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NCF Nation: Brian Linthicum


The headline might be the most shocking of the Big Ten season, and it's devastating to Michigan State fans waking up after Christmas.

MSU's team plane touched down Wednesday night in Los Angeles as the team begins its final preparations for its first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 seasons. But the Spartans will be without starting middle linebacker and two-time captain Max Bullough, who has been suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio announced the suspension shortly after midnight ET, calling it "extremely disappointing for all parties involved." Bullough didn't travel with the team to California.

"Max will forever remain a Spartan and valued member in this team's achievements," Dantonio said in a prepared statement.

Details are scarce at this point, and we'll have updates on the story as it develops.

Bullough was arrested in 2011 after an incident at a Colorado bar alongside former Spartans tight end Brian Linthicum, but he since has had no known off-field issues. He's a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a third-team All-America selection who led the nation's No. 1 defense this year. He's a third-generation Spartan whose grandfather, Hank, played on Michigan State's first Rose Bowl team in 1953. This is an awful way for his career to end.

Just a complete shocker, and an ominous start to MSU's week in California.

More to come ...
Le'Veon Bell's surroundings have changed at Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell is expecting 15-20 carriers per game this season as the Spartans' starting running back.
The quarterback who handed him the ball the past two seasons, Kirk Cousins, is gone. The wide receivers who sparked the passing attack -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- also have departed, along with top tight end Brian Linthicum. Bell's top backfield competitor, Edwin Baker, made an early jump to the NFL draft.

When it comes to Michigan State offensive skill players who made contributions last season and remain on the roster, Bell's name is at the top of a very short list. The junior was the Spartans' top rusher in 2011 with 182 carries (no returning player has more than 30). He was the Spartans' third-leading receiver in 2011 with 35 receptions (no returning player has more than 12).

With so many unknowns elsewhere, Bell will be the focal point of an offense based more around one of the team's mottos: pound green pound.

"I definitely feel like we'll be more of a running team this year," Bell told ESPN.com. "We've got me and Larry [Caper] in the back, an experienced offensive line, not proven receivers yet, so we've got to get those guys more comfortable. We have a lot of things on our shoulders."

Bell and Caper, the team's leading rusher in 2009, will receive the bulk of the carries this fall. Michigan State used both backs on the field more toward the end of last season. Given Bell's versatility and significant question marks at receiver, the pattern should continue this fall.

"We need to get our best guys on the field," Bell said, "having two running backs out there, splitting me out because I can come out of the backfield and catch the ball, too, or line me up in the slot. I feel real comfortable with it. I get the chance to really showcase what I can do."

Bell has recovered from an offseason hamstring injury that caused his listed weight (244 pounds) to be a bit higher than his actual playing weight (236). His sturdy frame seems to lend itself to being a bell-cow back, but Bell hasn't logged more than 20 carries in a game and expects 15-20 carries per game this season.

While that number might sound low to some Spartans fans, when factored in with Bell's increased role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, it should be sufficient. Unlike Baker in 2011, Bell isn't setting any specific statistical goals, but he'll have a chance to record some big numbers.

"I'll get a lot of touches," Bell said.

Although Bell is entering only his third year in the program, he recognizes the added responsibility on his shoulders. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio appeared to call out Bell early this spring for a complacent approach. Bell quickly rectified his situation, and Dantonio shouldn't have to worry this fall.

"I'm helping out younger guys at the position and make sure everyone knows the plays," he said. "I have to learn every position this year, so when I'm out at receiver or wherever I may be, I know what I'm doing.

"I've got to be a leader."
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeacki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

Despite a 4-6 bowl performance by the Big Ten, the league had some nice individual performances.

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Though he threw a costly interception late, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That performance was good enough for him to finish the season with the NCAA record for pass efficiency.

RB: Akeem Shavers, Purdue: With leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured, the Boilermakers needed another back to step up. Shavers responded with a career high 149 yards on 22 carries in the Boilermakers' 37-32 Little Caesars Bowl victory over Western Michigan.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball racked up 164 yards on the ground and scored his 39th TD of the season in the Rose Bowl.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball carried 32 times for 164 yards against Oregon, and his touchdown gave him 39 on the season, tying Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision record. Ball was quieted late as the Ducks' defense made adjustments against the running game.

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Like Wilson, Abbrederis had a costly second-half turnover, but his overall performance stood out in the Rose Bowl. The sophomore had four receptions for a team-high 119 yards and a touchdown and also had 227 return yards in the game, including a 60-yard kickoff runback.

