NCF Nation: Chaz Powell

Before spring practice, Penn State defensive backs Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris sat in their apartment, brainstorming a way to motivate the secondary.

They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.

At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Willis
Rob Christy/US PresswireMalcolm Willis has challenged Penn State's younger defensive backs to step up this season.
"We huddle them up, we talk to them and say, 'We're supposedly the worst unit on this team,'" Willis told ESPN.com "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability. We know what we can do. We know the ability we have and what we're capable of."

The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.

The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.

"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."

Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.

The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).

Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.

"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."

Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.

"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.

"I don't see any weak link."
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.

Penn State will be called the worst 6-1 team in America.

People will continue to point to the quarterback confusion, the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and other obvious flaws with the Nittany Lions. But the record speaks for itself, and the Lions deserve credit for continuing to find ways to win.

Penn State's defense fueled a 23-18 victory against Purdue by forcing four turnovers, and Joe Paterno's team exploited a huge edge on special teams to beat the mistake-ridden Boilers. Among the heroes were linebacker Nate Stupar, who recorded two interceptions, kicker Anthony Fera (3-for-3 on field-goal attempts) and Chaz Powell, who had a 92-yard kick return before drawing a highly questionable penalty for tossing the ball in the air in celebration.

The Lions' quarterback situation didn't get much clearer as Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden combined to complete just 10 of 23 passes for 185 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. It's hard to imagine that the quarterback situation won't catch up with Penn State at some point, but that point hasn't arrived yet.

One major bright spot was sophomore running back Silas Redd, who had 131 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

Purdue has to be kicking itself -- literally -- after another loss filled with major boo-boos. Standout kicker Carson Wiggs had a tough day, missing a 44-yard attempt and clanking a potential game-tying PAT try off of the upright that proved extremely costly. Purdue also allowed Powell's return at a very bad time, right after it closed to within two points with 8:08 to play.

The Boilers are a talented team with some exciting individual players -- Ralph Bolden, Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, Gary Bush -- who showed off their skills against a very good defense today. But mistakes kill you, and Purdue continues to make far too many to win in the Big Ten.
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

A week of games against mostly inferior competition doesn't provide the most accurate gauge of which teams go where, but it's a starting point. There are a few small moves in this week's rankings, which reward squads for how they looked and, in some cases, for who they played.

The middle five teams -- Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois -- still could be placed in pretty much any order, and it will take a bit of time to see separation there. But we do reward for quality wins, and Northwestern recorded one at Boston College under tough circumstances.

Let's get started.

1. Wisconsin (1-0): Quarterback transfer Russell Wilson and the Badgers made a strong opening statement on national TV. Wilson led the offense to scores on eight consecutive possessions before departing, and running back Montee Ball looked like a totally different player. The defense needs to tighten up when the competition gets better.

2. Nebraska (1-0): We're leaving Nebraska here for now, but we want to see a more polished performance from the offense this week against Fresno State. Not surprisingly, the offense had mixed results in its first game with the new system. The defensive line looked stellar as Cameron Meredith had a big opener.

3. Ohio State (1-0): The Buckeyes move up a spot after thoroughly dominating Akron on Saturday. Joe Bauserman stated his case to be the starting quarterback and tight end Jake Stoneburner hauled in three touchdown passes. The 42-0 score amazingly made the game seem closer than it actually was.

4. Michigan State (1-0): After a sloppy first half, Michigan State found a rhythm in the second half and pulled away from Youngstown State. Receiver B.J. Cunningham had a big night, but coach Mark Dantonio will look for greater efficiency and better discipline (eight penalties) from his squad this week against Florida Atlantic.

5. Penn State (1-0): The Lions didn't get much clarity at the quarterback position, but they didn't need it against Indiana State. Silas Redd led a potent rushing attack, and Penn State had a strong defensive effort and received a special teams boost from Chaz Powell on the opening kickoff return. Joe Paterno's squad has a great chance to make a national statement this week against Alabama.

6. Iowa (1-0): Kirk Ferentz saw some sloppiness in the opener, but Iowa had little trouble pulling away from Tennessee Tech. The Hawkeyes need running back Marcus Coker to rebound against Iowa State after two fumbles. Shaun Prater and James Morris had long interception returns to set up scores.

