NCF Nation: Antonio Jeremiah
Like every Big Ten team, Michigan State wants to reach Indianapolis on Dec. 3 for the inaugural conference championship game. And after claiming a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years last season, the Spartans possess the pieces to get to Naptown. They have veteran leadership in fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, excellent depth at the offensive skill positions and a defense that flexed its muscles Saturday by holding Florida Atlantic to one first down, 48 total yards and zero points.
But the Spartans' route to Lucas Oil Stadium is a potentially treacherous one, beginning this week at Notre Dame Stadium and weaving through Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City and Evanston. Their road opponents -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern -- all went to bowl games in 2010 and had a combined record of 45-21.
And while Spartans fans might disagree, that's the beauty of this year's schedule. We'll know exactly where the Michigan State program stands when December rolls around. Tough road games are the best barometer of whether a program can go from good to great.
"A lot of away games in challenging environments," Cousins told ESPN.com in August. "So we're going to find out what we're really made of."
Michigan State won a team-record 11 games last season, including three -- Notre Dame, Northwestern and Purdue -- in dramatic fashion. But the Spartans' two losses, both away from home and by a combined score of 86-13, prevented them from claiming a spot among the nation's elite.
Mark Dantonio has guided Michigan State to postseason appearances in each of his first four seasons as coach. He has provided stability to a chronic underachiever and has elevated the program's profile in several areas.
But there are two items that remain on Dantonio's checklist: bowl victories and signature road wins.
Michigan State is 10-9 in true road games under Dantonio, a very respectable mark. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to historic road wins like last year's triumph at Penn State, Michigan State's first since 1965 -- the year before Joe Paterno took over as Nittany Lions coach.
But Dantonio is just 1-6 at Michigan State against ranked teams in road or neutral-site games. The Spartans likely will face at least two ranked opponents on the road -- Ohio State and Nebraska -- while Iowa and Northwestern could be ranked by the time Michigan State comes to town.
Saturday's road opener at Notre Dame has no direct bearing on whether Michigan State reaches its desired destination of Indianapolis. But the game provides an opportunity for the Spartans to build their mettle away from the comforts of home.
They'll be facing a Notre Dame team desperate for a win after confounding losses to both South Florida and Michigan. The Irish average 510.5 yards of offense per game and, at times, have displayed improvement on the defensive side.
A loss drops Notre Dame to 0-3, ruins any expectations of a breakthrough season and potentially makes Brian Kelly's head explode.
Dantonio has won in South Bend before -- Michigan State crushed a horrendous Irish team 31-14 in 2007 -- but only one of his current players, fifth-year senior nose tackle Antonio Jeremiah, was on the field that day. Two years ago, the Spartans fell 33-30 at Notre Dame Stadium as Cousins overthrew a wide-open Larry Caper in the end zone for the potential game-winning touchdown and then tossed a loss-sealing interception moments later.
Saturday marks a chance for redemption. It also marks a chance to set the tone for tougher road tests ahead.
The Spartans hope their first trip to the Hoosier State won't be their last in 2011.
Both backfield positions are pretty much settled this year, as Kirk Cousins is the clear No. 1 quarterback and sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will share carries at running back. The Spartans are also well stocked at both wide receiver and tight end, losing only one major contributor in Blair White and gaining a potential star wideout in converted quarterback Keith Nichol.
The Spartans lose three linemen with significant starting experience -- center Joel Nitchman, tackle Rocco Cironi and guard Brendon Moss -- from a front five that allowed the fewest sacks (14) in the Big Ten last fall. Head coach Mark Dantonio will lean on left guard Joel Foreman and left tackle D.J. Young, and center John Stipek started three games while Nitchman was out with an injury.
But other than those three, the Spartans have plenty of question marks up front, which means plenty of competition this spring.
"You'd like to have your two-deep solidified coming out of [spring practice]," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We have enough people. Guys have made strides. But the key is, have they been playing? Have they been coached? Have they actively been doing this?"
The right side of the Spartans' line is wide open, as a large group of players competes at both spots, including Jared McGhaha, Chris McDonald, J'Michael Deane, John Deyo and Antonio Jeremiah, a converted defensive lineman. Several redshirt freshmen also are in the mix, including tackles Henry Conway and David Barrent.
"There's some youth in there that we're trying to polish up," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said.
Dantonio said McGaha is "making a move" at tackle this spring, while McDonald is working as the team's starting right guard right now. Redshirt freshman Nate Klatt is pushing Stipek for the starting center spot.
Both Dantonio and Treadwell singled out Klatt for his play this spring.
Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing last fall, while the run game slipped to 73rd nationally. Don't expect those trends to continue, as the Spartans want to re-establish the run behind Caper, Baker and, hopefully, a solid line.
"We didn't run it as well as we needed to run it, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got numbers [at offensive line] and they've all improved, and you see the result of that."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After today, 10 of 11 Big Ten teams will be on the practice field. Waiting on you, Ohio State.
- Wisconsin quarterback candidates Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips spent spring break at a quarterback academy in Florida, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal.
- Northwestern coaches spent the offseason exchanging ideas with some of the best offensive staffs in college football -- Florida, Oregon and Oklahoma, Teddy Greenstein writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- The Pistol offense has arrived at Indiana, and Kellen Lewis is seeing time at several spots, including, yep, quarterback, Chris Korman writes in the Herald-Times (subscription required).
