NCF Nation: Jairus Jones

Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Pencils ready? Class is in session ...

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in Penn State's win over Syracuse.
1. Big Ten quarterback mysteries partially solved: Week 1 provided some clues about the Big Ten's cloudy quarterback picture, but a few mysteries remain. True freshman Christian Hackenberg looks like the long-term answer at Penn State. Although he had a few shaky moments, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and showcased a big-time arm on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis early in the fourth quarter of the Lions' win against Syracuse. Joel Stave got the start for Wisconsin and re-established himself with a mostly solid performance against Massachusetts, twice finding top receiver Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns. Jake Rudock's collegiate debut ended with a costly interception, but the Iowa sophomore showed some positive signs against Northern Illinois, passing for 256 yards. Iowa has something to build on with Rudock. Indiana might lack a definitive starter, but the Hoosiers have multiple options with Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cam Coffman. Sudfeld, who played most of the opener and fired four touchdown passes, may end up being the answer for IU. Things are much shaker for Michigan State and Purdue, as both teams struggled at the quarterback spot in their openers. The Spartans likely will continue to play multiple signal-callers, while Rob Henry's starting spot at Purdue could be in jeopardy if he doesn't take better care of the ball.

2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...

3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.

4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.

5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
Recognizing the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 1:

Northwestern LB Collin Ellis: The Wildcats didn't mind watching Ellis experience some deja vu against Cal. In the third quarter, he pulled down a deflected pass for the interception, made a nice cut and then ran it back 56 yards for a touchdown. One quarter later? It was almost like watching Ellis on rewind -- he grabbed another deflected pass and this time sprinted 40 yards for the score. That's right, the linebacker picked off two passes for two touchdowns. His career interceptions total before the game? Zero. Give that man a helmet sticker. (Hey, Adam, can we get away with giving him two?)

Wisconsin running game: OK, UMass doesn't exactly boast the most dangerous defense. But in a soft opening conference slate, the Badgers impressed by having three running backs each rush for more than 100 yards. Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement ran behind a stout offensive line that allowed the trio to combine for 388 yards and average 9.7 yards per carry. Yes, the running backs nearly averaged a first down every time they touched the ball ... which is probably why Wisconsin won 45-0.

Penn State S/LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: He was expected to be a situational player at both positions but, when LB Mike Hull went down, Obeng-Agyapong took over -- and stepped up in a big way. Syracuse targeted the player, but the Orange just couldn't get the best of him. Last year's starting safety ran the gamut of defensive stats by finishing with a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. (Oh, and he was third on tackles with 6.5.) Two of his turnovers directly led to six PSU points, and the Lions won 23-17. You don't need OG John Urschel to do the math here; Obeng-Agyapong was very important to PSU's victory.

Michigan State LB Jairus Jones and S Kurt Drummond: Take this pair away from the Spartans defense, and the team might not have experienced a happy ending in Week 1. Jones got the team started off on the right foot by intercepting a first-quarter Western Michigan pass and then having the awareness to lateral it to Drummond, who ran in for the defensive touchdown. Of course, neither was finished. Jones would go on to add another pick, while Drummond made a video game-esque play by using one hand to pluck the ball out of the air for a pick. If that play doesn't make an end-of-the-year highlight reel, there's no justice for these Spartans.

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman: Double-teams were no problem for the fifth-year senior, and he showed he'll be one of the Big Ten's big play-makers this season. Midway through the third quarter, UNLV lined up for a 37-yard field goal to bring the game to within one score -- but Hageman was having none of it. He tore through the line and blocked the kick, while teammate Martez Shabazz returned it for a touchdown. All of a sudden, Minnesota led by 17 instead of just seven. Hageman also had five tackles and broke up a pass. He got plenty of pats on the back for his effort, and now he's also got a helmet sticker.
Michigan State entered Friday night's game with a solid defense and question marks at quarterback.

Well, after a 26-13 win over Western Michigan, the Spartans sure didn't do much to change that perception.

Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook struggled to the tune of 17-of-37 passing and couldn't finish drives. Michigan State punted seven consecutive times. The quarterbacks led MSU to exactly one touchdown drive. Even the run game couldn't manage four yards a carry in the first half.

Luckily for the Spartans, their defense was just as good as advertised. Better, even. Kurtis Drummond made an incredible, one-handed interception that is destined for end-of-the-year highlight reels. And Jairus Jones came down with two picks, including one he lateraled to Drummond for Sparty's first touchdown.

Oh, and let's not forget the late-game Shilique Calhoun fumble return for a TD. The Spartans' defense actually outscored their own offense. This defense showed that it could still be one of the best groups in the nation. Outside of Western Michigan's second-quarter scoring drive, the Broncos' offense just couldn't get anything started.

