Big Ten: Andrew Maxwell

Big Ten lunch links

May, 14, 2014
5/14/14
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Busy time for a Wednesday in May. Keep up here with Adam Rittenberg's reports from the spring meeting of Big Ten athletic directors.
  • From Rosemont, Ill., the Big Ten sticks to its commitment to play nine conference games, starting in 2016. League athletic directors generally still oppose alcohol sales at football stadiums.
  • Strong comments from Northwestern AD Jim Phillips on the unionization issue.
  • Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst finally offers a few words on coach Bo Pelini.
  • Minnesota AD Norwood Teague is not a fan of the “we hate Iowa" chant, especially when it’s sanctioned by the UM athletic department.
  • The league sets remaining kickoff times for homecoming next fall.
  • Rutgers dismisses quarterback Philip Nelson in the wake of a felony assault charge for the recent Minnesota transfer, leaving the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation for 2015 in limbo. And the view from Minnesota.
  • Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas is charged with felony theft. A few early mock drafts for 2015 place Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory in a lofty spot.
  • Ohio State coaches are out looking for quarterbacks in Georgia and California.
  • More recruiting talk from James Franklin, who says the changing face of the Big Ten will not affect Penn State’s ability to recruit regionally and nationally.
  • Michigan State signs up to face Arizona State in a home-and-home series, starting in 2018.
  • QB Andrew Maxwell is among the latest former Spartans to get an NFL look. Same story for ex-Wisconsin QB Danny O’Brien.
  • A former Iowa safety led police in his hometown on a chase and got tased.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 14, 2014
3/14/14
12:00
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Big Ten fans: Please consider a donation to help former Northwestern player Nathan Shanks, an Illinois state trooper involved in a major auto accident while on duty earlier this month. Shanks suffered severe burns and several fractured bones and has significant medical expenses.

To the links ...

Rose Bowl notes from MSU's Dantonio

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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LOS ANGELES -- The Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO is barely 48 hours away, and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his final pregame news conference Monday morning.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio says the Big Ten's poor start to bowl season won't affect his team.
Here are some notes from Dantonio (and one from athletic director Mark Hollis):

  • Senior Kyler Elsworth should start at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Max Bullough, although Darien Harris also will play a fair amount. Dantonio said both will have the same responsibilities Bullough had with play calls and checks at the line. Elsworth, who was an elite high school wrestler, bench-presses about 400 pounds and has "great ball skills" as he played wide receiver in high school. Harris, who played running back in high school, brings good speed to the middle.
  • Dantonio said the Big Ten's poor start to bowl season doesn't add any pressure for Michigan State. He noted that while everybody obsesses about conference vs. conference, it really comes down to team vs. team matchups. "In the end, it's going to be Michigan State's deal," he said. "We represent the Big Ten, we carry the banner of the Big Ten in here, but in the end it's going to be Michigan State wins or loses, period. We're going to have to stand alone on that."
  • Dantonio again had high praise for quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who started all 13 games in 2012 and the opener this season before moving to a reserve role behind Connor Cook. "It's been tough, and he could have made things difficult here," Dantonio said, "but he chose this path, and that path has allowed us to flourish as a football team."
  • Michigan State has had no curfew issues or other disciplinary infractions leading into the game, but Dantonio reiterated that his team must handle success and being on the big stage the right way. Stanford appears in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl, while no Michigan State players were alive the last time the Spartans played in the Rose Bowl. "They've played in this type of environment with this type of media coverage," Dantonio said of Stanford. "Our guys, we're sort of on a new threshold here."
  • Dantonio on Sunday tweeted a link to a video called "The Spartan Process" that outlines MSU's path to the Rose Bowl, not just this year but in previous seasons. He showed it to the players this past week as a reminder of those who helped the program reach this point. "When you saw a picture of [former running back] Javon Ringer, I hope everybody felt a part of that, or a Kirk Cousins photo," Dantonio said. "They might not share in this physically, but they're going to share in this and be able to identify with what we do." Cousins, the Spartans' quarterback from 2008-11, will serve as the team's honorary captain.
  • Hollis said Michigan State will have more than 40,000 fans at Wednesday's game, and possibly more than 50,000. "I would not be surprised if we far exceed 50 percent of the stadium," Hollis said. "Estimates have been well over 50,000, so we believe it's going to be a home field for us, even though we're three time zones away."
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Grading our over-under predictions

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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In the preseason, we took a stab at picking the over-under regular-season win totals for each Big Ten team. We used the baselines established by oddsmakers in Vegas.

Now, it's time to see how we fared -- and find out which of us was smarter in August.

Illinois

Over-under: 3.5
Actual wins: 4
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: We both had the Illini finishing 3-9; the preseason over-under number was a good one. Illinois' blowout win over Cincinnati remains one of the more surprising results of the season, but the Illini also came close to beating Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.

Indiana

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Vegas got us again. Both of us were bullish on the Hoosiers making a bowl game this year. Home losses to Navy and Minnesota were killers.

Iowa

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Like most people, we underestimated the Hawkeyes this year. By a lot.

Michigan


Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: So, um, yeah. This isn't going too well for us.

