection.

Purdue Boilermakers

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • The Danny Hope era begins this spring, and it will be interesting to see what imprints the new head coach puts on the program. He's a Joe Tiller disciple but brings in two new coordinators and wants to make immediate upgrades to the team's speed and athleticism. Purdue loses starters at the skill positions on offense as well as its most productive defender (linebacker Anthony Heygood), so there's plenty of work ahead.
  • Quarterback could feature an interesting competition between Joey Elliott and Justin Siller. Elliott seems like the favorite to take over after backing up Curtis Painter the last three seasons. But the multi-talented Siller could fit the new mold Hope is trying to create with the Boilers' personnel. Siller had a big day against Michigan last year and brings the mobility Purdue could use at the quarterback spot.
  • With the secondary more or less intact, new defensive coordinator Donn Landholm will focus on the front seven. Landholm needs to build around defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a potential All-Big Ten performer this fall. Heygood will be missed, but Joe Holland is a solid contributor and if Jason Werner can finally get healthy, the linebacking corps should be strong.

Wisconsin Badgers

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:

  • Big surprise, another quarterback competition. After never truly finding stability at the quarterback spot in 2008, Wisconsin once again looks for a leader for the offense. Part-time starter Dustin Sherer will have to ward off Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr, who enrolled early. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst didn't settle on a starter last spring, but he would like some separation to occur.
  • Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge will have a busy spring as he tries to replace three starters up front. Players like Jeff Stehle, Patrick Butrym and Brendan Kelly, who emerged last fall before an injury, will get a long look this spring.
  • P.J. Hill's early departure to the NFL draft puts John Clay in the spotlight as the Badgers' featured running back. Can the immensely talented Clay take the next step in his development to master the offense and his assignments? He also must work with a new-look offensive line that must replace three starters.
Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Keith Nichol, Corey Wootton, Curt Phillips, Jewel Hampton, Dustin Sherer, Ashton Leggett, Joe Holland, MarQueis Gray, Kellen Lewis, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mike Locksley, Charlie Partridge, Illinois Fighting Illini, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Wolverines, Ryan Kerrigan, Ted Roof, Joe Tiller, Michigan State Spartans, Purdue Boilermakers, Brian Hoyer, Nick Sheridan, Bryan Payton, Stefen Wisniewski, Ryan Van Bergen, Paul Chryst, Brendan Kelly, Iowa Hawkeyes, Martez Wilson, Mike Brewster, Demetrius McCray, Nick Polk, J.B. Shugarts, Jason Werner, Jeff Brinson, Andre Anderson, Shonn Greene, Ben Chappell, Justin Kershaw, Jason Ford, Brett Brackett, Adam Decker, Matt Mayberry, Kirk Cousins, Dennis Landolt, Graham Zug, Maurice Evans, Carlos Hyde, Tyrell Sutton, Jeff Stehle, Northwestern Wildcats, Dan Herron, Kirk Ferentz, Denard Robinson, Donn Landholm, Mike Martin, Deon Butler, Ricky Stanzi, Danny Fortener, Jammie Kirlew, Marcus Thigpen, Indiana Hoosiers, P.J. Hill, Larry Caper, Dick Anderson, Brandon Graham, Juice Williams, John Clay, Greg Robinson, Big Ten Conference, Stephen Simmons, Jordan Norwood, Chaz Powell, Steven Threet, Will Patterson, Jon Budmayr, Brit Miller, spring primer 0902, Larry Johnson, Patrick Butrym, Darius Willis, Mike Schultz, Jacob Schmidt, Justin Siller, Marcus Freeman, Justin Boren, A.Q. Shipley, Derrick Williams, Vontae Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, Otis Wiley, Tate Forcier, Adam Weber, Daniel Dufrene, Ron Lee, Jaamal Berry, Bill Kenney, Austin Thomas, Scott Concannon, William Campbell, Penn State Nittany Lions, Ohio State Buckeyes, Edwin Baker, Kurt Beathard, Mitch King, Curtis Painter, Joey Elliott, Jedd Fisch, Kevin Cosgrove, Mike Kafka, Danny Hope, Greg Jones, Matt Kroul, Greg Middleton, John Gill, Anthony Heygood, Tim Davis, Javon Ringer, Mike Adams

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State took another step forward in 2008 on the field, and the team's upcoming recruiting class should only keep the positive momentum going.

