NCF Nation: Jacob Charest

We looked at the recruiting needs for the Legends division earlier today. Now let's take a look at what the teams are looking for in the Leaders division.

As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.

ILLINOIS

Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.

Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.

Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.

INDIANA

Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.

Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.

OHIO STATE

Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.

Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.

PENN STATE

Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.

Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.

PURDUE

Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.

Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.

WISCONSIN

Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.

Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.

Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
No one who spent time around the Illinois Fighting Illini this spring will be surprised by today's announcement that Nathan Scheelhaase will enter the season as the team's starting quarterback.

Scheelhaase clearly separated himself from teammates Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer during spring ball. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino gushed about the redshirt freshman when we visited in late April. All that remained was an official announcement, which came a day after head coach Ron Zook returned from his USO tour to visit troops.
“Following spring ball, our coaching staff had some time to review the quarterback situation and felt Nathan proved himself as a leader both on and off the field,” Zook said in a statement. “He showed the ability to run coach Petrino’s offense at a high level, and we thought it was important to establish Nathan as a team leader entering summer workouts."

There was really no need for Illinois to wait any longer, especially as it enters a pivotal season where roles need to be defined as quickly as possible. Scheelhaase has no game experience and will endure some growing pains this fall, but he brings a leader's mentality and a good skill set to the table.

I have questions about his passing ability and durability -- Scheelhaase is listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, but that seems a bit generous -- but his attitude, athleticism and maturity are immediately recognizable and impressive. Not every quarterback who runs Petrino's offense needs to look like Ryan Mallett, and the folks at Illinois hope Scheelhaase can eventually resemble former Louisville star Stefan LeFors.
"He's a lot like Stefan," Petrino said. "Very similar players. He's faster than Stefan was, and he's a redshirt freshman. Stefan didn't play until his redshirt junior year. You just see things they do, the way [Scheelhaase] moves around on the play-action, a lot of the plays he does well were plays that Stefan does well, so a lot of that stuff really reminds you of him."

Again, don't expect mistake-free football from Scheelhaase, who threw two interceptions and took three sacks in Illinois' spring game. When you have a totally new offense and a quarterback with no game experience, there will be some bumps along the way. Illinois will need the guys around Scheelhaase, namely running back Mikel LeShoure, to step up their play.

Time is of the essence for an Illinois team and a coaching staff that must win in 2010, so there was no need to delay this decision any longer.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase first learned about Stefan LeFors in the same way most of us did.

When LeFors blew up as Louisville's quarterback and became a household name in 2004, Scheelhaase, then a middle schooler in Kansas City, followed his story.

"His senior year, ESPN did a special on him," Scheelhaase said. "He spoke sign language because his parents were deaf. I watched that and then I watched this guy and he's a little, 5-[foot-]10 nothing, 180, 185 pounds, and I think they were the No. 1 offense in the country that year."

Scheelhaase is once again watching LeFors, but for very different reasons. Illinois' offense is now under the direction of coordinator Paul Petrino, who served as Louisville's offensive coordinator during LeFors' record-setting run.

Petrino's offense can accommodate different types of quarterbacks -- Ryan Mallett, an NFL style, rifle-armed, drop-back passer, excelled in the system last season at Arkansas -- but it's pretty easy to identify the paradigm for Scheelhaase, an elite athlete who, like LeFors, won't scare anyone with his size.

"He's a lot like Stefan," Petrino said. "Very similar players. He's faster than Stefan was, and he's a redshirt freshman. Stefan didn't play until his redshirt junior year. You just see things they do, the way [Scheelhaase] moves around on the play-action, a lot of the plays he does well were plays that Stefan does well, so a lot of that stuff really reminds you of him."

It's high praise for Scheelhaase, but Petrino has high expectations for the quarterback in 2010. Although Illinois hasn't formally named a starting quarterback -- Scheelhaase competed with Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer throughout spring practice -- it's fairly obvious that Scheelhaase is the man to beat entering the summer.

The 6-3, 195-pound redshirt freshman took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring, and made several big plays with both his arm and his feet in four scrimmages.

"Nathan is a fiery guy; he's a really good leader," Petrino said. "He's just a great competitor, and he's going to do whatever it takes to win. He does a real good job running with the ball, making plays. He's worked hard to understand the passing game. He's got a nice, quick release, he knows where he's going with the ball and he's getting more accurate every day.

"If he can do that, we'll be in great shape."

