NCF Nation: Demetrius McCray
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Michigan has made things a lot more interesting in the Big Ten, while the league's midsection remains as muddled as ever.
Just as a reminder, these rankings are fluid. Wins are rewarded. Losses carry a price.
1. Penn State (2-0) -- It's safe to say the Nittany Lions are the league's best team right now, but the mood isn't totally comfortable in Happy Valley. Penn State wants to see more from its run game and offensive line to take some pressure off of senior quarterback Daryll Clark.
2. Michigan (2-0) -- Too high a placement for Rich Rodriguez's crew? Name another Big Ten team that has looked impressive in back-to-back weeks. Michigan still has some concerns (youth, depth), but it looks completely different on offense and continues to get big performances from young players like quarterback Tate Forcier.
3. Ohio State (1-1) -- The Buckeyes would have been No. 1 had they held off USC, but another close loss raises questions about Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and the offense. Cameron Heyward and the defense played masterfully, but does Tressel-ball still work in this era of college football, or does Ohio State need to evolve?
4. Iowa (2-0) -- Iowa State isn't very good, but a 32-point road win in a rivalry game speaks for itself. Tyler Sash led an opportunistic Iowa defense with three interceptions, and the Hawkeyes established a run game with freshmen Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson. After some tough luck on the health front, Iowa is back on track heading into a big stretch against Arizona and Penn State.
5. Minnesota (2-0) -- The Gophers have a road win against an improved Syracuse team and a hard-fought home victory against always-tough Air Force. Their lack of explosiveness on offense is still a concern, but the defense has taken a step forward under Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee. A huge opportunity arrives Saturday as Cal visits TCF Bank Stadium.
T-6 Northwestern (2-0) -- The Wildcats drop two spots after letting their guard down in the second half against Eastern Michigan and nearly falling to the Eagles. Star defensive end Corey Wootton hasn't shown up so far, and Northwestern's overall defensive line play has been uninspiring. Things get tougher next week against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
T-6 Wisconsin (2-0) -- It's hard to know what to make of the Badgers at this point, but they're finding a way to win despite some flaws. Scott Tolzien clearly was the right choice at quarterback, and running back John Clay came up big against Fresno State. The defense is a major concern, especially on third downs, but Wisconsin has done a nice job of surviving against decent teams.
8. Michigan State (1-1) -- Mark Dantonio often brings up Michigan State's struggles under high expectations, and Saturday's loss to Central Michigan certainly looked a lot like other Spartans' collapses. A lack of discipline showed up often, especially on special teams, but perhaps more damaging were the struggles of a deep and experienced secondary. Next week's game at Notre Dame will be huge.
9. Illinois (1-1) -- The Illini took care of business against Illinois State, pulling away to an easy win despite losing quarterback Juice Williams (bruised quadriceps) early. It wasn't a spotless performance, but running back Jason Ford made a difference in his return. Illinois can climb the rankings in the coming weeks with games against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State -- or it can tumble to the bottom.
10. Purdue (1-1) -- Danny Hope's team would have made a big jump had it won at Oregon, but giveaways and other mistakes doomed the Boilers in Eugene. This team is better than many of us expected, and Ralph Bolden looks like a star at running back, but it can't win games with so many miscues. Purdue must bounce back against Northern Illinois before Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium.
11. Indiana (2-0) -- Improved defense has paid off early on for the Hoosiers, and the team sparked its rushing attack against Western Michigan behind Demetrius McCray. I'm not totally sold on IU, but there are certainly some encouraging signs for Bill Lynch's crew. This week's trip to Akron is huge before opening Big Ten play with Michigan and Ohio State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Time to put a bow on Week 2 in the Big Ten with five lessons learned.
1. Michigan is back -- The Wolverines are young and not very deep at several spots, but they're extremely resilient and clearly on the right track under second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. True freshman Tate Forcier delivered a performance to remember against a good Notre Dame team, completing 6 of 7 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown on the game's decisive drive. Rodriguez's offense has returned to form behind Forcier, running back Brandon Minor and a much improved line. Michigan has closed the book on last season's 3-9 disaster and could make a serious push for the Big Ten title.
2. Ohio State's offense needs a spark -- When you start four possessions inside the opponent's territory, even if the opponent is USC, you need to get more than two field goals. Buckeyes running back Brandon Saine said after Saturday's game that "we always talk about ending each drive with a kick." But too often since 2007, those kicks have been field goal attempts, not extra point attempts. Whether it's Jim Tressel's play-calling or Terrelle Pryor's inconsistency or an unproven supporting cast around Pryor, something just isn't clicking for the Buckeyes on offense and it cost them a huge win against the Trojans.
