NCF Nation: Aaron Burbridge

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."
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.

Big Ten stock report: Week 7

October, 10, 2012
10/10/12
10:00
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Ring the bell. It's time for the Big Ten stock report.

Stock up

Aaron Burbridge: The Michigan State true freshman had eight catches for 134 yards in his first-ever start last week against Indiana. Is he the missing piece for the Spartans' passing game? That's a lot to put on a youngster, but he is a promising player. "Burbridge made great catches with people hanging on him," head coach Mark Dantonio said. The Spartans will need more of that this week with tight end Dion Sims out against Iowa.

Jake Ryan: The sophomore linebacker was all over the field against Purdue last week and has turned into one of Michigan's top defensive players. He had six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, in the 44-13 win over Purdue. Ryan has been excellent in applying pressure, as Purdue quarterback Robert Marve found out on a big hit in the second half.

Corey "Philly" Brown: A week after he hauled in 12 catches against Michigan State -- or two fewer than any Ohio State receiver had in all of last year -- Brown finally showed some elusiveness with his 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the victory over Nebraska. Brown has been more of a possession guy while Devin Smith has provided the downfield threat, but he showed that he's capable of making big plays, too.

Wisconsin's pass rush: The Badgers don't have a dominating edge rusher like J.J. Watt, but they've been finding ways to get the job done. They had four sacks last week against Illinois, each coming from a different member of the defensive line. Wisconsin might not have a burner on the perimeter, but the D-line is doing a solid job bringing the heat, anyway.

Penn State discipline: Without a huge margin for error, the Nittany Lions can't afford to hurt themselves with silly mistakes. And so far, they haven't done that much. Penn State ranks ninth in the FBS for fewest penalties per game, and the team has drawn only five yellow flags in its first two Big Ten conference games combined.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireMark Dantonio saw his Spartans flagged for six personal fouls against Indiana.
Stock down

Michigan State discipline: The Spartans committed a ghastly six personal fouls against Indiana, and it nearly cost them the game. Through two Big Ten games, they have drawn 12 yellow flags, which is the most in the conference. Dantonio said some of the personal fouls stem from officials placing more emphasis on player safety. But, he added, "it's extremely frustrating on my part with our players, not with the officials."

Taylor Martinez on the road: The Nebraska quarterback is just 3-8 in his past 11 starts away from Lincoln. He's thrown four interceptions and just one touchdown pass on the road this season. Martinez isn't the Huskers' only problem on the road -- their defense has failed to show up too many times -- but he seems to revert to bad form when adversity strikes away from home. That's got to change for Nebraska to win the Big Ten.

Wisconsin's student attendance: There were huge swaths of empty seats in the student section at Camp Randall on Saturday against Illinois. Where were all the students? (And don't say studying). The game was a 2:30 p.m. local time kick, so too much partying the night before could not be used as an excuse.

Field-goal kicking: If it seems like kickers have been a little more unreliable this season, that's because it's true. As a whole, Big Ten kickers are connecting on just 68.5 percent of their field goal tries in 2012. By comparison, league kickers hit 75.9 percent of their attempts in 2011. Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa and Ohio State have been immune from the issues. But teams like Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska and Michigan State have seen their share of field-goal struggles.

Tim Beckman's dip habit: The Illinois coach has apologized for being spotted before the Wisconsin game putting a little chaw between his lip and gum. The Illini reported a secondary violation to the NCAA, which won't result in anything more than a reprimand, at worse. Beckman said he will quit the habit. Might we suggest some Big League Chew?

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
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Bring that beat back.

Team(s) of the week: Ohio State and Michigan share top billing this week. The Buckeyes turned in an attention-grabbing 63-38 blowout of Nebraska on national TV and have climbed up to No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. An undefeated season remains a strong possibility. Michigan was also very impressive, going on the road to clobber Purdue 44-13 in a must-have win. Anybody else already looking forward to The Game this year?

Best game: Even though Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 in the fourth quarter, you just knew it wasn't over. In fact, the Nittany Lions were just getting started. They reeled off 22 fourth-quarter points in a game that featured several wild momentum swings and fourth-down plays.

[+] EnlargeAaron Burbridge
Darron Cummings/AP PhotoMichigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge makes a reception while being defended by Indiana linebacker Forisse Hardin.
Biggest play: Michigan State probably didn't think it would need a big play in the fourth quarter against Indiana, but it sure did. The Spartans were down 27-17 and faced third-and-10 from their own 29 when Andrew Maxwell hit receiver Aaron Burbridge through double coverage for a 16-yard gain. A punt deep in its own territory would have made it difficult for Michigan State's slow-moving offense to complete the comeback. But that third-down conversion kept alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown en route to a 31-27 victory. Burbridge, a true freshman, gave the Spartans a much-needed shot in the arm with eight catches for 134 yards in his first start.

Best call: No one can accuse Bill O'Brien of playing it safe. Even though Penn State's kicking game is very shaky, most coaches would have settled for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the other team's 5-yard line when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter. O'Brien is not most coaches. He rolled the dice and went for it, and Matt McGloin scrambled into the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score. Penn State was 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts against Northwestern.

Second guessing: Indiana was humming along in the first half against Michigan State but got strangely conservative right before halftime. Kevin Wilson gambled and pulled off an onsides kick after going up 24-14 late in the half. But after driving to the Michigan State 6-yard line, the Hoosiers ran three straight running plays and gained only 4 yards. Wilson elected to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, even though Michigan State was on the ropes and a touchdown might have provided a knockout blow. That's not the reason Indiana lost, because the Spartans pitched a shutout in the second half. But I bet Wilson would at least throw a pass into the end zone if he had to do that over again. Maybe he and O'Brien should compare notes.