Michigan State

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Big Ten bloggers correctly predicted a bowl-bound season for Philip Nelson and the Gophers.
Over-under: 8.5 Actual wins: 11 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Finally, somebody gets one right, and it's Adam. I had Michigan State at 8-4. Adam had the Spartans at 9-3. We both underestimated them.

Minnesota

Over-under: 6.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: And I'm on the board. Finally. But 8-4 still surprised us.

Nebraska

Over-under: 9.5 Actual wins: 8 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
I said in my prediction that it wouldn't shock me if Nebraska went 8-4, which they did. Adam called the over "a fairly easy call."

Northwestern

Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Neither of us thought the Wildcats would miss a bowl game, but I had them falling short of expectations because of the schedule.

Ohio State

Over-under: 11 Actual wins: 12 Brian's pick: Push
Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Though we both figured Ohio State would be dominant, we just thought it would be too hard to go undefeated again. It wasn't -- at least until the Big Ten title game.

Penn State

Over-under: 8 Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick:
Push Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Another whiff. I even mentioned a possible 6-0 start for Penn State. At least the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin to get closer to the preseason number.

Purdue

Over-under: 5.5 Actual wins: 1 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Guess it's safe to say the Boilermakers fell way short of expectations in Darrell Hazell's first year, though we both expected some struggles.

Wisconsin

Over-under: 9 Actual wins: 9 Brian's pick: Push Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Once again, the wiseguys were right on the number, and so was I, as I predicted a 9-3 season with losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and one other Big Ten team. Blind squirrel, meet nut.

Final results

Brian: 4-8
Adam:
3-9

I won but take no pride in those picks. The lesson here, as always: Don't mess with Vegas.

We also took a stab at some random over-unders of our own in the preseason. Let's take a look at how those turned out:

Michigan State starting QBs

Over-under: 2
Actual: 2
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: The Spartans played three quarterbacks early and very nearly went with a fourth in Damion Terry. But only Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook started.

Taylor Martinez touchdowns + turnovers

Over-under: 50
Actual: 13
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: This one became a lock because of Martinez's injuries. He finished with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble. We'll never know what a healthy T-Magic could have done his senior season, and that's a shame.

Big Ten players ejected for targeting

Over-under: 2.5
Actual: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
It took a while for the league to have its first player ejected, but then the new rule showed its impact. For the record, the five players ejected were Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Indiana's David Kenney, Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis and Purdue's Landon Feichter.

Braxton Miller rushing attempts

Over-under: 188 Actual: 131 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Another category where an injury affected things. Miller would have gotten close and possibly reached our over-under if he didn't miss three games with a knee injury.

Chris Borland takeaways

Over-under: 7.5 Actual: 3 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Borland wasn't as active on the turnover front as Adam thought, but he still wound up as the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

Indiana defensive points allowed

Over-under: 29 ppg Actual: 38.8 ppg Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: And this is why the Hoosiers didn't make a bowl.

Devin Gardner's rushing totals

Over-under: 400 yards and 10 touchdowns Actual: 483 and 11 Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Thanks to a whole lot of sack yardage, Gardner came very close to our preseason baselines.

Iowa AIRBHG strikes

Over-under: 2
Actual: 0 20/20 hindsight: The Iowa running back curse was thankfully lifted this year. Afraid to say anything more for fear of jinxing it.

Totals

Brian: 4-4
Adam: 5-3
The backup quarterback has been a big topic around the Big Ten so far this season, thanks mainly to Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who stepped in seamlessly when Braxton Miller injured his knee in Week 2. Guiton's splendid performances the past three weeks -- he has 12 passing touchdowns, including a team-record six last week against Florida A&M, to go along with 180 rush yards -- are sparking debate about whether he should continue to play even after Miller returns, most likely Saturday night against No. 23 Wisconsin.

Other Big Ten quarterback situations are fluid, and several changes have been made at the starting spot. Today's poll question asks: Which current Big Ten backup is most deserving of playing time? We're limited to five choices, and we didn't include Minnesota because Philip Nelson's injury situation is a big factor there.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten backup quarterback most deserves a chance to play?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    57%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    11%
  •  
    10%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,827)

Before you vote, a quick look at the candidates (in alphabetical order) ...

Austin Appleby/Danny Etling, Purdue: Appleby and Etling are listed as co-backups behind Rob Henry, who is completing just 56.3 percent of his passes with more interceptions (4) than touchdown passes (3) through the first four games. Both Appleby and Etling had chances to beat out Henry for the starting job in the offseason, but the coaches went with the veteran. Henry is a good story and a popular leader in the locker room, but Purdue's season appears to be going nowhere fast. Appleby and Etling both have freshman eligibility, and Henry is a senior. So if Purdue decides that the future is now, it would seem to make sense to go with one of the young guys.

Kenny Guiton, Ohio State: That we're even having this debate regarding a former Big Ten offensive player of the year (Miller) underscores how far Guiton has come. He has steered one of the nation's most dangerous offenses the past three weeks and shown the type of accuracy (68.4 percent completions) that Miller lacked last season. It's important to note that Guiton hasn't exactly faced elite defenses, and he's surrounded by a much larger supporting cast at Ohio State than Miller had in 2012, when he was often a one-man show. Miller is the superior athlete and can break long touchdown runs, but if he's not 100 percent healthy, does it make sense to go with Guiton on Saturday night against Wisconsin?

Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State: Yes, Spartans fans, we're serious. Maxwell might not get many votes here, but head coach Mark Dantonio had seen enough of Connor Cook on Saturday against Notre Dame to insert Maxwell for the team's final drive with 2:11 left and the Spartans down four points. Dantonio said Tuesday that Cook remains the team's No. 1 quarterback, but the coaches clearly want to see more out of that position when Big Ten play begins. Fan favorite Damion Terry is headed toward a redshirt season and the staff seems to have written off Tyler O'Connor. There's a strong case against Maxwell, who certainly has had his chances to claim the job. But is Cook doing enough to keep it?

Curt Phillips, Wisconsin: Phillips might be the most intriguing possibility here. Remember that little separated Phillips and Joel Stave during their offseason competition to start, and some Badgers insiders felt Phillips, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from multiple knee surgeries, should have had the top job coming out of camp. Stave hasn't exactly been lighting it up, passing for just 190 yards a game with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Coach Gary Andersen said Monday that the passing game is a concern but said the issues go beyond Stave. Phillips brings more mobility to the pocket. He lacks Stave's arm strength and ability to stretch the field, but he also takes better care of the ball.

Tre Roberson, Indiana: Roberson technically entered the season as the starter, and coach Kevin Wilson has been hesitant to name a clear No. 1 signal-caller. But Nate Sudfeld has taken the lion's share of snaps through the first four games, and until last Saturday against Missouri, he had performed well, firing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. But when the competition level went up, Sudfeld took a step backward, throwing three interceptions and completing just 53.8 percent of his passes in a blowout loss to Missouri. Sudfeld and Roberson have different strengths, but Roberson brings more experience that could be beneficial when Indiana opens Big Ten play Oct. 5 against Penn State.

It's time to vote. Make yours count.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

MSU needs to stop beating itself

September, 21, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The end result, which is all that matters, looked dishearteningly similar for Michigan State.

Stop me if you'd heard it before: an impressive (yet takeaway-less) defensive performance wasted, a smattering of special-teams shortcomings, an offense unable to finish drives, catch enough passes or make enough clutch plays ... and a few points shy of a momentum-building win. Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season, failing to make up the inches coach Mark Dantonio often talks about, the ones separating wins and losses.

It would be easy to file Saturday's 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame with last year's near misses. The Spartans couldn't quite overcome the Irish, some trigger-happy officials (more on them later) and, ultimately, themselves.

The outcome looked familiar, but it didn't feel that way.

"It does not feel the same," Dantonio said. "I don't know how it feels. You lose a close game, it's tough. Last year against Notre Dame, I felt like we were completely outplayed [in a 20-3 loss]. ... I felt like this time, we were [in the game] right down to the end."

The Spartans were more than in the game. They outperformed Notre Dame in several areas, finishing with more first downs (19-14) and more yards (254-224). A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense entered the red zone just once in the second half.

But the Fighting Irish held the edge in the only category that matters.

"Obviously Notre Dame won the game," Dantonio said, "so you have to say they outplayed us."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's DBs played tough in coverage, but that toughness too often resulted in pass interference penalties.
Michigan State's toughest opponent Saturday, other than the Big Ten officiating crew, was itself. The Spartans had four possessions reach the red zone but emerged with only 13 points. Kevin Muma hooked a 30-yard field-goal attempt on MSU's first series. After reaching the Irish 14-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went backwards, losing five yards on a rush and another five on a false start penalty.

MSU's most painful SIW -- that's self-inflicted wound, for the coaching cliche-challenged -- came late in the third quarter, at a time when the offense seemed to have a rhythm, especially on the ground. Facing first-and-10 from its own 47-yard line with the game tied at 10-10, Michigan State went razzle dazzle, putting the ball in the hands of true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton, who threw deep downfield into double coverage. Irish safety Matthias Farley made the easy interception.

The Spartans lost possession -- and momentum.

No, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't hack into Michigan State's playbook. The call actually came from Dantonio, who has a defensive background but has summoned some memorable trick plays in the past, including the "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in 2010.

"We had a little bit of rhythm, but I also thought we needed a big play," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "We needed to be able to go down the field, which we had not been able to do. They were overplaying RJ because he's run some jet sweeps in the first three games. I thought it was the right time."

Michigan State fans will question the decision, but they have far more questions for the officials, who called 10 penalties on the Spartans, including four pass interference penalties and defensive holding.

Three of the fouls extended drives that led to Notre Dame touchdowns. One nullified a Darqueze Dennard interception. None of the P.I. penalties was an obvious mauling. Spartans defenders weren't out of position.

Dantonio didn't directly criticize the officials but defended the defensive backs' technique -- "We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said -- and their right to go after the ball.

Asked if he had ever seen so many P.I. calls, Dantonio said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."

Notre Dame repeatedly challenged Michigan State with back-shoulder throws. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt if they weren't completed, a flag likely would fly.

"We'll continue to do what we do," Dennard said, "basically press, man up, and we do what we do."

Spartans defensive tackle Tyler Hoover admitted the penalties were tough to handle, but maintained that, "You've got to make plays. It's not the refs. It's going to be us, all the time."

Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan State's nationally ranked defense did enough. Three times, it forced Notre Dame punts in the fourth quarter, giving the offense a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The offense had a total of one first down and 20 net yards on those possessions. But the earlier drives, the ones that went deep into Notre Dame territory, stung more.

"We've got to score touchdowns," quarterback Connor Cook said. "It's the name of the game."

Cook was pulled for the game's final possession in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incomplete passes before trying to scramble on fourth-and-20. Although Cook had taken a hit to his shoulder, the injury didn't play a role in the decision.

"I was a little disappointed," Cook said. "They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that."

Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told Cook afterward that Cook remains the No. 1 signal caller. Dantonio was noncommittal.

"That's something we'll have to answer at a later date," he told ESPN.com. "The only thing I can tell you is you better do something with the football. At some point in time, 13's not enough."

Michigan State has two weeks to sort out its quarterback situation, two weeks to build on a surprisingly solid rushing performance, two weeks to clean up the kicking game and find ways to complement suffocating defense with takeaways after recording eight in the first three games. The Spartans can be a dangerous team in a wide-open Big Ten, especially without Ohio State or Wisconsin on their schedule.

Dantonio and his players were proud of Saturday's performance, despite the result. And it could be a springboard.

"All our goals are still in front of us," Dennard said. "We still can go to Indy for the Big Ten championship game."

Michigan State will have to get past Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and the rest of a formidable Legends division to reach Naptown.

Its biggest obstacle is still itself.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:

1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.

2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.

3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.

5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns: Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."

6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.

7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.

8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.

9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.

10. Erasing the question marks: Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.

New Spartans QB order: Cook then Terry

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
3:30
PM ET
The Michigan State quarterback competition has taken yet another twist, with true freshman (and already fan favorite) Damion Terry getting a strong look this week in practice.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who has played three quarterbacks in two games without settling on a No. 1 guy, said on Tuesday that sophomore Connor Cook would go into practice as the starter. He started last week vs. South Florida and completed 6-of-11 passes for 32 yards and shared time with Tyler O'Connor and Andrew Maxwell.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
AP Photo/Al GoldisSophomore Connor Cook has a tenuous hold on the Michigan State starting QB job.
The twist is that Terry will enter practice as Cook's backup, putting him in line to see his first collegiate action against Youngstown State on Saturday. Dantonio said Terry likely would have gotten this opportunity last week, but he was dealing with a case of strep throat and a bruised hand.

"I do think, based on Damion's performance in the summer in the one practice, his performance as of late, he deserves an opportunity to show what he can do in practice," Dantonio said.

However, Dantonio said the "situation still needs to be managed delicately," because he is hesitant to burn Terry's redshirt unless he's sure the youngster is ready. Asked what Terry needs to show this week to prove that, Dantonio said, "Really, we've just got to see an absence of mistakes. The elementary mistakes. Can he control the offense, playcalling, getting in and out of certain checks? We have a system for him that's pared down a little bit, but we have to see hm operate and function successfully in practice."

Why is Cook still the starter despite numbers that were not appreciably different than Maxwell or O'Connor?

"He has shown the ability to run a little bit," Dantonio said. "He hit a big play to [Aaron] Burbridge on thirdand20. Runs for the first down. He's run a couple other times for first downs. I'm not saying it's perfect. But I think he's the guy right now."

Dantonio also said that Maxwell, a fifth-year senior, is so experienced that he doesn't need that many reps in practice to be ready to play, while Cook and Terry need as many practice as they can get. O'Connor, who seemed like the candidate du jour just a week ago, has apparently fallen behind. He moved the offense fairly well on his series against USF but nearly threw an interception into the end zone.

"We' can't make the very basic of mistakes," said Dantonio, who noted that O'Connor has also made mental blunders in practice.

The Spartans' QB derby has become a weekly sideshow, and Dantonio knows it needs to get fixed. Michigan State is last out of 123 FBS teams in passing yards per attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and is among the bottom in just about every other passing statistic. The team has produced just two offensive touchdowns in two games.

Dantonio said he realizes the process of settling on a quarterback is taking longer than fans want. But he also said it's a big decision that he wants to make sure he gets right. He's waiting for one player to "seize the moment."

"We've got to find a rhythm," he said. "I also believe that it will turn when we do. There will be a momentum surge, not just for the offense but for our entire football team. That will re-energize this football team to its capacity. That's what we've got to look to do."
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.
Michigan State is changing things up at quarterback, as expected.

Sophomore Connor Cook will make his first career start vs. South Florida on Saturday, and redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor will be his backup. Michigan State also announced that O'Connor, who didn't play in the opener, will see action at some point. Damion Terry, a true freshman, doesn't figure to play this week.

Andrew Maxwell, who has started the past 14 games at quarterback, including last week's opener, will be on the sidelines watching. This doesn't necessarily signal an end to the Maxwell era, as it appears that the Spartans just want to see what they have in Cook and O'Connor. But if one or both of those guys plays well today, then Maxwell might have a tough road finding playing time again.

A change is both understandable and sensible, given how much Michigan State has scuffled in the passing game since the start of last season. Is Cook the answer? He has shown flashes but not sustained consistency. Fans are anxious to get a look at O'Connor, a tall, athletic passer who impressed at times in the preseason.