WR: Junior Hemingway, Michigan: He only had two catches in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but both went for touchdowns. He caught the first one in traffic then juked his way toward a 45-yard score. He made a leaping grab near the back of the end zone for the second one.

TE: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State: The senior picked a good time to have a career day, coming up with seven catches for 115 yards against Georgia plus a catch on a two-point conversion. He took a tight end screen pass 50 yards during the fourth quarter for the longest play of his career.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz made his first appearance since Nov. 13 and didn't look rusty after rehabbing a dislocated ankle. The All-Big Ten selection keyed a Badgers offense that racked up 212 rush yards, 23 first downs and 508 total yards against Oregon. Konz performed well in what turned out to be his final game as a Badger.

OL: Dennis Kelly, Purdue: The Boilers' offensive line overpowered Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Kelly, a mainstay at left tackle during his career, helped lead the charge. Purdue racked up 265 rush yards on 56 attempts and steamrolled the Broncos despite not having top running back Bolden (knee).

OL: David Molk, Michigan: A foot injury in warmups wasn't going to keep Molk from playing his final game with the Wolverines. The Rimington Trophy winner, who some thought wouldn't return to the field, missed only one series and did his part for the Michigan offense in its win against Virginia Tech.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois: Allen keyed an Illinois offense that showed some life in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after fading down the stretch of the regular season. He helped the Illini rush for 178 yards, while UCLA had only one sack in the game.

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Like Konz, Zeitler delivered a typical performance in Pasadena and helped Ball and the ground game get going. Wisconsin's physical play along the offensive line gave Oregon problems for most of the game.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston seemed unstoppable in Michigan State's win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State: The sophomore announced himself as a likely breakout star in 2012 with a huge performance against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Gholston had five tackles for loss, including two sacks, plus a fumble recovery in the Spartans' victory.

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: The nation's sacks leader went out with a bang before declaring for the NFL draft. Mercilus registered 1.5 sacks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, tying him with Simeon Rice for the school single-season record of 16. He finished with three tackles for loss and gave the Bruins offense fits.

DL: Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines repeatedly stuffed Virginia Tech in the red zone, and Martin was a big reason why. The senior had 10 tackles and 0.5 sacks while helping control the interior of the defensive line.

DL Mike Daniels, Iowa: The Hawkeyes defense showed up in the Insight Bowl, and Daniels led the way with five tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Oklahoma came into the game having allowed just nine sacks all season, but Daniels had two in the first half.

LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska: Though the Huskers lost to South Carolina, David had his usual brilliant game. He finished with 11 tackles and two sacks in the losing effort to cap a terrific career.

LB: Joe Holland, Purdue: The senior delivered in his final game as a Boiler, recording team highs for tackles (9), tackles for loss (2) and pass breakups (3) against Western Michigan. Holland was always around the ball and spurred a play-making Purdue defense in Detroit.

LB: Ian Thomas, Illinois: Like Holland, Thomas had a big performance in his final collegiate game as Illinois held UCLA to seven points through the first 59 minutes. Thomas finished with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as a pass breakup against the Bruins.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He got burned on a long pass in the first half but made up for it with two second-half interceptions, including one he returned 38 yards for a touchdown, in the win against Georgia. Dennard tied the Michigan State bowl record with the two picks.

CB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois: Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave Illinois its first lead against UCLA. It marked the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career and the first since 2009. He also had five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan: Kovacs capped a breakthrough season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a a team-high 11 tackles in the win against Virginia Tech. He helped limit the Hokies to just one touchdown on six red zone possessions and finished the season with 75 total tackles.

S: Brian Peters, Northwestern: Peters made a nifty interception against Texas A&M, his Big Ten-leading fifth pick of the season, and added seven tackles against the Aggies. He finished his career with 12 interceptions, the third-highest total in team history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan: Gibbons nailed all three of his field goal attempts, including the 37-yarder in overtime to win the game for the Wolverines.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: Sadler was big in the field position battle against Georgia. He averaged 50.1 yards on eight punts, placing four of them inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue: Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over Western Michigan. It marked the longest kick return in Purdue bowl history and helped Mostert finish the season as the nation's leading return man (33.5 ypr).

PR: Venric Mark, Northwestern: Not too many choices around the Big Ten, but Mark broke off a 47-yard return in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown in the game.

Michigan State gave the Big Ten a much-needed bowl win with a thrilling 33-30 triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

Here's an instant analysis:

How the game was won: Defense was king to start the day, but we saw both offenses catch some fire in the second half. After being outscored 16-0 in the first half, the Spartans outscored Georgia 27-11 in the second. Michigan State survived quarterback Kirk Cousins' third interception of the day to start overtime, then Georgia's Blair Walsh missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Spartans kicker Dan Conroy won the game in triple overtime with a 28-yard field goal.

