Big Ten: Jimmy Clausen

Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg, the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, will start the opener at Penn State.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Four months ago, Christian Hackenberg was kicking up sand near the dugout as part of the Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy baseball team.

He was finding free time, between baseball and classwork, to break out flash cards and study the Penn State playbook -- names of plays and formations on one side and blank on the other, so he could scribble what they looked like. He'd catch himself daydreaming about running through that Beaver Stadium tunnel and launching touchdown passes behind a cheering crowd.

Now? All that studying, dreaming and summer training has culminated in what he's waited to achieve since Feb. 29, 2012, the day he committed to the Nittany Lions: According to sources, he is the starting quarterback at Penn State.

Hackenberg's father had initially weighed the value of a redshirt, but that was before the senior high school season of ESPN's top-rated passer. And a lot has changed in Happy Valley since then. Sophomore Steven Bench, who some expected to be a short-term Band-Aid, transferred to South Florida upon learning he wouldn't receive first-team reps in the preseason. Then juco quarterback Tyler Ferguson missed about a month of voluntary workouts for personal reasons.

Ferguson still held the edge early in camp. But Hackenberg, perhaps the biggest-name quarterback to ever sign a Penn State letter of intent, quickly caught up and impressed the coaching staff. A week into camp, head coach Bill O'Brien said the race became "very even." Less than three weeks later, Hackenberg pulled ahead. He'll be the second PSU true freshman in the last 100 years to be the starting quarterback.

"Christian has come in here and really done a nice job," O'Brien said early on at camp. "He's attentive. He must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because he's come from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3 and improved. And he asks great questions in the meetings."

Hackenberg's strong arm dazzled onlookers at last year's Elite 11 and the Under Armour All-America Game, and the baby-faced quarterback already shows more ability to stretch the field than his predecessor, Matt McGloin. During part of an open practice two weeks ago, some reporters muttered "woah" when Hackenberg zipped a pass against his body to the opposite sideline -- right at the receiver's numbers.

Between his arm, accuracy and size -- he is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- Hackenberg's potential and raw ability have never really come into question. Talent is oozing from the aw-shucks kid whose father attended high school in Pennsylvania.

Recruiting analysts, opposing players, college coaches and former quarterbacks have thrown almost as much praise Hackenberg's way as they did to O'Brien after an emotional, 8-4 first season. Said Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer: "Christian is a kid you build a program around."

But potential and high accolades don't always translate to success -- at least not immediately. Former No. 1-rated QB Matt Stafford struggled as a freshman at Georgia and threw 13 interceptions and seven touchdowns. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen threw seven scores to six interceptions. USC's Matt Barkley had a 15:14 ratio of TDs to interceptions in his first season. ESPN rated each the No. 1 quarterback in his respective class, and all are in the NFL.

So what does that mean for Hackenberg? That future greatness does not necessarily equate to immediate success. Opposing high school coaches have said Hackenberg struggled diagnosing disguised coverages, and the schemes and talent of Big Ten defenses will obviously lie in stark contrast to those Hackenberg saw in high school.

McGloin didn't have the strongest arm but he was a great decision-maker, throwing 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2012. Hackenberg is not expected to top those numbers this year, but he is expected to show promise.

The Nittany Lions have had their fair share of busts and underachieving quarterbacks over the years -- Rob Bolden, Paul Jones, Anthony Morelli and Kevin Newsome, to name a few -- but this Lions group also has something different nowadays, namely O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.

O'Brien molded McGloin, a former walk-on, into a player the Big Ten blog thought deserved consideration for the Davey O'Brien Award. What can he do with the best true freshman quarterback prospect in the nation, one who turned down teams such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia?

We'll start to see at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen enjoyed the Denard Robinson Show as much as anyone.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen
AP Photo/Tony DingDefensive end Ryan Van Bergen calls the Michigan defense "a work in progress."
Watching Robinson and the Wolverines offense go up and down the field last week against Connecticut also served as motivation for Van Bergen and the defense.

"Definitely feel like we're strides behind the offense in getting everything down," Van Bergen told ESPN.com this week. "We had some glimpses Saturday, and I think we'll be able to seal some things up and hopefully keep improving.

"We'll get to that level eventually."

Led by Robinson's record-setting performance, the Michigan offense overshadowed a pretty solid defensive effort against Connecticut.

The Wolverines allowed only one touchdown and held UConn scoreless in the second half. Take away a juggling 47-yard reception by Michael Smith, and Connecticut had only 296 yards in the game.

To be fair, the Huskies missed several opportunities to attack Michigan's young secondary, particularly in the first half. Connecticut had its moments, but so did Michigan's defense, none bigger than J.T. Floyd's forced fumble and Obi Ezeh's recovery near the Wolverines' goal line late in the third quarter.

"We're certainly still a work in progress, but I was really pleased to be able to limit UConn to 10 points," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We played pretty well assignment-wise, we tackled pretty solidly. We gave up a couple big plays, but we also made a couple big plays defensively."

And the defense could have made more.

"We had two interceptions hit guys right in the hands," Van Bergen said. "There were some plays Saturday that if we sealed up, our numbers on defense would have spoken even bigger."

