Big Ten: LaMichael James


PASADENA, Calif. -- Instant analysis from Rose Bowl Stadium where No. 5 Oregon defeated No. 10 Wisconsin 45-38:

How the game was won: Both teams traded scores and major momentum swings. But Oregon had just a little too much speed at its skill positions for Wisconsin's defense to match. As the Badgers slowed down with just 10 points in the second half, the Ducks were able to eke out a close victory thanks to a couple of key turnovers. Everyone thought this could be a shootout, and we weren't disappointed by one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls ever. Oregon just had a little bit more explosiveness.

Turning point: Wisconsin had the ball with a chance to tie the score, and Russell Wilson completed a 29-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis inside the Oregon 30. But Terrance Mitchell knocked the ball free near the sideline, and the Ducks recovered with 4:04 left. Even though Oregon's quick-strike offense isn't built to bleed the clock, the Ducks picked up a couple of first downs to leave Wisconsin with less than a minute to drive the field. The Badgers had two big second-half turnovers, including Wilson's interception near the end of the third quarter, just his fourth of the season. That was enough in a game where stops were at a premium.

Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 1,130 total yards. Oregon averaged 9.7 yards per play.

Player of the game: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. He didn't get a lot of touches but made the most of them. He had a 91-yard and a 64-yard touchdown run to finish with 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Honorable mention to quarterback Darron Thomas (17-of-23 for 269 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception) and running back LaMichael James (25 carries for 159 yards and a score). James moved into second place on the Pac-12's career rushing list.

Unsung hero of the game: Oregon receiver Lavasier Tuinei did not have a great season but came up huge in the Rose Bowl. He finished with eight catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns, with several drive-extending grabs.

Second guessing: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema burned two timeouts early in the third quarter, one to try and challenge a kick return that De'Anthony Thomas almost downed outside of his own end zone. That left the Badgers unable to stop the clock late when they had a chance to tie the score. Wilson spiked the ball at the 25-yard-line after a long completion with two seconds left, but the officials ruled that there was no time left for another play. Bielema was also questioned after taking timeouts before the Hail Mary that Michigan State completed in an earlier loss this season.

What it means: Oregon won its first Rose Bowl since 1917 and proved it could win a BCS game after losing close ones the previous two years. Head coach Chip Kelly will no longer be questioned about winning big games. Bielema could continue to hear that criticism after his team suffered its second straight heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss. Without Wilson and most likely Montee Ball next season, Wisconsin might have missed a window to do something special this season. Oregon should be a top 5 team to start next season even if James goes pro, as both Thomases and Kenjon Barner return to form a strong nucleus

Record performance: The 83 combined points were the most in Rose Bowl history, eclipsing the 80 points combined between Washington and Iowa in 1991. Oregon and Wisconsin also set records for the most points scored in the first quarter (28) and in any half (56) in Rose Bowl history.

Rose Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Oregon

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
3:30
PM ET
The Granddaddy looks like a classic in the making, with two explosive offenses going head to head in Pasadena. Both Wisconsin and Oregon are hungry for a BCS victory, too, after some recent failure. Here's a preview of what to expect on Monday from the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO:

WHO TO WATCH: Wisconsin's Montee Ball. The junior running back needs just one touchdown to tie and two to break the FBS single-season record, as his 38 scores are one behind Barry Sanders' mark. Ball doesn't usually stop at one trip to the end zone, as he has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and at least three touchdowns in each of his past five games. The running game in general will be enormous for the Badgers. Not only does that trigger everything they do offensively, but the more they can grind the clock by keeping the ball on the ground, the longer they can prevent Oregon's offense from taking the field. Ball and the Ducks' LaMichael James are two of the best backs in the NCAA, so the head-to-head matchup will be a fun one to track.

WHAT TO WATCH: Which defense can come up with stops? Both teams are known for their offenses but have better defenses -- statistically speaking, at the very least -- than they get credit for. Still, the clash of styles could make it difficult for either side to slow the other down, as Wisconsin's power running game could eat up Oregon's undersized defense, while the Ducks' flash-forward no-huddle spread could leave the Badgers gasping for and grasping at air. For Wisconsin, a huge key will be tackling in open space, something at which linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland usually excel. There might not be many punts or three-and-outs in this game, but if either defense can string together some stops, that could be enough to swing momentum.

WHY TO WATCH: You've got two top-10 teams, two offenses that average more than 44 points per game, two wildly contrasting styles, stars like Ball, Russell Wilson, James and Darron Thomas, splashy uniforms and the beauty and pageantry that is the Rose Bowl. If you need more reasons to watch, you must not like college football.

PREDICTION: Oregon 35, Wisconsin 30. No outcome would be all that surprising in this matchup. Wisconsin should succeed in running the ball with Ball, but the Badgers will have trouble slowing Oregon's roll. It’s going to be a thriller, but the Ducks will be more efficient on offense and clinch the game in the fourth quarter.
Montee Ball, LaMichael JamesAP PhotoMontee Ball, left, and LaMichael James have put up stunning numbers in very different offenses.


LOS ANGELES -- Montee Ball had hoped to meet LaMichael James at "The Home Depot College Football Awards" show on Dec. 8. Alas, James had finals and couldn't attend.

It's no wonder Ball wanted to size up maybe the only running back in the country with numbers as impressive as his own. The two will save their meeting for Monday at the Rose Bowl, which seems like a worthy summit for these two stars.

Oregon's James leads the nation in rushing yards per game (149.6) and yards per carry (7.4). Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Ball has the most total rushing yards (1,759) and has scored more touchdowns in a season than every FBS player not named Barry Sanders (38).

They're both juniors who will likely jump to the NFL after this game. The similarities pretty much end there, however, as each is a different kind of runner, playing in a vastly different type of offense from his counterpart.

"What he brings to the table is speed, and I believe what I bring to the table is obviously a lot of power, strength and a little bit of speed as well," Ball said.

"You know, he's probably 215 pounds and I'm like 190," James said. "He runs in the I [formation]. I run in the spread. I don't really think there's a comparison between the two."

But they will be compared, both this week and beyond. When both are poked and prodded during the NFL evaluation process, scouts and others are likely to ask whether they succeeded because of the systems they play in.

In Ball's case, such questions are inevitable. Badgers running backs benefit from the program's traditionally strong offensive line and a run-first mentality. Few Wisconsin running backs have made a dent in the pros. This year, Ball became the first Badgers' Heisman Trophy finalist since Ron Dayne won the award in 1999, and Dayne -- who was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame this week -- is often held up as an example of a college star who was an NFL bust.

Of course, Ball isn't built anything like the rumbling Dayne. You'd be hard-pressed to find many flaws in his game right now.

"He's a bigger guy, but he has really great feet," James said. "And the physicality is pretty nifty, too."

