NCF Nation: Eddie McGee

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

September, 27, 2010
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In the spirit of Denard Robinson, I hereby declare: NO MORE TIES.

Big Ten fans have spoken, and I agree with you. The annoying Big Ten co-champs tag will be a thing of the past after the season, and so should the ties in my power rankings. I still don’t see much separating Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, but there's an order developing as Big Ten play begins this week.

1. Ohio State (4-0): The Buckeyes boast their most dynamic offense since 2006, and Terrelle Pryor continues to evolve as the trigger-man. No one will be pleased with Ohio State's defensive performance against Eastern Michigan, but Pryor and the offense put up historic numbers. Ohio State remains the team to beat in the Big Ten.

2. Wisconsin (4-0): We finally saw a dominating performance from the Badgers, albeit against a totally overmatched Austin Peay team. Quarterback Scott Tolzien has played very well the past two weeks, and he'll need another polished performance on the road this week against Michigan State, which will test a Badgers defense missing star linebacker Chris Borland.

3. Iowa (3-1): Aside from the first half at Arizona, Iowa has been very impressive this season. The Hawkeyes easily dispatched of Ball State on Saturday, rebounding nicely from the loss in the desert. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi and defensive lineman Mike Daniels both were outstanding as Iowa is building momentum for the Big Ten slate.

4. Michigan (4-0): The offense continued to surge Saturday against Bowling Green, even after Robinson went down with a knee injury. Tate Forcier got his groove back, completing all 12 of his pass attempts, and receiver Roy Roundtree continued to impress. The defense still shows some cracks, but until someone slows down the Wolverines’ offense, they’ll keep winning.

5. Michigan State (4-0): Michigan State took care of business in its first game without coach Mark Dantonio, who appears to be recovering well from a mild heart attack. Kirk Cousins and his receivers are starting to provide balance in the offense, and linebacker Greg Jones recorded the first two interceptions of his career. Jones and the defense face a big test this week against Wisconsin.

6. Penn State (3-1): JoePa’s squad found a way to beat Temple, and quarterback Rob Bolden, and the offense should gain some confidence from its 12-play, 96-yard drive late in the fourth quarter. But Penn State left the door open for Temple numerous times Saturday, and if the Owls had a better passing attack, they could have notched the upset. The Lions need to be much more efficient in the red zone to beat Iowa this week.

7. Northwestern (4-0): The Wildcats swept through nonconference play for just the second time since 1963, and their schedule sets up very well in the coming weeks. Quarterback Dan Persa continues to look great, but Saturday’s win against Central Michigan featured too many mistakes on both sides of the ball. If Northwestern can clean things up and establish a bona fide run game, it’ll be in good shape for a strong bowl push.

8. Indiana (3-0): Pryor and Robinson get all the national attention, but Hoosiers senior quarterback Ben Chappell has been spectacular in the first three games. Chappell had another big performance Saturday against Akron. It’s tough to fully assess Indiana because of its woeful competition, but two things are clear: the Hoosiers can sling it with the best of them, and their defense remains shaky. Get ready for a shootout this week as Michigan visits.

9. Illinois (2-1): A bye week came at a good time for Illinois, which gave injured players like cornerback Terry Hawthorne and receiver Eddie McGee time to rest up. The Illini need all hands on deck as they open Big Ten play with a challenging stretch against Ohio State (home), Penn State (road) and Michigan State (road). We’ll learn a lot about this team in the next three weeks.

10. Purdue (2-2): Things aren’t looking good for the Boilers as they head into the bye week. Quarterback Robert Marve's knee injury appears to be serious, and the the junior likely will miss an extended period of time, if not the rest of the season. Purdue must continue to fill the gaps because of all the injuries, and a bigger concern could be the defense, which struggled Saturday against the nation's worst offense.

11. Minnesota (1-3): The Golden Gophers couldn't stop the run against Northern Illinois, and they couldn't get a yard with their own run game at two key points in the second half. Time is running out on embattled coach Tim Brewster to turn this thing around. Minnesota needs a winning record in Big Ten play to qualify for the postseason, something it has accomplished just twice since 1990.

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.


The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:


Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.