Spartans fans got the change they were looking for. We'll find out shortly whether that change brings renewed hope.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
4:30
PM ET
As you read this, I'll be en route to Ann Arbor. Anything going on tomorrow night?

Remember, Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Alex from Charlottesville, Va., writes: Adam, there is some talk going around saying Michigan needs to replace the Notre Dame game with an annual series against another big-time opponent. Who do you think would be the most ideal candidate(s)? What about the most realistic? I like the idea of a Michigan/ACC matchup (VT, Florida State and Clemson all seem like they could be great rivalries). Living in ACC country there really hasn't been much overlap between the two conferences. I feel like we see the SEC/Pac-12/Big 12 a lot during the bowl season.

Adam Rittenberg: Alex, I'd rather see a variety of opponents for Michigan than just one on an annual basis. The Notre Dame series was unique because of the schools' histories, their proximity and other factors. Wouldn't you rather see Michigan play a home-and-home with Florida State, followed by one with Virginia Tech, and then one with Clemson? The Virginia Tech series is already set for 2020 and 2021. The upside of the Notre Dame hiatus is that Michigan can mix it up with its opponents. I'd like to see the Wolverines play some prominent Pac-12 schools in non-league play (Stanford, UCLA, USC).



Nick from Howard, Ohio, writes: Listening to sports radio locally an interesting question came up: of the out-of-conference games Ohio State has, which conference would fans like to see them play annually? I think this could include all B1G teams. Personally, I'd like to see Ohio State play an SEC team every year as one of the first games of the season, as well as all B1G teams. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: I'd love to see it, too, Nick, as the SEC will be the measuring stick for every other conference until someone dethrones it for a national title. Unfortunately, what we'd like to see in scheduling often doesn't match up with reality. Most SEC programs have shown no interest in venturing to Big Ten country for true home-and-homes (Alabama being the lone exception). They'll do neutral-site games, typically those closer to SEC country like at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but there's not much push to play the Big Ten.

The playoff will help with overall scheduling and we've already seen several good moves, including those with the SEC (Wisconsin opens against LSU in 2014 and 2016, and against Alabama in 2015). One drawback with Ohio State is that athletic director Gene Smith seems lukewarm at best about neutral-site games, which often are the best way to schedule high-profile SEC opponents. I could see the Buckeyes playing a neutral-site game every once in a while, but with the nine-game Big Ten scheduling coming, facing the SEC annually doesn't seem realistic.



Dan from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Thought I'd write in from over at the Big 12 blog today. Going through the Big 12's future bowl lineup, there are no games against Big 10 teams. Living in Big 10/12 country in Iowa, I look forward to those matchups. Is there some sort of rift between the two conferences that we're unaware of, or is this simply a matter of the Big 12 trying to increase its matchups with the SEC and the Big 10 with the Pac-12/ACC? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a shame the Big Ten and Big 12 won't meet in the postseason beginning next year. I thought they would match up in the two Dallas-area bowls (Heart of Dallas, Armed Forces), but it sounds as if they'll actually share those tie-ins but go against other leagues (Conference USA, American). It's the only thing I don't like about the Big Ten's lineup, as I felt a push into California was long overdue and much needed. The problem with the recent Big Ten-Big 12 bowl pairings has been mismatched teams. It always seemed like a mediocre Big Ten team would face a Big 12 squad that entered the season with BCS bowl aspirations. The results have been pretty ugly for the Big Ten. If the two leagues could match up in a higher-tier bowl like the Alamo, it would be great, but the Pac-12 has replaced the Big Ten there. Just an unfortunate situation, but there's no bad blood I'm aware of between the leagues. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is a Big Ten guy (former Iowa athletic director).



Misplaced Gopher from Fargo, N.D., writes: Adam, I need you to explain something to me. Why are so many writers and TV talking heads willing to project improvement for Indiana but not for Minnesota? Why the reluctance to credit the Gophers for improvements in personnel, execution and wins? All summer we've heard encouraging words about Indiana, but Minnesota's future has been downplayed. Now I'm looking at your Week 2 picks (both yours and Brian's) and you're both making their game against NMSU a close affair. Why is it so easy for you to see Indiana getting better, but so hard to perceive any improvement on Minnesota's part? Case in point: Indiana gets gushing praise from all quarters for blowing out a bad FCS team last week, but Minnesota gets criticism or faint praise for a four-touchdown win against a team that took them to triple OT last year. Personally, I think it's a lack of imagination. Not in the dreamy la-la-land sense, but in terms of vision. You commentators have a lot to keep track of, and your job is easier if you can generalize. So you embrace a herd mentality, rarely expressing an opinion different from the consensus, assuming (for the sake of ease) that bad teams have to stay bad, and considering it a surprise if any down program ever improves.What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: A Minnesota-Indiana hype debate?!?! Bring it on! Seriously, Gopher, I'm surprised you're getting upset by this. Is Indiana really getting that much more praise than Minnesota? Maybe a little, but look where Indiana is coming from (1-11 in 2011), while Minnesota has stabilized under coach Jerry Kill following the Tim Brewster mess. Both programs are viewed as being on the rise, at least by the Big Ten blog. But the truth is neither team deserves a ton of praise for beating lowly UNLV and Indiana State.