The challenge for Michigan's defense should get tougher Saturday at Notre Dame (NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Although Michigan beat the Irish last year 38-34, the defense had little to do with it.

Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Armando Allen pretty much had their way with Michigan, piling up 490 yards and 27 first downs.

Clausen and Tate are gone to the NFL, but Floyd and Allen are back, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, one of the frontrunners for the Mackey Award. They're operating in a new spread offense under first-year coach Brian Kelly, and a new quarterback, Dayne Crist, will be calling the signals.

"I would call this team significantly different," Van Bergen said. "Notre Dame did a lot more drop-back, seven-man protection for Clausen with two guys in routes. This is a bit more of a spread attack, using more receivers.

"They have a developed quick game, and it’s something we’ll have to prepare for."

Both Van Bergen and Rodriguez identified tackling as an area Michigan must improve after Week 1. With so many young players, especially in the secondary, Michigan allowed "some leaky yardage," Van Bergen said.

That can't happen against Notre Dame, which operates at a rapid pace and makes it tough to reach Crist.

"They like to up-tempo you," Rodriguez said. "They’re going to put it out in space, whether it's to their tight end or their backs or their receivers, and we've got to get them on the ground quickly. Because if not, they'll go up and down the field on you.

"We had a hard time stopping them last year, and even though it's a different scheme, this scheme may be even more difficult to stop."

One way to do it is control the line of scrimmage. Michigan failed to record a sack last week, but end-linebacker Craig Roh and others applied pressure to quarterback Zach Frazer.

Notre Dame's offensive line is supposedly better, but Michigan boasts more experience up front with Van Bergen, Mike Martin and others.

"Having our experience won't hurt us," Van Bergen said, "and their youth, they might be more inclined to get frustrated if things start not going their way. It'll be interesting to see how that develops."

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
9:00
AM ET
It's time for a quick look at arguably the most bizarre bowl game of the year, as Michigan State (6-6) takes on Texas Tech (8-4) on Saturday night in San Antonio (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

WHO TO WATCH: Blair White and Keshawn Martin. Michigan State's wave of suspensions hit the wide receivers harder than any other position group. The Spartans will be without their No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts in B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell, who combined for 74 receptions and five touchdowns this season. White and Martin need to pick up the slack for the Big Ten's top passing offense in a game where Michigan State likely needs to score 28 points or more. Quarterback Kirk Cousins can rely on White, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who has a knack for finding the end zone. Martin also emerged as a difference maker down the stretch, especially on special teams. The Spartans need Martin to break off some nice returns to win the field-position edge.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State's secondary. Head coach Mark Dantonio talked up this group in the preseason, but the secondary has fallen well short of expectations. Quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Adam Weber had their way with Michigan State's defensive backs, who face arguably their biggest challenge in Taylor Potts and the nation's No. 2 pass offense (380.7 ypg). The Spartans will be without starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker (suspension), so they need big performances from defensive backs Danny Fortener, Jeremy Ware, Trenton Robinson and others.

WHY TO WATCH: Do you really need an explanation here? You've got one team (Michigan State) missing 14 scholarship players because of one very troubling stretch on Nov. 22. You've got another team (Texas Tech) that learned Wednesday that its head coach had been fired after wide receiver Adam James filed a complaint. I'm about to make a prediction on this game, but who really knows what will happen? One team will come out of the game looking extremely resilient amid adversity. The other could end up looking like a train wreck.

PREDICTION: Mike Leach's shocking dismissal will impact Texas Tech early, as Michigan State takes a lead. But I don't have enough confidence in the Spartans' secondary to think they'll keep the Red Raiders in check for 60 minutes. Potts gets hot late and Texas Tech rallies to win, 31-27.
Michigan State made strides in Mark Dantonio's first two seasons as head coach, leading some to believe the program would truly get over the hump in 2009.

But after a rollercoaster of a season, it's clear Michigan State needs more time to become a consistent Big Ten title contender.

The Spartans weren't far away from doing big things this fall. They squandered second-half leads against Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Iowa and Minnesota, and recorded nice wins against both Northwestern and Purdue. But for a program that wants to join the Big Ten's upper crust, close enough simply isn't good enough.

Dantonio let his quarterback competition drag on well into the fall, even though sophomore Kirk Cousins clearly distinguished himself as the top signal caller. Cousins had some solid moments and should be one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks next year. Michigan State boasted the Big Ten's top passing attack, as wideout Blair White earned All-Big Ten honors and B.J. Cunningham emerged as a threat.

Greg Jones continued to show why he's one of the nation's elite linebackers, earning Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But the Spartans secondary, billed as one of the team's deepest groups, fell well short of the mark against solid quarterbacks like Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen, Scott Tolzien and Daryll Clark.

