NCF Nation: Greg Middleton

Indiana defensive coordinator Doug Mallory is looking for a few good men this spring. Actually, more than a few.

Mallory isn't necessarily seeking the next standout player (although he wouldn't complain if he found one). The Hoosiers' defense has had productive individuals over the years, from cornerback Tracy Porter to defensive linemen Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, to defensive tackle Adam Replogle. Last fall, Replogle put up huge numbers for an interior lineman (13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles, 71 total tackles). Safety Greg Heban (91 tackles, three interceptions, seven tackles for loss) and linebacker David Cooper (86 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks) also had strong statistical seasons.

[+] EnlargeAdam Replogle
AP Photo/Darron CummingsIndiana defensive tackle Adam Replogle had 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season.
But the unit still struggled, finishing 103rd nationally in yards allowed, 101st in points allowed and 116th against the run. The cumulative results were all too typical for a defense that has struggled for more than a decade because of its lack of depth.

"It can't be the same guy out there every single play of the game, every play of the season," Mallory told ESPN.com. "We've got to be able to have some guys come in and contribute, whether it's 10, 20, 30 plays a game, guys who give us a little bit better depth."

The Hoosiers are looking for numbers this spring, at least 22 defenders who Mallory can feel confident about sending onto the field this coming season. IU's offense took a significant step in coach Kevin Wilson's second year and should be one of the Big Ten's most explosive units in 2013.

But for Indiana to take a step as a program -- toward winning records and bowl appearances -- its defensive depth must improve substantially. Although it's not ideal that three projected starters -- Cooper and fellow linebacker Chase Hoobler, and safety Mark Murphy -- are now sidelined this spring, it's more important to get others up to speed.

"We're trying to see more competition, more guys putting themselves in position to compete," Mallory said. "With all these guys coming back, that's great, but we were not very good a year ago, so that could be a positive and it could also be a negative. We've got to make major strides and do a better job as coaches and as players defending the run, stopping the run and being a lot more physical on defense."

Mallory has made it clear to the players that there are "no starters" this spring. Players move between the first-, second- and third-teams from practice to practice, depending on performance, and sometimes even within a single workout.

"The worse you are, the further you fall on that depth chart," Mallory said. "Kids understand that."

Mallory has been impressed by cornerback Kenny Mullen, who started the final five games in 2012. Defensive end Bobby Richardson, a reserve last fall, also has stood out as IU must replace two starters up front.

Help is on the way as Indiana significantly elevated its defensive recruiting efforts for the 2013 class. Six of IU's seven highest-rated recruits, according to RecruitingNation, will play defense, including ESPN 150 defensive back Rashard Fant, and linemen Darius Latham and David Kenney III.

"On paper, it definitely looks like a good class," Mallory said. "We're looking forward to getting those guys here, and they'll get in here and compete. You certainly want to be quality two-deep and hope that your incoming class are guys that can help you get three-deep."
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:

ILLINOIS

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.
INDIANA

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.
IOWA

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.
MICHIGAN

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.
MICHIGAN STATE

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.
MINNESOTA

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.
NORTHWESTERN

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.
OHIO STATE

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.
PENN STATE

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.
PURDUE

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.
WISCONSIN

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.
Tags:

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

Despite another disappointing record (4-8) in 2009, Indiana finished the season with several reasons to believe things will get better soon.

Those reasons could be found in Indiana's offensive meeting room.

[+] EnlargeMitchell Evans
AJ Mast/Icon SMIMitchell Evans is one of several players who lined up on offense last season but could be on defense in 2010.
From quarterback Ben Chappell to wide receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher to running back Darius Willis, Indiana boasted plenty of weapons to attack its opponents. And for the most part, they're all coming back in 2010, as the Hoosiers lose only three offensive starters, two of whom played on the line.

But offensive firepower rarely is the problem at Indiana. Defensive struggles have doomed the Hoosiers for the last decade, as they finished no better than 71st nationally since 2000. Despite a veteran-laden unit in 2009, Indiana ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (29.5 points per game), ninth against the pass (241.9 yards per game), ninth against the run (159.1 ypg) and 10th in total yards allowed (401 ypg).

The Hoosiers also lose seven starters on defense, including All-Big Ten end Jammie Kirlew, former national sacks leader Greg Middleton, standout middle linebacker Matt Mayberry and three-fourths of the secondary. Even if IU lights up the scoreboard in 2010, it could have major problems stopping anyone on defense.

That's why head coach Bill Lynch plans to move several offensive players to defense, including versatile wide receiver Mitchell Evans.

Recruited as a quarterback and a safety, Evans began his college career at safety, moved to quarterback for preseason camp in 2008 and eventually switched to wide receiver. He ranked fourth on the team with 33 receptions for 366 yards and three touchdowns in 2009, but he was perhaps best known for being the trigger man on the Wildcat offense, or, as Indiana folks called it, the Wild-Mitch. Evans took 69 snaps in the Wild-Mitch and rushed for 131 yards on 32 attempts.

This fall, Evans will be patrolling the secondary as a safety.

