Big Ten: Dave Warner

Saturday's highly anticipated showdown between No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Michigan State will feature a junior quarterback who's putting up impressive numbers, has a penchant for winning big games and should be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Marcus Mariota is pretty good, too.

No offense to the Ducks' Mariota, who's a great player and Heisman contender in his own right. But one of the main reasons to believe that Michigan State can actually go into Autzen Stadium and pull out a victory is the calm, confident presence of the other quarterback in green, Connor Cook.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook has been at the helm for 11 consecutive victories.
Think about the roll that Cook is enjoying right now. Not only has he won 11 straight games, he's also seemingly improving by the week. In the Spartans' opening win over Jacksonville State, Cook went 12-of-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his raw QBR score of 99.98 was the highest of any player with at least 15 action plays in the past 10 seasons.

OK, so that performance came against an FCS defense. But Cook also finished last season by earning MVP honors in both the Big Ten championship game win over Ohio State and the Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. In his past three games, he has thrown for 921 yards and eight touchdowns.

Cook wasn't even sure he was "the man" for Michigan State until early October last year. Now he's completely commanding the offense.

"I'm a lot more comfortable and confident now," he told ESPN.com this week. "It's a different overall level of comfort, knowing the offense and having that chemistry with the wideouts. It just makes everything a little bit easier."

You could see that in the Jacksonville State game. On the team's first possession, he threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tony Lippett, who was Cook's second read on the play. Cook's scramble allowed Lippett to break free, and he withstood a vicious hit in the process. On the Spartans' next drive, he noticed that the defense had left Lippett alone at the line of scrimmage because of a coverage mix-up, and he fired a quick strike to the wideout for a 71-yard score.

"Through his experience, he was able to see that coming," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He's far ahead of where he was last year, and he's continuing to grow. He gets better every practice."

Most people will focus on the confrontation between Oregon's quick-strike offense and Michigan State's stingy defense, and that is a feast for football nerds. But the mirror-image matchup looms as just as important, and Cook's job will involve putting points on the board and keeping Mariota & Co. on the sideline.

Not surprisingly, the Spartans have studied Stanford's recent success against Oregon as a possible blueprint. The Cardinal controlled the clock by running the ball effectively, and that is Michigan State's goal as well.

"That's going to be a big-time part of this game, time of possession," Cook said. "We as an offense have got to take charge of that and really establish our run game. I think a lot of the pressure is on us."

Warner said the Spartans came into last year's Big Ten title game against Ohio State with a similar mindset, wanting to play keep-away from the Buckeyes' offense. It's no coincidence that they opened the game with a six-and-a-half-minute drive that produced a field goal. Michigan State won the possession battle in that one but also scored quickly on some big plays, something it won't shy away from in Eugene.

"We're going to take our shots because we've got some skill on the outside," Warner said. "Regardless of how things go early on, we're going to continue to try and use the clock and our running game. But at the same time, we're going to spread it around a little bit, too."

Cook showed last year that he rises to the occasion under pressure, never more so than when he led a two-minute drill at the end of the first half against Stanford after tossing a potentially crippling pick-six. Even as a first-year starter last season, he never got rattled or shrank from the moment. That could come in handy in this game, as Oregon is likely to throw a haymaker or two.

"When things go bad, he's able to keep his composure and still keep playing," Warner said. "I think that's part of who he is, and that's what leads to the big-game situations. He doesn't let the distractions or things going on around him affect him."

Cook said the key to preparing for a big game is "to get focused, clear your mind and cut out all the outside sources, like your phone, Twitter, Instagram and social media." He admits to feeling nervous before every game but says he calms down once the ball is kicked.

This week's assignment is as difficult as it gets. But Michigan State fans should feel confident in the guy who will lead the charge.


EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ask Mark Dantonio for his favorite moment from Michigan State's magical 2013 season, and he’ll tell you about the stories he’s heard.

Since the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Dantonio has received countless letters and emails from fans. He has been stopped in stores and restaurants. Every fan, it seems, wants to tell him about the way they enjoyed their favorite team’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1988.

He’s listened to tales of people who squeezed into the middle seat in the back of a sedan for the three-day drive from Michigan to California; people who slept all night on an airport bench; people who went to the Rose Bowl with their fathers or grandfathers, or who remembered going with their fathers 26 years ago and were able to take their own children this time.

"It had a deep meaning to our fans," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That's what I get out of it: the feeling that we made a lot of people happy. It wasn't just a game. You made a life experience for people."

Remnants of that experience are impossible to ignore around Michigan State this spring. The Spartans’ three big trophies from last season -- from winning the Legends Division, the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl -- stand together in a prominent glass display case in the Skandalaris Football Center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s cell-phone case displays the Rose Bowl logo, while offensive coordinator Dave Warner keeps the placard of his name from a Rose Bowl news conference in his office.

The coaches and players are rightfully proud of one of the best seasons in school history, but they are also wary of lingering too much on their 2013 accomplishments and failing to build on them for 2014.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and MSU enjoyed every second of their 2013 Rose Bowl season, but they say it's now time to focus on the 2014 season.
"Even when we were on spring break, a lot of people approached us on the beach and said, 'Oh, you guys won the Rose Bowl,'" quarterback Connor Cook said. "We don't even want to hear about it anymore. We want to put that aside and start a new legacy this year. If it were up to us, we’d want people to stop talking about it and focus on the now."

Dantonio spoke to his team about avoiding complacency almost immediately after returning home from Pasadena. Michigan State was one of the last Big Ten teams to begin spring practice, waiting until March 25. Dantonio said that was by design, as the team spent more time than most on grueling winter conditioning. There’s nothing like weeks of 5:30 a.m. workouts to keep you from resting on your laurels.

"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can play on a large stage," Dantonio said, "but we have to retain the thinking of what got us there. We have to sort of strip ourselves down and remember how many hard lessons we had to learn. We can’t fall backward into thinking that it just happens."

The Spartans know how quickly fortunes can change. After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, they dipped to 7-6 in 2012, needing to win their final regular-season game on the road just to make a bowl game.

