NCF Nation: Andrew Maxwell

More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

MSU needs to stop beating itself

September, 21, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The end result, which is all that matters, looked dishearteningly similar for Michigan State.

Stop me if you'd heard it before: an impressive (yet takeaway-less) defensive performance wasted, a smattering of special-teams shortcomings, an offense unable to finish drives, catch enough passes or make enough clutch plays ... and a few points shy of a momentum-building win. Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season, failing to make up the inches coach Mark Dantonio often talks about, the ones separating wins and losses.

It would be easy to file Saturday's 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame with last year's near misses. The Spartans couldn't quite overcome the Irish, some trigger-happy officials (more on them later) and, ultimately, themselves.

The outcome looked familiar, but it didn't feel that way.

"It does not feel the same," Dantonio said. "I don't know how it feels. You lose a close game, it's tough. Last year against Notre Dame, I felt like we were completely outplayed [in a 20-3 loss]. ... I felt like this time, we were [in the game] right down to the end."

The Spartans were more than in the game. They outperformed Notre Dame in several areas, finishing with more first downs (19-14) and more yards (254-224). A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense entered the red zone just once in the second half.

But the Fighting Irish held the edge in the only category that matters.

"Obviously Notre Dame won the game," Dantonio said, "so you have to say they outplayed us."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's DBs played tough in coverage, but that toughness too often resulted in pass interference penalties.
Michigan State's toughest opponent Saturday, other than the Big Ten officiating crew, was itself. The Spartans had four possessions reach the red zone but emerged with only 13 points. Kevin Muma hooked a 30-yard field-goal attempt on MSU's first series. After reaching the Irish 14-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went backwards, losing five yards on a rush and another five on a false start penalty.

MSU's most painful SIW -- that's self-inflicted wound, for the coaching cliche-challenged -- came late in the third quarter, at a time when the offense seemed to have a rhythm, especially on the ground. Facing first-and-10 from its own 47-yard line with the game tied at 10-10, Michigan State went razzle dazzle, putting the ball in the hands of true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton, who threw deep downfield into double coverage. Irish safety Matthias Farley made the easy interception.

The Spartans lost possession -- and momentum.

No, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't hack into Michigan State's playbook. The call actually came from Dantonio, who has a defensive background but has summoned some memorable trick plays in the past, including the "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in 2010.

"We had a little bit of rhythm, but I also thought we needed a big play," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "We needed to be able to go down the field, which we had not been able to do. They were overplaying RJ because he's run some jet sweeps in the first three games. I thought it was the right time."

Michigan State fans will question the decision, but they have far more questions for the officials, who called 10 penalties on the Spartans, including four pass interference penalties and defensive holding.

Three of the fouls extended drives that led to Notre Dame touchdowns. One nullified a Darqueze Dennard interception. None of the P.I. penalties was an obvious mauling. Spartans defenders weren't out of position.

Dantonio didn't directly criticize the officials but defended the defensive backs' technique -- "We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said -- and their right to go after the ball.

Asked if he had ever seen so many P.I. calls, Dantonio said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."

Notre Dame repeatedly challenged Michigan State with back-shoulder throws. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt if they weren't completed, a flag likely would fly.

"We'll continue to do what we do," Dennard said, "basically press, man up, and we do what we do."

Spartans defensive tackle Tyler Hoover admitted the penalties were tough to handle, but maintained that, "You've got to make plays. It's not the refs. It's going to be us, all the time."

Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan State's nationally ranked defense did enough. Three times, it forced Notre Dame punts in the fourth quarter, giving the offense a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The offense had a total of one first down and 20 net yards on those possessions. But the earlier drives, the ones that went deep into Notre Dame territory, stung more.

"We've got to score touchdowns," quarterback Connor Cook said. "It's the name of the game."

Cook was pulled for the game's final possession in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incomplete passes before trying to scramble on fourth-and-20. Although Cook had taken a hit to his shoulder, the injury didn't play a role in the decision.

