NCF Nation: Brett Greenwood

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 4

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
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This week's sorry slate of Big Ten games tested my what-to-watch detective skills. Are there really 10 things to watch around the league on Saturday?

You bet, and here they are.

Brady Hoke
David Dermer/Getty ImagesMichigan coach Brady Hoke will face his former team, San Diego State, in an emotional game this Saturday.
1. The Brady Bowl: Michigan coach Brady Hoke goes up against his former team as San Diego State visits the Big House. There's a lot of familiarity on both sides, and it will be interesting to see the coaches match wits, particularly longtime colleagues Al Borges (Michigan's offensive coordinator) and Rocky Long (San Diego State's head coach). The Aztecs players will be geared up to face Hoke, and the Wolverines much match their intensity.

2. Miller time or Cup 'o Joe: Ohio State coach Luke Fickell was noncommittal Tuesday about his starting quarterback for Saturday's game against Colorado, although he seemed to lean toward true freshman Braxton Miller. Fickell wants more big plays from the offense and Miller can provide them. He also elevates the risk for mistakes, committing two turnovers in the loss to Miami. Miller clearly is Ohio State's future at quarterback, but Fickell needs to win now as his own future is in doubt. It'll be interesting to see what the young coach does with his signal-callers.

3. Illini defense to be tested again: Illinois' defense carried the team to a signature win last week against Arizona State. Vic Koenning's unit faces another test Saturday against Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder, who ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency. If the Illini don't tighten up a bit in the secondary or pressure the pocket like they did last week, Carder will capitalize. Illinois also must avoid the letdown factor against a team it lost to in 2008.

4. Blackshirts look for boost: We're still waiting for the Nebraska defense to live up to the lofty expectations placed on the unit -- both inside and outside the program -- entering the season. The Blackshirts have allowed 68 points in their past two games and rank in the middle of the pack nationally in most major defensive statistical categories. The Pelini brothers will look for a more polished performance against 3-0 Wyoming before a much tougher game next week at Wisconsin.

5. The Bison are coming: Most games against FCS opponents are glorified practices, but not for Minnesota. The Gophers lost to South Dakota last year and North Dakota State in 2007, and they barely escaped against South Dakota State in 2009. Jerry Kill might be the perfect coach to prepare Minnesota for a rematch with North Dakota State, as he spent a lot of time at the FCS level and knows how motivated those teams are to face the big boys. The Bison are ranked No. 6 in the latest FCS poll and provide a significant challenge for Kill's Minnesota squad.

6. Hillman vs. Denard: Two of the nation's most dynamic ball carriers will share the field Saturday at the Big House. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, the nation's second-leading rusher (165.7 ypg), will test Michigan's defensive front seven. Michigan will counter with -- who else -- Denard Robinson, who has been brilliant with his feet despite some ups and downs as a passer in the first three games.

7. The McGloin-Bolden saga: Will Week 4 finally provide some clarity in Penn State's seemingly never-ending quarterback competition? Most Nittany Lions fans certainly hope so. Coach Joe Paterno wants to be fair to both Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin, both of who have had their ups and downs in the first three games. "I don't know what I'm waiting for,'' Paterno said this week. Maybe a touchdown pass. Penn State is one of only three FBS teams not to record a passing touchdown in the first three games.

8. Young lines under the gun: Michigan State and Indiana both will send relatively inexperienced offensive lines onto the field Saturday. Injuries have taken their toll on the Spartans' line, and junior-college transfer Fou Fonoti needs to step up at tackle in place of Skyler Burkland. Despite a flurry of false-start penalties last week, Indiana plans to start several freshmen offensive linemen in its first true road game against winless North Texas.

9. Iowa's green-out: Iowa fans excel at color coordination, but you'll see plenty of green mixed in with black and gold on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The school is encouraging its fans to wear green as a tribute to former safety Brett Greenwood, who remains hospitalized after collapsing Sept. 9 during a workout. It's a great idea and I hope to see plenty of green in the grandstands.

10. Bucky Badger's pushups: Wisconsin scored 70 points or more three times last season, and the Badgers could close in on the plateau Saturday against FCS South Dakota. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring (45 ppg) and total offense (505.7 ypg). Although Bret Bielema likely won't take many chances with his starters a week before Nebraska comes to town, his team should produce plenty of points -- and pushups for its beloved mascot.

Ranking the Big Ten safeties

July, 13, 2011
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We wrap up our preseason look at Big Ten secondaries with a look at the safeties.

Safety isn't quite as stacked as cornerback, and the Big Ten loses some solid players like Iowa's Tyler Sash and Ohio State's Jermale Hines. There are fewer elite prospects at safety, but several teams have potential playmakers.

Here are the top 10 entering 2011:

[+] EnlargeTrenton Robinson
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSafety Trenton Robinson is entering his third season as a starter for Michigan State.
1. Trenton Robinson, Michigan State, senior: Robinson played a big role in Michigan State's improvement as a secondary in 2010. He led the Spartans with four interceptions and tied for the team lead in passes defended with eight. Robinson, who enters his third season as a starter, had 76 tackles last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

2. Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, senior: After emerging as a playmaker in 2010, Henry should be primed for even bigger things in his second season at safety. The former cornerback made the switch and recorded two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries last season. Like Robinson, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

3. Tyler Moeller, Ohio State, senior: Moeller will provide a huge boost for a new-look Ohio State defense as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle that shortened his 2010 season. He can play either safety or linebacker and showed impressive playmaking skills early last fall, recording two forced fumbles, an interception and 4.5 tackles for loss in just five games. If Moeller stays healthy, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

4. Brian Peters, Northwestern, senior: Peters boasts a lot of experience, appearing in every game the past three seasons. He also shows a knack for the football, recording three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. A second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 after recording 107 tackles, Peters must get a bit more consistent in coverage but looks ready to lead the defense.

5. Micah Hyde, Iowa, junior: After starting all 13 games last season at cornerback, Hyde likely will move to safety as the Hawkeyes lose two multiyear starters in Sash and Brett Greenwood. Hyde showed last fall that he's a tremendous playmaker, recording four interceptions, including the pick-six that won the Insight Bowl against Missouri. He led the team with 11 passes defended, finished second with 82 tackles and had a forced fumble.

