Big Ten: Marcus Rush
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.
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."
In September, the Irish took advantage of four pass-interference penalties and a defensive-holding call to hand Michigan State its only loss of the season. Asked during a recent visit from ESPN.com whether that game prompted any changes to his aggressive style, the Spartans’ defensive coordinator loaded film of the questionable calls onto his computer and grew more animated as the plays unfolded on the screen.
“After that game, I continued to say to our guys, ‘Hey, that’s what we do, and that’s how we do it. We’re not going to change.’”
Why would Narduzzi change a thing? Michigan State leads the nation in total defense and rushing yards allowed and is No. 4 in the FBS in scoring defense, giving up just over 11 points per game. The Spartans are understandably confident in their way of doing things heading into Saturday's Big Ten title game against Ohio State.
“We’re going to play our game of football,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “We’re going to make those guys play our game.”
Continuity is a core belief for Narduzzi, who is in his seventh year at Michigan State and ninth straight season running a defense under Mark Dantonio. There’s no real secret to Narduzzi's system, which seems simple in its appearance but is complex beneath the surface.
Michigan State lines up in the same 4-3 base on almost every down except for third-and-long, when it will move to a three-man front. Against spread teams and passing attacks, the Spartans (unlike most defenses) will leave their three linebackers on the field instead of adding more defensive backs. They demand that their cornerbacks defend receivers one-on-one, freeing up safeties to help against the run.
“People know how we’re going to line up, for the most part,” Narduzzi said. “They now where our DBs and our LBs are going to line up. But that’s an advantage to us, too. You may know where we are, but so do we.”
Sounds pretty basic. And it is -- except for the zone blitzes that Narduzzi dials up out of that base package. A fellow Big Ten defensive coordinator called Narduzzi earlier this season, looking for tips to stop a common opponent. Narduzzi said the coordinator told him, “Man, that pressure you bring, I don’t know how you do it.”
That’s one reason why few other teams have copied Michigan State’s defense, despite its dominating statistics in recent years. Another reason is that not every coach is comfortable playing his corners on an island and blitzing, opening the defense up to potential big plays.
“People know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we do it,” Narduzzi said. “We’re the only team in the country that does zone pressure like this. There’s a risk to it if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
That’s not a problem for these Spartans.
Since defenders mostly stay at the same spot on the field during almost every situation, they can master their particular craft. This year’s defense has certified experts at their jobs who have been in the system for years, such as Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis, and defensive end Marcus Rush. As Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday: “They’re like a fine wine. They get better with age.”
The veteran players have taken ownership of the defense. Led by Bullough, they're able to make their own adjustments during a game when something isn't working, which is one reason why Michigan State hasn't allowed a second-half point in seven of its 12 games. Dennard had "No Fly Zone" T-shirts made for all the team's defensive backs.
Narduzzi and Dantonio both agree that this is the best defense they've had in their seven years at Michigan State. And this Ohio State team may be their toughest challenge in that time.
The Buckeyes are averaging 48.2 points and 321 rushing yards per game. While Narduzzi says some opponents this year have abandoned the running game against his defense, that won’t happen Saturday versus RB Carlos Hyde and QB Braxton Miller. Narduzzi is so concerned about stopping them that he has gone to full tackling in practice this week, something the Spartans didn’t do before last season’s 17-16 loss to the Buckeyes.
“For me to sit here and tell you it’s not our biggest test, I’d just be lying to you,” Bullough said. “But it’s something that in all reality, we look forward to.”
Different year, different teams. But last year, Michigan State did hold Ohio State to its lowest point total in two years under Urban Meyer, while Narduzzi still laments a fumble return for a touchdown by his defense that was blown dead by the officials.
“Obviously, it’s a bigger challenge in who you’re playing,” he said. “But we played them a year ago, so it’s not like we don’t know who we’re playing against. It’s an opportunity for us to go clean up something from a year ago.”
Narduzzi hopes the result is different this time around. But little else will change for him or the Spartans' defense.
College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.
Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.
"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."
Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.
"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.
Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.
They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.
In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.
How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.
1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure
Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.
MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.
It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.
"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.
Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.
"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.
2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)
Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.
The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).
Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.
"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."
3. Embracing excellence
Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.
The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.
"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."
The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."
Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.
Pencils ready? Class is in session ...
2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...
3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.
4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.
5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.
The most recent watch lists involve two big awards: the Outland and the Bronco Nagurski trophies. The Outland honors the top interior lineman on either side of the ball, and the Nagurski goes to the best defender.
The Big Ten has good representation on both lists, with 10 Outland honorees and 13 on the Nagurski scroll . Take a look:
- Ryan Groy, OT, Wisconsin
- Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
- DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
- Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
- Spencer Long, OG, Nebraska
- Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
- Andrew Norwell, OG, Ohio State
- Jeremiah Sirles, OT, Nebraska
- John Urschel, OG, Penn State
- Brandon Vitabile, C, Northwestern
- Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
- Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
- Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
- Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
- Christian Bryant, S, Ohio State
- Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
- Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
- Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
- James Morris, LB, Iowa
- Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
- Marcus Rush, DE, Michigan State
- Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
- Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
As I said, good representation here. The Big Ten would normally have more on the Outland side, but the league lacks proven defensive tackles going into the season. Lewan should be a threat to win the Outland, and Long was an All-American last year. You can never count out Wisconsin linemen when it comes to awards, so watch out for Groy. Tons of great players and potential All-Americans on the Nagurski list. Can any of them beat out Jadeveon Clowney?
His eponymous preseason magazine claims to be the most accurate guide in the marketplace, and to his credit Steele did correctly forecast Nebraska and Wisconsin to make the Big Ten title game last season. You can find his preseason all-conference teams -- which go four deep on offense and defense -- on his blog here.
