NCF Nation: Keith Mumphery

PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.
The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO kicks off later today. Here's a look at 10 reasons why No. 4 Michigan State could beat No. 5 Stanford in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State will send Shilique Calhoun, and many other defenders, at Stanford's offense.
1. MSU can match Stanford's physicality: Stanford's only two losses this season came against teams with big, physical players, especially up front. The Cardinal can simply overpower most of their Pac-12 foes, but Michigan State can match them along the line of scrimmage. Even without middle linebacker Max Bullough, the Spartans defense should be able to contain a traditional offense like Stanford's. Spread teams give the "Spartan Dawgs" slightly more trouble, but Stanford isn't one of them.

2. The kicking game: No one is talking enough about MSU's edge in special teams. Stanford's Ty Montgomery is an exceptional return man, but Michigan State has arguably the nation's best punter in Mike Sadler and a superior kicker in Michael Geiger, who has connected on 14 of 15 field-goal attempts. MSU also has been brilliant in executing special-teams fakes and has had nearly a month to brainstorm some for the bowl.

3. Shilique Calhoun: Michigan State's improved pass rush has made an already elite defense even better this season, and Calhoun is the biggest reason why. He has 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and can pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in obvious passing situations. Calhoun will be challenged by Stanford mammoth left tackle Andrus Peat in what should be one of the game's best individual matchups.

4. Big-play receivers: This item would have been laughed at a year ago, but MSU's receiving corps turned things around early this season. Players such as Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Macgarett Kings can stretch defenses, and the group has repeatedly helped out quarterback Connor Cook with tough catches. Coordinator Dave Warner said the upgrade at receiver play has been the biggest difference with this year's offense.

5. No-fly zone: MSU undoubtedly will miss Bullough's run-stopping ability, but it has the luxury of committing more defenders to the run than most teams, especially against offenses like Stanford's. Cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes are talented enough to be left on their own against a Stanford team that features only one player (Montgomery) with more than 27 receptions. Dennard also could help against the rush.

6. The magic man: There's no doubt Cook has had the magic touch during Michigan State's nine-game win streak, making tough throws into traffic and on the move. He has gotten away with mistakes, some of which have turned into big plays for the Spartans. Will the magic run out against Stanford? It's possible, but Cook had his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship. The bigger the stage, the better he seems to play.

7. Sparta West: Big Ten fans love to complain that the league's bowl games are essentially road games. Well, the Rose Bowl will feel like Spartan Stadium as Michigan State fans have traveled here in large numbers. At least half of the stadium will be green, and MSU should feed off of the crowd after going 7-0 at home this season. The ideal weather conditions likely favor Stanford, but the overall environment gives MSU an edge.

8. Langford in the fourth quarter: Michigan State has won its past nine games by double digits and often finishes off its opponents with strong fourth quarters. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 105-27 in the final 15 minutes this season, and running back Jeremy Langford has delivered several long scoring runs down the stretch. Stanford has been outscored 85-82 in the fourth quarter this fall.

9. Extra prep time for coaches: This could be an edge for both teams as both coaching staffs are excellent, but Mark Dantonio and his assistants have been excellent in their preparation throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has had ample time to study Stanford's offense and its line combinations, and the offense could incorporate some new wrinkles in the pass game. Definitely expect a PG-named fake or two from Dantonio.

10. Sparty: Michigan State has the coolest non-live-animal mascot in the country in Sparty, a chiseled warrior with a glare that intimidates anyone he encounters. Stanford's mascot looks like a 6-year-old's art project, with big googly eyes and a stupid grin on its face. Sparty will crush the tree and inspire Michigan State's players to do the same to Stanford. And yes, I grew up in Berkeley, Calif.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Dinner is on Adam in Indianapolis on Friday night, thanks to Brian's nailbiter of a win in the regular-season picks contest. But we all know the main course arrives Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...

No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)

Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.

To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.

The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.

I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?

Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28

As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.

First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."

Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."

Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21

Wins reveal soft sides of OSU, Spartans

November, 16, 2013
11/16/13
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Michigan State all but punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, defeating Nebraska 41-28 in opportunistic and efficient fashion here at Memorial Stadium.

Barring chaos over the next two weeks, the Spartans are set to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. The matchup may well pit MSU at 11-1 and the Buckeyes at 12-0.

