NCF Nation: Joel Foreman

Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.

3-point stance: Courageous Spartans

December, 20, 2011
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1. Michigan State fifth-year senior Arthur Ray Jr., spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons fighting bone cancer in his left leg. After spending nearly two years on crutches, Ray returned to play in three games this season. The Football Writers Association of America named Ray the winner Monday of the Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. Someone should create an award for Spartans; left guard Joel Foreman, who gave up his streak of 22 straight starts so that Ray could start the 2011 opener against Youngstown State.

2. Former ESPN announcer Craig James announced Monday that he is running in the Republican primary for the 2012 U.S. Senate in Texas. If the former SMU tailback is elected, he will join a very short list of senators who played college football. Sen. Joe Manchin (D.-W.Va.) went to West Virginia on a football scholarship but got hurt. Former senators John Culver of Iowa and the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts were teammates at Harvard. I know I must be missing others. Let me know at Ivan.Maisel@espn.com.

3. Coaches love to use bowl practices as a pre-spring practice for next season. At Boise State, for example, sophomore Joe Southwick and freshman Grant Hedrick prepared for replacing Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history. Brent Pease, the Broncos’ quarterback coach, said he must figure out what they know and how well they know it. “What [will] they understand in the heat of the moment?” Pease asked. “None of them have really been [in when] the game’s on the line.”
Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa
WR: B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State
TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern
OL: David Molk, Michigan
OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OL: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
OL: Reilly Reiff, Iowa

DEFENSE

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
DL: Devon Still, Penn State DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB:
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Nick Sukay, Penn State

SPECIALISTS

P: Anthony Fera, Penn State
K: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

Comments: We said before the season that the strength in the Big Ten lay in the interior lines, and that is illustrated in our picks. Still and Worthy had All-American seasons, and Simon was great as well. We didn't even have room for Michigan's Mike Martin, who had a terrific season. Our offensive line has two centers in Molk and Konz (two Rimington Trophy finalists) because we thought that position was much stronger than tackle. (Konz has played guard in his career, so we could figure it out if we actually had to play with this team). Some of our toughest choices came at the second receiver spot, where we liked Cunningham's production down the stretch far more than A.J. Jenkins' early numbers for an Illinois team that faded badly; the third linebacker spot, where we could have gone with Taylor's teammate Chris Borland or Illinois' Jonathan Brown; and the second safety selection, where we chose Sukay over Northwestern's Brian Peters, Minnesota's Kim Royston or Wisconsin's Aaron Henry because we felt Sukay made a big impact on a better defense. Lastly, only eight players who we chose on our preseason All-Big Ten team ended up on our official postseason squad. That shows how much things can change from season to season -- and it also shows that maybe our prognosticating skills need some improvement.

Spartans, Badgers becoming B1G powers

November, 30, 2011
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For much of its history, the Big Ten staged a championship game at the end of the season. It was called Ohio State vs. Michigan.

Then the league added Penn State in the 1990s and Nebraska in 2011, two more blue-chip programs used to competing for national championships on at least a semi-annual basis. It made sense, then, to split the four of those schools up when the conference went to divisions this year so as to create competitive balance. Let them duke it out in the regular season and then meet for a winner-take-all affair in Indianapolis.

Except it hasn't turned out that way, at least in Year One of the Big Ten title game. All four of the league's most tradition-filled powers are sitting home this weekend, waiting for bowl invitations. Instead, Michigan State and Wisconsin are battling for the Stagg-[Name Redacted] Championship Trophy on Saturday.

"The fact that the standard names aren't here, really, it's a new era," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

The Spartans and Badgers are doing their best to change the perception of who the real Big Ten superpowers are.

It's not all that surprising to see Wisconsin in the title game. The program has been steadily enhancing its reputation for some time, going to three Rose Bowls in the 1990s under Barry Alvarez and punching a ticket to Pasadena last season by winning a share of the league title. Last week's blowout victory over Penn State gave the Badgers 10 wins for the third straight year, the first time that has been done in school history. Wisconsin is 31-7 since 2009, the best record by any Big Ten team in that span.

