Big Ten: Mike Sanford

Nonconference primer: Purdue

July, 1, 2013
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It has been a long wait, but the 2013 season is less than two months away. To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.

Purdue is next.

Cincinnati, Aug. 31 (road)

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (0-0, first year; 130–77 overall in FBS)
2012 record: 10-3, 5-2 Big East
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Brendon Kay still has to secure the starting job after replacing Munchie Legaux down the stretch in 2012, but he passed for 1,298 yards with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions, completing 63 percent of his attempts. Kay also sparkled in the spring game with three touchdown passes.
Defensive headliner:
Senior linebacker Greg Blair earned All-Big East honors in 2012 after leading Cincinnati in both total tackles (138) and tackles for loss (9). Blair added two interceptions, two forced fumbles, six pass breakups, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.
The skinny: Cincinnati is in a historic stretch of 10 or more wins in five of the past six seasons, including each of the past two. But like Purdue, the Bearcats are going through coaching transition as Tuberville takes command. The quarterback competition is an intriguing story to watch, but Cincinnati brings back enough firepower on both sides of the ball to have another good year.

Indiana State, Sept. 7 (home)

Coach: Mike Sanford (0-0, first year; 16-43 overall in FBS)
2012 record: 7-4, 5-3 Missouri Valley
Offensive headliner: Running back Shakir Bell earned third-team AP All-America honors after rushing for 1,475 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. He finished sixth in the FCS in rushing and recorded seven 100-yard rushing performances.
Defensive headliner: Cornerback Calvin Burnett is a back-to-back all-conference selection who recorded four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 60 tackles, including two for loss and a sack. He also averaged 15.6 yards on five punt return attempts.
The skinny: Indiana State has transformed its program in recent years, although the loss of head coach Trent Miles to Georgia State stings. Sanford struggled mightily as UNLV's head coach and then as Louisville's offensive coordinator before rebounding as an assistant at Utah State under current Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. Bell is a huge weapon for the Sycamores' offense, but Indiana State must replace six starters on defense from the 2012 team.

Notre Dame, Sept. 14 (home)

Coach: Brian Kelly (28-11, fourth year)
2012 record: 12-1 (lost in BCS National Championship Game)
Offensive headliner: Notre Dame loses most of its offensive firepower to the NFL or to suspension (QB Everett Golson), but top wide receiver TJ Jones returns after tying for the team lead in receptions (50) and touchdown receptions (4). Jones averaged 13 yards per reception in 2012.
Defensive headliner: With Manti Te'o gone, junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt likely becomes the star of the defense. Last year, he had 12 sacks and three forced fumbles.
The skinny: It has been a rough offseason for Notre Dame since getting dominated by Alabama in the BCS title game. The Irish once again will turn to Tommy Rees at quarterback after Golson was suspended for academic reasons. Notre Dame's defense includes several future pros and should be among the nation's best. The Irish have won five straight against Purdue and seven of the teams' past eight meetings.

Northern Illinois, Sept. 28 (home)

Coach: Rod Carey (0-1, first full year as head coach)
2012 record: 12-2, 8-0 in MAC (lost to Florida State in Orange Bowl)
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Jordan Lynch finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting after setting four NCAA, two MAC and 14 team records in his first season as a starter. Lynch finished fourth nationally in rushing (1,815) and second in total offense (4,953), setting NCAA records for quarterback rushing and 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (12). He earned second-team AP All-America honors as an all-purpose player.
Defensive headliner: Safety Jimmie Ward is a back-to-back All-MAC selection, earning first-team honors in 2012. He led NIU in tackles (104) and interceptions (3) as a junior, finishing second on the team in pass breakups (11) and adding a forced fumble.
The skinny: NIU has established itself as one of the nation's top programs from a nonautomatic-qualifying conference. The Huskies boast 34 victories in the past three seasons, although three of their losses came against Big Ten opponents (Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa). Although Lynch struggled in the Orange Bowl against Florida State's superb defense, he enters the season as a national awards candidate and will play behind a veteran offensive line. NIU loses several key pieces on defense, including All-MAC ends Sean Progar and Alan Baxter.