"He played safety for us as a true freshman," Lynch told me last week. "We're looking at some other guys that we may move to compete at corner and see how they do, knowing that they could go back to offense if it didn't work out."

Last year, wide receiver Ray Fisher moved to cornerback and became Indiana's top cover man. Fisher still contributed on kick returns, recording two runbacks for touchdowns. Evans also could maintain a role on offense, even though he'd be primarily a defensive player.

"He's the kind of kid that could [play both ways]," Lynch said. "It takes a mature guy that's a quick learner and doesn't need a lot of reps, and he's one of those kinds of guys. He's very unique that way."

Wide receiver Matt Ernest, who played safety in high school, also will switch over to defense for 2010. Indiana expects two junior college players, Andre Kates and Lenyatta Kiles, to fill in at cornerback.

"We don't want to count on freshmen coming in and doing it," Lynch said. "Kates and Kiles will compete right away, and then the next step is some of the guys we're going to move this spring."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Happy Halloween from Kinnick Stadium, where No. 4 Iowa tries to continue its perfect season today against Indiana (ESPN, noon ET).

I dressed up as a sportswriter. How about you?

Iowa leads the all-time series, 39-27-4, though Indiana has won two of the last three meetings.

I'm excited to finally see Indiana in person, as the Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team I haven't seen live since starting this job.

The sun is shining and temperatures will hover in the mid to upper 40s, but the wind likely will be a factor as it's blowing at 15-20 miles an hour. Should be a fun day for the specialists.

Injuries: Indiana's injury report can be found here. Starting outside linebacker Will Patterson is expected to return from a hand injury, while cornerback Donnell Jones also returns to the lineup. Iowa will be playing its first game without leading rusher Adam Robinson, out for the rest of the regular season with an ankle sprain. True freshman Brandon Wegher makes his first career start at running back, and Iowa could be using two more freshman, Brad Rogers and Josh Brown, for the first time this season. Iowa also will replace starting right guard Dace Richardson (broken leg) with Julian Vandervelde. It will also be interesting to see how safety Brett Greenwood and wide receiver Colin Sandeman respond after absorbing big hits in last week's win against Michigan State.

THREE KEYS FOR INDIANA

1. Pressure Ricky Stanzi: Iowa is shorthanded at running back and likely will look to throw often, so Indiana must pressure Stanzi with talented defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. The Hawkeyes' offensive line hasn't been all that great at preventing sacks, and Kirlew, who has 5.5 sacks this season, needs to have a big day.

2. Hit home runs on offense: The Hoosiers can't expect many sustained drives against Iowa, but they have enough big-play ability to test the Hawkeyes' defense. Running back Darius Willis can take it to the house if he gets in the open field, and wideouts Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher can stretch the field.

3. Hang in there: Iowa hasn't blown out anybody at home and will let teams hang around. Indiana must limit turnovers and major mistakes, play field position and force a few miscues from Stanzi. Despite Iowa's clutch play this season, the Hawkeyes can only play with fire for so long.

THREE KEYS FOR IOWA

1. Get the run game going: Everyone wants to know how Iowa will respond without Robinson, so getting Wegher some early confidence will be key. Wegher hasn't taken on a full load of carries this season, but he boasts breakaway ability around the edges.

2. Attack downfield with Moeaki, McNutt and DJK: Indiana's secondary is vulnerable, and Stanzi has been at his best when attacking down the field. Iowa must force Indiana's linebackers to chase tight end Tony Moeaki, and wideouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos should be able to create some separation.

3. Put a team away if the opportunity is there: Winning close games on the road are great, but Iowa has failed to pull away from Northern Iowa, Arkansas State and Michigan on its home field. If the Hawkeyes get up early on Indiana, they must put the Hoosiers away. Iowa could really use a fourth quarter without much drama right about now.

Big Ten picks: Week 6

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
11:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com'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 ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Can you believe it's October already? Here are 10 things you don't want to miss this weekend.

Finally hitting the road -- Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State hit the road for the first time this season after enjoying varied degrees of success on their home fields. Fearless freshman quarterback Tate Forcier leads undefeated Michigan into East Lansing, where Michigan State desperately needs a win. Wisconsin has retained Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2004 but puts its perfect record on the line at the new TCF Bank Stadium. Quarterback Daryll Clark and Penn State try to rebound from a tough loss against floundering Illinois in Champaign.

Spartans, Illini seek season-saving upsets -- Pegged as upper-tier Big Ten teams before the season, Michigan State and Illinois have combined for zero victories against FBS opponents. If things turn around, it needs to happen Saturday as both the Spartans and the Illini host ranked opponents. Michigan State has to fix its problems in the secondary against Forcier and the league's top scoring offense (37.5 ppg). The challenge for Illinois seems much greater, but if Juice Williams and his wide receivers finally get in sync, they can make plays against an untested Penn State secondary.

Stanzi hunts for Wolves -- Iowa will eventually need Ricky Stanzi to win a tough game or two, and this must be the week that the junior quarterback and his wide receivers get on track. Stanzi's first-half struggles are well documented, but he should be able to get comfortable against an Arkansas State defense that ranks 102nd nationally against the pass (256.7 ypg). Wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos seemed to move well at Penn State and could have a big day against the Red Wolves. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga has been medically cleared and could provide a big boost up front.