"I was a little disappointed," Cook said. "They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that."

Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told Cook afterward that Cook remains the No. 1 signal caller. Dantonio was noncommittal.

"That's something we'll have to answer at a later date," he told ESPN.com. "The only thing I can tell you is you better do something with the football. At some point in time, 13's not enough."

Michigan State has two weeks to sort out its quarterback situation, two weeks to build on a surprisingly solid rushing performance, two weeks to clean up the kicking game and find ways to complement suffocating defense with takeaways after recording eight in the first three games. The Spartans can be a dangerous team in a wide-open Big Ten, especially without Ohio State or Wisconsin on their schedule.

Dantonio and his players were proud of Saturday's performance, despite the result. And it could be a springboard.

"All our goals are still in front of us," Dennard said. "We still can go to Indy for the Big Ten championship game."

Michigan State will have to get past Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and the rest of a formidable Legends division to reach Naptown.

Its biggest obstacle is still itself.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
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Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:

1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.

2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.

3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.

5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns: Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."

6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.

7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.

8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.

9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.

10. Erasing the question marks: Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.
Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Pencils ready? Class is in session ...

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in Penn State's win over Syracuse.
1. Big Ten quarterback mysteries partially solved: Week 1 provided some clues about the Big Ten's cloudy quarterback picture, but a few mysteries remain. True freshman Christian Hackenberg looks like the long-term answer at Penn State. Although he had a few shaky moments, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and showcased a big-time arm on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis early in the fourth quarter of the Lions' win against Syracuse. Joel Stave got the start for Wisconsin and re-established himself with a mostly solid performance against Massachusetts, twice finding top receiver Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns. Jake Rudock's collegiate debut ended with a costly interception, but the Iowa sophomore showed some positive signs against Northern Illinois, passing for 256 yards. Iowa has something to build on with Rudock. Indiana might lack a definitive starter, but the Hoosiers have multiple options with Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cam Coffman. Sudfeld, who played most of the opener and fired four touchdown passes, may end up being the answer for IU. Things are much shaker for Michigan State and Purdue, as both teams struggled at the quarterback spot in their openers. The Spartans likely will continue to play multiple signal-callers, while Rob Henry's starting spot at Purdue could be in jeopardy if he doesn't take better care of the ball.

2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...

3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.

4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.

5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.
Michigan State entered Friday night's game with a solid defense and question marks at quarterback.

Well, after a 26-13 win over Western Michigan, the Spartans sure didn't do much to change that perception.

Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook struggled to the tune of 17-of-37 passing and couldn't finish drives. Michigan State punted seven consecutive times. The quarterbacks led MSU to exactly one touchdown drive. Even the run game couldn't manage four yards a carry in the first half.

Luckily for the Spartans, their defense was just as good as advertised. Better, even. Kurtis Drummond made an incredible, one-handed interception that is destined for end-of-the-year highlight reels. And Jairus Jones came down with two picks, including one he lateraled to Drummond for Sparty's first touchdown.

Oh, and let's not forget the late-game Shilique Calhoun fumble return for a TD. The Spartans' defense actually outscored their own offense. This defense showed that it could still be one of the best groups in the nation. Outside of Western Michigan's second-quarter scoring drive, the Broncos' offense just couldn't get anything started.

But, on the flip side, neither could Michigan State.

Mark Dantonio tried to flip his two quarterbacks around in hopes of igniting the sputtering unit. But no matter who was under center, the result was the same: Punt, punt, punt. Each signal-caller made his fair share of bad throws, but the wideouts didn't exactly help them out either. Nothing did -- from the play-calling to the decision-making.

On Maxwell's first four drives, three ended when he threw short of the marker on third down. Third-and-3? Two-yard pass. Third-and-5? Three-yard pass. Third-and-8? Two-yard pass. (Oh, and on that other drive? Maxwell ran seven yards on a 3rd-and-10 play.)

Michigan State endured nearly an hourlong weather delay, but the game was going south well before the break. Put simply, MSU might have won -- but it also now holds more question marks on offense than it did before the opener.

