Big Ten: Obi Ezeh

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
1:44
PM ET
What's up? What's down?

STOCK UP

Michigan's defense: As amazing as it sounds, Michigan would have lost to Purdue if not for the play of its defense. It wasn't simply that the Wolverines bottled up a banged-up Purdue offense, but they limited damage after Denard Robinson and the offense committed five turnovers for the second straight game. Linebacker Obi Ezeh, defensive end Craig Roh and others stepped up as Michigan won a sloppy game.

Ohio State's second-half production: The Buckeyes have been exceptional in the second half all season, outscoring their opponents 159-46 in the final two quarters. Their latest explosion came against Penn State, as they rebounded from a lackluster first half to outscore the Nittany Lions 35-0 in the third and fourth quarters. Ohio State's offensive line imposed its will, and an opportunistic defense recorded two pick-sixes.

Northwestern's offensive line: I've criticized this group for much of the season, but it stepped up in a come-from-behind win against Iowa. Northwestern held Iowa's talented defensive line in check on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, allowing quarterback Dan Persa enough time to make some big throws. Although Iowa recorded four sacks in the game, Northwestern's offensive front held the edge when it mattered.

Wisconsin's offensive efficiency: Pretty obvious here, but you don't score 83 points without being near perfect in the critical categories. Wisconsin went 7-for-10 on third down and 10-for-10 in the red zone. It scored on its first drive for the seventh time this season and scored on its first drive after halftime for the eighth time in 10 games. The Badgers avoided a turnover for the fifth time this season.

Minnesota's red-zone offense: Finishing drives has been a major issue all season for Minnesota, which has produced just 19 touchdowns on 32 trips to the red zone. But things changed last Saturday at Illinois, as the Gophers scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone opportunities and rallied for their first Big Ten victory of 2010.

STOCK DOWN

Illinois' defensive line: After some dominant performances in October, the Illini are slipping a bit up front. Illinois recorded only one sack against Minnesota and couldn't stop Gophers running back DeLeon Eskridge (3 rush TDs) near the goal line. "We’re not playing with the same intensity we’ve played the first eight ballgames," coach Ron Zook said.

Iowa's fourth-quarter poise: The Hawkeyes haven't been the same team in crunch time this season, and it shows in their 7-3 record. Fourth-quarter struggles have surfaced in all three losses, most recently at Northwestern, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi and his receivers struggled and the defense looked gassed in allowing two scoring drives. Iowa has outscored its opponents by only four points (66-62) in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes own a 242-88 edge in scoring in the first three quarters.

Indiana's resolve: Football is a game of response, and Indiana didn't respond to losing starting quarterback Ben Chappell to a hip injury in the second quarter. The Hoosiers melted down on both sides of the ball and couldn't record a single stop in 10 chances against the Wisconsin offense. "As a football team, we did not handle him leaving the game," Indiana coach Bill Lynch said of Chappell. "As a result, we had no offensive production."

Penn State's defensive line: The Nittany Lions' signature unit on defense has been too inconsistent this season. After a strong second half the week before against Northwestern, Penn State produced only one sack and two tackles for loss against Ohio State, which dominated the line of scrimmage and sprung running back Dan Herron for 190 rushing yards. The Lions are tied for ninth in the Big Ten in sacks with just 14 this season.
Let's take a look back at Week 11 before spinning it forward to Week 12.

Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNorthwestern quarterback Dan Persa rallied the Wildcats to a win over Iowa before leaving the game with a season-ending injury.
Best game: Iowa at Northwestern. The Wildcats controlled play for the first half but led just 7-3 at halftime as both defenses stepped up. Iowa surged throughout the third quarter as the Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and twice reached the end zone. But an interception by Northwestern's Brian Peters changed momentum and gave the home side new life. Northwestern ran its up-tempo offense to perfection behind Persa on two scoring drives, and Iowa's veteran defenders seemed to wear down at the end. The final minutes featured plenty of drama as Persa fired the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left but ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the play. Iowa had one final chance but couldn't get the ball in the end zone. Northwestern celebrated a bittersweet win, as Persa underwent season-ending surgery Saturday night. The Minnesota-Illinois game also deserves a mention as the Gophers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to snap their nine-game losing streak.

Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.

Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.

Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.

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

  • Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
  • Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
  • Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
  • Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
  • Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.

Now here's a quick look at Week 12.

[+] EnlargeIndiana head coach Bill Lynch
AP Photo/Morry GashPerhaps no coach in the league needs a win like Indiana's Bill Lynch.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-6, 0-6) at Landover, Md.: Embattled Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch could really use a win right about now, but the schedule does him no favors. Lynch signed off on moving this home game to FedEx Field, but he and his team have to anticipate a road-game atmosphere as Penn State fans will pack the place. Indiana must win to maintain hope of becoming bowl eligible, while Penn State tries to ensure a winning season.

Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.

No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.

Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.

Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen enjoyed the Denard Robinson Show as much as anyone.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen
AP Photo/Tony DingDefensive end Ryan Van Bergen calls the Michigan defense "a work in progress."
Watching Robinson and the Wolverines offense go up and down the field last week against Connecticut also served as motivation for Van Bergen and the defense.

"Definitely feel like we're strides behind the offense in getting everything down," Van Bergen told ESPN.com this week. "We had some glimpses Saturday, and I think we'll be able to seal some things up and hopefully keep improving.

"We'll get to that level eventually."

Led by Robinson's record-setting performance, the Michigan offense overshadowed a pretty solid defensive effort against Connecticut.

The Wolverines allowed only one touchdown and held UConn scoreless in the second half. Take away a juggling 47-yard reception by Michael Smith, and Connecticut had only 296 yards in the game.

To be fair, the Huskies missed several opportunities to attack Michigan's young secondary, particularly in the first half. Connecticut had its moments, but so did Michigan's defense, none bigger than J.T. Floyd's forced fumble and Obi Ezeh's recovery near the Wolverines' goal line late in the third quarter.

"We're certainly still a work in progress, but I was really pleased to be able to limit UConn to 10 points," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We played pretty well assignment-wise, we tackled pretty solidly. We gave up a couple big plays, but we also made a couple big plays defensively."

And the defense could have made more.

"We had two interceptions hit guys right in the hands," Van Bergen said. "There were some plays Saturday that if we sealed up, our numbers on defense would have spoken even bigger."

The challenge for Michigan's defense should get tougher Saturday at Notre Dame (NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Although Michigan beat the Irish last year 38-34, the defense had little to do with it.

Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Armando Allen pretty much had their way with Michigan, piling up 490 yards and 27 first downs.

Clausen and Tate are gone to the NFL, but Floyd and Allen are back, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, one of the frontrunners for the Mackey Award. They're operating in a new spread offense under first-year coach Brian Kelly, and a new quarterback, Dayne Crist, will be calling the signals.

"I would call this team significantly different," Van Bergen said. "Notre Dame did a lot more drop-back, seven-man protection for Clausen with two guys in routes. This is a bit more of a spread attack, using more receivers.

"They have a developed quick game, and it’s something we’ll have to prepare for."

Both Van Bergen and Rodriguez identified tackling as an area Michigan must improve after Week 1. With so many young players, especially in the secondary, Michigan allowed "some leaky yardage," Van Bergen said.

That can't happen against Notre Dame, which operates at a rapid pace and makes it tough to reach Crist.

"They like to up-tempo you," Rodriguez said. "They’re going to put it out in space, whether it's to their tight end or their backs or their receivers, and we've got to get them on the ground quickly. Because if not, they'll go up and down the field on you.

"We had a hard time stopping them last year, and even though it's a different scheme, this scheme may be even more difficult to stop."

One way to do it is control the line of scrimmage. Michigan failed to record a sack last week, but end-linebacker Craig Roh and others applied pressure to quarterback Zach Frazer.

Notre Dame's offensive line is supposedly better, but Michigan boasts more experience up front with Van Bergen, Mike Martin and others.

"Having our experience won't hurt us," Van Bergen said, "and their youth, they might be more inclined to get frustrated if things start not going their way. It'll be interesting to see how that develops."
Two of college football's storied programs meet Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, but the only thing historic about these teams are their helmets. Two spread offenses and two coaches known for their offensive creativity match wits. Both Michigan and Notre Dame recorded critical wins in their season openers, and bloggers Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look at this week's matchup.

Adam Rittenberg: So, Bennett, we meet again. Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let's talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

[+] Enlarge
Matt Cashore/US PresswireArmando Allen gained 93 yards on 18 carries and scored a TD against Purdue.
Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What's the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

Yet, for all the talk of the spread offense, Notre Dame stuck to an old staple to beat Purdue: the running game. Running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood together averaged better than six yards per carry, and the Irish were happy to hand off and stick to the short passing game as the Boilermakers defense played Cover 2 and protected against the deep ball. I don't think Michigan will attack Notre Dame the same way, and the bubble wrap will have to come off quarterback Dayne Crist in Week 2.

As for the Wolverines, Denard Robinson was incredible. But I didn't see a whole lot out of the backs and receivers, and now it looks like Roy Roundtree won't play. Is Michigan a one-man offense, and can it win on Saturday that way?