Big Ten, Jewel Hampton, Jermil Martin, Jerel Worthy, Mitchell Evans, Ryan Kerrigan, Justan Vaughn, Louis Nzegwu, Lance Kendricks, Stefen Wisniewski, Robert Marve, Brian Peters, Brandon Wegher, Devin Smith, Jason Werner, Michael Carter, Michael Shaw, Chandler Whitmer, Jermale Hines, Kyle Jefferson, Zak Kustok, Kirk Cousins, Jacob Charest, Dan Herron, Jammie Kirlew, Jim Tressel, Keanon Cooper, Juice Williams, Daryll Clark, Sherrick McManis, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Bani Gbadyu, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Julian Vandervelde, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, Anderson Russell, Randy Walker, Navorro Bowman, Paul Jones, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Garrett Graham, Martez Wilson, Tim Brewster, Evan Watkins, Rich Rodriguez, Pat Fitzgerald, Robert Bolden, Matt Mayberry, Jordan Mabin, Dennis Landolt, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Denard Robinson, Bret Bielema, Rocco Cironi, Pat Angerer, Brandon Graham, Niles Brinkley, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Nathan Scheelhaase, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Tate Forcier, Kurt Coleman, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Mike Kafka, Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, O'Brien Schofield, Adam Robinson, Arby Fields, Ian Thomas, Nate Stupar, Riley Reiff, Shaun Prater, Clay Nurse, Paul Petrino, Jeff Horton, Jeff Thomas, Lenyatta Kiles, 2010 spring what to watch, Albert Evans, Darius Johnson, David Gilbert, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Gary Emanuel, Jeff Tarpinian, Joe Palcic, Jordan Hall, Josh McKinley, Mike Trumpy, Scott Concannon, Terrance Thomas, Tyler Nielsen

College football coaches love competition, and spring practice serves as a proving ground for it. Starting jobs are usually not awarded until the summer, but players can separate themselves during spring ball. We'll know a lot more about several Big Ten teams following the 15 practices this spring.

Here are five position battles to watch when the teams return to the field:

1. Penn State quarterback: Record-setting signal caller Daryll Clark departs after two years as the starter, and Penn State's ability to find a capable replacement will determine the course for its season. Sophomore Kevin Newsome backed up Clark last season and enters the spring as a slight frontrunner, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones will challenge him. Heralded quarterback recruit Robert Bolden joins the mix this summer.

2. Iowa running back: Can a team ever have too many running backs? Iowa will let us know this year. Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher stepped up big time in 2009, but they'll have to hold off Jewel Hampton, who returns from a knee injury that cost him all of last season. Don't forget Hampton had been pegged as Shonn Greene's successor before his injury. Jeff Brinson also returns from an ankle injury, and several others also will compete for carries.

3. Purdue quarterback: Robert Marve hasn't played a meaningful down since November 2008, but the Miami transfer hopes to succeed Joey Elliott as Purdue's top quarterback. Marve tore his ACL last summer and could be a bit rusty on the practice field, but he certainly boasts the talent to lead Purdue. He will compete with Caleb TerBush, who backed up Elliott last year but appeared in only one game, completing 4 of 10 pass attempts for 22 yards.

4. Illinois quarterback: The Illini have a new offensive coordinator and several new faces at quarterback following the departure of four-year starter Juice Williams. Paul Petrino wants to be very multiple with his scheme, but he needs to see who emerges between Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase, Eddie McGee and early enrollee Chandler Whitmer. Charest started two games in place of Williams late last season, while McGee has extensive field time but played wide receiver for part of 2009.

5. Michigan defense: You can't list only one position with the Wolverines defense, and all the individual competitions will be critical. Aside from a handful of likely starters -- defensive back Troy Woolfolk, defensive tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen -- the competition will be open. Michigan needs consistent contributors who can work in Greg Robinson's scheme, and the coaches won't be afraid to look to young players.
When Vic Koenning sent his seventh-grade son off to a new school in Illinois, he talked about the importance of going in with a clean slate.

What happened in the past didn't matter, he said. This was a fresh start.

When Koenning meets with Illinois' players on the field in late March, he'll convey the same message. Every one of the Illini defenders will get a chance to prove himself.

Koenning finally got to focus on football this week after spending most of his time recruiting since he was hired as defensive coordinator in mid December. But he isn't poring over tape from the 2009 season. He doesn't want to enter spring practice with preconceived judgments.

"It's a clean slate for them," Koenning said. "Everyone will have opportunities."

Koenning also realizes Illinois has no time for growing pains.

"We've got to be a lot better than 91st," he said, referring to Illinois' national ranking for total defense in 2009.