Forgive us, though, for wondering, after Saturday, about exactly what we’ll see in Indianapolis -- a heavyweight battle worthy of national-title implications or a pillow fight representative of the Big Ten’s overall strength?

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJeremy Langford and Michigan State ran past Nebraska, but are the Spartans good enough to top Ohio State and change perceptions about the Big Ten?
Both of the league’s title contenders showed their soft sides in Week 12.

The third-ranked Buckeyes lost focus as Ilinois, en route to a 20th straight Big Ten loss, played Urban Meyer’s team nearly even over the final three quarters in a 60-35 Ohio State win.

And here in Lincoln, No. 16 Michigan State, for all the buzz over its top-ranked defense, looked ordinary against Nebraska’s MASH unit of an offense. The Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per rush and outgained MSU 392-361.

Nebraska committed five turnovers, including three inside its own 25-yard line.

Credit Michigan State for taking what was there, but the Huskers were plenty generous, handing two of their four fumbles to MSU without so much as taking a hit. And Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw his lone interception straight to safety Kurtis Drummond, ending Nebraska’s second possession of the afternoon just like its first -- with an unforced error on the third play.

“You’re not always going to get opportunities to get the ball like we did today,” Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. “We know that, but hey, if they’re there, we’re going to take them.

“We’re not going to apologize for it either way.”

Armstrong, Nebraska’s freshman quarterback in his sixth career start, worked behind an offensive line with four of five guys playing positions they hadn’t started at this year until last week. The one starter at his normal spot, right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, missed the second half because of a knee injury suffered a week ago.

When the Huskers tried to avoid trouble before halftime and get to the locker room trailing by six points despite a minus-3 turnover margin, Armstrong fumbled. When they seized momentum in the second half but needed room to operate after Michigan State’s Mike Sadler dropped a punt on the 1-yard line, Armstrong fumbled again.

“We were our own worst enemy,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, it’s “almost impossible” to win like that.

The Spartans did some good stuff, too. They converted 11 of 21 third downs, including a 27-yard dagger of a touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery on third-and-13 with less than eight minutes to play.

Four plays earlier, Michigan State had executed a gutsy fake field goal as Sadler, the punter and holder, rumbled for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 with the Spartans up 27-21.

Michigan State calls it the Charlie Brown play, named for the famous gag that Lucy pulls on her little brother’s best friend in the cartoon strip. The Huskers were equally fooled, which is great for Michigan State, but what does it really tell us about the Spartans?

“We can sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or they made a few plays, but we won,” Bullough said. “And that’s the difference between being 7-6 and competing for that championship at the end of the year.”

The Spartans need not apologize. They capitalized on Nebraska errors on Saturday like a good team ought to do.

But the MSU hallmark, its defense, did not perform in Lincoln as advertised.

Can they serve as an accurate gauge of greatness for Ohio State, trying to swim upstream toward a berth in the BCS championship game? And are the Buckeyes even deserving of consideration over the other title contenders after feasting on the bottom of the Big Ten since the first week of October?

This Big Ten season started with a flash of hope seven weeks ago as OSU beat Wisconsin by a touchdown in a thriller at the Horseshoe.

Since then, the dust has settled on a conference season void of much intrigue outside of Big Ten borders.

Atop both divisions, the events of Saturday did little to revive hope of a Big Ten renaissance.

MSU seeks redemption, momentum in bowl

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Michigan State's 6-6 season was a big disappointment for a team that many, including the Spartans themselves, thought was ready to win a Big Ten title.

Painfully close losses and poor offensive execution were a constant theme in 2012. Next season could bring better things, as the majority of the offense returns and the schedule is manageable. But quarterback Andrew Maxwell isn't ready to look that far forward.

"I told the team the other day, 'We don't have to wait 'til next year to try and turn it around,'" Maxwell told ESPN.com. "'We can come out fast and play mistake-free football and be the team we always thought we could be on the 29th.'"

[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIREQuarterback Andrew Maxwell said he's hopeful that the Michigan State offense can make strides during bowl workouts.
That's Dec. 29th, when Michigan State will face TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. While a win there won't erase all the bad memories from this season, it would allow the Spartans to take a more positive note into 2013.

"We've only got nine seniors ... so we're a young football team, and it gives us an opportunity to sort of move forward in 2013," head coach Mark Dantonio said Thursday. "We're going to live on this game for the next eight months, there's no question about that."