Head coach Ron Zook saw the same fire from Scheelhaase (pronounced SHEEL-house) on the scout team last year, as the true freshman never backed down from the first-team defense. Senior wide receiver Jarred Fayson described Scheelhaase as "a bit before his time" in how he carries himself and his approach to the game.

"A competitive attitude is good to have every day, whether you're a fourth-year starter or you're just trying to get on the field for the first time," Scheelhaase said. "You want yourself to be perfect when you're doing things like that. You don't want to have a bad play, have a bad practice or anything because you want to compete with yourself, compete with others around you and on a bigger level, you want to be better than your opponents."

He admitted having "first-day jitters" at the start of spring ball, well aware of what was at stake following the graduation of Juice Williams, a four-year starter at quarterback. Scheelhaase knows he still must absorb more of Petrino's offense, but he built confidence throughout the spring and brings some versatility to the position.

And while he never shies away from competitive situations, he also doesn't get weighed down by Illinois' unsettled situation at quarterback.

"You're running with blinders on," he said.

And down the road, he hopes to catch up with LeFors.

"He's a fun guy to watch," Scheelhaase said. "He ran their offense well, ran it with confidence. If I can be in his ballpark, if anybody can be in his ballpark, it would be great because he was a great college quarterback."

For the Illinois Fighting Illini's young quarterbacks, getting hit is just the start.

[+] EnlargeJacob Charest
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJacob Charest is the only Illinois quarterback with college experience.
Illinois is allowing quarterbacks Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer to take on contact this spring. The three survived Saturday's scrimmage without injury, and will go live again in another scrimmage this week and in the spring game April 24 at Memorial Stadium. Although head coach Ron Zook admittedly is a bit nervous about seeing his quarterbacks shedding the no-contact jerseys, he and his assistants believe it's necessary.

In fact, Illinois' new-look offensive staff is doing all it can to make April feel like October for the quarterbacks.

"We’ve just got to get them as much game-type experience, live action, as they can get, and simulate the game as much as we can so they’re tested and ready to go when the season comes," Illini quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm told me. "This is a sport where tough guys play. You’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be able to take a little criticism. You’ve got to be able to handle it when things go wrong, how you’re going to respond.

"And the players have responded."

Brohm admits it's a work in progress and doesn't downplay the situation in Champaign. Illinois has a new offensive coordinator in Paul Petrino, three new offensive assistants and a new offensive system. Of the three quarterback candidates, only Charest, a sophomore, has experience at the college level, after playing in four games (starting one) last season.

Brohm also provides honest assessments of each quarterback at this stage:

Charest: "More of your drop-back passer, not real mobile."

Scheelhaase: "Extremely athletic, can run, just not a very polished passer at this point, and it’s not his strength."

Whitmer: "He's not real big. He throws the ball extremely well, but he’s not real mobile."

Petrino's offense ideally wants a quarterback who can sling the ball and operate in an NFL-style system. Ryan Mallett certainly met those demands last year at Arkansas, and it's why he's considered the nation's top quarterback prospect for the 2011 NFL draft. At Illinois, the coaches are prepared to adjust the scheme to fit their personnel, and Brohm said the quarterbacks will throw on the move and run some zone read, as they did under the previous regime.

Scheelhaase and Charest both made big plays in Saturday's scrimmage, and while Scheelhaase has generated the most buzz this spring, Zook said, "they've all had their days when they've had the upper hand."

When will the coaches decide on a starter? The sooner, the better. Zook wants to find the quarterback who best learns from his mistakes this spring.

"We do have a lot of young guys, and right now, it’s hard to tell who’s going to be the guy," Brohm said. "We would like to do it by the end of the spring, but that’s not going to be a guarantee. We're going to make sure we make the right decision."

Brohm doesn't expect the quarterbacks to be hit in fall camp, citing the injury risk so close to the season. But from now until Sept. 4, when Illinois meets Missouri in St. Louis, the quarterbacks will be challenged every possible way in practice.

"We just want them to get under the fire and see what it’s really like out there," Brohm said. "We’re trying to demand the best and make sure that they leave this field knowing, ‘I put myself in the game situation every single rep I had, and pretended the pressure was on the line.’

"If we do that, then we’ve done everything we can.”
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koenning also realizes Illinois has no time for growing pains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping up the early Big Ten games

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
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We're about to get started here in Columbus. Here's what has happened so far in the Big Ten today.

