Big Ten: Marcus Rush

Michigan State Spartans season review

December, 16, 2014
12/16/14
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Next up in our week of 2014 season reviews for all Big Ten teams are the Michigan State Spartans.

Overview: Michigan State lost several big stars on defense but was still a top contender to repeat as the Big Ten champ this season. The Spartans evolved on offense and scored enough points (43.1 per game) to finish the regular season with 10 wins. Junior quarterback Connor Cook threw for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns and running back Jeremy Langford ran for 100-plus yards in nine straight games to provide a balanced attack. Michigan State’s schedule provided Mark Dantonio and his team with two great chances to gain respect as a national power. They lost them both. The Spartans held a lead over playoff-bound Oregon at halftime and another lead over No. 4 Ohio State late in the second quarter before the defense crumbled and allowed a combined 95 points in the team's only two losses in 2014. Their own playoff hopes were dashed after the loss to the Buckeyes in November, but they hammered their way to a 10-2 record and another shot at a top-five opponent against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett gave Cook a reliable target all season. Lippett, voted the Big Ten’s top receiver this year, made 60 catches for 1,124 yards and 11 touchdowns. No other receiver for the Spartans had half as many catches as Lippett this season. He also ran for a 32-yard touchdown on his only official rushing attempt of the season and started the final game of the regular season at cornerback. He provided the big-play threat Michigan State needed in order to open up many other parts of their offense. Replacing Lippett will be one of the Spartans’ biggest challenges in 2015.

Defensive MVP: With headline-grabbing defensive end Shilique Calhoun off to a slow start, redshirt senior Marcus Rush provided the Spartans defense with the steady pass-rushing force it needed. Rush set a school record by making 51 career starts during the last four seasons. He had 36 tackles this season and a team-high seven sacks. His quiet consistency often goes unnoticed by everyone except his teammates and opposing quarterbacks, but it was enough this year for him to be considered this group's most valuable player.
Rivalry is not quite the right word for what the Ohio State-Michigan State game has become in recent years.

"We have one rival here," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Monday. "So to say this is a rivalry game, that would diminish the rivalry that's been here for 100 years."

Both teams have one true rival, and it's the same one, in fact: Michigan. One need only to witness the emotion that the Spartans and Buckeyes exude whenever they face the Maize and Blue to know that's true.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Spartans and Buckeyes renew their riv -- er -- rugged respect for each other on Saturday night in East Lansing.
Meyer, who has subtly avoided saying the words "Michigan State" of late, used two other "R" words to describe this series: respect and rugged. Those work for us.

Michigan might stir the passion for both programs, but in the past five years, they have measured their championship bona fides against one another. Ohio State and Michigan State split a conference title (along with Wisconsin) in 2010. Regular-season games in 2011 and 2012 provided a cornerstone victory for each side. They squared off in a Big Ten championship game last year that carried enormous stakes. And of course, they'll meet Saturday night in East Lansing in the undisputed Big Ten Game of the Year.

Rivalry or not, this has developed into the marquee game in the conference. Here's how we got here:

Three minus one: 2010

Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin all finished with one loss in 2010, resulting in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title. The Spartans and Buckeyes did not play that year, though Michigan State beat Wisconsin and Ohio State did not. The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl based on the BCS standings, while the Buckeyes were chosen for the Sugar Bowl. The Spartans got left out of the BCS, fueling feelings of disrespect (which they often use to their advantage).

Watershed and "Waterboy:" Oct. 1, 2011

Ohio State might have been hampered by youth and NCAA problems, but Michigan State's 10-7 win at the Horseshoe was still momentous. It was former Buckeyes assistant Mark Dantonio's first victory over Ohio State and the Spartans' first win in Columbus since 1998. A ferocious defensive attack very nearly led to a shutout, and linebacker Denicos Allen's leaping sack of Joe Bauserman -- evoking memories of the Adam Sandler movie "Waterboy" -- became a part of program lore.