Paul Petrino has taken a slightly different approach with Illinois' offense. The team's new coordinator has had video cutups made of every returning player, as he tries to figure who fits where in his system.

Petrino expects to be very multiple on offense, implementing the scheme that has worked successfully for his older brother Bobby at both Louisville and Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeJacob Charest
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJacob Charest threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns last season.
He's very pleased with Illinois' returning talent at running back with Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford, who combined for 1,322 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last season. Petrino also remembers recruiting running back Justin Green while he was at Arkansas.

"I really like what we've got at running back," he said. "But it always comes down to the quarterback position, and we'll build things around what those guys do best."

The competition is wide open at quarterback entering the spring, as Illinois must replace four-year starter Juice Williams. Jacob Charest and Eddie McGee both have game experience, while Nathan Scheelhaase and early enrollee Chandler Whitmer also will be in the mix.

Petrino pointed out that his offense can adapt to the quarterback's strengths, whether it's a dual threat signal-caller like former Louisville star Stefan LeFors or a true drop-back passer like Arkansas standout Ryan Mallett. Quite possibly the biggest challenge for Petrino and his staff will be determining how much of the system can be installed, and how fast.

"We're going to install as much as they can handle," he said. "We'll install for seven straight days during the spring, and then we'll go back and let them review it. When we get to two-a-days in August, we'll do more install."

Both Koenning and Petrino understood the challenge they took on by accepting their new jobs. Illinois has endured consecutive losing seasons and support for head coach Ron Zook and the program is fading.

Koenning sees some similarities between Illinois and Clemson, where he worked from 2005-08.

"They were always after [head coach Tommy Bowden] every year down there," he said.

Last week, Zook referenced the negative recruiting tactics Illinois faced this year, and Koenning said he had never seen it so bad before.

"It was crazy," he said. "I'm a member of the American Football Coaches Association, and they talk about avoiding negative recruiting, but we saw plenty this year."

Koenning doesn't want to create a make-or-break attitude inside the program for 2010, but he knows his players will have a chip on their shoulders this fall. Petrino sees the same thing on the offensive side.

"You always have something that you want to prove," Petrino said. "The biggest thing I've talked to the offensive guys about is, 'Every time we take the field, let's believe we're going to go score.' It's always us against the world. I've never been one of those guys who's buddy-buddy with the people you play against anyway. So let's go get after it."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Let's be honest: Week 6 was a little boring, except for the Michigan-Iowa game. Here's hoping for a little more drama in Week 7.

Can you believe the season is halfway done? Crazy.

1. Heartland hype -- The Big Ten's showcase matchup takes place in Madison, as longtime rivals Iowa and Wisconsin square off on homecoming for the Badgers. The Heartland Trophy is at stake, and so is Iowa's undefeated record. The Hawkeyes are off to their best start since 1985. Wisconsin owns a 34-3 record at home since the start of the 2004 season, but one of those losses came against Iowa in 2005. The Hawkeyes have won two of their last three meetings at Camp Randall Stadium and own the nation's second-longest win streak at 10 games.

2. Penn State's self assessment begins -- Penn State is 5-1, but do we really know anything about this Nittany Lions team? Head coach Joe Paterno and his players share a similar curiosity/anxiety halfway through the season. They'll learn a lot more during a stretch against four teams with winning records, which begins Saturday against Minnesota (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). An improving Lions run game squares off against the Big Ten's most improved linebacking corps in Minnesota, while a Penn State defense that seems to be getting healthier must contend with superstar wideout Eric Decker. Lions linebacker Sean Lee could be back after missing the last three games with a sprained knee.

3. Pryor at home on the road -- Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has played his best football away from Columbus. Pryor has thrown six touchdown passes and three interceptions in games against Indiana (road) and Toledo (neutral site) this season, versus three touchdowns and three picks in four home games. The sophomore also came up big in road wins against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Northwestern and Illinois last season. He once again hits the road to face struggling Purdue, which could have a tough time containing his running ability.

4. Desperation in Bloomington -- Something's got to give when Illinois and Indiana meet Saturday night at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). The Illini are in must-win mode after four noncompetitive performances against BCS opponents. Embattled head coach Ron Zook must decide whether Juice Williams or Eddie McGee starts at quarterback and hope his team finally scores a first-half touchdown against a BCS opponent. Indiana, meanwhile, comes off a disastrous showing at Virginia and tries to snap a three-game slide.

