Big Ten: Isaiah Lewis
Now, it's time to see how we fared -- and find out which of us was smarter in August.
Actual wins: 4
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: We both had the Illini finishing 3-9; the preseason over-under number was a good one. Illinois' blowout win over Cincinnati remains one of the more surprising results of the season, but the Illini also came close to beating Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Vegas got us again. Both of us were bullish on the Hoosiers making a bowl game this year. Home losses to Navy and Minnesota were killers.
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Like most people, we underestimated the Hawkeyes this year. By a lot.
Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: So, um, yeah. This isn't going too well for us.
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: And I'm on the board. Finally. But 8-4 still surprised us.
Over-under: 9.5 Actual wins: 8 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: I said in my prediction that it wouldn't shock me if Nebraska went 8-4, which they did. Adam called the over "a fairly easy call."
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Neither of us thought the Wildcats would miss a bowl game, but I had them falling short of expectations because of the schedule.
Over-under: 11 Actual wins: 12 Brian's pick: Push
Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Though we both figured Ohio State would be dominant, we just thought it would be too hard to go undefeated again. It wasn't -- at least until the Big Ten title game.
Over-under: 8 Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick: Push Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Another whiff. I even mentioned a possible 6-0 start for Penn State. At least the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin to get closer to the preseason number.
Over-under: 5.5 Actual wins: 1 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Guess it's safe to say the Boilermakers fell way short of expectations in Darrell Hazell's first year, though we both expected some struggles.
Over-under: 9 Actual wins: 9 Brian's pick: Push Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Once again, the wiseguys were right on the number, and so was I, as I predicted a 9-3 season with losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and one other Big Ten team. Blind squirrel, meet nut.
I won but take no pride in those picks. The lesson here, as always: Don't mess with Vegas.
We also took a stab at some random over-unders of our own in the preseason. Let's take a look at how those turned out:
Michigan State starting QBs
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: The Spartans played three quarterbacks early and very nearly went with a fourth in Damion Terry. But only Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook started.
Taylor Martinez touchdowns + turnovers
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: This one became a lock because of Martinez's injuries. He finished with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble. We'll never know what a healthy T-Magic could have done his senior season, and that's a shame.
Big Ten players ejected for targeting
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: It took a while for the league to have its first player ejected, but then the new rule showed its impact. For the record, the five players ejected were Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Indiana's David Kenney, Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis and Purdue's Landon Feichter.
Braxton Miller rushing attempts
Over-under: 188 Actual: 131 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Another category where an injury affected things. Miller would have gotten close and possibly reached our over-under if he didn't miss three games with a knee injury.
Chris Borland takeaways
Over-under: 7.5 Actual: 3 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Borland wasn't as active on the turnover front as Adam thought, but he still wound up as the Big Ten defensive player of the year.
Indiana defensive points allowed
Over-under: 29 ppg Actual: 38.8 ppg Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: And this is why the Hoosiers didn't make a bowl.
Devin Gardner's rushing totals
Over-under: 400 yards and 10 touchdowns Actual: 483 and 11 Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Thanks to a whole lot of sack yardage, Gardner came very close to our preseason baselines.
Iowa AIRBHG strikes
Actual: 0 20/20 hindsight: The Iowa running back curse was thankfully lifted this year. Afraid to say anything more for fear of jinxing it.
INDIANAPOLIS -- How does a good team become a championship team? It starts with a message from the head coach to the defensive coordinator.
"We need you down here," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told Pat Narduzzi.
Narduzzi, the Spartans' defensive coordinator, spends the majority of games in the coaches' booth before joining the team on the sideline for the closing minutes. But after Ohio State scored four times on six possessions to take a 24-17 lead in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game, Dantonio needed his top assistant with the unit, pronto.
Quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes were piling up yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. Ohio State appeared unstoppable, wiping out a 17-0 deficit and building the narrative of a team bound for the national championship.
Instead, Michigan State changed the script. The Spartans were the ones who finished, the ones who took that final step from good to elite, the ones who handed Urban Meyer his first loss at Ohio State. The ones who, as Dantonio had proclaimed at the team banquet following a disappointing 2012 season, became The Ones.
A 34-24 win secured Michigan State's first outright Big Ten title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
"We just made history today," senior safety Isaiah Lewis said on the field afterward. "I never thought in a million years that I'd be a part of something like this. We finally did it.
The title game felt like a lifetime with several plot twists. Michigan State dominated the first 20 minutes, and Ohio State dominated the middle 20 minutes.
When Narduzzi made his way to the sideline with about four minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Denicos Allen did a double-take.
"I'm like, 'Oh, man, it's getting real. We've gotta step up,'" Allen said.
The Spartan Dawgs finally got a stop, stuffing Miller on third-and-4. After Michigan State reclaimed the lead on a beautifully designed Connor Cook touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, the defense recorded a three-and-out.
But how long could Michigan State keep the nation's No. 3 scoring offense at bay? When Ohio State partially blocked a punt and took possession at the Michigan State 47, a score seemed inevitable. Three plays later, the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-2.
"G Hot Cyclone Gun," Narduzzi said of the play he called. "We had a timeout, and I switched the call right at the last second. It was Denicos coming off of one side, and Taiwan Jones coming off the other edge. I figured whichever [way] they came, at least we had two great linebackers coming off the edge."
Meyer sent Miller to the short side, and Allen brought him down shy of the marker. Michigan State allowed just 25 yards in the fourth quarter to a Buckeyes team that consistently had eroded its opponents with Miller's shiftiness and Carlos Hyde's power.
