NCF Nation: Fitz Toussaint
To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:
1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.
2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.
3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.
4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.
5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.
What are the main things you're looking for this spring?
Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.
BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.
Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.
You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?
BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.
Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?
BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.
Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?
BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.
What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?
BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.
Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.
BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.
Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?
BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.
How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?
BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.
We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.
So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.
Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?
BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.
Both Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti and Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint had to be carted off the field in the first quarter of their games with what appeared to be serious leg injuries.
A hush fell over Beaver Stadium as Mauti went down with a problem in his left knee early against Indiana. Mauti has had two torn ACLs in his career, including one in the left knee that cut his 2011 season short. He's the heart and soul of the Penn State defense and a real team leader, so it was an emotional setback for the Nittany Lions to lose him for any period of time. We can only hope the injury isn't as serious as feared, but judging by the reaction of Mauti and his teammates, we're bracing for the worst. The team said it would update the injury after the game.
Michigan's Toussaint was carted off after getting hit on a first-quarter run against Iowa. The official word was that it was a lower leg injury, but the play looked pretty gruesome. Toussaint has struggled to regain his form from 2011, when he gained more 1,000 yards, but he is still the Wolverines' top tailback.
We'll update you on these injuries when we know more.
ESPN.com caught up with Toussaint earlier this week.
How would you describe how this season has gone for you individually and for the team?
Are things developing that could get you closer to that big game? This is the time of year where you came on strong last season.
FT: Definitely. It's slowly but surely developing. That's just part of going out there and doing what we have to do, day by day. I'm getting better every day, every week, and that's part of having good practices. If you don't have a good practice, you're going to play like you practice, so we really have to put the emphasis on having a good practice.
Why has it been such a struggle to get in the end zone lately, and how motivated are you to turn that around?
FT: We're definitely motivated. That's on the offense. We have to get more points. The defense is doing their job, but we're working on something good on offense. We're going to do what we have to do. We have to get more points on the scoreboard, and that's on the running game.
This game with Minnesota wasn't close last year. What are you expecting this time from the Gophers on the road?
FT: I'm not taking anything from Minnesota. They're a good football team, hard-nosed, a good group of kids. As long as we do what we have to do, watch enough film and practice the way we want to play, then we'll be successful.
You responded well from the losses earlier this season. What's going to be key for you to respond from the Nebraska loss this week?
FT: Just staying positive, staying together as a team and as a unit. We have to do everything right on the practice field. We still have one focus, and that's the Big Ten championship. In order to get there, we have to do what we have to do from here on out.
How is Denard [Robinson] doing after his injury?
FT: Denard's doing well. He's getting back, he's getting healthy. He's ready to go.
Do you as a team feel like you need to win out to get to Indianapolis?
FT: We just want to play it game by game. We don't want to rush anything, just play Michigan football and do what we do.
What have you learned this season as a player?
FT: I learned that you have to be more patient and trust the guys around you.
Are you naturally a patient person?
FT: There's some things you have to learn along the way. But I'm doing pretty good with that. I definitely think I've grown up a lot. Honestly, I just want to win for the seniors because I know those guys want to win for us. That's part of being a great team.
The race is tightening a bit, as Brian Bennett gained on Adam Rittenberg, who still leads in the season standings by three games. Five games are on tap in Week 10, including several that will shape the races in both the Legends and Leaders divisions.
Let's get to it ...
MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: The Jug game should be closer than it has been in recent years, as Minnesota is better and will be at home. But Michigan still has a big edge, as long as Denard Robinson is healthy enough to play. All indications are that he'll be fine, and that means trouble for the Gophers' defense. Robinson goes for the Jug-ular with 200 rushing yards, and the Wolverines pump the breaks on the Philip Nelson hype with a strong defensive performance. ... Michigan 31, Minnesota 17
Adam Rittenberg: You truly are the pun-isher, Bennett. This is a dangerous game for Michigan as it visits a Minnesota team playing with renewed confidence under Nelson. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a Nelson touchdown run, but Michigan eventually finds its bearings and attacks a defense that has been vulnerable to the ground game. Robinson racks up 110 yards and two scores, and Fitz Toussaint adds a key second-half rushing touchdown. Nelson starts strong, but commits a second-half turnover as Michigan escapes with the Jug. ... Michigan 24, Minnesota 16
IOWA at INDIANA
Adam Rittenberg: This one certainly could go either way, but Indiana has the momentum after finally getting over the hump in a Big Ten game. Can the Hoosiers win back-to-back league contests for the first time since 2007? I say yes. Indiana gets a good mix of offense from QB Nate Sudfeld and running back Stephen Houston, who runs for a touchdown and hauls in another. Iowa running back Damon Bullock goes for 125 rush yards and two scores, but the Hawkeyes' offense can't translate yards into points. Hoosiers cornerback Greg Heban intercepts James Vandenberg to seal the win for IU. ... Indiana 31, Iowa 27
Brian Bennett: A lot of people will be picking Indiana this week as the Hoosiers seem to have all the momentum. Ah, but Kirk Ferentz's teams are most dangerous when counted out. This is still a major step up from Illinois for IU, which has trouble handling its (mild) success. Bullock runs for 150 yards and a pair of scores and Micah Hyde grabs a key interception to dash the Hoosiers' Leaders daydreams. ... Iowa 28, Indiana 25
No. 20 NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: The Spartans are at home, have that lock-down defense and should play with more confidence on offense after last week's win at Wisconsin. But ... I just remember how easily Nebraska shut down a much better Michigan State attack last year in Lincoln and how well the Blackshirts normally match up with pro-style passing teams. And even though Taylor Martinez and the Huskers won't score as much as they usually do, they will put up too many points for the Spartans. Martinez overcomes a couple of turnovers and leads a patented Nebraska comeback win. ... Nebraska 23, Michigan State 16
Adam Rittenberg: Maybe Michigan State finally has turned the corner, but I also like this matchup for Nebraska. Pelini's defenses feast on pro-style offenses, and Michigan State hasn't had a good one this season. The Spartans score an early touchdown off of a Nebraska turnover, but the Huskers eventually settle down. QB Taylor Martinez connects with receiver Kenny Bell for a score and several long passes, and while the Huskers struggle to get in the end zone, Brett Maher goes 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts. Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell records another 100-yard rushing performance, but he needs at least 30 carries to get there. ... Nebraska 19, Michigan State 17
