Big Ten: Travis Jackson

Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

East Division
West Division
Other stuff
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.

Michigan State spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan State.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Cook in command: Last year's spring was dominated by talk of a quarterback competition, one that was never finally settled until late September. Things are much different this year, as Connor Cook entered the offseason as the unquestioned starter for the first time. By all accounts, Cook came into the spring riding a wave of confidence, as he should have after MVP performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl. Michigan State has enviable stability in its backfield with both Cook and 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford returning.
  • Tight-ening up: Tight ends didn't play a huge factor in the offense last year, as the Spartans were really young at the position after Dion Sims left a year early for the NFL. But that could turn back into a strength this year. Josiah Price, who had the big touchdown catch in the Big Ten title game, is a year older and wiser. Jamal Lyles made a major impression this spring and could be a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. Redshirt freshman Dylan Chmura might be ready to contribute. Look for the tight ends to take on a larger load in the passing game this fall.
  • Tackling the issue: When people talk about the Spartans' losses on defense, they usually mention Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. Makes sense, as all four of those were All-Big Ten performers. But Michigan State also has to replace its starting defensive tackles from a year ago, fifth-year seniors Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds. That would be a major area of concern for a lot of teams, but both guys were under-the-radar players last year and the Spartans feel very comfortable with Joel Heath, Damon Knox, Brandon Clemons and former Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge stepping in at those spots. Heath has the physical skills to be a star and highly touted recruit Malik McDowell arrives this summer to add some more depth.
Three questions for the fall
  • Offensive line makeup: The Spartans' offensive line is by no means in dire straits. Yet three starters (Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France) are gone from a position that was the team's secret strength. The coaching staff likes what it has in sophomore Jack Conklin, junior Jack Allen and senior Travis Jackson, and expects more from junior Donavon Clark and sophomore Kodi Kieler. But Michigan State is still searching for the right mix up front and hopes to build the kind of depth and versatility it had there last season.
  • Replacing Dennard: Few players are harder to replace than Dennard, the All-American and Thorpe Award-winning cornerback who looks like a surefire NFL first-round pick. Sophomore Darian Hicks is the leading candidate to do so after emerging on top of a heated spring competition involving Arjen Colquhoun, Ezra Robinson and Jermaine Edmondson. Hicks played in very limited duty as a freshman in 2013 and has to continue to hold off the others this summer. And then he'll have mighty big shoes to fill in the fall.
  • Linebacker lineup: The Spartans will have a much different look at linebacker after the departures of three-year starters Bullough and Allen and Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth. Taiwan Jones appears to be the heir apparent to Bullough at middle linebacker, but Jon Reschke is pushing for playing time. Darien Harris logged time at that position in the Rose Bowl and is in good shape to start at an outside spot along with Ed Davis, who was injured this spring. Riley Bullough, Max's younger brother, will also be in the mix. There's talent and speed here, but the standard they have to match is awfully high.
One way-too-early prediction

With so many new faces and different roles on defense, Michigan State will finish outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense for the first time in four years. But just barely, as Pat Narduzzi's crew comes together in time to be a dominant unit in Big Ten play.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: "Cover for me." Number 2: "Oh, good idea, Boss!" Number 3: "It was like that when I got here."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Corey Lewis, Josh Campion, Brandon Vitabile, Darryl Baldwin, Blake Treadwell, Pat Fitzgerald, Travis Jackson, Miles Dieffenbach, Justin King, Zac Epping, Gary Andersen, Brett Van Sloten, Andrew Donnal, Rob Havenstein, Dallas Lewallen, Brandon Scherff, Paul Jorgensen, Donovan Smith, Austin Blythe, Tommy Olson, Angelo Mangiro, Jack Konopka, Jake Cotton, Jeremiah Sirles, Kyle Kalis, J.J. Denman, Kyle Dodson, Eric Olson, Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic, Spencer Long, Collin Rahrig, Greg Studrawa, Kodi Kieler, Jordan Roos, Cameron Cermin, Taylor Decker, Robert Kugler, Jack Miller, Kyle Bosch, Evan Lisle, Jason Spriggs, Mark Pelini, James Franklin, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Costigan, Andrew Nelson, Ted Karras, Jon Christenson, Dan Feeney, Erik Magnuson, James Bodanis, Jaden Gault, Graham Glasgow, Marek Lenkiewicz, Eric Simmons, Pat Elflein, Matt Finnin, Damian Prince, Michael Deiter, David Hedelin, Mike Moudy, Zach Sterup, Conor Boffelli, B1G spring positions 14, Austin Schmidt, Tommy Gaul, Sal Conaboy, Ryan Doyle, Michael Dunn, Larry Mazyck, Connor Kruse, Devyn Salmon, Noah Jones, J.J. Prince, Kaleb Johnson, Betim Bujari, Keith Lumpkin, Mitch Browning, Dorian Miller

