Big Ten: Trae Waynes

No team in the Big Ten entered the offseason on a bigger high than Michigan State. That's understandable, given that the Spartans won the league championship, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl and finished No. 3 in the nation.

It was the program's best season in decades. But as Michigan State prepares to open spring practice on Tuesday, coach Mark Dantonio wants to make sure the team isn't still busy patting itself on the back for 2013.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesAfter going 13-1 in 2013, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio must replace a few key pieces on defense.
"This spring, the message to our players equates pretty simple, really," Dantonio told reporters Monday. "It's handled success. We have to be able to handle success as we move forward and everything that we are doing. There's no question that this year will be our greatest challenge in that area."

This most pressing on-field challenge this spring in East Lansing will largely be about finding replacements for the valuable seniors who contributed to last year's special season, especially on defense.

In that regard, the initial depth chart lists Taiwan Jones as the starting middle linebacker, in Max Bullough's old position. Jones played the weakside linebacker position last season, but now Darien Harris is listed there.

"He's become a thumper a little bit and he's a big, physical guy," Dantonio said of Jones. "We are going to have to see how he transitions in terms of the knowledge there, but again they are all linebackers and he can play outside, he can play Sam as well and we are going find out if we can play the Mike."

Ed Davis begins the spring No. 1 at the strongside spot, but Davis will be limited this spring because of a shoulder injury. Dantonio said the linebacker spots will continue to be evaluated this spring.

Sophomore Darian Hicks will get the first crack at replacing Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard at cornerback, with Trae Waynes locked into the other starting corner spot. Joel Heath and Damon Knox are penciled in as the starting defensive tackles, moving in for Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover.

Dantonio said the depth at defensive tackle and how Michigan State rebuilds its offensive line after losing three starters from last season are his biggest concerns right now. But the team has an experienced offense, led by Connor Cook, and a strong nucleus of talent to build around on defense.

The good times could keep rolling for the Spartans if they don't get caught up in their past success.

"We can't feel like we are entitled," Dantonio said. "We have to make it happen and we have to be mature enough to be able to handle success and that's part of it.

"One out of every 10 teams that has had great success, there's a 10 percent chance of that team doing it again. So we need to be that one in 10 that's able to handle it."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Chris Ash, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Nico Law, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Leo Musso, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Michigan State

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
1:00
PM ET
video Michigan State loses its best player in All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and the Spartans will look at Trae Waynes and others to help fill the void beginning this spring.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
5:00
PM ET
Coming at you from the United Mailbaggers Local 40205 …

David from Nashville writes: All Players United! Well except walk-ons, that is. I'm sorry, but Kain Colter is losing me. Personally, I completely understand wanting medical coverage for football injuries sustained while representing the university. But excluding walk-ons from having a ”'voice at the table,” as Colter calls it? Do they not sustain injuries, get concussions or have medical bills? And they don't even get the free education from a very prestigious, and expensive, school like Northwestern! Or perhaps, just like the NCAA, Kain Colter just wants “his,” and including your walk-on teammates will hurt his legal argument to get “his.”

Brian Bennett: Clearly, there are more questions than answers right now about the Northwestern labor union movement. Can students at a university really be classified as "employees?" How would such a union arrangement work with Title IX? How long would medical benefits last, and who would decide whether a former player's injury was football-related?

The issue of walk-ons is another one, although a minor point, in my opinion. Only those who are receiving scholarships can really argue that they are being compensated like an employee, and any walk-on who plays enough to merit post-career benefits would likely be put on scholarship at some point. It's also not fair to say Colter is looking to "get his" when he has already completed his eligibility and likely would not see any personal gain from leading this movement. On the contrary, he's risking a lot by agreeing to become the public face of this movement.

I question whether a labor union is the right way for the players to go, and it certainly was odd to see college football players standing alongside steelworkers' union members at Tuesday's news conference. But I also think it's way past time for players to organize in some way and make sure their rights and concerns are being considered. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry that's only going to get richer with the new playoff system, and everybody from head coaches to assistants to athletic directors are getting rich off the sport. Everybody except the players, who put their bodies at risk for our enjoyment, that is.

Yes, the players receive scholarships, and at a place like Northwestern, the value of that can exceed $250,000 over the course of a player's career. But the players in this movement aren't asking for cash. They're asking for things such as medical treatment beyond their playing days, better concussion prevention and care and a trust fund that can allow players to continue their schooling following their careers. (Many of their demands, by the way, are not that different from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's own collegiate reform plan). Mostly, they are asking for a larger voice and a seat at the table in a system that too often treats them like disposable indentured servants. That seems a highly reasonable request to me.


[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a good role model for running backs looking to improve next season.
Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Brian, who will be 2014's Carlos Hyde in the B1G? By that, I mean a player who showed flashes of talent early in his career but blossoms into an all-conference type of performer his final season. Guys like Ohio State CB Doran Grant, PSU RB Bill Belton, and Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo come to my mind as possibilities.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure Hyde blossomed as much as he was healthier in 2013 and got plenty of opportunities after his early-season suspension. He did run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 despite some injury problems, after all. I think a better example of someone who went from very good player to all-out beast in 2013 is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Belton could be a guy who takes a similar path, though he has some competition for carries with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch around. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is another running back who could take it to the next level after running for 958 yards in his first season starting. Maybe Iowa's Jordan Canzeri, if he can get more reps (and stay healthy).

On defense, I'd say Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could follow Darqueze Dennard's path into superstardom. And Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could go bonkers on the league.


Dane from Akron, Penn., writes: Really, Brian? PSU/Michigan, 4-OT game at No. 6? This game had it all. A freshman QB drives 60-plus yards in like 40 seconds (two unbelievable catches on that drive), a clutch kicker missing three field goals... I repeat, 4 OTs!

Brian Bennett: The game had it all except quality of play, as I explained in my post. Just because a game goes long does not mean that it was well-played. You mentioned the missed field goals. The two teams each failed to score in two of the overtimes and there was only one touchdown in all four of the extra periods, which led to a lot of national writers poking fun at the Big Ten on Twitter during the game. There were also seven combined turnovers. It was exciting, no doubt, and a great win for Penn State after a tremendous regulation comeback. But it was also very sloppy.


