NCF Nation: Brian Hoyer

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Andrew Maxwell can predict with absolute certainty at least one thing that will happen this season. No matter what he does, he will be compared to Kirk Cousins.

"I've gathered that, yeah," he says, smiling.

It's only natural. Cousins started the past three years at quarterback for Michigan State, leaving his stamp on the program as arguably the top signalcaller in school history. Now Maxwell will take over the huddle for the Spartans and try to keep the success going.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
AP Photo/Al GoldisAndrew Maxwell is expected to open the season as Michigan State's starting quarterback.
Both have much in common. They're both 6-foot-3. They're both very good students who are eloquent in interviews. They both have strong leadership skills, and count their faith as essential parts of their being.

"They're the same kind of people," Michigan State left tackle Dan France said. "Andrew is just like Kirk back there."

Yet Maxwell is his own person and player. He has learned a lot by serving as Cousins' understudy, but he will not simply provide a carbon copy for the Spartans.

"I can't let the comparisons overwhelm me," he said. "I can't get too caught up in trying to be Kirk's replacement. I just have to focus on being Andrew Maxwell, on being the starting quarterback for Michigan State."

Maxwell sprained his right knee in a scrimmage 10 days ago, and will miss the rest of the spring. The injury is not considered serious, however, and Michigan State has every expectation that Maxwell will start the season opener.

When he does, it will be the culmination of a long waiting process for the fourth-year junior. He was an Elite 11 quarterback in high school who came to Michigan State after Brian Hoyer completed his career. Cousins and Keith Nichol were competing for the starting job that year, so Maxwell knew he might have to sit for a while. A while ended up lasting three years.

"It was something I prepared myself for when I committed," he says. "But I don't know if I actually knew how long three years was."

Many players with his talent would have looked to transfer or sulked about playing time. Maxwell did neither.

"He's an extremely patient young man," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "There's never been a feeling of entitlement or a need to be playing from him. He's never once come in and said, 'I need reps, I need this, I need that.'"

Instead, Maxwell bided his time on the sidelines, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could.

"Everything I learned from watching Kirk in the games -- the mistakes he made on the field, the good things he did -- I could learn all that from a distance," he said. "Whereas those are things I would have had to learn the hard way if I had played as a younger player, making mistakes on the fly. Instead, I made those mistakes kind of in the dark behind Kirk.

"I'm not saying I'm not going to make mistakes. But I have gained a lot of learning experiences from sitting."

For all their similarities, there are some key differences between Maxwell and Cousins.

Maxwell is a little more athletic than Cousins. He was a high jumper in high school, at one point clearing 6 feet, 7 inches. Which basically means he jumped over William Gholston, though he's not apt to try that in practice. ("I don't know if the Fosbury Flop would work as well against Will," he jokes).

That extra mobility means Michigan State can do a few different things with Maxwell.

"I think he can extend plays," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "I don't know that he's a guy we can run a lot of option football with, but he can get out of the pocket, move around, extend a play and keep his eyes downfield. He can make a throw on the move, but he'll also look to run it."

Cousins was as comfortable delivering keynote addresses as he was screen passes. Maxwell isn't quite as outgoing, so he's had to work on that. As soon as last season ended, he said, he tried to assert himself vocally during winter conditioning. He's been around the team long enough that he was easily accepted.

"You can tell he's been studying his playbook for four years," center Travis Jackson said. "His knowledge of the game is incredible, and the way he comes out and leads the team is really exciting."

The Spartans won't dumb down the offense any with Maxwell at the helm. Dantonio says Maxwell is "fully functional" and can execute everything that Cousins did. The drawbacks for him are a lack of game experience and a young receiving corps that might need some time to find its sea legs.

So the early comparisons to Cousins might not be fair. But while they are inevitable, they are not insurmountable. Maxwell looks ready to make this team his own.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you need a cavity filled in the state of Michigan a few years from now, don't be surprised to see Blair White pulling up next to the dentist's chair.

 
 Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
 Blair White ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards with 90.7 yards a game.


And rest assured, White has very steady hands. Anyone can see that from watching him catch passes for Michigan State.

