NCF Nation: Bennie Fowler

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.

Spartans QB Cook masters mental game

December, 29, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- As a father, Chris Cook always provided his son, Connor, with positive reinforcement, because that's what parents do.

As a former college football player, the elder Cook also knew how such statements can translate to on-field performance. So he and his wife, Donna, a former basketball player at Cincinnati, told Connor that he would be special, that he would become Michigan State's starting quarterback, that he would lead the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl. They repeated the messages, even during MSU's drawn-out and wayward quarterback competition, which Connor calls "the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being named the permanent starter to start conference play, quarterback Connor Cook and Michigan State are 9-0.
Last week, while home in Ohio, Connor, a Big Ten title-winning, Rose Bowl-bound quarterback, acknowledged what most parents love to hear: You were right.

"He says, 'At that time, I thought you guys were just talking, trying to pump me up.' Now to see this, I don't know, it's been a magical year," said Chris Cook, who played tight end at Indiana. "All these things have come true."

There's certainly magic around Cook, who will lead Michigan State's offense on Wednesday against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. You could see it in Big Ten play, when he passed for 2,012 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine double-digit wins. You could see it when he bounced back from bad passes with precise ones, when he made tough throws on the move, when he spread the ball around.

You could see it on the biggest stage, when Cook put up career numbers in the Big Ten championship, reminding receiver Bennie Fowler of former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Cook always had enough skill and confidence. But like any young quarterback, he had to master his own mind.

"We're an athletic family, so we're big into the mental game," Chris Cook said. "At this level, what separates good players from great players? A lot of it's between your ears. Hell, the challenges Connor went through, if he doesn't keep a positive attitude, your mind can get the best of you."

Connor Cook's head was swimming during a competition that began in preseason camp and spilled into September. Andrew Maxwell, last season's starter, took most of the snaps with the first-team offense and started the opener. Cook started the following week against South Florida but was replaced by Tyler O'Connor, who was replaced by Maxwell.

Michigan State's quarterback situation had gone from shaky to messy.

"It takes a couple series to establish a rhythm," Cook said. "So when we're splitting it up, I get one series and Maxwell has one, Tyler. You don't know when you're going to get pulled. ... That's kind of stressful."

Cook started Sept. 21 at Notre Dame, struggling early before settling down. After a three-and-out, Cook gave way to Maxwell for the final drive with 2:11 left and MSU down 17-13. The drive went nowhere (backward, actually) and the Spartans suffered their first loss.

Afterward, a despondent Cook said he wished the coaches had shown more faith in him for the final possession. Even now, he calls it "heartbreaking."

"I'd want to be that guy to lead Michigan State down in a hostile environment in a historic stadium to beat the Irish," he said. "To not get that opportunity, it hurt."

During the open week that followed, Cook's coaches decided he deserved the opportunity. Coach Mark Dantonio met with Cook to clear the air and reinforce his support.

"We said as an offensive staff that Connor is our guy," coordinator Dave Warner said. "We've got to go with him the entire way. That was a point where our offense began to grow."

For Cook, it's when "the stress went out the window."

The following week, he passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa. He completed 71 percent of his attempts against Indiana and 93.8 percent -- a team record -- against Illinois.

The magic surfaced when a Cook pass tipped by two Illinois defenders landed in Fowler's arms for a touchdown, or hit a Northwestern defender in the back and went to Fowler for another score. Other likely interceptions fell harmlessly to the ground.

In 925 plays, Cook has had just five interceptions and two fumbles.

"That was his growth," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "He moved in the pocket, threw the ball away when he needed to."

Michigan State identified, offered and landed Cook early, as he committed in April of his junior year. His recruitment wasn't as quiet as it has been portrayed -- Chris Cook said Wisconsin, Iowa and other major-conference programs showed interest -- but he didn't generate the hype of other standout Ohio prep quarterbacks like Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.

"You could always see the potential in him," said John Carroll University coach Tom Arth, who has worked with Cook the past four summers. "He's a tremendous athlete and a very natural player. He's a special individual who has a great work ethic.

"He can be great. We've seen a little bit of that this year."

Connor was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, recording his first career 300-yard passing performance and firing three touchdowns. With MSU down 24-20 early in the fourth quarter, Cook led an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive, completing four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.

MSU won 34-24 and Cook earned game MVP honors.

"He was pointing out things that he was seeing, making adjustments on the fly," Fowler said. "That's just like how Kirk [Cousins] was."

As time expired in Indy, Cook ran to the stands and embraced his parents and sister, Jackie, a former basketball player at Old Dominion. The family celebrations have become a tradition after Spartans wins.

"Those are special moments," Chris Cook said.

There could be another Wednesday at the Rose Bowl.

"Before I was the quarterback I would talk to my parents and they would tell me, 'You're going to be the guy, you're going to lead your team to the Rose Bowl,'" Connor said. "To finally be here now ... it's truly a blessing."

Pregame ponderables: B1G title game

December, 7, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Greetings from Lucas Oil Stadium, where No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State will soon square off for the Big Ten championship.

I'm no weatherman, but I can safely predict it will be about 72 degrees at kickoff. Or about 50 degrees, at least, warmer than it is outside. By the way, temperatures are in the teens in Chicago right now.

From walking around Indy the past couple of days, it seems like Buckeyes fans outnumber Michigan State fans, and I'd expect there to be more scarlet and gray in the stands. But as one Spartans fan told us last night, "We're Michigan State. We always show up late."

One thing we know is lots of people are showing up for this one. No more jokes about seat fillers, like we had last year with Nebraska and Wisconsin. The game is sold out and tickets were tough to come by. There's a definite buzz around the event because of the national title implications; reporters from New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, CBSSports.com and virtually every major national outlet you can imagine are here. There is so much interest, in fact, that the Big Ten is using an auxiliary media area in one of the end zones.

Let's hope the game lives up to the pregame hype, and I think it will. The Big Ten needs a good show after some image-busting results in the past few years. Ohio State needs to impress if it wants to stay ahead of the SEC champ. Of course, Michigan State didn't come here to lose, but even if the Spartans do fall, they're in great shape for the Rose Bowl -- unless it's a lopsided defeat.