ILLINOIS at OHIO STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Unless the Buckeyes decide to start their open week early, they'll cruise against the overmatched, mistake-prone Illini. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combine for 300 rush yards and five touchdowns as Ohio State builds a big lead by the third quarter and puts it on cruise control. Backup QB Kenny Guiton gets extended playing time and fires a touchdown pass. Illinois doesn't quit and scores some touchdowns in garbage time. I've got the Buckeyes by 22, the number of pounds Tim Beckman says he has lost this season. ... Ohio State 45, Illinois 23
Brian Bennett: Beckman and Urban Meyer are good friends. I point this out only to say that Meyer might be more hesitant than usual to run up the score. Because that's all that's really standing between a huge Ohio State blowout here. Illinois just isn't doing much right in any phase of the game and is running into a buzz saw. Miller and Carlos Hyde each run for 100 yards and Miller throws for a pair of scores before the Buckeyes starters rest for much of the fourth quarter. ... Ohio State 38, Illinois 7
PENN STATE at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: Could I see Penn State having a letdown after the Ohio State loss while going on the road? I suppose. But this Nittany Lions team knows that its opportunities are dwindling, and Ross-Ade Stadium could be a ghost town as Danny Hope's support is dwindling by the day. Purdue, as per usual, scores quickly but then stalls against Penn State's defense, which picks off Robert Marve twice. Bill Belton has his best day as a Lion by scoring three touchdowns as the Boilers' misery continues. ... Penn State 31, Purdue 14
Adam Rittenberg: Purdue has burned me too many times this season, and while I could see the desperate Boilers making one last stand, Penn State is superior on both sides of the ball. The Matt McGloin-Allen Robinson connection cranks up for two touchdown strikes, and Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges records a defensive score on a fumble return. Marve plays well early but struggles in the fourth quarter, as Penn State responds once again. ... Penn State 28, Purdue 21
Wisconsin and Northwestern are both off.
Adam Rittenberg: 56-18 (.757)
Brian Bennett: 53-21 (.716)
Week 8 brings us six matchups, five league games and the final nonleague contest (Indiana at Navy) of the regular season. Both of us are searching for our first perfect week of predictions for the season.
Let's do this ...
PURDUE at OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: The Boilermakers might have beaten the Buckeyes last year, but this is a different Ohio State team. And Purdue hasn't looked like it can beat anyone the past couple of weeks. Expect Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde to shred a suddenly weak run defense to the tune of 250 combined yards, and Ohio State gets to 8-0. ... Ohio State 38, Purdue 17
Adam Rittenberg: I saw all I needed to see from Purdue the past two weeks. Miller, Hyde, Rod Smith and the Buckeyes run all over the Boilers, piling up 300 yards on the ground. Miller and Hyde combine for four touchdowns and Luke Fickell's defense buckles down in the second half, holding Purdue to 315 total yards. ... Ohio State 42, Purdue 17
MINNESOTA at WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: If the Gophers were healthy, they'd keep this close and have a chance to pull off the upset. But too many key injuries, combined with a Wisconsin team that has regained its mojo, lead to another fairly easy win for Bret Bielema's crew. Montee Ball goes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and James White and Melvin Gordon each add a rushing score. Minnesota hangs around for the first half, but Wisconsin surges early in the third quarter. ... Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 20
Brian Bennett: Minnesota has had trouble stopping the run the past two games, and that's not a good sign going against a Badgers offensive line that is getting back to form. Ball drops the axe on the Gophers with three scores, and an underrated Wisconsin defense keeps Max Shortell & Co. at bay. ... Wisconsin 34, Minnesota 17
NEBRASKA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: On the road, against a spread offense and a running quarterback? Reads like a horror story for Nebraska. But the Huskers have had two weeks to lick their wounds and figure out something defensively. More important, Northwestern's young defense is going to have trouble slowing down Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and all those Big Red weapons. Huskers in a shootout. ... Nebraska 38, Northwestern 31
Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska certainly has a lot of firepower, and Northwestern never seems to win games like this, when its program is in the spotlight. Kain Colter will give Nebraska trouble again, and he and Venric Mark combine for four touchdowns. But I haven't loved Northwestern's offensive game plan recently, and the Wildcats, while good at stopping the run, will need to put up points to win Saturday. Ultimately, Rex Burkhead refuses to let Nebraska lose and the Huskers prevail with a big fourth quarter. ... Nebraska 34, Northwestern 28
MICHIGAN STATE at MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans' season is on the brink and Mark Dantonio always gets his guys up for the Michigan game. Michigan State takes an early lead behind its salty defense, but Michigan and senior quarterback Denard Robinson won't be denied this time. Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run late in the first half and finishes with 120 rushing yards and two scores. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell also records 100 rushing yards, but Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs records a second-half takeaway as the Wolverines end their losing streak in the series. ... Michigan 24, Michigan State 16
Brian Bennett: I see a major slugfest coming. The Spartans know how to slow down Robinson, who doesn't have a lot of help right now with Fitz Toussaint struggling. Meanwhile, Michigan State would have trouble scoring on air, much less Michigan's improving defense. Michigan State's defense comes up with a couple of turnovers but can't do much with them. The hero of this game? Wolverines kicker Brendan Gibbons, who makes three big field goals. ... Michigan 16, Michigan State 9
INDIANA at NAVY
Brian Bennett: Going to Navy and facing that option attack in the middle of the season is a scary proposition. The Midshipmen will make Indiana's defense look foolish at times. But the Hoosiers have shown great firepower and are getting closer and closer to notching a respectable win. Their passing attack is too much for Navy, as Shane Wynn breaks off two long touchdown catches. ... Indiana 24, Navy 21
Adam Rittenberg: Only 45 total points? Give me the over, Bennett. I'm definitely impressed with Indiana and what Kevin Wilson is doing with the offense, but the Hoosiers can't defend the run (109th nationally), which spells trouble against Navy. The Mids have righted the ship (bad puns galore!) the past two weeks and have home field on their side. Receivers Cody Latimer and Wynn will give Navy problems, but the triple option gives Indiana more, especially in the second half. ... Navy 38, Indiana 35
PENN STATE at IOWA
Adam Rittenberg: History is working against Penn State, which doesn't play well at Kinnick Stadium. But this is a new team with a new offense, and the Lions will get over the hump in Iowa City behind Matt McGloin and his receiving corps. Iowa will have a hard time running on Penn State, with or without Mark Weisman, and I haven't seen enough from the Hawkeyes' passing game to suggest they'll attack the Lions enough. McGloin fires two touchdown passes and linebacker Michael Mauti has another big night as Penn State wins its fifth straight -- and its first in Kinnick since 1999. ... Penn State 21, Iowa 17
Brian Bennett: How does Iowa win this game without a healthy Weisman? I'm not sure. But I'm also not entirely sure how the Hawkeyes are tied for first place in the Legends Division. I do know that Iowa is the best defense that Penn State has faced, and the Lions will pay for not being able to run the ball effectively. Kirk Ferentz continues his mastery of Penn State, a new running back hero emerges (Greg Garmon, anyone?) and James Vandenberg actually throws a TD pass in the Hawkeyes' win. ... Iowa 19, Penn State 17
Adam Rittenberg: 48-14 (.774)
Brian Bennett: 45-17 (.726)
Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State remain atop the rankings, although the Buckeyes are no longer head and shoulders above the rest of the league after a shaky performance on defense and special teams against Indiana. Wisconsin moves all the way up to No. 4 after its beatdown of Purdue in West Lafayette. As a reminder, the power rankings reflect how teams are playing at the present time, and Wisconsin has been very good the past two weeks, and certainly not the same team we saw in September.