The former walk-on emerged midway through the 2008 season and wound up leading the Spartans in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (659). It could have been the end of the line for White, who was admitted to the University of Detroit's School of Dentistry and had a chance to enroll this fall.

But he had one season of eligibility remaining and decided what the heck, might as well stick around. Michigan State is extremely grateful, as White once again has become the team's No. 1 wide receiver.

He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards (90.7 ypg), fifth in receptions (6.43 ypg) and third in scoring (5.1 ppg).

"It's a little different than what I had planned," White said. "It's a blessing and I'm very fortunate."

White entered last season not knowing if he'd see the field much, if at all.

He had only three catches his first two seasons and played primarily on special teams. Michigan State seemed fairly set at wide receiver with Mark Dell, Deon Curry, B.J. Cunningham and heralded freshmen Keshawn Martin and Fred Smith. About the only clue White would play a bigger role was his appearance as a co-backup with Chris L. Rucker on the preseason depth chart.

But injuries and other personnel moves -- Rucker eventually moved full-time to cornerback -- opened the door for White.

"I was able to catch some balls for us," he said. "I figured I could go to dental school any time I want, but I can only play football at Michigan State for one more year. I took advantage of that, and I'd like to think that was a wise choice, not passing that up."

Um, yeah.

White not only has become one of the Big Ten's better receivers, earning co-Offensive Player of the Week honors after recording career highs in both receptions (12) and receiving yards (186) to go along with two touchdowns in last Saturday's win against Northwestern. But he's doing it at a school that means a lot to his family.

White is the 15th person in his family to attend Michigan State. The group includes his three younger siblings, his mother, Vicki, an All-American swimmer for the Spartans, and a cousin, Jessica LeFevre, an All-American softball player.

His strong ties to Michigan State could present a problem in the future. See, White has applied to the School of Dentistry at Michigan and might end up in Ann Arbor a year from now.

White gets chided about attending Michigan "all the time," particularly from former Spartans teammate Brian Hoyer and Spartans running backs coach Dan Enos.

"It's definitely still possible," White said. "They're one of the best dental schools in the country, so I'm not just going to throw them off, even though I bleed green."

Big Ten lunch links

May, 8, 2009
5/08/09
12:53
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Not much on tap today. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol didn't make things any easier on their coaches in the spring game.

Not only did the two candidates for Michigan State's starting quarterback spot pace one another in Saturday's Green-White scrimmage, the two sophomores put up the exact same spectacular numbers: 357 pass yards and four touchdowns.

And that's exactly why Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a leader in the race to replace two-year starter Brian Hoyer.

 
  Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIRE
  Kirk Cousins saw action in five games last season.

"I don't want to have a quarterback controversy, but I also want to provide equal opportunity for everybody involved," Dantonio said. "I don't want it to be, 'He played well one time, so he's the guy.' What we're building for is consistency and performance over the long term."

In a sport that demands decisiveness, Dantonio and his assistants feel no pressure or panic about beginning preseason camp with Cousins and Nichol neck-and-neck for the top job. Earlier this month Dantonio said the competition could last all the way through nonconference play.

Who knows? Michigan State might end up with a two-quarterback system come Sept. 5.

"I'm fine with that," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. "I've done that at a couple places. You've got to have a plan for both, but it can definitely be done. I'm flexible. If they're both being productive, it's hard to keep them out."

The lack of clarity this spring has been exciting rather than discouraging for the Spartans.

"It's actually a fun competition to have," junior wide receiver Mark Dell said. "Neither one of them really has a down day."

Cousins owns a slight edge in experience after serving as Hoyer's backup last fall.

(Read full post)

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

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Forget about that other draft taking place at Radio City Music Hall this weekend. The real draft will be held at 2:15 p.m. ET today in the Skandalaris Football Center, as Michigan State picks teams for its annual Green-White Game, which will be played Saturday at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has borrowed the idea from former boss Jim Tressel -- Ohio State, by the way, has its own spring game draft today -- and it sounds like a pretty fun event for players, coaches and all involved.