The season ended on a down note, as Michigan State got thrashed 42-14 by Penn State in the finale. Barely 24 hours later, a fight at a residence hall led to the dismissal of two players and the suspensions of eight others, so Michigan State will be very shorthanded in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. He had some first-year-starter moments, but Cousins performed very well overall. He ranked second in the league in pass efficiency (145.2) with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Spartans had a lot of youth at running back, but Cousins spearheaded the league's top passing attack. White also deserves a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Greg Jones. Jones has been a difference maker since the moment he arrived on campus, and he produced an All-America type season this fall. He ranked third nationally in total tackles (141) and led Big Ten linebackers with nine sacks. The junior is around the football on virtually every play.

Turning point: After a 1-3 start, Michigan State hosted a surging Michigan team and squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. But the Spartans responded in overtime to notch a 26-20 win that sparked a three-game win streak. A second turning point came Oct. 24, as Michigan State saw a brilliant defensive performance go to waste as Iowa won on the final play.

What's next: The Spartans head to San Antonio to face a Texas Tech team that would have provided a formidable challenge even if Michigan State was at full strength. A shaky secondary will be put to the test against Taylor Potts and co. This is a big swing game for the Spartans before a crucial 2010 campaign.
 
  US PRESSWIRE
 Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez are facing similar problems within their programs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg

Notre Dame and Michigan treated us to one of the season's most entertaining games back on Sept. 12 at the Big House. Both teams seemed destined for solid seasons back then, but the Fighting Irish and Wolverines have since fallen on hard times. Michigan hasn't beaten an FBS team since Sept. 26 and needs to upset No. 20 Wisconsin or No. 11 Ohio State to avoid missing a bowl for the second straight season. Notre Dame likely fell out of the BCS bowl mix by losing to Navy for the second consecutive time in South Bend. Not surprisingly, head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Charlie Weis are in the crosshairs.

Which coach's problems are worse? How did these two programs get here? Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's talk about Charlie Weis and the Irish. They lose to Navy at home again. Nose tackle Ian Williams says they're getting outschemed. What's going on with Weis and the Domers?

Brian Bennett: There's very little excuse for Notre Dame to be only 6-3 at this point. The Irish have legitimate stars in quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, an experienced offensive line and seasoned upperclassmen all over the roster. But this program continues to lose to every ranked team it plays and throws in at least one head-scratcher each year (this time, Navy. Again.).

Something just isn't working here, and you have to blame Weis. He remains a brilliant offensive mind, but I think sometimes he outthinks himself in an effort to prove his intelligence. He doesn't appear to be able to properly motivate his teams, likely because of his NFL coordinator background. And years of suspect recruiting or talent evaluation on the defensive side has again led to a team that can't stop anybody.

Notre Dame, simply put, should be better than this in Year 5 under Weis. It's only Year 2 under Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, but people expected a lot more than this. What's wrong with the Maize and Blue?

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  There were high expectations for both Michigan and Notre Dame this season.
Rittenberg: Those expectations certainly increased after Michigan's 4-0 start, highlighted by the win over the Fighting Irish. I remember thinking then that Notre Dame was the better team in that matchup, but Michigan found a way to win and had the potential to make major progress. Instead, the mistakes Michigan overcame in its first four victories began to cost the Wolverines in October.

Quarterback Tate Forcier has battled injuries and some inconsistent play. He still creates a lot of plays with his feet, but he's still too much of a freelancer and struggles with his throws in the pocket. Brandon Minor might be the Big Ten's most dominant running back, but he just can't stay healthy. But for the most part, the offense hasn't been the problem. Like Notre Dame, Michigan's major issues are on the defensive side. There's a lot of youth and not much depth there, as evidenced by several walk-ons in the two-deep, but the number of major breakdowns is shocking. It's one thing to allow big plays to Notre Dame on Sept. 12. But to give up the same plays to Iowa, Illinois and Purdue later in the season is unacceptable.

Rodriguez isn't to blame for all the problems, but like Weis, I think he fights himself a lot. He has won a certain way for years, and he can be stubborn. Rich has talked a lot about the need to have patience but admits he doesn't have much himself. And he still talks too much about the program he inherited from Lloyd Carr. Last I checked, he coaches Michigan, not Eastern Michigan, and while there were problems in 2007, a program like Michigan should never miss bowls in consecutive years (a strong possibility), especially in an average Big Ten.

Both of these coaches are known for offense, and yet both have major problems on defense. Has Weis put enough focus on the other side of the ball?

Bennett: Well, as you know, Weis is the offensive coordinator again this year and fully admits that he leaves most of the responsibility for the defense in the hands of veteran coordinator Jon Tenuta. The blitzing schemes favored by Tenuta haven't really worked, but that's mostly because of the personnel. Though Weis has brought in some highly rated recruiting classes, there still aren't enough big-time playmakers on defense, especially up front. When you look at, say USC, or even this week's opponent, Pittsburgh, the Irish simply don't stack up athlete for athlete on the defensive line.

What I don't understand is how Michigan can have talent problems, even in the coaching transition. Shouldn't the Wolverines have enough blue-chippers to field a good defense even as they adjust to a new offensive system?