Buckeyes try to continue shutout streak -- Ohio State hasn't allowed a point since the final stages of its loss to USC, and the self-proclaimed no-name defense aims for another big performance at Indiana. The Buckeyes haven't shut out three consecutive opponents since 1973, when they blanked Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan State by a combined score of 125-0. Ohio State also can extend its Big Ten road win streak to 16 games.

On suspension alert -- Anyone want to start a pool on who the Big Ten will suspend next? The league has suspended three players in the last three weeks for various on-field actions that violated Big Ten or NCAA policies. Ohio State will be without star safety Kurt Coleman against Indiana after the senior received a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit. It will be interesting to see if there are fewer conduct issues this weekend. Big Ten coaches know the league will be watching closely.

(Read full post)

Big Ten picks: Week 4

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
9:02
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


It was another mostly forgettable week for the Big Ten and my picks, as I went 7-3. At least the Iowa-Arizona and Minnesota-Cal scores were close.

As Big Ten play kicks off Saturday, here's hoping for better results all around.

Michigan 33, Indiana 17 -- The Hoosiers' improved defense could keep this close for a while, especially if defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton put pressure on Tate Forcier. But Indiana hasn't faced a team boasting Michigan's talent and speed, and the Wolverines have too many playmakers. Running back Carlos Brown has another big day as Michigan pulls away in the second half.

Michigan State 30, Wisconsin 27 -- A tough call here, but I'm going with the more desperate team. Michigan State simply can't afford to start 1-3, and the Spartans' defense will pick things up behind linebacker Greg Jones after two lackluster performances. Kirk Cousins comes back strong after last week's late stumble and leads Michigan State to the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

Northwestern 26, Minnesota 24 -- This could be the week that the Gophers' offense catches fire, especially against a suspect Northwestern defense. But Minnesota's continued problems in the run game are a red flag, especially on the road. Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker has another huge day, but Northwestern gets a little healthier on defense and contains the run. Quarterback Mike Kafka leads the decisive drive after falling short last week.

Ohio State 31, Illinois 20 -- The Illini will finally have their entire offense together, but Ohio State's defense seems to be hitting its stride. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn make plays, but Terrelle Pryor has a bigger day against an Illinois defense missing Martez Wilson. Ohio State beats Illinois at home for just the fourth time in the last 11 meetings.

Penn State 21, Iowa 17 -- Both teams have accomplished quarterbacks, suspect offensive lines and ferocious defensive fronts. Iowa has been tested more than Penn State, but the Lions are at home at night, which usually works in their favor. This was a very tough one to call, but I just can't see Daryll Clark letting Penn State lose this one, especially after how he struggled last year in Iowa City.

Purdue 35, Notre Dame 31 -- I can't really figure out Purdue, but the Boilers have weapons on offense and Notre Dame's defense is nothing special. Plus, the Fighting Irish will be without standout wide receiver Michael Floyd, while Purdue's secondary gets healthier with the return of cornerback Brandon King. The Boilers' season gets wackier as Ralph Bolden runs wild in a fairly major upset.

Season record -- 25-7 (.781)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Conference play kicks off on Saturday, and here are 10 things you don't want to miss.

1. Health in Happy Valley -- Both Penn State and Iowa could be without key players when they meet Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Nittany Lions star linebacker Sean Lee (knee) is iffy for the game and Navorro Bowman (groin) likely won't be 100 percent, putting a lot of pressure on Josh Hull and Nate Stupar. Iowa could once again be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness), while pass-catching threats Tony Moeaki (ankle) and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring) are questionable.

2. Illinois hopes The Shoe fits -- After a bye week, the Illini make their first trip to Ohio Stadium since shocking the top-ranked Buckeyes back in 2007. With a brutal stretch of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, the Illini need another minor miracle against a tough Buckeyes defense. Illinois' high-powered offense is finally healthy, while the defense plays its first game without starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck, out for season).

3. Spartans face must win -- Like Illinois, Michigan State can't afford a prolonged losing streak to open conference play. The Spartans have dropped back-to-back close games, and they now head to Wisconsin, where the Badgers rarely lose. Head coach Mark Dantonio still likes his team's poise in defeat, and quarterback Kirk Cousins handled the Notre Dame loss extremely well, but the Spartans need to get over the hump and win. Cousins' response against a vulnerable Wisconsin defense will be key, and Michigan State's defense needs to step up against the Badgers' rushing attack.

4. IU turns up the heat in the Big House -- Indiana is off to a surprising 3-0 start, but the Hoosiers are three-touchdown underdogs heading to Michigan. To have any shot at an upset, Indiana needs standout defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton to harass Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier all game long. Kirlew and Middleton have combined for 40 career sacks, the most for any tandem in the FBS, and both have to make plays to slow down Michigan's offense.

5. Boilers run game tries to get back on track -- After being shut down by Northern Illinois, sophomore running back Ralph Bolden and the Purdue offense try to rebound against Notre Dame, which ranks 74th nationally against the rush (149.3 ypg). The Irish offense won't be quite as explosive with Michael Floyd out and Jimmy Clausen a bit hobbled, but Purdue will need to put up points like it did in Weeks 1 and 2 to keep pace. Quarterback Joey Elliott wants to revive the downfield passing attack, but he refuses to abandon the run.