And there's little question that the best way for Michigan State to improve its narrative from this season is to improve a very shaky passing game. That as much as any other factor is why the Spartans fielded a top-five defense yet finished .500.

The extra 15 bowl practices could help, especially for the team's still young receivers.

“[This year] was a learning experience,” receiver Keith Mumphery told ESPN.com. “We had to learn to stay positive, no matter the situation. We can prove that we’re playmakers and we can make the tough catches and we can all come through when we need it.”

Extra work can only help Maxwell, too, after a rocky first year as the team's starting quarterback. The redshirt junior didn't get to ease into his bowl preparation this month. The Spartans have spent a lot of time practicing starters vs. starters, meaning Maxwell has to face his own team's ferocious defense. If that weren't enough, Dantonio made the quarterbacks live in practice, allowing them to get hit for the first time since the preseason.

"When you do that against a defense like ours, that's game speed," Maxwell said.

Dantonio hinted at offensive changes near the end of the regular season, and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar told reporters Thursday that he has experimented some with more quarterback runs. He wouldn't commit to using them in the game against TCU, however.

"Whether we're good enough right now to go execute on a high level in a gamelike situation, I think that will be determined by how we continue to practice down in Arizona," he said. "But ... you're looking at a couple of our young quarterbacks and feeling like all of a sudden there's another dimension with us being able to spread the field, make them play coverage, and then add the element of being able to run the quarterback."

Asking Maxwell to run a lot against the Horned Frogs' fast defense might not be the answer to Michigan State's offensive problems. A better solution might be just building better chemistry between him and the receivers so they can connect on the plays that eluded them throughout the season. It's questionable whether that can happen in a month, but at least Maxwell now has 12 games under his belt as the starter.

"I think I'm a different player than I was in Week 1," he said. "The biggest thing I learned this year was just being in those situations that you really can't duplicate in practice. Like when we're at Wisconsin, and we haven't scored all day and we have to drive for a touchdown at the end of the game to tie it.

"You can't simulate that in practice or in camp. So it was important for me to get in those situations, and there some times where we weren't successful, like against Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa. Those are things that for me personally I can learn from, and the next time they arise, I'll be better suited and more equipped for."

The Spartans hope they aren't simply waiting 'til next year to see that improvement on the field.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
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Upon further review ...

Team of the week: Iowa. Well, look at who's tied atop the Legends Division standings. Many people had written off the Hawkeyes after they lost at home to Central Michigan (a team which has followed up that upset in Iowa City by losing to Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, all by double digits). But give credit to the resiliency of Kirk Ferentz's team. On Saturday, Iowa outslugged Michigan State on the road and won in double-overtime 19-16. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Hawkeyes showed toughness and grit. Don't count them out of the Big Ten race just yet.

Best game: Hope you stayed up late to catch Ohio State's 52-49 win over Indiana, the Big Ten's version of Big 12 football. There were blocked punts, onside kicks, a 15-point Indiana rally in the final minutes, 1,059 total yards and way more tension than we usually associate with Buckeyes-Hoosiers matchups. You might have liked Iowa-Michigan State more if you enjoy, you know, actual tackling. But this kind of game is fun every once in a while, too.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireBadgers RB Montee Ball had one of his best games of the season on Saturday against Purdue.
Biggest play: Let's go back to East Lansing and the second overtime period, when defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat deflected a pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, causing the ball to sail through receiver Keith Mumphery’s hands and into the waiting embrace of an Iowa cornerback. That was a fitting end to a game that was all about defense.

Best play: The play of the day in the Big Ten happened around midnight, when Indiana's Nick Stoner leaped out of bounds to grab an onside kick and toss it back into the field of play. Stoner showed off the athleticism that allows him to star on Indiana's track team. D’Angelo Roberts recovered, and the Hoosiers went in for a score and two-point conversion for the game's final margin. Indiana's final onside kick was also brilliantly executed and conceived, but Ohio State's Corey Brown made a game-saving catch as he was all alone on his side of the field.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Montee Ball has had quite a career, so when he sets a career high, that's saying something. His 247 yards (on 29 carries) versus Purdue were a personal best. His three touchdowns also gave him 72 for his career, moving him past Ron Dayne as the Big Ten's all-time leading touchdown maker. He needs seven more to break the NCAA record. If he keeps playing like he did Saturday, he'll smash it.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan's Jake Ryan collected 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack, and forced a fumble in the Wolverines' 45-0 annihilation of Illinois. We'd say he's playing like his hair is on fire, but his golden locks are so long it might take him a while to feel any follicular conflagration.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Iowa's Mike Meyer was 4-for-4 on field goals, including two in overtime and the 42-yard game winner against Michigan State. Meyer has made 14 out of 15 this year and has connected on his past 13 attempts. For a team that struggles to score, Meyer has been extra valuable.