"That’s a great scale to show us what could happen if we’re complacent," junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Sometimes, you feel like you’ve earned it, but you didn't earn anything. You have to come out every day and play like you want to earn it."

To be sure, this isn’t the same team that went 13-1 and beat every Big Ten opponent by double digits a season ago. Several star defensive players are gone, including Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. They were mainstays on a defense that finished in the top six nationally in yards allowed each of the past three seasons and was No. 2 in the FBS in 2013.

But virtually every skill player is back on an offense that made steady improvement last season. That includes Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship game MVP Cook and 1,400-yard running back Jeremy Langford. The defense still has Calhoun, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive lineman of the year, plus several players who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine.

"The good thing about our defense is we have depth," said Taiwan Jones, who is expected to replace Bullough at middle linebacker. "When Will Gholston left, everybody was like, 'Who's going to step in?' Shilique stepped in, and you saw what he did last year. When [safety] Trenton Robinson left, Kurtis Drummond stepped in, and so on.

"We’ll probably miss those guys, but we won’t miss them that much because the guys coming in can make the same amount of plays they did."

Maybe the most important returnee was Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He’s more than ready to be a head coach but didn’t find the right opportunity this winter after turning down UConn.

Narduzzi has been Dantonio’s defensive coordinator now for a decade, dating back to their days at Cincinnati in 2004. That uncommon stability at the top has been the cornerstone of Michigan State’s success and should prevent any major backsliding.

"One of the great things about Mark is he’s just so steady," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "There’s not going to be a lot of changes. I think the program kind of reflects that."

Dantonio readily concedes that "expectations have been raised" now for the Spartans after last season’s breakthrough. They should start the season somewhere in the top 10 and have a highly anticipated Week 2 showdown at Oregon.

"That's an experience game," Dantonio said. "When you play on the road in that kind of environment, with that kind of exposure, those are things you can build on, good or bad."

By then, the 2014 Spartans will surely be building their own legacy. And maybe creating some new unforgettable stories.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Connor Cook's two MVP trophies sit just to the left of the TV in the family room of his parents' house. When he's there, Cook admits that sometimes his gaze drifts from whatever show he's watching to those two prized keepsakes.

Who could blame him? No scripted drama or reality program could spin a more surprising story than the Michigan State quarterback's furious finish to the 2013 season. After not beginning the season as the starter and getting pulled at the end of his team's only loss at Notre Dame, Cook came up with his only two career 300-yard passing days to lead the Spartans to both a Big Ten championship game win and a Rose Bowl victory.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook seeks to build on a spectacular finish to last season.
"A day doesn't go by where I don't think, 'Oh, we're the Rose Bowl champs and we beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship,'" Cook said. "It's kind of hard to soak it all in."

But while Cook will always have those reminders of his MVP performances on the biggest of stages, he's trying now to look forward only. The junior wants to build on his first season as a starter and become a quarterback who plays at a high level every week.

Cook passed for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns with only six interceptions last season, outstanding numbers that Michigan State fans weren't sure they'd get out of the quarterback position. But he also threw a pick-six against Stanford in the Rose Bowl and threw at least a couple of other passes that could have been picked off.

"Throughout the entire year, there were times when things fell into place," he said. "I was really lucky at times, and the team was really lucky at times. This year, I don't even want to put ourselves in a situation where people say, 'That should have been an interception,' and it wasn't. I don't want to even put the ball in jeopardy for defenders to go up and make a play on it. I want to make every single throw an accurate pass where only my guys can get it."

That's a lofty goal, but consider the things Cook doesn't have to worry about right now. At this time a year ago and up until September, he was battling just for the chance to play in Michigan State's crowded quarterback derby. Then he was getting his first prolonged exposure to college football.

He entered this spring armed with the confidence that he's the Spartans' No. 1 quarterback, along with all the experience he gained in pressure situations last fall. Coach Mark Dantonio said Cook "looks like a different guy" than he did last spring.

"He has a little bit more of a calmness to him, I guess, from knowing he's the guy," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He can just play. There were certain instances last year where he was thinking about what to do, and that sort of keeps you from just playing. He's at a point now where he can just call a play, get everybody on the right page and go out and perform, rather than having to slow things down and think a little bit."

One of Cook's great skills is not getting caught up in his own head. When adversity struck last season, he was able to simply move on to the next play. The perfect example of that came in the Rose Bowl, when he followed up that potentially crippling pick-six and drove his team right back down the field for a crucial touchdown just before halftime.

Dantonio I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things. He can let the negative go.

-- Spartans coach Mark Dantonio
"I don't know if this is the right thing to say about a quarterback, but he doesn't overthink things," Dantonio said. "He can let the negative go."

Oddly, Cook said he is the opposite of that during practice. In a recent scrimmage, he threw an interception and was so angry about it that he said it affected his play the rest of the day. But for some reason, he doesn't dwell on mistakes when it counts.

"On game day, I think the worst thing you can do as a quarterback is focus on the negative," he said. "If you throw an interception or make a bad play, if you're constantly thinking about that, then you'll make another bad throw. I try to just totally forget about it, and doing that helps."

Right now, Cook is trying to forget about last year's accolades and just look forward to a new year. That can be difficult when he's constantly reminded of that special finish to 2013, or when he sees people mentioning him as a darkhorse 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate.

"I think it's kind of stupid," he said of being mentioned for the Heisman. "Pretty much every single year, whoever wins the Heisman, you have no idea who they were the year before.

"I mean, it's cool. But it's just like when people ask me if I'm going to leave after this year. I don't think I'm even good enough to be talked about like that. I need to get better at a lot of things if I want to play at the next level. So I think I'm far from that, and I'm far from the Heisman. People can talk all they want, but my main goal is just to lead this team to victory every single week and lead this team to the Big Ten championship game and win that."

And maybe, just maybe, add to his impressive trophy collection.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
12:00
PM ET
Spring batted an eyelash toward Chicago on Monday. Wednesday: more snow. That Mother Nature, such a tease.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
5:00
PM ET
It's time for the second Big Ten mailbag in three days. Lucky you. And here's one last call for comments from Maryland and Rutgers fans. The response from Rutgers fans has been terrific. Step it up a bit, Maryland supporters.

