NCF Nation: Brian Rolle

Everyone knows Terrelle Pryor headlined Ohio State's nationally acclaimed recruiting class in 2008.

But who can name the Buckeye's No. 2 rated player in the class, according to ESPN Recruiting? Hint 1: It wasn't Mike Adams, Mike Brewster, J.B. Shugarts or DeVier Posey. Hint 2: He's still in Columbus.

It might surprise some to know Etienne Sabino came to Ohio State with as much hype as the others, besides Pryor. ESPN Recruiting ranked him as the nation's top inside linebacker and No. 18 player overall. Sabino, who had an excellent size-speed combo coming out of Miami's Dr. Krop High School, received similar accolades from other recruiting services.

[+] EnlargeEtienne Sabino
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesEtienne Sabino, right, is looking to end his career at Ohio State the right way in 2012.
Yet unlike Pryor, Brewster and the others, Sabino didn't make an impact right away. He played mostly special teams as a freshman, recording six tackles. He had virtually the same results as a reserve in 2009 (13 games played, six tackles made).

Pegged as a starter in the spring of 2010, Sabino had high hopes entering fall camp. Linebackers coach Luke Fickell said of Sabino that spring, "He's the guy. ... This has been his best spring so far." But a great spring didn't translate into fall camp, as Andrew Sweat beat out Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot alongside Ross Homan and Brian Rolle. Sweat had been another decorated recruit in 2008, although not as heralded as Sabino.

Sabino and the coaches agreed he should redshirt the season, and while a rash of injuries midway through the season nearly forced him onto the field, he was able to sit out.

His wait for a bigger role finally ended in 2011, as he started five games and recorded 62 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and two sacks. It was a step, although not a huge one. Ask most Ohio State fans what they're excited about at linebacker entering 2012, and the name Ryan Shazier likely will be brought up before Sabino's.

"Coming in from high school, you want everything to happen right away," Sabino told ESPN.com. "You want to jump in, you want to contribute to the team, you want to be a superstar. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. As of right now, I think my career, would I want it to be a little better at this point? Yes. But I feel like it’s getting better in the past year or so, and I'm looking to build on that.

"I just feel ready. I felt ready before, but I have such a good grasp of what we're doing and what's expected."

As one of just eight members of the 2008 class still with the Buckeyes, the 6-foot-3, 237-pound Sabino is embracing a greater leadership role. He called the most recent spring practice "the most comfortable I’ve felt since I've been here." He has embraced the scheme under Fickell, the team's defensive coordinator, and his role as an outside linebacker after getting a look at the middle earlier in his career.

Ohio State's defense took a step back in 2011, and the linebacker play was below program standards. While the Buckeyes have depth questions at linebacker outside of Sabino, Shazier and Storm Klein, Sabino has high hopes for the group.

"We pride ourselves on being Linebacker U," Sabino said. "There might be a little bit of a controversy everywhere else, but we truly feel this is Linebacker University and we're trying to uphold that tradition here."

Fickell, who like many had such high hopes for Sabino coming out of spring practice in 2010, has seen the fifth-year senior embrace the urgency before his final season in Scarlet and Gray.

"He is an unbelievable example to a lot of guys because he was one of those highly, highly recruited guys," Fickell told ESPN.com. "Things didn't happen for him really fast, and he's had a true up-and-down college career from what people might have thought or he might have thought when he came out. It just doesn’t always happen for everybody really fast.

"We always try to tell them, 'It’s not about where you start, it's where you finish.' He's on that route to really be able to finish very, very well."

Sabino still has time to make Ohio State fans remember his name.
Ohio State kicked off spring ball in 2010 looking for a third linebacker to join standouts Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.

Just days into practice, the Buckeyes appeared to have found their missing piece: Etienne Sabino.

"He's the guy," linebackers coach Luke Fickell said after a workout last April. "This has been his best spring so far."

[+] EnlargeEtienne Sabino
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesOhio State is counting on Etienne Sabino to step up at linebacker and help lead the Buckeyes defense.
A quick glance at Ohio State's 2010 stats shows Sabino had no tackles, no sacks, no interceptions ... and no games played. Before the season kicked off, Sabino and the coaches agreed that redshirting would be the best option.

Andrew Sweat, who outperformed Sabino in preseason camp, moved into the third starting linebacker position. Sabino spent Saturdays on the sideline.

"I did feel good about my situation last spring, but unfortunately several things happened," Sabino told me this week. "That's behind me, and I'm just looking forward to the future."

Sabino is once again a big part of Ohio State's plan at linebacker. The Buckeyes must replace multi-year starters in Rolle and Homan, and the spotlight once again has turned to Sabino, a 6-3, 242-pound junior from North Miami Beach, Fla.

"This is what you come here for, so it's very exciting," he said. "I feel real comfortable out there, and I think everything is just clicking right now."

