Big Ten: Spread HD

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

It's always fun at this time of year to look back at preseason thoughts and predictions. In August, I outlined 25 items I wanted to see during the Big Ten season. Several of them came true, others didn't and some materialized in different ways.

Here's a look back at the list to see what worked out and what didn't. 

 AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
 Terrelle Pryor earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

1. Terrelle Pryor lead an offensive drive -- He might be a Tim Tebow-like weapon near the goal line, but I'm more interested in how the Ohio State freshman quarterback handles a real offensive series. Pryor's athleticism is undeniable, but it will be important to monitor his passing accuracy and the way he leads older teammates.

The verdict: We had plenty of opportunities to see Pryor lead drives after he was named Ohio State's starter in Week 4. Despite a few growing pains, Pryor held his own and displayed remarkable athleticism in winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. He also came up big in the clutch to lead Ohio State's game-winning touchdown drive Oct. 4 at Wisconsin. 

2. Michigan's quarterbacks -- Rich Rodriguez has ushered in a new era in Ann Arbor and will turn to unproven players like Steven Threet, Nick Sheridan and possibly Justin Feagin to lead his spread offense. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but if one of those three takes control, the Wolverines will surge.

The verdict: Oh, there were growing pains. Big ones. Threet and Sheridan struggled to fit into Rodriguez's system, and Michigan finished the season ranked 109th nationally in total offense. Feagin likely will move to slot receiver in 2009, and incoming freshmen Shavodrick Beaver and Tate Forcier will compete for the starting quarterback spot. 

3. Jump Around at night -- Camp Randall Stadium is intimidating enough during daylight hours, but the electricity will reach new levels this fall with back-to-back night games against Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers haven't lost at home under coach Bret Bielema, and they should have a tremendous home-field edge this fall.

The verdict: It was pretty cool to see Ohio State players jump in lockstep with the Wisconsin students on Oct. 4, but Camp Randall certainly lost its edge this fall. Wisconsin saw its home win streak fade against Ohio State and then suffered its worst home defeat since 1989 the next week against Penn State. Plus, the Badgers band was suspended from performing Oct. 4 after allegations of hazing surfaced. 

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A look at Week 3

September, 8, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Clear your Saturday schedule, especially the afternoon and evening. This week brings us the best Big Ten games of the nonconference season, if not the entire fall. Aside from a few more interleague matchups later this month, Saturday will be the biggest chance for the Big Ten to prove it isn't overrated and can compete on a national stage.

Here's a look:

Florida Atlantic at Michigan State (noon ET)

The defending Sun Belt champs come to East Lansing, and this shouldn't be an easy game for the Spartans. Quarterback Rusty Smith and wide receiver Cortez Gent will test a Spartans secondary led by safety Otis Wiley, who looks like the player we saw in 2006 (10 PBUs, 6.5 TFLs). Nobody has been able to touch Smith so far, and Saturday will be a chance for Spartans end Trevor Anderson to back up his preseason hype. Coming off a five-touchdown performance, Michigan State's Javon Ringer should have another big day against the nation's 97th-ranked rushing defense.

Louisiana-Lafayette at No. 24 Illinois (noon ET)

It's important for the Illini to stop a somewhat disturbing pattern on defense and start stuffing the run. Illinois ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense after the first two weeks, a troubling sign for a team that lists the defensive line as its strength. Louisiana-Lafayette has the nation's No. 1 rushing quarterback -- and 10th leading rusher overall -- in senior Michael Desormeaux (146 ypg). Expect another big day from Illini quarterback Juice Williams, but getting the run defense in order has to be the top priority.

Southern Illinois at Northwestern (noon ET)

Northwestern needs a rebound performance from C.J. Bacher and the offense after being fortunate to escape Duke with a 24-20 win on Saturday. Bacher's timing looked off against the Blue Devils and the offense still could be adjusting to new coordinator Mick McCall. Igniting Tyrell Sutton would be a good first step after the senior running back cramped up against Duke and finished with just 66 rushing yards on 16 carries. Southern Illinois, an FBS powerhouse under former coach Jerry Kill, allowed 403 passing yards in a narrow win against Hampton last week.

Montana State at Minnesota (noon ET)

A perfect nonconference season looks likely for the Gophers, but they can't get complacent against FBS Montana State. Keep in mind that Minnesota lost to North Dakota State last year. Sophomore quarterback Adam Weber won't let that happen again, but the spotlight will be on the Gophers' running backs after starter Duane Bennett went down with a knee injury last week. Montana State opened the season by routing my favorite college team, Adams State, before getting the tables turned last week in a 69-10 loss to Kansas State.

Iowa State at Iowa (noon ET)

The Hawkeyes are off and running, ranking 18th nationally in rushing offense (243 ypg) despite the losses of Albert Young and Damian Sims. Their in-state rivals have been susceptible to the run so far (211.5 ypg allowed), but Iowa State still provides the first significant test for Kirk Ferentz's team. Ferentz listed sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi as the starter on this week's depth chart, and though junior Jake Christensen could still play, signs suggest the job is Stanzi's. Another strong performance against the Cyclones could cement things for him.