Some might find it a bit harsh to drop idle Nebraska two spots, but it has more to do with Wisconsin's performance as well as a league road win by Northwestern. The good news is the Huskers can make big moves in the coming weeks with games against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. Iowa also makes a nice move up the rankings, while Purdue plummets all the way to No. 11 after another embarrassing effort on its home field. Although it's rare to move teams up after losses, both Minnesota and Indiana deserve to be ahead of Purdue. Indiana especially has shown impressive fight, despite the results.
Here's the full rundown ...
1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0, last week: 1): Urban Meyer's Buckeyes remain on top of the rankings, but there's not as big a gap separating them from the rest of the league. Ohio State's defense is far from elite, as Indiana repeatedly recorded big plays Saturday night, but the Buckeyes also make too many mistakes on special teams. Quarterback Braxton Miller continues to carry the team and is getting more help from running back Carlos Hyde, who recorded his second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. The offense can do little wrong, but Ohio State has to fix the defense before the home stretch.
2. Michigan (4-2, 2-0, last week: 2): Big Ten play is bringing out the best in Michigan, which has turned things up a notch on defense and let Denard Robinson do special things with the football in his hands. Robinson has been spectacular in wins against Purdue and Illinois, and Greg Mattison's defense certainly is turning a corner after struggling against Alabama and Air Force to open the season. The Wolverines also got running back Fitz Toussaint more involved against the Illini. Michigan aims for its first Legends Division win and its first win against Michigan State since 2007 when its hosts the sputtering Spartans this week.
3. Penn State (4-2, 2-0, last week: 3): One of the Big Ten's hottest teams got a chance to exhale during the open week. Penn State now begins what coach Bill O'Brien called "murderer's row" on Saturday night at Iowa. The Lions then host Ohio State before visiting both Purdue and Nebraska. It'll be interesting to see if QB Matt McGloin, linebacker Michael Mauti and the Lions can keep up their winning ways, as they've exceeded expectations to date. Running back Bill Belton could see an increased role going forward as the open week gave him extra time to rest his ankle.
4. Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1, last week: 6): As Bret Bielema would say, the "arrow is pointed up" in Badger Country. Wisconsin delivered its most complete performance of the season in a crucial Leaders Division road game at Purdue, thrashing the Boilers 38-14 and racking up a very Badger-like 467 rushing yards. Senior running back Montee Ball gashed the Boilers for a career-high 247 yards and three touchdowns, looking very much like a national awards candidate again. It's hard to see Wisconsin not making it back to Indianapolis. The Badgers now return home for Minnesota and then Michigan State.
5. Northwestern (6-1, 2-1, last week: 5): It wasn't pretty, but road wins in the league don't have to be. You take them and move forward. Northwestern's defense stepped up in the fourth quarter at Minnesota and Venric Mark's running sparked the Wildcats to a 21-10 lead. The Wildcats need to figure out their quarterback rotation and rediscover their pass game in a hurry, but they're bowl-eligible for the sixth consecutive season and return home for key division games against both Nebraska and Iowa. If the offense can get on track again, Northwestern will challenge for the division title.
6. Nebraska (4-2, 1-1, last week: 4): Bo Pelini and the Huskers got an extra week to stew after surrendering 63 points to Ohio State in Columbus. Pelini chalked up the defense's woes to poor execution, but Nebraska had to take a hard look in the mirror after its latest poor showing against the spread. Speaking of the spread, the Huskers' next two opponents -- Northwestern and Michigan -- run the system on offense, so we'll find out soon if things have been fixed. Pelini talked about the need to win out after the Ohio State disaster, and Nebraska should have top running back Rex Burkhead back this week in Evanston.
7. Iowa (4-2, 2-0, last week: 9): Did you write off Iowa after the Central Michigan debacle? You're not alone. But Kirk Ferentz, his assistants and his players have turned their season around with back-to-back wins in the division. Defense and special teams fueled Saturday's come-from-behind win in two overtimes at Michigan State. The no-name defensive line continues to step up, and Iowa's linebackers have played extremely well in the first two league contests. Quarterback James Vandenberg still needs to get on track, but running back Mark Weisman keeps producing. Iowa hosts Penn State this week in a battle of two teams unbeaten in league play.
