NCF Nation: Brett Swenson

Meant to post this Friday, but we finally wrap up the Big Ten preseason position rankings with the individual specialists. I'll break down the top five kickers, punters and return men in the league (sorry, long snappers).

[+] EnlargeDerek Dimke
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireIllinois kicker Derek Dimke led the Big Ten with 24 field goals last season.
Although the Big Ten loses its most famous specialist from 2010 -- Michigan State punter Aaron Bates -- and Nebraska says goodbye to All-American Alex Henery, there are a few standout players back in the fold. Quite a few strong punters depart, although keep an eye on the sophomores coming back.

Let's take a look.

KICKER

1. Derek Dimke, Illinois, senior: Dimke had a terrific junior season, converting a league-high 24 field goals on 29 attempts. He also was perfect on extra-point tries, going 43-for-43, and led the Big Ten with 22 touchbacks. Dimke earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and will be on the radar for the Lou Groza Award this fall.

2. Dan Conroy, Michigan State, junior: Thanks to Conroy, the loss of standout kicker Brett Swenson didn't sting too much for the Spartans. Conroy led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage, converting 14 of 15 opportunities, and missed only one of his 46 extra-point tries. Conroy earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts.

3. Philip Welch, Wisconsin, senior: Doesn't it seem like Welch has been at Wisconsin for a decade? The three-year starter enters his final season in Madison after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. Welch was perfect on 67 extra-point attempts last fall and went 17-for-22 on field-goal attempts.

4. Carson Wiggs, Purdue, senior: There's no doubt as to who has the strongest leg in the Big Ten, if not the country. Wiggs can connect from just about anywhere, as he showed in April during Purdue's spring game with a 67-yard field goal. His leg strength gets the attention, but Wiggs is a little underrated as an overall kicker. He connected on 15 of 19 attempts in 2010, going 4-for-4 between 40 and 49 yards, and had 11 touchbacks as Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff coverage.

5. Mitch Ewald, Indiana, sophomore: Ewald had an excellent freshman season for the Hoosiers, capitalizing on limited opportunities. He finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage, connecting on 16 of 19 attempts, and he was perfect on 33 extra-point tries. Ewald had five games with multiple field goals and will once again be a big weapon for IU this fall.

PUNTER

1. Brad Nortman, Wisconsin, senior: Like Welch, Nortman has been a fixture in Madison the past four years and enters 2011 as the league's most experienced punter by far. Nortman averaged 42.7 yards per punt in 2010, blasting eight punts of 50 yards or more and placing 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. He has averaged 42.1 yards per punt during his career.

2. Anthony Fera, Penn State, sophomore: Fera had an excellent freshman season for Penn State, which improved in punt coverage and other special teams areas. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt, placed 13 punts inside the opponents' 20 and had nine punts of 50 yards or longer. Fera also forced 19 fair catches.

3. Cody Webster, Purdue, sophomore: Webster helped Purdue address a need at punter and turned in an excellent freshman season. He finished fifth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.3 ypp), booming 17 punts of 50 yards or longer and placing 12 inside the opponents' 20.

4. Will Hagerup, Michigan, sophomore: Hagerup was the lone bright spot for Michigan's special teams in 2010. He started 10 games and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting average (43.6 ypp), a mark that ranked second in team history (minimum of 30 attempts). He placed 11 punts inside the 20.

5. Ben Buchanan, Ohio State, junior: Ohio State needs to be sharper in the kicking game this fall, and Buchanan will play a huge role. He averaged 41 yards on 44 attempts in 2010, placing 15 punts inside the opponents' 20 and forcing 17 fair catches. Expect Buchanan to take another step in his development this season.

RETURNER

1. Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota, senior: Already a record-setting return man, Stoudermire needs only 16 kick returns and 189 kick return yards to set NCAA all-time records in both categories. Stoudermire has 2,929 kick return yards, recording 30 runbacks or more in each of the past three seasons. He averaged 27.2 yards on returns in 2010.

2. Jordan Hall, Ohio State, junior: Hall is likely the Big Ten's best all-around returner. He finished second in the league in kick return average (27.9 ypr) and third in punt return average (9.9 ypr). Hall really emerged as Ohio State's go-to return man last season. It will be interesting to see if his return responsibilities change at all depending on who emerges as the Buckeyes' top running back.

3. Keshawn Martin, Michigan State, senior: Expect teams to punt the ball away from Martin this fall. He led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally in punt return average (14.2 ypr). His touchdown return against Wisconsin set the stage for Michigan State's come-from-behind win. Martin's kick return average of 17.8 yards should increase this fall.

4. Venric Mark, Northwestern, sophomore: For the first time in recent memory, Northwestern has a true difference maker in the return game. Mark came on strong late in his freshman year, finishing fourth in the league in kick return average (26.2 ypr) with a touchdown runback against Wisconsin. He also showed promise as a punt returner, averaging 12.9 yards on nine attempts.

5. Jaamal Berry, Ohio State, sophomore: Berry forms a dangerous Buckeye return tandem with Hall. He finished fifth in the league in kick return average (25.4 ypr) but had three more attempts than Hall. Berry clearly has big-play skills as a running back, so don't be surprised if he breaks off some big returns this fall.
Let's take a look back at a pivotal weekend in the Big Ten before peeking ahead to Week 8.

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AP Photo/Andy ManisRunning back James White and Wisconsin overpowered previously unbeaten Ohio State.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. Through the first six weeks, Wisconsin provided little evidence to suggest it could knock off the nation's No. 1 team. But the Badgers put it all together in impressive fashion Saturday night against Ohio State. For the first time in recent memory, Ohio State's defense got humbled by a Big Ten opponent as Wisconsin's offensive line steamrolled the Buckeyes, creating huge running lanes for both John Clay and James White. Although the Buckeyes rallied in the third quarter and the early fourth, Wisconsin was too powerful on offense and received enough stops from J.J. Watt and the defense to keep Terrelle Pryor and the Ohio State attack in check. Wisconsin overcame its big-game bugaboo and now hits the road for a huge rivalry game against No. 15 Iowa.

