NCF Nation: Jordan Norwood


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Penn State wide receivers Derek Moye and Chaz Powell were relaxing in their room Tuesday night when the subject came up again.

The feeling of disrespect tends to fester, and despite three victories this season, both Moye and Powell still sense it.

"Last year, the year before, we were just sitting on the sideline watching these games," Moye said. "Now we're going to be in the spotlight. All eyes are going to be on us and we're happy to be in this position. We're going to go out and show everybody what we can do."
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Penn State wide receiver Derek Moye intends to prove the doubters wrong.

Penn State had turnover at several positions following its Rose Bowl run in 2008, and no spot lost more production than wide receiver. Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood all started for most of their careers and combined for 132 receptions, 1,932 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns last year.

Throw in Williams' production as a rusher and a return man, and it was obvious that Penn State had a major void to fill. Receivers like Moye, Powell, Graham Zug and Brett Brackett had appeared in plenty of games, but their numbers paled in comparison to the big three.

So how have the Rodney Dangerfields of Happy Valley fared so far? Pretty well. Penn State has been forced to throw the ball a lot in its first three games, and Moye, Powell and Zug all have reached double-digits in receptions. They have combined for 37 catches, 474 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

But doubts still linger. Penn State hasn't played anyone so far, and the wideouts are still unproven on the big stage, which arrives Saturday night against Iowa (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

"There's always people who say the competition wasn't there," Moye said. "But this week and in weeks to come, we'll prove what we did the first few weeks wasn't a fluke."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A year ago, Daryll Clark was an unproven commodity competing for Penn State's starting quarterback spot alongside Pat Devlin. Clark now finds himself at the helm of the Nittany Lions as arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten.

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Already entrenched as the starter, Daryll Clark hopes to build on what he accomplished in 2008.

He beat out Devlin for the top job and went on to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors, tallying 2,592 passing yards and 19 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Clark added 282 rush yards and 10 touchdowns for the nation's 14th-rated offense. After helping guide Penn State to an 11-2 mark and a Rose Bowl appearance, the 6-foot-2, 233-pound senior steps into a primary leadership position this spring on an offense that returns only five starters.

Here are Clark's thoughts on spring practice, his emergence last fall and the coming challenges for Penn State.

How different has this spring been for you as opposed to last year?

Daryll Clark: Last spring, it was a big decision on who was going to be the quarterback. It was competition. Whereas now, it's a little bit different. With Kevin Newsome being here, he's a freshman, he has a lot to learn. So this is a time for me to critique the mistakes I made from the past season and fine-tune everything I have to, to become a better quarterback and a better asset to this football team. Just become a bigger and better leader. There was a lot of help with all of the seniors we had last year. We have some this year, and our coaches have been calling upon a lot of our young guys to step to the forefront because we're going to need a lot of leadership to step up this year and fill some gaps. There are a lot of positions up in the air this spring. It's been real interesting. The first practice was pretty weird going out there and not seeing those three wideouts that I'm used to seeing [Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood].

Have you spent a lot of time watching those position battles at O-line and wide receiver?

DC: It's kind of tough to watch because I'm practicing in the thick of things throughout the entire practice. My reps are not limited. My main thing is just trying to get the timing down with all the wide receivers we have now. And it's going very well. With Derrick, Deon and Jordan, after the [2007] Alamo Bowl game, we started working on timing two weeks after. The same thing happened after the Rose Bowl this year with the younger guys. We have everyone on the same page to what we're trying to get accomplished this year, both offensively and defensively. Things have been pretty much going back and forth each practice, so that's a pretty good thing. Our wideouts are doing a great job of catching the ball, downfield blocking and making runs after the catch. Everything is on the up and up right now.

Who has stood out to you among the young guys?

DC: No one's really stood out. I think everyone is working at an even rate -- at a high rate, actually. To name a few, Chaz Powell, Derek Moye, Brett Brackett, Graham Zug, James McDonald, those guys really know that they're going to play this year, so it's important that they get everything down, get the whole terminology of the offense down and get used to the positions that they're going to play. I really haven't seen any nerves or anything like that because a lot of the guys have been playing, but just didn't get as many reps as our senior receivers from last year. They've played in a couple games already. Now they're going to be moving into a starting role, so I think they'll be ready.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Valentine's Day is rapidly approaching, and so is spring practice. Fellow bloggers Heather Dinich and Ted Miller passed out roses to teams in their leagues earlier Friday.