There are the obvious first-team choices, like Ohio State's Braxton Miller at quarterback, Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Nebraska guard Spencer Long on offense. (Steele goes with 12-man units on both offense and defense, with three receivers and two running backs on offense and four linebackers on defense). He chose Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah for the first team, with Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon as his second-team backs. Incoming Michigan true freshman Derrick Green makes an appearance on the fourth team.
Steele has Taylor Martinez as his second-team quarterback, followed by Michigan's Devin Gardner on the third team. I'm surprised to see Ohio State's Devin Smith at second-team receiver, ahead of teammate Corey Brown, who only made the third team but was more productive than Smith last year and much better this spring. Steele also puts Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as his first- and second-team tight ends, ahead of Penn State's Kyle Carter. I question that choice.
On defense, there are the no-brainer first-team selections you'd expect: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and Michigan State corner Darqueze Dennard. Steele's first-team defensive line is Michigan State's Marcus Rush, Northwestern's Tyler Scott, Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and Purdue's Bruce Gaston, while Illinois' Jonathan Brown rounds out the four-man linebacker crew. The first-team defense includes four Michigan State players (safety Isaiah Lewis is the other) and three Buckeyes (safety Christian Bryant joins Shazier and Roby).
Penn State's Deion Barnes -- the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year -- only makes the second team at defensive end. I think I'd rather have him than the steady Rush. Steele also chooses Ohio State defensive end Adolphus Washington for the second team and fellow Buckeyes sophomore Noah Spence for the fourth team, though both have the potential to do more than that. Surprisingly, Steele also has Ohio State's Curtis Grant -- a guy with a lot to prove -- as a second-team linebacker.
Ohio State leads the way with six selections on the first-team offense and defense, followed by Michigan State with those four defenders. Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin have three first-team picks each. Michigan has only two total players on Steele's first two teams, with Jeremy Gallon a second-teamer at receiver. Iowa and Indiana do not have any first-team selections on offense or defense, though the Hawkeyes' Jordan Cotton was named first-team kick returner.
So we're going to out-mock the mockers by creating our own, totally fake Big Ten players' draft. Adam and I are doing our best impressions of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- we've both been running our hairdryers for hours now -- to come up with what a first-round of a Big Ten draft might look like.
Here's how this works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (not signees, this isn't the NBA draft), and the teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year, just like the NFL. We're trying to think like the teams involved here and draft not just best player, but also best fit. For example, teams like Iowa and Wisconsin aren't going to draft a spread quarterback for their system. Teams would also want to take eligibility into account. Is a great senior worth more than a promising sophomore? Depends on how close your team is to winning.
Let's get to it ...
Pick No. 1: Illinois
Brian Bennett says the Illini select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
I considered having Tim Beckman take a Penn State player, just for old time's sake. (He and his staff certainly did enough scouting in State College last summer). But Miller is the no-brainer. Illinois needs playmakers, and even if Miller is still evolving as a passer, he can make things happen on his own with his feet. Illinois might let him carry it 50 times per game.
Adam Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Miller
The Illini need a major boost for the nation's 119th-rated offense, and Miller, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, provides it with his many talents at quarterback. He's an easy choice for a sputtering unit.
Pick No. 2: Iowa
Adam Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Like Illinois, Iowa is trying to repair one of the nation's worst offenses and lacks a quarterback on its roster who has taken a snap in an FBS game. Gardner, who blossomed down the stretch for Michigan last season, fits into a pro-style offense and provides the big-play ability Iowa sorely needs. He also has two years of eligibility left.
Brian Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Penn State DE Deion Barnes
This is a tough one, because Iowa could really use a standout wide receiver, an experienced quarterback and some secondary help. But remember that Kirk Ferentz would be making this pick, and I believe Ferentz would stay true to himself and look to the trenches first. Iowa has lacked a dynamic pass-rusher for a couple of years now, and Barnes would provide that. Plus, he's only a sophomore, and the Hawkeyes have some rebuilding to do.
Pick No. 3: Indiana
Brian Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington
Indiana is as set on offense as any Big Ten club, even though Kevin Wilson might be tempted to grab a quarterback or a receiver because he loves the passing game. What the Hoosiers desperately need are high-impact defensive players, especially on the defensive line. Washington is by no means proven, but he had a strong freshman year and looked dominant this spring. He can also play inside at tackle if needed. Wilson also would have three years of Washington to develop, along with the rest of his young team.
Adam Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Penn State's Barnes
Indiana obviously needs defense, and while there are several good options out there, a difference-maker in the pass rush would really help. Barnes, the 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has three seasons of eligibility left, and would bolster a line with major question marks entering the fall.
Pick No. 4: Minnesota
Adam Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier
The Gophers are unsettled at linebacker after losing two starters from last season. Although they could go secondary with this pick, Shazier provides an immediate playmaking presence for the core of the defense. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.
Brian Bennett says the Gophers select ... Penn State WR Allen Robinson
I could definitely see Jerry Kill picking a linebacker or a lineman as he continues to build his team's toughness. But the Gophers desperately need to improve their downfield passing game, and in Robinson they get the Big Ten's top receiver, who has two years of eligibility left. Philip Nelson just did a backflip in celebration.
Pick No. 5: Purdue
Brian Bennett says the Boilermakers select ... Ohio State's Shazier
Linebacker has been a bit of a black hole for Purdue of late, and Shazier could fix that problem quickly. Darrell Hazell would also get two years out of him.