Best game: Ohio State at Wisconsin. The atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium was absolutely electric, and the game began with a bang as Wisconsin's David Gilreath returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Wisconsin and Ohio State were mirror images in the first and third quarters, as each team dominated play and put together extensive touchdown drives (19 plays, 89 yards for Wisconsin; 19 plays, 94 yards for Ohio State). The Buckeyes had all the momentum as they closed to within three points early in the fourth quarter, but Wisconsin answered with the defining drive of its season, marching 73 yards in 10 plays and mixing up the play calls perfectly. The Iowa-Michigan game also brought some drama as Michigan rallied behind Tate Forcier, and Indiana-Arkansas State turned into a shootout.

Biggest play: We go back to Madison, as Wisconsin faced third-and-3 from its own 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter after Ohio State had rallied to within three points. Rather than pound away with the run game, Wisconsin took to the air and Scott Tolzien fired a bullet to receiver Nick Toon near the east sideline for a 20-yard gain. The Badgers didn't face another third down on the drive and went on to score a touchdown. "Huge catch in a crucial point of the game," Toon said. "But that's my job." Iowa faced a similar situation against Michigan, up 35-28 in the fourth quarter but facing third-and-9 from its own 41. Ricky Stanzi found Marvin McNutt for 17 yards, and the Hawkeyes went on to score.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy really is starting to blossom as the successor to superstar Brett Swenson. Conroy went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts against Illinois, connecting from 37, 34, 32 and 18 yards. The Spartans really needed him on a day when the offense struggled for stretches. Indiana kicker Mitch Ewald also had an impressive performance in relief of the injured Nick Freeland. Ewald went 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts, including a 46-yarder in the fourth quarter. Gilreath doesn't technically qualify as a specialist, but his return against Ohio State is notable. It marked Wisconsin's first kick return touchdown since Lee Evans in 2000, and the team's longest since Aaron Stecker's 100-yarder against Minnesota in 1995.

Most futile call: Making my way through the Camp Randall Stadium concourse to Wisconsin's media room Saturday night, I kept hearing the public-address announcer pleading with the Wisconsin students and other Badgers fans not to rush the field. Um, good luck with that one. I understand the safety issue and the past problems at Camp Randall, but you're just not going to keep people off the field when their team has just defeated No. 1.

Game balls:

  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt tormented Ohio State's offensive line all night and recorded three tackles for loss and two sacks of Pryor. It felt like he had four or five sacks with all the trouble he caused. Watt also was credited with a quarterback hurry and has a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss this year.
  • Indiana WRs Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss: The Hoosiers' star tandem combined for 14 receptions, 224 yards and two touchdowns in the win against Arkansas State. Belcher and Doss became the first Indiana wideouts to both eclipse 100 yards in a game since Ray Fisher and James Hardy in 2007.
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones: The senior is well on his way to another All-America type season for Michigan State. He recorded a season-high 14 tackles to go along with a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in Saturday's win against Illinois. Jones has led MSU in tackles in 27 of the past 33 games.
  • Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher: If there's a tougher wide receiver in America, feel free to send me his name because Sanzenbacher is my pick, hands down. Sanzenbacher never shies away from contact and making gutsy catches. He had six of them for 94 yards against Wisconsin. Sanzenbacher is playing like a first-team All-Big Ten receiver.
  • Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: DJK became Iowa's all-time leading receiver Saturday after recording four receptions for 70 yards and three touchdowns. He now has seven touchdown receptions this season. DJK, who added a 40-yard kick return against Michigan, should share the game ball with quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who continues to put up Heisman-caliber numbers (17-for-24 passing, 248 pass yards, 3 TDs).
  • Purdue QB Rob Henry: The young fella looks like a winner, folks. Henry accounted for four touchdowns (3 rush, 1 pass) against Minnesota and completed more than twice as many passes (13) on just two more attempts (20) than he did the previous week at Northwestern.
  • Illinois DL Corey Liuget: It's always notable when a defensive lineman leads the team in tackles, and Liuget had another big performance Saturday at Michigan State. The junior recorded 11 tackles, one for loss, and two quarterback hurries as Illinois limited the Spartans' rushing attack.

OK, enough with Week 7. Let's take a quick look at Week 8.

No. 7 Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) at Northwestern (5-1, 1-1): The Spartans are 7-0 for the first time since 1966, but they have yet to win a game outside the state of Michigan. They head to Evanston and face a Northwestern team coming off of a bye week. Michigan State's playmaking defense has recorded 12 interceptions this fall; Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has thrown only two in 177 pass attempts.

Penn State (3-3, 0-2) at Minnesota (1-6, 0-3): Interim coach Jeff Horton leads Minnesota for the first time against a Penn State team coming off of a much-needed bye week. It will be interesting to see if Penn State can regroup a bit and get its offense going against a Gophers defense that allows a Big Ten-high 31.7 points a game. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber takes aim at a Penn State defense missing several starters because of injury.

Purdue (4-2, 2-0) at No. 10 Ohio State (6-1, 2-1): Purdue is one of those teams that always plays Ohio State tough, but the Buckeyes might have steam coming out of their ears for this one. Ohio State won't overlook Purdue again after last year's loss in West Lafayette, and the Buckeyes are doubly mad after stumbling last week at Wisconsin. Henry is 2-0 as Purdue's starter, but he'll be tested at The Shoe.

Indiana (4-2, 0-2) at Illinois (3-3, 1-2): Illinois has gotten through the toughest stretch of its season, but it still needs three more wins to become bowl eligible. Indiana notched its only Big Ten victory against the Illini last year and has really struggled to get over the hump in league play. Ben Chappell and Indiana's high-powered pass attack goes up against an improved Illinois defense.