I'm not too big on flowers (neither is my fiancée, thankfully), so here are five Valentine's Day gifts for prominent Big Ten figures.

 
  James Lang/US PRESSWIRE
  Coach Rich Rodriguez would love some improved quarterback play.

1. A quarterback for Rich Rodriguez -- Any improvement Michigan makes must start at the quarterback position, which was a disaster for most of 2008. Whether freshmen Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson step up or holdovers Steven Threet or Nick Sheridan elevate their play, Rod deserves a quarterback who can run the spread offense without tripping over his feet.

2. A wide receiver for Daryll Clark -- Clark, the Penn State quarterback, loses top targets Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Butler finished as Penn State's all-time receptions leader, and Williams was a unique talent. Clark is a smart, efficient quarterback, but he needs a capable target to emerge in spring ball. Another offensive lineman would be nice, too.

3. A magic healing potion for Bill Lynch -- The Indiana head coach saw his roster completely depleted by injuries last season. Indiana isn't at a point where it can survive a rash of injuries, and Lynch needs his key contributors healthy, particularly in the secondary and along the offensive line. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk remain out for spring ball, but Indiana should get a few players back in the mix.

4. An offensive identity for Minnesota -- There were a lot of changes in the Twin Cities this winter, as the Gophers hired new coordinator Jedd Fisch and new line coach/run-game coordinator Tim Davis. The spread is dead and Fisch wants to run a pro-style system, but Minnesota must improve its run game. There will be an adjustment period for players, but they need to get on the same page fast.

5. A quarterback for Bret Bielema -- The quarterback position really hurt Wisconsin last year, and another competition is coming this spring. Game managers have worked at Wisconsin before, but Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr are solid recruits who can do more. Wisconsin must demand bigger things from its quarterbacks going forward.

Jan 1, 4:30 p.m., ABC

USC take by Pac-10 blogger Ted Miller: There's a chance an impressive win by either team might earn a scattering of protest No. 1 votes in the final national polls. But even without major national title implication, this is an intriguing matchup between a pair of traditional national powers led by big-name coaches who couldn't be more different. The popular storyline will be the Nittany Lions "HD" offense vs. the USC defense. It's interesting to note, however, that the Lions touted offense is nearly a statistical dead heat with a Trojans unit that's been maligned all season. USC averages 453 yards and 37.5 points per game; PSU averages 452 yards and 40 points per game. Oh, and the Lions aren't too shabby on defense themselves, ranking fifth in total yards (264) and fourth in scoring (12.4 ppg). Of course, USC, playing in its fifth Rose Bowl in six years, in many ways is in a no-win situation because of a nationwide lack of respect for the Big Ten. The Trojans also have dominated the Big Ten of late, winning eight straight against the conference by an average of 25 points, including four consecutive BCS bowl games.


Penn State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: A Penn State team that struggled to gain respect despite dominant results gets a chance to earn plenty against college football's most respected program in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi.

The Nittany Lions will be underdogs in their first Rose Bowl appearance since Jan. 1, 1995, and they'll face a USC team that has captured the last two Rose Bowls and hasn't lost to a Big Ten team since falling to Penn State in the 1996 Kickoff Classic.

Penn State's toughest challenge will be finding ways to decode a USC defense that statistically could be one of the best in college football history. The Lions' Spread HD offense is most effective when aggressive, and junior quarterback Daryll Clark will have to attack a talent-stocked Trojans secondary with senior wide receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

Though the Lions have an excellent offensive line and strong rushing attack with Evan Royster, Clark and Williams, they might need to take some risks down the field to set up the run.

Points could be hard to come by for Penn State, and the Lions need to be polished on defense and special teams to beat USC. The Lions' underrated defense ranks fifth nationally and boasts standouts in end Aaron Maybin and linebacker Navorro Bowman. Williams is one of the nation's top return men and needs a strong performance to help Penn State win the field-position battle.

Coming up Roses in Happy Valley

November, 22, 2008
11/22/08
9:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State rediscovered what made it such a dominant team for the first two months, and as as a result, the Nittany Lions are going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since Jan. 1, 1995.

 
 Rich Kane-US PRESSWIRE
 Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark got his swagger back, defeating Michigan State, 49-18, and earning the Nittany Lions a Rose Bowl berth.

