NCF Nation: Kory Sheets

Before Purdue cemented itself as the "Cradle of Quarterbacks," the Boilers produced several superstar running backs, and Otis Armstrong might have been the best of the bunch.

Armstrong succeeded another Boilers' ball-carrying standout, Leroy Keyes, and starred for Purdue from 1970-72. Unlike Keyes, Armstrong played on mostly weak teams under Bob DeMoss, which made his accomplishments fly under the national radar. But Armstrong got his due Tuesday as the Big Ten's only member of the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame class.

A Chicago native, Armstrong arrived at Purdue in 1969 and, like all freshmen, sat out the season. He announced himself the following fall with 1,009 rush yards on 213 carries, becoming just the second Purdue back (Keyes being the other) to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground. After a solid junior campaign, Armstrong sizzled as a senior, racking up 1,361 rush yards and nine touchdowns en route to earning consensus All-America honors. He finished his career with a flourish, piling up 276 yards against archrival Indiana, a single-game team record that stands to this day.

Armstrong still holds Purdue's record for career rushing attempts (671), and his career rush yards mark (3,315) is third behind two players (Mike Alstott and Kory Sheets) who played four seasons. He twice recorded five 100-yard rush games in a season (1970, 1970) and trails only Alstott for most career 100-yard rush performances at Purdue (13 in 31 career games).

Armstrong also stood out as a kick returner, averaging 30.1 yards per runback with two touchdowns in 1972. He added five receiving touchdowns on 36 career receptions.

Although Purdue went just 13-17 during Armstrong's career, his accomplishments didn't go unnoticed and he was selected No. 9 overall by Denver in the 1973 NFL draft. Armstrong played eight seasons with the Broncos, earning two Pro Bowl selections and rushing for 4,453 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Prognostication guru Phil Steele released his preseason All-Big Ten teams Tuesday, and fans of Penn State and Ohio State undoubtedly will be pleased.

Although both teams lost sizable and decorated senior classes, Penn State put six players on Steele's first team, while Ohio State has four. The big surprise is that Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, widely considered the league's best signal-caller, slipped to the third team behind Illinois' Juice Williams and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor.

Steele also released his preseason All-America teams, and here's the breakdown for the Big Ten:

First team -- Illinois WR Arrelious Benn, Michigan P Zoltan Mesko

Second team -- Penn State RB Evan Royster, Iowa LT Bryan Bulaga, Minnesota WR Eric Decker, Penn State LB Sean Lee

Third team -- Michigan DE Brandon Graham, Penn State DT Jared Odrick, Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, Ohio State PR Ray Small

Fourth team -- Ohio State LG Justin Boren, Northwestern DE Corey Wootton, Illinois LB Martez Wilson, Michigan State LB Greg Jones

Getting back to the Big Ten list, which was generally pretty solid but had some interesting notes and surprises:

  • There are clearly two elite wide receivers in the Big Ten in Benn and Decker. After that, it's a crapshoot. Purdue's Keith Smith was the third wideout named to Steele's first team. Unproven players like Minnesota's Hayo Carpenter (second team), Ohio State's DeVier Posey (third team) and Northwestern's Andrew Brewer (fourth team) also earned recognition.
  • I was a little surprised to see Purdue's Jaycen Taylor listed as a second-team running back ahead of Iowa's Jewel Hampton. Taylor comes off an ACL injury and never beat out Kory Sheets for the starting job when he was healthy. Hampton filled in very well behind Shonn Greene last year.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker was the only incoming freshman to make Steele's list as a fourth-teamer.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Josh Brent, who was suspended for spring ball after receiving a DUI in February, is listed on the first team next to Odrick. Brent is a talented player, but Purdue's Mike Neal might have been the safer pick here.
  • The offensive line selections were interesting. Experience beat out potential as Wisconsin's John Moffitt earned the second-team nod over Ohio State's Mike Brewster. I was very surprised not to see Northwestern linemen Al Netter or Ben Burkett on the list. Indiana had two linemen selected (Cody Faulkner and Rodger Saffold) despite really struggling in that area a year ago, and Iowa surprisingly only had tackles Bryan Bulaga (first team) and Kyle Calloway (second team) on the rundown.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

After exploring the Big Ten's crop of elite running backs early today, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the preseason running back rankings and how the league looks through the first nine games.

There are obviously some major differences between the lists, most notably the omission of one Shonn Greene in the preseason rundown. I obviously didn't think much of -- or know much about -- Greene and the other Iowa running backs, and ranked the Hawkeyes dead last in team rushing.

 AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
 Iowa junior Shonn Greene has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season.

Before getting to the current top 10, here's an attempt to curb the inevitable Buckeye backlash. These rankings are based on production this season. If I did rankings based on which back will have the best NFL career, Chris "Beanie" Wells would top the list.