James will face a different set of skepticism. He's a smaller back at 5-foot-9. He also plays in a spread offense and gets a lot of his yards out of the zone option, though Oregon has run that less this year than in the past. But he doesn't average nearly 7.5 yards per carry on the system alone.

"He's tough for a littler guy," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "He'll run between the tackles, and people will not get him down. He'll run through you, around you, beat you with speed, whatever he's got to do. Very rarely do you see one individual getting him down on the tape."

Which back is better? It's nearly impossible to say since they play such different styles. But it would be fun to imagine how each would do in the other's shoes.

Ball grew up outside of St. Louis but wasn't interested in going to Missouri because of the spread offense there. He wanted to play for a power-run team, which is why he looked hardest at Iowa and Wisconsin.

"I've thought about it a couple times, taking a lot of carries from the [shot]gun and stuff like that," Ball said. "It would be a lot of fun, obviously, getting the ball into open space."

Wisconsin has usually liked big backs. But can you imagine James hiding behind the Badgers' enormous front wall before exploding through the gaps?

"I know I would be successful in their offense," James said. "No. 67 [Wisconsin left tackle Josh Oglesby], I can just sit behind him all day."

Are James and Ball "system guys"? Well, aren't all football players indebted to the type of players and play calling that surround them?

"I think with any team, the running back obviously is a product of the system," Ball said. "But they do a great job of staying on his strengths, basically putting him in open space with the football. And the same with us. We do a great job of keeping me protected behind the big offensive linemen so I can weave my way around them and score a touchdown."

How much the system contributes to each player's success really doesn't matter. All we know is, no one has developed a defensive system to stop them yet.

"I think Montee Ball would flourish in a spread offense," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "He'd flourish in an I-offense. He'd flourish in a Wildcat offense. And I think LaMichael would be the same way."
On Monday, we gave you our picks for the eight non-BCS bowls involving Big Ten teams. Now it's time to turn our attention to the big ones.

Our picks for the Rose and Sugar bowls will also serve as our final game predictions for the 2011 season. Season bragging rights between the bloggers are on the line.

Without further ado ...

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

No. 10 Wisconsin vs. No. 5 Oregon (Jan. 2)


Brian Bennett: A tantalizing matchup that frankly could go either way. I think Wisconsin will find a lot of success in the ground game with Montee Ball, but I question the Badgers' ability to slow down the Ducks' hyper-speed offense. Teams that have stopped Oregon usually have dominant linemen on defense, and Wisconsin is good but not great in that area. We saw in the Big Ten championship game that you can exploit the Badgers out in space. It's a thriller, but Oregon makes fewer mistakes and capitalizes one more time on a clinching fourth-quarter touchdown run by LaMichael James. ... Oregon 35, Wisconsin 30.

Adam Rittenberg: I need this one to have any chance to catch Mr. Bennett in the overall standings, and I'm going with the underdog. Wisconsin has the ability to not only control the clock but attack Oregon in multiple ways. Ball should be able to move the ball, but quarterback Russell Wilson will be the difference as he attacks the nation's 82nd-rated pass defense. Wisconsin will use the USC blueprint to beat Oregon: great quarterback play, a big game from a wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and just enough defense to survive. Although the Badgers' defense didn't impress me in the Big Ten championship game, the unit should benefit from the extra prep time for Oregon. Wilson throws three touchdown passes and runs in another in the fourth quarter. ... Wisconsin 38, Oregon 35

Allstate Sugar Bowl

No. 13 Michigan vs. No. 11 Virginia Tech (Jan. 3)

Adam Rittenberg: Virginia Tech won't be as bad as it was in the ACC title game, but Michigan has the edge in several areas. Denard Robinson put it all together late in the regular season, and he'll be tough to contain for four quarters if he doesn't turn over the ball. Virginia Tech really struggled with Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, and "Shoelace" might be even more dangerous. Michigan's defensive front should be able to contain the Hokies' ground game. Brady Hoke completes a strong first season with a BCS bowl victory. ... Michigan 27, Virginia Tech 21

Brian Bennett: I still don't know why Virginia Tech is in this game, but Michigan should be thankful. This is a very advantageous matchup for the Wolverines, whose strength on defense aligns with their biggest need: stopping Hokies running back David Wilson. Virginia Tech has the speed on defense to protect the edge but not the size to fight off David Molk and an excellent Michigan offensive line. Robinson gets loose a couple times on the Superdome carpet, and the Wolverines frustrate the Virginia Tech offense to post a double-digit victory. ... Michigan 24, Virginia Tech 13.
When they paint the end zones at Rose Bowl Stadium, they might want to consider a second coat. Because there's a pretty good chance Oregon and Wisconsin could end up trampling lots of colored grass under their cleats.

On paper, at least, this matchup has the potential to surpass the record 80 combined points that Iowa and Washington put up in the 1991 Rose Bowl game. The Ducks average a little more than 46 points per game, while Wisconsin is just a hair under 45 points a contest. Each team has scored at least 50 points four times this season and has broken the 45-point barrier seven times.

Bowl games between a pair of high-scoring teams are nothing new, of course. What sets this one apart, though, is how radically different both styles are and how difficult each may be for the other to slow down.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Badgers' offensive line
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin's big and athletic front line opened holes for Montee Ball all season.
"The great thing about this matchup is it's kind of like the direct opposites of offensive philosophy," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Obviously, Chip [Kelly] and Oregon like to score at a very rapid rate, and we like to hold the ball and score as often as possible for the most amount of time. It's a very unique situation, and something that we're excited about."

Boil the contrast down to the essence, and you have Oregon's warp-speed spread attack versus the Badgers' Midwestern brute force. It's not nearly that simplistic, but for the purposes of the next couple of paragraphs, let's follow that narrative.

The Ducks would like to snap the ball before the officials remove the pigskins from the equipment case, if that were possible. They try to hit you with as many plays in a short amount of time as the laws of physics allow. Oregon has 41 touchdown drives this season that have lasted two minutes or less and 13 that have taken less than a minute. Their last-place FBS ranking in time of possession is a source of pride.

Even though the Big Ten is more familiar with 21st-century offenses than casual fans believe, nothing in its league can quite prepare Wisconsin for what's coming.

"We've seen some spread offenses like Michigan that used to be like that," Badgers defensive end Patrick Butrym said. "But they didn't move nearly as fast. It's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it."

Wisconsin doesn't have Phil Knight or flashy uniforms, and the team's main offensive strength -- its offensive line -- isn't exactly sexy. But the Badgers can be equally effective, as Kelly knows from watching some Big Ten games during pregame breakfast on the West Coast.

"It just seems like it's a pinball number sometimes when you're watching Wisconsin games," Kelly said.