No. 16 Oregon at Purdue (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)

Get ready for some offense. Word has it Oregon can move the ball a bit, and the Ducks have scored 110 points in their first two games. Purdue used to put up numbers like those, and the Boilermakers are still pretty potent behind record-setting senior quarterback Curtis Painter. This will be a major test for the Boilermakers linebackers, particularly first-year starter Kevin Green in the middle. If Green and Anthony Heygood somehow find a way to contain Jeremiah Johnson or LeGarrette Blount, Purdue will hang around.

No. 17 Penn State at Syracuse (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)

Desperate teams can be dangerous, but the Orange and embattled coach Greg Robinson have too many problems to keep pace with Penn State and the high-powered Spread HD offense. Penn State ranks third nationally in scoring and eighth in rushing, which doesn't bode well for an Orange defense allowing 243.5 rush yards per game. Depending on the outcome of the suspensions for starting defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma, Penn State should use this game to audition several young players, as line depth has become a concern after the season-ending loss of end Jerome Hayes (torn ACL).

Michigan at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET)

The two traditional powerhouses look anything but so far this season, particularly on offense. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez plans to stick with Steven Threet at quarterback but will need continued production from running backs Sam McGuffie and Brandon Minor. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdowns last week but struggled with his decision-making at times. Clausen likely will face pressure from Michigan's veteran defensive line, which manhandled him last year in Ann Arbor (eight sacks).

No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC (ABC, 8 p.m. ET)

If you're just tuning in -- from Mars -- Ohio State and USC will meet at the L.A. Coliseum to likely determine the nation's No. 1 team and the early national title favorite. The teams have combined for 18 national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners, and both rank among the top seven all-time in winning percentage. The game's biggest factor could be Ohio State junior running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, a big-game player who comes off a toe injury. The Buckeyes looked lost on offense without Wells last week against Ohio and need him near 100 percent. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez faces a senior-laden Ohio State defense that intercepted four passes last week.

No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State (ESPN2, 10:30 p.m. ET)

This one is worth staying up for in Big Ten country. Wisconsin has an excellent chance to validate itself as a BCS bowl contender by beating the Bulldogs where few dare to play them -- in their own backyard. P.J. Hill and the Badgers' backs face a Fresno State defense that held Rutgers to seven points in the opener. Hill could wear down the Bulldogs, but Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge likely will need to make several big plays and will search for tight end Travis Beckum, expected to make his season debut along with standout linebacker Jonathan Casillas.

Bye: Indiana 

Big Ten lessons in Week 2

September, 7, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten achieved perfection in Week 2, winning all 11 games, all but one by 10 points or more. But there were some interesting moments along the way, particularly in Columbus, where Ohio State nearly squandered its national title hopes the week before the big one at the L.A. Coliseum.

Penn State has joined the mix of Big Ten power players after blocking out distractions to rout Oregon State in Happy Valley. Wisconsin continues to raise some concerns, both on the injury front and on the field, but the Badgers flexed their muscles with 51 unanswered points against Marshall. Michigan still has some issues on offense, while Minnesota has closed the book on 2007 with a 2-0 start and an impressive road win against Bowling Green.

We'll know much more about this league in Week 3, as Ohio State (USC), Wisconsin (Fresno State), Purdue (Oregon) and Michigan (Notre Dame) play showcase games. But first, here are five revelations from Saturday's games.

1. Spread HD stands for Huge Difference -- Penn State's new offense has racked up 111 points in the first two games, and quarterback Daryll Clark looks more than capable of leading the explosive unit. Clark's versatility showed against Oregon State, as he accounted for 276 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) in Saturday's 45-14 win. Redshirt freshman speedster Stephfon Green got all the preseason buzz, but sophomore Evan Royster is proving to be the team's top running threat. Royster had 141 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Beavers, becoming the first Penn State player to score six touchdowns in the first two games of the season since Lydell Mitchell in 1971.

2. Minnesota is turning the corner: Last year, the Gophers were the ones throwing away games. Against Bowling Green on Saturday night, they were the ones capitalizing on mistakes. Minnesota's much-maligned defense forced four second-half turnovers, and the offense converted all four into touchdowns. Quarterback Adam Weber (233 pass yards, 3 TDs, rush TD) continued to show he's the perfect fit for Mike Dunbar's Spread Coast offense, and both running back Duane Bennett and wideout Eric Decker showed their versatility in the 42-17 win.

3. Pryor not ready for clutch situations: Ohio State trailed or barely led for 54 minutes of Saturday's game against Ohio, but heralded freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor got on the field for just three plays during that span. The coaches are still hesitant about putting the amazingly talented Pryor in pressure situations, which likely will limit his availability next week against USC. He could play a role as a running quarterback in special packages, but if the game is close, which it should be, Ohio State will go with Todd Boeckman.

