Big Ten: Charlie Gantt

About once a week, a student at Fairfield Christian Academy pokes his head into the athletic director's office and relays a recent realization.

"He'll stop in and say, 'I didn't know you threw a fake pass against Notre Dame,'" Aaron Bates said.

[+] EnlargeMike Sadler
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIMike Sadler executed a fake punt, "Hey Diddle Diddle," to perfection against Iowa earlier this season.
More than three years after the play known as "Little Giants," Bates is reminded of his signature moment at Michigan State. In September 2010, the Spartans trailed Notre Dame 31-28 in overtime when Bates, the team's punter and holder, threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt on a fake field goal to win the game.

"We'll talk about [the play] a little bit, and then they'll go on their way," said Bates, who became Fairfield Christian Academy's athletic director this spring. "And then the next week, I'll have a new kid come in. It's something."

Indeed, Michigan State's knack for calling trick plays is something. It has become a hallmark of Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and the program, partly because of the playful names attached to the plays, but mostly because they've worked so well.

Michigan State employed its latest fake last week at Nebraska when it lined up for a field goal but instead sent punter Mike Sadler on the move. Sadler picked up a first down, and the Spartans eventually scored a touchdown in a 41-28 win.

Sadler's dash placed "Charlie Brown" in the glorious glossary with "Hey Diddle Diddle," "Mouse Trap" and, of course, "Little Giants" -- previous Spartans fakes that led to big wins.

"Our players like to see us take a calculated risk," Dantonio said. "We don't want to do it every game. We've done it twice in 10 games, we did it once last year, so it’s not like we’re doing these things every week.

"It's just a part of who we are."

Dantonio isn't sure how the tricks trademark evolved but credits the success to his players. Bates recalls executing a successful fake field goal against Indiana in 2007, and how Dantonio then wanted to run one every week.

The reputation grew in 2010 with "Little Giants" and "Mouse Trap," a fake punt pass from Bates to Bennie Fowler that helped Michigan State erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at Northwestern.

"That was kind of the breakout year for the trick plays," Sadler said. "In the past, they ran a couple fakes, but 2010 was ‘Little Giants,’ ‘Mousetrap’ and everything. That's when we became known for it because of the magnitude of those two plays."

Michigan State runs through the fakes at every practice during the special teams portion of the workout. The Spartans enter games with "at least a dozen in our back pocket," according to Sadler, but the plays actually used are based largely on opponent and situation.

"We create them as we go," Dantonio said.

A fake punt sweep employed last season against Michigan, nicknamed "Sandlot," wasn't practiced during the week but still worked as Sadler raced for 26 yards.

"There's always some base ones, plays that will work against any look," Sadler said. "And then every week, there's one or two specific looks. We just try to play according to their tendencies. That's why the one at Iowa worked ['Hey Diddle Diddle'], because they turn their backs. Same with Northwestern, when we ran 'Mouse Trap.'

"But that same fake wouldn't work against a bunch of other teams in the Big Ten."

The famous fakes enhance the profiles of often overlooked specialists like Bates and Sadler, good friends who compare stats. Bates finished his career with a passer rating of 400.4, while Sadler averages 18 yards per carry.

MSU's coaches make the planning process interactive, encouraging players to brainstorm plays and names for them. Sadler is still waiting for one of his ideas to be used in a game.

"Mike has a tendency to have a few over-the-top suggestions," special teams coach Mike Tressel said, laughing. "There's no doubt we have fun with coming up with them and naming them. The kids get into it."

So does Dantonio. He's a defensive-minded coach who comes from the typically conservative Jim Tressel coaching tree, but his penchant for trick plays shows a different side.

Even the playful names like "Mouse Trap" ("We had to get them to take the cheese," Dantonio joked afterward) and "Hey Diddle Diddle" (send Sadler up the middle) point to a sense of humor Bates describes as unique.

"Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people," Sadler said, "but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks."

The Spartans' top-rated defense makes it easier to gamble, but Dantonio often calls fakes in the fourth quarter, with the Spartans trailing and with the ball in MSU territory.

Opponents are aware of MSU's trick record. As Michigan prepared to face Michigan State, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com, "I'm sure Mark's got something for this week."


Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people, but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks.


-- Mike Sadler on Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
But the knowledge rarely helps. Dantonio said Nebraska looked ready for "Charlie Brown" but still couldn't prevent a first down. After "Hey Diddle Diddle" worked against Iowa, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz lamented, "We may never try to return one again."

Predicting when and where Michigan State will run a fake is futile, even for those closely involved.

"There's times you might feel like he's in the mood and this is the right time and he doesn't do it," Tressel said. "Other times, you're shocked that he does do it. I suppose if he’s keeping us on our toes and we don't know, that means the other guys can't know, either."

It's unlikely Dantonio has emptied his bag of tricks for the 2013 season. Don't be surprised if he has something ready if Michigan State returns to the Big Ten title game.

"He wants to win," Bates said. "He thinks the ground-and-pound and the conservative mentality is probably good for the most part, but you do have to take those risks here and there if you want to be a champion."