After three lackluster offensive performances and several troubling starts, the Lions wasted no time in showing that they're the best offense -- and the best team -- in the Big Ten, pounding Michigan State 49-18. As promised, Daryll Clark got his swagger back and accounted for three first-half touchdowns (two pass, one rush) as Penn State surged to a 28-0 lead.

Clark had his best game of the season, and so did wideout Deon Butler, who racked up 133 passing yards and three touchdowns. Clark, Butler and Jordan Norwood overshadowed another dominant defensive effort, as Penn State held Javon Ringer to a season-low 42 yards.

For a team that endured so much off-field drama, this season has changed the mood in Happy Valley. Head coach Joe Paterno has earned the right to determine his own future at the school, which likely will last well beyond the Rose Bowl. And his assistant coaches probably deserve to be named Big Ten Coach of the Year, if that were possible.

Penn State's victory creates several tiers in the Big Ten. The Lions are and Ohio State are on top, and both are worthy of BCS bowl bids (the Buckeyes need Oregon State to lose once). Next comes Michigan State, Northwestern and probably Iowa, followed by Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Michigan State slipped into the second tier with its second poor performance against an elite opponent. The Spartans just aren't quite there yet, though head coach Mark Dantonio has things on the right track in recruiting. Michigan State's talent gap showed today, and when Ringer couldn't get going, an upset became nearly impossible. The defense had no answer for Clark, who moved back in the Big Ten MVP discussion with today's game.

The Spartans aren't a BCS-worthy team and they won't be. The Capital One or Outback bowl will be happy to have them come January.

* To see more on this game, check out the video highlights.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Football weather is here, folks. No snow yet at Kinnick Stadium, but the conditions are brutally cold.

Here are some points of emphasis for No. 3 Penn State and Iowa as they lock horns later today.

PENN STATE

Run to the edges -- Despite having the Big Ten's top center in A.Q. Shipley, the Nittany Lions might struggle to run between the tackles against Iowa standouts Mitch King and Matt Kroul. Primary running back Evan Royster prefers to run up the middle but would be better served on the edges. Penn State also should use Stephfon Green more and pressure Iowa's linebackers with the option.

Stack the box -- Shonn Greene has been Iowa's only consistent weapon on offense. The Lions need to make quarterback Ricky Stanzi beat them down the field. Expect eight and even nine men in the box to contain Greene, the nation's third-leading rusher (139.6) and a player defenders hate to tackle alone.

Make smart decisions in the passing game -- Daryll Clark comes off a concussion and enters a hostile environment with less-than favorable weather conditions. You can bet Iowa will key on Penn State's rushing attack. But the Lions have superior receivers and if there's a weakness to Iowa's defense, it's the secondary. Clark must recognizing downfield passing opportunities when they're available and use senior wideouts Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood.

IOWA

Go Greene -- Keeping Greene on the field and the Penn State offense off it it is paramount for the Hawkeyes. No defense has consistently slowed down the 235-pound junior running back. Iowa needs to control the clock and pound Penn State's front seven with Greene and freshman Jewel Hampton, limiting third-and-long situations.

Red zone execution -- The Hawkeyes are tied for ninth in the Big Ten in red zone offense, scoring only 20 touchdowns on 40 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. They won't get many chances today, so better execution is critical. Greene needs to be more of a weapon near the goal line, and Stanzi must make better decisions.

Win the field-position battle -- Iowa has been in every game this season, and the poor weather could keep the scoring down today. Punter Ryan Donahue needs to have a good day, pinning Penn State deep, so the crowd can get involved. The Hawkeyes have forced a decent amount of turnovers this season (20), and putting Clark in pressure situations is extremely important.

Big Ten picks for Week 11

November, 6, 2008
11/06/08
10:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After going 2-3 in a wild Week 10, my chance for redemption has arrived. The weather could be a major factor in three of the four outdoor games, as rain and potential snow showers are forecasted for Iowa City (where I'll be), East Lansing and Evanston. It'll be room temperature in the Metrodome and Ford Field.

Here's the rundown.

Ohio State 28, Northwestern 13 -- It's simply not a good matchup for Northwestern, and though the Wildcats' much-improved defense could keep things close for a while, Ohio State eventually breaks through behind running back Chris "Beanie" Wells. Northwestern still has injury issues at key positions -- check back later for the official injury report -- and Ohio State's defense seems to be hitting its stride in the second half of the season. This won't be nearly as ugly as the last three seasons, but the Buckeyes prevail.

