NCF Nation: Brandon Long

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The final 2008 edition of What to Watch examines the four remaining Big Ten bowl games: Outback, Capital One, Rose and Fiesta. The Big Ten is winless so far in the bowl season and is favored in only one bowl (Iowa, Outback).

Here are some subplots to watch as you watch the games (in order of kickoff time).

1. Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Big Ten fans should be somewhat familiar with Greene, but most of the country will get its first glimpse of the Hawkeyes' superstar on Thursday against South Carolina. The Doak Walker Award winner has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 12 regular-season games but faces a stout South Carolina defense. This likely will be Greene's final collegiate game, so get a good look while you can.

2. The Hawkeyes' back seven vs. Stephen Garcia -- Garcia gets the start at quarterback for South Carolina and hopes to provide some stability under center. The redshirt freshman has six touchdown passes and five interceptions on the season, and he'll need to limit mistakes against an Iowa defense that forces plenty of them. Iowa led the Big Ten with 20 interceptions, with five players collecting multiple picks.

3. Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer -- His last bowl appearance was a disaster, as he committed five turnovers (4 INTs, fumble) in a loss to Boston College. Georgia undoubtedly will load up to stop Javon Ringer and make Hoyer win the game for Michigan State. Though Hoyer's numbers this season won't blow anyone away, he has made clutch throws and found ways to win games. If he can stretch the field with Blair White, rushing lanes should open for Ringer.

4. Michigan State's defensive line vs. Georgia's offensive line -- If the Spartans manage to slow down Georgia, it has to start up front. Michigan State's defensive line has more experience and must find ways to exploit Georgia's front five. Rush end Trevor Anderson finished the year with eight sacks andBrandon Long and Justin Kershaw combined for seven more. If Matthew Stafford has time in the pocket, Michigan State will be in big trouble.

5. Joe Paterno's whereabouts -- It doesn't really matter where Paterno watches the Rose Bowl, but his potential return to the sideline after seven consecutive games in the press box might give Penn State an emotional lift. Paterno admits he sees the field better from up top, but the 82-year-old is itching to get back to where he belongs. His location likely will be a game-time decision, and the officiating crew better be on its toes if JoePa returns to the sideline.

6. Quarterback Daryll Clark and Penn State's offensive strategy -- Clark got his swagger back in the regular-season finale against Michigan State and enters the Rose Bowl stocked with confidence. But he goes up against quite possibly the best defense in recent college history. Though Clark has been smart and efficient all season (four interceptions in 285 pass attempts), Penn State likely needs to challenge USC down the field. A passive approach simply won't work in this game, and play-callers Galen Hall and Jay Paterno need to go right at USC's strength.

7. Penn State's special teams -- These two defenses could easily cancel one another out -- Penn State can play some 'D', too -- and the Rose Bowl might come down to special teams. Penn State senior return man Derrick Williams has been outstanding this season and needs another huge performance against USC. If Williams can give Penn State short fields and Kevin Kelly converts his field goal attempts, the Lions could outlast the Trojans. Punter Jeremy Boone also could play a big role in this one, and Penn State must contain the Johnsons (Ronald and Stafon) on USC's returns.

8. Ohio State's Pryor-Wells backfield combo -- If the Buckeyes' much-maligned offensive line steps up to create rushing lanes and time in the pocket, Terrelle Pryor and Chris "Beanie" Wells should do some damage in the Fiesta Bowl. Pryor has shown beyond-his-years poise this season, but the national spotlight gets brighter for the true freshman quarterback Jan. 5. The game likely will be Wells' last in a Buckeyes' uniform, and he'll want to go out with a huge performance after a season that began with Heisman Trophy hopes.

9. Buckeyes senior stars vs. Colt McCoy -- Linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will go down as two of the best ever to play their positions at Ohio State. They don't want to finish their careers with a third consecutive postseason loss, one that would only ramp up criticism of the Ohio State program. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy provides a formidable final challenge, but Ohio State's defense played its best football in the second half of the season. The Buckeyes need their senior stars to make game-changing plays, and Laurinaitis and Jenkins need a win to cement their legacy outside of Columbus and the Big Ten.

10. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel -- He's about as far away from the hot seat as a FBS head coach can get, but Tressel and his program really could use a win in the desert. Ohio State hasn't won a national showcase game outside of the Big Ten since 2006 (Texas), and despite the team's obvious improvement in November, the USC disaster remains the lasting image of the Buckeyes' season. Tressel has drawn criticism for what some feel is a stale offense. If he pulls the right strings with some more creative play calling, Ohio State could pull off the upset.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't help his conference in the never-ending Big Ten-SEC debate when he provided his scouting report of Georgia's offense to head coach Mark Dantonio.

  

"Their skill guys, their receivers, their running back, their quarterback, it's like the Big Ten All-Star team that we get to play against," Narduzzi told Dantonio.

Georgia wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi matched or surpassed any pass-catching combo Narduzzi saw in Big Ten play this year. Bulldogs quarterback Matthew Stafford trumped first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark of Penn State.

And while Narduzzi, like everyone associated with the Spartans football program, thinks the world of Javon Ringer, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno isn't too shabby. If Georgia has a weakness on offense, it's the offensive line, and that's largely because of youth.

"It's obviously going to be a challenge for our defense," Narduzzi said. "Everybody's got to step up. Certainly, if you're looking at something that might be their weakness, you look at their O-line. I don't know what they see as our weakness, but obviously pressure on the quarterback and pressure at the line of scrimmage by our linebackers and defensive line is going to be a key in the game."

Narduzzi's unit lacks the headliners of Georgia, but it has helped Michigan State to nine wins and a Capital One Bowl appearance Thursday against the preseason No. 1 team (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

This fall, the Spartans held eight teams to 24 points or fewer, including two bowl champions (Notre Dame and Florida Atlantic). What happened in the other four games, though is a cause for concern.

Michigan State struggled against elite offensive competition, allowing a combined 94 points in losses to Ohio State and Penn State.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I'll be wrapped up with Michigan-Ohio State for much of Saturday, so I wanted to take a closer look at the Big Ten's biggest matchup, No. 15 Michigan State at No. 8 Penn State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Here are three keys for each team as they pursue a share of the Big Ten title and a potential trip to the Rose Bowl.

THREE KEYS FOR PENN STATE
Stack the box and make Brian Hoyer beat you: Running back Javon Ringer has an insatiable appetite for carries, and Michigan State will feed him the rock until someone decides to stop him. Penn State's defensive front seven has been strong for most of the season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see eight or even nine men in the box Saturday. The Lions will look for big things from linebacker Navorro Bowman. Hoyer has performed well against Penn State, but the Lions need to challenge the Spartans senior quarterback.

Follow the script in the first quarter: Like most teams, Penn State scripts its first 10-12 plays, but the offense has struggled to stay on cue in the first quarter recently. Michigan State hasn't lost a game in which it scores first this season, so it's imperative for Daryll Clark and the Lions to execute well on the first two or three possessions.

Get the ball to Derrick Williams: The how really doesn't matter here. Williams is playing his best football in the final games of his career, and Penn State needs to do whatever possible to get the ball in his hands. Whether it's the Wildcat formation, end-arounds, designed runs or attacking the Michigan State secondary through the passing game, Williams needs to get at least 10 touches.

THREE KEYS FOR MICHIGAN STATE
Put pressure on Daryll Clark: Penn State's quarterback said this week that his swagger is coming back, but he admits he's had some confidence issues after sustaining a concussion Oct. 25 at Ohio State. If Trevor Anderson and his fellow Spartans defenders register an early sack or two, Clark could get rattled. Both Anderson and fellow end Brandon Long need big games against the Big Ten's best offensive line.

Claim the time-of-possession edge: The Spartans need to keep Penn State's offense off the field, and they've been good at putting together methodical, clock-eating drives behind Ringer. Michigan State ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 31st nationally in average time of posssession (31:17). It's vital to get good yards on first down and avoid obvious passing situations where Penn State's Aaron Maybin can digest Hoyer.

Don't get burned in special teams: In other words, keep Derrick Williams out of the end zone. Michigan State boasts all-conference-caliber specialists in kicker Brett Swenson and punter Aaron Bates, but it ranks 79th nationally in kickoff coverage and 61st in punt coverage. For the Spartans to hang around Saturday, they need to win the field-position battle and prevent any explosion plays from the Lions.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

At first, it sounds like Mark Dantonio is putting down his Michigan State team, which will earn the school's first January bowl berth since 1999 -- and possibly much more.