7. Nick Sukay, Penn State, senior: Like Moeller, Sukay was doing big things in 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Sukay recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and 29 tackles in just six games. He's a natural playmaker who finished third in the Big Ten in passes defended with 13 in 2009. His return makes a very good Lions secondary even better.

8. Trulon Henry, Illinois, senior: An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2010, Henry will help anchor an Illini secondary that could do some big things this fall. Henry led Illinois with three interceptions and two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and 64 tackles. He should be helped by the return of Supo Sanni from injury.

8. Logan Link, Purdue, senior: Link quietly turned in a solid 2010 season, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in tackles with 91. He's a solid tackler who added an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The former walk-on has emerged as a really nice contributor for the Boilers' defense.

9. Drew Astorino, Penn State, senior: Astorino has been the iron man in Penn State's secondary, starting each of the past two seasons as well as three games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He has played through injuries, including a shoulder problem that impacted him last fall, when he recorded 70 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups. If Astorino stays healthy, he could blossom in his final season.

10. Courtney Osborne, Nebraska, junior: This is a bit of a projection pick, but Osborne should be able to help fill Nebraska's gaps at safety this fall. He appeared in every game last season, starting four, and recorded 41 tackles, an interception, a sack and five tackles for loss. Osborne did some nice things down the stretch and seems primed for bigger things in a bigger role.

Also considered: Minnesota's Kim Royston, Michigan's Jordan Kovacs, Indiana's Greg Heban
The Big Ten preseason position rankings have reached the home stretch as we take a look at the secondaries. Although individual positions like center and defensive tackle could boast more star power, the Big Ten's overall strength in the secondary jumps out.

There's a lot to like about the Big Ten cornerbacks as nearly every team boasts experience and/or exciting young players. The Big Ten loses All-Conference safeties Tyler Sash and Jermale Hines but brings back quite a few solid contributors.

There's definite separation after the top four groups, while Nos. 6-9 are extremely close.

Here's the rundown (coming soon: cornerbacks and safeties rankings) ...

[+] EnlargeDrew Astorino and D'Anton Lynn
Maxwell Kruger/US PresswirePenn State has an experienced secondary that includes safety Drew Astorino, right, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn, shown celebrating an Astorino interception last season.
1. Penn State: The Lions' linebackers seem to be generating more preseason buzz, but I really like what Penn State brings back in the defensive backfield. There's plenty of experience with safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. Penn State needs Sukay to regain the form he showed in the first half of 2010 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Lynn is a bona fide All-Big Ten candidate. If Malcolm Willis, Chaz Powell and others solidify depth here, Penn State should have an elite secondary.

2. Ohio State: This is a group the Buckeyes rarely have to worry about, even after losing three starters. The good news is several key players return from injuries, including safeties Tyler Moeller, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Moeller should provide a major boost at the "star" position. The cornerback spots should be fun to watch as Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke fend off some challengers for the starting jobs.

3. Nebraska: Like Ohio State, Nebraska can rely on having an elite pass defense under the Pelini brothers, even after losing several standout players. All-American corner Prince Amukamara will be missed, but Alfonzo Dennard is ready for a starring role. Nebraska needs Ciante Evans to follow what Dennard did in 2010. The Huskers likely will use more linebackers this season, but they'll need to fill holes at safety as Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and others are in the mix.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers' secondary took a major step forward in Chris Ash's first season on the staff. The key is continued progress, continued playmaking and becoming a truly elite group like Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin seems to have the pieces in place with veteran Aaron Henry at safety, as well as All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith at cornerback. The Badgers must fill the other safety spot, and speedster Shelton Johnson could fill in there.

5. Michigan State: The secondary triggered Michigan State's 2010 turnaround, improving from 112th nationally in pass defense in 2009 to 60th last season. After recording 17 interceptions last season, the Spartans must stick to their MAP motto -- Make A Play -- as they aim for a repeat championship this fall. Safety Trenton Robinson is among the league's most experienced defensive backs, and hopes are high for cornerback Johnny Adams, who had an excellent spring. The unit could hinge on young players like Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis and Tony Lippett.

6. Iowa: The bad news is Iowa loses veteran safeties Sash and Brett Greenwood from a defense that slipped to 84th nationally against the pass in 2010. The good news is All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater returns along with playmaking junior Micah Hyde. Prater could be a shutdown corner this fall, and Hyde, whose pick-six won the Insight Bowl, could play either corner or safety. Iowa must build depth around them with Jordan Bernstine, Greg Castillo, Tanner Miller and others.

7. Purdue: One of the Boilers' big question marks entering 2010 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and the secondary could be a big strength this fall. Here's a group that could make a move up these rankings by November. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a budding superstar who recorded two pick-sixes last season. Safety Logan Link is always around the football, and Josh Johnson could take a significant step as he complements Allen.

8. Illinois: I'm tempted to rank Illinois a few notches higher, and if the Illini address several questions in the secondary, I'll gladly do so after the season. If safety Supo Sanni returns to form and both he and cornerback Terry Hawthorne stay healthy, this could be an excellent group. Tavon Wilson returns to his preferred position of cornerback and could have a big season, while Trulon Henry brings experience to the safety spot.

9. Northwestern: Given the question marks in the front seven, Northwestern needs its veteran secondary to step up. Players like cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters should answer the bell this fall. Both multiyear starters can make plays on the football and change games. There's good competition between David Arnold and Ibraheim Campbell at the other safety spot, while Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring to win the starting corner job opposite Mabin.

10. Michigan: I'll probably take some heat from Wolverines fans, who will point to the return of cornerbacks Troy Woolfolk and J.T. Floyd, the emergence of young players like Carvin Johnson and a defensive makeover under Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. All of that could lead to better results, but Michigan still has fewer certainties in the secondary than do most teams on this list. This unit has been a disaster the past few years, and it'll take a lot of things to go right to get things back on track.

11. Minnesota: Linebacker looks like a strength for the Gophers' defense, but there are questions both up front and in the secondary. The secondary will need more help from a line that generated no pass rush in 2010, but the defensive backs must help themselves, too. Cornerback Troy Stoudermire had a good spring and adds a big hitter to the group. Minnesota really needs big things from safety Kim Royston, who wants to lead the way after receiving a sixth year of eligibility. Building depth around Stoudermire and Royston will be vital in preseason camp.