Rittenberg: You would think, Brian, but Michigan has had an abnormal amount of attrition on that side of the ball, coupled with some bad recruiting classes for defense toward the end of Carr's tenure. The Wolverines also have had veteran players regress this season, and there aren't enough young guys ready to fill the gaps. Rodriguez needs his defensive recruits to blossom immediately, especially since Michigan will be losing its best defensive player (DE Brandon Graham) and possibly its No. 2 defender (junior CB Donovan Warren). It will be interesting to see what happens with first-year coordinator Greg Robinson, who hasn't had the desired effect on this unit.

OK, you're on the spot. What's your prediction for the rest of Notre Dame's season? Can Weis turn things around? Will next year's Fighting Irish head coach be Weis or your man-crush, Brian Kelly?

Bennett: The rest of the season brings a trip to No. 12 Pitt this week, followed by a visit from dangerous UConn next week and the season finale at Stanford. I have a hard time seeing Notre Dame winning more than two of those, so 8-4 or 7-5 looks like the final tally.

Jack Swarbrick isn't going to call me for advice, but I wouldn't think that record would be enough to keep Weis, especially since the Irish could once again lack any real quality wins. They don't hang banners for Gator Bowls in South Bend.

If there is a change, I would imagine Notre Dame would first try and land a big-time name, such as Urban Meyer or Jon Gruden. Once those guys say no -- and I don't think either would take the job -- the Irish would be crazy not to go after Kelly. He's Catholic, a great program salesman, he's built strong recruiting ties in the Midwest and he just wins big everywhere he goes.

He'd be a perfect fit at Notre Dame -- unless Michigan came calling first. Any chance Rodriguez doesn't survive, especially if the NCAA finds something in that whole practice time investigation?

Rittenberg: The NCAA investigation is the wild card, especially if major violations are found for the first time in Michigan football history. But this isn't boosters paying players or academic fraud, so I can't see the penalties being too terrible. Michigan AD Bill Martin said earlier this week that Rodriguez is safe, and though Martin will be retiring soon, they're not going to make a change in football after only two years, especially during an athletic director transition.

A 5-7 season combined with NCAA violations would really sting, but Rodriguez should be back in 2010. He'll definitely be on the hot seat entering next fall, needing at least eight or nine wins to keep his job at a tradition-rich program.

Sound familiar?
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A few shout-outs and smack-downs to those not recognized previously (helmet stickers, players of the week, etc.).

Thumbs up, Greg Jones -- It seems like everyone takes Jones for granted at this point, but what he's doing every week is truly amazing. Jones led Michigan State in tackles in each of his first two seasons, and barring injury, he'll lead the Big Ten and possibly the nation this year. The junior linebacker currently leads the nation in total tackles (85) and ranks second in tackles average (12.1 tpg).

Thumbs down, Terrelle Pryor -- He doesn't deserve all the blame for what's wrong with Ohio State's offense, but he should be performing better than this. Turnovers are a Cardinal sin, especially on Jim Tressel's team, and Pryor had four of them against Purdue. After watching fellow No. 1 recruits Matt Barkley and Jimmy Clausen light up the sky in South Bend on Saturday, I have to wonder when Pryor will truly blossom.

Thumbs up, Derek Moye -- The Penn State sophomore wide receiver had a big day against Minnesota, making six receptions for 120 yards. He also turned in arguably the best catch of the weekend, a diving 12-yard grab in the end zone with only 35 seconds left in the first half. Moye and teammate Chaz Powell are quickly blossoming into good Big Ten receivers.

Thumbs down, Wisconsin's quarterback switch -- Many of us were scratching our heads at Camp Randall Stadium when Curt Phillips replaced Scott Tolzien at quarterback midway through the second quarter with Wisconsin leading 10-3. Tolzien had just led a 92-yard touchdown drive, during which he connected on several impressive play-action passes. The decision to insert Phillips seemed to stop the momentum, and Wisconsin never scored again. There's no need to get cute against a team like Iowa.

Thumbs up, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos -- After a slow start to the season, DJK is showing why he's Iowa's best wide receiver and one of the best in the league. Johnson-Koulianos led Iowa with eight receptions for 113 yards against Wisconsin and has 176 receiving yards in his last two games. If Johnson-Koulianos and tight end Tony Moeaki continue to make plays for Ricky Stanzi, the run game will open up more and more.

Thumbs down, Illinois' defense -- We can continue to rag on the offense, but at least the unit showed some life behind Juice Williams. Illinois' defense got absolutely shredded by quarterback Ben Chappell and Indiana, which should have scored way more than 27 points in Saturday night's win. This season has been an across-the-board disaster, and the defense shouldn't be spared.

Thumbs up, Tom Bradley -- It's pretty clear to me who Penn State's next head coach should be. Bradley has done a fabulous job with the Nittany Lions defense, which ranks second nationally in scoring (8.71 ppg) after shutting out Minnesota on Saturday. Despite not having linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee on the field together for most of the year, Bradley's defense hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown all season. Things do get much tougher Saturday at Michigan.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's first-down offense -- The run game has been a disappointment most of the season, and things reached a low point against Penn State. Minnesota had just one of its first eight plays on first down go for positive yards against the Lions, and Adam Weber was constantly in third-and-long. First-year coordinator Jedd Fisch needs to get things figured out as Minnesota faces an angry Ohio State team on Saturday.