OK, let's begin.

1. Shonn Greene, Iowa -- He has come out of nowhere to rank third nationally in rushing average (144.3 ypg) this season. Greene has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all eight games and boasts the nation's second-highest yards-per-carry average (6.52) among backs with at least 150 carries. The 235-pound junior has great size and a bruising running style that makes Big Ten defenders hate to tackle him.

2. Javon Ringer, Michigan State -- College football's iron man has received 65 more carries than any FBS back and continues to produce at peak levels. Ringer tallied 816 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in the month of September, putting him on the Heisman Trophy radar. The Spartans senior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in six games and 190 rushing yards in four games. No Big Ten player is more valuable to his team than Ringer this season.

3. Evan Royster, Penn State -- Despite averaging only 15 carries per game, Royster ranks 19th nationally in rushing average (107.8 ypg) with a blistering 7.2 yards-per-carry average. He's not a power back but enjoys running between the tackles and can gash defenses with his speed. Royster has five 100-yard rushing performances despite sharing carries with Stephfon Green and quarterback Daryll Clark.

4. Chris "Beanie" Wells, Ohio State -- The preseason Heisman candidate was sidetracked by a right foot/toe injury in the season opener and missed three games. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry in his first two games back from injury and overpowered defenders in road wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State. But like Ohio State's other skill players, Wells has been hamstrung by an underachieving offensive line and struggled last Saturday against Penn State.

5. Kory Sheets, Purdue -- Being the best player on a bad team hasn't been easy for Sheets, who aired his frustrations two weeks ago before coach Joe Tiller silenced him. Sheets has done his part for Purdue, ranking 26th nationally in rushing (100.8 ypg) and 20th in all-purpose yards (155.5 ypg). Despite playing behind a banged-up offensive line, the versatile Sheets has accounted for 45 rushing or receiving first downs.

6. Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern -- Like Sheets, Sutton has used his versatility to produce at a high rate behind the Big Ten's youngest and least experienced offensive line. Sutton ranks fourth on the team in receptions (30) and has eclipsed 100 all-purpose yards in six of eight games this season. The senior likely will miss the rest of the regular season after sustaining a wrist injury last Saturday at Indiana.

7. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin -- The three-year starter got off to a hot start, exploding for 210 rushing yards in the opener against Akron and racking up 112 in a win at Fresno State. He has slowed down considerably since then and likely will platoon with redshirt freshman John Clay for most of the remaining games.

8. Marcus Thigpen, Indiana -- Quarterback Kellen Lewis remains the Hoosiers' top rushing threat (67.3 ypg), but Thigpen has been a solid contributor as a runner, a receiver and a return man. He averages 5.7 yards per carry, 22.8 yards per reception and 22.9 yards per kickoff return. The 193-pound senior ranks 14th nationally in all-purpose yards (1601.1 ypg).

9. Daniel Dufrene, Illinois -- The Illini are more pass oriented this season behind quarterback Juice Williams, but Dufrene has done a nice job following the departure of Rashard Mendenhall. The junior averages 5.6 yards a carry and ties for third on the team with 17 receptions. He has lost some carries to freshman Jason Ford, who can be more effective in the red zone.

10. DeLeon Eskridge, Minnesota -- Thrust into a starting role as a true freshman, Eskridge has stepped up nicely, averaging 65 rush yards per game and scoring seven touchdowns for the upstart Gophers. He needs three rushing touchdowns to tie Laurence Maroney's school record for a freshman.

Solid reserve running backs include Wisconsin's John Clay, Iowa's Jewel Hampton, Penn State's Stephfon Green, Illinois' Jason Ford and Michigan's Brandon Minor.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

 Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
 Javon Ringer has 16 touchdowns for Michigan State.

During Big Ten media days in July, the spotlight turned to the league's apparent culture change on offense.

From the arrival of spread-offense innovator Rich Rodriguez to the retirement of spread-offense pioneer Joe Tiller to the introduction of the spread at tradition-rich Penn State, the Big Ten appeared to have closed the book on its cloud-of-dust past and transitioned into the 21st century. Sissy ball, as Tiller often calls it, had swept through the league. Aside from Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells, a Heisman Trophy contender, few running backs were discussed.

And yet nine weeks into the season, the Big Ten offensive landscape looks much like it did decades earlier, with dominant running backs carrying the flags for their teams.

The Big 12 has dominated the national spotlight with its collection of golden-armed quarterbacks, four of whom remain in the Heisman Trophy mix. The nation's best wide receivers also reside in the Big 12, while many of the nation's top defenders call the SEC or ACC home.

But when it comes to running backs, the Big Ten stands alone.