7. Northwestern (1-0): The Wildcats move up after recording the Big Ten's most impressive victory of Week 1. They beat Boston College on the road without star quarterback Dan Persa. The offensive line stepped up to spark backup quarterback Kain Colter and the run game, and the defensive front stuffed Boston College's run game.

8. Michigan (1-0): We don't know how the final 17 minutes would have played out Saturday, but Michigan was rolling against Western Michigan before the lightning came (again). The defense covered up issues with three takeaways, including two touchdown returns by linebacker Brandon Herron. The offensive line looked strong as it adapts to a scheme based more around power.

9. Illinois (1-0): This isn't a knock on Illinois, which pulled away from Arkansas State after a slow start. If the Illini keep winning, they'll climb the power rankings. The passing attack looked strong with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receivers A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines. Illinois' defense will need to tighten up before Arizona State arrives in Week 3.

10. Minnesota (0-1): Jerry Kill's squad didn't beat USC but gained a lot of respect for the way it fought against the 25th-ranked Trojans. Minnesota's defense struggled against the pass (304 yards) but limited points, and Gophers freshman quarterback Max Shortell showed impressive poise in relief of MarQueis Gray. Watch for Minnesota to make some noise this fall.

11. Purdue (1-0): It took a furious rally for the Boilers to beat Middle Tennessee, and Danny Hope's squad has plenty to work on in the coming weeks. The good news is the schedule favors Purdue, which faces Rice and Southeast Missouri State before an open week. Defense has to be the focus this week after Purdue surrendered 460 yards Saturday.

12. Indiana (0-1): Getting pushed around by Ball State at the line of scrimmage gets you a swift kick to the bottom of the power rankings. Indiana must get tougher up front on both sides of the ball, especially with Virginia visiting Bloomington this week. Quarterback Ed Wright-Baker did some good things, but IU must put together a more complete performance for new coach Kevin Wilson.

Big Ten Week 1 rewind

September, 5, 2011
9/05/11
1:00
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Week 1 is in the books. Now it's time for a book review.

Be kind, rewind:

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern running back Mike Trumpy, right, celebrates a TD against Boston College.
Team of the week: Northwestern. Missing star quarterback Dan Persa, the Wildcats still went on the road to Boston College and won 24-17. Most impressively, their offensive line pushed around what had been the nation's stingiest rush defense a year ago. If the offensive line can continue to play like that, and Persa can come back (Persa) strong, then Northwestern will be a factor in the Legends Division race.

Best game: Northwestern's win, again. The game was close throughout, and Boston College drove into the red zone in the waning seconds before a Vince Browne sack ended matters.

Biggest play: Purdue's Ricardo Allen blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by Middle Tennessee's Alan Gendreau on the game's final play, preserving a 27-24 victory. It was sweet redemption for Allen, whose earlier fumble on a punt return set up a Blue Raiders touchdown. And had the Boilermakers lost this game, it could have set a bad tone for their season.

Best call: This one happened on Wednesday of last week, when Michigan State senior guard Joel Foreman approached coach Mark Dantonio and asked if Arthur Ray Jr. could start in his place. Ray is a cancer survivor who had never played in a college game before. Foreman made a selfless decision, stopping his personal 22-start streak. Ray was in tears before the game and played the Spartans' first offensive snap before coming out.

Best meaningless play: The game was wildly out of hand by this point, but Ohio State receiver Evan Spencer made a spectacular, twisting, one-handed catch during the fourth quarter of a 42-0 blowout of Akron. It ultimately meant very little, but Spencer now has his own YouTube moment.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. There was considerable hype accompanying Wilson's debut after his highly publicized transfer from NC State, and Wilson lived up to it. He accumulated 317 total yards, including 255 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing 10 of his 13 attempts. And his sizzling 46-yard touchdown run was something Badgers fans have rarely if ever seen out of the quarterback position.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan linebacker Brandon Herron. Things might be changing in Ann Arbor when a Wolverines defender is garnering all kinds of recognition. Herron deserves it after scoring two defensive touchdowns, one on a 94-yard interception return and the other on a 29-yard fumble recovery. Raise your hand if you predicted Herron would have two more scores than Denard Robinson in the opener.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): Chaz Powell, Penn State. Clearly, you should never kick to Powell to start a season. The Nittany Lions senior returned the opening kickoff against Indiana State 95 yards for a touchdown. That matched his performance from last year, when he took the first kick of the year to the house against Youngstown State.