No. 13 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) at No. 15 Iowa (5-1, 2-0): Two rivals with a lot of similarities meet in a showcase game at Kinnick Stadium. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema recorded the signature win he needed against Ohio State, but he also must show he can beat elite teams away from Camp Randall Stadium. Bielema heads back to his alma mater and faces an Iowa team that begins a stretch of marquee matchups on its home field.

Bye: Michigan (5-2, 1-2)

Big Ten Week 2 rewind/Week 3 preview

September, 13, 2010
9/13/10
2:05
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Let's look back at Week 2 before looking ahead to Saturday's completely full slate (11 games) of Big Ten action.

[+] EnlargeRicky Stanzi
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRicky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes had their way with Iowa State on Saturday.
Team of the week: Iowa. Ohio State and Michigan drew more national attention, as usual, but Iowa delivered the most impressive performance of the day. The Hawkeyes annihilated in-state rival Iowa State, storming out to a 35-0 lead behind Adam Robinson and Ricky Stanzi. Iowa State supposedly had improved since last year's meeting, but the Hawkeyes once again victimized quarterback Austen Arnaud for three interceptions. After walking the tightrope every week in 2009, Iowa isn't letting inferior teams hang around. It'll be interesting to see how the Hawkeyes perform Saturday at Arizona.

Best game: Michigan at Notre Dame. For the second consecutive season, the Wolverines and Irish provided plenty of drama. And once again, a young quarterback became the hero for the Maize and Blue. Denard Robinson's brilliance helped Michigan overcome a late defensive breakdown and rally for a 28-24 victory in South Bend. The game featured plenty of plot twists, as Notre Dame jumped ahead early, lost quarterback Dayne Crist to injury, got him back and took the lead before falling. Just great theater in one of college football's great cathedrals.

Biggest play: Going with three of them this week. Robinson set a Notre Dame Stadium record with his 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, a beautiful display of pure speed. And who doesn't like to see a defensive lineman rumble? That's exactly what Ohio State's Cameron Heyward did on an 80-yard interception return against Miami early in the third quarter with the game still very much in doubt. Purdue running back Al-Terek McBurse also deserves props for keeping his balance while rolling over a Western Illinois defender and then scooting into the end zone for a 40-yard touchdown run.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State entered the season with major questions at the kicker spot after losing standout Brett Swenson. Dan Conroy eased the concern Saturday against Florida Atlantic, converting field goal attempts of 50, 44 and 41 yards. Conroy is 4-for-4 on field goals for the season. Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay tied a team record with five field goals before missing his sixth attempt. "It was the first time I've ever been in a game where the kicker cramped up," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said afterward.

Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Robinson and Terrelle Pryor get all the pub, but Persa is leading the nation in pass efficiency with an amazing rating of 212.06. He has completed 86.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no picks. It's still early, but Persa is answering NU's biggest question mark entering the fall.
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan: Kerrigan is continuing his dominant play from 2009 and recorded four tackles for loss with a sack and a forced fumble against Western Illinois. He leads the league in both tackles for loss (6.5) and forced fumbles (2), and ranks fifth in tackles (19).
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: Another player who has carried over his success from last fall, Leshoure racked up 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns on only 15 carries against Southern Illinois. Imagine what he'll do if he ever gets a full carries load.
  • Michigan State WR/KR/PR Keshawn Martin: Martin showed against Florida Atlantic why he can be so dangerous for the Spartans this year. He had a 42-yard reception, a 46-yard kickoff return and a 47-yard punt return. He finished with a game-high 204 all-purpose yards.
  • Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: Labeled as doubtful last Monday after taking a huge shot against UConn, Roundtree not only played against Notre Dame but led Michigan with eight receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown. Plus, he took another big hit in the game. Gutsy performance.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt is performing like an All-Big Ten player so far this season, and he came up big against San Jose State with 2.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a blocked field goal attempt.
  • Purdue RB Dan Dierking: Dierking eased some concerns about the Boilers' run game with 14 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns against Western Illinois. He broke career bests for rushes, rushing yardage and touchdowns for the second straight game.
How bizarre: The entire Miami-Ohio State game fits into this category. Ohio State allowed a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same game for the first time in team history. Miami's Jacory Harris threw four interceptions and still had a chance in the second half. Pryor completed just 12 of 27 passes but still put up great yardage totals for both passing (233) and rushing (113). Just a very weird game at The Shoe, but the Buckeyes will take the W.

Now, let's take a quick look at the Week 2 slate ...

Massachusetts (2-0) at Michigan (2-0): What will Robinson do next? Tune in for the first half, as he might not be around for much of this one. The real subplot should be how Michigan uses backup quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tate Forcier.

Ohio (1-1) at Ohio State (2-0): Frank Solich's Bobcats gave the Buckeyes a real scare two years ago, but Ohio is coming off of a home loss to Toledo. Can't see Ohio State letting Ohio hang around very long.

Kent State (1-1) at Penn State (1-1): The Lions should finally be able to get Evan Royster and the run game going, right? One problem: Kent State leads the nation in rush defense, allowing just 11 yards per game.

Northern Illinois (1-1) at Illinois (1-1): The Illini looked great against Southern Illinois and try to continue maintain their unbeaten record (12-0) against public schools from the state. NIU coach Jerry Kill could miss the game after being hospitalized Sunday.

Ball State (1-1) at Purdue (1-1): Life without star wide receiver Keith Smith begins for the Boilers, who still are looking for more consistency on both sides of the ball. Can Dierking nail down Purdue's top running back spot?

USC (2-0) at Minnesota (1-1): These are the big-ticket games Tim Brewster wants to play at Minnesota, but the heat is rising on the fourth-year coach after an embarrassing loss to South Dakota. USC's Matt Barkley takes aim at a Gophers' secondary that made South Dakota's Dante Warren look like superman.