Adam Rittenberg says the Boilermakers select ... Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo
Chi Chi Who? Hear me out. Purdue really needs help at linebacker, and one-year players like Chris Borland or Max Bullough only do so much, especially for a coaching staff looking to the future. Michigan's Jake Ryan is a possibility, but he tore his ACL this spring and might bolt to the NFL after the season. Ariguzo has two years left and recorded two interceptions, four fumble recoveries, 10.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups for Northwestern last season. He's the young playmaker Purdue needs.
Pick No. 6: Michigan State
Adam Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Penn State's Robinson
The Spartans need a featured running back, but should be able to pick up someone like Iowa's Mark Weisman in the later rounds. Wide receiver remains a pressing need after a season of dropped passes. Robinson, the Big Ten's wide receiver of the year in 2012, gives Michigan State an obvious No. 1 target. Plus, he's only a sophomore.
Brian Bennett says the Spartans select ... Michigan's Gardner
You heard that right. Michigan State needs a quarterback who can lead the team down the field, and Gardner has the kind of arm and scrambling ability that Mark Dantonio needs. Gardner could solidify the Spartans' offense for the next two years. Plus, Dantonio would be weakening his top rival in the process. That's what you call a win-win.
Pick No. 7: Michigan
Brian Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland
The sound you heard was Brady Hoke punching the wall of Michigan's war room once the Spartans drafted Gardner. That leaves Michigan in a real bind at quarterback, but there aren't great options for their system here. Instead, the defensive-minded Hoke will go for Borland, who will provide some insurance for the injured Jake Ryan. Borland is a senior, but with the Wolverines' young talent on the way, they need a veteran for 2013.
Adam Rittenberg says the Wolverines select Nebraska G Spencer Long
The Wolverines obviously need a quarterback after losing Gardner, but there aren't many great pro-style options in the Big Ten right now. By adding Long, Michigan could boast two All-Americans on its offensive line (if it keeps left tackle Taylor Lewan). While both players depart after this season, they'll provide excellent leadership for the Wolverines' talented group of younger linemen.
Pick No. 8: Wisconsin
Adam Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
The Badgers need help in the secondary, but the top options available -- Ohio State CB Bradley Roby, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard -- are one-year guys. Bell has two years left and plays a position where Wisconsin is undermanned. He'll be an excellent complement for Jared Abbrederis this year, and the No. 1 wideout in 2014. Bell grew up in Boulder, Colo., and will easily adjust to life in Madison.
Brian Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
I mean, c'mon. This is Wisconsin we're talking about. Don't the Badgers go for the best offensive lineman, even if he's only got one year left? The Badgers are good enough that one player could put them over the top.
Pick No. 9: Penn State
Brian Bennett says the Nittany Lions select ... Ohio State DE Noah Spence
Bill O'Brien takes the long view here, knowing he needs a young player to help him build through the sanctions era. Spence is just a sophomore, and he fills the void left when Barnes was drafted earlier. Spence hasn't done much yet, but looked like a future star this spring. Oh yeah, and he's a Pennsylvania native and former Penn State commit.
Adam Rittenberg says the Nittany Lions select ... Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Penn State could go quarterback here after losing Steven Bench, but the long-term forecast under center looks pretty good. The immediate needs are linebacker and defensive leadership. Bullough provides both. He's a first-team All-Big Ten selection, one of the nation's smartest players and an excellent leader. He'll complement Mike Hull and Glenn Carson very well.
Pick No. 10: Northwestern
Adam Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Michigan's Lewan
Offensive line is the one area at Northwestern where graduation took its toll. Although the Wildcats might have a bigger need at guard than at tackle, they can't pass up arguably the nation's best offensive linemen in Lewan. He'll anchor the line, allow Jack Konopka to stay at right tackle and allow other players to slide inside to guard. Although Lewan is a one-year guy, Northwestern can draft to win now.
Brian Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Let's face it: the secondary hasn't exactly been the Wildcats' strong suit over the years. Pat Fitzgerald can draft Roby here and feel confident that he'll shut down one side of the field. You think the Roy Roundtree miracle catch happens with Roby wearing purple? He's headed to the NFL draft after this season, but Roby could be the missing piece for a team that's ready to contend.
Pick No. 11: Nebraska
Brian Bennett says the Cornhuskers select ... Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
It's no coincidence that Nebraska's defense hasn't been the same since Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick left town. The Huskers need help the most at defensive tackle, and the very athletic Hageman can provide that. He'll only play one year in Lincoln, but with Nebraska set up to win now with its offense, that's OK with Bo Pelini.
Adam Rittenberg says the Cornhuskers select ... Ohio State DE Noah Spence
This is certainly a projection pick, but Spence looks like a superstar and Nebraska desperately needs one on its defensive line. The Huskers could go with a more experienced option like Hageman, but Spence is just a true sophomore and should be an impact pass-rusher for at least two more years.
Pick No. 12: Ohio State
Adam Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Wisconsin LB Chris Borland
The Buckeyes need a quarterback after losing Miller, but should be able to get a guy like Kain Colter in the later rounds. Ohio State's most pressing need -- the defensive front seven -- remains the same, especially after losing both Shazier and Spence. Borland, an Ohio native, gives the Buckeyes a proven, productive veteran at linebacker who can help in many different ways. Although he's a senior, Ohio State is in win-now mode as it eyes a national title.
Brian Bennett says the Buckeyes select .. Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Ohio State has been decimated more than any other team by this draft. Urban Meyer would have to strongly consider Taylor Martinez here, but he can either get another quarterback later, or roll with Kenny Guiton for a year. Defense is crying out for help after losing Washington, Spence, Shazier and Roby. So the Buckeyes go with the best defensive player on the board and a guy who will bolster the front seven.
