Big Ten: Jake Christensen

Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

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Iowa might be a swing state, but Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg doesn't need to win the popular vote to keep his job. He has an endorsement from the only guy who matters.

Despite a drumbeat from fans to see backup signal caller Jake Rudock, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz made it clear Tuesday he's sticking with Vandenberg as the starter and fully supports the senior. Vandenberg has completed just 55.8 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions, and all of his numbers are down from a solid junior season (3,022 pass yards, 25 TDs, 7 INTs).

Ferentz stuck with Vandenberg throughout last Saturday's 38-14 home loss to Penn State, a game in which Vandenberg completed 17 of 36 passes for 189 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a fumble deep in Hawkeye territory that led to a Penn State touchdown.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJames Vandenberg has completed just 55.8 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions.
"He's our starting quarterback," Ferentz said Tuesday. "We all believe in James. I think I speak for everybody involved in our program, team and coaches."

Ferentz faced a flurry of questions about Vandenberg, Rudock and his plans at the quarterback spot during his weekly news conference in Iowa City.

On what it would take to bench Vandenberg: "If it comes to a point where I change my mind, we'll change whatever. Be it a position, the way we do things, whatever, but that's what we do. We try to figure out what's best for us at any given point and go from there. So that's kind of where we're at."

On why he left Vandenberg in against Penn State despite a 31-0 deficit: "I guess you could make an argument that it would give the next player experience. But at that time, I felt like the best thing to do was keep our offense out there and let them play."

On Rudock's abilities: "He's got the potential to be a good quarterback. ... He's a good thrower with good command and works extremely hard. He's a lot like James Vandenberg in my mind. He's got all the characteristics that give a guy a chance to be a good player. He's into it, very smart, very competitive. He throws the ball well. He's going to be a good player."

On whether there's actual competition at quarterback: "There's been competition in a lot of spots. But we're trying to make a habit of getting our best guys on the field, the guys that we feel give us the best chance to win."

On whether Rudock is ready to play: "We won't know that until he starts playing. That's usually the million-dollar question."

On Vandenberg's confidence level: "I worry about everybody's confidence. We just got trashed. We got nailed pretty good."

Here's my take and my attempt to translate what Ferentz means: He's definitely loyal to Vandenberg and wants to see a guy who has worked as hard as Vandenberg has succeed as a senior. Vandenberg likely wouldn't be struggling nearly as much had Iowa not changed offensive coordinators during the offseason. Rudock probably isn't as ready to step in as many Iowa fans are hoping. He's not where Ricky Stanzi was in 2008, when he bumped Jake Christensen from the starting job.

That said ... it baffles me why Ferentz didn't use Rudock in the second half against Penn State. Maybe he was trying to build some confidence with Vandenberg and the other starters, but the outcome long had been decided and it would have given the young quarterback a taste of Big Ten action against a strong defense. If anything, it would prevent the possibility of an injury to Vandenberg.

It'll be interesting to see what Ferentz will do if Vandenberg struggles this week at Northwestern, a team that boasts an improved defense, but also one that makes a lot of quarterbacks look good. While a change at quarterback still seems highly unlikely, at some point Ferentz has to look to the future.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
4:30
PM ET
Some questions and answers before another weekend of college football. Enjoy.

Evan from Bradenton, Fla., writes: Hey Adam, I understand that B1G had a rough weekend against the Pac-12 last week, but I don't understand why the coverage is so negative for the B1G. Point in case, last year the conference dominated the Pac-12, going 5-2 against our west cost opponents, but we didn't get any recognition for it. And one of those loses was USC barely getting by a very bad Minnesota. However, all the sudden since the Pac-12 won four home games (including Arizona) the Pac-12 is getting so much media love. So why is it when the B1G does something good, like consistently get two teams into the BCS or win the Sugar Bowl for back to back years, it never materializes into good press?

Adam Rittenberg: Evan, you bring up some fair points here. The Big Ten didn't get much credit for taking care of business against Pac-12 foes. The difference this year is that two Pac-12 teams (Oregon State, UCLA) pulled off upsets, and, in Oregon State's case, a significant upset against the defending Big Ten champ. You also had some new Pac-12 coaches -- Rich Rodriguez, Jim Mora, Todd Graham -- notching their first signature wins at their respective schools, which generates more national attention. As for the Big Ten getting "credit" for multiple BCS entries every year, that's a tough case to make when you don't win more of those games. Several Big Ten teams have received BCS invites based on name recognition and fan base more than what they've done on the field. Lastly, the standards are high for the Big Ten. It's the wealthiest conference and the most tradition-rich. The league will get credit when it starts winning Rose Bowls and national titles again.


Ryan from Fairfax, Iowa, writes: Adam, As a Hawkeye fan I'm obviously upset with the first two weeks of the season. I do find it hilarious that Ken O' Keefe haters are asking for him back. I've learned as a Hawkeye fan that we have to take the good years with the bad years. I come to the realization that we are a developmental program and we're going to have some tough to stomach years, but we will also mix in some exciting years where we will compete for BCS bowls. With that being said I do find some reasons to still be optimistic about this season. Number 1 being our defense. No one expected our defense to be this good, this early in the year. I think they could actually be a quite scary defense come B10 play. Number 2.. the offense can't get any worse haha.. You can't blame Davis and Ferentz for our WR's dropping balls that hit them between the numbers, but I do think they need to put Vandenberg in a better position to be successful. There has been a ton of negativity surrounding this team after 2 weeks. There is plenty of time left for this offensive unit to put it together. But everyone calling for Vandenberg to be benched and crying for O'Keefe to return.. all I gotta say is C'mon MAN! Just wanted to share a little optimism and get your thoughts on where our DEFENSE might be able to take us this year.

Adam Rittenberg: Ryan, a very level-headed email here. It's comical to me how some fans are asking for O'Keefe back and likening James Vandenberg to Jake Christensen. Please. Yes, the offense looks terrible so far and Davis hasn't found the right play-calling mix, but it's too soon to make sweeping judgment. Especially, as you say, when no one can consistently catch the ball (which was a problem last season). I agree the defense provides reason for optimism, and it's encouraging to see what Iowa has done in the red zone defensively so far. But you need to score touchdowns and you need to execute better on offense. I can't imagine what the negativity will be like if Iowa loses to Northern Iowa on Saturday. Maybe fans will start a movement to get O'Keefe to replace Ferentz.


Mark from Lakewood Ranch, Fla., writes: Disclaimer(MSU Alum) Curious your take on Frank Clark being allowed to play for Mich. Since you were so vocal on Dion Sims who sat out a year to get his affairs in order,will there be similar outrage on this ? Brady Hoke had to know he was going to plead guilty yet still allowed him to play vs AF. Not sure the message this sends,but a felony charge seems much worse than the MSU tweets that generated National attention.

Adam Rittenberg: This was one of about 100 emails I received from MSU fans this week, which is pretty disappointing given that the Spartans have a huge game coming up. I'll address this once as I don't like folks demanding for equal outrage or whatever without actually examining whether the situations are remotely similar (not singling you out, Mark, but it's really the worst side of college fans). Frank Clark should have been suspended longer than a game. To equate his situation to Fitzgerald Toussaint's and give them both the same length suspension doesn't send a good message. Clark's situation was more serious (i.e. felony), and he should have been sitting against Air Force and at least another game. Brady Hoke has to live with this. I was "outraged" about the Sims situation more because it had to do with a crime ring stealing computers from Detroit Public Schools. I didn't feel Michigan State acted inappropriately regarding Sims (had bigger issues with Glenn Winston mess). My "vomit" comment was about the nature of the crime ring, not how Michigan State handled the Sims case. As for the Michigan State tweets, I can't help that it attracted more attention than it probably should. We posted something here but didn't hammer on it like others.


Kyle from Denton, Texas, writes: Adam,With Notre Dame basically selling it's soul to the ACC I think the Big Ten has to make a move here. It doesn't have to be in the form of actually expanding, but it does need to be in the form of preparing for the future. I think the Big Ten should come out and say that in the case that it would expand, it would not be opposed to adding a non-AAU member to the league. Looking at the members list of the AAU you really limit yourself TV market wise by saying you really want that in your members. Otherwise the only thing that would make a splash in the College Football world would be for the Big Ten to invite Toronto University and expand into Canada...

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, you're not the first person to bring up University of Toronto as an expansion option for the Big Ten. It certainly would be an out-of-the-box move by Jim Delany. There would have to be assurances about how successful college football would be North of the border, and I'm not sure the Big Ten could get those. I can guarantee you the Big Ten isn't turning its eyes away from what's happening around college football, but the league's presidents are also very happy at 12. As for the AAU issue, it's interesting. While I understand what you're saying about limiting yourself by AAU status, it really does resonate with the Big Ten presidents and chancellors. I've heard that had Nebraska lost its AAU status before being admitted to the Big Ten, there would have been hesitation about adding the school. I think there are some decent non-AAU options out there that might help the Big Ten. However, I maintain that the Big Ten shouldn't expand just to expand, and there aren't many home-run candidates. Again, as the richest league, do you want to feed another mouth just to "keep up" with other leagues?


From @SpencerLeone (via Twitter): Would you agree the two best teams in the #B1G this year are in the Legends Division?

Adam Rittenberg: It's a close call right now between Michigan and Ohio State, which has looked better but hasn't played anyone near the caliber of Alabama. I've felt the Big Ten champ always would come out of the Legends division, and I feel even stronger about that after Wisconsin's struggles early this season. Michigan State and Michigan could be the class of the conference, especially with Ohio State ineligible for postseason play. But the Buckeyes might end up being the No. 2 or No. 1 team in the league by the end of the season.


Eric from New York writes: Hi Adam! I love reading your work on the blog. It makes my job tolerable. My question is: How do you feel about Penn State's future? I'm trying not to be biased (since I'm a PSU alum), but it looks like Coach O'Brien is running an excellent offensive system. There are obviously some big gaps to fill like red-zone scoring, but the staff has improved the passing game tremendously. McGloin looks more confident than ever. With a potential star QB like Hackenburg leading the way (fingers crossed) and our typical strong defense, I don't think Penn State will completely fall off the map like everyone predicts. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Eric. I agree with you about Penn State's offense under O'Brien and McGloin's improvement as a passer. O'Brien should be able to use the offense as a selling point to recruits, even in the next few years as the NCAA sanctions continue. As I've written before, O'Brien and his assistants have to become really selective with scholarship offers and who they bring in. With only 15 scholies per year beginning with the 2013 class, they simply can't afford to miss on the same number of guys as most programs. They'll also need walk-ons -- or run-ons, as BO'B says -- to contribute in major roles. I think there will be some more tough days ahead, but I also don't expect Penn State to start going 3-9 every year. It really comes down to this staff and its ability to scout and develop players because of the limited roster size.


Eric M. from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Given the conference's performance last weekend, what are the chances that a Big Ten team digs deep and somehow finds a way to lose on the road this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: That would require some serious digging, Eric. All 12 Big Ten teams play at home Saturday.


Chris from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: I have noticed MSU is very talented, deep, and athletic, despite youth/inexperience. Maxwell also showcases good mechanics and a strong arm. If this group comes full circle saturday night, do you see them beating ND? Would they become a more legit NC darkhorse?

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, I have Michigan State winning 17-10. I also think it's too soon to label the Spartans a national title contender. They at least need beat Ohio State in the Big Ten opener, and they most likely need a signature road win against Michigan on Oct. 20. The stretch that gives everyone pause about the Spartans is the Michigan (road), Wisconsin (road), Nebraska (gauntlet) midway through Big Ten play. The Wisconsin trip doesn't look as tough as it did a few weeks ago, but it's not easy to survive that stretch, plus Ohio State, without a loss. I do think that Maxwell and the passing game are the missing pieces to a Big Ten championship formula for the Spartans, and, who knows, maybe more.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 6

October, 13, 2009
10/13/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Week 6 didn't feature many surprises on the field or with the picks. I redeemed myself a bit with a 6-1 mark, but the one miss was a very bad one.

Let's take a look back.

Purdue at Minnesota
  • The pick: Minnesota 28, Purdue 24
  • Actual score: Minnesota 35, Purdue 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: I was right about DeLeon Eskridge rushing for two touchdowns, but Gophers wideout Eric Decker had a quiet day as Minnesota attempted only nine passes. Purdue blew another early lead and couldn't overcome a series of major mistakes as the Boilers dropped their fifth straight.
Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern
  • The pick: Northwestern 31, Miami (Ohio) 17
  • Actual score: Northwestern 16, Miami (Ohio) 6
  • 20-20 hindsight: As expected, Miami gave the ball away quite a bit. I correctly predicted Wildcats cornerback Sherrick McManis would make plays, but Northwestern couldn't get its run game going despite 41 attempts and several combinations on the offensive line.
Eastern Illinois at Penn State
  • The pick: Penn State 41, Eastern Illinois 10
  • Actual score: Penn State 52, Eastern Illinois 3
  • 20-20 hindsight: Lions defensive tackle Jared Odrick answered my call with a dominant performance (3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks). Stephfon Green contributed 58 rush yards and a touchdown in limited action, but Jake Christensen didn't throw a touchdown for EIU.
Michigan State at Illinois
  • The pick: Michigan State 31, Illinois 23
  • Actual score: Michigan State 24, Illinois 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: I expected more fight from the Illini, who fell behind 24-0 on their home field. Spartans running back Larry Caper ran for only one touchdown, not two, and quarterback Eddie McGee really struggled for Illinois.
Wisconsin at Ohio State
  • The pick: Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 17
  • Actual score: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: My score prediction could have been right on the money had Wisconsin limited its major mistakes in the game. Running backs John Clay (Wisconsin) and Brandon Saine (Ohio State) both ended up with quiet performances, and it was Ohio State's defense, not Wisconsin's, which turned out to be the opportunistic unit.
Indiana at Virginia
  • The pick: Indiana 20, Virginia 17
  • Actual score: Virginia 47, Indiana 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: Can we forget this pick even happened? Indiana certainly would like to forget the game. The Hoosiers' senior defensive ends couldn't get to Virginia quarterback Jameel Sewell, who passed for 308 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score as the Cavaliers rolled.
Michigan at Iowa
  • The pick: Iowa 26, Michigan 21
  • Actual score: Iowa 30, Michigan 28
  • 20-20 hindsight: I was right about Michigan ending Iowa's streak of no rushing touchdowns allowed. The Wolverines recorded three rushing scores in the game. As predicted, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi turned in a strong second half as Iowa held on at home.
Week 6 record: 6-1

Season record: 37-14 (.725)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

We won't know for at least another week whether Penn State's soft nonconference schedule adequately prepared the Nittany Lions for the season. But Penn State is doing what top 15 teams are supposed to do to inferior opponents, crushing Eastern Illinois 38-0.

Quarterback Daryll Clark is building off an encouraging performance at Illinois with three first-half touchdown passes, including a 51-yarder to Chaz Powell. Junior running back Evan Royster also is having a productive afternoon with 94 rushing yards on only eight carries.

It's been another rough day at Beaver Stadium for former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen, completing 9 of 19 passes with an interception. Penn State has outgained the Panthers 343-134.

Big Ten mailblog

October, 9, 2009
10/09/09
4:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Send in your Iowa City recommendations now.

Jon from Irvine, Calif., writes: Is it me or is Michigan getting a lot of hype for their 4-1 record? Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Notre Dame and Indiana hardly constitute quality wins (perhaps Notre Dame but they aren't nearly as good as Lou Holtz thought they would be). Yes, Michigan is much better than last year, but give me a break! Shouldn't we wait for them to win a big game before giving them this much attention?We'll see what Michigan is made of this weekend in Kinnick ...

Adam Rittenberg: Definitely agree on your last statement, Jon. Here's the deal with Michigan. It's good for the game when Michigan is doing well. It's good for the Big Ten when Michigan is doing well. As a result, the Wolverines will get hyped more than other teams despite an average résumé to this point in the season. Michigan gets a ton of attention, win or lose, and especially since the Wolverines were so bad last year, they're going to get some love when obvious improvements are made. It also helps to have a young quarterback (Tate Forcier) consistently coming up big in the clutch.


Frank from Chicago writes: Adam, first off, I love the blog and it keeps me very well occupied during classes, Thanks. More importantly, it seems as though Iowa's national profile has diminished from its close win over Arkansas State this past weekend. However, in light of Penn State's thorough victory over preseason sleeper Illinois, doesn't the Hawkeyes win in Happy Valley look more impressive?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Frank. Not sure exactly what you mean, since Iowa actually moved up a spot in this week's AP Poll to No. 12. I thought the Hawkeyes would pay a steeper price for struggling to put away a Sun Belt team on their home field. As for Penn State's win over "preseason sleeper" Illinois, that gave me a good laugh. Beating Illinois doesn't mean a whole lot right now. Iowa's win in Happy Valley still carries a ton of weight in my book, but not for what Penn State did to the hapless Illini.


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Big Ten picks: Week 6

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A 4-2 record last week with some in-the-ballpark score predictions. As the coaches say, let's try to get one week better.

Minnesota 28, Purdue 24 -- The Gophers know what happens when they let emotions linger after dropping their last five games in 2008. The Big Ten's most experienced team bounces back and limits mistakes on its home turf. Eric Decker goes for 120 receiving yards and DeLeon Eskridge rushes for a pair of touchdowns against Purdue, which drops another close one.

Northwestern 31, Miami (Ohio) 17 -- After generating six takeaways last week, Northwestern faces a Miami team that leads the nation in giveaways with 18. RedHawks freshman quarterback Zac Dysert makes plays early on, but NU cornerback Sherrick McManis and safety Brad Phillips force some mistakes. The Wildcats also get their running game on track.

Penn State 41, Eastern Illinois 10 -- Last week's win at Illinois gave Penn State some much-needed confidence in the run game, and the Lions will continue their momentum against Eastern Illinois. Running back Stephfon Green turns in another big performance, and defensive tackle Jared Odrick steps up for the line. Former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen connects on a touchdown pass, but Penn State rolls.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 23 -- Eddie McGee gives a desperate Illini team an early spark, but Illinois reverts to form in the second half. Kirk Cousins tosses two touchdown passes and Larry Caper adds two more on the ground as the Spartans continue their momentum and avoid a letdown in Champaign.

Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 17 -- John Clay and an opportunistic Badgers defense gives Wisconsin a chance at The Shoe. Clay starts to produce in the second half, but Ohio State gets a big game from its own running back, Brandon Saine, while safety Kurt Coleman forces at least one turnover in his return as the Buckeyes hold on.

Indiana 20, Virginia 17 -- Tough one to call, but I like Indiana's chances because defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton face a Virginia team that ranks last nationally in sacks allowed. The Hoosiers rack up five sacks and Kirlew forces a key fourth-quarter fumble that leads to the game-winning field goal.

Iowa 26, Michigan 21 -- Something tells me Iowa's streak of 33 consecutive quarters without a rushing touchdown allowed ends against the Wolverines, but the Hawkeyes' defense still stands strong in the end. Tate Forcier makes some plays for Michigan, but his counterpart Ricky Stanzi turns in a big second half as Iowa stays unbeaten at home.

Week 5 record: 4-2

Season record: 31-13 (.705)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Ten things you don't want to miss Saturday in the Big Ten.

1. Iowa defense goes streaking -- The Hawkeyes try to continue one of the more remarkable streaks in college football on Saturday night against Michigan (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Iowa hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown for 33 consecutive quarters, stretching back to last year's game against Penn State on Nov. 8. Sturdy defensive line play has been the hallmark of this team in 2009, but Iowa will be tested by Michigan's rushing attack, which ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing (197.8 ypg).

2. Clay heads to Columbus -- Wisconsin sophomore running back John Clay looks ready to be a star, and his team needs a huge performance against an Ohio State defense that ranks 10th nationally against the run (83.4 ypg). Despite losing his starting job in preseason camp, Clay leads the Big Ten in rushing average (116.4 ypg) and comes off a career-best performance against Minnesota. Wisconsin's offensive line is starting to get healthy, and the Badgers likely will go right at Ohio State's strength.

3. Desperation time for Zook, Illini -- They're calling for Ron Zook's head in Champaign, and the embattled fifth-year coach can't afford another lopsided loss against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, noon ET). Zook made a quarterback change Monday, benching four-year starter Juice Williams in favor of junior Eddie McGee, who makes his first career start. We'll soon find out if the problem is the quarterback or the scheme. The Illini need to start using all of their offensive weapons -- particularly star wideout Arrelious Benn -- against a Spartans defense that gained a lot of confidence in last week's win against Michigan.

4. Forcier looks for road rebound -- Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier took the blame for last week's loss to Michigan State, even though his gutsy play was the only reason the Wolverines even had a chance. Forcier has been brilliant in the clutch, but he'll face his toughest test of the season against Iowa's defense in a night game at Kinnick Stadium. It could be the perfect stage for another fourth-quarter masterpiece, but Forcier likely will need more help from his running backs against the Hawkeyes. Expect to see a few tricks from Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez.

5. Gophers need home cookin' -- The importance of Minnesota's home game against Purdue can't be understated for the Gophers. With upcoming trips to Penn State and Ohio State, Minnesota can't afford to lose to the Boilers and maintain its hopes for a strong postseason push. The Gophers need a more disciplined performance after being flagged nine times against Wisconsin, and Saturday's game provides them a chance to get an inconsistent rushing attack going against a Boilers defense that ranks ninth in the Big Ten against the run (174.6 ypg).

6. Valai vs. Pryor -- Wisconsin safety Jay Valai isn't a very big guy, but he always brings it with big hits. It should be interesting to see how the 5-9, 201-pound Valai approaches Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who checks in at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds. Pryor has turned in three solid performances since his struggles against USC and seems more open to running the ball. When he takes off, Valai and an opportunistic Badgers defense will be looking to make big plays.

7. Indiana's defense looks to bowl over Cavs -- Indiana has dropped consecutive games and faces a tough upcoming stretch beginning Oct. 24 with a road game against Northwestern. Bill Lynch's team can feel a lot better about its bowl hopes with a victory Saturday at Virginia (ESPN360.com, 3:30 p.m. ET). As I've written for month, Indiana's fate will be determined by a veteran-laden defense, which faces a Cavaliers team that ranks 99th nationally or lower in the four major offensive categories. Virginia ranks dead last nationally in sacks allowed, so Indiana defensive ends Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew should be licking their chops.

8. Christensen returns to Happy Valley -- There's not a whole lot of intrigue about the Penn State-Eastern Illinois game, but the Nittany Lions will be facing a player associated with their recent nemesis Iowa. Former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen will start for EIU and hopes to continue a season for the FCS Panthers. Christensen already has passed for 1,090 yards with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He faces a Penn State defense that shut down Illinois last week. Penn State sacked Christensen five times in a 27-7 win against Iowa in 2007 at Beaver Stadium.

9. Simmons ready to run -- Northwestern's rushing attack hasn't been the same since junior Stephen Simmons went down with an ankle injury in Week 2. Simmons is set to return Saturday against Miami (Ohio) and looks to spark a ground game that ranks 10th in the Big Ten (121.8 ypg). After rotating Arby Fields and Jacob Schmidt for the last two weeks, the Wildcats can go back to their featured back in a game that should build some momentum for the offense before Big Ten play resumes next week against Michigan State.

10. Purdue's ball security -- After a six-turnover disaster on its home field last week, Purdue now ranks 119th out of 120 FBS teams in giveaways with 18. If the Boilers can just manage to hang onto the ball at Minnesota, they could have a chance. Minnesota's defense struggled to contain Clay last week, and Purdue will want Ralph Bolden to get going after several quiet weeks. After putting up 88 points in its first two games, the Boilers have been stuck on 21 in each of their last three contests. Better ball security is a critical step to snapping the trend.

Big Ten afternoon tidbits

October, 7, 2009
10/07/09
6:09
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


A few of you have mentioned several Big Ten quarterback transfers I didn't include in an earlier post about former Iowa signal-caller Jake Christensen, now starring for Eastern Illinois. I focused my research on quarterbacks who played in the Big Ten last year before transferring, but it's still worth noting how two of the others are doing.
  • Ryan Mallett (Michigan), Arkansas -- 67 of 123 for 1,148 pass yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs, 287 yards per game, 159.1 rating, 2-2 record
  • Nick Foles (Michigan State), Arizona -- 37 of 53 for 353 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 117 ypg, 156.9 rating, 1-0 record as the starter

Anyone know what James Stallons (Wisconsin) or Justin Siller (Purdue) are up to these days?

Two quick tidbits:
  • Iowa athletic director Gary Barta writes a guest editorial to the student newspaper expressing his disappointment with drunk tailgaters at Hawkeyes home games.
  • Michigan running back Brandon Minor is getting close to 100 percent healthy, while another back, Carlos Brown, sat out practice Wednesday with an undisclosed injury. Also, Michigan might be moving safety Troy Woolfolk to cornerback.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


One of the things Jake Christensen likes about playing football at Eastern Illinois is the appreciation Panthers players have toward the game.

"The guys care more about football at this level, honestly," Christensen said Monday on a conference call with reporters. "It’s easy to care about football when you’re playing in front of 100,000 people every weekend and you’re a superstar in town."
Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
Jake Christensen returns to Penn State Saturday, this time as Eastern Illinois' quarterback.

EIU players will get a taste of the limelight Saturday (ESPN Classic, noon ET) when they face Penn State at Beaver Stadium (capacity: 107,282). The atmosphere will be unlike any the Panthers experience in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Christensen expects many of his teammates to be "awestruck at first," but he won't be. The former Iowa quarterback will be making his second trip to Happy Valley as a player after facing Penn State in 2007. Christensen endured a rough day in a rough season, as Iowa lost 27-7 and he was sacked five teams as the Hawkeyes recorded only eight first downs.

His lasting impression from Beaver Stadium?

"Real loud," he said. "They're going to be bigger than we are and probably faster than we are at every position, but it’s been done before and there’s no reason why we can’t do it. We’re not scared, we're not intimidated. We're ready to play football."

Christensen, who transferred to EIU this summer, would rather not look back at his time in Iowa City, but his connection to the Hawkeyes does work in his favor Saturday. After all, Iowa has won seven of its last eight games against Penn State, including a 21-10 triumph on Sept. 26.

"I don’t know, man," he said when asked to explain Iowa's success in the series. "They get some breaks against that team that I’ve never seen before in my life."

That wasn't the only playful jab he took at his former team. When asked if left-handers get picked on by their coaches, Christensen, a southpaw, said with a laugh, "Well, apparently Iowa's coaches didn't like me very much."

Christensen has done well at Eastern Illinois, completing 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,090 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions in five games.

Here's a look at how several quarterback transfers from the Big Ten are faring with their new teams.
  • Jake Christensen (Iowa), Eastern Illinois: 89 of 136 passing for 1,090 yards, 11 TDs, 3 INTs, 218 ypg, 155.04 rating, 4-1 record
  • Kellen Lewis (Indiana), Valdosta State: 93 of 142 passing for 934 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs, 123.5 rating, 233.5 ypg, 4 rush TDs, 2-2 record
  • Pat Devlin (Penn State), Delaware: 100 of 155 passing for 1,252 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs, 144.7 rating, 4 rush TDs, 3-2 record
  • Clint Brewster (Minnesota), Tennessee Tech: No pass attempts this season.
  • Steven Threet (Michigan): sitting out the season at Arizona State, per NCAA transfer rules.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Good news for former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen, who had his waiver granted by the NCAA and is now cleared to play games for Eastern Illinois. Christensen's transfer was a bit more complicated than most because he already graduated from Iowa.

He has been competing for the starting job at Eastern Illinois in practice and feels better about his passing mechanics after struggling at Iowa.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school, Jake Christensen never thought he'd be attempting to salvage his football career at Eastern Illinois.

 
  Ned Dishman/Getty Images
  QB Jake Christensen has focused on refining his mechanics since transferring to Eastern Illinois.

But after some trying times in Iowa City that led to his transfer from the Hawkeyes in January, Christensen knows there's no place he'd rather be.

"Even if I was the starter there, I can't say that I'd want to be there as opposed to here," Christensen recently told ESPN.com. "I love the coaches here, I love the guys and I'm happy."

Christensen, who started 13 consecutive games at Iowa in 2007 and 2008 before losing his job to Ricky Stanzi, is enrolled at Eastern Illinois as a graduate student and has been practicing with the team. The school is still waiting on the NCAA to clear Christensen for competition.

EIU team spokesman Rich Moser said the school's compliance office has been checking daily on Christensen's waiver with the NCAA, but there's no timetable for when an answer will come through.

If and when Christensen gets the go-ahead, he's confident he'll be a different player than the one fans saw at Iowa. In 2007, he passed for 2,269 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions but completed just 53.5 percent of his throws and drew criticism for taking too many sacks.

Last fall Christensen split snaps with Stanzi before losing the top job following a 21-20 loss at Pitt.

"I feel I'm back, mechanically wise, to where I was when I left high school," he said. "That's a good place for me. For whatever reason, I got a little bulky at Iowa, a little stronger than I should have been, and my mechanics got a little out of whack. I got more like a linebacker than a quarterback and it kind of obstructed my throwing motion a little bit and threw things off.

"But it's not an excuse. It was just something I realized this summer with not lifting weights so hard that my motion was a little more fluid."

Christensen said Iowa never asked him to gain weight but it "just kind of happened." He made his mechanics a bigger focal point after leaving the program, and spent the summer working with his father, Jeff, a former NFL quarterback, as well as former NFL signal-caller Steve DeBerg.

"The coaches [at Iowa] focused more on the X's and O's than mechanics," Christensen said. "I don't think [offensive coordinator Ken] O'Keefe had much to do with mechanics. If you watch me now compared to last year, it'd be completely different throwing the ball, in a good way."

Though the transfer process as a graduate student is tricky, Christensen explored several options at both the FBS and FCS levels. He talked extensively with Colorado State and also considered Utah and Miami (Ohio).

But Eastern Illinois soon emerged as the front-runner. Jeff Christensen played at the school, and Jake had been recruited by EIU offensive coordinator Roy Wittke when Wittke served as Arkansas' offensive coordinator. The Tony Romo factor also helped (Romo starred at Eastern Illinois).

"With the whole Romo deal, he opened the doorway for smaller schools," Christensen said. "Now you've got guys like [former Delaware star Joe Flacco] in the NFL playing, not just making it but starting and playing well. I think it's a good place to me if you want to try and go further with your career."

Christensen doesn't downplay the difficulties he had at Iowa, but he's looking ahead.

"As far as having a fair shot, in my heart I can't really say that I believe that," he said. "But that being said, I don't have any negative energy toward them. They did what they did and it worked out for them. They are where they want to be.

"At the end of the day, I'm glad I went through it."

Big Ten lunch links

August, 7, 2009
8/07/09
12:58
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Sorry these are coming a little late. I had to drive through a typhoon to get to Iowa City, but I'm here, safe and sound. I'll be heading over to Kinnick Stadium in a bit.

For now, chew on these links. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Kirk Ferentz calls them Ricky Stanzi's Kodak moments, and Stanzi had an album full of them last season for Iowa. 

 
  Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
  Consistency and limiting mistakes will be key for quarterback Ricky Stanzi this season.

Stanzi made his share of mistakes in his first year as the Hawkeyes' starting quarterback, but he also showed impressive poise to bounce back virtually every time.

After committing a total of five turnovers (two interceptions, three fumbles) in consecutive losses to Northwestern and Michigan State, Stanzi steadied himself in wins against Indiana and Wisconsin. The sophomore endured a miserable performance at Illinois (2 INTs, lost fumble returned for a touchdown), only to lead Iowa to a season-defining win against then-No. 3 Penn State the following week.

The Penn State game brought out both the worst and the best of Stanzi. He had an interception and a lost fumble turn into 10 points for the Nittany Lions, but responded to lead three Hawkeyes scoring drives in the final 25 minutes. 

"The interception against Penn State was about as ugly as you can throw," Ferentz said. "I guess you could kind of see one of our guys in there, but it was through three or four of their guys. And then the Illinois thing, I've seen those situations just implode negatively for you. But both those instances, he just came right back and played and did a good job.

"That's something that's hard to teach anybody or give anybody. He really has that gene, that trait. That's a good starting point."  

Iowa knows Stanzi can bounce back when things go south, but whether he can avoid difficult situations in the first place will largely shape how the team performs this season. Stanzi no longer has Shonn Greene in the backfield, and with wideout Andy Brodell and tight end Brandon Myers gone, the junior quarterback will face increased pressure to make plays.

Though Stanzi must limit turnovers and become more consistent in the red zone -- Iowa came up empty nine times last year, the second-highest total in the league -- he has no plans to overhaul his approach.

"It's just being conscious of what you're doing out there," he said. "I know there's been times when I've turned the ball over too much. That's obvious. You can write that down as a stat. At the same time, it's not going to change my style of play because if I start doing that, you're pulling back from something that helps you make some plays."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A team is often only as good as its backup quarterback, a fact that held true throughout the Big Ten in 2008.

Pat Devlin scored arguably the biggest touchdown of Penn State's season at Ohio State as the Nittany Lions rallied for a 13-6 win. Mike Kafka's record-setting rushing performance against Minnesota helped Northwestern to a huge win after injuries had hit several important positions. Several Big Ten squads also had backups emerge into starters, such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Several Big Ten backups haven't played a down in a college game, so it's tough to pass judgment on them. But here's my stab at ranking the league's backup signal callers coming out of spring ball.

1. Michigan State -- The competition for the starting job between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol remains too close to call, and that's not a bad thing. Both players performed very well during spring ball and particularly during the spring game. Whoever doesn't win the top job provides head coach Mark Dantonio with a solid No. 2 option. Cousins already held the role last fall and performed well.

2. Minnesota -- Head coach Tim Brewster reiterated throughout the spring that Adam Weber is his starter, but he also acknowledged that talented freshman MarQueis Gray will get on the field a lot this fall. Gray lived up to the hype in spring ball, and the Gophers likely will use a special package of plays to feature him in games. Should Weber go down, Minnesota should be fine with Gray.

3. Illinois -- The Illini boast the Big Ten's most experienced signal caller in Juice Williams, and they also have the league's most seasoned backup in Eddie McGee. McGee appeared in 12 games in 2007 and came up big against Missouri, Wisconsin and Penn State. The coaches have even used McGee on a series or two when Williams gets into trouble. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest provides another solid option.

4. Ohio State -- Overall depth at quarterback is the only reason the Buckeyes aren't higher on the list. The coaches have confidence that Joe Bauserman can step in if Terrelle Pryor goes down with an injury. Bauserman boasts a strong arm and good knowledge of the scheme. It remains to be seen what Ohio State gets out of third-stringer Kenny Guiton, a late signee in February.

5. Wisconsin -- The starting job is not set in stone, though senior Dustin Sherer remains the frontrunner heading into the summer. Curt Phillips' push toward the end of spring should ease offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's concerns about the position. Phillips brings speed and athleticism to the backfield, and junior Scott Tolzien is a smart player who has been in the system for some time.

6. Michigan -- True freshman Tate Forcier emerged from a solid spring as the frontrunner at quarterback, though he'll still be pushed by Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson in August. Sheridan has been in the fire and showed some good signs during spring ball before breaking his leg. But he might not be as strong of a fit as Robinson, who boasts track-star speed and, like Forcier, provides the improvisation skills needed to run this offense.

7. Northwestern -- Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are fully prepared to play a second quarterback at times this season. The nature of Northwestern's spread offense elevates the injury risk for quarterbacks, and Dan Persa likely will see the field, much like Kafka did in 2008. Persa's size (6-1, 200) is a bit of a concern, though he brings above-average mobility to the pocket. Incoming freshman Evan Watkins likely will redshirt this fall, but he's considered the team's quarterback of the future.

8. Purdue -- The Boilers would have been much better off with Justin Siller still in the fold, but the coaches liked what they saw from redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush this spring. Career backup Joey Elliott will get the first shot under center this fall, but TerBush is a big kid (6-5, 222) who can step in if things go south. The problem here is depth, as Purdue can't play Robert Marve until 2010.

9. Penn State -- Devlin's decision to transfer really stings Penn State, which can't afford to lose Daryll Clark and keep its Big Ten title hopes afloat. True freshman Kevin Newsome did some nice things this spring, but he's got a long way to go before leading the Spread HD offense in a Big Ten game. Matt McGloin provides the Nittany Lions with another option under center, but Penn State should take every precaution to keep Clark healthy.

10. Indiana -- The coaches' decision to move Kellen Lewis to wide receiver not only reaffirmed their faith in starter Ben Chappell, but also the men behind him. Teddy Schell came to Indiana as a decorated high school quarterback in Illinois and should finally get a chance to showcase himself. But Schell is unproven on the college level, and the same goes for promising redshirt freshman Adam Follett.

11. Iowa -- Nothing against James Vandenberg or John Wienke, but the college canvas is pretty blank on both redshirt freshmen right now. Despite all the Jake Christensen hatred, many level-headed Hawkeyes fans wouldn't mind having him around this season to back up Ricky Stanzi. An injury to Stanzi could derail Iowa's Big Ten title hopes, particularly with four very difficult conference road games (Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State).

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