"A lot of positive things are going on here," said head coach Bret Bielema, who is 59-18 since succeeding Alvarez. "I was able to sit in my office [Sunday] with a recruit, and I pointed at my desk. I told him, 'Over the last 20 plus-years, only two coaches have sat there. Some other programs have had three, four and even five coaches in that exact same time.' So the consistency is there."

The Badgers have been knocking on the door of the national elite, finishing No. 5 in the final BCS standings last year and coming within a couple of last-minute, long touchdown throws of getting into the national title chase this season. The success of Russell Wilson at quarterback has likely opened new recruiting doors, showing that quarterbacks can become stars in Madison, not just huge offensive linemen and running backs.

Wisconsin knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State last season and no doubt benefited from the Buckeyes' struggles this season (even though the Badgers lost in Columbus). Urban Meyer will make life more difficult in the Leaders Division, but Bielema has built a program with staying power.

"We can be one of the elite teams in this conference and take the conference and make it ours," Wisconsin senior defensive lineman Patrick Butrym said. "But we need to have success for more than two years if we want to do that."

Having success for two straight years had often proved elusive for Michigan State. The Spartans have long been known as one of the most inconsistent, arguably underachieving, teams in the Big Ten. Every step forward in East Lansing seemed to be accompanied by a pratfall.

That's beginning to change under Dantonio. The Spartans followed up last year's 11-1 regular-season record with a Legends Division championship this year. They proved they could win on the road, continued their recent dominance against rival Michigan and snapped a losing streak at Ohio State. For the first time in school history, Michigan State has put together back-to-back 10-win seasons.

"We've worked long and hard to try to remove that stigma and build a championship-type program here," Dantonio said. "Right now, Michigan State is moving in the direction we want to move in. I don't think we've accomplished our ultimate goal yet, but we're very, very close."

Dantonio says Wisconsin is one of the programs he looked to emulate when he took over the Spartans. Some hurdles remain, including winning a bowl game. Last season, Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten title but got destroyed 49-7 by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

"We felt like, at the very least, we should have gone to a BCS game [last season]," Dantonio said. "In retrospect, we didn't play to that level when we had a chance, so that ended the discussion as far as I was concerned. It was like we climbed a mountain, got to the top and found out there were other mountains to climb."

The Rose Bowl remains Mount Everest for the Spartans. They haven't reached that summit since 1988. To put that in perspective, offensive lineman Joel Foreman pointed out that he and the team's other fifth-year seniors were born in 1988.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is trying to win a second consecutive Big Ten title for only the third time in history. The other two came in 1998-99 and way back in 1896-97. Three of the Badgers' wins in that pair of 19th century glory years were credited against Madison High School.

Safe to say that the competition is a little tougher these days. But so are Michigan State and Wisconsin. They might not have the tradition of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska, but times are changing.

"You can't erase the history those four schools have had," Bielema said, "but history is in the history books. We try to focus on the now and what's in the newspaper today."

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 21, 2011
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Saw you so much clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.

Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.

[+] EnlargeJustin DuVernois
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireIllini punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Wisconsin's Conor O'Neill after a game-changing fumbled snap Saturday.
Biggest play: Illinois led Wisconsin 14-0 in the second quarter when punter Justin Duvernois dropped the ball after catching the snap. The Badgers' Conor O'Neill tackled him at the 2-yard line to set up a Montee Ball touchdown run and finally give Wisconsin some momentum. Who knows how the game would have unfolded differently had the Illini taken a 17-0 lead into half instead of 17-7. And for a team that had special-teams breakdowns in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was good for Wisconsin to get one back in the kicking game.

Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?

Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.

Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.

Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.

"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."

It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.

"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."


EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Not long after his interception for a touchdown against Michigan sealed a 28-14 win, Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis fired the first shot toward Madison.

"Wisconsin should know we're coming," Lewis said. "They have a good offense, and that quarterback [Russell Wilson]. But they should just know our defense is coming. And just like any other team, if they're throwing the ball up, our DBs are going to go get it, our linebackers are going to go get it and our lineman are getting after the quarterback. And they're going to hurt him."