Michigan State gets many of its players from Ohio -- nine starters on this year's team are from the Buckeye State -- and those players often were overlooked by Ohio State in high school.

"Whenever this game comes up in the week, I'm extremely excited," said Spartans senior defensive end Marcus Rush, who's from Cincinnati. "And I think with all the other guys on the team from Ohio, it's something special for them as well."

The Toast (and a conspiracy theory): Sept. 29, 2012

The Buckeyes were unbeaten but largely unproven when they went to East Lansing for their Big Ten debut under Meyer, who had questions about the commitment of his team. In a conference room at the hotel four hours before kickoff, Meyer delivered a speech capped by a toast with “championship water,” a rallying point that inspired Ohio State to a 17-16 win and established a new tradition still being used. “From there on out," then-senior Zach Boren said, "it was more fun -- guys dancing, being loose. I think it gave us our swag.”

The win wasn't without controversy, either, as Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi accused Ohio State of doctoring the game tape that teams are required to send to their opponents.

Breakthrough vs. Heartbreak: Dec. 7, 2013

A spot in the national title game awaited Ohio State if the Buckeyes could get their 25th straight win under Meyer. But Michigan State foiled that plan with a 34-24 victory, clinching the Spartans' first Rose Bowl bid since 1988. Dantonio called it a "lifetime moment" for all those in green.

It felt much differently to the Buckeyes, whose heartache was symbolized by Meyer somberly eating cold pizza on a golf cart outside his locker room. "It's going to haunt all of us, I imagine, for a little while," he said.

Recruiting rumbles: Feb. 5, 2014

The two schools went down to the wire in a recruiting tangle for defensive end Malik McDowell, a prospect rated No. 60 in the nation. The saga would last for nearly two months before McDowell’s mother, who seemed to prefer Ohio State, relented and allowed him to join the Spartans. Meanwhile, facing the possibility of McDowell slipping away, the Buckeyes flipped Darius Slade from Michigan State to fill out the class -- and perhaps strike back in the budding feud. “That's one of the teams we're nose to nose with right now in recruiting,” Meyer said then. “That’s a real battle.”

The battle between Michigan State and Ohio State now overshadows everything else in the Big Ten. Both teams may have another top rival, but they have no bigger game on the schedule.

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
10/14/14
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The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0
Early in the second half of a 27-22 win over Nebraska, Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush slipped around the end of the offensive line and jarred the ball loose from the Cornhuskers’ Tommy Armstrong Jr. Rush stood menacingly over the crumpled quarterback, but he went unnoticed. The spotlight had already shifted downfield to a teammate recovering the fumble he created.

Later, on his final play of the game, Rush bullied his way into the backfield again and pressured Armstrong into throwing a game-clinching interception. He threw his arms in the air to celebrate. The cameras once again were pointed elsewhere, which is just the way Rush likes it.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Rush
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMarcus Rush leads the Spartans with 6.5 tackles for loss this season.
 The redshirt senior has had as much success slipping past the spotlight as he’s had slipping past opposing linemen during his long career at Michigan State.

“Not a lot of people talk about him. He’s one of those silent but deadly type of guys,” said Shilique Calhoun, Rush’s more boisterous counterpart on the opposite end of the defensive line. “He won’t say much. You won’t know he’s coming, but it happens in an instant.”

Rush and Calhoun are bookends on a Spartan defensive front that acquitted itself well against one of the Big Ten’s best running attacks a week ago. Along with crushing Ameer Abdullah’s Heisman hopes, Michigan State sacked Armstrong five times and pressured him routinely. Rush and Calhoun had one sack each, helping the defense improve its average to four per game -- tied for third best in the country.

They head to Purdue this weekend as arguably the best one-two punch at defensive end in college football, but outside of East Lansing few have heard of the first part of that combination. Even fewer know that Rush currently leads the Spartans with 6.5 tackles for loss this season, and his 3.5 sacks are slightly ahead of Calhoun’s three.