Penn State 31, Indiana 20: Penn State gave Indiana a great opportunity to take control of this game with four first-half turnovers. When the Hoosiers couldn't capitalize, the Lions didn't give them a second chance. Penn State scored 24 unanswered points as running back Evan Royster got going and the defense held IU quarterback Ben Chappell in check for most of the second half. Daryll Clark didn't have a great game by any means, but he avoided mistakes in the second half and moved Penn State closer to the 10-win plateau. Linebacker Navorro Bowman made the play of the day when he intercepted a Chappell pass and raced 73 yards to the end zone. It has been a season of near misses for Indiana, which can't generate a consistent rushing attack.

Wisconsin 45, Michigan 24: Scott Tolzien became the latest quarterback to completely pick apart Michigan's secondary, as Wisconsin came in with an excellent offensive game plan today. Tolzien fired four touchdown passes as wide receiver Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson and tight end Garrett Graham all had big games. Badgers running back John Clay once again went over the 100-yard rushing mark (151, to be exact) as Wisconsin eclipsed its victories total from last season. Michigan backslid in the second half for the third straight week, as the run game never truly got going. Tate Forcier had arguably his best game at quarterback for the Wolverines, but he can only do so much. Greg Robinson's defense is a disaster, and Michigan's bowl hopes could be finished after a 4-0 start.

Michigan State 40, Purdue 37: The Spartans received big plays in all three phases during a wild second half as they held off Purdue to get bowl eligible. Special teams was huge down the stretch as Michigan State blocked a long field goal attempt, received another huge kickoff return from Keshawn Martin and drilled the game-winning field goal with 1:51 left. Quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have his typical accuracy, but he hit on several huge pass plays, three for touchdowns. Purdue's desperate run for a bowl game ends despite another huge performance from quarterback Joey Elliott, an All-Big Ten candidate. Wideout Keith Smith and running back Ralph Bolden came up big, but the Boilers defense couldn't stop the big play.

Northwestern 21, Illinois 16: Illinois made this one interesting with a furious fourth-quarter rally behind backup quarterback Jacob Charest, who struggled for the first 50 minutes or so. After a sloppy first half, Northwestern took control with a 7-play, 99-yard scoring drive in the third quarter. Mike Kafka finally hit on a big pass play to Andrew Brewer (52 yards), and the run game started to show up with freshman Arby Fields. Kafka passed for 300 yards and Zeke Markshausen continued his surprise season at wide receiver. The game wasn't without controversy, as replay officials didn't overturn a fourth-down interception that sealed the win for Northwestern, which secures back-to-back bowl berths for the second time in team history. Illinois inexplicably will miss a bowl for the second straight season.

Minnesota 16, South Dakota State 13: The Golden Gophers are bowl eligible, but they didn't make it easy on themselves. Minnesota rode great defense to hold off South Dakota State and notch victory No. 6. Junior quarterback Adam Weber continued to struggle, completing 10 of 21 passes with a pick-six in the second quarter as the Minnesota offense piled up only 231 yards. But the Gophers defense forced four turnovers, including a fumble recovered for a touchdown by D.L. Wilhite. A huge sigh of relief for Tim Brewster, who now tries to win his first trophy game next week at Iowa.

video

Penn State held off Indiana's upset bid, 31-20.

Big Ten picks: Week 11

November, 12, 2009
11/12/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Thanks to a 2-4 performance last week, I'm now south of 70 percent for the season, which is sort of like hitting below the Mendoza line. I'm sure my colleague Chris Low, who's doing better than 80 percent on picks, is laughing at me from his home in Knoxville. Last year's success seems like eons ago. And to top it off, two games this week are among the toughest picks of the season.

Here's a stab at better results.

Penn State 34, Indiana 17: The Nittany Lions start slow after last week's letdown and Indiana takes an early lead on a touchdown pass to standout wide receiver Tandon Doss. But with a BCS at-large berth still a decent possibility, Penn State turns it on in the second and third quarters as quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster put up big numbers against the IU defense.

Wisconsin 31, Michigan 20: Some are calling for a blowout and I could see it that way, but Michigan has moved the football on most teams and will find running room with Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Wisconsin running back John Clay and the powerful Badgers offensive line will once again take control in the second half and wear down Michigan's weak defense. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (Michigan) and O'Brien Schofield (Wisconsin) both have their moments.

Minnesota 24, South Dakota State 21: I'm a little worried about the Gophers after last week's lackluster first half. South Dakota State boasts a strong defense and a win against mighty Northern Iowa, and Minnesota's offense will struggle early. But the Gophers find a way on Senior Day and win their sixth game to get bowl eligible. Backup quarterback MarQueis Gray makes a big play or two, and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett hauls in two touchdowns from Adam Weber.