Although Sabino prefers to lead by example, he has taken a more active role on the practice field. He made many of the defensive calls in Saturday's scrimmage, and cornerback Travis Howard told The Columbus Dispatch that Sabino is "definitely our leader right now in the middle of the field."

"I'm just trying to do the right things at all times, and hopefully, people will follow," Sabino said.

He didn't get the chance last fall. The coaches liked their linebacker depth entering the season with two All-Big Ten candidates and the emerging Sweat.

But injuries began to erode Ohio State's defense, first in the secondary and then at linebacker, as Homan hurt his foot against Wisconsin and would miss several weeks. Suddenly, the prospect of Sabino taking the field seemed very real.

The worst part: He hoped he wouldn't have to.

"If anybody else was to go down, I was going to have to come out of my redshirt year," he said. "We were about eight games into the season. By that point, I was just hoping everybody would stay healthy so I wouldn't have to play. But if I was called on, I would have been ready.

"Luckily, everybody was able to stay healthy."

Along with Sweat, Sabino will anchor the linebacker group this season, and he has spent the spring fine-tuning his game, trying to keep his pads lower and employ better technique. Ohio State says goodbye to seven defensive starters, the most production lost since after the 2005 season.

It's critical for players like Sabino, who has been around a while but lacks game experience, to fill the gaps.

"Is it going to be a challenge? Yes," Sabino said. "But I think we’re up for it. I think we're going to surprise a couple people."

Big Ten weekend combine recap

February, 28, 2011
2/28/11
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All eyes were on Indianapolis this weekend as dozens of NFL prospects, including a large contingent from the Big Ten, went through the scouting combine.

My ESPN colleagues are all over the happenings in Naptown, so check out the combine blog and the latest Scouts Inc. combine notebook.

There's more testing and timing Monday with the defensive linemen and linebackers, but some results are in, so let's take a look. I'm breaking these down into top performers by position. I'll put together an overall top performers post once the combine is finished.

Wide receivers

  • Nebraska's Niles Paul finished second in bench-press reps (225 pounds) with 24
  • Paul tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.51 seconds
  • Indiana's Terrance Turner tied for second in vertical jump at 41 inches
  • Turner finished seventh in broad jump at 10 feet, 8 inches
  • Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher finished second in 3-cone drill at 6.46 seconds; Turner tied for 14th at 6.77 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished third in the 20-yard shuttle at 3.97 seconds; Paul finished 12th at 4.14 seconds; Turner finished tied for 13th at 4.15 seconds
  • Sanzenbacher finished second in the 60-yard shuttle at 10.94 seconds; Turner tied for ninth at 11.21 seconds
Quarterbacks
  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash at 4.93 seconds
  • Stanzi finished ninth in the vertical jump at 32.5 inches; Tolzien tied for 12th at 29.5 inches
  • Tolzien tied for seventh in the broad jump at 9 feet, 8 inches; Stanzi finished 12th at 9 feet, 2 inches
  • Tolzien tied for third in the 3-cone drill at 6.84 seconds; Stanzi finished 12th at 6.95 seconds
Running backs
  • Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. finished sixth in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds; Ohio State's Brandon Saine finished seventh at 4.43 seconds;
  • Illinois' Mikel Leshoure tied for third in the vertical jump at 38 inches; Helu tied for eighth at 36.5 inches
  • Leshoure tied for fourth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Helu finished 10th at 9 feet, 11 inches
  • Helu finished second in the 3-cone drill at 6.67 seconds; Leshoure finished sixth at 6.82 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.01 seconds; Penn State's Evan Royster tied for eighth at 4.18 seconds
  • Helu finished first in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.07 seconds
Tight ends
  • Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks finished eighth in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds; Michigan State's Charlie Gantt finished 11th at 4.93 seconds; Iowa's Allen Reisner finished 12th at 4.95 seconds
  • Gantt tied for first in bench-press reps with 27; Kendricks tied for third with 25
  • Kendricks finished sixth in vertical jump at 34.5 inches; Gantt finished 13th at 30.5 inches
  • Kendricks finished second in broad jump at 10 feet, 2 inches; Gantt finished ninth at 9 feet, 4 inches; Reisner tied for 12th at 9 feet
  • Kendricks finished sixth in the 3-cone drill at 6.94 seconds; Gantt finished 11th at 7.15 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for second in 20-yard shuttle at 4.15 seconds; Gantt tied for eighth at 4.4 seconds
  • Kendricks tied for sixth in 60-yard shuttle at 11.9 seconds; Gantt and Reisner tied for 11th at 12.12 seconds
Defensive linemen
  • Wisconsin's J.J. Watt tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 34; Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan tied for sixth with 31
Linebackers
  • Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan finished first in bench-press reps with 32; Ohio State's Brian Rolle finished fourth with 28; Illinois' Martez Wilson tied for ninth with 23
Offensive linemen
  • Iowa's Julian Vandervelde tied for 10th in the 40-yard dash at 5.21 seconds; Indiana's James Brewer and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi tied for 14th at 5.27 seconds
  • Michigan's Stephen Schilling and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski tied for sixth in bench-press reps with 30; Carimi tied for ninth with 29; Ohio State's Justin Boren tied for 14th with 28
  • Carimi finished fifth in vertical jump at 31.5 inches; Vandervelde tied for sixth at 31 inches; Wisconsin's John Moffitt tied for eighth at 30.5 inches
  • Carimi finished fifth in broad jump at 9 feet, 1 inch; Vandervelde finished tied for 13th at 8 feet, 8 inches
  • Vandervelde finished seventh in 3-cone drill at 7.46 seconds; Wisniewski finished eighth at 7.51 seconds; Boren finished 11th at 7.57 seconds
  • Moffitt finished sixth in 20-yard shuttle at 4.53 seconds; Vandervelde tied for seventh at 4.59 seconds; Schilling tied for ninth at 4.62 seconds;
Spring practice is creeping closer, and Purdue will hit the field in less than two weeks (March 1 to be exact) for the first of its 15 workouts.

Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.

ILLINOIS

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
  • Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
  • Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19

What to watch:
  • Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
  • Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
  • Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
  • Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
  • Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
  • Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
  • Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
  • Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
  • The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
  • The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
  • New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
  • Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.

Huskers' David bulks up for Big Ten

February, 10, 2011
2/10/11
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The plan always called for Lavonte David to get bigger.

Nebraska's move to the Big Ten simply provides a little extra incentive for the star linebacker.

David did it all for Nebraska in 2010, earning unanimous first-team All-Big 12 honors and second-team All-America honors after a breakout season. He led the Big 12 and ranked third nationally with 152 tackles, a Nebraska single-season record, and recorded 15 tackles for loss, six sacks, 10 pass breakups and seven quarterback hurries.

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
AP Photo/Nati HarnikLavonte David led the Big 12 last season with 152 tackles, a Nebraska single-season record.
But David's most impressive numbers might have been 6-1 and 210 -- his height and weight. Despite being undersized, he managed to remain extremely productive.

David also knows to continue his success, both at Nebraska and at the next level, he'll need to bulk up.

"That was a goal of mine last season as well, to put on weight," he said. "I'm still trying to do the same thing for the upcoming season. It's one thing I'm really trying to work on."

David's ultimate goal is to reach 230 pounds, although he admits 225 might be more realistic. He's already at 221 and says it's easier to add the weight during the offseason, when his training schedule is more focused and routine. (Most players lose weight during the season.)

One major question for Nebraska's Blackshirts defense heading into the Big Ten is whether the linebackers can adjust to a slightly different brand of football. As Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said: "You may see [in the Big Ten] a few more traditional-type linebackers, guys that are 220, 230, 240 pounds in the ballgame, whereas in the Big 12, you had so many spread offenses that you ended up playing nickel and dime and you're playing with five, six defensive backs a lot of the time. And sometimes those guys are lined up as linebackers."

David notices the differences, too.

"It'll be real physical ballgames," he said. "We know what's coming at us."

The Big Ten has had its share of smaller linebackers stand out. Ohio State's Brian Rolle, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2010, checks in at just 5-11 and 218 pounds. Michigan State star Greg Jones was never the biggest 'backer, although he added weight between his junior and senior seasons.

It'll be interesting to see how David and the other Huskers' linebackers fare in the Big Ten this fall.
The Big Ten's best recruiting class just got even better.

Linebacker Curtis Grant announced he will sign with Ohio State instead of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. ESPN Recruiting rates Grant as the nation's No. 3 linebacker and No. 46 overall prospect. Ohio State now has seven ESPNU 150 prospects, tops in the Big Ten.

Grant appeared headed to Florida a few months ago, but Urban Meyer's resignation put Ohio State at the top of his list. Several of Ohio State's top defenders in recent years have come from Florida, including linebacker Brian Rolle and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa.

Grant and quarterback Cardale Jones are the late additions to Ohio State's 2011 class, although Jones will be a grayshirt and enroll in a prep school this fall before coming to Columbus.

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

January, 24, 2011
1/24/11
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As we gear up for the Senior Bowl, I wanted to piggyback off of an excellent post by colleague Chris Low from last week.

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

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

Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.

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

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

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

DEFENSE

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

SPECIALISTS

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

Some thoughts:

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

Pick a lane, and the Buckeyes are driven toward victory.

There's the incessant reminder of an 0-9 record against SEC teams in bowl games. Ohio State players are sick of hearing about it, especially those players who hail from SEC country.

[+] EnlargeBrian Rolle
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBrian Rolle believes beating the Razorbacks "would be even bigger than winning last year's Rose Bowl."
Just how high would a win against Arkansas register for the southern Buckeyes?