Arizona State (2-0) at Wisconsin (2-0): Steven Threet sparked Wisconsin's downward spiral in 2008 after leading Michigan to a historic come-from-behind win at the Big House. Now Threet leads the Sun Devils into Madison looking for an upset.

Indiana (1-0) at Western Kentucky (0-2): Remember the Hoosiers? It feels like months since they last played. All-Big Ten wideout Tandon Doss is expected to make his season debut as Indiana hits the road for the first time.

Northwestern (2-0) at Rice (1-1): The Michigan-Big Ten reunion continues as former Wolverines running back Sam McGuffie faces Northwestern. This could be a tricky game for the Wildcats, but if Persa continues to perform like he has, they should be fine.

Notre Dame (1-1) at Michigan State (2-0): We should learn a lot more about the Spartans in this prime-time affair, as Notre Dame should test a secondary that struggled mightily in 2009. Linebacker Greg Jones and the Michigan State seniors try to go 3-1 against the Irish.

Iowa (2-0) at Arizona (2-0): Stay up late for this one, people. Both teams have looked dominant so far, and Iowa will have to adjust to the elements in the desert. Nick Foles and the Arizona offense will test Adrian Clayborn & Co., but Arizona also must contend with an Iowa offense that looks very strong so far.
Best call:

How bizarre: The entire Miami-Ohio State game fits into this category. Ohio State allowed a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same game for the first time in team history. Miami's Jacory Harris threw four interceptions and still had a chance in the second half. Terrelle Pryor completed just 12 of 27 passes but still put up great yardage totals for both passing (233) and rushing (113). Just a very weird game at The Shoe, but the Buckeyes will take the W.

The position rankings finish with the special-teams units. For this list, I examine kickers, punters, return men and coverage units and look at each team's overall picture in the all-important third phase. The Big Ten loses several elite specialists, including punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Brett Swenson. It's a little odd not to see Ohio State near the top, but if there's a hole on Jim Tressel's team this year, it might be on special teams.

Here are my top five:

[+] EnlargeDerrell Johnson-Koulianos
Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIDerrell Johnson-Koulianos ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast one of the league's top punters in Ryan Donahue, who has averaged more than 40 yards per punt in each of his first three seasons. Iowa also brings back Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who ranked second in the Big Ten in kick return average (31.5 ypr) in 2009. There's competition at kicker (big surprise), but Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker both boast experience. Colin Sandeman quietly ranked second in the league in punt return average last year.

2. Michigan State: Swenson is undoubtedly a major loss, but Michigan State should improve in the other phases of special teams. Punter Aaron Bates was extremely solid in 2009, averaging 41.6 yards despite a league-high 63 attempts. Look out for Keshawn Martin, who averaged 28.9 yards on kick returns last fall. Martin could be the league's top return man by season's end. The Spartans need to upgrade their kickoff coverage unit.

3. Ohio State: Despite question marks at both specialist spots, Ohio State's history as an elite special-teams squad under Tressel can't be overlooked. Hopes are high for Ben Buchanan at punter, and Devin Barclay has a very big kick on his résumé against Iowa last year. The Buckeyes must replace return man Ray Small, but there's enough talent there. The coverage teams are always good in Columbus.

4. Minnesota: The Gophers' strengths are their return teams, led by Troy Stoudermire and Bryant Allen. Minnesota led the Big Ten in punt return average, although it had only nine runbacks all year, and finished fifth in kick return average. Eric Ellestad was perfect on PATs and had a decent year on field goals. The Gophers need Dan Orseske to step in at punter for Blake Haudan.

5. Wisconsin: There are some concerns about the Badgers' special-teams units, but everyone is back and should be better. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 42 yards per punt last year, and while kicker Philip Welch took a mini step back, he still booted 17 field goals. David Gilreath is one of the league's most experienced return men, and linebacker Chris Borland proved to be a difference-maker on special teams last year.

More rankings ...

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Mark Dantonio stepped to the podium at Big Ten preseason media day in 2007, he didn't sugarcoat Michigan State's situation or the challenges that lay ahead.

The Spartans had missed bowls in three consecutive seasons. They had wasted strong Septembers and talented players. They had lived up to the "same old Spartans" tag that they hated.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesGreg Jones was among the nation's leaders in tackles last season, but is being called on to be a leader off the field as well.
That day in Chicago, Dantonio's message came through loud and clear.

"We have to earn back the respect of our fans at this point," he said. "It'll be about how we handle adversity."

The Spartans started the process in Dantonio's first two seasons, reaching back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1996-97. They went 9-4 in 2008, challenged for the Big Ten championship and played on New Year's Day for the first time since 2000.

Michigan State entered 2009 with high hopes, as a fringe Top-25 team that could challenge Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa for the league crown. But late-game blunders doomed the Spartans, who backslid to 6-7 and continued to struggle in close contests (five losses by eight points or fewer).

The biggest setback took place off the field. Just hours after the team banquet Nov. 22, a large group of players were involved in an assault at a campus residence hall following a fraternity potluck event. Eleven players pleaded guilty to assault and four were sentenced to jail time. Charges, pleas and sentences dominated Michigan State's offseason, constantly casting the program in a negative light.

As the Spartans look ahead this spring, Dantonio's words from the summer of 2007 apply to his team's current position.

The Spartans want your respect again, but they'll have to earn it in 2010.

"We owe something to the fans, we owe something to the public," running back Edwin Baker said. "We owe something to people around the world that we are the team that we are. We've overcome our adversity, and we'll keep the thing moving."

All the sentences and public apologies have been delivered, and Dantonio wants to move forward from a rough few months. He also knows what happens next will determine Michigan State's ultimate standing.

"I'm sure for some, we've gained respect by how we've handled things," Dantonio said. "For others, maybe we've yet to gain respect back. Other people are dealing strictly with win-loss records. So it's different for everybody, but we're trying to be accountable to each other."

The Spartans are taking several measures to do so. They held five seminars throughout the winter and brought in guest speakers to address the law, decision-making and consequences.