But I don't think that will happen. This Michigan State team is by far the best team Ohio State will have played during its two-year unbeaten streak under Urban Meyer. A worthy champion will be crowned tonight.

We've broken down countless angles in this game. A few more areas to watch:

Michigan State's offensive line: This group hasn't gotten a lot of attention all year, but it has been very good. Meyer called the Spartans "rugged" up front on Friday. They have to have a great game tonight and keep guys like Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Ryan Shazier from crashing into the backfield and getting to Connor Cook.

Ohio State's linebackers not named Shazier: Curtis Grant is still a bit gimpy. Meyer says Joshua Perry is coming on. But there's little doubt that linebacker has been a sore spot outside of Shazier. No matter who you are, losing your starting middle linebacker to injury -- as the Buckeyes did with Grant -- is going to hurt the defense. The Spartans want to be physical in the run game with Jeremy Langford. The Buckeyes' linebackers have to be ready.

Michigan State's receivers: The Spartans wideouts have made a major improvement from a year ago, particularly guys like Bennie Fowler and Tony Lippett. But they still suffer from the occasional drops. That can't happen tonight. Ohio State is still vulnerable in the back end, and there will be plays for the receivers to make. They need to make them, because you don't beat the Buckeyes by missing opportunities.

Those are a few more story lines for the game. Much, much more to come …
Dinner is on Adam in Indianapolis on Friday night, thanks to Brian's nailbiter of a win in the regular-season picks contest. But we all know the main course arrives Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...

No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)

Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.

To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.

The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.

I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?

Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28

As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.

First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."

Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."

Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
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Let’s begin the rewind with a little chop talk.

Players and coaches from Wisconsin and Minnesota nearly brawled following the Badgers’ 20-7 win at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The brief altercation happened when Wisconsin brought Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers’ home end zone for the traditional “chopping” of the opponent's goal post. But Minnesota guarded the post and wouldn’t let the Badgers through.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota didn't like Wisconsin celebrating after winning their rivalry game.
The Wisconsin side claims that the Gophers were being sore losers by not allowing the annual tradition to continue. Minnesota would counter by saying it gathers in that end zone after every game to sing the alma mater in front of its student section, and the Badgers were rude to invade that area (politely asking, “Pardon me, would you mind if we took this giant axe to your uprights?" might not work, either).

“It’s just a pride thing,” Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen told reporters. “This is our stadium, and even after the clock hits zero, we still feel the need to protect it. So I don’t think there’s any love lost or anything like that. I think they’d do the same thing.”

A small skirmish broke out in the same spot in 2011, when Wisconsin interrupted the singing of the alma mater. The Badgers tried to wait until the song ended on Saturday, but the Gophers still formed a resistance.

Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen told reporters, I think jokingly, that teams have chopped both goal posts in all 123 years of the rivalry. (Which, of course, is impossible, since the Axe didn’t arrive on the scene until 1948). But Allen was right that the chopping is an annual tradition, so the Gophers can’t feign surprise that the axe came their way.

At the same time, if Minnesota wants to make such a stand on its home field, so be it. While Saturday’s game showed they’re getting a little closer to Wisconsin’s level, the Gophers have lost 10 straight in this series. Guarding the post could just have been their way of saying they’re tired of being pushed around.

With players and coaches exchanging curse words and shoves and Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen getting upset about a security officer he said put a finger in his face, the good news is both teams showed restraint in not letting things escalate. The axe celebration is one of the best in sports, but with so many people on the field, these postgame displays are axing -- I mean, asking -- for trouble. Something to keep in mind when this weekend’s rivalry games roll around.

Saturday's altercation just added a little more spice to the series. And maybe a new set of rules for the axe tradition.

Take that and rewind it back …

Team of the week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes did everything they could to let Michigan win the game in the first half, throwing a pick-six and falling behind 21-7 at intermission. But this team has shown resiliency in bouncing back from last year's failures, and it owned the second half for a 24-21 win. Beating Nebraska this week would complete the symbolic turnaround from 4-8 to 8-4.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThings haven't gone as planned for Devin Gardner and Michigan.
Worst hangover: Michigan. You had to feel bad for Devin Gardner, who was near tears after the game while regretting his late fumble. He's giving it everything he has got, but the Wolverines just don't have much right now. They've gone from 5-0 to 7-4, with an almost certain fifth loss coming next week against Ohio State.

Best call: Loved Iowa's decision to have Jake Rudock roll out with a run/pass option on third-and-10 late in that game. It was far bolder than just running the ball and punting or throwing a screen, yet it didn't carry a lot of risk. It also showed a lot of confidence in Rudock who had thrown three interceptions. He completed a 12-yard pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz for the first down, allowing the Hawkeyes to go into victory formation.

Weirdest call: Wisconsin's Andersen called for a bizarre-looking fake field goal in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. Holder Drew Meyer lined up behind the center in the middle of the field while everyone else split out wide. Meyer threw a lateral to tight end Sam Arneson, who had several blockers in front of him but nowhere to go. Arneson was supposed to pass the ball but never had time and wound up losing seven yards. "That one will be scratched off the play list for quite a while," Andersen said.

Best play: Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler, who has had a great bounce-back season, summed up the season for his team and Northwestern on an 87-yard touchdown catch. Why are Northwestern defensive backs always involved in such wild plays?

Big Man on Campus (offense): Raise your arms and yell, "Steve Hull!" His late-career receiving renaissance continued with 10 catches for 169 yards and two scores as Illinois finally broke its Big Ten losing streak.

Big Men on Campus (defense): It's a tie between Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, who had a ridiculous 20 tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana, and Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who made 12 stops with two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Do we really have to choose between these two for Big Ten defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year?

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Pat Smith went 3-for-3 on field goals and drilled the 42-yard game-winner in overtime at Penn State.

Best failed effort: Penn State kicker Sam Ficken tried his best to stop Nebraska's Kenny Bell on Bell's 99-yard touchdown return. But Bell treated Ficken like a kicker while leaping over him at the 30-yard line on his way toward the end zone. The photo of that is delightful. “You will never live it down if you get tackled by the kicker," Bell said.

