Big Ten: Jahvid Best

Best case-worst case rewind: Minnesota

December, 15, 2009
12/15/09
10:30
AM ET
Our look back at the best case-worst case series continues with ... Minnesota.

In case you missed it: Minnesota's best case-worst case.

Best-case synopsis: The Golden Gophers recapture their dominant rushing attack, while the defense continues to force takeaways at a high rate. ... Minnesota surges to a 6-0 start that includes a dramatic victory against Cal. ... The Gophers win both of their trophy games, against Wisconsin and Iowa. ... They advance to the Outback Bowl and beat Georgia for their first New Year's Day bowl win since 1962. ... Wide receiver Eric Decker wins the Biletnikoff Award.

Worst-case synopsis: The scheme changes on offense slow production and the run game stalls. ... The defense can't stop the run or generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. ... Minnesota stumbles to a 1-4 start as the heat begins to rise on third-year head coach Tim Brewster. ... The team goes 4-8 and misses a bowl for the second time in three seasons and recruiting begins to suffer. ... Brewster shuffles his coaching staff yet again.

You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "Despite returning more experience than any Big Ten team, Minnesota struggles with the scheme changes." ... "Despite the emotions of the stadium opener and a tricky opponent (Air Force), Minnesota keeps its composure and improves to 2-0." ... "Wisconsin retains [Paul Bunyan's] axe as [John] Clay and Zach Brown combine for 310 rush yards." ... "[The Gophers] end the season on a down note against Iowa, which posts another shutout against its archrival." ... "Athletic director Joel Maturi decides to give Brewster one more year, but it's clear that a winning record must be posted. The team's recruiting takes a step back." ... "Minnesota splits against Michigan State and Illinois."

Lies, lies, lies: "Junior quarterback Adam Weber stays healthy, limits interceptions and operates the new scheme flawlessly with help from backup MarQueis Gray." ... "The Gophers then head to Iowa City and avenge a 55-0 loss as Decker has a big day at Kinnick Stadium. The loss drops Iowa to 6-6." ... "Decker wins the Biletnikoff Award, cornerback Traye Simmons is a finalist for the Thorpe Award and head coach Tim Brewster receives a lengthy contract extension." ... "Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best leads Cal into the Twin Cities on Sept. 19, but Minnesota running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley end up stealing the show, piling up 285 rush yards against the Bears." ... "Northwestern hands Minnesota another brutal loss, this time by blocking a 25-yard field goal attempt as time expires to prevail, 24-23."

Reality check: Minnesota won two more games than the worst-case scenario, and at 6-6 will return to the Insight Bowl. But the changes on offense seemed to decrease production, and Weber saw his interceptions total soar and his completion percentage drop. Gray didn't play as much as some envisioned. An injury to Decker on Oct. 24 at Ohio State really hurt the offense, which finished last in the Big Ten in scoring (21.6 ppg). The Gophers' defense was a bright spot, especially at linebacker with Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence. Minnesota secured some pretty decent wins, but Brewster's drought in trophy games continued as Iowa shut out the Gophers for the second straight year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- After finding all the answers on the field, California quarterback Kevin Riley struggled to find the words to describe what had just taken place.

Cal proved Saturday it can win a road game, something the Golden Bears had done just five times in their last 16 trips away from Strawberry Canyon. The Bears won a nonconference road game several time zones away, which they failed to do in embarrassing fashion last year at Maryland.

Perhaps more importantly, Cal won the hard way, breaking a fourth-quarter deadlock against Minnesota to prevail, 35-21.
Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire
Running back Jahvid Best's five touchdowns made a big statement on the road for Cal.

If only the Bears quarterback could pinpoint the reason ...

"Offensively, we're just more comfortable with each other," Riley said. "We have a tremendous amount of, uh, I don't know, I lost a word. I'm just lost. Go ahead, Jahvid. I can't think of the word."

Fittingly, running back Jahvid Best was there for the save.

"It's about belief," Best said.

"That's it," a smiling Riley said. "There ya go."

