Big Ten: Jeremiah Johnson
Throw out one complete debacle against one of the nation’s best passing attacks, and the Terrapins would have every reason to brag about a stingy secondary that limits yardage as well as anybody in the Big Ten and nabs at least one interception every week.
But Maryland isn’t looking to manipulate its skewed numbers or make excuses for what happened when West Virginia carved up its defensive backs, humbling a talented, veteran group and handing them their only loss this season in the process. Instead, the Terps would rather be evaluated on the whole body of work, and while that leaves some ground to make up statistically on the rest of the league, the bad taste in their mouths from one failed test is driving them to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
“This week we’re playing a team that obviously has athletic receivers as well, and they’re going to try to go down the field. It’s just another opportunity for us to kind of change the perception of who we are.”
Figuring out exactly who the Terps are at this point is something of a challenge, thanks in large part to the 511 passing yards allowed in the shootout loss to West Virginia.
That total represents a full 44 percent of the yardage Maryland has allowed through five games, which can be either an indictment of the secondary against the best offense it has faced so far or a tribute to the work it has done in holding three other opponents under 174 yards -- including typically high-flying Indiana, which mustered just 126 a week ago at home.
The Buckeyes aren’t usually as well known for their work through the air, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is coming off consecutive 300-yard outings and will certainly provide another chance for Maryland to figure out its defensive identity. And if it leans more towards the productive side that has shown up four times instead of the unit that was repeatedly burned in one game, the Terps might find themselves unexpectedly in position to contend in the East Division.
“I think defensively we’ve done a really good job from the standpoint that we’ve created a bunch of turnovers,” coach Randy Edsall said. “And we’ve done a really good job down in the red area with not letting people score. So we might have given up some yards on things, but the bottom line is keeping people out of the end zone. We pretty much did that except for the West Virginia game.
“Our kids are playing very, very hard on defense. They’re doing a good job of executing, and that’s what we have to keep doing. They understand our defense, they are communicating very well, and they’re stepping up when we need to have them step up.”
Starting with Johnson, Maryland also appears to understand exactly what went wrong against the Mountaineers as well.
The Terps weren’t the first victims of that uptempo attack, and they won’t be the last. But Johnson was quick to point to lost individual battles in “50-50 shots” that helped West Virginia rack up yardage rather than breakdowns in coverage or blown assignments. And with Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and Devin Smith both more than capable of getting behind the secondary and creating explosive plays, the Terps are well aware of how much Saturday’s home debut in the Big Ten might shape perception moving forward.
“I think the last couple weeks are a tribute to the work that we’ve put in during practice, just stepping up and working even harder,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to leave that bad impression with everyone.”
There might be no way to remove that ugly number from the grade book, but the Terps are intent on proving that it’s an outlier.
Here's the full list, but we'll begin with the East Division, followed by the West later on.
David Cooper, LB, senior: A two-year starter at linebacker -- one at middle, one on the weak side -- Cooper led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles last season and added a fumble recovery. If the defense finally turns the corner, he'll likely play a significant role.
Nate Sudfeld, QB, junior: Tre Roberson's transfer makes Sudfeld the clear-cut starter entering the season. The junior from California started eight games last season and passed for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Shane Wynn, WR, senior: Like Sudfeld, Wynn moves into a more featured role as Indiana loses standout Cody Latimer and others. Wynn has 114 receptions for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons.
C.J. Brown, QB, senior: The sixth-year player enters his second full year as the starter after becoming the first Maryland player to eclipse 2,000 pass yards and 500 rush yards in a season. His father, Clark, played quarterback at Michigan State.
Stefon Diggs, WR, junior: Diggs might be the Big Ten's best and most explosive wide receiver as he returns from a broken leg that shortened his 2013 season. The one-time Ohio State recruiting target finished eighth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2012.
Jeremiah Johnson, CB, senior: He led Maryland in pass breakups (8) and had five tackles for loss while starting every game in 2012. Johnson missed most of last season with a fractured toe.