Worst hangover: Indiana. I remain convinced that Kevin Wilson will eventually do very good things in Bloomington, but Saturday was a very bad start. The Hoosiers lost to Ball State 27-20 at Lucas Oil Stadium, a place in which they're highly unlikely to play in December any time soon. It's hard to use the first-year coach excuse, since Ball State also had a new guy on the sidelines. What's worse, IU got pushed around in the trenches. If that happens against a MAC foe, what will the Hoosiers do against Ohio State, Wisconsin and other Big Ten opponents?

Strangest moment: Mother Nature wins this award in Week 1. Storms and lightning gave us the odd sights of both Kinnick Stadium and the Big House being evacuated -- that's more than 180,000 people who had to be moved out of harm's way. Iowa hadn't experienced an in-game weather delay in the 82-year history of Kinnick Stadium. Things were even crazier in Ann Arbor, where Michigan and Western Michigan agreed to end their game with 1:27 left in the third quarter after a couple of lightning delays. It was the first weather-shortened game in Wolverines history, and who knows what would have happened had the game actually been close at the time.

Week 1 suggests that deciding to play the Big Ten title game indoors might have been the right call.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 2

September, 7, 2010
9/07/10
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The Big Ten's best looked good against mostly weak competition in Week 1, so no changes up top. Michigan's impressive win comes with a reward, and there's a little shuffling at the bottom.

Let's get started ...

1. Ohio State (1-0): The Big Ten's most complete team delivered a complete performance in dismantling Marshall 45-7 on Thursday night. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor looked more comfortable as he led a surprisingly dynamic offense that got a lot of its weapons involved. The defense continued its opportunistic ways. Aside from a few special-teams miscues, not much to complain about.

2. Iowa (1-0): After living on the edge throughout the 2009 season, the Hawkeyes dominated Eastern Illinois to open a year filled with high expectations. Aside from a leg injury to quarterback Ricky Stanzi that looked scarier than it actually was, Iowa fans could breathe easy Saturday. Stanzi and running back Adam Robinson both stood out, and the defense allowed only one significant drive. Things get tougher the next two weeks with Iowa State and Arizona.

3. Wisconsin (1-0): The Badgers made a few big mistakes early against UNLV, but they pulled away in the second half behind their three-headed running back monster of John Clay, Montee Ball and dynamic freshman James White. Defensive end J.J. Watt made a game-changing forced fumble early in the third quarter, and Wisconsin's power game took over from there. A good performance overall on the road, although the Badgers need to clean up a few things.

4. Penn State (1-0): Joe Paterno has found his quarterback, and (gasp!), he's a true freshman. Rob Bolden answered the call in his first career start, showing good poise in the final three quarters against Youngstown State. Receivers Brett Brackett and Derek Moye stepped up, and Chaz Powell returned a kickoff 100 yards to the end zone. Penn State's offensive line still needs to pick up its play after Evan Royster recorded only 40 rush yards against Youngstown.

5. Michigan State (1-0): After leaning on Kirk Cousins and the pass game too often last season, Michigan State re-established the run in a big way Saturday. Playing without projected starter Larry Caper (hand), the Spartans received big performances from freshman Le'Veon Bell (141 rush yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Edwin Baker (117 rush yards 2 TDs). Linebacker Greg Jones had a forced fumble and nearly secured his first career interception.

6. Michigan (1-0): Thanks to Denard Robinson and an improved offensive line, Michigan recorded the most impressive victory of Week 1, considering the competition. Robinson has to be careful with all the hits he takes, but if he continues to complement his ridiculous speed with an accurate arm, the Wolverines will win a lot of games this fall. Michigan's defense still concerns me a bit, although I liked the aggressiveness from Craig Roh.

