Big Ten: Stafon Johnson

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Indiana's touchdown pass early in the second quarter marked the first points scored against Ohio State since USC's Stafon Johnson scored with 1:05 remaining in an 18-15 victory on Sept. 12 at Ohio Stadium.

The Buckeyes had posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1996.

Indiana is definitely getting creative on offense, and wide receiver Tandon Doss has had a big game so far. But quarterback Terrelle Pryor is putting together a very nice performance on offense for the Buckeyes, who lead 17-7.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Iowa is for real -- Some Hawkeyes fans might have misinterpreted my postgame commentary. True, Penn State made mistakes Saturday night, but Iowa forced them with terrific defense and special teams. The Hawkeyes put themselves squarely in the Big Ten title mix with Ohio State by stunning the Nittany Lions for the seventh time in eight tries. Defense and special teams are the formula for success on the road, and Iowa executed both areas to perfection in the first of four challenging Big Ten away games. It's hard to imagine a defensive line in the country playing better than Iowa's.

2. Scott Tolzien is also for real -- The quarterback position must improve in the Big Ten this year, and Tolzien has done his part for the 4-0 Badgers. He has validated the coaches' decision to start him, throwing for 221 yards per game with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Tolzien picked apart a vastly overrated Michigan State secondary in Saturday's victory, passing for four touchdowns, three to tight end Garrett Graham.

3. Tressel ball still works -- Much like Iowa, Ohio State has gotten better every week of the season despite some lingering issues on offense. Credit quarterback Terrelle Pryor and running backs Brandon Saine and Dan Herron for making key plays against Illinois, but Ohio State won with defense yet again. The Buckeyes haven't allowed a touchdown since Stafon Johnson's run at the end of the USC loss, shutting out consecutive opponents for the first time since 1996. Head coach Jim Tressel's formula continues to click in Big Ten play.

4. Press the panic button for several teams -- Illinois and Michigan State both should be in panic mode after getting dominated -- the Illini more than the Spartans -- in critical road tests on Saturday. Both teams were projected to be in the Big Ten's upper half, and now both could be fighting for their postseason lives when they meet Oct. 10 at Memorial Stadium. Northwestern also should be extremely worried because of a defense that has regressed fundamentally and that shocked head coach Pat Fitzgerald with its poor tackling. Purdue can't seem to get over the hump in close games, and Danny Hope could have a long first season in West Lafayette.

5. Michigan's defense has major issues -- Tate The Great showed up again in the fourth quarter Saturday to secure a 4-0 start for Michigan, which continues to pile up points. But if the Wolverines continue to play defense like they did against Indiana and for most of the game against Notre Dame, they won't be undefeated for long. Youth, size and depth are hurting Greg Robinson's defense right now, and things need to get fixed as Michigan hits the road for the first time and faces better competition in October.

Big Ten mailblog

September, 18, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Your questions, my answers.

Brandon from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Outside of being comfortable and Tressel not wanting to allow anyone else to have power, why doesn't Ohio State ever open up coaching positions to a national search?Florida's QB coach had vast D-I experience, same with Jeremy Bates at USC (who just was hired). And other teams have ex-Division I players as quarterbacks coach.What can Siciliano say when he recruits because he never played college football and his only experience is as a video coordinator? OSU fans are frustrated because other teams have more high-profile QB coaches and Pryor seems to not be developing.

Adam Rittenberg: I understand the frustration, but I don't think Nick Siciliano deserves the blame for what's happening in Columbus. It's a combination of things (youth, system, development) and no one position is totally at fault. As The Columbus Dispatch's Tim May recently wrote, Ohio State has an identity crisis on offense, and it's the whole unit. Obviously, Terrelle Pryor is the engine, and I think he'd do best in a total spread offense, one where he can constantly make plays with his feet. Some of Craig Krenzel's comments in the story are pretty interesting, especially about Pryor's inconsistent footwork. Then again, if Ohio State's offensive line play had been what it should the past few years, many of these questions wouldn't be asked. A lot of this falls in Jim Tressel's lap, but the Buckeyes have a lot of time to get better.

Brian from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: I was wondering what kind of odds you see michigan having at finishing in the top two or three in the big ten. I'm assuming we will stumble in a couple of games, most likely at michigan state, at Iowa, and/or against penn state and ohio state. Do you think two or possibly three loses within the conference will still put us in the top tier of the big ten?