And the offensive line provides the paddle. The front five is massive at an average of more than 320 pounds per man, and that doesn't include the fullback and tight ends that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst often employs to bludgeon people with the ground game. Wisconsin averages nearly seven minutes of possession per game more than Oregon and has had 11 scoring drives of five minutes or more this season.

But it's not just size that overwhelms opponents. The Badgers' big uglies are shockingly athletic, and defenses often aren't ready for that until a guard pulls and plows open a gaping hole for star running back Montee Ball. Just as teams can't adequately simulate Oregon's speed, they can't exactly find scout-teamers who can duplicate Wisconsin. Kelly said that while the Ducks have faced beefy, pro-style attacks from Stanford and USC, those Pac-12 teams don't also have a high-caliber back such as Ball.

"People know what we're going to do, but a lot of teams don't see our style of offense very often," left tackle Josh Oglesby said. "That's an advantage that allows us to really go after guys early and confuse them with some sets. We've got power and we really move. The way we do it, you don't see too often."

The offensive philosophies aren't complete opposites. If Oregon were merely a finesse team, it wouldn't be averaging a nation's best 6.5 yards per carry. LaMichael James may be a smaller back at 5-foot-9, but he's no fun to bring down. Wisconsin doesn't just plod away; with the dynamic Russell Wilson at quarterback, it has a dangerous play-action passing game that can occasionally quack like a Duck.

"When you look at our offense, it's unconventional in its own way," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "We've got some quick-strike ability with our quarterback and Montee Ball. We can score from anywhere on the field, also; it's just in a different way."

Projected high-scoring games often disappoint. Just look at last season's BCS games involving these two teams. According to statistics, the Oregon-Auburn BCS title game and the Wisconsin-TCU Rose Bowl matchup should each have been played in the 40-point range. The combined point total for both games: 81.

Something about this feels different, though, probably because the contrasting styles could give each side fits. Better apply that second coat of paint in the end zones just in case.

My Heisman Trophy ballot has changed every week for the last couple of months.

I'm not surprised there are more than three players going to the trophy presentation.

Five players were invited to New York for Saturday night's Heisman Trophy presentation -- quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor, tailbacks Montee Ball of Wisconsin and Trent Richardson of Alabama and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu of LSU.

It's a shame the Heisman Trust didn't have room for three more quarterbacks because Houston's Case Keenum, USC's Matt Barkley and Boise State's Kellen Moore were just as deserving.

With five finalists going to New York, it figures to be one of the closer votes in recent Heisman Trophy history.

The closest vote in Heisman Trophy history came just two years ago, when Alabama tailback Mark Ingram edged Stanford's Toby Gerhart by only 28 points. Ingram received 227 first-place votes, Gerhart got 222 and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, the second runner-up, received 203.

Given the number of finalists and their geographical regions, we could have another really close finish on Saturday night.

Luck, the runner-up to Auburn's Cam Newton last season, entered the 2011 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. His performance didn't slip much this season, as he completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,170 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

I still feel Luck might be the most valuable player on any team in the country. Without him, there's no way the Cardinal is ranked No. 4 in the country and playing No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Luck has done more with less, as Stanford lacks the game-changing playmakers that other teams have.

But Luck might still be the second-best quarterback in New York. Griffin, who is widely known as RG3, completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 3,998 yards with 36 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 644 yards with nine touchdowns.

Without him, the Bears wouldn't have beaten TCU, Oklahoma and Texas. Griffin's one drawback: He had a late interception that sealed the Bears' fate in a 36-35 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 1 and threw two picks in a 59-24 loss at Oklahoma State on Oct. 29. But with everything else RG3 has done this season, it's easy to give him a mulligan for the miscues.

LSU defense
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRunning back Trent Richardson has been at his best in Alabama's biggest games.
I still believe Richardson is the best player in the country. He looked like the best player on the field in No. 2 Alabama's 9-6 loss in overtime to No. 1 LSU on Nov. 5. He had 89 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards in a game where every yard mattered. He finished the season with 1,583 yards with 20 touchdown runs and three touchdown catches. He's also Mr. Dependable, not losing a fumble in his past 520 touches and only once in 614 career touches.

Ball has been a scoring machine for the No. 10 Badgers this season, running for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdown runs and six touchdown receptions. His 38 total touchdowns are one shy of matching former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record of 39 set in 11 games in 1988. Ball's production helped lead the Badgers to a Jan. 2 date against Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Mathieu fell off my ballot after he was suspended from playing in the Tigers' 45-10 victory over Auburn on Oct. 22 for smoking synthetic marijuana. But his big plays helped the Tigers overcome deficits in each of their last two victories, over Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Mathieu -- aka the "Honey Badger" -- is the best player on the top-ranked team. He leads the Tigers with 70 tackles and has forced six fumbles and recovered five. He also is the most dynamic punt returner I've seen since Florida State's Deion Sanders. Mathieu has scored four touchdowns -- two on fumble returns and two on punt returns.

To penalize Mathieu for one foolish mistake wouldn't have been right. After all, Newton was briefly ruled ineligible at Auburn last season and 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James of Oregon was suspended from playing in last season's opener.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:34
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Wisconsin Badgers (11-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (11-2)

Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Wisconsin take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: The memory of last year's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl helped motivate Wisconsin this offseason.

The Badgers made it their mission to get back to the BCS and change the outcome this year, a plan that was nearly derailed by two straight dispiriting October losses. But they battled back to clinch consecutive trips to Pasadena for the first time since the 1998-99 seasons. And the players say they're not satisfied just to get there.

"We didn't finish it right last year," safety Aaron Henry said. "To have a chance to go out there and finish off something is a truly amazing, special feeling."

It won't be easy. Oregon is one of only three teams in the country that scored more points than Wisconsin this season, and the Ducks' speed could cause major problems for a defense that struggled against swiftness in space at times this year.

The Badgers' best defense, though, could be its offense. Their imposing offensive line could wear on the smaller Ducks, and the ground game led by Montee Ball -- who needs just two more touchdowns to set the single-season FBS record -- will help keep Oregon's offense off the field. Quarterback Russell Wilson should thrive against a less physical defense than he faced in the Big Ten, and he embraces the big stage.

An NC State transfer, Wilson will be making his first BCS appearance. The rest of his teammates know the Rose Bowl well. They hope to find out what a Rose Bowl victory feels like.


Oregon take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon is headed to its third consecutive BCS bowl game and second Rose Bowl in three years. That's great, but the Ducks are 0-2 in those games, so the program is no longer just happy to be there. They need to win to climb another rung in the national pecking order.