6. Clark vs. Stanzi -- The Penn State-Iowa game features a fascinating matchup at quarterback. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi prevailed last year in a game where he began a trend of slow starts and fast finishes. Stanzi really struggled in the first half before leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He has followed a similar pattern this year but likely can't afford to make the same early mistakes in Happy Valley. Clark was still battling the effects of a concussion and really struggled at Kinnick Stadium, completing just 9 of 23 passes with an interception. The senior will be determined to bounce back Saturday night.

7. Northwestern's defense vs. Decker -- Wide receiver Eric Decker has done it all for Minnesota's offense to this point, and he'll look for another big day in Evanston. Northwestern had no answer for Syracuse star wideout Mike Williams last week, but the Wildcats should get top cover corner Sherrick McManis back from a leg injury. Decker could be limited by a sprained ankle, and Minnesota needs to spark its rushing attack, which ranks last in the Big Ten (85.7 ypg). Northwestern has struggled with tackling and fundamentals so far, so the unit that gets on track Saturday likely will prevail.

8. Pryor vs. Juice -- Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Illinois' Juice Williams both came to college amid lofty expectations. Both were thrust into starting roles as true freshmen and endured their ups and downs. The two talented quarterbacks meet at Ohio Stadium in a key game for both teams. Pryor performed well last year at Illinois (110 rush yards on 13 carries), while Williams had a career day in his last trip to Columbus (4 TD passes). "There’s a lot of similarities," Williams said. "Last year he did a great job of leading his team to the Fiesta Bowl. He did an extraordinary job. This year, he just got better. ... It’s hard to play against another great player."

9. Wisconsin's revolving door at running back -- It seems like the Badgers' situation at running back changes every week. Zach Brown was a surprise starter for the season opener, while John Clay leapfrogged him after the Fresno State game. But Clay's three fumbles (one lost) last week against FCS Wofford put Brown back on the top of the depth chart. Both Brown and Clay will compete for carries this week, and it'll be interesting to see who emerges against the Spartans, who rank 25th nationally against the run (87 ypg).

10. Lions, Buckeyes try to change history -- It's hard to explain why certain teams fare better against others, and Big Ten title contenders Penn State and Ohio State both face tricky tests Saturday. Penn State has dropped six of its last seven meetings to Iowa, including last year's last-second loss at Kinnick Stadium. Ohio State has dropped seven of its last 10 home games against Illinois, including three of the last four. Will history repeat or be rewritten Saturday? Stay tuned.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Indiana defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton don't shy away from responsibility.

 
 AP Photo/Getty Images
 Greg Middleton (92) led the country in sacks (16) in 2007, and Jammie Kirlew racked up 10.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in 2008.
They want to carry the burden for an improved Hoosiers defense. And who better to take on such a task?

No defensive end tandem in the FBS has combined for more career sacks than Kirlew and Middleton (40). Middleton had his breakthrough in 2007, leading the nation with 16 sacks and finishing as a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. Kirlew followed last fall with a huge season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors after finishing second in the league in sacks (10.5) and third in tackles for loss (20).

Like his teammate the year before, Kirlew was named a Hendricks Award finalist.

"Just thinking about it, it’s amazing having two very talented defensive ends on the same team at the same time," Kirlew said. "We should definitely be doing damage. We expect it of ourselves. We have to have big games to help our team do well."

The tandem needs its best game Saturday against Michigan, which has surged offensively in its second year under head coach Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines lead the league in scoring through three games (38 points per game) and boast a ton of speed at all the skill positions.

While Indiana's defense has made obvious strides from 2008 -- the Hoosiers rank among the top four in the Big Ten in rushing defense (76 ypg), sacks (9), scoring (17.7 ppg), total defense (312.3) and opponent third down conversion percentage (29.4) -- Michigan provides a much bigger challenge than any of the teams IU has faced.

To have a shot at the upset, Indiana needs both Kirlew and Middleton to apply steady heat on freshman quarterback Tate Forcier.

"They’ve got great speed and their quarterbacks are playing very well," Indiana head coach Bill Lynch said. "It certainly helps to have Jammie and Greg, the experience they bring and the way they’ve been playing the first three weeks. They’ve really set the tone for the defense.

"They’ve been a force, particularly in some key situations, in the first three games.”

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Every team in the Big Ten has one essential issue that will determine success or failure this fall. Let's take a look.


Illinois:
The talent is there in Champaign, but the Illini can't afford the chemistry issues that doomed them last season. They need leadership from veterans Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn on offense and, more important, players like linebacker Martez Wilson on a questionable defense.


Indiana:
Whether or not the pistol offense guns down opponents or blows up in smoke, Indiana's season hinges on its defense, a unit that has finished no better than 71st nationally this decade. If the Hoosiers' D can't get it done with players like Matt Mayberry, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, they never will.