"It makes it a little bit more fun," Dantonio said Tuesday. "It makes it competitive. I actually started doing it at Youngstown State back in 1986, and we've done it ever since, whether I was with coach Tressel or since I've been a head coach."

From what I've gathered about the draft format, here's how it works:

  • The Spartans seniors are divided and pick the teams.
  • Assistant coaches are also assigned to both squads.
  • When a player is picked, a teammate who plays the same position goes to the other team. So if quarterback Kirk Cousins is selected first, Keith Nichol in all likelihood would go to the opposing team.
  • Dantonio has the final say and can move players to the other team to even things out.
  • At stake, steak. The winning team eats it, while the losers get franks and beans.

Things apparently got pretty heated last year between quarterback Brian Hoyer and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. With senior offensive lineman Mike Bacon already on his team, Hoyer drafted starting center Joel Nitchman for the White squad. That left the Green team with no experience at the center spot, so Narduzzi demanded a trade and Dantonio eventually sent Nitchman to the Green tem.

Let's hope there are some similar fireworks today.

Though the spring game is all about fun, it does provide some hints about the team.

It will be very interesting to see which quarterback candidate -- Cousins or Nichol -- gets drafted first. Same thing for the running backs -- Ashton Leggett, Andre Anderson, A.J. Jimmerson and Caulton Ray.

Last year, Cousins was picked ahead of Nick Foles. Cousins went on to back up Hoyer during the season, while Foles transferred from the school.

Check the blog later this afternoon for a full draft recap.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The madness is here, and so are these links. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Several years ago, the prospect of Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins competing for a starting job on the same team seemed slim at best.

You could make a case the two quarterbacks were intentionally trying to avoid each other.

 Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIRE
Kirk Cousins could have the advantage in the QB duel after serving as Brian Hoyer's backup last fall.

Nichol committed to Michigan State in the summer of 2005, pegged as the successor to Drew Stanton. At the time, Cousins was a relatively unknown player entering his junior year at a high school that had only started competing in football two years earlier.

But shortly after Michigan State fired head coach John L. Smith in 2006, Nichol decommitted and switched his pledge to Oklahoma. Cousins, meanwhile, had followed several strong performances at junior camps with an excellent senior season.

Scholarship offers started to trickle in. After Nichol bolted, Michigan State assistant Dan Enos came calling and Cousins committed in January 2007.

"If I had to pick from any of the other schools that had offered, I'm not sure where I would have gone," said Cousins, who also received an offer from Colorado. "I'm glad that Michigan State came through."

Their paths seemed set. Two quarterbacks who grew up 50 miles apart in western Michigan would be separated by a time zone in college.

But after Nichol found himself behind future Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and Joey Halzle on Oklahoma's depth chart, he decided to transfer and ended up where he nearly started, Michigan State.

As the Spartans' quarterback competition kicks off this spring, Cousins and Nichol find themselves together on center stage.

"It's funny how things work out," Nichol said. "I don't think he really knew where he was going to go, and then I go to Oklahoma, he decides to come here and now I'm back.

"Competing with him has made me a better football player, it's made me grow physically and mentally. It's been a blessing, actually."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin needs a quarterback. So do Michigan and Michigan State. Ohio State is looking to replace star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells. The Spartans? They need a back, too, after the graduation of Doak Walker Award finalist Javon Ringer.

Every Big Ten team has some holes to fill, and the process begins in spring ball as position competitions kick off throughout the league. Here are five key spots to watch when practices get under way.

Team: Michigan

Position: Quarterback

2008 starter: Steven Threet (eight games), Nick Sheridan (four games)

Candidates: Nick Sheridan, Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson, David Cone

The skinny: Threet's recent decision to transfer from Michigan shook up the competition before spring practice. Sheridan has the edge in college game experience, starting the final three games last fall, but Forcier enters practice as the front-runner. The true freshman, who enrolled in January, has the skill set that suits Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. Robinson also will be a factor when he arrives this summer, but Forcier has an opportunity to gain a head start this spring.

