Big Ten: Golden Tate
"Definitely feel like we're strides behind the offense in getting everything down," Van Bergen told ESPN.com this week. "We had some glimpses Saturday, and I think we'll be able to seal some things up and hopefully keep improving.
"We'll get to that level eventually."
Led by Robinson's record-setting performance, the Michigan offense overshadowed a pretty solid defensive effort against Connecticut.
The Wolverines allowed only one touchdown and held UConn scoreless in the second half. Take away a juggling 47-yard reception by Michael Smith, and Connecticut had only 296 yards in the game.
To be fair, the Huskies missed several opportunities to attack Michigan's young secondary, particularly in the first half. Connecticut had its moments, but so did Michigan's defense, none bigger than J.T. Floyd's forced fumble and Obi Ezeh's recovery near the Wolverines' goal line late in the third quarter.
"We're certainly still a work in progress, but I was really pleased to be able to limit UConn to 10 points," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We played pretty well assignment-wise, we tackled pretty solidly. We gave up a couple big plays, but we also made a couple big plays defensively."
And the defense could have made more.
"We had two interceptions hit guys right in the hands," Van Bergen said. "There were some plays Saturday that if we sealed up, our numbers on defense would have spoken even bigger."
The challenge for Michigan's defense should get tougher Saturday at Notre Dame (NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Although Michigan beat the Irish last year 38-34, the defense had little to do with it.
Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Armando Allen pretty much had their way with Michigan, piling up 490 yards and 27 first downs.
Clausen and Tate are gone to the NFL, but Floyd and Allen are back, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, one of the frontrunners for the Mackey Award. They're operating in a new spread offense under first-year coach Brian Kelly, and a new quarterback, Dayne Crist, will be calling the signals.
"I would call this team significantly different," Van Bergen said. "Notre Dame did a lot more drop-back, seven-man protection for Clausen with two guys in routes. This is a bit more of a spread attack, using more receivers.
"They have a developed quick game, and it’s something we’ll have to prepare for."
Both Van Bergen and Rodriguez identified tackling as an area Michigan must improve after Week 1. With so many young players, especially in the secondary, Michigan allowed "some leaky yardage," Van Bergen said.
That can't happen against Notre Dame, which operates at a rapid pace and makes it tough to reach Crist.
"They like to up-tempo you," Rodriguez said. "They’re going to put it out in space, whether it's to their tight end or their backs or their receivers, and we've got to get them on the ground quickly. Because if not, they'll go up and down the field on you.
"We had a hard time stopping them last year, and even though it's a different scheme, this scheme may be even more difficult to stop."
One way to do it is control the line of scrimmage. Michigan failed to record a sack last week, but end-linebacker Craig Roh and others applied pressure to quarterback Zach Frazer.
Notre Dame's offensive line is supposedly better, but Michigan boasts more experience up front with Van Bergen, Mike Martin and others.
"Having our experience won't hurt us," Van Bergen said, "and their youth, they might be more inclined to get frustrated if things start not going their way. It'll be interesting to see how that develops."
In case you missed it: Michigan's best case-worst case.
Best-case synopsis: Rich Rodriguez continues his tradition of Year 2 turnarounds, as his freshmen quarterbacks blossom and the defense improves under new coordinator Greg Robinson. Senior Brandon Minor leads a talented group of running backs, and the receiving corps helps the young signal-callers with their transition. Michigan starts the season 5-0 and rides the defense to a strong finish. The Wolverines snap their losing streak against Ohio State to finish 10-2 before beating Mississippi in the Capital One Bowl.
Worst-case synopsis: The quarterback position falls apart again and a beleaguered defense regresses as Michigan once again misses a bowl game. None of the quarterbacks truly establishes himself as the starter, and opposing defenses load up to stop the run. Michigan's pass rush suffers as Brandon Graham constantly faces double- and triple-teams, while punter Zoltan Mesko is the team's only true star. The Wolverines lose the opener to Western Michigan and finish 4-8. Rodriguez is retained for a third year but enters 2010 on the hot seat.
You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "Rodriguez's spread offense starts to take shape around the freshmen quarterbacks, who are suited to the system." ... "Michigan begins by doing something it last accomplished in 2006 -- win the season opener. The defense holds off Tim Hiller and Western Michigan." ... "Loaded with confidence, the Wolverines complete a 4-0 start." ... After a loss at Iowa, Michigan handles Delaware State easily." ... "More mistakes crop up on defense." ... "Michigan misses a bowl for the second straight year." ... "Golden Tate and Michael Floyd make Michigan's secondary look silly." ... "The Wolverines see their home win streak against Penn State end at five games." ... "Rodriguez's future seems very much in doubt."
Lies, lies, lies: "The defense rebounds under Greg Robinson." ... "Senior Brandon Minor headlines a strong stable of running backs and earns first-team All-Big Ten honors by rushing for 1,400 yards." ... "The team hits the road for the first time and regains in-state bragging rights by rallying to beat Michigan State in the fourth quarter. Michigan vaults into the top 20." ... "Fans finally embrace Rodriguez and his style, forgetting 2008 and all the player departures during the transition." ... "Despite more experience elsewhere on offense, the quarterback position dooms the Wolverines again." ... "The Wolverines get booed as they head to halftime down 28-7 and never get within 14 points of the Irish." ... "Michigan fails to get on the scoreboard against the talented Hawkeyes defense."