AR: Good point about the Irish run game, and I think the matchup between Michigan's defensive line and Notre Dame's offensive front could decide the game. Despite the loss of Brandon Graham, Michigan boasts good experience and talent up front with Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and dynamic sophomore Craig Roh. They'll try to take advantage of a young Notre Dame line that, despite all the talk about weight room progress, remains unproven in my eyes.

Robinson was ridiculous against Connecticut, and you can't expect him to duplicate the performance in South Bend. Then again, the guy only needs about a foot of daylight to break through the line, and then, good luck trying to bring him down. Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both scored touchdowns in the opener, but they'll need to be more effective out of the backfield against the Irish. Roundtree would be a big loss, but wideouts Darryl Stonum and Kelvin Grady, and tight end Kevin Koger all are good targets for Robinson, who also hooked up with Terrence Robinson for a 43-yard gain.

In many ways, Michigan won the UConn game at the line of scrimmage. How do you see the two groups matching up on Saturday?

BB: The Irish played well in the trenches against Purdue, but Michigan presents a tougher challenge. With the way Brian Kelly runs the spread, the ball is out of the quarterback's hand quickly, so that neutralizes the pass rush to some degree. The key in my mind is whether the Notre Dame line can open running lanes when the Wolverines drop men into coverage.

Defensively, the front three for Notre Dame proved stout against Purdue, and surprisingly the backups gave them a solid rotation. Ian Williams looks like a perfect fit as nose tackle in a 3-4, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson can make plays off the edge. I think the pressure is on the Irish linebackers to make plays in this game. Manti Te'o should be a stud and the perfect antidote to Robinson, but he missed a lot of tackles in Week 1. Darius Fleming is their hybrid guy, and he was stuck on the sidelines with cramps for most of the Purdue game. Once Robinson gets through the first line of defense, can the Irish contain him in the open field?

How about the Michigan pass defense? Connecticut missed some opportunities there, but the Huskies don't have guys like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph at their disposal.

AR: Totally agree about Connecticut missing some major opportunities to attack downfield, especially in the first two and a half quarters. Michigan is extremely young in the secondary and likely will be down another starter, as linebacker-safety Carvin Johnson sprained his knee in the opener. Michael Floyd absolutely shredded this defense a year ago, so you can bet Notre Dame will try to get him the ball a lot on Saturday. We'll likely see a lot of Floyd vs. Floyd, as Michigan's J.T. Floyd as emerged as the team's top cornerback and forced a big fumble against UConn. Cue the Pink Floyd music.

I'm interested to see how Michigan approaches Rudolph, a matchup problem for pretty much any team he faces. Linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh played well in the opener, but they'll certainly be tested by No. 9. Roh brought a ton of heat against UConn, but he might have to drop back more in this game.

OK, Bennett, you're on the spot. Your Michigan-UConn pick didn't work out so great, and some of my new friends in Ann Arbor were calling you nasty names Friday night. Who wins Saturday and what's the biggest key to the game?

BB: Well, I'm happy to play the villain in Ann Arbor as long as they still let me in the bars there. I have little doubt this will be a close game, possibly as exciting as last year's shootout. Notre Dame will have its hands full with Robinson, but I think the Irish have a more well-rounded offensive attack. And they will take advantage of that young secondary while making just enough plays of their own defensively. A special-teams play might be the difference. Brian Kelly gets his first big win as the Irish squeak by.

Now tell me why I'm wrong.

AR: You're always welcome in Ann Arbor. Just tell them you know me.

It'll definitely be a close game, and like last year, we should have a dramatic finish. Michigan's young secondary concerns me, and Crist will make plays downfield to both Floyd and Rudolph. But I also have my doubts about Notre Dame's line play and the overall toughness of that team. Robinson is certainly the X-factor here, and while Michigan can't run him 29 times again, he'll make some big plays. If special teams makes the difference, Michigan could be in trouble. Notre Dame jumps ahead, but D-Rob leads the Wolverines back in the fourth quarter for a narrow win and continues to grow his legend in Ann Arbor.

Practice nuggets from Michigan

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
5:00
PM ET
My apologies for posting this late, but I finally got a chance to review the Big Ten Network's football preview tour stop at Michigan. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith attended a Wolverines practice last week.