Iowa:
Few teams in America have a tougher conference road schedule than the Hawkeyes, who visit Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Iowa's performance away from Kinnick Stadium will determine whether it plays in another January bowl game or ends up fighting just to make the postseason.


Michigan:
Recent events have created a few more distractions for the Wolverines this fall, but their biggest key remains the quarterback position. Michigan should be much improved everywhere else on offense, but Rich Rodriguez needs consistency, intelligence and play-making ability from Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan or Denard Robinson.


Michigan State:
Mark Dantonio has mentioned it many times, and I'll echo the head coach: The Spartans must show they can handle expectations. Recent history suggests otherwise, but the program appears to be on a different course under Dantonio and needs to take another step forward with a favorable schedule this fall.


Minnesota:
The offensive line will be in the spotlight as Minnesota emloys a significantly different scheme after two years of the spread. With only one player (center Jeff Tow-Arnett) returning to the position where he started in 2008, the Gophers' front five has some major question marks entering the fall.


Northwestern:
The Wildcats need to prove they can actually survive the losses of multiyear starters at both quarterback and running back. Few outsiders think they can. Defense should once again carry this team in 2009, but Northwestern needs playmakers on offense after losing almost all of its featured skill players.


Ohio State:
This is Terrelle Pryor's team now, a much younger and potentially more explosive squad that needs to restore Ohio State's national reputation in big games. Pryor has to be the catalyst on offense and prove that he's a complete and consistent quarterback. If so, opposing defenses will be in big trouble.


Penn State:
I've been asking the same question throughout the offseason -- can Penn State reload? The Lions have more stars at key positions than any team in the Big Ten, but they need to replenish the offensive line, identify several capable wide receivers for Daryll Clark and get a lot better in the secondary.


Purdue:
A glance at Purdue's Week 1 depth chart shows that first-year coach Danny Hope will be relying on lots of young players this fall. For the Boilermakers to rebound, they need their freshmen and sophomores to make an immediate impact with minimal growing pains.


Wisconsin:
The Badgers simply don't have the margin error to survive the disorganization and lack of discipline that plagued them last season. From the quarterback position on down, Wisconsin needs to be mentally sound for 60 minutes and limit dumb mistakes that led to too many losses in 2008.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you haven't noticed, scheduling is the theme around ESPN.com this week. My colleagues have examined the decline of marquee nonleague games and the money-driven formula that goes into scheduling.

Now it's time to get more specific and look at the nonconference schedules for each Big Ten team. The Big Ten has taken a lot of heat for softening its nonleague slates, though other BCS conferences, namely the SEC, are also guilty of the practice.

Here's how they stack up, from toughest to easiest.

1. ILLINOIS -- vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Illinois State, at Cincinnati, Fresno State

It's not just the opponents that make the slate tough, but also unusual dates of the games. Illinois must finish with two tough nonleague foes in late November and early December, when a bowl berth likely will be on the line. The Illini have lost their last five games against Missouri in St. Louis.

2. PURDUE -- Toledo, at Oregon, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame

First-year head coach Danny Hope has his work cut out for him early on this fall. Oregon is the toughest nonconference road game for a Big Ten team this season, and Notre Dame has been pegged as a BCS bowl contender (jury's still out for me) and lit up the Boilermakers' defense last year in South Bend. Northern Illinois also could be a very tough game for Purdue.

3. MINNESOTA -- at Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State

Arguably no Big Ten team has a tougher opening stretch than the Gophers. Sure, Syracuse is down, but Doug Marrone's first game and the possible debut of Greg Paulus at quarterback should get the Carrier Dome cranked. Air Force and especially Cal provide major tests at the new TCF Bank stadium.

4. OHIO STATE -- Navy, USC, vs. Toledo (at Cleveland), New Mexico State

The USC factor simply can't be overlooked on what is otherwise a soft slate for the Buckeyes. Ohio State's matchup with USC once again serves as the league's premier nonconference matchup and a chance for the Buckeyes and the Big Ten to gain some redemption. Navy is never an easy game, especially in the opener.

5. IOWA -- Northern Iowa, at Iowa State, Arizona, Arkansas State

The Hawkeyes are consistently solid in scheduling, and this slate shouldn't generate too many complaints. If you're going to play an FCS team, Northern Iowa is a darn good one. Mike Stoops returns to Iowa City with an Arizona team coming off of a bowl victory in 2008. Iowa shouldn't have much trouble going 4-0 -- rival Iowa State remains a disaster -- but the competition isn't terrible.

6. MICHIGAN STATE -- Montana State, Central Michigan, at Notre Dame, Western Michigan

The Spartans' slate isn't as challenging as it was last season, but a trip to what should be an improved Notre Dame team could be tough. Michigan State has won three straight against the Irish, who crumbled on offense last year in East Lansing. Two tough MAC opponents with talented quarterbacks (Western Michigan's Tim Hiller and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour) should test Michigan State's defense.

7. INDIANA -- Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, at Akron, at Virginia

The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team to play two true nonconference road games, which stands for something even though both Akron and Virginia have struggled recently. Western Michigan also provides a big test in Week 2 for a Hoosiers defense hoping to turn a corner behind Jammie Kirlew, Greg Middleton and Matt Mayberry.