Reality check: Michigan finished one game ahead (5-7) of the worst-case scenario, but after a 4-0 start, the Wolverines looked like a lock to make a bowl game. Rodriguez's offense certainly made strides in Year 2, and quarterback Tate Forcier showed a lot of promise before struggling with injuries and inconsistent play down the stretch. The big problem was Robinson's defense, which regressed despite boasting the league's most dominant lineman in Graham. Michigan didn't beat an FBS team after Sept. 26 and wasted opportunities against both Illinois and Purdue. Rodriguez will enter the 2010 season with a new boss (David Brandon) and a mandate to make a bowl game, at the very least.
|Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez are facing similar problems within their programs.|
Notre Dame and Michigan treated us to one of the season's most entertaining games back on Sept. 12 at the Big House. Both teams seemed destined for solid seasons back then, but the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have since fallen on hard times. Michigan hasn't beaten an FBS team since Sept. 26 and needs to upset No. 20 Wisconsin or No. 11 Ohio State to avoid missing a bowl for the second straight season. Notre Dame likely fell out of the BCS bowl mix by losing to Navy for the second consecutive time in South Bend. Not surprisingly, head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Charlie Weis are in the crosshairs.
Which coach's problems are worse? How did these two programs get here? Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look.
Adam Rittenberg: Let's talk about Charlie Weis and the Irish. They lose to Navy at home again. Nose tackle Ian Williams says they're getting outschemed. What's going on with Weis and the Domers?
Brian Bennett: There's very little excuse for Notre Dame to be only 6-3 at this point. The Irish have legitimate stars in quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, an experienced offensive line and seasoned upperclassmen all over the roster. But this program continues to lose to every ranked team it plays and throws in at least one head-scratcher each year (this time, Navy. Again.).
Something just isn't working here, and you have to blame Weis. He remains a brilliant offensive mind, but I think sometimes he outthinks himself in an effort to prove his intelligence. He doesn't appear to be able to properly motivate his teams, likely because of his NFL coordinator background. And years of suspect recruiting or talent evaluation on the defensive side has again led to a team that can't stop anybody.
Notre Dame, simply put, should be better than this in Year 5 under Weis. It's only Year 2 under Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, but people expected a lot more than this. What's wrong with the Maize and Blue?
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|There were high expectations for both Michigan and Notre Dame this season.|
Quarterback Tate Forcier has battled injuries and some inconsistent play. He still creates a lot of plays with his feet, but he's still too much of a freelancer and struggles with his throws in the pocket. Brandon Minor might be the Big Ten's most dominant running back, but he just can't stay healthy. But for the most part, the offense hasn't been the problem. Like Notre Dame, Michigan's major issues are on the defensive side. There's a lot of youth and not much depth there, as evidenced by several walk-ons in the two-deep, but the number of major breakdowns is shocking. It's one thing to allow big plays to Notre Dame on Sept. 12. But to give up the same plays to Iowa, Illinois and Purdue later in the season is unacceptable.
Rodriguez isn't to blame for all the problems, but like Weis, I think he fights himself a lot. He has won a certain way for years, and he can be stubborn. Rich has talked a lot about the need to have patience but admits he doesn't have much himself. And he still talks too much about the program he inherited from Lloyd Carr. Last I checked, he coaches Michigan, not Eastern Michigan, and while there were problems in 2007, a program like Michigan should never miss bowls in consecutive years (a strong possibility), especially in an average Big Ten.
Both of these coaches are known for offense, and yet both have major problems on defense. Has Weis put enough focus on the other side of the ball?
Bennett: Well, as you know, Weis is the offensive coordinator again this year and fully admits that he leaves most of the responsibility for the defense in the hands of veteran coordinator Jon Tenuta. The blitzing schemes favored by Tenuta haven't really worked, but that's mostly because of the personnel. Though Weis has brought in some highly rated recruiting classes, there still aren't enough big-time playmakers on defense, especially up front. When you look at, say USC, or even this week's opponent, Pittsburgh, the Irish simply don't stack up athlete for athlete on the defensive line.
What I don't understand is how Michigan can have talent problems, even in the coaching transition. Shouldn't the Wolverines have enough blue-chippers to field a good defense even as they adjust to a new offensive system?
Rittenberg: You would think, Brian, but Michigan has had an abnormal amount of attrition on that side of the ball, coupled with some bad recruiting classes for defense toward the end of Carr's tenure. The Wolverines also have had veteran players regress this season, and there aren't enough young guys ready to fill the gaps. Rodriguez needs his defensive recruits to blossom immediately, especially since Michigan will be losing its best defensive player (DE Brandon Graham) and possibly its No. 2 defender (junior CB Donovan Warren). It will be interesting to see what happens with first-year coordinator Greg Robinson, who hasn't had the desired effect on this unit.
OK, you're on the spot. What's your prediction for the rest of Notre Dame's season? Can Weis turn things around? Will next year's Fighting Irish head coach be Weis or your man-crush, Brian Kelly?
Bennett: The rest of the season brings a trip to No. 12 Pitt this week, followed by a visit from dangerous UConn next week and the season finale at Stanford. I have a hard time seeing Notre Dame winning more than two of those, so 8-4 or 7-5 looks like the final tally.
Jack Swarbrick isn't going to call me for advice, but I wouldn't think that record would be enough to keep Weis, especially since the Irish could once again lack any real quality wins. They don't hang banners for Gator Bowls in South Bend.
If there is a change, I would imagine Notre Dame would first try and land a big-time name, such as Urban Meyer or Jon Gruden. Once those guys say no -- and I don't think either would take the job -- the Irish would be crazy not to go after Kelly. He's Catholic, a great program salesman, he's built strong recruiting ties in the Midwest and he just wins big everywhere he goes.