4. Iowa offense is much better: The competition has been weak and much like Indiana, a wait-and-see approach seems appropriate, but the Hawkeyes' offense no longer appears to be a major liability. Coach Kirk Ferentz received good performances from both of his quarterbacks Saturday, though Ricky Stanzi's poise in his first career start could be the difference for Week 3. Whoever takes the snaps has plenty of help from running backs Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton, who combined for 184 rushing yards in the 42-0 win against Florida International.

5. Wolverines D must shoulder the load: Rich Rodriguez received better play from freshman running back Sam McGuffie against Miami (Ohio), but the quarterback position remained an adventure. Backup Nick Sheridan out-performed Steven Threet on Saturday after Threet graded higher in the opener. The bottom line is an improved Wolverines defense will have to keep games close until the offense finds some sort of rhythm. Linebacker Obi Ezeh continues to make plays and the defensive line picked up three more sacks in Saturday's 16-6 victory.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Here's a scary thought for Big Ten defensive coordinators.

In 1994, Penn State led the nation in both scoring (47.8 ppg) and total offense (520.2 ypg), broke three Big Ten records, 14 team records and 19 individual records. The Nittany Lions' produced five first-team All-Americans on offense, including running back Ki-Jana Carter, the No. 1 overall selection in the 1995 NFL draft. Penn State didn't lose a game that fall, beating its opponents by an average of 26 points.

But in terms of big-play threats, the type of players who can change games upon contact with the ball, the 1994 Lions team might be jealous of the current one.

"We didn't have as many [in 1994]," coach Joe Paterno said. "Carter was the first guy picked in the whole draft, Bobby Engram's still playing, [Kerry] Collins was a first-round pick, [Kyle] Brady's still playing tight end with the Patriots. We had four or five on that team that were playmakers and game-breakers, the whole bit.

"We probably have more kids on this team who have that kind of potential."

Whether Penn State makes a push for a Big Ten title in what could be Paterno's final season on the sideline remains to be seen.

The Lions lost linebacker Sean Lee, their top defender, to a knee injury this spring. The team's off-field problems continued this week with the suspensions of three players, including All-Big Ten defensive end Maurice Evans and starting defensive tackle Abe Koroma, for Saturday's critical home matchup against Oregon State (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

But a glance at Penn State's skill-position depth makes it clear there will be plenty of dizzying highlights this fall in Happy Valley. Throw in a system -- the Spread HD -- that should better utilize the talent, and the Lions should be even more dangerous.

"There's not enough spots on the field for the amount of athletes we have," wide receiver Brett Brackett said. "To get them all to touch the ball and make plays is going to be exciting."

The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Brackett plays behind three senior wide receivers -- Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood -- who entered the season with 366 career receptions, 32 total touchdowns and 4,597 career receiving yards. Though the group has fallen short of expectations at times, the arrival of a new offensive system and a new quarterback (Daryll Clark) should help.

Williams' value goes beyond the passing game, as he showed last Saturday against Coastal Carolina, returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. The co-captain has three career touchdowns on returns to go with five rushing scores.

"There's different people that can beat you in different parts of the offense," Brackett said. "It's not just [Anthony] Morelli throwing deep or Rodney [Kinlaw] making runs. There's different guys that can make plays and different abilities."

Williams played an integral role in Penn State's Orange Bowl run in 2005, but when it comes to playmakers, the current team has more -- "by far," he said.

"Right when last year's team was over with, it was definitely a sign of how many weapons we had," Williams continued. "There's so many people on the field that are very good that can do things at any given moment."

The veteran receivers help, but Penn State's biggest strength will be in the backfield. In addition to Clark, whose scrambling ability gives the offense something it didn't have the last two seasons, the Lions boast a core of young ball carriers. There's a reason why seven running backs are listed on this week's depth chart.

Sophomore Evan Royster leads the group after finishing second on the team in rushing and averaging better than six yards a carry last season. Next up is redshirt freshman Stephfon Green, whose speed and elusiveness makes him one of the most anticipated arrivals in recent years. Sophomore Brent Carter also will contribute alongside true freshman Brandon Beachum.

The Lions averaged 7.8 yards a carry and scored seven rushing touchdowns against Coastal Carolina.

"We're in good shape," Paterno said. "But you can't play 'em all, also. Sometimes it's a luxury that we can't exploit."

Brackett and his teammates occasionally watch highlights from the 1994 season, trying to pick up lessons from the offense. But the scheme barely resembles what Penn State now runs.

In some ways, neither do the players.

"They had a lot of offensive weapons," Brackett said, "but I don't think they had the same type of athlete we have now and the amount we have, it's unbelievable. ... It'll be hard to live up to what they did on the field, but we have the ability to do that."

aReviewing the Week 1 predictions

September, 1, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Missouri fans, take your shots. I deserve it. I bought into what coach Ron Zook and others were saying about the Illinois defense and overlooked the offensive playmakers on your team. The Illini defensive line should get better and linebacker Martez Wilson still looks legit, but the secondary is a major question mark after Saturday's 52-42 loss.