Michigan State 27, Purdue 26: I'll be honest, this game drove me nuts all week. Both quarterbacks are hot, and both defenses are inconsistent but boast star players. Michigan State has been pretty bad on the road, but the Spartans play well in November under Mark Dantonio. Purdue is playing very well in Big Ten play and boasts a lot of playmakers. This reminds me of 2007, when Michigan State needed a win at Ross-Ade and got one. The Spartans win on a Brett Swenson field goal.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 20: The Illini are playing looser and with more confidence, and they could certainly continue their win streak Saturday. But Northwestern almost always wins as a slight road underdog, and the Wildcats seem to be jelling on defense. Illinois quarterback Jacob Charest throws two touchdown passes, but a critical interception leads to Northwestern's game-winning drive. Quarterback Mike Kafka is now two weeks removed from a hamstring injury and will be more effective.

Ohio State 21, Iowa 10: The Hawkeyes keep this one close for a while as their opportunistic defense generates a turnover or two to set up the offense in good field position. But Ohio State's dominating defense proves to be the difference as Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg struggles to move the ball in his first career start. Terrelle Pryor scores two second-half rushing touchdowns as the Buckeyes win to reach their first Rose Bowl since 1997.

Week 10 record: 2-4

Season record: 51-23 (.689)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ten things you don't want to miss Saturday in the Big Ten.

1. Vandenberg vs. Silver Bullets: Ohio State's defense has been the single most dominating unit in the Big Ten this season, boasting three shutouts and nearly notching a fourth last week against Penn State. The Buckeyes pose a major challenge for a seasoned quarterback, much less a signal caller making his first career start like Iowa redshirt freshman James Vandenberg will on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Vandenberg had some expected struggles last week against Northwestern, and he'll need a heroic performance and plenty of help against the Buckeyes. If he pulls it off, he'll go down as a hero as Iowa will be heading to the Rose Bowl.

2. Bowling at Ross-Ade: The Michigan State-Purdue contest could serve as a bowl play-in game as both teams are trying to squeak into the postseason after battling inconsistency. Purdue must beat the Spartans and archrival Indiana to reach six wins, which would be an incredible accomplishment after a 1-5 start. Michigan State needs to gain at least a split in its last two games, but the Spartans finish against No. 18 Penn State, so they likely need a win Saturday. MSU is trying to reach three consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1995-97, while Purdue tries to avoid consecutive bowl-less seasons for the first time since 1995-96.

3. Michigan needs a Madison miracle: OK, that might be a bit extreme, but a Wolverines win against No. 20 Wisconsin in Madison would certainly qualify as a major upset. Michigan has dropped six consecutive Big Ten games and doesn't want to face Ohio State needing a win to become bowl eligible. The Wolverines' defense fares better against the run than the pass, but it faces a difficult test in Wisconsin sophomore running back John Clay, the Big Ten's leading rusher (108.1 ypg). Michigan has dropped its last two meetings at Camp Randall Stadium.

4. Quarterback questions in Champaign: Both Northwestern and Illinois enter Saturday's game (ESPN Classic, noon ET) with some uncertainty under center. Wildcats senior Mike Kafka will get the start, but his pulled hamstring remains a concern after his mobility was limited last week at Iowa. Backup Dan Persa played most of the snaps against the Hawkeyes, but he's still dealing with a hand injury suffered in Iowa City. Illinois starter Juice Williams sustained a sprained ankle last week against Minnesota and is listed as doubtful. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest likely will make his first career start. So it could be survival of the fittest at Memorial Stadium.

5. Penn State still in BCS at-large mix: The Nittany Lions lost their two biggest games of the season, but they still could squeak into the BCS mix based on their national name, their legendary head coach (Joe Paterno) and their sizable fan base. But they need to finish with two impressive victories against Indiana and Michigan State. Daryll Clark and the Spread HD offense must regain its swagger against the league's worst defense, and a secondary that struggled at times last week must keep pace with talented Hoosiers sophomore Tandon Doss. Penn State might not deserve a BCS bowl berth, but it can still get one.

6. Minnesota faces must-win vs. SDSU: After a pathetic first-half performance against Illinois, Minnesota better come out with a purpose against South Dakota State. The Gophers should not look past the Jackrabbits, who are 7-2 this season and own a 10-point win against the great Northern Iowa Panthers. Most of Minnesota's players were on the field in 2007 when another FCS team, North Dakota State, beat them in the Metrodome. A win makes the Gophers bowl eligible for the second straight season heading into a rivalry game against banged-up Iowa on Nov. 21.