And our quick second-round picks:
Adam's second round
Iowa: Indiana WR Cody Latimer
Purdue: Penn State OL John Urschel
Michigan State: Weisman
Michigan: Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort
Penn State: Northwestern DE Tyler Scott
Northwestern: Ohio State OL Andrew Norwell
Nebraska: Iowa LB James Morris
Ohio State: Michigan State DE Marcus Rush
Brian's second round
Illinois: Northwestern RB Venric Mark
Minnesota: Purdue DE Ryan Russell
Purdue: Penn State DT DaQuan Jones
Michigan State: Penn State TE Kyle Carter
Penn State: Michigan CB Blake Countess
Ohio State: Martinez
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't want to nag any more.
Narduzzi always had told his defenders exactly what they needed to do to become an elite unit. He shaped the identity of the unit, rather than the players themselves.
"It's like your mother telling you to make your bed before 8 o'clock, 'Don't come down and eat breakfast, do this and do this,' " Narduzzi told ESPN.com. "And you're going, 'C'mon, Mom, can't I eat breakfast first and then make my bed?' Well, me coming in there and telling them all those things is the same."
Several years ago, Narduzzi put the players' identity in their own hands. He no longer would outline the traits that would make them a great unit. The defenders met as a group and brainstormed the core values they wanted to display on the field.
"When people watch you on tape, when people watch you on Saturday afternoons on ESPN, what are they saying about you?" Narduzzi told the players. "Are they saying, 'Look at these guys. They look confused.' Or are they saying, 'They're playing fast.' "
They chose a nickname -- Spartan Dawgs -- and a list of terms that best reflected their goals. The final product is a blueprint for a defense that has come to define the Michigan State program in recent years.
It can be found in meeting rooms, players' binders and in the locker room before games.
"We all come up with some things we can go by, stuff we need to do during the game, which is dominate, which is create turnovers, which is making plays," senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "Stuff like that can motivate us and give us a guideline for how we come into each game.
Defensive lineman Tyler Hoover, a studio art major, designed last year's poster, which features a dog wearing a Spartans logo on a chain. The dog's bowl includes a Big Ten championship ring and the words "Everybody eats."
The poster defines Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." Below are words like relentless, nasty, swarming, devastating, turnovers and dominating. The poster ends with the words: TURN UP.
The 2011 poster was similar, and included the statement: We will set the standard nationally for the most reckless, disruptive force unleashed on any team. It's not exactly Shakespeare, who in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" wrote about the "hounds of Sparta" -- So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung/With ears that sweep away the morning dew;/Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls -- but it works for the players.
"We run out of synonyms, to be honest," senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "We have a good idea of what we want to do, where we want to be. It's just adding little flakes here and there, having different guys on the team and who's going to step up and say, 'This is what we should have on it.'
"It's pretty similar each year."
So are the results of the Spartans' defense. Michigan State finished fourth nationally in total defense last season (274.4 ypg) after placing sixth in 2011 (277.4 ypg). The unit also has ranked in the top 10 nationally in both points allowed and rushing yards allowed in each of the past two seasons. Last year, Michigan State finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense.
A high standard has been set, but the Spartans expect to reach it again this season. Seven defensive starters return, including two 2012 first-team All-Big Ten selections in Bullough and Dennard, along with honorable-mention selections in safety Isaiah Lewis, linebacker Denicos Allen and end Marcus Rush. The Spartans boast one of the deepest secondaries in the country, a veteran linebacking corps and several potential stars up front like Shilique Calhoun, who locked up a starting end spot opposite rush this spring.
"We have an experienced secondary coming back, an experienced defense coming back," Lewis said. "I'm just expecting what everybody else is expecting, to come out and dominate other teams."
The defense has areas that can be improved, such as generating more sacks (tied for 93rd nationally last season, 1.54 per game) and takeaways (tied for 73rd with 20). But asked what the next phase is for the defense, Narduzzi replied, "Keep doing what we're doing."
The Spartans have evolved into an elite defense under Narduzzi and coach Mark Dantonio, a former defensive assistant at four FBS schools, including Michigan State (defensive backs, 1995-2000) and Ohio State (defensive coordinator, 2001-03). But they weren't always that way.
Michigan State finished 31st, 58th, 73rd and 43rd in defense during Dantonio's first four seasons as coach. The Narduzzi/Dantonio-led defenses at Cincinnati from 2004 to 2006 were decent but not special, finishing no higher than 31st nationally.
"We've got players who have excelled in the past, and success breeds success," Dantonio said. "When they have the same teacher, and that same base concept stays the same, over a period of time you begin to handle it more efficiently. I think that's happened to our football team. It doesn't mean we don't have breakdowns. We do. But we're able to overcome those, and we’re able to play with a lot of confidence and we're able to play fast.
"Any time you can do those two things ... you can be successful."
The same teacher is Narduzzi, who has served as Dantonio's defensive coordinator throughout his head-coaching career. Despite being courted by Texas A&M after the 2011 season and being mentioned for several head-coaching vacancies, he'll remain with the Spartans for a seventh season this fall.
Assistants Harlon Barnett (secondary) and Mike Tressel (linebackers) also came with Dantonio and Narduzzi from Cincinnati. The defensive staff had its first change this past offseason, when line coach Ron Burton replaced Ted Gill.
"There's something to be said about that," Bullough said. "You can play fast, you know the defense, you don't have to worry about the little things and the big things will take care of themselves."