Wisconsin 31, Indiana 21 -- Both teams have been big disappointments, but Wisconsin's offense appears to be finding a rhythm with quarterback Dustin Sherer and running backs John Clay and P.J. Hill. Indiana's defense continues to regress outside from a few players (Matt Mayberry, Jammie Kirlew), and the Badgers' ground game will be too powerful. Indiana's hopes hinge on its ability to attack the Wisconsin secondary with young wideouts Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher.

Michigan State 23, Purdue 14 -- Bad weather could turn this one into the Javon Ringer show, especially since the Michigan State senior running back is recovering well from a stomach virus. Purdue got going last week behind Justin Siller, but the quarterback spot remains unsettled and Michigan State's defense will capitalize on a banged-up Boilermakers offensive line. It won't be pretty -- then again, it never is with Michigan State -- but the Spartans survive on Senior Day.

Minnesota 28, Michigan 17 -- The Wolverines don't have much to play for and likely will be without starting quarterback Steven Threet. At least they have history on their side, never having lost in the Metrodome. Minnesota comes off a tough loss, which in the past would trigger a collapse, but the Gophers have stronger leadership this year, from the head coach on down. Tim Brewster said this won't be a real rivalry until Minnesota starts winning. The Gophers get the job done, using their familiar formula of forcing turnovers and capitalizing for points against a mistake-prone Michigan team.

Illinois 38, Western Michigan 31 -- This is a tough one. Illinois hasn't won consecutive games since Sept. 6-13. The Illini have had some internal discord and head into an odd environment -- Ford Field, which won't be close to capacity -- to face a high-powered Western Michigan team. Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Tim Hiller both have big days, but Illinois' secondary forces a critical takeaway in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

Penn State 24, Iowa 14 -- The bad weather and the bye week lead to a slow start for Penn State, but Daryll Clark gets things going by attacking Iowa down the field with senior wideouts Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Iowa boasts an excellent defensive front seven that can limit the run game, but Clark will have some deep options. Iowa will be fired up at home, but without much offense besides running back Shonn Greene, the Hawkeyes fall short.

Season record: 58-13 (81.7 percent)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Through its first eight games, Penn State had put up 298 points in the first three quarters. Tonight, the Nittany Lions have been contained, though they're showing some signs of life.

Daryll Clark is beginning to find some gaps in the Ohio State defense, though Penn State just seems a bit out of sync. Without a consistent running game, the Nittany Lions will need Clark and senior wideouts Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood to emerge. The big plays just aren't there tonight for the Lions, who trail in the fourth quarter for the first time this season.

Ohio State continues to convert key third downs and mounted a 13-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 7:28 before another Aaron Pettrey field goal. Buckeyes wideouts Dane Sanzenbacher and Brian Robiskie are stepping up and finding gaps for freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who has made several big-time throws (13-for-18, 174 yards).

Neither team has much of a running game, so this one could be won through the air.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

By all accounts, Malcolm Jenkins could have spent August in an NFL training camp.

Five teams drafted cornerbacks in the first round of April's draft -- Buffalo, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, San Diego -- and Jenkins would have been a great fit with any of them. He had recorded four interceptions and seven pass deflections in back-to-back seasons, earned consecutive first-team All-Big Ten selections and several All-America mentions.

 
 AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
 Against Purdue, Malcolm Jenkins blocked a punt that teammate Etienne Sabino returned to the end zone for the game's only touchdown.

An NFL prototype at 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Jenkins was regarded as one of the best, if not the best cornerback in last year's class. But he opted to return to Ohio State for his senior season, saying he still had more to accomplish as a college player.

Jenkins reported for Buckeyes preseason camp Aug. 3, just as he had the previous three years. He tried to focus on the coming season and the unfinished goals ahead of him -- a national title, the Thorpe Award -- but he couldn't completely block out his own hype.

"The hardest thing in sports, period, and kind of in life, is to handle praise," Jenkins said. "It's kind of easy to handle people doubting you and saying you can't do things because if you have a strong-enough attitude, you'll just use that as fuel.

"But whenever you have people telling you that you're at the top and you're the best, it's hard not to believe it. It's hard to motivate yourself. Your attitude is, 'Well, if I'm at the top, how much better can I get?'"