On to your questions ...

Samuel from Iowa City writes: Brian, with Rutgers and Maryland joining the league, what kind of time frame do you think we're looking at before it becomes apparent whether adding them is/isn't paying the dividends the honchos expect?

Brian Bennett: Well, let's first remember that these moves were more about demographics and markets more than the on-field football product, Samuel. So in that sense, we'll need to judge the expansion success of lack thereof based on a lot more than just won-loss records. The first measurement should come as soon as next year, when negotiations begin on the new Big Ten TV contract. The league figures to cash in big regardless, but the addition of markets like the New York/New Jersey and Maryland/Virginia/D.C. areas could mean an even more serious windfall. And the other big thing to look at is recruiting. The Big Ten hopes these moves open up new talent pipelines for its teams, and I think within five years, we should be able to see whether the league is signing more players from the East Coast.

Of course, it would also be nice if the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins are going to bowl games and contending for league titles, but that would be mostly gravy for the league.


Tim from Raleigh writes: As we saw the other day, Gary Andersen interviewed for the Cleveland HC position (possibly offered?), but then didn't pursue it. That doesn't surprise me at all that he'd turn that down. I can't image him ever going to the NFL. Andersen seems to really care about his players and developing them into good football players as well as good people in general. NFL players are old enough that they probably don't want their coach mentoring them in day to day life, which he would want to do. He also doesn't strike me as a man that cares that much about the extra million or so he'd get in the NFL. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I think some might have made a mountain out of a molehill from the Andersen news, which is understandable considering how surprising it was and how little else is going on in college football right now. We don't know how far along the talks between the Browns and Andersen got, but it sounds like there was merely some gauging of interest. The Browns took their sweet time in hiring a new coach and apparently turned over every rock. I have a hard time believing Andersen -- who is a very good coach but doesn't have any NFL experience or even a long track record as a college head coach -- was near the top of the Browns' wish list. And I surely don't blame Andersen for listening when an NFL team comes calling.

The encouraging thing is that by all indications, Andersen kept Barry Alvarez informed during the process and didn't use the opportunity to try and leverage the Badgers for a big raise or other concessions. It's not realistic to assume Andersen will stay in Madison the rest of his career if he piles up successful seasons. But I don't think he's actively looking to leave, either, especially with his son, Chasen, just entering the program.


Redenbacher V. from Sandusky, Ohio, writes: In regards to your entry outlining Mark Schlabach's updated rankings for next year: I was not surprised he moved Michigan up 3 spots. They will continue to rise in the rankings throughout the offseason and as they play nonconference patsies as they do every season. Everyone will forget the ills of the past season and give the Wolverines the benefit of doubt. By the time August 30th gets here, they will be ranked between 14-18. If they manage to beat another perennially over-ranked team in Notre Dame, they will likely climb into the top 10 before falling apart all over again during the conference season. How many times does this cycle have to repeat itself before the Wolverines stop receiving the benefit of doubt?

Brian Bennett: While I don't really agree with Mark's ranking of Michigan, I also know it's not easy finding teams to fill out those last four or five spots on the ballot, especially at this point in the season. (Though I'd put Nebraska there ahead of the Wolverines). This also isn't a phenomenon that's limited to Michigan. Every year, we see "brand-name" schools get overrated in preseason polls. How many seasons have programs like Notre Dame, Texas, Florida and Miami lived off their reputations? Michigan will get a quick test out of the gate at Notre Dame in Week 2. If the Wolverines can win in South Bend, there's a good chance for a 6-0 start heading into an Oct. 11 home game against Penn State.

Polls shouldn't really matter for anything more than discussion going forward with the new playoff system and selection committee in place. They really don't matter in February. But it gives us something fun to talk about.


Sparty from Marquette, Mich., writes: Most of the coordinator talk surrounding MSU is regarding when Pat Narduzzi will leave. On the opposite end of the spectrum, do you think Mark Dantonio will make room on his staff for Don Treadwell now that he's back on the job market?

Brian Bennett: Dantonio has an obvious affinity for Treadwell, who was his offensive coordinator from 2004 to 2010 at Cincinnati and Michigan State. Dantonio also was not happy when Miami (Ohio) fired Treadwell less than three seasons into his tenure as head coach last year. But right now there are no openings on the Spartans staff, and after the way the Michigan State offense developed under coordinator Dave Warner (and, yes, Jim Bollman), Dantonio has no reason to shake things up. If an opening occurred on the offensive side, I could definitely see him turning toward Treadwell. But right now, that's not happening.


John S. from Lindale, Ga., writes: As a lifelong Michigan fan, there's something different to me about the teams of the last five or six years, something other than mediocrity. It is as if these teams, with the exception of the 2011 team, lack the belief they can win. That seems to have been the case with the RichRod teams, as well as the teams of the last three years, with the previously noted exception. My question is this: Do you think with Coach Hoke that what has happened is there's a coach in place who wants to be at Michigan, understanding the history and tradition of success, more than a coach who is capable of replicating that success? I wonder if, perhaps, Brady Hoke has been confused with someone who is capable of replicating the success of the past, simply because he understands the context in which that success was achieved. In other words, is Brady Hoke someone who appreciates the history, but who isn't necessarily capable of matching it?

Brian Bennett: John, you raise some interesting questions. There's no question that Hoke's status as a "Michigan man" fueled his early popularity, and there would likely be a lot more heat on him entering Year 4 if he was more of an outsider. Hoke was very successful at previous stops as a head coach, but I think he still has a lot to prove as a coach at the highest level. As to whether the Wolverines lack a belief they can win, I'm not sure about that. Yes, the 2013 team lost several close games, but they've also won some of those in Hoke's tenure. The biggest difference, to me, from the 2011 squad to the past two years was an apparent lack of standout leaders who could will the team to win, like Mike Martin and David Molk.

But we might not even be having this discussion if Michigan had just played a little bit better. The most pressing concern for the Wolverines and Hoke going forward is whether the program can do a much better job of coaching and developing all the star-studded recruits it has brought in.


Eddie from Kansas City writes: When will the B1G ever get around to scheduling conf games each of the first 4 weeks of the season like other conferences (2020)?