5. Forcier's health -- Michigan's glorified scrimmage against Delaware State shouldn't feature much drama, but there is the matter of Tate Forcier. The freshman quarterback sustained a mild concussion last week at Iowa and has been dealing with a right (throwing) shoulder sprain for the last three weeks. Forcier returned to practice Wednesday and likely will make the start. We'll find out if Michigan rushed him back too soon in a game where the team doesn't really need him. Backup Denard Robinson figures to get plenty of playing time no matter what.

6. Improved defenses clash in East Lansing -- Veteran-laden defenses figured to be the strengths for both Michigan State and Northwestern entering the season. After slow starts by both units, things seem to be coming together nicely. Northwestern has forced 10 turnovers in its last two games, while Michigan State has recorded 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in back-to-back victories. Both teams' offenses figure to pass the ball a lot on Saturday, so the secondaries will be tested.

7. Stanzi vs. Tolzien -- Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien have led their teams to a combined record of 11-1. Both have made big plays and major mistakes, and Saturday's game likely will come down to which signal-caller performs better. Tolzien, the Big Ten's surprise player through the first half of the season, threw two pick-sixes last week against Ohio State, while Stanzi has had interceptions returned for touchdowns in each of his last two games. Both Iowa and Wisconsin boast extremely opportunistic secondaries, so the quarterbacks will need to be careful with their decisions and throws.

8. Purdue's ball security -- Warning to Danny Hope and the Boilermakers: This item will be on What to Watch every week until things start to improve. Purdue ranks 118th nationally in turnovers lost with 18, and most of them have come from veteran players. The Boilers are a better team than their record shows and boast several of the league's statistical leaders, but they'll have absolutely no chance against Ohio State if they give away the football. Quarterback Joey Elliott and his receivers need to be on the same page and do a better job of ball security against a ferocious Buckeyes defense.

9. Minnesota's mission -- When Tim Brewster was hired as Minnesota's head coach, he talked about competing for Big Ten championships again. The Gophers still look like a team in transition, but they have a great opportunity to move up the league's pecking order the next two weeks with trips to No. 14 Penn State and No. 7 Ohio State. Minnesota recorded road wins against No. 2 Penn State in 1999 and No. 6 Ohio State in 2000. An upset win or two would provide some concrete evidence to support Brewster's optimism.

10. Spartans, Wildcats provide drama -- Most Big Ten fans might not be aware of it, but Michigan State and Northwestern have produced one of the league's most entertaining series this decade. Three years ago, the Spartans recorded the biggest comeback in NCAA history against Northwestern. Two years ago, the Wildcats outlasted the Spartans 48-41 in an overtime shootout. The teams also had a wild finish in a 2001 game at Ryan Field, which Northwestern won 27-26 on a last-second field goal. Be sure to tune in Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ESPN2, noon ET) and find out what happens next.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Well, it's safe to say Juice Williams wasn't the problem for Illinois.

Williams is on the bench today after losing his starting spot to Eddie McGee, but he's watching an offense that continues to sputter. The Illini generated no points, three first downs and just 60 total yards in the first half against Michigan State, which leads 17-0 at Memorial Stadium. McGee is just 2-of-6 passing on the day, but the problems on offense obviously go much deeper here. Illinois can't generate a run game, and coordinator Mike Schultz still hasn't found a way to exploit the team's wide receivers down the field.

Michigan State, meanwhile, appears to be turning its season around. Playing without starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has an ankle injury, the Spartans have stormed ahead behind young running backs Larry Caper and Glenn Winston. Both backs have 64 rush yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Keith Nichol overcame a bit of a slow start to complete 9 of 14 passes for 132 yards.

MSU has outgained Illinois 281-60 and held the ball for 21:28.

The Spartans could be ahead by much more right now. Illinois needs to wake up in the second half. Zook and the Illini can't afford another noncompetitive loss.

Big Ten quarterback checkup

October, 8, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Loyal Big Ten blog readers know that quarterback play has been my No. 1 sticking point in the ongoing effort to improve Big Ten football. Until the league stops losing the arms race, it won't start winning many big nonconference wins during the season and in the bowls.

Five weeks into the 2009 campaign, it's time for a quarterback checkup. How has this year's crop of Big Ten signal-callers fared so far? It's a bit of a mixed bag.