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- Penn State enters tonight's game trying to further validate itself as a top 5 team and a national title contender. Wisconsin is simply trying to save its once-promising season.

Throw in the possibility of hobbled Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno spending another game in the press box and the game has some intriguing storylines.

Penn State (6-0, 2-0) hasn't won Big Ten road games in consecutive weeks since 1995, when it beat Purdue and Iowa. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-2) had its 16-game home win streak snapped last week against Ohio State and is trying to avoid an 0-3 start to Big Ten play.

A good game night atmosphere, as usual. You know you're in a swing state when people are parading Barack Obama and John McCain signs at house parties before a football game. Things were getting a little heated over on Breese Terrace, which flanks the west side of Camp Randall Stadium, but no punches were thrown.

Nice to see everyone involved in the political process.

The weather is unseasonably warm. Should make for a real nice night of football.

INJURIES Penn State starting wide receiver Jordan Norwood is expected to play tonight after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.

Wisconsin starting left tackle Gabe Carimi is questionable with a knee injury sustained last week. Redshirt freshman Josh Oglesby would start in his place.

WHAT TO WATCH

* Daryll Clark played an extremely smart game last week at Purdue, and the Penn State quarterback will need another poised performance against Wisconsin. Clark has proven himself as a passer, but his ability to scramble and use his athleticism could loom large tonight.

* Wisconsin redshirt freshman running back John Clay has provided a big boost in the last two games, but how much will the coaches give him the ball? Clay's problem isn't ability, but being able to grasp the offense and his responsibilities. The Badgers need him to grow up fast tonight to have a shot at the upset.

* Aside from the final drive, Wisconsin's defense limited the damage against Ohio State's offense. Tonight will provide a much bigger challenge for linebackers DeAndre Levy, Jonathan Casillas and Jaevery McFadden. Penn State's veteran offensive line allows little penetration, and both Evan Royster and Stephfon Green average more than six yards per carry. Missed tackles will result in points, and the Badgers' back seven needs to be sharp.

* Penn State's defensive line has turned in a heroic performance thus far this season, barely skipping a beat despite dismissals and suspensions. Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge has been struggling, and if the Lions can apply steady pressure and force a turnover or two, Evridge could quickly lose confidence. Penn State also could capitalize if Carimi can't play and Oglesby makes his first career start. And finally ... some tidbits for you, courtesy of ESPN's fine research department.

* Bret Bielema will be coaching in his 32nd career game on Saturday. When Bielema was born on Jan. 13, 1970, Joe Paterno had already coached in 43 career games and had two undefeated seasons. Bielema was born 12 days after Penn State beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl following the 1969 season to cap a perfect 11-0 campaign.

* Wisconsin has held Penn State to six points combined in the last two series meetings at Camp Randall Stadium.

* The Badgers love playing night games. Since a 17-9 win at Penn State in 1995, Wisconsin is 21-2 in night games, with one of those losses coming last week against Ohio State.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It should be another revealing week of Big Ten football, particularly in Madison and Evanston. Here are 10 things to track as you watch the action Saturday.

Quarterbacks are popular on this week's rundown.

1. Quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Bacher -- The man who plays better likely will determine the winner of the Michigan State-Northwestern game. Both players share backfields with capable running backs (Heisman Trophy candidate Javon Ringer and Tyrell Sutton), but both signal-callers have struggled with consistency this season. Bacher has dominated the Spartans in two meetings but faces a much-improved defense. Hoyer is starting to hit his stride but still owns an unsightly completion percentage (47.7).

2. Joe Paterno's whereabouts -- With questions looming about the 81-year-old's coaching future beyond this season, Paterno could end up in the press box for the second consecutive week because of a right leg injury. He also might tough it out on the Camp Randall Stadium field, where he suffered a broken left leg in 2006. Penn State has continued to win no matter where Paterno ends up, but the Nittany Lions face a big test against the browbeaten Badgers.

3. Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge -- Evridge remains the Badgers' starter, but head coach Bret Bielema hardly gave him a ringing endorsement this week. The fifth-year senior needs to improve his accuracy and limit mistakes. All-American Travis Beckum had six receptions last week against Ohio State, and Wisconsin could get talented tight end Garrett Graham back in the mix. Aaron Maybin and Penn State's talented defensive line likely will pressure Evridge, who needs to keep his poise.