"That would be even bigger than winning last year's Rose Bowl," said senior linebacker Brian Rolle, a native of Immokalee, Fla. "Just because it's an SEC and not faring so well. Having that win be [against] an SEC team makes it all the better. You hear about it so much. You hear people talk about the SEC being the most dominant conference, the best conference.

"Hopefully, we put a stop to that."

Rolle always hears the SEC chatter from his older brother, Willie, a die-hard Florida fan.

Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, who grew up near Atlanta, knows the feeling.

"I have a lot of friends who play for SEC teams," Heyward said. "To get this win would give me a little credibility."

Ohio State continues to search for credibility despite winning or sharing six consecutive Big Ten titles and appearing in six consecutive BCS bowl games. The Buckeyes enter the bowl at 11-1 and beat both of the Big Ten's bowl winners (Iowa and Illinois), but they lack a win against a current Top 25 team.

Arkansas' high-powered offense led by quarterback Ryan Mallett provides a good barometer for Ohio State's defense. The Silver Bullets rank in the top 10 nationally in just about every meaningful statistical category but got physically overwhelmed in a Oct. 16 loss to Wisconsin.

"We're salivating at this chance," Heyward said. "Everybody says there are a bunch of great defenses out here, but me personally, I think we have the best defense in the country, and we're going to get a chance to showcase it against one of the top offenses in the country."

Perhaps the strongest motivation for Ohio State is showing it can maintain its focus and play well despite the suspension saga involving quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others. The Buckeyes boast a large and decorated senior class that has had to keep the team together despite the distractions.

"We're a very close and together team, so to have some of our players gone really would have hurt us," Heyward said. "The team rallied around those guys, they were going through some tough spots.

"But now we're just focused on winning this game."

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Big Ten team

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
10:30
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It's time to reveal my All-Big Ten team. As always, there were some tough decisions, and several deserving players don't appear on the rundown below.

For your reference, the official All-Big Ten teams and my preseason all-conference squad.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: David Molk, Michigan
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: Mike Adams, Ohio State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
DT: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DL: Corey Liuget, Illinois
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
DB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
DB: Tyler Sash, Iowa
DB: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
DB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Selections by team: Ohio State (5), Wisconsin (4), Michigan State (4), Illinois (4), Michigan (2) Purdue (2), Iowa (2), Northwestern (1), Penn State (1), Minnesota (1)

Five players are repeat selections from 2009: Wisniewski, Carimi, Clayborn, Jones and Sash.

Crowded at the top of the Big Ten

November, 28, 2010
11/28/10
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A year from now, there will be no debate.

Beginning in 2011, the Big Ten will thankfully dispose of its Little League-ish co-champs title and crown a definitive king in a league championship game. Until then, we're stuck with this: a three-way tie atop the league.

Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State all finished the regular season with identical records (11-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten). Since Ohio State and Michigan State didn't play, the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth goes to the team ranked highest in the final BCS standings.

Judging by the roses hanging from the mouths of the Wisconsin Badgers late Saturday afternoon, it's pretty clear which team that will be.

But which is the Big Ten's best team? The debate is far from over.

Wisconsin is the league's hottest team, having won its final seven regular-season games, including the final four by a combined score of 235-84. Ohio State still can call itself the league's most talented team, boasting elite recruits on both sides of the ball. Michigan State might be the league's most accomplished team, with a 1-0 record among the league leaders and seven wins against bowl-eligible squads, more than both Wisconsin and Ohio State.

But each squad can make a case to be the league's best.

"We are the best team in the Big Ten," Ohio State linebacker Brian Rolle said.

Not surprisingly, Rolle isn't the only one who feels this way in central Ohio.

"I would say us," Buckeyes safety Jermale Hines said. "Am I supposed to say somebody else? I feel we're the best in the Big Ten, hands down."

Informed of the Buckeyes' sentiments later Saturday, Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi laughed.

"I guess that's Ohio State for you," said Carimi, whose Badgers beat the Buckeyes 31-18 on Oct. 16. "If Ohio State thinks that, then whatever. I'd only play with my team."

Michigan State has been somewhat forgotten in the debate, and most project the Spartans to miss a BCS bowl. But Spartans coach Mark Dantonio isn't about to back down after his team won a record 11 games.

"We're the only football team that's beaten Wisconsin, and I might add that we did it convincingly," Dantonio said after Michigan State's win at Penn State. "I'll say it twice: we did it convincingly. They're up there at six or seven [in the BCS standings], and we should be right there with them."

All three teams feel deserving of BCS berths, but only two will be rewarded. Wisconsin certainly knows the feeling after being shut out of the BCS bowls despite an 11-1 record in 2006.

Not that the Badgers are taking pity on Michigan State.

"The cards just didn't fall for us that year, kind of it's not going to fall for Michigan State this year," Carimi said. "But I'm a Badger, not a Spartan, so I honestly don't feel for them."