"Teams wear down when they play us," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "Shoot, we practice faster and harder than a lot of stuff out here today, not in terms of hitting, but speed between plays."
Michigan State's course correction on defense helped secure the win, but so did an offense that completed an incredible turnaround after becoming a national punch line in September. Cook, the quarterback who wondered if the coaches had lost faith in him following the team's Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame, claimed title-game MVP honors after passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Cook consistently made plays on the move, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, as Ohio State bottled up the run before giving way late.
"I learned to never give up, to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances are," Cook said. "Score, situation, whatever stage you're on. I really didn't learn anything about our team, because this is the way we've been all year."
Perhaps the rest of us are learning that Michigan State is the next force in the Big Ten. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. Michigan State has dominated Michigan under his watch and tormented Wisconsin, as well.
But a championship had been fleeting until Saturday night.
"My dad used to always say, 'Complete your circles,'" Dantonio said, referring to his father, Justin, who passed away days before the 2011 season. "I thought we did that. I never get too excited. I don't ever get too down. I live for my players.
"They made a lifetime moment tonight for all of us."
When it ended, players scrambled for roses to place between their teeth. As they've done after every win this season, they danced to rap songs in the locker room.
"We're doing things that haven't been done here in a while," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "We're trying to go down as never forgotten."
That much is certain. They'll go down as the group that took the Green and White back to Pasadena.
1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?
3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.
4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.
5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
"It's still how you finish," Lewis said. "People only remember the last thing you do."
Lewis was involved in the deciding play of the 42-39 Big Ten title loss to Wisconsin in 2011. With less than two minutes remaining, the Badgers were forced to punt. Michigan State went for the punt block and Lewis brushed the leg of Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. That 5-yard penalty nullified a big return by Keshawn Martin and gave the Badgers a first down and the ability to run out the clock.
Before that penalty, Lewis had turned in a strong defensive performance.
"But that last play was kind of bad for me, so all I heard was, 'You did terrible,'" he said. "You never want to lose a game like that."
Teammate Max Bullough remembers how down Lewis was in the locker room after the loss.
"Right after the game, he probably thought he was the reason we lost the game," the Spartans senior linebacker said. "I think that’s probably tough for a guy, especially a young player. But we really embraced him in the locker room. The seniors did as well."
What made that night even tougher for Lewis was that it happened in his hometown of Indianapolis, so friends and family members were watching closely. His high school coach, Mike Kirschner, sat in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands for the game.
"I was sitting with a bunch of Michigan State fans, and after that call, I felt like I needed to leave," said Kirschner, who coached Lewis at Ben Davis High School. "I talked to him a couple of weeks after the fact, and he was real frustrated. He told me, 'Now I see who my real friends are. People who I thought were on my side are giving me crap.'"
But Lewis' teammates and coaches told him repeatedly that he was not to blame for the loss. Again this week, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio took responsibility for the penalty.
"I sent him on the punt block," Dantonio said Monday. "I told him to go get it. That responsibility lies with me."
Luckily, Lewis has never lacked confidence or an ability to bounce back from tough luck.
He tore his ACL midway through his senior season of high school but still managed to play a lot in 2010 as a true freshman for a Michigan State program that redshirts most first-year players. After the 2011 Big Ten championship game loss, Michigan State beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl, and Kirschner said Lewis told him, "That made it all go away." Lewis has been one of the top safeties in the Big Ten the past two seasons and was named first-team all-conference by the coaches this week.
So this isn't really a potential redemption story, because Lewis has already accomplished a lot in his career. Still, he knows how finishing acts can color perception and memory, and he sees this week as a big opportunity.
"I just want to win the game," he said. "I'm not thinking about payback or anything. I want to go to the Rose Bowl."
In September, the Irish took advantage of four pass-interference penalties and a defensive-holding call to hand Michigan State its only loss of the season. Asked during a recent visit from ESPN.com whether that game prompted any changes to his aggressive style, the Spartans’ defensive coordinator loaded film of the questionable calls onto his computer and grew more animated as the plays unfolded on the screen.
“After that game, I continued to say to our guys, ‘Hey, that’s what we do, and that’s how we do it. We’re not going to change.’”
Why would Narduzzi change a thing? Michigan State leads the nation in total defense and rushing yards allowed and is No. 4 in the FBS in scoring defense, giving up just over 11 points per game. The Spartans are understandably confident in their way of doing things heading into Saturday's Big Ten title game against Ohio State.
“We’re going to play our game of football,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “We’re going to make those guys play our game.”
Continuity is a core belief for Narduzzi, who is in his seventh year at Michigan State and ninth straight season running a defense under Mark Dantonio. There’s no real secret to Narduzzi's system, which seems simple in its appearance but is complex beneath the surface.
Michigan State lines up in the same 4-3 base on almost every down except for third-and-long, when it will move to a three-man front. Against spread teams and passing attacks, the Spartans (unlike most defenses) will leave their three linebackers on the field instead of adding more defensive backs. They demand that their cornerbacks defend receivers one-on-one, freeing up safeties to help against the run.
“People know how we’re going to line up, for the most part,” Narduzzi said. “They now where our DBs and our LBs are going to line up. But that’s an advantage to us, too. You may know where we are, but so do we.”
Sounds pretty basic. And it is -- except for the zone blitzes that Narduzzi dials up out of that base package. A fellow Big Ten defensive coordinator called Narduzzi earlier this season, looking for tips to stop a common opponent. Narduzzi said the coordinator told him, “Man, that pressure you bring, I don’t know how you do it.”