4. Eric Decker vs. Vontae Davis -- The nation's leading wide receiver goes up against one of the top cover corners in FBS. Decker and Minnesota have a great chance to validate a surprising start against Illinois, which comes off its best game of the year last week at Michigan. Ohio State and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins held Decker in check two weeks ago, and the talented Davis will try to do the same.

5. Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter -- After being replaced in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to Penn State, Painter gets the start against No. 12 Ohio State. Coach Joe Tiller wondered this week whether Painter has been trying too hard after seeing his completion percentage drop (57.6) and his touchdown-to-interception ratio balance out (5-5). Painter's career stats are impressive, but he struggles in big games and needs a strong showing against the Buckeyes.

6. Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe -- Head coach Kirk Ferentz has defended O'Keefe and shielded him from the media, but another poor offensive performance against Indiana will turn up the heat on both men. Fans are concerned that Iowa has fallen behind the times with its offensive structure and play calling. O'Keefe can quiet the critics -- momentarily, at least -- if the Hawkeyes capitalize on a Jekyll-and-Hyde Hoosiers defense and end a three-game slide.

7. Michigan's defense -- When Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez ripped his team for playing "soft" against Illinois, he was speaking directly to a veteran defense that had answered the bell before last week. Top pass rusher Brandon Graham (leg infection) could be sidelined, but Michigan needs to regain its defensive edge against Toledo, which has scored just 16 points the last two weeks after a 54-point effort against Fresno State.

8. Minnesota coach Tim Brewster -- He didn't play up his return to his alma mater, but you can bet Brewster would like nothing more than to beat Illinois. Illini players said Brewster wanted the Illinois head-coaching job that went to Ron Zook, and they expect a fired-up Golden Gophers squad on Saturday. Zook asked Illini fans to turn out in force this week -- and to bring their "Zook Zone" towels -- to cheer on a team that played its last two games in two tough environments (Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium).

9. Northwestern's coaching staff -- Pat Fitzgerald and his assistants have had two weeks to prepare for one of the more anticipated games in recent program history. The extra time should help veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz figure out a way to contain Ringer, but Fitzgerald's ability to keep his players grounded will be the biggest key. Fitzgerald knows what it's like to play with expectations at Northwestern, something the team has struggled with since 2000.

10. Offensive play calling at Camp Randall -- Penn State fans hope the Lions offense went conservative in last week's unstylish win at Purdue and will open things up again against Wisconsin. Galen Hall and Jay Paterno likely will expand the playbook, particularly with top wideout Jordan Norwood back, but quarterback Daryll Clark must continue to play smart on the road. Wisconsin reserve running back John Clay has provided a lift in each of the team's last two losses. Clay has to touch the ball more for the Badgers to have a chance at an upset.

 
 Rob Tringali/Getty Images
 Daryll Clark has seven TD passes and only one interception this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Shortly after being named Penn State's starting quarterback, Daryll Clark used some word play with the title of the team's new offense -- the Spread HD -- to illustrate whether the unit would sink or swim this fall.

"Hopefully HD will stand for hi-def, highly diverse," Clark said. "And hopefully it doesn't turn out to be a huge dud."

Four games into the season, the former looks like the correct interpretation. Few teams in the country have been as multifaceted on offense as No. 12 Penn State, which ranks among the top eight nationally in scoring (52.8 ppg), rushing (274.3 ypg) and total yards (538.5 ypg).

The Nittany Lions have four regular ball-carriers, including Clark, who average at least 5.9 yards per carry. Leading rusher Evan Royster averages a blistering 8.1 yards per carry, and speedy backup Stephfon Green isn't far behind (7.3 ypg). The team's three senior wide receivers -- Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler and Derrick Williams -- all average at least 14 yards per reception.

Penn State has had six different players rush for a touchdown and the same number catch a scoring strike from Clark, backup Pat Devlin and third-stringer Paul Cianciolo.

That qualifies as diverse.

Comparing the current system to its predecessor, it's as if the Lions traded in their black-and-white TV for one with hi-def capabilities.

"Being able to use all the weapons we have has really helped," Royster said. "I don't think [the switch] needed to happen. I just think it fits our personnel. We could have success with a pocket quarterback that can throw the ball. It's really all about the people you have and what you have to work with."