Best quote: From Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose nightmare season can't end soon enough: "The year '13 -- good riddance. Something about that number I don't like a whole lot. I like those hotels who don't put it on their floors."
About once a week, a student at Fairfield Christian Academy pokes his head into the athletic director's office and relays a recent realization.

"He'll stop in and say, 'I didn't know you threw a fake pass against Notre Dame,'" Aaron Bates said.

[+] EnlargeMike Sadler
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIMike Sadler executed a fake punt, "Hey Diddle Diddle," to perfection against Iowa earlier this season.
More than three years after the play known as "Little Giants," Bates is reminded of his signature moment at Michigan State. In September 2010, the Spartans trailed Notre Dame 31-28 in overtime when Bates, the team's punter and holder, threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt on a fake field goal to win the game.

"We'll talk about [the play] a little bit, and then they'll go on their way," said Bates, who became Fairfield Christian Academy's athletic director this spring. "And then the next week, I'll have a new kid come in. It's something."

Indeed, Michigan State's knack for calling trick plays is something. It has become a hallmark of Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and the program, partly because of the playful names attached to the plays, but mostly because they've worked so well.

Michigan State employed its latest fake last week at Nebraska when it lined up for a field goal but instead sent punter Mike Sadler on the move. Sadler picked up a first down, and the Spartans eventually scored a touchdown in a 41-28 win.

Sadler's dash placed "Charlie Brown" in the glorious glossary with "Hey Diddle Diddle," "Mouse Trap" and, of course, "Little Giants" -- previous Spartans fakes that led to big wins.

"Our players like to see us take a calculated risk," Dantonio said. "We don't want to do it every game. We've done it twice in 10 games, we did it once last year, so it’s not like we’re doing these things every week.

"It's just a part of who we are."

Dantonio isn't sure how the tricks trademark evolved but credits the success to his players. Bates recalls executing a successful fake field goal against Indiana in 2007, and how Dantonio then wanted to run one every week.

The reputation grew in 2010 with "Little Giants" and "Mouse Trap," a fake punt pass from Bates to Bennie Fowler that helped Michigan State erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at Northwestern.

"That was kind of the breakout year for the trick plays," Sadler said. "In the past, they ran a couple fakes, but 2010 was ‘Little Giants,’ ‘Mousetrap’ and everything. That's when we became known for it because of the magnitude of those two plays."

Michigan State runs through the fakes at every practice during the special teams portion of the workout. The Spartans enter games with "at least a dozen in our back pocket," according to Sadler, but the plays actually used are based largely on opponent and situation.

"We create them as we go," Dantonio said.

A fake punt sweep employed last season against Michigan, nicknamed "Sandlot," wasn't practiced during the week but still worked as Sadler raced for 26 yards.

"There's always some base ones, plays that will work against any look," Sadler said. "And then every week, there's one or two specific looks. We just try to play according to their tendencies. That's why the one at Iowa worked ['Hey Diddle Diddle'], because they turn their backs. Same with Northwestern, when we ran 'Mouse Trap.'

"But that same fake wouldn't work against a bunch of other teams in the Big Ten."

The famous fakes enhance the profiles of often overlooked specialists like Bates and Sadler, good friends who compare stats. Bates finished his career with a passer rating of 400.4, while Sadler averages 18 yards per carry.

MSU's coaches make the planning process interactive, encouraging players to brainstorm plays and names for them. Sadler is still waiting for one of his ideas to be used in a game.

"Mike has a tendency to have a few over-the-top suggestions," special teams coach Mike Tressel said, laughing. "There's no doubt we have fun with coming up with them and naming them. The kids get into it."

So does Dantonio. He's a defensive-minded coach who comes from the typically conservative Jim Tressel coaching tree, but his penchant for trick plays shows a different side.

Even the playful names like "Mouse Trap" ("We had to get them to take the cheese," Dantonio joked afterward) and "Hey Diddle Diddle" (send Sadler up the middle) point to a sense of humor Bates describes as unique.

"Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people," Sadler said, "but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks."

The Spartans' top-rated defense makes it easier to gamble, but Dantonio often calls fakes in the fourth quarter, with the Spartans trailing and with the ball in MSU territory.

Opponents are aware of MSU's trick record. As Michigan prepared to face Michigan State, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com, "I'm sure Mark's got something for this week."


Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people, but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks.


-- Mike Sadler on Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
But the knowledge rarely helps. Dantonio said Nebraska looked ready for "Charlie Brown" but still couldn't prevent a first down. After "Hey Diddle Diddle" worked against Iowa, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz lamented, "We may never try to return one again."

Predicting when and where Michigan State will run a fake is futile, even for those closely involved.

"There's times you might feel like he's in the mood and this is the right time and he doesn't do it," Tressel said. "Other times, you're shocked that he does do it. I suppose if he’s keeping us on our toes and we don't know, that means the other guys can't know, either."

It's unlikely Dantonio has emptied his bag of tricks for the 2013 season. Don't be surprised if he has something ready if Michigan State returns to the Big Ten title game.