The offseason is here, folks, and we're taking a look at what each team must do in the long months ahead before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion Michigan State Spartans.

1. Reload at linebacker: Michigan State survived the Rose Bowl without Max Bullough, but the Spartans now must prepare to replace both Bullough and Denicos Allen, multiyear starters who both earned All-Big Ten honors. Taiwan Jones returns at the "Star" position, while Darien Harris and Riley Bullough both are options in the middle. Sophomore Ed Davis showed some promise this season with four sacks. Replacing the production is one thing, but replacing the leadership both Bullough and Allen provided might be more significant.

2. Solidify interior lines: Michigan State's interior line play went largely unnoticed in 2013, but it played a significant role in the Spartans finally taking the step to become champions. MSU must replace both starting offensive guards, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, as well as starting defensive tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover. There seems to be decent depth on the defensive side with players like Damon Knox and Mark Scarpinato, but it's vital for the Spartans to maintain the enhanced level of offensive line play seen this past season. Jack Allen and Travis Jackson (yes! yes!) have experience at both the center and guard spots, but others must step up.

3. Find place for Terry: Damion Terry came very close to taking the field for Michigan State last fall and possibly claiming the top quarterback spot, especially when Connor Cook and others were struggling. Cook has established himself as the starter, but Michigan State should find a role for Terry, who brings unique skills to the quarterback position. Whether it's a package of plays or the ability to run more of a spread look, Terry can enhance an offense that will be leaned upon more in 2014.

More to-do lists
PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.

Video: Michigan State's Travis Jackson

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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Michigan State center Travis Jackson talks with Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg about winning the Rose Bowl over Stanford.

Video: Michigan State center Jackson

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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Michigan State center Travis Jackson talks about the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO and his unique way of celebrating touchdowns.

Michigan State season preview

August, 16, 2013
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If the old adage “defense wins championships” always held true, then Michigan State would be a top team in most preseason polls. But they'll still have to play offense, and it might not be a good thing that the Spartans' success this season will hinge on how the unit moves the ball.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Coach Mark Dantonio (69-45 overall, 51-28 at Michigan State)

2012 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten

Key losses: DE William Gholston, RB Le’Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, TE Dion Sims, DB Johnny Adams, LB Chris Norman, K Dan Conroy

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWill Andrew Maxwell be able to hold off Connor Cook and lead the Spartans?
Key returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Tony Lippett, WR Aaron Burbridge, RB Riley Bullough, OL Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen

Newcomer to watch: Running back Riley Bullough. The redshirt freshman converted linebacker can be considered a true newcomer because this is his first season at the position. The Spartans are looking for someone to step into the big shoes Bell left, and Bullough has seemed to rise to the occasion throughout fall camp.

Biggest games in 2013: at Notre Dame (Sept. 21), at Iowa (Oct. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 16), at Northwestern (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the offense really be able to get it going? Maxwell remains the biggest question mark. Dantonio pulled Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season and put in Connor Cook. The same could happen this season as the two battle it out trying to find consistency in the offense and chemistry with wide receivers. Bullough should help, but neither he nor junior Nick Hill has ever been a featured back in an offense. Running back by committee could be the Spartans’ best bet.

Forecast: The Spartan defense will be stout, even without Gholston. It returns most starters and Max Bullough is ready to lead. It’s the offense that will struggle to find its identity, which happens to most teams when they don’t have a starting quarterback who has consistently proven himself. This season, Michigan State might head into the fall with that part still unanswered. The Spartans return multiple wide receiver threats, so Maxwell should have some kind of chemistry there, but how long his leash will be remains to be seen, and Cook could be thrown into the fire relatively quickly.