3. The Big Ten isn't that bad -- After being ripped all week and most of Saturday afternoon, the Big Ten held its own in the key games. Michigan upset Notre Dame and Ohio State dominated USC for most of the way. Purdue paced Oregon at Autzen Stadium, Iowa rebounded strong at Iowa State and both Minnesota and Wisconsin notched nice wins against Air Force and Fresno State. The Big Ten might not be at the SEC's level, but it hasn't suffered multiple embarrassments like the ACC or the Big 12. Though the USC loss stings, having Michigan back on the national scene really helps the league's overall perception.
4. A new group of running backs emerges -- The Big Ten no longer has Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer or Chris "Beanie" Wells, but the league is once again reloading at the running back spot. Purdue's Ralph Bolden looks like a star in two games, while Wisconsin's John Clay delivered a bounce-back performance and Indiana's Demetrius McCray sparked a dormant rushing attack. Michigan's Minor and Illinois' Jason Ford were superb in their returns from injuries. Iowa turned to a true freshman (Brandon Wegher) and a redshirt freshman (Adam Robinson) to ease its rushing woes. Junior Stephen Simmons has emerged as Northwestern's top back after a very nice performance Saturday.
5. League race could be a lot more interesting -- The Big Ten has been pegged as a two-team league, but several other squads could work their way into a wide-open race. Michigan has looked more impressive than any Big Ten team so far, and Iowa made a strong statement in Ames after an extremely shaky start against Northern Iowa. Ohio State clearly has some issues on offense, and Penn State's run game struggled against Syracuse at home. Everything still could come down to Penn State-Ohio State on Nov. 7 in Happy Valley, but a few more matchups will shape the league race.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to recognize the best and the brightest from a very intriguing Week 2 in the Big Ten.
Michigan QB Tate Forcier -- The Wolverines are on their way back, and Forcier helped them take a major step against No. 18 Notre Dame. The true freshman played way beyond his years, leading the game-winning scoring drive and finding Greg Mathews for a 5-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left. Forcier threw for 240 yards, rushed for 70 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush).
Iowa S Tyler Sash -- There might not be a defender in the country who had a more productive day than Sash. The Big Ten's interceptions leader in 2008 tied a school record with three picks against Iowa State. He also had a forced fumble, two tackles for loss and a team-high 10 total tackles.
Minnesota LB Nate Triplett -- Triplett made opening night at TCF Bank Stadium a memorable one, as he recorded a team-high 17 tackles and put Minnesota ahead for good with a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Air Force. He's gone from a special-teams all-star to a major contributor.
Wisconsin RB John Clay -- After losing his starting job in camp, Clay showed he's back in a big way against Fresno State. He broke off a career-best 72-yard run and finished with 143 rush yards in the double-overtime win.
Indiana RB Demetrius McCray -- McCray sparked a dormant Indiana rushing attack with a career-high 134 rush yards and a touchdown on only 17 carries. He also had a 5-yard reception as the Hoosiers held off Western Michigan.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The games are back, and so are the picks. Hold your applause. Every Thursday this fall, I'll forecast what will happen in the Big Ten.
Last year, I went 71-17 (80.7 percent) during the regular season. That's all you need to know.
Indiana 27, Eastern Kentucky 17: The pistol offense gets off to a slow start, but Indiana's defense contains Eastern Kentucky and buys time for Ben Chappell and Co. to get going. Running backs Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis have a big night and the Hoosiers rack up five sacks as they open new-and-improved Memorial Stadium with a win.
Ohio State 38, Navy 10: The Mids receive the greeting they deserve from Buckeye Nation, but the reception on the field will be different. Ohio State's defensive line is disciplined enough to stop the triple option, and Navy doesn't appear to be as strong as it has been in past years. Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor has a nice debut in the win, and Dan Herron has a big day on the ground.
Penn State 45, Akron 17: Joe Paterno returns to the sideline and enjoys the view as running back Evan Royster opens with a 150-yard effort in the opener. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain and his veteran wide receivers make some plays against an iffy Nittany Lions secondary, but Penn State pulls away in the second quarter and never looks back.
Northwestern 34, Towson 6: Those expecting a drop-off from Northwestern forget that defense carried this team in 2008 and will do the same this fall. Towson's offense has major question marks and manages just two field goals against the Wildcats, who start slow on offense but pick things up in the second half behind quarterback Mike Kafka and freshman running back Arby Fields. Towson allowed more than 230 rush yards a game last fall.
Michigan State 31, Montana State 13: The Bobcats from Bozeman aren't pushovers, having upset Colorado in 2006 and keeping things close for a while against Minnesota last year. Standout defensive end Dane Fletcher makes some plays early, but Kirk Cousins eventually gets on track and uses his many weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Spartans backup quarterback Keith Nichol also logs time and performs well, keeping the competition tight heading into Week 2.