"He wants to win," Bates said. "He thinks the ground-and-pound and the conservative mentality is probably good for the most part, but you do have to take those risks here and there if you want to be a champion."
Five lessons from Big Ten play in Week 8:

1. Separation not wide in the Big Ten: Given the schedule, we expected Saturday to be filled with blowouts. Just about every game featured double-digit favorites. But with the exception of the Wisconsin-Illinois game, every contest was in doubt late in the second half. Iowa was tied with Ohio State in Columbus going into the fourth quarter. Michigan State struggled to put away Purdue. Minnesota upset Northwestern on the road. Michigan needed some school-record offensive performances to finally get by Indiana. Even Illinois scored 32 points on a Wisconsin defense that had been very stingy. This tells us that the final six weeks of the season could be a wild ride, especially in November, when many of the top contenders play each other. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team but hasn't dominated any of its first three league opponents -- in fact, the Buckeyes have trailed at halftime in their past two outings. Indiana plays almost no defense but will make every opponent beat it in a crazy shootout. Teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska have enough flaws that you're not quite sure what to expect from week to week. Call it parity or call it mediocrity. Either way, the rest of the Big Ten race should be a whole lot of fun.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State tailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 149 yards and two scores in the win over Iowa.
2. Ohio State is becoming a second-half team: Coach Urban Meyer's Buckeyes had their first few victories sewn up at the end of the first half, if not the first quarter. In Ohio State's first five games, it outscored its opponents 121-21 in the first quarter and 175-47 in the first half. But after going conservative in the second half of a Sept. 28 win against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes are starting to play their best football in the final 30 minutes of games, mostly because of necessity. Much like they did against Northwestern, the Buckeyes struggled early Saturday against Iowa, which had a terrific offensive game plan and limited Ohio State to 25 first-half plays. But the Buckeyes' offense put on a clinic in the second half, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on its first four possessions. Ohio State ran 30 plays in the third quarter alone. Braxton Miller, nearly benched against Northwestern because of turnovers, showed why he's the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, completing 22 of 27 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He added 102 rush yards, including a cross-field 9-yard scamper on third-and-7 that set up an even better run by Carlos Hyde, who leaped into the end zone for a 19-yard score. Hyde again proved too much down the stretch, bulldozing his way to 149 rush yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Ohio State isn't getting rattled by shaky starts, and its knack for strong finishes should come in handy in November.

3. Northwestern has come unglued: A little more than a fortnight ago, Northwestern was a top-20 team that held a fourth-quarter lead on Ohio State. Pretty much nothing has gone right since then. The Wildcats got manhandled 35-6 in Week 7 at Wisconsin, a performance that one could easily chalk up to an Ohio State hangover. But after a 20-17 home loss to Minnesota, it now seems Northwestern is suffering from a serious illness. Losing quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark -- both of whom were injured again at Wisconsin and didn't play versus the Gophers -- has robbed the Wildcats of explosiveness on offense, although coach Pat Fitzgerald's team should still have enough talent to get by Minnesota at home. You wonder whether the injuries have taken a mental toll, and quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled in a full-time role. Northwestern was once 4-0 and looking like one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Today it is 0-3 in the league, out of Legends Division contention and in need of some answers fast.

4. Don't get too excited about that Michigan State offensive renaissance: Two straight solid offensive performances -- including a 42-point outburst in Week 7 versus Indiana -- made it appear that Michigan State had solved its long-running problems on that side of the ball. Saturday's 14-0 win over Purdue will slow down some of that talk. The Spartans managed just one offensive touchdown and only 294 total yards against the Boilermakers, who entered the game last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.8 points per game allowed in the first six weeks). Quarterback Connor Cook, who had come on strong the previous two weeks, went just 13-of-25 for 107 yards. Wide receiver Tony Lippett threw for the lone offensive score on a trick play. At least running back Jeremy Langford had another big day, rushing for 131 yards. Yeah, the weather wasn't great. But the Spartans missed injured receiver Bennie Fowler (hamstring) more than we expected, and given the opponent, their performance raises questions again about whether this is a championship-level offense.

5. Quarterbacks shuffle again at Minnesota and Indiana: If you can figure out the quarterback situations for either the Gophers or the Hoosiers, please let us know. After going back and forth between Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson -- who appear to share similar skills -- Minnesota seemed to settle on Leidner as its starter. But then Nelson came in and played much better in relief while leading the team to a big victory at Northwestern. Is Nelson back to being the guy? Or is this just a ride-the-hot-hand situation? Similarly, we were confused as to why Kevin Wilson had been reluctant to anoint Nate Sudfeld as the Hoosiers' main signal-caller despite Sudfeld's gaudy numbers this season. Wilson insisted that Tre Roberson still had a role, and Roberson gave the team a huge spark at Michigan with 288 passing yards. Sudfeld threw a costly interception late after Roberson got dinged. Perhaps both teams can juggle two quarterbacks as effectively as Northwestern has done for the past year and a half.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:15
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the four Big Ten games on Saturday:

1. Strength vs. strength for the Spittoon: The Indiana-Michigan State game might not be the most-hyped matchup of the weekend, but if you like irresistible force/immovable object conflicts, this one's for you. The Spartans lead the FBS in total defense, rush defense and passing efficiency defense. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are ninth nationally in total offense, 10th in passing yards and 11th in scoring. Indiana scored the first 17 points of the game last year in Bloomington before falling 31-27. This year's Old Brass Spittoon winner will go to the team that better parlays its strengths and its corresponding weaknesses (Michigan State's defense, Indiana's offense).

2. Inexperienced travelers: Both Indiana and Nebraska have had comfortable early-season schedules, as each has played its first five games at home. Both teams go on the road for the first time this week, with the Hoosiers in East Lansing and Nebraska visiting Purdue. Bo Pelini said the schedule worked out well for his young defense to gain some less stressful experience, but he still will be leaning on youthful players both on defense and at quarterback with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said his team uses a lot of hand signals on offense, so he's not too worried about crowd noise. Michigan also gets easily its toughest road test at Penn State, which should be a much more intimidating atmosphere than UConn's Rentschler Field.

3. Heartbreak Hotel, aka Camp Randall Stadium: No team has suffered more gut-wrenching close losses in the past 2½ years than Wisconsin. But at least Northwestern can relate. Both teams might be playing for national titles if the NCAA shortened games to 55 minutes. On Saturday, Team 5:03 travels to the team that has yielded more Hail Marys than the pope's rosary beads. Both the Wildcats and Badgers are also coming off tough losses to Ohio State, with Wisconsin having two weeks to lick its wounds. The winner can still dream about a BCS bowl. The loser will be in serious catch-up mode. Is there any way it can end except on a key play in the final minute?