Worst hangover: Michigan State. Adam and I are frantically going back through all our offseason blog posts and erasing the word "State" every time we picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten in 2012. At this point, the Spartans are not even guaranteed of making a bowl game, sitting at 4-3 with tough games left against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, plus a trip to Minnesota. How'd we miss so bad on the Spartans? Neither of us thought their offense would be this dreadful. And while their defense has been very good, it has had to be heroic to carry the entire team, and that's asking too much every week. Michigan State has somehow lost three home games this year after it had won 15 in a row at Spartan Stadium. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses were forgivable to a degree. Losing to an Iowa team that had only 257 total yards and one touchdown? Not so much.

Strangest moment: There are helmet-to-helmet hits, and then there are, apparently, shoulder-to-decal hits. That's what happened in Saturday's Northwestern-Minnesota game. Wildcats safety Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gophers tailback Donnell Kirkwood so solidly that most of the gold "M" on one side of Kirkwood's helmet came off on the play. Campbell got the worst of that hit, but Northwestern got the 21-13 road win.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 5

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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Be kind. Rewind.

Team of the week: Ohio State. While Nebraska, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern all notched conference victories as well, the Buckeyes were the only team to go on the road in a hostile environment and beat a strong opponent (sorry, Penn Staters, but Illinois doesn't fulfill either of those qualifications right now). The Michigan State game always looked like a crucial date on the Buckeyes' schedule, because they face only two potentially difficult trips the rest of the way (at Penn State and at Wisconsin). Ohio State also proved it could win a Big Ten slugfest under Urban Meyer and was just tougher at the line of scrimmage than the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeSean Fisher
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter a sluggish start for the Nebraska defense, Sean Fisher and the Huskers managed to slow Montee Ball and Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Best game: The last game of the day was the best in the Big Ten on Saturday. Nebraska rallied from a 27-10 second-half deficit to nip Wisconsin 30-27 in a comeback reminiscent of last year's win over Ohio State. The game featured all sorts of big plays in all three phases and huge momentum swings. And credit the Sea of Red for creating an amazing atmosphere under the lights at Memorial Stadium.

Biggest play: Braxton Miller's 63-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to Devin Smith. Michigan State had just seized momentum when Keith Mumphery carried would-be tacklers into the end zone for the Spartans' first lead of the game in the third quarter. But Ohio State, as it did all game, immediately answered with Miller's pass coming just 1:44 later. The Buckeyes caught Michigan State in a blitz, and Smith got a step on cornerback Johnny Adams. Miller placed the ball beautifully, hitting Smith perfectly in stride for what turned out to be the game-winning score.

Best call: New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has heard his share of criticism this early season with the Hawkeyes' struggles. But Davis pulled out a brilliant call in the first half of Iowa's 31-13 beatdown of Minnesota. With the Gophers stacked at the line of scrimmage to try to stop the tank that is Mark Weisman, Davis dialed up a flea flicker. Weisman faked a run, tossed the ball back to James Vandenberg, and Vandenberg hit a wide-open Jordan Cotton for a 47-yard touchdown that made the score 17-0. "We've been practicing that since the spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just part of the offensive package that Greg's installed. It's all about the timing. Like every play, it's all about execution. Our guys really did a nice job on it."

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern's Kain Colter is technically a quarterback, but he's more like a Swiss army knife. He led the Wildcats in receiving in the 44-29 win over Indiana with nine catches for 131 yards and also paced them in rushing with 161 yards on only 14 carries. He also scored four touchdowns to power Northwestern's 704-yard offensive effort.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State's Michael Mauti wasn't happy about Illinois' poaching attempts this summer, and he did something about it Saturday. The senior had two interceptions to go along with six tackles and half a sack. He set a school record with a 99-yard interception return to end the first half, coming up just short of what would have been a highly poetic touchdown.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made three field goals, including the tying and go-ahead kicks, and his only miss against Wisconsin came on a 52-yarder. He also averaged 46.7 yards on three punts. Special teams special shoutout to Indiana freshman Tevin Coleman, who returned a kickoff 96 yards for a third-quarter touchdown to keep his team in the game.