“Shilique gets more of the pub, but Marcus is a guy who comes in and works hard,” safety Kurtis Drummond said. “He pushes Shilique and they push each other. Marcus has been making plays for us his whole career, so I don't understand why he doesn't get the recognition that he should get."

Part of the reason is that Rush has made a habit of avoiding media attention when he can. Part of it is that he’s been so consistent for so long that the rest of the defense tends to take him for granted. While Calhoun, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, got off to an underwhelming start this season, Rush has been his usual, reliable self.

Rush has started 45 of the last 46 games for Michigan State. Head coach Mark Dantonio said the Cincinnati native has been dominant since stepping into the lineup as a redshirt freshman in 2011. He’s grown as a leader since then, but his play has always been disruptive.

“On the football field you’re not going to be starting if you’re not consistent,” Rush said when asked about the source of his steadiness. “I think that started my redshirt freshman year when I first got the chance to play. It was just about making sure I got the chance to play the next week.”

He did. And he’s had the chance to play every week after that, starting all but one time -- against Iowa in 2013 when he played through a minor ankle issue. Barring any unforeseen circumstances in October, Rush will tie the program career starts record with his 49th against Ohio State on Nov. 8. He can finish with as many as 55, a total almost impossible to top, if Michigan State makes it to the Big Ten title game and wins a game in the College Football Playoff.

Rush said he’s lucky to have made it this deep into his college career without any major injuries. Even those haven’t slowed him down much in the past. Following his senior season at Moeller High School, Rush underwent shoulder surgery. A week later, according to his coaches at Moeller, Rush was back in weight room. When it came time to squat he held one end of the bar balanced on his back and had a teammate hold the side of his recently repaired arm, which he kept in its sling.

That type of dedication was the cornerstone of Rush’s ability to get on the field early in East Lansing. The results have always been there, even if no one seems to notice.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 6

October, 8, 2014
10/08/14
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We're six weeks into the season, so the Big Ten individual awards are starting to come into a little bit of focus now.

We've been tracking them all season, even when it was ridiculously early to be doing so. Joining our weekly look at the offensive and defensive player of the year races this week is a check on who would be voted coach of the year in the Big Ten if balloting happened today.

Away we go ...

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (six first-place votes): Abdullah had 18 straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage until he ran into Michigan State's defense. He was held to just 45 yards on 24 carries, though he did score twice. His body of work, though, keeps him in the top spot for now.

2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: The Badgers star added another 259 rushing yards in the loss at Northwestern and now leads the FBS in rushing yards per game. Despite his curious absence in the second-half against LSU and the virtual no-show versus Western Illinois, he's still on pace for more than 2,200 yards.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He just kept buzzing along, running for 150 yards and a score against North Texas. Coleman is averaging 8 yards per carry.

T-4: Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: The Spartans' big-play wideout makes his first appearance in the top 5 after another great game against Nebraska. Lippett has scored eight touchdowns (seven receiving, one rushing) and is averaging 21 yards per catch

T-4: Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He completed only 11-of-29 passes vs. the Huskers but still is the engine for the Spartans' offense. He's also 10-0 as a starter in Big Ten games, which is nice.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb; Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): The pass-rushing fiend is tied for second in the league with seven tackles for loss and tied for first with three forced fumbles.

2. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: He had an interception early against Michigan State and is second in the Big Ten with 4.5 sacks despite missing most of two games.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: He and the Nittany Lions were off last week; he'll try to build on a strong first month this weekend at Michigan and its shaky offensive line.

4. Michigan State DE Marcus Rush: Always known as the "other" Spartans defensive end, Rush is asserting himself as a senior. His numbers are very similar to Bosa's and he was terrific against Nebraska.

5. Minnesota LB Damien Wilson: He's fourth in the league at 10.2 tackles per game while providing an anchor for the Gophers' strong defense

Also receiving votes: Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Northwestern DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

Dave McClain / Hayes–Schembechler Coach of the Year

1. Kyle Flood, Rutgers (four first-place votes): Most preseason predictions called for a losing season for Rutgers this year. The Scarlet Knights are 5-1.