The Ducks are not unlike previous varieties. They are again an offensive juggernaut, ranking third in the nation in scoring, fifth in rushing and sixth in total offense. Their relentless, up-tempo offense wears opposing defenses down and causes them to lose concentration and gap integrity. The perceived Achilles’ heel that will be tested, however, is this: Coach Chip Kelly has lost six times. In five of those losses, high-quality teams had extra time to prepare their defenses. Your turn, Wisconsin.

That's one take of the Ducks' opener against LSU in Cowboys Stadium. They lost 40-27 in large part because their rebuilt offensive line struggled with the Tigers’ front seven. Of course, Oregon fans will point to losing the turnover battle 4-1. And it's worth noting no other team scored as many points against the Tigers this year. Only West Virginia had more total yards against LSU.

After the LSU loss, Oregon mostly cruised. The marquee showdown at Stanford was underwhelming, as the Ducks' defense controlled Cardinal QB Andrew Luck and the offense just looked too fast for Stanford.

The win at Stanford put the Ducks back into the national title discussion. A week later, however, they were out with a 38-35 loss to USC, missing a late field goal for the tie as time expired. They bounced back with easy wins over Oregon State and UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Ducks' chief star is running back LaMichael James, the 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and the first back in conference history to rush for more than 1,500 yards three consecutive seasons. But there are plenty of weapons on offense, including multipurpose true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, backup running back Kenjon Barner and tight end David Paulson. The defense produced three first-team All-Pac-12 players and a second-teamer, so it's not a nameless bunch in conference circles. It's solid in most areas and ranks third in the nation with 3.3 sacks per game.
It was tricky to characterize Rex Burkhead in 2010, as he did a little bit of everything for Nebraska: I-back, Wildcat quarterback, slot receiver.

His role is more defined this season. He's clearly the Huskers' lead back behind signal-caller Taylor Martinez.

But one label continues to follow Burkhead more than others. Even those who have never faced him in a game use it to describe the Huskers junior.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Troy Babbitt/US PresswireRex Burkhead is averaging 6.7 yards per carry in 2011.
"Burkhead," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said, "is a throwback."

Does Burkhead agree?

"I hear it a lot from a bunch of media people, so in a way, I guess," he said. "I still have a few flashes of making moves, but I'm not really sure the exact definition. I don't know if it's hard-nosed, running downhill or whatever. I guess it's a compliment. I'll take it."

It's definitely a compliment and a testament to Burkhead's approach. His versatility stands out in a game that has become increasingly specialized. His consistency has been key for a Huskers offense that has endured ups and downs the past few seasons.

Playing behind Roy Helu Jr. last year, Burkhead rushed for 951 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.5 yards a carry and added 148 receiving yards. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior already has matched his 2010 touchdowns total in the first four games (7), and his yards-per-carry average is up to 6.7. While Nebraska has had some issues with its power run game, Burkhead has lost only three yards on 63 attempts.

"We're really happy with Rex," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's ran hard, he's done a lot of good things. He's a heck of a football player. We always felt he was a huge part of our offense, and it's continued this year."

Burkhead saw his workload increase toward the end of last season, in part because Martinez was banged up. After averaging just 9.1 carries through Nebraska's first eight games, Burkhead averaged 16.5 carries in the final six contests, recording no fewer than 12 carries in a game.

He has had 15 or more carries in three of Nebraska's first four games this fall, a trend that will continue as the competition level increases.

"Recovery is the No. 1 thing you have to focus on as the season goes on," he said. "Get in the cold tub after practice, make sure you're 100 percent from game to game, fully recovered so you can go out and play your best."

Although Nebraska boasts good depth at running back, Burkhead and Martinez have spurred the rushing attack. They boast virtually identical stat lines entering Saturday night's game at No. 7 Wisconsin.

Burkhead: 63 carries, 420 yards, 7 TDs, 6.7 ypc, 105 ypg (25th nationally)
Martinez: 63 carries, 421 yards, 7 TDs, 6.7 ypc, 105.2 ypg (24th nationally)

In 2010, the pair combined to rush for 1,916 yards. They ranked third among FBS returning QB-RB rushing tandems entering this season, behind Michigan's Denard Robinson and Vincent Smith and Oregon's Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.

Burkhead and Martinez have combined to eclipse 200 rush yards in each of Nebraska's first four contests.

"Whatever the play may be, the option or the zone read, we have that chemistry and timing down over the course of the past two seasons," Burkhead said. "We kind of know what to expect from each other."

Pelini knows what to expect from Burkhead every time Nebraska takes the field: versatility, consistency and hard work.

Is he a throwback?

"What Bret's talking about is he's tough, he's hard-nosed, he's a guy that brings his lunch pail every day and plays really hard," Pelini said. "He's a great guy to have on your football team in so many different ways."

Big Ten mailblog

December, 10, 2010
12/10/10
4:30
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You know how to reach me. And you should be following me on Twitter.

Zack from Los Angeles writes: I know Bret Bielema loves using the term "program guy," with his players. Do you see BB as the program guy who becomes a legendary Wisconsin head coach for the next 20 years? Besides that Notre Dame rumor, has his name been seriously thrown out for other programs?

Adam Rittenberg: Zack, it certainly could happen if things continue the way they're going for the Badgers. Bielema truly took ownership of the program this year. These are his guys dominating out there on Saturdays, and they're doing it the Wisconsin way. Will he stay for 20 years? It's hard to put that time span on any coach these days, even ones who have won national titles. But Bielema's relationship with AD Barry Alvarez is the single biggest thing he has going for him. As long as Alvarez is AD, I don't see Bielema going anywhere. The AD relationship is critical for coaches, and Bielema has one of the best situations possible.


Gary from Buckeye Country writes: How did the Big Ten negotiate so many good bowl gigs?

Adam Rittenberg: Fans, fans, fans. The Big Ten travels to bowls better than any league in the country, although the SEC and Big 12 do well, too. Plus, the Big Ten brings a ton of tradition to the table with its teams. When you have a tradition-rich league filled with fans who want to leave the cold in December and January, you get bowls lining up at your door to affiliate.


Jonathan from Cleveland writes: Adam, great job on the blog. I have a question about Terrelle Pryor, especially in light of his latest "I would dominate college football" comments when being interviewed for the Silver Football award. Obviously, I don't know him, but between that interview, as well as his hissy Twitter response to not being named to any All-Big Ten teams...what is his deal? Is he just messing with everyone or does he have a serious ego issue? I find it hard to believe that a coach as buttoned down as Jim Tressel hasn't given him a good PR lesson. Just interested in your perspective.

Adam Rittenberg: Terrelle certainly keeps us entertained, doesn't he? There's a reason why his media appearances are limited, although I always enjoy hearing what he has to say (many Buckeyes fans don't). He's a confident guy, and he could be right about being able to dominate in a spread option offense. But Pryor also is a guy who, by all accounts, strives for perfection, wants to win very badly and has tremendous respect for the seniors on the team. He wants to win for the seniors and talks about it a lot. Those qualities are admirable and desired in a QB.