The schedule does set up the Spartans to play their best football later in the season. The front half of their conference schedule isn’t too bad. The Spartans should be better than the Hawkeyes, but playing at Iowa is never easy. Indiana and Purdue at home, as well as a road game against Illinois, should provide ample confidence building as the Spartans face a tougher three-game stretch in November. They’ll host in-state rival Michigan before hitting the road for Nebraska and Northwestern, which could be a true contest this season, unlike in most. Minnesota at home should be a fine way to close out, especially considering that will be the week that fellow Legends team Michigan faces a tough competitor in Ohio State, possibly with both teams vying for a spot in the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.
Two more preseason watch lists are out, and they recognize two positions of traditional strength in the Big Ten: center and tight end.

The Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's best tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which honors the top center, both came out with their preseason lists on Tuesday. The Big Ten is well represented on both. Here's a look:

Rimington
Mackey

Tight end should be one of the strongest positions in the league this season, and seven starting Big Ten tight ends make the list of 37 nominees. It's a bit surprising to see only four centers from the league on the list of 44 Rimington honorees. Any snubs here? I think you could have added Northwestern's Dan Vitale to the Mackey group, though that list is pretty well stuffed with Big Ten players as is. The Rimington folks seem to have gotten all the potential award winners right, though someone like Wisconsin's Dan Voltz or Penn State's Ty Howle could always surprise.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
5:00
PM ET
Since tomorrow is the Fourth of July, my usual Thursday mailbag is coming at you a day earlier. Adam is on vacation next week, so if you have any questions you want answered in a timely fashion, send them to me here.

A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: Brian, Phil Steele's projections gave me an interesting thought: If Wisconsin finishes with the same record as division winner Nebraska, who loses to an undefeated Ohio State that makes the BCS title game, does Wisconsin or Nebraska go to the Rose Bowl? On one hand, as you've written before, conference championship losers rarely make BCS bowls. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much the Rose Bowl would want Wisconsin due to the fact that they've just dropped three in a row. Also, is there a chance that the Rose Bowl skips out on them both?

Brian Bennett: Fascinating hypothetical there, A.J. It's difficult to provide a definitive answer since so many variables would be in play. Wisconsin and Nebraska would both have to finish in the top 14 of the BCS standings to qualify for an at-large Rose Bowl bid. The Rose would be free to select any team in the top 14 if it lost the Big Ten champ to the title game, but would there be a sizable difference in the rankings between the Huskers and Badgers, especially right after a Nebraska loss, in your scenario? With its schedule, I doubt Wisconsin would be in line for a high BCS ranking with more than two losses and would probably have to be 11-1. That means Nebraska would be 12-1 or 11-2 in your hypothetical; a close loss to an undefeated Buckeyes team in the Big Ten championship game could keep the Huskers in play for a BCS at-large, but history is against it. (Look what happened to Georgia after last year's heartbreaking loss to Alabama).

I believe there is some Wisconsin fatigue with the Rose Bowl and vice versa, and Badgers fans already seemed a little tapped out about traveling to Pasadena last year. Would they continue to be excited about a fourth straight trip, especially to follow a team that failed to win a division title? Nebraska fans would definitely travel, though there would be a hangover from the Big Ten title game loss (and more questions about Bo Pelini and winning the big one). Such a scenario could prompt the Rose to take a team outside of the Big Ten if there is a worthy marquee program like Texas or Oklahoma out there. Then again, with this being the last year before the playoff arrives and the Rose Bowl becoming a semifinal site in some years, it might want to assure itself of a Big Ten participant. So, so many variables at play here, which is why this is interesting.




John from Omaha writes: In response to your article about the new B1G teams MD and Rutgers: There will never be buzz about Maryland and Rutgers because no one in the current B1G footprint wants to watch their football teams. Even worse, I don't believe anyone in New Jersey or Washington D.C. care about college football, much less Rutgers and Maryland. The addition of Rutgers and Maryland is a money grab for the Eastern market, one that may not even work given the stranglehold professional sports have in New York, New Jersey, and D.C. I believe the addition of Rutgers and Maryland will water down the quality of football in the B1G. In short, the B1G's addition of MD and Rutgers represents all that is wrong with the direction of college football and expansion. I don't plan on watching the B1G games that are not competitive, just games I find interesting, like Nebraska-Penn State, or Nebraska-Wisconsin, etc. If it were up to you, would you honestly add Maryland and Rutgers to the B1G?