That’s one reason why few other teams have copied Michigan State’s defense, despite its dominating statistics in recent years. Another reason is that not every coach is comfortable playing his corners on an island and blitzing, opening the defense up to potential big plays.
“People know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we do it,” Narduzzi said. “We’re the only team in the country that does zone pressure like this. There’s a risk to it if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
That’s not a problem for these Spartans.
Since defenders mostly stay at the same spot on the field during almost every situation, they can master their particular craft. This year’s defense has certified experts at their jobs who have been in the system for years, such as Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis, and defensive end Marcus Rush. As Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday: “They’re like a fine wine. They get better with age.”
The veteran players have taken ownership of the defense. Led by Bullough, they're able to make their own adjustments during a game when something isn't working, which is one reason why Michigan State hasn't allowed a second-half point in seven of its 12 games. Dennard had "No Fly Zone" T-shirts made for all the team's defensive backs.
Narduzzi and Dantonio both agree that this is the best defense they've had in their seven years at Michigan State. And this Ohio State team may be their toughest challenge in that time.
The Buckeyes are averaging 48.2 points and 321 rushing yards per game. While Narduzzi says some opponents this year have abandoned the running game against his defense, that won’t happen Saturday versus RB Carlos Hyde and QB Braxton Miller. Narduzzi is so concerned about stopping them that he has gone to full tackling in practice this week, something the Spartans didn’t do before last season’s 17-16 loss to the Buckeyes.
“For me to sit here and tell you it’s not our biggest test, I’d just be lying to you,” Bullough said. “But it’s something that in all reality, we look forward to.”
Different year, different teams. But last year, Michigan State did hold Ohio State to its lowest point total in two years under Urban Meyer, while Narduzzi still laments a fumble return for a touchdown by his defense that was blown dead by the officials.
“Obviously, it’s a bigger challenge in who you’re playing,” he said. “But we played them a year ago, so it’s not like we don’t know who we’re playing against. It’s an opportunity for us to go clean up something from a year ago.”
Narduzzi hopes the result is different this time around. But little else will change for him or the Spartans' defense.
College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.
Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.
"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."
Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.
"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.
Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.
They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.
In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.
How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.
1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure
Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.
MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.
It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.
"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.
Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.
"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.
2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)
Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.
The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).
Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.
"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."
3. Embracing excellence
Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.
The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.
"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."
The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."
Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.
The Big Ten is looking into it right now, but Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that he doesn’t think Lewan deserves a suspension. And that if he did believe that, he would’ve already suspended the captain himself.
Lewan said the Lewis face mask twist happened at a time when he was trying to keep quarterback Devin Gardner safe in the middle of a dogpile.
However, that wasn’t the only time Lewan’s emotions got the better of him during the loss.
“It’s tough at times, definitely when you’re in a huge rivalry game like Michigan-Michigan State,” Lewan said. “A couple of those face mask deals were on accident. ... A couple of those were very blatant and I apologize for that. There are different ways to go about it, but I lost my composure for a second. That’s not OK to do. That’s not representing the University of Michigan the way it should be. That’s not taking pride in the rivalry that we have with Michigan State.”
Hoke said he and Lewan had a discussion regarding Lewan’s in-game behavior and Hoke made it clear that it was unacceptable for any player, especially a captain, to behave that way.
“It’s not what we want to portray or be,” Hoke said. “It’s not who we are.”
Lewan agreed and described his own actions as “poor and immature.” He said he tried to find Lewis following the game to apologize but couldn’t find him. However, Lewan said he also believes Lewis understands.
“I think he would agree with me that it’s the heat of a rivalry game,” Lewan said. “That’s not who I am off the field.”
The scene is strangely reminiscent of two seasons ago when, following a very physical Michigan-Michigan State game, the discussion was about possible sanctions as well. Only then, Lewan was the victim of a William Gholston punch to the neck.
Gholston suffered a one-game suspension for his actions. But Lewan said he didn’t think he could compare the two incidents.
“I don’t know how similar or how different they really are,” Lewan added.
But he has owned up to his actions and did seem genuinely apologetic Monday after having seen the plays.
"There's no other way to make it look like I'm a good person in that situation," Lewan said. "That was inappropriate of me. That's not representing Michigan well."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The debate about Ohio State hasn't been where the Buckeyes will spend their postseason, but when.
For months, Ohio State has been pegged for Pasadena, Calif. Its dominant performances in recent weeks, combined with what seems to be a weak league, only validate the belief. The only drama is whether Urban Meyer's crew will be there Jan. 1 for the 100th Rose Bowl Game or Jan. 6 for a game with greater significance, the BCS national championship.
The Buckeyes' path to Pasadena, with Wisconsin in the rear-view mirror, has seemed as wide and unobstructed as a tarmac in the dead of night. A Big Ten title was a formality.
But there is something standing in Ohio State's way. A big, green wall -- a green monster, if you will.
Michigan State is on a collision course with Ohio State and likely will face the Buckeyes on Dec. 7 at the Big Ten championship game. And as Michigan found out Saturday afternoon, colliding with the Spartans and their defense isn't pretty.
Ohio State might be the Big Ten's best team, but the league's best unit belongs to Michigan State, which smashed Michigan 29-6 at Spartan Stadium.
"A dominant day by our defense," coach Mark Dantonio added.
Complete is holding Michigan to the lowest net rushing total (minus-48) in team history. Dominant is holding Michigan to its lowest points total in the series since a 34-0 shutout in 1967. Complete is recording seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception. Dominant is allowing 2.8 yards per play, 12 first downs and 168 total yards.