Cal is starting to believe it can do special things this season, and Saturday's victory only reinforced the sentiment. The Bears have been here before under head coach Jeff Tedford. Ranked in the top 10. On the cusp of a real breakthrough. They've had the talent, the game-changers on both sides of the ball, but for one reason or another, it hasn't worked out.

Whether it's expectations, me-first stars, chemistry issues or lack of execution between the lines, Cal hasn't taken the step from very good to great.

The Bears might finally be ready.

"I like this team," Tedford said. "I like this team's chemistry, I like this team's leadership, I like their work ethic, I like their togetherness.

"It's a special group that way."

(Read full post)

Final: California 35, Minnesota 21

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
3:19
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- It was too much Jahvid Best as California's offense ignited in the fourth quarter to beat a scrappy Minnesota team.

Best set a modern-era team record with five rushing touchdowns, putting himself in the Heisman Trophy mix, and quarterback Kevin Riley made several huge throws down the stretch for the eighth-ranked Bears. Cal received tremendous defensive play from linebacker Mike Mohamed (two INTs), end Tyler Alualu and others.

Minnesota senior wide receiver Eric Decker played his heart out (two receiving touchdowns, one passing touchdown), but the Gophers once again found no other options besides No. 7. Without any consistency in the run game, quarterback Adam Weber was under pressure for most of the game and couldn't avoid the rush nearly enough.

The Gophers defense played well in the second and third quarters but couldn't stop Cal when it counted. After exorcising their demons on the road, Bears can now turn their attention to Pac-10 play with Oregon and USC the next two weeks.video

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Forget about the quarterbacks for a minute. Cal's Jahvid Best has put himself in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race.

Best set a Cal modern-era record with his fifth touchdown run, which put away with the game with 2:59. The previous record had been four, which Best recorded last year against Washington.

The junior has 23 carries for 133 yards in the game.

Minnesota's defense has had no answer for Best on the edges. Then again, no one does.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- After dominating the first half with three rushing touchdowns, Jahvid Best disappeared in the third quarter, only to be revived by his quarterback in the fourth.

Kevin Riley might have won the game for Cal in leading on an 8-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. Riley went 3 of 4 on the drive, including a 35-yard completion to Jeremy Ross on third-and-16 from deep in Cal territory. Minnesota has got to be kicking itself after seemingly stopping Cal on the previous play (a false start penalty was called).

Riley responded from a shaky third quarter and threw a beautiful ball to tight end Skylar Curran, which set up Best's fourth touchdown run, tying a modern day school record (Best also had four scores against Washington last year). Best will get most of the credit if Cal wins today -- and he deserves it -- but Riley has looked pretty solid as well.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Quick analysis from halftime at TCF Bank Stadium, where California leads Minnesota 21-14.

Turning point: After Minnesota stopped Cal deep in its own territory, Bears safety Jesse Brooks drew a 15-yard penalty for crushing Gophers punt returner Bryant Allen, who was knocked silly trying to catch the ball. The foul gave Minnesota great field position and the Gophers converted for their second touchdown with 40 seconds left, reducing their deficit.

Stats of the half: Cal has outgained Minnesota 277-112, recorded seven more first downs and held the ball for 19:56 vs. 10:04.

Best player in the half: The best is Best, as in California running back Jahvid Best, who strengthened his case for Heisman Trophy consideration with 114 rush yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries in the half. Honorable mention goes to Minnesota senior wide receiver Eric Decker, who has caught two touchdown passes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- The two best players in this game have showed up big time in the first half, adding some flavor to the Cal-Minnesota matchup.

Golden Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker answered Jahvid Best's third touchdown run with his second receiving score, as he beat cornerback Darian Hagan to the end zone. Two of Decker's three catches have gone for touchdowns, while Best has 13 carries for 114 rush yards.

Who lifts his team to victory? We'll find out in the second half.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- California star running back Jahvid Best has taken over this game, with plenty of help from his offensive line.

The Bears have dominated the line of scrimmage, piling up 274 offensive yards in the first half. Despite spying Best on every play, Minnesota has had no answer for the Heisman Trophy candidate, who already has become the first 100-yard rusher in TCF Bank Stadium history. It doesn't help that the Gophers once again have no semblance of a rushing game (56 yards so far).