Dantonio also formed a unity council, which consists of 16 players representing all classes who are voted in by their teammates. The council meets weekly with Dantonio to "make sure what's going on with our football team" and ensure the standards for conduct are being upheld.

"Our players are gravitating toward leadership," Dantonio said. "A lot of times, leaders are born out of crisis situations. I think back to 2007, when we first came in here, we had a great group of leaders. We have to continually train people to move up in that realm of leadership."

Unlike other leadership councils, Michigan State's group faces re-votes after spring ball and again after preseason camp. The council already has changed since its inception, and will continue to do so.

"It's earning respect of your teammates and your peers," said linebacker Greg Jones, a 2009 co-captain and a member of the council. "And it's crucial. Nobody's going to follow somebody who they don't respect. I've never been much of a barking type of guy, but I step in and say something when I can."

Added quarterback Kirk Cousins, another council member: "Your team goes as your leaders go."

Solidifying the leadership is vital, because Michigan State certainly boasts the talent to do better things in 2010.

Cousins is settling in as the starting quarterback after finishing 25th nationally in pass efficiency (142.6) as a sophomore last fall. He'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal, as the Spartans return four tight ends with experience and a wide receiving corps that should feature Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Keith Nichol, a converted quarterback still officially listed as Cousins' backup as well as a starter at receiver.

The Spartans want more balance in the run game and should get it from sophomore backs Baker and Larry Caper.

Michigan State's big questions are along both lines and at kicker, as it must replace four-year starter Brett Swenson. Jones, the 2009 Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year, is back to lead a defense that must improve against the pass, but boasts a lot of young talent in players like safety Trenton Robinson and defensive tackles Jerel Worthy and Blake Treadwell. The defense also should get several incoming freshman on the field, including linebackers William Gholston and Max Bullough.

"We want to gain respect back," Martin said, "and show people that we can do good things if we can just focus and keep our heads on straight."
This is supposed to be a big night for the Big Ten.

While the Heisman Trophy presentation doesn't take place until Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), nine of college football's top individual honors get passed out tonight during the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards in Orlando. This was the same night that recent Big Ten stars like Malcolm Jenkins, Shonn Greene, Dan Connor and Troy Smith took home coveted awards like the Thorpe, Doak Walker, Bednarik and Davey O'Brien.

This year, the hopes of Big Ten Nation rest with ... Zoltan Mesko?

No offense to Mesko, who is a fabulous punter for Michigan. The senior should win the Ray Guy Award tonight as the nation's top punter.

But what does it say about a league when its only finalist for nine major awards is a punter?

At least Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be there, as he tweeted earlier today: "En route to Orlando to present an award at the ESPN College Football Awards tonight!

Now there are reasons for the Big Ten's lack of representation. Several standout players, namely Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, played for sub-.500 teams. There were certainly a few snubs, like Michigan State kicker Brett Swenson not being a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Other players, like Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker, had their national award campaigns derailed by injury.

But the lack of star power is revealing, especially on offense. Where are all the offensive stars in the Big Ten? The league's problems at quarterback have been well documented here, and it's imperative that the Big Ten improves under center for 2010 and beyond.

Here's hoping Mesko takes home the Ray Guy Award tonight. But my bigger wish is for the Big Ten to have a greater presence in Orlando at this time next year.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
3:10
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Loyal blog readers out there know where I'm headed with several of these picks, though I had some tough decisions in the end. It's not easy to condense so many defensive standouts into 11 slots, while there's certainly more wiggle room on the offensive side.

For your reference, my preseason All-Big Ten team and the Big Ten's official all-conference squads.

OFFENSE

QB: Daryll Clark, Penn State
RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
WR: Keith Smith, Purdue
WR: Blair White, Michigan State
TE: Garrett Graham, Wisconsin
C: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
OL: Justin Boren, Ohio State
OL: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
OL: Dace Richardson, Iowa
OL: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DL: Brandon Graham, Michigan
DL: Jared Odrick, Penn State
DL: O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
CB: Donovan Warren, Michigan
CB: Sherrick McManis, Northwestern
S: Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
S: Tyler Sash, Iowa

SPECIALISTS

P: Zoltan Mesko, Michigan
K: Brett Swenson, Michigan State
KR: Ray Fisher, Indiana
PR: Ray Small, Ohio State

All-Big Ten selections by team: Penn State (5), Iowa (5), Wisconsin (4), Ohio State (3), Michigan State (3), Michigan (3), Northwestern (1), Purdue (1), Indiana (1)

There were 16 selections who also made the preseason All-Big Ten squad: Clark, Royster, Clay, Bulaga, Wisniewski, Boren, Garrett Graham, Brandon Graham, Odrick, Jones, Bowman, Angerer, Coleman, Mesko, Swenson and Small.

Sunny outlook for Spartans' Swenson

November, 20, 2009
11/20/09
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Big Ten weather hasn't stopped Brett Swenson from becoming one of the nation's elite kickers.

[+] EnlargeBrett Swenson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIBrett Swenson is Michigan State's all-time leader in scoring and field goals.
In fact, the conditions have only made him better.

"It provides an advantage knowing that you’ve handled different situations before, the cold weather, the wind," Swenson said. "I don’t think it can do anything but help you, really. If you can do it in the cold weather, it'll be a little easier to do in the warmer weather."

Swenson tested his theory last week when he and his Michigan State teammates visited Purdue. The date read Nov. 14, but the weather felt more like Sept. 14, as the temperature showed 61 degrees at kickoff.

The unseasonably warm conditions suited Swenson, who had his best game as a Spartan. He tied his career high with four field goals, including the game-winner with 1:51 left. And he not only kicked a 52-yard field goal, which marked a career high. He did it twice, perfectly judging the wind that carried the ball from right to left.

Swenson's clutch kicks lifted Michigan State to a 40-37 win, making the Spartans bowl eligible. The senior was the obvious choice for Big Ten Player of the Week.