Michigan came into the game averaging 6.4 yards per play, 19.8 first downs and 446.4 yards, not to mention 42.4 points.
"You never think you're going to be that good," coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
Michigan talked during the week about being bullied in its last trip here, when Michigan State racked up six personal fouls in a 28-14 victory. The Spartans were much more composed Saturday, committing only one personal foul, on special teams in the closing seconds.
But they pushed around Michigan all afternoon.
"We basically lived in the backfield," cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.
Linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis, filling in for Jairus Jones in the nickel package, combined for 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun did his best Bane impression and tormented Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, recording 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.
Calhoun, who now leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, gives Michigan State the elite pass rusher it has lacked the past few seasons.
"Four-man pressure, it helps you out when you've got a guy who can make something happen," Narduzzi said. "Julian Peterson's in the locker room afterward, and that's the kind of guy [Calhoun] looks like. He's a great player."
The defense's signature stretch in a signature performance came late in the third quarter, when Michigan found a sliver of hope following a Raymon Taylor interception return to the Spartans 41-yard line.
First down: Calhoun and safety Isaiah Lewis drop Gardner for a 5-yard loss.
Second down: Allen sacks Gardner.
Third down: Allen and Davis sack Gardner.
Narduzzi noted that sudden-change plays, such as the interception, can spark panic. His defense relishes them.
"They think they have the advantage; they think they're going to score," Bullough said. "It's a momentum change for them. So if we go out there and stuff them, and we keep 'em out of even scoring a field goal, it's double: It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum.
"It's an opportunity for us to change the game."
Michigan State has changed the game in the Big Ten. The Spartans don't have the Legends division title locked up, as Nebraska is just a game back and Minnesota isn't out of it. But if Michigan beats Nebraska in Ann Arbor next week, when the Spartans are off, MSU will be two games clear of everyone else in the division with three to play.
Ohio State-Michigan State would be good for the Big Ten, which desperately needs some sizzle in its signature event.
The Buckeyes offense is on fire behind quarterback Braxton Miller and a bruising offensive line. The Spartans defense is surging behind Calhoun, Allen, Bullough, Dennard and others.
"You want a shot at the best," Bullough said. "If you want to be considered the best, you've got to perform and play against the best in those moments, and Ohio State seems to be the team that's doing that.
"If we have that opportunity, we'll take it head on."
One team unlikely to appear in Indy is Michigan, which, by its own championship-or-bust standards, seems headed for another failed season. The Wolverines' young offensive line was no match for Michigan State, and Gardner's season of extremes took another dip.
Michigan still gets a shot at Ohio State, but its inability to beat Michigan State, which has won five of the teams' past six meetings, likely will extend its Big Ten title drought to a staggering nine seasons.
"They've got a good football team," Narduzzi said, "but we've got a great football team."
Chants of "little sister" rained down in the closing minutes, a reference to the "little brother" comments made by Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint during the week. But Michigan State has moved beyond the name-calling.
"Call us little brother, big brother," Allen said, "but when it's on the field, we show who's the big brother and who's the little brother."
Call Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State. Beating Michigan isn't new for the Spartans under Dantonio. Neither is winning the division.
There's one item left: a Rose Bowl appearance.
"We have confidence right now," Dantonio said. "As long as we handle success, we'll be just fine."
Dennard was asked afterward about a Gatorade-dumping attempt on Dantonio, but corrected the reporter, saying Narduzzi was the intended target.
"We're saving one for Coach D," he said. "Somewhere in Cali."
Are the Buckeyes listening? They should be.
But when it comes to The Bus, Dennard and Lewis are glorified special teamers, barely hanging onto roster spots. See, The Bus doesn't care about career starts. All of its regular riders have those. You need to bring something more: All-Big Ten honors, All-America honors, a national award or two. Helping your team to a Big Ten championship -- and possibly more -- moves you up a few rows.
What is this magic bus? Let's let Pete Townshend, er, Mark Dantonio explain.
"So they're traveling, they're playing on special teams, but they've got to become a starter this year."
It won't be easy, looking at the group sitting at the front of The Bus.
There's Mike Doss, the former Ohio State safety who Dantonio coached in Columbus, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a unanimous consensus All-American in 2002, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Next to Doss is former Buckeyes teammate Chris Gamble, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2002 who also contributed on special teams and offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Other D-Bus starters include Kwamie Lassiter, who Dantonio coached at Kansas; and safeties Aric Morris and Renaldo Hill, who Dantonio mentored at Michigan State during his first go-round as an assistant for Nick Saban.
"It's very humbling," Dennard said. "Me and Isaiah, we both think we are very blessed to be mentioned with those guys. Those are great players he always mentions on his bus. It’s a great thing to even be talked about at the same time. We have to have a mindset how it is, we have to be the top of the top of the top of the bus."
It's a lofty goal, but one that Dennard could reach as a senior. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches last year after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups for one of the nation's best defenses. More impressive, he played most of the season with a sports hernia, likely suffered in September. Dennard underwent surgery after the season.
"He could have had his intestines hanging out, and he wouldn't have done anything about it," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "The kid's that tough."
Dennard entered the fall on the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which go to the top defensive player. The 5-11, 197-pound senior should push Ohio State's Bradley Roby for the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.
He's also a potential high pick in next April's NFL draft.
"He's probably the best corner we've coached," Narduzzi said this spring. "And he's a fun kid to coach."
Dantonio doesn't bring up names like Doss and Gamble with his current players, but he lets them know where they stand.