7. Northwestern (1-0): The Wildcats never trailed against Vanderbilt but seemed fortunate to escape Nashville with a victory. New starting quarterback Dan Persa carried the offense, much like predecessor Mike Kafka did in 2009, and showed incredible accuracy (19-for-21 passing, 222 yards, 3 TDs). The run game once again was absent, a concern for Pat Fitzgerald going forward, and Northwestern endured several special-teams miscues.

T-8. Minnesota (1-0): For the first time in a while, you can say Minnesota has an offensive identity. The Gophers held the ball for 45:34 in their come-from-behind win against Middle Tennessee, as Duane Bennett (187 rush yards) led the power rushing attack. Fullback Jon Hoese (3 rush TDs) provided the best story of Week 1, and a new-look defense did enough to hold off a Dwight Dasher-less Blue Raiders team. The Gophers really needed this one.

T-8. Purdue (0-1): A young Purdue team played predictably inconsistent football at Notre Dame. New quarterback Robert Marve looked good at times but made too many mistakes. The secondary did a decent job against Irish star receiver Michael Floyd, but Purdue allowed scores on four consecutive possessions midway through the game. Still, the Boilers had a chance at the end, and they'll get better in the coming weeks.

10. Indiana (1-0): Look out for the Hoosiers' offense this season. IU didn't miss a beat without All-Big Ten wide receiver Tandon Doss, as quarterback Ben Chappell found a rhythm against Towson and Darius Willis (102 rush yards, 2 TDs) led the ground game. The outlook on defense remains much cloudier after the Hoosiers allowed 392 yards to Towson. If the defense doesn't get better by Big Ten play, Indiana will have a tough time winning games.

11. Illinois (0-1): For a moment, it looked like Illinois would stun Missouri and finally win a game at the Edward Jones Dome. But the second half showed that the team remains a work in progress on both sides of the ball. There were some encouraging signs, particularly running back Mikel Leshoure and defenders Corey Liuget and Ian Thomas, but Illinois needs to put a complete game together. This week's home matchup against Southern Illinois will be huge.
Let's put a bow on Week 1 before looking ahead to a more challenging slate of games in Week 2.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesQuarterback Denard Robinson had a record-breaking day in Michigan's opening win.
Team of the Week: Michigan. Many picked the Wolverines to lose its opener against UConn, and almost no one thought the Wolverines would win convincingly. Behind do-it-all quarterback Denard Robinson, a powerful offensive line and an opportunistic defense, Michigan stormed out of the gate and never looked back, beating Connecticut 30-10. The Wolverines still have some issues on defense, but if Robinson stays healthy and keeps this up, the Maize and Blue will be tough to beat.

Best game: Minnesota-Middle Tennessee. Considering nine of the 11 games were decided by more than one score, there were not many choices here. At least the Gophers brought some drama in Murfreesboro, rallying from a 17-14 second-half deficit to win 24-17. Minnesota also provided the most touching story of the weekend, as fullback Jon Hoese rushed for three touchdowns and recovered a fumble just days after his father suffered a severe stroke. Hoese nearly didn't make the trip.

Biggest play: After a somewhat sloppy first 30 minutes by Penn State, Chaz Powell created some distance on the scoreboard with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the third quarter. Powell, back at wide receiver after being moved to cornerback this spring, had Penn State's longest kick return since Rich Mauti's 100-yard runback in 1975. Honorable mention goes to Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, whose forced fumble led to a touchdown early in the third quarter against UNLV after the Badgers led by only three points at halftime.

Best call: Joe Paterno and his staff made a historic call by starting true freshman quarterback Rob Bolden in the opener, and it paid off. Bolden showed impressive skills and poise, completing 20 of 29 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Rich Rodriguez's decision to go with Robinson at quarterback for Michigan also looked good.

