Big Ten: Michigan State
With movement happening across the board, there are trends and stories developing, so Big Ten recruiting writers Tom VanHaaren and Brad Bournival give you a look at what to watch within the conference:
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Robert Blanton's goal-line interception and ensuing 82-yard return to the MSU 11 sealed the victory for the Fighting Irish, who had just turned it over on a John Goodman fumble on a punt return with less than five minutes to play.
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times Saturday but was able to overcome those mistakes thanks to a solid defensive performance. The unit turned the Spartans into a one-dimensional unit on offense, as Michigan State's ground game never got going.
Be sure to keep it here for more coverage after the game from the Irish's first victory of the season.
Not too shabby.
But a three-score lead in the second half against a school from Michigan can only go so far, as we saw last week. The Fighting Irish have protected the ball well after two turnovers in the first quarter and need to continue bringing pressure on Kirk Cousins, who has been unable to sustain any drives for the Michigan State offense.
The Irish are taking over at their own 20 with 1:01 left in the third quarter, and a touchdown drive here would seemingly put the game away. But if we've learned anything through two weeks of watching this team, it's that the game really isn't ever over until the clock flashes nothing but zeroes at the end of the fourth quarter.
Stat of the half: 13. Notre Dame has held MSU to 13 yards on the ground on 14 carries, bottling up Edwin Baker and getting pressure on Kirk Cousins. The problem, of course, has been stopping the intermediate throws.
Best player in the half: Cierre Wood. The running back has set the tone on offense for the Irish, carrying the ball nine times for 64 yards and two scores. The Irish will rely more on him and Jonas Gray playing with a lead in the second half.
What Notre Dame needs to do: The Irish need to continue to pressure Cousins, who has taken some nasty hits in the first half. Aaron Lynch has gotten through MSU's offensive line several times and delivered a few blows himself.
What team Michigan State needs to do: The Spartans have done a solid job on Michael Floyd so far, limiting him to three catches and 45 yards, with one catch accounting for 33 of those yards. But MSU needs to keep getting the ball to its main threat, B.J. Cunningham. He has four catches for 64 yards so far and has been all over the field, causing problems for the Irish defense. He'll become a more important weapon with MSU playing from behind.
And, consequently, it gave the Fighting Irish's defense a much needed break after a pair of turnovers and a kickoff return for a score kept the unit running onto the field without any real rest.
The Irish went 92 yards on 10 plays, taking up four minutes, 49 seconds. Tommy Rees' 33-yard pass to Michael Floyd was the big play, but Notre Dame's ground game has opened things up, with Wood and Jonas Gray each getting nine carries and running for 64 and 54 yards, respectively.
On defense, the Irish have bottled up Edwin Baker and the rest of Sparty's ground attack, limiting it to eight yards going into what is likely its final drive of the half. Kirk Cousins has had success on play-action and has completed 8 of 12 passes, but the Irish have been getting to him in the backfield, and the run threat can only last so long.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Ohio State's defense will be anchored in 2008 by linebacker James Laurinaitis.|
I'll get to all the position rankings eventually, scout's honor. After looking at the Big Ten's linebacker units last week, it's time to break down the top individuals around the league. The top line is pretty obvious, but things get interesting from there. Neither Michigan nor Penn State have players on the list -- the Nittany Lions' Sean Lee would have been No. 2 if healthy -- but both teams could have some entries by the end of the season.
Here's the top 10:
1. James Laurinaitis, Sr., Ohio State -- Arguably no linebacker in the country has a more impressive trophy case than Laurinaitis, who added the Butkus Award last season after claiming the Nagurski Award as a sophomore in 2006. The two-time All-American has racked up 236 tackles and nine sacks in the last two seasons.
2. Marcus Freeman, Sr., Ohio State -- He doesn't get the accolades like Laurinaitis, but his steady play at weak-side linebacker has helped Ohio State become one of the nation's top defenses. A second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, Freeman ranked ninth in the league in tackles with 109, including 9.5 stops for loss.
3. Jonathan Casillas, Sr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers' linebackers underachieved a bit last season, but Casillas still led the team in tackles (96) and finished strong with four tackles for loss in the Outback Bowl. A former team captain who has earned honorable mention all-conference honors the last two seasons, Casillas should have a strong senior season.
4. Greg Jones, So., Michigan State -- Emerging star for Spartans became the first true freshman to lead the team in tackles since Dan Bass in 1976. Jones earned consensus first-team freshman All-America honors and was constantly around the ball. A move to middle linebacker this spring will only enhance his role as a playmaker and a leader.
5. Anthony Heygood, Sr., Purdue -- Some linebackers pile up tackles in the defensive backfield, but Heygood makes plays where it counts. He tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 15 last seasons and tied for seventh in the Big Ten in forced fumbles (3). Heygood anchors an underrated group of linebackers that also features Jason Werner.
6. Martez Wilson, So., Illinois -- Expect to see this name much higher in future linebacker rankings. Wilson has drawn comparisons to former Illinois star Simeon Rice and will showcase his athleticism at weak-side linebacker this fall. At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, Wilson brings excellent size and speed to the edge.
7. DeAndre Levy, Sr., Wisconsin -- Two-year starter at strong-side linebacker anchors a strong defensive midsection with Casillas. Levy has 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in the last two seasons. He steps into an increased leadership role this fall and should have his strongest season.