He'd be a perfect fit at Notre Dame -- unless Michigan came calling first. Any chance Rodriguez doesn't survive, especially if the NCAA finds something in that whole practice time investigation?
Rittenberg: The NCAA investigation is the wild card, especially if major violations are found for the first time in Michigan football history. But this isn't boosters paying players or academic fraud, so I can't see the penalties being too terrible. Michigan AD Bill Martin said earlier this week that Rodriguez is safe, and though Martin will be retiring soon, they're not going to make a change in football after only two years, especially during an athletic director transition.
A 5-7 season combined with NCAA violations would really sting, but Rodriguez should be back in 2010. He'll definitely be on the hot seat entering next fall, needing at least eight or nine wins to keep his job at a tradition-rich program.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After a quick start against Notre Dame, Purdue's season-long struggles against the run are starting to show up.
Notre Dame leads 17-7 at halftime despite playing without its best wide receiver (Michael Floyd) and with quarterback Jimmy Clausen fighting turf toe. Running back Armando Allen also is banged up, but the Fighting Irish are finding running room with several players, namely wideout Golden Tate and burly back Robert Hughes.
Purdue couldn't stop the run in 2008, and it doesn't appear like much has changed this year. Northern Illinois ran wild on the Boilers last week, and Notre Dame has 138 rush yards in the opening half. Boilers quarterback Joey Elliott tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Valentin early on, but the air attack hasn't done much since the opening minutes. Penalties are really hurting Purdue, which has been flagged eight times in the opening half.
The Boilers need some more big plays on offense and more importantly, they need to stuff Notre Dame's rushing attack to have any shot in this one.
Purdue's secondary will need all hands on deck for Saturday night's clash against Notre Dame, and the Boilers should get a big piece back on the field.
Senior cornerback Brandon King is expected to return after missing the last two games with a deep thigh bruise. King started every game in each of the last two seasons and ranked second on the squad with nine pass breakups last year to go along with an interception and a forced fumble.
He could be a big help as Purdue tries to contain Fighting Irish star wideout Golden Tate, who ranks 20th nationally in receiving yards (100.3 ypg).
"I do expect him playing Saturday," Boilers head coach Danny Hope said, "but we’ve still got to get through the week without him reinjuring it.”
Purdue's veteran secondary has been hamstrung by injuries a bit early on, but Hope expects the group to be much healthier for Notre Dame.
"One of the problems we’ve had on the defensive side of the ball is a lack of continuity," Hope said. "We’ve had injuries in the secondary, we’ve been shuffling people around. The secondary and the offensive line are the two areas where continuity means the most."
Notre Dame, by the way, expects quarterback Jimmy Clausen to be ready after an MRI showed the junior has turf toe.
It was an OK, but not great week for the Big Ten, and the same for my picks. I went 8-3, wasn't close on several scores and came close on a few others.
Here's hoping for better results all around on Saturday.
Michigan 34, Eastern Michigan 14 -- A bit a hangover for Michigan after the Notre Dame win, but the run game eventually gets going behind Brandon Minor. Tate Forcier does his thing, and Rich Rodriguez gets Denard Robinson some more reps as Michigan matches its wins total from 2008 only three games into the season.
California 35, Minnesota 23 -- I could see Cal starting slow, but the Bears shouldn't be nearly as flat as they were last year against Maryland. Minnesota has done some nice things on defense, but Cal's offense seems just too powerful. The Gophers haven't found offensive playmakers aside from wide receiver Eric Decker and aren't able to keep up with Cal on the scoreboard.
Penn State 48, Temple 6 -- After a ho-hum win against Syracuse, Penn State shows a greater sense of urgency with Big Ten play looming and thumps Temple. The run game finally gets going as Evan Royster eclipses 100 rushing yards and Stephfon Green adds 75. The Lions defense holds Temple to two field goals as defensive end Jack Crawford has a big day.
Wisconsin 44, Wofford 7 -- The Badgers are healthier and Wofford is not, as leading rusher Eric Breitenstein will be out a month with a knee injury. John Clay puts up 150 rush yards in his first career start and Dave Doeren's defense gets some of its swagger back against the FCS Terriers.
Purdue 35, Northern Illinois 27 -- Something tells me this one won't be easy for Purdue, but the Boilers prevail behind Ralph Bolden and quarterback Joey Elliott, who bounces back from last week's loss with an encouraging performance. Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish tests a banged-up Boilermakers secondary, but Purdue tightens up its play and prevails.
Ohio State 41, Toledo 17 -- This is a good matchup for a struggling Buckeyes offense, which should put up points against a Toledo team that allowed 90 in the first two games. Terrelle Pryor has a big day with his arm and his feet, and the Buckeyes roll. Aaron Opelt could give Ohio State some problems, but the defense I saw last week in Columbus is too solid up front to allow many points.
Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 27 -- By far the toughest game to pick this week, but I'm going with the team that needs it more. Home field really doesn't matter for Notre Dame, which has dropped six straight to Michigan State. But the Irish know a loss here likely torpedoes their season and head coach Charlie Weis. The Spartans secondary struggled mightily last week, and Notre Dame's Golden Tate and Michael Floyd are better than Central Michigan's Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson. Kirk Cousins plays well, but the Spartans come up just short.