Did you know? Big Ten in Week 3

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
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Some notes and nuggets to hopefully make you smarter as you check out Big Ten action in Week 3. Thanks to the ESPN Stats & Info crew, as well as sports information staffs around the league for these.
  • Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell has gained 39.6 percent (111 of 280) of his yards after contact this season. Bell gained 84 or his 210 yards (40 percent) against Boise State and 27 of his 70 yards (39.6 percent) against Central Michigan after contact. Bell is averaging 5.6 yards per rush when there are six or fewer defenders in the box. That number drops by 2.1 yards when there are seven or more defenders in the box.
  • Wisconsin's 10-7 loss to Oregon State was the first regular-season non-conference loss for head coach Bret Bielema. His 25 straight regular-season nonconference wins marked the second best start to a career by a Big Ten head coach. Bielema trails only Michigan's Fielding Yost, who started 41-0 in nonconference games from 1901-06.
  • Through two games, Nebraska has posted an average gain of 7.8 yards on first down. The Huskers have had 71 first-down plays this season and totaled 553 yards, producing 52 percent of their total yards on first down. Nebraska racked up 359 yards on 38 first-down snaps in the season opener against Southern Miss, averaging 9.4 yards on first down. Against UCLA last Saturday, the Huskers gained 194 yards on 33 first-down snaps, an average of 5.9 yards per play.
  • Iowa's defense has allowed only 19 points on seven red-zone trips by opposing offenses through the first two games. The Hawkeyes recorded three red-zone takeaways against Iowa State last week (2 fumbles, 1 interception). On the flip side, Iowa's offense has yet to score a touchdown in six red-zone possessions this season.
  • Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson completes 66.2 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and one interception when taking the snap under center. He completes 56.4 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and 32 interceptions when not under center. Robinson had 10 rushes against Air Force last Saturday during which he did not get touched until at-least five yards past the line of scrimmage, the second most in his career. He had 11 in Week 3 last season against Eastern Michigan.
  • Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller averages eight yards per rush on scrambles during his career with 17 of his 51 runs gaining 10 yards or more. Miller most frequently takes off on third down with 21.9 percent of his third down drop-backs ending in scrambles. Those third-down scrambles have led to 11 first downs for the Buckeyes.
  • Penn State is facing a program record 10 teams that played in bowl games last season, with five games at home. Navy, which visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday, was 5-7 last season and had played in eight consecutive bowl games before missing by one win in 2011. Penn State is 18-17-2 all-time against Navy and 41-37-5 all-time against the four FBS independents (Navy, Notre Dame, Army and BYU).
  • Minnesota has four interceptions this season, already equaling its total from last season. Derrick Wells picked off two passes and Brock Vereen had one interception at UNLV. Martez Shabazz notched his first career interception against New Hampshire. The Gophers are tied for eighth nationally in interceptions. However, they have only one return yard, which is the fewest of the 13 teams who have four or more interceptions this season.
  • Michigan State has won four straight night games in Spartan Stadium, including two on the last play of the game. Against Notre Dame in 2010, Aaron Bates' 29-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Gantt off a fake field goal gave MSU a 34-31 overtime victory. Against Wisconsin in 2010, Kirk Cousins completed a 44-yard Hail Mary pass to Keith Nichol on the final play of regulation. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is 5-1 in night games played in Spartan Stadium.
  • With a come-from-behind 23-13 victory against Vanderbilt in Week 2, Northwestern's streak of consecutive home victories against nonconference foes reached 11 games, the 15th-longest active streak among FBS programs. The Wildcats have not lost to a team from outside the Big Ten at Ryan Field since falling to Duke on Sept. 15, 2007.
  • Illinois has controlled time of possession in both of its games this season, owning a margin of more than 11 minutes against both Western Michigan (35:02-24:58) and Arizona State (35:15-24:44). The Illini rank sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten (after Michigan State) in time of possession (35:09).
  • Indiana held one opponent under 20 points last season. In its first two wins in 2012, IU has surrendered 17 points to Indiana State and six points to Massachusetts. Indiana last held an opponent in single digits back in 2008, a 45-3 victory over Murray State. The Hoosiers also held the Minutemen to 78 yards on the ground, the first time they held an opponent under the century mark since Nov. 27, 2010 (at Purdue, 58).
  • A season removed from needing seven games to amass at least seven sacks, Purdue has reached that total in merely two games after recording five against Notre Dame last weekend. Purdue enters the Eastern Michigan game tied for 13th nationally and tied for first in the Big Ten in sacks per game (3.5). Purdue's five sacks against Notre Dame equaled the season highs for each of the past four years.
As promised, here is an updated list of undrafted Big Ten players who have now found homes with NFL teams.

Players not included on the original list appear in bold.