Team: Ohio State

Position: Running back

2008 starter: Chris "Beanie" Wells

Candidates: Dan Herron, Brandon Saine, Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde

The skinny: Wells' foot injury last fall gave Ohio State an idea of what life will be like without the 237-pound power back. Herron, who served as Wells' primary backup in 2008, has the inside track to claim the job but needs a good spring performance. He's deceptively strong despite a smallish frame (5-foot-10, 193), but Ohio State might go with more of a committee system this fall. Saine could be a factor if he stays healthy, and heralded recruits Berry and Hyde will compete when they arrive this summer.

Team: Wisconsin

Position: Quarterback

2008 starter: Allan Evridge (six games) and Dustin Sherer (seven games)

Candidates: Sherer, Scott Tolzien, Curt Phillips, Jon Budmayr, James Stallons

The skinny: The quarterback position really hurt Wisconsin last year, and the Badgers once again enter the spring with major questions under center. The competition last spring didn't provide much clarity, so offensive coordinator Paul Chryst will be looking for any type of separation this time around. Sherer had mixed results last year, helping Wisconsin to four wins but struggling in the bowl game. Tolzien is a heady player who could be a factor this spring, but the spotlight will really be on the two young quarterbacks, Phillips and Budmayr. Both were heralded recruits, particularly Phillips, and Wisconsin might be looking for a multiyear starter to emerge after the last few years.

Team: Michigan State

Position: Quarterback

2008 starter: Brian Hoyer

Candidates: Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol

The skinny: This will be a fascinating story to watch, as the promising Cousins goes up against Nichol, a transfer from Oklahoma who grew up an hour from the Michigan State campus. Cousins is the favorite after a solid performance as Hoyer's backup last year, completing 32 of 43 passes (74.4 percent) for 310 yards. But Nichol didn't come to Michigan State to ride the bench and has a year in the system after running the scout team last fall. Without Ringer, Michigan State will look to upgrade its passing attack, so the quarterbacks will take center stage this spring.

Team: Penn State

Position: Defensive end

2008 starters: Aaron Maybin, Josh Gaines

Candidates: Jerome Hayes, Jack Crawford, Kevion Latham, Eric Latimore

The skinny: The Lions also have holes at wide receiver and along the offensive line, but defensive end became a surprise area of need after Maybin and Maurice Evans declared for the NFL draft as underclassmen. Hayes has torn the ACLs in both knees the last two seasons, so he's far from a reliable bet to step in as a starter. Crawford, who grew up mostly in England, is still fairly new to football but has good ability and could emerge this spring. Latimore had a sack in nine games last year, and Latham recorded three tackles in eight contests. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson seemingly produces star pass-rushers every year, but this could be his toughest challenge yet.

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

Before putting a sleepy Big Ten bowl season to bed, it's time to recognize some of the memorable moments from the last few weeks. Contrary to the 1-6 record, the Big Ten produced its share of highlights. And lowlights.

Here they are.

Best closing performance -- Iowa running back Shonn Greene capped a tremendous 2008 season in fitting fashion with his 13th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. Greene punished South Carolina for 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Outback Bowl. The junior then confirmed what many had believed for months and declared for the NFL draft.

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Shonn Greene punctuated his college career with a victory over South Carolina.

Best catch -- Ross Lane's leaping grab in the back of the end zone secured a 23-yard touchdown and gave Northwestern a 23-20 lead over Missouri entering the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl. Lane used his entire 6-foot-3 frame to make the reception and managed to get a foot down before tumbling beyond the end line. His catch would have been the signature image had Northwestern held on for the win.

Best catch by a quarterback -- OK, Terrelle Pryor is the only Big Ten signal caller who qualified, but he showed impressive athleticism to haul in a 5-yard fade pass from Todd Boeckman for a touchdown. Ohio State's use of Pryor and Boeckman together gave the offense a boost at times, and Pryor's leaping ability had some wondering whether he would be better used as a wide receiver.

Best preview of the future -- Michigan State backup quarterback Kirk Cousins continued to boost his stock for the 2009 season with a solid effort in limited action at the Capital One Bowl. Cousins spelled Brian Hoyer for a series and completed 4 of 5 pass attempts, leading Michigan State into Georgia territory and setting up a long field-goal attempt. Though he'll have to beat out Keith Nichol for the starting job in the offseason, Cousins looked game-ready this fall.