"For Coach Dantonio to tell you you're one of the best guys he has ever seen play this position, one of the best guys he has ever coached at this position, it means a lot, man," Lewis said. "You want to be the best and want to do better."
Dennard knows firsthand how preseason praise, whether it stems from his coaches or the outside, means nothing unless he can back it up on the field. Last year, he played opposite cornerback Johnny Adams, who entered the season projected as a potential first-round pick -- Mel Kiper had Adams at No. 14 on his initial Big Board -- but didn't take his game to the next level. Adams earned All-Big Ten honors but missed Michigan State's bowl game with an injury, wasn't drafted and twice was waived by NFL teams last month before making the Buffalo Bills' roster.
"Knowing all the things he did throughout his career here, it kind of gets you down," Dennard said. "But at the same time, I too much don’t think about it. … It's definitely motivation. Just going in every day, from my standpoint you can't be complacent with everything. Preseason is preseason."
Lewis is expected to join Dennard this week when Michigan State faces its first major test of the season on the road against No. 23 Notre Dame. Although the Spartans finally looked like a functional offense last Saturday against Youngstown State, they'll lean on their defense against an Irish team averaging 236 pass yards a game and deep threats T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.
Big plays have been a theme early this season for the "Spartan Dawgs," who already have eight takeaways, tied for sixth most nationally and nearly half of their total (20) from all of 2012. Dennard and Lewis look to continue to trend in South Bend.
"We have to make more plays," Dennard said. "We have to make more interceptions for touchdowns and have to do more exciting things, like forcing fumbles or scoring touchdowns or doing whatever, big hits or whatever to make Coach D happy."
If they do, they'll earn permanent spots on the bus, seated toward the front.
" After this year, are they going to belong with the likes of Mike Doss, Chris Gamble, Kwamie Lassiter, Aric Morris, Renaldo Hill?" Dantonio said. "Those guys who are starting in front of them right now, guys that we've coached, they're very, very good players. [Denard and Lewis] are making their way onto the field, onto that team."
The Thorpe Award goes to the nation's best defensive back, and the good people on the Thorpe committee must really like this year's class of secondary stars because they put 48 (!) on the preseason list. That includes eight players from the Big Ten, which ties for the most among any conference.
- Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
- C.J. Barnett, S, Ohio State
- Christian Bryant, S, Ohio State
- Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern
- Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
- Ciante Evans, CB, Nebraska
- Isaiah Lewis, S, Michigan State
- Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
The expectations are certainly high for Ohio State's defensive backfield, as three of the four starters made the Thorpe list. Roby has a legitimate shot of winning this award and told me this spring that he's aiming for it. Dennard will challenge him for the title of best cornerback in the Big Ten. The others here are excellent players as well, though I think Roby and Dennard represent the league's best chance at this trophy. Kind of surprised not to see Minnesota's Brock Vereen or Derrick Wells or Michigan's Blake Countess and Thomas Gordon here, but I guess that means they'll have to make themselves more well known this year.
His eponymous preseason magazine claims to be the most accurate guide in the marketplace, and to his credit Steele did correctly forecast Nebraska and Wisconsin to make the Big Ten title game last season. You can find his preseason all-conference teams -- which go four deep on offense and defense -- on his blog here.
There are the obvious first-team choices, like Ohio State's Braxton Miller at quarterback, Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Nebraska guard Spencer Long on offense. (Steele goes with 12-man units on both offense and defense, with three receivers and two running backs on offense and four linebackers on defense). He chose Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah for the first team, with Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon as his second-team backs. Incoming Michigan true freshman Derrick Green makes an appearance on the fourth team.
Steele has Taylor Martinez as his second-team quarterback, followed by Michigan's Devin Gardner on the third team. I'm surprised to see Ohio State's Devin Smith at second-team receiver, ahead of teammate Corey Brown, who only made the third team but was more productive than Smith last year and much better this spring. Steele also puts Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as his first- and second-team tight ends, ahead of Penn State's Kyle Carter. I question that choice.
On defense, there are the no-brainer first-team selections you'd expect: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and Michigan State corner Darqueze Dennard. Steele's first-team defensive line is Michigan State's Marcus Rush, Northwestern's Tyler Scott, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Purdue's Bruce Gaston, while Illinois' Jonathan Brown rounds out the four-man linebacker crew. The first-team defense includes four Michigan State players (safety Isaiah Lewis is the other) and three Buckeyes (safety Christian Bryant joins Shazier and Roby).
Penn State's Deion Barnes -- the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year -- only makes the second team at defensive end. I think I'd rather have him than the steady Rush. Steele also chooses Ohio State defensive end Adolphus Washington for the second team and fellow Buckeyes sophomore Noah Spence for the fourth team, though both have the potential to do more than that. Surprisingly, Steele also has Ohio State's Curtis Grant -- a guy with a lot to prove -- as a second-team linebacker.
Ohio State leads the way with six selections on the first-team offense and defense, followed by Michigan State with those four defenders. Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin have three first-team picks each. Michigan has only two total players on Steele's first two teams, with Jeremy Gallon a second-teamer at receiver. Iowa and Indiana do not have any first-team selections on offense or defense, though the Hawkeyes' Jordan Cotton was named first-team kick returner.
Andy from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Do you think the Big Ten's weak crossover schedule in 2014 could potentially prevent a one-loss team, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, or Nebraska, from being a part of the four-team College Football Playoff? I could see Michigan losing to Ohio State in 2014, not making the Big Ten championship and being left out of the CFP. Another possible scenario is an undefeated Wisconsin or Nebraska team losing in the Big Ten championship and being out of the CFP. Thoughts?