Akron 24, Indiana 20 -- My lack of faith in the Hoosiers hurt me last week, and we'll see what happens this time around. Indiana's defense has performed admirably so far, but the team has made too many mistakes for my liking. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain is pretty good, and he attacks the IU secondary with Deryn Bowser. The Hoosiers can't survive mistakes on the road and drop this one.
Iowa 21, Arizona 17 -- It will be a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium, as both units are solid. Arizona running back Nic Grigsby makes some plays, but Iowa forces several turnovers, including a key interception in the fourth quarter that proves to be the difference. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi limits mistakes and throws a pair of touchdown passes
Northwestern 26, Syracuse 21 -- The win won't come easily for Northwestern, but you have to think the coaches will expand the playbook on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Mike Kafka finally showcases his mobility against an aggressive Orange defense, and he has another big day in a dome. The Wildcats defense gets a big boost from the return of cornerback Sherrick McManis, who keeps Orange star wideout Mike Williams relatively in check.
Bye -- Illinois
Season record -- 18-4 (.818)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Week 3 doesn't match its predecessor in terms of national prestige, but it still means a lot to the Big Ten. Wins over teams like Cal, Arizona and even Notre Dame would help the league's national reputation.
Here are 10 things you don't want to miss.
Spartans go for lucky seven -- The House that Rockne Built has turned into Spartan Stadium South, as Michigan State has claimed six consecutive games in South Bend. A seventh straight is crucial, especially after the Spartans lost their focus last week against Central Michigan. Notre Dame also comes in wounded and desperate for a victory, which could take some pressure off head coach Charlie Weis. Michigan State's secondary needs a much better effort against Notre Dame deep threats Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Kirk Cousins could cement himself as the Spartans' starting quarterback with a big day.
Minnesota linebackers take on Cal's Best -- Led by reigning National Defensive Player of the Week Nate Triplett, the Gophers' linebacking corps has led an improved defense in two victories. But things get much harder this weekend as Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best visits TCF Bank Stadium with eighth-ranked California. Minnesota gets a chance to show off its new stadium to the country against a top 10 team, but Best and backup Shane Vereen could make it a long day.
Iowa homecoming for Stoops -- Arizona head coach Mike Stoops returns to his alma mater with a pretty decent Wildcats team. The Iowa faithful undoubtedly will welcome the former All-Big Ten safety, but Stoops hopes to ruin their afternoon. Wildcats running back Nic Grigsby, the nation's second leading rusher, will match up against a Hawkeyes defense coming off a very impressive performance against Iowa State.
Buckeyes, Rockets clash in Cleveland -- What looked like a total mismatch before the season has spawned some more intriguing plotlines. Ohio State comes off a crushing loss to USC and needs to spark Terrelle Pryor and the offense against a Toledo team that has allowed 90 points in two games. If the Buckeyes can't score against this team, start to get concerned. Toledo, meanwhile, is riding high after thumping Colorado and boasts a dangerous quarterback in Aaron Opelt. Plus, head coaches Jim Tressel and Tim Beckman grew up together. And the game will be played at Cleveland Browns Stadium. I'm actually excited for this one.
Penn State ready to run -- The run game has been grounded so far in Happy Valley, and Penn State needs to get things corrected against Temple. Penn State boasts the Big Ten's best all-around back in Evan Royster, but the new faces on the offensive line have struggled a bit. The Lions can't afford to be one-dimensional when Iowa comes to town Sept. 26, so they need to spark Royster, Stephfon Green and the ground game right away.
Wildcats aim for Syracuse sweep -- The Big Ten is 2-0 against Syracuse this season, though the Orange have been a tougher opponent than many had expected. Northwestern barely squeaked by Eastern Michigan last week and needs a better performance from its defense against Greg Paulus and the Cuse. It's a critical game for the Wildcats, who need quarterback Mike Kafka to be a playmaker and defensive end Corey Wootton to return to the form he showed in 2008.
Wolverines reunite with English -- Michigan's veteran defenders face their former coordinator Ron English, who brings his Eastern Michigan team to the Big House. Players like safety Troy Woolfolk haven't forgotten English's intense style, and they'll look to impress him on Saturday. Michigan must guard against a letdown after an impressive start. Eastern Michigan showed last week that it doesn't quit, and the Wolverines need to maintain their focus to match their wins total from 2008.
Purdue's Bolden rolls along -- If you haven't watched Purdue running back Ralph Bolden yet, tune in to Saturday's game against Northern Illinois. The nation's leading rusher has been spectacular so far, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Purdue has been a surprise team so far in the Big Ten, and the Boilers aim for a 2-1 start against a pretty decent Huskies team that gave Wisconsin all it could handle two weeks ago.
Indiana's defense hits the road -- Make no mistake. Indiana's trip to Akron is huge for Bill Lynch and the Hoosiers. IU hasn't been dominating so far, but it has found ways to win thanks to a veteran-laden defense. The Hoosiers need defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to apply pressure on Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain, who has already thrown four touchdown passes to Deryn Bowser this year. If Indiana wants to make any sort of run in 2009, Akron is a must win.
Clay in the starting blocks -- Wisconsin's matchup against Wofford doesn't exactly get the blood flowing, but it's worth watching sophomore running back John Clay make his first career start for the Badgers. Clay has the tools to become a superstar, but he didn't claim the starting job in preseason camp and has struggled with his weight in the past. He comes off a very impressive performance against Fresno State and might establish himself as Wisconsin's top back with a strong showing against Wofford.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Kirk Cousins knows how Michigan State fans feel right now. The Spartans sophomore quarterback used to be exactly like them.