Frank Clark, DE, senior: The Wolverines' most experienced defensive linemen needs to take his game to an elite level in his final season. Clark enters his second full year as a starter after recording 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.
Devin Gardner, QB, senior: He has had a truly unique career, which began as a wide receiver and will culminate as the starting quarterback for the second straight year, provided he holds off Shane Morris in camp. Gardner, fully healed from a foot injury, had 2,960 pass yards and 483 rush yards as a junior.
Jake Ryan, LB, senior: Ryan made an incredible recovery from an ACL tear to start five games last season, but he's hoping to regain the form he displayed in 2012, when he led Michigan in tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (4). If healthy, he could contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, junior: He comes off of a breakout season in 2013, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year. Calhoun tied for second nationally with four fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Connor Cook, QB, junior: No player represented Michigan State's championship run more than Cook, who blossomed in Big Ten play after being named the permanent starter. He finished with 2,755 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Kurtis Drummond, S, senior: Although Drummond has made 21 consecutive starts at safety, he takes on a bigger role for the "No Fly Zone" secondary after the losses of Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The veteran earned All-Big Ten honors.
Michael Bennett, DT, senior: Ohio State's defensive line might be the league's best position group and Bennett, a preseason All-American, is a big reason why. After recording seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013, Bennett is pegged as a possible first-round draft pick and will be in the mix for national awards.
Jeff Heuerman, TE, senior: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuerman provides a big target in the passing game and should claim a bigger role in the offense this season after recording 26 receptions and four touchdowns in 2013.
Braxton Miller, QB, senior: He's the biggest name at Big Ten media days -- the league's reining offensive player of the year in both 2012 and 2013. Miller already has won more Big Ten awards (seven) than any player in league history, but he still lacks a Big Ten championship.
Bill Belton, RB, senior: Belton has shared carries at running back the past two seasons but appears ready for a bigger role after a solid first spring under the new coaching staff. Although fellow backs Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also return, Belton's playmaking ability stands out, as he averaged 94.2 all-purpose yards per game in 2013.
Sam Ficken, PK, senior: The most interesting kicker in the Big Ten is the only specialist on this year's list in invitees. Ficken has been through it all at Penn State, from a disastrous day at Virginia in 2012 to a record-setting streak of 15 made field goals to some inconsistency late last season. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects a big finish from him.
Mike Hull, LB, senior: He's the quarterback of a defense that should improve under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Hull is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and could blossom after finishing second on the squad with 78 tackles in 2013.
Michael Burton, FB, senior: A fullback at media days is quite Big Ten of Rutgers, and the hardworking Burton embodies the position he plays. The former walk-on has emerged as a major team leader after starting games in each of the past three seasons.
Darius Hamilton, DL, junior: The 260-pound Hamilton plays both line spots and holds his own despite being somewhat undersized. He finished the 2013 season on a good note, recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the final four contests.
Lorenzo Waters, S, senior: Waters enters his third season as a starter and will lead a secondary looking for better results from 2013. He has 130 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in the past two seasons.
These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.
The latest installment swings over to Maryland, which appears to have found another viable candidate to fill out its secondary.
Spring breakout player: CB Alvin Hill
Maybe a consistently productive camp won't give him an official starting job when the Terrapins are back at full strength.
But Hill did everything he could to force the coaching staff to give him a serious look at a full-time job. And even if he doesn't wind up with one in the fall, having a third cornerback capable of shutting down a passing attack is more necessity than luxury in this era of college football.
Hill, just a two-game starter in the secondary a season ago for Maryland, showed a knack for delivering big plays and a nose for the football when given the chance to run with the starters throughout camp while projected first-teamer Jeremiah Johnson was recovering from injury. During his stint working across from the other presumptive starter, Will Likely, the Terrapins made life difficult on their quarterbacks with strong work in the secondary, capping it all off in the spring game by nabbing an interception that again suggested Hill could be factor for a unit that is replacing a pair of veterans.
The Terrapins and Hill have both seen how critical it is to have depth at cornerback with Johnson playing in just two games, and having talent in reserve has become even more important with sophisticated passing attacks and spread offenses continuing to become more prevalent across the college football landscape. Maryland will see two of those aggressive offenses right off the bat when it is welcomed into the Big Ten with matchups against Indiana and Ohio State, so even if Hill winds up as the third guy in the rotation or largely playing in nickel and dime situations, the junior could still be in position to make a significant impact this season.
And if he can keep snagging picks like he did during practices and the spring game, that role might expand even more -- and the Terrapins might actually be even better because of it.
Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.
Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.
Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.
Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.
Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.
Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.
Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.
Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.
Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.
Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.
Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.
Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Oregon defensive end Will Tukuafu first heard the phrase from his junior college coach, Ken Giovando.
As Oregon backslid in the first half Saturday, making "enough mistakes to last the rest of the season," according to head coach Mike Bellotti, Tukuafu began to repeat the line: Adversity introduces a person to himself.
"Things aren't always going to go our way," Tukuafu said. "But when those things don't go our way, how are we going to react? I think we reacted pretty well today."
More than a few things haven't gone Oregon's way during the last month, but the 16th-ranked Ducks continue to find a way. They found several on Saturday to escape Purdue with a 32-26 win in two overtimes.
Consider the stumbling blocks and the Ducks' response:
- After losing projected starting quarterback Nate Costa to a season-ending knee injury, Oregon put up 110 points in its first two games behind Justin Roper.
- Left tackle Fenuki Tupou was suspended for the season opener for receiving improper benefits from an agent, but Oregon pounded Washington, 44-10.
- When the offense couldn't find the end zone for the better part of three quarters Saturday, the defense put up a wall at its own 40-yard line and wouldn't let Curtis Painter and Purdue cross it.
- As starting running back Jeremiah Johnson played with a recently separated right shoulder, backup LeGarrette Blount stepped up with 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the second overtime.
- When Roper went down with a sprained left knee in the first overtime, freshman Chris Harper led the winning touchdown drive.
"We got as close as you could get to losing, but still we got a victory," offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. "In the end, you're 3-0 and in January and February, no one's going to talk about the Purdue game."
Most of Oregon's mistakes Saturday stemmed from Kelly's unit, but the defense faced its own hurdles. Purdue's Kory Sheets gashed the Ducks for an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and put his team up 20-3 on the first play of the second quarter.
But from that point, the Ducks' defense locked down. Purdue consistently got good field position but didn't advance past Oregon's 38-yard line on its next 11 possessions. The Boilermakers racked up just 22 yards on 17 plays in the second quarter.
"I challenged the defense to shut them out, and they did," Bellotti said. "They put the momentum on our side."
As Blount walked over to Kelly outside the visitors' locker room after the game, the coach embraced the 229-pound junior and said, "I'm proud of you."
Johnson insisted his shoulder was fine, but Bellotti acknowledged the back wasn't 100 percent. The Ducks needed Blount to step in, just as Roper did for Costa and Harper eventually did for Roper.
Though Jairus Byrd's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter was undeniably the game's turning point, Blount changed field position and ignited the offense with a 72-yard dash from his Oregon's 4-yard line.
"He's one of a kind," Johnson said of Blount. "That's my boy. When I went out, he came in and did an excellent job today."
The heroics from Blount, Byrd and others helped Oregon survive a multitude of mistakes in all three areas of the game. Roper had two passes intercepted in Purdue territory, Oregon lost the turnover battle 4-3 and committed several costly penalties. The Ducks' inability to handle a short kickoff into the wind set up a Purdue touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, Bellotti slammed his headset to the turf after the defense was nearly whistled for illegal substitution on consecutive plays.
"I can't think of a game anywhere that we played that poorly," Bellotti said.
"We weren't nearly as focused," Harper said. "I don't think we had the same intensity we had for Washington or some of those other games. We came out sluggish."
They'll have to be better starting next week against Boise State, and more adversity awaits. Roper is expected to miss the game, meaning Harper or Jeremiah Masoli will start at quarterback.
Relief was the general sentiment after Saturday's win, but there were lessons, too.
"It makes me want to work harder," said Tukuafu, who had two sacks and recovered a fumble. "We want to understand the mind-set now. We faced a little adversity and our mind-set changed. Our work habits, all those things, increased a lot more this week."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A great weekend of Big Ten games is on tap, and not just the big one at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). I expect all of you to gain a few pounds sitting on your couches throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning. Anything less will be unacceptable. I get a rare Friday night at home -- fiancee is happy -- before hitting the road early Saturday to watch Purdue and No. 16 Oregon go at it (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
A quick disclaimer about this post because I've gotten a lot of nasty e-mails. These are the best 10 things to watch on a given Saturday, not the best thing to watch for each team. There often will be two items for a marquee game -- like the one in L.A. -- and multiple teams won't make the rundown, especially those playing weak competition. That's how it works.
Here are 10 things you don't want to miss:
1. Beanie watch ends: Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells is listed as doubtful for the matchup against top-ranked USC, but nothing will be settled until kickoff. Coach Jim Tressel doesn't want to risk further injury to Wells in September, but if the Heisman Trophy candidate can contribute, the Buckeyes will use him. If not, get ready for a guy (Dan Herron) nicknamed "Boom." Unfortunately, that's also the sound Rey Maualuga makes when he connects with ball carriers.
2. Pryor restraint: Buckeyes freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor will play a role against the Trojans. How significant a role largely depends on Beanie Wells' availability. If the offense stalls like it did last week without Wells, Pryor could get extended time in an effort to throw off the USC defense. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound freshman is a special talent, but can he handle the spotlight of such a marquee game?
3. Badgers hit the road: Wisconsin has survived slow starts against inferior opposition, but it can't afford to drag against Fresno State. Keep your eyes on Badgers quarterback Allan Evridge, who makes his first road start since 2005. Coach Bret Bielema gets two big pieces -- tight end Travis Beckum and linebacker Jonathan Casillas -- back on the field following injuries, but both players could be a bit rusty.
4. 'Hell' with the victors: Michigan players saw Charlie Weis' words around their training room this week. The Wolverines head to South Bend hoping to hand Weis and Notre Dame a third humiliating loss in the last three years. Quarterback Steven Threet gets the start and needs to show greater consistency, but he'll get help from a veteran defensive line that swarmed Jimmy Clausen last year.
5. Track meet at Ross-Ade -- Purdue has marveled at Oregon's team speed all week, and the Boilers have to find a way to keep pace Saturday afternoon. This will be the first of several defining games for Purdue senior quarterback Curtis Painter, who will set plenty of records but needs signature wins to complete his resume. The Boilermakers' back seven has improved but will play without speedy linebacker Jason Werner. Oregon's Jeremiah Johnson could capitalize.
6. Backer bonanza: NFL scouts will be drooling as arguably the nation's best linebacker tandems take the field at the L.A. Coliseum. Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman hope to continue their takeaway trend against Mark Sanchez, while the "scary" Maualuga and Brian Cushing bring the pain to the Buckeyes offense.
7. State pride on the line: This is more than a rivalry game for Iowa. Iowa State provides the first significant test for the Hawkeyes, who have looked dominant against shoddy competition. Sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi has a grasp on the starting job and the support of Iowa fans, but he'll need to continue to make progress against the Cyclones. The home team has won the last four Cy-Hawk trophies, a good sign for Iowa.
8. Rush hour in East Lansing: Michigan State's defensive line has yet to break out, and Saturday would be a fine time to do so. Sun Belt champ Florida Atlantic and standout quarterback Rusty Smith come to town, and the Spartans need to apply pressure to avoid problems. With uncertainty in the secondary, Michigan State needs big things from end Trevor Anderson and tackle Justin Kershaw.
9. Illini D-line under the gun -- Illinois ranks 101st nationally in rush defense (201 ypg), a troubling sign as Louisiana-Lafayette's dynamic quarterback Michael Desormeaux comes to town. Can veterans like Will Davis, Derek Walker, Doug Pilcher and David Lindquist shore up the defensive front? This would be a perfect time as Illinois inches closer to a tough opening stretch in league play.
10. Orange could be feeling blue: What was once a great rivalry could get ugly Saturday at the Carrier Dome as Penn State's high-powered offense faces the worst BCS team in the country. Syracuse should be pumped for the game: coach Greg Robinson desperately needs a positive showing: but Daryll Clark, Evan Royster and the 17th-ranked Nittany Lions should put up some ridiculous numbers in this one.
|AP Photo/David J. Phillip|
|Oregon quarterback Justin Roper has plenty of options at his disposal.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Purdue knows all about big numbers and the spread offense.
The Boilermakers broke the school scoring record in each of Joe Tiller's first two seasons as head coach. Purdue ranked seventh nationally in passing offense in 1998, fourth in 1999 and sixth in 2000.
Superlative statistics became a Purdue trademark, and Tiller's offense earned the nickname basketball on grass. But even Tiller and his coaches haven't seen a beast quite like the Oregon offense, which takes the field Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
The 16th-ranked Ducks are more like pinball on grass.
"This is probably the fastest team we've ever seen here in the 12 years," Boilermakers defensive coordinator Brock Spack said Wednesday. "Most teams have one or two guys that can get it done. They have one at every spot."
Oregon's eye-popping production so far this season brings back memories of Tiller's early Purdue teams. The Ducks lead the nation in total offense, averaging 592 yards a game, and rank fifth nationally in scoring (55 ppg).
No Ducks player ranks in the top 50 nationally in any major statistical category, a testament to the team's skill-position depth. Led by Jeremiah Johnson, who expects to play Saturday despite a right shoulder injury, five players with at least 10 carries average more than 35 rushing yards a game. Top wideout Terence Scott averages 16.1 yards per reception, and the next two options, Jeff Maehl and Jaison Williams, aren't far behind (13.4 ypg).
"When we first came to Purdue, we had some gaudy numbers," said Tiller, who can become the winningest coach in team history if he beats the Ducks. "We did it because the defenses weren't equipped to defend the spread, what we were throwing at them. Defenses are better equipped today to do that, but Oregon just has superior talent.
"From an offensive productivity point of view, their foot speed gives them an edge over many of the people that are trying to defend them."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Clear your Saturday schedule, especially the afternoon and evening. This week brings us the best Big Ten games of the nonconference season, if not the entire fall. Aside from a few more interleague matchups later this month, Saturday will be the biggest chance for the Big Ten to prove it isn't overrated and can compete on a national stage.
Here's a look:
Florida Atlantic at Michigan State (noon ET)
The defending Sun Belt champs come to East Lansing, and this shouldn't be an easy game for the Spartans. Quarterback Rusty Smith and wide receiver Cortez Gent will test a Spartans secondary led by safety Otis Wiley, who looks like the player we saw in 2006 (10 PBUs, 6.5 TFLs). Nobody has been able to touch Smith so far, and Saturday will be a chance for Spartans end Trevor Anderson to back up his preseason hype. Coming off a five-touchdown performance, Michigan State's Javon Ringer should have another big day against the nation's 97th-ranked rushing defense.
Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 24 Illinois (noon ET)
It's important for the Illini to stop a somewhat disturbing pattern on defense and start stuffing the run. Illinois ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense after the first two weeks, a troubling sign for a team that lists the defensive line as its strength. Louisiana-Lafayette has the nation's No. 1 rushing quarterback -- and 10th leading rusher overall -- in senior Michael Desormeaux (146 ypg). Expect another big day from Illini quarterback Juice Williams, but getting the run defense in order has to be the top priority.
Southern Illinois at Northwestern (noon ET)
Northwestern needs a rebound performance from C.J. Bacher and the offense after being fortunate to escape Duke with a 24-20 win on Saturday. Bacher's timing looked off against the Blue Devils and the offense still could be adjusting to new coordinator Mick McCall. Igniting Tyrell Sutton would be a good first step after the senior running back cramped up against Duke and finished with just 66 rushing yards on 16 carries. Southern Illinois, an FBS powerhouse under former coach Jerry Kill, allowed 403 passing yards in a narrow win against Hampton last week.
Montana State at Minnesota (noon ET)
A perfect nonconference season looks likely for the Gophers, but they can't get complacent against FBS Montana State. Keep in mind that Minnesota lost to North Dakota State last year. Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber won't let that happen again, but the spotlight will be on the Gophers' running backs after starter Duane Bennett went down with a knee injury last week. Montana State opened the season by routing my favorite college team, Adams State, before getting the tables turned last week in a 69-10 loss to Kansas State.
Iowa State at Iowa (noon ET)
The Hawkeyes are off and running, ranking 18th nationally in rushing offense (243 ypg) despite the losses of Albert Young and Damian Sims. Their in-state rivals have been susceptible to the run so far (211.5 ypg allowed), but Iowa State still provides the first significant test for Kirk Ferentz's team. Ferentz listed sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi as the starter on this week's depth chart, and though junior Jake Christensen could still play, signs suggest the job is Stanzi's. Another strong performance against the Cyclones could cement things for him.
No. 16 Oregon at Purdue (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Get ready for some offense. Word has it Oregon can move the ball a bit, and the Ducks have scored 110 points in their first two games. Purdue used to put up numbers like those, and the Boilermakers are still pretty potent behind record-setting senior quarterback Curtis Painter. This will be a major test for the Boilermakers linebackers, particularly first-year starter Kevin Green in the middle. If Green and Anthony Heygood somehow find a way to contain Jeremiah Johnson or LeGarrette Blount, Purdue will hang around.
No. 17 Penn State at Syracuse (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
Desperate teams can be dangerous, but the Orange and embattled coach Greg Robinson have too many problems to keep pace with Penn State and the high-powered Spread HD offense. Penn State ranks third nationally in scoring and eighth in rushing, which doesn't bode well for an Orange defense allowing 243.5 rush yards per game. Depending on the outcome of the suspensions for starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma, Penn State should use this game to audition several young players, as line depth has become a concern after the season-ending loss of end Jerome Hayes (torn ACL).
Michigan at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET)
The two traditional powerhouses look anything but so far this season, particularly on offense. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez plans to stick with Steven Threet at quarterback but will need continued production from running backs Sam McGuffie and Brandon Minor. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdowns last week but struggled with his decision-making at times. Clausen likely will face pressure from Michigan's veteran defensive line, which manhandled him last year in Ann Arbor (eight sacks).
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET)
If you're just tuning in -- from Mars -- Ohio State and USC will meet at the L.A. Coliseum to likely determine the nation's No. 1 team and the early national title favorite. The teams have combined for 18 national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners, and both rank among the top seven all-time in winning percentage. The game's biggest factor could be Ohio State junior running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, a big-game player who comes off a toe injury. The Buckeyes looked lost on offense without Wells last week against Ohio and need him near 100 percent. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez faces a senior-laden Ohio State defense that intercepted four passes last week.
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET)
This one is worth staying up for in Big Ten country. Wisconsin has an excellent chance to validate itself as a BCS bowl contender by beating the Bulldogs where few dare to play them -- in their own backyard. P.J. Hill and the Badgers' backs face a Fresno State defense that held Rutgers to seven points in the opener. Hill could wear down the Bulldogs, but Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge likely will need to make several big plays and will search for tight end Travis Beckum, expected to make his season debut along with standout linebacker Jonathan Casillas.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Penn State 14 Illinois 16 Final Indiana 27 6 Ohio State 42 Final 25 Minnesota 28 23 Nebraska 24 Final Northwestern 38 Purdue 14 Final Rutgers 3 11 Michigan State 45 Final 16 Wisconsin 26 Iowa 24 Final Maryland 23 Michigan 16