Running a system that uses all of its available resources has built greater confidence across the board.

"Everybody's trusting each other a lot more than they did last year," center A.Q. Shipley said.

(Read full post)

Big Ten helmet stickers

September, 14, 2008
9/14/08
2:20
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

An exciting day in the Big Ten is complete, and the league owes Wisconsin a huge debt of gratitude.

The 10th-ranked Badgers saved what was looking like a disastrous day for the conference by edging Fresno State, 13-10, on the road. Wisconsin overcome a scrappy Bulldogs team, some horrendous officiating on a reversed fumble call and the loss of quarterback Allan Evridge to leg cramps in the fourth quarter. The Badgers showed they're a legitimate top 10 team and a viable candidate to win the Big Ten. 

Michigan State RB Javon Ringer -- Ringer followed a five-touchdown performance with a Herculean effort in the rain against Florida Atlantic. The senior set career highs in carries (43) and rushing yards (282) and accounted for the only two touchdowns in Michigan State's 17-0 victory. He has nine rushing touchdowns this season.

Wisconsin LB DeAndre Levy -- The senior linebacker was everywhere Saturday night, recording an interception that set up Wisconsin's only touchdown. He also had a sack that forced Fresno State to punt with 2:30 left and should have been credited with a third-quarter fumble recovery.

Iowa secondary -- The Hawkeyes' defense has been fabulous so far, especially in the back half. Safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood and cornerback Amari Spievey combined for three interceptions, two pass breakups and 27 tackles in Saturday's 17-5 win against Iowa State. 

Penn State WRs Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood -- The Nittany Lions' tandem combined for 12 receptions, 223 yards and four touchdowns in a rout of Syracuse. Norwood and Butler became the first Penn State tandem to eclipse 100 receiving yards in the same game since 2003. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Despite losing seven of the league's top 10 receivers from last season, this group should once again be solid in 2008. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern return groups of receivers that have played together for a season or longer. Minnesota has a budding star in Eric Decker, while Wisconsin lacks a proven wide receiver but boasts arguably the nation's best tight end in Travis Beckum. Purdue is restocking at wide receiver but has history on its side, and Iowa welcomes back several key contributors from injuries.

As with the running backs, these rankings are broken down into two sections:

INDIVIDUALS

 
 AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack
 Wisconsin's Travis Beckum had 75 receptions for 982 yards last season.

1. Travis Beckum, Sr., TE, Wisconsin -- It's rare that a tight end tops this list, but Beckum transcends his often overlooked position. The All-America candidate had 75 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns last season. If Beckum returns at top form following offseason shoulder surgery, he'll continue to flummox defenses with his size and speed.

2. Brian Robiskie, Sr., WR, Ohio State -- He averaged 17 yards a catch and had the third most touchdown catches (11) in the league last season. Now imagine what Robiskie will do without a torn meniscus in his knee that required offseason surgery. A deep threat on a squad with several of them, Robiskie is on the brink of a big season.

3. Arrelious Benn, So., WR, Illinois -- Fully healthy after shoulder surgery, Benn could easily become this season's Devin Thomas and rise to the top of the list. Illinois will get the ball in his hands as much as possible, whether it's in a ramped up passing attack, out of the backfield or on returns. A good route-runner with breakaway speed, Benn might be the league's most dynamic player.

4. Eric Decker, Jr., WR, Minnesota -- After putting up big numbers for a bad team last season, Decker should get more praise from fans and more attention from defenses this fall. A tremendous athlete who also plays baseball for the Golden Gophers, Decker gives quarterback Adam Weber a proven target who can get to the end zone (nine touchdowns in 2007).

5. Deon Butler, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Butler quietly has become one of the league's most reliable receivers. He needs just 36 receptions to become Penn State's all-time career receptions leader and likely will claim several other school records. As the Nittany Lions transition to more of a spread offense this fall, Butler should excel.

6. Eric Peterman, Sr., WR, Northwestern -- Just when defenses label Peterman as a standard possession wide receiver, he'll gash them for a big gain. He tied for seventh in the league in receptions last season and will once again be C.J. Bacher's top target in the passing game, particularly on third down.

7. Greg Orton, Sr., WR, Purdue -- After playing behind three-time Big Ten receptions leader Dorien Bryant, Orton takes center stage as a senior. He must stabilize a new-look Boilermakers receiving corps and provide senior quarterback Curtis Painter a reliable first option. Orton has 125 receptions the last two seasons.