A confluence of key events -- consecutive bowl appearances, a new football facility, in-state rival Michigan bottoming out -- helped head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans build a class stocked with Midwest players that should address several needs on the roster.

Michigan State's biggest losses come in the offensive backfield, where All-American running back Javon Ringer and quarterback Brian Hoyer graduate. The Spartans should be fine at the quarterback spot with Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, but they didn't develop anyone behind Ringer, and there should be an opportunity for a promising freshman to play right away.

Wide receiver wasn't the strongest position this season, and though Michigan State returns everyone, namely Mark Dell and Blair White, it could use another player who can stretch the field. The Spartans must replace the right side of their offensive line after losing Roland Martin and Jesse Miller, and they really need to build depth up front.

The defense returns nine starters for 2009, but it won't stop Dantonio from planning ahead. Linebacker depth is vital with Adam Decker heading into his senior season and superstar Greg Jones possibly entering his final year before turning pro. Safety Otis Wiley is a major loss in the defensive backfield, and Michigan State must replace two starters (end Brandon Long and tackle Justin Kershaw) on the line.

Michigan State might not play a ton of freshmen next fall, but its class should solidify depth at running back, offensive line and linebacker.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

By all accounts, Michigan State should have beaten Michigan today.

The Spartans are superior on both sides of the ball. They have more experience. They have more familiarity with their head coach and their schemes.

But when it comes to Michigan State, games that should be wins often don't turn out that way, especially against Michigan. And after last week's 45-7 home loss to Ohio State, some braced for a typical Spartans slide.

"They're going to say that same-old-Spartans mantra," linebacker Adam Decker told me this week. "They have no reason not to say that until we give them a reason to prove them wrong."

There's a reason now.

After falling behind 21-14 in the third quarter, Michigan State scored 21 unanswered points to win 35-21 and snap its six-game losing streak to Michigan.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer, who some wanted benched in favor of Kirk Cousins, turned in a huge game with 282 passing yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Running back Javon Ringer, who said he'd be embarrassed if he went through college without beating Michigan, returned to top form with 194 rush yards and two touchdowns. The secondary came up big and the defense held the rushing game in check.

Michigan State needed to beat Michigan this year, and the Spartans have officially turned a corner behind Mark Dantonio. Michigan once again showed its a team that can't put together a complete game.

A complete half? Sure. Even a solid three quarters. But not a full 60 minutes.

It will get better for the Wolverines, but not this season.

The quarterbacks aren't right and several potential weapons (Terence Robinson, Junior Hemingway) are banged up. Rich Rodriguez deserves some criticism for this season and the defense has underachieved, but almost every team goes through something like this, and it's Michigan's turn.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State can fulfill two objectives on the field Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.

The first is painfully obvious: beat Michigan.

After six straight losses, people are starting to wonder whether it can be done.

Second-year Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has taken a proactive approach to the rivalry, acknowledging its significance and embracing the emotion that goes into the game every year. It was OK to discuss this game in August. It was OK to use words like "embarrassed," the sentiment Spartans senior running back Javon Ringer will feel if he can't beat Michigan once in his college career.

"If we don't beat them in four years, that is an embarrassment," Spartans junior linebacker Adam Decker said. "It's a strong word. When you say something like that, it comes with pressure. But in a game like this, there's going to be pressure. There's going to be a lot of eyes on you."

Michigan State's second objective might be even more important. Last Saturday's 42-7 home loss to Ohio State resembled similar October clunkers of the past.

Big-game flops have previously triggered downward spirals for the Spartans , and it's critical for this team and this coach to show that this time will be different. The Michigan game provides the perfect platform to do so.

"People are going to be quick to point out that we've stumbled late in the season the last couple years," Decker said. "They're going to say that same-old-Spartans mantra. They have no reason not to say that until we give them a reason to prove them wrong.

"With the Michigan game being a week after a tough defeat, it's a great opportunity to silence all those critics."