John R. from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Brian, am I the only Illini fan that's thrilled to see a new QB take the reins in Illinois? Sure the numbers were great, but the predictable interception always happened! I can't wait for Wes Lunt to play. The way the defense talked about his skills when he ran the scout team's offense is enough make any humbled Illini fan excited of something. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: You're definitely not alone, John. There's a big buzz about Lunt taking over and running Bill Cubit's spread offense. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he looks more like a classic quarterback than Nathan Scheelhaase did, and Lunt was a blue-chip stud coming out of high school. I'd caution you not to view him as the savior yet; remember that Lunt struggled a bit as a freshman at Oklahoma State, a program that usually makes quarterbacks look great. There are also questions at receiver for Illinois, and don't discount what Scheelhaase did last year in passing for more than 3,000 yards. Still, the talent is definitely there, and I'm also excited to see what Lunt can do in that offense.


Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: I don't know about other people, but I've long held the opinion that Penn State underachieves. By this I mean that they are a national power in terms of fan base, facilities, revenue and name brand appeal. Just not a national power on the field. I felt this was certainly true for the last 10-15 years under Paterno. Under O'Brien, you had the sense that the game and team were being upgraded, but he himself didn't have a catchy personality. And I didn't even think it was important until I'm seeing Franklin and his recruiting. It's way too early to tell if that translates to success on the field. But it appears that the foundation is (hopefully) being laid for better results in the future. What I see is someone putting energy into the whole program. It certainly would seem like the program might actually start taking advantage of its assets and capability. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I think you can make some parallels between Penn State and Florida State. Both programs were probably held back a little because their legendary coaches stayed on too long. Remember when Joe Paterno was doing his recruiting via Skype from his office? Now you have the almost manic energy of James Franklin, who along with his aggressive assistants will likely kill it on the recruiting trail. Of course, the toll of the NCAA sanctions can't be overstated, and Franklin has to prove that A) he's a championship-caliber head coach; and B) that he's willing to stick around Penn State for a long time. But you're right in that the marriage of Penn State's resources and Franklin's particular skills should prove very fruitful for the Nittany Lions.


Michael B. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: The East Division next season seems to be Michigan State's to lose. I understand that Ohio State will be in the picture, but can we really place Michigan in that race with their lackluster performances over the past few years? Seems to me that Penn State would be the next best in the division going into the season.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be the clear co-favorites for the East next season. While I expect Michigan to improve on its 2013 showing, the Wolverines still have a lot more question marks in my view than the Spartans or Buckeyes, and they have to play both those teams on the road in '14. Penn State is an intriguing contender because it gets both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, where the Nittany Lions played much better than on the road last year. But I think the Buckeyes and Spartans still have the commanding edge in talent and depth, and we should see one of those two in Indianapolis in December.
Last week, we took a look at five Big Ten offensive players to watch in 2014. Today, we turn to the defense.

We're limiting ourselves to five players on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (who made this list a year ago). Players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list. We're focusing instead on those who can make a big leap.

Away we go, in alphabetical order ...

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAfter a big first start in the Orange Bowl, things are looking bright for Ohio State's Vonn Bell (11).
Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State: We could have put Joey Bosa on this list, but that would have been too easy. Bell got his first start in the Discover Orange Bowl and showed off his playmaking ability with a spectacular interception of Clemson's Tajh Boyd near his own end zone. He probably should have played more as a true freshman but has a chance to really break out as a sophomore in a revamped Buckeyes secondary.

Desmond King, CB, Iowa: He played well this season as a rookie starter for the Hawkeyes and stood out in the Outback Bowl against LSU's pair of star receivers. In fact, the Tigers' Odell Beckham Jr. told the Des Moines Register that "I feel as if the sky is the limit for him."

Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, Northwestern: He was one of the Wildcats' top-rated recruits ever when he signed in 2012, and Odenigbo made his first impact this year as a third-down pass-rushing specialist. He finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks. The redshirt sophomore should have more opportunities for playing time with Tyler Scott graduating, though Northwestern still has Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson at defensive end.

Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska: The future is bright for the Huskers' young defense, and we strongly considered linebacker Michael Rose, safety Corey Cooper and others here. But there aren't a lot of 325-pound defensive tackles with major upside floating around, and that's what Valentine is. He showed flashes during his redshirt freshman campaign and could develop into a force on that defensive line for Bo Pelini.

Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State: Waynes is hardly an unknown. He started as a sophomore in the Spartans' No-Fly Zone secondary and was honorable mention All-Big Ten. He still has room to get even better, though, and with Darqueze Dennard moving on to the NFL, he'll become the leader of the cornerbacks group. Heck, the way Michigan State has produced defensive studs, we could have made this entire list out of Spartans, as guys like Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Ed Davis and Riley Bullough all have major potential.
The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO kicks off later today. Here's a look at 10 reasons why No. 4 Michigan State could beat No. 5 Stanford in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State will send Shilique Calhoun, and many other defenders, at Stanford's offense.
1. MSU can match Stanford's physicality: Stanford's only two losses this season came against teams with big, physical players, especially up front. The Cardinal can simply overpower most of their Pac-12 foes, but Michigan State can match them along the line of scrimmage. Even without middle linebacker Max Bullough, the Spartans defense should be able to contain a traditional offense like Stanford's. Spread teams give the "Spartan Dawgs" slightly more trouble, but Stanford isn't one of them.

2. The kicking game: No one is talking enough about MSU's edge in special teams. Stanford's Ty Montgomery is an exceptional return man, but Michigan State has arguably the nation's best punter in Mike Sadler and a superior kicker in Michael Geiger, who has connected on 14 of 15 field-goal attempts. MSU also has been brilliant in executing special-teams fakes and has had nearly a month to brainstorm some for the bowl.

3. Shilique Calhoun: Michigan State's improved pass rush has made an already elite defense even better this season, and Calhoun is the biggest reason why. He has 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and can pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in obvious passing situations. Calhoun will be challenged by Stanford mammoth left tackle Andrus Peat in what should be one of the game's best individual matchups.

4. Big-play receivers: This item would have been laughed at a year ago, but MSU's receiving corps turned things around early this season. Players such as Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Macgarett Kings can stretch defenses, and the group has repeatedly helped out quarterback Connor Cook with tough catches. Coordinator Dave Warner said the upgrade at receiver play has been the biggest difference with this year's offense.