Chris from Minneapolis writes: Adam, you've interviewed each of the two new Big Ten coaches. Who will have the most immediate impact on turning their program around? Or put another way, which school has the best chance to reach a New Year's Day bowl game within the next few years?

Adam Rittenberg: There will be challenges at both places, but Minnesota has been closer to a breakthrough than Indiana. The Gophers have a sparkling new stadium and some young talent on the team. It comes down to Jerry Kill's ability to recruit and develop players. We just didn't see the development Minnesota needed under Tim Brewster. Kevin Wilson is fighting not only a losing tradition on the field at Indiana, but a dreadful tradition on defense the last decade or so. The good news is he received plenty of time with a seven-year contract to get things right. Should be fun to watch.


Bill from Toms River, N.J., writes: Recently in one of your Big Ten Chats, someone asked if the Big Ten was trying to keep Nebraska out of the championship game with the tough schedule next year. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Nebraska only have to win its division to get to the championship game? In that case, Nebraska has home contests with Michigan State, Northwestern, and Iowa, and away contests with Minnesota and Michigan. That doesn't seem like something they can't handle. The games against Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin wouldn't have an effect on the championship game, correct? What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Bill, the Big Ten hasn't outlined the clear parameters for the division races, including tiebreakers, but you can assume that overall conference record will get you to the championship, and division record will be used to break ties. So if Nebraska loses three Big Ten games and Michigan State's only league loss is to Nebraska, the Spartans would be going to Indianapolis in December. So those cross-division games absolutely have an effect on the championship game, not to mention BCS at-large berths.


Scott from New Jersey writes: Why do you hate Ohio State so much? Any little thing that could be thought of as negative you take it and run with it. Why don't you publish the story about Pryor on how he is donating his Sugar bowl tickets to charity? But you decide because he says something that everyone in the country including you has said that he would benefit from a read option offense, you publish it and re-publish it like he was DJK selling drugs. Have a little responsibility and publish a story on how he is academic all big ten and trying to be a academic all american, or he donated his tickets to Charity instead of just trying to fuel the hate and get comments on your blog.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, you're in the wrong place. This isn't the your-team-is-great-and-here's-why blog. You can find those elsewhere. My posts are on topics that I believe Big Ten fans will read with interest, and Pryor's comments are noteworthy. His plan to donate Sugar Bowl tickets is great, and I think there are more sides to Pryor than what comes through in his quotes. But this isn't the Big Ten p.r. blog, or the Ohio State p.r. blog. If it's interesting to Big Ten fans, I'll post it.


Arnie from Taiwan writes: Your mailbags are awful, mostly because you choose the most cup cake questions that any moron could answer. That being said why isn't Denard part of the Heisman discussion?Here is my argumentLaMichael James- 1682 Rushing Yards, 6 yard Avg, 169 receiving yards, 22 Total TD'sDenard Robinson- 1643 Rushing Yards, 6.7 yard Avg, 2316 Passing Yards, 30 Total TD'sSo explain to me how James is a lock? It's not like another RB wouldn't be almost as successful in that Oregon offense! Denard had a better year! Outrage!

Adam Rittenberg: For starters, Arnie, LaMichael James isn't a lock for the Heisman Trophy. Cameron Newton is. You want to look at Newton's stats? He has 1,409 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on 242 carries. He also has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. The guy leads the nation in passer rating (188.2). Oh, yeah, and he also has led Auburn to the national title game. You can make an argument Denard Robisnon had as strong a year as LaMichael James, but neither of them are winning the Heisman.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 5, 2010
11/05/10
4:00
PM ET
As always, you can contact me here, and don't forget to follow me on Twitter.

Kevin from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam, as a lifelong Buckeye I've always liked your take on the Big Ten - you've never led me astray. Until now. In this week's Rooting Interest, you said the Buckeyes should root for Indiana to upset Iowa. Can't do it. I trust Ohio State to take care of business in November, which would mean beating Iowa and knocking them out of the race. But it has to be an impressive victory (our "signature" win so far is at Illinois). Beating an Iowa team that loses to Indiana and ends up 8-4 instead of 9-3 isn't as strong a statement.

Adam Rittenberg: That's a good point, Kevin, and you're showing confidence in your team. But from a purely objective perspective like mine, Ohio State should want the other league title contenders to lose so it can win the Big Ten outright and reach the Rose Bowl. If the Buckeyes indeed win out, they should want Iowa to keep winning to improve their place in the BCS standings, which could break a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Michigan State. Note that for Ohio State's rooting interest to earn a BCS at-large berth, I write that the Buckeyes should root for an Iowa win Saturday, which would make a win on Nov. 20 all the more impressive.


A.J. from Bergenfield, N.J., writes: I love what Matt McGloin did vs UMich, every team needs players like him. But let's keep in mind that he faced the worse Big 10 D I've ever seen, while Bolden faced the 2nd, 8th, 12th & 19th ranked scoring D's in the country. I believe Bolden (and Silas Redd, who needs more carries now!) is the future and present of PSU football.

Adam Rittenberg: Good points here, A.J. Rob Bolden and Silas Redd certainly look like the future for Penn State. I just felt that McGloin provided a confidence boost for the offense last game that could carry over into another emotion-charged game as JoePa goes for No. 400. I certainly won't throw a fit if Bolden starts, which appears to be the case, but I'd keep riding the hot hand with McGloin until he struggles, and then put Bolden in the game.


Lyndon from Mission Viejo, Calif., writes: Northwestern prides itself on pulling out close games and even cites a 28-8 record in the last 36 games decided by 7 points or less. However, having watched their last 3 games (4th-quarter losses to Purdue & Michigan State, and a much closer outcome than it should have been w/Indiana), I'm thinking the "Cardiac Cats" are a product of their own doing. I love Fitz, but it feels like their offense tightens up when in the lead. It seems like they strive to drain the clock to win by 4 rather than closing out the game to win by 14. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Totally agree, Lyndon. Northwestern has never shown killer instinct for as long as I've covered the team. The Wildcats have been a couple of plays away from some much more lopsided wins, but they're not to be trusted with big leads. It's no mystery why they were on the losing end of the biggest comeback in NCAA history. Northwestern has to stay aggressive on both sides of the ball when in front, but this has been a struggle. There's an art to playing with the lead, and while Fitzgerald has done a lot of good things for NU, he has yet to master this.


Jon from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, In reading your blog, there's been a lot of talk since Saturday about Big Ten tie-breakers, which may come down to BCS standings. In looking at the BCS after this weekend, as a Buckeyes fan in MI, there's a head-scratcher that I can't figure out: OSU beats Minn 52-10, LSU has a bye, and yet LSU jumps OSU from the 12 spot to the 10 spot with OSU staying put at 11. Can you help me understand this?