There have been nice surprises like Michigan's Tate Forcier and Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien, while Illinois' Juice Williams, a four-year starter and the league's most experienced quarterback, was benched this week in favor of Eddie McGee. Penn State's Daryll Clark has been pretty solid, while three other veteran quarterbacks -- Minnesota's Adam Weber, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Indiana's Ben Chappell -- have had their ups and downs.

As for Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor? The jury remains out for many observers, though the sophomore has done some nice things the last three games after a rough night against USC.

You could make the argument that first-year starters like Tolzien, Forcier, Purdue's Joey Elliott, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Mike Kafka have turned in the league's better performances this fall. Although the Big Ten returned its top six rated passers from 2008, first-year starters occupy the top five spots on the league's pass efficiency chart right now.

From a national standpoint, the Big Ten still appears to be lacking in quarterback play. No Big Ten quarterbacks are on the radar for the Heisman Trophy, which in my view has turned into a glorified quarterback competition. Big Ten quarterbacks rank among the top 10 nationally in just two major statistical categories -- completion percentage and completions per game.

Stats certainly aren't everything, and quarterbacks are ultimately judged on wins and losses. Tolzien and Stanzi are obviously perfect in that department, while Forcier has been brilliant in the clutch. But aside from Forcier's late heroics against Notre Dame, Big Ten quarterbacks have struggled to push their teams over the top in nonconference games. Cousins' late miscues proved costly against Notre Dame, Elliott had two turnovers returned for Oregon touchdowns at Eugene and Kafka's late interception against Syracuse allowed the Orange to prevail.

Bottom line: there's a long way to go.

Here's where Big Ten quarterbacks stack up in the national statistics:
Big Ten passing leaders
Big Ten leader Rank National leader
Passing average Joey Elliott, Purdue (255.2 ypg) 22nd Case Keenum, Houston (424 ypg)
Completions Mike Kafka, Northwestern (24.8 cpg) 8th Case Keenum, Houston (36 cpg)
Completion % Mike Kafka, Northwestern (70.1) 3rd Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan (71.6)
Pass efficiency Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin (154.7 rating) 18th Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (179.3 rating)
Total passing yards Joey Elliott, Purdue (1,276) 14th Taylor Potts, Texas Tech (1,817)
Points responsible for Joey Elliott, Purdue (14.4 ppg) T-18th Case Keenum, Houston (24 ppg)
Total offense Joey Elliott, Purdue (270.8 ypg) 22nd Case Keenum, Houston (436.8 ypg)

Big Ten picks: Week 6

October, 8, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

A 4-2 record last week with some in-the-ballpark score predictions. As the coaches say, let's try to get one week better.

Minnesota 28, Purdue 24 -- The Gophers know what happens when they let emotions linger after dropping their last five games in 2008. The Big Ten's most experienced team bounces back and limits mistakes on its home turf. Eric Decker goes for 120 receiving yards and DeLeon Eskridge rushes for a pair of touchdowns against Purdue, which drops another close one.

Northwestern 31, Miami (Ohio) 17 -- After generating six takeaways last week, Northwestern faces a Miami team that leads the nation in giveaways with 18. RedHawks freshman quarterback Zac Dysert makes plays early on, but NU cornerback Sherrick McManis and safety Brad Phillips force some mistakes. The Wildcats also get their running game on track.

Penn State 41, Eastern Illinois 10 -- Last week's win at Illinois gave Penn State some much-needed confidence in the run game, and the Lions will continue their momentum against Eastern Illinois. Running back Stephfon Green turns in another big performance, and defensive tackle Jared Odrick steps up for the line. Former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen connects on a touchdown pass, but Penn State rolls.

Michigan State 31, Illinois 23 -- Eddie McGee gives a desperate Illini team an early spark, but Illinois reverts to form in the second half. Kirk Cousins tosses two touchdown passes and Larry Caper adds two more on the ground as the Spartans continue their momentum and avoid a letdown in Champaign.

Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 17 -- John Clay and an opportunistic Badgers defense gives Wisconsin a chance at The Shoe. Clay starts to produce in the second half, but Ohio State gets a big game from its own running back, Brandon Saine, while safety Kurt Coleman forces at least one turnover in his return as the Buckeyes hold on.

Indiana 20, Virginia 17 -- Tough one to call, but I like Indiana's chances because defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton face a Virginia team that ranks last nationally in sacks allowed. The Hoosiers rack up five sacks and Kirlew forces a key fourth-quarter fumble that leads to the game-winning field goal.