8. Michigan State (4-3, 1-2, last week: 7): The Spartans probably deserve to fall more than a spot after their third home loss of the season, but the teams below them have been even worse. No Big Ten team has been more disappointing, relative to expectations, than Mark Dantonio's bunch, which has been a mess on offense -- aside from Le'Veon Bell -- and seems to lack the killer instinct it had the past two seasons. The defense still looks elite at times, but the offensive line and quarterback Andrew Maxwell haven't been consistent. Michigan State needs to find itself in some very tough venues -- Michigan Stadium, Camp Randall Stadium -- to turn things around.
9. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2, last week: 10): Minnesota is a different team, a more dangerous team, when senior quarterback MarQueis Gray is on the field. Had Gray stayed on the field for the entire game against Northwestern, Minnesota might have come out with a victory. The Gophers ultimately made too many mistakes to win, and their start to the game was a disappointment after they had two weeks to prepare. But if Gray can get healthy, Minnesota has some other components in place, namely a solid pass defense, to rack up at least two more wins and reach bowl eligibility.
10. Indiana (2-4, 0-3, last week: 11): It's rare when a team moves up the power rankings after a loss, but Indiana has impressed a lot of people with its play early in the Big Ten season, even though the wins aren't coming. The Hoosiers refused to quit Saturday night against Ohio State and racked up 49 points and 481 yards against the Buckeyes. Had a bounce gone IU's way on the final onside kick, it would have been in position for a program-changing win. The formula for the Hoosiers remains the same -- all offense, not enough defense -- but second-year coach Kevin Wilson is fostering a gradual change in Bloomington.
11. Purdue (3-3, 0-2, last week: 8): Another signature home game, another flop for Danny Hope's Boilers and another drop in the power rankings. Hope and his team are in big trouble after getting dominated by Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks at Ross-Ade Stadium. Where is the Purdue defense that contained Notre Dame? The Boilers have been gashed for 771 rush yards the past two weeks, and their quarterback situation remains messy heading to Ohio State. Hope is definitely on the hot seat now as his supposed best team hasn't looked the part.
12. Illinois (2-5, 0-3, last week: 12): Tim Beckman's team soon will make an appearance in the "Bottom 10" after its latest blowout loss, this time a 45-0 shutout at the Big House. Illinois' offense is inefficient with Nathan Scheelhaase, but totally hopeless without him, as evidenced Saturday against Michigan (134 total yards, one first down in second half). The Illini have been outscored 163-45 in their past four games. A defense that includes several NFL prospects hasn't been much better, particularly against the run. An open week comes at a good time for a program that has to be losing faith after the past month.
Not surprisingly, this was the Robinson quote that made the rounds nationally after Michigan's 13-6 loss to Notre Dame. While the Michigan senior quarterback merely confirmed what everyone who watched the game had been thinking, he publicly took accountability for a horrific evening in which he committed five turnovers -- four first-half interceptions and then a fumble in the red zone as Michigan tried to mount a comeback in the third quarter. After two signature performances against the Irish, Robinson finished his career against Notre Dame with a thud.
A different Robinson quote flew under the radar after the game, one that might puzzle you at first but end up making sense when assessing Michigan's quest for a Big Ten championship.
"I should have just played a role," Robinson said. "Just a role. I'm a role player sometimes."
Robinson has been Michigan's main event for the past three seasons. He never leaves the spotlight, whether he's zooming past doomed defenders for long touchdown runs or throwing jump balls to the opposing secondary. The Big Ten doesn't have a more recognizable player in college football. President Obama has yet to drop Braxton Miller's or Montee Ball's name in a speech, as he did Robinson's in January at Michigan.
But Robinson has been a player of extremes throughout his time in a winged helmet. We've seen Good Denard and Bad Denard, Clutch Denard and Bang-Your-Head-Against-A-Wall Denard -- sometimes, all in the same game. It's why we can't take our eyes off of him. It's why he can commit four first-half turnovers and not worry at all about being benched.
Every snap Robinson takes can be a defining play -- for either team.
He has delivered highlights and records by the bunches. And also interceptions, 38 in three-plus seasons. He never had thrown four picks in a game before Notre Dame, but he had been close. Several Big Ten coaches whose teams picked off Robinson multiple times told me their squads should have had several more against No. 16.
Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg tweeted Sept. 22, "I doubt any player in college football history has played as great and as poorly against one team as Denard Robinson against Notre Dame." But in many ways, Robinson's career against the Irish encapsulated who he has been at Michigan.
The Wolverines have ridden the roller-coaster "Unlaced" for more than three years. But the wild ride doesn't lead to Indianapolis.
Michigan's top goal of a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl remains very much on the table despite its 2-2 start. Robinson's miscues in South Bend overshadowed some positive developments from the Wolverines that suggest they'll be right in the mix for a Legends Division title. The defense shut down Notre Dame for most of the game, seeming to turn a corner around the same time it did last season. The offensive line began imposing its will in the second half, as running back Fitz Toussaint racked up 56 of his 58 rush yards in the final 30 minutes.
In this year's Big Ten, where there's no dominant team and two ineligible ones, a stout defense and a serviceable running game can take you a long way. But one of football's undeniable truths is that turnovers will kill you. Michigan was extremely fortunate to win 11 games in 2011 despite 15 interceptions from Robinson. He's already ahead of last year's picks pace. As good as Robinson can be, Michigan cannot live with the bad and expect to win a league championship.
What's the solution? Maybe Robinson needs to become less of a difference-maker and more of a role player, as he said after the Notre Dame game. This new role doesn't preclude him from breaking free for a long touchdown run or making clutch throws in the fourth quarter. But Michigan needs consistency and reliability at quarterback. The Wolverines can survive with some non-spectacular performances from Robinson, as long as they don't include turnover binges.
Will Michigan need Robinson to win a big game or two to claim a Big Ten title? Perhaps. But the Wolverines could be good enough elsewhere to get by with some solid stat lines from their quarterback.
Whether Robinson can play the new role and go from a man of extremes to a steady senior remains to be seen. He showed glimpses of growth toward the end of the 2011 regular season, although he struggled in the Sugar Bowl and was repeatedly bailed out by receiver Junior Hemingway.
Robinson and the Wolverines resume play Saturday at Purdue in a huge game for both teams. We'll find out a lot about how he responds from the Notre Dame nightmare.