Michigan State's defense wasn't the reason the team backslid from 11 wins in 2011 to seven last season. The unit made strides in most major statistical categories and played arguably at a championship level. But it wasn't perfect, and with Michigan State's offense sputtering -- the Spartans finished 108th in scoring and 95th in total yards -- it cost the team. They dropped five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points.
There's a concern that the gap between the defense and the offense will create splintering, but Dennard says the Spartans "never got divided." Still, the offensive players know they must make up some ground this offseason.
"Each day, going to practice is a challenge for us," offensive tackle Fou Fonoti said. "Seeing them play with the amount of emotion, and you see Coach Narduzzi, it puts that fire for us. We've got to execute better, so we're trying to feed off of that."
This year's Spartan Dawgs blueprint should be finalized soon. One word likely to appear, if Lewis has a say, is nastiness.
Barnett has a picture of The Incredible Hulk on the wall of the defensive backs' meeting room and encourages his players to "bring the other guy out."
"I'm a nice guy off the field, but when you step on that field, you aren't that nice guy any more," Lewis said. "You've got to bring out that other side. ... Just a nasty guy, somebody mean, somebody angry."
Somebody striving to be the best.
"We want to be the No. 1 defense, we want to be the talk of the nation," Dennard said. "We take so much pride in that. None of us forget the blueprint."
Michigan State needed a rally in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU and, as usual, relied on its defense for a lift. The Spartans' most talented defensive lineman, junior end William Gholston, was playing his final college game. Leading 14-13, Michigan State needed a stop in its own territory. Calhoun, already with a tackle for loss to his credit, beat TCU tackle Aviante Collins around the edge and dropped quarterback Trevone Boykin for his first career sack. Although TCU converted a long field-goal try, Michigan State only needed three points to answer and got the game-winning field goal from Dan Conroy moments later.
"Before the sack, I felt like I was underachieving," Calhoun told ESPN.com "I didn't feel like I played to the best of my abilities. But after that performance, it showed me I could go a lot harder and work more. It kind of catapulted me into this year.
"It's given me a lot of pride in my game, a little more than I had before."
"There would be a lot more playing time," he said. "I’d be a little more exhausted. That was the first thought."
To prepare for a bigger role, Calhoun had to add weight in the winter. He's about 255 pounds these days and hopes to be around 260 for the season.
Calhoun knows the added weight can help his game, as long as it doesn't come with a cost.
"The best aspect of my game is my speed, so for me to lose that, it would be a crucial mistake," he said. "With this style of play at Michigan State, it's a great opportunity for me to make plays with my speed.
"As long as I can maintain it, I’ll continue to gain weight."
Calhoun typically lines up on the field side, where he has to cover more green against dual-threat quarterbacks and the like. Michigan State has built its defense around speed, and Calhoun fits the scheme extremely well.
The redshirt sophomore opened the spring listed as a starter on the depth chart, but several others are in the mix at end, including veteran Denzel Drone and young players like Jamal Lyles and Joel Heath.
"I want it to be a dogfight, I want to fight for my position," said Calhoun, a standout on the scout team in 2011 who finished with six tackles, 2.5 for loss, and two pass breakups last fall. "Competition makes me work a lot harder, and I don't want to ever stop working hard. There's guys who are working just as hard as me. I want them to keep pushing me because I want to keep working hard."
Calhoun sees a similar attitude throughout Michigan State's defense, which has ranked sixth and fourth nationally the past two seasons.
"The coaches, my teammates, we're all striving to get better," Calhoun said. "Last year was a good year, yes, but we need to be better ... until we’re No. 1, and even then, we're not going to stop trying to be the best."
ESPN.com caught up with Dantonio this week to talk spring ball.
What are some of your primary objectives for the spring?
Mark Dantonio: The first thing we have to do is address where we're at and look forward. We have a new staff member on each side of the ball, and there's no question that we can improve on both sides of the ball. With that being said, there's a lot of experience coming back. There are areas every football team needs to address. Some of that is concept-based. We're going to try new things and move from there. Our objectives will be to get out of there without getting people hurt and move forward as a program, allow our young players, the guys who redshirted, to make a move on the depth chart and then solidify our No. 1s.
What will be different offensively with Dave [Warner] the lead play-caller and Jim [Bollman] coming in from the outside?
What areas need to be improved on that side of the ball?
MD: When you look at where we were at last year, we need to improve in the red zone, obviously. We have to catch the ball, protect the quarterback more consistently. But we've got to score touchdowns in the red zone. We had too many field-goal attempts. We had 32. So it's not that we're not getting down there. We're getting down there and stalling out. We're going to work toward that. And then we've got to do some things conceptually that takes you forward.
We need change. There's no question we need some change in some areas, but there's also a lot of good things we've done. We've won a lot of football games here. When you look at last season, we were so close in so many different areas from having another 10-, 11-win season.
As a reminder, these lists try to identify younger players (ideally non-starters) who showed flashes in 2012 and who will be in positions to make a greater impact this coming season. Examples from the 2012 season on the defensive side include Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes and Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo. Players who earned All-Big Ten honors in 2012 aren't eligible for this list. We're looking for players who haven't come close to their ceilings yet.
Lastly, we realize a list of five excludes many promising players, but we had to cut it off somewhere.
Here we go (in alphabetical order) ...
Michigan LB Joe Bolden: A decorated 2012 recruit, Bolden enrolled early and immediately began impressing the coaching staff. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Bolden saw the field in all 13 games as a true freshman, recording 31 tackles, including four for loss and a sack, to go along with a fumble recovery. Bolden likely will step into a starting role in 2013 as Michigan loses Kenny Demens to graduation. If Bolden takes a big step like Ryan did as a sophomore, Michigan could challenge Michigan State for which team boasts the Big Ten's top linebacking corps.