Minnesota 31, Syracuse 21: One of the more intriguing Week 1 matchups goes to the Gophers, who struggle a bit early amid the hoopla over Doug Marrone's Syracuse debut and Greg Paulus' return to football. Paulus makes a play or two against the Minnesota defense, but Adam Weber and a dynamic group of Gophers wideouts steal the show. Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter each catch two touchdowns as Minnesota pulls away in the third quarter.
Purdue 31, Toledo 24: Some tense moments in head coach Danny Hope's debut at Purdue, but the Boilermakers prevail thanks to a solid rushing attack led by Ralph Bolden and Jaycen Taylor. Toledo's offense returns plenty of veterans and moves the ball against an iffy Purdue front seven. Bolden turns the tide early in the fourth quarter with a long touchdown run.
Iowa 28, Northern Iowa 9: Iowa needs its defense to step up from the get-go, and the unit comes through against Northern Iowa, a formidable FCS opponent. Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi displays obvious improvement and finds the rejuvenated Tony Moeaki for two touchdowns. The run game is so-so for Iowa, but it doesn't need much from Paki O'Meara and Adam Robinson in the win.
Michigan 28, Western Michigan 24: Popular opinion is going against the Wolverines after everything that happened this week in Ann Arbor, but Rich Rodriguez's crew finds a way to start 1-0. Tim Hiller and the Broncos have their way with Michigan's secondary in the first half, but Wolverines defensive end Brandon Graham turns the game with a sack and a forced fumble early in the third quarter. Quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson make enough plays against a vulnerable WMU defense.
Illinois 44, Missouri 38: The Illinois-Missouri matchup usually oozes offense, and this year will be no exception. But Juice Williams gets the final say against Sean Weatherspoon and the Tigers, as he finds four different receivers for touchdowns. Sophomore running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both show improvement as a dynamic Illini offense secures a big win in the Edward Jones Dome.
Wisconsin 30, Northern Illinois 23: The Huskies are on the rise under second-year coach Jerry Kill and boast a dangerous quarterback in sophomore Chandler Harnish. Wisconsin worries me a bit on both sides of the ball, but running backs Zach Brown and John Clay should have a big day against an NIU defense that lost star Larry English. It'll be tight for a while, but I can't see the Badgers losing a night game at home.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A dozen years ago, Joe Tiller changed the landscape of Big Ten football by installing the spread offense at Purdue. Team scoring records immediately began to fall.
As Tiller departs a league filled with adaptations of the spread, another system could be catching on in the heartland.
Indiana is spending much of the spring operating in the pistol offense, the abbreviated shotgun system where the quarterback and running back are staggered in the backfield. Hoosiers coaches recently visited their counterparts at Nevada, home of pistol offense creator Chris Ault.
Nevada first implemented the pistol in 2004 and has finished in the top 30 nationally in total offense in four of the last five seasons, placing fifth nationally last fall (508.5 yards per game).
"Our plays now, out of the pistol, give us more of an option of where to run," running back Demetrius McCray said. "In the gun, it's hard to see everything, because you're going at an angle. In the pistol you're going straight on, and you have more options."
The Hoosiers aren't the only Big Ten squad exploring the pistol offense. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel undoubtedly will be asked Thursday whether he plans to incorporate more elements of the pistol system when the Buckeyes open spring practice.
Ohio State dabbled with the pistol during preseason camp last summer and used it at times during the 2008 season. And Tressel reportedly is interested in adding the Wildcat offense or more of the Pistol to Ohio State's repertoire to accommodate versatile sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
After finishing 76th nationally in total offense last fall, Ohio State needs to do something different. Same goes for Indiana, which finished 71st in total offense in 2008.
If Indiana and Ohio State see some early success with the pistol this fall, you can bet other Big Ten teams will catch on. Maybe then, a league that still gets branded as being behind the times schematically can catch up in a sport that craves offense more than ever.
After an extended examination of the Big Ten quarterbacks, from conundrums at four schools to stability at others, it's time to start rolling out position rankings. Let's begin with a look at the league's running backs.
For several positions, such as running back, wide receiver and linebacker, I'll break up the rankings into individual (top 10) and team. For offensive line, it will only be team. The reason? Beanie Wells is the Big Ten's best running back, but Wisconsin's four-pack might be the strongest group.
|AP Photo/Terry Gilliam|
|Beanie Wells rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season.|
1. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Jr., Ohio State -- Heisman contender enters his junior season as the league's premier back. Wells was consistently productive last season despite playing most of it with a bad ankle and a broken bone in his left wrist. His offensive line returns virtually intact, putting Beanie in line for another 1,500-yard season.
2. Javon Ringer, Sr., Michigan State -- Excellent slasher could push Wells for the league's rushing title. Last fall, Ringer rushed for 1,447 yards and six touchdowns -- big man Jehuu Caulcrick usually got the call near the goal line -- and expects to get more carries this season. Caulcrick's absence could hurt, but Ringer has thrived in the team's run-first offense.