12. Indiana: Fixing this group is arguably the biggest challenge for new coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory. Indiana simply hasn't had enough Big Ten-caliber defensive backs in recent years, and the results have been ugly. The Hoosiers surrendered a league-worst 27 touchdown passes in 2010 and finished 114th nationally in pass defense efficiency. Sophomore safety Greg Heban is a nice piece, but Indiana will need a boost from Lawrence Barnett, Lenyatta Kiles and others.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- When the preseason polls come out in August, the Iowa Hawkeyes likely won't be included.

That's not a bad thing.

Iowa didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP Poll in 2002. The Hawkeyes went on to win 11 games and reach the Orange Bowl.

After winning 31 games and two Big Ten titles between 2002-04, Iowa entered the 2005 season ranked No. 11 nationally. It went 7-5 that year.

Despite a strong finish to the 2008 season, the Hawkeyes squeaked into the preseason rankings (No. 22 AP, No. 21 Coaches'). They were nationally relevant but hardly overhyped. And after a major scare against FCS Northern Iowa in Week 1, Iowa slipped out of the polls. It responded with a team-record 9-0 start and finished the season ranked seventh in both polls after winning the Orange Bowl.

The respect Iowa and its rabid fans crave arrived last summer as the Hawkeyes debuted in the Top 10 in both polls. Some even listed Iowa as a fringe national title contender. The team stumbled to 7-5 before a dramatic win in the Insight Bowl.

"When we start kind of off the radar, not in the Top 25, we always seem to raise expectations, within the program, especially," senior tight end Brad Herman said. "It's very easy to slip into the hype, people always patting you on the back and then you lose one or two games and all of a sudden the sky is falling. History shows that's the case."

Hawkeyes' veterans like Herman and defensive tackle Mike Daniels know what it's like to be both hyped and somewhat forgotten. There's no doubt how they'd rather be viewed.

"Iowa guys, we love to play with a chip on our shoulder," Daniels said, "and being under the radar just makes that chip even larger."

[+] EnlargeMike Daniels
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireDefensive lineman Mike Daniels says the Hawkeyes are at their best when they have a chip on their shoulder.
It's also a familiar realm for Iowa players.

Most of them weren't decorated recruits. They play for a program that would much rather list the number of walk-ons it has sent to the NFL than brag about the number of five-star prospects it signs each February.

Iowa players aren't used to hearing how great they are, and Kirk Ferentz and his assistants make sure it stays that way. Although Hawkeye football is the biggest show in the state, the team sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the media spotlight.

The underdog mentality is ingrained in the culture here, and it has helped on fall Saturdays.

"That's the tradition," defensive end Broderick Binns said. "Coach Ferentz looks for guys who are willing to work hard, have good character, who aren't going to be [jerks]. It's not tradition for coach Ferentz to bring in a guy that's four or five stars, who's all glamorous. Iowa's not about that. We're all about, 'Put your feet in the ground and go to work.'"

Iowa will go to work this fall without the potential distractions/pressure brought on by preseason accolades. The Hawkeyes' star power is gone, and the team must fill gaps at nearly every position.

Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, a three-year starter and a local cult hero, has departed for the NFL. Iowa loses three multiyear starters along the defensive line, including a likely first-round pick (Adrian Clayborn) and a likely second-rounder (Christian Ballard). Both starting safeties depart (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood) along with receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, tight end Allen Reisner and standout punter Ryan Donahue. Iowa returns only five starters on both sides of the ball.

It'll be an uphill climb for respect, but the Hawkeyes don't mind.

"We all have a goal: the Big Ten championship," Herman said. "That's something we state at the beginning of every single season. Being under the radar kind of relieves the pressure a little bit. We aren't really being talked about right now, and that's fine. Nothing changes around here."

If nothing changes this fall, Iowa will find itself in plenty of tightly contested contests. Drama has been the norm for Iowa the past few seasons.

In 2008, the team dropped four of its first nine games by five points or fewer and faced No. 3 Penn State as an underdog. A 24-23 victory against the Nittany Lions transformed Iowa into a clutch team. The Hawkeyes won their next five games decided by five points or fewer and rallied for wins in eight of their first nine games in 2009.

But Iowa's fortunes turned last fall. All five of its losses came by seven points or fewer, including three straight to end the regular season. A team that prides itself on finishing strong repeatedly crumbled in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes responded in the bowl game against Missouri, rallying for a 27-24 win, but players and coaches agreed the season was a disappointment.

"We're sitting there at 7-2 and lost three games by 10 points, so what can we do to do better in those situations?" Ferentz said. "That's what we're focused on. It comes down to a lot of little details and giving ourselves a chance. ... The reality is we were pretty good from October 2008 to November 2010. I look at it more that way. I'm not a peak-and-valley person. You can't afford to be if you're a coach."

Iowa appeared to go through some valleys in the offseason as several off-field issues cropped up followed by 13 players being hospitalized in January with rhabdomylosis. The team's celebrated strength program came under fire, but an internal investigation found no specific cause for the hospitalizations and Iowa has moved forward.

"We handled the rhabdo situation very well," Herman said. "Everybody was more pulled together as [the criticism] was coming down on us. It's going to benefit us in the fall for sure."

Iowa has its share of uncertainty entering the fall. Can quarterback James Vandenberg steady the ship after a gutsy performance in relief of Stanzi in 2009? Can Daniels and Binns help the defensive line reload? Who fills the gaps at safety, linebacker and wide receiver?

To these questions, the Hawkeyes say ask away. They'll have answers when September rolls around.

"You've got 11 guys on the field who are just mad at the world," Daniels said. "That's the way we would like to play."

Opening spring ball: Iowa

March, 23, 2011
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Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes hit the practice field Wednesday for the first of 15 spring workouts.

Here's a snapshot of the Hawkeyes in spring ball:

The big story: Football mercifully resumes as Iowa tries to turn the page on a rough offseason and start fresh. Aside from the dramatic Insight Bowl win against Missouri, Iowa hasn't enjoyed much good news in the past four months. There were off-field problems and player discipline, followed by the hospitalization of 13 players with rhabdomyolysis in January and a subsequent internal investigation. The football field will be a welcome sight for Ferentz and his players as they try to regain their mojo from 2009. Iowa loses a large senior class but returns a group of promising young players and a very solid offensive line. Ferentz's teams typically fare better when outside expectations aren't as high, but the growth process must begin right away this spring.