The defense is great, and the offense is not. The big question now remains whether this team can still have a great season as a result.
The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


1. Quarterback mysteries solved: We might not get all the answers in Week 1 about the Big Ten's many quarterback competitions, but a few clues should emerge. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- have yet to announce starting quarterbacks heading into the openers. Expect sophomore Joel Stave to lead the Badgers and freshman Christian Hackenberg to take the first snap for Penn State. Indiana's quarterback race has been extremely even, and coach Kevin Wilson isn't afraid to let the starter decision go down to the wire.

2. Coaching debuts: Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Wisconsin's Gary Andersen both have enjoyed honeymoon periods at their respective schools, but they both know the mood can change once the games begin. Hazell faces an uphill climb as Purdue plays the Big Ten's toughest schedule, beginning Saturday on the road against a Cincinnati team that won 10 games last season. Andersen embarks on the unique challenge of blending his philosophy with a veteran team that has won the past three Big Ten championships. Wisconsin will have no trouble with Massachusetts, but keep an eye on how the Badgers' new 3-4 defense performs.

[+] EnlargeJordan Lynch
AP Photo/Alan DiazIowa again starts the season facing Northern Illinois and QB Jordan Lynch.
3. Pivotal game at Kinnick: Iowa's victory in the 2012 opener against a Northern Illinois team that went on to the Orange Bowl proved to be one of few highlights in a highly disappointing season. The Hawkeyes once again kick things off against an NIU squad led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch, who wants to avenge last year's setback. It's hard to call a season opener a must-win, but Iowa needs to generate some positive momentum early before a very challenging Big Ten schedule.

4. Speed trap in Berkeley: Still glowing from a 10-win season in 2012, Northwestern faces several unique challenges in its opener Saturday night at Cal. The Wildcats must contain the "Bear Raid" offense orchestrated by new Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears are a mystery team with a ton of youth led by a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff). Northwestern also must contend with a late kickoff and moved its practices this week from the afternoon to the evening. The Wildcats are even taking naps to prepare.

5. Dontre's inferno: Aside from Christian Hackenberg, no Big Ten incoming freshman has generated more buzz in camp than Ohio State's multipurpose speedster Dontre Wilson. The onetime Oregon commit could be a transformative player for Urban Meyer's offense, filling the so-called Percy position at wide receiver/running back. Wilson should get some opportunities for explosive plays as Ohio State opens the season Saturday against Buffalo.

6. Juco hello: The Big Ten doesn't bring in as many junior college transfers as other leagues, but several juco arrivals could be impact players this season. Nebraska fans are anxious to see if Randy Gregory can be the pass -rushing force they've been waiting for. Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy fell out of the mix at quarterback but will see time at other positions like wide receiver. Illinois wide receiver Martize Barr provides a much-needed weapon in the pass game for Nathan Scheelhaase. Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell could solidify the defensive midsection. It'll also be interesting whether quarterback Tyler Ferguson logs some field time for Penn State.

7. Oh, Henry: Purdue senior Rob Henry will make his first start at quarterback since the 2010 season (yes, you read that right) on Saturday against Cincinnati. An ACL injury sustained in late August prevented Henry from starting in 2011, and the versatile Boiler wore several hats for the offense in 2012. After beating out Danny Etling and Austin Appleby in camp, Henry guides coordinator John Shoop's pro-style offense into Nippert Stadium, where Purdue aims for a win that would provide "instant gratification," according to Hazell.

8. To the Max: Senior Andrew Maxwell emerged from Michigan State's quarterback morass to claim the starting job, at least for now. But after struggling for much of his first season as the starter, Maxwell needs a strong start Friday night against Western Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio is committed to playing multiple quarterbacks early in the season, so Connor Cook should see time against the Broncos. Maxwell must prove he's the top option by showing better command and rhythm with his oft-criticized receiving corps.