Thumbs up, unheralded wide receivers -- Several of the Big Ten's best wide receivers this fall generated little to no hype during the recruiting process. Michigan State's Blair White and Northwestern's Zeke Markshausen, who combined for 28 receptions and 297 receiving yards in Saturday's game, both were walk-ons. Indiana's Tandon Doss wasn't a big-time recruit coming out of high school. Neither was Minnesota's Eric Decker. But all those players rank among the top six in the Big Ten in receiving yards.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's offensive line -- Offensive lineman are supposed to prefer run blocking to pass blocking, but evidently this doesn't apply to Northwestern's crew. Northwestern has tried everything to get the run game going but hasn't gotten consistent push from a line that returned four starters. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald sounds like he's ready to abandon the run entirely if things don't improve soon.

And, finally ...

Thumbs up, Joey Elliott -- The Purdue quarterback has turned in a very solid senior season, but he wasn't rewarded until Saturday. Elliott finally got the signature win that eluded his predecessor Curtis Painter as he passed for 281 yards and two touchdowns in Purdue's upset of Ohio State.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The calendar hasn't even reached October yet, and two Big Ten teams are seeing things slip away after being hyped throughout the summer.

Jeff Hanisch/US PRESSWIRE
Mark Dantonio will try to turn it around against No. 22 Michigan on Saturday.
Michigan State and Illinois own a combined record of 2-5 with zero FBS wins between them. The Spartans were picked third in the league before the season, while Illinois had been pegged as a potential dark-horse candidate in the league because of its explosive offense led by quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Needless to say, both squads have fallen well short of expectations.

Is it surprising to see these two teams in this position? Yes and no.

We expected some growing pains at quarterback for Michigan State, which didn't settle on a starter in camp, but not the struggles Williams has endured against Missouri and Ohio State. We expected Illinois' secondary to fall off a bit without star cornerback Vontae Davis, but Michigan State crowed all offseason about its depth at defensive back, only to get shredded by Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen and Scott Tolzien.

Those trends are somewhat shocking, but then again, both programs historically don't handle high hopes well.

Illinois followed its surprising Rose Bowl run in 2007 with a 5-7 clunker last year. The Illini followed another BCS bowl appearance in 2001 with a 5-7 letdown the next fall. They haven't reached consecutive bowl games since 1991-92.

Michigan State's recent disappointments are even more infamous, perhaps because they've often taken place within a season. The Spartans started strong in 2003, 2005, 2006 and even 2007 before struggling down the stretch.

Both teams host ranked opponents Saturday, as No. 15 Penn State visits Champaign and No. 22 Michigan visits East Lansing. A week later, Michigan State and Illinois meet in Memorial Stadium.

Which team will ultimately fall apart? Will it be both? Or could both squads turn things around and make the postseason?

(Read full post)

Notre Dame running over Boilermakers

September, 26, 2009
9/26/09
9:49
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After a quick start against Notre Dame, Purdue's season-long struggles against the run are starting to show up.

Notre Dame leads 17-7 at halftime despite playing without its best wide receiver (Michael Floyd) and with quarterback Jimmy Clausen fighting turf toe. Running back Armando Allen also is banged up, but the Fighting Irish are finding running room with several players, namely wideout Golden Tate and burly back Robert Hughes.

Purdue couldn't stop the run in 2008, and it doesn't appear like much has changed this year. Northern Illinois ran wild on the Boilers last week, and Notre Dame has 138 rush yards in the opening half. Boilers quarterback Joey Elliott tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Valentin early on, but the air attack hasn't done much since the opening minutes. Penalties are really hurting Purdue, which has been flagged eight times in the opening half.

The Boilers need some more big plays on offense and more importantly, they need to stuff Notre Dame's rushing attack to have any shot in this one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Reading is fundamental.

"I told him, 'There goes your modeling career,'" said Weber, the Gophers' junior quarterback. "I was surprised about how well he was moving around. His face looked the worst, but it was probably good for him -- humbled him a bit."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Conference play kicks off on Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Health in Happy Valley -- Both Penn State and Iowa could be without key players when they meet Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Nittany Lions star linebacker Sean Lee (knee) is iffy for the game and Navorro Bowman (groin) likely won't be 100 percent, putting a lot of pressure on Josh Hull and Nate Stupar. Iowa could once again be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness), while pass-catching threats Tony Moeaki (ankle) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring) are questionable.

2. Illinois hopes The Shoe fits -- After a bye week, the Illini make their first trip to Ohio Stadium since shocking the top-ranked Buckeyes back in 2007. With a brutal stretch of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, the Illini need another minor miracle against a tough Buckeyes defense. Illinois' high-powered offense is finally healthy, while the defense plays its first game without starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck, out for season).

3. Spartans face must win -- Like Illinois, Michigan State can't afford a prolonged losing streak to open conference play. The Spartans have dropped back-to-back close games, and they now head to Wisconsin, where the Badgers rarely lose. Head coach Mark Dantonio still likes his team's poise in defeat, and quarterback Kirk Cousins handled the Notre Dame loss extremely well, but the Spartans need to get over the hump and win. Cousins' response against a vulnerable Wisconsin defense will be key, and Michigan State's defense needs to step up against the Badgers' rushing attack.