But, on the flip side, neither could Michigan State.

Mark Dantonio tried to flip his two quarterbacks around in hopes of igniting the sputtering unit. But no matter who was under center, the result was the same: Punt, punt, punt. Each signal-caller made his fair share of bad throws, but the wideouts didn't exactly help them out either. Nothing did -- from the play-calling to the decision-making.

On Maxwell's first four drives, three ended when he threw short of the marker on third down. Third-and-3? Two-yard pass. Third-and-5? Three-yard pass. Third-and-8? Two-yard pass. (Oh, and on that other drive? Maxwell ran seven yards on a 3rd-and-10 play.)

Michigan State endured nearly an hourlong weather delay, but the game was going south well before the break. Put simply, MSU might have won -- but it also now holds more question marks on offense than it did before the opener.

The defense is great, and the offense is not. The big question now remains whether this team can still have a great season as a result.
It's time for the second half of our Big Ten personnel roundup entering season-opening weekend. In case you missed Part I, which featured most of the Week 1 depth charts, be sure and check it out.

Michigan State released its depth chart, so we'll start there. Minnesota and Nebraska will release theirs later this week.


Depth chart
  • There are two unsettled positions on defense as Michigan State lists co-starters at defensive tackle (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover) and at free safety (Jairus Jones and Kurtis Drummond). Head coach Mark Dantonio called the Reynolds-Hoover competition "a flip of the coin" and praised Reynolds' progress during fall camp. Reynolds has a 33-inch vertical leap and bench-presses more than 400 pounds. Hoover, a converted defensive end, missed all but one game last season with a fractured rib.
  • Linebacker Darien Harris and defensive end Lawrence Thomas both don't appear on the depth chart because of injuries but will be contributors this season. Harris could see the field early Friday night against Boise State. Sophomore Skyler Burkland is listed as the backup left tackle but likely won't play because of a hand injury.
  • Junior Bennie Fowler and sophomores Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett are listed as Michigan State's top receivers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had 24 receptions last season for the Vols, appears as Fowler's backup.

Here are some other personnel notes from around the league ...


Running back is the big question mark for the Hawkeyes after another summer of attrition. Iowa enters Saturday's opener with three primary backs -- Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy -- as well as two fullbacks in Brad Rogers and Mark Weisman.

Bullock, who had 10 carries for 20 yards, likely will get the start against Northern Illinois, although Garmon, a heralded true freshman, should get plenty of work as well. Rogers is a familiar name, and coach Kirk Ferentz praised Weisman's progress during camp.

"You play the cards that are dealt," Ferentz said. "The running back position is one where we’ve had a lot of players playing. The good news is they've performed pretty well."

Sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who suffered a torn ACL in spring practice, has returned to practice, but Ferentz said it's "weeks or months before we talk about him entering contact or anything live at all." Iowa has been cautious about live tackling involving its running backs in practice, particularly those who have game experience.


Boilers coach Danny Hope didn't sound too concerned about playing without top middle linebacker Dwayne Beckford, indefinitely suspended Monday following his latest arrest. Purdue practiced without Beckford during spring ball -- he was working his way back from another legal issue -- and rotated several players at middle linebacker. Senior Antwon Higgs appears to be the next man in, and converted quarterback Sean Robinson is behind him.

Sophomore Joe Gilliam, who recorded seven tackles last year and made one start, should be a bigger part of the plan as well.

"I thought in the recruiting process he was one of the top players in our state," Hope said of Gilliam. "I thought Joe was probably the next guy in line [behind the starters]."