Michigan has its own critics, most of whom have targeted first-year coach Rich Rodriguez. The 2-5 Wolverines are on the brink of their first nonwinning season since 1984, not to mention two losses away from their first losing season since 1967.

(Read full post)

Spartans get rid of October blues

October, 17, 2008
10/17/08
11:36
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In recent years, Michigan State's biggest obstacles weren't injuries, turnovers or penalties.

It was the calendar. 

When midnight struck on Oct. 1, the Spartans turned into pumpkins. By Halloween, they had usually fallen out of the Big Ten title picture and bowl contention. 

 
 Icon SMI
 Mark Dantonio's Spartans are on a six-game win streak going into their matchup with Ohio State.

In the last seven seasons, Michigan State owns a 25-10 record in games before Oct. 1 and a 20-41 record after Oct. 1. The team's signature moments have been John L. Smith's halftime rant at Ohio State and a squandered 17-point, fourth-quarter lead.

Hot starts were met with skepticism, as everyone waited for the inevitable mental meltdown. This October, they might be waiting a while.

Michigan State is embracing the no-nonsense attitude of second-year coach Mark Dantonio and brings a six-game win streak into Saturday's home showdown against No. 12 Ohio State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). The Spartans rank no better than 25th nationally in any major offensive or defensive statistical category, but tremendous discipline, physical play and a team-oriented approach has propelled them into the Big Ten title mix. 

Describing the change under Dantonio, senior quarterback Brian Hoyer used a phrase not uttered around East Lansing in quite some time. 

"This team is definitely mentally tough," Hoyer said. "There might be a time where, as the offense, the defense gives up a touchdown and you just have to keep fighting back, or the defense, they have to come up with a big time stop when the game's on the line.

"We're a stable team. We can handle the ups and downs, whereas before, if something went wrong, it was going down from there."

(Read full post)

Big Ten mailbag

October, 7, 2008
10/07/08
6:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The conference title race is taking shape, some teams are surging and others are sliding.

It's time to take the pulse of Big Ten fans.

Derek from St. Louis writes: Explain this to me... Illinois has 2 losses, both to top 5 teams, both on the road, neither were embarrassing. They don't break the top 25 in ANY poll after destroying Michigan in Ann Arbor after (still ranked and 0-2 in the Big Ten) Wisconsin loses there a week prior. Auburn (also still ranked) also has 2 losses and a pillow fight 3-2 victory AT HOME to Miss St. WAKE FORREST is still ranked... and they're coming off of a loss to NAVY... AT HOME. How is ANY of this possible. I can't say it's because the Big Ten doesn't get any love because WISCONSIN is included in this mess.

Adam Rittenberg: For the first time this season, the Illini played to their potential in the final three quarters at Michigan and will regain some respect by continuing to win. Illinois soured some people with a poor performance against Louisiana-Lafayette, but pounding Michigan at the Big House still means something, even this year. Wisconsin fell out of the AP Poll, if it makes you happy, and the Badgers need to beat No. 6 Penn State at home to remain in any other rankings. Auburn's continued inclusion has to do with the strength of the SEC, nothing else. Wake Forest moved up in the poll only because a bunch of teams between 20-25 lost last week.


J.Z. from Bloomington, Ind., writes: Many IU fans including me had high expectations for the football team this year. Coming off our first bowl game in ages, 8 home games, a super soft OOC schedule. The way I see it we should have ended with at minimum a winning record this year. Ending the year with 4 wins seems like wishful thinking now. There are many fans that never wanted Coach Lynch hired based off his terrible past in the MAC and lack of Big school experience. With the new stadium and facility renovations come higher expectations. Do you think if things continue the way they are that Coach Lynch could get his walking papers this year? With a new AD coming in I could see that happening. I do also realize that IU also needs to step up and be willing to pay a new coach to come in, as there are some coaches in conf USA that make double what our Head Football coach makes. Do you think IU will be willing to finally spend the cash on football that they do on basketball?