Despite my misguided pick of Illinois, I'll take a 9-1 record most weeks. Several teams proved they're capable of blowouts, so expect some wider margins in the Week 2 predictions.

It's time to look back.


My pick: Illinois 31, Missouri 30

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

20-20 hindsight: Juice Williams came through as expected, setting new career passing records and showing his growth in the pocket. But Illinois became one-dimensional after breakdowns on defense and special teams spotted Missouri a 45-20 lead. The defensive line forced the key takeaway I thought it would -- Derek Walker's interception return for a touchdown -- but it didn't do much else.


My pick: Utah 24, Michigan 21

Game result: Utah 25, Michigan 23

20-20 hindsight: I don't expect too many more Nostradamus-like moments, but this one went just as forecasted. Michigan's quarterbacks struggled, Utah's Brian Johnson dominated the game for a stretch and the Wolverines' improved defense kept things close. The Wolverines' early defensive struggles were a bit of a surprise, as were Utah's special-teams breakdowns.


My pick: California 33, Michigan State 28

Game result: California 38, Michigan State 31

20-20 hindsight: As indicated, quarterback Kevin Riley and running back Jahvid Best spelled trouble for a Michigan State defense that still has some questions. The Spartans aren't a clutch team until they prove otherwise, but they had some encouraging signs with wide receiver Mark Dell and running back/return man Javon Ringer.


My pick: Northwestern 34, Syracuse 21

Game result: Northwestern 30, Syracuse 10

20-20 hindsight: Wildcats running back Tyrell Sutton backed up my pick of a strong start, racking up 144 rushing yards in the win. I didn't envision such strong play from Northwestern's defense, which accounted for nine points (interception return for touchdown, safety), but a questionable offensive line stood tall at home.


My pick: Minnesota 30, Northern Illinois 24

Game result: Minnesota 31, Northern Illinois 27

20-20 hindsight: Vegas is calling me. Seriously, though, it didn't take much to see Minnesota would struggle a bit in the opener, and Northern Illinois will be good very soon with Jerry Kill as its coach. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber and wide receiver Eric Decker looked solid, though they hooked up for one fewer touchdown pass than forecasted. A new-look secondary allowed several big pass plays.


My pick: Ohio State 41, Youngstown State 10

Game result: Ohio State 43, Youngstown State 0

20-20 hindsight: I didn't give the Buckeyes' defense enough credit. They didn't let Youngstown State cross midfield until the game's final play. Ohio State's scoring production went about as expected with plenty of personnel involved in the rout, including freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor.


My pick: Wisconsin 31, Akron 17

Game result: Wisconsin 38, Akron 17

20-20 hindsight: Not surprisingly, Badgers running back P.J. Hill came through, racking up 210 rushing yards in the win. Some red-zone breakdowns and injuries on defense are causes for concern going forward, but Wisconsin should be able to overpower several of its opponents this season.


My pick: Iowa 24, Maine 13

Game result: Iowa 46, Maine 3

20-20 hindsight: Fears about the Iowa offense prompted a conservative pick, but those quickly vanished as Shonn Greene, freshman Jewel Hampton and others sparked an impressive rushing attack. The quarterback situation is unsettled in Iowa City, but the team has playmakers on both sides of the ball.


My pick: Penn State 33, Coastal Carolina 14

Game result: Penn State 66, Coastal Carolina 10

20-20 hindsight: Swing and a miss here. I thought Daryll Clark and the Spread HD offense would take some time to get going, but there are a ton of playmakers on that side of the ball and all showed up against a very weak opponent. Things will get tougher for the Lions this week against Oregon State, but an impressive start.


My pick: Indiana 31, Western Kentucky 17

Game result: Indiana 31, Western Kentucky 13

20-20 hindsight: Kellen Lewis came through as expected, breaking off two long touchdown runs and throwing for two more scores in the win. The defense didn't miss star pass rusher Greg Middleton, as fellow defensive end Jammie Kirlew collected two sacks.

Season record: 9-1

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The eve of the Big Ten season is upon us, so check your pulse. It should be racing. Every Friday, I'll take a look at 10 things I'm excited to see in the upcoming games. Here's installment No. 1.

1. Michigan's quarterbacks: After so much speculation about who fits RichRod's system, who doesn't, who's fast and who's not, we finally get a look at Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan in a game. Expect some growing pains early on, but both quarterbacks are heady players who could grasp the spread offense better than any of us expect them to. Just the sight of Michigan in a no-huddle spread could induce some double-takes.

2. That Pryor guy: Forget about gimmick plays and custom-designed packages near the goal line or anywhere else on the field. I want to see Ohio State freshman Terrelle Pryor lead a real drive, make real decisions and showcase all of his abilities, including his supposedly improved passing skills. Pryor should get a chance in the first half against Youngstown State.

3. Juice vs. Chase: The Edward Jones Dome is the site for arguably the nation's best quarterback matchup of the day. Illinois coaches are convinced Juice Williams has made the necessary strides as a passer and a leader during the offseason. The Illini junior will try to show it as he goes up against a proven commodity, Missouri senior quarterback Chase Daniel.