2. Jerry Kill, Minnesota (one first-place vote): The Gophers' lone loss -- to TCU -- looks better in hindsight, and Kill has this team positioned to make a run at the West Division title.

3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (one first-place vote): Last year's winner of this award once again has the Spartans looking like the best team in the league. They've won 11 straight Big Ten games, dating to the end of 2012.

Also receiving votes: Penn State's James Franklin; Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
9/17/14
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Three weeks' worth of games are in the book. That's not enough to decide the individual award races in the Big Ten, but it won't stop us from figuring out where those races stand.

Our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track records.

Here's how things shake out:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (Five first-place votes): Abdullah gets the unanimous nod on offense as he continues to power up the Huskers attack.

2. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He has become the master of the two-minute drive, and he leads the Big Ten in passing.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (437) and rushing touchdowns (five) despite having played just two games. He's averaging 9.3 yards per carry.

4. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: His completion rate is over 68 percent, and Cook can build on his stats against Eastern Michigan and Wyoming the next two weeks.

5. Illinois QB Wes Lunt: He wasn't able to summon late-game magic at Washington in Week 3 but still is among the league's top passers.

Also receiving votes: Michigan RB Derrick Green; Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon; Minnesota RB David Cobb; Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nagurski Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (5): Another unanimous pick, Zettel has been a monster in the early going for the Lions. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with seven, to go along with three sacks.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: He's tied for the league lead with two forced fumbles, in addition to 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

3. Iowa DT Louis Trinca-Pasat: His strong start to the season continues, as he has four tackles for loss along Iowa's strong defensive front.

4. Wisconsin S Michael Caputo: He and the Badgers were off last week but should get a test from Bowling Green's fast-paced offense.

Also receiving votes: Penn State LB Mike Hull; Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Michigan State DE Marcus Rush; Ohio State LB Joshua Perry.
Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They outline potential peaks and valleys and give us an opportunity, before we get down to the business of the season, to have a little fun. Don't take these too seriously (although many of you will).

Up next is a team that couldn't have envisioned a much better case than what happened last season: the Michigan State Spartans.

Best case

Sparty on! This time, all the way to JerryWorld. Michigan State continues its remarkable ascent under Mark Dantonio and reaches college football's apex.

The run begins in Week 2 at deafening Autzen Stadium, which quickly grows silent as the Spartan Dawgs make fois gras out of the home team. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond both intercept Marcus Mariota in the first half, and Connor Cook is the best quarterback on the field, shredding Oregon's defense for three touchdown passes. Sparty steals The Duck's motorcycle and pops wheelies around the field afterward.

Four weeks later, MSU opens Big Ten play the way it left off in 2013: With a double-digit win. The defense holds Ameer Abdullah to 27 rush yards on 27 carries and Jack Conklin makes sure Randy Gregory gets nowhere near Cook. Punter Mike Sadler scores on a fake punt that Dantonio nicknames "Cat in the Hat," while sneering at Bo Pelini.

Three weeks later, the Spartans are back at home to face rival Michigan, which brings a 7-0 record to East Lansing. The Wolverines leave at 7-1, blown out yet again by Dantonio's crew, which once again holds Michigan to a negative rushing total. Malik McDowell records three sacks. Brady Hoke ends the game wearing long sleeves and a headset.

In the much-anticipated rematch against Ohio State under the lights, MSU delivers another gem. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi coaches the entire game from the sideline as the Spartans sack Braxton Miller six times. It's a big night for MSU's Ohioans: Cook, Marcus Rush, Drummond in a 24-13 win. Afterward, Urban Meyer finds a few cold pizzas at his locker.

MSU goes on to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, as Sadler executes a textbook flop in crunch time, drawing a penalty on Wisconsin and allowing the Spartans to run out the clock. It's a perfect regular season and offensive lineman Travis Jackson leads the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd in the "Yes! Yes!" chant.