ILLINOIS
  • CB Travon Bellamy, St. Louis Rams
  • WR Jarred Fayson: New Orleans Saints
  • G Randall Hunt: St. Louis Rams
  • WR/QB Eddie McGee: Oakland Raiders
  • DE Clay Nurse: New England Patriots
INDIANA
IOWA
  • P Ryan Donahue: Detroit Lions
  • LB Jeremiah Hunter: New Orleans Saints
  • TE Allen Reisner: Minnesota Vikings
  • LS Andrew Schulze: Atlanta Falcons
  • LB Jeff Tarpinian: New England Patriots
MICHIGAN
  • T Perry Dorrestein: New York Jets
  • CB James Rogers: Denver Broncos
  • TE Martell Webb: Philadelphia Eagles
MICHIGAN STATE
  • WR Mark Dell: Denver Broncos
  • TE Charlie Gantt: Kansas City Chiefs
  • LB Eric Gordon: Jacksonville Jaguars
  • T D.J. Young: Arizona Cardinals
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
  • K Adi Kunalic: Carolina Panthers
  • TE Mike McNeill: Indianapolis Colts
  • DE Pierre Allen: Seattle Seahawks
  • G Ricky Henry: Chicago Bears
  • QB Zac Lee: Seattle Seahawks
  • T D.J. Jones: Miami Dolphins
  • S Rickey Thenarse: Seattle Seahawks
NORTHWESTERN
  • DT Corbin Bryant: Chicago Bears
  • LB Quentin Davie: Detroit Lions
OHIO STATE
  • G Bryant Browning: St. Louis Rams
  • G Justin Boren: Baltimore Ravens
  • RB Brandon Saine: Green Bay Packers
  • WR Dane Sanzenbacher: Chicago Bears
  • DT Dexter Larimore: New Orleans Saints
  • CB Devon Torrence: Minnesota Vikings
PENN STATE
  • WR Brett Brackett: Miami Dolphins
  • LB Chris Colasanti: Indianapolis Colts
  • T Lou Eliades: Oakland Raiders
  • LB Bani Gbadyu: Oakland Raiders
  • DT Ollie Ogbu: Indianapolis Colts
PURDUE
WISCONSIN
It's one thing for Notre Dame to get punk'd by Michigan State on a fake field-goal attempt.

But the Spartans' own players? Yep, it happened Thursday.

The players on Michigan State's field-goal block team had to be kicking themselves (pun intended) after the second jersey scrimmage. The offense beat the defense 61-55 when backup quarterback Andrew Maxwell found tight end Garrett Celek for a 35-yard touchdown on a fake field-goal attempt on the final play of the 123-play scrimmage.

Just substitute Aaron Bates for Maxwell and Charlie Gantt for Celek, and you'd have "Little Giants" against Notre Dame.

Was this the sequel?

Maxwell's strike to Celek capped a strong scrimmage for the sophomore. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard strike to Chris D. Rucker.

Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins struggled, completing 14 of 23 passes for 140 yards with three interceptions. Cousins also had a rough time in the first spring scrimmage. While Captain Kirk has built up enough cred as a two-year starter and Spartans fans shouldn't be too worried, Cousins could use a better performance in next week's spring game.

Receivers B.J. Cunningham and Bennie Fowler both recorded five receptions Thursday.

Cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Trenton Robinson stood out for the defense as both men recorded five tackles and an interception.

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;

Big Ten mailblog

February, 15, 2011
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A ton of responses on the NU-NU debate, so I'll post those separately on Wednesday.

Keep the comments and questions comin'.

Alden from Chicago writes: Adam, No P?! Aaron Bates?!? Won the Notre Dame in OT with a 29yd TD pass to Gantt, a key punt fake to pass en route to a comeback win over Northwestern, plus consistent top tier production throughout the season. Highest production in the B1G with the highest avg yards/punt, 45yd/p, on 57 attempts. Very surprised he is not included given how much you spoke of him this season. Surprised to see no special teams personell in your top 25 at all. Any thoughts to share?

Adam Rittenberg: Alden, Bates had a special season and I strongly considered him for the rankings. His role in "Little Giants" and "Mouse Trap" won't soon be forgotten. Ultimately, I didn't feel Bates or any Big Ten specialist impacted games and their teams more than the 25 players I chose for the rankings. Special teams was a huge part of Michigan State's success this season, but Bates had help from Charlie Gantt and Bennie Fowler on those two trick plays. Other guys like Keshawn Martin and Denicos Allen also contributed to the Spartans' special teams heroics. If I had included a specialist, it would have been Bates, but there are other guys who did a little bit more.


Matthew from Atlanta writes: Adam, does ESPN or yourself not realize how hard it is to become the No. 1-ranked school in both football and men's basketball in the same academic year? Why does it seem like ESPN (or yourself) concentrate on the fact that Ohio State lost to Wisconsin and Florida, rather than actually look and see that Ohio State is the only school to be ranked No. 1 in both sports?Shouldn't that be commended, at least (or does ESPN just go with the usual script and just go with negativity towards anything Ohio State)?

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State deserves credit for its athletic success, and I think I've given the Buckeyes their due on this blog over the years. I did call them the Goliath of Big Ten athletics, a term no one can dispute right now. I know Buckeyes fans feel the media is often too negative toward their program, but it sort of comes with the territory. The wind blows harder at the top of the mountain, and successful programs are held to pretty high standards. What hurts Ohio State both in football and men's basketball is all the recent success has come without a national championship since 2002. Winning a national title will shut up a lot of folks who like to rag on the Scarlet and Gray.


Adam from Cabot, Ark., writes: Adam,Can you tell me if Chris Carter ever signed a LOI with Ohio State? I can't seem to find that information. Thank you!

Adam Rittenberg: No official announcement from Ohio State, Adam, but every indication is that Carter will sign with the Buckeyes in the near future. He told The Columbus Dispatch last week, "“I don’t know when I’m going to sign it, but I’m due." I'll post something when it's official.


Mikey from Minneapolis writes: As a Minnesota alum of both sports and academics (multiple times), I love the Gophers for all their successes and despite their all too frequent faults. It's hard to be a Gopher football fan some days, but the fact that so many of us still care so passionately and deeply says a lot about the U and the program and our love for our teams - all our teams, whatever the sport. It's a reminder that life doesn't always go your way, but you can count on those true to you, come what may. And there's a whole lot of Gopher fans that fit that description. Hard times just make the successes, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things, that much sweeter to savor. (See Nov. 27 in the ice and cold for an example.)Plus we've got the best mascot in all of sports. That Goldy is one handsome and charismatic rodent.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks for the note, Mikey. And I definitely agree on Goldy. Minnesota football faces some inherent challenges, but several pieces are in place for the team to have a breakthrough soon.