The Minnesota score was misleading, as the Gophers sputtered on offense for much of the night and couldn't stop UNLV on fourth downs. Credit Minnesota for making big plays, especially on special teams, and Ra'Shede Hageman looks ready for a huge senior season. But you're deluding yourself if you think there isn't a lot of room for improvement. Indiana looked great on offense, but it should against Indiana State. And the Hoosiers' historically poor defense still allowed some garbage-time points. Do our Minnesota-NM State predictions really bother you? They shouldn't. Neither of these teams deserves any real praise until they go out and beat somebody. For Minnesota, the big game comes on Sept. 21 against San Jose State and standout quarterback David Fales. We'll learn a lot more about the Gophers' trajectory after that contest.



Paul from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Ohio State only ran 69 plays Saturday against Buffalo. Is this the "Jet Tempo" pace Meyer has been talking about? When Oregon is running 84 plays a game, 69 is pretty slow if you ask me.

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State is not Oregon, Paul. The Buckeyes aren't trying to be the Ducks on offense. Urban Meyer has said that the 2012 season was the first time he really used a hurry-up tempo with his offense, and even then, it's not at the core of what they do. Sure, it'll help from time to time, but Ohio State's version of the spread -- based around the power-running game and vertical passes -- differs sharply from Oregon's sped-up version.



Chris from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: My question is in relation to the QB situation at MSU, obviously a popular topic. How many QBs do you project will play on Saturday and which ones? I have been a loyal Spartan fan for about 14 years, and I have never seen MSU struggle so much finding the right QB. Also, considering all of the MSU QBs that went on to play in the NFL, this problem is hard to fathom.

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, you're certainly not alone in your frustration with the situation under center in East Lansing. I expect Michigan State to play three quarterbacks against South Florida: Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor. There's a chance the Spartans play only one or two if the starter or backup gets hot, but I think the coaches need to evaluate all three in game situations before the Week 4 trip to Notre Dame Stadium. Maxwell has been unable to take charge of the job, and Cook didn't do much to help his cause last week against Western Michigan. I expect O'Connor to get an extended look against South Florida. It's probably not Damion Terry time just yet, as coach Mark Dantonio seems concerned about hurting the confidence of such a young player. "He just got here," Dantonio said this week. "So you don't want to ruin a person."



Rich from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, help me out with this no-helmet rule. Last week, OSU's Curtis Grant was flagged for continuing to play after his helmet popped off. Is he supposed to just freeze and risk taking a hit that could lead to a serious injury (especially with no helmet on)? I can understand him sitting out on the next play, but a 15-yard penalty?

Adam Rittenberg: The rule states that if a player's helmet pops off, he cannot attempt to make a tackle, continue a block or keep running a pass route. So yes, he has to just freeze because he could risk a serious head injury. The thinking is that the injury risk for a player who freezes isn't as great as the one for a player attempting to make a tackle without a helmet. That, to me, makes sense. The rules are a little weird because the play is whistled dead only if the ball-carrier's helmet flies off, so the rule applying to Grant hurts the defense because he's effectively taken out of the play.



Aaron from Minneapolis writes: So I realize that it is just one week, but did this weekend show that maybe the ban on FCS opponents was a bit off the mark? Sure, most FCS programs are still not up to facing Big Ten competition, but the last few seasons have shown that the top-tier FCS football teams have closed the gap on their FBS counterparts considerably, and teams like North Dakota State and Eastern Washington could probably consider themselves better than a number of non-BCS conferences teams that the Big Ten will continue to schedule. I realize that money and TV ratings play into all this, but I guarantee that an NDSU game against Iowa or Minnesota would garner more attention locally than one against New Mexico State or Ball State.

Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, I wrote about the FCS success in Week 1, and I completely agree that some of the power programs at that level are superior to the bottom rung of the FBS. The tricky thing is how to regulate the scheduling. Do you identify a set of FCS teams (North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Northern Iowa) that are OK to schedule? Those teams can change from year to year, and teams projected to do well can falter and create unappealing matchups. I think the Big Ten views it as an all-or-nothing deal. The league understands Minnesota-North Dakota State resonates more than Minnesota-New Mexico State, but if it eliminates the really lousy FCS teams from the Big Ten schedule, it's a win in the long run.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
5:00
PM ET
One week of actual football in the books means I've got a mailbag full of actual football questions. Life is good.

Greyson from Visiting San Fran writes: Sitting here, watching the Northwestern game and the Northwestern defensive players seemingly going down to stop momentum of Cal, do you think there will ever be a time where the NCAA will set in motion a rule that prevents this from happening (a player going down from an "injury," then returning a play or two later)? Perhaps forcing the player to sit out the entire series before returning? I don't remember this being much of an issue until the past season or two, but it not only slows the game down but seems to be an unfair loophole in the system for stopping the clock and slowing momentum.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern wasn't the only team accused of faking injuries last weekend to slow down tempo. Georgia also dealt with similar charges against Clemson, though both Pat Fitzgerald and Georgia's Mark Richt denied doing it. It's a very tricky question because it involves intent. Do we really want to regulate so that if a key player legitimately turns an ankle or has the wind knocked out of them, that he has to sit on the sidelines for an entire series in a potentially crucial situation? Perhaps a rule like that could work, if given the exception that the player could return immediately if there was a timeout.

But asking officials to judge whether an injury is real or fake seems like a dicey proposition to me. We're already putting a lot on their judgment calls, including the very controversial targeting penalty. This reminds me a lot of flopping in soccer and basketball; fans hate it, and the sports have tried to find ways to deal with it, but they have succeeded only partially because determining intent is so difficult. A blatant fake injury should be worth at least a delay-of-game penalty. But even the act of throwing a penalty, announcing it and setting up the play again slows down no-huddle offenses.


Tyler L. from Livonia, Mich., writes: I have a question about MSU, which is surprising because of my religious following of Michigan. But if little brother isn't playing Michigan, then I'd like MSU to win as much as possible. However, after Sparty's poor performance against Western Michigan, should they be hitting the panic button? While their defense was impressive and Jeremy Langford seemed promising, the offense could not move the ball, the pass blocking was poor, the play calling was unimaginative, Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook couldn't move the chains and the receivers showed little improvement from last year. So shouldn't Sparty fans pretty worried?

Brian Bennett: Yes and no. No, because the defense is once again so good, and from the looks of the Western Michigan game, more geared up toward generating sacks and turnovers. Michigan State has a chance to be in just about every game as it was a year ago. Yes, because the offense does not look any better than last season and could possibly be even worse because there's no Le'Veon Bell or Dion Sims around. I wonder if Mark Dantonio will regret not hiring a hotshot offensive coordinator from outside the program when he had the chance, because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Still, it's only one week, and if you'll recall, even the 2011 Spartans struggled out of the gate offensively. I don't think this offense can match the one led by Kirk Cousins that year, but there are some young playmakers that Dantonio and his staff can develop. Reaching mediocrity on offense is all it will really take for this team to succeed.


George G. from Parts Unknown writes: Brian, do you think the Buckeyes' favorable schedule of weak competition will work for them or against them? Strength of schedule points should definitely work against them, but an undefeated record of pounding these lesser teams should keep them in the hunt the the national championship. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: Well, it's certainly not going to help, and it was disappointing to see this week's opponent, San Diego State, lose to FCS Eastern Illinois in its opener. The strength of schedule argument basically hurts Ohio State in any tiebreaker argument. If the Buckeyes are being compared to another undefeated power-conference team, the nonconference schedule could easily tilt the choice away from them. On the plus side, if Ohio State goes undefeated, it's going to be awfully hard to keep them out of the BCS title game unless there is more than one undefeated major conference champion, which is still a rarity. The other issue for Ohio State is that by having a weak schedule, there is pressure on the team to not just win, but to win in highly impressive fashion. Beating Buffalo 40-20 only brings out critics, and voters responded by moving Oregon -- who beat a pretty hapless FCS team in Nicholls State -- ahead of Ohio State in this week's poll. Those same voters will be looking to see Ohio State emphatically put away San Diego State this weekend after what the Aztecs did.


Devin from Vegas writes: All right, Bennett, so now you're officially on record as having IU beating Purdue, making a bowl game and Coach Wilson winning the B1G COY award. So if the improbable does indeed happen, riddle me this: Will Coach Wilson be on IU's sidelines next season? I would appreciate some odds that Wilson is at IU next year if all this does happen and if we wake up from this dream and real life intervenes?

Brian Bennett: This is the problem when you're at a program of Indiana's current stature. If you hire a coach who can elevate you quickly back to respectability, other schools will come after that coach. I know that Kevin Wilson is focused on getting the job done at Indiana and that athletic director Fred Glass and the school have made a major commitment to football, including impressive upgrades to the facilities there. But you have to wonder when Wilson is calling for fans to show up for games and the stands still aren't packed for last week's opener, and his offensive style of play will be very attractive to potential suitors. The Hoosiers have the money to match most offers; the question will be whether Wilson truly feels he can compete for championships in Bloomington or if he'll want a bigger challenge. Right now, though, the only task that matters is getting Indiana back to the postseason.


Matt from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi, Brian. After watching Indiana last week, I feel that this team could potentially challenge for a New Year's Day bowl. Am I wrong about this? Their out-of-conference schedule is tough, but they should be able to outscore all four of their opponents. In the conference, you have to think they get wins over PSU, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota just on offensive prowess alone. They probably won't beat OSU, Wisky or Michigan, but you have to think their offense has to chops to down low-scoring Sparty. If so, are we talking a 9-win team in a NYD bowl for the Hoosiers? I can't find a defense on their schedule that will hold them under 28 points.

Brian Bennett: Two optimistic Indiana questions in one mailbag! The Hoosiers are definitely creating some buzz. Let's take a deep breath first and remember that the Hoosiers played Indiana State last Thursday, but you're right to be excited over that offense Wilson has put together. If you want to dream of a New Year's Day bowl, I mean I guess it is possible; after all, the Heart of Dallas Bowl is played on Jan. 1. I'm still worried about that defense, which had its lapses in the opener, and future nonconference opponents Missouri and Bowling Green each looked good in their first games. Navy won't be easy this week, either. I agree with you that Indiana should be favored over Illinois, Purdue and quite possibly Minnesota, but Penn State is another matter. I still see this team getting to a bowl, but nine-win talk seems wildly ambitious at this point.