8. MICHIGAN -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State

Michigan doesn't deserve to be ranked this high, but the Wolverines' schedule looks like a gauntlet compared to the sorry slates belonging to some other Big Ten teams. Western Michigan presents a sizable challenge in the opener, as Greg Robinson's defense faces off against Hiller. A transitioning Michigan offense might need to keep pace on the scoreboard. Notre Dame also will test the Wolverines with its high-powered passing attack.

9. WISCONSIN -- Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford, at Hawaii

Soft scheduling has been a hot topic in Badger Nation, and this year's rundown won't do much to quench the fire. Northern Illinois and Fresno State are decent teams, but the lack of a BCS opponent drags down the quality of the schedule. Hawaii has been tough to beat at home in recent years, and Wisconsin could be fighting for bowl position when it heads to Oahu.

10. NORTHWESTERN -- Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse, Miami (Ohio)

Northwestern is trying to make bowl games on a more consistent basis, and another visit to Cupcake City should help. All four of these teams have new head coaches, and the lone "test," a trip to Syracuse, certainly isn't what it used to be. The watered-down slate certainly won't remedy Northwestern's attendance problems, and the school should (and will) take a more aggressive approach to scheduling in the future.

11. PENN STATE -- Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois

This is the hard truth for Penn State: A desire to fill Beaver Stadium eight times could very well keep the Nittany Lions out of the national title game. We won't get a true read on Penn State until Iowa visits Happy Valley on Sept. 26, and anything less than an undefeated season will prevent the Lions from reaching the BCS championship in Pasadena. Sure, Penn State had no idea Syracuse would be this bad, but the absence of a road game against a decent opponent could really hurt the national profile of the team and its individual stars this fall.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

We've already looked at players to watch and spring surprises. Now it's time to look at the guys who didn't do much during spring practice but will play vital roles for Big Ten teams this season.

Who needs to step up for each team?

Donsay Hardeman, S, Illinois -- Neck surgery sounds pretty scary, but Hardeman likely will return to the field this fall after undergoing the procedure during the offseason. He can provide experience at the all-important safety spot after recording 44 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last fall.

Deonte Mack, DT, Indiana -- Any number of players could fit in this spot for the injury-plagued Hoosiers, but Mack, who missed spring ball following hip surgery, must provide leadership at an extremely thin position. Pass-rushers Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew will only be effective if opponents have to worry about the interior line.

Tony Moeaki, TE, Iowa -- It's hard not to pull for Moeaki, a heralded prospect who has endured injury after injury with the Hawkeyes and was on crutches during spring ball. He's expected to return this summer and possibly fill a key role after Iowa lost first-team All-Big Ten tight end Brandon Myers.

Jonas Mouton, LB, Michigan -- Michigan's improvement on defense must start with the linebackers, and Mouton returns to the mix after shoulder surgery kept him off the field this spring. Mouton finished second on the team in tackles last fall (76) and could form a solid linebacker tandem with Obi Ezeh.

Jeremy Ware, CB, Michigan State -- One of several contributors in the Spartans' secondary to miss spring ball with injuries, Ware will be a key name to monitor during the summer. He emerged nicely last season, recording an interception and six pass breakups.

Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota -- Decker wasn't hurt this spring, but he spent the time playing center field for the Gophers' baseball team. There's little doubt he's one of the nation's best receivers, but he must absorb a new offensive system installed this spring and re-establish rhythm with quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray.

Corey Wootton, DE, Northwestern -- How Wootton recovers from ACL surgery could shape Northwestern's defense this fall. The All-Big Ten selection missed spring ball but is ahead of schedule on his recovery and expects to practice this summer. With questions on offense, the Wildcats need Wootton to return to top form.

Dane Sanzenbacher ,WR, Ohio State -- A projected starter in the slot, Sanzenbacher missed the latter part of spring practice with a high ankle sprain. He might be Terrelle Pryor's most dependable target heading into the fall, so a strong summer will be vital for the junior.

A.J. Wallace, CB, Penn State -- The secondary remains the biggest question mark for Penn State, and Wallace can ease some of head coach Joe Paterno's concerns with a strong preseason camp performance. Hamstring problems once again slowed Wallace this spring, but the Lions sorely need his speed in pass coverage.

Jaycen Taylor, RB, Purdue -- Taylor has by far the most experience of any Boilermakers running back, so his return this summer from a torn ACL looms large. Ralph Bolden put himself in the mix for the starting job with a stellar spring, but Taylor gives new head coach Danny Hope with a proven ball-carrying option.

Louis Nzegwu, DE, Wisconsin -- Unlike a year ago, the Badgers avoided many major injuries this spring, but they'll certainly be watching Nzegwu during the coming months. The immensely gifted sophomore improved his body and impressed the coaches early on during spring ball until sustaining a torn MCL on March 31.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Spring practice provided more clues about the Big Ten in 2009, but not enough to cause a major shake-up of the power rankings. The league should improve at the quarterback spot, reload at running back and boast several top 50 defenses, but few position battles were definitively settled and a handful of teams lost key personnel.