Turning point: Walsh's missed field goal attempt on Georgia's first possession in overtime kept Michigan State alive and allowed it to score in the next two overtime periods.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 68 rushes for 124 yards.

Player of the game: Michigan State wide receiver Brian Linthicum had a spectacular day catching the ball. He hauled in seven catches for 115 yards, and his 50-yard reception in the fourth quarter helped set up a touchdown that gave Michigan State its first lead of the day.

Unsung hero of the game: Fifth-year senior wide receiver/holder Brad Sonntag saved the Spartans on two huge kicks. He snagged a low one on the tying extra point to send the game into overtime and grabbed a high one for the winner.

Best call: With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio challenged a play ruled a catch by Georgia's Marlon Brown. Even with pass interference being called on the play, a completion would have left the game clock at 3:30, but if it was incomplete, the clock would have had 13 seconds added. The play was overturned, 13 seconds were added, and Michigan State eventually scored its tying touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

Second-guessing: Georgia coach Mark Richt has often been criticized for being too conservative, and it almost cost him, as he ran just two plays after Bacarri Rambo's interception before sending Walsh out for the 42-yard field goal attempt on Georgia's first overtime possession. Walsh missed, and Michigan State eventually won in triple overtime ... after a Walsh kick that was blocked.

What it means: Michigan State ends its five-game losing streak in bowl games and gives Dantonio his first bowl win as the Spartans' head coach. With 11 wins and a bowl win, Michigan State should be overflowing with confidence heading into the offseason. This likely will make the Spartans a top-10 team to open the 2012 season. For Georgia, this loss will sting for a while. The conservative play calling late and the missed field goal likely will be brought up a lot with this team. The Bulldogs should return a talented team that will have it near top-10 status, though.

Record performance: Brandon Boykin's stellar 92-yard punt return is the longest play in Outback Bowl history. Less than two minutes earlier, Aaron Murray's 80-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King stood as the longest play in the bowl's 26-year existence. It was also a career-long pass for Murray and a career-long reception for King. Also, King's 205 receiving yards were a Georgia school record.

Record performance 2: Walsh's eight points on kicks made him the SEC's all-time leading scorer with 411 points.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. Of course, it is a rematch of their Oct. 22 meeting, won by [spoiler alert!] the Spartans 37-31 in one of the best games of the college football season.

In order to understand all the storylines and key matchups of this week's game, it's crucial to know exactly what happened the first time. So I decided to go back and watch that initial encounter and, with apologies to Bill Simmons, provide my thoughts and observations in a retro diary. You can follow along through the magic of ESPN3.com here. Or you can just read.

This first installment will cover the first half of the game. I'll be back later on today with the second-half diary. Wonder if anything cool will happen late in the game?

Pregame

  • Kirk Herbstreit says, "This is what we've all wanted to see for a number of weeks." I think the same line could be used Saturday night.
  • Michigan State's Keith Nichol is one of the first Spartans to come out of the tunnel for introductions. I've got a hunch he could play a role in this one somehow.
  • I don't know how good the audio quality is on my replay, but it sounds extremely quiet when Wisconsin takes the field. No boos, just silence. Someone who was there will have to tell me if that's how it really went down at Spartan Stadium. If so, I think that's the best way to taunt an opponent; just ignore them. I recommend this for all home fans from here on out.
[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWisconsin will be dangerous on the ground again in 2012 with Montee Ball and James White returning.
First quarter