Worst hangover: Lot to choose from here, but how about Minnesota? The Gophers were feeling awfully good about themselves after a 4-0 start and had a chance to deliver a knockout punch to a reeling Iowa team in the Big Ten opener. Instead, the Hawkeyes battered and fried Minnesota in the Floyd of Rosedale game, leading 24-0 at halftime and physically manhandling Jerry Kill's team. If the Gophers can't come close to beating Iowa, how are they going to win many Big Ten games? Get well soon, MarQueis Gray.

Strangest moment: And we thought the NFL replacement refs were painful. Somehow in Purdue's 51-41 win over Marshall, Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday got knocked down by an official while one of his players, Derek Mitchell, was scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt. Holliday had a big cut on his cheek, was bleeding on the sideline and said after the game he wasn't sure what happened. "I ran into a big official, or he was bigger than I was, anyway," Holliday told reporters. Making matters worse, Marshall got a delay of game penalty on the collision. The original Doc Holliday probably would have challenged someone to a duel over such an indiscretion.
It's time for the second half of our Big Ten personnel roundup entering season-opening weekend. In case you missed Part I, which featured most of the Week 1 depth charts, be sure and check it out.

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

MICHIGAN STATE

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

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

IOWA

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

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

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

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

PURDUE

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

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

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

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

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

"Unfortunately, Danny had to go through that tough offseason," Fitzgerald said. "That was not fun. Kain handled the opportunity really well a year ago. ... You could definitely tell it was his first start in college football Now he's settled down, he's settled into the role."
Sometimes the NCAA gets it right. When it came to DeAnthony Arnett's waiver application, the folks in Indianapolis had an easy decision to make.

Fortunately, the NCAA made the correct call Thursday and approved Arnett's residence waiver, which allows the wide receiver to play for Michigan State this season. Arnett transferred to Michigan State from Tennessee after the 2011 season to be closer to his ailing father, who is awaiting a kidney transplant and is on dialysis. The waiver prevents him from sitting out a season. Arnett, a native of Saginaw, Mich., has three years of eligibility remaining.

The NCAA can be tough to predict on waiver requests. But after green-lighting Notre Dame receiver Amir Carlisle, whose case didn't seem nearly as urgent Arnett's, the NCAA had only one decision to make here.

The decision is big news for Michigan State, which loses its top three wide receivers and its top tight end, not to mention starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, from the 2011 team. Arnett, a decorated recruit who left Big Ten country to play at Tennessee, recorded 24 receptions for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2011. He practiced this spring with the Spartans and will join Keith Mumphery, Bennie Fowler, tight end Dion Sims and others as quarterback Andrew Maxwell's top targets in the passing game.

Although Michigan State will remain a run-first team this fall, Arnett's presence on the field gives the Spartans a talented target who has produced at a high level.

Big Ten scrimmage notes

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
1:30
PM ET
The Big Ten featured only one spring game this weekend, but plenty of teams took to the field for scrimmages. I've compiled some scrimmage highlights from around the league based on reports from official team websites and other media sources. Several teams didn't provide specifics about their scrimmages, but I included what I could find.

ILLINOIS

The Illini scrimmaged for about 90 minutes Saturday, and all players were involved in contact aside from starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

Notes
  • The offense prevailed in the scrimmage and gashed the defense for several big runs. Troy Pollard took most of the reps at running back as Jason Ford sat out with a sore knee, and Pollard helped his cause with 110 rush yards on 19 carries. Scheelhaase completed 7 of 12 passes for 53 yards and added 58 yards on the ground, while backup Miles Osei had a 63-yards pass to Fred Sykes and finished the day with 165 yards through the air.
  • Coach Ron Zook singled out linebacker Houston Bates for his play in the scrimmage. Bates had a sack and a quarterback hurry. He saw increased playing time after Jonathan Brown was kicked out of the scrimmage after throwing a punch and drawing a personal foul penalty.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held their second scrimmage of the spring Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Check out coach Kevin Wilson's thoughts as well as some highlights.