5. No-fly zone: MSU undoubtedly will miss Bullough's run-stopping ability, but it has the luxury of committing more defenders to the run than most teams, especially against offenses like Stanford's. Cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes are talented enough to be left on their own against a Stanford team that features only one player (Montgomery) with more than 27 receptions. Dennard also could help against the rush.

6. The magic man: There's no doubt Cook has had the magic touch during Michigan State's nine-game win streak, making tough throws into traffic and on the move. He has gotten away with mistakes, some of which have turned into big plays for the Spartans. Will the magic run out against Stanford? It's possible, but Cook had his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship. The bigger the stage, the better he seems to play.

7. Sparta West: Big Ten fans love to complain that the league's bowl games are essentially road games. Well, the Rose Bowl will feel like Spartan Stadium as Michigan State fans have traveled here in large numbers. At least half of the stadium will be green, and MSU should feed off of the crowd after going 7-0 at home this season. The ideal weather conditions likely favor Stanford, but the overall environment gives MSU an edge.

8. Langford in the fourth quarter: Michigan State has won its past nine games by double digits and often finishes off its opponents with strong fourth quarters. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 105-27 in the final 15 minutes this season, and running back Jeremy Langford has delivered several long scoring runs down the stretch. Stanford has been outscored 85-82 in the fourth quarter this fall.

9. Extra prep time for coaches: This could be an edge for both teams as both coaching staffs are excellent, but Mark Dantonio and his assistants have been excellent in their preparation throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has had ample time to study Stanford's offense and its line combinations, and the offense could incorporate some new wrinkles in the pass game. Definitely expect a PG-named fake or two from Dantonio.

10. Sparty: Michigan State has the coolest non-live-animal mascot in the country in Sparty, a chiseled warrior with a glare that intimidates anyone he encounters. Stanford's mascot looks like a 6-year-old's art project, with big googly eyes and a stupid grin on its face. Sparty will crush the tree and inspire Michigan State's players to do the same to Stanford. And yes, I grew up in Berkeley, Calif.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
5:00
PM ET
One week until Christmas. My early gift to you all: this mailbag.

Grant from San Francisco writes: I couldn't be happier about the news that Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are apparently staying in East Lansing, and with Dantonio's desire to turn the MSU coaching job into a destination position as Tom Izzo has done with the basketball coaching job. With our dominating defense last year, and some pretty good recruiting wins on that side of the ball moving forward, the perception of stability that this decision gives to the program will be a great motivation tool for the squad heading into the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Max Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State loses several senior defenders in 2014, including linebacker Max Bullough.
My question is regarding the players that will remain on the defensive roster next year after the departure of seniors Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Micajah Reynolds, and Tyler Hoover. That means that almost half of our defensive starters will be replaced by their understudies. Of that group, who do you think will be the toughest to replace, given the future candidates for those positions?

Brian Bennett: Grant, Michigan State will have the best coaching move of the offseason if Narduzzi stays. I say "if" because the coaching carousel is far from over, and if the dominoes fall he could still be picked to lead another program. But as of right now, it looks as if Narduzzi will come back because there's not a great fit for him out there.

As for the players departing, the Spartans do lose a lot on defense. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun says he won't leave early for the NFL, which is a boost. The great thing for Michigan State is that the program has been able to build depth and move forward when players leave. Look at how Calhoun filled in for William Gholston, for instance. Trae Waynes has a chance to be the next great cornerback. Young guys like Ed Davis, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas show a lot of promise.

This is a special group of seniors, however, so it won't be easy to simply plug in new guys. I think the biggest void will be left by Bullough. Narduzzi will tell you he's the on-field brains of the defense and makes checks and adjustments on his own before the coaching staff does. A guy like that is difficult to find. Maybe Riley Bullough, who's moving back to defense, can begin to fill his older brother's shoes.

Rob from New York writes: After a legendarily humiliating season of nothing but complete failures and disastrous breakdowns in front of bleachers where tickets to the half-full first row cost a mere 40 cents at one point, just about the only thing Purdue fans have to be thankful for is that we didn't have any NCAA violation-related scandals this year, and that we managed to spend an entire year without one player tearing their ACL. Please give us Boilermaker fans some pointedly-lowercase hope: First, name one on-the-field task or position (other than punting, since Cody Webster is graduating) where Purdue's football team was at least able to consistently compete at the level that a Big Ten team is expected to do so. Second, if Purdue seems likely to win at least two games next year, name two reasons why this is so. Third, name three reasons why Morgan Burke shouldn't fire Darrell Hazell if he fails to garner a single victory against a Big Ten opponent or against Notre Dame next year.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for asking a Purdue question, Rob, since we haven't gotten many of those around here lately. I sense you're not exactly optimistic, and understandably so since the Boilermakers were just dreadful this past season.

The area of hope for the Boilers is in the passing game. Danny Etling showed a lot of promise as a freshman quarterback despite not having a great offensive line. He threw for 241 yards against Northern Illinois, 223 yards versus Penn State and a whopping 485 yards and four touchdowns vs Indiana. Granted, none of those defenses were actually very good against the pass, but for a 19-year-old to do that in his first collegiate season was still pretty impressive. Purdue also has some decent young receiving targets in DeAngelo Yancey, B.J. Knauf and Danny Anthrop. This program needs to get back to the Joe Tiller days of being able to chuck the ball all over the field.

You should expect some improvement in 2014, though it's probably going to be a slow process. Purdue has Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, so that's much easier than this year's tough slate. Hazell's team will also compete in the West Division, which looks a little bit easier than the East on paper (though missing Rutgers and Maryland is a bummer).

This was Burke's hire, and much like Mike Thomas at Illinois, he's going to give Hazell every chance to succeed. Two years is too early to bail on any coach unless there's some sort of scandal or gross mismanagement. Hang in there, Rob.

Benny N. from West Palm Beach, Fla., writes: In regards to the Selection Committee next year, how will the season rankings be determined? Will the committee determine rankings from week 1 on, or similar to the BCS will the committee come in midway through the season and give the "official" rankings? Yes, my Buckeyes still have a game to play but my mind can only think about next season.

Brian Bennett: At least your Buckeyes are playing close to your home, Benny. I'm excited about going down there and enjoying some warm weather and what looks like a pretty fun Discover Orange Bowl.