Iowa 26, Michigan 21 -- Something tells me Iowa's streak of 33 consecutive quarters without a rushing touchdown allowed ends against the Wolverines, but the Hawkeyes' defense still stands strong in the end. Tate Forcier makes some plays for Michigan, but his counterpart Ricky Stanzi turns in a big second half as Iowa stays unbeaten at home.

Week 5 record: 4-2

Season record: 31-13 (.705)

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois faced fourth-and-inches from its own 33-yard line, clinging to a 28-21 lead over top-ranked Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.
  AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
  After 38 consecutive starts, Ilinois quarterback Juice Williams has been benched.
Juice Williams knew he could move the chains, so he made a convincing plea to Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook, who put his faith in the sophomore quarterback. Williams lunged for the first down and drained the clock as Illinois stunned Ohio State. It would be the defining moment for both Williams and Zook at Illinois, as the team went onto the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Less than two years later, Williams can no longer convince Zook that he should remain on the field. After watching his quarterback struggle for three games, Zook announced Monday morning that junior Eddie McGee will replace Williams as the team's starter.

McGee will make his first career start Saturday against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, noon ET). Though he has made 19 career appearances, Williams has started the last 38 consecutive games for Illinois at quarterback.

“Believe me, this is not all on Juice,” Zook said Monday his radio show. "The poor guy has at times played extremely well, but the thing you try to do in athletics is you’re trying to get a spark.

"This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is a lot of thought and what-if, what-if, what-if. But the bottom line is we're in a part of our schedule now where we’ve got to go play."

Zook said Sunday that changes were possible at every position, including quarterback, but the move to bench Williams is still somewhat surprising. It's not every day that you see a four-year starter and the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback get relegated to clipboard duty.

Williams has struggled mightily this season, ranking last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown, but he also boasts amazing career numbers. He was Zook's first major recruit at Illinois, and his close relationship with the head coach has been well documented. Plus, there's a lot of debate about whether the offensive scheme under new coordinator Mike Schultz is the bigger problem in Champaign.

Even as the pressure mounts on both Zook and Williams, it seemed like the coach and the quarterback would sink or swim together.

Zook's decision simply emphasizes the obvious, that these are desperate times for him and the Illini program. If things don't get turned around fast, Illinois is headed for its fourth losing season in Zook's five years as coach. The momentum from the Rose Bowl run in 2007 has all but vanished, and despite a one-year contract extension this summer, Zook finds himself very much on the hot seat.

He puts his faith in McGee, the Big Ten's most experienced backup. McGee led Illinois to its lone win this season Sept. 12 against Illinois State after Williams went down with a thigh injury. The junior from Washington D.C. has provided a spark in the past, most notably against Missouri in 2007, and Zook is looking for the same thing on Saturday.

If Williams remains on the bench, he'll end one of the more unusual careers in recent Big Ten history. Last week he became Illinois' record-holder in career total offense, and in 2008 he set total offense records in three separate stadiums, including Michigan Stadium.

But you know what they say about desperate times.

Zook made a move that might save the season or seal his fate.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

A quick check of the vital signs shows that Penn State's running game has a pulse again.

Illinois, meanwhile, could be flat-lining.

After getting manhandled by Iowa's defensive front last week, Penn State's offensive line turned in the type of performance it needed in a 35-17 win against Illinois. The Lions' front five wore down Illinois as the game went along and created running room for quarterback Daryll Clark and running backs Stephfon Green and Evan Royster. Head coach Joe Paterno insists that Clark didn't play poorly last week, but the senior signal-caller needed a rebound performance like this one. Also, credit Galen Hall and Jay Paterno for some nice adjustments at halftime.

Green and Royster both eclipsed 100 rushing yards and Clark added 83 yards and two touchdowns as Penn State piled up 338 rush yards and five touchdowns in the victory. If the Lions' new-look line can build off of this performance, Penn State should be in good shape when the schedule gets tougher later this month. The defense did a great job today and will only get better when linebacker Sean Lee returns.

As for Illinois, things are getting very desperate for head coach Ron Zook and his senior quarterback, Juice Williams. The Illini (1-3) have been outscored 102-26 in three games against FBS opponents, and the offense didn't reach the end zone until just 8:46 remained. Whether it's new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, a more conservative game plan or Williams' continued inconsistency, there's something very wrong with the Illini offense.