4. Northwestern's run defense vs. Wisconsin's rushing attack: The Wildcats had trouble stopping Ohio State's offensive line and bulldozing back Carlos Hyde as the Buckeyes racked up 248 rushing yards in last week's 40-30 win. Northwestern players and coaches say it was more a matter of tackling and execution than a size and strength issue. They will have to do a much better job this week against Wisconsin, which is averaging 300 rushing yards per game. By all accounts, star tailback Melvin Gordon's left knee is fine after he injured it against Ohio State two weeks ago, and James White ran for 134 yards the last time these two teams played, in 2010 (yes, he's been around a long time). The Badgers ran for 329 yards in that last meeting three years ago. The teams have changed, but Wisconsin's approach hasn't. Northwestern had better hope its run defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State wideout Allen Robinson has 38 catches for 621 yards this season, with five touchdowns.
5. Penn State's response: Bill O'Brien has been jovial in many of his news conferences this year, but he was clearly not a happy man on Tuesday. O'Brien was terse in his answers with the media and basically refused to address anything regarding the Indiana loss or the team's scholarship situation. It's understandable why he wouldn't want to relive the program's first-ever loss to the Hoosiers or dwell on problems, because he needs his team focused on 5-0 Michigan, which comes to Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. game. The game is sold out and will be a White Out, though the enthusiasm from the fans might be a little less than before last week's loss. It remains to be seen whether the team will match O'Brien's feistiness and come out with a much better effort this Saturday.

6. Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess: Penn State's Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is gunning for another trophy after his 12-catch, 173-yard day against Indiana last week. Michigan's top job on defense is to find a way to stop him, and that's where cornerback Countess should come in. Countess has four interceptions this year, tying him for the national lead. The Wolverines likely will need more than just Countess to slow down Robinson, and Penn State continues to search for a complementary weapon in the passing game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

7. Ryan's return? Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan has been itching to return from the torn ACL he suffered in the spring, and he has been medically cleared to play on Saturday in State College. Coach Brady Hoke appears hesitant to put his star back in there, fearing the risk of further injury. Hoke said Wednesday that Ryan has practiced as a backup. The Wolverines' defense has been light on big-play ability, which Ryan brings to the table in spades. Getting him back would provide a physical and emotional boost for Michigan.

8. Etling's big day: In what has been a sorry season so far for Purdue, at least quarterback Danny Etling provides reason for optimism. After making his college debut two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, the freshman gets his first start Saturday vs. Nebraska. Head coach Darrell Hazell says Etling's strong arm opens the whole field for the Boilermakers' passing game, and he hinted at offensive changes made during the bye week to suit Etling's skills. Nebraska's defense did a good job slowing down Illinois' passing attack last week but still has vulnerabilities. Etling had better watch out for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who -- like Countess -- has four interceptions this season.

9. Two steps forward for Spartans' passing game? Michigan State had its most encouraging offensive performance of the season in last week's 26-14 win at Iowa. Quarterback Connor Cook made good decisions en route to a 277-yard day, and even better for the offense, receivers Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. showed off excellent playmaking ability. While not exactly an Oregon-esque outburst, last week's offensive showing was the kind the Spartans and their fans had been waiting to see for more than a year. The key will be whether that is a repeatable performance, especially this week against a below-average Indiana defense.

10. Well, hello again (and for the first time): One of the most aggravating byproducts of conference expansion is the gap between games for some high-profile programs. Michigan hasn't played Penn State since 2010, while Northwestern and Wisconsin also haven't met in three years despite the short distance between the two schools. That's why it's good to see those two games on the schedule this weekend. With the new division alignment starting in 2014, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be paired in the East, while the Wildcats and Badgers will be in the West. Perhaps this will be the start of some renewed rivalry tensions in both series. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Purdue for the first time as a Big Ten member. The schools have only played twice before and not since 1958 in West Lafayette. Scouting takes on added importance in all three of those games, as these teams have few players and coaches who have ever faced one another on the field.
Five lessons learned from a full week of conference play on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesCarlos Hyde carried 26 times for 168 yards and scored three second-half touchdowns Saturday.
1. Ohio State can handle adversity; will it be enough? Ohio State hadn't trailed all season before finding itself in a dogfight at Northwestern in which it had to come from behind in the fourth quarter on the road. In the end, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's best offensive line proved too much for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes are now 6-0, halfway to another undefeated regular season heading into a bye week and riding an 18-game winning streak under Urban Meyer. Yet Ohio State has shown some weaknesses, particularly with a pass defense that Northwestern exploited for 343 yards the week after safety Christian Bryant was lost for the season. A win is a win, and 18-0 is 18-0, but Meyer's team hasn't produced a lot of style points that would distinguish it in what looks like -- for now, anyway -- a very crowded BCS title chase. The good news is that the Buckeyes have cleared two of their biggest hurdles of the season with back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and the Wildcats, and they might not be challenged again until the season finale at Michigan, if even then. We wouldn't mind seeing a Northwestern-Ohio State rematch in Indianapolis, as Pat Fitzgerald's team looks like the best in a muddled Legends Division scrum, but the remaining schedule is tough. Someone from the Big Ten is probably going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat the Buckeyes; it remains to be seen whether perfection will be enough for Ohio State to get into the national title game.