Brian Bennett: The crossover schedule won't help, but the biggest hindrance to a one-loss, non-Big Ten champion making the playoff next year is the perception that the league is not that strong. The Big Ten will need to perform well this year and win some big nonconference games in 2014 to have any chance of putting two teams in the four-team playoff, which still seems like a long shot. Some 2014 out-of-league games like Michigan-Notre Dame, Ohio State-Virginia Tech and Nebraska-Miami could bolster the league's case. Wisconsin's 2014 non-league slate -- highlighted by Washington State and USF -- will leave the Badgers little room for error.
Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: You "asked" (rhetorically) the wrong question in your recent blog post. The question is NOT "what do the Detroit Lions know about college football/bowl games" but "What is the draw for B1G fans to want to travel to Detroit in the winter...or in any season for that matter?" Is this really a destination that B1G fan bases want to travel to to see two mediocre teams face off in the post season? If my Nittany Lions finish 6-6 and make a bowl game (not for the next couple of years), do you really think I want to see them face a 6-6 ACC team (alright maybe Pitt) in any place other than a warm, sunny distination with other attractions to see as well as a football game? Can anyone say Detroit is a "winter destination" unless it's the SuperBowl?
Brian Bennett: First off, Rob, let's get the joke right. I asked, what do the Lions know about postseason football, a little jab at that organization's utter lack of playoff success. As for Detroit, well, there are casinos right by Ford Field, some nice Greek restaurants and, um, yeah. Let's be honest, that city is no one's idea of a great winter holiday spot. But the bowl is also likely to take 6-6 type teams, and when you finish with that kind of record, deep in the Big Ten standings, you don't really get to be choosy. The best thing about Detroit is that it's very close for most Big Ten fan bases, and if the bowl replaces the MAC with the ACC as the other tie-in, that has the potential to create some interesting games. And as I wrote, Big Ten fans are often complaining about how they play virtual road games during bowl season. Here's your Midwest bowl. Embrace it.
Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: A fellow reader indicated that MSU's secondary will not be very good this year due to their spring game performance and past dependence on Johnny Adams to operate on an island. I think the secondary has the potential to be improved considering MSU returns two All-Big Ten performers in Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis, Kurtis Drummond at the other safety position, who played very well last year, and a young Trae Waynes at the other CB position who started and performed very well in the bowl game. Do you think MSU's secondary will improve, regress, or stay roughly the same?
Brian Bennett: Adams was the Spartans' second-best corner last year, as Dennard outplayed him the entire season. Michigan State's secondary played well in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl without Adams, who was injured. I really like the potential of Waynes, and I think the Spartans will be just as good if not better in the defensive backfield.
Vince from Phoenix, writes: Which game on Michigan's 2013 schedule do they have to win to (finally) win the Legends Division?
Brian Bennett: Winning all of them would be nice. The one that obviously sticks out is the Nov. 9 game at home against Nebraska, but it's probably more the three-game stretch that includes a road game at Michigan State the previous weekend and a trip to Northwestern on Nov. 16 that will make or break the Wolverines in the Legends race. Remember that road losses to the eventual division champions (at Michigan State in 2011 and at Nebraska last year) were what doomed Michigan the past two seasons. Brady Hoke's teams have been really good at home but are going to have to win away from the Big House to bring home a division championship.
K. Norris from Detroit writes: Hello! Not that I disagree with the overall intent of Mr. Ted Miller's post earlier this week, but I will come rushing to the support of my 2 favorite Big Ten bloggers. Regarding the following quote: "Not to be outdone in prognosticative tomfoolery, the Big Ten blog picked Michigan State to win the conference. What were those guys thinking?" I would educate Mr. Miller that the 2012 Spartans did lose 4 games by a combined total of 10 points. It was the difference between 6-6 & 10-2 season. The team in the national championship game (Notre Dame) did only win by 17 against MSU. Yes, the Spartans were unable to find the extra gear when it was necessary to earn the 'W' at the end of games last year. That being said, it really was not a bad pick even from a national perspective. (Yes, green "Kool-Aid" tastes horrible.)
Brian Bennett: I'm pretty sure this is the first time in about eight months that anyone has told us our Michigan State title pick was not bad. In all seriousness, we clearly underestimated the inexperience of the Spartans passing game and gave too much credit to their offensive line. But 2012 was a weird year, considering that a team that finished 7-5 in the regular season (Wisconsin) went to the Rose Bowl -- and lost at home to Michigan State, I might add.
@sammyj108 from Twitter writes: Could the Hoosiers really play 3 quarterbacks? Or a two-quarterback system? Or just pick a starter based on matchups week to week?
Brian Bennett: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wanted to see someone among Nate Sudfeld, Cameron Coffman and Tre Roberson really stand out this spring, but they all played pretty equally. Ideally, he'd like to redshirt either Sudfeld or Coffman this year and have one main quarterback play. The problem is that Roberson is clearly the best runner but needs to improve as a passer, while Sudfeld and Coffman are both good passers but not great runners. I asked Wilson this spring whether he'd be comfortable playing a two-quarterback system, as he did last year after Roberson got hurt. "I don't know if you want one in, one out," he said. "I'd love to see one guy totally separate ... but if not, we can play more than one. I want to keep them all happy, and I want to keep them all here. But more than anything, we've got to win."
Jay from Cincinnati writes: I am a little worried about Ohio State's recruiting class this year so far. I know it's early but seems like to would be better at this point.