Penn State LB Mike Hull: Hull is definitely the most familiar name on the list, but after waiting his turn as a reserve, his number will be called much more in 2013. The 6-foot, 228-pound rising junior had starter-like numbers in 2012, recording 58 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks, to go along with an interception, two fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and a blocked kick. He's already one of the Big Ten's best special-teams players and should be among the league's top linebackers this coming season as Penn State must replace standouts Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.
Nebraska LB David Santos: Bo Pelini and his staff have acknowledged the team's pressing need at linebacker after transitioning from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Although finding a difference-making defensive lineman might be the Huskers' biggest desire, they still need help in their defensive midsection and should get more out of Santos. The 6-foot, 220-pound Santos appeared in 13 games as a redshirt freshman this season, recording 24 tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble. Nebraska needs leadership at linebacker following Will Compton's departure, and Santos looks ready to take on a bigger burden.
Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington: The Buckeyes have to reload along the defensive line after losing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and interior space-eater Johnathan Hankins, among others. Urban Meyer and his staff landed several elite defensive line recruits in their first class, including Washington, who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman and recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. Along with classmate Noah Spence, Washington is expected to take on a bigger role in 2013 and could be a breakout performer.
Gholston, a defensive end, will join Bell and Sims in the 2013 NFL draft. He made things official Saturday with a letter to Michigan State fans which reads in part: "In the days since our Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory, I have decided to forgo my senior year at Michigan State and declare for the 2013 NFL Draft. While I know I still have a great deal to accomplish, I am very excited about the challenges that the future holds and I promise to always represent the University with class, dignity, and professionalism. From Coach [Mark] Dantonio, to our entire staff, to my incredible teammates, to each of you unbelievable fans that back us each and every day, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The 6-7, 285-pound Gholston will try to impress NFL talent evaluators with his physical freakishness and next-level potential after a somewhat disappointing 2012 season. Gholston recorded 59 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and added 10 pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a safety. A decent season for sure, and Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, but he didn't match the lofty expectations placed on him after his dominating performance against Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl.
He'll need a good predraft performance to help his stock, but he certainly has the physical tools to do so.
His departure shouldn't hurt Michigan State as much as Bell's or Sims', as the Spartans boast much more depth on the defensive side of the ball. MSU has an experienced defensive end in Marcus Rush and other options like Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun.
Josh from Gillette, Wyo., writes: I have had this weekend circled for months. The Huskers squeaked out what I would call a very quality win last week. However, it was virtually a home game for them, or neutral at best. Husker fans invade opponents territory if they are given the opportunity (they did the same to my school in Laramie Wyoming last season). With Michigan coming to Lincoln this year, the Huskers will have the full force of the "Sea of Red" behind them. My first question is: What kind of road team is Michigan? Have they experienced anything like what they will face this Saturday? Is revenge going to play a factor? And is it conceivable that the loser this weekend could recover and still make it to Indy?
Brian Bennett: While Michigan has not played in Lincoln in more than 100 years, I don't see the Wolverines getting intimidated by the environment. This is a program that regularly plays before the largest crowd in college football, that has faced Alabama at JerryWorld and that squared off in a night game at frenzied Notre Dame Stadium. Nebraska would love to finish its revenge tour by beating the third Big Ten team that knocked it off last year (Wisconsin and Northwestern were the others), but this is going to come down to whether the Huskers defense can slow down Denard Robinson, and whether Taylor Martinez can find holes in a very good Michigan defense. The Wolverines have a better shot of losing and then recovering than Nebraska, which would have two conference losses if it falls at home. Michigan could lose here, win out and still be OK if the Huskers were to drop a game at Michigan State or Iowa or at home to Penn State.
Jon from Colorado writes: Is there a reason that you and Adam are still hanging onto Michigan as your Rose Bowl picks? Most other analysts now are picking Wisconsin to go (including several here at ESPN) and like the Badgers chances of beating either Michigan or Nebraska in Indy. What is your rationale?
Brian Bennett: While I like the way Wisconsin is playing right now, Michigan in our view has the edge because of a defense that's dominating right now. I still want to see the Badgers, who are a bit too one-dimensional on offense, put it all together against a really strong defense, which could happen this week against Michigan State. Hard to predict how a Wisconsin-Michigan matchup might go because they haven't played since Brady Hoke was hired. Which is another reason why this would be a fun Big Ten title game tilt.
David from Madison, Wis., writes: I don't think you should discount the Wisconsin @ Michigan State game in 2010 as part of this "rivalry" (You said this will be "Round 3" when talking about this weeks upcoming games). It was the start of it all as Michigan State ruined a chance at Wisconsin having a National Championship season. It also was the source of hatred by Michigan State because they got overlooked as Wisconsin won the conference, even though it lost to MSU.
Brian Bennett: You're definitely right about that game having played into the rivalry. However, purely as a game it paled in comparison to the epics we saw last year, though Wisconsin fans still rue Michigan State converting three third-downs and a fourth-down on its final drive to seal things. Either way, enjoy this weekend's game because it's the last time the two will meet for a while -- at least in the regular season.
Ben from Chicago writes: Brian,In your "What We Learned" post this week, you and Adam said Bill O'Brien might be National Coach of the Year. I agree that Penn St. is playing amazingly -- especially against that Hawkeyes I root for. But I'm having a hard time coming to terms with showering praise on a team that is in its first year of a severe NCAA penalty. It seems against the spirit of the punishment to give them "attaboys" when just months ago they got condemned by the governing athletic body. I'll end by saying I know none of the current players or coaches had anything to do with the cause of the punishment so I feel empathetic. Just perhaps not sympathetic.