Here are some nuggets and observations:
  • We get to see Tate Forcier's wing-less helmet very early in the show, although we know now that he has regained his wings. Forcier seemed to be No. 3 in the quarterback rotation during drills, behind both Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner. "Denard and Devin got most of the reps today," DiNardo said. But head coach Rich Rodriguez maintains the race is open. Forcier, to his credit, made some crisp throws in the practice.
  • The BTN crew picked Robinson to be the starter when the season opens Sept. 4. Although he misfired on a few outside throws in individual drills, he looked more comfortable overall as a passer.
  • Gardner's size and mobility make him a pretty exciting young prospect. He likely won't be the starter for the opener, but you figure he'll be in the mix at some stage. "He has the most ability of the three quarterbacks," DiNardo said.
  • We learned quite a bit during the M drill, where a running back dashes through a line of four blockers and four defenders. Michael Cox had several nice runs, following a block from tight end Brandon Moore on one play. Kelvin Grady followed a block by Erik Gunderson and shot through the line, while burly back Stephen Hopkins broke through tackles with a powerful run on one play. Defensive standouts in the drill included end Jibreel Black, safety Brandin Hawthorne and tackle Will Campbell, who made a very nice tackle on Hopkins. There also were some good team efforts, including blocks from Michael Schofield and Quinton Washington, and a team tackle by Richard Ash and Jonas Mouton.
  • The secondary remains a concern, but a few players stood out in individual drills. Safety Vlad Emilien had a huge hit against Fitzgerald Toussaint, and safety Josh Furman forced a fumble by freshman receiver Ricardo Miller in a 1-on-1 matchup.
  • There's no reason defensive tackle Mike Martin shouldn't have an excellent year for Michigan. He's got excellent strength and good size at 6-2, 299. "There’s very little he doesn’t do well," DiNardo said. Campbell also looked good in this practice, both physically and with his play. DiNardo thinks Campbell will be most effective when lined up directly over the center. "He's really picked up his game," Griffith said. Griffith also likes the freshman Black.
  • It was really fun to watch Martin and center David Molk go at it in a 1-on-1 drill. A ton of strength in that matchup, which it appeared Molk won. Offensive tackle Perry Dorrestein and defensive tackle Renaldo Sagesse also had a good battle. It was a pretty good day overall for the offensive line. DiNardo particularly likes tackle Patrick Omameh.
  • We didn't see a ton from the linebackers, although the first group in one drill was Craig Roh, Mouton and, yes, Mark Moundros, the team's starting fullback, at middle linebacker. It'll be interesting to see how much Moundros pushes Obi Ezeh and others for playing time.
  • Cox looked the best among the running backs, although several of them have impressive speed, including Toussaint. Hopkins certainly stands out from the group because of his size (6-foot, 227 pounds).
  • The BTN crew really likes Michigan's wide receivers, especially Roy Roundtree. They also noted the play of freshman Jeremy Jackson, one of the team's bigger receivers at 6-foot-3. "They’ve got the right number at wide receiver," DiNardo said. "You can't say that about every position in the program."
  • In interviews, Martin talked about the defense being closer this year, and Rodriguez expressed concern about the kicking game.

Opening camp: Michigan

August, 9, 2010
8/09/10
5:30
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Schedule: Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines are on the field right now in Ann Arbor for their first preseason practice.

What's new: After losing linebackers coach Jay Hopson to Memphis, Rodriguez promoted Adam Braithwaite to safeties and outside linebackers coach. He also added special teams to the plate of secondary coach Tony Gibson, who will continue to work with free safeties and cornerbacks. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson will work with the linebackers. There was a lot of talk this spring about the 3-3-5 defensive alignment, as Michigan must replace standouts Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren.

Sidelined: Defensive lineman Will Heininger (knee) is the only player out because of injury, and he might not play this season. Running back Vincent Smith is expected to be 100 percent for camp after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Running back Mike Shaw appears on the team's 2010 roster, although he had some eligibility issues to clear up with summer school.

Key battle: You might have heard, but Michigan's quarterback spot is undecided and Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson resume the competition today. The Wolverines also need to identify a featured running back or two, and Smith, Shaw, Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint are in the mix. Kenny Demens will push Obi Ezeh at middle linebacker, and J.T. Floyd looks to cement himself as a starting cornerback opposite Troy Woolfolk. Both kick specialist jobs also are up for grabs.

New on the scene: Michigan still needs its freshmen to play, especially on defense. Look out for defensive back Cullen Christian, defensive lineman Richard Ash and linebacker Marvin Robinson, among others. In a perfect world, Michigan could redshirt quarterback Devin Gardner, but if he's the best option, Rodriguez won't hesitate to play the freshman.

Back in the fold: Center David Molk was Michigan's best offensive lineman before knee problems cut short his 2009 season. After a strong offseason, Molk will boost a line that has enough talent and depth to be the team's biggest strength this fall. Receiver Junior Hemingway, who had a strong start last fall before being sidelined by mononucleosis, also returns to the mix.