4. IU turns up the heat in the Big House -- Indiana is off to a surprising 3-0 start, but the Hoosiers are three-touchdown underdogs heading to Michigan. To have any shot at an upset, Indiana needs standout defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to harass Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier all game long. Kirlew and Middleton have combined for 40 career sacks, the most for any tandem in the FBS, and both have to make plays to slow down Michigan's offense.

5. Boilers run game tries to get back on track -- After being shut down by Northern Illinois, sophomore running back Ralph Bolden and the Purdue offense try to rebound against Notre Dame, which ranks 74th nationally against the rush (149.3 ypg). The Irish offense won't be quite as explosive with Michael Floyd out and Jimmy Clausen a bit hobbled, but Purdue will need to put up points like it did in Weeks 1 and 2 to keep pace. Quarterback Joey Elliott wants to revive the downfield passing attack, but he refuses to abandon the run.

6. Clark vs. Stanzi -- The Penn State-Iowa game features a fascinating matchup at quarterback. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi prevailed last year in a game where he began a trend of slow starts and fast finishes. Stanzi really struggled in the first half before leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He has followed a similar pattern this year but likely can't afford to make the same early mistakes in Happy Valley. Clark was still battling the effects of a concussion and really struggled at Kinnick Stadium, completing just 9 of 23 passes with an interception. The senior will be determined to bounce back Saturday night.

7. Northwestern's defense vs. Decker -- Wide receiver Eric Decker has done it all for Minnesota's offense to this point, and he'll look for another big day in Evanston. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse star wideout Mike Williams last week, but the Wildcats should get top cover corner Sherrick McManis back from a leg injury. Decker could be limited by a sprained ankle, and Minnesota needs to spark its rushing attack, which ranks last in the Big Ten (85.7 ypg). Northwestern has struggled with tackling and fundamentals so far, so the unit that gets on track Saturday likely will prevail.

8. Pryor vs. Juice -- Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Illinois' Juice Williams both came to college amid lofty expectations. Both were thrust into starting roles as true freshmen and endured their ups and downs. The two talented quarterbacks meet at Ohio Stadium in a key game for both teams. Pryor performed well last year at Illinois (110 rush yards on 13 carries), while Williams had a career day in his last trip to Columbus (4 TD passes). "There’s a lot of similarities," Williams said. "Last year he did a great job of leading his team to the Fiesta Bowl. He did an extraordinary job. This year, he just got better. ... It’s hard to play against another great player."

9. Wisconsin's revolving door at running back -- It seems like the Badgers' situation at running back changes every week. Zach Brown was a surprise starter for the season opener, while John Clay leapfrogged him after the Fresno State game. But Clay's three fumbles (one lost) last week against FCS Wofford put Brown back on the top of the depth chart. Both Brown and Clay will compete for carries this week, and it'll be interesting to see who emerges against the Spartans, who rank 25th nationally against the run (87 ypg).

10. Lions, Buckeyes try to change history -- It's hard to explain why certain teams fare better against others, and Big Ten title contenders Penn State and Ohio State both face tricky tests Saturday. Penn State has dropped six of its last seven meetings to Iowa, including last year's last-second loss at Kinnick Stadium. Ohio State has dropped seven of its last 10 home games against Illinois, including three of the last four. Will history repeat or be rewritten Saturday? Stay tuned.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Purdue's secondary will need all hands on deck for Saturday night's clash against Notre Dame, and the Boilers should get a big piece back on the field.

Senior cornerback Brandon King is expected to return after missing the last two games with a deep thigh bruise. King started every game in each of the last two seasons and ranked second on the squad with nine pass breakups last year to go along with an interception and a forced fumble.

He could be a big help as Purdue tries to contain Fighting Irish star wideout Golden Tate, who ranks 20th nationally in receiving yards (100.3 ypg).

"I do expect him playing Saturday," Boilers head coach Danny Hope said, "but we’ve still got to get through the week without him reinjuring it.”

Purdue's veteran secondary has been hamstrung by injuries a bit early on, but Hope expects the group to be much healthier for Notre Dame.

"One of the problems we’ve had on the defensive side of the ball is a lack of continuity," Hope said. "We’ve had injuries in the secondary, we’ve been shuffling people around. The secondary and the offensive line are the two areas where continuity means the most."

Notre Dame, by the way, expects quarterback Jimmy Clausen to be ready after an MRI showed the junior has turf toe.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Kudos and criticism from Week 3 in the Big Ten.

Thumbs up, Iowa's defense -- The Hawkeyes throttled an undermanned Arizona team, holding the Wildcats to eight first downs, 253 total yards and just one offensive touchdown when the game was out of reach. Safety Tyler Sash and defensive end Adrian Clayborn led the way. Despite all the chaos on offense, Iowa's defense has been the team's constant heading into Big Ten play.