7. Iowa's opportunistic defense: No Big Ten team forces turnovers better than Iowa, which leads the league in takeaways with 26 and is tied for the national lead with 19 interceptions. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been more turnover prone this season, throwing nine interceptions in 10 games, five more than he had all of last fall. Iowa's defensive front seven needs to force Pryor into obvious passing situations, which could give sophomore safety Tyler Sash, the Big Ten's interceptions leader, more chances to make plays.

8. Clay vs. Minor: I really hope Brandon Minor gets healthy before Saturday because we'd get to see the Big Ten's two most dominant running backs on the same field. Wisconsin's Clay is a serious candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after his fifth 100-yard rushing performance of the season last week against Indiana. Clay should be recovered from a head injury and faces a Michigan defense that has allowed 4.3 yards per carry this fall. Minor looks like an NFL back when he's carrying the ball.

9. Defensive POY race heats up: I touched on this in Tuesday's video post, but it will be interesting to see who distinguishes himself in the crowded race for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, the frontrunner at this point, needs to lead an inconsistent Spartans defense to just its second road victory. Two of the league's top defensive ends -- Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield and Michigan's Brandon Graham -- square off at Camp Randall Stadium. Iowa needs big things from defensive stars Sash, Adrian Clayborn and Pat Angerer as it faces safety Kurt Coleman and the Buckeyes. Purdue end Ryan Kerrigan and Indiana end Jammie Kirlew also are looking for big performances.

10. Bowl eligibility at stake: All 11 teams remain alive for bowl bids, but three teams (Illinois, Indiana and Purdue) face must-win situations Saturday. If Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan fall short this week, all three teams will need to beat ranked opponents (Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State) on Nov. 21 to become bowl eligible. The bottom half of the league's bowl picture could change dramatically depending on what takes place on the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Trick or treat.

1. Iowa in search of style points: After rising to No. 4 in the BCS standings, Iowa can help its cause and possibly win over more pollsters with a convincing win against Indiana (ESPN, noon ET). The Hawkeyes have fallen behind in seven of their eight wins and own only one victory by more than 11 points this fall. Indiana isn't a pushover this season, but the Hoosiers are vulnerable in the secondary. Iowa is banged up entering the game, as freshman running back Brandon Wegher makes his first career start in place of the injured Adam Robinson. The Hawkeyes also could use true freshman backs Brad Rogers and Josh Brown.

2. Bowl play-in game at TCF Bank Stadium: Minnesota and Michigan State both sit at 4-4 entering Saturday night's clash (Big Ten Network, 8 p.m. ET). Much like last week's Indiana-Northwestern game, this contest could determine a postseason berth. Michigan State is clearly the hotter team but must bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Iowa. Linebacker Greg Jones leads a rapidly improving Spartans defense against a Gophers offense that has produced just seven points in its last two games. Minnesota can't afford a late-season collapse for the second straight season, especially with so much experience on the roster.

3. Joey Elliott vs. Scott Tolzien: One quarterback struggled with turnovers early in the season but has turned things around; the other started fast but has thrown five interceptions in his last two games. Elliott really seems to be hitting his stride, and he leads a confident Purdue team into Camp Randall Stadium, where it won in 2003. Wisconsin has dropped consecutive games and needs Tolzien to limit mistakes against an opportunistic Boilermakers defense. The Badgers' banged-up offensive line should be well rested coming off a bye week and needs to keep Big Ten sacks leader Ryan Kerrigan away from Tolzien.

4. Lions try to avoid Cat trap: Penn State snapped its losing streak at Michigan Stadium in convincing fashion last week. Now the Nittany Lions head to Northwestern's Ryan Field (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET), which hasn't been the easiest place to notch big wins. Since joining the Big Ten, Penn State is 4-2 in Evanston, but three of the victories have come by five points or fewer. The Lions rallied for a dramatic win in 2005 to spark their Big Ten title season. Penn State comes in hot, while Northwestern is banged up but revived after the biggest comeback in team history.

5. Quarterback questions in Champaign: Big Ten play hasn't been kind to Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who has completed just 38 of 81 attempts with two touchdowns and three interceptions in losses to Michigan State, Iowa and Penn State. Forcier and classmate Denard Robinson need to redeem themselves against Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in both total defense and rush defense. Illinois' starting quarterback once again remains a mystery, as senior Juice Williams and freshman Jacob Charest both will see action.

6. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor: The Buckeyes don't have much to gain from Saturday's game against New Mexico State, which owns the nation's worst offense and will have a rough time putting up points. But it does provide Pryor another opportunity to make strides before next week's huge trip to No. 12 Penn State. Ohio State needs to decide how it wants to use Pryor the rest of the way. My plan? He runs the ball 17-22 times a game and throws deep when the opportunity presents itself.

7. Gophers begin life without Eric Decker: Minnesota's star senior wide receiver is out for the rest of the regular season after straining his foot in Saturday's loss to Ohio State. Decker has been the Gophers' only consistent weapon on offense this season. Minnesota needs a better performance from junior quarterback Adam Weber and an offensive line that has endured inconsistency throughout the season.

8. Indiana's ends vs. Iowa's tackles: For Indiana to have any shot at an upset in Iowa City, defensive ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton must apply steady pressure to Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Iowa entered the year with the Big Ten's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, though the Hawkeyes rank eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed (17). Kirlew ranks fourth in the league in both sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (13.5), so keeping him away from Stanzi will be key.

9. Zook's reception at home: Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther says Ron Zook will be back in 2010, a decision that didn't sit well with much of Illini Nation. It will be interesting to see if the team can show some sign of progress on its home field against a sputtering Michigan team. If it's more of the same, you can bet the boo birds will be out for Zook, whose team is headed to a last-place finish for the third time in his five seasons in Champaign.

10. Penn State vs. Northwestern on money downs: Tom Bradley's defense leads the Big Ten in preventing conversions on both third down (30.4 percent) and fourth down (25 percent). Northwestern has attempted and converted more third downs (51.1 percent) and fourth downs (58.3 percent) than any other league team this season. If the Wildcats' offense can control the clock and stay on the field, it might hang around for a while. If Penn State holds its ground on the money downs, it should pull away.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg

It has been nine years since rivals Penn State and Pitt last played, and the debate about the discontinued series still rages in the Keystone State. When will they meet again? Not in the regular season any time soon. But there's a new subplot in the discussion this fall, as the Nittany Lions and Panthers are separated by just three spots in the BCS standings.

Both teams are playing their best football right now and remain alive in their respective conference title races. And maybe, just maybe, the 12th-ranked Lions and 15th-ranked Panthers will meet in a BCS bowl down the road. The big question: Which has the better team?

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break it all down.

 
  Eric Bronson/Icon SMI
  Pennsylvania football fans would like to see Daryll Clark and the Nittany Lions play Pittsburgh in the future.
Adam Rittenberg: We already debated Iowa and Cincinnati. Now let's get really personal. There are enough fans on both sides who want to see the series resume, but we both know how BCS teams hate to part with home games. Any chance we see Penn State and Pitt meet in a BCS bowl game?

Brian Bennett: It's certainly possible that both teams get into the BCS. But I see the chances of them meeting in a bowl as slim. Penn State would have to be an at-large pick, since there's no way Pitt is going to the Rose Bowl, and the options are limited elsewhere. Plus, the game wouldn't generate a whole lot of interest outside of Pennsylvania, where it would be enormous.

The bigger question I have is, why aren't these two teams still playing in the regular season? All indications are that Pitt would welcome the resumption of the series. Panthers fans blame Joe Paterno for killing the rivalry. How much truth do you think there is to that?

Rittenberg: Paterno wasn't pleased when Pitt joined the Big East, which prevented him from forming a new conference with Eastern schools. Penn State also must play at least seven home games a year. That's non-negotiable. The Lions can't afford to lose revenue from cramming their enormous stadium and continue to play other attractive nonconference opponents (i.e. Alabama) unless Pitt agreed to a 2-for-1 with two games in State College. I know the fans don't like to hear it, but the two schools are in different financial positions, and Pitt plays one more non-league game (5) than Penn State.

We could talk about this all day, but let's get to the teams. How do you think Pitt matches up against Penn State?

 
  Justin K. Aller/Icon SMI
  Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull is leading an improved Panthers offense.
Bennett: As with all the Big East contenders, you have to start on the offensive side of the ball. Those not playing close attention this year may view Pitt as a typical Dave Wannstedt, defensive-minded team. But the Panthers can really score and are averaging 34 points a game. They've got answers everywhere, from a terrific veteran offensive line, a true freshman back in Dion Lewis who's already gone over 1,000 yards, a stud receiver in Jonathan Baldwin, two top flight tight ends and a fifth-year senior quarterback, Bill Stull, who has made tremendous strides.