Anyway, according to what the committee has said, it will release a collective Top 25 every other week during the second half of the season. I find this wholly unnecessary. Why do we need to know who the committee thinks is ranked No. 25 when the members will only select four teams? Why does the committee need to start forming opinions about how to rank teams in October when it should consider a team's full body of work in December?

We've seen how the pollsters become entrenched on teams they ranked higher than others earlier. The basketball selection committee does not release any kind of poll and picks 68 teams for its tournament. This seems like a bad idea that will only serve to generate controversy and fodder for sports columns and blogs.

Wait. I mean, it's a great idea!

Bob N. from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: You don't think the Coach's Poll is valid because "there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc." That may be true, but I trust coaches' knowledge of football far more than I do sports writers' knowledge. In fact most AP voters vote for teams they have never seen play and, therefore, have zero knowledge of more than a few teams. The writers are also obviously extremely prejudicial also about the conferences they write for,e.g., the SEC and ACC writers are all in for teams below the Mason-Dixon Line, but have disrespected the Big Ten all year, especially MSU. If sports writers knew what they think they do, they would be football coaches.

Brian Bennett: Bob, I've never pretended to know anywhere near as much about football as the coaches. Nor do I want to be a coach, because I like sleeping for more than three hours per night. If the coaches spent time watching lots of games from around the country, they would do a great job voting in a poll (although there would still be ridiculous conflicts of interest).

But the fact is coaches have insane tunnel vision. They know their team, and they know their opponents, and that's about it. This has happened many times before: A reporter asks a coach about another team in his own conference during the season, and if that team either isn't on the schedule or doesn't appear on the schedule for several weeks, the coach will say he hasn't seen that team and knows nothing about it. The only time coaches really ever watch anyone outside of their own schedule is on bye weeks, and it's a known fact that many coaches have their sports information directors or operations guys fill out the ballot for them.

All polls are horribly flawed. The coaches' poll just happens to be the most flawed. And its usefulness has ended.

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: If you had to a pick a "Freshman Future All American" team right now, who from the B1G would be on it? In other words, which freshmen can you see being All Americans in the next year or so? Joey Bosa just turned into a beast this year. Michigan's Butt seems like a really good player, too. Anyone else?

Brian Bennett: Bosa would be up there. I'm wildly impressed with him, and it's hard to not get a J.J. Watt/Ryan Kerrigan vibe while watching him. The obvious name here is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He could wind up setting a bunch of career records if he stays four years with Bill O'Brien as his coach. His teammate, Adam Breneman, also has all the tools to be one of the nation's best tight ends if he keeps developing.

Watch out for Wisconsin's Corey Clement as well. If Melvin Gordon goes pro early, Clement would likely have the Badgers' starting tailback job next year, and that usually translates into big numbers. It was a solid year for freshmen in the league, as highlighted on our all-freshman team. And that doesn't even count the guys who redshirted this year.

No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State have kicked off 24 football games this year and walked away a winner 23 times.

So at the risk of seeking information from wrong sources, ESPN.com surveyed coaches who faced the Spartans and Buckeyes for tips on how to succeed against the Big Ten championship game participants.

We granted anonymity to the coaches, position coaches and coordinators from inside and outside the Big Ten, in order to ensure the most candid responses.

One coach who required no such secrecy, as Brian Kelly of Notre Dame offered sound advice when asked how to attack the top-ranked Michigan State defense.

“You cannot win by trying to get three yards here, four yards there,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to get big chunk plays.”

Kelly’s squad, of course, owns the lone victory this season over one of the Big Ten’s top two squads -- a 17-13 win in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 21.

Below are excerpts from our other conversations about the Spartans.

Check the Big Ten blog later on Thursday for report on Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDespite being a converted WR, Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford has shown that he's not afraid to mix it up.
ESPN.com: The Spartans are known primarily for their defensive, but quarterback Connor Cook has posted nice numbers in his first year as a starter. What stands out about their offense?

Coach: They've improved as the year went along. The line's jelled and started playing well together. They're a physical style attack. They're going to run at you. Cook has emerged as very consistent. They don't have a big tight end like they did a year ago, Dion Sims, so they don't have the same tight end receiving threat that they typically have, but they've got a corps of receivers that are good players. They're tall kids. They'll catch the ball. They do a good job attacking you and finding your weak spots and exploiting them.”

ESPN.com: How dangerous is running back Jeremy Langford, who’s rushed for 1,210 yards and 17 touchdowns?

Coach: I was impressed with him before and after our game. He's not small, 6-foot, 206. He's learned how to run physically. Sometimes a receiver moving over, you wonder how physical they're going to be running the ball, but he's done a heck of a job for them. I wouldn't put him in Montee Ball's category, but similar size, speed, jukes. He's not as low to the ground as (Carlos) Hyde, but he's a little niftier."

ESPN.com: Ideally, how do you attack Michigan State’s defense?

Coach:
It's very difficult. You may get them on one play, but you're not getting them on that same play twice. Their coaches do a great job of making adjustments, and the guys are smart. They're going to crowd the box to take away your run game, so you've got to get to play-action and make double moves off their safeties, or you've got to beat their corners one on one.

ESPN.com: Easier said than done, right, with Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes out there at corner?

Coach:
They've always had a ton of confidence in their corners. Dennard’s a great one. He knows when he has help and when he doesn't. Yes, they do a phenomenal job of taking away your outside guys with their corners. One thing that's underrated is that they have no problem getting their corners involved in the run game. But if you have real good skill kids at slot receiver or tight end, they have trouble covering those guys up. That's an area where we tried. We just didn't do enough it.

ESPN.com: Why does their scheme work so well?

Coach:
They have a way of forcing you into something bad, like they make you try to hit a hole too quickly or rush a throw. For whatever reason, they always seem to be in your face. The best way to describe it, they don't stay blocked very long. It's, by far, the thing I noticed compared to everybody else we played this year. We played, fundamentally, up front, our best game of the year. But still, you'd see a play and think it was a seven-, eight-yard gain, and it went for just three, because they refused to stay blocked. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has them drinking the Kool-Aid big time, because I think physically, there are better groups, defensively, but nobody plays with their hair on fire quite like them.

ESPN.com: If you were calling plays on Saturday, who would get your attention first on that defense?