"We got lucky in November to have weather like that," Swenson said. "The kicks went through and it was a good day."

Swenson has had quite a few good days at Michigan State. He's the team's all-time leader in scoring (368 points), field goals (70) and extra points (158) and ranks second in field-goal percentage (.787). He ranks among the Big Ten's top five kickers in career kick scoring (second), field goals (fourth) and total scoring (fifth).

He leads all active FBS players in career points. And he's done it all in the upper Midwest.

Not bad for a Florida native. Swenson hails from Pompano Beach, which is 1,165 miles from East Lansing and seems even farther away.

Last year, Swenson was snubbed from being a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker. The selection committee cited a poor performance against Michigan as a reason for Swenson's omission.

How did Swenson respond to being left off the list? By going 4-for-4 on field goal attempts the following game against Wisconsin, including the game-winning 44-yarder.

There's no such snub this year, as Swenson finds himself among the 20 Groza Award semifinalists.

"It's about every kicker’s dream or goal to get invited to something like that," said Swenson, who is 18-for-20 on field goal attempts this fall. "Hopefully, I have a chance to be a finalist. That would be a big step."

The Big Ten hasn't had a Groza Award winner since 2004, when Ohio State's Mike Nugent took home the honor. Nugent's clutch kicks are legendary, and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who coached at Ohio State during Nugent's time there, sees similarities with Swenson.

Former Michigan State star Paul Edinger also reminds Dantonio of Swenson.

"Nothing intimidated [Edinger], he was a gamer," said Dantonio, an assistant at Michigan State during Edinger's career. "He was going to step out there and kick the football, regardless of the situation, and do very well. ... [Swenson] also reminds me of Mike Nugent at Ohio State. Very competitive, always looked at the game very technique-oriented, very astute at how he went about his business."

Swenson could be a major factor as Michigan State wraps up the regular season Saturday against No. 14 Penn State. With the Spartans likely headed somewhere warm for a bowl, Saturday could mark Swenson's final chance to kick in cold weather.

Then again, he could get drafted by the Bills in April.

"I like the warm weather, to be honest," Swenson said, "but I'll take what I can get."

Big Ten picks: Week 11

November, 12, 2009
11/12/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to a 2-4 performance last week, I'm now south of 70 percent for the season, which is sort of like hitting below the Mendoza line. I'm sure my colleague Chris Low, who's doing better than 80 percent on picks, is laughing at me from his home in Knoxville. Last year's success seems like eons ago. And to top it off, two games this week are among the toughest picks of the season.

Here's a stab at better results.

Penn State 34, Indiana 17: The Nittany Lions start slow after last week's letdown and Indiana takes an early lead on a touchdown pass to standout wide receiver Tandon Doss. But with a BCS at-large berth still a decent possibility, Penn State turns it on in the second and third quarters as quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster put up big numbers against the IU defense.

Wisconsin 31, Michigan 20: Some are calling for a blowout and I could see it that way, but Michigan has moved the football on most teams and will find running room with Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Wisconsin running back John Clay and the powerful Badgers offensive line will once again take control in the second half and wear down Michigan's weak defense. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (Michigan) and O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin) both have their moments.

Minnesota 24, South Dakota State 21: I'm a little worried about the Gophers after last week's lackluster first half. South Dakota State boasts a strong defense and a win against mighty Northern Iowa, and Minnesota's offense will struggle early. But the Gophers find a way on Senior Day and win their sixth game to get bowl eligible. Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray makes a big play or two, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett hauls in two touchdowns from Adam Weber.

Michigan State 27, Purdue 26: I'll be honest, this game drove me nuts all week. Both quarterbacks are hot, and both defenses are inconsistent but boast star players. Michigan State has been pretty bad on the road, but the Spartans play well in November under Mark Dantonio. Purdue is playing very well in Big Ten play and boasts a lot of playmakers. This reminds me of 2007, when Michigan State needed a win at Ross-Ade and got one. The Spartans win on a Brett Swenson field goal.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 20: The Illini are playing looser and with more confidence, and they could certainly continue their win streak Saturday. But Northwestern almost always wins as a slight road underdog, and the Wildcats seem to be jelling on defense. Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest throws two touchdown passes, but a critical interception leads to Northwestern's game-winning drive. Quarterback Mike Kafka is now two weeks removed from a hamstring injury and will be more effective.

Ohio State 21, Iowa 10: The Hawkeyes keep this one close for a while as their opportunistic defense generates a turnover or two to set up the offense in good field position. But Ohio State's dominating defense proves to be the difference as Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg struggles to move the ball in his first career start. Terrelle Pryor scores two second-half rushing touchdowns as the Buckeyes win to reach their first Rose Bowl since 1997.

Week 10 record: 2-4

Season record: 51-23 (.689)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten lacks an official preseason all-conference team, which would be interesting to see but prevents situations like Tebow-gate. We're a little more bold here at ESPN.com, so here's my All-Big Ten squad. There will be time for debate later. For now, enjoy the names.

OFFENSE

QB: Daryll Clark, Penn State
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
WR: Eric Decker, Minnesota
WR: Arrelious Benn, Illinois
OT: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
OG: Jon Asamoah, Illinois
C: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
OG: Justin Boren, Ohio State
OT: Kyle Calloway, Iowa
TE: Garrett Graham, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DE: Brandon Graham, Michigan
DT: Jared Odrick, Penn State
DT: Mike Neal, Purdue
DE: Corey Wootton, Northwestern
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
CB: Amari Spievey, Iowa
CB: Traye Simmons, Minnesota
S: Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
S: Brad Phillips, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS

P: Zoltan Mesko, Michigan
PK: Brett Swenson, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Ray Small*, Ohio State

*-Currently not with team

Penn State leads the way with five selections, followed by Iowa (4), Ohio State (3), Minnesota (3), Illinois (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (2), Michigan (2), Michigan State (2) and Purdue (1).