Game balls (given to players not selected for helmet stickers)

  • Ohio State S/LB Tyler Moeller: Moeller's return to the field following a year away was memorable enough, but he also played an outstanding game for the Buckeyes' defense. The senior recorded a team-high six tackles, including two for loss with a sack and a forced fumble against Marshall.
  • Iowa RB Adam Robinson: A-Rob made a good case to be Iowa's starting running back, rushing for 109 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He'll need to hold off Jewel Hampton, who plays his first game since 2008 on Saturday against Iowa State.
  • Penn State WR Brett Brackett: People seemed to forget about Brackett during the preseason, but he clearly formed a bond with his new starting quarterback. Bolden and Brackett connected eight times for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Indiana RB Darius Willis: Willis made the most of his limited action against Towson, rushing 14 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns. If he stays healthy, Indiana should finally have a consistent run game.
  • Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan and Illinois DT Corey Liuget: Their teams both lost Saturday, but Kerrigan and Liuget did all they could to prevent it. Kerrigan recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, assisting on a safety, and had a sack and a forced fumble. Liuget recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, assisted on a sack, broke up a pass and recorded a quarterback hurry.
  • Minnesota RB Duane Bennett: The Gophers dominated possession time against Middle Tennessee, and Bennett was the reason why. He did everything but score touchdowns, racking up 187 rush yards on 30 carries.
How bizarre: Northwestern's victory at Vanderbilt was sealed on a very questionable penalty call by Big Ten officials. Quarterback Dan Persa appeared to be stopped just short of a first down with less than two minutes left, bringing up fourth-and-1 and a likely punt. But officials called Vandy's Jay Fullam for a helmet-to-helmet hit -- replays showed he led with his shoulder -- and the penalty allowed Northwestern to run out the clock and escape with a 23-21 victory.

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

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesCoach Jim Tressel and Ohio State face a tough early test against the Hurricanes.
Miami (1-0) at Ohio State (1-0): The nation's top matchup pits Jacory Harris and the Canes against Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes (ESPN, 3:40 p.m. ET). Miami and Ohio State meet for the first time since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which gave the Scarlet and Gray their last national title. Buckle up.

Penn State (1-0) at Alabama (1-0): Joe Paterno heads to the home of the Bear, although this time he'll face Nick Saban and the defending national champs (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Bolden surprised a lot of folks with his play in the opener. Now he'll try to shock the world against the Tide.

Michigan (1-0) at Notre Dame (1-0): Who ever thought this matchup of tradition-rich powerhouses would feature two spread offenses? If Michigan's Robinson pulls off a repeat performance against Manti Te'o and the Irish defense, the Wolverines should be 2-0.

Iowa State (1-0) at Iowa (1-0): Adrian Clayborn didn't mean to tick off Iowa State with his "only team in the state" comment, but you can bet the Cyclones will use it as motivation Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Iowa's Hampton plays his first game since 2008.

Michigan State (1-0) vs. Florida Atlantic (1-0) at Detroit: How weird will it be to see the Spartans wearing their road unis for a game in nearby Detroit? Florida Atlantic is the home team Saturday (ESPNU, noon ET).

San Jose State (0-1) at Wisconsin (1-0): After a few hiccups in the opener, Wisconsin aims for a cleaner performance at home (ESPN, noon ET) against a San Jose State team that lost by 45 to Alabama in Week 1.

Illinois State (1-0) at Northwestern (1-0): The Wildcats try to revive their anemic run game against an Illinois State team filled with Big Ten connections, from head coach Brock Spack, the former Purdue defensive coordinator, to former Michigan State running back Ashton Leggett.

Southern Illinois (1-0) at Illinois (0-1): Can you say must-win? SIU is typically one of the nation's top FCS programs, and the Salukis would love to score an upset against the state's top public school. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back from a rough opener in front of the home crowd.

Western Illinois (1-0) at Purdue (0-1): Something tells me Robert Marve and the Boilers offense figure things out in a big way this week, although Western Illinois blanked Valpo 45-0 in its opener.

South Dakota (0-1) at Minnesota (1-0): The Gophers barely escaped last year against South Dakota State, winning 16-13. They'll shoot for a more convincing win against South Dakota, which got pummeled by Central Florida in its opener.

Bye: Indiana
Joe Paterno expects to make a decision on Penn State's starting quarterback later today or Wednesday.

"We've got to make up our minds here," Paterno said on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference.

But regardless of who walks out there first for Penn State on Saturday -- Matt McGloin, Kevin Newsome or Robert Bolden -- the Nittany Lions likely will play more than one quarterback in their opener against Youngstown State. That's the way it goes when a team has virtually no experience returning at the most important position on the field.