Brian from Tecumseh, Mich., writes: It's probably way too early to talk about this... but there's a long off-season to fill. With NU QB Dan Persa's amazing stats last year, tremendous work ethic, spectacular season-ending injury, and (hopefully) feel-good story of recovery and a huge senior year, is it reasonable to be fantasizing about a Persa for Heisman campaign? Setting aside the major question marks in his recovery, if he comes back strong this fall, is it reasonable to think he might be in the mix, or does Northwestern just not have a high enough profile in the sports media?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, a lot depends on Persa's recovery from a very serious injury, but it's fair to include him in the Heisman talk. Northwestern players have a tough time entering the national or regional consciousness, and when they have in recent years, they've been senior quarterbacks (Brett Basanez, Mike Kafka). Persa has another season to play and people know his name from what he did in 2010 and how his season ended (suffering the injury while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass). His story resonates, but he'll need to put up some insane numbers right from the get-go to keep his name in the Heisman mix.


Zach from Omaha, Neb., writes: How about the future heartbreak for us Nebraska fans when Bubba Starling chooses pro baseball and millions of dollars over the Big Red.

Adam Rittenberg: That's a good call, Zach. It would be a surprise if Starling turns down his opportunities in baseball to pursue football, but you never know, right? He'd certainly make the quarterback situation more interesting if he ends up in Lincoln this fall.

More Big Ten Shrine Game buzz

January, 21, 2011
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The East-West Shrine Game is right around the corner, and our experts have some more thoughts on the practices leading up to Saturday's contest.

Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien continued an impressive week Wednesday, earning some praise in the practice buzz blog Insider.

The Scouts Inc. crew writes: "He put a lot more zip on his passes and the ball was really coming off his hand well. He showed better than expected arm strength."

That's certainly a good sign for Tolzien, who must prove himself physically but has all the tools from the neck up to succeed in the NFL.

Big Ten tight ends Kyle Adams (Purdue) and Charlie Gantt (Michigan State) also made an impression during practice.
Adams did the best job of catching the ball. He is the most consistent route-runner and shows good focus in traffic. Gantt is the best blocker of the three. .... Adams and Gantt have a chance as late-round guys.

Good news for those guys. Adams merited a mention in Tuesday's practice blog Insider for his blocking.

I'll have a full recap how how the Big Ten contingent performed in the Shrine Game on Monday.

Top Big Ten moments from 2010

January, 18, 2011
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It's time to look back at some of the top moments from the 2010 Big Ten season. I struggled to get this down to just 10, but here are the moments that made the cut.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Charles LeClaire/US PressiwreJoe Paterno is the only FBS coach with 400 wins.
1. JoePa wins No. 400: It took a little longer than expected, but Penn State gave coach Joe Paterno his 400th career victory in dramatic fashion. The Lions rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit and mounted the biggest comeback of the Paterno era to beat Northwestern 35-21. Beaver Stadium remained full as almost everyone stuck around to witness an unforgettable postgame ceremony honoring JoePa.

2. Little Giants: Mark Dantonio made the call of the year to help Michigan State beat Notre Dame in overtime Sept. 18. Rather than attempt a potential game-tying field goal, the Spartans went with "Little Giants," a fake where punter/holder Aaron Bates passes to a (hopefully) open receiver. Tight end Charlie Gantt sneaked behind Notre Dame's defense, caught the ball and trotted in for the game-winning score.

3. Pryor's fourth-down scramble: Ohio State's run of five consecutive Big Ten titles was in serious jeopardy in a Nov. 20 game against Iowa. The Buckeyes trailed 17-13 late in the fourth quarter and receiver DeVier Posey had dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone, setting up fourth-and-10. But quarterback Terrelle Pryor scrambled 14 yards for a first down and Ohio State went on to record the game-winning score moments later.

4. Runaway Robinson: Michigan's Denard Robinson had a record-setting start to the season, and his signature play came Sept. 11 at Notre Dame. Late in the first half, Robinson shot through a gap and raced 87 yards for a Michigan touchdown. It marked the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history as Robinson broke his own record for Big Ten quarterback rushing. Robinson also led Michigan's game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes.

5. Gilreath's opening statement: Special teams plays largely defined Wisconsin's run to the Rose Bowl, and Gilreath made a huge one to open an Oct. 16 game against No. 1 Ohio State. The senior receiver returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown as Camp Randall Stadium quaked. The return set the tone for Wisconsin's 31-18 win, its first against a top-ranked team since 1981.

6. Divisions set, division names decried: The Big Ten revealed its new division alignment on the eve of the regular season, and for the most part the league received praise for its efforts. It was a very different story in December when the Big Ten revealed its new division names, Legends and Leaders, which failed to connect with fans and brought an onslaught of criticism.

7. Spartans win one for Dantonio: Dantonio was supposed to return to Spartan Stadium on Oct. 2 after recovering from a heart attack that took place following the Notre Dame win, but a blood clot forced him back to the hospital. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell guided the Spartans to a huge win against Wisconsin, make several gutsy play calls along the way. After the game, Dantonio spoke to the team through a cell phone in the locker room. Michigan State showed incredible composure during Dantonio's absence.