9. Let's be Frank: Few Michigan players not named Devin Gardner have generated more positive ink in the offseason than defensive end Frank Clark. The 6-foot-2, 273-pound junior had a strong finish to the 2012 season and could be the pass-rusher Michigan needs to turn a corner defensively this fall. Then again, we've seen certain Michigan defenders hyped up (cough, Will Campbell, cough) and never do much. It'll be interesting to see if Clark sets the tone for a big year Saturday against Central Michigan.

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.

Big Ten media days primer

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
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It won't be long now until Big Ten media days are upon us. There won't be burning controversies like the Penn State penalties or Bret Bielema's supposed tiff with Urban Meyer, but there are plenty of storylines. Here's a primer to get you ready.

When: July 24-25

Where: Hilton Chicago

Big names in attendance: QB Braxton Miller and CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State; QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska; QB Devin Gardner and OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan; RB Venric Mark and QB Kain Colter, Northwestern; LB Chris Borland and WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; LB Max Bullough, Michigan State.

Big names not in attendance: WR Allen Robinson, Penn State; RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State; RB Ameer Abdullah and WR Kenny Bell, Nebraska; QB Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State.

Five storylines/things to watch: Here are a handful of what we think will be the most popular topics in Chicago:
  • Ohio State/Urban Meyer: The Buckeyes and their coach remain the elephant in the room. After going 12-0 last season and entering this year ranked No. 1 in some polls, Ohio State will be the story in the Big Ten. Is Meyer's team a legitimate national title contender? Can anyone -- especially in the Leaders Division -- beat back the Buckeyes? Meyer will be a big focus, and he surely will face questions about the Aaron Hernandez/Florida arrests situation. Whether he answers any is another story.
  • Heisman hopefuls: There will be some bright stars shining in the Hilton ballrooms, including Heisman Trophy contender Miller and some with outside shots at the prize, such as Martinez and Gardner. All three quarterbacks figure to get the most attention, and all three have interesting yet different stories to tell.
  • New coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell make their first Big Ten media days appearance as head coaches at their new schools. Both have enjoyed honeymoon periods and they will attract curiosity in Chicago, especially Andersen, who inherits a Badgers program that has gone to three straight Rose Bowls.
  • Quarterback battles: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin have heated and open competitions for the starting quarterback jobs. While we don't expect many answers on any of those fronts, we're sure that many of the same questions will be asked, and every nugget will be parsed for meaning.
  • The future: While there are plenty of interesting things to talk about with the upcoming season, there are also big changes on the horizon. This will be the final season before the Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers and goes to new divisions, not to mention the forthcoming four-team College Football Playoff and the new bowl lineup. Nine-game conference schedules are just a few seasons away. Commissioner Jim Delany likely will talk about all of it and more when he takes the podium.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

We're in the process of projecting the Big Ten's statistical leaders for the 2013 season. After forecasting the league's top rusher, today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing this year?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten hasn't been loaded with premier passers and loses its only 3,000-yard performer from 2012 in Penn State's Matt McGloin. Although the league's next three top passers return, two of them, Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, are fighting to retain their starting jobs for the season. Although there's no shortage of quarterbacks with starting experience or significant playing time around the league, few have shown the ability to consistently put up big passing totals.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Taylor Martinez passed for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
My pick comes down to three quarterbacks: Michigan's Devin Gardner, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. If I knew Indiana's or Penn State's starting quarterback, I might include them in the race because of those teams' strength at wide receiver and tight end. But that's too risky right now. Gardner started just five games for Michigan, but averaged 243.8 pass yards in those contests. His numbers could go up as Michigan moves away from the spread and into a pro-style system. Gardner had a strong spring, and Michigan wants to keep him in the pocket more often than not. Miller also should up bigger passing totals as he enters his second year in Ohio State's offense and should have more help at the wide receiver spot. He's such a talented runner, but the Buckeyes don't want to take too many chances with his health, and the coaches see good potential for his growth as a passer.