4. The Spread HD: It might take a more superior opponent than Coastal Carolina to get a good read on Penn State's new offense, but Saturday should shed some light on the mysterious system and Daryll Clark's ability to run it. Clark's passing skills will be in the spotlight, and Penn State fans finally get a look at speedster Stephfon Green.

5. Javon Ringer return a kick -- Ringer could push Ohio State's Beanie Wells for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors this fall, and he won't waste time producing highlights. The Michigan State running back should be a factor on kickoff returns against Cal, and he could break a big one and make Spartans fans momentarily forget about Devin Thomas.

6. Jake Christensen -- Christensen retained his starting job but hardly got a ringing endorsement from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who also plans to play sophomore Ricky Stanzi against Maine. Not all of what went wrong last season can be placed on Christensen, but it's time for the junior to make better decisions, show more consistency and utilize his weapons in the passing game.

7. Tramaine Brock rocks: The safety has been labeled a difference-maker for Minnesota as soon as he set foot on campus this winter. A ferocious hitter who can play either defensive back position, Brock gets his first chance to show that this will be a different year for the Gophers secondary as he goes up against Northern Illinois.

8. Martez Wilson on a blitz: Wilson makes his first career start for Illinois after plenty of preseason hype and faces one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Missouri's Daniel. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound sophomore passes the eye test and should be a dominant defender for the Illini. Now he's got to go out and prove it.

9. The wait ends for Evridge and Lewis: Allan Evridge makes his first start since 2005 as the senior left-hander leads Wisconsin against Akron. Evridge has been patient since transferring from Kansas State but can't get too hyped for the game and make mistakes. The wait hasn't been nearly as long for Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis, but it certainly felt that way after the junior lost his way this winter and had to earn his way back on the team. He makes his 22nd consecutive start against Western Kentucky.

10. Northwestern's new-look line in action: An offensive line featuring three new starters, including two redshirt freshman, is considered the only potential obstacle for a talent-stocked Wildcats offense. The front five needs a strong start against a Syracuse defense that tied for last nationally in sacks (.75 spg) in 2007.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Every Big Ten team has a position group that generates more unease than confidence, whether it's because of personnel losses, youth or poor performances. Here's a look at the position on each squad that could make or break the season.


Running backs: The group struggled in the spring and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley let the players know about it. Junior Daniel Dufrene has stepped up in preseason camp to claim the starting job, and the Illini feel good about freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure. But it's foolish to discount the value of Rashard Mendenhall, who finished eighth nationally in rushing average with 129.3 yards per game and 17 touchdowns last season.

Also keep an eye on: The safeties (two new starters)


Wide receivers: James Hardy finished his career as the most decorated wide receiver in team history, and his departure created a major void in the passing game. The coaches are counting on big things from Ray Fisher and Andrew Means, and former safety/quarterback Mitchell Evans should provide a boost. Indiana can't expect a receiver to match Hardy's production, but the group is capable of preventing a major drop-off.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (not much depth)


Offensive line: What was once the program's trademark has become an area of concern. Iowa ranked 114th nationally in sacks allowed (46) last season and is still waiting for several promising linemen to hit their stride. With questions lingering at both quarterback and running back entering the season, the Hawkeyes can ill afford major blocking problems.

Also keep an eye on: The quarterbacks (Jake Christensen struggled in '07)


Quarterbacks: Every area of the Michigan offense could fit in this category, but the unit's progress must start with the quarterbacks. Neither Steven Threet nor Nick Sheridan seamlessly fit Rich Rodriguez's system, and freshman Justin Feagin needs time to mature. The Wolverines need a game manager early on and can't afford turnovers from this position.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (four new starters)


Wide receivers: Illinois loses the Big Ten's top offensive player in Mendenhall, but Michigan State loses the league's top playmaker in Devin Thomas. Coach Mark Dantonio will lean on a young group featuring Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, Blair White and true freshmen Keshawn Martin and Fred Smith. The preseason has eased some doubt about this group, but the wideouts need to step up when it counts.

Also keep an eye on: The cornerbacks (two new starters)


Defensive backs: After finishing 115th nationally against the pass (289.3 ypg), the entire secondary needed major upgrades and got them from the junior college ranks. Two JUCO players are projected to start in safety Tramaine Brock and cornerback Traye Simmons, and hopes are high for cornerback Marcus Sherels, a converted wide receiver. The talent is there for a jump in production, but chemistry could be a challenge with so many new faces.

Also keep an eye on: The offensive line (lost three starters)


Offensive line: By far the biggest question mark on a veteran team, the line can't afford many growing pains to keep a bowl berth in the viewfinder. Three new starters join the group, including two on the all-important left side, so jelling quickly will be a challenge. If redshirt freshmen Al Netter and Ben Burkett meet expectations, the Wildcats should have a dominant offense this fall.

