Big Ten: Mark Dell

Mark Dantonio acknowledges Michigan State has some momentum right now. The Spartans have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons. They come off of a Legends division title and could enter the season as the Big Ten favorite. But they also lose a lot of star power from the 2011 team, namely quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and three-time captain, and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans have won 11 games in each of the last two seasons, but what about 2012?
Can Michigan State be a better team in 2012, or will the Spartans backslide in their effort to reload?

"There were questions as we left 2010," Dantonio said. "Can we replace Greg Jones and Eric Gordon? Could we replace our punter, Aaron Bates, or [wide receiver] Mark Dell? We were able to do that and progress, so there are great possibilities. Our football team is poised for that, but at the same time we need to guard against being complacent and understand we’re going to be judged game-to-game.

"It's important we bring our energy with us in everything we do, but there's no question we have confidence. There's no question we have continuity. We've built a great foundation to springboard us forward."

The next phase begins Tuesday, as Michigan State kicks off spring practice in East Lansing.

Dantonio discussed the spring and the future with earlier this week.

Some notes:

  • Dantonio is "very optimistic" the NCAA will approve wide receiver transfer DeAnthony Arnett to play this coming season. Arnett transferred from Tennessee to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father in Flint, Mich. He appeared in 12 games for the Vols in 2011 and had 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns. "It was a hardship because his father is ill," Dantonio said. "DeAnthony had success at Tennessee. He was happy at Tennessee. He felt like he needed to come home to be near his family. Every Friday afternoon he goes home. He's a great young man, and he cares deeply about his family and wants to be close to them and wants them to have the opportunity to see him play as well." The NCAA recently granted a waiver for Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, to play immediately at Notre Dame. Carlisle transferred to be closer to his father, who took a position in Purdue's athletic department. Arnett is eligible to practice this spring for the Spartans.
  • If Arnett receives his waiver, he'll provide a big boost to a position that Dantonio calls the "most critical" to replenish. Michigan State loses its top three receivers -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- from 2011. The Spartans need to get Bennie Fowler and Juwan Ceasar healthy and have some immediate contributions from their incoming freshmen.
  • Michigan State has good depth at defensive end, so Denzel Drone will move to tight end, at least for the start of spring ball. Drone has made six starts at defensive end in his first two seasons and has recorded 28 tackles, five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He played a bit of tight end as a high school senior. "We can at least look at that position move in the first two weeks," Dantonio said. "He's played enough defensive end that he can go back over there and be a co-starter for us, but I think we need to put our best football players on the field, and if he can be one of those top 11 players, 12 players, 13, 14 players on offense, then we'll leave him there. If not, he'll be one of those top 14 players on defense." In another move, defensive back Dana Dixon will practice at wide receiver this spring but could return to the secondary "in a heartbeat," Dantonio said.
  • Defensive tackle will be a fascinating position to watch this spring as Michigan State looks to replace Worthy. Tyler Hoover, a starting defensive end in 2010 who missed all of last season with injury, will move inside this spring. Hoover is up to 297 pounds, Dantonio said. The Spartans also will audition a host of redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sophomore James Kittredge, a transfer from Vanderbilt.
  • Michigan State redshirted 19 players last season, a few more than normal, and the spring will provide a proving ground for several of them. Dantonio listed defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Trae Waynes as freshmen who could have played in the latter part of last season.
  • The Spartans are one of only four Big Ten teams to return their entire coaching staff from the previous season. It wasn't easy, as other teams made runs at both Michigan State coordinators, Pat Narduzzi and Dan Roushar, but both men stayed, in part because the school made a stronger financial commitment. "It was natural to me to be very concerned we would lose a coach or two," Dantonio said. "But it gives you a feeling that you’re doing things right here and there's a good working environment. Obviously, all of our guys, we’re going to do everything we can do to hold onto them, and some of that is financially-based."
  • Dantonio on quarterback Andrew Maxwell: "Very patient young man, as evidenced by him sitting here and waiting for his opportunity. Very poised, extremely strong arm, very athletic, he was a 6-7 high jumper in high school. He's got size. He’s got great intelligence. He's got a great demeanor among his teammates. The one thing he's missing right now is that experience of going out and doing it on game day on a consistent basis. Kirk always stayed the course and was never knocked out of a football game, so Andrew never had to take the reins of our football team in a critical situation. That's coming for him."
  • In terms of leadership, Dantonio said Maxwell's teammates already have accepted him in his new role. Dantonio also listed linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Chris McDonald and running back Larry Caper as potential team leaders in 2012.

More notes on Big Ten's top games

October, 14, 2011
Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info for these nuggets on Big Ten games featuring Top 25 teams on Saturday ...
  • Brady Hoke is trying to do something that Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr couldn't do, beat Michigan State in his first year as head coach. No first-year Michigan coach has beaten MSU since Bennie Oosterbaan in 1948. Hoke’s 6-0 start is the best for a first-year Michigan coach since Oosterbaan. Oosterbaan's 1948 team finished 9-0 and won the national championship.
  • Ohio State has won eight straight road games against Illinois. The last time the Buckeyes lost at Illinois was 20 years ago (1991), a 10-7 loss. Illinois has beaten Ohio State five times since then, all on the road.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson leads the FBS with 77 rushes of 10 or more yards since the start of last season. Robinson has had at least one such run every game over the past two seasons, including seven games with at least five such runs.
  • Wisconsin has scored at least 35 points in each game and has won all five games by at least 31 points this season. Dating back to last season, the Badgers' last nine wins have been by at least 20 points. The Badgers also have tremendous balance on offense. They're the only FBS team to average at least 240 pass yards and at least 240 rush yards.
  • This is the first time a ranked Illinois team is playing an unranked Ohio State team since 1989. That year, Illinois won 34-14.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins is completing 31.6 percent of his throws of 20 yards or more this season, down eight percentage points from 2010. One reason why is the departure of Mark Dell. Dell was the only Michigan State receiver last season to whom Cousins completed over 50 percent of these passes. With Dell gone, B.J. Cunningham has been Cousins' best downfield option. Cousins has targeted Cunningham 12 times on throws of 20 yards or more, and other players only seven times.
  • Indiana has lost 13 straight games against teams ranked in the AP Poll. The Hoosiers' last win against a ranked team was in 2006 against No. 15 Iowa.

Big Ten mailblog

August, 2, 2011
Your post-media days emails. Let's get to 'em.

Patrick Bohn from Ithaca, N.Y., writes: Adam,Great job on the blog. I was wondering, what can we expect from MSU's skill guys this season? I feel like everything written about Michigan State previewing this year has been a variation of "They need to improve on the lines." I get it, it's important, but seriously, it's getting a little old. Are the Spartans planning on doing anything to get Martin regular touches, or is it just a 6-8 per game thing? How will they deal with the loss of Mark Dell? Is Keith Nichol going to take on a bigger role? Edwin Baker clearly distinguished himself as the best RB the Spartans have, but Le'Von Bell is also talented/ Can the Spartans achieve balance?I know the line gets overlooked a lot, but i think we're going in the opposite direction with Michigan State. There's a lot of intriguing skill questions too.

Adam Rittenberg: Patrick, I understand you're getting tired of hearing about the line issues, but it's because Michigan State has much less to worry about at the skill spots on both sides of the ball. The Spartans have built some nice skill-position depth through recruiting. As to your questions, B.J. Cunningham likely will move into the No. 1 receiver role, but he'll need help from both Martin, Nichol and Bennie Fowler, who emerged late last season. Michigan State would be foolish not to feature Martin as much as possible because of his breakaway speed. Nichol, meanwhile, still needs to prove he's a top-end Big Ten receiver. Regarding the running backs, I absolutely think Le'Veon Bell takes on a larger role if he can recapture the form he showed early in 2010. Bell provides a different element in the run game, and while Baker will be the lead guy, both Bell and Larry Caper give defenses new looks.

Justin from Ft. Mill, S.C., writes: Hey, Adam. I was just wondering what's the situation with Michigan's special teams? Last season they were abysmal, and expected Brady Hoke to really correct that. I haven't really seen any updates on this problem. Have you any information?

Adam Rittenberg: The kicking game clearly is an area Michigan must improve in 2011. The Wolverines should be fine at punter with Will Hagerup, who averaged 43.6 yards per attempt as a freshman. Speaking of freshmen, Matt Wile could be the answer at kicker, which was horrendous last season. Michigan would get a major boost if Wile can provide consistency right away. I'm interested to see if Martavious Odoms can be a bigger factor on returns this season. Odoms could be key, especially if Darryl Stonum doesn't return from his suspension.

Ryan from St. Paul, Minn., writes: Hello Adam! Great blog. I love reading it everyday. Did you see MN got another in state committment this past weekend? Jonah Pirsig to the Gophers is huge! Jerry Kill is getting the state of MN to rally behind him and understand there is no reason you can't win in the Twin Cities. Excellent school, great cities with many things to explore and do. Also reversing the belief that the weather is somehow different in MN when compared to WI, or IA. I think the Gophers are going to have a bulldozing OL in the next few years with Ed Olson, Tommy Olson, Jimmy Gjere, Josh Campion, and Jonah Pirsig pushing guys around. Thoughts? GO GOLDY!!!

Adam Rittenberg: Ryan, you have every reason to be encouraged. Kill is targeting homegrown talent and positions such as offensive line where the state typically produces FBS talent. There's no reason Minnesota shouldn't once again have offensive lines like the ones Wisconsin and Iowa typically produce, and Kill's local recruiting efforts should help things. I'm pretty excited to see how the Olson brothers, Gjere and other younger linemen perform this season. While Minnesota can't confine its recruiting to the state -- not enough talent -- the staff shouldn't look far for top offensive linemen.

Tyler from Eden Prairie, Minn., writes: Bo Pelini recently said he hopes for all 3 of Nebraska's incoming freshman RBs to play this year. He could put all 3 on the field with the diamond formation that Oklahoma runs. Everyone knows the Stoops and Pelinis are friends as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, that would be pretty exciting, wouldn't it? While you should expect to see Aaron Green and other backs on the field for the Huskers, Bo is extremely confident in Rex Burkhead as his lead guy. Burkhead seemed to grasp the offense well this spring, and he's helping other guys along. Pelini has full confidence in him, and while teams need two to three backs to maximize their production, Burkhead should have at least 200 rushing attempts.

Kevin from Boston (by way of Chicago) writes: Looking back at 2010 the Northwestern Wildcats let several leads slip away, including a 21- 0 to Penn Sate L and a 17-0 MSU L, as a result the coaching staff taking their foot off the gas while having the lead. Since 2000 the recipe for NU's success has been a dynamic high scoring offense and an average defense. Do you think Mick McCall and Coach Fitz have learned from past season's letups and what do you anticipate for the Wildcats this season?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, playing with the lead seems to be a challenge for Fitzgerald, who tends to get overly conservative. Northwestern always has lacked a killer instinct and seems to be most dangerous when playing from behind, but the blown leads under Fitzgerald (even the historic one in 2006) are a concern. You would think the games against Michigan State and Penn State would help a veteran Wildcats team handle playing with a lead this year. One thing that definitely will help is running the ball more consistently. As for the overall outlook, Northwestern needs a healthy Dan Persa and more speed and athleticism in the defensive front seven. If the Wildcats get those things, they'll be tough to beat.

Dan from SconnieNation, N.Y., writes: Hi Adam,When looking at your 2011 schedule analysis post from May, I noticed that you listed Wisconsin's trap game as Purdue. While I think that's a solid choice, could there also be an arguement for the road game at Illinois to be the trap game? They bring back a strong QB and it is a week before the season finale against fellow Leader Division member, Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Dan, you can make a good case for either game, really. I went with Purdue because it's the only home game in a five-game stretch and falls after the back-to-back road night games against Michigan State and Ohio State, and before the rivalry game against Minnesota. But the Illinois trip could be tough for the Badgers, especially since the Illini likely will have something to play for on Nov. 19. It could be a high-scoring affair featuring two dynamic quarterbacks (Nathan Scheelhaase and Russell Wilson if Wilson wins the No. 1 job).

Bob from Archbald, Pa., writes: Adam,Will be travelling to Chicago for the Penn State/NW game this year with my family (wife and 3 girls - 12, 9 and 3). 10/20 to 10/24. Any suggestions on where to stay - hotel. Just thought I'd ask someone who knows the Chicago area.

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, I definitely would stay downtown near Michigan Avenue. Your wife and kids will love it -- especially the shopping -- and you can get to the game on the "L." You'll have everything you need right there and can hop on the Red Line/Purple Line on game day with a bunch of other fans.

Sky from Norfolk, Neb., writes: Adam, I have to say I like Bielema's idea of an early season conference game, and I think to make it even more nationally relevant, you could make it with your cross over rival. Now granted it wouldn't work with some teams (OSU and Michigan) but with Nebraska it works out fairly well I think. Penn St. in the early part of the season, Iowa to finish up the year. You could even establish a new 'trophy' game between NU and PSU too make up for the abominable "Heroes Game" between NU and Iowa. Heck you could even call it the "Legends and Leaders Game" in homage to Dr. Tom and JoePa, both mythical figures at their respective schools. You've got connections Adam, make this happen ok?

Adam Rittenberg: Haha, my connections aren't that strong, Sky. I also think Nebraska-Penn State works better toward the end of the season. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often talks about "build" with scheduling, as in building momentum toward the end of the season. The Nebraska-Penn State game is a showcase opportunity for the Big Ten, and typically it will mean more in early or mid-November. That said, I love the idea of playing Big Ten games earlier to avoid slates like Week 4 of 2010.
The wait is finally over for Big Ten players not selected in April's NFL draft.

Free agent deals are finally taking place during a whirlwind week in the post-lockout NFL.

We'll have additional updates as the day goes on, but here's a look at where Big Ten players are landing.

  • CB Travon Bellamy, St. Louis Rams
  • WR Jarred Fayson: New Orleans Saints
  • G Randall Hunt: St. Louis Rams
  • DE Clay Nurse: New England Patriots
  • QB Ben Chappell: Washington Redskins
  • WR Terrance Turner: Philadelphia Eagles
  • P Ryan Donahue: Detroit Lions
  • LB Jeremiah Hunter: New Orleans Saints
  • TE Allen Reisner: Minnesota Vikings
  • LB Jeff Tarpinian: New England Patriots
  • T Perry Dorrestein: New York Jets
  • CB James Rogers: Denver Broncos
  • TE Martell Webb: Philadelphia Eagles
  • WR Mark Dell: Denver Broncos
  • LB Eric Gordon: Jacksonville Jaguars
  • T D.J. Young: Arizona Cardinals
  • T Dom Alford: Cleveland Browns
  • FB Jon Hoese: Green Bay Packers
  • QB Adam Weber: Denver Broncos
  • K Adi Kunalic: Carolina Panthers
  • TE Mike McNeill: Indianapolis Colts
  • DE Pierre Allen: Seattle Seahawks
  • G Ricky Henry: Chicago Bears
  • T D.J. Jones: Miami Dolphins
  • S Rickey Thenarse: Seattle Seahawks
  • DT Corbin Bryant: Chicago Bears
  • LB Quentin Davie: Detroit Lions
  • G Bryant Browning: St. Louis Rams
  • G Justin Boren: Baltimore Ravens
  • RB Brandon Saine: Green Bay Packers
  • WR Dane Sanzenbacher: Chicago Bears
  • DT Dexter Larimore: New Orleans Saints
  • CB Devon Torrence: Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Brett Brackett: Miami Dolphins
  • LB Chris Colasanti: Indianapolis Colts
  • LB Bani Gbadyu: Oakland Raiders
  • DT Ollie Ogbu: Indianapolis Colts
  • TE Kyle Adams: Chicago Bears
  • WR Keith Smith: Detroit Lions
  • CB Niles Brinkley: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • RB John Clay: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • QB Scott Tolzien: San Diego Chargers
Earlier today, Brian ranked the groups of wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten. Now it's time to look at the individuals. We'll break these into two sections: wide receivers are below, and tight ends will be posted Thursday.