Adam Rittenberg: It could, Brian. Tough to know what to make of the league so far. Penn State hasn't played anybody, Ohio State has been shaky on offense, Iowa had a scare and then looked good and Michigan State really melted down against Central Michigan. Michigan has been the one team that impressed me in both weeks. That said, the Wolverines remain very young and haven't gone on the road yet. This could be a year where 6-2 keeps a team among the Big Ten leaders. Harder to stay there with three losses, so that's a big difference.

Mark from Detroit writes: Adam, if you want to do something useful to help the Big Ten football and everyone involved, press them to improve scheduling. They must play every team in the conference -- round robin if you like that wimpy term, and real BCS non-conference contenders. I know other teams (Florida) and conferences take the easy (cheaters) way, but that's not the sign of real leadership -- they will get their due rewards. You need to hammer on this endlessly, otherwise the Big Ten willl keep embarassing themselves and the NCAA by going 1-6 in the bowl games. It's just NCAA-sanctioned cheating; of everyone involved in college football!

Adam Rittenberg: I'll do my best, Mark, but playing a round-robin Big Ten schedule is a total pipedream. There's too much money at stake for these teams to give up home games, much less to add another very losable road game to the schedule. It's more likely the Big Ten plays nine conference games (yes, I know the math doesn't work perfectly with 11 teams) or adds a 12th member. But you're not going to see a 10-game round-robin, not for a league that sends more teams to BCS bowls than any other. I feel your pain in wanting to see better nonconference matchups for Big Ten schools, and I think things are slowly improving. Better nonconference games is the fight worth fighting, not a round-robin league schedule.

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Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Safety Taylor Mays is back in the game for USC, but the Trojans might be a bit concerned about their young quarterback.

Freshman Matt Barkley has been a bit shaky early on, misfiring on five of his first six attempts and throwing an interception to Buckeyes linebacker Ross Homan. Barkley has missed the open man a few times, though he made a nice third-down throw to David Ausberry.

USC is doing a better job of establishing the run game with Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson, which should take some of the pressure off of Barkley.

It's game day at Ohio Stadium

September, 12, 2009
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The defining game for Ohio State and the Big Ten Conference is finally here. And USC gets another chance to prove why it's arguably the nation's premier program, especially in big games.

Great atmosphere around the stadium today, though I didn't get much time to enjoy it (terrible traffic pattern). The weather is gorgeous right now, 75 degrees with just a slight breeze out of the northwest. It should be about 70 degrees at kickoff and drop into the high 50s late in the game.

I attended USC's walkthrough at Ohio State on Friday afternoon and it's true: The Trojans are the loosest team in the world. There was a kicking competition, what looked like a football version of ultimate Frisbee and several choreographed dances and chants. This might be a young team, but it won't be a nervous one.


1. Get Terrelle Pryor on the move. Pryor needs to forget about establishing himself as a pocket passer. There isn't a team in the country that can consistently catch him around the edges, and he needs to stretch USC's defense and capitalize on their aggressive style. With few proven offensive weapons around him, Pryor needs to win the game for Ohio State, and he has to use his feet as much as possible.

2. Don't let USC establish an early rhythm with its run game. The Trojans don't want to put too much on freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, and they won't need to if their running backs keep dominating. Ohio State's veteran defense line needs to contain Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson, get USC into obvious passing situations and then bring the heat.

3. Hold onto the football. Turnovers have just killed Big Ten teams against USC, and Ohio State can't afford many or any giveaways in this game. Pryor needs to be precise on his passes, particularly down the field, and running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine must protect the football. USC tied for 25th nationally last year in average turnover margin.

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Blogger debate: USC-Ohio State

September, 10, 2009
AP Photo
Quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Matt Barkley will be the focal point for Saturday's Ohio State-USC throwdown.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg and Ted Miller

All eyes will be on Columbus this weekend as No. 3 USC visits No. 8 Ohio State (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Before the two teams lock horns on the banks of the Olentangy River, we debated several key questions heading into the mega matchup.

Adam Rittenberg: Ted, I look at this USC defense and don't see a glaring weakness. Still, several mobile quarterbacks [Vince Young, Dennis Dixon] have hurt the Trojans in the past. How do you expect USC to defend Terrelle Pryor and does Pryor give the Buckeyes a fighting chance in this game?