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It was probably a good thing that neither Kirk Cousins nor Keith Nichol attended Wednesday's spring game draft at the Skandalaris Football Center.

The two Spartans quarterbacks would have felt a bit like Brady Quinn and Aaron Rodgers. They would have been waiting a while.

Michigan State's senior class divided into two teams and made the selections for the Green and White squads. They filled 16 different position groups before coming to the quarterbacks. Even the long snappers were scooped up before Cousins and Nichol.

The Green team finally relented and picked Cousins, the sophomore who backed up Brian Hoyer last season. That meant Nichol went to the White team, which seemed happy to have him.

"It was interesting how the guys who may be the MVP, the quarterbacks, they're some of the last ones picked," said head coach Mark Dantonio, who officiated the draft inside the team meeting room. "It's because everybody feels they're both very, very good players and they both can lead and they both can make plays. That's a positive thing."

This year's draft wasn't nearly as entertaining as its predecessor, in large part because Dantonio was the only coach in the room. Last year, quarterback Brian Hoyer and Pat Narduzzi got into it regarding the drafting of offensive lineman Joel Nitchman.

"We've kept coach Narduzzi out of there this year," Dantonio told the players with a smile.

It was fun to watch the normally all-business Dantonio oversee the proceedings. He split up the entire football staff between the two squads, all the way down to the trainers, operations staff, film coordinators and turf management staff.

Defensive line coach Ted Gill will serve as head coach of the White team, with linebackers coach Mike Tressel as his defensive coordinator and tight ends coach Mark Staten as the offensive coordinator. Offensive line coach Dan Roushar will be the head man for the Green squad, with quarterbacks coach Dave Warner as offensive coordinator and secondary coach Harlon Barnett as the defensive coordinator.

The national runner-up Spartans men's basketball team also will play a key role in the Green-White game. Outgoing seniors Travis Walton and Idong Ibok attended the draft and will serve as two of the honorary captains for the Green team, while the hoops assistant coaches will do the same for the White squad.

Walton, ever the team captain, seemed to be running the Green team's draft, while defensive end Trevor Anderson was the point man for the White squad. Each team received two minutes between selections.

Some highlights:

  • For the second straight year, All-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones was the first player drafted, going to the Green team, which won a coin flip. Safety Trenton Robinson's stellar spring rubbed off on the White team, which selected Robinson with its first pick.
  • There was a bit of strategy involved, especially since the seniors had been drafted to the two teams by the coaches earlier in the day. Dantonio said Gill chose Anderson with the top pick among seniors.
  • A bit of a surprise as Caulton Ray, not Ashton Leggett or Andre Anderson, was the first running back drafted, by the Green team. The White team then picked Leggett and Anderson went Green.
  • Despite cornerback Jeremy Ware's desire to draft Mark Dell, the White team went with sophomore Keshawn Martin as the first wideout taken. The Green team scooped up Dell, while the White took B.J. Cunningham. Walk-on wideout Milton Colbert was picked before Fred Smith, a heralded 2008 recruit.
  • After the Green team picked Charlie Gantt as the first tight end, the White squad went with Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum instead of Garrett Celek, who played a decent amount last year.
  • The White team has the edge in special teams with starting kicker Brett Swenson and starting punter Aaron Bates.
  • The Green team ended up with most of the first-string offensive line (tackle J'Michael Deane, right guard Jared McGaha, center Joel Nitchman), while the White team will counter with several starters on the D-line (Anderson, defensive tackles Jerel Worthy and Oren Wilson). After the draft, the White squad proposed a trade that would swap Cunningham for Deane, but got shot down. "Alright, we're good to go," Anderson said, before high-fiving his teammates.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As decommitments, down-to-the-wire decisions and late pledges dominated national signing day, Michigan State quietly inked a recruiting class that head coach Mark Dantonio thinks can elevate the program to the next level.

The Spartans picked up a 23-man group rated by several recruiting services in the Top 25 nationally, and they did it without the drama many programs went through on Wednesday. The depth and location of Michigan State's class stood out, as Dantonio and his assistants addressed pressing and future needs at running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. They also did so almost exclusively with homegrown players, as 12 recruits hailed from Michigan and all but two from the Big Ten region.

I caught up with Dantonio on Thursday morning to discuss his latest class.

You graded this class an 'A.' Why?

Mark Dantonio: Well, [reporters] asked me. I labeled it an 'A,' maybe an 'A-minus,' basically because in four or five publications, we were ranked in the top 20. And the fact we filled so many needs. And when you really get down to it, we're the biggest evaluators of our players. We've worked with them personally, we've watched them play games in person, we've watched countless films on them. And when I look back, we made decisions to recruit a lot of these guys back in December of [2007] and spent over a year recruiting them. And 16, 17, 18 of these guys, we targeted in January and got 16 early commitments from them. And they stayed strong. I feel very good about them as people -- we've got some excellent students -- and also some outstanding football players.

You've been pretty realistic about your expectations for where you wanted the program to go: bowl game, New Year's Day bowl and then BCS game, Rose Bowl or whatever. Where does this class fit in to your short-term and long-term plan?

MD: It gives us a very solid foundation. The first class that we brought in here in '07, it was a class we had two or three months to work on. Six of those guys played and continue to be starters for us. This last year's class, six more played as true freshmen. This class will have every bit the numbers of young players playing, and this is the first class that really sets a foundation for us in terms of top to bottom, a full class. It's so balanced in the numbers: three linebackers, three DBs, four defensive linemen, a kicker, a quarterback, two tight ends, two running backs and four offensive linemen. So we sort of hit every position group, and we have excellent players at all of those areas.

When you get so many guys at so many positions, did you go into it with a set of needs, or were you trying to build depth across the board?

MD: No, there were key needs. We're relatively a young football team, graduated quite a few players the last two years. We took big linebackers last year that are growing into defensive ends, so we brought outstanding speed linebackers in this year. We had a need in the secondary for certain players, especially at safety with what we had lost in the last couple years. And next year, we have seven seniors in our secondary, so it's always important to bring in quality players at that position for the future. And then you look at the wide receiver position, we've got a good core back, but we needed to expand on our speed in that area.