Big men on campus (offense): It's all about the quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards (more than Purdue's entire offense generated) and threw for 105 more in the win over the Boilermakers. Ohio State's Braxton Miller ran for 186 yards and threw for 127 more in the pasting of Nebraska. And McGloin threw for 282 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter comeback.

Big man on campus (defense): Ohio State's Bradley Roby had a pair of interceptions against Nebraska and returned the first one 49 yards for a touchdown to open the Buckeyes' scoring onslaught. Props also to Roby's teammate John Simon, who had five tackles for loss versus the Huskers.

Big men on campus (special teams): Northwestern's Venric Mark and Ohio State's Corey Brown each scored on punt returns. Mark went for 75 yards against Penn State, while Brown took his 76 yards to the house.

Worst hangover: Purdue. Yes, Nebraska isn't going to enjoy the next two weeks after getting steamrolled by Ohio State. But the Cornhuskers always knew that was going to be a tough road game they could lose and still win the Big Ten. The Boilermakers were fired up after a solid start to the season, and many around the team believed a breakthrough was coming for Danny Hope's program. Instead, Michigan waltzed into Ross-Ade Stadium, rolled out to a 28-3 first-half lead and put Purdue back in its place. Now there are questions again about whether the Boilers will ever turn the corner under Hope. A win over Wisconsin this week now becomes paramount.

Strangest moment(s): It was a painful day for some of the officials in the Big Ten on Saturday.

In the Northwestern-Penn State game, line judge Michael Mahouski suffered a ruptured quad tendon while avoiding a hit on the sideline and had to be carted off. Another line judge was carted off in the Illinois-Wisconsin game. Forget replacement refs. Big Ten officials might need some replacement hips at this rate.

But those weren't even the weirdest circumstances involving an official on Saturday. In that Illinois-Wisconsin game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to high-five back judge Mike Brown after scoring on a short touchdown run. Brown was not having any of it.

"Our deal is to hand the ball to the official," Scheelhaase explained. "But somehow the ball got loose -- I probably, like, threw it a little bit -- and in apology, I tried to give him a high-five. I almost knocked him over. He almost tripped.

“I don’t think they can [high-five players]. One of the refs told me they weren't able to do that.”

At least Mahouski got a handshake from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as he left the field on the cart.
The Big Ten's blue bloods are back.

Despite new coaches at both Ohio State and Penn State, and a shaky start at Michigan, the Big Ten's three top traditional powers occupy the top spots in the power rankings as the season approaches its halfway point. Ohio State has accelerated its learning curve under Urban Meyer, while Penn State continues its hot streak behind boss Bill O'Brien. Michigan needed a strong performance on the road and got a great one at Purdue. Michigan and Penn State both make moves up the rankings, while Ohio State holds steady at No. 1.

Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue all drop in the rankings, as the Boilers take the biggest tumble after a feeble showing on their home field in a game that had been hyped up. Wisconsin is slowly creeping its way back toward the league's elite.

Here's the full rundown ...

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): If this is what the Buckeyes can do just six games into the Meyer era, the rest of the Big Ten should be very, very concerned. Ohio State slapped 63 points on Nebraska, the most points a Bo Pelini-coached team (or defense) ever has allowed during Pelini's college coaching tenure. Braxton Miller continues to dazzle behind a surging offensive line, and Carlos Hyde (4 rush touchdowns) looks more than capable as the starting running back. Expect more big numbers this week at Indiana.

2. Michigan (3-2, 1-0, last week: 4): Brady Hoke got the response he wanted after an open week as Michigan opened Big Ten play with its best performance of the season. The Wolverines' defense continued to build on the Notre Dame performance with four takeaways, including a pick-six by sophomore cornerback Raymon Taylor. Denard Robinson (235 rush yards) rebounded well after his disastrous night in South Bend, and Michigan's offensive line controlled a pretty good Boilers defensive front. Michigan can't afford a letdown against Illinois before its home showdown against Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings.

3. Penn State (4-2, 2-0, last week: 6): Few saw this coming after a nightmarish summer and an 0-2 start, but Penn State keeps finding reasons to Bill-ieve. The Lions rallied to win their fourth consecutive game, completely outplaying Northwestern in the fourth quarter, a time when the Wildcats typically shine. Quarterback Matt McGloin continues his senior-year renaissance with plenty of help from Allen Robinson and a good defense. O'Brien is the front-runner for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. The Lions enter the open week with a ton of momentum.

4. Nebraska (4-2, 1-1, last week: 2): Pelini had no explanation for his team's latest road meltdown at a big-boy stadium. After a strong first quarter, Nebraska's defense fell apart, allowing six consecutive touchdown drives. Quarterback Taylor Martinez reverted to his past roadkill form and committed four turnovers, including an interception returned for a touchdown. The Huskers have talent and an exciting, big-play offense, but they repeatedly wilt in the spotlight away from Lincoln. The good news: They can still win a weak league.

5. Northwestern (5-1, 1-1, last week: 3): Despite a sluggish offensive start, Northwestern put itself in position for its first 6-0 start since 1962, taking a 28-17 lead behind explosive running back/returner Venric Mark. And then it all fell apart as a supposed fourth-quarter team couldn't do anything right in crunch time. A nonexistent pass rush and some questionable offensive coaching decisions hurt the Wildcats, who were burned for a third consecutive year by McGloin. Northwestern still struggles with big leads and needs to do a better job of putting away teams. The Wildcats begin division play next week at Minnesota.

6. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1, last week: 8): Little will be easy for the Badgers this season, and while Saturday's final score against Illinois (31-14) looked like a cakewalk, it definitely wasn't. Wisconsin seemed to hit its stride in the second half and particularly in the fourth quarter, as running back Montee Ball and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis both turned in nice performances. The offensive line remains inconsistent, but the defense is doing its part. Despite all the early-season turmoil, Wisconsin can put itself in the driver's seat for Indianapolis with a win this week at Purdue.

7. Michigan State (4-2, 1-1, last week: 7): Mark Dantonio's players nearly starred in "The Hangover: Bloomington" on Saturday, as they stumbled out of the gate at Indiana and had a miserable first half. Fortunately for the Spartans, they regrouped during the break and rallied for a potentially season-saving win against the Hoosiers. Freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge sparked the passing attack, while tailback Le'Veon Bell bounced back after a no-show against Ohio State. Michigan State still has to show it can put together a complete game as the challenges get tougher in the coming weeks.

8. Purdue (4-2, 0-1, last week: 5): No Big Ten team had a more disappointing Week 6 showing than Danny Hope's Boilers, who never really challenged Michigan despite a great opportunity to begin a defining stretch of the season. The defense has taken significant steps backward the past two weeks, while the quarterback plot has thickened, as Caleb TerBush struggled while Robert Marve, playing just weeks after an ACL tear, could be the better option. Purdue still has a chance to put itself in the driver's seat for Indianapolis with a home win this week against Wisconsin, but there's a lot of work ahead.

9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Hawkeyes scored a potentially season-saving win against Minnesota before the open week, and resume play this week at Michigan State. Can the Mark Weisman legend continue? We'll find out as Weisman faces his best defense to date as Iowa's starting running back. Iowa got some bad news Saturday as top cornerback Micah Hyde was arrested for public intoxication. There's no change to Hyde's status right now, but he has been arguably Iowa's top defensive playmaker the past few seasons. We'll learn a lot about these Hawkeyes in East Lansing.

10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 10): An open week came at a good time for the Gophers, who need to get healthy and get a chance to regroup after getting a reality check in Iowa City. Minnesota hopes top quarterback MarQueis Gray can return from a high ankle sprain for the Big Ten home opener against Northwestern. Gophers coach Jerry Kill called out his safeties for their struggles against Iowa's run game. It'll be interesting to see how Derrick Wells and his teammates respond against a good Northwestern rushing attack.

11. Indiana (2-3, 0-2, last week: 11): It looked like the Hoosiers finally would turn the corner and record a signature win under Kevin Wilson. They dominated the first half against Michigan State and sliced through arguably the Big Ten's top defense with their up-tempo attack. Cameron Coffman could do no wrong. And then it all fell apart as Indiana couldn't stop Michigan State's Bell or do much of anything on offense. There are some positives to take away for an improved Hoosiers team, but the inability to get over the hump in the Big Ten has to be frustrating.

12. Illinois (2-4, 0-2, last week: 12): The Illini didn't play nearly as poorly at Wisconsin as they did on their home field the previous two weeks, but they still came out on the losing end. Tim Banks' defense played well for three quarters before surrendering three touchdowns in the final 13:28. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase did some good things, but he still has so few weapons around him in an offense that continues to search for its identity. Things only get tougher for the Orange and Blue this week as they travel to Michigan Stadium.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. How about an Ineligi-Bowl?: Here's an idea: Make this year's Big Ten championship game a doubleheader. First, the scheduled contest between the Leaders and Legends Division representatives. And then a second game between probation-saddled Ohio State and Penn State for the shadow championship. Penn State might not be the second-best team in the Big Ten, but it's one of the hottest, having won four straight games and gaining confidence every week under Bill O'Brien, the clear front-runner for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, the league has finally found the team to carry its banner in Ohio State, which blasted Nebraska 63-38 to improve to 6-0. Too bad there's an asterisk on that banner, because the bowl-banned Buckeyes are the cream of the crop right now in the Big Ten. The two teams on probation are a combined 4-0 in league play and one made field goal at Virginia away from being 11-1 overall. The de facto Ineligi-Bowl arrives Oct. 27, when Ohio State goes to State College. Surprisingly, that game is now must-see TV because ...

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Urban Meyer
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREUrban Meyer and his Buckeyes will play in a de facto Ineligi-Bowl on Oct. 27.
2. The eligible Leaders teams are worse than expected: Wisconsin at Purdue. Oct. 13. A spot in the Big Ten championship game potentially on the line. Who's excited? (crickets) ... We knew the Leaders would have a unique dynamic this season with only four postseason-eligible teams. But we figured some team might resemble a division winner that could advance to the Rose Bowl. Michigan exposed Purdue in a 44-13 beatdown at Ross-Ade Stadium. Wisconsin slogged its way to a win against Illinois but hardly looked impressive for most of the game. Indiana looked great for a half and terrible for a half, failing once again to get over the hump in a Big Ten game. Illinois is, well, not good. One of those four teams will be going to Indianapolis, whether it deserves it or not. At this point, we'd probably pick Wisconsin by default. The eligible Leaders teams own a combined 1-6 Big Ten record and are 0-4 versus the Legends. Perhaps Jim Delany should have listened more seriously to Pat Fitzgerald's summer suggestion of picking the second Big Ten title game participant via a committee.

3. Michigan's defense, run game make it top Legends contender: Michigan's turnovers at Notre Dame overshadowed some promising signs from the defense and the offensive line. The Wolverines showcased those elements Saturday at Purdue in a dominant performance they really needed after a 2-2 start. They generated four takeaways, including a 63-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Raymon Taylor. Linebacker Jake Ryan continued to elevate his play, and Michigan held a Purdue team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points and 213 total yards. This is the same time of year when Greg Mattison's defense really turned a corner in 2011. The unit's play the past two games has been very encouraging. Michigan also committed itself to the run game against a decent Boilers defensive front and racked up 304 rush yards and three touchdowns on 55 attempts (5.5 ypr). Denard Robinson rebounded with a huge game on the ground (24 carries, 235 yards). Fitzgerald Toussaint twice found the end zone, and Thomas Rawls finished things off nicely. It's important for Michigan to get its running backs more involved in the coming weeks, but Saturday's offensive approach was encouraging.