Tough talk at the top.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Justin Boren is a 6-foot-3, 320-pound monster known as one of the Big Ten's best and nastiest offensive lineman.

But back in 2008, at that moment, Boren was absolutely terrified.

He had made the seemingly unthinkable transition from Michigan to archrival Ohio State, and he had no idea how he'd be received.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
AP Photo/Amy SancettaCoach Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes have outscored Michigan 79-14 in the past two games at Ohio Stadium.
"I was so scared when I walked in for the first time," Boren recalled Saturday. "I had played 'em five months ago and I was coming in here like the new kid. I was more scared than when I went up to Michigan as a freshman. But they [welcomed] me with open arms. They've been awesome."

Boren didn't begin his career as part of one of the most successful classes in Ohio State history. But he's finishing it that way, and he couldn't be happier.

"I didn't want to look back and have any regrets," Boren said. "I didn't want to second-guess myself. And I can honestly say I've never done that. ... It's the greatest choice ever made."

It's hard to argue after Boren and his fellow seniors led Ohio State to its seventh consecutive win against Michigan, a 37-7 triumph that was essentially over by halftime. Ohio State claimed a share of the Big Ten title for a record-tying sixth consecutive season.

The Buckeyes' seniors improved to 43-8 in their careers. A bowl victory next month will tie them with their predecessors in 2009 for the most wins in team history. But perhaps most important, the class made it through without ever losing to Michigan.

"Five Big Ten rings and five pairs of gold pants," coach Jim Tressel said, referring to the large group of fifth-year seniors in the class. "That's a big deal."

Ohio State's seniors have contributed to The Game losing some serious luster in recent years. The Buckeyes have won each of the past four meetings by double digits, including the past two at Ohio Stadium by a combined score of 79-14.

Imagine what it would be like to be on the other side.

"I really can't," senior wideout Dane Sanzenbacher said. "It's got to be tough, but we work all year for this game, and we want to come out and execute. We can't really worry about what it would be like on the other end because we don't ever want to be on the other end."

Neither does Michigan, but the Wolverines had to endure another beating at the hands of their archrivals.

The buzz before and after the game centered on Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez, who continued to struggle against top-tier Big Ten opponents. Rodriguez fell to 0-6 against Michigan's two conference rivals -- Ohio State and Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
AP Photo/Amy SancettaRich Rodriguez is 0-6 as Michigan's coach against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.
"I'm ticked," Rodriguez said. "Do you want me to go jump out there with all the Buckeye fans and sing 'Kumbaya?' I wish we'd played better. Our guys, they played hard, and that's to be expected, but I wish we'd executed better and as coaches, we've got to try and put them in positions so they can make some plays.

"I'm going to be mad for a while, and then we'll move on to the next one."

The next one likely will take place Dec. 28 at the Insight Bowl in Arizona. But will Rodriguez still be around to coach the Wolverines?

Speculation has mounted in recent days about Rodriguez's job security. Athletic director Dave Brandon on Saturday reiterated his stance that he'll evaluate the program at the end of the season.

"I'm going to work tomorrow as always," Rodriguez said. "I worry about my future every day. Before I took the job, after I took the job.

"But nothing's going to change how we work."

While Michigan stews in the midst of its slide, Ohio State's seniors emphasized the importance of keeping their streaks alive. They stepped in after an Oct. 16 loss to Wisconsin, which linebacker Brian Rolle said "bonded the team together even more."

Ohio State hasn't lost since, and several seniors finished the regular season playing their best football.

Rolle and fellow linebacker Ross Homan combined for 16 tackles, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble Saturday. Senior safety Jermale Hines broke up three passes. Sanzenbacher, without question the Big Ten's top receiver this season, caught three passes for 71 yards and a touchdown.

The result: Ohio State's seniors maintained the status quo.

"I think people will look back and say we were a tight-knit group, a class with class and character," Rolle said. "When we come back for a reunion, I want guys to say, 'Man, those guys were great.' "

So what's left for Ohio State's seniors?

The Buckeyes continue to fight the negative perception stemming from their back-to-back blowout losses in the BCS title game. They should get a chance in January for a second consecutive BCS bowl victory, quite possibly against an SEC team (LSU or Arkansas) in SEC territory (New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl).

Not a bad way to go out.

"Getting a win this year in whatever game we go to would be great," Rolle said. "It'll show that this senior class, guys fought hard to bring tradition back to Ohio State."

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 20, 2010
11/20/10
7:35
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It's time to recognize the best and the brightest from Week 12 in the Big Ten.

Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The Big Ten's most consistent running back produced a historic performance at Wrigley Field. Leshoure rushed for a team-record 330 yards -- the fifth-highest total in Big Ten history -- in a 48-27 win against Northwestern. The junior had five runs of 30 yards or longer, including bursts of 70 and 62 yards. Leshoure now has seven games with 100 rushing yards or more this season.