Thumbs down, Northwestern's defense -- Sherrick McManis' absence really hurt the Wildcats at Syracuse, but this unit has seen a decline in fundamentals and overall explosiveness. Northwestern controlled the line of scrimmage in most of its games last year, but the defense looked a step slow throughout a heartbreaking loss to the Orange.

Thumbs up, Eric Decker -- The rest of the country finally got a glimpse of why No. 7 is such a special player. Decker accounted for all three Minnesota touchdowns against Cal (2 receiving, 1 pass) and became the school's all-time receptions leader with his second scoring grab. He might have made the toughest catch of the college football season on his first touchdown, leaping for the ball and taking a vicious hit from Cal's Sean Cattouse.

Thumbs down, Minnesota's offensive line -- Despite the arrival of guru Tim Davis, the Gophers' front five has underperformed this season. You can't live by the motto "Pound the Rock" and average a Big Ten-worst 85.7 rush yards a game. Minnesota now ranks 109th nationally in rush offense after finishing 104th nationally last season.

Thumbs up, Indiana's secondary -- The unit took advantage of Akron backup quarterback Matt Rodgers, picking off four passes in Saturday's road win. Safety Austin Thomas collected two picks for the second time in his career, and cornerback Ray Fisher made his mark on special teams, returning the game's opening kickoff 91 yards to the end zone.

Thumbs down, Michigan State's secondary -- What had been billed as the team's deepest unit struggled for the second straight game. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns against the Spartans, and he would have had more if not for an injury to star wideout Michael Floyd. This secondary is Mark Dantonio's baby, and he needs to get it on track Saturday against Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien, who has exceeded expectations.

Thumbs up, Terrelle Pryor -- Pryor deserves some credit for playing the way he's supposed to playing and utilizing all of his natural gifts as a quarterback. The sophomore threw for a career-high 262 yards but more important, he rushed for 110 yards in a romp against Toledo. It marked the first time Pryor recorded 200 pass yards and 100 rush yards in the same game. I would anticipate we'll see many more from No. 2

Thumbs down, Purdue's defensive line -- The Boilers led the Big Ten in pass defense a year ago, but was it simply a facade that masked their inability to stop the run? They certainly struggled Saturday against Northern Illinois, which piled up 280 rush yards in a 28-21 victory. Huskies running backs Me'co Brown and Chad Spann had little trouble finding room in the Boilers defense.

Thumbs up, Carlos Brown -- Brandon Minor hasn't been healthy all year, but Brown continues to answer the bell for Michigan. The senior rushed for a career-high 187 yards and two touchdowns, including a 90-yard burst, in the Wolverines' victory against Eastern Michigan. Minor will be a factor when his ankle heals, but Brown deserves to be a big part of the Michigan run game.

Thumbs up, Evan Royster -- Despite battling the flu last week, Royster looked at his peak against Temple, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown. Penn State needed some semblance of a run game to emerge before Iowa came to town, and Royster provided it against the Owls.

Thumbs up, Chris Borland -- I feel terrible for not picking Borland as my Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week, so this has to suffice. The Wisconsin freshman linebacker blocked a punt and forced a fumble on another punt against Wofford. Wisconsin recovered Borland's blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown. No wonder the Badgers' coaches were so high on this guy in training camp.

Thumbs down, Purdue's punt block unit -- Northern Illinois made an extremely gutsy call on the fake punt deep in its own territory, but Purdue simply can't let that happen. The Boilers needed to make sure they get the ball back with enough time to do some damage. Instead, Purdue ran out of time.

Thumbs up, Mike Kafka -- Kafka set a Northwestern record by opening the Syracuse game with 16 consecutive completions. He also set a team record for single-game completion percentage (83.3 percent) and caught his first career touchdown pass. Though his fourth-quarter interception proved costly, Kafka proved he's more than just a runner.

A quick look at Week 4 in the Big Ten

September, 21, 2009
9/21/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Conference play has arrived everywhere but West Lafayette. Let's take a look at what's on tap this week:

Indiana (3-0) at Michigan (3-0), ESPN2, noon ET

The Big Ten's two biggest surprises meet in Ann Arbor. Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring offense (38 ppg), a year after finishing last (20.2 ppg), while Indiana is much improved on defense. It will be interesting to see if Wolverines senior Carlos Brown can create some distance in the running back race after a huge performance against Eastern Michigan. Indiana ranks second in the league in sacks and will pressure Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier with ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. The Hoosiers haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1967.

Michigan State (1-2) at Wisconsin (3-0), ESPN, noon ET

Things are getting desperate in East Lansing after consecutive close losses. A 1-3 start with Michigan coming to town could torpedo a season that began with BCS bowl hopes. Quarterback Kirk Cousins handled himself extremely well after the Notre Dame setback, but he needs to bounce back strong against a Badgers defense that has received good play from the front seven. The game features the league's top two rated passers in Cousins and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien, who has handled himself very well so far. Wisconsin tries to avenge last year's giveaway loss in East Lansing. The teams' last two meetings have been decided by a combined four points.