Those are bold, confident words considering that the No. 4 Badgers have clearly been the class of the Big Ten through the first half of the season. But the way these Spartans are playing, especially defensively, the confidence is understandable.

After all, they just finished making Denard Robinson, arguably the most difficult player in the nation to contain, look lost and confused. Their offensive line, beset by injuries and youth, finally came together and paved the way for a 167-yard rushing day for tailback Edwin Baker. They bullied and beat the Wolverines for the fourth straight year, the first time Michigan State has done that since 1962.

"I don't need to say a word the rest of my life," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I've just got to hold up four fingers."

The Spartans have a chance to hold up just their index finger, at least in the Big Ten. They are the last team left in the Legends Division with an unbeaten conference record, making them an early front-runner to get to Indianapolis on Dec. 3. If that happens, it will likely be because the defense led the way.

Michigan State entered Saturday's game ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, a perch that seemed shaky when Michigan drove 80 yards for a touchdown on the game's first possession. From then on, however, the top ranking started to make sense.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Denard Robinson, left, is sacked by Michigan State's Kevin Pickelman during the third quarter Saturday.
The Wolverines managed just 170 total yards after their opening drive. Like they did two weeks ago against Ohio State, the Spartans caused all sorts of problems with their pressure. They followed up a nine-sack day in Columbus with seven more in this game, which is even more impressive because Robinson is usually so good at slipping away from tacklers.

But Robinson netted only 42 rushing yards on 18 carries, as he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for 36 negative yards. Already a wobbly passer, Robinson struggled to even throw near many of his receivers in swirling winds in excess of 25 m.p.h. He completed just nine of his 24 passes and frequently was replaced on passing downs by Devin Gardner, who didn't fare much better (3-of-7 for 45 yards).

"They always want to talk about the September Heisman and how good he is, but we played well," Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. "You never want to let a guy like Denard burn you with his feet, so you try to put pressure on him to throw the ball. And when he has to throw, he's a little less accurate than he's supposed to be."

The Spartans had already proved their defensive worthiness this year. Maybe the most promising development on Saturday came on the offensive side.

In its two losses last season, and in games against Notre Dame and Ohio State this season, Michigan State became too one-dimensional because it couldn't run the ball. The offensive line features three first-year starters and lost some key contributors to injury early in the season. But the Spartans averaged 5.5 yards per carry against Michigan, and Baker repeatedly ran through big gaps on the way to his first 100-yard performance of the season.

"They were definitely more physical," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They pounded us and ate us up."

One of the offensive line's lone veterans, senior guard Joel Foreman, saw the improvement begin during Michigan State's bye week last week.

"Because of all the injuries, we had to put some new guys in there halfway through the season," Foreman said. "The bye week let the more experienced guys rest their bodies a little bit and got those young guys a lot of work. It's an amazing thing to see a young offensive line play with an edge. That usually doesn't happen."

A search party has been sent out for the second-best team in the Big Ten. Nebraska entered the season as a co-favorite along with Wisconsin, but the Cornhuskers' defense has disappointed. Michigan had sneaked up to No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll after starting 6-0, but Saturday's game exposed some serious cracks in Maize and Blue facade. Illinois, which also jumped out of the gates 6-0, didn't look so hot against Ohio State.

Well, maybe Michigan State is the second-best team in the league. Wisconsin's last regular-season loss happened here in East Lansing last year, and the Badgers come to Spartan Stadium next Saturday night. The first shots have already been fired.

"I think it's going to be the test of who plays for the Big Ten championship," Baker said.
Joel Foreman can still remember the look on their faces.

Foreman was a redshirt freshman offensive lineman for Michigan State in 2007 when the Spartans lost to Michigan 28-24 at home. It was the sixth straight loss in the series for the guys in green, and another class of seniors went out winless against their rival.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State, led by Kirk Cousins, has beaten rival Michigan three straight times.
"You could see how much it meant to the seniors, and for them to leave never to have beaten Michigan," Foreman told ESPN.com, "it was pretty impacting, seeing how it affected them and how much they wanted to do that and weren’t able to."

The expressions could be very different this Saturday.