Wisconsin RBs James White and Montee Ball: The Badgers' backs were unstoppable at Michigan Stadium and are therefore inseparable in the helmet stickers. They combined for 354 rushing yards and six touchdowns in Wisconsin's 48-28 win against Michigan. White (181 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Ball (173 rush yards, 4 TDs) became the first Badgers' tandem to both eclipse 150 rush yards in a game since Billy Marek and Ken Starch in 1973, and just the second tandem to do so in team history.

Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: Allen made the latest huge special teams play in a season full of them for Michigan State, and it helped save the day in a 35-31 win against Purdue. The redshirt freshman blocked a punt midway through the fourth quarter, setting up the winning touchdown run two plays later. Allen shares this with receiver Mark Dell (8 catches, 108 receiving yards, 2 TDs).

Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, DT John Simon and LB Brian Rolle: Although quarterback Terrelle Pryor came up big in the clutch, he wouldn't have had the chance if not for a stifling defensive performance. These three combined for six tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry as Ohio State survived a scare in Iowa City, winning 20-17. Ohio State held Iowa to 81 rush yards.

Penn State S Andrew Dailey and LB James Van Fleet: These two combined for the biggest play of Saturday's 41-24 win against Indiana. With the score tied 24-24 late in the third quarter, Dailey blocked a punt and Van Fleet returned it 21 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. They share the sticker with quarterback Matt McGloin (315 pass yards, 2 TDs) and receiver Derek Moye (90 receiving yards, TD, 39 rush yards).
Time to press the rewind button on Week 9 before looking ahead to this week's games.

Team of the week: Iowa. After two close losses filled with what-ifs, the Hawkeyes left nothing to chance Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa obliterated Michigan State from the opening kickoff, storming out to a 30-0 halftime lead. The Hawkeyes did it with offensive execution, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi put himself on the Heisman radar, completing 11 of 15 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns. They also did it with opportunistic defense, recording three interceptions against the typically poised Kirk Cousins, returning one for a touchdown. Iowa received major contributions from many players and avoided a special-teams miscue. The win tightened the Big Ten race heading into November.

Evan Royster
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State running back Evan Royster ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan.
Best game: Michigan-Penn State. It was a Saturday of blowouts around the Big Ten, but two traditional powerhouses provided an entertaining offensive shootout at Beaver Stadium. Michigan's Denard Robinson had another huge night, rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 190 passing yards and a score. But "Shoelace" got upstaged by Penn State's Evan Royster and Matt McGloin. Royster, the former All-Big Ten running back who entered Saturday with just one 100-yard rushing performance in seven games, went for 150 rushing yards and two scores. McGloin sizzled in his first career start, passing for 250 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Michigan rallied late to cut Penn State's lead to seven points before the Lions answered. The teams combined for 72 points and 858 offensive yards. Northwestern-Indiana also had some late drama before the Wildcats held on to win 20-17.

Biggest play: Iowa led Michigan State 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans had entered Hawkeyes territory and had first-and-10 from the 41. Safety Tyler Sash read Cousins perfectly and made an easy interception on a pass to B.J. Cunningham. The exciting part came next, as Sash ran six yards before lateraling the ball over Cunningham's head to teammate Micah Hyde. Hyde raced 66 yards and dived inside the pylon for a touchdown. Iowa went up 17-0 and never looked back. "It's like the point guard that pulls up from 40 feet deep and shoots a 3-pointer," said Sash, a former basketball star in high school. "If he makes it, it's alright. But if he misses it, what are you doing?"

Specialist spotlight: Penn State's Collin Wagner went 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 42-yarder that gave the Lions a 10-point cushion in the fourth quarter. He also ran seven yards on a fake field goal to seal the victory in the final minutes. Northwestern's Stefan Demos has had an up-and-down senior season, but he came up huge at Indiana with two field goals, including a 45-yarder to make it a two-score game with 6:51 left. Both punters in the Michigan State-Iowa game performed well, as Iowa's Ryan Donahue placed three punts inside the 20-yard line and Michigan State's Aaron Bates averaged 48.5 yards per boot. Ohio State recorded a special-teams touchdown as Jonathan Newsome blocked a Minnesota punt and Zach Domicone recovered in the end zone. The Buckeyes also had a 70-yard punt return by Jordan Hall. Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 43.7 yards on seven punts, and teammate Clay Nurse blocked a Purdue punt.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Ohio State's Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Terrelle Pryor: All three turned in big performances as Ohio State blew out Minnesota. Herron continued to establish himself as the Buckeyes' No. 1 running back with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Pryor once again was efficient, completing 18 of 22 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Posey had six catches for 115 yards and a score.
  • Iowa DL Mike Daniels: It's probably a combination of Daniels' emergence and the way opponents are double-teaming Adrian Clayborn, but the junior continues to have a huge season. He recorded two more tackles for loss against Michigan State, bringing his season total to 10.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa and WR Jeremy Ebert: They've formed one of the Big Ten's top passing connections and hooked up five times for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana. Persa completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, and he added 19 rush yards before being shaken up late in the game.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Robinson single-handedly kept Michigan alive at Penn State with 191 rush yards and three touchdowns and 190 pass yards and a score. He accounted for 381 of Michigan's 423 offensive yards at Beaver Stadium.
  • Indiana DE Darius Johnson: Johnson applied steady pressure to Persa and consistently beat Northwestern's offensive line for 11 tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle: With fellow 'backer Ross Homan still sidelined by injury, Rolle stepped up against Minnesota with 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win.