 
  AP Photo/Seth Perlman
  Quarterback Terrelle Pryor showed signs of improvement during Ohio State's spring practices.

You won't see many changes from my last set of power rankings, though I do see more defined tiers developing in the league. I feel confident about Nos. 1-4 and the bottom two teams, while the middle remains muddled.

1. Ohio State -- Terrelle Pryor's emergence and the addition of Michigan transfer Justin Boren on the offensive line highlighted a successful spring that ended before more than 95,000 fans at Ohio Stadium. Pryor showed improved footwork and passing mechanics, and running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine both emerged as viable options. Add in one of the better defensive lines around, and the Buckeyes enter the summer in good shape. Several Big Ten squads lose sizable senior classes, but no one in the league reloads like the Buckeyes.

2. Penn State -- There's not much separating the Nittany Lions from Ohio State, but Penn State lost just a little bit more and seemed to struggle this spring in the secondary and along the offensive line. Penn State has more national award candidates than any Big Ten team, and if it fills a few gaps, it should be right back in the league title mix. The defensive front seven will be ferocious -- as long as linebacker Navorro Bowman doesn't face major penalties -- and the home schedule favors Joe Paterno's team.

3. Iowa -- It was a fairly quiet spring for the Hawkeyes, though quarterback Ricky Stanzi looks ready to take the next step in his development. Injuries prevented Iowa from settling on a successor to Shonn Greene, but Jewel Hampton remains the frontrunner. A defense led by linebacker Pat Angerer, cornerback Amari Spievey and end Adrian Clayborn should be among the nation's best, as long as the defensive tackle spots are filled.

4. Michigan State -- The Spartans are a much more solid No. 4 than they were at the beginning of the spring. Quarterback candidates Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both came along nicely in practice, and Michigan State likely would be fine with either one taking snaps Sept. 5. There are still some questions at running back and offensive line, but linebacker Greg Jones leads a defense that should be the team's strength this fall.

5. Illinois -- The Illini move up a spot thanks in large part to a dynamic offense that seems to be getting better. Quarterback Juice Williams will have the Big Ten's best receiving corps at his disposal, as Florida transfer Jarred Fayson joins a group led by All-America candidate Arrelious Benn. More importantly, the Illini should have better run-pass balance as sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both improved physically in their first full offseason. It's a dangerous bet to buy into Illinois' talent after last year, but this should be an improved team in 2009.

6. Northwestern -- Uneventful best describes Northwestern's spring, as the team practiced without its two best defenders (Corey Wootton and Brad Phillips) and remains unsettled at some of the skill positions. Projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka was so-so this spring and needs to prove himself more as a passer this summer. There were bright spots like running back Jeravin Matthews, linebacker Ben Johnson and an improved offensive line, but it was tough to get a great read on the Wildcats.

7. Minnesota -- Tim Brewster wanted more playmakers on offense and he found them this spring. Quarterback MarQueis Gray looks like the real deal and will earn some time behind Adam Weber, while Troy Stoudermire distinguished himself in the spring game. But there still are a lot of questions about the offensive line and the new offensive system, and Minnesota's secondary has a few question marks. This is a talented team that many see as a sleeper.

8. Wisconsin -- There were no answers at quarterback as Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips will compete into the summer, but whoever takes snaps should have better weapons around him. Wide receiver Nick Toon had a stellar spring and provides a legitimate target alongside Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham. There are questions with all three areas on defense, particularly linebacker. The competition in the secondary should be interesting to watch in preseason camp.

9. Michigan -- I'm tempted to move up the Wolverines after what appeared to be a solid spring, but until the games begin there are simply too many question marks. Can quarterback Tate Forcier maintain the composure he showed this spring in a game situation? How much has the offensive line improved? Will the defense settle in immediately with Greg Robinson's vision? The potential is certainly there to climb up the rankings, but there needs to be more evidence.

10. Indiana -- The post-spring departure of Kellen Lewis certainly stings, but I liked what I saw and heard from the Hoosiers this spring. Linebacker Matt Mayberry and defensive ends Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew seem to have brought a better attitude to a bottom-feeding defense, and Ben Chappell no longer has to look over his shoulder at quarterback. There are problems, without a doubt, namely trying to replace Lewis' playmaking ability. But Indiana might stay out of the cellar.

11. Purdue -- The Boilers had their bright spot
s in spring ball, more specifically the emergence of running back Ralph Bolden and improved play on both lines. But you can't underestimate Justin Siller's departure at quarterback. Purdue needed someone to really push Joey Elliott, and while Caleb TerBush might become that guy this summer, he's still learning the college game. There are too many unknowns right now to see Purdue reaching the middle of the league in Danny Hope's first season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Greg Middleton never pulls up when he's closing in on a quarterback, and he doesn't pull punches when grading his performance from 2008.

"I had a horrible season, honestly," Middleton said.

Most Big Ten defensive ends wouldn't categorize four sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a pass breakup as horrible. But Middleton knows he can do better, a lot better, and he's got the evidence to prove it.

 
  AP Photo/Tom Strattman
  Greg Middleton is seeking to return to his All-America form from 2007.