  • Not surprisingly, Tre Roberson has emerged as Indiana's starting quarterback after taking over the top spot as a true freshman in 2011. Roberson beat out junior college arrival Cam Coffman and freshman Nate Sudfeld for the job. Coffman will serve as Roberson's backup. Although Roberson struggled in Tuesday's morning workout, coach Kevin Wilson has been pleased with the sophomore. "He's embraced the challenge," Wilson said. "He definitely can make some plays as a bit of a dual-threat guy. He's embraced the competition. He has been by far our most consistent quarterback."
  • Roberson will be passing the ball more in 2012, and he'll have a deeper group of wide receivers at his disposal. How deep? Wilson said that veterans Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson enter the season as the team's No. 5 and No. 6 receivers (Hughes is suspended for the opener against Indiana State). Kevin Wilson had high praise for sophomore Cody Latimer, limited by a sports hernia injury last season. Speedster Nick Stoner also should be a bigger part of the mix at receiver. "It's not because they've [Hughes and Duwyce Wilson] fallen off but because we've got some good players," the coach said. "We've got some competition, we've got some depth, we've got some young speed and I just think we're close to having a more complete unit there. We're not great at receiver, but we do have more playmakers."
  • Illinois' secondary isn't anywhere near full strength as it prepares to face Western Michigan and talented quarterback Alex Carder. The team's top two safeties, Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, both are nursing injuries and didn't appear on Monday's depth chart. Also, top cornerback Terry Hawthorne has a sprained ankle that will limit him only to defense for the first few games. Illinois wanted to use the athletic Hawthorne as another option at receiver, a position with little proven depth. The bigger question is how much the ankle will limit the senior with his primary cornerback responsibilities.
  • Although the Illini will rotate plenty at running back, receiver and tight end on Saturday, they won't employ a two-quarterback system, which had been rumored during camp. Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty said Tuesday that he's not a big believer in rotating quarterbacks, so junior Nathan Scheelhaase will take most or all of the snaps.
  • Urban Meyer expects "six seconds of great effort" from Ohio State's freshmen in Saturday's opener against Miami (Ohio). Asked which freshman he was most curious to see, Meyer identified defensive back Devan Bogard as well as freshman linebacker David Perkins, who "really exploded the last couple of days."
  • Meyer said freshman Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith are "very close" for the No. 2 running back spot behind Carlos Hyde. Dunn has been a bit more consistent in camp and has a slight edge.
  • Meyer said Storm Klein's role going forward is yet to be determined and that recently reinstated linebacker is still "making up a bunch of stuff" after missing almost all of fall camp. Meyer based his decision to reinstate Klein on a domestic violence charge being dismissed against the senior, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that it has been easier to go through the preseason this year as opposed to 2011, when talk of quarterback Dan Persa's health dominated fall camp. Although Northwestern knew all along that Persa wouldn't play in the first few games and Kain Colter would start, it has been easier for Colter this time around.

"Unfortunately, Danny had to go through that tough offseason," Fitzgerald said. "That was not fun. Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago. ... You could definitely tell it was his first start in college football Now he's settled down, he's settled into the role."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his pregame news conference Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are some notes and nuggets:
  • Cornerback Darqueze Dennard will return to the starting lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. Dantonio said Dennard practiced all week and is full-go. Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett would be the next man in at cornerback. Safety Kurtis Dummond (head) also will play and split time at nickel safety with Jairus Jones.
  • Dantonio had roses placed at each player's locker this week to remind them of what's at stake Saturday night: the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 24 seasons. "We've got Rose Bowl things up around our facility," Dantonio said. "[Assistant coach Mark Staten] was out there recruiting in the summer and brought back a bunch of rocks from the Rose Bowl. So we gave everybody a little rock. We'll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them."
  • Dantonio had high praise for sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis, who is tied with fellow Spartans safety Trenton Robinson for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. Lewis is an Indianapolis native. "Isaiah Lewis is, to me, one of those guys who can take over a football game and be an impact player," Dantonio said. "... He's one of our finest football players as a sophomore, and he has great things in store for him as a player in this league, and has a future beyond this league. He tackles, great ball skills, big-play ability. He will make some big plays out there tomorrow night."
  • Although Michigan State will be the home team Saturday night, Dantonio had the team prepare for a normal road game this week. The routine didn't change, and Dantonio reiterated a point he has made about stress vs. pressure. "Pressure is good," he said. "You can succeed with pressure. It makes you have greater attention to detail. You're more focused. Stress is not. Stress is the enemy. We don't want to stress out about this."
  • One oddity of Michigan State's season is that the Spartans won the Legends division despite having the Big Ten's worst rushing offense (139 ypg). Dantonio stressed the need to be balanced against Wisconsin and get top backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker in space. "We've got to have explosive plays," he said. "When we get eight-plus explosive plays, we're 37-5 as a program."
  • Dantonio talked this week with Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose team played at Lucas Oil Stadium in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Izzo also talked to Dantonio about facing the same team multiple times in a season.
  • Dantonio talked about how Michigan State is changing its regional and national perception, pointing to the team's 14-2 mark in Big Ten play and its 24 Big Ten wins in the past four seasons -- the most in the league (Ohio State vacated its seven wins from 2010). Despite these numbers, the Spartans are once again underdogs heading into the title game. "We've been underdogs in six games this year, five or six, whatever it is," he said. "We're sort of unfazed by it. I tell our players, 'Don't worry about what the so-called experts say. The experts are in that locker room, and they're the coaches. We're the people who study that football field. We're the people who have to go out and play in it, live it. And in Wisconsin's locker room, they're the experts.'"
  • Dantonio on Wisconsin: "The respect is there for the University of Wisconsin and how they play. We recognize they're a very big challenge for us. They’re always going to be up there. They've got a great program, they’ve risen up the ranks and I think both of our football teams are going to be on top for a while."