Coach:
I've got a ton of respect for Max Bullough. I think he's a great player. But the best player on the front seven isn't him or Shilique Calhoun. It's the other defensive end, Marcus Rush. Calhoun reminded us of the kid they had last year, William Gholston. He wants to rush the passer. That's his M.O., so we wanted to run at him, because we felt he wouldn't hold up as well. But part of the reason we ran at Calhoun was because we wanted to stay away from Rush. He can just give you fits.

Let’s finish with a thought from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw the Spartans up close on Oct. 5 in Iowa City as MSU beat the Hawkeyes 26-14.

“Michigan State's awfully close to being an undefeated team,” Ferentz said. “It's interesting to me. On a national front, they're so far under the radar from what I see. They're not a bad football team. I don't think people realize how good they are. We'll see on Saturday."
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten during rivalry weekend:
  • Iowa LBs James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens: The Hawkeyes' starting linebackers have played huge roles in the team's turnaround this season, and they showed why on Black Friday against Nebraska. They combined for seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Morris recorded his fourth interception of the season, Kirksey led the team with 11 tackles (3 for loss), and Hitchens had his first career pick. The three seniors have combined for 10 takeaways this season.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: He led the Spartans' defensive effort with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He tracked down David Cobb from behind near the goal line to keep Minnesota out of the end zone early. Hat tips also go to Trae Waynes, who had his first two career interceptions, and Tyler Hoover, who forced a key fumble deep in the Spartans' red zone in the fourth quarter.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: This was the best game of the season for the true freshman, as Wisconsin dared the Nittany Lions to pass. Hackenberg responded in a big way and finished 21-of-30 for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He played a nearly flawless first half and helped engineer a huge upset over No. 15 Wisconsin. There's no need to wait until Monday; it's pretty clear he's the Big Ten freshman of the week.
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: In a tight game where Braxton Miller attempted just 15 passes, Urban Meyer leaned heavily on Hyde -- and Hyde didn't disappoint. He carried 27 times for 226 yards (8.4 ypc) and a touchdown. Although his fumble led to a Michigan score, the Buckeyes never would've found themselves in the red zone so often without him. Twenty of his carries went for at least 5 yards, and 10 went for at least 10 yards. He ran consistently hard.
  • Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and WR Christian Jones: It's difficult to pick one over the other since they formed such a dangerous combination on Saturday. Siemian threw for 414 yards -- surpassing his previous season high by 138 yards -- and added four touchdowns. Jones was the main beneficiary as he caught a career-high 13 catches for 182 yards. That nearly doubled his previous career high of 94 yards. It was definitely a game to remember for those two, as the Wildcats finally came away with a Big Ten win.
  • Indiana QB Tre Roberson: It was a good day for Big Ten quarterbacks, and Roberson continued the trend. He didn't exactly play a tough opponent (Purdue), but his performance on the stat sheet was the most impressive. He tossed six touchdowns to two interceptions. And he added 273 passing yards to a game-high 154 rushing yards. The Hoosiers' uptempo offense went through Roberson, and he made the most of it.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 7

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
3:30
PM ET
The most perfect moment of my week occurred at 1:38 a.m. Thursday, as we welcomed our son into the world. It's the greatest feeling the world, as you parents out there know. Even an 0-4 showing in the Big Ten picks wouldn't have wiped the smile off my face.

Turns out, my perfect week was just getting started. I went 4-0 on the slate, thanks to Penn State's dramatic four-overtime win against Michigan, and moved one game ahead of Bennett in the season standings.

WEEK 7/SEASON RECORD

Adam Rittenberg: 4-0, 51-8
Brian Bennett: 3-1, 50-9

Here's one last look at the Week 7 predictions made by us and our guest forecaster, Barry Uphoff from Palo Alto, Calif.

It's rewind time …

Indiana at Michigan State
  • Brian Bennett's pick: Michigan State 28, Indiana 21
  • Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 30, Indiana 20
  • Actual score: Michigan State 42, Indiana 28
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both had fairly high score predictions for a game involving Michigan State, but evidently not high enough as the Spartans offense is starting to blossom. Brian correctly pegged a big game from Spartans RB Jeremy Langford (109 rush yards, 3 TDs), while my predictions for Nate Sudfeld, Trae Waynes and Macgarrett Kings fell short.
Nebraska at Purdue
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 38, Purdue 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 38, Purdue 21
  • Actual score: Nebraska 44, Purdue 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came close on the Huskers' score but expected more from Danny Etling and the Purdue offense against a defense that had been vulnerable most of the season. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong had a first-half touchdown run, not touchdown pass, as I had forecast, but Ameer Abdullah (126 rush yards) nearly nailed my prediction (130 rush yards). The Huskers picked off Etling just once, not twice, as Brian predicted they would.
Northwestern at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 30
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 27
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 6
  • 20-20 hindsight: Another prediction where we came close on one team's score and completely whiffed on the other team's. Then again, who expected Northwestern to forget to show up at Camp Randall Stadium? Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon had one long touchdown run (a 71-yarder), not the two I predicted, and Northwestern had no special teams touchdown (or any touchdown, for that matter). Joel Stave and Jared Abbrederis connected for one score, not the two Brian had predicted.
Michigan at Penn State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 28, Penn State 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 38, Michigan 35
  • Actual score: Penn State 43, Michigan 40 (4 OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: I didn't see this one going to four overtimes, but otherwise I made a pretty strong forecast, as Penn State won a shootout by the predicted margin. Lions QB Christian Hackenberg eclipsed 250 pass yards, as I predicted, and Michigan QB Devin Gardner came up just 10 yards shy. Gardner and Jeremy Gallon (seven catches, 95 yards, TD) attacked Penn State's secondary, as Bennett thought they would, although Devin Funchess (112 yards receiving) had the bigger night and Zach Zwinak (eight carries, 24 yards) was quiet.

You've seen how we performed. Now it's time to check on our guest picker, Barry.

Michigan State 31, Indiana 21
Nebraska 35, Purdue 24
Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 28
Michigan 27, Penn State 24

Not too shabby with a 3-1 mark, although those score predictions need a little work, Barry. Like us, you expected something from Purdue and Northwestern and got next to nothing. The scoreboard operator in Happy Valley was a little busier than you expected.

Who's our next guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice here and here.