Brian Bennett: You're free to have that opinion, Ben, and I understand if people feel distaste about Penn State as a whole after the terrible Sandusky scandal. At the same time, as you mentioned, the current players and coaches are paying for someone else's sins, not theirs. We are trying to judge this team on its own merits while understanding what restrictions it is operating under. If the NCAA did not want Penn State to have any football success at all, it would have shut down the program. But the Nittany Lions are allowed to compete and the way they've gone about it -- and carried themselves through difficult times -- is admirable. If not everybody revels in their success, that's understandable, too.
Kirk R. from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: I've found your lunch links unusable if it connect to articles that require subscription. I come to your site to see what is out there without having to subscribe to many different sites all over the country. If they want to require you to subscribe that is fine but you should not include those in your links. I didn't go to their site, I came to ESPN instead.
Brian Bennett: Kirk, I understand where you're coming from. Unfortunately (for linkage purposes), a whole lot of newspapers are going to a subscription model right now. Many of their sites allow you to view a limited number of free articles before you have to begin subscribing, and we have no way of knowing how many of our readers are over/under those limits. So we'll continue to link to those types of sites, as well as the totally free ones. But the latter is becoming rarer and rarer.
Justin from Baltimore writes: It seems that you and Adam feel the need to point out your erroneous conference championship prediction every time you write something about Michigan State. Isn't it time to start pointing out that probably no team in the country has lost as many close, heartbreaking games? The Spartans could easily be 4-0 in the conference and have a combined margin of defeat of six points in their three conference losses. After two seasons of getting almost every break (except for with the roughing the punter penalty in the B1G championship game) it seems that this is the year when the Spartans can't buy a break in close games. Although a loss in Madison seems likely, do you think the Spartans will be able to rebound to close out at 4-4 in conference play and set up a nice comeback year when in 2013 when MSU swaps OSU/Wisconsin for Illinois/Purdue on the crossover schedule?
Brian Bennett: Well, if we didn't point it out, other surely would (and do, especially Michigan fans who are enjoying the Spartans' problems). I will concede that Michigan State has played a difficult schedule and has been exceedingly close in many games. However, it has also lost three times at home, including to an Iowa club it was heavily favored against. That's hard to excuse. And scoring only one touchdown in each of the last three losses is just plan sad. Right now, the Spartans just need to find a way to get to a bowl game. Winning at Wisconsin this week would be huge, because then Michigan State could gain some momentum before getting Nebraska and Northwestern at home and finishing at Minnesota. I could see the Spartans going 4-0 or 0-4 in the final four weeks.
I do believe that next year could be a very good one for Michigan State. Another year for Andrew Maxwell and the young receivers can only help, and several key players are scheduled to return, including linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, defensive ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush, defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis, running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims. Some could leave early for the NFL, of course, but Michigan State should bring back a strong nucleus, and as you mentioned, the Big Ten schedule will lighten up considerably. Don't worry, we're not picking them as the 2013 favorite yet, but the future remains bright.
Bill R. from Rocky River, Ohio, writes: Brian, I was wondering how you could rank Penn State ahead of Ohio University when Penn State lost to Ohio? As you said Ohio hasn't looked too impressive since beating Penn State, but the fact is they are undefeated and beat Penn State. Using your logic Penn State should be ranked above Ohio State too since Penn State has looked better than the Buckeyes recently. How much of a role do actual, on the field results play in your poll as opposed to "brands" and perception (in this case Big Ten vs. MAC)?
Brian Bennett: I understand the logic behind the argument that "this team beat that team, so it can't be ranked behind that team." And in many cases, it makes sense. But as we get deeper into the season, that becomes harder to do as teams build such varied bodies of work. I was very impressed with Ohio in its opening win at Penn State. But let's look at what the Bobcats have done in the last three games:
- Beat UMass by three points
- Beat Buffalo by seven points at home
- Beat Akron by six points at home
Compare that to what Penn State has been doing, and it's not close. The Nittany Lions had a new coach and were playing through some complex emotions in Week 1. They've gotten a whole lot better since then and I believe they would beat Ohio in a rematch.
CDL from Denver writes: Given Northwestern's problems with the passing game what do you think of playing Kain Colter in QB more often? Colter sees to confuse the defense and seems to make things happen. Your thoughts?
Brian Bennett: I'd like to see that, and I'm pretty sure most Wildcats fans would as well. Trevor Siemian will be a very good quarterback someday, but right now Northwestern is best, in my opinion, when Colter and Venric Mark are in the backfield. I don't understand why the Wildcats are taking the ball out of Colter's hands so much unless he is injured and we don't know it. Colter's comments to Adam that the offense lacks an identity were very telling.
Nate M. from Lincoln, Neb., writes: After the two games over the last two seasons I think Northwestern vs Nebraska needs a trophy. The score differential is two points over the last two years! How sweet would it have been to see Nebraska run over to the Northwestern sideline on Saturday and claim the trophy. Isn't that what the B1G is all about anyway? Trophy games? A couple of early ideas for the trophy include just the two letters NU as the trophy, or we could even go with a trophy where one half is Memorial Stadium and the other half is Ryan Field. One side could be filled with red, and the other side could also be filled with red!
Brian Bennett: Hmm ... well, if it's NU vs. NU, shouldn't we reflect that? How about playing for the Gary Gnu trophy? Gary was a newscaster, too, so that hits the journalism angle with Northwestern. Children of the 1980s will understand.
Samir from San Francisco writes: You do a great job with the Big Ten blog and I read your posts and tweets daily. But I have some bad news for you, the Cards are going to lose Game 7. The Giants are winning big today and they are not ready to end their season yet. Good luck with all your weeping!!!