Brian Bennett: Is Urban Meyer still the head coach? Then I'm not worried at all. He's one of the best closers in the game. If you're worried about the Buckeyes' recruiting in late May, take a deep breath.
Jay from Arlington writes: Title drought? Who cares. It is not like most of the SEC's titles during their so-called streak are legit anyway. And honestly, it is a lot easier to get to the BCS title game when you only have to beat one or two good teams a year, which is all that is required of SEC teams due, in no small part, to media bias. Don't sell the Big Ten short. Penn State has every right to claim a share of the 2005 title having lost one game directly due to officiating. While Penn State lost a game a lot closer than the score, the 2009 Rose Bowl between Penn State and USC matched the top two teams in the country while the Fiesta Bowl matched the third and fourth best team in Texas and Ohio State. Conversely the title game set up the sixth best team (Florida) versus the eighth in Oklahoma.
Brian Bennett: I enjoy your theories and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. Revisionist history aside, however, the records are what they are. Seven straight titles trumps every argument.
John from Iowa writes: In response you your Hope springs article: You have some misinformation posted when you talk about how many teams from each conference have made a BCS title game. The SEC has sent 4 teams not 5. They are: Tennessee, LSU, Florida, and Alabama. Also when you talk about the Big 12 sending 3 teams to the Big 10's only 1 team. One of those teams was Nebraska so you're essentially using the traditional power of one of our own teams to make your point about the Big Ten not being traditionally good.
Brian Bennett: Wow, Auburn fans must be steamed that John has already forgotten their 2011 national title. First Toomer's Oaks, and now this. I also find it funny that we get a lot of angry comments whenever we include Big-12 era Nebraska teams and coaches in our polls and lists, yet you want to include the Huskers when it might help out.
GOB Bluth from Gobias Industries, Calif., writes: Have you seen Franklin? I heard he's in Portugal. That's in South America, right?
Brian Bennett: Did you check the dryer? He has had some trouble down there. If you go looking south of the border, watch out for Hermanos. C'mon!
Next up: the Michigan State Spartans.
Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Pat Narduzzi will add some younger playmakers to the mix like Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Trae Waynes, and there's no reason to suspect that the defense will fall off from its elitel level. Even though Michigan State went just 6-6 in the regular season, it wasn't far away from contending, losing five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. A few key breaks went against Mark Dantonio's team -- ahem, that pass interference call vs. Nebraska -- and that luck could surely go the other way in 2013. Furthermore, after playing one of the more difficult schedules in the league last year, the Spartans catch a break with this season's slate. They don't play Ohio State, Penn State or Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, instead drawing Illinois, Purdue and Indiana as crossover opponents. All the Spartans really need to contend is some competency from the offense, which has a more experienced offensive line, more seasoned receivers and some actual competition at quarterback.
Why they're pretenders: Three words: offense, offense, offense. Michigan State simply couldn't score or move the ball when it needed to at times last season, and now its best two playmakers -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- are waiting for their NFL draft calls. Both running back and tight end were shaky positions this spring, so much so at tailback that linebacker Riley Bullough moved there late in spring ball and became the top option. The quarterback situation remains muddled, as Dantonio says Andrew Maxwell will go into fall camp at No. 1, with Connor Cook pushing him. Both guys struggled to complete passes in last week's spring game, and their receivers had problems with dropped balls, suggesting the passing game hasn't made that much progress. So new offensive playcaller Dave Warner will have to design an attack that works with shaky quarterback play, unproven running backs and tight ends and receivers who underperformed a year ago. At least the offensive line is veteran, though it's pretty much the same guys who didn't live up to expectations last year.
Final verdict: Contender. Michigan State might not always be pretty to watch this season because of that offense, but the Spartans will be a team no one wants to play because of that hard-hitting defense. Again, all they have to do is be mediocre offensively, because the defense will keep them in every game. And with that schedule, Michigan State should remain in the thick of the Legends Division race deep into the fall.
And pretending we are with this ultimate road trip. We're each picking one Big Ten game we'd like to cover each week in the 2013 season, trying our best to add in some variety among the teams and between the bloggers.
Let's take a look at the options for Week 10, the first week of November in the Big Ten:
Illinois at Penn State
Minnesota at Indiana
Northwestern at Nebraska
Michigan at Michigan State
Ohio State at Purdue
Wisconsin at Iowa
Brian's pick: Michigan at Michigan State
Finally, a full slate of games as we say bye-bye to the double bye. There are some good choices here, but I'm jumping on a plane to the mitten state to see the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. I haven't yet covered a Spartans game on this road trip, and there's no better week to be in East Lansing than this one.
Michigan snapped a four-game losing streak to its in-state rivals last year, answering Mark Dantonio's "Where's the threat?" question. But even in a rough year for Sparty, the Wolverines had to make several plays late and get a clutch field goal from Brendan Gibbons at the end to win a 12-10 slugfest at home.
Michigan State's defense has given Michigan all kinds of problems the last few years, and that should be no different with standouts like Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis leading Pat Narduzzi's side of the ball in '13. But the Wolverines will present a different look with Devin Gardner at quarterback after the Spartans found ways to slow Denard Robinson down the past few years.
The real question for Dantonio's team is his offense, including whether Andrew Maxwell or one of the other quarterbacks can trigger an adequate passing game and if somebody can fill Le'Veon Bell's large shoes. If Michigan State can be just a tick better than average on offense, then it has a chance to be a serious Big Ten contender with that defense. The schedule breaks well for the Spartans, who could be 4-0 in Big Ten play after beginning with Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. But the Michigan game will go a long way toward defining their season and letting us know whether they are a legitimate Legends Division threat. This game is always intense and hard-hitting. Save me a stool at Crunchy's.