Michigan State has won the past three games against Michigan and has a chance for its first four-game winning streak in the Paul Bunyan Trophy game since 1959-62. The Spartans have only won four straight against the Wolverines three times in their history, the other two streaks coming from 1950-53 and 1934-37. Maybe most importantly, a whole group of seniors, including Foreman, can say they never lost to Michigan during their playing careers.

“It would mean a lot to me and my senior class," safety Trenton Robinson said. "It hasn’t been done in a long, long, long time, so to do something that hasn’t been done is always a good feeling. It would change the tide in Michigan and let everyone know that Michigan State is here and here to stay.”

The Spartans have already accomplished one milestone this season. In their last game, they beat Ohio State 10-7 for their first win in Columbus since 1998. With two dozen players on the roster from the state of Ohio, that was an emotional and important victory for the program.

And yet, Foreman said the players hadn't even gotten to their locker room after that win before talk started turning toward Michigan. This is, after all, the in-state rivalry, and Michigan is the team they have to hear about all year long.

"It's personal," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "It's very personal. I grew up in Michigan, so it means a lot to me and I take it very, very seriously. We talk about this as a streets versus alleys game. If you beat Michigan, you can walk the streets. If you lose, you walk in the alleys."

Michigan State has been walking tall for the past three years. Nowhere is that more evident than on the left arm of Jerel Worthy. The junior defensive tackle showed up for fall camp this year with a new tattoo, which depicts a Spartan warrior stepping on the fallen body of a football player with a block "M" on his helmet. It's not exactly subtle.

The tattoo attracted a lot of media attention this summer, and now Michigan players will see it up close for the first time. What does Worthy expect the reaction to be?

"They're not going to be happy about it," he said. "I'm sure those guys will be riled up and ready to go. It's a little more incentive for those guys. But everybody is already going to be amped up."

Of course, Michigan's top rival has always been Ohio State. The Wolverines measure themselves against the Buckeyes and sometimes see themselves as better than their neighbors in East Lansing. Former Michigan running back Mike Hart infamously referred to Michigan State as "Little Brother" after the 2007 win.

"Little Brother," though, hasn't lost to the supposed bigger brother since then. There's no question this year that the game matters to the Maize and Blue, as first-year coach Brady Hoke installed a countdown clock to both the Michigan State and Ohio State games at Schembechler Hall. The Spartans believe they have made people stand up and notice.

"A lot of people in Michigan are Michigan fans," Robinson said. "That’s how it was. I know it’s not the same any more. They’re like, ‘OK, Michigan State is here. They’re playing and they’re winning.’”

They've won three straight in this all-important rivalry. A fourth victory Saturday would create some pretty memorable expressions.

Big Ten Week 1 rewind

September, 5, 2011
9/05/11
1:00
PM ET
Week 1 is in the books. Now it's time for a book review.

Be kind, rewind:

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmNorthwestern running back Mike Trumpy, right, celebrates a TD against Boston College.
Team of the week: Northwestern. Missing star quarterback Dan Persa, the Wildcats still went on the road to Boston College and won 24-17. Most impressively, their offensive line pushed around what had been the nation's stingiest rush defense a year ago. If the offensive line can continue to play like that, and Persa can come back (Persa) strong, then Northwestern will be a factor in the Legends Division race.

Best game: Northwestern's win, again. The game was close throughout, and Boston College drove into the red zone in the waning seconds before a Vince Browne sack ended matters.

Biggest play: Purdue's Ricardo Allen blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt by Middle Tennessee's Alan Gendreau on the game's final play, preserving a 27-24 victory. It was sweet redemption for Allen, whose earlier fumble on a punt return set up a Blue Raiders touchdown. And had the Boilermakers lost this game, it could have set a bad tone for their season.

Best call: This one happened on Wednesday of last week, when Michigan State senior guard Joel Foreman approached coach Mark Dantonio and asked if Arthur Ray Jr. could start in his place. Ray is a cancer survivor who had never played in a college game before. Foreman made a selfless decision, stopping his personal 22-start streak. Ray was in tears before the game and played the Spartans' first offensive snap before coming out.