Minnesota (2-1) at Northwestern (2-1), Big Ten Network, noon ET

Something's got to give when the Gophers' offense matches up with the Wildcats' defense. Both units have struggled so far, with Minnesota generating no rushing attack and Northwestern lacking strong fundamentals after a breakthrough in 2008. Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker expects to play after spraining his left ankle against Cal. If Decker isn't 100 percent, Minnesota could be in trouble. The Gophers will be motivated after suffering consecutive heartbreaking losses to Northwestern, including a setback last year in the Metrodome that kicked off a five-game slide to end the season.

Illinois (1-1) at Ohio State (2-1), ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET

The Illini return to the stadium where they enjoyed the greatest moment of the Ron Zook era, a 28-21 victory against top-ranked Ohio State in 2007. Quarterback Juice Williams will be ready after pulling a muscle against Illinois State, and he needs a huge performance against a Buckeyes defense that is really hitting its stride. Ohio State has risen to 24th nationally in scoring defense (15 ppg). After a strong performance against Toledo, Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor hopes to keep things going against an Illini defense playing its first game without starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck, out for season).

Notre Dame (2-1) at Purdue (1-2), ESPN, 8 p.m. ET

If the Boilers' offense looks like it did in Weeks 1 and 2, Notre Dame could be in trouble. If the Purdue attack looks like it did last week, the Fighting Irish could run away with this one. Despite the loss to Northern Illinois, Purdue has a good opportunity for a win here. Notre Dame will certainly miss wide receiver Michael Floyd (collarbone), and quarterback Jimmy Clausen could be limited with a foot injury. Notre Dame's defense has looked very vulnerable against the pass, so Joey Elliott and his wideouts will have opportunities to make plays and open things up for running back Ralph Bolden.

Iowa (3-0) at Penn State (3-0), ABC, 8 p.m. ET

The two most vocal fan bases on the Big Ten blog have been waiting for this one. Only a handful of games truly shape the conference title race, and this is the first of those contests. Iowa comes off two impressive victories and has it going on defense, but quarterback Ricky Stanzi's shaky starts and several injuries on offense (left tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) are cause for concern. Penn State hopes to get linebacker Navorro Bowman (groin) on the field, and the Lions will face their first true test of the season in Iowa. Evan Royster and the run game finally got going last week, but Penn State's offensive line will be challenged by Adrian Clayborn and the Hawkeyes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Kirk Cousins knows how Michigan State fans feel right now. The Spartans sophomore quarterback used to be exactly like them.

"I remember being a fan watching Michigan State growing up, too, and [seeing] those kinds of losses happening," Cousins said. "Obviously, it’s frustrating."

Anxiety is high among Spartans fans after the team's 29-27 loss to Central Michigan last Saturday. The loss was bad enough, but the way it went down, with Michigan State blowing a late lead and showing a lack of discipline, seemed all too familiar.
AP Photo/Al Goldis
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is confident heading into Saturday's match up with Notre Dame.

Michigan State fans have seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well. But this time, Cousins and his teammates are determined to rewrite the script.

"We need to respond and not react," said Cousins, a co-captain. "We need to move forward. We had a players-only meeting on Sunday and made sure those guys understood it’s not a time to panic. It’s just a time to refocus and get serious about what we’re trying to do. We’ve done that.”

Head coach Mark Dantonio is confident his team's psyche will be in the right place when it takes the field Saturday against Notre Dame. The Irish also come off a disappointing loss to Michigan, setting up a rivalry game in which both sides are desperate for a victory.

Dantonio always acknowledges Michigan State's recent history, the good and the bad, and both really apply to the team's current situation. Michigan State has owned Notre Dame on the road as of late, claiming six consecutive games in South Bend, the longest win streak for any Fighting Irish opponent at Notre Dame Stadium.

On the flip side, the Spartans have been a team prone to season-killing slumps, which usually begin with games like last Saturday's. It happened in 2006, 2005, 2004 and 2000. Dantonio has been very candid about the fact that Michigan State hasn't always handled high expectations, like the ones placed on the team before this season.

"When you care about our players, like we do here, you’re going to bounce back," Dantonio said. "We’re going to find out about ourselves. You’re constantly trying to put people’s backs to the walls in spring practice and winter workouts and summer camp and give them adversity. You’re trying to simulate that adversity.

"But when you have it first hand and it’s real, you find out a little bit more about yourself. This is a life lesson for us and a learning experience and we’ll take it.”

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan is hanging in there with No. 18 Notre Dame, but it'll be hard to see the Wolverines winning this game without making some adjustments on defense.

Notre Dame has controlled the line of scrimmage so far, shutting down a Michigan pass rush that created tons of havoc last week against Western Michigan. Jimmy Clausen has taken advantage of man coverage on the edges, wearing out corner Boubacar Cissoko already. Notre Dame's wideout tandem of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd is pretty special, and unless the Wolverines find a way to get to Clausen, it could be a tough second half. Michigan also must find a way to stop the screen pass after being burned several times.

That said, big plays win games, and Michigan has made as many or more of them than Notre Dame. Darryl Stonum's kickoff return was huge, and Michigan needs more of those in the second half. Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier continues to look good and limit mistakes, but he'll need a boost from the run game.

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