As a true sophomore at Indiana, Middleton led the nation with a school-record 16 sacks, the fourth-highest total in Big Ten history. He recorded six multisack performances, recovered two fumbles (one for a touchdown), forced a fumble and broke up four passes for an Indiana team that ended its 14-year bowl drought.

His out-of-the-shadows season, predictably, brought in accolades. He was a third-team All-American, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. Middleton entered last fall as a preseason All-American named to a host of watch lists for national awards.

It was easy to be Greg Middleton. A little too easy.

"You have a guy that has success that early in his career, he was a true sophomore, just a second-year player," Indiana co-defensive coordinator Brian George said. "At times, it's hard for a young guy like that to handle all that success and respond and be able to follow it up.

"But the good thing about Greg, he was mature enough and it was important enough to him that he rededicated himself."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The recruiting classes are in, several underclassmen are out (preparing for the NFL draft) and coaching changes have been made. It's time to re-examine the Big Ten power rankings, which project forward to the 2009 season but take into consideration the way a team finished up 2008.

1. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lost juniors Chris "Beanie" Wells, Brian Hartline and Donald Washington to the NFL draft and said goodbye to a large senior class, but they performed well in the Fiesta Bowl and brought in the league's best recruiting class. The youth movement has begun in Columbus, and Ohio State likely will surround Terrelle Pryor with more dynamic skill players on offense. There are some holes in the defensive two-deep, but Ohio State rarely misses a beat on that side of the ball.

2. Penn State -- The somewhat surprising early departures of defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans create questions in an area where Penn State dominated last season. Linebacker should be a major strength, but Penn State must replenish the secondary and find a stud pass rusher or two. Wide receiver should be the most interesting position to watch during the spring and summer, and if Penn State avoids a drop-off on the offensive line, it should be in good shape for another league title push. A large recruiting class will play a key role in the Lions' quest to repeat.

3. Iowa -- Shonn Greene surprised absolutely no one by declaring for the NFL draft, and the Doak Walker Award winner leaves a major void in production. But backup running back Jewel Hampton showed promise last year, and Iowa has fewer question marks on offense than most Big Ten teams. Arguably the bigger questions come at defensive tackle, where four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. Avoiding a major drop-off in the interior line is crucial, but Iowa returns most of its key players from a 9-4 team.

4. Michigan State -- Several key seniors depart, including running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley, but Michigan State brings back most of its key contributors and adds its best recruiting class in recent memory. The competition at both running back and quarterback will set the course for the 2009 season, but the Spartans should be deeper and better on defense.

5. Northwestern -- Much like Michigan State, Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield for the 2009 campaign. Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback after a solid junior season, but there will be plenty of competition at both running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be much improved, and as long as star defensive end Corey Wootton recovers from knee surgery, the Wildcats will boast one of the Big Ten's best defenses.

6. Illinois -- As expected, cornerback Vontae Davis entered the NFL draft, leaving some questions in an Illini secondary that struggled at the safety spot in 2008. Improving the defense will be Illinois' top priority entering the fall, especially with so much talent back on the offensive side. Ron Zook's recruiting class drew mixed reviews after several committed prospects went elsewhere, but Illinois held onto wide receiver Terry Hawthorne and addressed several of its needs.

7. Minnesota -- The Gophers welcome two new coordinators (Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove) and a different offensive approach heading into spring practice, but they bring back most of the pieces from a 7-6 team. Tim Brewster continued to improve the defensive secondary with his recent recruiting haul, and both lines return virtually intact. If Minnesota can adjust to the changes in coaching and scheme, it should take another step forward in 2009.

8. Wisconsin -- Underappreciated running back P.J. Hill surprised some by declaring for the NFL draft, and Wisconsin also said goodbye to a large senior class. John Clay looks more than capable of becoming a featured back for the Badgers in 2009, but unless some significant progress is made at the quarterback position, it's hard to see improvement. A very solid recruiting class featuring quarterback Jon Budmayr and wide receiver Kraig Appleton could bolster the passing attack and move Wisconsin up the rankings.

9. Michigan -- Despite a 3-9 season, Michigan landed a top 10 recruiting class that features several players likely to contribute right away. Brandon Graham stayed for his senior year, giving the Wolverines a dominant pass rusher. The Wolverines very well could make a major move up this list, but they first must find a solution at the quarterback spot and fill holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. The recruiting class provides a major boost, but the program remains in a transition phase.

10. Purdue -- The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's mystery team, as they welcome a new head coach (Danny Hope) and most likely a different type of player. Hope landed 14 recruits from Florida in hopes of upgrading Purdue's speed and athleticism, and he also must replace starters at all the offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). If the defense avoids a drop-off and Hope's recruits contribute immediately like he thinks they will, the Boilers will be a much-improved team.

11. Indiana -- Wide receiver Andrew Means declared for the NFL draft, but Indiana doesn't lose a whole lot from last year's team, which could be good or bad. Head coach Bill Lynch didn't make any staff changes, hoping that continuity and improved health will lead to better results in 2009. Indiana boasts two experienced quarterbacks (Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell), two proven pass rushers (Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew) and some promising young players, but if the defense doesn't improve, it could be another long season.

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