Brian Bennett: Some fair points here, John, and I've never been a fan of the Rutgers and Maryland additions. I understand what the Big Ten is trying to do with these moves, and I've learned to trust Jim Delany's vision when it comes to growing the conference and its reach. This could ultimately mean much more revenue, exposure and new recruiting grounds for the Big Ten, all of which are good things. As for the teams themselves? It's hard to get very excited. I do believe Rutgers has the potential to become a very strong program, and it appears headed in that direction already. There's no reason the Scarlet Knights can't compete right away with the likes of Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, etc. I'm much less enthused about Maryland's prospects, at least in the short term. Speaking of which ...




Jerry from Bethesda, MD, writes: Brian, in case you haven't noticed Maryland will be bringing a number of programs with a long history of excellence at the national level. With Mark Turgeon now recruiting top 5 classes, it's only a matter of time until Maryland men's basketball is again a regular top 10 program. Brenda Frese already has the women's basketball program there. Both programs will do very well in the Big Ten. Maryland's men's lacrosse program will dominate the Big Ten, and the Maryland's women's program will give Northwestern more than they may want. Maryland men's soccer program is and has been for many years a top 5 program that will make life very challenging for Indiana's program. And Maryland's women's soccer program has emerged in recent years as a viable top 10 program. Maryland's field hockey program will dominate the Big Ten. So, while it may take Maryland a few years to get its football program to a genuinely competitive level in the Big Ten, in many other areas it's the Big Ten programs that will be chasing Maryland.

Brian Bennett: That's great, Jerry. But the Big Ten didn't add Maryland because of the women's lacrosse team or men's soccer team. Expansion is all about football, and really nothing else. Plus, you might have noticed this is a football blog, so we'll concern ourselves about whether Randy Edsall can make the Terrapins competitive.




Dave from East Lansing, Mich., writes: It seems that everybody thinks that one of the few bright spots for MSU on offense will be the Offensive Line. With the reported loss of Skyler Burkland, does that change the optimism or is there depth to fill that potential loss?

Brian Bennett: There's still no definitive news about whether Burkland will play again for the Spartans. It would be a shame if Michigan State's projected starting right tackle had to hang it up because of injuries. Still, the line boasts experience and talent, especially if left tackle Fou Fonoti and center Travis Jackson are all the way back from last year's injuries. Their health problems last year allowed some younger players to see time, which adds to the overall depth this season. I'll be taking a wait and see approach with this group, as the offensive line has yet to really come together and be an elite-level unit under Mark Dantonio's watch. But the pieces do appear to be in place, and the Spartans now have two veteran assistants who know offensive line play in Mark Staten and co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman.




Jayme from Wichita, Kan., writes: Regarding the email yesterday sent to Adam, Harvey Perlman didn't hire Bill Callahan, Steve Pederson did. So really you have to give Perlman a mulligan for Pederson (he did bring T.O. back too). I am also really tired of hearing about 10-4 seasons being unacceptable. I grew up watching the Huskers in the '90s, and still consider 10 wins to be a successful season. Yes, I cringe and want to kick anything that gets in the way of my meltdown after a terrible loss, but.............the bad losses to me are a result of a less then stellar recruiting class in '08 and '09, and a transition to a different league. (Think trying to fit a square peg in a circle whole). Maybe this year, maybe next year, but the defense will improve to the point of Blackshirt/ish. I'll put money on the offense continuing to have success. When all of that happens everyone will be talking about Bo Pelini, and what a good coach he is. We are graduating players, for the most part staying out of the bad press, and shouldn't have anything but pride in our program.

Brian Bennett: Sorry, Jayme, but the buck stops at the president's desk for every major hire, and besides, Perlman couldn't have made a much worse blunder than in hiring Pederson in the first place. I get where you're coming from on the state of the Huskers. Most programs would kill to have a nine- or 10-win season every year. I also get why Nebraska fans, who have been spoiled by great tradition and have only one program in the state to root for, are upset about not winning a conference championship since 1999 or going to a BCS bowl in more than a decade.

Can you blame some recruiting misses and transitioning to a new league for some of that? For sure. But who was recruiting those guys in 2008 and 2009, and why hasn't Nebraska developed top-flight defensive linemen of late, a position that translates into any conference when it's good? Pelini has done a lot of good things, and the perception of him would be much different if Texas didn't get an that second put back on the clock in the 2009 Big 12 title game. At the same time, the Huskers shouldn't be losing 70-31 to Wisconsin or 63-38 to Ohio State. Those kinds of results sap the goodwill quickly.
The super early start for preseason award hype continues today as the Rimington Trophy released its spring watch list. The Rimington Trophy, named for former Nebraska star Dave Rimington, goes to the nation's top college center.

Four Big Ten centers make this year's spring watch list.

They are:
All four players started portions of the 2012 season, although Pensick only transitioned to center late in the year. Northwestern's Vitabile is the most experienced of the bunch after starting the first 26 games of his college career.

The Big Ten loses a sizable group of good centers from 2012, headlined by Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in last month's NFL draft. Other key departures include Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch, Iowa's James Ferentz, Nebraska's Justin Jackson, Illinois' Graham Pocic, Michigan's Elliott Mealer, Indiana's Will Matte and Purdue's Rick Schmeig.

Penn State's Stankiewitch was a finalist for last year's award. Michigan's David Molk is the last Big Ten recipient of the Rimington Trophy, taking home the hardware in 2011.
In anticipation of spring practice kicking off Tuesday, Michigan State on Monday released its depth chart for the session, while head coach Mark Dantonio addressed the media.

Here are some notes:
  • Three players will miss spring ball after offseason surgeries, including two projected starters in linebacker Denicos Allen and offensive lineman Jack Allen. Top cornerback Darqueze Dennard also is banged up but should return to the field for the final two weeks of practice, Dantonio said.
  • The depth chart reflects several changes along the offensive line. Dan France, who has started 24 games at left tackle the past two seasons, is listed as the starter at right guard. Fou Fonoti, who opened the 2012 season as the starting left tackle before suffering a season-ending foot injury in September, is listed as the No. 1 left tackle, while Skyler Burkland is the top right tackle. Fonoti and top center Travis Jackson both are 100 percent following leg injuries, which could be a major boost for the line. Blake Treadwell is listed as the starting left guard, but Allen could fill that spot when he returns from injury.
  • Michigan State also moved safety Jairus Jones to outside linebacker, where he's listed as the backup to Taiwan Jones. Dantonio said injury issues at linebacker spurred the move and that Jones can switch back to safety, but the Spartans have excellent safety depth with starters Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond, reserves RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox and others. Dennard's injury means two largely unproven players, sophomores Trae Waynes and Arjen Colquhoun, open the spring as the team's top cornerbacks. But Dantonio on Monday sounded very excited about the team's young defensive backs.
  • Dantonio said the quarterbacks all will take contact during scrimmages, a move you don't see often in the spring. The coach didn't say whether the quarterbacks would evenly split repetitions, but they all will compete against the No. 1 defense. As expected, Andrew Maxwell is listed as the No. 1 quarterback, followed by Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor.
  • Michigan State's defensive staff visited LSU earlier this spring. Both teams finished in the top 10 nationally in defense in 2012. Dantonio hopes the offensive staff can do a similar visit after spring ball (the offseason shuffle made it difficult to do so before).
  • Nick Hill is the team's top running back, followed by junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Bennie Fowler led the team in receiving yards last season (524), but he's listed on the depth chart as a backup to Keith Mumphery. Aaron Burbridge and Tony Lippett are listed as the other No. 1 receivers, and Dantonio said Monty Madaris will be in the mix at wideout as well.
  • Lawrence Thomas started three games at fullback last season but appears as a backup defensive tackle behind Tyler Hoover on the depth chart. Dantonio told ESPN.com last week that Thomas could move back to offense if needed.
  • Linebacker/fullback TyQuan Hammock is finished with his career and soon will graduate, while guard Nate Klatt will take a medical hardship/disqualification because of several concussions.
  • Dantonio singled out redshirt freshmen linebackers Riley Bullough and Jamal Lyles as players to watch this spring.

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