4. The Spartans had better hope Saturday was their wake-up call: Despite being billed by some (ahem) as the Big Ten preseason favorite, Michigan State has looked really impressive only once in the first five games. After a tough 1-point home loss last week against Ohio State, Michigan State seemed to suffer a hangover in the first chunk of Saturday's game at Indiana. The Spartans were a complete mess -- committing personal fouls, getting steamrolled on defense, not moving the ball consistently enough on offense. They had seven first-half penalties (six personal fouls), fell behind 17-0 and got outgained 183-22 in the first quarter. To their credit, the Spartans turned things around and dominated the second half to escape Bloomington with a win. Michigan State's defense regained its top form, Le'Veon Bell (121 yards, 2 TDs) steamrolled the Hooosiers, and freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge (8 catches, 134 yards) sparked the passing game. Was Saturday the wake-up call Michigan State needed after a somewhat sluggish 3-2 start? It had better be, as the schedule gets much tougher the rest of the way. Michigan State remains very much in the Legends Division mix, but it can't expect to overcome the early miscues it had in Bloomington.

5. More work to do for Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska defenses: Saturday was a disappointing day for three teams that thought their defenses had made gains. It's back to the drawing board -- or more apropos, back in the defensive meeting room -- for the Boilermakers, Wildcats and Cornhuskers. Purdue brought in defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar from the Canadian Football League in part because his CFL experience taught him how to defend the spread. But a Boilers defense that looked good the first three weeks has gone south the past two weeks in allowing 85 points to Marshall and Michigan, and it couldn't stop Denard Robinson on Saturday. Northwestern seemed to have made some strides defensively this season in a 5-0 start. But the Wildcats crumbled at Penn State, allowing 22 fourth-quarter points in a 39-28 come-from-ahead loss. The Nittany Lions ran a whopping 99 plays as a lack of a pass rush kept Northwestern from getting off the field defensively. And then there was Nebraska, which stuffed Wisconsin in the second half of last week's comeback win. But these still aren't your older brother's Blackshirts, as Ohio State rolled to 498 yards and 49 offensive points in a 63-38 rout in Columbus.

If Michigan State makes a return trip to the Crossroads of America, it will point to this day.

But if the Spartans intend on being in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1, they'll need to play much better than they did at Indiana.

Mark Dantonio and his players are breathing a sigh of relief after surviving a major scare against the Hoosiers (2-3, 0-2). Michigan State rallied from deficits of 17-0 and 27-14 to outlast Indiana 31-27 at Memorial Stadium to even its Big Ten record at 1-1.

After a flurry of mistakes in the first half and change, Michigan State (4-2, 1-1) took control in the fourth quarter and overpowered an Indiana defense that surrendered 704 yards last week at Northwestern. Running back Le'Veon Bell stepped up in a big way and Michigan State's defense regained its form against Cameron Coffman and the Indiana offense, which had piled up 27 points and 279 yards in the first half. The Hoosiers outgained Michigan State 279-166 in the opening half as Coffman looked brilliant, completing 23 of 30 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns.

But Michigan State clamped down when it counted and surrendered just 37 yards in the second half. Bell had 37 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-deciding run in the closing minutes. Dantonio's decision to insert wide receiver Aaron Burbridge into the starting lineup paid off in a huge way, as the true freshman recorded eight catches for 134 yards. Burbridge's performance was even bigger after Michigan State lost tight end Dion Sims to a leg injury.

The Spartans couldn't have played much worse than they did in the first half, while Indiana surged before its home crowd. Coffman was exceptional, the defense stifled Michigan State aside from a brief stretch in the second quarter and Kevin Wilson pulled off a great onside kick call late in the half to set up a field goal. Indiana outgained the Spartans 183-22 in the first quarter.

Michigan State entered the game averaging just 5.6 penalties and 50.2 penalty yards, but they had no discipline in the first half, getting flagged seven times for 105 yards. Six penalties were personal fouls.

Those mistakes will cost Michigan State down the line, possibly next week against an Iowa team coming off of a nice win.

Indiana, meanwhile, can take some positives away from the game, namely Coffman's performance and that of a big-play receiving corps, but it still showed difficulty in finishing off Big Ten teams. The Hoosiers simply have to get tougher at the line of scrimmage if they want to capture some conference wins this fall.
Ten items to track on the first October Saturday of Big Ten football:

1. Miller Time, T-Magic on display: Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez might not be traditional Big Ten quarterbacks, but they're the faces of the quarterback position in the league these days. Both are dynamic dual threats who have made significant strides from the 2011 season. Miller aims to continue his Heisman Trophy campaign Saturday night against a Nebraska defense that struggled to contain him last year before he left the game with an ankle injury. Martinez led the biggest comeback in Huskers history last year against Ohio State and has accounted for eight touchdowns (6 pass, 2 rush) in his past three games.

2. Boiling point: Purdue coach Danny Hope says he already knows a lot about his team after three non-league wins and a 3-point road loss at Notre Dame. The rest of us aren't quite as sure about what the Boilers will be this season. The good news: Everyone will find out in the next three weeks, as Purdue opens Big Ten play with its defining stretch of the season. Before hosting Wisconsin and visiting Ohio State, Purdue hosts Michigan on Saturday in its most anticipated game since perhaps Wisconsin in 2004. The Boilers average 51 points per game on their home field, where they open league play against the Wolverines for the first time since 1970.