The Spartans return to the Rose Bowl and beat Florida State before advancing to face Alabama in the national title game. It's Dantonio versus Nick Saban, his old boss at MSU. Cook rallies the offense in the closing minutes and the Spartans win 21-20. The national title is theirs.

Dantonio signs a lifetime contract. Narduzzi turns down three Big Ten head-coaching jobs to remain at MSU. Michigan drops its final five games. Cook and Shilique Calhoun return for their senior seasons.

Worst case

Same old Spartans? That phrase should be retired, but Michigan State once again crumbles under the weight of expectations.

Things go badly in Eugene as Oregon easily covers the spread and shreds Michigan State's defense. The concerns about losing Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are magnified as Mariota completes 23 of 25 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. The Duck runs over Sparty's foot.

Nebraska pulls off its second straight win at Spartan Stadium, thanks again to a controversial penalty call, this time on Waynes. The Huskers snuff out a Spartans fake and cash in for six, and Abdullah scores the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

After a narrow win at Purdue, Michigan State falls behind early at Indiana, like it did in 2012. This time, the Spartans can't rally as a Cook interception seals a shocking loss. The pain worsens the following week as undefeated Michigan beats up the Spartans at the line of scrimmage, drawing four unnecessary roughness penalties in a 10-point win. A skywriter spells "Big Blue, still Big Bro" above Spartan Stadium.

The misery continues the following week as Miller dissects a defense that looks nothing like its typical form. Meyer slams on the gas in the fourth quarter and Ohio State wins by 17. Cook throws three picks.

After two less-than impressive wins against the Big Ten newcomers, MSU flat-lines in Happy Valley, falling 17-3 to Penn State. That same day, Ohio State and Michigan meet at Ohio Stadium in a matchup of the only remaining major-conference undefeated teams.

At 6-6, Michigan State heads to the Dallas area for a bowl game and falls to Marshall. Narduzzi turns down head-coaching jobs in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 for the gig at Rutgers, ensuring he'll face MSU every season in the East Division.

Calhoun goes pro. McDowell transfers. Ohio State and Michigan both make the college football playoff. My downstairs neighbor, Tim, burns all his Spartans gear. Wrestler Daniel Bryan sues Jackson for copyright. Michigan students shave off Sparty's eyebrows.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:

Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford returns after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 TDs in 2013.
Take 1: Mitch Sherman

The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.

Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.

But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.

There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.

Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.

Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.

[+] EnlargeGregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikIt took Randy Gregory one season to show NFL scouts he could be a first-round pick.
Take 2: Brian Bennett

The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.

NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.

The final 20 is out in the ESPN.com’s weeklong #CFBrank project that charts the top 100 players in college football, based on expected contributions for 2014.

The Big Ten earned a respectable four entries among the top 20:

No. 20: Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
No. 5 (tie): Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
No. 5 (tie): Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 4: Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

Let’s start at the top here. Calhoun is a great player, no doubt. But a clear difference of opinion exists between our national group of writers and editors and the five of us who cover the Big Ten. In the Big Ten-specific ratings, we slotted Calhoun at No. 6.

Calhoun made a huge splash to open his sophomore season a year ago by scoring three touchdowns in the Spartans' two opening games against Western Michigan and South Florida. From there, he was good -- dominant at times -- but surely, Calhoun benefited from the lock-down ability of cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. A Big Ten coordinator told us last season that his team schemed to run at Calhoun and feared Marcus Rush more than fellow end Calhoun.

No argument with Miller or Gordon among the top five nationally. Miller finished atop the Big Ten survey after winning the league's offensive player of the year award each of the past two seasons. Gordon led the nation in per-carry rushing average last season and in 2012.

Interestingly, the Big Ten writers rated Nebraska back Ameer Abdullah ahead of his friend Gordon. Abdullah finished 21st in the national rankings.