2. Nebraska's defense and Michigan State's offense provide hope: The Huskers' defensive struggles and the Spartans' offensive woes were the top storylines for each team through the first month of the season. Nebraska entered the open week needing to repair a defense that hadn't stopped anyone consistently, from nationally ranked UCLA to FCS foe South Dakota State. But the Blackshirts responded against an Illinois offense that had made a bunch of big plays through the first four games. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Randy Gregory and Michael Rose all had big games, as did veteran nickelback Ciante Evans, as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters. Nebraska's offense did its thing behind running back Ameer Abdullah, but the defense's progress is encouraging for the future. Michigan State also saw an encouraging performance from its offense, as quarterback Connor Cook bounced back from his struggles at Notre Dame and got some help from not one, but two receivers in Macgarrett Kings Jr. (five catches, 94 yards, TD) and Bennie Fowler (nine catches, 92 yards, TD). Michigan State dominated possession time (37 minutes, 13 seconds) and scored the game's final 16 points. Nebraska will continue to lean on its offense, while Michigan State will rely on the Spartan Dawg D, but both teams looked more balanced Saturday, which is a great sign for their chances in the wide-open Legends division.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a week off, Devin Gardner accounted for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with no turnovers.
3. Bye weeks can be helpful: Data doesn't support the notion that bye weeks are beneficial to a team's win-loss record. But when a team is struggling in a certain area and has a week to work on it, that can be very helpful. As mentioned above, Michigan State and Nebraska both showed much improvement on their underwhelming sides of the ball after being idle in Week 5. Michigan worked in two new starters on the offensive line and came out determined to run the ball versus Minnesota. While the yards per carry average (3.2) still wasn't great, the push was better and the Wolverines ran for four touchdowns. More importantly, quarterback Devin Gardner finally played a turnover-free game. Indiana, meanwhile, simplified things for its young defense, as coach Kevin Wilson said there "was less on their plate" against Penn State. That worked, as the Hoosiers were able to attack and play loose in a 44-24 win over the Nittany Lions, coming up with several key stops. Northwestern obviously used its bye to get Venric Mark healthy and to work on more plays with Kain Colter at receiver, both of which proved helpful, indeed. The only team that didn't show some improvement after a Week 5 holiday was Penn State, although that might be due because of depth and injury issues than anything else.

4. Pump the brakes on Iowa and Illinois: The Hawkeyes and Illini had been undoubtedly the league's two big surprises through September and had chances to keep the good vibes going on Saturday. But Iowa took a step back against Michigan State, unable to run the ball or prevent a typically pedestrian Spartans passing attack from stretching the field. Iowa didn't look like a Legends Division contender and paid a price on the injury front. Things don't get any easier after an open week, as Iowa visits Ohio State (Oct. 19). Illinois needed its high-powered offense to strike against a seemingly vulnerable Nebraska defense, but it never happened, as Nathan Scheelhaase struggled with his accuracy. The Illini defense had all sorts of trouble against Nebraska's backup quarterback and running back Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has another week off before home tests against Wisconsin (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26). Both Iowa and Illinois could make bowls, but neither looks like a serious division contender.

5. Magic might be gone for Penn State: There were few better stories in the Big Ten last year than the way Penn State played under the cloud of NCAA sanctions, especially as the Nittany Lions won eight of their last 10 games. But Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill aren't walking through that door. Not only does Penn State lack the incredible senior leadership of last year's group -- which is less a knock on the current players than a tip of the cap to last year's veterans -- but it is struggling to find speed and playmakers on a defense that looks like one of the weakest in years in State College. The only two decent passing attacks on the Lions' schedule -- UCF and Indiana -- shredded Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler's crew. Meanwhile, the offense is becoming too reliant on the individual greatness of receiver Allen Robinson and failed to dominate an Indiana rush defense that has been the Big Ten's worst for multiple years in a row. A 20-point loss to the Hoosiers, in a game in which his team trailed 42-17, is easily the worst defeat of the Bill O'Brien era. The team is down to 61 scholarship players, and not all of them are healthy. "I don't think in any stretch of anybody's imagination that this is a normal Penn State team," O'Brien said. Unfortunately, this might be the new normal for Penn State as the sanctions take their toll, and another 8-4 season might well require some magic at this point.
Michigan State's defense decided enough was enough. So did Le'Veon Bell.

Had the season been a massive disappointment? Check. Had the lack of a Big Ten home win surprised everyone? Check. Had the number of near misses been infuriating for all involved? Check.

But the Spartans weren't about to miss out on a bowl game. No way. A 6-6 season would be salvaged, end of discussion.

Michigan State's defenders and Bell made sure of it in a 26-10 victory against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. The Spartans (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) ensured they'll be going bowling for the sixth consecutive season under head coach Mark Dantonio, while Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) also is headed to the postseason despite dropping its last two games.

Gophers coach Jerry Kill didn't return to the sideline for the second half. There's no definitive word whether Kill had another seizure, but we'll pass along any news as it comes in.

Michigan State's defense turned in its most dominant effort of the season, surrendering 96 total yards, four net rush yards, seven first downs and just three points. Minnesota's only touchdown came from linebacker Aaron Hill on a pick-six of Andrea Maxwell.

Pat Narduzzi's crew was fabulous.

Bell, meanwhile, continued to carry the Michigan State offense -- quite literally -- piling up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He recorded his third 200-yard rushing effort of the season and his sixth game of more than 30 carries. As bad as Michigan State's offense has been, think of where it would be without Bell.

About the only other offensive contribution the Spartans got came on a deflected pass intended for Tony Lippett that Bennie Fowler caught and ran into the end zone late in the first half.

Kicker Dan Conroy also made an impact, tying his career high with four field goals (48 yards, 43 yards, 43 yards, 30 yards). Although Michigan State's struggles in plus territory continued, the team didn't need many points Saturday.

Minnesota's defense kept it in the game, and the Gophers recorded two interceptions against Maxwell. But Nelson appears to be hitting a wall, and he needed a lot more help from the run game than he received today. Fortunately, Minnesota will have bowl practices to improve, and we hope Kill is OK.

Michigan State didn't expect to be here, squeaking into a bowl. All three of the Spartans' Big Ten wins came on the road, which could bode well as they'll play their bowl game away from East Lansing.

The offense needs a lot of work between now and late December, when Michigan State likely faces a Big 12 team in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

But Dantonio has to be pleased his team found a way, thanks to Bell, Conroy and the defense.

Spartans hoping for late-season run

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
11:10
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For much of the season, crunch time has ended up breaking Michigan State's back.

The Spartans lost to Ohio State when they couldn't get a defensive stop at the end of the game. They allowed a touchdown to Iowa in the final minute before losing in double overtime. A couple of first downs on their final drive at Michigan would have won the game; instead, the Wolverines kicked a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. In all, Michigan State's three Big Ten losses came by a total of six points.

That's why last week's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin felt so encouraging. The Spartans flipped the script by driving for a late game-tying touchdown before making the necessary plays in the extra period.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Spartans celebrate after finishing off the Badgers in overtime last week.
"We know we're a good football team; we just haven't been able to finish a lot of games," offensive lineman Chris McDonald told ESPN.com "So that win at Wisconsin gave us a confidence that we can win and that we should be able to finish. It has made a lot of difference for us this week."