3. Oktoberfest: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald made October a major point of emphasis as far back as the summer, mindful of his team's struggles in the season's middle month. The Wildcats have done well in September (20-9) and November (13-8) under Fitzgerald, but they've had their difficulties in October (10-15), including a 1-4 mark in 2011. Northwestern is 5-0 for the third time in five seasons and takes a national ranking to Happy Valley, where it faces a streaking Penn State squad. It's a good chance for Northwestern to change its October fortunes against its most challenging opponent to date.

4. Seeking mojo in Mad City: Austin Powers would steer clear of the Illinois-Wisconsin game Saturday. Both teams are looking for their mojo after the first five weeks. Illinois tries to find it in a very tough place (Camp Randall Stadium) after being embarrassed on its home field in back-to-back weeks. Asked this week about boosting team morale, first-year coach Tim Beckman said, "That's what we're dealing with each and every day." Wisconsin appeared to make strides last week against Nebraska before collapsing down the stretch. Coach Bret Bielema is encouraged with his team's progress amid transition, but Wisconsin can't start Big Ten play at 0-2. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis called the Illinois game a must-win for Wisconsin.

5. MSU offense looks for green flag: After puttering around the track in the first five games, Michigan State's offense heads to the Crossroads of America (Indiana) hoping to finally shift into fifth gear. Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled the depth chart a bit this week, as freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge will start and other young players like freshman receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. should see increased time. Michigan State can't neglect the run game, though, as it boasts a 15-1 record when Le'Veon Bell scores at least one rush touchdown. Indiana surrendered 704 yards to Northwestern last week (394 rushing). Saturday is the time for Michigan State to finally put it all together on offense.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Chris Williams/Icon SMIDenard Robinson and Michigan look to break out of their away-from-home scoring malaise at Purdue.
6. Michigan wants better road show: The last time we saw Michigan, Denard Robinson was turning over the ball and the Wolverines weren't crossing the goal line at Notre Dame. Michigan's 13-6 setback in South Bend continued a troubling trend for the Wolverines offense, which has averaged just 20.9 points away from Ann Arbor (as opposed to 40.1 points at home) in the past two seasons. With future road tests against Nebraska and Ohio State, it's important for the Wolverines to get on track Saturday at Purdue. The Boilers defense has been solid most of the season but surrendered 41 points and 534 yards last week against Marshall.

7. Whiteout in Happy Valley: Sparked by their team's three-game win streak, Penn State students are planning a whiteout at Beaver Stadium for Saturday's game against Northwestern. The Lions aim for their first home win against a ranked opponent since the 2008 season, and several players called the contest a must-win. Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has owned Northwestern in his career (417 pass yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs in two games), and McGloin is a much better quarterback in Bill O'Brien's offense. After an ominous start, Penn State can enter an off week with a ton of momentum with a victory.

8. Bo heads home: While his team aims for a signature road win in the Big Ten, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini makes a homecoming of sorts Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Pelini played safety for the Buckeyes from 1987 to '90 and hails from Youngstown, Ohio. Not surprisingly, the Huskers' boss downplayed his Ohio State roots this week, saying he's "at a different time in my life, a different place" and "has a job to do." It's wise for Pelini to keep himself out of the spotlight as much as possible, but he'll likely experience some emotion when Nebraska takes the field at The Shoe. And a victory against his alma mater will mean a little extra.

9. Two Hoosiers take aim: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doesn't see much separating quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, and he'll likely use both against Michigan State. Coffman has started the past two games, while Sudfeld has finished them, providing a spark down the stretch. Wilson likes the competition and plays down the other C-word (controversy), but the picture could clear up Saturday as the two quarterbacks face by far the best defense they've seen this season. Whoever better commands the IU offense -- and gets the ball to talented receivers Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer -- will take a step closer to locking up the top job.

10. Badgers' 2-minute drill: Joel Stave is Wisconsin's starting quarterback, and he looked the part last week against Nebraska in his first career road start. But in crunch time, after Stave got a bit shaken up, the Badgers followed their plan and went with veteran Danny O'Brien under center rather than Stave. O'Brien moved Wisconsin to midfield but botched the call on a fourth-and-1 play, leading to a fumble that clinched the victory for the Huskers. It'll be interesting how the Badgers proceed should a two-minute situation come up against Illinois. Will they turn to O'Brien or give Stave a shot? Stay tuned.
It's that time again. Thankfully, there's only one nonleague game left to predict (Indiana-Navy) and it's not this week.

Five games on tap, all in the Big Ten, and several that could play a huge role in which teams end up in Indianapolis. The games are getting tougher, and so are the predictions, especially this week with several toss-up games.

Adam Rittenberg holds a four-game lead on Brian Bennett entering Week 6, but things can change in a hurry.

Prediction time ...