Brian Bennett: Eddie, you must have missed all the offseason scheduling news we wrote about last year. September conference games are on the way. There will be one in 2014 when Penn State visits Rutgers on Sept. 13, though that was a previously scheduled nonconference game that turned into a league contest when the Big Ten added the Scarlet Knights. Ohio State and Indiana will play in the 2017 season opener, and there will be two other Big Ten games in Week 3 of that year. We won't get many others before then because of previously scheduled nonconference games, but when the nine-game league schedule begins, you will see that happening on a more regular basis. I can't wait.
The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO kicks off later today. Here's a look at 10 reasons why No. 4 Michigan State could beat No. 5 Stanford in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State will send Shilique Calhoun, and many other defenders, at Stanford's offense.
1. MSU can match Stanford's physicality: Stanford's only two losses this season came against teams with big, physical players, especially up front. The Cardinal can simply overpower most of their Pac-12 foes, but Michigan State can match them along the line of scrimmage. Even without middle linebacker Max Bullough, the Spartans defense should be able to contain a traditional offense like Stanford's. Spread teams give the "Spartan Dawgs" slightly more trouble, but Stanford isn't one of them.

2. The kicking game: No one is talking enough about MSU's edge in special teams. Stanford's Ty Montgomery is an exceptional return man, but Michigan State has arguably the nation's best punter in Mike Sadler and a superior kicker in Michael Geiger, who has connected on 14 of 15 field-goal attempts. MSU also has been brilliant in executing special-teams fakes and has had nearly a month to brainstorm some for the bowl.

3. Shilique Calhoun: Michigan State's improved pass rush has made an already elite defense even better this season, and Calhoun is the biggest reason why. He has 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and can pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in obvious passing situations. Calhoun will be challenged by Stanford mammoth left tackle Andrus Peat in what should be one of the game's best individual matchups.

4. Big-play receivers: This item would have been laughed at a year ago, but MSU's receiving corps turned things around early this season. Players such as Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Macgarett Kings can stretch defenses, and the group has repeatedly helped out quarterback Connor Cook with tough catches. Coordinator Dave Warner said the upgrade at receiver play has been the biggest difference with this year's offense.

5. No-fly zone: MSU undoubtedly will miss Bullough's run-stopping ability, but it has the luxury of committing more defenders to the run than most teams, especially against offenses like Stanford's. Cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes are talented enough to be left on their own against a Stanford team that features only one player (Montgomery) with more than 27 receptions. Dennard also could help against the rush.

6. The magic man: There's no doubt Cook has had the magic touch during Michigan State's nine-game win streak, making tough throws into traffic and on the move. He has gotten away with mistakes, some of which have turned into big plays for the Spartans. Will the magic run out against Stanford? It's possible, but Cook had his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship. The bigger the stage, the better he seems to play.

7. Sparta West: Big Ten fans love to complain that the league's bowl games are essentially road games. Well, the Rose Bowl will feel like Spartan Stadium as Michigan State fans have traveled here in large numbers. At least half of the stadium will be green, and MSU should feed off of the crowd after going 7-0 at home this season. The ideal weather conditions likely favor Stanford, but the overall environment gives MSU an edge.

8. Langford in the fourth quarter: Michigan State has won its past nine games by double digits and often finishes off its opponents with strong fourth quarters. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 105-27 in the final 15 minutes this season, and running back Jeremy Langford has delivered several long scoring runs down the stretch. Stanford has been outscored 85-82 in the fourth quarter this fall.

9. Extra prep time for coaches: This could be an edge for both teams as both coaching staffs are excellent, but Mark Dantonio and his assistants have been excellent in their preparation throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has had ample time to study Stanford's offense and its line combinations, and the offense could incorporate some new wrinkles in the pass game. Definitely expect a PG-named fake or two from Dantonio.

10. Sparty: Michigan State has the coolest non-live-animal mascot in the country in Sparty, a chiseled warrior with a glare that intimidates anyone he encounters. Stanford's mascot looks like a 6-year-old's art project, with big googly eyes and a stupid grin on its face. Sparty will crush the tree and inspire Michigan State's players to do the same to Stanford. And yes, I grew up in Berkeley, Calif.

Video: MSU offensive coordinator Warner

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
5:30
PM ET

Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner talks about getting his team ready for the Stanford defense in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO.

Spartans QB Cook masters mental game

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:00
AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- As a father, Chris Cook always provided his son, Connor, with positive reinforcement, because that's what parents do.

As a former college football player, the elder Cook also knew how such statements can translate to on-field performance. So he and his wife, Donna, a former basketball player at Cincinnati, told Connor that he would be special, that he would become Michigan State's starting quarterback, that he would lead the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl. They repeated the messages, even during MSU's drawn-out and wayward quarterback competition, which Connor calls "the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being named the permanent starter to start conference play, quarterback Connor Cook and Michigan State are 9-0.
Last week, while home in Ohio, Connor, a Big Ten title-winning, Rose Bowl-bound quarterback, acknowledged what most parents love to hear: You were right.

"He says, 'At that time, I thought you guys were just talking, trying to pump me up.' Now to see this, I don't know, it's been a magical year," said Chris Cook, who played tight end at Indiana. "All these things have come true."

There's certainly magic around Cook, who will lead Michigan State's offense on Wednesday against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. You could see it in Big Ten play, when he passed for 2,012 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine double-digit wins. You could see it when he bounced back from bad passes with precise ones, when he made tough throws on the move, when he spread the ball around.

You could see it on the biggest stage, when Cook put up career numbers in the Big Ten championship, reminding receiver Bennie Fowler of former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Cook always had enough skill and confidence. But like any young quarterback, he had to master his own mind.

"We're an athletic family, so we're big into the mental game," Chris Cook said. "At this level, what separates good players from great players? A lot of it's between your ears. Hell, the challenges Connor went through, if he doesn't keep a positive attitude, your mind can get the best of you."

Connor Cook's head was swimming during a competition that began in preseason camp and spilled into September. Andrew Maxwell, last season's starter, took most of the snaps with the first-team offense and started the opener. Cook started the following week against South Florida but was replaced by Tyler O'Connor, who was replaced by Maxwell.