- Minnesota has recommitted to size and strength along the offensive line, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune.
- Michigan remains the favorite for prep quarterback Devin Gardner, who will publicly announce his college choice this week, Josh Helmholdt writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- There are still some questions along Penn State's offensive line this spring, Wayne Staats writes in The Daily Collegian.
- Michigan State needs to find a spot for Antonio Jeremiah, and it might be at offensive tackle, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Martin Bayless met Hunter Bates on a recruiting visit to Northwestern, they soon realized they shared more than an interest in the same college.
Both players had fathers who logged lengthy NFL careers around the same time and at the same position.
Martin Bayless Sr. played safety for five NFL teams, most notably the San Diego Chargers, in a career that lasted from 1984-96. Bill Bates joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1983 and became an All-Pro special teams performer and safety in a 15-year career.
Their sons are now freshmen at Northwestern, adjusting to the demands of college football.
"You get a couple jokes here and there about, 'Oh, you look like your dad, you play like your dad,'" the younger Bayless said Thursday. "But it helps knowing the person next to you in the locker room has a dad just like you. They get the same jokes and they help you through it, just laugh it off."
Hunter Bates followed Bill's path and became a safety, while Martin Bayless Jr. diverted to wide receiver.
"We're getting to know each other, going against each other," Bayless said. "We talk about our dads a little bit, but our heads are more in the game right now, assignments and stuff."
College players with NFL lineages are common, but Northwestern's incoming freshman class features an extraordinary number of connections.
Offensive lineman Jeff Radek is a cousin of nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, while offensive lineman Nick Adamle comes from a family of football stars. Adamle's grandfather Alex played at Ohio State before earning All-Pro honors with the Cleveland Browns and his uncle, Mike, starred as a running back at Northwestern before playing seven pro seasons.
Bayless matches Adamle with two uncles who played in an NFL and a cousin, former Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, still in the league. His father helps run the oldest and largest free football camp in the country, with locations in California, Ohio and Texas.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees Bayless and Bates as ordinary freshmen, but their connections to the sport certainly help.
"You can tell the guys who have been around the game a long time have a confidence level about them," Fitzgerald said. "Hunter Bates [is] out there catching punts. There was no special teams player arguably in the history of the NFL than Bill Bates. All those freshmen have some bloodlines, but they're freshmen. It's such a huge adjustment."
As Bayless makes the transition, he remembers his father's words.
"Just work hard," Bayless said. "If talent doesn't work hard, hard work will outwork talent."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Thursday's Big Ten campus visit is a home game for me, as I'll make the 25-minute drive north to Evanston for Northwestern's practice and media day. The Wildcats hit the field at 7:15 a.m. CT, so I'll probably catch the second half of the workout, which is usually more interesting anyway. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald, his assistant coaches and the players meet with the media this afternoon.
Love those links:
- After a disappointing spring, Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge has his sights set on the starting job, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Referring to Evridge, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said, "it's kind of his show."
- With two seniors headed to Michigan next year, Cass Technical School coach Thomas Wilcher, a former Wolverines running back, is implementing a version of the spread offense. Very smart move.
- Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman wants to become a greater playmaker this fall, Tim May writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
- Buckeyes starting defensive tackle Doug Worthington will face some discipline from the team after his drunken driving arrest last month, but it doesn't appear he'll get suspended from school, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch. Junior Robert Rose looks ready to step in at defensive tackle, Doug Lesmerises writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
- Ohio State players James Laurinaitis, Todd Boeckman and Beanie Wells have become Sports Illustrated cover boys after the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the preseason top 20.
- Penn State has dealt with distractions before in preseason camp, Sam Ross Jr. writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- The Wall Street Journal sits down with Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
- The Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode has a nice breakdown of Michigan State's position competitions this month. Journeyman Ryan Allison has a good shot at landing the third starting linebacker spot, while defensive tackles Oren Wilson and Antonio Jeremiah are neck-and-neck.
- Michigan State running back Javon Ringer seems pretty fast to me, but he made speed a priority this summer, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- After moving to cornerback from wide receiver, former walk-on Marcus Sherels might follow his older brother to defensive stardom at Minnesota, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- More pictures from the Detroit Free Press -- there are too many galleries to link here -- but check out Michigan's top 10 quarterbacks from the last 30 years.
- Indiana running back Bryan Payton has a blog. Check him out here. Apparently Hoosiers cornerback Richard Council is a half redhead now. Thanks to e-mailer Craig in Indianapolis for the link.
- Finding a third linebacker and some depth at wide receiver top Joe Tiller's to-do list when Purdue opens camp next week, Tom Kubat writes in The Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier.
- If you're in the vicinity of Rantoul, Ill., on Monday night, check out the Illini football team's scrimmage at Rantoul High School.
- A more interesting Illinois practice will take place Oct. 11 at Memorial Stadium, as the school's men's and women's basketball teams hoop it up outside. The event, billed as "The World's Biggest Basketball Practice," follows the football team's game against Minnesota and features a dunk contest and a shooting competition. Having been inside that stadium, I can say the wind definitely will affect those jump shots.