Position in the spotlight: Quarterback jumps to mind as Iowa begins the task of replacing three-year starter Ricky Stanzi. Remember James Vandenberg? The plucky freshman who nearly led Iowa to a Big Ten title-clinching win at Ohio State in 2009? He now sets his sights on the starting job but could be pushed by junior John Wienke and redshirt freshman A.J. Derby, a fascinating player who could see time at other positions. I'd also include safety here as the Hawkeyes must replace both starters (Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood).

Coaching changes: Ferentz's staff stability continued as Iowa was one of only two Big Ten squads to avoid any coaching changes during the offseason. The only potential uncertainty is veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who missed most of last season following foot amputation surgery. Parker is a battler, though, and will be helping the Hawkeyes as long as his health holds up.

Keep an eye on: Keenan Davis. Iowa needs a No. 2 receiver to emerge alongside Marvin McNutt, and Davis will get every chance to fill the role this spring. A heralded recruit, Davis has just 15 receptions in his first two seasons and needs to take the next step at a position of need.

Spring game: April 16

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Senior Big Ten team

January, 24, 2011
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As we gear up for the Senior Bowl, I wanted to piggyback off of an excellent post by colleague Chris Low from last week.

It's time to identify an All-Big Ten team comprised only of seniors. There were easy picks like Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, but several positions created some tough choices.

Reminder: This team includes only fourth-year or fifth-year seniors, not redshirt juniors.

Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.

In case you forgot, my All-Big Ten team included only 12 seniors, all of whom will appear below. I also selected 14 underclassmen.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: Dan Dierking, Purdue
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: Bill Nagy, Wisconsin
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
[+] EnlargeEric Gordon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEric Gordon narrowly edged out Ross Homan for a spot on the All-Senior Big Ten team.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DL: Karl Klug, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Chris L. Rucker, Michigan State
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
S: Brett Greenwood, Iowa

SPECIALISTS

K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Returns: David Gilreath, Wisconsin

Some thoughts:

  • I really struggled with the quarterback spot. Tolzien ultimately made fewer mistakes than Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who had superior statistics and had fewer weapons surrounding him. You can make a good case for Stanzi or Indiana's Ben Chappell, but Tolzien gets a slight edge.
  • No disrespect to Royster or Dierking, but the Big Ten really struggled to produce many decent senior running backs this season. Perhaps that's a promising sign for the future, but typically there are more experienced ball-carrying options. Royster was the only senior ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 rushers. I thought about Ohio State's Brandon Saine, but Dierking did more as a ball carrier.
  • The No. 3 linebacker was a really tough call between Gordon and Ohio State's Ross Homan. Ultimately, Homan missing time with a foot injury and Gordon displaying remarkable consistency alongside Greg Jones made Gordo the pick.
  • Another tough call was DJK ahead of Indiana's Terrance Turner, who had 21 more receptions but fewer yards and seven fewer touchdown catches.
  • The deepest position among Big Ten seniors (by far): offensive guard. I went with Moffitt and Carimi, but players like Ohio State's Justin Boren, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Iowa's Julian Vandervelde and Illinois' Randall Hunt all were good options.
  • Five teams didn't produce selections: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern. Is that a good omen or a bad one for 2011?
Selections by team: Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (5), Michigan State (5), Iowa (4), Penn State (3), Purdue (2)

No NFL surprises for Iowa juniors

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
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Iowa will miss the playmaking prowess of safety Tyler Sash, but it's hard to fault No. 9 for making the jump to the NFL draft.

Meanwhile, Hawkeyes juniors Shaun Prater and Marvin McNutt made wise choices to return for their senior seasons in Iowa City.

There were no major surprises for Iowa's three juniors considering the NFL draft.

Sash, who turns 23 in May, seemed like a good bet to make the jump after starting three seasons at strong safety for Iowa. No Big Ten defensive back made more game-changing plays in the past two seasons than Sash, who leaves Iowa with 13 career interceptions and a team record in interception return yards. Although he didn't have a monster year in 2010, he still finished third on the team with 79 tackles and had two interceptions.

Although McNutt certainly has potential to play at the next level, he didn't seem likely to pass up his senior year. He'll be Iowa's featured receiver as a senior this coming season, and only has been a full-time receiver for two years. When a receiver like Michael Floyd eschews the draft for another year in college, it's probably a good idea for McNutt to do the same.

Prater was the swing guy for Iowa. There had been some buzz he would make the jump to the NFL after a strong junior season, but he opted to remain with Iowa. With both starting safeties (Sash and Brett Greenwood) departing, Iowa will need big performances in 2011 from both Prater and fellow cornerback Micah Hyde.
The position rankings march on as I take a look at the top five secondary units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Iowa: Playmaker extraordinaire Tyler Sash leads a group that boasts good experience but must fill a major void following the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey. Sash has recorded 11 interceptions in his first two seasons and already holds the team record with 350 interception return yards. His heroics overshadow the very solid play of fellow safety Brett Greenwood, who has started for two and a half seasons and owns seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. Shaun Prater is a returning starter at corner, and Iowa also has Jordan Bernstine, Micah Hyde, William Lowe and others.

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Tyler Sash will be one of the leaders of the Big Ten's No. 1 secondary.
2. Penn State: The Lions are always solid in the front seven, but the secondary might lead the unit in 2010. Starting safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay both return, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn takes on an enhanced leadership role after recording five pass breakups last fall. Penn State also has high hopes for cornerback Stephon Morris, who recorded 30 tackles and an interception as a freshman in 2009. Converted receiver Chaz Powell should add depth at the corner spot. Opponents completed just 54.1 percent of their passes against Penn State last fall.

3. Ohio State: There are some question marks here after the departures of All-Big Ten standout Kurt Coleman and veteran safety Anderson Russell, but Ohio State almost always finds a way to survive in the back four. The return of Tyler Moeller definitely helps, and safety Jermale Hines could have a big year after recording two interceptions in 2009. Is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a shut-down corner in the Big Ten? We'll find out. Also keep an eye on athletic corner Devon Torrence and safety Orhian Johnson.