Gardner and Miller are solid choices, but I'm going with Martinez here. His passing numbers soared from 2011 to 2012, as he completed nearly 6 percent more passes, nearly 800 more yards and threw 10 more touchdowns. He's fully comfortable with the offense under coordinator Tim Beck and should enter the season at 100 percent, health-wise. Nebraska also returns top wide receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. The Huskers need some help at tight end but have recruited well at tight end and have warmed up more and more to the pass under Beck. Martinez will finish his career with every significant Nebraska passing record, and he'll also top the Big Ten's passing yards chart as a senior.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

If I were confident Indiana would go with one quarterback all season, my pick would be the Hoosiers' starter. Don't forget that Coffman is the leading returning passer in the league (in terms of yards per game), or that IU led the conference in passing yards this season. But I suspect Kevin Wilson will end up juggling quarterbacks and using some combination of Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. Can I say my choice is Cam Roberfeld?

I guess not. So I'll go with the next best option: Michigan's Devin Gardner. As Adam mentioned, Gardner posted big passing numbers last year after taking over for Denard Robinson down the stretch, and that was without a lot of practice during the year at quarterback (he split time there and at receiver). By all accounts, Gardner has had a fantastic offseason, and Al Borges must be foaming at the mouth at the prospect of finally unleashing a true pro-style offense.

Gardner's five-game numbers last year project to more than 3,000 yards passing over a full 13-game season. I don't know if he'll get all the way there, and losing veteran receiver Roy Roundtree doesn't help. But he's still got big-play man Jeremy Gallon to target, as well as promising young receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, plus talented tight end Devin Funchess. Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes last year, a rate I expect to go way up with a full offseason as the starting quarterback under his belt. Michigan will look to run the ball a lot as well. But the Wolverines won't have to accommodate the talents of Robinson, and Gardner won't run as much as Nebraska's Martinez.

Plus, Michigan doesn't have any other experienced options, so Gardner will likely take just about every snap. That makes him a safe pick to lead the league in passing yards.

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
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Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- As the starting quarterback for the nation's 95th ranked offense, Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell understands why he's in the crosshairs.

More arrows fly in his direction than, say, the wide receivers who drop passes or the offensive linemen who didn't generate enough push in the red zone. That's just the way it goes. And Maxwell owns it.

"I look at myself and say, 'Were there areas I could improve?' Sure," Maxwell said. "Seeing just how those little things can result in a loss, can result in a 7-6 season, I realize and this whole team realizes that there's no room for that."

Maxwell knows that if he retains his starting job -- hardly a guarantee at this stage, as Connor Cook continues to push him -- he'll absorb the brunt of the credit or blame for how the unit performs this season. The accountability scale outside the program always leans more toward the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the quarterback.

But inside the program, Maxwell, as a team leader, wants to create a balance of accountability as Michigan State seeks to improve upon a disappointing season in 2012.

"I told my lift group, 'When you step over the white line and onto the practice field, you've got to realize everything we do is business,'" Maxwell told ESPN.com. "Accountability has to come before friendship. Accountability has to come before somebody's feelings. That's going to help us with the little details, the little inches.

"If we can create a culture of accountability and have players hold players responsible, we'll be a lot better suited to find those inches and those details."

Maxwell tried to take the same approach last season, but was hesitant to demand accountability.

"It's your first year and a lot of guys you're playing with had been there before," he said. "Whether I consciously made that decision or not, looking back, certainly there were some areas where every one of us could have done a better job of doing that."

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio never has doubted Maxwell's ability to be accountable. His maturity and two years as Kirk Cousins' understudy put him in a good spot to step in as the starter last season.

But a player gains greater perspective after he's "in the soup," as Dantonio puts it. And Maxwell found himself there more often than not in 2012, when he completed just 52.5 percent of his pass attempts. Although Maxwell's overall passing numbers (2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions) put him in the middle of the pack of the pass-challenged Big Ten, Michigan State finished 108th nationally in scoring and dropped five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points.