Breaking out: If Denard Robinson builds on his spring performance, he could be the difference maker for Michigan's offense this fall. Receiver Roy Roundtree could be on the verge of bigger things after leading the team in receptions (32), receiving yards (434) and receiving touchdowns (3) last year. Hopes are high for defensive end/linebacker Craig Roh, who recorded 7.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2009. Safety Cam Gordon was the star of spring practice and could be poised for a big year.

Quotable: "There's a lot of hungry football players up in Ann Arbor, and I think they're as excited as I am to get going. We have some questions, certainly, on both sides of the ball." -- head coach Rich Rodriguez

Big Ten lunch links

April, 30, 2010
4/30/10
12:30
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Can you survive until Sept. 2?
I'll be providing brief recaps of all 11 Big Ten spring games during the next few weeks. Let's get started with Michigan, one of five teams to hold its spring game on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
AP Photo/Tony DingDenard Robinson seems to be more comfortable in the Rich Rodriguez offense during the spring game.
As expected, the Wolverines' quarterbacks were in the spotlight at the Big House, and sophomore Denard Robinson rose to the occasion. Robinson, who last year couldn't complement his fast feet with consistent passing, showed excellent zip on the ball and connected for several big plays, none bigger than a 97-yard touchdown strike to Roy Roundtree. He seemed to be making better reads instead of forcing things like he did last season. Clearly, a full offseason has paid off for Shoelace.

Robinson took the field first and led the offense to touchdowns on five of six possessions against the second-team defense. Forcier worked mainly against the first-team defense and led three scoring drives in six possessions. So Foricer had the tougher assignment overall.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez said Robinson and Forcier will enter fall camp neck-and-neck for the starting job, with true freshman Devin Gardner a bit behind them, but Robinson has the momentum entering the summer.

From The Detroit News:

"Tate and Denard are a little bit ahead of Devin, because they have a little more experience," Rodriguez said. "And Denard, overall in the spring, has probably had a few better practices than Tate has."



I saw most of Michigan's scrimmage on the Big Ten Network, and Robinson looked like the most confident quarterback out there. I wouldn't count out Forcier, who has more experience and still made some nice plays, but he'll need to match Robinson in August to retain the starting job for the season. He seemed really disappointed after a holding penalty negated a touchdown during the overtime session, brushing past a teammate on the sideline. Rodriguez has challenged Forcier throughout the spring, and he'll need to step up.

Other nuggets:

  • Michigan's defense still needs a bit of work, though linebacker Obi Ezeh had a nice scrimmage, intercepting a pass from Gardner, who showed some freshman nerves. It would have been nice to see the first-team defense go more against the No. 1 offense, but Michigan has done more of that during closed practices this spring.
  • The kicking game could be a real adventure for Michigan, which really needs incoming freshman punter Will Hagerup to provide a boost. Keep in mind that punting has been arguably Michigan's greatest strength the last two years with All-American Zoltan Mesko booming kicks, so field position likely will change this fall.
  • The Wolverines will play more than one running back this season, and they seem to have decent depth there. Michael Shaw enters the summer with a slight edge, but both Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint showed some good signs during spring ball. Michigan's most intriguing running back prospect might be 236-pound freshman Stephen Hopkins, who brings some size to the backfield. Vincent Smith rejoins the mix in August.
  • Starting cornerback Troy Woolfolk missed the spring game after breaking a finger in practice while breaking up a Gardner pass. According to the Detroit Free Press, the bone broke through the skin but Woolfolk, who now goes by T-wolf, didn't cry.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A public-service announcement to Big Ten fans: the area code around here hasn't changed to 335.

Those three numbers have dominated the discussion about Michigan ever since the Wolverines began using the alignment more during spring practice. In recent weeks just about everyone has weighed in on the 3-3-5: who will go where, who fits the scheme and whether it will help the Wolverines' defense rebound from two subpar seasons.

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
Eric Bronson/Icon SMIMichigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson says it's not the scheme, but fundamentals that will determine the success of the Wolverines this fall.
Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has some advice about the 3-3-5: don't get too bogged down with it.

"It's not about the schematics," Robinson told me Thursday. "It's about fundamentals. The fundamentals have got to improve. To the average fan, they want to know the schematics because that's Madden football. But wait a minute. Anybody can say they play two-deep coverage or anybody can say they're running the zone dog. But the fundamental techniques and all those things -- how you tackle, how you defeat a blocker -- that's what it's about."

The truth is Michigan will run the 3-3-5 at times in the 2010 season. The Wolverines will also use four-man fronts and bring extra linebackers to the line of scrimmage. Hybrid players like Craig Roh will play integral roles this fall, just like they did last year.