Best has capitalized on every Minnesota mistake, whether it's a missed tackle in the backfield or failing to fill a gap on a run up the middle. The Gophers have no one who can catch the Bears junior, who is building his Heisman campaign today.

The only good news for Minnesota is star wide receiver Eric Decker didn't miss a single play after taking a shot on his touchdown grab.

Cal is outgaining Minnesota 274-83 with 2:24 left in the half.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Cal just put on a clinic in its first drive, immediately putting Minnesota back on its heels.

The key for the Bears was staying out of long-yardage situations. Cal faced two third downs on the nine-play, 80-yard march, but both were extremely manageable (two and three yards). Jeff Tedford ran a ton of formations at Minnesota and exploited the middle of the Gophers defense several times, including on Jahvid Best's 33-yard touchdown run.

Minnesota needs to shore up the middle and force Cal into third-and-long. Otherwise, it'll be a very long day for the Gophers.

It's game day at TCF Bank Stadium

September, 19, 2009
9/19/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Big Ten's newest stadium, which definitely lives up to the hype.

Minnesota finally has a real home stadium, but whether the friendly surroundings pay off today remains to be seen. The Gophers face an enormous test in eighth-ranked California, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best at running back.

For the first time in my journalism career, I'm happy to provide a weather forecast for a Minnesota home game (instead of the standard room temperature joke at the Metrodome). It looks like a gorgeous day, with temperatures around 70 degrees at kickoff, working their way up to 77 during the fourth quarter.

A couple of personnel notes for Minnesota: cornerback Marcus Sherels (ankle) isn't expected to play, and Dom Alford will start at left tackle over Matt Stommes.

THREE KEYS FOR CALIFORNIA

1. Stay awake. Head coach Jeff Tedford hates hearing about how the early kickoff last year against Maryland doomed his team, which looked utterly lifeless in College Park. A strong start on offense, especially from quarterback Kevin Riley, would prove the Bears are ready this time and could take the crowd out of the game.

2. Find Eric Decker on every play. The Gophers senior wide receiver has been the team's only consistent offensive weapon so far. Talented Bears cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson likely will be assigned to Decker (the game's best matchup, in my opinion), but he could use some safety help against the Biletnikoff Award candidate.

3. Pressure quarterback Adam Weber. Cal ranks sixth nationally in sacks (4.5 spg), and the Gophers' offensive line is still adjusting to a brand-new system. Weber will make mistakes under pressure from time to time, so Cal should take an aggressive approach with defensive end Ernest Owusu and others.

THREE KEYS FOR MINNESOTA

1. Make Riley win the game. Minnesota's linebackers have been fabulous so far, but Best and Shane Vereen can take over a game with their big-play ability. The Gophers need to load up the box and force Riley to make tough throws. Riley has been extremely efficient this season, but Minnesota can't let Cal's running backs take over.

2. Diversify the offense. Decker can't beat a team like Cal by himself, and he'll need help from his fellow wideouts, tight end Nick Tow-Arnett and running backs Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. This needs to be the game where wideout Hayo Carpenter becomes a difference maker for the Gophers.

3. Make plays on special teams. The Gophers rank among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns, and sophomore Troy Stoudermire can be a game-changer Saturday. Stoudermire should give Minnesota's offense good field position, and the Gophers need continued excellence from punter Dan Orseske and kicker Eric Ellestad.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Minnesota linebacker Simoni Lawrence doesn't lack confidence, and that's a good thing this week. Jahvid Best is coming to town, and Lawrence and his fellow defenders must find a way to slow down the Cal star running back on Saturday (ESPN, noon ET). The Gophers' linebackers have stepped up in the team's first two wins, especially last week against Air Force and the triple option, and hopes are high for Lawrence, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound senior from Upper Darby, Pa.

 
 AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli
 In transitioning from safety to linebacker, Simoni Lawrence has added 15 pounds to his frame.

Lawrence checked in earlier this week to share his thoughts about Best, Cal and his own development.