8. Bittersweet end for Persa: Few players in the country meant more to their teams than quarterback Dan Persa did to Northwestern, a fact underscored Nov. 13 and in the weeks that followed. Persa led a furious fourth-quarter rally against Iowa and fired the go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:22 left. He also ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the play, ending his season. Although Northwestern held on to beat Iowa 21-17, the Wildcats weren't the same without Persa, dropping their final three games.

9. Bowl heroics from Hyde, Thomas: I'll combine two huge moments into one as Big Ten defenders made game-saving plays in bowls. Iowa's season appeared headed toward a fitting end before cornerback Micah Hyde picked off a pass and raced 72 yards for the winning touchdown against Missouri in the Insight Bowl. A week later, Ohio State defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, one of five suspended players allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, recorded the first interception of his football career at any level to preserve a Buckeyes' win against Arkansas.

10. Wisconsin trounces Hoosiers: Wisconsin's 83-20 pasting of Indiana on Nov. 13 became one of the more talked-about games of the Big Ten season. Some contended that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema ran up the score, a common criticism of Bielema this fall. Those who actually studied the game saw it more as a culmination for Wisconsin's record-setting offense, which produced three 1,000-yard running backs.
When I ranked Michigan State's receivers/tight ends as the Big Ten's best group entering the season, I did so largely because of the Spartans' depth.

Although the Spartans were more balanced on offense and not quite as dynamic in the pass game during the regular season, they still boast quite a few players capable of catching the football. Nine Michigan State players recorded 11 or more receptions in the regular season, and four players had 22 or more catches.

Unfortunately for the Spartans, the man at the top of the list, junior receiver B.J. Cunningham, will miss the upcoming Capital One Bowl against Alabama because of a broken foot. Cunningham suffered the injury Saturday during bowl practice and underwent surgery Sunday.

The 6-2, 220-pound junior leads Michigan State in both receptions (50) and receiving touchdowns (9), while ranking second in receiving yards (611). He's expected to make a full recovery for the start of spring practice.
"B.J. Cunningham is a great competitor and he's extremely disappointed to be out for the Capital One Bowl game against Alabama," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said in a prepared statement. "B.J. had another outstanding season, and I know that he'll work hard during his rehab and set himself up for a big senior year. Fortunately, wide receiver is a position of strength for this football team, so B.J.'s injury will provide opportunities for others to step forward and make plays for us offensively."

Dantonio mentioned depth in his statement, and the Spartans' depth must now show up in the bowl game.

Mark Dell is a good No. 1 option for quarterback Kirk Cousins, and Keshawn Martin has big-play ability every time he touches the ball. But Michigan State really needs more from receivers like Keith Nichol and redshirt freshman Bennie Fowler, who came on strong during Big Ten play.

Tight ends Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum also likely will see their roles increase against Alabama.

This is a tough situation for Cunningham, who missed the Alamo Bowl last year because of a suspension. It's good to hear he'll be back this spring as he moves into the No. 1 role for the Spartans.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Kirk Cousins hasn't played a perfect game today, but he has been perfect in one element.

Cousins continues to execute play-action passes to perfection and confuse Wisconsin's defense. The Michigan State junior quarterback had the Badgers' defense biting on a first-down fake, allowing him to hit a wide-open Charlie Gantt for a big gain. Michigan State ended the drive the same way, as Cousins found Gantt for a 1-yard score after another good play-action fake.

After a slow start, Cousins is outplaying Scott Tolzien, completing 17 of 24 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

If Michigan State continues to run effectively with Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker and get this type of play-action execution from Cousins, it'll be tough to beat the rest of the season. Wisconsin is in big trouble now, down 27-17 entering the fourth quarter.

Big Ten Week 3 rewind/Week 4 preview

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
2:00
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Let's look back at Week 3 before gearing up for a riveting slate of games Saturday in the Big Ten (sarcasm, people).

Team of the Week: Michigan State. After suffering a series of close losses in the past three years, Michigan State finally turned the tables -- against one of its top rivals, no less. A seesaw game featured some offensive fireworks on both sides, and for certain stretches, Michigan State achieved the type of offensive balance that could make it very dangerous when Big Ten play rolls around. But the Spartans once again seemed to wilt in the clutch as quarterback Kirk Cousins took some costly sacks. Notre Dame regained the momentum late in regulation and in overtime, but Michigan State changed everything with a gutsy fake field goal call that resulted in the game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass. Although coach Mark Dantonio's health setback put the celebration on pause, Michigan State has an opportunity to build off this win.

[+] EnlargeBates
Matt Cashore/US PresswireAaron Bates' touchdown pass in overtime lifted the Spartans to a victory.
Best game: Notre Dame at Michigan State. The game featured four lead changes, 938 yards, 65 points and the most memorable play of the young college football season, as punter/holder Aaron Bates found tight end Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown on the fake field goal try in overtime. Quarterbacks Cousins and Dayne Crist both had their moments, as did receivers Michael Floyd and B.J. Cunningham. Just a very entertaining game between rivals. Honorable mentions go to Wisconsin-Arizona State, which featured several wild special-teams plays, and Iowa-Arizona, which featured a furious Hawkeyes rally from a 27-7 halftime deficit and an Arizona counterpunch in the clutch.