An alignment won't fix Michigan's defense unless the players can execute a lot better.

"It's work," Robinson said. "There's work ahead of us. The best thing is if we can get these young people to understand that. Can we get there? Yeah, if we work really hard at it, we will get there. But don't think that it's just like a magic wand.

"It's hard work to get good."

A few quick takeaways from Robinson:

  • The competition at middle linebacker is really heating up between Obi Ezeh and Kenny Demens, who has come on strong this spring. "This is a dogfight," Robinson said. "And I like it. It's amazing when you have competition, how much the improvement comes."
  • Like everyone else, Robinson praised the play of safety Cameron Gordon (more on Gordon next week) and also singled out safeties Thomas Gordon and Teric Jones for their play this spring. He also likes the improvement cornerback J.T. Floyd has made from last fall. Robinson expected Vladimir Emilien to return to practice Thursday after suffering a knee injury early in spring ball.
  • The defensive line has been dealing with injuries this spring, and Robinson said defensive tackle Renaldo Sagesse is the latest player to get banged up a bit. "We're hoping we can get him back [before the end of the spring]," Robinson said. "Because if we can really count on him as a guy that's in the constant flow, that's good."
  • Robinson started talking about William Campbell, pointing out that the sophomore defensive tackle needed to keep growing and developing. Then he caught himself. "He doesn't have to keep growing," Robinson said. "He's got to keep developing." Campbell checks in at 6-5 and 324 pounds this spring. "That's a never-ending battle," Robinson said of Campbell's weight and conditioning, "and he's realizing that. He's maturing. God, he was a 12th grader here last year at this time. God forbid what I was like back then."

Big Ten lunch links

March, 26, 2010
3/26/10
12:00
PM ET
He built GE into the greatest company on Earth, and the Earth into one of the top three planets in the universe!

Big Ten team recruiting needs

January, 20, 2010
1/20/10
11:43
AM ET
National Signing Day is right around the corner, and Big Ten teams will look to add depth and identify a few immediate contributors in the upcoming recruiting classes. What do these squads need the most?

Here's a look:

ILLINOIS

Offensive line: The line hasn't been great the last two seasons, and Illinois loses standout Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block. Illinois looks strong at running back in 2010, but someone needs to create rushing lanes.

Safety: The Illini defense hasn't been the same since the departures of safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison following the 2007 season. Ron Zook could really use a safety or two who could step in and contribute right away against the run and in coverage.

INDIANA

Defensive end: The Hoosiers lose two multiyear starters at end: Jammie Kirlew, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, and Greg Middleton, who led the nation in sacks in 2007. Indiana's pass rush will suffer unless it builds depth at end and throughout the line.

Secondary: Indiana loses starting safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk as well as its top cornerback, Ray Fisher. Expect the Hoosiers to go very heavy with defensive back recruits as they try to shore up an area that has been problematic during the last decade.

Offensive line: The situation on the line certainly is better than it was a year ago, but the departure of talented left tackle Rodger Saffold creates a void. Indiana is the type of team that always could use more depth up front so the drop-off between starters and backups isn't so dramatic.

IOWA

Offensive line: Iowa loses four linemen who started most or all of its games last year, including All-Big Ten performers Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. The Hawkeyes can't expect freshmen to come in and start right away up front, but they need some insurance if injuries crop up.

Linebacker: Standouts Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds depart, and while Iowa has some guys ready to step in, it can always use depth in the defensive midsection. The Hawkeyes defensive line should sizzle in 2010, but they need sure tacklers at linebacker, too.

MICHIGAN

Secondary: There's no mystery here, as the Wolverines really struggled with breakdowns in the back four and lose standout cornerback Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. Michigan needs to bolster its talent level at both cornerback and safety to have improved results in 2010.

Linebacker: The Wolverines linebackers struggled in 2009, and there are opportunities for young players to step in here and contribute. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton are back, but it's obvious this is another area Michigan must upgrade this coming season.

Specialists: Michigan loses both of its starting specialists, including All-Big Ten punter Zoltan Mesko, a Ray Guy Award finalist. This is always an area where a strong true freshman can step in and contribute immediately.

MICHIGAN STATE

Trenches: Line play was a weakness for the Spartans in 2009, and they'll be looking to upgrade on both sides of the ball. They lose top pass rusher Trevor Anderson as well as left tackle Rocco Cironi, center Joel Nitchman and guard Brendon Moss on the offensive line.