The wild ride has been fun, but a Big Ten title will be more fun for Michigan.
To get to Indianapolis, Robinson must take the road less traveled -- one with fewer bumps along the way.
It's our final regular-season chance to
The Week 4 slate isn't very appetizing, although the three prime-time games, especially the one in South Bend, should fill you up. Both bloggers rebounded from the Week 2 debacle to go 10-2 last week, but we're both seeking our first perfect predictions performance of the 2012 season.
Let's get started ...
UAB at No. 16 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: The Buckeyes should enjoy a laugher against a bad UAB team before Big Ten play starts. Braxton Miller racks up three touchdowns before getting an early rest, and the defense comes up with a pick-six. ... Ohio State 45, UAB 14
Adam Rittenberg: UAB ranks 109th nationally in rush defense, so it can load up all it wants against Miller, and he'll still go nuts with 120 yards and two scores. I actually think Buckeyes running back Jordan Hall has a bit of a breakout game in this one as Ohio State starts fast and avoids the mid-game lull, while the defense produces only one takeaway but also very few missed tackles. ... Ohio State 41, UAB 10
UTEP at WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: Is this the week Wisconsin finally gets it together? I'll go out on a limb and say sorta. The Badgers start slowly again but gain confidence after new starting quarterback Joel Stave finds wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown pass. Montee Ball, James White and the run game then get going against a shaky Miners rush defense. ... Wisconsin 31, UTEP 17
Brian Bennett: Baby steps, Badgers, baby steps. Still not sold on this offense, especially against a UTEP team that did manage to hold Oklahoma to 24 points. Wisconsin once again leans on its defense, and the Stave/Danny O'Brien debate rages on as both play and have middling stats. ... Wisconsin 24, UTEP 10
CENTRAL MICHIGAN at IOWA
Brian Bennett: Who steps up at running back for Iowa this week? The lead trombonist in the marching band? It shouldn't matter much against Central Michigan, as the Hawkeyes start to get back on track offensively. James Vandenberg finds Kevonte Martin-Manley for two scores, and the Mark Weisman legend grows. ... Iowa 31, Central Michigan 14
Adam Rittenberg: More Weisman? Yes, please. Central Michigan gets a heavy dose of the walk-on fullback, who records another 100-yard performance. Iowa's defense records two takeaways against the Chippewas, including a pick-six, and pulls away in the third quarter. ... Iowa 31, Central Michigan 17
SOUTH DAKOTA at NORTHWESTERN
Adam Rittenberg: South Dakota beat Minnesota in 2010 and isn't a pushover, but Pat Fitzgerald has his Wildcats locked in and looking to improve. Expect a big day from running backs Mike Trumpy and Venric Mark, who combine for 250 rush yards and three touchdowns. Northwestern's wide receivers also step up as the team improves to 4-0. ... Northwestern 38, South Dakota 13
Brian Bennett: These Coyotes may be wily, but they can't keep up with a Northwestern team brimming with confidence right now. I see a big game from Kain Colter coming -- 300 total yards and a couple of scores. The Wildcats keep on winning, this time easily. ... Northwestern 35, South Dakota 16
EASTERN MICHIGAN at No. 21 MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Le'Veon Bell promised he would not let Michigan State lose again after the Notre Dame debacle. An angry Bell is the last thing the nation's worst rush defense wants to see. Bell goes for 150 and two scores -- in the first half -- and the Spartans take out some frustration on EMU. ... Michigan State 49, Eastern Michigan 3
Adam Rittenberg: This is the perfect opponent for Michigan State to re-establish its offensive identity with Bell. As we saw last week at Purdue, the Eagles can't stop the run at all, and Bell goes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. DeAnthony Arnett gets more involved in the pass game with a touchdown catch as the Spartans roll. ... Michigan State 37, Eastern Michigan 6
IDAHO STATE at No. 25 NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: Superman (Rex Burkhead) returns and breaks off a big run early to show Huskers fans he's just fine. The coaches wisely don't overdo it with No. 22, and Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross combine for 300 rush yards and four scores. Nebraska breezes through its final tune-up before Big Ten play. ... Nebraska 49, Idaho State 7
Brian Bennett: What, you weren't impressed with Idaho State's win over Black Hill State last week? The Cornhuskers make mashed potatoes out of the Vandals on both sides of the ball. Taylor Martinez completes 13 of 15 passes and throws two scores and a bevy of backs finds the end zone in a romp to welcome back Bo and Rex. ... Nebraska 56, Idaho State 10
TEMPLE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I could see this one going either way. But I think Penn State got some much-needed confidence in the Navy win, and Temple's loss to Maryland was less than inspiring. Michael Mauti won't let the Lions lose to the Owls for the first time since 1941 and comes up with a key interception late to seal a close one. ... Penn State 21, Temple 19
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State players expect a close game and get one, at least early, from the upset-minded Owls. But there will be no history made Saturday as Mauti turns in another big performance against Temple, recording four tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Quarterback Matt McGloin has a few struggles early but steps up in the fourth quarter as Penn State prevails. ... Penn State 24, Temple 16
No. 18 MICHIGAN at No. 11 NOTRE DAME
Adam Rittenberg: Denard Robinson once again keeps Michigan in the game, but Notre Dame refuses to lose this time and capitalizes on its advantages at the line of scrimmage. Manti Te'o and the Irish defense bottle up Robinson in the fourth quarter and Michigan squanders an early lead as Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood has a big day on the ground. ... Notre Dame 27, Michigan 20
Brian Bennett: Everything is pointing in Notre Dame's direction for this one ... except that it's Michigan and Robinson on the other sideline. No. 16 has huge game No. 3 against the Irish and actually gets some help this time from Fitz Toussaint and a couple of big catches by Devin Funchess. ... Michigan 28, Notre Dame 24
SYRACUSE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: Love the 3-0 start by the Gophers, but this is a big step up in competition from the first three games. And while Max Shortell should be fine, Minnesota will miss the playmaking abilities of MarQueis Gray. A late turnover dooms their chances, and Ryan Nassib throws for more than 300 yards as the Gophers get Orange-crushed. ... Syracuse 31, Minnesota 28
Adam Rittenberg: I'm impressed with the Gophers so far, and they'll pick up some wins in the Big Ten. But Syracuse desperately needs this one after a 1-2 start, and Nassib is by far the best quarterback Minnesota has faced. Shortell has some ups and downs in his first start of the season at quarterback, and Nassib rallies the Orange in the fourth quarter for the win. ... Syracuse 28, Minnesota 27
LOUISIANA TECH at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: The Illini defense is better than what it showed at Arizona State, but Illinois hasn't been a lock-down unit against up-tempo spread offenses like Louisiana Tech's. While Nathan Scheelhaase's return at quarterback is an encouraging sign, Illinois has too many injuries and not enough offense to keep pace with the high-powered Bulldogs, who steal one in Champaign. ... Louisiana Tech 31, Illinois 28
Brian Bennett: Very tempted to go with the upset pick, as the Bulldogs' offense, averaging 56 points per game, could go nuts. But the Illini defense will be much tougher than anything Louisiana Tech has seen so far this season. The apparent healthy returns of Scheelhaase and Josh Ferguson should be just enough for Illinois to hold on at home. ... Illinois 28, Louisiana Tech 25
Purdue and Indiana both are off this week.