Now let's spin it forward and look at Week 10.

No. 16 Iowa (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-4, 0-4): The Hawkeyes are riding high after their dominant win against Michigan State, but they'll have to take care of business on the road the next two weeks before the Ohio State showdown. Indiana dominated Iowa last Halloween for three quarters as Stanzi threw five interceptions. But it was all Iowa in the fourth, as the Hawkeyes exploded for 28 unanswered points. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell will throw the ball a ton, so Iowa's defensive linemen will have their ears pinned back for this one.

Minnesota (1-8, 0-5) at No. 14 Michigan State (8-1, 4-1): Despite Saturday's ugly loss, the Spartans remain very much alive in the Big Ten title race and can get well against the league's worst team. Look for Michigan State to reignite its ground game against a Minnesota team that allows a league-worst 201.8 rush yards per game. Minnesota's Adam Weber torched Michigan State for 416 pass yards and five touchdowns in last year's wacky game in Minneapolis, but he'll face a much tougher challenge this time around.

Illinois (5-3, 3-2) at Michigan (5-3, 1-3): Don't be fooled by the matching records; these teams are headed in opposite directions. Illinois is surging after back-to-back blowout victories and looks for its third consecutive win against the Maize and Blue. Michigan has dropped three consecutive league contests as its defense and special teams continue to regress. Embattled coach Rich Rodriguez needs this one in a big way, and the winning team will be bowl eligible.

No. 9 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1) at Purdue (4-4, 2-2): After an open week, the Badgers return to action against a Purdue team coming off of back-to-back ugly losses. Speaking of one-sided games, Wisconsin crushed Purdue 37-0 last year in Madison. This game features Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year front-runners Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue and J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. The two defensive ends have combined for 12.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss this season.

Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) at Penn State (5-3, 2-2): A pretty obvious story line here as Joe Paterno goes for win No. 400. The Nittany Lions' legend would be just the third college coach to record 400 victories -- John Gagliardi and Eddie Robinson are the others -- and the first to do so in Division I-A/FBS. Standing in the way of history is Northwestern, which brings a 4-0 road record this season to Happy Valley. Wildcats star quarterback Dan Persa returns to his home state for the game.

Bye: No. 11 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1)
The first set of Big Ten games are in the books, and here are my quick thoughts:

Illinois 33, Penn State 13: Wow. I'll admit I didn't have the guts to pick Illinois today, even though I thought the Illini were capable of knocking off Penn State in Happy Valley for the first time in team history. But few could see something like this going down in JoePa's town. Illinois is undoubtedly better than we thought entering the season, and Penn State is undoubtedly worse. Ron Zook's team executed extremely well on both sides of the ball and overcame two special-teams turnovers that Penn State couldn't convert into touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase picked apart a banged-up Nittany Lions defense, completing 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards and a score, and running back Mikel Leshoure continued his strong season with 119 rush yards. Penn State had too many injuries on defense to overcome, but the offense continues to be a total mess for Joe Paterno. Freshman Rob Bolden seems to be regressing, and an underachieving offensive line couldn't generate any room for the running backs. I worried that Penn State had a leadership issue entering the season, and it's showing up. The Lions are a rudder-less ship right now.

Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 23: The Badgers needed a strong response after a poor performance in East Lansing, and aside from the second quarter, they delivered it. Wisconsin produced a complete offensive performance as Scott Tolzien displayed tremendous accuracy in the pocket (17-of-23), tight end Lance Kendricks continued to look like the John Mackey Award winner and running backs John Clay and James White both eclipsed 100 rushing yards. There's no reason the Badgers can't be dominant on offense all the time, and they have to feel better about themselves heading into next week's showdown with No. 2 Ohio State. Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber threw three touchdown passes in his final chance to hoist Paul Bunyan's Axe, but he got little help from a defense that surrendered 30 first downs and 473 total yards. The run game never got going after showing a spark last week against Northwestern. It'll be a long bus ride home for Tim Brewster's crew, and at 1-5, the final six weeks of the season could resemble a slow death march.