No. 20 is a good spot for Gregory. The Nebraska defensive end has much room to grow after his first season at the FBS level. His moments of dominance as a sophomore tease at a season this fall that could earn Gregory a spot higher on a list like this in a few months.

Preseason position preview: DL

July, 16, 2014
7/16/14
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You want to win in the Big Ten? Then you'd better have a strong defensive line.

Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.

Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:

Best of the best: Ohio State

I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.

Next up: Michigan State

Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

June, 18, 2014
6/18/14
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Welcome to the hump day edition of the Big Ten mailbag. I'll have another one on Friday in Adam's usual time slot since he's on vacation, but I need questions. So send them here or hit us up on Twitter.

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: After thinking about all of the big games in Badgers history, is the LSU game the biggest? Program-changing game?

Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that the opener against LSU looms large for Wisconsin. Win that and the Badgers would gain immediate respect and -- with their very manageable schedule -- could put themselves in position to make the College Football Playoff. But biggest ever? I don't think so. For starters, it's just an opener, and we're not even sure how good LSU -- which finished No. 14 in the major polls last season -- will even be. I don't see how that's bigger than, say, Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl victory over UCLA under Barry Alvarez on New Year's Day 1994. Or even beating then-No. 1 Ohio State at home in 2010. To say nothing of the 1940s and '50s.




@joe_lloyd11 via Twitter writes: What would you consider Penn State's biggest trap game to be in 2014?

Brian Bennett: Fun question, and hopefully we'll be looking at trap games for every team later on this summer. For Penn State, I would say it's Week 2 against Akron. Sure, it's at home and the Zips haven't been very good in recent years. But the game also comes on the heels of the opener in Ireland against UCF, and if you've ever flown back home from overseas, you know it takes your body a couple of days to readjust. Akron went 5-7 last season, nearly beat Michigan and returns a lot of experience for Terry Bowden. So the Nittany Lions had better avoid any Irish hangover.




RC Marsh from Medina, Ohio, writes: OSU, best defensive ends in the Big Ten? Have you forgotten about four-year starter Marcus Rush and maybe the best DE in the nation, 2013 Big Ten D-Line player of the year Shilique Calhoun? MSU may have back up DEs better than most starting DEs in in the Big Ten this year. OSU and UM continue to get an exceptional amount of space in the Blog, but both lost to MSU last year and will likely again this year. Like Alabama, MSU substitutes 30 plus players during their games, even big games. That gives them an advantage against teams that don't, aka OSU & UM.Your comments?

Brian Bennett: Well, what I actually wrote in Monday's mailbag was that Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are "two of the top returning defensive ends in the league." That's indisputable. But you're right in that Rush often gets overlooked for Michigan State. He doesn't often put up huge numbers, as he set a career high last season with five sacks, to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss. But he gives Pat Narduzzi exactly what he's looking for from that position in the Spartans' defensive scheme. Rush has been an excellent player for a long time. Bosa and Spence form, in my opinion, the best pure pass-rushing defensive end duo in the Big Ten this year. But Michigan State might have the best two overall ends. Either way, just another reason to get excited for that Nov. 8 game in East Lansing.




Greg M. from Bel Air, Md., writes: Two weeks, Brian ... that's right two weeks and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will officially join the B1G. B1G fans may not be high on it, but Rutgers fans are all excited and looking foward to it. Rutgers athletics will do the B1G right. I am here to say RU's fans will root hard for RU vs. other B1G schools when we play them but be sure, RU fans we will also be first in line to root for every B1G team against the other conferences. After all on July 1, the Scarlet Knights are B1G. GO RU.

Brian Bennett: Didn't really see a question in there, but I know Rutgers fans are as pumped up to join the Big Ten as any fan base has ever been about entering a new league. Glad to hear Scarlet Knights fans are going to support everyone else in the conference. It remains to be seen if the rest of the league will feel as much connection toward Rutgers in the early going.