Adam Rittenberg: The Ball State loss looks better and better, but I agree with you that Indiana has been a major disappointment this year. Lynch acknowledged today that the team could still be looking for its identity, which should be based around quarterback Kellen Lewis and several promising defenders. But turnovers and penalties kill teams, and Indiana hasn't been able to avoid them so far. The new athletic director will have a decision to make if things don't improve, but I don't see Lynch getting fired less than a year after receiving a contract extension. Next year, maybe, but the program has been through some tragedy and transition, much like Northwestern went through in 2006-07, and Lynch deserves a ton of credit for last year's bowl run. Indiana is making a greater commitment to football with the stadium renovations and even with the eight home games, so expectations are justifiably higher. But I would wait a little bit longer to see how things play out.


Andrew from Pittsburgh writes: What are your thoughts on the Spartan defense? We're giving up tons of yards between the 20s the last several weeks, but we keep coming up with stops or turnovers in the red zone. Is that the mark of a better defense, or have we just been lucky?

Adam Rittenberg: They are tough and physical, a perfect reflection of head coach Mark Dantonio. They don't have the most talent in any one area, but stars like safety Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones take on a lot of responsibility and guys like Adam Decker step up and make big plays like the fourth-down stop on Iowa's Shonn Greene to seal last week's win. Honestly, giving up yards between the 20's doesn't matter if you make stops in the red zone, and that's how teams like Michigan State and Northwestern have improved on the defensive side. Michigan State is limiting the big play and forcing other teams to execute near the goal line.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I'm three-for-three in picks today -- never mind the scores -- so I'm feeling pretty good right now. That's more than we can say for Kirk Ferentz, Curtis Painter and the Indiana offense.

Time for some quick observations from the Big Ten's early games.

PENN STATE-PURDUE

Quarterback Daryll Clark and the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions survived their first road test of the season, which turned out to be tougher than expected. Big Ten road games have been a bugaboo for Penn State, which had been 12-20 since 2000 entering today, so any win is good. The offense showed some weaknesses in the red zone and in short-yardage situations, but the defense stood tall. Keep an eye on defensive end Aaron Maybin, a rising star in this league.

Purdue deserved better after executing its game plan -- to control the clock with the run game and the short pass. The Boilers defense continued to make plays in the red zone, but Curtis Painter just can't get over the hump against a good team. It will be interesting to see what happens with Painter, a multiple record holder who was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of Joey Elliott, who led the team's only touchdown drive. So much for the Heisman campaign. The kicking game also is a major concern for Joe Tiller.

IOWA-MICHIGAN STATE

Big Ten purists had to love this game. It featured great running backs, powerful line play and strong defense. Michigan State survived thanks to a fourth-and-1 stop by linebacker Adam Decker, who raced unblocked through the Iowa line and dropped Greene for a loss. Greene had a big day (158 rush yards) and usually doesn't go down on the first hit, so kudos to Decker. The Spartans likely will be ranked heading into next week's matchup with undefeated Northwestern. Javon Ringer couldn't do much against Iowa's talented defensive line, but quarterback Brian Hoyer took an important step in the first half.

Iowa is a young team that simply doesn't know how to win. The Hawkeyes missed opportunities for the second straight week, failing to execute in Michigan State territory. With Greene and a tough defense, Iowa isn't a team you want to face later in the season. The key for the embattled Ferentz will be keeping the confidence high after a third straight loss by five points or fewer. I don't fault Ferentz for the fourth-and-1 call, especially with Greene in the backfield, but Iowa can't leave a linebacker unblocked.

INDIANA-MINNESOTA

On this week's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Indiana coach Bill Lynch was asked if he expected an offensive shootout against Minnesota. "I've gotten to the point where any time you expect something like that, the exact opposite happens," he said. Lynch was right, and today's meeting at the Metrodome turned into a defensive struggle. Neither team could run the ball, and Minnesota's defense did a nice job containing Hoosiers do-it-all quarterback Kellen Lewis (18 rush yards).

Minnesota got over the hump in the Big Ten, and quarterback Adam Weber continued to limit mistakes. Indiana finally got a decent performance from its defense, which was on the field for more than 37 minutes. But when the offense and defense don't play well simultaneously, a team is stuck at 2-3 with a three-game slide.