Also keep an eye on: The linebackers (new middle linebacker)


Defensive tackles: Not a lot of weak spots for the defending Big Ten champs, but the interior line looks a little iffy. Coordinator Jim Heacock has defended the group, pointing to its youth, but the Buckeyes need more play-making this fall from Cameron Heyward, Doug Worthington and Nader Abdallah.

Also keep an eye on: The safeties (more big plays)


Quarterbacks: The Nittany Lions usher in a new offense, the Spread HD, and need a capable trigger man in starter Daryll Clark or backup Pat Devlin. Both likely will play, though Clark starts Saturday against Coastal Carolina. The good news is the quarterbacks have plenty of weapons at the skill positions and play behind a veteran offensive line, but the inexperience at the position could lead to turnovers and other mistakes.

Also keep an eye on: The linebackers (inexperienced)


Wide receivers/tight ends: Purdue loses Dorien Bryant, who claimed 23 school and Big Ten records in his career, as well as underrated tight end Dustin Keller. Greg Orton is the only wideout with ample experience, and the Boilers will need help from Desmond Tardy, junior college transfers Aaron Valentin and Arsenio Curry and little-used seniors Brandon Whittington and Joe Whitest.

Also keep an eye on: The
linebackers (no depth)


Defensive backs: The Badgers lose their best cover man in Jack Ikegwuonu and endured their share of injuries at cornerback. Tackling has been a concern at the safety spots and Wisconsin needs continued growth from Shane Carter and Jay Valai. If cornerback Allen Langford remains healthy and regains his 2006 form, the secondary should be solid.

Also keep an eye on: The wide receivers (too many drops)

Big Ten picks for Week 1

August, 28, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Welcome to the first installment of Big Ten picks, which will appear every Thursday throughout the season. I'll pick the winners and the scores, using a bit of logic as well as some good ol' gut instinct. The Big Ten isn't one of those wacky leagues that plays games on Tuesday morning or Friday night, so I'll recap the picks after every weekend.

Let's get to it:

Illinois 31, Missouri 30: Illini quarterback Juice Williams has made the necessary steps as a passer and has the weapons to work with, including a fully healthy Rejus Benn. Chase Daniel will do his thing, but an underrated Illinois defensive line makes enough plays, including a key fourth-quarter takeaway to seal a mini-upset.

Utah 24, Michigan 21: Two quarterbacks will play for Michigan and both will struggle. The Wolverines' improved defense will contain Utah for most of the game before veteran signal caller Brian Johnson takes control in crunch time. I've got to go with experience here, and Utah has plenty.

California 33, Michigan State 28: Cal's decision to start mobile sophomore quarterback Kevin Riley instead of statue-like senior Nate Longshore made me change my pick. Riley and dynamic running back Jahvid Best spell trouble for a Michigan State defense that loses two standout pass rushers and recently shuffled its secondary. Javon Ringer will have a big day for Sparty, but it won't be enough on the road.

Northwestern 34, Syracuse 21: The Orange aren't settled on a running back, but Northwestern knows exactly who will be carrying the ball Saturday. Wildcats senior Tyrell Sutton shows why he's one of the Big Ten's best running backs when healthy, and a new-look offensive line holds up at home.

Minnesota 30, Northern Illinois 24: Northern Illinois isn't the pest it was in the early part of this decade, and the Huskies don't have a definitive starter at quarterback, though defensive end Larry English is a beast. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber will start strong, finding wideout Eric Decker for two touchdowns as Minnesota matches last year's wins total.

Ohio State 41, Youngstown State 10: Beanie Wells had only 46 rushing yards against the Penguins last year, a number that should triple or quadruple as the Buckeyes begin their road to redemption. Freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor produces a highlight or two as Ohio State rolls at home.

Wisconsin 31, Akron 17: The Badgers have some injury concerns and Akron will keep it close for a while. But new starting quarterback Allan Evridge will settle in after halftime as Wisconsin's running backs begin to wear down the Zips defense. Expect a big game for running back P.J. Hill and linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Iowa 24, Maine 13: Both teams averaged fewer than 19 points a game last season, so don't expect many offensive fireworks. Iowa will play two quarterbacks and one of them -- I'll go with Ricky Stanzi -- turns in a strong second half to seal a much-needed opening victory. Hawkeyes defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul force a turnover or two.

Penn State 33, Coastal Carolina 14: Daryll Clark's debut as the starting quarterback will be a good one, thanks in part to an opponent that went 5-6 last season. Get ready for the Stephfon Green experience as Penn State's Spread HD offense flexes its muscles in the opener.

Indiana 31, Western Kentucky 17: It might take a quarter for Kellen Lewis to get settled, but the junior will prove why he was the right choice at quarterback. Indiana's defense should be much improved this fall, and despite not having sack master Greg Middleton, the Hoosiers will stymie Western Kentucky.

Bye: Purdue

 AP Photo/Tony Ding
 Michigan's Rich Rodriguez is one of the new faces in the Big Ten.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

As the Big Ten season kicks off Saturday afternoon -- or morning, depending on the time zone -- here are 25 things I can't wait to see this fall.