Best meaningless play: The game was wildly out of hand by this point, but Ohio State receiver Evan Spencer made a spectacular, twisting, one-handed catch during the fourth quarter of a 42-0 blowout of Akron. It ultimately meant very little, but Spencer now has his own YouTube moment.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. There was considerable hype accompanying Wilson's debut after his highly publicized transfer from NC State, and Wilson lived up to it. He accumulated 317 total yards, including 255 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing 10 of his 13 attempts. And his sizzling 46-yard touchdown run was something Badgers fans have rarely if ever seen out of the quarterback position.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan linebacker Brandon Herron. Things might be changing in Ann Arbor when a Wolverines defender is garnering all kinds of recognition. Herron deserves it after scoring two defensive touchdowns, one on a 94-yard interception return and the other on a 29-yard fumble recovery. Raise your hand if you predicted Herron would have two more scores than Denard Robinson in the opener.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): Chaz Powell, Penn State. Clearly, you should never kick to Powell to start a season. The Nittany Lions senior returned the opening kickoff against Indiana State 95 yards for a touchdown. That matched his performance from last year, when he took the first kick of the year to the house against Youngstown State.

Worst hangover: Indiana. I remain convinced that Kevin Wilson will eventually do very good things in Bloomington, but Saturday was a very bad start. The Hoosiers lost to Ball State 27-20 at Lucas Oil Stadium, a place in which they're highly unlikely to play in December any time soon. It's hard to use the first-year coach excuse, since Ball State also had a new guy on the sidelines. What's worse, IU got pushed around in the trenches. If that happens against a MAC foe, what will the Hoosiers do against Ohio State, Wisconsin and other Big Ten opponents?

Strangest moment: Mother Nature wins this award in Week 1. Storms and lightning gave us the odd sights of both Kinnick Stadium and the Big House being evacuated -- that's more than 180,000 people who had to be moved out of harm's way. Iowa hadn't experienced an in-game weather delay in the 82-year history of Kinnick Stadium. Things were even crazier in Ann Arbor, where Michigan and Western Michigan agreed to end their game with 1:27 left in the third quarter after a couple of lightning delays. It was the first weather-shortened game in Wolverines history, and who knows what would have happened had the game actually been close at the time.

Week 1 suggests that deciding to play the Big Ten title game indoors might have been the right call.
Instant analysis from No. 17 Michigan State's 28-6 home win over Youngstown State on Friday night:

How the game was won: It wasn't a particularly pretty performance by the Spartans, especially in the first half. They committed seven penalties in the half and turned the ball over on a muffed punt, leading to a Penguins touchdown. If not for a missed PAT and botched field goal by Youngstown State, the halftime score could have been a lot closer than 14-6. Michigan State cleaned up its mistakes in the second half, the offense found a little bit better rhythm in the third quarter and the defense kept the Penguins from making more of an upset bid.

Turning point: Isaiah Lewis intercepted a Kurt Hess pass with a little more than eight minutes left and Michigan State clinging to a 21-6 lead. Lewis returned it to the Penguins' 17, and Le'Veon Bell scored his second touchdown of the game two plays later to salt the game away.

Player of the game: Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham had a career night. He caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. With that performance, Cunningham now is tied for the most career receptions in Michigan State history, an impressive feat at a program that has produced the likes of Plaxico Burress, Charles Rogers and Andre Rison.

Key stat: Quarterback Kirk Cousins was sharp in the opener, completing 18 of 22 passes for 221 yards and a score.

Best moment: Cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. got a surprise start at left guard when Joel Foreman surrendered his spot to his fellow senior. Ray -- who had never appeared in a college game before Friday -- was visibly choked up before the game when he found out he would start. Ray played the first offensive snap for Michigan State -- a 7-yard gain -- before heading to the sidelines in favor of Foreman.

What it means: OK, so it wasn't all that impressive of a victory. But it was a difficult week for head coach Mark Dantonio, whose father passed away just days ago. Some sloppiness was to be expected by the offense with three new starters on the offensive line, and things got better later in the game. The defensive line should have dominated more, and it's surprising that the Spartans couldn't manage a single sack against an FCS opponent. Bottom line: a win is a win, and though the Spartans have some things to clean up and work on, that's the same for virtually every team after Week 1.