Ted Miller: I think Pryor gives the Buckeyes a fighting chance because he can make something out of nothing when a play breaks down -- and the USC defense is good at breaking down plays. While USC fans would debate you on the health of their defense vs. Vince Young, the fact is the Trojans learned from that game that you need to account for an athletic quarterback -- you can't just run your base defense and expect gap control and rush lanes to take care of things. There surely will be some sort of spying, whether with one guy or a shift of guys. On the plus side for USC, this is a really fast defense. It's much faster at linebacker than last year. Malcolm Smith is fast -- his brother is an NFL receiver -- and Michael Morgan is a 4.4 guy. Toss in end Everson Griffen and you've got some guys who can really run on the perimeter of the front-seven. Moreover, middle linebacker Chris Galippo implied to me that this will be more disciplined defense. As extraordinary as Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga were last year, they, at times, freelanced, looking for big plays. That means the Trojans won't be as likely abandon their assigned gaps or let contain break down.

As long as we're talking quarterbacks, what do you think about the poise issue for both guys? USC's Matt Barkley claims he doesn't get nervous. You buy that at the Horseshoe? And how will Pryor react on this big stage?

AR: The Shoe remains the toughest place to play in the Big Ten, getting the slightest of edges against Penn State's Beaver Stadium. Barkley's nerves will be put to the test. It will be extremely loud, especially at the start of the game, and the south end zone addition really makes the decibels rise. I'd imagine USC will go to its strength right away, pound away with those tremendous running backs and athletic offensive line and give Barkley some time to get settled. Everything I've heard about this kid -- from yourself and other observers -- is that he's the real deal. I saw true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier show no nerves last week for Michigan in the Big House, but then again, he was playing at home. Ohio State's defensive line is the strength of the team, and it has to rattle Barkley early for the Buckeyes to have a shot. As for Pryor, he has shown some toughness late in games, particularly against Wisconsin last year. He's certainly more comfortable as a passer, but he can't get away from what makes him special and needs to make plays with his feet. I still haven't seen a team contain Pryor on the move, but he needs the freedom from head coach Jim Tressel and the willingness from within to really cut loose against USC.

Ohio State's defensive line is the team's strongest unit. Same could be said for USC's offensive line. How do you see that matchup shaking out, and will Ohio State need to use speed (Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward) rather than power to beat the Trojans' front?

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Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

After USC's Mark Sanchez had his way in a 35-3 victory last September, Ohio State's defensive linemen convened and made a pact.

The Trojans had won the battle at the line of scrimmage, leaving the Buckeyes beaten and bruised. Senior defensive end/linebacker Curtis Terry did the talking.

"He was really, really honest and put it all on the line," Ohio State defensive tackle Doug Worthington recalled. "We just had a heart-to-heart, so to speak, and just tried to decide what we wanted to do and what we wanted to be for the rest of the season. We kind of turned it around."

Ohio State ended up finishing in the top 20 nationally in both rushing defense and scoring defense, and finished sixth nationally in points allowed (13.9 ypg). The Buckeyes held Penn State's powerful offense to season lows in both points and yards, and limited Texas to just 24 points and 54 rushing yards in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Scarlet and Gray might have fallen short of its goals in 2008, but to no fault of the defensive line.

Ohio State's front four is unquestionably the team's strength this fall, returning seven of its top eight players from last season. The group has combined for 78 career starts, led by Worthington (23) and defensive end Cameron Heyward (21).

The line has drawn comparisons to previous Buckeye fronts in 2002 and 2003, seasons that ended with a national title and a Fiesta Bowl victory.

"Playing with those guys the last few years, being in practices, just hanging with them off the field, has been a great experience for me," said Worthington, a co-captain this fall. "I just know when I'm on the field, and I've got Dex [Larimore] to my right and Thad [Gibson] to my left, that I'm comfortable with those guys.

"It's just a level of comfort when you have a guy you know is very productive and wants it as bad as you do."

Ohio State needs the front four to be at its peak in Saturday's rematch against No. 3 USC (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The Trojans no longer have Sanchez, but they're extremely talented on the offensive line and boast an endless supply of running backs, led by Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson.

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Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The final 2008 edition of What to Watch examines the four remaining Big Ten bowl games: Outback, Capital One, Rose and Fiesta. The Big Ten is winless so far in the bowl season and is favored in only one bowl (Iowa, Outback).