Secondary: This unit turned out to be a major disappointment, considering the preseason expectations. Michigan State loses safety Danny Fortener and corners Ross Weaver and Jeremy Ware, and there should be ample opportunities for freshmen to step in and play.

Linebacker: Probably not a critical need, but Michigan State needs to start preparing for life after Greg Jones. The Spartans also lose Adam Decker and Brandon Denson from the 2009 team, and Eric Gordon will depart with Jones after 2010.

MINNESOTA

Cornerback: The Gophers lose both of their starters, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, and will be looking to build depth behind Michael Carter in 2010. I'm very excited about what Minnesota returns at safety, but the situation at corner seems a bit unsettled.

Offensive line: Minnesota will stick with the pro-style offense no matter who becomes its next coordinator, but for the system to truly click, the Gophers really need to upgrade their line. The team returns quite a few linemen for 2010, but it'll look for improved depth up front.

Running back: After finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing each of the last two seasons, Minnesota certainly will look to get better here. Kevin Whaley's departure creates a spot for a newcomer to compete with Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge for carries.

NORTHWESTERN

Secondary: The Wildcats lose three multiyear starters in the secondary, including All-Big Ten honorees Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. They'll need to build depth around safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin to avoid a major drop-off.

Defensive line: Corey Wootton's departure leaves NU without a proven pass rusher who can command double teams. The Wildcats also will look to build depth at defensive tackle after losing Adam Hahn and Marshall Thomas.

OHIO STATE

Safety: This is one of few spots where Ohio State loses two long-time contributors in Kurt Coleman, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and Anderson Russell. Though Jermale Hines played a lot in 2009, the Buckeyes want to build depth around him.

Wide receiver: If the Buckeyes' offense builds off of its Rose Bowl performance, the wideouts figure to be more involved. Ohio State should be fine for 2010 with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but it could lose both after the season and needs to start grooming replacements. These recruits also could help the return game, where Ohio State loses Ray Small and Lamaar Thomas.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: Two-year starter Daryll Clark is gone and Pat Devlin transferred following the 2008 season, creating a wide open competition at quarterback heading into 2010. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will compete, but Penn State always wants others in the mix there.

Linebacker: Penn State rarely has trouble reloading here, but it loses all three starters, including back-to-back first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman. The Lions will look to build depth and identify an early contributor or two for the 2010 season.

Tight end/wideout: The Lions lose both Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, so expect them to add a tight end or two in the incoming class. Quarless was a major part of the passing attack and Shuler hauled in two touchdowns, so Penn State won't neglect this position.

PURDUE

Secondary: A no-brainer here, as Purdue loses all four starters in the secondary, which has ranked in the upper half of the league against the pass. The Boilers likely need a newcomer or two to contribute right away in 2010.

Linebacker: Jason Werner hopes to return for a sixth year, but Purdue can't take any chances with a position that has struggled a bit the last two seasons. Danny Hope likes his young linebackers (Antwon Higgs, Dwayne Beckford), but he's looking for more.

Wide receiver/tight end: Purdue can never have enough pass receivers, and Hope will look to build around All-Big Ten performer Keith Smith in 2010. The Boilers lose No. 2 wideout Aaron Valentin, and Smith and tight end Kyle Adams depart after 2010.

WISCONSIN

Defensive line: All-Big Ten defensive end O'Brien Schofield departs, and the Badgers will be pretty young up front in 2010. It's important that Wisconsin builds depth behind players like J.J. Watt and Jordan Kohout.

Tight end: Lance Kendricks certainly eased concerns about this spot in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Wisconsin still loses All-Big Ten selection Garrett Graham as well as reserve Mickey Turner. No team in the Big Ten features the tight end spot as much as Wisconsin, so it'll be important to find a few recruits.
Barring a surprise, Michigan linebackers coach Jay Hopson will become Memphis' new defensive coordinator.

Memphis head coach Larry Porter has recommended Hopson to the Tennessee Board of Regents. These recommendations almost always are approved, so expect Hopson to leave his post in Ann Arbor.

This seems like a good move for Hopson, who served as Southern Miss' defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2007 before joining Rich Rodriguez's staff at Michigan. Also, there were no guarantees that Rodriguez would keep his defensive staff intact, especially after a poor performance on that side of the ball for the second straight season.

Linebackers Stevie Brown (1st), Obi Ezeh (3rd) and Jonas Mouton (4th) ranked as three of Michigan's top four tacklers this season, but it wasn't a banner year for the crew. Ezeh's numbers dipped, and Michigan ranked 10th in the Big Ten against the run (171.9 ypg).