MICHIGAN STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Mark Dantonio says he wants to see his team come out and make a statement, and I think the Spartans will. Indiana's defense should be just what Michigan State's scuffling passing game needs, as Andrew Maxwell fires two touchdown passes and Johnny Adams has a pair of interceptions. ... Michigan State 28, Indiana 13

Adam Rittenberg: A nonfactor a week ago, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell gets back into the mix in a big way in Bloomington. The Spartans junior goes for 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Indiana once again has some success in the passing game early, but Michigan State takes control in the third quarter as Aaron Burbridge hauls in a touchdown catch in his first start. ... Michigan State 34, Indiana 20

No. 24 NORTHWESTERN at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Matt McGloin has torched Northwestern while quarterbacking a bad offense, and though the Wildcats are better defensively, so is McGloin. The Penn State senior connects for three touchdown passes to three different receivers. Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter keep Northwestern in this one, but McGloin leads the way in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 28, Northwestern 24


Brian Bennett: I'm way behind in the standings, so I need to take some chances. And while Penn State's defense has been playing very well, the Lions haven't exactly played stellar offenses the past three weeks. Northwestern's two-headed quarterback monster and Venric Mark will get their yards and points, and an improving Wildcats defense comes up with an interception of McGloin in the final minute to seal the deal. ... Northwestern 23, Penn State 17

ILLINOIS at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has its share of issues but looks like a top-10 team compared to the hot mess at Illinois. Jared Abbrederis hauls in two touchdown passes, and the Badgers stuff the wobbly Illini offense to get a much-needed Leaders Division victory.... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14

Adam Rittenberg: Both teams need a win, and while Illinois can't be this bad week after week, I can't see the Illini pulling off the upset. Wisconsin gets multiple backs involved and gets three rushing touchdowns, two from Montee Ball. Joel Stave gets Jacob Pedersen more involved as Wisconsin pulls away in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17

MICHIGAN at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Tough one to call, and I've been going back and forth on it all week. Purdue will be geared up for its biggest game in recent memory and take an early lead. But Denard Robinson eventually finds enough gaps in the Boilers' defense and records two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally the Wolverines. Caleb TerBush fires two early touchdown passes, but his interception in the closing minutes seals it for Michigan. ... Michigan 27, Purdue 24

Brian Bennett: I agree that this is an intriguing game. My biggest question: Is Purdue ready to take that next step? I think the Boilermakers are close, but ultimately not quite there yet. As disastrous as Michigan's turnovers were against Notre Dame, I saw improvement on both lines in that loss. And after a week off, I expect the Wolverines to come out with a better game plan, and to feature Robinson's legs much more. Robinson runs for 175 and three scores as Michigan gets a badly needed win. ... Michigan 35, Purdue 28

No. 21 NEBRASKA at No. 12 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: It seems like most weeks I'm wondering how Ohio State just won. The Buckeyes have been getting by on a little good fortune and a whole lot of Braxton Miller in their 5-0 start. Nebraska will be by far the best offense Ohio State has faced. But the Huskers still seem a little too loose with the ball and too susceptible to mobile quarterbacks. Miller gets it done again with 350 yards and four total touchdowns as the Buckeyes work their magic once more. ... Ohio State 31, Nebraska 30

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State took a nice step in Week 5, but the Buckeyes have been a pretty fortunate team so far this season. They've survived turnovers on the road and defensive breakdowns at home. Saturday night, their luck runs out as Nebraska records its first true signature road win in the league. Miller does his thing and records two rush touchdowns and a passing touchdown, but he also throws a costly interception in the fourth quarter. Taylor Martinez rebounds from an early turnover to spark the Huskers against the Buckeyes, who haven't seen an offense like this. Martinez records his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance and Brett Maher nails a 50-yard field goal to win it for Big Red. ... Nebraska 30, Ohio State 28

Iowa and Minnesota both are off this week.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 41-11 (.788)

Brian Bennett: 37-15 (.712)

Panic not one of Spartans' issues

October, 2, 2012
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Michigan State came into the season ranked in the top 15 and picked by many (blush) to win the Big Ten.

As October arrives, the Spartans are just 3-2 and are unranked for the first time in 34 weeks. Head coach Mark Dantonio wants his team to stay positive but to play with a little bit of an attitude this week against Indiana.

"If we approach things with our head down and everything, things are probably going to stay the same," he said. "If we get up, if we rise up a little bit, we get a little bit irritated where we're at, we want to make a statement, then that will happen.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIn spite of its 3-2 record, Mark Dantonio says he doesn't see any panic in his team.
"I would expect our football team will make a statement when we come to play. That's how we've done things here. I don't think we're in panic mode."

The Spartans may not be panicking, but they will be making some changes on offense.

True freshman Aaron Burbridge is listed as a starter at receiver this week ahead of struggling junior Bennie Fowler. Burbridge was one of Michigan State's top recruits in the 2012 class.

"I think he needs an opportunity," Dantonio said. "He catches the ball well. He's still learning some things. He has bigplay potential."

The offensive line is also undergoing some changes after center Travis Jackson suffered a broken fibula in last week's 17-16 loss to Ohio State. Jackson is out for the year. He was replaced in the game by Ethan Ruhland, whom Dantonio said will continue to start at center. The Spartans have lost two starters on the line since opening week, as tackle Fou Fonoti injured his foot and may not return this season.

But guard Blake Treadwell, who was slated to start before suffering a stress fracture in his leg during training camp, is getting closer to 100 percent, giving the line some more options. Dantonio said both Treadwell and Jack Allen will play this week at left guard.

Some other notes from Dantonio:

-- He said defensive end William Gholston is fine after the junior appeared to be briefly knocked out during the Ohio State game. Gholston was attended to by the team's trainers and went in on the next defensive series, prompting some to wonder if Michigan State rushed him back in.

"The protocol, first of all, is he needs to be cleared," Dantonio said. "Players have been knocked woozy before. Once they're cleared, they pass their impact test, which is a base test that every one of our players takes prior to coming to camp, certain levels of knowledge, they have to be able to re-pass that. Once they pass that, they're cleared. I would assume that our trainers and our neurologist did that on the sideline, passed him and cleared him.

"Whether he was knocked out or whether he wasn't, I'm not sure because I wasn't out there. But I heard he was sort of stunned or something, maybe even had the wind knocked out of him even. I really wasn't sure on that. I just knew he got up, came off. I was on my way out there, then he got up."

-- Ohio State reportedly submitted video to the Big Ten office over an attempt by one of Michigan State's offensive linemen to eye-gouge Johnathan Hankins during a pile-up on Saturday. Video replays show that either Allen or Jackson, who were both tied up with Hankins, is sticking a finger into Hankins' face mask. Dantonio said he's heard nothing about the play from the Big Ten.

"My review of the play saw two players get up after the play and walk back to the huddle," he said. "Probably a little something going on with both of them. If you look at the play cleanly, that's what you see. ... Neither seemed to be very bothered by it after the play."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as Week 4 kicks off Saturday.

1. Notre Dame's nightmare: Few college players have tormented a rival like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has tormented Notre Dame the past two years. After a record-setting performance in South Bend in 2010 -- 502 yards of total offense -- Robinson led an incredible comeback last season as Michigan stunned the Irish in the first night game ever played at the Big House. Robinson returns to South Bend on Saturday, and Michigan likely needs another special effort from its senior to knock off No. 11 Notre Dame. The Irish come off of a stifling defensive effort against Michigan State, and their offense should test a young Michigan defense. Notre Dame looks like the more complete team in this contest, but if the game is close and Robinson has a chance for fourth-quarter magic, the Irish should start to worry.

2. Penn State protects its house: NCAA sanctions have limited Penn State's goals this season, but a few remain on the table. The Lions can still win a Leaders Division title. They also want to keep their winning streak against Temple alive, particularly at Beaver Stadium, where the Owls have never won. Penn State hasn't lost to Temple since 1941 (seven PSU victories between 2003-2011 were vacated). Although Temple clearly has improved in recent years, Nittany Lions seniors like linebacker Michael Mauti don't want to be the ones who let the win streak end. Penn State finally got a chance to celebrate last week against Navy and looked strong on both sides of the ball. It's important to keep the momentum going before Big Ten play kicks off with a spicy matchup at Illinois.

[+] EnlargeMax Shortell
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireReserve QB Max Shortell has made a solid impact to help Minnesota to a 3-0 start.
3. Minnesota takes it to the Max: Life is good in Gopher Country, as Minnesota sits at 3-0 with a chance to sweep its nonconference slate Saturday night against Syracuse at TCF Bank Stadium. Backup quarterback Max Shortell stepped up in a big way last week after starter MarQueis Gray suffered a high ankle sprain. Now Shortell makes his first start of the season -- third of his career -- against a Syracuse team that has performed better than its record (1-2) would indicate. Shortell and his pass-catchers take aim at a Syracuse defense that hasn't been efficient against the pass (97th nationally, 145.1 rating). He'd be helped by a boost from Donnell Kirkwood and the run game, but Minnesota likely will need to put up points as Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib will challenge the Gophers' defense.

4. Badgers' offense looks for leadership: Wisconsin's offensive downturn has been the most surprising story in the Big Ten through the first few weeks. Line play was in the spotlight after Week 2 as Bret Bielema dumped assistant Mike Markuson, and now the attention shifts to quarterback. Wisconsin benched Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave in the second half of last Saturday's win against Utah State, and both men are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Bielema has made his decision on the starter, but he isn't revealing it publicly. Stave, the former walk-on, reportedly took most of the first-team reps this week in practice. Ranked 116th nationally in total offense, the Badgers need to iron out a lot of things, including their quarterback situation, before Big Ten play begins next week at Nebraska.

5. Comm studies in Champaign: Illinois attributed some of its defensive struggles at Arizona State to poor communication against the Sun Devils' fast-paced offense. Despite allowing 45 points and 510 yards to ASU, Illinois isn't losing its swagger, and linebacker Jonathan Brown declared last week, "We've got the best front seven in the country. I firmly believe that." Brown and his teammates can back up that claim Saturday night in a tricky game against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs rank third nationally in scoring (56 ppg), fifth in total offense (603.5 ypg), ninth in rushing (289 ypg) and 17th in passing (314.5 ypg). They provide a very tough challenge for an Illinois team that says it has sorted out its communication issues. The Illini offense is banged up and still finding its identity, so Brown and the defense need a big effort Saturday night.

6. Buckeyes get back to basics: Ohio State has had quite a few highlights on defense through the first three games, but the Buckeyes' fundamentals aren't up to their typical standards. Missed tackles nearly cost Ohio State last week against Cal, and while the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble with UAB on Saturday, Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a more polished performance from the silver bullets. Meyer calls Ohio State's tackling woes "not acceptable," and he planned to double the amount of time his players spent on tackling this week in practice. As good as quarterback Braxton Miller has been, the Buckeyes need to tighten up on defense before Big Ten play begins.

7. Weisman for Heisman: Despite an inexplicable run of personnel problems at running back, Iowa always seems to find someone to step up and carry the rock. The latest back to emerge might be the most surprising: Mark Weisman, a walk-on fullback who transferred from Air Force and recorded 113 rush yards and three touchdowns in Iowa's much-needed win against Northern Iowa last week. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz quipped that Weisman "must have not liked having guys bounce quarters off his bed" at Air Force and left for Iowa, where he got the staff's attention in the spring and really stood out during fall camp. Iowa likely won't have top backs Damon Bullock (head) and Greg Garmon (elbow) for Saturday's game against Central Michigan, and Weisman is expected to get his first career start. Weisman is quickly earning cult hero status at Iowa, and it'll be interesting to see if he can follow up last week's performance with another big one.