Head coach Mark Dantonio said he hoped the Wisconsin win could become a defining moment for this team.

"It sent a great message to our football team that if you just keep playing, good things can happen," Dantonio said. "It sent a message to our coaches and everybody involved in the program that our chemistry is good, our mindset is good."

Dantonio's rallying cry for the rest of the season is simple: Finish. Finish drives, finish games and finish the season strong, beginning with this week's game at home against Legends Division front-runner Nebraska.

Last week at this time, there were legitimate concerns about whether the Spartans (5-4) could even make it to a bowl game this year. The Wisconsin win showed that this team isn't done fighting.

"If things go our way and we win out, hopefully we can still make it to the Big Ten championship game," wide receiver Bennie Fowler told ESPN.com. "We've still got to take it one game at a time. But November is a very important month. We take pride around here in winning in November."

Michigan State would need to not only win its final three games -- it closes with Northwestern at home and Minnesota on the road after a bye week -- but also receive a lot of help to win the Legends title. It currently trails both Nebraska and Michigan by two games in the standings and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Wolverines.

But beating Nebraska this week would at the very least open up the possibility of a strong finish after this season's disappointing start. And most of that will depend on the offense.

The Spartans' defense has been there all season. But the offense has produced only one touchdown in each of its three Big Ten losses. Saturday's game was hardly a breakout, as Michigan State didn't reach the end zone until 68 seconds were left in regulation. But the way quarterback Andrew Maxwell led a 12-play, 75-yard drive on the road to tie the game offered some inspiration.

"I think that's every quarterback's dream," Dantonio said. "It should provide some momentum for him and boost his confidence. I think he's very, very capable of doing those things consistently."

It was also a great sign that Maxwell's game-winning pass in overtime went to Fowler, a guy who struggled early in the year and lost his starting job before bouncing back.

"I'm proud of the way I responded," Fowler said.

Maybe Fowler can serve as a symbol for this entire team. Things haven't gone the way Michigan State hoped this year. But the Spartans hope to respond as we enter the crunch time of the season.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 9

October, 29, 2012
10/29/12
10:00
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Backbackbackbackback ....

Team of the week: Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan State all notched big wins on Saturday. But a team that rarely sniffs this space gets the honor this week: Indiana. The Hoosiers deserve a nod after winning their first Big Ten game since 2010 with a two-touchdown triumph at Illinois. Sure, the Illini are pretty awful. But Indiana has been close all year long and finally got over the hump with a road win where its defense played well. And with Wisconsin losing, the Hoosiers are still very much alive for the Leaders Division title, as crazy as that might sound. The best news for head coach Kevin Wilson might be that his team wasn't overly exuberant about beating Illinois. “I think they expected it," he said. "They weren’t just jumping up and down. We talked about how you want to get used to that feeling. We’ve been doing a lot of things right and it’s nice to get a Saturday scoreboard to go our way, and we want a lot more of those.”

Game of the week: A much anticipated Saturday featuring many closely-matched teams did not actually produce any truly great games. The best of the bunch was Michigan State's 16-13 overtime win at Wisconsin, though the two offenses made that one hard to watch for long stretches. But at least there was a good finish, finally, by the Spartans, who drove the field for a tying touchdown with 1:08 left and then won in the first overtime. "We've been close, and we just kept coming," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "What I'd like to say is basically, 'Hey, we're not going to quit.'"

Biggest play: We go back to East Lansing for Andrew Maxwell's game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to Bennie Fowler on third-and-8. It was a great back-shoulder throw by Maxwell and an even better grab by Fowler, who had to adjust to the ball while falling backward. Both players had drawn heavy criticism this season for their play, so it was nice to see them both succeed in a key moment. “This could be the spark that we need to kind of carry us over and propel us the rest of the way,” Maxwell said.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMichigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell came up big for the Spartans against Wisconsin.
Best play: The stat sheet just says it was a 1-yard touchdown run by Ohio State's Braxton Miller. But anyone who saw the play knows it was a piece of performance art. Miller stunned Penn State and his own teammates with his contortions after he and Carlos Hyde looked absolutely stuffed on a goal line option-read play. Miller's twisting, mid-air juke job even had his own coaches going "Oh, my god" on their headsets. We need some "The Matrix" style slow-motion camera work to truly appreciate the most outstanding 1-yard run of the season. Whoa, indeed.

Best call: The Nebraska defenders turned down an offer to have their blackshirts handed out after last week's win at Northwestern. They wanted to show consistency first, and they did so with a signature performance against Michigan. The Wolverines mustered only 188 yards and failed to score a touchdown (for the second straight week) in Nebraska's key 23-9. Yes, the injury to Denard Robinson was a huge factor, but it wasn't like Michigan was moving the ball at will before that, and the Huskers knocked him out of the game. Nebraska tortured Wolverines backup Russell Bellomy, who completed only 3-of-16 throws and had three interceptions. The blackshirts were well earned with this one.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern QB Kain Colter. When you call out your own offense for lacking an identity, as Colter did last week to ESPN.com, you'd better back it up. Colter sure did, running the ball 26 times for 166 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for 80 yards and a score in the Wildcats' 28-17 win over Iowa.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State DE William Gholston. The highly-talented junior hasn't always lived up to sky high expectations, but he was all over the place against Wisconsin. Gholston had 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack and put the hit on quarterback Joel Stave that changed the game (and possibly both teams' season).

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Ohio State's Adam Griffin has been a special teams ace, and he made one huge play at Penn State. The Nittany Lions called for a fake punt on the Buckeyes' 43, and punter Alex Butterworth threw to Derek Day, who was open for the first-down reception. But Griffin hustled back to break up the pass, and Ohio State would then march in for a touchdown that made it 21-10. "I thought that was the turning point of the game," Urban Meyer said afterward. Griffin's dad, two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, had to be proud.