Adam Rittenberg: The BCS computers simply don't like the Buckeyes, who have an average ranking of No. 16. A win against a one-win Minnesota team, regardless of the score or the location, doesn't help your computer profile. LSU, meanwhile, has an average computer rank of No. 6, which is helped by the strength of the SEC, a win against No. 20 Mississippi State and its lone loss to No. 2 Auburn. So it comes down to the computers, because Ohio State is well ahead of LSU in both the Coaches' and Harris polls. If LSU falls to Alabama on Saturday, the Buckeyes will move up for sure.


Joseph from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Adam,Why is it that Denard Robinson has fallen off in the heisman voting so much. He has more yards rushing than LeMichael James (widely considered as #2 in the race now) as a QB! He is #23 in passer rating AND the nation's leading rusher. I understand that often as a team goes, so goes their heisman contender, but is it really fair to penalize Denard for the high school caliber defense he has been placed with?

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan's slide certainly has hurt Robinson, who turned into another amazing performance last week at Penn State. Robinson's passing numbers aren't nearly what they were in the first five games, but his rushing totals continue to be incredible. Like it or not, perception largely shapes these awards races, and the perception about Michigan right now isn't favorable, which in turn hurts Robinson. His numbers are great, but he ultimately needs the wins to go along with them to catch Cam Newton, LaMichael James and Kellen Moore, each of whom plays for an undefeated team.


Alexander from Los Angeles writes: Adam - Love the blog, especially love that it focused on michigan state for the last few weeks here. Anyways, you responded to Matt from Champaign (my roomate from east lansing), that MSU was not in firm control of the Wisconsin game from the start and that he must not have watched the game. Anyone can read the box score and say that wisconsin was up 10-3 in the second quarter- how about that MSU smashed wisconsin all game in total yards, 3rd AND 4th down conversions, and time of possesion? A true fan of football and someone who actually watched the game would know that msu showed no signs of losing that game at any point. No hard feelings, keep up the good work!

Adam Rittenberg: None taken, Alexander. But I'm someone who actually watched the game as I was in the press box at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State absolutely deserved to win as it made the key plays in clutch situations. I just refuse to call it a total domination when Wisconsin trailed by only three points midway through the fourth quarter. No sign of losing? What about when Michigan State led 27-24 and faced third-and-11 from its own 28? People were a little nervous at that point. Yes, Michigan State finished with a sizable edge in total yards (444-292) and possession time (36:24-23:36) but had only four more first downs (19-15). It came down to playmaking, and the Spartans made more when they had to.

Big Ten mailblog

October, 5, 2010
10/05/10
9:00
AM ET
As always, you can contact me here and follow me on Twitter.

You have the right to sound off on anything, but just a friendly reminder: I'll never address questions about ESPN programming, and while it's flattering that you think I have the power to shape those decisions, they take place at much higher levels. Thanks for reading!

John from West Chester, Pa., writes: Given the struggles of the Penn State offense do you think it might be time to see what we have in Kevin Newsome? Seems like his running ability could really help spark an offense looking for plays? At this point any Jan 1st bowl seems like a long shot so it can't hurt.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I think offensive coordinator Galen Hall and his staff have to be open to all possibilities at this point, including using Newsome in more meaningful situations. A lot of fans and some media have talked about Newsome playing more in the red zone. His size and athleticism certainly could help near the goal line. But ultimately, Penn State coaches need to evaluate the gap between Newsome and Robert Bolden. Is it still wide, or is it narrowing? You can't blame Bolden for Penn State's offensive woes, as there have been struggles elsewhere (spotty line play, dropped passes). I still think Bolden will be a very good Big Ten quarterback some day. If there's still a sizable gap between Bolden and Newsome in practice, I don't think it's worth hurting Bolden's confidence just to shake things up. But if the coaches think Newsome has shown them enough to make a difference, it's time to pull the trigger.


Michael from Charlotte, N.C., writes: With as many yards as Oregon's defense has given up in it's two PAC-10 games(1100), how can people seriously be considering them as the #2 team ahead of tOSU? I know they're offense is lighting it up, but defense still wins championships, and OSU only struggled Saturday because Tressel limted Pryor's touches due to his quad injury. Help me understand why anyone would say this...

Adam Rittenberg: Sure, I can help. Oregon's defense certainly hasn't been lights out, but the Ducks looked like a very dangerous team on offense against a very good Stanford squad on Saturday. Given what the Ducks have done offensively so far, they certainly deserve to be in the discussion for No. 2. The bigger issue is I'm not sure Ohio State "only struggled" because of Terrelle Pryor's injury. Illinois' defense did a nice job against the Buckeyes and deserves a little bit of credit, too. And Ohio State's running backs still leave something to be desired. You can make strong cases for both Ohio State and Oregon to be No. 2, but I don't believe there's a sizable gap one way or the other when it comes to both teams' body of work this season.


James from East Lansing, Mich., writes: When my Spartans were winning 27-24 I must admit I was nervous you're 31-30 last minute Wisco victory would be true. Anyways, when does Treadwell's phone start ringing with head coach offers for next year? The way he's been coaching I feel like we should be worried about losing a great coordinator.

Adam Rittenberg: Ha! James, I was thinking the exact same thing when Wisconsin stopped Michigan State on third-and-goal. I thought the Spartans would take the three points and set up my predicted score. But Don Treadwell played it bold and Kirk Cousins executed the play perfectly. Good question about Treadwell, who is definitely helping his cause to be a future head coach by handling things so well these past two weeks. He really distinguished himself as a play-caller on MSU's final touchdown drive, outmaneuvering Wisconsin's staff on three third-down conversions and then the fourth-and-goal. Treadwell definitely should get some attention after the season, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him running the show somewhere else in 2011.


Mark from Washington writes: Adam,Typically your writing about the Big 10 and its players is thoughtful, nuanced and accurate, but I was disappointed to see you take up the theme of your colleagues in referring to Denard Robinson as a "one-man show" in your blog this week. What Robinson is doing so far this season is special and awe-inspiring, but to say that he's doing this by himself is disingenuous. Michigan's experienced and deep offensive line and blocking tailbacks have opened up gaping holes for Robinson, and allowed him plenty of time to find open receivers. And speaking of receivers, Darryl Stonum, Roy Roundtree and -- especially against Indiana -- Junior Hemingway have had a lot to do with Robinson's big numbers through the air. I think Denard has been outstanding, but when I keep reading that he's a "one-man show," I feel for all the guys on the field that are making that show possible (not to mention Rich Rodriguez's offensive scheme and play calling).