Defensively, Pitt has one of the top defensive front lines anywhere, with sack specialists Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard on the outside and bullrushing tackle Mick Williams on the inside. The Panthers have been exploited, however, in the passing game against the outside linebackers and the defensive backs, which is where I would think the Nittany Lions would attack with Daryll Clark.

But Penn State's offense hasn't been overly impressive this year. Has the Spread HD gone low def?

Rittenberg: Offense, offense, offense. That's all I hear from you, Bennett. Before getting to the Spread HD, which looks pretty good to me, let's talk a little D (you like my rhymes?).

Penn State's defense is simply dominant this season. I won't bore you with stats, but Penn State ranks in the top 10 nationally in seven major statistical categories, including No. 1 in points allowed (8.88 ppg). The defensive line is ferocious, led by tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu and budding star Jack Crawford at defensive end. Linebacker U. is back as Navorro Bowman and The 'Stache (Josh Hull) have been fabulous and Sean Lee is getting healthier each week. They would digest Lewis.

The Lions are getting better each week on offense as a new-look line jells. Clark and running back Evan Royster have been fabulous since the Iowa loss, and the new group of wide receivers has seen different stars emerge each week (Chaz Powell, Derek Moye, Graham Zug). Tight end Andrew Quarless is a major matchup problem, and backup running back Stephfon Green can go the distance on any play.

Penn State might be the most complete team in the Big Ten right now. So what do you think? Who would win if these rivals decided to play this year?

Bennett: This why I'm glad I cover the Big East and not the Big Ten: I enjoy the forward pass and seeing teams score.

I'm with you on Penn State's defense -- it's stacked. That would probably be the difference in the Pennsylvania Bowl. Although I think Pitt could still move the ball, it likely wouldn't come anywhere close to its usual points total against the Nittany Lions, while that improving offense behind Clark would get the job done.

So I give the slight nod to Penn State as remaining the big dog in the state, but the gap is narrowing once again. Now, what can we do to talk these two teams into actually playing one another?

Rittenberg: I agree that Penn State would win the game, especially with the way the Nittany Lions are playing right now. The Big East doesn't have a defense ranked in the top 20 nationally, and the Nittany Lions' size and speed on that side would pose problems. Pitt's defensive line could hurt Penn State, but Clark still would make plays in the pass game. I've been very impressed with Pitt this year, as much as I'm reluctant to buy into Wanny-coached team (sorry, Bears fan here).

How do we get these two together again? I wonder if Pitt would be willing to do a 3-for-2. Otherwise, maybe they could meet at a neutral site and split the revenue. Or we could wait for Paterno to retire. On second thought, that'll never happen.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Here's what's happening halfway through the early Big Ten games.

Ohio State 7, Minnesota 0: Terrelle Pryor hasn't done much to silence his critics. Aside from a 62-yard touchdown pass to a wide open DeVier Posey, Pryor has struggled once again. His interception in the end zone to end the half prevented the Buckeyes from feeling a bit more comfortable. Minnesota's offense looked lost for most of the half, especially when Eric Decker went down with an injury. The Gophers also had an ugly sideline situation when Troy Stoudermire and an assistant coach started jawing at each other after Stoudermire was flagged on punt coverage. Pryor has run the ball decently, but he'll really need to pick things up after halftime to ease some of the pressure.

Purdue 21, Illinois 7: The Illini jumped ahead before reverting to form and getting gashed by a rapidly improving Purdue offense. The Boilermakers are clearly inspired after their big win last week and got a ton of skill players involved in the opening half. Senior running back Jaycen Taylor has provided a nice one-two punch with Ralph Bolden, as the two have combined for 119 rush yards and two touchdowns. Purdue should continue to sprinkle in Taylor to the offense. Quarterback Joey Elliott, meanwhile, has been extremely sharp so far. As expected, Illinois started Juice Williams at quarterback before using redshirt freshman Jacob Charest. Williams has had a nice game so far, leading a first-quarter touchdown drive, and running back Mikel LeShoure already has 96 yards. But Illinois missed a huge opportunity for points at the end of the half.

Indiana 28, Northwestern 17: After looking like a total rout for 25 minutes, this one might be worth watching in the second half. Northwestern isn't good a many things this season, but one of them is rallying from big deficits. The Wildcats closed a 28-3 gap with two late touchdowns and finally look interested in the game. Indiana still deserves credit for setting the tone in all three phases. Darius Willis has two touchdown runs, including a 70-yarder on the first play from scrimmage, and Ben Chappell has been efficient. Hoosiers cornerback Ray Fisher has been huge on special teams, returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and setting up another score with a 35-yard punt return. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald undoubtedly will have some choice words for his team at halftime.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A team is often only as good as its backup quarterback, a fact that held true throughout the Big Ten in 2008.