"I remember being a fan watching Michigan State growing up, too, and [seeing] those kinds of losses happening," Cousins said. "Obviously, it’s frustrating."
Anxiety is high among Spartans fans after the team's 29-27 loss to Central Michigan last Saturday. The loss was bad enough, but the way it went down, with Michigan State blowing a late lead and showing a lack of discipline, seemed all too familiar.
|AP Photo/Al Goldis|
| Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is confident heading into Saturday's match up with Notre Dame.
Michigan State fans have seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well. But this time, Cousins and his teammates are determined to rewrite the script.
"We need to respond and not react," said Cousins, a co-captain. "We need to move forward. We had a players-only meeting on Sunday and made sure those guys understood it’s not a time to panic. It’s just a time to refocus and get serious about what we’re trying to do. We’ve done that.”
Head coach Mark Dantonio is confident his team's psyche will be in the right place when it takes the field Saturday against Notre Dame. The Irish also come off a disappointing loss to Michigan, setting up a rivalry game in which both sides are desperate for a victory.
Dantonio always acknowledges Michigan State's recent history, the good and the bad, and both really apply to the team's current situation. Michigan State has owned Notre Dame on the road as of late, claiming six consecutive games in South Bend, the longest win streak for any Fighting Irish opponent at Notre Dame Stadium.
On the flip side, the Spartans have been a team prone to season-killing slumps, which usually begin with games like last Saturday's. It happened in 2006, 2005, 2004 and 2000. Dantonio has been very candid about the fact that Michigan State hasn't always handled high expectations, like the ones placed on the team before this season.
"When you care about our players, like we do here, you’re going to bounce back," Dantonio said. "We’re going to find out about ourselves. You’re constantly trying to put people’s backs to the walls in spring practice and winter workouts and summer camp and give them adversity. You’re trying to simulate that adversity.
"But when you have it first hand and it’s real, you find out a little bit more about yourself. This is a life lesson for us and a learning experience and we’ll take it.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Welcome to a new feature on the Big Ten blog, to appear every Monday afternoon the rest of the season. I'll hand out thumbs ups and thumbs downs to players, coaches, teams, position groups and anything else Big Ten-related from the previous week of games.
Let's hope Roger Ebert doesn't sue me for copyright infringement.
Thumbs up, Ohio State's defensive line -- The Buckeyes won the matchup of strength vs. strength with USC's offensive line for most of Saturday's game. Tackle Cameron Heyward was a dominant force in the middle, and the Buckeyes put constant pressure on Matt Barkley. If the D-line had received just a bit of help from the offense, Ohio State would have won.
Thumbs down, Northwestern's defensive line -- What figured to be one of the team's strongest units has underperformed so far. Is star end Corey Wootton still limited by his surgically repaired knee? Northwestern clearly misses John Gill in the middle and needs to step things up against Syracuse.
Thumbs up, O'Brien Schofield -- The Wisconsin defensive end recorded four tackles for loss, including a sack, and led the team with 11 total tackles against Fresno State. Schofield is stepping up both on and off the field for Wisconsin.
Thumbs down, Wisconsin's third-down defense -- The Badgers were miserable on third down against Fresno State, which converted 11 of 18 attempts. Wisconsin won't win many more games if that percentage doesn't change.
Thumbs up, Minnesota's linebackers -- Led by Nate Triplett, the National Defensive Player of the Week, the Gophers had all three starting linebackers record double digits in tackles against run-happy Air Force. Triplett led the way with 17 stops, plus a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown, followed by Lee Campbell (11 tackles, 1.5 for loss) and Simoni Lawrence (10 tackles).
Thumbs down, Minnesota's skill players not named Eric Decker -- Take away Decker's 10 catches for 113 yards, and Minnesota's offensive numbers against Air Force look pretty gruesome (214 total yards). Whether it's DeLeon Eskridge, Duane Bennett, Troy Stoudermire or someone else, the Gophers need to find more offensive weapons.
Thumbs up, Kirk Cousins -- Cousins looks and acts the part of Michigan State's offensive leader, and he played pretty darn well against Central Michigan, completing 13 of 18 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore has earned the right to play more snaps ahead of Keith Nichol.
Michigan is hanging in there with No. 18 Notre Dame, but it'll be hard to see the Wolverines winning this game without making some adjustments on defense.
Notre Dame has controlled the line of scrimmage so far, shutting down a Michigan pass rush that created tons of havoc last week against Western Michigan. Jimmy Clausen has taken advantage of man coverage on the edges, wearing out corner Boubacar Cissoko already. Notre Dame's wideout tandem of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd is pretty special, and unless the Wolverines find a way to get to Clausen, it could be a tough second half. Michigan also must find a way to stop the screen pass after being burned several times.
That said, big plays win games, and Michigan has made as many or more of them than Notre Dame. Darryl Stonum's kickoff return was huge, and Michigan needs more of those in the second half. Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier continues to look good and limit mistakes, but he'll need a boost from the run game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
The Notre Dame-Michigan game means something again. Both traditional powers started the 2009 season with impressive victories, blowing out two solid non-BCS foes in Nevada and Western Michigan. The 18th-ranked Fighting Irish travel Saturday to Ann Arbor to face Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), which could be on its way back under Rich Rodriguez.
Before the teams enter the Big House, we took a look at several of the key factors in the game.
Brian Bennett: Adam, Notre Dame vs. Michigan feels important again for the first time in a couple of years. Both teams are 1-0 and looking for bounce-back years.