J.P. from Washington, D.C., writes: I promise I'm not bashing the refs, just looking for an explanation of the rules: In the Nebraska-Wyoming game, NU defensive end Randy Gregory was penalized 15 yards for "roughing the passer" on a play when he tackled the quarterback while the QB still had possession of the football. Gregory was not penalized for "targeting" or for leading with his helmet, he was not penalized for a "horse collar" tackle, and he was not penalized for a "hit on a defenseless player." Under what conditions (other than those I just described) is it considered "roughing" when tackling the QB while he still has possession of the football?

Brian Bennett: It was a very strange call, but apparently the referee simply said the wrong thing in announcing the penalty. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Monday that the officials told him that Gregory was actually called for unnecessary roughness when he sacked Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith. Gregory hit Smith up near the neck, and in our new-age football times, that was enough to draw a flag. Pelini obviously disagreed with the call, and the "roughing" announcement was silly. Remember, it was the first week for the refs, too.


TJ from Ashland, Wis., writes: I know it's UMass, but didn't you think that Wisconsin's O-line looked solid? I don't know that I noticed one badly missed assignment or any problems at left tackle, or silly penalties? I know the success of the running game had much to do with ... you know, UMass. However, it looked a bit more dynamic to me. So what are your thoughts when considering, in the spirit of the saying "that a running back does more for an offensive line than the reverse," could you argue that the three tailbacks for Wisconsin might improve the overall running game from last year with Montee Ball? I know what Montee did during his time at UW, but I also know how many UW linemen went to the NFL during that time.

Brian Bennett: Of course, we have to take into consideration the strength of the opponent. But Wisconsin's offensive line certainly looked better and more cohesive than what we saw from it in the first few weeks of last season, when it was such a mess that Bret Bielema made a rare, in-season coaching change at the position. Gary Andersen said Tuesday that the line, as well as the tight ends and fullbacks, played really well and that all three positions were a big key in springing three 100-yard rushers (Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement). The Badgers play an FCS opponent this week and won't really show their true colors until Week 3 at Arizona State. But I think it's legitimate to say the overall running game can be better this year because of the O-line. The one worry: There is a lack of depth if injuries occur.


TJ from Elkhorn, Wis., writes: Between the handling of Dan Persa two years ago and Venric Mark this year, have my Wildcats become the New England Patriots of college football when it comes to injury reports? Also, over/under on when we find out what Venric's issue really is? I'll set it at Jan. 2 and take the over.

Brian Bennett: Well, at least we all knew that Persa had an injury, though we didn't realize the severity. The oddity with Mark is that I didn't hear or read anywhere that he was hurt. Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats did a remarkable job keeping that under wraps, especially considering that they have open practice sessions. We still don't know what Mark's injury is and might not find out what it is for a long, long time. Fitzgerald is generally a very open and honest coach, but when it comes to protecting injury information about players who can so dramatically change the course of a game and the other team's preparations, I can't criticize him for that.


Drew from Lafayette, Ind., writes: After the Boilermakers' major collapse in Cincinnati, what're your thoughts on the team and how they can bounce back?

Brian Bennett: Darrell Hazell said Tuesday that after watching the film, he was convinced that "there's a good team in our locker room." A wiseacre like me might joke that the good team needs to clear out before the Boilermakers get ready for their next practice. But in all seriousness, I definitely think Purdue is a lot better team than what it showed on Saturday, where things really snowballed in the second half. Chalk it up to the first game under a new staff and what Hazell called some communication issues. There is enough talent on the roster that the Boilers will improve and play a whole lot better than they did in Week 1. The problem is the brutal and unrelenting schedule after this week's Indiana State game. I just don't see many wins in the next two months.


Lucas C. from Pittsburgh writes: Good call... I bet Iowa loses to NIU. Way to pay attention to what Iowa has done to improve. Get your head out of OSU's and Michigan's ---. Iowa wins by two TDs.

Brian Bennett: The lesson here is if you're going to send me this type of email on a Friday, you'd better be very, very sure of your team's success. I was 12-0 in my picks this week. Just sayin'.
Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Pencils ready? Class is in session ...

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in Penn State's win over Syracuse.
1. Big Ten quarterback mysteries partially solved: Week 1 provided some clues about the Big Ten's cloudy quarterback picture, but a few mysteries remain. True freshman Christian Hackenberg looks like the long-term answer at Penn State. Although he had a few shaky moments, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and showcased a big-time arm on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis early in the fourth quarter of the Lions' win against Syracuse. Joel Stave got the start for Wisconsin and re-established himself with a mostly solid performance against Massachusetts, twice finding top receiver Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns. Jake Rudock's collegiate debut ended with a costly interception, but the Iowa sophomore showed some positive signs against Northern Illinois, passing for 256 yards. Iowa has something to build on with Rudock. Indiana might lack a definitive starter, but the Hoosiers have multiple options with Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cam Coffman. Sudfeld, who played most of the opener and fired four touchdown passes, may end up being the answer for IU. Things are much shaker for Michigan State and Purdue, as both teams struggled at the quarterback spot in their openers. The Spartans likely will continue to play multiple signal-callers, while Rob Henry's starting spot at Purdue could be in jeopardy if he doesn't take better care of the ball.

2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...

3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.

4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.

5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.

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