Are two heads really better than one?

We've put that to the test in brainstorming the 2011 preseason All-Big Ten team. Not surprisingly, there were some tough choices, and we're sure you'll point them out to us here and here. Past performance definitely factored into our selections, but we also looked for players likely to make a significant impact this season.

Let's get to it.

OFFENSE

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: James White, Wisconsin
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
WR: Derek Moye, Penn State
TE: Kyler Reed, Nebraska
C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
T: Riley Reiff, Iowa
T: Jeff Allen, Illinois
G: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
G: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin

DEFENSE

DL: Jared Crick, Nebraska
DL: Mike Martin, Michigan
DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State
LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Aaron Henry, Wisconsin

SPECIALISTS

K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Brad Nortman, Wisconsin
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Selections by team: Michigan State (5), Wisconsin (5), Nebraska (4), Ohio State (2), Illinois (2), Michigan (2), Penn State (2), Northwestern (1), Purdue (1), Iowa (1), Minnesota (1)
My apologies for posting these a day late -- blame it on Russell Wilson -- but it's time to break down the Big Ten offensive linemen entering the 2011 season.

Rather than list the top 10 across the three position groups, I've decided to go a different route: top five players at each spot. Despite losing standout linemen like Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski, the Big Ten returns several of the nation's top players at their positions.

Center might be the Big Ten's deepest position, while the league also boasts several standout tackles. The guard spot is a bit thin.

Let's take a look.

CENTER

Michael Brewster
Greg Bartram/US PresswireMichael Brewster may be the best center in the country.
1. Michael Brewster, Ohio State, senior -- Brewster enters the season as the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. He has started each of the past three seasons and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media in 2010. Boasting 36 career starts, Brewster could be the top center selected in next April's NFL draft.

2. David Molk, Michigan, senior -- Molk is right up there with Brewster among the nation's truly elite centers. If not for some injury trouble, he could be at the top of the list. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in 2010 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy. Molk has made 29 career starts and displays top-notch blocking skills and leadership.

3. Peter Konz, Wisconsin, junior -- Konz is a big reason why Wisconsin's line shouldn't take a step back despite losing Carimi, Moffitt and Bill Nagy. He has made 20 starts at center in the past two seasons and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010. After missing most of spring practice with an ankle injury, Konz's health this fall is a big key for Wisconsin.

4. Mike Caputo, Nebraska, senior: The Huskers' line has a few question marks entering the season, but center isn't one of them. Caputo is the undisputed leader of the group after starting every game in 2010. The former walk-on earned consensus honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and helped Nebraska eclipse 200 rushing yards in 10 of 14 games.

T-5. James Ferentz, Iowa, junior: Ferentz has emerged as an All-Big Ten caliber lineman and will lead one of the league's better groups this season. He started every game in 2010 and showed impressive durability, playing every offensive down in nine contests. Iowa needs an elite offensive line this season, and Ferentz will be leading the charge.

T-5. Graham Pocic, Illinois, junior: Along with Jeff Allen and others, Pocic leads an Illinois line that punished opponents at times last season. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter. Pocic solidified a line that helped Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing and rank 11th nationally (246.1 ypg).

TACKLE

1. Riley Reiff, Iowa, junior: Reiff has put himself in position to become the next truly great Hawkeyes offensive lineman. He started every game in 2010 and 11 of 13 contests in 2009, earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. Already projected as a potential top-15 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Reiff should be in the mix for the Outland Trophy as he anchors the Iowa line.

2. Mike Adams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes will be counting the days until Adams returns from his suspension to open the season. After some ups and downs early in his career, Adams blossomed last season and started to meet the lofty expectations placed on him coming out of high school. He earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. If not for the five-game suspension, he would be a top contender for the Outland Trophy.

3. Jeff Allen, Illinois, senior: One of the league's best and most experienced offensive linemen, Allen will lead a strong Illini line this fall. He has started 34 games in his first three seasons at Illinois, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media last fall. Allen is a bona fide NFL prospect who should challenge players like Brewster, Molk and Reiff for Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors.