Best performance by a secondary -- Iowa's back four continued to cause problems in the Outback Bowl, as they did throughout the second half of the season. Safety Tyler Sash recorded two interceptions and cornerback Bradley Fletcher had an interception and a forced fumble. Cornerback Amari Spievey added a pass breakup as the Hawkeyes flustered South Carolina's Stephen Garcia.

Best comeback: Had Ohio State held on to beat Texas, Boeckman would have been the top story. After sitting on the bench for the final nine regular-season games, Boeckman returned to meaningful action and gave the Buckeyes' offense a much needed boost against Texas. He sparked the offense with a 48-yard pass to Brian Robiskie and hit Pryor for the team's first touchdown.

Worst quarter -- The Big Ten's second-quarter blues continued in BCS games as Penn State was outscored 24-0 in the second quarter of the Rose Bowl. Penn State had taken USC's first punch and mounted an impressive scoring drive, but the Nittany Lions committed out-of-character mistakes in the second quarter and couldn't stop Mark Sanchez and the Trojans, who took a 31-7 halftime lead.

Worst turnover -- It seems hard to fathom given the final score, but Wisconsin outplayed Florida State for the first quarter of the Champs Sports Bowl and had the ball inside the Noles' red zone early in the second quarter. Quarterback Dustin Sherer attempted a lateral that fell incomplete, and Florida State's Derek Nicholson wisely picked up the ball and raced 75 yards to the end zone. Wisconsin players thought Sherer had thrown an incomplete forward pass and didn't bother to chase Nicholson. They would never catch Florida State.

Worst tackle -- Safety Anderson Russell had been one of Ohio State's defensive standouts in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, recording an interception, a forced fumble and a pass breakup to go along with nine tackles. But unfortunately, Russell's lasting image will be a missed tackle on wide receiver Quan Cosby that allowed Texas to score the game-winning touchdown with 26 seconds left. Ohio State had tackled extremely well until the final minute, limiting big plays, but Cosby scooted by Russell and into the end zone.

Worst special teams play -- Northwestern's Stefan Demos was supposed to punt the ball out of bounds late in the first half, but his kick instead went high and short, right into the hands of dangerous return man Jeremy Maclin. The Missouri star raced 75 yards to the end zone with a minute left in the half, and Northwestern went to the locker room tied at 10-10 after dominating the first 30 minutes. A missed extra point in the third quarter also stung the Wildcats in their overtime loss.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten took a beating this bowl season, but rather than gripe about unfavorable locations and matchups, it's time to acknowledge a fact about the league.

The quarterback position stinks.

And in this age of college football, that equals competitive suicide.

All it took was a look across the field during bowl season to realize how far the Big Ten must progress at the quarterback spot.

The list of quarterbacks the Big Ten faced included:

  • Texas junior Colt McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist who ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and ninth in passing yards.
  • USC junior Mark Sanchez, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency and 20th in pass yards.
  • Georgia junior Matthew Stafford, who ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency and 14th in pass yards.
  • Missouri senior Chase Daniel, who ranks fourth nationally in pass yards and fifth in total offense.
  • Kansas junior Todd Reesing, who ranks eighth nationally in both passing yards and total offense.

Of the Big Ten quarterbacks competing in bowl games, only one, Penn State's Daryll Clark, ranks among the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency (Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor did not qualify). Minnesota's Adam Weber had the most passing yards (2,761), which ranks 35th nationally.

Granted, the Big Ten's best statistical passer, Illinois' Juice Williams, didn't reach the postseason, but this league is losing the arms race.

The Big Ten had by far the best stable of running backs in the country this season, boasting three of the nation's top six ball carriers (Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells).

Who cares?

College football has become a quarterback's game, and the Big Ten has fallen way behind. For the Big Ten to restore its place among the nation's top conferences, the fix must begin under center. It takes more than adopting the spread offense, which most Big Ten teams have done. Quarterbacks must be better developed in this conference.

And despite the league's sagging national reputation, there is hope.