How was it being in the new stadium?

Simoni Lawrence: It's amazing. It was a great feeling, just because everybody's on campus and everything. Everybody came to the game, campus was fun. It just feels more like your home, and then after the game, you can walk to your apartment. It's like a two-minute walk.

I read that you said before the season you were gunning to be an All-American. Are you going to back that up?

SL: I've got to back it up. Your word is everything, and I'm going to do the best I can to back it up. Playing these regular teams now, it should be more exciting. You don't have to worry about the option. They can scheme and do what they want to do with me now.

Have you been a confident guy?

SL: I believe you've got to be confident in what you do. I love football and I'm always going to be confident because that's what I love the most. I trust my abilities, and the coaches and everybody do a great job of making us trust ourselves.

You've mentioned that coach [John] Butler tries to create monsters in the linebacker room. Do you fit that description?

SL: Oh, definitely. Last year, when I came in, I had more of a defensive back mentality from playing safety [in junior college]. And coach Butler beat that out of me pretty quickly this year.

How was that transition for you, from safety to linebacker?

SL: It was difficult, just getting used to playing in the box. Last year, I played the whole season at 210 [pounds], and it definitely starts to take a toll on your body when you're 210 and you're having to spill big fullbacks. You're not used to that. You're used to covering everybody. But coach Butler got me on the weight program, and I've put on a good 15 pounds. The transition's been smooth.

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Adam Rittenberg


Holy Rose Bowl! It's another Big Ten-Pac-10 weekend, with No. 8 California visiting Minnesota and Arizona headed to Iowa. All four teams are 2-0. Seems like a good time for another blogger debate.

Ted Miller: You again! Adam, we need to stop meeting like this. Or at least the Big Ten should stop meeting like Ohio State did with USC. Perhaps there will be some redemption on Saturday when California visits Minnesota and Arizona takes a gander at Iowa.
Icon SMI/US Presswire
Golden mascots square off in the Twin Cities on Saturday.

Let's start with your game Saturday in fancy pants TCF Bank Stadium. (Nice job, Minnesota.)

I look over Minnesota's particulars and I can't get a good vibe about what Cal should expect, particularly after the Gophers struggled to beat Syracuse and Air Force. Who are these guys ... and whose mascot is more golden?

Adam Rittenberg: Ted! Buddy! Good to be with you again. OK, full disclosure here. I grew up in Berkeley, attended pretty much every Cal home game between 1994 to 1999. Witnessed the one Mariucci season in '96 (still have nightmares about the Pat Barnes fumble at Washington State) and the insufferable Tom Holmoe era. But I was never a huge Oski the Bear fan. Too subdued of a mascot. Looked like a glum professor who hadn't had his sweater ironed in 50 years. And he doesn't wear pants, which is perfect for Berkeley (I grew up there, so I can say that!) So Goldy Gopher gets my vote. He's goldier.

As for Minnesota, they did struggle against the Cuse, but the Air Force win is pretty solid in my book. The defense has been the big plus so far, especially the three linebackers (Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence). Triplett has gone from special teams all-star to major playmaker. The offense has struggled quite a bit, as Minnesota incorporates a new pro-style system under Jedd Fisch. It's a pretty dramatic departure from what they did the last two seasons, and it has taken a bit of time to click. Quarterback Adam Weber has loads of experience and can be effective when he limits interceptions, and Eric Decker is a freaking stud. Might be the best wide receiver in America that no one talks about. The problem is Minnesota hasn't found many weapons other than Decker. The Gophers need to spark their rushing attack behind Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge and hope a No. 2 wide receiver emerges, possibly speedster Troy Stoudermire.

I saw Cal is flying in Thursday for the game. Will the Bears be ready to play this time around for a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff, and can anyone slow down Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen? How has Kevin Riley looked so far?
Paul Jasienski-US PRESSWIRE
Cal QB Kevin Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency.
TM: Gosh, Cal coach Jeff Tedford HATES being asked about the 9 a.m. PT kickoff, because that was the prime excuse for the Bears' terrible effort last year at Maryland, an excuse, by the way, that Tedford has rejected from the get-go. Still, it's obvious he's doing everything he can to get his team ready for the early start, changing his previous plan and flying in on Thursday.