4. Al Netter, Northwestern, senior: Besides star quarterback Dan Persa, Netter is the only player coach Pat Fitzgerald considers an undisputed starter entering the fall. Perhaps it's because Netter has started each of the past 39 games. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 and should be primed for a big senior season. Northwestern needs him to help spark its rushing attack.

5. Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin, junior: We'll get a full read on Wagner after he switches from right tackle to the left side to replace Carimi, but the expectations are high. He earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010 after stepping in for the injured Josh Oglesby at right tackle. Wisconsin really likes Wagner's potential, and he'll have a chance to blossom at the more prestigious tackle position.

GUARD

1. Joel Foreman, Michigan State, senior: An easy pick here as Foreman enters the season as one of the nation's top left guards. He has earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and started 36 games at left guard, including each of the past 22. Offensive line is a huge question mark for the Spartans, so Foreman's play will be huge.

2. Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, senior: Zeitler will be a leader this fall for a Wisconsin line looking to continue its tradition of excellence. He has started 22 games at right guard in each of the past two seasons and helped Wisconsin rank among the nation's top rushing offenses. Zeitler earned consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2010.

3. Hugh Thornton, Illinois, junior: Thornton has played a lot of football in his first two seasons and could take another step in his development this fall. He started eight games at weak-side guard in 2010 after starting seven games at tackle in 2009. Illinois expects the offensive line to be its strength, and Thornton is a big part of the group.

4. Ken Plue, Purdue, senior: This pick is a bit risky after Plue worked his way into the coaches' dog house in spring practice. But he has the size, the skills and the experience (28 starts) to become one of the Big Ten's top guards this fall. If the 6-7, 358-pound Plue can work out his issues, look out for him and the Boilers.

5. Patrick Omameh, Michigan, junior: After starting all 13 games for a record-setting offense in 2010, Omameh is a reason why hopes are high for the Wolverines offensive line. He has started 16 consecutive games and has the ability to contend for All-Big honors. Omameh must get a little more consistent this fall, but I like how he projects for 2011.
The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The image will ring a bell for Michigan State fans: a triumphant running back bringing his entire offensive line into the interview room after a huge performance against an archrival.

In 2008, Javon Ringer did it after gashing Notre Dame for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries in a suffocating 23-7 victory at Spartan Stadium. Standing in front of his top five trailblazers, Ringer declared, "I can do nothing without these guys paving the way for me. ... I told y'all they should be doing the interviews instead of me."

As you might remember, Ringer went on to earn All-America honors and the Spartans made their strongest push for a Big Ten title since 1999. Michigan State embodied the "pound green pound" philosophy Mark Dantonio espoused after becoming the team's coach, as Ringer led the nation in carries (390) and scoring (10.2 points per game).

Fast forward to late Saturday afternoon, moments after No. 17 Michigan State finished off a 34-17 win against No. 18 Michigan.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Edwin Baker rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown against Michigan.
The door opened to the visitors' interview room at Michigan Stadium, and Spartans running back Edwin Baker entered, followed by the team's starting offensive line. Baker racked up 147 rushing yards and a touchdown.

What was the plan on offense?

"Pound green pound," Baker said. "Today we showcased to everybody in the world that we're going to run the ball. We're going to be Big Ten champions."

Bold words from Baker, but after Michigan State pounded Michigan into submission Saturday, he might be onto something.

The Spartans' offense is rediscovering its identity after a season of new faces in key places. And this year's unit might have both the balance and firepower Michigan State lacked in 2008, enough to take the team one step further.

Want to see balance? Don Treadwell's offense racked up 287 pass yards and 249 rush yards against Michigan.

Want to see power? Simply watch Michigan State's 10-play, 93-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, which featured eight run plays, capped fittingly by a bruising 8-yard scoring run by Larry Caper that pushed Michigan defenders past their own goal line.

"It got to a point where we could impose our will on them," Spartans guard Joel Foreman said. "We were dominating this line of scrimmage, and that's what we wanted to work for."