The quarterback spot figures to be stronger in 2009 than it was in 2008.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State had the lead at halftime, but the Spartans didn't have the momentum they needed in the Capital One Bowl against No. 15 Georgia.

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 The Georgia defense never allowed Javon Ringer to get on track.

A more talented but seemingly disinterested Georgia team gave No. 18 Michigan State numerous opportunities to take control of the game. The Spartans ran 26 plays in Bulldogs territory in the opening half but produced only six points. That's nowhere near good enough. Michigan State easily could have been ahead by double digits.

The missed opportunities wound up costing the Spartans in a 24-12 loss.

Credit Georgia's much-maligned defense for shutting down Spartans star Javon Ringer (47 yards) and putting quarterback Brian Hoyer under constant duress. The game was won at the line of scrimmage, and Georgia's speed in the defensive front proved to be the difference. Michigan State (9-4) needed a strong performance from its offensive line to spring Ringer, and it didn't get one.

In many ways, the Capital One Bowl mirrored another near miss by a Big Ten team. Like Michigan State, Northwestern dominated the first half against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl but found itself tied at the break because of a few miscues. The Wildcats went on to lose.

Put bluntly, this year's bowl matchups were terrible for the Big Ten, but both Michigan State and Northwestern had opportunities for upsets and neither team could convert.

Credit Michigan State coordinator Pat Narduzzi and a defense that came to play today. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford looked bewildered during the first half, and the Spartans frustrated Bulldogs star Knowshon Moreno.

Georgia Vs. Big Ten in Bowls
BowlOpponentResult
2009 Capital One Michigan St. W, 24-12
2004 Outback Wisconsin W, 24-21
2003 Capital One Purdue W, 34-27
1999 Outback Purdue W, 28-25
1997 Outback Wisconsin W, 33-6
1992 Citrus Ohio St. W, 21-14
1988 Gator Michigan St. W, 34-27
Note: Georgia is 1-2 vs. Big Ten teams in regular-season games.

With a bigger lead entering the third quarter, Michigan State's defense might have continued to surge. But Stafford got things together and made several brilliant throws to rally his team. By the time Michigan State got in the end zone, Georgia's talent-stocked offense was rolling along.

Despite the loss, Michigan State made major strides this season and head coach Mark Dantonio got everything out of his players. The program is on the upswing.

The Spartans must make upgrades throughout their offense -- quarterback, wide receiver, line -- and find a way to replace Ringer's production. They really could have used a game-changer like Devin Thomas today. The defense loses only three starters and should be much stronger in 2009 behind Greg Jones and Trevor Anderson.

The Big Ten falls to 1-4 in bowl games and remains on pace for the worst postseason in its history. Iowa looked dominant and both Michigan State and Northwestern had bright spots in defeat, but the Big Ten desperately needs a BCS win from Penn State or Ohio State.

Capital One Bowl preview

January, 1, 2009
1/01/09
12:56
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Lost amid the Big Ten bowl bashing is the league's four-game win streak against the SEC in the Capital One Bowl, considered by many to be the most prestigious non-BCS postseason contest. It's up to No. 18 Michigan State to continue the trend today against No. 15 Georgia (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

Here's a look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Arguably no player in the country meant more to his team this season than Michigan State senior running back Javon Ringer, the nation's third-leading rusher. Without Ringer's steady production, particularly in the first half of the season, Michigan State wouldn't be playing on New Year's Day. Georgia has struggled to stop the run all season but will load up against Ringer, daring Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer to win the game.

WHAT TO WATCH: Michigan State's defense has contained comparable opponents but collapsed against elite offenses this season. It's time for the Spartans to step up. Georgia boasts future NFL players at all the skill positions and could overwhelm Michigan State. But Pat Narduzzi's unit is as healthy as it has been all season, and if the front four put pressure on Matthew Stafford, an upset is possible.

WHY TO WATCH: No bowl game features a better matchup of running backs, as Ringer squares off against Georgia's Knowshon Moreno. The Doak Walker Award finalists have combined for 2,928 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns this season. Ringer's strength and incredible durability (nation-high 370 carries) has sparked Michigan State, while Moreno is the most exciting back in the country.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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