  • 15:00: Wisconsin wins the toss and takes the ball first. The first play of the game is a handoff to Montee Ball, who runs 8 yards before plowing into Isaiah Lewis's shoulder. Lewis goes down and has to leave the game. Remember, Lewis gave the Badgers some major bulletin board material the week before after beating Michigan, saying the Spartans defense "was going to hurt" Russell Wilson. You think Ball remembered that as he slammed into Lewis?
  • 12:03: Russell Wilson throws his first pass -- complete to Jacob Pedersen -- after four straight Ball runs have softened up the defense. Lewis comes back in.
  • 8:48: On third-and-4, Wilson play-fakes to Ball and throws a touchdown pass to a wide-open Pedersen with Anthony Rashad White and Marcus Rush bearing down on the quarterback. That was the second straight completion off play-action for Wilson, as Michigan State's safeties and linebackers are biting hard on the run. It's a textbook, 80-yard Wisconsin style drive with almost perfect balance. The game could not have started off better for the Badgers. 7-0, Wisconsin
  • 8:33: Uh-oh for Sparty. Tailback Edwin Baker fumbles on Michigan State's first offensive play, thanks to a hit from linebacker Mike Taylor. The officials review whether or not Wisconsin's Marcus Cromartie touched the ball first while coming from out of bounds on the recovery, but the play stands and the Badgers take over.
  • 7:42: Wisconsin needs only three plays to cash in the fumble, as Ball rushes up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. 14-0, Wisconsin. Wilson completed another pass off play-action immediately before. It was not a good series for Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, who was fooled on the play-fake and then broke the wrong way before unsuccessfully trying to arm tackle Ball. Hey, the Badgers might win this game in a blowout!
  • 3:47: Michigan State picks up a pair of first downs but can't convert a third-and-14 and has to punt. At least its defense got a little bit of a breather, but if Wisconsin goes in for another score this one could get out of hand early.
  • 0:33: And we have our first Badgers mistake. After the offense drove to midfield, Wilson throws an interception to -- guess who? -- Robinson. It's only the second interception of the year for Wilson, who threw his other one on a meaningless play late in the Northern Illinois blowout. But I don't put this one entirely on him. Receiver Nick Toon appears to break the wrong way on the route, and he doesn't even start to look for the ball until it's nearly over his head. Remember that Toon missed the previous game with a foot injury he suffered two weeks earlier against Nebraska. He looked a little rusty/anxious, especially as he drew an uncharacteristic false start penalty later in the half. But the play was set up by a loss of 1 yard by James White on first down. The second-and-long prompted offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to put Wilson in the shotgun and not use play-action, allowing the safeties to stick in pass coverage. Even if Wilson and Toon had been on the same page, it was a low-percentage throw into double coverage, and that's not Wisconsin's game.
  • 0:26: I love, love, love the fact that Wilson sprints down the field and actually makes the tackle on Robinson, even though his form could use a little work.
  • 0:18: Michigan State, which has negative-9 rushing yards to this point, finally gets something going on the ground. The Spartans wide receivers blow up the right side of Wisconsin's defense, and Le'Veon Bell rushes 32 yards behind tackle Fou Fonoti, who's dying to find someone to block. Momentum seems to be changing.
[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Keshawn Martin
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREMichigan State's Keshawn Martin scores a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin.
Second quarter