Biggest play: Isn't it obvious by now? No one expected the fake field goal, especially from a typically conservative coach like Dantonio. It was the right call at the right time and Bates, a former high school quarterback, deserves credit for going to his second read after Le'Veon Bell was covered. If Michigan State goes on to have a big season, we'll all point to this play. Wisconsin also received two huge special-teams plays from safeties Shelton Johnson and Jay Valai. Johnson tripped up Arizona State kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks at the 1-yard line as the second quarter clock expired, saving six points and a huge momentum swing going into halftime. The 5-foot-9 Valai showed off his hops by blocking the potential game-tying PAT attempt with 4:09 left as Wisconsin won 20-19.

Specialist spotlight: Bates had a huge night against Notre Dame, and his game-winning pass to Gantt overshadowed his prowess as a punter, as he averaged 45.4 yards on eight punts. Illinois punter Anthony Santella leads the nation in punting average (48.9 ypg) after averaging 48.7 yards per boot on Saturday against Northern Illinois. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts against Rice, and Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman averaged 43 yards on four punts and had one downed inside the 5-yard line against Arizona State.

Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks: Kendricks knew he'd have to step up Saturday as Wisconsin played without two of its top receivers (Nick Toon and David Gilreath). The senior tight end looked like a wide receiver again as he hauled in seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, even though he was interfered with in the end zone. He shares the game ball with quarterback Scott Tolzien (19-25 passing, 246 yards, 1 TD).
  • Michigan RB Michael Shaw: Denard Robinson didn't have to do it all against UMass as Shaw racked up career highs in both rushing yards (126) and touchdowns (3) on only 12 carries. He shares the game ball with Robinson, who had another big day, and receiver Darryl Stonum (3 receptions, 121 yards, 2 TDs).
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan: Homan has carried over his stellar play from 2009 and continues to become one of the league's top defensive playmakers. The senior had seven solo tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Ohio. Kudos also go to fellow Buckeyes defender Tyler Moeller, who recorded his first career interception, a forced fumble and 1.5 tackles for loss.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Bell is the early leader for Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording his second 100-yard rushing performance in his first three collegiate games. The big man rumbled for 114 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Notre Dame. He shares the game ball with receiver B.J. Cunningham (7 receptions, 101 yards, TD) and fellow back Edwin Baker (14 carries, 90 rush yards, TD).
  • Northwestern LB Quentin Davie: The senior leads the Big Ten in interceptions after recording his third -- a pick-six, no less -- in Saturday night's blowout win at Rice. Davie recorded a game-high 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a pass breakup. He shares the game ball with defensive linemen Vince Browne, Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo, who combined for 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
  • Purdue WR Cortez Smith: The Boilers need a No. 1 receiver to emerge after losing Keith Smith, and Cortez Smith looks reads to fill the void. He recorded five receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Ball State. He'll share the game ball with defenders Gerald Gooden (5 tackles, forced fumble, pass breakup), Kawann Short (two pass breakups, blocked PAT) and Jason Werner (INT, 1 TFL).
How bizarre: The league-wide special teams struggles as well as a few odd highlights stood out in Week 3. Who can remember the last time the Big Ten had so many meltdowns with punting, kicking, kickoff coverage and punt coverage? Then again, the three biggest plays on Saturday came in the kicking game: Michigan State's game-winning fake field goal, Johnson's touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return and Valai's PAT block to preserve a 20-19 lead.

OK, moving on to Week 4. Do we have to? I know it's my job to get your excited for Big Ten football 24-7-365, but this week provides a major challenge, to say the least.

Northern Colorado (2-1) at Michigan State (3-0): Spartans offensive coordinator Don Treadwell takes over the head-coaching duties from Mark Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack following the Notre Dame win. The Spartans look for a more complete defensive performance before Wisconsin visits on Oct. 2.

Central Michigan (2-1) at Northwestern (3-0): Northwestern aims for its second perfect nonconference mark in the past three seasons after going 35 years with at least one non-league loss. Central Michigan should test Davie and the Wildcats' defense, which has forced nine turnovers in the first three games.

Bowling Green (1-2) at Michigan (3-0): The Wolverines' sputtering defense likely won't face Falcons starting quarterback Matt Schilz, who isn't expected to play because of a shoulder injury. Michigan's offense will light up the scoreboard, but the D has to get better before Big Ten play.

Austin Peay (2-1) at Wisconsin (3-0): Yawn. If Wisconsin can't dominate the Governors (ello, guvna!), Badgers fans should get worried. This provides a good chance for the Badgers to assess their depth on both sides of the ball.

Ball State (1-2) at Iowa (2-1): Although the Cardinals hung in there at Purdue, Iowa should have no trouble Saturday. The bigger question is whether the Hawkeyes can clean up their play in the kicking game, on the offensive line and in the secondary after the Arizona loss.

Toledo (2-1) at Purdue (2-1): Quarterback Robert Marve's left knee injury doesn't appear to be serious, and the Boilers need to get No. 9 through this game and into the bye week without further setbacks. Arizona shredded Toledo's defense in the season opener, and Purdue should have opportunities to further develop a receiving corps missing star Keith Smith.

Eastern Michigan (0-3) at Ohio State (3-0): The Buckeyes could score 70 in this one. I'm not kidding. Eastern Michigan has surrendered 111 points in its first three games.