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have their sights set on a share of the Big Ten title.

"We have a group of overachievers," Dantonio told ESPN.com on Sunday night.

Being called an overachiever isn't a slight to Javon Ringer, Otis Wiley or the rest of the Spartans. Listen to how Dantonio describes Ohio State's 2002 national championship team, for whom he served as defensive coordinator.

"We overachieved," Dantonio said. "Any great team, any team that's winning right now, has got a bunch of overachievers, regardless of the talent level. There's so much parity in college football, there's so many things that can pop up and go wrong throughout the season, that you better be at your best and you better be a little bit past your best."

Michigan State certainly has exceeded the threshold many set for it before the season. Sure, the Spartans were the chic pick to be the Big Ten's surprise team in 2008. Some labeled them this year's Illinois, which came out of nowhere to reach the Rose Bowl last fall.

Still, given the program's knack for fast starts and faster collapses, for inflating and deflating expectations in a matter of days or weeks, it was tough to fully buy into the Spartans. Yet here they are, ranked No. 15 nationally and heading to No. 8 Penn State on Saturday to play for a share of the Big Ten championship (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

A Michigan State win, combined with an Ohio State loss would send the Spartans to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988. The Spartans haven't claimed a share of the league title since 1990.

"To do something that hasn't been done in 18 years makes it very, very special, not only to Michigan State and its fans, but to the players that are playing," Dantonio said. "Penn State's an outstanding football team, great talent, they're extremely well coached. But we're coming to play."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Game week is almost here, and coaches around the league have some big decisions to make. Your only decision is to keep reading.

  • Rejus Benn could use a shave, particularly if he ends up on stage accepting an award or two in December. But the Illinois sophomore wideout isn't concerned about his preseason hype, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette. Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury put Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent in the mix to start, Mark Tupper writes.
  • No one at Indiana has said much about the reasons behind quarterback Kellen Lewis' spring suspension. But Lewis finally opened up Monday, saying he had thrown himself into "a party lifestyle," skipping classes and team meetings, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Very candid stuff from the junior:
"There were times when they called me and couldn't get a hold of me for three days. I had gone out and partied and then missed two classes and didn't wake up until 12:30. ... When you start believing in your own hype a little bit, you start thinking you can slide in a little bit later than everybody else. And now that you don't have to follow the same rules, you can bend this rule or that one. 'The essay is due on Thursday, but I can just e-mail it to [the instructor] later that night,' that kind of thing. And then it all just kind of caught up with me and my grades slipped to a point they had never slipped to before."
Also, some notes from Hoosiers practice, as wideouts Andrew Means and Brandon Walker-Roby returned to the field.

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Brian Hoyer returns to lead the Michigan State offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State media day is under way, so check back for updates later in the morning and this afternoon. For now, here's a look at three major questions facing the Spartans entering what should be a defining 2008 season.

1. Can Brian Hoyer take the next step in his evolution and silence his critics?

Hoyer did a lot of good things last season, but quarterbacks are ultimately judged in the fourth quarter and Michigan State went 2-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer. His play in crunch time will go a long way in determining if the Spartans back up their preseason label as the Big Ten's surprise team. Hoyer can be extremely efficient, as he proved with just seven regular-season interceptions last fall, but the nightmare of his four-interception meltdown in the Champs Sports Bowl lingers with Spartans fans. As a senior, Hoyer should limit his mistakes, and if several capable wide receivers emerge, he'll have a big season.

2. How will Michigan State replace Devin Thomas' playmaking ability?

Thomas' rapid rise as a wide receiver/return man probably can't be duplicated by one player, but the Spartans feel confident in their mostly unproven receiving corps. Both Deon Curry and Mark Dell appeared in all 13 games last season, combining for 44 catches, and redshirt freshman B.J. Cunningham could be the team's top big-play threat. The two Chris Ruckers -- Chris D. and Chris L. -- provide depth and heralded freshman Fred Smith could contribute immediately.

3. Who will anchor the pass rush after the losses of Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin, both of whom ranked among the Big Ten's top seven in sacks?

Expectations are high for end Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati and a proven commodity. Anderson recorded 10 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in two seasons playing for Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati. He might be a bit rusty after a year off but should provide a big boost on the edge. The Spartans also need increased production from seniors Justin Kershaw and Brandon Long, who combined for 3.5 sacks last season.

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