Ohio State 38, Indiana 10: Jim Tressel called off the dogs and Indiana scored a garbage-time touchdown, but make no mistake: This was an extremely impressive performance for a Buckeyes team needing style points after last week. While Ohio State's 24-13 win against Illinois looks a lot better today after what the Illini did in Happy Valley, the Buckeyes helped themselves by torching Ben Chappell and Indiana. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor dissected the Hoosiers' secondary, tossing touchdown passes to Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey and Brandon Saine, who looks more and more like a weapon at receiver instead of running back. Ohio State ran the ball decently, but it didn't need to with all of the holes in IU's pass defense. Indiana couldn't afford turnovers and Chappell had two of them, as Buckeyes linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle teamed up on an interception. The Hoosiers missed running back Darius Willis (groin) and became one-dimensional, but their problems on defense didn't give them a chance.

Ohio State building takeaway tradition

September, 11, 2010
9/11/10
10:10
PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- DeVier Posey has been spoiled by Ohio State's defense, and he knows it.

When Posey, a junior wide receiver for the Buckeyes, watches the Silver Bullets do their thing from the sideline, he goes through the same thought process.

"You're just waiting," Posey said. "If we don't get a three-and-out, well, when's the turnover coming? If we get don't get a sack, somebody's going to pick the ball up or we're going to get an interception.

"When those things don't happen, I'm almost surprised."

[+] EnlargeOhio State
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe Ohio State defense upended Miami on Saturday, forcing four interceptions.
It's safe to say Posey wasn't surprised throughout Saturday's game against Miami.

Ohio State's defense continued its opportunistic play with four interceptions against Jacory Harris, who continued a troubling trend from 2009 (17 INTs). The takeaway parade helped No. 2 Ohio State to a 36-24 victory over the 12th-ranked Hurricanes, keeping the march to the national title game very much alive.

The four-pack of picks led to 20 Ohio State points, as the Buckeyes improved to plus-7 in turnover margin for the season, a number that might lead the nation after Week 2.

"The coaches do a good job of telling us that when the ball is in the air," linebacker Brian Rolle said, "it's just as much ours as it is theirs."

This isn't exactly a new formula for Ohio State. The Buckeyes tied for third nationally in takeways with 35 last year, as fumble recoveries and interceptions became the hallmarks for a unit that boasted only one first-team All-Big Ten performer (safety Kurt Coleman). Twelve different players recorded interceptions in 2009, and five had two or more picks.

This year's defense boasts more individual standouts, but it has continued to force turnovers at a staggering pace.

The Silver Bullets will give -- Miami racked up 352 yards Saturday -- but more often than not, they'll take it away.

"We always emphasize it," defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. "I don't know if we always do it, but we're doing it right now.

"We're just in the right spots, and you never know what happens."

Like a 285-pound man running 80 yards down the field.

That was Heyward early in the third quarter, after recording the most important Buckeye takeaway of the game. Ohio State led 26-17, but Miami stormed out of the halftime locker room and marched inside the 10-yard line.

On third-and-goal from the 9, Ohio State called a zone blitz, Heyward sat back in coverage and stepped in front of a Miami player for his first career interception.

Then it was off to the races. Sort of.

"Our conditioning test isn't even as hard as that," said Heyward, who cramped up on the next defensive series. "I have greater respect for those running backs and wide receivers now."

Linebacker Brian Rolle didn't see the interception, but when he heard the home crowd yell, he knew it had to be Heyward.

"I tried to lead block for him," a smiling Rolle said. "His ball skills ain't too good. I tried to point him to the sideline."

Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa looked a little more polished after recording two interceptions. Ohio State was in Cover 3 on both plays, and Chekwa tried to jump the out routes Miami had been using.

After watching film of Harris from last season throughout the week, Chekwa and his fellow defenders knew there would be opportunities for takeaways.

"What we saw from last year, he made some bad decisions sometimes when he got pressured," Chekwa said. "When he got pressure on him, he was just going to throw it up sometimes. We made sure we got pressure on him and got an opportunity to make a pick."

Ohio State is annually one of the nation's stingiest defenses, but the takeaway trend is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Buckeyes had only 12 takeaways in 2005 (114th nationally) and 19 in 2007 (93rd nationally).

They increased the total to 29 in 2008 (20th nationally), but last year's unit took things to another level, and the trend is continuing.

"That's always an emphasis," defensive tackle John Simon said. "It's just huge to [force] a turnover. It's a big momentum shifter, and then our offense can keep the momentum."

For Harris and the Hurricanes, any momentum gained evaporated with each giveaway.

"I deserve to take the blame for the loss," Harris said. "I'm a leader on our team. I take full ownership for whatever happens. ... Without the turnovers, I think it would be totally different."

For Ohio State, it has been more of the same.

Posey hopes the turnover train keeps on moving.

"When you go against them in practice, you don't realize how good they are," he said of the defense. "I feel like I've been spoiled."

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