The league boasts two of the nation's top three runners -- Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Iowa's Shonn Greene -- and five players ranked in the top 35 for rushing average. Toss in Wells, who hasn't played in enough games to qualify for the national statistics, and the Big Ten would have three players in the top 15 for rushing average and four in the top 20.

"We're pretty much the best conference as far as running backs go," Greene said. "The Big Ten Conference is a big, hard-nosed football conference, pound-it-out football."

(Read full post)

What to watch in the Big Ten

October, 24, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

1. Terrelle Pryor and Daryll Clark -- The two quarterbacks lead their teams into Saturday night's unofficial Big Ten championship game, and neither man has lost as the starter. Pryor quieted his doubters in the locker room and in the stands with an efficient and effective performance last week at Michigan State. Clark has triggered the Spread HD offense for eight games but faces an Ohio State defense playing its best football of the season.

2. Michigan State's mood in the Big House -- Coach Mark Dantonio and his players have never shied away from discussing the importance of the Michigan game. Star running back Javon Ringer said he'd be embarrassed to go through his entire career without beating the Spartans' archrival, and many of his teammates feel the same way. But the Spartans can't get over-emotional, especially after an uncharacteristically sloppy performance against Ohio State. This is their chance to beat Michigan, but they've blown chances like this before.

3. Big-game Beanie -- Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells said he's made for big-stage games like Saturday night's clash with No. 3 Penn State. Wells has a strong big-game track record and wants to carry the team, but will his right foot hold up? He has been extremely sore after several games despite increasing his carries total. Penn State has looked a little vulnerable against the run in recent weeks, so Wells could have a big night.

4. Minnesota and the bye-week bugaboo -- Bye weeks haven't been kind to Big Ten teams this season, but Minnesota hopes to break the pattern. The week off came at a good time for several banged-up standouts (Adam Weber, Eric Decker, Marcus Sherels), and head coach Tim Brewster has a lot of faith in his approach to the bye. A trip to struggling Purdue seems like the perfect way to restart the season, but the Boilers are desperate for a win and could come out hot against the Gophers.

5. Rich Rodriguez and a rivalry game -- Better days are ahead for Michigan and Rodriguez, but patience is wearing thin in Ann Arbor after a 2-5 start. Beating in-state rival Michigan State would do wonders for Rodriguez, his players, his assistants and a restless fan base. First-year coaches have struggled in this series, and Michigan is still searching for a complete game. Rodriguez's ability to inspire his team and amend the offense could lead to an upset of the Spartans.

6. Bret Bielema under siege -- Windbreaker sales are down, criticism is up and Bret Bielema's approval rating could use a major boost against Illinois. Bielema's charmed coaching career at Wisconsin has been sidetracked with four consecutive losses, the last two being blowouts. The losing streak has only reinforced Bielema's core beliefs, but he needs Wisconsin to play smarter against a dangerous Illini team.

7. Northwestern's offense and maintaining momentum -- Quarterback C.J. Bacher and the Wildcats offense settled into a nice rhythm in the final three quarters last week against Purdue. They now head to Indiana and face a Hoosiers team susceptible to big plays, particularly in the passing game. Bacher is a streaky player and could capitalize on Indiana's cornerbacks for another big game. But his interceptions habit still concerns Wildcats fans, who have seen their team lose games like this before.

8. Illini D-line must get physical -- Illinois coach Ron Zook had a great line this week about the challenge of facing Wisconsin's mammoth offensive line. "When their offensive line stands up, the sun goes away," he said. "We told [Illini players], 'You better put on the big boy pads.' They're going to need them. ... We call this Wisconsin power. Going back to last year, that was as hard hitting and physical a game as I've been around in a long time. Both teams lined up and knocked the crap out of each other." The Illini defensive front was branded the team's strength before the season. It needs to prove it against the struggling Badgers.

9. Purdue's team unity -- Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller doesn't sense any splintering in the locker room, though you have to wonder after running back Kory Sheets criticized quarterback Curtis Painter for not finding him in the passing game last week at Northwestern. Sheets has since been prohibited from speaking to the media, and his comments likely came out of frustration. But Purdue needs a morale boost on Homecoming, and it would help if Painter provided one with more polished play.

10. Penn State offensive line -- The veteran-laden group took a bit of criticism this week and needs a strong response on the field at Ohio Stadium. Clark has been extremely well protected and the rushing lanes have been there for Evan Royster, but Ohio State's defensive speed, particularly at linebacker, could pose problems. If Penn State's front five controls the line of scrimmage like it has for most of the season, the Lions should prevail.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

All eyes will be on Ohio Stadium as it hosts a night game for the first time since 2005. Penn State-Ohio State is the main event this week, but there are four other games going on in the Big Ten.

Here's a look at what's on tap in Week 9.