4. Wisconsin: This isn't a shut-down secondary -- evidence: 55th in pass defense in 2009 (217.5 ypg) -- but there are playmakers and hard-hitters, specifically veteran safety Jay Valai, among the group. There's good depth at cornerback with returning starter Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie, who has stood out in camp so far. Chris Maragos is a significant loss at safety, and it remains to be seen whether Aaron Henry can regain his pre-injury form as he moves from cornerback to safety.

5. Minnesota: I'm taking a little leap of faith here again, but if safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret are on the field together, good things will happen. The two combined for 159 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2009, and finished with an outstanding performance in the Insight Bowl. I also like talented young cornerback Michael Carter, while Ryan Collado brings experience to the other corner spot. Minnesota expects juco transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins to add depth at safety.

Up next: Offensive line

More rankings ...

Stating the BCS cases for Iowa, PSU

November, 23, 2009
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Iowa and Penn State both have completed the regular season at 10-2, but the schools' competition for a BCS at-large berth is just getting started. Ohio State owns the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth (almost certainly to the Rose Bowl), but as usual, the league is well positioned for an at-large selection.

The Iowa-Penn State debate is fascinating because so many factors are involved, and many seem split on these teams. Penn State is ahead in all of the human polls, but the computers favor Iowa and push the Hawkeyes in front in the BCS standings.

Here's a look at the BCS case for each team.

The Case for Iowa

Iowa's case is built around what happened on the field and who it came against. The Hawkeyes feel they have the facts on their side and see no need for flash or sizzle (i.e. style points).

AD Gary Barta and head coach Kirk Ferentz can point to the following factors:

  • A head-to-head victory at Penn State on Sept. 26. Iowa went into Happy Valley and upset Penn State 21-10. The Hawkeyes also were without starters Bryan Bulaga and Tony Moeaki in the game.
  • Better wins than Penn State. Iowa beat Arizona, a recently ranked team that would be back in the polls had it not fallen apart late against Oregon. Iowa also beat Wisconsin, ranked 16th in the BCS standings before last week's loss to Northwestern.
  • A tougher schedule overall and on the road. Iowa had to visit Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State and went 3-1. The Hawkeyes could have gone 0-4 or 4-0, but they were competitive in every game. Plus, Iowa played two nonconference games against decent BCS teams (Arizona and Iowa State), while Penn State played one against a bad team (Syracuse). Iowa's schedule ranks 27th nationally based on cumulative opposition; Penn State's ranks 47th.
  • More adversity than Penn State. Iowa lost two potential starters before the season (RB Jewel Hampton and CB Jordan Bernstine) as well as starters like Bulaga, Moeaki, wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, safety Brett Greenwood and quarterback Ricky Stanzi during the season. Iowa's only two losses came in a game Stanzi didn't finish because of injury (Northwestern) and a game in which Stanzi didn't play (Ohio State).
  • A much better showing against Big Ten champ Ohio State. Iowa took the Buckeyes to overtime in Columbus despite redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg making his first career start. The Hawkeyes lost 27-24, while Penn State got obliterated on its home field.
  • Stanzi is expected back for a bowl game.
  • Iowa fans travel extremely well to bowl games, a reason the Hawkeyes have leapfrogged Big Ten teams in the selections. Arizona is filled with Iowa natives and university alumni, making the Hawkeyes attractive to the Fiesta Bowl.
The Case for Penn State

Penn State's case is built around impressive victories, star players, a tremendous brand name and a legendary head coach. The Lions earned style points in their wins this season and finished the regular season with their top performance, throttling Michigan State. Plus, these bowls know what they'll get with Penn State, and they'll like it.

AD Tim Curley and head coach Joe Paterno can cite:

  • Margin of victory. Penn State beat Michigan State by 28 points on the road, Michigan by 25 points on the road and Northwestern by 21 points on the road. Iowa needed a touchdown on the final play to beat Michigan State 15-13. The Hawkeyes also beat Michigan by only two points at home and lost to Northwestern at home.
  • Stronger play down the stretch. Iowa went 1-2 in November and had only one victory by more than 12 points after spanking Iowa State 35-3 back on Sept. 12. After falling to Iowa, Penn State won seven of its final eight games, with six of those wins coming by 18 points or more and five by 20 points or more.
  • A key injury against Iowa. Penn State faced the Hawkeyes without star linebacker and co-captain Sean Lee, who missed the game with a knee injury.
  • The Temple win. Everyone knocks Penn State's nonconference schedule, but the Lions' 31-6 victory against Temple on Sept. 19 looks better and better. The Owls haven't lost since and could win the MAC title.
  • Paterno. He remains one of the most fascinating figures in sports, and he always makes a bowl game more appealing with his presence. Paterno has won more bowl games than any other coach.
  • A national name. Iowa and Penn State both travel well, but Penn State is a name recognized by casual fans around the country. Penn State has been to five Orange Bowls and six Fiesta Bowls, including the 1987 game that clinched the school's last national championship and drew a huge television audience. If a bowl picks Penn State, it is guaranteed a huge turnout and great TV ratings.

It's game day at Ohio Stadium

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
1:00
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Most of us want a true Big Ten championship game. Today's contest at Ohio Stadium is as close as it gets.

Greetings from The Shoe, where No. 10 Iowa and No. 11 Ohio State meet with the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth, almost certainly the Rose Bowl, at stake.

The Buckeyes come in as heavy favorites following their big win last week against Penn State, while Iowa tries to bounce back without quarterback Ricky Stanzi and win its first game in Columbus since 1991. Ohio State is 31-4-1 against Iowa since 1962. Put simply, this is the prime opportunity for Iowa to quiet its doubters and shock the Big Ten by going 4-0 in conference road games.

The weather is gorgeous with sunny skies, temperatures in the low- to mid-60s and light winds. It's unseasonably warm, and I'll definitely take it.

Injuries: Everyone knows about Stanzi, who will miss today's game and most likely next week's regular-season finale with a severely sprained right ankle. Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg makes his first career start at quarterback. Iowa hopes to get safety Brett Greenwood (neck) and wide receiver Colin Sandeman (head) back for the game, while there's a chance running back Adam Robinson (ankle) could play. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is battling an ankle injury and sat out portions of practice this week. Defensive tackle Dexter Larimore should be a bigger factor today as he works back from a sprained knee. Ohio State's offensive line is probably the healthiest it has been all season, as tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams should be available today.