Michigan State's quarterback situation had gone from shaky to messy.

"It takes a couple series to establish a rhythm," Cook said. "So when we're splitting it up, I get one series and Maxwell has one, Tyler. You don't know when you're going to get pulled. ... That's kind of stressful."

Cook started Sept. 21 at Notre Dame, struggling early before settling down. After a three-and-out, Cook gave way to Maxwell for the final drive with 2:11 left and MSU down 17-13. The drive went nowhere (backward, actually) and the Spartans suffered their first loss.

Afterward, a despondent Cook said he wished the coaches had shown more faith in him for the final possession. Even now, he calls it "heartbreaking."

"I'd want to be that guy to lead Michigan State down in a hostile environment in a historic stadium to beat the Irish," he said. "To not get that opportunity, it hurt."

During the open week that followed, Cook's coaches decided he deserved the opportunity. Coach Mark Dantonio met with Cook to clear the air and reinforce his support.

"We said as an offensive staff that Connor is our guy," coordinator Dave Warner said. "We've got to go with him the entire way. That was a point where our offense began to grow."

For Cook, it's when "the stress went out the window."

The following week, he passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa. He completed 71 percent of his attempts against Indiana and 93.8 percent -- a team record -- against Illinois.

The magic surfaced when a Cook pass tipped by two Illinois defenders landed in Fowler's arms for a touchdown, or hit a Northwestern defender in the back and went to Fowler for another score. Other likely interceptions fell harmlessly to the ground.

In 925 plays, Cook has had just five interceptions and two fumbles.

"That was his growth," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "He moved in the pocket, threw the ball away when he needed to."

Michigan State identified, offered and landed Cook early, as he committed in April of his junior year. His recruitment wasn't as quiet as it has been portrayed -- Chris Cook said Wisconsin, Iowa and other major-conference programs showed interest -- but he didn't generate the hype of other standout Ohio prep quarterbacks like Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.

"You could always see the potential in him," said John Carroll University coach Tom Arth, who has worked with Cook the past four summers. "He's a tremendous athlete and a very natural player. He's a special individual who has a great work ethic.

"He can be great. We've seen a little bit of that this year."

Connor was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, recording his first career 300-yard passing performance and firing three touchdowns. With MSU down 24-20 early in the fourth quarter, Cook led an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive, completing four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.

MSU won 34-24 and Cook earned game MVP honors.

"He was pointing out things that he was seeing, making adjustments on the fly," Fowler said. "That's just like how Kirk [Cousins] was."

As time expired in Indy, Cook ran to the stands and embraced his parents and sister, Jackie, a former basketball player at Old Dominion. The family celebrations have become a tradition after Spartans wins.

"Those are special moments," Chris Cook said.

There could be another Wednesday at the Rose Bowl.

"Before I was the quarterback I would talk to my parents and they would tell me, 'You're going to be the guy, you're going to lead your team to the Rose Bowl,'" Connor said. "To finally be here now ... it's truly a blessing."

Big Ten chat wrap: Dec. 5

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
1:00
PM ET
The Big Ten chat came to you an hour earlier than normal, as we discussed the upcoming Big Ten championship game and much more.

If you missed out, check out everything we had to say in the full transcript. It got a little ugly at the end -- thanks, Buckeyes fans -- but still was fun overall.

To the highlights:

Colton from North Carolina: Wisconsin went into the game against Penn State as huge favorites with home field advantage as well. But they came out playing like they hadn't played a down together as a team this year. So my question is, what went wrong? What caused them to play this way?

Adam Rittenberg: It's baffling, Colton. Penn State deserves a lot of credit for a great plan and great execution, especially by Hackenberg. But Wisconsin didn't show up for the biggest game of its season, with a potential BCS at-large berth on the line at home, where it has been dominant. Not sure if the Badgers underestimated Penn State, which hadn't played well on the road, but the team we had seen for the past two months wasn't there on Saturday. We've been very positive about Gary Andersen this season, but I'll admit that game gives me some pause about the new Badgers coach.

Zach from St. Paul: Do you see any movement in the B10 head coaching carousel this offseason? Assuming Nebraska doesn't get embarrassed in their bowl game it looks like everyone is staying put, right?

Adam Rittenberg: It does, Zach. Tim Beckman is safe at Illinois, and Bo seemingly is safe at Nebraska. Brady Hoke never was in danger at Michigan but received a vote of confidence from his AD. Unless Bill O'Brien leaves Penn State for the NFL, which doesn't seem too likely, we'll see the same group of coaches back in 2014.

Nick from Houston: So Mizzou, who was practically begging the B1G to take them is going to the SEC championship game with an outside shot at the NC game while the B1G has a credibility problem on the field is bringing in the almighty Rutgers and Maryland next year. Do you think behind the scenes top league officials are second guessing themselves and wondering if they were trying to get too cute with the media market thing?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a fair point to raise, Nick, but the Big Ten made its expansion motives clear and isn't about to go back on them. We'll see if it works out, but Missouri didn't fit the criteria the second time around. Should the Big Ten have taken Missouri back in 2010? Perhaps. But not for a football team that only occasionally has seasons like this.

Pat from Detroit: can connor cook and the msu receivers get big chunks of yardage vs OSU? they dont throw too many screens, but they've made huge strides since the early part of the season. plus, since no one emerged early, they have 4-5 legit weapons. mumphery seems to only catch long TDs.

Adam Rittenberg: Pat, it will be interesting to see how creative Dave Warner gets with his play calls. Michigan used the screen game very effectively against Ohio State last week. Will MSU ramp those up, especially with a guy like Langford who used to play receiver? That might be a good approach. I also think the Spartans will test Doran Grant and Ohio State's safeties quite a bit, as there are plays to be made in the middle of the field.

Matt from work: So Iowa had a reverse year from a year ago and went 8-4. Would you say they beat everyone they were supposed to and lost to everyone they should have? Or were they fortunate to end up with that record? You said just minutes ago Iowa fans shouldn't be too ambitious next season, even with a favorable schedule squeaking wins out this year at home against NW and UM. Well we were in every game we lost too, and those could've gone either way. I'm very ambitious for next year, but I'm looking at 10 wins coming from a bowl victory. Ah Thank You So Much!