I'll check back later from Camp Randall Stadium.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 AP Photo
 Michigan State's Javon Ringer (23) rushes for a 7-yard gain during the second quarter of the Spartans' 23-7 win over Notre Dame Saturday.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- To put it bluntly, Saturday's game was boring, a 60-minute grind defined by durable defense, field position and trench combat. Sure, it had intensity, but no flash, no pizzazz.

Mark Dantonio loved every minute of it. He didn't see a dull game. He saw tremendous intensity, solid fundamentals, power vs. power. He saw the way he wants Michigan State to play.

He saw himself.

As Dantonio often points out, Michigan State is still in the foundation phase after seven mostly underachieving seasons under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. But teams usually turn a corner when they start to reflect their head coach, and if Saturday's 23-7 win against Notre Dame is any indication, Michigan State seems to be getting there.

"When you come out and play with emotion, play physical, that's because coach Dantonio's the one getting us fired up," middle linebacker Adam Decker said. "Him and his staff are the ones preaching being physical all week and all camp and all offseason. It's ingrained into us, and when we come out on a big stage like this, it's what we go back to."

Dantonio came to Michigan State known for his dominant defenses. His top credential was a three-year stint as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, where he coached a star-studded unit that ranked second nationally in points allowed and third in rushing defense en route to winning a national championship in 2002.

Michigan State had a mini-breakthrough in Dantonio's first year last fall, going 7-6 and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003. But the defense ranked eighth in the league in points allowed, surrendering 30 points or more five times. The unit didn't fully reflect its architect.

On Saturday, the Spartans throttled Notre Dame's offense, allowing only 16 net rushing yards and recording three sacks. The rare Irish ballcarrier who made it past the line of scrimmage paid the price, like the time safety Otis Wiley ear-holed James Aldridge late in the first quarter.

"We have an award called the Jacked-Up Hit award," Dantonio said. "It's a great award. You should see it sometime."

It's actually a T-shirt given out to the most ferocious hitter in each game. Wiley expects to be wearing it this week. "I'll wear it around, proud," Wiley said.

It took some time, but Wiley is blossoming into a Dantonio prototype. After leading the team in both tackles (94) and pass breakups (10) in 2006, Wiley struggled in Dantonio's first season.

He has rebounded this fall and sparked Michigan State with two first-half interceptions Saturday, bringing his season total to a Big Ten-leading four.

"Last year was just knowing what to do," Wiley said. "Now we know what to do. We know the plays to run and call. Coach D reflects us." Or the other way around. "I don't care where you're coaching, what brand of football you're coaching, you want to see good fundamentals, you want to see guys hustle and playing hard," Dantonio said. "Whether you're in the spread or the I-backs or passing it, you just want guys to play hard, and our guys did that."

Michigan State's style has been molded during hyper-intense practices where full-go hitting isn't merely allowed, but encouraged. The practices can be somewhat overwhelming for newcomers, as quarterback Keith Nichol, an Oklahoma transfer, found out.

"He's holding his head because he's watching guys flying around, killing people in practice," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of Nichol. "And he's like, 'Oh my God.' He's scared somebody's going to get hurt, but that's how we play."

The physical style isn't only reserved for the defense. Michigan State's offensive philosophy is simple: beat up the opposing defense until it can't take it anymore.

While other Big Ten teams get cute with the spread offense, the Spartans practically announce they're going to feed running back Javon Ringer the ball over and over. Notre Dame was prepared, filling the box with seven or eight defenders, but Ringer still ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

"I feel stacking the box is a compliment," right tackle Jesse Miller said. "That means they respect our run game. And we keep going through 'em anyway. What can they do after that?"

Dantonio won his first four games as Spartans coach before seeing the team drop five of its next six. Michigan State won its third straight game Saturday and could continue the push in Big Ten play, which opens with Indiana, followed by Northwestern and Iowa.

The way the Spartans are winning suggests they'll avoid another slide, but Dantonio takes nothing for granted.

"Do I look comfortable?" he asked. "You're always on edge. It's always tense. It's always stressful. "We're building. This is a foundation, but we're not there yet."

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