THREE KEYS FOR IOWA

1. Force turnovers from Pryor -- Iowa leads the Big Ten in takeaways (26) and ties for the national lead in interceptions (19). The Hawkeyes defense must help out Vandenberg by forcing turnovers against Pryor, who has been more turnover prone this season.

2. Put Vandenberg in situations to succeed -- As good as Stanzi was in the fourth quarter, he put the defense in tough situations with interceptions. Iowa shouldn't throw too much at the young quarterback but take a few calculated risks and stretch the field with wide receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. Vandenberg has the arm strength to make the throws, but he'll need time from the offensive line.

3. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage -- Iowa's defensive line essentially won the Penn State game. It needs a repeat performance against Pryor and the Buckeyes' offense. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes' offensive line must play its best game of the season against one of the nation's elite defensive fronts, led by Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson.

THREE KEYS FOR OHIO STATE

1. Turn up the heat on Vandenberg -- The Buckeyes have made life miserable for veteran quarterbacks and should be licking their chops against a guy making his first career start. Iowa's offensive line has underachieved a bit, and the Buckeyes will win this game if they consistently harass Vandenberg.

2. Run Pryor around the edges -- Iowa is the only Big Ten team yet to face Pryor, and the Hawkeyes really haven't seen a comparable quarterback. Pryor has run the ball well since the Purdue game and should test Iowa's speed around the edges. Despite Pryor's bad ankle, Ohio State can't be afraid to turn him loose.

3. Don't get overconfident -- The entire complexion of this game changed last Saturday, and Ohio State comes in as a huge favorite. The Buckeyes usually don't let outside factors affect their play, but they need to respect Iowa and not let the Hawkeyes hang around in this game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa defenders have talked all season about putting out the fire.

Starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi put his teammates to work quite a bit, throwing 13 interceptions through the first nine games. Almost every time, the Hawkeyes defense extinguished the flames, buying enough time for Stanzi to generate his fourth-quarter magic and turn the water cannons on the opposing team.
 
 AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
 Iowa will likely be without quarterback Ricky Stanzi Saturday against Ohio State.


Stanzi's interceptions were mostly brush fires for Iowa's defense. His absence from the field because of a sprained right ankle is unquestionably an inferno.

As redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg prepares to make his first career start Saturday against No. 11 Ohio State, the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes need their defense to step up now more than ever.

"We've got to keep doing our job," senior linebacker Pat Angerer said. "We shouldn't let teams score, and we did [against Northwestern]. That game's on us. We've got a lot of improvement we need to make."

Iowa's task this week is far from impossible. Ohio State ranks 62nd nationally in total offense (373.8 ypg) and 98th in passing (183.1 ypg). The Buckeyes are running the ball well, but Iowa's strength on defense remains its front seven. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been more prone to turnovers this year, and Iowa leads the Big Ten in takeaways (26).

Pryor and the Ohio State offense gained a major boost in a blowout win against Penn State. Pryor ran the ball well, committed no turnovers and connected on several big pass plays, including a 62-yard touchdown to DeVier Posey. Iowa's defenders have never faced the dual-threat sophomore because the teams haven't played since 2006.

"Coach [Kirk Ferentz] talks about, ‘Whatever happens, wherever the fire’s at, we’ve got to put it out,’" said senior safety Joe Conklin, who has stepped in nicely for the injured Brett Greenwood. "That’s the truth. It doesn’t matter what the heck happens on the field. You've got to go out and take care of it."

Conklin felt a greater sense of urgency throughout the defense as soon as Stanzi went down against Northwestern. Though the Wildcats scored a quick touchdown to take a 14-10 lead, Iowa surrendered only three points the rest of the way. Northwestern finished with only 239 total yards.

The margin for error will be even slimmer in Columbus, not because Ohio State is an offensive juggernaut, but because the Buckeyes are a dominant defense. Ohio State easily could have held Penn State scoreless at Beaver Stadium, which would have been its fourth shutout in 10 games. As it turned out, the Buckeyes allowed only seven points, nine first downs and 201 total yards in the victory.

Iowa's offense went nowhere after Stanzi's injury, crossing into Northwestern territory just once and racking up only 132 yards. Facing the Buckeyes at full strength would be a tremendous challenge. Facing the Scarlet and Gray with an all-freshman offensive backfield (Vandenberg and running back Brandon Wegher) could be disastrous.

The Hawkeyes will lean on their defenders, who are ready to answer the bell again.

"If somebody goes down or we have a problem on offense or a problem on defense, the other side has to step up," Conklin said, "We have to move on."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- I'm back at Kinnick Stadium today to see if No. 4 Iowa can continue its perfect season and remain in the national title discussion as it takes on Northwestern.

To be perfectly honest, if you told me before the season that I'd be anywhere but State College today, I wouldn't have believed you. But Iowa has become the Big Ten's top team and one of the top national storylines, and given the Hawkeyes' knack for drama, I couldn't be anywhere else. Northwestern has won three of the last four in this series, including the last two right here at Kinnick.

The weather is gorgeous and unseasonably warm, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-60s for most of the game. It might even reach 70. The winds are calm and shouldn't be a major factor like last week, much to the delight of Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi.

Injuries: Northwestern's official injury report can be found here. Quarterback Mike Kafka (hamstring) isn't on it, which bodes well for the Wildcats. Kafka is expected to play, but his mobility likely will be limited. Northwestern also will use backup Dan Persa at quarterback. Cornerback Sherrick McManis (leg) also is expected back, though safety Brendan Smith (thumb) is out. Iowa starting safety Brett Greenwood (neck) is questionable, and reserve wide receiver Colin Sandeman (head) likely won't play.

THREE KEYS FOR NORTHWESTERN

1. Protect the pocket: Kafka won't be moving as well as he normally does, and Iowa's defensive linemen are extremely good at getting into the backfield. Northwestern's offensive line, which has underachieved this season, must have its best game to protect both Kafka and Persa.

2. Make Iowa earn its points: Indiana failed to do so last week and squandered two double-digit leads. Northwestern must make Iowa march downfield and limit big pass plays from Stanzi to wideouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and tight end Tony Moeaki. The Wildcats did an excellent job on defense last year in beating Iowa.