8. Andy Brodell, Sr., WR, Iowa --Remember the 2006 Alamo Bowl? Brodell torched Texas for a bowl-record 159 receiving yards, including a 63-yard touchdown. A broken leg cut short his 2007 season, but he's back and ready to restore his place among the Big Ten's top receivers.

9. Brian Hartline, Jr., WR, Ohio State -- Don't forget about Ohio State's other Brian, who collected 52 receptions for 694 yards and six touchdowns last fall. As Robiskie stretches the field, Hartline provides an excellent complement who goes over the middle and absorbs contact. He turned in an excellent spring as Robiskie recovered from injury.

10. Derrick Williams, Sr., WR, Penn State -- Most thought Williams would be higher on this list when he arrived in Happy Valley, but he hasn't matched the hype -- yet. His speed and athleticism remain top notch, and he should do well in a spread offense. A big-play threat who can do damage in the return game, Williams could finish his career with a flourish.

TEAM

1. Ohio State -- Finding a third option remains on Ohio State's to-do list, but few teams boast a better passing tandem than the Brians. After a season to jell with quarterback Todd Boeckman, Robiskie and Hartline will punish defenses worrying about Heisman Trophy candidate Beanie Wells.

2. Penn State -- In terms of continuity at wide receiver, Penn State ranks at the top of the list. But the long-tenured group of Butler, Williams and Jordan Norwood hasn't always met expectations. As seniors, they should shine despite having to work with a new starting quarterback.

3. Illinois -- The league knows all about Benn, who will do even more damage at 100 percent this fall. His supporting cast includes Jeff Cumberland, a 6-5, 247-pound former tight end who can outjump defenders, as well as Chris James, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The Illini will accentuate the passing game more this fall, and this group should step up.

4. Northwestern -- This could be the Wildcats' best group of wideouts sinc
e they installed in the spread offense in 2000. Peterman is good for 6-10 receptions per game. Ross Lane provides Bacher with a red-zone threat, and Andrew Brewer, considered the team's top wideout before suffering a fractured humerus in training camp, rejoins the group.

5. Iowa -- Embattled quarterback Jake Christensen is thrilled to see what's coming back this fall. Brodell returns from a broken leg and gives Iowa a viable deep threat. Promising tight end Tony Moeaki is also back in the fold following an injury. Sophomore Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, the team's top receiver last season, provides depth along with Trey Stross.

6. Wisconsin -- Beckum and understudy Garrett Graham are the only reasons why the Badgers are this high. For them to stay there, several wide receivers must emerge from an unproven group. Kyle Jefferson displayed promise as a freshman and David Gilreath showcased his speed as a returner, but there are more questions than answers here.

7. Purdue -- It's impossible to replace Bryant's production or the mismatch problems Dustin Keller created, but Orton gives Purdue a strong first option with good size. More important, the Boilermakers have a track record of success at wide receiver and a senior quarterback (Curtis Painter) who can help unproven players. Junior-college transfer Aaron Valentin bolsters a group that also includes Desmond Tardy.

8. Minnesota -- I'm tempted to put the Gophers higher because of Decker, but there's not much behind him. Ernie Wheelwright's departure leaves a hole, which could be filled by dynamic freshman Brandon Green, sophomore Ralph Spry or several others. If Minnesota finds a solid second option for Weber, it will climb several spots.

9. Michigan -- Before you flood my inbox, allow an explanation. The Wolverines have no proven quarterbacks, only one semi-proven wide receiver (Greg Mathews) and a dramatically different offense to learn. A drop-off is likely, but not certain. Freshman Darryl Stonum bolsters the new-look corps, and players like Junior Hemingway and Toney Clemons could shine after waiting their turn for playing time.

10. Indiana -- There's no James Hardy on the roster, but juniors Ray Fisher and Andrew Means should stabilize a passing game led by quarterback Kellen Lewis. Tight end Max Dedmond provides another option in the new no-huddle offense, though another target or two needs to emerge.

11. Michigan State -- Javon Ringer told me to expect big things from this group, but I'm not convinced. Thomas and underrated tight end Kellen Davis will be missed, and Ringer had more receptions last season than any of the returnees. Deon Curry, Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham and Blair White have the chance to step up -- and move up the list.

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