Rittenberg: 28-8 (.778)
Bennett: 27-9 (.750)
Nick from GoBlueBABY writes: Unlike most of the Michigan faithful I'm not going to be naive and think Michigan is positioned for a repeat of last year. Obviously there are some big question marks about the strength and depth of the O and D line, but I think people are hitting the panic button a little early for Big Blue. I'm a numbers guy and if you look at Michigan's first two games this year compared to last year it's not that different. They allowed 848 yards and 66 points so far this year compared to 792 yards and 41 points last year. However if you look at the turnover margin they were +5 last year compared to -3 this year so there is a need for the defense to step it up and create turnovers and take some pressure off the offense. At this point last year Michigan was unranked and nobody expected them to beat Ohio, get a BCS bowl bid and win, make it to 11 wins, and finish as a top 10 team. Last year's start wasn't pretty but it turned out pretty darn good so isn't it a little early for everyone to be jumping ship?
Brian Bennett: You make some solid points. Michigan's defense was not nearly as good in the first two weeks last year as it would become. Anyone remember the Notre Dame game last year? It really seemed like things started to click last year in the fourth game against San Diego State. I guess the big difference, besides the competition level this year, is that last season was the first under a new coaching staff. Even with new starters, there was an assumption that the Wolverines would be able to pick up where they left off. It's far too soon to write off Michigan, however. This team should be in the thick of the Big Ten race all year long.
The thing that has concerned me ever since the spring is the lack of depth on the lines and what would happen if there were injuries. The Wolverines already appear to be hit harder by injuries this year than they were last season. A lot of freshmen are playing, and it's tough to win the Big Ten with so much youth in key spots.
Adam from Ann Arbor writes: I hate to remind people of last weekend, but I have a question about the B1G playing on the West Coast. I saw an article on NPR today about NFL teams from the East playing on the West coast at night - - turns out over the past 25 years West Coast teams that play east coast teams at night win 70% of the time due, in part, to our natural body clocks. I know this is starting to sound like another excuse, and I'm not excusing the B1G's horrific play, but I was curious if anyone has bothered to conduct a similar study in college sports. College kids keep strange schedules and the effect might be better or worse on them. If there is a similar effect, shouldn't the B1G at least try to schedule day (3:30) games when they go out West (not that it would have helped Wisconsin)?
Brian Bennett: Anyone who has traveled across several time zones can tell you that it takes a while for your body to adjust. It would be naive to think the time change plays no role. But Big Ten teams played at several different times last week out West -- Wisconsin played at 3 p.m. Central time, Nebraska at 6:30 and Illinois at 9:30. And of course all three lost, with the Illini looking the most listless. College students should have more energy than pro players in their 30s, and charter flights make the trips more manageable. I'm not sure how much of an excuse the Big Ten can make for that showing last week. Oh, and Cal will be at a potentially bigger disadvantage this week at Ohio State, playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time.
Nathan from Denver writes: I can understand the reactions to the B1G losses this weekend. And maybe this is the weakest the conference has been in several years. My concern is for the Spartans, who no one seems to be taking very seriously. Will the bad view of the B1G, in general, effect MSUs chances of playing the title game if they end the year undeafeated? I truly believe if Maxwell can line things up with the unproven WRs on this team, they will be nearly impossible to beat.
Brian Bennett: While it's too early to be thinking about undefeated seasons, that's an interesting question to ponder. A 13-0 Michigan State team might well suffer from the Big Ten reputation if there are more than two undefeated, major conference contenders out there. If it's a choice between, say, Michigan State, a 13-0 Alabama and a 13-0 USC, then the Spartans wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt (and they started way behind both in the polls). If there is only one undefeated team, a 13-0 Michigan State team would likely make the title game, though you can already imagine the howling and crying if there's a 12-1 SEC champion out there. The Spartans need to root for Boise State and Notre Dame to have strong seasons to bolster their reputation.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.
1. Spartans or bust: With all due respect to Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota, the Big Ten is down to one legitimate remaining BCS title contender after just two weeks. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska have already seen their hopes of an undefeated season vanish. Ohio State technically could win The Associated Press national title, but the probation-saddled Buckeyes can't play for the BCS crown. So Michigan State, which looks like the Big Ten's best team right now, is really the only league team that can hoist the crystal trophy. The Spartans own the league's best nonconference win (the opener over Boise State), an elite defense and a strong running game behind Le'Veon Bell. Their passing game needs more work, but quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his young receivers made some strides in a blowout win over Central Michigan. Michigan State still has a demanding schedule, including next week's game against Notre Dame. But as the only Big Ten power still without a blemish, the Spartans represent the conference's last, best hope for a BCS championship this season.