Adam Rittenberg: Mark, these are fair criticisms delivered in a respectful manner. Michigan's offensive line deserves a lot of credit for Robinson's success, although as guard Stephen Schilling told me Monday, the linemen don't need to hold their blocks too long for No. 16 to zip through and into the second level. I think I've given enough props to Stonum, Roundtree and now Junior Hemingway, but to restate: those guys have done a nice job. Still, there are a lot of teams with solid offensive lines and groups of receivers, but the number of huge plays Michigan has executed this season are mainly because Robinson is on the field.


Bucky from Secret Hideout writes: Our football coach is 1-8 against ranked opponents on the road. We have the 8th largest football budget in the country. As a tax paying Wisconsin badger and fan, do you think I'm getting my moneys worth from the program? Regards,Bucky

Adam Rittenberg: Bucky, you have a point here. Wisconsin never hesitates to tout its impressive home record under Bret Bielema, but the road has been a very different story. I wouldn't blame the Badgers for never setting foot in the state of Michigan again. Oh, wait, they have to go back there Nov. 20 to face Michigan. Beating Ohio State at home on Oct. 16 is huge, but it's almost as big for Bielema to notch a road win against a ranked team this year. He'll get his chance Oct. 23 against Iowa, which will be ranked even if it stumbles against Michigan. Winning big road games is an important step on the path from very good to great, and Wisconsin has yet to take the step.


David from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam,Just saw your poll where you voted Oregon #2 and Ohio State #3. I just wanted to remind you that we beat them decisively at the end of last year in the Rose Bowl and we both brought back the exact same people - except our defense might actually be better this year!I don't discount we didn't look great this weekend, but you have to remember it was our first road game and the weather didn't set up for a 70-point day like it did against other teams. Please remember the Pac-10 does not believe in defense and when everyone talks about LaMichael James and how many 100+ rushing yards he has - they don't mention we were the last team to keep him under the century mark.Finally, when we won it all in 2002 against one the best teams around back then we won many games this exact same way. The vest will not put us in harm's way and if we have the lead we'll be happy to punt and play defense!

Adam Rittenberg: David, first of all, the Rose Bowl argument doesn't hold water. New season. It doesn't matter that the Buckeyes beat Oregon nine months ago. You're right that a team's first road game typically brings some ups and downs, but this is a veteran Ohio State team, as you point out, that has actually had more success on the road in Big Ten play than at home. Oregon started slowly in its first road game, too, before blitzing Tennessee 48-13. And while the Vols are down right now, they should have knocked off Lucky Les and No. 12 LSU on Saturday. The weather argument is a fair one, but Ohio State still wanted to get its run game going and, aside from Pryor's long run, didn't do so until late. I'm sure Buckeyes fans would love to have James or Kenjon Barner this year. As for your point about 2002, I never questioned the way Tressel's teams won games. The formula is proven over time. All I'm saying is that Ohio State might need some lopsided wins along the way to distinguish itself this year.
PASADENA, Calif. -- Oregon's offense is awake.

Can Ohio State's defense slow down the revived Ducks?

The running game has really got going, as LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and LeGarrette Blount helped Oregon tie the score at 10-10. Ohio State also got beat on a fourth-and-9 play as Ducks wideout Jeff Maehl made a diving catch just beyond the marker. Blount entered the game to a huge roar and scored on his first touch.

Special teams aren't helping the Buckeyes, as Barner has broken off big returns every time he's touched the football. Ohio State entered the game ranked sixth nationally in punt coverage and 36th in kickoff coverage, but Jim Tressel can't be happy with those units.

Once again, the second quarter hasn't been good to the Big Ten in a BCS bowl.

Rose Bowl keys: Ohio State

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
9:00
PM ET
LOS ANGELES -- The 96th Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi is nearly upon us, and here are three keys for No. 8 Ohio State as it tries to end its BCS bowl slide against No. 7 Oregon on New Year's Day (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

1. Allow Terrelle Pryor to make a difference with his feet: I know Pryor is a bit banged up, but he remains Ohio State's most dangerous offensive weapon. I've yet to see a defense consistently stop Pryor around the edges, and that includes Texas in the 2009 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, a game where Pryor easily could have had 50 more rush yards. If the Buckeyes can run between the tackles with Brandon Saine and Dan Herron and then go outside with Pryor, they'll be tough to stop. It's the last game. It's a must win. It's time to turn Pryor loose and let him be a difference maker.

2. Buckeyes linebackers must tackle well in the open field: Oregon knows Ohio State's defensive line is trouble, and it will try to run away from Cameron Heyward, Thaddeus Gibson and Co. LaMichael James is one of the fastest backs Ohio State has faced in some time, so there will be increased pressure on linebackers Ross Homan, Brian Rolle and Austin Spitler to be sound in their tackling. Ohio State tackles better than the Pac-10 defenses Oregon typically faces, but James, Jeremiah Masoli, Kenjon Barner and LeGarrette Blount all have the speed to take it the distance.

3. Win the special teams edge: This is usually a given for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have some questions at kicker and with their punt and kick returners. They also allowed a long kickoff return for a touchdown Nov. 14 against Iowa. Ohio State can help its offense by winning the field-position battle, breaking off a big runback or two and keeping Oregon's dangerous return teams in check. Barner averages 24.3 yards on kickoff returns and has a 100-yard touchdown, and he's no slouch on punt returns (9.1 ypr average). If the game comes down to a field goal, Jim Tressel has two decent options in Devin Barclay and Aaron Pettrey.
LOS ANGELES -- Ohio State has waited 13 years. Oregon has waited 15 years. Our wait for the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi is nearly over.

We're only a day away from No. 7 Oregon and No. 8 Ohio State going at it in Pasadena (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET), and bloggers Ted Miller (Pac-10) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) are ready to break down the matchup.

Adam Rittenberg: The Rose Bowl might not be the premier contest in Pasadena this year, but there are still a lot of compelling things about this game. So let's get right to it. Oregon's offense vs. Ohio State's defense is one of the best matchups in all of the bowls. Oregon gashed just about everyone this year, while Ohio State is great at limiting big plays, especially on the ground. How do you see this playing out on Friday?

Ted Miller: Good question, because it always seems the bowl season adds wrinkles to what we saw in the regular season. For one, there's the layoff. Ohio State hasn't played since Nov. 21, Oregon since Dec. 3. How will they react to all that time off? That's a lot of hours for scheming over film. What will Ohio State's defensive coaches come up with to contain the Oregon spread-option? And what have the Oregon coaches anticipated they will face? Ducks coach Chip Kelly always talks about using the first few possessions to measure what the other team intends to do so he can react. Ohio State, however, will have had enough preparation time to study how Kelly reacts to certain schemes. I think that's an advantage for the defense. On the other hand, the Ducks are fast. I keep hearing about sure-tackling in the Big Ten. We'll see. There are more quickly moving targets out West.