Spartans leaving nothing to chance

November, 12, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Michigan State didn't merely lose a game here last year.

The Spartans didn't merely get "killed," as cornerback Tony Lippett said, in a game he described as "a disaster."

Michigan State, in falling 37-6 to Iowa in 2010, lost the ability to control its own fate in the Big Ten. While the Spartans responded with three consecutive victories to close the season and record a team-record 11 wins, their loss to Iowa came back to haunt them when the BCS bowl selections rolled around.

Mark Dantonio's team was left out, despite a win against Wisconsin, which went to Pasadena because of a stronger BCS standings profile.

The Spartans once again came to Kinnick Stadium with their Rose Bowl fate in their hands. And this time, they refused to let it go, surging to a 31-7 halftime lead and prevailing 37-21 against Iowa.

"Like [linebacker] Max Bullough said, we've just got to take it on our own," Lippett said. "We can't think about other people losing or stuff like that. We're in the driver's seat, so let's just take it."

Michigan State can win the division next week with a win against Indiana and a Nebraska loss to Michigan. If the Spartans beat Indiana and Northwestern the following week, they'll be headed to Indy, no matter what any other team does.

"We're right where we want to be," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Can't ask for anything more than that."

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMichigan State's Kirk Cousins completed 18 of 31 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into the game, Dantonio talked about the need to weather the storm against Iowa or be the storm. Turned out, the Spartans experienced both.

They established control from the onset, as Le'Veon Bell rushed for 9 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Michigan State racked up 37 rush yards on its opening possession and 91 in the first half -- just 10 yards shy of its rushing total for its previous road game at Nebraska.

"[Offensive coordinator] Dan Roushar came out and [said], 'Run the ball, prove a point,'" said Bell, who finished with a season-high 112 rush yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and added two receptions for 49 yards. "We ran it effectively today, and that's a big reason why we won the game."

After falling behind 30-0 at halftime last year and eventually trailing Iowa 37-0, Michigan State went to the locker room with a 24-point lead.

"They were a lot more ready to play than we were," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Dantonio kept the foot on the gas, calling a wide receiver pass and a fake field goal -- a play boringly nicknamed "Gold" -- with a 31-7 lead. While some saw it as a response to Iowa calling a reverse pass with a 31-point, fourth-quarter lead in last year's contest, Dantonio said he wasn't trying to send a message.

"I just kept telling our coaches, 'Play like we're even, don't play like we're ahead, don't let our players play like we were ahead,'" Dantonio said. "... Maybe people from Iowa don't think it was close. I personally thought it was a close football game in that second half."

He was right. Michigan State's first win in Iowa since 1989 wouldn't be so easy.

A storm arrived late in the third quarter, as Iowa's big-play offense came alive behind senior wide receiver Marvin McNutt (8 catches, 130 yards, TD). The Hawkeyes recorded two quick touchdowns to close to within 13 points entering the fourth quarter.

But Michigan State stood its ground and did enough to keep Iowa at arm's length. The defense flustered Iowa QB James Vandenberg, who had arguably his worst passing performance of the season. In a game in which Michigan State received contributions from so many sources, it was fitting that Jairus Jones, a safety who tore his Achilles' tendon late this spring and seemed unlikely to play this season, forced a fumble in the red zone that Lippett recovered to seal the win with 2:53 left.

Michigan State had 10 different defenders record either a sack, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, a fumble recovery or a pass breakup. On offense, the Spartans had five players record multiple receptions, while Bell and junior Edwin Baker combined for 163 rush yards. Although top wideout B.J. Cunningham had two touchdown grabs, fellow receiver Keshawn Martin (87 receiving yards, 28-yard pass completion) and tight end Brian Linthicum (5 receptions, 71 yards) were bigger factors.

When Dantonio entered the locker room afterward, "there were so many people to congratulate," he said.

Dantonio had many options for the game ball, but he handed it to Cousins, who brought the pigskin into the postgame interview room. Cousins threw three interceptions in last year's loss, including a pick-six.

The senior, who grew up rooting for Iowa and had several family ties to the school, capitalized on his chance for redemption. Cousins fired three touchdown passes and no interceptions. While he fumbled several snaps, he didn't hurt his team.