  • 14:15: Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper can't quite connect for a screen pass on third-and-6, which was set up perfectly and might have resulted in an easy touchdown. The Spartans have another empty possession. But Bell's big run has flipped field position, leading to ...
  • 14:04: Mike Sadler punts the ball out of bounds at the Wisconsin 5. We didn't mention Sadler when we talked about freshmen of the year candidates in the Big Ten, but he has been a valuable weapon for Mark Dantonio all year long.
  • 13:58 to 13:10: Disaster strikes for Wisconsin. First, Jerel Worthy finally makes his presence felt, stuffing Ball for a 3-yard loss back to the 2. Then Wilson is called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure from Denicos Allen. That's a safety, and it's now 14-2, Wisconsin. Chryst dialed up play-action again and looked to be going for a big throw over the top. But the call actually helped Michigan State, because the linebackers darted up field to stop the run. Ball has had an amazing season, but he whiffed on Allen to let "The Waterboy" get right to Wilson, who had little choice but to throw it away. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, there was no receiver on the side of the field where Wilson could get rid of the ball.
  • 11:22: Razzle, meet dazzle. After a beautiful throw from Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar dials up some trickery. The Spartans line up in the I-formation. Cousins fakes a handoff to Bell, then hands it to receiver B.J. Cunningham on a reverse. Cunningham then pitches it to Keshawn Martin coming the other way. Wisconsin blitzed to the side Martin is now running toward, leaving no one left to tackle the Spartans' speedster except safety Aaron Henry. And he's sandwiched by three blockers. Martin scores from 34 yards out to make the score 14-9, Wisconsin. Martin has been on fire the latter part of this season.
  • 8:41: Wisconsin's offense mounts a good drive in response, and receiver Jared Abbrederis takes a jet sweep 21 yards. It's no coincidence that Abbrederis runs to the side where suspended defensive end William Gholston would have been. The Badgers have been attacking his replacement, Denzel Drone. Gholston's return is a big factor in this week's game.
  • 7:49 to 7:22: A tough sequence here for Ball. First, he misses another block, allowing cornerback Johnny Adams to blow up a play when he tackles Wilson from behind. Then he takes a Robinson shoulder to the head after a 7-yard run. Ball gets up from the tackle and then falls back down in a scary scene. He's escorted off the field and is given concussion tests on the sideline as Wisconsin fans hold their breath. Ball has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown when he goes out.
  • 6:42: On third-and-short from the Michigan State 14, White is stopped shy of the first down when Kyler Elsworth sheds a Pedersen block and makes the tackle. Great defensive play. No disrespect to White, but it makes you wonder if Ball would have gotten the extra few feet had he been in the game.
  • 5:55: Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal try is blocked by Darqueze Dennard, who ran in free from the left end. I'm not sure if Welch would have made the kick anyway, because Brad Nortman bobbled the snap, which disrupted the timing of the play. Wisconsin converted 62 of 65 trips in the red zone into points this season, second best in the FBS. But it comes up empty in a big spot here.
  • 1:40: Michigan State moves the ball down the field, but Baker is tackled for a loss to set up fourth-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35. Dantonio doesn't hesitate to go for it, and Roushar calls a great, if somewhat risky, play. Cousins waits for Cunningham to find a hole behind the linebackers in a long-developing route. But Wisconsin doesn't get any pressure on Cousins, and he hits Cunningham in the middle of three Badgers defenders. Taylor misses a tackle in a difficult matchup for him, and Cunningham is off for a touchdown to make it 16-14, Michigan State. It's the second straight year that Cunningham catches a fourth-down touchdown pass in a key spot. Think Wisconsin will know where he is if a big fourth down comes up again Saturday? The game's final play got all the attention, but this was just as big.
  • 0:45: Complete catastrophe for the Badgers. A fired up Spartans defense forces a three and out at Wisconsin 45, and then backup linebacker Ellsworth makes his second huge play of the game. He blocks Nortman's punt, and Bennie Fowler recovers the ball in the end zone to make it 23-14 Michigan State. The Spartans brought four defenders untouched up the middle against Wisconsin's three-man punt protection unit, and Ellsworth flew right by Robert Burge. In Burge's defense, middle protector Ryan Groy was slow to pick up his block, and Burge looked like he couldn't decide whether to chip Ellsworth or help on Kurtis Drummond right up the gut. "It was nothing special we haven't seen on film," Bret Bielema will tell Erin Andrews at halftime. "We've just got to block all four."
  • 0:00: The half mercifully ends for Wisconsin as Spartan Stadium is rocking. In a 15-minute span from the end of the first quarter to the final score of the half, the Badgers threw an interception, gave up a safety, had a field goal blocked, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, allowed a touchdown pass on fourth down and surrendered another score on a trick play. In basketball terms, it's a 23-0 spurt. Things can't get any worse for Wisconsin, or better for Michigan State. Can they?

Spartans leaving nothing to chance

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
6:39
PM ET


IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Michigan State didn't merely lose a game here last year.

The Spartans didn't merely get "killed," as cornerback Tony Lippett said, in a game he described as "a disaster."

Michigan State, in falling 37-6 to Iowa in 2010, lost the ability to control its own fate in the Big Ten. While the Spartans responded with three consecutive victories to close the season and record a team-record 11 wins, their loss to Iowa came back to haunt them when the BCS bowl selections rolled around.

Mark Dantonio's team was left out, despite a win against Wisconsin, which went to Pasadena because of a stronger BCS standings profile.

The Spartans once again came to Kinnick Stadium with their Rose Bowl fate in their hands. And this time, they refused to let it go, surging to a 31-7 halftime lead and prevailing 37-21 against Iowa.

"Like [linebacker] Max Bullough said, we've just got to take it on our own," Lippett said. "We can't think about other people losing or stuff like that. We're in the driver's seat, so let's just take it."

Michigan State can win the division next week with a win against Indiana and a Nebraska loss to Michigan. If the Spartans beat Indiana and Northwestern the following week, they'll be headed to Indy, no matter what any other team does.

"We're right where we want to be," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Can't ask for anything more than that."

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMichigan State's Kirk Cousins completed 18 of 31 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into the game, Dantonio talked about the need to weather the storm against Iowa or be the storm. Turned out, the Spartans experienced both.

They established control from the onset, as Le'Veon Bell rushed for 9 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Michigan State racked up 37 rush yards on its opening possession and 91 in the first half -- just 10 yards shy of its rushing total for its previous road game at Nebraska.

"[Offensive coordinator] Dan Roushar came out and [said], 'Run the ball, prove a point,'" said Bell, who finished with a season-high 112 rush yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and added two receptions for 49 yards. "We ran it effectively today, and that's a big reason why we won the game."