Speaking of the Ducks' offense, how about that Terrelle Pryor? He was supposed to be running Oregon's spread-option, but I get the feeling the Ducks feel pretty good they ended up with Jeremiah Masoli. Which Pryor will we see against Oregon? The good one or the bad one?

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWill the Buckeyes turn Terrelle Pryor loose in an effort to keep up with the Ducks' offense?
Rittenberg: Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel faces a real dilemma with Pryor in this game. There's one school of thought, to which I happen to subscribe, which says Pryor must be turned loose for Ohio State to put up points and keep pace with Oregon. He has to be a difference-maker for the Buckeyes, not just a game manager. But Ohio State won its final five games with Pryor basically in a no-mistakes type of role. The run game and the offensive line improved, and Tressel made sure Pryor wouldn't implode like he did in the loss to Purdue (four turnovers). Pryor is a bit banged up, dealing with a partial tear in his left PCL as well as a nagging ankle injury. But because this is the last game of the year, Ohio State should be more willing to turn him loose as a runner. I still believe this guy should be running the football 20 to 25 times a game. Few teams can consistently bring him down around the edges.

Let's get back to the UO offense for a second. LeGarrette Blount resurfaced briefly against Oregon State. How much do we see of him in this game, or will it remain the Jeremiah Masoli/LaMichael James show?

Miller: Good question. Perhaps Kelly & Co. used their extra prep time to devise some more packages for Blount. Still, my guess is Blount will be the power counterpunch to James, whose speed and big-play ability are hard to take off the field. James is clearly the lead guy and will carry the load early. If the Buckeyes contain him, Kelly then would go with Blount and see if the power element boosts the cause. If James thrives, my guess is Kelly will ride him. Also, Blount could be the guy in short yardage or near the goal line.

This is hardly a new question because of the Big Ten's -- and Ohio State's -- recent struggles in big games, but what's the attitude there? Is there a sense that because the Buckeyes aren't playing Texas, USC or the SEC champ that there's more hope for a victory? Is there respect for Oregon? The mental side seems so important for the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
Craig Mitchelldyer/US PresswireLeGarrette Blount's return at the end of the season bolsters Oregon's rushing attack.
Rittenberg: Ohio State certainly respects Oregon, especially Masoli, James, Blount and the rest of the offense. Oregon has felt like the more confident team this week, but Ohio State is typically a serious, businesslike group, which trickles down from Jim Tressel. The Buckeyes definitely aren't overconfident, and they certainly understand the urgency for this game. Terrelle Pryor called it a must-win on Monday, and it's hard to argue with him. The Rose Bowl is the Big Ten's signature game and Ohio State is the Big Ten's signature program, and something has got to change for this league in this game. The Buckeyes' mental approach will be sound. Whether they can physically handle Oregon for 60 minutes is up for debate.

OK, Mr. Miller, prediction time. You first. What happens Friday?

Miller: I have to go first? D'oh.

The Big Ten has lost how many consecutive BCS bowl games? Ohio State has fallen in how many consecutive big games? The Big Ten has taken how much crud from the rest of the nation? Answer: A lot. And, to me, too much.

Oregon is faster than Ohio State. The Ducks have a better quarterback who's a proven clutch performer. There are many reasons to pick the Ducks.

But I won't. Oregon is a young team that is a year away -- only four starters are seniors.

Why am I picking Ohio State 28-24? One unscientific reason: I think the Buckeyes are due. Period.

Rittenberg: Wow! Can't say I saw that prediction coming, especially after the Pac-10's strong performance against the Big Ten this fall. The Big Ten's big-game slide has to end sometime, and Friday could be the day.

I've always said it's unfair to group all three of Ohio State's BCS bowl losses together because the Buckeyes really played a good game last year against Texas. Should have won, but got burned on a blitz in the end. I don't think either team runs away with the Rose Bowl, but Oregon is just so dangerous and diverse on offense. Ohio State rarely allows big plays, especially on the ground, but you have to figure James or Masoli will break free once or twice.

While the Buckeyes got better at running back and offensive line as the season went along, I don't have enough confidence in Pryor -- or Tressel, for that matter -- to pick Ohio State in this game. Unless we see a different offense than the one that usually showed up this fall, the Buckeyes fall short. The Pac-10 blogger goes with the Big Ten, and the Big Ten blogger will go with the Pac-10 (and they call us homers, sheesh).

Oregon wins it, 27-21.
LOS ANGELES -- Two common assumptions are proved wrong by one Oregon player.
  1. Oregon, like other Pac-10 teams, thrives on finesse and isn't known for being physical.
  2. Quarterbacks generally shy away from contact, leaving the messy stuff to running backs and linemen.

Now meet Jeremiah Masoli. He's the starting quarterback for Oregon. And he loves contact.


Steve Dykes/US PresswireOregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli doesn't shy away from contact.
When Masoli takes off with the football, only one correct assumption can be made.

"He ain't gonna slide," Ducks running back LaMichael James said.

Opposing defenders wouldn't mind if Masoli did. Instead, they have to deal with his 5-foot-11, 220-pound frame.

Usually, the results aren't pretty. Just ask UCLA safety Bret Lockett. Or Oklahoma State safety Quinton Moore. Or Oregon State safety Lance Mitchell.

All three defenders got trucked by Masoli, who has a YouTube library of steamrolling runs. It's fitting that Oregon clinched a Rose Bowl berth Dec. 3 when Masoli trucked Mitchell on a fourth-and-3 play, before running out the clock in the Civil War.

"That's how I've grown up, been doing it since I was a little kid, playing like that in Pop Warner," Masoli said. "It's something I've never lost."

Oregon fans haven't forgotten Masoli's fourth-and-3 run through Mitchell and past the first-down marker.

"That's a big one," he said. "A lot of fans, a lot of people, always come up to me and talk to me about that."

Masoli's teammates are used to seeing the junior quarterback flatten defenders, but his style of play rubs off on them.

"It gets the team juiced," James said. "It gets everyone going. When the quarterback runs a guy over, everything just goes [crazy] on the sideline."

Masoli on Friday faces an Ohio State defense known for its physical play and sound tackling. Safety Kurt Coleman, who likely will encounter Masoli in the open field, is as fundamentally sound as they come.

But as Masoli's foes have found, it usually takes a group effort to bring down the powerful Ducks quarterback.

"Knowing that when Jeremiah runs, he's not looking to go down or run out of bounds, he's looking to run over you," Oregon wide receiver D.J. Davis said. "It's a good thing. He sometimes gives us a hard time about why we get tackled by one person. But he's a big boy, he's my quarterback, and I love him to death."

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