Greg from Springfield writes: Brian, with all this talk of paying players, why haven't we heard more about them being allowed to sign autographs for pay? Let ALL college athletes do this. This will remove the problem of having schools pay scholarship players in non-revenue sports. Let them make money -- with some restrictions on when and where they sign, of course. This way the best players -- the ones that make the schools the most money -- will likely get the most for their autographs, which seems fair. What say you?

Brian Bennett: Johnny Football agrees with you, Greg. I have to say that I've never understood the whole autograph thing or why people -- especially adults -- would want a college kid's autograph. But I digress. One way around all these thorny issues about more money for athletes and the value of their image and likeness -- currently front and center in the O'Bannon trial -- is to let players get paid for endorsements, autographs and other marketing ideas during their college days. In other words, much like Olympic athletes do. You would, of course, have the issue of some schools' boosters throwing around all kinds of money for endorsements or giving a wad of cash to a backup lineman for his signature. But at least things would be more in the open and players could capitalize on their own achievements, rather than watch their school sell their jerseys in the bookstore for $200. All ideas are worth exploring at this point, and this one has some serious merit.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
6/06/14
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With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
Summer's almost here, but we're still looking forward to the fall. Today, we begin a 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/eaten by a bear, 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. Let's start with the defending league champs, Michigan State:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook is one of the Big Ten's best QBs and a big reason why the Spartans are title contenders.
Connor Cook, QB, Jr.

The Spartans are not without options at quarterback. Tyler O'Connor should be a capable backup after seeing some action early last season, and the bubble wrap is coming off multitalented redshirt freshman Damion Terry. Still, Michigan State's quarterback situation was a mess before Cook grabbed hold of it in the middle of last year, and if he needed to be replaced, the entire offense could suffer the same fate we saw in the 2012 season. The 2013 Big Ten championship game and Rose Bowl MVP entered this offseason riding a wave of confidence and should be one of the league's top quarterbacks.

Trae Waynes, CB, Jr.

There are a lot of other players we could have picked for this second spot, including star defensive end Shilique Calhoun and running back Jeremy Langford. Losing Calhoun would obviously be a very difficult blow for the Spartans, but they still would have Marcus Rush at the other end spot, plus some promising young players such as Demetrius Cooper. Similarly, Langford's production would be tough to replace, but Michigan State usually finds a way to get it done in the running game and has some other options behind him. Waynes is the pick here because of the youth and inexperience behind him at the cornerback spot. Sophomore Darian Hicks and junior Arjen Colquhoun are battling it out for the other corner spot this offseason, but neither has proved much on the field. Pat Narduzzi's defense works best when it has a lockdown cover corner, and Waynes could be that guy this year.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Cooper
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SportsDemetrius Cooper has some talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he could be a real force on the Spartans' D-line.
Our series turns next to the defending champion Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans.

Spring breakout player: DE Demetrius Cooper

The sound you hear is the collective sigh of the Big Ten offensive coordinators, who are saying, "Oh, great. Another Michigan State defensive playmaker."

The Spartans have been pumping them out like a nearby Detroit factory line recently, and Cooper is the latest model. The 240-pound redshirt freshman turned heads all spring and then was a hurricane of disruption in the team's spring game. Coach Mark Dantonio has already compared him to reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun -- or at least when Calhoun was a freshman who flashed his talent on occasion.

The big question is where Cooper will find playing time, as Michigan State already has the best pair of veteran defensive ends in the league in Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush, not to mention the still-unfulfilled-but-tantalizing potential of Lawrence Thomas. Spartans coaches said after the spring game that Cooper could be used in third down pass-rushing situations, which would make sense for a young player who hasn't learned all the intricacies of the game yet.

The offense also found a potential breakout player in tight end Jamal Lyles, a former defensive end who made the switch to offense and could present matchup nightmares. Lyles could have an easier path to playing time than Cooper. But when betting on breakout players for Michigan State, it's usually wise to look toward their defensive assembly line first.

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