True freshman Paul Jones is out of the race for 2010, as academic issues have prompted him to redshirt. Sophomores McGloin and Newsome and true freshman Bolden have paced each other throughout camp.

"We'll play more than one quarterback," Paterno said. "We'll play two or maybe three until we're settled, until one is the leader. ... None of them have played. One of the kids [Newsome] has played about 30 plays, so it's difficult for me to tell you just how good some of them are going to be."

Newsome entered camp with a slight edge after backing up Daryll Clark last year, but McGloin has played well and gained confidence. Bolden only arrived at Penn State this summer but has generated a lot of buzz with his performance in camp.

Paterno's stance on playing freshmen is well known: he hates it, much less at the quarterback position. But the 6-foot-4, 208-pound Bolden might be too good to leave on the sideline.

"We've got to use a younger player and we've got to do the best we can to get him ready to be effective," Paterno said. "We're fortunate that we have more than one kid who has the physical ability, but it's just a question right now of who's going to be the guy in the huddle who says, 'Let's get this thing going.'

"We've got a play a young one. I don't like it, but we've got to play him."

One more Penn State nugget:
  • Despite being listed as a starting cornerback on the Week 1 depth chart, Chaz Powell has been moved back to offense, Paterno said. Penn State is hurting a bit on offense with receiver Curtis Drake and tight end Andrew Szczerba both out and No. 2 running back Stephfon Green battling a neck injury. "We moved [Powell] because we got some people bumped up," Paterno said. "Green's hurt. Kid from Philly, Drake, he's banged-up. We needed somebody over there to do some of the things those guys could do, not only be running backs, good receivers, guys that could maybe make something happen." Powell ranked fourth on the team with 28 receptions last year before moving to corner. The good news is cornerback Stephon Morris appears to be healthy now.

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 ...
The position rankings march on as I take a look at the top five secondary units in the Big Ten this fall.

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

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

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

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

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

Up next: Offensive line

More rankings ...
Joe Paterno opened his news conference Wednesday afternoon by apologizing for delaying his pre-spring meeting with reporters.

Then, in classic Paterno fashion, he muttered, "I'm here. Unfortunately, so are you."

Yes, we missed you, JoePa.

Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterPenn State coach Joe Paterno sports his new glasses while meeting with the media on Wednesday.
We haven't heard much from the Penn State head coach since the Capital One Bowl, though his vision surgery and the auctioning of his famous glasses kept Paterno in the spotlight. Paterno addressed a number of topics in Wednesday's media session, and here are a few takeaways:

  • There's no timetable on a decision to name a starting quarterback. Paterno is open to modifying the offense so it fits the players' strengths. "We want to get them comfortable, see what they can do, and not do more than what they can handle," he said.
  • Paterno reiterated that former walk-on Matt McGloin is very much in the mix at quarterback, while wide receiver Brett Brackett hasn't been working with the signal callers this spring. Paterno is making the rounds in spring ball and hasn't seen much of early enrollee Paul Jones. JoePa is happy with the way Kevin Newsome handles himself in the huddle, saying Newsome "has made a lot of progress."
  • Wide receiver Chaz Powell is getting a look at cornerback this spring. Powell ranked fourth on the team in receptions with 28 last fall. He also served as the team's primary kickoff return man and finished second in all-purpose yards (67.8 ypg). Powell played both defensive back and wide receiver in high school and was a standout on special teams. "I'm not sure Powell's going to be a corner," Paterno said. "Obviously, Powell's a good athlete. He could play offense or defense."
  • Asked about the situation at offensive tackle, Paterno jokingly asked reporters if they had a big sheet of paper with them. Penn State is auditioning several players at the tackle spot, including DeOn'tae Pannell and redshirt freshman Eric Shrive. "We argue every morning, can so-and-so handle the pass protection?" Paterno said. "For me to make any kind of statement on where guys will play is ridiculous right now."
  • Starting safety Drew Astorino (shoulder) and linebacker Michael Mauti (knee), who many project as a starter in 2010, are out for the spring with injuries. Reserve running back Brandon Beachum (knee) will only do some light running this spring. Paterno didn't sound too concerned about the linebacker position and likes what he has with Bani Gbadyu, Nate Stupar and Chris Colasanti.
  • Paterno doesn't expect starting running back Evan Royster to do too much this spring, as he has little to prove to the coaches. Backup Stephfon Green and Shaine Thompson, a former walk-on who recently received a scholarship, will be in the spotlight there.
  • The jury is still very much out on defensive tackle Brandon Ware, who has struggled with academic issues and weight problems. "I think he's still a little too heavy," Paterno said. "But he's got a long road to go academically before I'm going to think about him playing."
  • Doug Klopacz is back for a fifth year and will back up Stefen Wisniewksi at center. Running back Brent Carter and defensive tackle Tom McEowen are no longer with the team.