Thoughts:

In a word, yikes. New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell likes challenges and gets plenty in his first nonleague slate, which is the toughest in the Big Ten. The Boilers face two teams that appeared in BCS bowl games last season and a third in Cincinnati that reached back-to-back BCS games in 2009 and 2010 and won 10 games plus a bowl in each of the past two years. Purdue likely will be favored in only one of the four contests (Indiana State). One plus for Purdue is that three of its four nonconference opponents have new head coaches (NIU's Carey served as the team's offensive coordinator for most of 2012 before taking over for the Orange Bowl), while the fourth, Notre Dame, endured a very tough offseason and enters the fall with big question marks. The season opener is pivotal as a road win against a good Cincinnati team would give the Boilers a confidence boost. A 2-2 mark would be respectable for Purdue, while 3-1 or 4-0 would send expectations soaring for Hazell's first season.

More nonconference primers

Ball, Taylor deserve Rose Bowl spotlight

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio features the FBS all-time touchdown king and the leading rusher in Stanford history. Running backs Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor undoubtedly command the lion's share of the attention from each defense.

Yet neither star may be getting enough attention from the public at large.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
That's a strange thing to say about the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner (Wisconsin's Ball) and a three-year starter playing in his second straight BCS game (the Cardinal's Taylor). But are we sure we truly appreciate the accomplishments of both men?

Ball has received plenty of acclaim for his record 82 career touchdowns (76 of them rushing, also a record). Still, he'll end his career having never finished higher than fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting (2011), something future college football historians may have trouble believing. After a slow start this year that was due in part to a preseason assault and a struggling offensive line, Ball was labeled by some as a major disappointment. Such a claim looks ludicrous now for a player who rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns.

There are critics who will always be leery of a Wisconsin running back's numbers, believing they are merely a product of the Badgers' powerful offensive line opening massive holes that any decent athlete could run through. In some ways, then, Ball had a better season this year than in 2011, when he led the nation in rushing and tied an FBS record with 39 touchdowns. His running lanes were smaller, and he concentrated more on creating yards after contact.

"The thing that makes Montee so special is that he attacks the line of scrimmage," Wisconsin offensive line coach Bart Miller said. "He gets the ball and runs with fire. He runs the way we play offensive line, and guys love that. We don't want a guy who tiptoes along the line of scrimmage. We want a guy who attacks it, runs a guy over, makes him miss. All those kinds of things are what Montee does."

If Ball is underappreciated, then Taylor is criminally undervalued. He was overshadowed in his own backfield the past couple of years by Andrew Luck. This season, he carried the offense at times as it went through the post-Luck transition and reworked its offensive line, finishing with 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he had a hard time gaining notice even in his own conference, as the Pac-12 had other outstanding running backs such as UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireWith a new quarterback and an offensive line in transition, RB Stepfan Taylor fueled Stanford's offense this season.
Franklin and Barner joined Ball as Doak Walker finalists, while Taylor got shut out. As fate would have it, Taylor will finish his career going head-to-head against those three finalists in his final four games (Stanford played UCLA twice). He outgained Barner 161-66 in the win over Oregon. He had 142 yards to Franklin's 65 in the first UCLA game, though Franklin ran for 194 to Taylor's 78 in the Pac-12 title game. More important, the Cardinal won both meetings.

"Stepfan is the kind of guy who would say he doesn't even know who's up for those awards," Stanford running backs coach Mike Sanford said. "But I remind him."

The Cardinal bill Taylor as "the most complete back in America," one who never comes off the field and who excels in pass protection and blocking as well as carrying the ball. Sanford points out that Taylor has fumbled only twice in 340 touches this season. The Cardinal pride themselves on being a physical team, and Taylor helps give them that identity on offense.

"He's the steady rock for us," Sanford said. "Even if things weren't flowing early in the season, we knew he'd be able to almost will himself to keep the chains moving. Very few backs in college football are as well-rounded as him."

Ball and Taylor share much in common. They're each listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds. They're both workhorses -- Ball leads all active FBS players with 900 career carries, while Taylor ranks third with 823.

"When you talk about Montee Ball, you're talking about one of the best in the country," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "He's got speed, size and great vision. Very much like Stepfan Taylor."

Both will be the undisputed stars of this Rose Bowl. And both deserve every bit of the spotlight.

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