Temple (3-0) at Penn State (2-1): This is the most interesting game in the Big Ten. Temple heads to State College with a ton of confidence as coach Al Golden might be auditioning for the Nittany Lions' faithful. Penn State's running back race now is open as slumping senior Evan Royster tries to hold off junior Stephfon Green and dynamic freshman Silas Redd. Should be a good one in Happy Valley.

Akron (0-3) at Indiana (2-0): Ben Chappell and the Hoosiers' offense likely will carve up another bad team Saturday, as Akron has been blown out by Syracuse and Kentucky and lost at home to Gardner-Webb (ouch). The bigger question is whether the Hoosiers' defense can shut down the Zips.

Northern Illinois (1-2) at Minnesota (1-2): It's must-win time for embattled coach Tim Brewster and his Golden Gophers, who performed a lot better Saturday against USC but still couldn't finish off a good team. Northern Illinois will test Minnesota's new-look defense with quarterback Chandler Harnish, and Minnesota needs to reignite the run game despite Duane Bennett's ankle issues.

Bye: Illinois (2-1)
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio calls the play "Little Giants," after the cheesy flick about pee wee football starring Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill.

"He names just about all of our plays after that movie," Spartans punter Aaron Bates told ESPN.com. "I think it's about the only one he's watched."

Dantonio might have seen "The Gambler" a few times, too.

The Spartans' boss let it ride in a big way Saturday night against Notre Dame, and he hit the jackpot in overtime. Down 31-28 and needing a 46-yard field goal to tie, Dantonio, not known for his risk-taking, called for a fake the team had worked on all week in practice.

Charlie Gantt
AP Photo/Al GoldisCharlie Gantt heads to the end zone for the game-winning score Saturday night.
Michigan State executed it to perfection, as Bates passed the ball to tight end Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown, lifting the Spartans to a 34-31 victory.

"Coach D really wanted to call it," Bates said. "They were giving us the right looks, and we just happened to get the opportunity in overtime. Coach D's got a lot of guts to make that call.

"Coach D always says, especially in big games, 'We're playing to win.'"

Bates initially looked for top target Le'Veon Bell, who had been open all week in practice. Notre Dame blanketed Bell, but Gantt slipped behind a fallen Irish defender, and Bates, who doubled as a quarterback in high school, made the throw.

"It was just like the glory days," said Bates, the first punter in team history to be named a captain. "I guess Notre Dame's a little better opponent than I was playing back [in high school], but when you catch them off guard like that, it's not too difficult. Easy throw and catch for a touchdown."

The play wasn't free of controversy, as replays and photos showed the play clock hitting zero before the snap. Nearly nine years after The Clock Game between Michigan State and Michigan, time(keeping) once again was of the essence at Spartan Stadium.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't see the play clock, but Bates had a good view from the field.

"I looked up and saw it was 3 [seconds] and just gave my long-snapper a little motion," Bates said. "The last I saw, it was at 3 [seconds], and he snapped it right after that. I assume we still had a second left or so, but it doesn't matter now."

All that matters is Michigan State remains undefeated and within striking distance of the Big Ten's elite. Michigan State was just 6-12 under Dantonio in games decided by eight points or fewer until Saturday night, including a 2-5 mark last fall.

"It comes with experience," Bates said. "When you have experience, you win those close games. It's something we didn't have last year. This year, we have that."

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 19, 2010
9/19/10
10:00
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten play ...

1. Iowa's magic runs out: Those of us who closely follow Iowa undoubtedly nodded our heads as defensive end Broderick Binns scooted into the end zone with the tying touchdown against Arizona. Indeed, we had seen this all before, and it meant good things for the Hawkeyes. But Iowa's fourth-quarter magic ran out, as Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and the Wildcats' defensive line ended Iowa's hopes of another incredible road win. Iowa's faults at offensive line and cornerback were exposed, and a new weakness, special teams, also really hurt its cause early on in Tucson. Just too much inconsistency all around. The Hawkeyes' hopes for a national title run likely are over, but they still can push Ohio State and others for the Big Ten crown.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State had reason to celebrate after coach Mark Dantonio's gutsy call in overtime.
2. Mark Dantonio is a gambler: Who would have pegged Dantonio to make the gutsiest call of the year in college football? He's not exactly the Big Ten's version of Chris Petersen, but he earned some serious cred Saturday night against Notre Dame. The Jim Tressel disciple called a fake field goal in overtime, as Aaron Bates and Charlie Gantt hooked up for the game-winning 29-yard touchdown. Dantonio's tenure had been plagued by close losses, so to pull out a tight game in this manner provides a huge lift for a Michigan State program trying to join the Big Ten's elite.

3. The Big Ten has a "special" problem: Special teams breakdowns continue to be a major story line throughout a league known for stressing the kicking game. Iowa allowed a kickoff return touchdown and handed Arizona another touchdown after getting a punt blocked, not to mention missing the potential go-ahead PAT late in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin saved itself with two special-teams plays, but the Badgers also allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Ohio State, plagued by special-teams woes all season, had a punt blocked in Saturday's romp against Ohio. Minnesota took a 14-13 third-quarter lead against USC, only to give it up 12 seconds later by allowing a kick return touchdown. Michigan's place-kicking situation is a mess. There have been some special teams highlights this year, but they've been overshadowed by a surprising trend of miscues.