Big Ten picks: Week 7

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


I went 6-1 last week but don't expect such favorable results this time around. A lot of tough games to pick on Saturday's slate.

Here's hoping for good games and exciting finishes.

Wisconsin 24, Iowa 23 -- The Hawkeyes have won two of their last three games in Madison, but I've gotten in too much trouble picking against the Badgers at home. Iowa has lived on the edge for much of the season, and a costly turnover or two gives the Badgers an opportunity at the end. Best matchup: Iowa left tackle Bryan Bulaga vs. Wisconsin defensive end O'Brien Schofield.

Michigan State 28, Northwestern 23 -- This is the type of game that Northwestern often wins, and the Wildcats should make things close with their precision passing attack. But Michigan State seems to have found its mojo, and quarterback Kirk Cousins tosses three touchdown passes in his return. Larry Caper adds a fourth-quarter rushing touchdown as the Spartans get back on the right side of the .500 mark.

Ohio State 30, Purdue 10 -- For some reason, Terrelle Pryor seems to play better away from Ohio Stadium. He only needs to play decently against a Purdue team that consistently beats itself. Defensive end Thad Gibson and linebacker Brian Rolle turn in big performances from the Buckeyes defense as Purdue drops its sixth straight contest.

Michigan 41, Delaware State 7 -- Whether it's Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson at the helm, Michigan's offense will have a big day against the overmatched Hornets. Michigan's Brandon Minor rushes for two touchdowns and Robinson adds two more. The Wolverines defense finally plays a complete game against a Delaware State team that averages just 14.3 points a game.

Penn State 28, Minnesota 16 -- Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker will be a load for Penn State's secondary, but the Nittany Lions defensive front produces a big performance in this one. The Gophers hang tight for a while before Daryll Clark and Chaz Powell break things open with a long touchdown connection in the third quarter. Lions' linebacker Navorro Bowman stifles Minnesota's run game.

Illinois 27, Indiana 26 -- I understand Illinois has been downright miserable, failing to score a first-half touchdown in four games against FBS opponents. But I can't get two images out of my head: the Illini shredding Indiana's secondary last year and Indiana failing to show up on defense last week. This one is a total toss up, but Juice Williams starts at quarterback and makes enough plays to lead the Illini to an ugly win. Wideout Arrelious Benn breaks his scoring drought with two touchdown grabs.

Week 6 record: 6-1

Season record: 37-14 (.725)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


We won't know for at least another week whether Penn State's soft nonconference schedule adequately prepared the Nittany Lions for the season. But Penn State is doing what top-15 teams are supposed to do to inferior opponents, crushing Eastern Illinois 38-0.

Quarterback Daryll Clark is building off an encouraging performance at Illinois with three first-half touchdown passes, including a 51-yarder to Chaz Powell. Junior running back Evan Royster also is having a productive afternoon with 94 rushing yards on only eight carries.

It's been another rough day at Beaver Stadium for former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen, completing 9 of 19 passes with an interception. Penn State has outgained the Panthers 343-134.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A sobering statistic for Penn State at halftime: since completing a 79-yard touchdown pass to Chaz Powell on the Nittany Lions' first play from scrimmage, quarterback Daryll Clark is 5-for-11 passing for 25 yards.

Clark will need a stronger second half against a ferocious Iowa defense determined to make his life miserable for the second straight year. In other words, Penn State's offensive line must give him a chance to make plays.

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