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, Iowa was beaten rather convincingly by MSU, Wisconsin and Ohio State, and lost a heartbreaker with Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes were fortunate to beat Northwestern and Michigan. Overall, Iowa ended up about where it should. You're an Iowa fan, so you have the right to be ambitious and excited for the future. I'm looking at it from a more realistic/objective point of view. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if Iowa wins the division next season. Kirk Ferentz told me yesterday that this team reminds him of the '08 squad, and we know what happened the following season.

Thanks again for the questions. We'll chat again soon.
The Big Ten championship, like most games, likely will be decided at the line of scrimmage. But do yourself a favor and sneak a few glances at the perimeter.

There you'll find two of the nation's best cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both are native Georgians (Dennard grew up in Dry Branch; Roby is from Suwanee), both love press coverage and run support, and both could be the first members of their respective teams selected in April's NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Al GoldisCB Darqueze Dennard has become a leader for Michigan State's defense.
They are different personalities who have taken different paths, but both faced growth opportunities and seem to be peaking as their college careers wind down.

Dennard on Monday was named the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, the latest honor for a player already named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive back) and the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back). The 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior has 56 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries for the nation's No. 1 defense. All-America honors are undoubtedly forthcoming.

He's also a captain for No. 10 Michigan State, an unlikely ending for the skinny, soft-spoken kid who arrived on campus in the summer of 2010.

"You really can't see a transformation much more defining than what 'Queze went through," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "The success he's had on the field in being a captain and being a very influential person, this team is sitting at 11-1, and he's a big part of that."

Roby is a big part of Ohio State's 12-0 mark, but his season has been anything but smooth. He enjoyed many of the accolades Dennard is now receiving back in 2012, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award after leading the nation in passes defended (1.73 per game).

This season has brought a suspension (following a July arrest), an ejection (for targeting against Iowa) and a humbling performance (against Wisconsin's All-Big Ten receiver Jared Abbrederis on Sept. 28). But the ever-confident Roby didn't let his lows linger and has elevated his play for most of the Big Ten season.

"This year was fundamental," Roby told ESPN.com. "When I made the decision to come back, I felt like this was going to happen. I was like, 'Man, it's too easy, two years and I can already go to the [NFL].' But it's not like that. If I really want to be what I want to be in the long term, I have to go through some things and learn and mature.

"The things that happened, I'm not saying I tied it to those situations on purpose just to get in trouble, but everything that's happened has been serious but also[to] the point where I haven't lost everything."

Roby, who switched his commitment from Vanderbilt to Ohio State weeks before signing day in 2010, arrived in Columbus with a clear plan: redshirt one year, play two and then bolt for the NFL.

But in January, he opted to return for his fourth season, saying he had unfinished business as the Buckeyes emerged from NCAA sanctions. After the first few games, however, Roby was thinking more about the NFL than the BCS.

"I was in a mind-set of, 'Yeah, I'm good enough to play in the NFL,'" he said. "When you start thinking like that, you stop doing the things you used to do, when you were hungry, when nobody knew who you were. It was kind of, 'Oh, I don't have to do this drill today. I don't have to watch film as much.'

"You kind of fall off."

The turning point came after Abbrederis recorded 10 receptions for 207 yards at Ohio Stadium. Although Roby thinks he only had a few bad plays, he admits Abbrederis got the best of him. It forced him to narrow his focus.

The following week at Northwestern, he blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. Special teams are a trademark for Roby, who has three career punt blocks and two touchdown recoveries. Another is never giving up on plays.

"He's my ace on kickoff coverage," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very valuable member of this team."

While Roby's growth took place this season, Dennard's began much earlier. He had no scholarship offers as a high school senior when Spartans assistant Dave Warner accidentally stumbled upon him while recruiting southern Georgia.

Dennard came to Michigan State at "165 pounds, soaking wet."

"Man, he was little," Bullough said.

"My body just matured after I got here," Dennard said.

Thanks to strength coach Ken Mannie and others, Dennard added 20 pounds as a freshman, when he appeared in six games, starting two. He recorded three interceptions in 2011, including two in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, yet was overshadowed by fellow corner Johnny Adams.

Dennard finally got his due last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He thrives in an aggressive scheme that isolates cornerbacks on the edges but doesn't ask them to back off.

"Darqueze has had an outstanding year," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Shutdown corner, great tackler. He's got great skills."

Dennard complements his physical skills with leadership.

"When I first got to campus, I really was a shy guy, didn't talk that much," Dennard said. "Once I got to know these guys ... I started talking more. These past two years, I've really started [to become vocal]."

Roby doesn't know Dennard well -- he wasn't aware they're both from Georgia -- but he has watched Dennard, especially in press coverage, which Roby loves even though Ohio State doesn't employ it as much. Roby is well aware of the praise Dennard and his fellow MSU defenders receive and uses it as motivation this week.

"I came back this year for this reason, to be in this position," Roby said. "I've gone through a lot of things on and off the field, but at the end of the day, I'm still in position to get everything I want and everything I’ve been dreaming of.

"It's all on the line this Saturday."

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before No. 11 Michigan State could start thinking about next week's Big Ten championship game and possible BCS scenarios, it had to finish the regular season against Minnesota.

That did not come easily. The Spartans scored touchdowns on the first drive of each half Saturday but otherwise managed nothing else on offense. The defense, not surprisingly, saved the day by forcing three turnovers and holding the Gophers to a field goal in 14-3 victory at Spartan Stadium.

"We grinded it out," head coach Mark Dantonio said.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun, Tyler Hoover
Mark A. Cunningham/Getty ImagesShilique Calhoun, Tyler Hoover and Michigan State's defense forced three more turnovers against Minnesota.
The final score might not look overly impressive, but the final tally on the regular season sure does for the Spartans. They're 11-1, the program's third 11-win season in the past four years. They went 8-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in school history. A senior class that was honored before Saturday's game now has 40 wins, the most by any group in Michigan State history, plus two Legends Division titles and a share of a Big Ten championship.