8. Northwestern's quarterback rotation: If there's such thing as a functional quarterback rotation, Northwestern seems to have found it with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, neither of whom has thrown an interception this season. After Siemian led fourth-quarter drives in the Wildcats' first two wins, Colter was at the helm last week as the Wildcats put away Boston College. Coach Pat Fitzgerald seems content to stick with the rotation, go with the hotter hand when necessary and use matchups to his advantage. But in most of these cases, some separation occurs. Colter is a top-shelf athlete who extends drives with his feet but misses key throws at times. Siemian has better field vision and pure passing skills but isn't the natural playmaker Colter can be. Both men will play Saturday against South Dakota, and we could get some more clues about who will be leading the offense more as Big Ten play beckons. Despite a 3-0 start, Northwestern needs to start finishing more drives with touchdowns. The quarterback who does it best likely will be in a bigger role going forward.

9. MSU receivers look for green light: Mark Dantonio said Michigan State's staff would face some "tough decisions" after the team failed to score a touchdown or stretch the field in last week's loss to Notre Dame. Although the Spartans' depth chart for Eastern Michigan shows no adjustments at the wide receiver spots, Dantonio planned to evaluate the wideouts throughout the practice week and make no public announcements about changes. He noted that wide receiver is one of several positions where Michigan State has youth and equal ability level. If that's the case, we might see some new players in bigger roles Saturday, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who has barely played, and possibly freshmen Andre Sims Jr., Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Aaron Burbridge. Dantonio hinted that a lower-pressure game could help the young receiving corps. "We'll have to go through some of those growing pains," he said. "I think we have a lot of talent at that position, and it will show itself before the season is over. That talent will show itself."

10. Wolverines get nasty: If Michigan intends on beating Notre Dame for the fourth straight season, it must have season-best performances from both its offensive and defensive lines. Alabama overwhelmed the Wolverines at the line of scrimmage in the opener, and Michigan looks like a team missing its stars from 2011 (David Molk, Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen). Standout left tackle Taylor Lewan challenged the offensive line this week, saying, "You have to be physical, you've got to play angry, play nasty." The line faces a Notre Dame defensive front seven that overwhelmed Michigan State last week and has 11 sacks in the first three games. Coach Brady Hoke admits Michigan's defensive line remains a work in progress and doesn't generate enough push into the opposing backfield. It'll need to Saturday night against a Notre Dame team that Hoke says has superior speed to past Irish squads.

Big Ten recruiting team wraps

February, 2, 2012
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National signing day is in the books, and it's time to evaluate the Big Ten teams and their classes. Although several potential Big Ten recruits are announcing their plans after signing day, most of the classes are complete.

Here's how ESPN Recruiting graded the Big Ten classes Insider.

Let's take a look at how teams filled their big recruiting needs:

ILLINOIS

The Illini have had a nice run at defensive tackle with 2011 NFL first-round draft pick Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence, who enters 2012 as a legitimate pro prospect. They solidified the interior line for the future with recruits like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.

INDIANA

It's no secret Indiana needs to make significant upgrades on defense, and coach Kevin Wilson looked to the junior college ranks for help. Indiana added six juco defenders, including cornerback Tregg Waters and linebacker Jacarri Alexander. These players give the Hoosiers a chance to get better in a hurry.

IOWA

Running back has again become a pressing need for Iowa with the departures of Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall. While Iowa has lost running backs at an alarming rate, it also has developed young backs very well in recent years. The coaches hope to work their magic with Greg Garmon, who could be the most significant recruit of the 2012 class.

MICHIGAN

Arguably no staff in the country makes defensive line a bigger priority than Michigan, which has three coaches, including head man Brady Hoke, focused on the front four. The Wolverines lose standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen from the 2011 line, but they addressed the situation in recruiting with pickups like defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Chris Wormley.

MICHIGAN STATE

Michigan State is creating a nice recruiting pipeline at the wide receiver position. The Spartans lose their top two wideouts from 2011 (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) but added several nice receiver pickups in the 2012, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett and four-star prospects Monty Madaris and Aaron Burbridge.

MINNESOTA

Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns, and Minnesota needed to get him some help in the passing game after the departure of Da'Jon McKnight. The Gophers added some excellent pickups at the wide receiver position in Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison.

NEBRASKA

The Huskers were thin at linebacker in 2011 and lose standout Lavonte David to graduation. Nebraska coaches also have discussed the need to add more traditional linebackers to face Big Ten offenses. Big Red filled the need in the 2012 recruiting classes with players such as Michael Rose and Jared Afalava.

NORTHWESTERN

Defense has been Northwestern's downfall in the past two years, and the Wildcats need more difference-makers on that side of the ball. They likely landed one in end/linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo, an ESPNU 150 prospect who is Northwestern's most decorated defensive recruit in recent memory. Odenigbo could help immediately as a situational pass-rusher.

OHIO STATE

No Big Ten team made a bigger impact at one position than Ohio State did along the defensive line. The Buckeyes, who were a bit thin up front in 2011, got a lot better with this class, which is headlined by ESPNU 150 prospects Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt.

PENN STATE

Skyler Mornhinweg's decommitment stings a bit, as Penn State needs more quarterbacks in the mix, but the Nittany Lions also need more difference-makers at wide receiver and tight end. They helped themselves in the 2012 class with wide receiver Eugene Lewis, ranked as the nation's No. 34 wideout by ESPN Recruiting. Tight end Jesse James is another nice pickup.

PURDUE

Offensive line has been a position of stability for Purdue the past few seasons, but the Boilers lose two starters from the 2011 squad (Dennis Kelly, Nick Mondek) and will say goodbye to several more after 2012. Purdue had to reload up front, and the two highest-rated players in the 2012 class, according to ESPN Recruiting -- Jordan Roos and Cameron Cermin -- all play offensive line.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback is undoubtedly Wisconsin's top priority as Russell Wilson departs and Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips battle back from major injuries. The Badgers needed a signal-caller in a small class and landed a decorated one in Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from California powerhouse De La Salle High School.

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