Big Ten predictions: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
9:00
AM ET
The halfway point of the season is within sight, and we're neck-and-neck in the predictions race. Will someone pull ahead in Week 7? There are only four games on tap, but several potential close ones.

Let's get it started …


INDIANA at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Ah, what can top the majesty of a trophy modeled after a spit receptacle? This is a fascinating game in terms of an offense versus defense showdown. I think Indiana can make some plays in its passing game, but Michigan State's improving offense, behind Connor Cook and a strong running game behind Jeremy Langford, makes the difference. … Michigan State 28, Indiana 21

Adam Rittenberg: I love the matchup of strength (Michigan State's defense) versus strength (Indiana's offense) at Spartan Stadium. It'll be a mixed bag for Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, but Michigan State once again contains the run game and gets a pick-six from Trae Waynes. The Spartans offense is gaining confidence at the right time, and wideout Macgarrett Kings adds two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses a big third quarter to win again. … Michigan State 30, Indiana 20


NEBRASKA at PURDUE

Rittenberg: Taylor Martinez watches as Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads the offense to another big performance against a leaky Purdue defense. Armstrong fires a first-half touchdown pass and Ameer Abdullah goes for 130 yards and two scores. Boilers quarterback Danny Etling sparks his team to an early lead before Nebraska takes control in the second quarter. … Nebraska 38, Purdue 21

Bennett: Nebraska hits the road for the first time, but there's nowhere you'd rather play right now in this league than West Lafayette, Ind., if you have to leave home. I agree that Abdullah will have a monster game, and the Huskers pick Etling off twice in a dominant effort. … Nebraska 38, Purdue 14



NORTHWESTERN at WISCONSIN

Bennett: Is there any way this can end except in a close game and a tough loss for one of these teams? I say no, especially since these could be the second- and third-best teams in the league, in some order. Northwestern grabs an early 10-point lead, but Wisconsin comes back on a pair of Joel Stave touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis. … Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 30


Rittenberg: The Wildcats commit more defenders to the run in this one, but Melvin Gordon still breaks loose for two long touchdown runs. Wisconsin has some trouble with Northwestern's pass game, and the Wildcats record a special-teams touchdown from Venric Mark. But the Badgers surge in the fourth quarter behind Gordon, James White and a powerful offensive line as Northwestern's close-game heartbreak continues. … Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 27


MICHIGAN at PENN STATE

Rittenberg: I'm going with the upset here as feisty Bill O'Brien lights a fire under his team, which plays a much better game under the lights before the home faithful. It's be a shootout, and both Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner eclipse 250 pass yards. But Gardner commits a turnover midway through the fourth quarter, and Penn State scores in the final minute on an Akeel Lynch run. … Penn State 38, Michigan 35

Bennett: This should be a close one, as both teams have strengths but also some glaring issues. O'Brien commits to the run game early and Zach Zwinak scores two touchdowns, but Penn State's issues in the secondary are exposed by Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, and Gardner scoots in for the winning score with less than two minutes left. … Michigan 28, Penn State 24.


That's how we see things playing out Saturday afternoon, but we're not done yet. It's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Barry Uphoff from Palo Alto, Calif. Barry, the floor is yours …
I should be your Big Ten guest picker of the week! Was born in Nebraska, have lived in Chicago and been in every stadium in the Big Ten to see a game -- Lincoln is of course my favorite. So why should I be the guest picker for the week? Living in Pac-12 land, especially Palo Alto, is tough! Anything I can do to spend more time on the Big Ten and less time hearing about the Pac-12, the better. If I have to see or hear about the dancing tree one more time, I am going to chop the tree down! Sincerely, George Washington.

(Editor's note: As a Berkeley, Calif., native, I can't stand the Tree, either. … Adam)

Here are Barry's Week 7 picks …

Michigan State 31, Indiana 21
Nebraska 35, Purdue 24
Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 28
Michigan 27, Penn State 24


SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 47-8
Brian Bennett:
47-8
Guest pickers:
42-13
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard is one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten and an NFL draft prospect. But Dennard learned that life on an island can be rough sometimes in the Spartans' loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago.

Dennard and fellow cornerback Trae Waynes were involved in several controversial pass interference and holding calls against Irish receivers in that game at South Bend. Their task now is to find ways to maintain the Spartans' physical style of play without drawing flags as they head into Saturday's game at Iowa.

The senior from Dry Branch, Ga., talked about that and other items with ESPN.com in this week's Friday Q&A:

Brian Bennett: How was the bye week for you guys?

Darqueze Dennard: We had great practices last week. Me and Trae both, we worked on not being so physical and being smart about the game, and I think we did a great job of that.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State corner Darqueze Dennard has anchored one of the nation's best defenses.
BB: Were you trying to correct mistakes or more figuring out what you can get away with as a cornerback these days?

DD: A little bit of both, you could say. We made a special emphasis on not being so physical downfield and learning what you can get away with. Asking referees what they call pass interference, what they call holding. And just being smarter about playing the ball downfield. I think we did a good job all week, and we hope to show it in the game Saturday.

BB: Physical play at the cornerback spot is a big part of the Michigan State defensive plan. So how do you balance not losing that aggressiveness with trying to avoid penalties?

DD: I say you've got to be smart about it. You've got to know the refs you're playing with, are they going to call the ticky-tack fouls or are they going to let you and the receiver go down and fight for the ball? I think you've got to feel out the game and play the game like that. It's kind of hard to balance both, but I feel like Trae and I can do a great job of that.

BB: Not to criticize any specific calls, but do you think offensive players are getting too much benefit of the doubt on those 50-50 type balls?

DD: (Laughs). Yeah, I feel like they are. There are a lot of offensive rules to help those guys out these days. But at the end of the day, I feel like we've just got to continue to play the way we play and the way we've been coached to play and continue to do what we do best. If that means being physical, we've got to do that. We've got to also be smarter as well.

BB: What did you do to learn more about what's acceptable down the field? Was it watching film? Talking to officials?

DD: It's been a little bit of both. Watching old film and asking referees who come to our practice what would they call, what we can get away with, when will offensive pass interference be called. Just getting more knowledge on that stuff is the main thing.

BB: What other cornerbacks around the country or in the NFL do you watch?