Pat Devlin scored arguably the biggest touchdown of Penn State's season at Ohio State as the Nittany Lions rallied for a 13-6 win. Mike Kafka's record-setting rushing performance against Minnesota helped Northwestern to a huge win after injuries had hit several important positions. Several Big Ten squads also had backups emerge into starters, such as Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi.

Several Big Ten backups haven't played a down in a college game, so it's tough to pass judgment on them. But here's my stab at ranking the league's backup signal callers coming out of spring ball.

1. Michigan State -- The competition for the starting job between Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol remains too close to call, and that's not a bad thing. Both players performed very well during spring ball and particularly during the spring game. Whoever doesn't win the top job provides head coach Mark Dantonio with a solid No. 2 option. Cousins already held the role last fall and performed well.

2. Minnesota -- Head coach Tim Brewster reiterated throughout the spring that Adam Weber is his starter, but he also acknowledged that talented freshman MarQueis Gray will get on the field a lot this fall. Gray lived up to the hype in spring ball, and the Gophers likely will use a special package of plays to feature him in games. Should Weber go down, Minnesota should be fine with Gray.

3. Illinois -- The Illini boast the Big Ten's most experienced signal caller in Juice Williams, and they also have the league's most seasoned backup in Eddie McGee. McGee appeared in 12 games in 2007 and came up big against Missouri, Wisconsin and Penn State. The coaches have even used McGee on a series or two when Williams gets into trouble. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest provides another solid option.

4. Ohio State -- Overall depth at quarterback is the only reason the Buckeyes aren't higher on the list. The coaches have confidence that Joe Bauserman can step in if Terrelle Pryor goes down with an injury. Bauserman boasts a strong arm and good knowledge of the scheme. It remains to be seen what Ohio State gets out of third-stringer Kenny Guiton, a late signee in February.

5. Wisconsin -- The starting job is not set in stone, though senior Dustin Sherer remains the frontrunner heading into the summer. Curt Phillips' push toward the end of spring should ease offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's concerns about the position. Phillips brings speed and athleticism to the backfield, and junior Scott Tolzien is a smart player who has been in the system for some time.

6. Michigan -- True freshman Tate Forcier emerged from a solid spring as the frontrunner at quarterback, though he'll still be pushed by Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson in August. Sheridan has been in the fire and showed some good signs during spring ball before breaking his leg. But he might not be as strong of a fit as Robinson, who boasts track-star speed and, like Forcier, provides the improvisation skills needed to run this offense.

7. Northwestern -- Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are fully prepared to play a second quarterback at times this season. The nature of Northwestern's spread offense elevates the injury risk for quarterbacks, and Dan Persa likely will see the field, much like Kafka did in 2008. Persa's size (6-1, 200) is a bit of a concern, though he brings above-average mobility to the pocket. Incoming freshman Evan Watkins likely will redshirt this fall, but he's considered the team's quarterback of the future.

8. Purdue -- The Boilers would have been much better off with Justin Siller still in the fold, but the coaches liked what they saw from redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush this spring. Career backup Joey Elliott will get the first shot under center this fall, but TerBush is a big kid (6-5, 222) who can step in if things go south. The problem here is depth, as Purdue can't play Robert Marve until 2010.

9. Penn State -- Devlin's decision to transfer really stings Penn State, which can't afford to lose Daryll Clark and keep its Big Ten title hopes afloat. True freshman Kevin Newsome did some nice things this spring, but he's got a long way to go before leading the Spread HD offense in a Big Ten game. Matt McGloin provides the Nittany Lions with another option under center, but Penn State should take every precaution to keep Clark healthy.

10. Indiana -- The coaches' decision to move Kellen Lewis to wide receiver not only reaffirmed their faith in starter Ben Chappell, but also the men behind him. Teddy Schell came to Indiana as a decorated high school quarterback in Illinois and should finally get a chance to showcase himself. But Schell is unproven on the college level, and the same goes for promising redshirt freshman Adam Follett.

11. Iowa -- Nothing against James Vandenberg or John Wienke, but the college canvas is pretty blank on both redshirt freshmen right now. Despite all the Jake Christensen hatred, many level-headed Hawkeyes fans wouldn't mind having him around this season to back up Ricky Stanzi. An injury to Stanzi could derail Iowa's Big Ten title hopes, particularly with four very difficult conference road games (Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State).

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