If Hopson is approved as Memphis' D-coordinator, Rodriguez should absolutely go after former Notre Dame assistant Corwin Brown as a replacement. Brown, who played at Michigan, is a tremendous recruiter who has coached with Notre Dame and the New York Jets. New Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly didn't retain Brown on his new staff.

Brown to Michigan seems like a no-brainer, as long as he wants the job.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan fans had a good reason to be optimistic entering the season despite the team's 3-9 disaster in 2008.

 
 AP Photo/Tony Ding
 Michigan hasn't made the leap many were expecting in coach Rich Rodriguez's second year.
Rich Rodriguez's track record as a head coach usually featured first-year struggles followed by second-year rebounds. He went 3-8 in his first year at West Virginia but improved to 9-4 in Year 2. Clemson went from 6-6 in Rodriguez's first year as offensive coordinator to 9-3 in his second go-round. Tulane went from 7-4 to 12-0 with Rodriguez calling the plays in Year 2.

In a sense, the pattern has continued, as Michigan already owns two more victories (5) than it did all of last season. But the jump many expected the program to take isn't happening. The Wolverines are in danger of finishing with a worse Big Ten record than they did a year ago (1-7 vs. 2-6), and the defense is performing just as poorly as last year, if not worse.

Did Michigan present greater challenges in Year 2 than Rodriguez's other coaching stops?

"I think every situation is a little different," Rodriguez said. "There's always a lot of factors that go into each season, whether it's the second season, the first, the fourth or what have you. We've certainly have had some different challenges this season from the beginning of August camp all the way until now, but as a coach and as players, you expect you're going to face adversity."

Rodriguez acknowledged that youth remains a problem for the Wolverines, particularly at key positions. Everyone knows about freshmen quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, but Michigan could start six freshmen or sophomores on defense against No. 20 Wisconsin if sophomore Kevin Leach once again gets the nod over senior Obi Ezeh at middle linebacker.

Several veterans haven't progressed this fall, but there weren't that many in the mix for serious playing time to begin with.

"We have to make sure we know what our problems are and we try to fix them as quickly as we can but not sacrifice anything for the future," Rodriguez said. "We've got to make sure we're building the program the right way, so when we get it right, it stays right."

Big Ten awards update

October, 27, 2009
10/27/09
11:15
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I've fallen a bit behind on the awards updates, so thanks for being patient. Let's see who's still in the running for the hardware.

Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award

Penn State's Daryll Clark and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi are among the 15 semifinalists for the award, presented Dec. 10 during The Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards Show. Clark leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency (148.4) and is tied for third nationally in touchdown passes (17). Stanzi has led Iowa to the best start (8-0) in team history and ranks fifth in the league in passing average (214.4 ypg).

Fred Biletnikoff Award

Minnesota senior wide receiver Eric Decker is among the 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top wideout. Decker, a Biletnikoff semifinalist last season, led the nation in receptions early in the season before seeing his numbers drop off. He re-aggravated a foot/ankle injury last week against Ohio State. He owns the Minnesota records for career receptions, career receiving yardage, career 100-yard receiving games, single-season receptions and consecutive 100-yard games.

Dick Butkus Award

Three Big Ten linebackers are among the 16 semifinalists for the award: Michigan State's Greg Jones, Penn State's Sean Lee and Michigan's Obi Ezeh. Jones is tied for the national lead in tackles with 97, including five sacks. Lee has contributed when healthy this season, while Ezeh ranks ninth in the Big Ten in tackles (62). No Navorro Bowman on the list? Really? No Brian Rolle or Ross Homan?

John Mackey Award

Four Big Ten tight ends appear on the Mackey Award midseason watch list: Michigan State's Charlie Gantt, Wisconsin's Garrett Graham, Penn State's Andrew Quarless and Iowa's Tony Moeaki. Graham leads Big Ten tight ends with 29 receptions for 331 yards. Moeaki has provided a huge lift since his return from an ankle injury. He has 21 receptions for 251 yards and four touchdowns. Quarless is emerging as a big-play threat with 23 catches for 315 yards and a touchdown, while Gantt has 12 catches for 148 yards and a score.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- You might not see an uglier sequence of plays than Michigan had after being backed up deep in its own end.

Taking possession at its own 8-yard line, Michigan drew three penalties before David Moosman snapped the ball through the end zone for a safety. Moosman had replaced David Molk, who got hurt on the opening drive after returning from a broken foot that kept him out since Sept. 19. Quarterback Tate Forcier didn't expect the snap and had no time to react.

Penn State capitalized on the favorable field position it received following the safety, as Daryll Clark found a streaking Andrew Quarless for a 60-yard touchdown. Quarless beat linebacker Obi Ezeh on the play. The Lions now lead 19-7.

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