We only had two quarterbacks on scholarship last year [Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins] that could play. Now again, two quarterbacks [Cousins and Keith Nichol], so it was important that we bring a solid quarterback in [Andrew Maxwell]. Our kicker [Brett Swenson] is a senior, so a guy that can kick off consistently into the end zone or to the goal line and a guy that can take over after Swenson leaves, all those things are important. Offensive line, we're losing players as well. So all these individuals have been recruited for a purpose.

(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

It was an extremely entertaining Saturday around the Big Ten, and here are some of the men who made it possible.

Purdue QB Justin Siller -- The sophomore has spent most of the fall practicing as a running back, but he certainly looked the part at quarterback against Michigan. Siller showcased his passing ability, completing 21 of 34 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns in the win. He also did what he does best, racking up 77 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

Michigan State K Brett Swenson -- The Big Ten's premier specialist this season came up big against Wisconsin after struggling the week before at Michigan. Swenson, who worked with former Spartans star Morten Andersen this summer, made his mentor proud by converting all four of his field-goal attempts, including the game-winning 44-yarder with seven seconds remaining.

Northwestern QB Mike Kafka -- Making his first start since 2006, Kafka stepped up to help Northwestern upset No. 17 Minnesota. He set a school single-game record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards and also tossed two touchdown passes. The junior finished the game 12-for-16 passing.

Michigan State WR Blair White -- I mistakenly left White off the sticker list last week, but he delivered another worthy performance against Wisconsin. White had seven receptions for 164 yards in the 25-24 win. The junior has 307 receiving yards in his last two games, the best two-game total for a Spartans receiver since Charles Rogers had 341 in 2002.

Illinois secondary -- I'm not too big on group stickers, but Illinois' secondary had a great collective effort in a must-win game against Iowa. Cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Donsay Hardeman recorded interceptions, and cornerback Dere Hicks made the play of the game in the fourth quarter with a sack, strip, scoop and score against Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Sorry for the brief delay. I had to get out of the Metrodome and over to the airport. The blog has been heavy on Northwestern-Minnesota today, but it's time to look at what else has happened around the league.

Despite the league's two flagship teams (Penn State and Ohio State) on bye weeks, this might have been the most entertaining Saturday of the season. All five games were decided by a touchdown or less, four in the final minutes. Great stuff.

Not to overlook the many bright spots of the day, but it's always important to recognize historical ineptitude. That's where we begin.

MICHIGAN-PURDUE

The collapse is complete for head coach Rich Rodriguez and Michigan, which fell to 2-7 after today's 48-42 loss. Michigan's nation-long streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances is over, and the program is assured of its first losing season since 1967. The Wolverines' streak of 40 years without a losing season is fourth longest all-time, behind Penn State (49, 1939-87), Nebraska (42, 1962-2003) and Notre Dame (42, 1889-1932).

Purdue's third-string quarterback Justin Siller, who spent most of the season at running back, threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns in the game. The Boilermakers rolled up 522 yards of offense against Michigan. I still think Rodriguez will get this program on track, but embarrassment is setting in for sure.

Credit Siller and Purdue for stepping up and rallying back today. The Boilermakers likely are out of the bowl mix, but they might have found their quarterback of the future. Siller accounted for four touchdowns, and the game-winning hook-and-lateral from Greg Orton to Desmond Tardy was pretty sweet. Joe Tiller can still call a play or two.

WISCONSIN-MICHIGAN STATE

This was another example of how Michigan State has turned a corner behind second-year coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans seemed on their way to a post-Michigan hangover -- they were 1-5 in games following their last six wins against the Wolverines -- and Javon Ringer did nothing against Wisconsin's defense. Dantonio admitted the team came out flat, but Michigan State showed its newfound mental toughness in the second half, erasing an 11-point deficit to win, 25-24. It helps to have a star kicker, and Brett Swenson (four field goals) certainly qualifies. Michigan State looks like a good bet for a New Year's Day bowl.

Wisconsin looked ready to take another step and salvage its season, but the fourth quarter doomed the Badgers yet again. The Badgers' rushing depth finally showed as both John Clay and P.J. Hill eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, but this defense can't finish games. Wisconsin has been outscored 66-57 in the fourth quarter this season. Next week's trip to Indiana becomes a must win for the Badgers to preserve their bowl hopes.

IOWA-ILLINOIS

Speaking of must-win games, this was one for Illinois, and the Illini came through with a 27-24 victory. This team continues to be an utter mystery, but it found a way to win a sloppy game that featured six turnovers. With Juice Williams struggling and the run game nonexistent, Illinois' defense stepped up to sack Ricky Stanzi six times and limit star running back Shonn Greene. Dere Hicks' strip, scoop and score was huge and Matt Eller continued his strong season with the game-winning field goal.

The bye-week bugaboo continues for the Big Ten. Iowa's loss take the luster off next week's matchup against No. 3 Penn State, and the Hawkeyes could be scrambling for a bowl berth at 5-4. Greene continued his streak of 100-yard games, but quarterbacks need to win college football games and Stanzi came up short today. The Hawkeyes will need a huge effort from their defense and more polished play from Stanzi to hang with Penn State.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN-INDIANA

The knock on Indiana has been and always will be its defense. Today's game didn't do much to change that perception. Central Michigan torched the Hoosiers for 37 points and 522 yards, and the Chippewas didn't even have their best player available in a 37-34 win. Star quarterback Dan LeFevour sat out with a sprained ankle, but backup Brian Brunner led the charge, passing for a school-record 485 yards and four touchdowns, plus the game-winning 1-yard scoring run. Indiana linebacker Matt Mayberry did his part with four sacks, the Hoosiers defense remains far too vulnerable to deep passes.

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