My first question for you is, which team and which coach needs this more? I say it's Notre Dame and Charlie Weis. While I think Michigan fans would accept another rebuilding-type of year with the Wolverines' young quarterbacks, the Irish are built to win now. Weis has to get to eight or nine wins to feel safe, and this is a huge swing game for Notre Dame. Losing to Michigan would bring back more doubt and questions that Weis and his players don't need.
|Brian Spurlock/US Presswire|
|Charlie Weis arguably needs to win this game more than Michigan's Rich Rodriguez.|
Notre Dame's offense looked awfully impressive last week, especially the line. I've been skeptical of that group because older players don't necessarily mean better ones. Has the Irish line turned a corner and what does that mean for Jimmy Clausen and those dynamic wide receivers. How do you think they'll match up against a younger but faster Michigan defensive front?
BB: The Irish offensive line neutralized Nevada's defensive ends, Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch, who combined for more than 20 sacks last year. Clausen had time to write his thesis in the pocket. Weis said they threw everything at the ends -- cutting, double-teaming, screens and running right at them -- to slow them down. Michigan has better athletes up front and should be ready for those ploys. Notre Dame's offensive line still has a lot to prove, as they didn't exactly run the ball down Nevada's throat. Unless inexperience bites them, I think this could be an advantage for the Wolverines.
That being said, when Clausen does get time, who is going to stop Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph from going off? It's been a while since the Wolverines have seen such talented pass-catchers.
AR: Each of those guys is awfully tough to stop, especially in man coverage. Michigan's defensive backs tackled extremely well last week against Western Michigan, even when they were left alone in space. Still, the secondary is an inexperienced group, particularly at safety, and to expect it to contain Floyd, Tate and Rudolph is unrealistic. Junior corner Donovan Warren is a potential shutdown guy, and I'd imagine he'll be on Tate. The other corner, Boubacar Cissoko, had an interception last week and did a lot of nice things against Western Michigan. For Michigan, the key to stopping those three is not giving Clausen enough time to get them the ball down the field. The Wolverines will try to generate a pass rush solely with their down linemen to give the secondary some help from the linebackers.
Obviously, Michigan's offense looked dramatically different with Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson at quarterback. How do you think Notre Dame will defend the spread? How big of a factor will freshman Manti Te'o be for the Irish?
BB: It's interesting, because Notre Dame got some practice against a spread-type offense and a running quarterback versus Nevada. I think that will help their preparation for this game. The Wolf Pack didn't score but did get quite a few big running plays before turning the ball over or failing to convert key third downs. The Irish didn't really have to worry about the passing game much, either. Te'o didn't play a whole lot in that game, partly because they were afraid to throw a true freshman in against a confusing offense, but mostly because linebackers Brian Smith and Toryan Smith played so well. Weis said this week that Te'o would be involved more, and he showed in his limited time that he can really run and deliver a big hit when he gets there. They may need that this week.
|Eric Bronson/Icon SMI|
|Junior Hemingway collected five passes for 103 yards and two TDs against Western Michigan.|
What other offensive concerns do the Wolverines pose, and how much of a role do you think the inexperience factor will play for them at quarterback in this game?
AR: Forcier said after last week's game that he never gets nervous, and I believe him. He didn't look anything like a freshman in leading the offense. Denard Robinson still has a ways to go as a passer, but he's too fast and too athletic to be left off the field. I'm sure you saw his electrifying scoring run on his first career carry in college. Michigan had called a reverse on that play, Robinson fumbled the snap and he still found a way to make a huge play. Forcier will get most of the snaps, but Robinson will definitely be a factor. I'd also watch out for wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who had a huge game in the opener after missing most of last season with mono. He looks like Forcier's top target. Michigan also is extremely deep at running back and should get Brandon Minor back on the field Saturday.
This game got a lot more interesting last weekend, and I could see it go either way. I can't see Forcier and Robinson playing as cleanly as they did last week, and it'll be tough for Michigan to contain Notre Dame's deep threats for 60 minutes. I'm giving the Irish a slight edge in this one, 30-27.
What's your take?
BB: I'm real close to your score. I've got Notre Dame by a 34-29 count. I just think the Irish are more experienced and have a few too many weapons on offense. But this game could be a lot of fun. And it isn't it great to have Notre Dame-Michigan mean something again?
AR: Absolutely. Enjoy the Big House, my friend. Should be a good one.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After Michigan completed its timed testing in the offseason, sophomore defensive linemen Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin examined the numbers and came to an obvious conclusion.
Whether it was the 40-yard dash, the shuttle run or another event, the Wolverines' defensive line would undoubtedly be much faster despite losing three starters. New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and his staff also noticed the numbers and made speed a focal point of their scheme.
Wolverines linemen no longer would be divided into pass-rushers and lane cloggers. Every guy was a speed guy.
"We’re running after the ball every play," Martin said. "If there’s a ball thrown, the D-line’s running out of the stack and getting after it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 40-yard pass or a 3-yard dump, we’re always sprinting."
Michigan showcased its speed in the season opener against Western Michigan, making life miserable for Broncos senior quarterback Tim Hiller in a 31-7 win. The Wolverines recorded two sacks and six tackles for loss, and Hiller completed just 13 of 24 pass attempts in a miserable first half.
"It’s not something that they were prepared for, as far as how much we’ve advanced physically," Van Bergen said. "Our defensive line is a little bit different this year. Me, Mike, Brandon [Graham] and Craig [Roh] are all speed guys."