There's just one thing missing during this nearly unprecedented era of success under Dantonio, and it's glaring: a BCS game. The Spartans came close two years ago in Indianapolis, narrowly losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. They're determined not to suffer that same fate next week when they play No. 3 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, with a bid to their first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season on the line.

"I remember looking in the seniors' eyes and seeing the hurt," senior linebacker Denicos Allen said about the 2011 loss. "I saw people cry that I never thought I'd see cry. I know it's a lot of emotion. Not being to the Rose Bowl in so long and having that in our head ... the opportunity is in front of us, and that's definitely motivation for this team."

Michigan State did not play Ohio State in the regular season, but veteran players know what it's like to come up just short against the Buckeyes, too. The Spartans lost 17-16 to the Buckeyes last season at home, setting the stage for a season of heartbreaking defeats. That was Ohio State's first Big Ten victory under Urban Meyer, and the Buckeyes haven't lost a game in two years.

But Michigan State, with the nation's No. 1 defense, believes it can match up well with the Buckeyes, who lead the Big Ten in scoring.

"I feel like we owe them for last year," senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "They got us by an inch. This year, we're going to do whatever we have to do not to let that happen again."

"We lost by a point," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "They're not the same team, and we have to respect them for that. But, whatever, play the game. Don't be intimidated by their record or what people say about them."

Michigan State knows it will have to perform better on offense in Indianapolis than it did on Saturday. After several weeks of consistent improvement, the offense took a step backward against the Gophers, going 0-for-8 on third down. Connor Cook threw an interception in the final seconds of the first half with the team in field-goal position. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said flatly that it "wasn't a championship-level performance."

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is taking nothing for granted, either, even after his unit created three turnovers and limited Minnesota to 249 yards. Narduzzi told reporters that the defense would go live in practice this week, meaning full tackling. The Spartans didn't do that last year before playing Ohio State and Narduzzi thought it was a mistake.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio, Kurtis Drummond
AP Photo/Al GoldisMark Dantonio, shown congratulating safety Kurtis Drummond, has led Michigan State to two Legends Division titles in three years.
"I can't believe you guys didn't laugh about that; it's the 14th week of the season and we're going live," senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "But it's the truth. Against a guy like Braxton Miller, we need to prepare and we need to be able to take him down to the ground. We've got to have the best week of practice we've ever had."

Dantonio said earlier in the week that Michigan State was playing for a BCS bid on Saturday and that he would campaign for an at-large berth should the Spartans lose in the Big Ten championship game. After the victory, he said the Big Ten deserves a second bid and that his team has done enough to earn one.

"There is always going to be risk in playing a championship game," he said. "If we were to sit back right now and say, 'Hey, let's let somebody else play in that championship game,' I don't think there would be any question we would be in a BCS game. But we're not going to do that. We're going to put all the chips on the table and try to go to the Rose Bowl."

Michigan State's seniors remember getting passed over for the BCS despite double-digit wins in 2010 and 2011. They don't want to let that happen again. There's one sure way to avoid it: finish on top in Indianapolis this time around.

"Walking off the field [two years ago] without the roses in our mouth left a bad taste," Dennard said. "This time, we're going to put everything we have into it and come out with a win."
Adam has a one-game lead in the standings, and we've got five interesting league contests to forecast this week.

Without further ado, the crystal ball says …

PENN STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-16 against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. … Penn State 42, Indiana 34

Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. … Penn State 38, Indiana 27

ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 31

Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 28

MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. … Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.

Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. … Iowa 20, Michigan State 17

MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. … Michigan 31, Minnesota 13

Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. … Michigan 28, Minnesota 14

OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. … Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. … Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31

Now it's time for our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."

How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a good weekend of football. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the mail ...

Wisc QB from Wisconsin writes: Why is it that even though Wisconsin is returning more starters and has played more games than ASU, everybody is acting like ASU is a proven commodity while Wisconsin is still an unknown. Why is nobody mentioning that this is the first real test for both of these teams? And I'm pretty surprised that I haven't seen a single pick in favor of the Badgers.

Adam Rittenberg: These are fair points, QB, and it's a little odd to see a ranked team getting so little love against an unranked foe. You're right that neither team has been tested, so we really don't know that much right now. The concern is that Arizona State's strength (a dynamic passing game) is matching up with Wisconsin's potential weakness (secondary/pass defense). A quarterback like Taylor Kelly could pick apart a Badgers back four featuring three new starters if he doesn't face pressure. That's why I'm so interested to see what Dave Aranda and Gary Andersen dial up for this one. You also can't overlook the fact that Big Ten teams really struggle in Pac-12 venues (just six wins in the past 26 appearances) and have never beaten Arizona State in Tempe. Sure, this year is different and the teams are different, but on paper, this looks like a tough matchup for Andersen's Badgers.


Todd from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., writes: I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the unfortunate death of the UCLA football player and the impact it might have on the Nebraska-UCLA game. If managed correctly, I think it could provide the edge to UCLA. If not managed well, it could cause UCLA to be blown out. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, we mentioned the tragedy on a few videos, but not enough in the blog. That's a fair point, and it could be a significant factor Saturday. It's a terrible thing for a team to deal with, especially in the middle of a season. Teams can use a tragedy as a rallying point but they also can get overwhelmed by it, especially when things start to go badly on the field. It's why I'm so interested in how UCLA starts the game Saturday. The Bruins are playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time, which is already an adjustment, and continue to deal with Nick Pasquale's tragic passing. I think there's an opportunity for Nebraska to strike quickly and shock UCLA a bit. Then again, Bruins coach Jim Mora is an excellent motivator, and he should have his team as ready as he possibly can for kickoff.


Joel from Minneapolis writes: Adam, you've made it clear how annoyed you (and Brian) are about Minnesota playing the likes of FCS and bottom-dweller FBS teams, and I am in the same boat. I would love to see more noteworthy opponents than Western Illinois on the Gophers' schedule as well. My question is what is your take on Kill's rationale for scheduling these types of teams (building confidence)? I would like to think that maybe Kill is on to something, that once Minnesota can turn that corner of putting away these types of teams the way perhaps Wisconsin has done up until now, maybe it would be a worthwhile investment.