"There are stress points," Dantonio said. "A young person who's 20 or 21 yards old is often times critiqued when things don't quite as well. It's hard to identify who that offensive guard was, but everybody knows who the quarterback is. He gets more than his share of the praise, certainly, but he gets his share of the criticism, also.

"He understands that's part of the deal, having gone through this once. He's been able to refocus and recenter himself, and now he gets to start over perse, begin fresh and right the ship a little bit."

Teammates noticed a change in Maxwell during spring practice.

"Definitely stronger, definitely stronger," Spartans offensive tackle Fou Fonoti said. "He uses all that pressure that he's under and turns it into constructive criticism. He has a new demeanor about him. He just wants to get out there and go. I'm excited to see that rage in his heart, that fire in heart. It should be exciting."

Maxwell is clear about last season -- "When you go 7-6, certainly that's no one's goal" -- but the adversity seems to have shifted his perspective as a leader.

"I do feel like I have a little extra fire, a little extra passion for it this year," he said. "That's what you need to be successful."
It's too simplistic to attribute Michigan State's offensive woes in 2012 to the season-ending injury Fou Fonoti suffered before a Week 3 matchup with Notre Dame.

The Spartans' struggles went deeper than that.

Fonoti's return to the field this fall isn't a panacea for a unit that finished 95th nationally in yards and 108th in scoring last fall. But it's a big, big help. Although most of the criticism for MSU's offense went to the coordinator, the quarterback and the receivers, the Spartans really missed Fonoti's presence up front.

"When he got hurt, that was devastating to him and devastating to our team, not only from a physical position on the field but from an emotional leadership standpoint," quarterback Andrew Maxwell told ESPN.com. "All he kept saying throughout the winter was, 'Can't wait for spring ball to get here, can't wait for spring ball to get here.' Now that it's here, you really do see that pep in his step, you see the fire that he has."

[+] EnlargeFou Fonoti
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesFou Fonoti has been looking forward to returning the field after an injury derailed his 2012 season.
Fonoti is relishing every minute of spring practice after a long rehab from foot surgery. He has been a busy man, working as the Spartans' starting left tackle and also taking snaps at center, as Jack Allen, the projected starter there, missed the spring following shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Fonoti, a junior-college transfer who started 11 games at right tackle for MSU in 2011, announced in November that he would take a medical redshirt for the 2012 season and return to the Spartans rather than make himself eligible for the NFL draft.

"I'm a little mad at myself," Fonoti told ESPN.com. "What took me so long to make that decision in saying yes? The second opportunity, I'm truly blessed with it."

Fonoti admits he wrestled with the decision to stay or go. Although he felt mentally ready to return after the surgery, the rehab for a man his size -- " That’s a lot of weight on one foot," he said -- made it difficult and risky to return before the end of the season.

"I was like, 'Man, it's another year away from home, another year of struggling, being homesick,'" said Fonoti, a native of Cerritos, Calif. "I really considered aspects like that, but I just thought about it, I prayed about it and talked about it with my family and my girlfriend. It was only right for me to come back.

"Now I'm excited for this season and I'm excited for what's yet to come."

His immediate future is protecting Maxwell's blind side, an adjustment after starting 13 consecutive games at right tackle in 2011-12. Fonoti admits he's "rusty in a lot of aspects" and has focused mainly on his footwork this spring. He didn't feel 100 percent physically until the end of Michigan State's winter workouts.

"I've got to be able to balance my weight equally," he said. "From the right, I was so used to having my left foot as my post. Now I have it as my kick. Right now, I'm just trying to push off my right foot, playing with lower pads and pretty much weight distribution, be more of a knee-bender on the left side."

After starting Michigan State's first two games of last fall at right tackle, Fonoti was all set to make the move to the left side the blockbuster home matchup against Notre Dame. He worked at left tackle in vigorous practices Tuesday and Wednesday.

Then, in the team's final pregame workout, Fonoti suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.