Hiller is known for his quick release and his short drops on passes, two factors that usually neutralize the pass rush. Western Michigan tied for 11th nationally last year in fewest sacks allowed.
“A three-step, typically it’s based to take the defensive line out of the picture," Van Bergen said. "We made our minds up as a group that we weren’t going to be ignored.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The 10th installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
The Big Ten's mystery team flummoxes opponents, youth is served and veterans flourish in featured roles, as Hope returns to West Lafayette.
First-year coach Danny Hope has accelerated the pace at Purdue since he took over for Joe Tiller, and the results show in the Boilermakers' first game. The team is faster and more athletic on both sides of the ball, as Ralph Bolden sparks the rushing attack in an easy win against Toledo. Purdue then heads to Eugene and paces Oregon before losing in overtime, but unlike last year's game, the strong showing against the heavily favored Ducks galvanizes the Boilers.
After handling Northern Illinois in Week 3, Purdue's defense provides a huge lift in an upset of Notre Dame. Defensive linemen Ryan Kerrigan and Mike Neal both record sacks, and a veteran Boilers secondary stifles the Irish pass attack. Purdue improves to 5-1 with wins against Northwestern and Minnesota before losing a defensive struggle against Ohio State.
The Boilers fall the next week against Illinois but bounce back in Madison as Bolden and Jaycen Taylor combine for 250 rush yards against a questionable Wisconsin front seven. Purdue loses a close one to Michigan State the next week, but crushes Indiana for the second straight year as young wideouts Antavian Edison and Gary Bush get into the act.
At 8-4, Purdue heads to the Alamo Bowl and beats Kansas. Robert Marve beams on the sideline, anxiously awaiting his chance to start in 2010. Elliott immediately joins the Purdue coaching staff to tutor the quarterbacks. Kerrigan decides to stay for his senior year and Neal earns first-team All-Big Ten honors. All Purdue male students grow mustaches to honor Hope and Tiller.
All the transition catches up to Purdue, the offense stalls, the run defense collapses and fans wonder if the dark days are back.
Purdue stumbles out of the gate against Toledo, as Elliott and the offense can't find a rhythm and the defense fails to generate much pressure. The Rockets stun the Boilers, who are forced to play too many young players. Oregon remembers last year's near upset in West Lafayette and thrashes Purdue 42-7, as Jeremiah Masoli and LeGarrette Blount each gash the Boilers for 80-yard runs.
The Boilers barely salvage a win against Northern Illinois before Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium and takes to the air, consistently beating Purdue's veteran defensive backs with wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. Elliott proves why he hasn't been a starter before, tossing three interceptions in a 45-14 loss to the Irish.
Northwestern and Minnesota take advantage of Purdue's weak run defense, consistently double-teaming Kerrigan and Neal and forcing young players to beat them. Terrelle Pryor then runs wild as Ohio State hands Purdue its fourth straight loss. Things get even worse the next week against Illinois, which makes big play after big play against a defense that allowed far too many of them last year.
Purdue collapses down the stretch, as Indiana avenges last year's blowout with a 35-point victory at Memorial Stadium that secures bowl eligibility for Bill Lynch's crew. The Boilers go winless in the Big Ten for the first time since 1993 and miss the postseason for the second straight year. Kerrigan leaves early for the NFL, and several of Hope's recruits from Florida also depart. Purdue fans shave their mustaches in protest and wear "Hopeless" T-shirts at the home finale against Michigan State.
The fourth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
Tate the Great and "Shoelace" Robinson flummox opponents, the defense rebounds under Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez's history of Year 2 turnarounds continues.
Rodriguez's spread offense starts to take shape around the freshmen quarterbacks, who are suited to the system. The veterans at running back, wide receiver and offensive line ease the transition early before Tate Forcier and/or Denard Robinson takes control by the start of Big Ten play. Senior Brandon Minor headlines a strong stable of running backs and earns first-team All-Big Ten honors by rushing for 1,400 yards. The receiving corps also steps up, buoyed by the return of Junior Hemingway and former Michigan hoopster Kelvin Gray. Michigan's defense overcomes inexperience up front and in the secondary, and plays as a cohesive unit. Brandon Graham leads the league in sacks while linebacker Obi Ezeh tops the tackles chart. Punter Zoltan Mesko gets a lot less work but still wins the Ray Guy Award.
Michigan begins by doing something it last accomplished in 2006 -- win the season opener. The defense holds off Tim Hiller and Western Michigan, setting up a matchup against Notre Dame. Graham and Mike Martin bulldoze the overhyped Fighting Irish line and punish Jimmy Clausen all afternoon as Michigan pulls a mini upset and prevails 24-14. Loaded with confidence, the Wolverines stomp all over both Eastern Michigan and Indiana to complete a 4-0 start.
The team hits the road for the first time and regains in-state bragging rights by rallying to beat Michigan State in the fourth quarter. Michigan vaults into the top 20. After a loss at Iowa, Michigan handles Delaware State easily. The Wolverines split their next two games against Penn State and Illinois but pound Purdue on Nov. 7, as Robinson rushes for three touchdowns.
The last two regular-season games won't be easy, as Michigan visits Madison before hosting archrival Ohio State. But by now, the offense has started to ro
ll and the young defenders have settled in around Graham, Ezeh and Donovan Warren. Michigan wins a close one at Wisconsin before taking Ohio State to the brink on Nov. 21. It'd take a lot to see the Wolverines upset the Buckeyes, but hey, this is a best-case scenario, so what the heck. The streak ends at five games as Terrelle Pryor throws three picks.