Notes
  • The offense got the best of the defense Saturday after the D shined in Indiana's previous scrimmage. Receivers Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes stood out in the highlights Indiana showed on its website, as Hughes had a long touchdown reception and Wilson was forced out just shy of the goal line. Both players have been impressive this spring and should complement top wideout Damarlo Belcher in the fall.
IOWA

No official information from Iowa's scrimmage Saturday, but here's a photo gallery and some recent player interviews from the team's website.

MICHIGAN

No official information from Michigan's scrimmage Saturday, but here are video interviews with defensive tackle Mike Martin and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh. Running backs Vincent Smith, Michael Cox and Stephen Hopkins had some nice runs in the video highlights.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held their first jersey scrimmage Friday and the defense prevailed 55-45 in a modified scoring system. The defense had 18 ways to score points, while the offense had 11 ways to score, including touchdowns and field goals.

Notes
  • The defense dominated the scrimmage, holding the offense without a first down on the first five possessions and without points for the first 13 possessions. Michigan State's D recorded three sacks and two interceptions during the stifling stanza. The only two touchdowns scored came during the goal line and red zone portions of the scrimmage.
  • Defensive ends William Gholston and Tyler Hoover combined for nine tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and a pass breakup. Sophomore linebacker TyQuan Hammock recorded an interception. "The defense played well -- tackled effectively, pressured the quarterback and came away with some turnovers," coach Mark Dantonio said in a news release.
  • Starting quarterback Kirk Cousins had a rough day (6-for-16 passing, 41 yards, INT), although he didn't get much help from his receivers, who dropped three passes. Backup Andrew Maxwell completed 15 of 26 passes for 116 yards with an interception.
  • The touchdowns came from Edwin Baker (22-yard run) and Le'Veon Bell (6-yard run). Receiver Keith Mumphery caught a 43-yard pass from Maxwell.
MINNESOTA

The Gophers scrimmaged Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium and ran about 120 plays.

Notes
  • Minnesota's defense held the upper hand as the offense struggled to gain a first down early in the scrimmage. The defensive line had a very good day as tackles Brandon Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey both stood out. Jacobs sacked No. 1 quarterback MarQueis Gray and Kirksey recorded a blocked field goal attempt. Ends D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman also made some plays. "The defensive line got up the field a lot more than we have been. [It was] a lot more aggressive," coach Jerry Kill told reporters. "And we need that. We need more push. We had nine sacks last year, and that can't happen."
  • Gray and top receiver Da'Jon McKnight hooked up on receptions of 45 and 20 yards. McKnight also recorded a punt block in the scrimmage.
  • Reserve quarterback Tom Parish threw two interceptions and fumbled a snap. Moses Alipate ran a few series at quarterback and led a scoring drive.
NEBRASKA

The Huskers ran about 150 plays in a scrimmage Saturday in Lincoln. Quarterbacks Brion Carnes, Cody Green and Kody Spano took most of the reps and drew praise from coach Bo Pelini.
  • The coaches limited reps for quarterback Taylor Martinez after the sophomore hurt his toe in a recent workout. Running back Rex Burkhead participated in the scrimmage and "looked great," according to Pelini, although Burkhead's reps were limited as well.
  • Nebraska had two false-start penalties and one fumble during the scrimmage. "That's not bad," Pelini said. "Most of it is with the young guys. It shows me the emphasis is working and there's progress, but one's too many as far I'm concerned."
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats scrimmaged Saturday in Evanston in preparation for this week's spring game.

Notes
  • Top running back Mike Trumpy had runs of 33 and 25 yards, while Tyris Jones added a scoring run. Jones has had a really nice spring for the Wildcats, who are looking for more options in the backfield.
  • Trevor Siemian and Evan Watkins took the reps at quarterback as Kain Colter was held out of the scrimmage. Siemian completed 8 of 12 passes for 86 yards with an interception, while Watkins, victimized by dropped passes, completed 8 of 21 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown strike to Charles Brown.
  • Defensive end Tyler Scott picked off Siemian on the second play of the scrimmage. Siemian later responded with a 36-yard pass to Rashad Lawrence. Demetrius Fields led the receivers with five receptions, while walk-on Torin Dupper had three catches for 46 yards.
OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes held a special-teams scrimmage followed by a full jersey scrimmage Saturday in Ohio Stadium. The team went through about 20 possessions and the offense prevailed 56-45.
  • Receiver DeVier Posey recorded two touchdown receptions, a 33-yarder from Joe Bauserman and an 8-yarder from Taylor Graham. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller had the only other touchdown of the scrimmage on an 11-yard run.
  • Bauserman completed passes of 33 and 16 yards and also threw an interception on a pass tipped by defensive lineman John Simon. Graham completed 10 of 20 passes for 80 yards, while Miller hit on 4 of 6 passes for 43 yards and looked impressive on the touchdown run. Kenny Guiton struggled at quarterback, leading the offense to only one score (field goal) in six possessions.
  • Posey recorded five receptions for 83 yards and two scores, while the other scholarship wideouts combined for only five receptions. Think Ohio State will miss No. 8 in the first five games?
  • Senior running back Dan Herron didn't get much work Saturday, and Jaamal Berry and Rod Smith stood out among the backs with several nice gains.
  • Defensive linemen Adam Bellamy and Melvin Fellows both recorded sacks, while other defensive standouts included cornerback Travis Howard and linebacker Etienne Sabino.
PENN STATE