4. Evan Royster is in a slump: Not exactly a revelation here, but most people thought this would be the week when Royster broke out and started to look like an All-Big Ten running back again. Royster finally reached the end zone for the first time in 2010, but he recorded only 38 yards on 11 carries in Penn State's 24-0 win against Kent State. The senior has rushed for 40 yards or fewer in each of his first three games this fall. Penn State has a young quarterback, a so-so offensive line and a reduced playbook, but other running backs seem to be having more success than Royster. Penn State simply has to get him going next week against Temple before visiting Iowa on Oct. 2.

5. Michigan should expect shootouts this year: Quarterback Denard Robinson continued his brilliance Saturday against UMass and got some help from running back Michael Shaw and wide receiver Darryl Stonum. But how much longer can Michigan win in spite of a very leaky defense? The Wolverines allowed 37 points and 439 yards to the FCS Minutemen, who would have had more if not for two costly turnovers. Michigan has been fighting a numbers game on defense for years, and the recent swell of injuries and player departures isn't helping. Upcoming opponents will continue to attack a vulnerable Wolverines secondary, putting pressure on Robinson to keep working his magic.
Mark Dantonio, your table is ready.

WOW!

The Michigan State coach just made the Call of the Year in college football. And I'll be honest: I didn't think he had it in him.

This is a guy who cut his teeth under Jim Tressel. Speaking of Tressel, I'd love to know what The Vest thought when his pupil risked it all against Notre Dame on a fake field goal. I'll have to ask him on Tuesday.

Dantonio's decision to eschew a 46-yard attempt in overtime worked to perfection, as punter Aaron Bates, a former high school quarterback, found a wide-open Charlie Gantt streaking to the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown as Michigan State beat Notre Dame 34-31 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State had stalled on its overtime possession, as Kirk Cousins took a costly sack on third down.

When you step back and think about it, Dantonio's call made a lot of sense. Dan Conroy is a first-year starter at kicker, although he had three conversions of 40 yards or longer last week against Florida Atlantic. Dantonio said afterward that Michigan State had practiced the fake all week, and Bates and Gantt executed it to perfection.

After several of Brian Kelly's gambles failed against the Big Ten, Dantonio's decision paid off in a huge way for Michigan State.

Dantonio's tenure has been defined by close losses, especially in 2007 and 2009. Cousins did a lot of good things tonight, but he struggled once again in the clutch. Michigan State couldn't convert some chances at the end of regulation, and Notre Dame seemed to have the momentum in OT. That is, until Dantonio, Bates and Gantt changed everything.

This could be a turning point in Dantonio's career and for a Michigan State team aiming to join the Big Ten's lead pack.

Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
2:30
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The position rankings move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, who will be grouped together. The Big Ten remains a defense-first conference, but I really like the depth at receiver and, to a lesser extent, tight end throughout the league. Although star power was considered, I put a very strong emphasis on overall depth and 2010 potential here.

This was the toughest position to whittle down to five (actually, six), but here goes ...

[+] EnlargeCunningham/Dell
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMark Dell (left) and B.J. Cunningham headline an experienced group of receivers for Michigan State.
1. Michigan State: Sure, there's a lack of star power entering the season, but trust me, that will change. There's not a deeper group of receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten than this one. Veterans B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell anchor the receiving corps, and dangerous speedster Keshawn Martin will play a much bigger role in the offense this season. Converted quarterback Keith Nichol also joins the mix there. Michigan State also boasts three talented tight ends, including Mackey Award watch list members Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers return two of the Big Ten's top five receivers in Tandon Doss, a first-team all-conference selection, and Damarlo Belcher. They also add experience with Terrance Turner and exciting young players like Duwyce Wilson and Dre Muhammad. Overall depth is a bit of a question mark, but both Doss and Belcher will get the attention of opposing defensive backs after combining for 1,732 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Max Dedmond returns at tight end after recording 18 receptions in 2009.

3. Wisconsin: I'm not completely sold on this entire group, although receiver Nick Toon and tight end Lance Kendricks should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath both boast a ton of experience, but must take the next step in their development. Wisconsin could use a rebound season from Kyle Jefferson, and walk-on Jared Abbrederis continues to make plays in practice and should be a contributor this fall.

4. Purdue: Surprised by my choices so far? You won't be when the season starts. Like Michigan State, Purdue's depth will reveal itself this fall. The Boilers are led by Keith Smith, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 and the league's top returning receiver (1,100 yards). He's joined by two veterans in receiver Cortez Smith and tight end Kyle Adams. But the real boost could come from young players like Antavian Edison and Gary Bush, as well as Justin Siller, the team's former starting quarterback who brings size and big-play ability to the perimeter.

T-5: Penn State: I'm tempted to rank the Lions a little higher but want to see how the entire group performs this season, provided they get the ball thrown to them. Derek Moye has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten receiver after recording 48 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns last season. Graham Zug is a very solid target who reached the end zone seven times in 2009. Although Chaz Powell moves to defense, Penn State boasts several exciting young wideouts like Devon Smith. Tight end is a big question mark after the departures of Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.

T-5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast the league's top big-play tandem at receiver in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. DJK is on track to become the team's all-time leading receiver this fall, and McNutt averaged 19.8 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns in 2009. I like the potential of guys like Keenan Davis and Paul Chaney Jr., who returns from a knee injury. Tony Moeaki is a major loss at tight end, but Allen Reisner returns and talented freshman C.J. Fiedorowicz enters the fold.

Just missed the cut: Ohio State, Michigan

Up next: Quarterbacks

More rankings ...

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