Big (Fresh)man on Campus: Get ready to see a lot of Philip Nelson highlights over the next three or four years. Minnesota's precocious true freshman was tremendous in just his second college game, completing 11 of his first 12 passes and going 15-for-22 for 246 yards with three touchdowns, all in the first half, in a 44-28 win over Purdue. Nelson was so good that Gophers fans are asking what took so long for him to play.

Worst hangover: Wisconsin. Just when it seemed like the Badgers had bounced back and were ready to shoot up the Top 25, their offense got completely shut down against Michigan State. Worse, reports say Stave is out for the year with a broken collarbone, and backup Danny O'Brien was once again wildly ineffective at quarterback. Wisconsin probably will still go to the Big Ten championship game, but that beeping you hear is the sound of the Badgers backing their way into Indy.

Strangest moment: Midway through the second quarter in the Michigan State-Wisconsin game, we saw one of the ugliest series you'll ever (hopefully) witness.

First, the Spartans blocked a punt after Drew Meyer took his eye off the snap and a Keystone Cops reenactment ensued. Michigan State ook over on the Badgers' 11-yard line, in great position to score. Except that the Spartans possession went like this: holding penalty, incomplete pass, false start, sack, incomplete pass, delay of game penalty. When it was all said and done, Michigan State had lost 23 yards and somehow winded up punting on fourth-and-33. That "drive" appeared to encapsulate all of the Spartans' problems this season in one horrific sequence, but at least they solved them late for the win.
Michigan State is not dead yet.

The Spartans had played championship-level defense and unwatchable offense for most of the season. They did both for most of Saturday's game against Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium.

But just when it appeared time to write off the offense and the season, Michigan State came alive to rally past Wisconsin for a 16-13 overtime victory. The Spartans (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) snapped No. 25 Wisconsin's 21-game home win streak -- the second-longest in the nation -- and won in Madison for the first time since 2001. Andrew Maxwell found a seemingly blanketed Bennie Fowler for a 12-yard touchdown pass in the first overtime, after Wisconsin had kicked a field goal on its possession.

The Badgers (6-3, 3-2) clearly missed starting quarterback Joel Stave, who left the game with a shoulder injury after being hit by Michigan State DE William Gholston early in the second half. Stave played exceptionally well, completing 9 of 11 passes for 127 yards, and Wisconsin did nothing without him, as backup Danny O'Brien struggled mightily (5-for-11 passing, 44 yards), as did the offensive line. Still, Michigan State's offense continued to be worse, and it appeared as though the Badgers would escape with an ugly win.

After racking up one first down, one fumble and zero points on its first five second-half possessions, Michigan State came alive on a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the closing seconds of regulation. Maxwell connected on seven consecutive pass attempts, throw one incompletion, and then found Le'Veon Bell on a shuffle pass for a 4-yard touchdown with 1:08 remaining.

If Michigan State turns around its season a bit, remember that drive.

The Spartans defense deserves the lion's share of the credit for Saturday's win. Gholston was an absolute beast, racking up five tackles for loss, while linebacker Max Bullough led the way with nine tackles and three TFLs. Linebacker Kyler Elsworth dropped O'Brien for sacks on two blitzes and Michigan State held Wisconsin to an astounding 19 net rush yards on 37 attempts. Badgers top backs Montee Ball and James White, who had been so effective as of late, combined for 62 rush yards on 29 attempts.

It looked like White had sealed a Wisconsin win following a Lawrence Thomas fumble, but a holding penalty negated the score. Wisconsin certainly will take a look at the call, but there's nothing that can be done now.

For the Badgers, their misery against Michigan State continues, and Saturday's loss hurts the mood after a nice three-game win streak. Wisconsin remains in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders division in Indianapolis, but don't sleep on Indiana, which beat Illinois earlier Saturday and hosts slumping Iowa before the Badgers come to town. We'll have to see on Stave's status, but Wisconsin still appeared to have Michigan State beat and couldn't finish the job.

The game certainly wasn't the instant classic that Michigan State and Wisconsin twice gave us last year. The teams combined for just 78 rushing yards despite boasting the Big Ten's top two backs in Ball and Bell.

As ugly as it was for most of the afternoon, it goes down as a Michigan State win, one Mark Dantonio and his team will happily accept as they inch closer to bowl eligibility and should have a say in how the Legends division race shakes out.

Panic not one of Spartans' issues

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
2:20
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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."

Huge red flags in Michigan State win

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
7:13
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Michigan State won on Saturday, which is the most important thing. But the way the Spartans got their 23-7 victory over Eastern Michigan hardly calmed any of the concerns that were raised in last week's loss to Notre Dame.

To start with, Michigan State managed only two touchdowns against a winless team that came into the game with one of the worst defenses in the FBS, including the worst rushing defense. Both of those touchdowns came in the fourth quarter. The Spartans trailed 7-3 at halftime and did not take the lead for good until late into the third quarter.

All of the passing game issues were on full display, especially in the first half. Receivers had six drops in that half, though some of those Andrew Maxwell throws weren't completely on target. Bennie Fowler fumbled after a catch to set up Eastern Michigan's lone touchdown of the game. Maxwell was just 9-for-19 for 31 yards in the half.

Things got a little better in the second half, as Maxwell finished 16-of-29 for 159 yards and a score. Throwing the ball to big tight end Dion Sims (six catches, 112 yards and a score) is always a good idea, and he's the one guy Maxwell can really trust right now.

As expected against such a crummy run defense, Le'Veon Bell had a huge day. He ran for 253 yards and had a late touchdown. But the fact that Michigan State had to give Bell 36 carries against a bad MAC team says it all about where this offense is right now.

Remember, Purdue put up 54 points on Eastern Michigan last week. While comparative scores are often dubious, the Boilermakers have had far better showings against the common opponents they share with Michigan State, including a 20-17 loss at Notre Dame. Make of that what you will.

What we can make of the Spartans is this: their passing game is not nearly where it needs to be for a Big Ten title contender. If things don't improve in a hurry, especially with Ohio State coming into East Lansing next week, those issues are going to lead to much poorer results.

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