2. The Leaders Division race is wide open: Hold off on Wisconsin's coronation. The Badgers look completely out of sorts after barely holding on against FCS team Northern Iowa in Week 1 and then nearly getting shut out in a loss at Oregon State in Week 2. If Wisconsin's offense is going to be that pedestrian, to put it kindly, then Bret Bielema's team no longer looks scary for the rest of the teams in the division. Purdue, even in a loss to Notre Dame, might have had the best performance by a Leaders team Saturday. Illinois got dusted in the desert against Arizona State as its vaunted defense faltered. Indiana is 2-0 but is most likely not ready to contend in the division, especially with quarterback Tre Roberson now out for the year. Ohio State might end up being the best team in the division, but the Buckeyes can't go to Indianapolis. Right now, it's anybody's guess who will represent the Leaders at Lucas Oil Stadium.
4. New coordinators struggling at Wisconsin, Iowa: Both Wisconsin and Iowa went through some significant coaching changes during the offseason, including new offensive coordinators in both Madison (Matt Canada) and Iowa City (Greg Davis). So far, any concerns about the new hires are looking justified. After setting offensive records the past two seasons, Wisconsin came 91 seconds away from being shut out against unranked Oregon State. The Badgers finished with 35 net rush yards and couldn't get Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball going. While the players bear a lot of responsibility, Canada's play calls seemed questionable at best. Iowa's offense also is spinning its wheels under Davis, who took criticism toward the end of his Texas tenure but was supposed to diversify the Hawkeyes' attack. Like Wisconsin, Iowa didn't come alive offensively until the closing moments, and senior quarterback James Vandenberg struggled again with no touchdown passes and two interceptions. Iowa has scored one touchdown through the first two games. Although both Canada and Davis faced some personnel challenges with their offenses, they didn't walk into dire situations, either, particularly Canada. The results so far are extremely disappointing.
5. Braxton Miller needs some help: Urban Meyer doesn't want to overexpose his sophomore quarterback, but the Ohio State coach doesn't have much choice right now. Miller had a whopping 27 carries in Saturday's 31-16 win over Central Florida, rushing for 141 yards. He also threw the ball 24 times. Jordan Hall remains out with an injured foot, and Carlos Hyde left Saturday's game with a knee injury, leaving the Buckeyes without many options at running back. Miller took a few hard hits against UCF, and it's clear that if he has to miss any significant time, the Ohio State offense will nosedive. The Buckeyes have to find some complementary players so Miller can make it through the year. We could say the same about Michigan's Denard Robinson, who accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offensive total against Air Force. But we're pretty sure Fitz Toussaint will contribute more than 7 rushing yards in the near future. The Buckeyes need Hyde or Hall to get healthy or for someone else to emerge as a reliable running mate for Miller.
On Tuesday, Toussaint -- who had been arrested on a DUI charge July 23 -- pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of driving while visibly impaired, a misdemeanor. He will be sentenced Oct. 23.
Hoke has been noncommittal about whether Toussaint, whom he indefinitely suspended following the arrest, would be available for the much-hyped opener. Toussaint was listed as the starting running back on the depth chart the Wolverines released on Monday. On Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Hoke wouldn't even confirm if it would be a game-time decision on Toussaint's status.
Hoke did say Monday that the outcome of Toussaint's court case would have no effect on his decision. But if he wanted to play the running back who ran for more than 1,000 yards last year, he could point to the fact that Toussaint was merely convicted of a misdemeanor.
That doesn't much change the circumstances of Toussaint's poor decision-making, as he was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .12 when stopped by police last month. But Hoke could avoid some of the criticism he might have faced if his starting running back was convicted of a more serious charge just days before he played in the season's first game.
I'm still of the opinion that Toussaint should sit the game out as a reflection of how serious his offense was. But at this point, it would not register as any kind of surprise to see him taking the first handoff for Michigan on Saturday night.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz announced Wednesday afternoon that the sophomore has been dismissed from the team. This comes after Johnson was A) ticketed for maintaining a disorderly house on Thursday -- a charge Ferentz initially laughed off during Big Ten media days -- and then, in his best Cincinnati Bengal impression, B) got in trouble again Saturday when he allegedly sped his motorcyle through a 25 mph zone and failed to pull over right away for cops. (The lessons here, as always: don't speed, and maintain an orderly house!)
Taken alone, neither amounts to much. Put together, they still don't seem to rise to the level of dismissal. Yet we don't know what other things were going on behind the scenes with Johnson, and Ferentz obviously felt he had seen enough.
Johnson probably wasn't going to be a star at Iowa, but he at least had some experience running the ball for a varsity college team, which is more than just about any other current Hawkeye can say. Meet your new leading returning, healthy ball carrier, Iowa fans: Jason White, who had a whopping seven carries for 32 yards in 2011 (just edging out Damon Bullock, who had 10 attempts for 20 yards last year).
Now, Ferentz has those two guys and incoming freshmen Barkley Hill and Greg Garmon -- and maybe sophomore Jordan Canzeri if he makes a miracle recovery from his torn ACL. There are also rumors that Penn State signee Akeel Lynch is thinking about transferring to the Hawkeyes. Of course, such a development would constitute good news at the running back position for Iowa, so we should be immediately skeptical.
It's overkill at this point to rehash all the problems that Iowa's tailbacks have endured. But let's also point out that it has not been a very good offseason for Big Ten running backs in general.
There was the awful news about Montee Ball today. Michigan's Fitz Toussaint got busted for DUI and was then suspended. Silas Redd left Penn State for USC. Johnson got kicked off Iowa, and Garmon's fate was shaky when he was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. Ohio State's Jordan Hall hurt his foot and could miss the start of the season, while Bri'onte Dunn made headlines with a traffic stop. Purdue's Ralph Bolden got arrested for allegedly forcing a kiss on a woman at a bar.
Geez. Can we start practicing already?
As we all know, the 1,000-yard mark has long been the measuring stick for running backs. Getting there is not quite as tough as it used to be. If a team makes a bowl and plays 13 games, a running back only has to average a little less than 77 yards per game to get into quadruple figures. Still, it requires staying healthy at a position where one takes a lot of abuse and getting the opportunity for lots of carries.
The Big Ten has always been known as a run-first league, so it's not a big surprise that six players surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in 2011. Of those, five are back, with only Iowa's Marcus Coker (transferred to Stony Brook) departing.