Adam Rittenberg: It's important to string together some bowl appearances, Joel, and Kill's scheduling approach gives Minnesota a better chance to do so. Kill comes from the Bill Snyder school of scheduling, and Snyder helped build Kansas State's profile by living in cupcake city outside of league play. So there's some precedent. The problem is Minnesota fans saw a similar scheduling approach under Glen Mason, which led to a bunch of mid-tier bowl appearances but not enough success in the Big Ten. Kill needs to have his team ready for the Big Ten, and I don't know if these schedules will do the job. Minnesota's recent schedule addition of TCU for 2014 and 2015 is a good one, and I hope we see more of those games (and, somewhat sadly, fewer games on Aggie Vision).


Marc from New York writes: With Notre Dame gone, who do you think Michigan will play in their night games now, specifically in the next two seasons? I'm not quite sure if the future OOC schedules warrant a Under the Lights III/IV, unless Dave Brandon is willing to play at night later in the season against B1G teams.

Adam Rittenberg: Marc, I hear you, but why does every Michigan night game have to be a huge deal? It speaks to a larger issue I have with the Big Ten and its reluctance to shake up the scheduling approach. Night games are cool almost regardless of the opponent. Michigan should play a Big Ten game at night. I wish it would be Michigan State, but Brandon has his reservations about playing a rival under the lights. It happens all the time in the SEC and Big 12 -- just sayin'. I think Oregon State or BYU could work well in 2015, and I'd expect some exciting additions to the nonleague schedule with Notre Dame moving up. But my larger point is Michigan shouldn't have strict standards for night games. Play Penn State at night, or Wisconsin, or Northwestern, or Nebraska. Night games should be a bigger part of the Big Ten's identity. They are everywhere else.


Buckeye from Columbus writes: Adam, would it be better, in regard to the league's national perception, that Notre Dame blows out Purdue this weekend? I know losing nonconference games aren't good, but wouldn't the league be better off that Michigan beat a good ND than Michigan beat a mediocre ND who barely won/lost to a, so far, terrible Purdue? I know this isn't fair to Purdue fans, but public opinion rarely is.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if a Purdue blowout helps the Big Ten, but a Notre Dame win, maybe by 10-14 points, probably does, as Michigan would benefit from the Irish having a strong overall season. The Big Ten wants the profiles of its top teams -- Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska -- too look as good as possible come early December. Notre Dame is Michigan's only impact nonleague game, so when we're judging the Wolverines, we want to attach value to their win against the Irish. So yes, beating Purdue is important, but if Notre Dame wins against better teams such as Oklahoma, Arizona State, BYU and, most important, Stanford, that will mean more for Michigan and the Big Ten.


KMan from BMore writes: After the emergence of freshman phenom Christian Hackenberg, do you feel there is a possibility that Tyler Ferguson might transfer? I know the free-transfer period has ended, but (barring injury) I am having a hard time believing he will see meaningful snaps over the last three years of his eligibility. Best-case scenario (from an outside observer) would be Hackenberg starts through his junior year (2015), heads to the NFL, and Michael O'Connor steps in with three years of eligibility remaining, which would take PSU to the end of the sanctions with two top-flight pro-style quarterbacks at the helm. Do you concur?

Adam Rittenberg: KMan, I'm not in Ferguson's head, and he probably wants to see how things play out in the next few weeks, as Hackenberg could struggle when Big Ten play rolls around. But there's a decent chance the scenario you presents ends up being true. If that's the case, you couldn't blame Ferguson for wanting to play elsewhere and get a real chance. He took a leap of faith in picking Penn State without ever setting foot on campus. Maybe that loyalty keeps him in State College, but he's a California kid who left the team this summer to be with his ailing mother and has some strong ties to his local area. Penn State certainly needs Ferguson to stay this season as the quarterback depth is so poor, but it seems pretty clear that Hackenberg is the future for the Lions offense.


Bill from Genoa, Ohio, writes: Adam, I continue to see MSU fans' concerns about their offense and not scoring points. I want to remind them that their school hired Jim Bollman as their offensive coordinator this past offseason. Being an Ohio State fan, and having watched and complained about his and Jim Tressel's play calling for years, I want to tell MSU fans what you are seeing is what you are going to get. Even with a dynamic QB who can make plays 1,000 different ways, Bollman's approach is more conservative than most members of the GOP. He is not innovative and will run the ball to death, even when the run isn't working. I have sympathy for the MSU fans out there, because I think they are better than how their offense has been playing, and I really thought they'd play in the B1G championship this year. So MSU fans, as long as Bollman is in charge of your offense, no matter how good that offense is or could be, get used to averaging points in the mid to high-twenties and don't expect any creative plays to happen, because there is no imagination in the offense right now.

Adam Rittenberg: Bill, I understand your criticism for Bollman, and I admit his hiring didn't inspire much confidence among those who know his background with Tressel at Ohio State. But he's not the primary offensive play-caller. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner is, and Warner has been on the Spartans' staff for a while. And while Michigan State's play-calling leans conservative, the problems with the offense go deeper. Quarterbacks haven't improved, receivers continue to drop passes and the offensive line can't take the next step to become an elite Big Ten unit. I'll admit that the decision to flip Warner's and Brad Salem's responsibilities -- Warner now coaches running backs and Salem coaches quarterbacks -- left me scratching my head as almost every offensive coordinator also coaches the QBs. Bollman might be part of the problem in East Lansing, but he's not the biggest issue the Spartans have right now.


Eric from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: I am wondering why the blog is now being written by a lot of other writers besides Bennett and you?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Eric. We've expanded our blog staff to include Chantel Jennings, Mitch Sherman, Austin Ward and Josh Moyer. While they'll write a decent amount about specific teams for the Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State team pages, they'll also contribute in the Big Ten space. The idea is to provide a better overall product with more viewpoints and in-depth coverage. The additions also free Brian and I up to work on longer blog features and other projects, both in the Big Ten space and elsewhere. We didn't have this luxury in the previous model because of all the posting demands. The changes should improve the blog and the overall college football coverage we provide. We're excited about it.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
12:00
PM ET
We are here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD