Big Ten: Matt Barkley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll start to see at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan Man label carries a price tag. Those who earn it invest their bodies and their minds.

Some pay with deferred income.

For Taylor Lewan, becoming a Michigan Man carries a very hefty price tag, one with two commas. Lewan, the Wolverines' All-America left tackle, passed up millions in January when he announced he would return to Michigan for his senior season. After an excellent junior season and a solid performance against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Lewan had, in the view of most analysts, locked up a spot in the first round of the NFL draft. Some projected him as a top-10 pick.

"Everybody knew what Taylor could have been worth," Michigan defensive end Frank Clark said. "The type of season Taylor had -- All-American, All-Big Ten, he won the [Big Ten] offensive lineman of the year award -- I knew he was gone.

"I mean, who wouldn’t be?"

So why did it take Lewan all of 3½ hours to decide he'd be back at Michigan in 2013? Two words meant more to him than three letters and two commas.

He wants a title that, in his own blunt assessment, he doesn't deserve yet.

"I can't call myself a Michigan Man," Lewan told ESPN.com, "but that's what I want to become."

Lewan's decision to return served as an acknowledgement that his journey at Michigan isn't complete. He hasn't helped the Wolverines to their 43rd Big Ten championship (and first since 2004). He hasn't put himself among the greats -- Jake Long, Dan Dierdorf, Jumbo Elliott, Jon Jansen -- to play tackle for the Maize and Blue. He hasn't restored Michigan to the standard that coach Brady Hoke talks about on a daily basis.

But the decision also acknowledged how far Lewan had come at Michigan and how his view on the school had changed. Because when he arrived, the thought of leaving millions on the table for another year in school was laughable.

"When I came here, I didn't know anything," Lewan said. "All my friends are Ohio State fans, so I was always like, 'Ohio State's badass.' That's all I thought. I didn't know. I was getting away from Arizona for a couple years. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first couple years I was here, I still didn't know any of the tradition. I was playing for myself, I was playing for the opportunity to go to the NFL as soon as possible. That was my focus."

I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it. Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine.

-- Taylor Lewan
Things began to shift when Hoke arrived and started his push to restore Michigan to glory.

"Coming into a room and expecting excellence, talking about a Big Ten championship every single day, knowing we have 42 championships and there needs to be a 43rd, that repetition, talking about it, talking about it, it makes you think," Lewan said. "Now I know more about the tradition here. I know more about the winged helmet, 115,000 people at the game, the largest stadium in the country. There’s a tractor or something under the stadium because it fell in while they were building.

"The little things, it becomes a part of you."

Hoke calls it "an education," and Lewan will continue his on the field and in the classroom and outside of it at Michigan. Winning a Big Ten title and completing his degree factored into his decision, but Lewan also wants more out of his college experience.

He hopes another year at Michigan allows him to do what few college football players can -- engage in campus life.

"As a football player, the biggest thing you do is hang out with the football people," he said. "Maybe some hockey guys, maybe some baseball guys here and there. I don't really know what Michigan has out there. If you play college football, your college experience is officially different from everybody else's and that’s how it’s going to be. I think it would be cool to see the different societies going on at Michigan, meet different people, all the things they do to contribute to the University of Michigan.

"I contribute in such a little way compared to some other people. I'm a source of entertainment. The things other people do are much bigger than what I do."

Lewan's perspective is refreshing, but don't tell anyone around Schembechler Hall that the things he does are small.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner knows his blind side will be sealed this fall. Wolverines offensive line coach Darrell Funk knows he'll have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman anchoring the front five and helping lead a group that must replace starters at all three interior positions. Clark knows he'll have the best possible preparation for opposing offenses by battling the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan every day in practice.

"When Taylor announced [his return], that was pretty much at the peak of recruiting," Funk said. "All the arguments around the country were who has the No. 1 player? Who has the No. 1 recruit?

"I know when I went home that night, thinking of who got the No. 1 player in the country; I know I did."

Lewan often says the decision to return to Michigan is his and his alone. Like many high-level NFL prospects staying in school, he'll take out an insurance policy to guard against a career-threatening injury.

But there was no doubt in his mind when he made the announcement. If there had been, he'd be meeting with NFL teams right now and likely planning a trip to New York on April 25. Instead, he's preparing for Michigan's spring game Saturday at the Big House.

"People are going to absolutely think, 'He's crazy, he left all this money,'" said Lewan, whose decision drew skepticism from ESPN's Mel Kiper Insider and others. "It doesn't matter. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do now, I shouldn't be in the NFL anyway.

"It wouldn't be fair to Michigan for me to hold anything back. There's no foot-out-the-door attitude."

Lewan thinks he can improve every part of his game in his final season, from pass protection to double-teams to base blocks to the screen game. He's "nowhere near perfect" despite having a unique blend of size and athleticism that allows him to defeat pass-rushers in one-on-one matchups.

Funk notes that while Lewan certainly could have made the jump -- "Everyone that I talked to knew he was in that elite status" -- he also has areas to upgrade, such as certain run-blocking techniques.

"The scary thing about him," Funk said, "and I know it and he knows it, when we really break him down on tape, he’s got two to three things that when he improves on those, his stock's going to rise even further."

Funk has coached talented offensive linemen who need to be prodded to finish blocks. Lewan is the opposite, playing to the whistle and sometimes beyond it.

He earned a reputation for being "nasty" even before he made his debut as a redshirt freshman in 2010. In 2011, Lewan and Michigan State defensive end William Gholston exchanged unpleasantries during a game in East Lansing. Gholston received two personal-foul penalties and a one-game suspension for punching Lewan, but Lewan wasn't exactly a saint in the game.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Lewan and his coaches agree that the offensive lineman has things to work on his senior year.
Funk has seen Lewan rein things in a bit, but Lewan's desire to dominate opponents still burns.

"If I do my job and do it 100 percent between the whistles and just try to physically dominate someone every single play and make them hurt at the end of the game, that's enough for me to go home happy every Saturday," he said. "I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it.

"Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine."

Lewan wasn't always this way. A future in contact sports seemed unlikely after his career as a young hockey player ended very early.

"I played for a team called the Tarantulas," Lewan recalled. "It was a mite league, so there was no checking allowed. I was good. I would wield the stick. I was money at hockey. And then they had tryouts for a team and it was pee-wee, so you could check all of a sudden. Some guy laid me out. This guy hit me so damn hard.

"I got up and just skated off. I was done."

Despite a love for baseball, Lewan eventually warmed to football and the contact it brought. He started nine games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and has remained a fixture there ever since. Lewan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 before making numerous All-America teams last fall.

Lewan will hold his own draft party of sorts later this month. He'll watch the first-round selections, rooting on top linemen such as Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, as well as USC quarterback Matt Barkley, with whom he played in a high school all-star game.

"Watching them fulfill their dreams and knowing that someday I’ll hopefully be there, it’s just so cool to see," he said. "There's no jealousy or anything. If I'd wanted to leave, I would have left."

He's too busy enjoying himself at Michigan, whether he's growing an incredibly weak mustache as part of the line's "Muzzy Maulers" campaign, competing daily against Clark on the field and in the weight room, or tormenting Gardner in every way possible ("He's a bully, a big bully," Gardner said. "He picks on me, and he's so large I really can't do much about it. And he protects my blind side, so it's a lose-lose").

Michigan could have managed without Lewan, but his return "lifted a weight off our shoulders," Clark said.

"It brought joy back to the team," Clark continued. "He's one of the characters on the team, one of the motivators, one of the leaders. When I found out he’s coming back, that’s when it really clicked for me that it’s bigger than the NFL for him. It’s bigger than the money."

Lewan used to be a football player who happened to play for Michigan. He has become something more.

"The statement he made when he was asked why he came back and he said, 'You've never played football at Michigan,' that speaks volumes," Hoke said. "His goal is to help mold a young offensive line. His goal is to win a Big Ten championship. His goal is to become a better football player in all aspects. All those things are why he came back, but he wouldn’t have come back if he didn't play football at Michigan."

Lewan isn't sure how a Big Ten championship in 2012 would have affected his decision. He'd like to think he would have stayed. Maybe he would have bolted. The bottom line, he said, is it didn't happen.

His career is incomplete. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a Michigan Man.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it," Hoke said. "The way he's carried himself, the way he's led, how he approaches every day, he's put himself in that position."

Star power returns to college football

August, 16, 2012
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Stanford's Andrew Luck left a year early for the NFL. USC's Matt Barkley returned for his senior season. Baylor's Robert Griffin III bolted. Oklahoma's Landry Jones stayed. Alabama's Trent Richardson moved on. Wisconsin's Montee Ball is still in Madison.

The top six finishers in the Heisman Trophy vote were all underclassmen. The top three left early (Griffin, Luck and Richardson). But the next three came back (Ball, Tyrann Mathieu and Barkley, though Mathieu was given the boot from LSU).

On the defensive side of things, while superstars such as LSU's Morris Claiborne, Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and Alabama's Dont'a Hightower entered the draft early, others, such as LSU's Sam Montgomery, Utah's Star Lotulelei and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, came back.

Bottom line: There's a lot of star power returning to college football in 2012. More, perhaps, than usual. Each player has his own reasons for coming back, though visions of national championships, individual awards and, yes, better NFL draft position certainly danced in their heads.

Read more from Ted Miller by clicking here.
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Go ahead and mount that dartboard with Lane Kiffin's (usually) smug mug on it.

Place it next to the one of NCAA president Mark Emmert or any others considered villains in the fallout from the severe sanctions placed on Penn State's football program. Ask how and why the NCAA cleared the way for a star player to transfer from one program on probation to another.

But don't blame Silas Redd. He's no Benedict Arnold or Brutus. He's an extremely talented football player who had to make the best decision for his future.

As expected, Redd confirmed Tuesday that he's transferring from Penn State to USC. The second-team All-Big Ten running back in 2011, who ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, will be eligible to play immediately for the Trojans, who, like Penn State, have quite a tradition at running back. While Penn State is just beginning its penalty phase, which includes no postseason play for the next four years, USC is emerging from some of its own sanctions and will be eligible to compete for a national title for the first time since 2009.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSilas Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns at Penn State last season, is transferring to USC.
The NCAA made it as easy as possible for Penn State players to transfer without penalty. Kiffin came calling, and Redd, after visiting USC's campus during the weekend, accepted the invitation.

Redd ultimately had two good options.

1. Stay at Penn State, play in an NFL-style offense under new head coach Bill O'Brien, be the clear-cut featured back and have an excellent chance to turn pro after the season.

2. Go to USC, compete for the starting job, play behind the nation's top quarterback in Matt Barkley and compete for a Pac-12 title and quite possibly a national championship.

You can't fault a guy for wanting to play for a championship. Redd has that opportunity at USC, which likely will be the preseason No. 1 team in the polls.

This isn't a case of a cocky kid looking for the next best thing. Any Penn State fan who knows Redd or has read about him knows he's humble, hardworking and extremely classy. He comes from a terrific family and has earned everything that has come his way. His decision was extremely difficult, and he's leaving behind many close friends in State College.

Here's the full statement Redd issued about his decision, and here's an excerpt:
"Playing football at Penn State has been a dream of mine since I was seven years old, and I will be forever grateful that this dream became a reality," Redd's statement reads. "This is the reason that the decision I have made is so difficult for me: I will transfer to USC to complete my education and my college football career, beginning in the 2012-2013 year. Penn State gave me a phenomenal opportunity to become part of a legendary football program. My teammates, my coaches -- past and present -- and the staff have provided me with a tremendous amount of guidance and support since I arrived on campus, and I can't thank them enough for their time, their advice, and their friendship. They have given me such a strong foundation from which I can continue to grow."

Sure, he could have echoed the pledge made by several of Penn State's older players last week. He could have stuck it out in State College. But the NCAA sanctions changed things at Penn State, and the liberal transfer policies opened doors everywhere, even to other programs on probation, like USC. Is that debatable? Highly.

"I think it is important to say that this situation is not something that I wished for myself, but it has happened, nonetheless," Redd's statement reads.

Redd also finds himself in a different situation from most Lions players. He has two years of eligibility left, and likely will face an NFL decision after the season. He also plays a position where a transition to a new team, even just a month before the opener, shouldn't be overly dramatic.

His departure certainly stings. If Redd isn't Penn State's best player, he's a close second behind first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges.

Who takes over at running back for the Lions? Bill Belton will be a key player to watch in preseason camp. He ran the "Wild Lion" offense at times last season and possesses good speed. Curtis Dukes, a big back who missed spring ball because of academics, is weighing whether or not to stay in State College. Redd's decision could impact that of incoming running back recruit Akeel Lynch, who is considering Iowa as a possible transfer destination.

Running back suddenly has become a compelling position battle for Penn State, which kicks off fall practice Monday.

It'll be interesting to see the reaction to Redd's transfer. His exit is another setback for a program and a fan base dealing with plenty of them. More departures likely will come, including the possibility of linebacker Khairi Fortt heading to Cal.

But if you're looking for someone to blame, Redd isn't the answer.

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.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 1

September, 6, 2011
9/06/11
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The picks rewind is back!

Every Tuesday or Wednesday during the season, we'll take a look back at our game predictions, see how we fared and critique ourselves. Let's get started.

WEEK 1

Adam Rittenberg: 9-3

Brian Bennett: 10-2

Not an overly impressive start for either of us, given an opening slate filled with lopsided games. Both of us lacked faith in Northwestern without Dan Persa and paid the price. I picked the wrong upset special involving an Indiana school, and Ball State burned both of us big time.

Let's get to the picks and the games ...

UNLV at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 42, UNLV 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 45, UNLV 14
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 51, UNLV 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both start strong, as Bennett goes out on a limb and correctly predicts a big night for Wisconsin's offensive line. QB Russell Wilson performed as advertised, as I thought he would, and Montee Ball doubled my predicted touchdowns total with four (3 rush, 1 receiving).
Youngstown State at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 38, Youngstown State 3
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 48, Youngstown State 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 28, Youngstown State 6
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us overestimated Michigan State's offense in the opener, as the Spartans had a sluggish start. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had an efficient performance (18-of-22 passing, 222 yards, 1 TD), but wideout B.J. Cunningham had the biggest night (9 catches, 130 yards, 1 TD).
Northwestern at Boston College
  • Bennett's pick: Boston College 19, Northwestern 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Boston College 24, Northwestern 20
  • Actual score: Northwestern 24, Boston College 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us were close on the score predictions, but we didn't think Northwestern's offense could put up enough points without Persa. Backup quarterback Kain Colter showed good poise in his first career start, and he got plenty of help from the offensive line.
Akron at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 37, Akron 9
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 35, Akron 6
  • Actual score: Ohio State 42, Akron 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: Not a bad assessment here, although we both foolishly thought Akron could score on the venerated Buckeyes defense. If one of us had correctly predicted three touchdown receptions for an Ohio State tight end (Jake Stoneburner), we'd be in Vegas right now.
Indiana State at Penn State
  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 45, Indiana State 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 38, Indiana State 7
  • Actual score: Penn State 41, Indiana State 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: Two pretty good score predictions, although it didn't take Nostradamus to see this coming. My prediction of a big day for running backs Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum panned out, especially for Redd (104 rush yards, 2 TDs), as Penn State racked up 245 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Tennessee Tech at Iowa
  • Bennett's pick: Iowa 31, Tennessee Tech 16
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 34, Tennessee Tech 3
  • Actual score: Iowa 34, Tennessee Tech 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett foolishly underestimated the Hawkeyes' new-look defense (he'll learn), while I foolishly thought running back Marcus Coker would open with a bang (he did, fumbling twice and getting benched). Still, I'm pleased with my score prediction.
Middle Tennessee at Purdue
  • Bennett's pick: Purdue 21, Middle Tennessee 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Middle Tennessee 26, Purdue 24
  • Actual score: Purdue 27, Middle Tennessee 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: I nearly nailed the score but had the teams in the wrong order. Purdue proved me wrong by showing it could complete a late rally behind quarterback Caleb TerBush. Bennett correctly predicted a strong opener for Boilers running back Ralph Bolden (17 carries, 120 rush yards).
Minnesota at USC
  • Bennett's pick: USC 28, Minnesota 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: USC 30, Minnesota 20
  • Actual score: USC 19, Minnesota 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Count both of us among those surprised and impressed by Minnesota's performance at the L.A. Coliseum. The Gophers' defense struggled to stop Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, but it clamped down in the second half and limited points. Freshman quarterback Max Shortell showed good signs in relief of MarQueis Gray.
Western Michigan at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 48, Western Michigan 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 37, Western Michigan 16
  • Actual score: Michigan 34, Western Michigan 10
  • 20-20 hindsight: Either of our score predictions could have been on the money had the teams played a full 60 minutes. Stupid weather. We both thought Denard Robinson would have a big day, and while he performed well, he had help from his running backs and a strong offensive line.
Chattanooga at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Chattanooga 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 44, Chattanooga 7
  • Actual score: Nebraska 40, Chattanooga 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us predicted the Mocs wouldn't do much offensively, but we also expected a bit more from Nebraska's new-look offense. Rex Burkhead made me look good with 75 rush yards and a touchdown on only 11 carries, although quarterback Taylor Martinez had the bigger day on the ground.
Arkansas State at Illinois
  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 38, Arkansas State 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 41, Arkansas State 28
  • Actual score: Illinois 33, Arkansas State 15
  • 20-20 hindsight: Although the score predictions weren't super close, we both correctly forecast a big day for the Illini offense and some possible concerns for Vic Koenning's defense. We didn't envision two Illinois receivers (A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines) both eclipsing 100 receiving yards in the game.
Indiana vs. Ball State (at Indianapolis)
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 28, Ball State 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 23, Ball State 21
  • Actual score: Ball State 27, Indiana 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nearly nailed the score but should have switched the teams. Neither of us predicted a pretty game at Lucas Oil Stadium, but we thought Indiana would find a way in Kevin Wilson's debut. Whoops.

Gophers not going away in L.A.

September, 3, 2011
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Minnesota briefly interrupted the Matt Barkley-Robert Woods show and has put itself right back into the game.

The Gophers turned a USC special-teams gaffe into a touchdown as Duane Bennett scooted into the end zone from nine yards out, cutting the deficit to 19-10. Minnesota's defense still looks leaky against Barkley, who has been extremely sharp at the start of his third season, but the unit recorded a big fourth-down stop. The Gophers have been very good against the run today, but they need to start pressuring Barkley.

Minnesota's offense hasn't done much so far, and it's critical for quarterback MarQueis Gray to attack downfield more in the second half. Top wideout Da'Jon McKnight must get more involved after making only one catch so far.
A new Rose Bowl access rule could prevent the traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup Jan. 1 in Pasadena, but at least the two leagues will get to know one another very well on Saturday. Three Big Ten-Pac-10 games are on the slate, as No. 18 USC visits Minnesota (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), Arizona State visits Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) and No. 9 Iowa visits No. 24 Arizona (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET).

Bloggers Ted Miller (Pac-10) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) break down the three matchups.

[+] EnlargeJohn Clay
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCan Arizona State's defense stand up to Wisconsin running back John Clay?
Adam Rittenberg: Ted, it's been too long, my friend. The Rose Bowl seems like decades ago, although they're still celebrating in Columbus. Given the likelihood of Boise State or TCU crashing the party in Pasadena this year, it's nice to have some Pac-10-Big Ten flavor this Saturday. Let's start off with Arizona State-Wisconsin. The name Steven Threet still makes people shudder in Madison after he led Michigan to a historic comeback against Wisconsin in 2008, triggering the beginning of the end for the Badgers that year. It also turned out to be the beginning of the end for Threet in a winged helmet. He seems to be settling in very nicely so far in Tempe. What should Wisconsin expect from Threet and the Sun Devils on Saturday?

Ted Miller: An offense with extraordinary firepower! See an average of more than 500 yards and 47.5 ppg. Oh, wait. The Sun Devils played not one but two FCS foes. Hmm. And according to this box score, they rushed for just 56 yards on 29 carries against the hearty Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona. Double-hmm. Still, the early returns are fairly positive on Threet and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's spread attack. The Sun Devils' offense was so bad last year that merely being mediocre would be a huge improvement. A bigger issue than Threet: the offensive line. It wasn't consistent against FCS foes, so you'd think the Badgers front-seven might pose a problem. But, to me, the more interesting matchup is a fast Sun Devils defense versus an experienced, physical Badgers offense. What's your take?

Rittenberg: Totally agree that the game likely will come down to Arizona State's dynamic defense and Wisconsin's power run game, led by John Clay. He's the Big Ten's version of Toby Gerhart, except bigger. Clay has looked great this year, but Wisconsin needs to clean up some sloppy play on offense against the Sun Devils. The Badgers already failed on three red-zone scoring chances, matching their total from all of the previous season (53-for-56), and they've committed three turnovers inside the red zone. They have little trouble moving the ball and boast what I believe to be one of the nation's most balanced offenses, but they're not good enough to survive these mistakes much longer. Arizona State will have its hands full with Clay and a mammoth offensive line, but if the Sun Devils can use their speed and force turnovers, they'll have a shot in this one.

Let's move on to the other afternoon affair, USC at Minnesota. The Trojans haven't exactly been dominant this year, but at least they haven't lost to South Dakota. At home. Giving up 41 points and 444 yards. Yeesh. Your thoughts?

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Eugene TannerMatt Barkley will try to exploit a Minnesota defense that gave up 258 yards to South Dakota
Miller: Here are two teams that are muddling along, though the Trojans surely feel better about 2-0 -- no matter the way they got there -- than the Gophers do with 1-1, including the loss to a team from the Dakotas. Adam, I have no idea about the Trojans. They still look great getting off the bus. They still have NFL prospects at every position. In Week 1 at Hawaii, the offense looked great, the defense terrible. In Week 2 at home versus Virginia, it was mostly the opposite. Is it a question of fire and focus in the face of NCAA sanctions? I think we won't really be able to answer that question until the Pac-10 schedule starts. As for this one, I think the Trojans are going to roll. But I wrote that the previous two weeks and ended up being wrong. So what do I know?

What's your take?

Rittenberg: This is an odd matchup. In some ways, USC is just asking to get beat. But how can Minnesota take down Troy if it can't keep South Dakota to fewer than 40 points? The Gophers defense obviously is a major question mark, and I fully expect Matt Barkley to attack downfield a lot on Saturday. Minnesota gets a boost as safety Kyle Theret returns from suspension, giving the defense one returning starter from 2009. The other thing here is if things go back for Minnesota at the start, any sort of home-field edge will disappear. They're not too pleased with coach Tim Brewster right now in the Twin Cities. Minnesota's only chance is to control the clock with Duane Bennett and its power run game, and keep Barkley and Dillon Baxter off the field. A huge challenge.

OK, we've saved the best for last: Iowa at Arizona. Both teams look great so far. Iowa won last year's game, but trips out West haven't been kind to the Hawkeyes lately. What happens in Tucson?

Miller: First off, it's a great offense-defense matchup, with Nick Foles and an experienced UA offense taking on one of the best defenses in the nation. The cautionary tale for Wildcats fans is that also seemed like the case heading into the Holiday Bowl versus Nebraska, which became a complete disaster. Foles has a good offensive line, but the Hawkeyes have an NFL defensive front. If the Wildcats can get any sort of running game -- and Nic Grigsby is an explosive guy who can make a big play out of a small crack -- then things will be far easier for Foles and a quick-hit passing game. Foles is extremely accurate and he has a deep receiving corps. Yet to me the game turns on the Wildcats' rebuilt front seven. The unit replaced both tackles and all three linebackers and has played better than expected, but Iowa is a different sort of beast. If the Hawkeyes can run power effectively, then the Wildcats will be in trouble. If Iowa has to throw, I like the Wildcats secondary's chances versus Ricky Stanzi, who as you well know, Adam, hasn't always been the manzi.

What do you see from this one?

[+] EnlargeAdrian Clayborn
Icon SMICan Arizona's offensive line contain Adrian Clayborn?
Rittenberg: Should be a great one in the desert. Iowa knows Arizona has come a long way since last year's meeting in Iowa City, when Foles hadn't yet emerged as the starter. The game could come down to whether Arizona can get Grigsby going and protect Foles against the Hawkeyes, who boast arguably the nation's best defensive line. Star defensive end Adrian Clayborn has been a bit quiet so far this season, but he usually plays his best in big games. Arizona typically has some outstanding defensive backs, but don't underestimate The Manzi, who has yet to throw an interception this year. So love it or leave it, pal! Iowa can stretch the field with receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, and the run game has looked good so far with Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton. The Hawkeyes won in State College, Madison and East Lansing last year, but they haven't fared well historically in these trips out West. Arizona definitely has some built-in advantages.

OK, prediction time. Who wins in the three Pac-10-Big Ten matchups?

Miller: Somehow I knew you were going to ask that.

I think USC will handle Minnesota fairly easily: Trojans 41, Gophers 20.

I think Arizona State will be competitive at Wisconsin but the Sun Devils will struggle to score -- and possess the ball -- and the defense will wear down: Wisconsin 27, Arizona State 17.

As for Arizona-Iowa: I go back and forth, but I'm going to risk the ire of the Wildcats faithful and pick Iowa 28, Arizona 24. I just don't think the Arizona defense will be able to hold up all night, and that will allow the Hawkeyes to take a lead at some point in the second half and then play keep-away with the run game.

So, for what REALLY is going to happen... Ladies and gentlemen, Adam Rittenberg.

Rittenberg: Why thank you, good sir.

The Gophers save face a bit against USC and hang around for a while before Barkley and his receivers prove too much for a young defense. Trojans win 35-23.

Wisconsin controls the clock as always and cleans up some of its mistakes in the red zone. Threet leads two first-half scoring drives before the Badgers take control and win 30-20.

Iowa-Arizona should be a great one. The elements will be tough for the Hawkeyes, and they'll fall behind early. But I've got to go with the better defense and the more battle-tested team. Iowa wins 26-21.

So we agree. We'll have to fight over the Rose Bowl pick this year. I've got Boise State!

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 16, 2010
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South Dakota ended my quest for perfection (or was it Minnesota?). Either way, I'll try to start a new streak this week.

Michigan 43, Massachusetts 14: Denard Robinson does his thing for two and a half quarters before the real drama begins. Does Devin Gardner get the first call after Shoelace, or will it be Tate Forcier? Both reserve quarterbacks end up playing well as Michigan improves to 3-0.

Ohio State 41, Ohio 6: The Buckeyes receive an efficient performance from Terrelle Pryor, and receiver DeVier Posey beats his big brother Julian for two touchdowns. No special teams meltdowns this week, and the defense keeps the Bobcats out of the end zone.

Penn State 35, Kent State 10: After two quiet weeks, Evan Royster arrives in a big way against Kent State. The senior running back goes for 140 yards and three touchdowns against a good run defense, and quarterback Rob Bolden bounces back nicely from the Alabama loss.

Illinois 26, Northern Illinois 14: I'm buying into Illinois' defensive improvement under Vic Koenning, and the Illini receive another solid performance from Ian Thomas, Tavon Wilson and crew. Northern Illinois seems to be struggling to put it all together, and the Illini need this game more.

Purdue 34, Ball State 17: Receivers Justin Siller and Antavian Edison emerge as Purdue begins life without star wideout Keith Smith. The Boilers start slowly for the second consecutive week but get it going in the second quarter, as Dan Dierking eclipses 100 rushing yards for the second consecutive week.

USC 35, Minnesota 23: I've got a strange feeling about this one. Minnesota isn't as bad as it looked against South Dakota, and USC seems to be just skating by on its talent right now. I can't pick the Gophers to win, not with their issues on defense, but they'll come out energized after the Dakota Debacle. Minnesota takes an early lead, but Matt Barkley and his receivers prove to be too much in the second half.

Wisconsin 30, Arizona State 20: This is my Pick of the Week. Check the blog later as I'll have a video explaining my prediction in greater detail.

Indiana 45, Western Kentucky 21: The Hoosiers' offense shows no rust from the 16-day layoff, as Ben Chappell, Darius Willis and Tandon Doss all have big days against a woeful Western Kentucky defense. Indiana's defense struggles against Bobby Rainey, raising some concerns as Big Ten play beckons.

Northwestern 27, Rice 21: Another tricky road game for Pat Fitzgerald's crew against a Rice team that did some good things against Texas in the opener. The Owls jump ahead early and former Michigan running back Sam McGuffie reaches the end zone, but the Wildcats control play in the second half behind quarterback Dan Persa and receiver Jeremy Ebert.

Michigan State 33, Notre Dame 31: A very tough call here. Expect an entertaining shootout in East Lansing, as both offenses find their groove. I'm not sold on the Spartans' defense, and Notre Dame takes advantage as Michael Floyd has a big night. But Michigan State's balanced attack also steps up as Kirk Cousins rallies the team in the fourth quarter and Dan Conroy kicks a 42-yard field goal as time expires.

Iowa 26, Arizona 21: Arizona feeds off an electric atmosphere and jumps ahead behind Nic Grigsby, but Iowa duplicates what it did all last year and rallies on the road behind quarterback Ricky Stanzi. The senior signal caller overcomes an early interception and leads the game-winning touchdown drive, hitting Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the decisive touchdown.

Last week: 9-1

Season record: 20-1 (.952)
Tim Brewster often gets criticized for putting a positive spin on everything, but the Minnesota coach was brutally honest about what happened last week against South Dakota.

"It's a game in which we should have won," he said Tuesday. "There's no excuse for us to lose that football game. ... It’s a game we expected to win. The reality is we didn't win it."

A 41-38 loss to the FCS Coyotes wiped away any momentum Minnesota generated from its season-opening win at Middle Tennessee. The calls for Brewster's firing have intensified in the Twin Cities, and a former Gophers All-American described the program's current state as "shameful" in an interview with the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.

Suddenly, those preseason predictions of 2-10 for Minnesota don't seem overly harsh. But Brewster hasn't lost faith in his team.

Check out this tidbit of bravado he shared on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference.

"One game is not going to define us," he said. "It's one game of 13 games we're going to play this season."

As you know, Minnesota is only guaranteed to play 12 contests, but Brewster believes the Gophers will go bowling for the third consecutive season.

To do so, Minnesota can't let the South Dakota loss linger.

"I'm certainly not going to let our team be down," Brewster said. "That's one game in the season. The attitude's fine on our football team. There's great conviction. And there's a great urgency, knowing just how good a football team Southern Cal is."

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention Minnesota hosts No. 18 USC on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET).

If the Gophers made South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren look like an All-American last week, think what Matt Barkley and his receivers will do Saturday. USC hasn't been exactly dominant in its first two victories, but Barkley ranks 12th nationally in pass efficiency, tossing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

He takes aim at a defense that surrendered 444 yards to South Dakota and Warren, who accounted for 433 of those yards in just his second career start.

"They look like the USC that I've always seen: big, physical, strong, fast on defense, and an outstanding quarterback in Matt Barkley," Brewster said. "You certainly have your hands full when you’re playing a football team as talented as they are. I don't know if there's any great time to play 'em, but I do know this: we're excited about the opportunity to get a chance to measure ourselves against a team like Southern Cal."

Minnesota has played 11 first-year starters on defense for the first two games, a significant factor in the struggles against South Dakota. But help arrives Saturday as senior safety Kyle Theret makes his season debut after being suspended for the first two contests.

Safety Kim Royston (leg) won't play against the Trojans, but Theret brings two and a half years of starting experience to the secondary. Theret has recorded nine career interceptions, including two in his last game, the 2009 Insight Bowl.

"We've got a great opportunity on Saturday," Brewster said.

Big Ten Week 2 rewind/Week 3 preview

September, 13, 2010
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Let's look back at Week 2 before looking ahead to Saturday's completely full slate (11 games) of Big Ten action.

[+] EnlargeRicky Stanzi
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRicky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes had their way with Iowa State on Saturday.
Team of the week: Iowa. Ohio State and Michigan drew more national attention, as usual, but Iowa delivered the most impressive performance of the day. The Hawkeyes annihilated in-state rival Iowa State, storming out to a 35-0 lead behind Adam Robinson and Ricky Stanzi. Iowa State supposedly had improved since last year's meeting, but the Hawkeyes once again victimized quarterback Austen Arnaud for three interceptions. After walking the tightrope every week in 2009, Iowa isn't letting inferior teams hang around. It'll be interesting to see how the Hawkeyes perform Saturday at Arizona.

Best game: Michigan at Notre Dame. For the second consecutive season, the Wolverines and Irish provided plenty of drama. And once again, a young quarterback became the hero for the Maize and Blue. Denard Robinson's brilliance helped Michigan overcome a late defensive breakdown and rally for a 28-24 victory in South Bend. The game featured plenty of plot twists, as Notre Dame jumped ahead early, lost quarterback Dayne Crist to injury, got him back and took the lead before falling. Just great theater in one of college football's great cathedrals.

Biggest play: Going with three of them this week. Robinson set a Notre Dame Stadium record with his 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, a beautiful display of pure speed. And who doesn't like to see a defensive lineman rumble? That's exactly what Ohio State's Cameron Heyward did on an 80-yard interception return against Miami early in the third quarter with the game still very much in doubt. Purdue running back Al-Terek McBurse also deserves props for keeping his balance while rolling over a Western Illinois defender and then scooting into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown run.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State entered the season with major questions at the kicker spot after losing standout Brett Swenson. Dan Conroy eased the concern Saturday against Florida Atlantic, converting field goal attempts of 50, 44 and 41 yards. Conroy is 4-for-4 on field goals for the season. Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay tied a team record with five field goals before missing his sixth attempt. "It was the first time I've ever been in a game where the kicker cramped up," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said afterward.

Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Robinson and Terrelle Pryor get all the pub, but Persa is leading the nation in pass efficiency with an amazing rating of 212.06. He has completed 86.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no picks. It's still early, but Persa is answering NU's biggest question mark entering the fall.
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan: Kerrigan is continuing his dominant play from 2009 and recorded four tackles for loss with a sack and a forced fumble against Western Illinois. He leads the league in both tackles for loss (6.5) and forced fumbles (2), and ranks fifth in tackles (19).
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: Another player who has carried over his success from last fall, Leshoure racked up 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 15 carries against Southern Illinois. Imagine what he'll do if he ever gets a full carries load.
  • Michigan State WR/KR/PR Keshawn Martin: Martin showed against Florida Atlantic why he can be so dangerous for the Spartans this year. He had a 42-yard reception, a 46-yard kickoff return and a 47-yard punt return. He finished with a game-high 204 all-purpose yards.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: Labeled as doubtful last Monday after taking a huge shot against UConn, Roundtree not only played against Notre Dame but led Michigan with eight receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown. Plus, he took another big hit in the game. Gutsy performance.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt is performing like an All-Big Ten player so far this season, and he came up big against San Jose State with 2.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a blocked field goal attempt.
  • Purdue RB Dan Dierking: Dierking eased some concerns about the Boilers' run game with 14 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns against Western Illinois. He broke career bests for rushes, rushing yardage and touchdowns for the second straight game.
How bizarre: The entire Miami-Ohio State game fits into this category. Ohio State allowed a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same game for the first time in team history. Miami's Jacory Harris threw four interceptions and still had a chance in the second half. Pryor completed just 12 of 27 passes but still put up great yardage totals for both passing (233) and rushing (113). Just a very weird game at The Shoe, but the Buckeyes will take the W.

Now, let's take a quick look at the Week 2 slate ...

Massachusetts (2-0) at Michigan (2-0): What will Robinson do next? Tune in for the first half, as he might not be around for much of this one. The real subplot should be how Michigan uses backup quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tate Forcier.

Ohio (1-1) at Ohio State (2-0): Frank Solich's Bobcats gave the Buckeyes a real scare two years ago, but Ohio is coming off of a home loss to Toledo. Can't see Ohio State letting Ohio hang around very long.

Kent State (1-1) at Penn State (1-1): The Lions should finally be able to get Evan Royster and the run game going, right? One problem: Kent State leads the nation in rush defense, allowing just 11 yards per game.

Northern Illinois (1-1) at Illinois (1-1): The Illini looked great against Southern Illinois and try to continue maintain their unbeaten record (12-0) against public schools from the state. NIU coach Jerry Kill could miss the game after being hospitalized Sunday.

Ball State (1-1) at Purdue (1-1): Life without star wide receiver Keith Smith begins for the Boilers, who still are looking for more consistency on both sides of the ball. Can Dierking nail down Purdue's top running back spot?

USC (2-0) at Minnesota (1-1): These are the big-ticket games Tim Brewster wants to play at Minnesota, but the heat is rising on the fourth-year coach after an embarrassing loss to South Dakota. USC's Matt Barkley takes aim at a Gophers' secondary that made South Dakota's Dante Warren look like superman.

Arizona State (2-0) at Wisconsin (2-0): Steven Threet sparked Wisconsin's downward spiral in 2008 after leading Michigan to a historic come-from-behind win at the Big House. Now Threet leads the Sun Devils into Madison looking for an upset.

Indiana (1-0) at Western Kentucky (0-2): Remember the Hoosiers? It feels like months since they last played. All-Big Ten wideout Tandon Doss is expected to make his season debut as Indiana hits the road for the first time.

Northwestern (2-0) at Rice (1-1): The Michigan-Big Ten reunion continues as former Wolverines running back Sam McGuffie faces Northwestern. This could be a tricky game for the Wildcats, but if Persa continues to perform like he has, they should be fine.

Notre Dame (1-1) at Michigan State (2-0): We should learn a lot more about the Spartans in this prime-time affair, as Notre Dame should test a secondary that struggled mightily in 2009. Linebacker Greg Jones and the Michigan State seniors try to go 3-1 against the Irish.

Iowa (2-0) at Arizona (2-0): Stay up late for this one, people. Both teams have looked dominant so far, and Iowa will have to adjust to the elements in the desert. Nick Foles and the Arizona offense will test Adrian Clayborn & Co., but Arizona also must contend with an Iowa offense that looks very strong so far.
Best call:

How bizarre: The entire Miami-Ohio State game fits into this category. Ohio State allowed a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same game for the first time in team history. Miami's Jacory Harris threw four interceptions and still had a chance in the second half. Terrelle Pryor completed just 12 of 27 passes but still put up great yardage totals for both passing (233) and rushing (113). Just a very weird game at The Shoe, but the Buckeyes will take the W.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 2

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
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Five lessons from the week that was in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireDenard Robinson threw for 244 yards and had two rushing touchdowns in Michigan's win over Notre Dame.
1. Denard Robinson isn't a one-hit wonder. If and when Michigan starts the season 4-0, many will compare the quick start to 2009, when Tate Forcier led the Wolverines to four consecutive victories to open the year. We all know what happened next. Is this simply a rerun? It's possible, but Robinson and the Wolverines look more legit this season. Robinson followed a huge Week 1 performance with an even better effort in Week 2 at Notre Dame. He broke records again, but more important, he showed tremendous poise in the clutch, leading the game-winning drive. Robinson's speed is the real deal, and he's making all this happen within the confines of Rich Rodriguez's offense. Michigan still has to make strides to challenge the Big Ten's best, but if Shoelace can stay healthy, the Wolverines will win in league play.

2. Iowa isn't messing around this year. It's not merely enough to win in today's college football. Style points matter. Iowa learned this lesson in 2009, when it got virtually no national respect for a Houdini-like 9-0 start. So far this season, the Hawkeyes aren't letting their opponents hang around. After crushing Eastern Illinois last week, Iowa dominated in-state rival Iowa State, building a 35-0 lead behind running back Adam Robinson, quarterback Ricky Stanzi and a stingy defense. Iowa doesn't expect things to be easy this week on the road against Arizona, but the Hawkeyes head to the desert with a ton of confidence.

3. Ohio State can hang with speed again. Fairly or unfairly, the Buckeyes became the poster boys for the slow Big Ten after back-to-back losses to SEC teams in the BCS championship game. After convincing wins against Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Miami on Saturday, it's clear that Ohio State has cleared its speed bump. The 2010 defense not only is fast, but extremely opportunistic and physical. Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa and safety C.J. Barnett were among the Buckeyes' defenders who stood out against Miami. Ohio State also boasts speed on offense, starting with Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. The Buckeyes aren't a perfect team right now -- the special teams issues must be corrected -- but they're not a slow one, either.

4. Minnesota could be in big trouble. After a fairly encouraging performance in the opener, Minnesota backslid in a big way Saturday. Losing to FCS South Dakota is bad enough, but Minnesota simply couldn't stop quarterback Dante Warren and the Coyotes offense. The Gophers did a nice job of keeping their defense off the field in Week 1, but there clearly are some major problems with a new-look unit. Making matters worse, Matt Barkley and the USC Trojans come to town next week. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster's seat cooled down a bit after Week 1. This is the type of loss that really turns up the heat.

5. The Big Ten looks like a deeper league. The top still looks very strong with Ohio State and Iowa, while Wisconsin isn't far away despite two somewhat worrisome performances. But through two weeks, the middle of the league has been better than most folks believed. Michigan's rise certainly helps, and Michigan State has looked good so far as well. Despite Penn State's loss at No. 1 Alabama, the Nittany Lions should win at least eight games, and Northwestern turned in a very good performance Saturday. There's still a long way to go, but the league has more than just the big three (Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin).
The Big Ten takes a little longer than most leagues to release its full football schedule, but for the most part, we know which teams will be playing and when. Nonconference scheduling has been a sore subject in the league for quite some time, but things are gradually improving and should be better in future seasons.

Which teams are truly stepping out on a limb this fall?

Here's a look at the five most challenging nonconference games involving Big Ten teams.

1. Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11: When you face the defending national champs in their house early in the season, you've got a good chance of being at the top of this list. A young quarterback will lead Penn State into Tuscaloosa to face Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones and the Crimson Tide. Penn State will need to control the clock with Evan Royster and the run game and get a huge performance from its defense to keep pace with Bama.

2. USC at Minnesota, Sept. 18: USC went through a coaching transition and comes off its worst season since 2001. Minnesota also gets the Trojans in its home stadium. But USC will be better on defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, and Matt Barkley also should make strides in his second season. There's so much talent on the Trojans roster, and Minnesota will be tested in every aspect of the game.

3. Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11: There will be a ton of buzz around this matchup, and I probably would have ranked it higher before watching Miami crumble against Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl. Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes still have something to prove on the national stage, and they'll get a chance against a ferocious Buckeyes defense led by Cameron Heyward. Miami's speed and athleticism will test the Buckeyes, and the matchup between Harris and Terrelle Pryor will be a lot of fun.

4. Iowa at Arizona, Sept. 18: The Hawkeyes passed all but one of their road tests in 2009, and they'll be challenged with an early trip to the desert. Arizona brings back a lot of offensive firepower, including quarterback Nick Foles, running back Nic Grigsby and wide receiver Juron Criner. The Wildcats lost only one home game in 2008, a double-overtime heartbreaker against Pac-10 champion Oregon. Iowa will need to be sound on defense and limit mistakes on offense.

5. Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 4: It was close between Purdue-ND and Illinois-Missouri for the fifth spot, but Notre Dame seems to always win games like this one. Since Frank Leahy became Notre Dame coach in 1941, only one Fighting Irish head man has lost his first game on the job (Lou Holtz endured a 1-point defeat to No. 3 Michigan in 1986). Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks and questions on defense, but it will be tough to know what to expect from innovative play-caller Brian Kelly in Week 1.
My look back at the best case-worst case series continues with ... Ohio State.

In case you missed it: Ohio State's best case-worst case.

Best-case synopsis: Terrelle Pryor starts to figure it out and joins forces with a dominant defense to lead Ohio State to the BCS title game. ... Pryor dissects USC's defense in a 28-17 win and Ohio State surges into Big Ten play. ... Ohio State's defense squeezes Juice Williams in a rout of Illinois, and the run game gets rolling as the Buckeyes head to Penn State and edge the Nittany Lions 21-20 in a dramatic win. ... Left guard Justin Boren leads a dominant rushing performance against his former team in Ann Arbor. ... Ohio State goes to Pasadena and upsets No. 1 Florida in the title game to complete a perfect season.

Worst-case synopsis: Ohio State continues to struggle in big games, and Pryor still can't develop as a pocket passer. ... Matt Barkley outshines Pryor as USC rolls over the Buckeyes on their home turf Sept. 12. ... Ohio State loses its second game to Illinois and records five straight ho-hum wins before falling to Penn State in Happy Valley. ... Things get worse as Ohio State loses to both Iowa and Michigan, which snaps its losing streak in The Game. ... The Buckeyes miss a BCS bowl for the first time since 2004 but still beat Kansas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

You can't handle the truth: (quotes from the original post) "Ohio State struggles for a half against Navy, and much like last year's game against Ohio, no one leaves The Shoe feeling good about the team's chances against USC." ... "Ohio State's big-game blues continue." ... "Cognizant of what happened the last time Juice Williams visited Columbus, Ohio State's defensive line puts Williams on his back throughout a Sept. 26 game." ... "The Buckeyes clear another hurdle the next week against Iowa to clinch at least a share of their fifth-consecutive league title." ... "A trip to Ann Arbor follows, and Ohio State continues its dominance of the archrival Wolverines. Buckeyes left guard Justin Boren, a Michigan transfer, manhandles the Wolverines defensive tackles." ... The defensive front mirrors the 2002 version."

Lies, lies, lies: "USC visits Columbus the next week and Pryor steals the show, throwing for three touchdowns and bulldozing Taylor Mays in a 28-17 win." ... "Daryll Clark leads the game-winning touchdown drive as Penn State ends Ohio State's Big Ten road win streak at 17 games. Ohio State's run of Big Ten titles ends the next week as Iowa prevails in Columbus." ... "Jim Tressel wins his second national title at Ohio State. Pryor finishes third in Heisman voting and enters 2010 as the frontrunner." ... "The defense takes a step back." ... "The Buckeyes give up their Big Ten crown."

Reality check: The Buckeyes seemed headed toward the worst-case scenario until making a U-turn following their stunning loss to Purdue on Oct. 17. Considered an afterthought in the Big Ten title race, Ohio State won its final four Big Ten games to win the league title outright. Pryor had his ups and downs but limited mistakes down the stretch as the running game finally got going behind an improved offensive line. Despite losing multiple national award winners, Ohio State's defense was the single-most dominating unit in the Big Ten. Ohio State now heads to its first Rose Bowl in 13 years and tries to snap a three-game slide in BCS bowls against a dynamic Oregon squad.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After losing several national award winners, Ohio State's defense adopted the motto of, "No names, no blame, no worries" for the 2009 season.

The Buckeyes left Michigan Stadium on Saturday with absolutely nothing to worry about, having clinched their sixth consecutive victory against their archrival and their third outright Big Ten title in the last four years. They had Michigan blaming itself for five turnovers and other missed opportunities in plus territory.

Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State safety Kurt Coleman caught two crucial interceptions in the Buckeyes win over rival Michigan.



And several Ohio State defenders definitely made names for themselves in the process.

The Buckeyes rode big plays on defense to a 21-10 victory, filling up the box score with tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions and a forced fumble that started it off in the first quarter. From safety Kurt Coleman to cornerback Devon Torrence to defensive end Cameron Heyward to linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, Ohio State won thanks to its cast of stars on defense.

"Every time we get in the red zone, we've had a higher awareness," said Coleman, who had two interceptions, both in Ohio State territory, to go along with two pass breakups. "We've just been fortunate enough to make the plays when we need it. We've been wanting to get after the ball, and it's showing out on the field."

Last year, Ohio State ranked 14th nationally in total defense and tied for 20th in takeaways with 29. Though the Buckeyes have maintained their overall toughness on D, they've been more opportunistic this season.

They now have 33 takeaways on the season, which might lead the nation after Saturday's games (Ohio State came into the day ranked sixth nationally). Ohio State now has five players with multiple interceptions, led by Coleman (5), and seven players with at least one fumble recovery.

"The first thing we said all week was, 'You can't turn the ball over,'" Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. "And we turned it over. You can't win like that."

Young quarterbacks had given Ohio State a bit of trouble in a loss to USC (Matt Barkley) and last week's overtime win against Iowa (James Vandenberg). Michigan freshman Tate Forcier moved the ball at times Saturday, but his five turnovers (4 interceptions, 1 fumble) were the difference.

"We just came up with more plays," Coleman said. "Against USC, we just couldn't come up with the plays that we needed to, and this time, we did."

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Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12