I won't bore you by listing guys like Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, Michigan's Fitz Toussaint and Penn State's Silas Redd, who seem like mortal locks to rush for 1,000 yards assuming they stay healthy. But here's a look at 10 other players who could challenge for 1,000 yards rushing this year, in order of likelihood:
1. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State: Bell got close last year, rushing for 948 yards despite not taking over full-time carries until midway through the year. He looks primed for a huge year and could be a breakout superstar given his development and an improved Spartans O-line. Count on Bell breaking the 1K mark for the first time in his career.
3. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota: The Gophers' quarterback ran for 966 yards last year despite missing some time. He's athletic and huge, making him a nightmare to tackle down the field. Minnesota expects junior-college transfer James Gillum to help in the running game. But with a still-suspect passing attack, I think Gray could get plenty of opportunities to take off and run.
4. Unnamed Iowa back: Coker was a workhorse for the Hawkeyes last year, and the program has all kinds of misfortune at the position, including Jordan Canzeri's torn anterior cruciate ligament this offseason. So who knows who exactly emerges as a go-to tailback for Iowa? Still, coach Kirk Ferentz likes to run the ball, and I believe someone will end up getting a lot of carries this season. If that happens early enough, it might just equal 1,000 yards.
5. Akeem Shavers, Purdue: Shavers is looking like the top running option for the Boilermakers after a big bowl performance and a strong spring. If Ralph Bolden can't come all the way back from yet another knee injury, Shavers is in line to get the bulk of the carries. But the presence of Bolden, Akeem Hunt and others could mean a running-back-by-committee approach that would hurt the chances of any one back getting to 1,000.
6. Stephen Houston, Indiana: Houston piled up 802 rushing yards despite not arriving until the summer and not being used as the primary back right away. He has the talent to put up big stats in Indiana's offense. But the Hoosiers actually have a lot of depth in the backfield, including a mobile quarterback in Tre Roberson, and that could cut into Houston's carries.
7. Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Miller led the Buckeyes in rushing with 715 yards last season even though he wasn't the starter early on. He ran for at least 90 yards in five games and has great moves in the open field. Miller is likely to pass more in coach Urban Meyer's system, but don't be surprised if he is still running it a lot, too.
8. James White, Wisconsin: White is the only running back on this list who already has a 1,000-yard season under his belt -- he ran for 1,052 as a freshman. His numbers dipped to 713 rushing yards last year as Ball went nuts, and he'll remain the second option this year. But Wisconsin runs it so well that multiple 1,000-yard rushers is a possibility, and White is just a Ball injury away from being the guy behind the Thick Red Line.
9. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska: Martinez has flirted with 1,000 before, going for 965 as a freshman and 874 in 2011. He is a dangerous open-field runner. It seems more likely that he'll run the ball less as Nebraska looks to improve its passing game this season. But he's always a threat to take off.
10. Kain Colter, Northwestern: This is our fourth quarterback on the list already, which gives you an idea of how many mobile QBs there are in this league. Colter ran for 654 yards while filling a variety of roles for the Wildcats last season and should be the full-time starting quarterback this season. He's a great athlete. The only question is how much Northwestern will want to keep him in the pocket with a deep receiving corps supporting him.
"I definitely see myself as a leader," junior left tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com. "I want to be one of the main guys that really helps through all the successes and all the bad things. I want that to be put on myself.
"I'm the left tackle, the blind side. They made a movie about it. So it's my job to be a leader."
But leadership is something new for Lewan, who's trying to shed some of his old labels for new and improved ones. Those who know him best noticed a major difference this spring.
"Taylor has just gotten more serious," said defensive lineman Craig Roh, who graduated from the same Scottsdale, Ariz., high school as Lewan. "For example, he's doing a diet now, and every Sunday he goes grocery shopping so he can make his own food. That may not seem like much, but for a college guy that's a lot. I just see him concentrating on things that matter more."
There's much at stake this year for Lewan. He'll be blocking for a potentially highly potent offense led by Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint as Michigan likely begins the season in the top 10. And a great year could have Lewan positioned to enter the 2012 NFL draft.
In his first 2013 Big Board , ESPN.com's Mel Kiper Jr. pegged Lewan as the No. 2 tackle and No. 12 prospect overall for next year's draft. Kiper said the 6-foot-8, 302-pounder "will get the Jake Long comparisons all year in Ann Arbor" and has "elite length and athleticism for the position."
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges agrees with that assessment.
"If Taylor works hard, stays concentrated and maintains focus, he can be very, very good," Borges said. "That's really his story. If he's focused, there isn't anything we ask him to do that he can't do."
Staying focused and disciplined has been a challenge at times. In his first two years of starting, Lewan has too often been a magnet for yellow flags. He cut down his penalties in the second half of last year but still drew three personal fouls, most famously getting tangled up with Michigan State's William Gholston several times before Gholston finally tried to punch Lewan, earning the Spartans' defensive end a one-game suspension.
He has also served as the team's resident comedian, cracking jokes and using his outgoing personality to keep things light. But Lewan says he has learned now when to have fun and when to get down to business.
"I think it's really a maturity thing," he said. "I'm 20 years old now, but I came into college when I was 17. I don't want to put it all on that or anything, but it's really just maturing.
"When I'm here in the building, football is No. 1. It's kind of one of those switches you have to turn on. I turn off all the joking."
Much of Michigan's fortunes may depend on the health of Robinson and Toussaint. Safeguarding them is a job Lewan takes very seriously.
"I'd rather be the guy who gets injured and plays with a broken wrist or something rather than them, because they're the ones running the ball," he said. "I can play with pain, but I don't want them to have to. Every part of my game needs to improve so that doesn't happen."
Lewan hasn't become a total killjoy. This spring, he bought a tandem bike that he could ride to practice, and teammates clamored to join him on it. The sight of the 300-pounder and another hulking football player on a bicycle built for two caused a lot of double-takes around campus.
"He's still Taylor," Roh said. "He's just not as much of a clown."
A focused Lewan could stake a claim as the best lineman in the Big Ten in 2012. And that's no joke.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State