After falling behind 30-0 at halftime last year and eventually trailing Iowa 37-0, Michigan State went to the locker room with a 24-point lead.

"They were a lot more ready to play than we were," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Dantonio kept the foot on the gas, calling a wide receiver pass and a fake field goal -- a play boringly nicknamed "Gold" -- with a 31-7 lead. While some saw it as a response to Iowa calling a reverse pass with a 31-point, fourth-quarter lead in last year's contest, Dantonio said he wasn't trying to send a message.

"I just kept telling our coaches, 'Play like we're even, don't play like we're ahead, don't let our players play like we were ahead,'" Dantonio said. "... Maybe people from Iowa don't think it was close. I personally thought it was a close football game in that second half."

He was right. Michigan State's first win in Iowa since 1989 wouldn't be so easy.

A storm arrived late in the third quarter, as Iowa's big-play offense came alive behind senior wide receiver Marvin McNutt (8 catches, 130 yards, TD). The Hawkeyes recorded two quick touchdowns to close to within 13 points entering the fourth quarter.

But Michigan State stood its ground and did enough to keep Iowa at arm's length. The defense flustered Iowa QB James Vandenberg, who had arguably his worst passing performance of the season. In a game in which Michigan State received contributions from so many sources, it was fitting that Jairus Jones, a safety who tore his Achilles' tendon late this spring and seemed unlikely to play this season, forced a fumble in the red zone that Lippett recovered to seal the win with 2:53 left.

Michigan State had 10 different defenders record either a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, a fumble recovery or a pass breakup. On offense, the Spartans had five players record multiple receptions, while Bell and junior Edwin Baker combined for 163 rush yards. Although top wideout B.J. Cunningham had two touchdown grabs, fellow receiver Keshawn Martin (87 receiving yards, 28-yard pass completion) and tight end Brian Linthicum (5 receptions, 71 yards) were bigger factors.

When Dantonio entered the locker room afterward, "there were so many people to congratulate," he said.

Dantonio had many options for the game ball, but he handed it to Cousins, who brought the pigskin into the postgame interview room. Cousins threw three interceptions in last year's loss, including a pick-six.

The senior, who grew up rooting for Iowa and had several family ties to the school, capitalized on his chance for redemption. Cousins fired three touchdown passes and no interceptions. While he fumbled several snaps, he didn't hurt his team.

"It's special to be able to win and go out on the right note," said Cousins, who took pictures with folks wearing both Spartan green and Hawkeye black after the game. "I guess when I go back to visit my grandparents every summer in Iowa, I can feel a little better about the vacation than I felt last summer."

The win marked the 34th for Cousins and his fellow seniors, moving them past last year's seniors as the winningest class in team history. Under Dantonio, Michigan State now has won a road game against all but three Big Ten squads (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska).

"With the nature of what coach Dantonio is doing here at Michigan State, there have been a lot of things 'first time' or 'best ever,'" Cousins said. "A lot of firsts and a lot of special accomplishments."

But there's one special accomplishment left, one important first to achieve. Michigan State is three wins away from its first Rose Bowl appearance since Jan. 1, 1988.

"We're one win closer," Dantonio said. "... The farther we go, the higher the [stakes]. We want to still be in a position to play 14 games.

"We're not there yet, but we're getting closer."

Final: Michigan State 37, Iowa 21

November, 12, 2011
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kinnick Stadium is no longer a haunted house for Michigan State, which has taken total control in the Legends Division.

The Spartans survived a brief Iowa surge to win here for the first time since 1989, ending a seven-game slide that included last year's 37-6 beatdown. They remain in control of their own fate in the Legends Division and could clinch the title next week against Indiana.

Credit the Spartans' offense for showing up in a big way after a lifeless effort at Nebraska. Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called an excellent game and got a bunch of players involved, including tight end Brian Linthicum (5 catches, 71 yards). Quarterback Kirk Cousins tossed three touchdowns and received plenty of help from his receivers, his backs and his blockers, who controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game.

The Spartans have to feel a lot better about their run game after today, as Le'Veon Bell (19 carries, 107 yards, TD) turned in an excellent performance and Edwin Baker also contributed. After scoring 26 points in its first three road games, the Spartans ignited today.

Michigan State's defense fought through some injuries and weathered the storm in the second half. The Spartans seemed to rattle James Vandenberg in the fourth quarter and did a very good job against Marcus Coker, the Big Ten's leading rusher, who was held to 57 yards on 21 carries. Marvin McNutt had a nice performance (8 catches, 130 yards, TD) in his final home game, but Iowa needed more contributors and far fewer mistakes.