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin at Iowa
It's nice to see all the Big Ten teams back in action on the same Saturday. While it's extremely tempting to join Brian in East Lansing, I'm going to make the drive West on I-80 to check out the resumption of the Wisconsin-Iowa series. These two rivals haven't played since the 2010 season, when Wisconsin twice rallied from second-half deficits to win 31-30, using a fake punt to set up the game-winning touchdown. Although the Michigan-Michigan State and Northwestern-Nebraska games both should shape the Legends division race, I've yet to check out Iowa and always enjoy an early November trip to Kinnick Stadium.
After spending some time in Madison, Wis., last week, I think Gary Andersen is inheriting a pretty good team at Wisconsin. But he's not inheriting an easy schedule, especially away from home. Wisconsin's first two road trips go to Arizona State and to Ohio State. Depending on the results, the Badgers could be a battle-tested road team, confident away from familiar surroundings, or they could be shaky on foreign soil. Although Wisconsin enters the season with a better forecast than Iowa, it will be interesting to see how the Badgers perform in a hostile environment against a rival.
Both teams enter the season with uncertainty at quarterback, and both should have resolutions under center by the time this game rolls around. Both teams also should be able to run the football, creating an interesting subplot. Despite losing Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball, Wisconsin might have the Big Ten's top running back tandem in James White and Melvin Gordon. Although running back depth has been an issue for Iowa, the Hawkeyes return several good options, including Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. Iowa's offensive line should be a strength as the team regains the services of several starters injured in 2012. The Hawkeye ground game faces a revamped Wisconsin defense under Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda that will line up in the 3-4 and show many different looks.
I realize my pick hinges on Iowa outperforming preseason expectations a bit, but we've seen it happen before under coach Kirk Ferentz. Besides, this is an excellent rivalry that almost certainly will be preserved annually in the new division alignment. The overall series is deadlocked at 42-42-2. Sign me up. And save me a big turkey leg.
Week 1: Adam at Northwestern-Cal, Brian at Purdue-Cincinnati
Week 2: Brian and Adam at Notre Dame-Michigan
Week 3: Brian at UCLA-Nebraska, Adam at Wisconsin-Arizona State
Week 4: Adam at Michigan State-Notre Dame, Brian at Purdue-Wisconsin
Week 5: Adam at Wisconsin-Ohio State, Brian at Wisconsin-Ohio State
Week 6: Adam at Ohio State-Northwestern, Brian at Penn State-Indiana
Week 7: Adam at Penn State-Michigan, Brian at Northwestern-Wisconsin
Week 8: Brian at Iowa-Ohio State, Adam at Indiana-Michigan
Week 9: Adam at Nebraska-Minnesota, Brian at Penn State-Ohio State
Here are some notes:
- Three players will miss spring ball after offseason surgeries, including two projected starters in linebacker Denicos Allen and offensive lineman Jack Allen. Top cornerback Darqueze Dennard also is banged up but should return to the field for the final two weeks of practice, Dantonio said.
- The depth chart reflects several changes along the offensive line. Dan France, who has started 24 games at left tackle the past two seasons, is listed as the starter at right guard. Fou Fonoti, who opened the 2012 season as the starting left tackle before suffering a season-ending foot injury in September, is listed as the No. 1 left tackle, while Skyler Burkland is the top right tackle. Fonoti and top center Travis Jackson both are 100 percent following leg injuries, which could be a major boost for the line. Blake Treadwell is listed as the starting left guard, but Allen could fill that spot when he returns from injury.
- Michigan State also moved safety Jairus Jones to outside linebacker, where he's listed as the backup to Taiwan Jones. Dantonio said injury issues at linebacker spurred the move and that Jones can switch back to safety, but the Spartans have excellent safety depth with starters Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond, reserves RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox and others. Dennard's injury means two largely unproven players, sophomores Trae Waynes and Arjen Colquhoun, open the spring as the team's top cornerbacks. But Dantonio on Monday sounded very excited about the team's young defensive backs.
- Dantonio said the quarterbacks all will take contact during scrimmages, a move you don't see often in the spring. The coach didn't say whether the quarterbacks would evenly split repetitions, but they all will compete against the No. 1 defense. As expected, Andrew Maxwell is listed as the No. 1 quarterback, followed by Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor.
- Michigan State's defensive staff visited LSU earlier this spring. Both teams finished in the top 10 nationally in defense in 2012. Dantonio hopes the offensive staff can do a similar visit after spring ball (the offseason shuffle made it difficult to do so before).
- Nick Hill is the team's top running back, followed by junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Bennie Fowler led the team in receiving yards last season (524), but he's listed on the depth chart as a backup to Keith Mumphery. Aaron Burbridge and Tony Lippett are listed as the other No. 1 receivers, and Dantonio said Monty Madaris will be in the mix at wideout as well.
- Lawrence Thomas started three games at fullback last season but appears as a backup defensive tackle behind Tyler Hoover on the depth chart. Dantonio told ESPN.com last week that Thomas could move back to offense if needed.
- Linebacker/fullback TyQuan Hammock is finished with his career and soon will graduate, while guard Nate Klatt will take a medical hardship/disqualification because of several concussions.
- Dantonio singled out redshirt freshmen linebackers Riley Bullough and Jamal Lyles as players to watch this spring.