DD: I watch pretty much all the corners around the Big Ten and around the nation. I watched [Ohio State's] Bradley Roby the other night. I watched the [Aaron] Colvin kid from Oklahoma. I watched Jason Verrett from TCU. A really good friend of mine plays at Baylor, K.J. Morton. I talk to him a lot. I also talk to a good friend who plays on the South Carolina defense, Brison Williams. I talk to those guys and see what they see, ask what they do. I am also a big fan of [Arizona Cardinals corner] Patrick Peterson. I love the way he plays the game. I try to pick a lot of people's brains and ask questions.

BB: Did you hear from any of those guys after the Notre Dame game?

DD: I heard from a couple of those guys, and they told me to continue to play like you did, as well as my coaches. They said, "I don't think that was pass interference. Continue to play physical like you do."

BB: What challenges does Iowa's offense present to you this week?

DD: The challenge I'm looking forward to is stopping their receivers. I feel very confident in our front seven and our safeties doing a great job stopping the run, and I feel like it will come down to me and Trae making plays on the ball when they go after us. I feel like after the running game gets stopped, they will be forced to throw. And when the ball's in the air, we've got to come down with it and make those plays.

BB: Their No. 1 receiver right now is Kevonte Martin-Manley. What are your impressions of him?

DD: I've watched a lot of film on him, and I've played against him for a couple of years. I think he's gotten a lot better from last year. He looks like he's a little faster, he's doing a great job after the catch and a good job of blocking as well. He's physical, and he's big and strong. He's having a great year. We've got to stop him this week.

BB: You were an all-state receiver in high school. Ever lobby the coaches to put you on that side of the ball?

DD: Nah. Yeah, I was a pretty good receiver in high school. But that was high school. We have a lot of great receivers here. I go against these guys every day. They work hard and play even harder. They're doing a great job these past few weeks of really dedicating themselves to their craft and focusing on improving their game. So they don't need me on that side of the ball.

BB: Are you related to [former Nebraska and current New England Patriots CB] Alfonzo Dennard, and if so how?

DD: Yeah, that's my cousin. Like my third cousin.

Are you close?

DD: Yeah, we talk pretty much like every week. We'll shoot each other a text, saying "good luck," "ball out," or whatever. We pretty much catch up that way. He's also really good at telling me to keep playing well and telling me things I should do.

BB: You both pronounce your last names differently [it's Alfonzo DENN-erd and Darqueze de-NARD). You told me this at media day, but how did that come about?

DD: [Laughs]. It's actually kind of crazy. But I guess my mom got mad at my dad or whatever when I was young. So I came home one day and she said, 'Say de-NARD now, not DENN-erd. So it was just like that.

BB: Did having a last name pronounced de-NARD ever come up when you played Denard Robinson?

DD: [Laughs]. Nah. It didn't at all.

BB: Finally, in each of the last two years you grabbed three interceptions. You haven't gotten one this year, though you've been close. How anxious are you to get that first one?

DD: I've been so anxious. I can't even explain how anxious I am. It's really crazy, because I've had a few in my hands. But I get so excited that I pretty much don't look it all the way in. These past couple weeks, during the first few periods of practice and after practice, I've not been wearing gloves, like I used to do in high school. I'm pretty much getting back to my roots, looking it all the way in and focusing in on the ball. I've been working on my hands, and I feel very confident that I am where I was last year. I'm planning on more than three this year, if the Lord blesses me with the chance. I've been working on it, so I'm planning on no more drops.

Big Ten lunchtime links

July, 10, 2013
7/10/13
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten media days begin two weeks from today. We are not scare-mongering. This is really happening.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

May, 23, 2013
5/23/13
5:00
PM ET
Good job filling up the mailbag during a slow time in college football. Let's do the question-and-answer session.

Andy from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Do you think the Big Ten's weak crossover schedule in 2014 could potentially prevent a one-loss team, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, or Nebraska, from being a part of the four-team College Football Playoff? I could see Michigan losing to Ohio State in 2014, not making the Big Ten championship and being left out of the CFP. Another possible scenario is an undefeated Wisconsin or Nebraska team losing in the Big Ten championship and being out of the CFP. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The crossover schedule won't help, but the biggest hindrance to a one-loss, non-Big Ten champion making the playoff next year is the perception that the league is not that strong. The Big Ten will need to perform well this year and win some big nonconference games in 2014 to have any chance of putting two teams in the four-team playoff, which still seems like a long shot. Some 2014 out-of-league games like Michigan-Notre Dame, Ohio State-Virginia Tech and Nebraska-Miami could bolster the league's case. Wisconsin's 2014 non-league slate -- highlighted by Washington State and USF -- will leave the Badgers little room for error.




Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: You "asked" (rhetorically) the wrong question in your recent blog post. The question is NOT "what do the Detroit Lions know about college football/bowl games" but "What is the draw for B1G fans to want to travel to Detroit in the winter...or in any season for that matter?" Is this really a destination that B1G fan bases want to travel to to see two mediocre teams face off in the post season? If my Nittany Lions finish 6-6 and make a bowl game (not for the next couple of years), do you really think I want to see them face a 6-6 ACC team (alright maybe Pitt) in any place other than a warm, sunny distination with other attractions to see as well as a football game? Can anyone say Detroit is a "winter destination" unless it's the SuperBowl?

Brian Bennett: First off, Rob, let's get the joke right. I asked, what do the Lions know about postseason football, a little jab at that organization's utter lack of playoff success. As for Detroit, well, there are casinos right by Ford Field, some nice Greek restaurants and, um, yeah. Let's be honest, that city is no one's idea of a great winter holiday spot. But the bowl is also likely to take 6-6 type teams, and when you finish with that kind of record, deep in the Big Ten standings, you don't really get to be choosy. The best thing about Detroit is that it's very close for most Big Ten fan bases, and if the bowl replaces the MAC with the ACC as the other tie-in, that has the potential to create some interesting games. And as I wrote, Big Ten fans are often complaining about how they play virtual road games during bowl season. Here's your Midwest bowl. Embrace it.




Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: A fellow reader indicated that MSU's secondary will not be very good this year due to their spring game performance and past dependence on Johnny Adams to operate on an island. I think the secondary has the potential to be improved considering MSU returns two All-Big Ten performers in Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis, Kurtis Drummond at the other safety position, who played very well last year, and a young Trae Waynes at the other CB position who started and performed very well in the bowl game. Do you think MSU's secondary will improve, regress, or stay roughly the same?