As for Best and Vereen, they are a great combination for sure. Best is going to make a play or two, mostly because he always does. The question is whether he can be such a bothersome threat that he forces Minnesota to load up the box. If that happens, a much-improved Kevin Riley and a receiving corps that has grown up could make big plays down field. Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and has yet to throw a pick, so he's started off as a completely different quarterback from the guy who was so inconsistent last last season.

The big issue for Cal is playing on the road: They've lost four in a row on the road. Moreover, they've not been challenged by a team so far that can approach them physically. Minnesota will be a far tougher test, and we just don't know whether Riley and the Bears can maintain their cool efficiency away from Berkley.

As for the other game: Iowa seems to have righted itself with the big win over Iowa State. But Arizona has a fast defense. Can quarterback Ricky Stanzi and running back Brandon Wegher lead an effective attack against the Wildcats?

AR: As I like to say, Stanzi is the Manzi. Actually, Stanzi has been inconsistent throughout his time as the starter, mixing big plays with too many picks. But he has more targets this year with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Tony Moeki, Trey Stross and Marvin McNutt. The running game has been a bit messy this year because of departures (Shonn Greene) and injuries (Jewel Hampton, Jeff Brinson). Brandon Wegher likely would have redshirted but stepped up big last week. He and another freshman, Adam Robinson, will get most of the carries Saturday. It's rare to see Kirk Ferentz play so many young players, but these guys seem up to the task. The offensive line could be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness) again, so those two speedy Arizona pass-rushers will have their ears pinned back for sure.

Let's talk about the Wildcats offense. How good is Nic Grigsby and does Arizona have a passing game to complement the nation's second leading rusher?

TM: Grigsby is off to a fast start, but the Iowa defense will offer a far tougher test than Central Michigan and Northern Arizona. Also, Grigsby had some fumbling problems a year ago -- he got benched a couple of times and capable back Keola Antolin took over -- but that has yet to be an issue in 2009. My guess is the Hawkeyes load the box, gang up on Grigsby and will dare Arizona's new quarterback, sophomore Matt Scott, to pass, which is never easy on the road.
Gronkowski

And therein lies a huge issue for this game. Arizona's best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out with a back injury. Gronkowski is a beast. More than a few folks in the Pac-10 believe he's every bit the player that Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham is. Think having a 6-foot-6, 265-pound safety valve would help a young QB? It also doesn't help that No. 1 receiver Delashaun Dean has been slowed by a hamstring injury, though he will play.

So, the Wildcats passing game, with Scott making his first road start, is a huge question.

Speaking of road games, seems like all the Big Ten owns home field advantage in all these matchups with the Pac-10 ... no fair. But, seriously, which place will be more difficult for a visitor from the West Coast? I love Minnesota's new digs but I've heard a lot about pink bathrooms and the nutty horde at Kinnick Stadium.

AR: Well, you guys do have this game called the Rose Bowl. If memory serves, it's in Pac-10 country. Like in USC's backyard. That reminds me, Ted, can you find a way to make sure the Trojans don't go to Pasadena this year? The Big Ten would like a break from the Trojans after all these years of punishment. I stayed on the same floor as Pete Carroll last week in Columbus but forgot to ask him myself. Let me know what they say over at Heritage Hall. Thanks, dude.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Ricky Stanzi has passed for 439 yards and five touchdowns so far this season.

TCF Bank Stadium is pretty freaking awesome, and I'm excited to see the finished product in person. But I'd have to go with Kinnick Stadium as a tougher place right now. Iowa always sells it out and the fans are right on top of the field. It's a tremendous atmosphere, one of my favorites in the league. The early start time at Minnesota could be tougher for a Pac-10 team, but Kinnick definitely is less hospitable.

OK, prediction time. Who you got in Minnesota-Cal? Arizona-Iowa?

TM: Rose Bowl in Detroit, which is beautiful in midwinter!