The Big Ten is loaded with No. 1 receivers, so sorting them out for this list wasn't easy. Unlike the running backs or quarterbacks, there isn't a huge gap between No. 1 and No. 10 in the wide receiver rankings. And since many of the league's top wideouts have strong track records, these rankings lean heavily on past performance and also consider potential for 2011.

There are quite a few good receivers who don't appear on this list.

Here are the top 10:

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert is Dan Persa's favorite target; Ebert caught three TD passes last week in Persa's return to the lineup.
1. Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern, senior: Ebert is as solid as they come, having earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. He led the league in receiving yards (953) as a junior and showed the ability to stretch the field, averaging 15.4 yards a catch. Ebert hauled in eight touchdowns as quarterback Dan Persa's top target. He headlines one of the league's deepest receiver groups this fall.

2. Derek Moye, Penn State, senior: It took a while for Penn State's offense to get on track last season, but Moye made the most of somewhat limited opportunities. He had 53 receptions but averaged 16.7 yards per catch with eight touchdowns and 68.1 receiving yards per game. The 6-foot-5 Moye can stretch the field and out-jump opposing defenders. If Penn State's quarterbacks indeed take the next step in their development, Moye will have a very big senior season.

3. Marvin McNutt, Iowa, senior: After starting his college career as a quarterback, McNutt has found his natural position at receiver. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010, and he could have an even bigger year as Iowa's clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game. Boasting size, speed and athleticism, McNutt is on the NFL radar and could emerge as the league's top pro prospect and receiver following the 2011 season.

4. Roy Roundtree, Michigan, junior: Roundtree definitely has the potential to move up this list if he can build on a solid 2010 season (72 catches, 935 receiving yards, seven TDs). His big challenge is eliminating drops that plagued him at times last fall. Michigan's new offensive scheme could mean even bigger things for the receivers, and if Darryl Stonum remains suspended, Roundtree might take on a bigger role in the offense. He boasts big-play ability and ended the 2010 season with several good performances.

5. Damarlo Belcher, Indiana, senior: Some folks might forget that Belcher led the Big Ten in receptions (78), recording six or more catches in eight of 12 games. He needs to find the end zone more after scoring only four touchdowns in 2010, but he's one of the league's most experienced receivers on a team loaded with talent at the position. Belcher slimmed down a bit this winter, which should help his speed and durability. Look for Indiana's new quarterback to look for No. 88 a lot this fall.

6. Da'Jon McKnight, Minnesota, senior: Like several players on this list, McKnight has a chance to put himself on the NFL draft radar with a strong senior season. He finished tied for second in the Big Ten in touchdown receptions with 10 last season and averaged 15.6 yards per catch. After splitting catches with MarQueis Gray in 2010, McKnight now will be receiving passes from Gray, the Gophers' projected starter at quarterback. Minnesota lacks much proven depth at receiver, so Gray will be looking for McKnight quite a bit.

7. B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State, senior: Cunningham has been somewhat overlooked during his career, but things should change this fall. Expect the senior to build on his 2010 performance (50 receptions, 611 receiving yards, nine TDs) as he moves into a No. 1 role following Mark Dell's departure. Cunningham has good size (6-2, 223) and will be entering his fourth season as the starter. He's got plenty of help at receiver with Keshawn Martin, Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler.

8. DeVier Posey, Ohio State, senior: Of the four Ohio State players suspended for the first five games, Posey might be missed the most. He has started the past two seasons and represents the only proven wide receiver on the 2011 roster. Although Posey didn't turn in a breakout year in 2010 like many had expected, he still put up some good numbers (53 catches, 848 receiving yards, eight TDs). The pro potential is there, and he can help himself with a more consistent year. His early-season absence creates opportunities for other receivers to emerge, but he'll almost certainly reclaim the No. 1 receiver spot upon his return.

9. Nick Toon, Wisconsin, senior: Toon had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010, as he dealt with injuries and some inconsistent play. But I expect him to bounce back and reclaim the form he showed in 2009, when he had 54 receptions and 805 receiving yards. As Lance Kendricks departs, Toon becomes the No. 1 option in Wisconsin's passing game. He could play a big role in easing the transition for the Badgers' new starting quarterback.

10. A.J. Jenkins, Illinois, senior: After nearly leaving the program in December 2009, Jenkins reaffirmed his commitment to the Illini and turned in a solid junior season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is making strides as a passer and Jenkins should benefit after recording 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. Illinois is looking for greater depth at receiver, but Jenkins provides a good No. 1 option.

Others to watch: Nebraska's Brandon Kinnie, Michigan State's Keshawn Martin, Purdue's Justin Siller and Antavian Edison, Michigan's Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum (if suspension lifted), Indiana's Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes.
I've already taken a look at the Big Ten's 1,000-yard rushing candidates and likely sack masters in 2011. Now it's time to put the spotlight on the quarterbacks.

Who will pass for 3,000 yards this season?

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireNorthwestern's Dan Persa has the weapons and experience to reach 3,000 passing yards this season.
Only two Big Ten quarterbacks, Indiana's Ben Chappell (3,295 pass yards) and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi (3,004), eclipsed 3,000 pass yards in 2010. Northwestern's Dan Persa was on pace to do so before rupturing his Achilles tendon in mid November. Three Big Ten signal callers -- Northwestern's Mike Kafka, Penn State's Daryll Clark and Purdue's Joey Elliott -- reached the milestone in 2009.

Let's look at who has the best chance to become Mr. 3,000 this fall. Several Big Ten signal callers operate in systems that don't emphasize the pass enough, while Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor would be on the list if not for his five-game suspension.

1. Northwestern QB Dan Persa: As stated above, Persa would have eclipsed 3,000 pass yards last fall if not for his injury. If he stays healthy for the entire 2010 season, he should reach the milestone. Northwestern is loaded at wide receiver/tight end and has an offensive line that seems to fare a lot better in pass protection than in run blocking. Although the Wildcats will try to spark their struggling ground game, the pass remains their top option and Persa's accuracy and precision should fuel the offense.

2. Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: Although new offensive coordinator Dan Roushar wants to emphasize the run, Cousins' experience combined with a deep group of wideouts and tight ends should make the pass a big part of the plan. Cousins racked up 2,825 pass yards in 2010 and operates in an offense that can stretch the field with players like Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham, Bennie Fowler and spring sensation Tony Lippett.

3. Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Robinson's record-setting season as a ball-carrier attracted the most attention, but he also racked up 2,570 pass yards in an offense that mostly emphasizes the run. The junior now enters a system where he likely will be passing the ball more. Plus, he'll be working with a talented receiving corps led by Roy Roundtree, Darryl Stonum and Junior Hemingway. Although Robinson has some work to do between now and Sept. 3, he certainly could reach 3,000 pass yards this season.

4. Iowa QB James Vandenberg: The Hawkeyes want to establish the run with Marcus Coker and take some pressure off of their first-year starting quarterback. But with limited depth at running back, Vandenberg might need to take to the air. He'll be working behind one of the league's best offensive lines and boasts a good No. 1 target in receiver Marvin McNutt. If others can emerge at receiver/tight end -- Keenan Davis, Brad Herman, C.J. Fiedorowicz -- Vandenberg could challenge the 3,000 mark.

5. Penn State's starting QB: If Penn State sticks with one quarterback for the entire 2011 season, he could become a 3,000-yard passer. Either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden would have to become more accurate, but Penn State averaged 12.7 yards per completion and returns some talented receivers, led by All-Big Ten candidate Derek Moye. If the run game can't get going, Penn State will be forced to pass more.

Also keep an eye on these potential 3,000-yard passers from the Big Ten:
I'll continue the series Wednesday with a look at the Big Ten's top interceptors (4 or more).

Big Ten lunch links

March, 3, 2011
Greetings from ACC country. I heard Miami is playing Ohio State this year. Will Ohio State's suspensions be the difference? Not if Jacory Harris throws four picks again ...
Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team faces Alabama on Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl.

Check out Part I as well.

Linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon have been so good for you over the years. How important is their performance in a game like this?

Mark Dantonio: Our great players have to play great. Our players who are outstanding in their own right need to play at that level for us to be successful in this game. We can't have a substandard or an average performance by Greg Jones or Eric Gordon and expect to win. So this is about offense vs. defense, this is about individual matchups at times, this is about us measuring up. It's about the focus and us being emotionally ready.

Kirk [Cousins] was dealing with some injury issues late in the season. How is he health wise and how has he looked in practice?

MD: He looks very crisp, very healthy. Our offense has had great preparation, just like our defense. He looks very confident, and our offense, we'll see if we're clicking when game time comes.

B.J. Cunningham is out at receiver. Who do you look to fill that void in the game?

MD: Receiver has been a position of depth for us. When Keshawn Martin was out at one point, Bennie Fowler came on and had an outstanding game against Northwestern and has played himself into a pretty important role on our football team. Bennie Fowler will be the guy who will pick up the slack there with Keith Nichol. Keshawn Martin is fully healthy and Mark Dell is fully healthy. Those four guys will really handle it, and then Donald Spencer's had an excellent bowl preparation. We'll still go three deep at that position, so we're fine there, although we will miss B.J.'s leadership and his ability to catch the ball at the high point and make big plays. You're going to miss that, but somebody else is going to have to step up. I think you'll see big-play ability from Bennie Fowler.

Special teams has been such a big part of your season. How big of a factor is the kicking game in the bowl?

MD: Any time you look at a bowl game, it's much like any first game of the season. Special teams can win it for you or lose it for you, so we've got to be fundamentally sound there. Tackling in space and those things show up on special teams as well as defense, so we've got to be perfect in all phases. When you look at it, I can think of four games where special teams have won it for us, with the fake field goal [against Notre Dame], the situation at Northwestern, the blocked punt [against Purdue], the punt return [against Wisconsin]. There's four games right there. A fifth game would be when [kicker] Dan Conroy's 4-for-4 [on field goals] against Illinois. So they've been very, very important to us. We put a premium on our special teams, and our guys are going to have to come and play because Alabama does much of the same.

Is there anything you can take away from being in this game a couple of years ago? You played pretty well but didn't get it done against Georgia.

MD: We probably have about 30 guys on our team that were from our '08 football season. That carried us in the Penn State game, the final game of this year. We played in a championship-type setting in '08 where if we win, we're co-champions. In 2010, we played much better [at Penn State] and we win the football game. A lot can be said for that experience breeding success. We've had the experience of being down here before. Many of our players being in positions of leadership have been here, played in this game. We played pretty well against Georgia, we had opportunities to win the football game but faded away a little bit in the fourth quarter. We can't afford to do that. We need to play this game close. Again, emotionally measure up, emotionally be ready, and physically, we're going to have to play at the height of our game.

What would it mean as a coach to finish this season off with a win?

MD: I don't really look at things as a coach, I look at things collectively. This has been a special football season for us. Whenever we've needed to play, someone different has stepped up. Whenever we've needed someone to step in when leadership was thrust upon someone else, an assistant coach would step up. Don Treadwell stepped up, Pat Narduzzi, whoever was asked. That's the kind of the season it's been. So collectively, we're an 11-1 group of people that will remember this season for the rest of their lives because of the way it's shaken out. This would certainly put the icing on the cake if we could win this football game. This has been a special season, and now we'll have an opportunity to compete with what I think is one of the finest football teams and most well-coached football teams in this country. It'll be a challenge, but again, it'll be an opportunity, too.

Big Ten lunch links

December, 28, 2010
The Big Ten bowl season finally begins!
When I ranked Michigan State's receivers/tight ends as the Big Ten's best group entering the season, I did so largely because of the Spartans' depth.

Although the Spartans were more balanced on offense and not quite as dynamic in the pass game during the regular season, they still boast quite a few players capable of catching the football. Nine Michigan State players recorded 11 or more receptions in the regular season, and four players had 22 or more catches.

Unfortunately for the Spartans, the man at the top of the list, junior receiver B.J. Cunningham, will miss the upcoming Capital One Bowl against Alabama because of a broken foot. Cunningham suffered the injury Saturday during bowl practice and underwent surgery Sunday.

The 6-2, 220-pound junior leads Michigan State in both receptions (50) and receiving touchdowns (9), while ranking second in receiving yards (611). He's expected to make a full recovery for the start of spring practice.
"B.J. Cunningham is a great competitor and he's extremely disappointed to be out for the Capital One Bowl game against Alabama," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said in a prepared statement. "B.J. had another outstanding season, and I know that he'll work hard during his rehab and set himself up for a big senior year. Fortunately, wide receiver is a position of strength for this football team, so B.J.'s injury will provide opportunities for others to step forward and make plays for us offensively."

Dantonio mentioned depth in his statement, and the Spartans' depth must now show up in the bowl game.

Mark Dell is a good No. 1 option for quarterback Kirk Cousins, and Keshawn Martin has big-play ability every time he touches the ball. But Michigan State really needs more from receivers like Keith Nichol and redshirt freshman Bennie Fowler, who came on strong during Big Ten play.

Tight ends Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum also likely will see their roles increase against Alabama.

This is a tough situation for Cunningham, who missed the Alamo Bowl last year because of a suspension. It's good to hear he'll be back this spring as he moves into the No. 1 role for the Spartans.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 24, 2010
Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

By Week 13, you are what you are. And I'm not Mr. Perfect (my wife reminds of this daily).

I've accepted the fact that I'll never have another spotless week of predictions. Came close again in Week 13, but whiffed on the Wrigley Game. Figures, given the curses that live in that building.

Three of the predictions this week are no-brainers, while the other two took some time to decide.

I spent most of my time on Michigan State-Penn State. For weeks, I've projected Penn State to knock off the Spartans, but I'm switching it up now. After several days of deliberations, I think Michigan State had its major scare against Purdue and will play better in Happy Valley. And while the environment will be tough, a noon ET kickoff and no drama regarding coach Joe Paterno's future works in Michigan State's favor.

Yes, I know this doesn't fall in line with my bowl projections for Penn State and Iowa, but I'll fix that on Sunday if things go as forecasted.

Without further ado ...

Ohio State 38, Michigan 20: Not even the magical powers of Greg Robinson's stuffed animal can get Michigan's defense to a place where it can knock off the Buckeyes. Denard Robinson keeps the Wolverines in this one for a while, but Ohio State takes over just before halftime and never looks back. Expect a big game for Dan "Boom" Herron on the ground, and wideout DeVier Posey bounces back with a touchdown grab.

Michigan State 28, Penn State 24: I'm buying in, Spartans fans. This is your year. Kirk Cousins is banged up and the Spartans haven't won in Happy Valley since the year before Paterno became Penn State head coach, but they get it done this year. Penn State lacks the pass rush to truly rattle Cousins, who will attack the Lions secondary with receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham. Michigan State rallies for the win and claims its first league title since 1990.

Purdue 31, Indiana 27: I'll break down the Bucket game in a video post later Wednesday. Check it out this afternoon.

Iowa 34, Minnesota 17: The Gophers end their scoreless streak against Iowa and even take an early lead in this one. But Iowa has too much pride and too much skill to fall apart, especially against a vulnerable Minnesota defense. Ricky Stanzi gets it in gear and tosses touchdown passes to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt as Iowa retains the Floyd of Rosedale.

Wisconsin 48, Northwestern 14: There's too much going for Wisconsin right now, and not enough going for Northwestern. This one turns into a rout as Montee Ball and James White run all over an inconsistent Northwestern defense. Badgers defensive end J.J. Watt records a pair of sacks and Wisconsin turns it on in the third quarter to essentially lock up its first Rose Bowl berth in 11 years.

Bye: Illinois

Last week: 4-1

Season record: 68-14 (.829)
Let's take a look back at Week 12 before looking ahead to rivalry week.

Team(s) of the Week: Wisconsin and Illinois. Both teams get the nod for different reasons. The Badgers overcame their Michigan misery and won in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1994. After Wisconsin's red-hot offense surged out to a 24-0 lead, the Badgers survived a mini scare in the third quarter before steamrolling Michigan with 28 consecutive designed run plays. Running backs James White and Montee Ball combined for 354 rush yards and six touchdowns in the win. Speaking of the ground game, no back in America had a bigger day than Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, who racked up a team-record 330 rushing yards against Northwestern. Behind Leshoure's brilliance, Illinois piled up 519 rush yards and claimed a must-win game against Northwestern at Wrigley Field to become bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor
Reese Strickland/US PresswireOhio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor overcame a pair of interceptions to lead the Buckeyes to a win.
Game of the Week: Ohio State at Iowa. The game featured three lead changes and an exciting fourth quarter defined by big plays on both sides of the ball. Both defenses came to play, and only one touchdown was scored in the first half. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor overcame two interceptions to lead a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives. After Buckeyes receiver DeVier Posey dropped a wide-open touchdown pass in the end zone with the Buckeyes down 17-13, Pryor saved the day with a 14-yard scramble on fourth-and-10. Ohio State scored the go-ahead touchdown moments later and its defensive line stepped up down the stretch. Iowa's season of heartbreak continued, while Ohio State kept its streak of Big Ten titles intact.

Biggest play: Three immediately come to mind. Pryor's scramble on fourth-and-10 likely saved Ohio State's season. Michigan State's Denicos Allen blocked a Purdue punt late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning touchdown as the Spartans rallied from a 28-13 deficit. And Penn State's Andrew Dailey and James Van Fleet teamed up for a punt block and a touchdown return that broke a 24-24 tie against Indiana at FedEx Field.

Specialist spotlight: The two punt blocks by Michigan State and Penn State loomed large in both teams' victories. Michigan State punter Aaron Bates had another big game, averaging 43.4 yards per punt and placing three inside the Purdue 20-yard line. After not attempting a punt the week before against Indiana, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman made the most out of his only chance against Michigan, pinning the Wolverines at their 1-yard line. Ohio State's Devin Barclay kicked a clutch field goal against Iowa for the second straight year, this time a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter. Both punters looked comfortable at Wrigley, as Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 53.5 yards per punt and Northwestern's Brandon Williams had a 45.2-yard average. Northwestern's Venric Mark had a 58-yard punt return that set up a Wildcats touchdown against Illinois.

Best sign: The Big Ten's last-minute decision to primarily use one end zone at Wrigley Field became the top story in college football heading into Saturday. But just in case players from Northwestern and Illinois didn't hear about the rule changes, a fan sitting behind the dreaded East end zone provided a reminder. He held up a sign that read: "Wrong Way!" Nice.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Penn State QB Matt McGloin: The sophomore racked up a career-high 315 pass yards and two touchdowns against Indiana, completing 22 of 31 attempts in the win. His 315 pass yards tie for the 10th most in team history.
  • Illinois LB Martez Wilson: The Chicago native sparkled in his hometown Saturday, recording three tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in the win against Northwestern.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: He completed his first 13 pass attempts against Michigan and showed good toughness, absorbing several hits before releasing the ball. Tolzien finished the game 14-for-15 for 201 yards and an interception.
  • [+] EnlargePenn State quarterback Matt McGloin
    AP Photo/Nick WassPenn State quarterback Matt McGloin had a career day in a win over Indiana.
    Michigan State WR Mark Dell: Dell made Senior Day a memorable one by recording eight receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. The senior receiver hauled in scoring passes of 24 yards and nine yards to match a career high for touchdowns.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: He started slowly against Wisconsin but came on strong in the second half. Robinson racked up 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, breaking the FBS single-season record for quarterback rushing. He also had 239 pass yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
  • Purdue CB Ricardo Allen: Any postseason awards list of top freshmen should include Allen, who recorded his second pick-six in as many weeks against Michigan State. He tied Mike Rose's single-season record for interceptions returned for touchdowns. Allen now leads Purdue with three interceptions this season.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: The junior played through pain and overcame an early miscue to record four touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) and 276 pass yards. Cousins completed passes to 10 different receivers in the come-from-behind win against Purdue.
  • Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor: It's not how you start in football, and Pryor finished extremely strong against Iowa. He led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, racked up 78 rush yards against a stout Iowa defense and passed for 195 yards.
  • Indiana WR Tandon Doss: The dynamic junior led Indiana in both receiving yards (90) and rushing yards (61) against Penn State. Doss had seven receptions and five rushes on the day. He also shined as a return man and finished the game with 293 all-purpose yards, tied for the seventh-best effort in team history.

Now let's look ahead to rivalry week.

Michigan (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) at No. 8 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1): If the Buckeyes win, they will tie a Big Ten record with their sixth consecutive league title (won or shared). They also aim for their seventh consecutive win against their archrival. Michigan can spoil it all for Ohio State and take the heat off of third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but a Wolverines win would qualify as a major upset. Pryor takes aim at a Wolverines defense that ranks 99th nationally in points allowed (33.6 ppg).

No. 10 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) at Penn State (7-4, 4-3): A special season for the Spartans comes down to this, the biggest game in recent team history. Michigan State can record a team record for wins if it beats Penn State, and a victory ensures the Spartans of at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990. McGloin and the Nittany Lions look to spoil the party and end the regular season with wins in five of their final six games.

Indiana (4-7, 0-7) at Purdue (4-7, 2-5): For the second straight year, the Bucket game will be played with just pride and bragging rights on the line. Neither Indiana nor Purdue will be going bowling this season, but both teams want to end 2010 on a good note. It could be a pivotal game for Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch, who has recorded just two Big Ten wins since his Hoosiers beat Purdue in 2007 to clinch a bowl berth.

No. 24 Iowa (7-4, 4-3) at Minnesota (2-9, 1-6): Iowa has shut out Minnesota in each of the last two seasons, and the Hawkeyes will come in angry after dropping back-to-back games. The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, come off of an open week after an uplifting win against Illinois and look for their first home victory of the season. It'll be the last game for quarterback Adam Weber, the other Minnesota seniors and probably most of the coaching staff. Iowa has won eight of the teams' last nine meetings.

Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) at Wisconsin (10-1, 6-1): The Badgers are playing for a share of their first Big Ten title since 1999 and most likely their first Rose Bowl appearance since that year. Barring an Ohio State loss, a Badgers win likely punches their ticket to Pasadena. Wisconsin's offense has been sensational as of late, and starting running back John Clay should be back in the fold. It likely spells bad news for Northwestern, which had no answer for Illinois' rushing attack at Wrigley.

Bye: Illinois (6-5, 4-4)
Quite a day in East Lansing and at FedEx Field as well. Here are my thoughts on the other two early Big Ten games.

Michigan State 35, Purdue 31: Wow. Spartan Nation is breathing a lot easier now after surviving a major scare from the Purdue Boilermakers. Michigan State needed 22 points in the fourth quarter to avoid what would have been one of the more damaging losses in program history, considering what's at stake. After a sloppy first half, the Spartans came alive on defense, special teams and eventually offense to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive. The biggest play came from redshirt freshman linebacker Denicos Allen, who blocked a Purdue punt that set up the game-winning touchdown run by quarterback Kirk Cousins. Arguably no team in the country has made more HUGE special teams plays than the Spartans. Wonder what Mark Dantonio is calling Allen's block? How about "Lifesaver?" Purdue received strong play from quarterback Rob Henry, who completed 16 of 26 passes after dealing with a laceration on his throwing hand. But Henry's youth showed late in the game with two interceptions, and Purdue couldn't pull off the upset and saw its bowl hopes vanish. Cousins had a pick-six in the first half as Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen continues to impress, but the quarterback settled down and got a lift from wideout Mark Dell (8 catches, 108 receiving yards, 2 TDs). Michigan State will need to be better next week in Happy Valley, but the Spartans have to feel relieved today.

Penn State 41, Indiana 24: Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin is a streaky player, but when he's on his game, look out. McGloin started strong and finished strong, completing 22 of 31 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns as Penn State recorded win No. 7 and likely clinched a Jan. 1 bowl game. Much like the Michigan State-Purdue game, this contest turned on a blocked punt. Andrew Dailey had the block and James Van Fleet returned the ball 21 yards to the end zone to break a 24-24 tie. Indiana started the game in lay-down mode, allowing two scoring drives in the first 15:04, but the Hoosiers rallied behind quarterback Ben Chappell and receivers Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner. Penn State racked up 496 yards against the Hoosiers, whose two biggest problems under coach Bill Lynch have been defense and the inability to close out Big Ten games. Both issues showed up today.

Big Ten lunch links

November, 19, 2010
As a writer once said ...
“I don't know how other colleges are, but when you walk around here, you’ve got people ... you've got guys walking around in dresses and just these hippies," Stanzi said. "They're doing nothing. There's the Ped Mall area down there, right in the middle. Those people are going nowhere. Those people are the people who don't like America."

Michigan State-Iowa pregame

October, 30, 2010
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- We're about 30 minutes away from kickoff here at Kinnick Stadium and both teams are on the field going through warm-ups.

Michigan State cornerback Chris L. Rucker went through warm-ups and looks ready to play. Wide receiver Keshawn Martin is in uniform, but will only play in emergency situations. Bennie Fowler and Mark Dell will handle punt returns.

Iowa linebackers Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiha Hunter also went through warm-ups, although it's likely that true freshman James Morris will get the nod at one of the linebacker spots.

Much more to come from Kinnick Stadium, so keep it right here.