1. Terrelle Pryor lead an offensive drive -- He might be a Tim Tebow-like weapon near the goal line, but I'm more interested in how the Ohio State freshman quarterback handles a real offensive series. Pryor's athleticism is undeniable, but it will be important to monitor his passing accuracy and the way he leads older teammates.

2. Michigan's quarterbacks -- Rich Rodriguez has ushered in a new era in Ann Arbor and will turn to unproven players like Steven Threet, Nick Sheridan and possibly Justin Feagin to lead his spread offense. There will undoubtedly be growing pains, but if one of those three takes control, the Wolverines will surge.

3. Jump Around at night -- Camp Randall Stadium is intimidating enough during daylight hours, but the electricity will reach new levels this fall with back-to-back night games against Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers haven't lost at home under coach Bret Bielema, and they should have a tremendous home-field edge this fall.

4. The Spread HD -- Penn State's new offense remains somewhat of a mystery, but the Lions will try to utilize their many weapons at wide receiver, running back and quarterback. "Hopefully HD will stand for high def, highly diverse," quarterback Daryll Clark said, "and hopefully it doesn't turn out to be huge dud."

5. Jim Tressel vs. Pete Carroll -- Two of the sport's elite coaches couldn't be more different in personality or style (can't exactly picture Carroll in a sweater vest), but they will match wits when Ohio State visits USC in Week 3.

6. Little brother in the Big House -- The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is growing, thanks to Mark Dantonio, but the Spartans need to win one of these games sooner or later. After six straight losses, Sparty heads to Ann Arbor on Oct. 25 determined to show they're nobody's little brother.

7. New quarterbacks -- Three teams will start new quarterbacks this fall, and Iowa's situation under center is far from settled. Wisconsin needs Allan Evridge to effectively manage games, while a greater load will be placed on Penn State's Clark and Michigan's new signal callers.

8. Beanie vs. P.J. -- Forget about the spread offense when Wisconsin and Ohio State meet Oct. 4 in Madison. The Big Ten's rushing roots will be on display as Heisman contender Beanie Wells goes up against P.J. Hill and the Badgers.

9. Juice in the pocket -- Juice Williams came on strong at the end of last season, and the Illinois quarterback continued to make strides in the spring and summer. He takes over an offense without Rashard Mendenhall and looks to pass more this fall.

10. Ferentz under fire -- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz still might be one of the league's top coaches, but he has to prove it this fall. With his reputation suffering on and off the field, Ferentz needs a strong season from a squad that has major questions on offense.

11. Tiller's farewell tour -- Joe Tiller revolutionized offense in the country's premier cold-weather conference, and the Purdue coach should be celebrated as he goes through his final season. The regular-season finale against Indiana will surely be emotional for Tiller and the Boilers fans.

12. Rejus Benn in the backfield -- The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year is fully healthy following shoulder surgery, and that means more touches this fall. Defensive coordinators will shudder at the thought of Juice Williams and Benn running the option in the same backfield.

13. Grande Dos -- That's the self-appointed nickname of Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list despite no career starts in college. Wilson will get every opportunity this fall to show why he could be the next Simeon Rice.

14. RichRod vs. Charlie Weis -- Both have been lauded as offensive innovators, though Weis' honeymoon ended when Notre Dame went 3-9 last year. Michigan is dealing with some eerily similar personnel losses, and Rodriguez's coaching ability will be tested when the Wolverines visit South Bend on Sept. 13.

15. Brian Hoyer in crunch time -- The Michigan State quarterback has taken heat for his fourth-quarter shortcomings, but he'll have plenty of chances to redeem himself this fall. Hoyer's poise under pressure will largely determine whether the Spartans back up their preseason hype.

16. Stephfon Green in the open field -- The Penn State running back enters the fall with tons of hype despite never playing a collegiate game. If the reports prove true, Green will torch defenses if he gets any room to run.

17. The renovated Memorial Stadium -- Illinois is bringing in so many great players for its reopening of Memorial Stadium on Sept. 6 that I expect Red Grange to miraculously turn up. The 1923 relic has been spruced up big time, and it should give coach Ron Zook another recruiting tool.

18. Lewis and the no-huddle -- Indiana coaches had Kellen Lewis in mind when they installed the no-huddle offense in the offseason. Lewis got a late start with the system after being suspended for spring ball, but the junior quarterback should catch up fast.

19. Painter's pursuit -- Purdue senior quarterback Curtis Painter is on pace to set a bevy of Big Ten career passing records this fall. The underrated Painter has a new group of receivers to
work with but consistently puts up big numbers.

20. Gilreath on the move -- Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath is quickly developing into the league's most dangerous return man. He might not merit the Devin Hester treatment quite yet, but expect Gilreath to break some electrifying runs this fall.

21. Mike Hankwitz's impact -- Northwestern hasn't fielded a decent defense since adopting the spread offense in 2000. Hankwitz, the league's most experienced coordinator, steps in this fall and tries to change the script in Evanston.