I don't think anyone wants to see USC in the Rose Bowl again -- even USC's fans and players. The Trojans, however, wouldn't mind being in Pasadena again this January, if you catch my drift (nudge, nudge).

As for the predictions: For folks who read the Pac-10 blog, they know I've been advocating Cal as the team that might challenge USC's seven-year run atop the conference. They also know that for weeks I've been ranting about how underrated Arizona is.

So I've got pick a road warrior weekend for the Pac-10.
Let's say: Cal 35-21
And: Arizona 24-21.
Now, for the pick you should take to Vegas ...

AR: Call me a homer, but I've got to go with Cal. Minnesota has really struggled to make plays on offense, and while the Gophers' defense looks much improved, it'll be hard to contain Best and Vereen for 60 minutes and keep Cal off the scoreboard. Minnesota will have its crowd going and should keep things relatively, close, but I have Cal winning by 11, 34-23.

We'll probably see a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa's defense is always solid under Norm Parker, and the front seven should prevent Grigsby from going nuts. I think Iowa got its mojo back last week and pulls this one out, 21-17 Hawkeyes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Two weeks ago, the mere mention of Nate Triplett's name would have drawn blank stares around the Big Ten and even among some Minnesota fans.

Triplett had been around for a while at Minnesota, appearing in 26 games for the Gophers with one start at linebacker before this season. He was a special-teams stud, but few ever remember special-teams studs.

 
 AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
 Nate Triplett collected an astounding 17 tackles against Air Force, which earned him National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Some undoubtedly asked, 'Who was that guy?' after Triplett intercepted Syracuse's Greg Paulus in overtime at the Carrier Dome, setting up Minnesota's game-winning field goal in the opener. Then last Saturday, Triplett exploded for a career-high 17 tackles against Air Force and broke open a tie game with a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown as Minnesota won 20-13.

No defender in the Big Ten and perhaps none in the country has played more instrumental roles in two victories than Triplett, who was named Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Air Force.

"It’s my last season, senior year," Triplett said, "and I set the bar high coming in, saying, ‘You know what? I’m not going to hold anything back.’ I just give it everything I got every snap, every practice, every day."

For his first three seasons, those snaps were limited. Triplett played on coverage teams but couldn't crack the starting lineup at linebacker.

"He’s been the best special-teams player in the Big Ten the past two years," Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said. "He just did an amazing job covering kicks."

Like any competitor, Triplett thought he should be playing more. But he didn't complain.

Instead, he embraced special teams and made his mark whenever he could.

"That was my role," he said. "We had a lot of good players playing linebacker then, so I accepted that and worked and played my hardest on special teams. That really carried over. I played fast on special teams, and that’s carrying over to linebacker. Made plays on special teams and I’m doing my best to make plays on defense right now."

(Read full post)

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
8:00
AM ET

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.

A quick look at Week 3 in the Big Ten

September, 14, 2009
9/14/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After a Saturday showcase in which the nation's two most significant games involved Big Ten teams, the Week 3 slate is a bit of a letdown. Still, there are several interesting matchups and games that can help the league improve its national reputation.

Here's a quick snapshot.

Eastern Michigan (0-2) at Michigan (2-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Back in the national rankings and the national spotlight, Michigan tries to keep the momentum going against Eastern Michigan. Several veteran Wolverines defenders will be reunited with former coordinator Ron English, who's in his first year at the helm of the Eagles. Eastern Michigan gave Northwestern all it could handle and looks improved on offense behind quarterback Andy Schmitt. The Wolverines' defense aims for a better showing after struggling to contain Notre Dame's receiving threats.

Temple (0-1) at Penn State (2-0), Big Ten Network, noon ET

The Lions will have no trouble winning this game, but they want to be nearing their peak before Iowa visits Happy Valley on Sept. 26. That means better play from the offensive line and more consistent production from Evan Royster and the running backs. Penn State's defense should shut down a Temple team that lost to Villanova in Week 1, but the Lions' offense needs to diversify before Big Ten play kicks off. Linebacker Navorro Bowman (groin) could miss his second straight game.

(Read full post)

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