Last season, Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing (269.4 yards per game) and first in passing touchdowns (28). But the rushing offense ranked a middling sixth in the league and 73rd nationally.

The Spartans had no clear successor for Ringer and tried several young players, namely both Caper and Baker, as their featured backs.

"That was our main goal this season," Baker said, "establish the run game and run hard and get over 100 yards every game. We didn't do that last season."

The Spartans have returned to the run this fall, eclipsing 200 rushing yards in five of their first six games. Baker on Saturday recorded his third 100-yard effort of the season, and true freshman Le'Veon Bell, who had a 41-yard touchdown dash against Michigan, has twice reached triple digits.

The ground swell hasn't diminished Michigan State's pass attack. Far from it.

Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins dissected Michigan's weak secondary for 284 yards, completing 18 of 25 passes and spreading the ball to eight different receivers. Cousins has improved with each game, executing the play-action to perfection and boosting his completion percentage to 68.2 percent.

"That's what makes our offense so deadly, the ability we have to balance," said receiver Mark Dell, who had a 41-yard touchdown grab and 93 receiving yards in the game. "We can come out all day and run, and still execute, and we can come out and pass and execute.

"The variety that we have and the balance that we show makes our offense dangerous."

Arguably no group came out of Saturday more satisfied than the offensive line, a group heavily doubted before the season. After allowing two first-half sacks, the line kept Cousins clean and wore down Michigan's front, the strength of the Wolverines' defense.

"Every game is a statement game for our offensive line," Foreman said.

And even at the end, with the game well in hand, Michigan State continued to pound away. Facing a fourth-and-2, fifth-year senior center John Stipek told the huddle, "Guys, let's get this first down. I want to beat Michigan."

Baker ran up the gut for 5 yards and then the Spartans took a knee.

The statement?

"We are Big Ten contenders," Baker said. "And we're going to showcase that every week."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Last spring, all eyes were on the quarterback position at Michigan State, with an occasional glance toward the running backs.

Both backfield positions are pretty much settled this year, as Kirk Cousins is the clear No. 1 quarterback and sophomores Larry Caper and Edwin Baker will share carries at running back. The Spartans are also well stocked at both wide receiver and tight end, losing only one major contributor in Blair White and gaining a potential star wideout in converted quarterback Keith Nichol.

[+] EnlargeDantonio
Brett Davis/US PresswireMark Dantonio knows he has some holes to fill on his offensive line.
So where's the drama for Michigan State's offense in spring ball? Look no further than the offensive line.

The Spartans lose three linemen with significant starting experience -- center Joel Nitchman, tackle Rocco Cironi and guard Brendon Moss -- from a front five that allowed the fewest sacks (14) in the Big Ten last fall. Head coach Mark Dantonio will lean on left guard Joel Foreman and left tackle D.J. Young, and center John Stipek started three games while Nitchman was out with an injury.

But other than those three, the Spartans have plenty of question marks up front, which means plenty of competition this spring.

"You'd like to have your two-deep solidified coming out of [spring practice]," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We have enough people. Guys have made strides. But the key is, have they been playing? Have they been coached? Have they actively been doing this?"

The right side of the Spartans' line is wide open, as a large group of players competes at both spots, including Jared McGhaha, Chris McDonald, J'Michael Deane, John Deyo and Antonio Jeremiah, a converted defensive lineman. Several redshirt freshmen also are in the mix, including tackles Henry Conway and David Barrent.

"There's some youth in there that we're trying to polish up," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said.

Dantonio said McGaha is "making a move" at tackle this spring, while McDonald is working as the team's starting right guard right now. Redshirt freshman Nate Klatt is pushing Stipek for the starting center spot.

Both Dantonio and Treadwell singled out Klatt for his play this spring.

Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing last fall, while the run game slipped to 73rd nationally. Don't expect those trends to continue, as the Spartans want to re-establish the run behind Caper, Baker and, hopefully, a solid line.

"We didn't run it as well as we needed to run it, that's the bottom line," Dantonio said. "We've got numbers [at offensive line] and they've all improved, and you see the result of that."

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