The Lions scrimmaged Saturday, but there's not much info out there aside from this ($$$).

WISCONSIN

The Badgers held a scrimmage Saturday, running more than 120 snaps, and coach Bret Bielema shares his thoughts here.
  • Sophomore linebacker Conor O'Neill had a big day with interceptions on back-to-back plays, picking off Joe Brennan and Joel Stave. Wisconsin auditioned O'Neill at safety last year, and his experience defending the pass is paying off.
  • Bielema said center Peter Konz will miss the rest of the spring because of ankle and knee injuries. Konz will undergo minor knee surgery and should be fine for fall camp. Versatile sophomore Ryan Groy is seeing time at center and can play all three interior line spots.
  • Remember Zach Brown? The running back is still around in Madison and hopes to enter a crowded backfield this fall. Brown had a 17-yard touchdown reception and an 8-yard scoring run Saturday. "Zach is an angry running back," Bielema told reporters. "Everybody wants to talk about those other guys. People forget he ran for 200 yards [in a game] as a freshman, and he has won some games for us."

Michigan State recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
10:30
AM ET
Michigan State Spartans

The class

Recruits: 21 (20 high school seniors, one junior college player, four early enrollees)

Top prospects: Linebacker William Gholston is the No. 2 recruit in the Big Ten this year, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc. Linebacker Max Bullough also will play early in his career, and quarterback Joe Boisture could be Michigan State's long-term answer under center.

Sleepers: Cornerback Mylan Hicks and safety Isaiah Lewis can help right away as the Spartans must improve in the secondary for the 2010 season. Wide receiver Keith Mumphery also might see the field early as the status of several wideouts, namely Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, is unknown for 2010. Head coach Mark Dantonio likes Marcus Rush's potential at defensive end.

Needs met: By adding both Gholston and Bullough, Michigan State is set up well at linebacker when Greg Jones and Eric Gordon depart after the 2010 season. Boisture gives the Spartans a fourth scholarship quarterback, possibly freeing up Keith Nichol to play elsewhere. Michigan State needs to improve on both lines and added several solid prospects there.

Analysis: Despite a step back both on and off the field in 2009, Michigan State maintained its recruiting momentum, particularly within the state. This class likely won't grade quite as high as the 2009 haul, but Michigan State really helped its defense with players like Gholston, Bullough, Rush and Hicks. If one of the wide receivers can come in and contribute this season, the Spartans should be in decent shape in the passing game.

Scouts Inc. grade: B-minus

What Mark Dantonio said:

  • "We talked about trying to stack a class on top of another class. We had a great class last year, and this one stacks up right behind that one in terms of quality players we had coming into various positions. There's a lot of versatility. All of our skill guys play on both sides of the ball, they're all kick returner-punt returner type guys. The majority of our class is very, very explosive."
  • "[William Gholston] is 6-6, 250 pounds, he's put together, he runs well, he's instinctive on the football field. When you look at him, you try and figure out how can we get him on the field as soon as we can. There's a lot of things going on at linebacker, but as sort of an outside back in the mold of a Julian Peterson, we can possibly try to do those things with him. As good as he is physically, he brings some things to the table intangibly that are very, very good as well."
  • "Max Bullough is an outstanding football player. Marcus Rush, same thing. Those two guys play with a high motor. Very instinctive players and they're guys who have a knack for finding the big play. Mylan Hicks and Isaiah Lewis are two guys in the secondary that are also very explosive and very aware football players and could find the field very quickly."

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