Brian Bennett: Wishing I had a response ...
ESPN.com caught up with Gholston this week in advance of Saturday's game at Indiana.
First off, how are you feeling? It looked like you might have been knocked out during the Ohio State game.
William Gholston: I feel good now. I lost my wind, just got the wind knocked out of me.
Why a C?
WG: That was the first thing I thought of, honestly. I don't really look at myself like that. I'm trying to look at the team overall, and how we did as a team. I don't really care about how I do, as long as we win.
Where do you think the defense is at right now and what do you need to do to get better?
WG: Just improve on all the little things, everything fundamentally and be more sound. I don't think we're doing too bad. We just have to make more plays. We have to remember our goals when we come into practice, see the things they adjust to and trust in each other and trust ourselves that we can make the play. Don't overthink it, I guess.
Who is taking control with the defensive line this year?
WG: The guys who talk the most would be Marcus [Rush], Rashad [White], myself, Denzel Drone. Basically everybody in the room, we kind of complement each other when it comes to being a leader. If somebody needs help, I try to be the one they come to, to give them advice, or if they don't know a play or the adjustment, I try to be there. And I like them to feed off my energy when I'm out there. I like to be energized and enthused and positive.
How are offenses approaching you this year?
WG: I wouldn't say it's anything different. I'm seeing the same amount of double teams this year that I got last year.
How is the confidence level on the team after a 3-2 start but still a long way to go?
WG: I don't think our confidence will fade away. That's crazy, honestly. I don't think confidence goes anywhere. We're an extremely confident team, and we can go in and compete with anybody. And the end result, what we want to see is Dec. 1 [Big Ten championship game]. We've just got to take one game at a time.
What do you see on tape from Indiana?
WG: They get a lot of yards, a lot of yards. That's one of the things I've focused on the most, and how quick they are, how fast-tempo they are on offense.
Does that change your approach as a pass-rusher, how quickly they run their offense?
WG: Not necessarily. We've got to be able to collapse the pocket because they have two good quarterbacks, and two nice [running] backs, too.
Coach [Mark] Dantonio said this week no one is panicking despite the 3-2 start. How important is it for you guys to put together a complete game?
WG: That's the most important thing. It's something you strive for each and every game, to have a complete game in all three phases. It'll be the same for each and every game. That's what every team strives to do.
How good can you be individually and as a team when you put it all together?
Gholston: I feel like we can be great. I haven't even touched the bar as far as my expectations. It'll all come, you know. The team comes first, and then you can worry about individual stuff.
The publicity is understandable given the returning talent and the performance by that defense last year. There's also a possible hidden advantage for the Spartans to have such an abundance of playmakers on that side of the ball: It's helping the much-less-talked-about offense.
Head coach Mark Dantonio's philosophy is to match up the first-stringers in practice every day. So several new potential starters on offense aren't just beating up on backups; they're battling against established stars.
"It's always been that way with Coach Dantonio, and there's no greater way for teams to get better," Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar told ESPN.com. "You can definitely see the improvement and the overall effort that's required. Our tackles and tight ends are going against Will Gholston and Marcus Rush. Our interior guys are blocking Anthony Rashad White. We're hoping that it's going to pay dividends."
Maxwell, who missed the last half of spring practice with a knee injury, has been sharp in training camp. So sharp that Roushar said the junior hadn't thrown an interception in the past four or five practices combined.
"He's been very accurate, and his decision-making has been very good," Roushar said. "He seems to be more poised, more under control. He's been making good checks at the line of scrimmage and getting us into the right plays."
Roushar has also seen improvement from redshirt freshman backup Connor Cook, who got to take nearly every rep at quarterback this spring while Maxwell was out.
"Connor has showed some glimpses of really good stuff," he said. "He's got a big strong arm, and he can make all the throws."
The receiving corps has been stabilized by the return of veterans Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett, who were each banged up at times this spring. Roushar said both have been running consistently with the first string and are safe bets to start the opener. The Spartans feel they have identified their top six receivers, though Roushar said they're still figuring out how exactly that rotation will be sorted out.
He admitted that the coaching staff was concerned in the spring with the young receivers' overall knowledge of the offense. But that concern has been largely alleviated now, thanks he said to the summer work put in by Maxwell and the wideouts. One of the guys who has made a jump is converted running back Jeremy Langford.
"He has had some outstanding afternoons," Roushar said. "His skill set is a little unique in that he runs like a tailback, with that physical nature to him, and yet he's developing into a really good wide receiver."
One thing Roushar likes about this group of receivers is that it's flush with speed. But they're not easily pushed around, even when Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are doing the pushing.
"I've been pleased with how we're releasing against press coverage," he said. "We have two outstanding corners who are really good at that."
Michigan State is dealing with a few injuries on the offensive side. Potential starting left guard Blake Treadwell has a stress fracture in his tibia and could be out until mid-September. Treadwell started the first three games of last season at center before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury. Tight end Dion Sims, whom Roushar said was very impressive early in camp, has been sidelined after a hit to the head. And freshmen receivers Aaron Burbridge (knee) and Monty Madaris (ankle) haven't been able to make a move up the depth chart because of their injuries. Burbridge, a highly touted recruit, could be out up to six weeks after getting his knee scoped.
But Roushar still likes the depth on his side of the ball and thinks his players can only improve going against their own defense. Even if that defense gets more attention.
"I don't feel like our guys wake up every morning and feel like they've got to prove something because of the attention the defense is getting," he said. "They go out every day just working hard to get better."