Brian Bennett: Adams was the Spartans' second-best corner last year, as Dennard outplayed him the entire season. Michigan State's secondary played well in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl without Adams, who was injured. I really like the potential of Waynes, and I think the Spartans will be just as good if not better in the defensive backfield.




Vince from Phoenix, writes: Which game on Michigan's 2013 schedule do they have to win to (finally) win the Legends Division?

Brian Bennett: Winning all of them would be nice. The one that obviously sticks out is the Nov. 9 game at home against Nebraska, but it's probably more the three-game stretch that includes a road game at Michigan State the previous weekend and a trip to Northwestern on Nov. 16 that will make or break the Wolverines in the Legends race. Remember that road losses to the eventual division champions (at Michigan State in 2011 and at Nebraska last year) were what doomed Michigan the past two seasons. Brady Hoke's teams have been really good at home but are going to have to win away from the Big House to bring home a division championship.




K. Norris from Detroit writes: Hello! Not that I disagree with the overall intent of Mr. Ted Miller's post earlier this week, but I will come rushing to the support of my 2 favorite Big Ten bloggers. Regarding the following quote: "Not to be outdone in prognosticative tomfoolery, the Big Ten blog picked Michigan State to win the conference. What were those guys thinking?" I would educate Mr. Miller that the 2012 Spartans did lose 4 games by a combined total of 10 points. It was the difference between 6-6 & 10-2 season. The team in the national championship game (Notre Dame) did only win by 17 against MSU. Yes, the Spartans were unable to find the extra gear when it was necessary to earn the 'W' at the end of games last year. That being said, it really was not a bad pick even from a national perspective. (Yes, green "Kool-Aid" tastes horrible.)

Brian Bennett: I'm pretty sure this is the first time in about eight months that anyone has told us our Michigan State title pick was not bad. In all seriousness, we clearly underestimated the inexperience of the Spartans passing game and gave too much credit to their offensive line. But 2012 was a weird year, considering that a team that finished 7-5 in the regular season (Wisconsin) went to the Rose Bowl -- and lost at home to Michigan State, I might add.




@sammyj108 from Twitter writes: Could the Hoosiers really play 3 quarterbacks? Or a two-quarterback system? Or just pick a starter based on matchups week to week?

Brian Bennett: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson wanted to see someone among Nate Sudfeld, Cameron Coffman and Tre Roberson really stand out this spring, but they all played pretty equally. Ideally, he'd like to redshirt either Sudfeld or Coffman this year and have one main quarterback play. The problem is that Roberson is clearly the best runner but needs to improve as a passer, while Sudfeld and Coffman are both good passers but not great runners. I asked Wilson this spring whether he'd be comfortable playing a two-quarterback system, as he did last year after Roberson got hurt. "I don't know if you want one in, one out," he said. "I'd love to see one guy totally separate ... but if not, we can play more than one. I want to keep them all happy, and I want to keep them all here. But more than anything, we've got to win."





Jay from Cincinnati writes: I am a little worried about Ohio State's recruiting class this year so far. I know it's early but seems like to would be better at this point.

Brian Bennett: Is Urban Meyer still the head coach? Then I'm not worried at all. He's one of the best closers in the game. If you're worried about the Buckeyes' recruiting in late May, take a deep breath.




Jay from Arlington writes: Title drought? Who cares. It is not like most of the SEC's titles during their so-called streak are legit anyway. And honestly, it is a lot easier to get to the BCS title game when you only have to beat one or two good teams a year, which is all that is required of SEC teams due, in no small part, to media bias. Don't sell the Big Ten short. Penn State has every right to claim a share of the 2005 title having lost one game directly due to officiating. While Penn State lost a game a lot closer than the score, the 2009 Rose Bowl between Penn State and USC matched the top two teams in the country while the Fiesta Bowl matched the third and fourth best team in Texas and Ohio State. Conversely the title game set up the sixth best team (Florida) versus the eighth in Oklahoma.

Brian Bennett: I enjoy your theories and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. Revisionist history aside, however, the records are what they are. Seven straight titles trumps every argument.




John from Iowa writes: In response you your Hope springs article: You have some misinformation posted when you talk about how many teams from each conference have made a BCS title game. The SEC has sent 4 teams not 5. They are: Tennessee, LSU, Florida, and Alabama. Also when you talk about the Big 12 sending 3 teams to the Big 10's only 1 team. One of those teams was Nebraska so you're essentially using the traditional power of one of our own teams to make your point about the Big Ten not being traditionally good.

Brian Bennett: Wow, Auburn fans must be steamed that John has already forgotten their 2011 national title. First Toomer's Oaks, and now this. I also find it funny that we get a lot of angry comments whenever we include Big-12 era Nebraska teams and coaches in our polls and lists, yet you want to include the Huskers when it might help out.




GOB Bluth from Gobias Industries, Calif., writes: Have you seen Franklin? I heard he's in Portugal. That's in South America, right?

Brian Bennett: Did you check the dryer? He has had some trouble down there. If you go looking south of the border, watch out for Hermanos. C'mon!
Now that spring practice is over, we're starting a new series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/bested by a super villain, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense but not always. Next up: Michigan State.

Max Bullough, LB

The Spartans are so loaded on defense that they could probably make up for the loss of any one guy. But Bullough isn't just any guy. He's the on-field computer for Pat Narduzzi's defense, a guy who knows where every player is supposed to be on every snap. Bullough is more than just a leader in making defensive calls, however. He has also led the team in tackles each of the past two years, including 111 stops in 2012. Could Michigan State find another linebacker to take over Bullough's role? Probably, with potentially Kyler Elsworth or maybe even Max's younger brother, Riley. But could Narduzzi find someone to do the job at the same level as Bullough? No way.

Darqueze Dennard, CB

We'll stick with two defensive players for the Spartans, because no one on the offensive side of the ball is distinguished enough to be considered indispensable at this point. Like with Bullough, Michigan State would see a dropoff without Dennard, who could stake a claim to being the Big Ten's top cornerback. People touted teammate Johnny Adams as a possible first-round pick last summer, but Dennard ended up outplaying him. Sophomores Trae Waynes and Arjen Colquhoun got lots of first-team reps with Dennard injured earlier this spring. The Spartans hope that was a one-time only deal for 2013.

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota

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