8. Brit Miller, Sr., Illinois -- The charismatic Miller takes on a featured role at middle linebacker after playing sidekick to All-American J Leman and Antonio Steele last season. He has started the last two-plus seasons, collecting 8.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups last fall.
9. A.J. Edds, Jr., Iowa -- The Hawkeyes lost two-year starters Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg, but Edds looks ready to step into a critical role this fall. He ranked 16th in the league and second on the team with 80 tackles last season.10. Will Patterson, Jr., Indiana -- Teammate Matt Mayberry has generated a lot of preseason buzz, but Patterson quietly proved himself last season. He ranked 11th in the league in tackles (104), tied for second in fumble recoveries (3) and tied for seventh in forced fumbles (3). Patterson always is around the ball and should continue to blossom this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- I've got to catch a plane in Detroit, but I'll have some more Michigan State/Michigan-related items in the coming days.
Here are a few Big Ten tidbits:
- Florida transfer Jerimy Finch officially has joined Indiana, the school announced Tuesday afternoon. Finch, a safety from Indianapolis who played three games with the Gators last fall before suffering a broken leg, is expected to practice with the Hoosiers tonight. Considered the top high school player in Indiana in 2006, Finch will give the Hoosiers a boost in the secondary.
- A quick hoops item: Michigan State's top incoming freshman Delvon Roe underwent surgery on his left knee Tuesday. Roe, a 6-foot-8 power forward, had nearly recovered from microfracture surgery on his right knee before suffering a setback last week. Michigan State expects to have an update on Roe's surgery and an outlook for his return later tonight.
- Missed this out of Iowa, where coach Kirk Ferentz said he never heard anything from wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos about discarding a used condom and a mattress cover from the room where an alleged sexual assault took place involving two other football players and a female student-athlete. How much Ferentz knew or didn't know immediately after the incident will be closely scrutinized during the second investigation by the state Board of Regents.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Spin control took a break during Big Ten media days.
As players, coaches and league officials fielded questions about the conference's sagging national image, they didn't deny the obvious. Ohio State players understood why most of the country has no interest in seeing them Jan. 7 in Miami. Illinois coach Ron Zook, whose team finished last season with a 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, put it in clear terms: "There's not a whole lot we can say until we go win."
Even Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged the damage done in the last two postseasons. He pointed out the league's favorable BCS/Bowl Alliance record before the current four-game losing streak, but then added: "We want to play the big games on the big stage and sometimes you just get whipped, and we did. And so I think you have to kind of nuzzle up to that and sort of accept it."
The Big Ten enters the 2008 season in a somewhat tenuous state after taking plenty of hits nationally. Most place the league behind both the SEC and the Big 12, and possibly the Pac-10, on college football's hierarchy. The criticisms are familiar -- inferior athletes, lack of speed, recruiting shortcomings -- and fueled by two primary arguments.
1. The Big Ten's best team, Ohio State, has performed poorly in the last two national championship games.
2. A large gap separates Ohio State from the rest of the league, as evidenced by the Buckeyes' 22-2 conference record in the last three seasons. If Ohio State is the best the Big Ten has to offer, how far behind are the other 10 teams?
Dispelling the second statement could be the greater priority this season. Ohio State can silence its coast-to-coast critics by beating USC, running the table and winning the national title on its third try (preferably against an SEC opponent), but it will take improvement from others to raise the league's profile.
The three teams trying to catch Ohio State -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois -- all must fill holes in the offensive backfield, and Penn State also must block out the constant banter about coach Joe Paterno's future. Michigan is the league's biggest mystery, as coach Rich Rodriguez tries to fast-track a team featuring mostly unproven personnel.
But the Big Ten's push for respect largely depends on its middle class, headlined by Michigan State, a team many tab to be this season's Illinois.
Iowa has endured disappointing results on the field and embarrassing ones off of it, but the Hawkeyes have a history of turning things around. Purdue tries to send pioneering coach Joe Tiller out on a good note, while both Northwestern and Indiana set their sights on a decent bowl game. Minnesota needs a major upgrade on defense, but coach Tim Brewster should see improvement in his second season.
It won't take long to get a good read on the Big Ten. Arguably no conference has more on the line during the season's first month. The league has taken heat for some soft scheduling but boasts plenty of image-shaping matchups in August/September, and not just the big one Sept. 13 at the L.A. Coliseum.
- Illinois opens the season against Missouri, a national title contender and a team many wished had made a BCS bowl instead of the Illini.
- Wisconsin takes a trip most BCS teams avoid at all costs, to non-BCS power Fresno State.
- Michigan State can boost the Big Ten's stock against the Pac-10 by beating Cal on the road in the opener.
- Michigan, expected to start slow following a major coaching and personnel transition, opens against a respected Utah team before visiting Notre Dame two weeks later.
- Purdue, which hasn't won enough marquee games in recent seasons, hosts Oregon in Week 2 before facing back-to-back MAC champ Central Michigan and then Notre Dame.
- Penn State's schedule doesn't grade too high on degree of difficulty, but a home win against Oregon State would help the league's profile.
- After a rough offseason, Iowa can put the spotlight back on the field by winning on the road at Pitt, a borderline Top 25 team.
The opportunity is there to change minds around the country.
After spending too much time defending its reputation in recent months, the Big Ten is eager to shut up and play.