3. P.J. Hill, Jr., Wisconsin -- The Badgers will throw different looks at defenses, but Hill is undoubtedly the first option. Hill finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and was able to increase his strength in the weight room. Despite being banged up last fall, Hill still rushed for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns. If he stays on the field, his combination of size and speed is hard to contain.
4. Tyrell Sutton, Sr., Northwestern -- After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2005, Sutton has left center stage, struggling in an anemic offense as a sophomore and missing most of last season with a high ankle sprain. He's fully healthy and headlines an offense stocked with veteran skill players. If a new-look line jells, Sutton will show why he's still one of the league's best backs.
5. Evan Royster, So., Penn State -- Teammate Stephfon Green has Happy Valley buzzing, but defenses better not forget about Royster. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry last season as Rodney Kinlaw's backup, and enters the summer as Penn State's No. 1 back. Royster is a strong between-the-tackles runner but, like Green, has breakaway ability, as he showed with a 38-yard touchdown in the Alamo Bowl.
6. Kory Sheets, Sr., Purdue -- Fumbling problems have prevented Sheets from becoming Purdue's featured back, but he could claim the lion's share of the carries as a senior. Sheets averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns last fall, finishing ninth in the league with 859 rushing yards. If he can hang onto the ball this fall, Sheets should have a strong finish to his career.
7. Jaycen Taylor, Jr., Purdue -- Taylor is definitely tough enough to be Purdue's featured back. He returned to the field last fall just four games after breaking his left arm. The next step is consistent production, which Taylor showed at times in 2007. Sheets' ongoing fumbling problems caused coach Joe Tiller to give Taylor the slight edge on the depth chart coming out of spring ball.
8. Marcus Thigpen, Sr. Indiana -- Everyone knows Thigpen has elite speed, but he hasn't proven to be a viable threat out of the backfield. The senior figures to get more carries this fall as Indiana tries to complement quarterback Kellen Lewis with another rushing threat. Thigpen proved he can step up in big games, rushing for 140 yards in a bowl-clinching win against Purdue last November.
9. Stephfon Green, Fr., Penn State -- He hasn't played a college game yet, but his speed and big-play potential have Penn State fans counting the days until Aug. 30. Green will play behind Evan Royster, but if he duplicates his spring-practice highlights in a meaningful setting, he'll dash past a lot of backs on this list.
10. Lance Smith-Williams, Jr., Wisconsin -- Teammate Zach Brown merits a mention here, but consider what Smith-Williams did last season. Suspended from playing in away games, he rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns on only 71 carries (6.0 ypc average). Allowed to travel with the team this season, Smith-Williams provides an excellent complement to Hill in the run game.
1. Wisconsin -- The variety of size, skill and depth provided by Hill, Smith-Williams, Brown and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay can't be matched in the league. A new starting quarterback will have plenty of help.
3. Penn State -- If Green backs up his hype on the field, the Lions could jump up the list. Royster and Green give Penn State two formidable threats alongside a new starting quarterba
4. Purdue -- Sheets and Taylor have competed forever, with neither man cementing the No. 1 spot. But as a tandem, they give pass-happy Purdue another strong dimension.
5. Michigan State -- Ringer is a proven star who can punish defenses with his slashing speed. Though the Spartans lost Caulcrick, the league's eighth-leading rusher last season, hopes are high for A.J. Jimmerson, Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett.
6. Northwestern -- The Wildcats should get back to their running roots under new offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Sutton is dangerous when healthy, and versatile senior Omar Conteh filled in nicely last fall.
7. Michigan -- No proven commodities here, but offensive coordinator Calvin Magee has a track record for producing all-league backs. Brandon Minor looked good this spring, and Carlos Brown returns from a broken finger. If Kevin Grady resolves his legal troubles, he gives the Wolverines a big, versatile body in the backfield.
8. Illinois -- Quarterback Juice Williams is a running threat, but Illinois didn't identify a replacement for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Rashard Mendenhall in spring practice. Junior Daniel Dufrene likely will get the first shot at the top job, with both Troy Pollard and freshman Mikel LeShoure also in the mix.
9. Indiana -- When opponents prepare for Indiana's run game, they talk about quarterback Lewis. It's up to the running backs -- Thigpen, Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or freshman Darius Willis -- to put another name in the scouting report.
10. Minnesota -- Here's another team with the quarterback (Adam Weber) as its leading rusher. Jay Thomas comes off his second ACL surgery and will compete with promising sophomore Duane Bennett for the job. Both men have potential, but there's little depth behind them.
11. Iowa -- Albert Young and Damian Sims are gone, and the Hawkeyes ended spring with a walk-on (Paki O'Meara) as their top running back. Yikes. Shonn Greene returns to potentially stabilize things, and incoming freshmen Jeff Brinson and Jewel Hampton will get looks in camp.