Iowa committed three turnovers and simply made way too many errors in this game.

The Hawkeyes now must try to improve their bowl position in the final two weeks, while Michigan State has much bigger goals.
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.

Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
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The position rankings move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, who will be grouped together. The Big Ten remains a defense-first conference, but I really like the depth at receiver and, to a lesser extent, tight end throughout the league. Although star power was considered, I put a very strong emphasis on overall depth and 2010 potential here.

This was the toughest position to whittle down to five (actually, six), but here goes ...

[+] EnlargeCunningham/Dell
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMark Dell (left) and B.J. Cunningham headline an experienced group of receivers for Michigan State.
1. Michigan State: Sure, there's a lack of star power entering the season, but trust me, that will change. There's not a deeper group of receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten than this one. Veterans B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell anchor the receiving corps, and dangerous speedster Keshawn Martin will play a much bigger role in the offense this season. Converted quarterback Keith Nichol also joins the mix there. Michigan State also boasts three talented tight ends, including Mackey Award watch list members Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers return two of the Big Ten's top five receivers in Tandon Doss, a first-team all-conference selection, and Damarlo Belcher. They also add experience with Terrance Turner and exciting young players like Duwyce Wilson and Dre Muhammad. Overall depth is a bit of a question mark, but both Doss and Belcher will get the attention of opposing defensive backs after combining for 1,732 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Max Dedmond returns at tight end after recording 18 receptions in 2009.

3. Wisconsin: I'm not completely sold on this entire group, although receiver Nick Toon and tight end Lance Kendricks should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath both boast a ton of experience, but must take the next step in their development. Wisconsin could use a rebound season from Kyle Jefferson, and walk-on Jared Abbrederis continues to make plays in practice and should be a contributor this fall.

4. Purdue: Surprised by my choices so far? You won't be when the season starts. Like Michigan State, Purdue's depth will reveal itself this fall. The Boilers are led by Keith Smith, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 and the league's top returning receiver (1,100 yards). He's joined by two veterans in receiver Cortez Smith and tight end Kyle Adams. But the real boost could come from young players like Antavian Edison and Gary Bush, as well as Justin Siller, the team's former starting quarterback who brings size and big-play ability to the perimeter.

T-5: Penn State: I'm tempted to rank the Lions a little higher but want to see how the entire group performs this season, provided they get the ball thrown to them. Derek Moye has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten receiver after recording 48 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns last season. Graham Zug is a very solid target who reached the end zone seven times in 2009. Although Chaz Powell moves to defense, Penn State boasts several exciting young wideouts like Devon Smith. Tight end is a big question mark after the departures of Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.

T-5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast the league's top big-play tandem at receiver in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. DJK is on track to become the team's all-time leading receiver this fall, and McNutt averaged 19.8 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns in 2009. I like the potential of guys like Keenan Davis and Paul Chaney Jr., who returns from a knee injury. Tony Moeaki is a major loss at tight end, but Allen Reisner returns and talented freshman C.J. Fiedorowicz enters the fold.

Just missed the cut: Ohio State, Michigan

Up next: Quarterbacks

More rankings ...
Michigan State will have quite a few open seats on the team plane as it takes off for San Antonio on Sunday morning.

White
Jason Miller/US PresswireBlair White provides one reliable option for the Spartans at wideout.
And when offensive coordinator Don Treadwell assembles the Spartans' wide receivers to begin final preparations for the Valero Alamo Bowl, the meeting room might feel a little empty. Fourteen Spartans players aren't making the trip to the bowl game, as 12 have been suspended and two, running back Glenn Winston and safety Roderick Jenrette, have been dismissed from the team.

The wide receiver group has been hit especially hard as four suspended players -- B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell, Chris D. Rucker and Myles White -- play the position. Cunningham and Dell rank second and third on the team in receiving, having combined for 1,090 receiving yards, 74 receptions and five touchdowns.

Cunningham started nine games, while Dell started the final three regular-season contests. Their presence will be missed Jan. 2 against Texas Tech in a game where Michigan State likely needs to throw the ball a lot and put up points.

"We've talked about all season how at a lot of positions, we feel one of the strengths of our team is depth," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We have lost some guys, and it's going to test our depth. There are guys who haven't had opportunities yet to play in games, who we know work very hard year-round behind closed doors when no one else is really watching.

"They're guys we know we can count on, come the bowl game."

Cousins knows what he's got in Blair White, a first-team All-Big Ten receiver who leads Michigan State and ranks third in the league in receiving average (73 ypg). The Spartans also can turn to sophomore Keshawn Martin, who, in addition to becoming a threat on returns, has 14 receptions for 325 yards (23.2 ypr) and four touchdowns.