Here are some subplots to watch as you watch the games (in order of kickoff time).

1. Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Big Ten fans should be somewhat familiar with Greene, but most of the country will get its first glimpse of the Hawkeyes' superstar on Thursday against South Carolina. The Doak Walker Award winner has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 12 regular-season games but faces a stout South Carolina defense. This likely will be Greene's final collegiate game, so get a good look while you can.

2. The Hawkeyes' back seven vs. Stephen Garcia -- Garcia gets the start at quarterback for South Carolina and hopes to provide some stability under center. The redshirt freshman has six touchdown passes and five interceptions on the season, and he'll need to limit mistakes against an Iowa defense that forces plenty of them. Iowa led the Big Ten with 20 interceptions, with five players collecting multiple picks.

3. Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer -- His last bowl appearance was a disaster, as he committed five turnovers (4 INTs, fumble) in a loss to Boston College. Georgia undoubtedly will load up to stop Javon Ringer and make Hoyer win the game for Michigan State. Though Hoyer's numbers this season won't blow anyone away, he has made clutch throws and found ways to win games. If he can stretch the field with Blair White, rushing lanes should open for Ringer.

4. Michigan State's defensive line vs. Georgia's offensive line -- If the Spartans manage to slow down Georgia, it has to start up front. Michigan State's defensive line has more experience and must find ways to exploit Georgia's front five. Rush end Trevor Anderson finished the year with eight sacks and Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw combined for seven more. If Matthew Stafford has time in the pocket, Michigan State will be in big trouble.

5. Joe Paterno's whereabouts -- It doesn't really matter where Paterno watches the Rose Bowl, but his potential return to the sideline after seven consecutive games in the press box might give Penn State an emotional lift. Paterno admits he sees the field better from up top, but the 82-year-old is itching to get back to where he belongs. His location likely will be a game-time decision, and the officiating crew better be on its toes if JoePa returns to the sideline.

6. Quarterback Daryll Clark and Penn State's offensive strategy -- Clark got his swagger back in the regular-season finale against Michigan State and enters the Rose Bowl stocked with confidence. But he goes up against quite possibly the best defense in recent college history. Though Clark has been smart and efficient all season (four interceptions in 285 pass attempts), Penn State likely needs to challenge USC down the field. A passive approach simply won't work in this game, and play-callers Galen Hall and Jay Paterno need to go right at USC's strength.

7. Penn State's special teams -- These two defenses could easily cancel one another out -- Penn State can play some 'D', too -- and the Rose Bowl might come down to special teams. Penn State senior return man Derrick Williams has been outstanding this season and needs another huge performance against USC. If Williams can give Penn State short fields and Kevin Kelly converts his field goal attempts, the Lions could outlast the Trojans. Punter Jeremy Boone also could play a big role in this one, and Penn State must contain the Johnsons (Ronald and Stafon) on USC's returns.

8. Ohio State's Pryor-Wells backfield combo -- If the Buckeyes' much-maligned offensive line steps up to create rushing lanes and time in the pocket, Terrelle Pryor and Chris "Beanie" Wells should do some damage in the Fiesta Bowl. Pryor has shown beyond-his-years poise this season, but the national spotlight gets brighter for the true freshman quarterback Jan. 5. The game likely will be Wells' last in a Buckeyes' uniform, and he'll want to go out with a huge performance after a season that began with Heisman Trophy hopes.
9. Buckeyes senior stars vs. Colt McCoy -- Linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will go down as two of the best ever to play their positions at Ohio State. They don't want to finish their careers with a third consecutive postseason loss, one that would only ramp up criticism of the Ohio State program. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy provides a formidable final challenge, but Ohio State's defense played its best football in the second half of the season. The Buckeyes need their senior stars to make game-changing plays, and Laurinaitis and Jenkins need a win to cement their legacy outside of Columbus and the Big Ten.
10. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel -- He's about as far away from the hot seat as a FBS head coach can get, but Tressel and his program really could use a win in the desert. Ohio State hasn't won a national showcase game outside of the Big Ten since 2006 (Texas), and despite the team's obvious improvement in November, the USC disaster remains the lasting image of the Buckeyes' season. Tressel has drawn criticism for what some feel is a stale offense. If he pulls the right strings with some more creative play calling, Ohio State could pull off the upset.