Will Zook stick with Williams? He's extremely loyal to the senior, his first major recruit at Illinois, but his job seems to be in jeopardy, and it might be time for Eddie McGee.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Quarterback health in the Big Ten has been strong through the season's first month, as none of 11 opening-day starters is currently sidelined due to injury. Things haven't been so fortunate at places like Oklahoma, South Florida, USC, Baylor and even Florida, where Heisman frontrunner Tim Tebow sustained a concussion last week against Kentucky. The recent injuries serve as a reminder that every team must be prepared to lose the starter at its most important position on the field.

Here's a snapshot of the backup quarterback landscape in the Big Ten:


Eddie McGee, Illinois -- McGee has replaced starter Juice Williams numerous times during the last three seasons, either because of injury or performance. He helped Illinois to its lone victory Sept. 12 against Illinois State and has appeared in 17 games, completing 52 of 94 pass attempts for 714 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions.

Keith Nichol, Michigan State -- The Spartans are still operating in a two-quarterback system, though Kirk Cousins has started all four games and received most of the work. Nichol brings excellent athleticism to the backfield and improved his pocket presence during the offseason, and while his numbers aren't stellar, he led two late scoring drives against Wisconsin.

Curt Phillips, Wisconsin -- At one point in camp, Phillips looked like the frontrunner for the starting job before giving way to Scott Tolzien. His speed and mobility bring a new element to the Badgers' offense, and he has racked up 128 rush yards on eight carries in two games to go along with four completions on six attempts.

Dan Persa, Northwestern -- Persa's athleticism actually earned him some time on special teams last year as he waited for a shot under center. He has had limited action in three games this year, and while his size is a concern, he boasts a strong arm and good feet.

Joe Bauserman, Ohio State -- The former minor league pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization has been at Ohio State for two seasons, moving into the backup role this fall. Bauserman doesn't have a ton of game experience (4-for-9 passing this year), but he's not as raw as some of the other quarterbacks in the league.


Denard Robinson, Michigan -- "Shoelace" was the talk of the preseason and dropped jaws by wrong-footing several defenders for a 43-yard touchdown run on his first collegiate carry. Robinson's speed and moves will get him on the field in some form or another, but he's still unproven as a passer through the first four games.

MarQueis Gray, Minnesota -- A heralded recruit from Indianapolis, Gray can be a versatile weapon for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. With physical gifts similar to those of Terrelle Pryor, Gray already has a touchdown catch and 50 rush yards on eight carries. But he hasn't attempted a pass, so a few doubts remain there.


Kevin Newsome, Penn State -- Newsome enrolled early and spent spring ball preparing to back up senior Daryll Clark, who has served as his mentor. Despite Penn State's easy opening stretch, the team's offensive struggles limited playing time for Newsome, who has completed 4 of 6 attempts for 32 yards.

James Vandenberg, Iowa -- One of the greatest passers in Iowa high school history, Vandenberg has only one career appearance, completing 2 of 3 attempts for 38 yards. A multi-sport star in high school, he boasts solid credentials but hasn't had a chance to prove himself yet.

Caleb TerBush, Purdue -- Head coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord have been impressed with TerBush, but the redshirt freshman has yet to attempt a pass in a college game. TerBush has good size (6-5, 222) and a strong arm, but he needs to see action in a game.

Edward Wright-Baker, Indiana -- Wright-Baker did some impressive things in preseason camp, but Hoosiers head coach Bill Lynch is still deciding whether or not to redshirt the talented true freshman. Though Wright-Baker remains listed as Ben Chappell's backup on the depth chart, Indiana used Adam Follett in garbage time Sept. 19 at Akron.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten might lack a top 5 team, but the league leads the nation in suspending its own players.

Ohio State star safety Kurt Coleman on Monday became the third Big Ten player in as many weeks to be issued a one-game suspension from the conference office.

Coleman will sit out this week's game at Indiana because of a helmet-to-helmet hit on Illinois quarterback Eddie McGee in the final minutes of Saturday's 30-0 Ohio State victory. Officials flagged Coleman for a personal foul, and though he wasn't ejected, he left the field and did not return.

In issuing Coleman's suspension, the Big Ten cited a new NCAA rule requiring conference to review flagrant personal fouls, especially those involving helmet-to-helmet contact and "targeting an opponent."