22. Michigan Stadium makeover -- The team on the field isn't the only thing getting overhauled in Ann Arbor this season. Fans will enter a construction site every Saturday at Michigan Stadium, setting up an unusual game day experience.

23. Ringer returning kickoffs -- Michigan State star running back Javon Ringer will showcase his speed on kickoff returns this fall. How long the arrangement lasts isn't known -- I'm not sure how wise it is to put your best player on such a dangerous play -- but Ringer is sure to produce a highlight or two.

24. Minnesota's JUCOs -- Gophers coach Tim Brewster needed some immediate help on defense and got it with junior-college transfers like Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons, Cedric McKinley and Rex Sharpe. How quickly those players blend in will determine whether Minnesota makes a jump this fall.

25. Finch on the field -- Indiana's Jerimy Finch has been cleared to play this fall, and the Florida transfer gives a big boost to the secondary. Considered arguably the nation's top safety coming out of high school, Finch will make his presence known right away.

Three questions for Penn State

August, 27, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

I didn't get a chance to make it to Happy Valley during the preseason, but now that the quarterback situation is settled, it's time to take a look at Penn State. Here are three questions facing the Nittany Lions this fall.

1. Did Penn State make the right call with Daryll Clark at quarterback?

Clark has the right mix of size, speed, arm strength and intangibles to effectively run the Nittany Lions new offense, the Spread HD. Those expecting a reincarnation of Michael Robinson might be disappointed, but Clark should be able to manage an offense stacked with weapons at wide receiver and running back. Penn State coach Joe Paterno said sophomore Pat Devlin also likely will play this fall, which isn't a bad idea, but Clark will get the first opportunity. The 6-2 senior doesn't lack confidence and projects as a strong vocal leader, which should help him transition to the top spot and earn his teammates' respect.

2. How will the recent off-field incidents and the speculation about Paterno's future affect the team?

If things go bad early on, some of those distractions could creep in for Penn State, but the team has good senior leadership in players like A.Q. Shipley, Josh Gaines and Derrick Williams. The Nittany Lions can't afford any more disciplinary incidents after a well-publicized offseason in the blotter, and it will be up to the captains to maintain order. The Paterno questions could crop up more toward the end of the season, especially if the team is struggling. Players maintain they don't worry about the 81-year-old coach, but constantly getting asked to speculate about his future could take a toll.

3. Who will step up on defense after the season-ending injury to star linebacker Sean Lee?

Penn State still should have one of the Big Ten's best defenses despite the loss of Lee. Junior defensive end Maurice Evans is on the cusp of a monster season after collecting 21.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks last fall. Safety Anthony Scirrotto will be fully focused after dealing with his own off-field problems last season and should lead Penn State in interceptions for the third consecutive year. If the Lions get good leadership from Tyrell Sales and production from former walk-on Josh Hull and promising sophomores Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu, the linebacker corps won't be an issue.

Penn State turns to Clark at QB

August, 26, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

  AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
  Senior Daryll Clark has been named the Penn State starting quarterback.

After listing two possible starters at quarterback on Penn State's Week 1 depth chart, coach Joe Paterno made his decision and tabbed senior Daryll Clark to lead the Nittany Lions offense against Coastal Carolina. Clark had been expected to get the starting nod over sophomore Pat Devlin, mostly because of his experience last season as Anthony Morelli's backup.

The 6-2, 231-pound Clark turned in an impressive performance in the Alamo Bowl, helping rally Penn State to a win against Texas A&M. His combination of size and speed seems to fit Penn State's new offense, the Spread HD, but Paterno doesn't discount Clark's ability as a passer, which will be key as the Lions return three senior wide receivers.

"He's a good all-around quarterback," Paterno said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. "People think he's a runner. He's a good thrower. Smart kid, good leader."

Paterno reiterated that both Devlin and third-stringer Paul Cianciolo remain in the mix and that more than one quarterback could see the field this fall. It will be interesting to see what happens to Devlin, a highly touted prep quarterback who reneged on a verbal commitment to Miami to play for his home state school. Clark is on pace to earn a fifth season of eligibility in 2009, while Devlin has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

Devlin still should see the field a decent amount this fall, and Paterno downplayed the belief that Clark's skills fit the offense better than the other candidates.

"The system's got to fit the quarterback," Paterno said. "You've got a quarterback and we have three, and you can't put a system in for one quarterback because he could go down halfway through the first quarter or the first game, so you put in something they all can do without being a strain."

Clark appeared in eight games last season, completing 6 of 9 passes for 31 yards. Though Paterno said he named a starter to prevent Clark from looking over his shoulder, the junior doesn't appear to lack any confidence and has the demeanor to command respect right away.

"They're all bright as can be, but I had to make a pick and Clark right now is the best of the three," Paterno said. "But the other two guys will be pushing."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Several more Week 1 depth charts came out Monday, but few major questions were answered. Penn State still doesn't have a starting quarterback, and neither does Indiana or Michigan. The first Big Ten coaches' teleconference is later Tuesday, so perhaps some light will be shed on the league's top position battles. Check back for updates.

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