"It made me that much madder because Thursday's practice is pretty much a clean-up type practice," Fonoti said. "You're not in full pads, and the next thing you know, I'm on crutches."

Fonoti underwent surgery the following day and had to watch as Michigan State fell to Notre Dame 20-3, failing to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 1991. The Spartans rushed for only 50 yards and surrendered four sacks.

The offense sputtered most of the way from then on. Although work horse running back Le'Veon Bell barreled his way for 1,793 yards, Michigan State struggled to convert red-zone chances into touchdowns and dominate the line of scrimmage.

Fonoti embraced the move to left tackle and sees the value in working at center this spring. Although he might never snap the ball in a college game, his versatility could pay off in the NFL, as his size is more suited to center than tackle.

He sees "amazing" chemistry forming in the offensive line, which boasts seven players with starting experience and loses only one starter (guard Chris McDonald) from 2012.

"It’s been great to have him back as a player," Maxwell said, "but also as an emotional leader for this team."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Andrew Maxwell knew things would be different when he stepped into the Spartan Stadium spotlight last August for his first start at quarterback.

The packed crowd, the bright lights and the national TV cameras told him so.

But the Michigan State signal-caller needed one final reminder from a Boise State defensive end, who hit him just after he released a pass.

"I almost forgot that was an option," he told ESPN.com. "Because going through spring, going through camp, it's all been tag-off. The D-end put a good move on our tackle and I let it go and got hit in the ribs.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAndrew Maxwell and the other Spartans quarterbacks are fair game to be hit by defenders during spring practice.
"I got up and went, 'Oh, that's a possibility.'"

As a backup quarterback for two years who played sparingly in games, Maxwell was treated somewhat like a piece of artwork: look but don't touch. Although he had taken some hits -- the 2011 Capital One Bowl against Alabama was a particularly painful day -- his typical week consisted of wearing a red jersey in practice (indicating he's off limits) and holding a clipboard on Saturday.

Everything changed last season during games, and Michigan State has taken the unusual step of making Maxwell and the other quarterbacks "live" -- able to be hit -- during spring practice as the team looks for its answers under center for the 2013 season. Maxwell, Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and the other signal-callers have traded in their red jerseys for green ones, just like the other offensive players, as they compete for the starting job. Most FBS teams keep their quarterbacks off limits in all practices, to preserve their safety as much as possible.

Michigan State actually began making the quarterbacks live during practices for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and carried things over to the spring.

"I didn't want to," head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com, "but we've done it because that's what's needed to push the envelope. We didn't do that before, and it hurt us last year because [Maxwell] hadn't been in as many game situations. We've been active, but we've gone, 'OK, go ahead.'

"There's some things we need to do, and the quarterbacks are going to have to take the hit."

Added co-offensive coordinator (play-caller) Dave Warner: "It's the best way to find out if quarterbacks can extend plays and create and do the things we probably didn't do a good job of last year."

Dantonio isn't concerned about the quarterbacks taking too much pounding. He noted that in a recent practice the quarterbacks were only brought down a total of 14 times.

"But there's a possibility of them getting hit, so it's forcing their hand a little faster to make quicker decisions," Dantonio said. "That's what the game's all about."

Maxwell said in hindsight, going live in practices before the 2012 season could have helped him as a first-time starter.

"You really don't know how much time you have unless you have a guy who's actually going to bring you to the ground," Maxwell said. "When you have the red jersey on and you know you're not live, you may subconsciously give yourself an extra second that, in reality, you don't have.

"But when it's live and the possibility is there, you're making your decisions that much quicker."

Maxwell doesn't think he held the ball too long last season, but he understands the main offseason directive coming from Dantonio and the other coaches: create. The coaches want Maxwell and the other quarterbacks to scramble when a play isn't developing or buy time for receivers to get open.

"We as quarterbacks need to pose a threat and be dangerous with our feet," Maxwell said. "I'm not saying we're going to be rushing for 100 yards a game, but when things break down, if you can go north for five yards, second-and-5 is a lot better than second-and-10."

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