At 10-2, Michigan heads to the Capital One Bowl and beats Mississippi in a shootout. Fans finally embrace Rodriguez and his style, forgetting 2008 and all the player departures during the transition. Minor finishes as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, and Graham wins Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Michigan is back.
A 2008 redux at quarterback, more mistakes crop up on defense, Mesko leads the nation in punt attempts and Michigan misses a bowl for the second straight year.
Despite more experience elsewhere on offense, the quarterback position dooms the Wolverines again. Rodriguez plays all three candidates and none settles into a rhythm, allowing defenses to load up to stop the running game. Opponents double-team Graham and wipe away the pass rush, allowing their quarterbacks to exploit the obvious weaknesses in the secondary. Mesko leads the nation in punting and Michigan stumbles out of the gate again.
Another season opener, another loss, as Michigan falls to Western Michigan and Hiller, who tosses four touchdown passes. Clausen takes note the next week and eclipses Hiller's touchdowns total by one as Golden Tate and Michael Floyd make Michigan's secondary look silly. The Wolverines get booed as they head to halftime down 28-7 and never get within 14 points of the Irish. After an underwhelming win against Eastern Michigan that evokes memories of last year's Miami (Ohio) triumph, Michigan evens its record at 2-2 by outlasting Indiana.
The problems on offense can't be masked for long, and Michigan's first road trip results in a long afternoon for Forcier and Robinson. Michigan State further establishes itself as the team to beat in the state with a 31-17 victory. Things only get worse the next week in Iowa City, as Michigan fails to get on the scoreboard against the talented Hawkeyes defense. After taking care of Delaware State, the Wolverines see their home win streak against Penn State end at five games.
Another loss follows at Illinois, as Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn hook up for three touchdowns. Needing a perfect finish to keep its bowl hopes alive, Michigan survives against Purdue but drops its final two games against Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Buckeyes roll once again, extending their win streak to six games as Pryor accounts for six touchdowns (4 pass, 2 rush).
At 4-8, Rodriguez's future seems very much in doubt. After some extensive deliberation, AD Bill Martin decides to keep the coach, but says a significant improvement must be made in 2010. Several key players leave the team, including one of the freshman quarterbacks, which puts Rodriguez and his staff in a negative light yet again. Mesko winds up as Michigan's only first-team All-Big Ten representative. Ohio State wins its fifth straight league title and the Rose Bowl.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Big Ten play finally arrives for 10 of the 11 teams, and some intriguing opening matchups are on tap Saturday. Last week brought another solid record, but I underestimated the strength of several Big Ten defense. It won't happen this time around.
Not an easy slate of games, and recent history is working against favorites like Penn State (1-7 in its last eight Big Ten openers) and Wisconsin (hasn't won at Michigan since 1994). Here's how I see things shaking out.
Michigan State 30, Indiana 21 -- The Hoosiers allowed Ball State's MiQuale Lewis to rush for 166 yards last week. That's not a good sign as Javon Ringer, the nation's second-leading rusher, comes to Bloomington. Ringer could record his third straight 200-yard rushing performance, but this is an important game for Brian Hoyer to finally get going. The Spartans senior quarterback faces a depleted Indiana secondary. Kellen Lewis makes some plays for the Hoosiers, but Michigan State has the stronger defense.
Ohio State 35, Minnesota 17 -- The return of running back Chris Wells provides the emotional lift Ohio State has lacked the last three games. Wells might not put up huge numbers, but his presence sparks quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offense. I haven't lost faith in Minnesota, but the timing just isn't right for an upset. And unlike previous Gophers opponents, Ohio State will actually bother to cover star wide receiver Eric Decker with All-America cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
Iowa 20, Northwestern 17 -- A really tough call here. Iowa hopes it finds a quarterback in sophomore Ricky Stanzi, but Northwestern's defense looks greatly improved and the Hawkeyes' offense really hasn't done much the last two games. The difference comes at the line of scrimmage, where Iowa's defensive front overpowers Northwestern's new-look offensive line and neutralizes Tyrell Sutton. The game could come down to special teams or a fourth-quarter turnover, but Iowa holds on at home.
Wisconsin 27, Michigan 17 -- Like two years ago, the game stays close for the first half, but this time Wisconsin pulls away behind its power run game. Michigan's offense will be improved coming off the bye week and running back Sam McGuffie will force the Badgers to tackle in space. But Wisconsin knows how to grind out victories, and in the fourth quarter the Badgers will control the clock with P.J. Hill and force a mistake or two from Wolverines quarterback Steven Threet. Michigan's streak of 22 consecutive wins in Big Ten home openers comes to an end.
Purdue 27, Notre Dame 24 -- For the second straight season Notre Dame can't run the ball, and the Irish will be forced to stretch the field with young wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The plan could work well, but Purdue's secondary has improved and picks off a pass or two. Curtis Painter put up big numbers (398 pass yards) in his last trip to Notre Dame Stadium, and Purdue's offense looks more balanced with running back Kory Sheets. The Boilers win on a last-minute Chris Summers field goal.
Penn State 38, Illinois 24 -- The Lions face adversity for the first time this season, but ultimately their offense is simply too powerful for Illinois. Illini quarterback Juice Williams has proven he can win in tough environments, but unless Arrelious Benn steps up his play, the offense doesn't have enough firepower to keep pace with Penn State. Lions quarterback Daryll Clark makes an early mistake but recovers, and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green wear down the Illini defensive line.
Season record: 35-4