3. Take care of the football: Iowa's secondary feasts on turnovers, but Kafka has thrown only seven interceptions this season, three of which came in one game. Kafka and Persa need to be precise with their short throws and very careful when they attack downfield, as Iowa safety Tyler Sash will be waiting.

THREE KEYS FOR IOWA

1. Avoid a slow start: I know slow starts are Iowa's M.O. this season, but Northwestern doesn't exactly sprint out of the gate, either. The Wildcats have been outscored 55-47 in the first quarter. Iowa will have a chance to take control early and perhaps avoid a comeback for once. Then again, the Hawkeyes own the fourth quarter.

2. Attack the secondary: The Hawkeyes might be known for defense and special teams, but they boast some big-play threats in the passing game as well. Northwestern's secondary has been banged up all season, and Stanzi will have opportunities to attack with intermediate and deep passes. Moeaki said this week that opposing defenses have been bracketing him, but that opens up chances for McNutt and Johnson-Koulianos.

3. Don't get comfortable: Northwestern does have one big similarity with Iowa this season: The Wildcats seem to be at their best with their backs against the wall. They have mounted several huge comebacks, so if Iowa does get a sizable lead, the Hawkeyes must keep the pedal down.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Happy Halloween from Kinnick Stadium, where No. 4 Iowa tries to continue its perfect season today against Indiana (ESPN, noon ET).

I dressed up as a sportswriter. How about you?

Iowa leads the all-time series, 39-27-4, though Indiana has won two of the last three meetings.

I'm excited to finally see Indiana in person, as the Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team I haven't seen live since starting this job.

The sun is shining and temperatures will hover in the mid to upper 40s, but the wind likely will be a factor as it's blowing at 15-20 miles an hour. Should be a fun day for the specialists.

Injuries: Indiana's injury report can be found here. Starting outside linebacker Will Patterson is expected to return from a hand injury, while cornerback Donnell Jones also returns to the lineup. Iowa will be playing its first game without leading rusher Adam Robinson, out for the rest of the regular season with an ankle sprain. True freshman Brandon Wegher makes his first career start at running back, and Iowa could be using two more freshman, Brad Rogers and Josh Brown, for the first time this season. Iowa also will replace starting right guard Dace Richardson (broken leg) with Julian Vandervelde. It will also be interesting to see how safety Brett Greenwood and wide receiver Colin Sandeman respond after absorbing big hits in last week's win against Michigan State.

THREE KEYS FOR INDIANA

1. Pressure Ricky Stanzi: Iowa is shorthanded at running back and likely will look to throw often, so Indiana must pressure Stanzi with talented defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. The Hawkeyes' offensive line hasn't been all that great at preventing sacks, and Kirlew, who has 5.5 sacks this season, needs to have a big day.

2. Hit home runs on offense: The Hoosiers can't expect many sustained drives against Iowa, but they have enough big-play ability to test the Hawkeyes' defense. Running back Darius Willis can take it to the house if he gets in the open field, and wideouts Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher can stretch the field.

3. Hang in there: Iowa hasn't blown out anybody at home and will let teams hang around. Indiana must limit turnovers and major mistakes, play field position and force a few miscues from Stanzi. Despite Iowa's clutch play this season, the Hawkeyes can only play with fire for so long.

THREE KEYS FOR IOWA

1. Get the run game going: Everyone wants to know how Iowa will respond without Robinson, so getting Wegher some early confidence will be key. Wegher hasn't taken on a full load of carries this season, but he boasts breakaway ability around the edges.

2. Attack downfield with Moeaki, McNutt and DJK: Indiana's secondary is vulnerable, and Stanzi has been at his best when attacking down the field. Iowa must force Indiana's linebackers to chase tight end Tony Moeaki, and wideouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos should be able to create some separation.

3. Put a team away if the opportunity is there: Winning close games on the road are great, but Iowa has failed to pull away from Northern Iowa, Arkansas State and Michigan on its home field. If the Hawkeyes get up early on Indiana, they must put the Hoosiers away. Iowa could really use a fourth quarter without much drama right about now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg


Several teams remain alive in the BCS title game hunt. But outside of the Big Three (Florida, Texas, Alabama), only two BCS conference teams are still unbeaten -- Iowa and Cincinnati. And both are the subject of considerable debate.

So let's break it down now with Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett.

 
 AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
 Mardy Gilyard has scored 10 touchdowns so far this season.
Brian Bennett: First of all, Adam, do you think either the Hawkeyes or the Bearcats are worthy of playing for the national title this season?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I think both teams are worthy, and before getting to each case, let's look at the sport as a whole. Who is really good this year? Florida has flaws, Alabama has flaws, Texas has flaws, USC certainly has flaws. The most dominant teams to me have been TCU, Boise State and yes, your Cincinnati Bearcats, but those teams will always face questions about overall strength of schedule.

When it comes to Iowa, I know the Hawkeyes don't win many style points with the voters outside the Big Ten region. I know they should have beaten Arkansas State and Northern Iowa by a lot more. But trust me, it can't be understated how hard it is for a team to go into State College, Madison and East Lansing and come out with victories. If Iowa completes its road circuit with a win at Ohio State, I don't know how you leave that team out of the title chase.

So let's hear it. Make your case for Cincinnati. Are they worthy? I feel like Wayne and Garth right now.

BB: Party time, it's excellent. (We're dating ourselves here, Adam.)

Well, Cincinnati has been simply dominant, winning its three Big East games by an average of 27 points. Two of those were on the road. In fact, the Bearcats are 4-0 on the road, including a 10-point victory at Oregon State. Mighty USC just beat those same Beavers by 7 at home.

Look at the national statistics, and Cincinnati is everywhere: second in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense, first in sacks, third in turnover margin, ninth in kickoff returns. This is a complete, well-rounded football team with a couple of real stars on offense (Tony Pike, Mardy Gilyard) and one of the best coaches in the business right now, Brian Kelly.

Iowa has had a great year, but I just can't shake those close shaves to Northern Iowa and Arkansas State out of my mind. Can a team that has as much trouble scoring as the Hawkeyes do really be taken seriously as a national championship contender?