From the Big Ten's news release:

In the 2009-10 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations, Rule 9-6, Article 2, states: “When there is a foul called for initiating contact/targeting an opponent [Rule 9-1-3] that does not result in a player disqualification, there shall automatically be a video review by the conference for possible additional sanctions before the next scheduled game.” Rule 9-1, Article 3.a., states in part that “no player shall initiate contact and target an opponent with the crown [top] of his helmet.” Rule 9-1, Article 3.b., states in part that “no player shall initiate contact and target a defenseless opponent above the shoulders."

The Big Ten reviewed the play and consulted with NCAA National Coordinator of Officials Dave Parry before imposing the one-game suspension for Coleman.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and head football coach Jim Tressel issued a joint statement Monday disagreeing with the league's decision.

"Obviously, we will abide by the one-game suspension from the Big Ten Conference, but we feel as if there was poor judgment throughout," Ohio State's statement reads. "We concur that Kurt’s hit was late and a result of poor judgment; he was thus penalized and removed from the game by his coaches. We do not agree that it was 'premeditated' or that he was 'targeting a defenseless' player. The decision to suspend points to the conference office's feeling as if there was poor judgment by the game officials for their decision not to eject at the time. In our estimation, the final 'poor judgment' is in levying a one-game suspension in this particular case. We will abide by the decision, learn from it, and move forward."

Wow. It doesn't seem like the Big Ten's recent string of suspensions is sitting well with its members.

The league suspended Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton for punching Notre Dame's Eric Olsen in a Sept. 12 game, while Purdue offensive lineman Zach Reckman was suspended for Saturday's game against Notre Dame after a late hit at the end of the Northern Illinois loss.

The difference here is neither Mouton nor Reckman drew penalties for their actions. Michigan wouldn't have suspended Mouton had the league not intervened, while Purdue planned a one-quarter suspension for Reckman.

Coleman is a co-captain at Ohio State and by all accounts a fabulous representative for the team and the university. Ohio State understandably hates to see a guy like Coleman cast in a negative light.

The league, by the way, had no comment on Ohio State's response when I checked in this afternoon.

By suspending a prominent player like Coleman, the Big Ten reiterated the message that on-field conduct will be closely examined and severely punished, if necessary. It'll be interesting to see if other conferences follow suit or not.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The calendar hasn't even reached October yet, and two Big Ten teams are seeing things slip away after being hyped throughout the summer.

Mark Dantonio will try to turn it around against No. 22 Michigan on Saturday.
Michigan State and Illinois own a combined record of 2-5 with zero FBS wins between them. The Spartans were picked third in the league before the season, while Illinois had been pegged as a potential dark-horse candidate in the league because of its explosive offense led by quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Needless to say, both squads have fallen well short of expectations.

Is it surprising to see these two teams in this position? Yes and no.

We expected some growing pains at quarterback for Michigan State, which didn't settle on a starter in camp, but not the struggles Williams has endured against Missouri and Ohio State. We expected Illinois' secondary to fall off a bit without star cornerback Vontae Davis, but Michigan State crowed all offseason about its depth at defensive back, only to get shredded by Dan LeFevour, Jimmy Clausen and Scott Tolzien.

Those trends are somewhat shocking, but then again, both programs historically don't handle high hopes well.

Illinois followed its surprising Rose Bowl run in 2007 with a 5-7 clunker last year. The Illini followed another BCS bowl appearance in 2001 with a 5-7 letdown the next fall. They haven't reached consecutive bowl games since 1991-92.

Michigan State's recent disappointments are even more infamous, perhaps because they've often taken place within a season. The Spartans started strong in 2003, 2005, 2006 and even 2007 before struggling down the stretch.

Both teams host ranked opponents Saturday, as No. 15 Penn State visits Champaign and No. 22 Michigan visits East Lansing. A week later, Michigan State and Illinois meet in Memorial Stadium.

Which team will ultimately fall apart? Will it be both? Or could both squads turn things around and make the postseason?

(Read full post)

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois starting quarterback Juice Williams left tonight's game against Illinois State after a 49-yard run early in the first quarter. Williams tripped up short of the goal line -- Jason Ford scored a 1-yard touchdown on the next play -- and hasn't returned to the field.

No word yet on Williams' injury, but it doesn't appear he'll return to the game.

Backup Eddie McGee is leading the offense now, and Illinois leads 14-0 late in the first quarter. Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson is also out of the game and likely won't return with a sprained pectoral muscle.