After those two, though, it's slim pickings. Michigan State can turn to tight ends Charlie Gantt, Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims, but it needs more production from the wide receiver position.

So who steps up? Cousins thinks sophomore walk-on Brad Sonntag could emerge.

"He's got a lot of upside," Cousins said.

Sonntag and redshirt freshman Milton Colbert are listed as the backups to White and Martin on Michigan State's pre-bowl depth chart. Neither Sonntag nor Colbert has caught a pass this season.

"We're still tinkering with all that," Cousins said. "We don't have a set plan yet, and we're still figuring out what would be the best matchups to use. And we're a team that likes to use our tight ends, so we always want to get them the football, too."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The rise of the spread offense in college football has put many of the nation's tight ends on notice.

As more coaches look for quickness before brute strength, tight ends are being forced to reinvent themselves.

"You see a lot of colleges phasing out the tight ends, but we've got to phase out of that, too," Michigan State junior Charlie Gantt said. "We've got to be faster, stronger. We've still got to be big, but we each have to adapt to it."

 
  Dave Stephenson/Icon SMI
  Charlie Gantt is hoping for more opportunities to catch the ball this season.

The Spartans' tight ends are making the adjustments. It's why Gantt can make statements like this and get taken seriously: "I envision a lot more pass-catching opportunities, a lot more different kinds of routes and plays that we can do. Two-, maybe three-tight end sets, that's what I'm hoping for, to get as many tight ends in the game [as possible]."

Michigan State boasts the depth and talent at tight end to make Gantt's wish come true this fall. Gantt returns for his second year as a starter after hauling in 19 receptions and four touchdowns in 2008.

He'll once again be spelled by Garrett Celek, a sophomore who appeared in 12 games last fall, recording six receptions and a touchdown. Talented Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins the mix, and heralded recruit Dion Sims also could see the field this fall.

"Especially with Dion coming in, we'll have four solid tight ends, at least two or three used every game, goal-line packages, different formations just to get more out of the offense," Linthicum said.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to examine the names you need to know coming out of spring ball. Daryll Clark and Terrelle Pryor won't appear on this list because if you're a true Big Ten fan, you know who they are. But spring practice provided some clues about other potential stars throughout the league.

Memorize these names and you'll look good in front of your buddies this fall.

Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State -- It shouldn't be a surprise any more, but Penn State appears to have found yet another standout pass rusher in Crawford. The sophomore dazzled this spring and looks ready to take over Aaron Maybin's role on the edge.

Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin -- The son of former Badgers great Al Toon made waves this spring at a critical position of need for Wisconsin. Toon has all the tools to be a top-end Big Ten wide receiver this fall.

MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota -- Believe the hype. That was the theme coming out of Minneapolis this spring as Gray took most of the snaps and showcased his impressive skill set. He'll back up Adam Weber but should see the field a lot.

Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa -- McNutt might not win a starting job, but his talent won't go to waste. Iowa needs more playmakers to emerge at wide receiver, and McNutt, a converted quarterback, should enter the rotation after an impressive spring.

Stevie Brown, S/LB, Michigan -- I know, I know, Brown is a risky stock to buy because he's been on the All-Spring Team before. This year could be different, though, as Brown enters his final season and seemed to settle in nicely to a hybrid role in Greg Robinson's defense.

Brian Linthicum, TE, Michigan State -- The Spartans already had depth at tight end before Linthicum came along. But the Clemson transfer worked his way into the mix this spring and could be the No. 2 option behind Charlie Gantt.

Brian Rolle, LB, Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lose a lot of production at linebacker, but Rolle looks ready to fill the void. His speed stood out this spring, and he'll play a major role in the rotation.

Brandon Saine, RB, Ohio State -- The wait for big things from Saine could finally be over as the junior got through spring ball unscathed and looked very impressive. Saine has the dynamic qualities to change games and should complement Dan "Boom" Herron in the backfield this fall, if he stays healthy.

J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin -- Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren can't wait to get Watt on the field. A transfer from Central Michigan who began his college career as a tight end, Watt transformed his body and blossomed this spring. He can play either line spot for Wisconsin, which loses three multiyear starters up front.

Jarred Fayson, WR, Illinois -- The Florida transfer has yet to play a down in orange and blue, but he has already made an impression on his teammates, namely quarterback Juice Williams. Illinois is stacked at wide receiver, but Fayson likely earned a starting job with his play during the first chunk of spring ball.

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.

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