AR: I'll admit to having a man-crush on Brian Kelly. He's an amazingly innovative coach, and I love the way he never lets a setback like losing a quarterback affect his plan.

 
 Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
 Tyler Sash leads the Big Ten in interceptions with five.
As for Iowa, does a team have to be an offensive juggernaut to win the national title? I know it's a quarterback's game, but we seem to build up those players so much and then get disappointed (like with Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford this year). Iowa's defense has more dynamic playmakers than most offenses in the FBS. The defensive line is a joy to watch, as all four guys, especially ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns, totally wreak havoc. Safety Tyler Sash leads the Big Ten in interceptions for the second straight year and makes a ton of exciting plays. Same goes for cornerback Amari Spievey, safety Brett Greenwood and linebacker Pat Angerer. Really, how can you not love a middle linebacker named Pat Angerer?

The offense has some bright spots as well (tight end Tony Moeaki, running back Adam Robinson, wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and while quarterback Ricky Stanzi has had his ups and downs, he's incredibly resilient and just knows how to win games. He's 16-3 as the starter.

I just keep pointing to the road wins, plus a nice home victory against surging Arizona. Corvallis is a tough place to play, but it isn't State College, Madison or Columbus. The Big Ten still has the intimidation factor going for it. Does Cincinnati run the table with Iowa's road slate?

BB: I think Cincinnati would win at Wisconsin and possibly at Penn State, given that Syracuse stuck around there in Week 2 without any offense at all. As for Ohio State, well, that's a subject of great interest for many Bearcats fans that we'll have to take up later this week.

I do seem to remember, however, Iowa losing at Pitt last year. Different year, I know, but a lot of the same players on both sides. And it proves that the Big Ten and Big East aren't too far apart.

I wonder if we should be watching the Arkansas State-Louisville score this weekend, since Cincinnati beat Louisville 41-10 and of course Arkansas State nearly knocked off the Hawkeyes. Unfortunately, given the system, comparative scoring is about all we have.

Well, that and opinion. So in your opinion, who's better between Cincinnati and Iowa?

AR: You're right in that there isn't much to compare these two leagues, but this Iowa team is totally different than the one that lost at Pitt last September. The quarterback situation was messy back then, and Stanzi's presence has completely changed things and provided the offense a new degree of confidence.

As for who's better, it's a tough call. Cincinnati is certainly the sexier team. Heck, Iowa even admits that it isn't the prettiest car in the lot. It's almost a point of pride. I would certainly pay to see Clayborn, Binns and the Iowa defense go up against the Bearcats' offense. Stanzi and the Iowa offense would need to limit mistakes and try to control the clock to keep Pike or Zach Collaros or Brian Bennett or whomever is playing quarterback for UC off of the field.

But if the game is close, and you'd figure this game would be, you simply can't bet against Iowa. The Hawkeyes are fail-safe in the clutch, while Cincinnati hasn't been in many down-to-the-wire games. You need a special quality to dig deep and pull out the close ones, and Iowa has that quality this season. If the Hawkeyes could keep things close until the fourth quarter, I would like their chances.

OK, you get the last word on this. Who's better?

BB: I've got to stick with Cincinnati (assuming that Bennett kid is far away from the huddle). I just think the Bearcats would definitely score some points on offense and that they have a much more modern attack than Iowa sees most weeks in the Big Ten. I have no confidence that the Hawkeyes could score enough against a very underrated Cincinnati defense. Stanzi is clutch but is nowhere near Pike's league. And I have learned to never bet against Kelly.

Let's just hope that neither team gets shut out of the BCS title game if indeed it can go undefeated. Or that would make a lot of fans Angerer.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa has encountered and overcome many different challenges in its perfect season, so it's no surprise the Hawkeyes find a new obstacle in their path this week.

For the first time in 2009, Iowa is officially the team to beat in the Big Ten. The sixth-ranked Hawkeyes can thank Ohio State for their new title. From here on out, Iowa will have a black and gold target on its back.

Being the targeted team elicits different responses from different teams. Teams like Florida and USC tend to embrace it. Teams like Cal and Clemson tend to fall apart.

How will the Hawkeyes respond? Business as usual.

"It’s probably different for other teams, but we come to play every game and every week," defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. "The opponents, they’ll probably play harder against us. But we’re going to come out the same way."

For Clayborn, it means being at the front of the pack coming onto the field. Find any YouTube clip of Iowa's field entrances and you'll see No. 94, front and center.

"I hate being in the locker room," he explained. "I just want to get back on the field."

He gets his chance Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, as the Hawkeyes take on a Michigan State team hoping to knock them off their pedestal (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). These aren't simply Sparty spoilers. Michigan State can put itself right in the middle of the Big Ten title race with a victory.

The Spartans are sizzling after winning three straight and have a favorable schedule the rest of the way with no Ohio State and Penn State coming to East Lansing. A win would move Michigan State into a first-place tie in the league standings with as many as three other teams.

"A big-game opportunity," Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. "This is an opportunity to play in a football game that you should remember and be able to tell your children [about]."

Dantonio often talks to his players about "playing up," or beating the Big Ten's best teams. Though the Spartans went 9-3 in the regular season last fall, they lost to league co-champs Penn State and Ohio State by a combined score of 94-25.

Dantonio hasn't stressed playing up as much this year, as the Spartans were more concerned with climbing out of a 1-3 hole, but the theme rings true this week with Iowa in town.

"This is a definite chance for us to play up," star linebacker Greg Jones said. "This is what our season's been all about. This game is going to define us as a team, as individuals, how tough we are and how we compare to Iowa."

Michigan State has won four straight home games against Iowa, including a defense-fueled 16-13 victory last year. The night kickoff should add to the atmosphere, though the Hawkeyes are 2-0 in night games this year.

"This is pretty much the exact same situation as last season," Spartans wide receiver Blair White said. "We're in a game that, if we win, we can be sitting atop the Big Ten standings. Last year, we came out and laid an egg against Ohio State and then again against Penn State. We've got to learn from that.

"We're 4-3, so that might not look as good, but Iowa, being the sixth team in the country, what more could you ask for? You want to play the guys at the top."

And Iowa wants to stay there.

"We’re just trying to keep up the momentum," Hawkeyes safety Brett Greenwood said, "and see where it takes us."

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