"It's special to be able to win and go out on the right note," said Cousins, who took pictures with folks wearing both Spartan green and Hawkeye black after the game. "I guess when I go back to visit my grandparents every summer in Iowa, I can feel a little better about the vacation than I felt last summer."

The win marked the 34th for Cousins and his fellow seniors, moving them past last year's seniors as the winningest class in team history. Under Dantonio, Michigan State now has won a road game against all but three Big Ten squads (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska).

"With the nature of what coach Dantonio is doing here at Michigan State, there have been a lot of things 'first time' or 'best ever,'" Cousins said. "A lot of firsts and a lot of special accomplishments."

But there's one special accomplishment left, one important first to achieve. Michigan State is three wins away from its first Rose Bowl appearance since Jan. 1, 1988.

"We're one win closer," Dantonio said. "... The farther we go, the higher the [stakes]. We want to still be in a position to play 14 games.

"We're not there yet, but we're getting closer."

Spartans-Huskers pregame notes

October, 29, 2011
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Greetings from Memorial Stadium, where a chilly morning has given way to sunny skies and what should be very pleasant conditions for an important Big Ten football game. Temperatures could reach the 60s by the second half.

With defensive tackle Thad Randle out with a knee injury and Jared Crick done for the year, Nebraska is very young in its interior defensive line. Two redshirt freshman -- Chase Rome and Jay Guy -- are in the top four of the rotation there. Guy made his career debut last week at Minnesota.

For Michigan State, safety Jairus Jones is dressed and went through warm-ups. He has missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon. And of course, William Gholston is back at defensive end after serving a one-game suspension. He could play a key role, not only in getting pressure but using his height to bat down passes from Taylor Martinez.

It's almost time for kickoff ...

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

As decommitments, down-to-the-wire decisions and late pledges dominated national signing day, Michigan State quietly inked a recruiting class that head coach Mark Dantonio thinks can elevate the program to the next level.

The Spartans picked up a 23-man group rated by several recruiting services in the Top 25 nationally, and they did it without the drama many programs went through on Wednesday. The depth and location of Michigan State's class stood out, as Dantonio and his assistants addressed pressing and future needs at running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. They also did so almost exclusively with homegrown players, as 12 recruits hailed from Michigan and all but two from the Big Ten region.

I caught up with Dantonio on Thursday morning to discuss his latest class.

You graded this class an 'A.' Why?

Mark Dantonio: Well, [reporters] asked me. I labeled it an 'A,' maybe an 'A-minus,' basically because in four or five publications, we were ranked in the top 20. And the fact we filled so many needs. And when you really get down to it, we're the biggest evaluators of our players. We've worked with them personally, we've watched them play games in person, we've watched countless films on them. And when I look back, we made decisions to recruit a lot of these guys back in December of [2007] and spent over a year recruiting them. And 16, 17, 18 of these guys, we targeted in January and got 16 early commitments from them. And they stayed strong. I feel very good about them as people -- we've got some excellent students -- and also some outstanding football players.

You've been pretty realistic about your expectations for where you wanted the program to go: bowl game, New Year's Day bowl and then BCS game, Rose Bowl or whatever. Where does this class fit in to your short-term and long-term plan?

MD: It gives us a very solid foundation. The first class that we brought in here in '07, it was a class we had two or three months to work on. Six of those guys played and continue to be starters for us. This last year's class, six more played as true freshmen. This class will have every bit the numbers of young players playing, and this is the first class that really sets a foundation for us in terms of top to bottom, a full class. It's so balanced in the numbers: three linebackers, three DBs, four defensive linemen, a kicker, a quarterback, two tight ends, two running backs and four offensive linemen. So we sort of hit every position group, and we have excellent players at all of those areas.

When you get so many guys at so many positions, did you go into it with a set of needs, or were you trying to build depth across the board?

MD: No, there were key needs. We're relatively a young football team, graduated quite a few players the last two years. We took big linebackers last year that are growing into defensive ends, so we brought outstanding speed linebackers in this year. We had a need in the secondary for certain players, especially at safety with what we had lost in the last couple years. And next year, we have seven seniors in our secondary, so it's always important to bring in quality players at that position for the future. And then you look at the wide receiver position, we've got a good core back, but we needed to expand on our speed in that area.

We only had two quarterbacks on scholarship last year [Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins] that could play. Now again, two quarterbacks [Cousins and Keith Nichol], so it was important that we bring a solid quarterback in [Andrew Maxwell]. Our kicker [Brett Swenson] is a senior, so a guy that can kick off consistently into the end zone or to the goal line and a guy that can take over after Swenson leaves, all those things are important. Offensive line, we're losing players as well. So all these individuals have been recruited for a purpose.

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