No. 22 Northwestern (6-1, 2-1) at Indiana (2-5, 0-3)
The Wildcats try to eclipse their wins total from 2007 against struggling Indiana, which comes in on a five-game slide. Northwestern's offense turned in its best performance of the season against Purdue, and senior quarterback C.J. Bacher looks to continue the momentum against a vulnerable Hoosiers secondary. Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis is once again questionable with a high ankle sprain. Indiana has won three of its last four Homecoming games.

Illinois (4-3, 2-2) at Wisconsin (3-4, 0-4), ESPN2
Times are tough in Badger Land after four consecutive losses, including blowout defeats against Penn State and Iowa. With starting running back P.J. Hill (lower left leg) questionable and quarterback Dustin Sherer making his second career start, Wisconsin's defense will need to step up. Illinois quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn have been dominant in Big Ten play. The Illini snapped Wisconsin's 14-game win streak last year in Champaign.

No. 24 Minnesota (6-1, 2-1) at Purdue (2-5, 0-3), ESPN Classic
Gophers coach Tim Brewster said the bye week came at a good time for his team, which was banged up after its big road win against Illinois. The bye has been a bugaboo for Big Ten teams so far, as only one team (Michigan) won following the week off. Minnesota is ranked for the first time in three years and faces a Purdue team on a four-game losing streak. The Boilers need a confidence boost and could get one from running back Kory Sheets, who has performed well despite the slide.

Michigan State (6-2, 3-1) at Michigan (2-5, 1-2), ABC
The Spartans looked a bit shell-shocked last week against Ohio State, suffering a humbling loss at home. They should have no trouble recharging for their No. 1 rival. Michigan has won six-straight games in the series, and if Michigan State can't get over the hump this year, it will be a major blow for Mark Dantonio's team. Spartans star running back Javon Ringer said he'd be embarrassed to go through his career without beating Michigan. The home team has captured 13 of the last 16 games in the series, and Michigan State hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1990.

No. 3 Penn State (8-0, 4-0) at No. 9 Ohio State (7-1, 4-0), ABC
No shortage of storylines here as the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes meet with Big Ten title hopes and possibly national championship implications on the line. Penn State has never won in Columbus as a member of the Big Ten, while Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor faces his home-state school -- one of his many suitors during the recruiting process. The game features the Big Ten's top two defenses, two dynamic quarterbacks (Pryor and Daryll Clark), two talented running backs (Chris "Beanie" Wells and Evan Royster) and two successful coaches (Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno). Ohio State has won its last six Homecoming matchups.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

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

1. Javon vs. Beanie -- We're on a first-name basis with these two superstar running backs, who match up Saturday at Spartan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Michigan State's Javon Ringer remains in the Heisman mix and can help his cause with a big game in the national spotlight. Chris "Beanie" Wells has been solid since his return from injury, but with Ohio State's passing game struggling, his workload likely will increase. Wells has been at his best in big games, and he needs another strong effort against the Spartans.

2. The scoreboard at Beaver Stadium -- How bad will it get for Michigan? No. 3 Penn State enters Saturday's game (ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET) on a nine-game losing streak to the Wolverines, and the Lions undoubtedly have the ability to run up the score. Michigan's defense needs a big performance to keep things close, but the Lions could be looking for revenge. Wolverines quarterback Steven Threet could be limited with a bruised elbow, and the offense likely will struggle against the league's top defense.

3. The man taking snaps for Wisconsin -- Badgers head coach Bret Bielema opened up the competition at quarterback this week, and it seems likely that junior Dustin Sherer will replace Allan Evridge against Iowa. The Hawkeyes allow fewer than 100 rushing yards a game, and Wisconsin will need its quarterback to make some plays. Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst liked the spark Sherer provided in mop-up time against Penn State. They might make a switch after seeing too many mistakes from the quarterback spot.

4. Terrelle Pryor and the passing game -- There was some grumbling this week in Columbus about a punch-less passing attack, and it will be interesting to see how Pryor responds against Michigan State. Pryor has taken too many sacks in recent weeks, and he needs to make some quicker decisions and get wideouts Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline more involved. Ohio State has slipped to 108th nationally in pass offense (143.6 ypg).

5. C.J. Bacher vs. Curtis Painter -- Both senior quarterbacks have struggled this season, ranking eighth and ninth in the league in pass efficiency. Northwestern is 10-0 in games when Bacher starts and throws fewer than two interceptions and 3-10 when he throws two or more picks. Painter hasn't thrown a touchdown pass this month and needs to inspire confidence in his teammates with a strong performance at Ryan Field.

6. Juice and the record books -- Illinois quarterback Juice Williams has set stadium records for total offense in each of his last two games. That's 934 yards of offense in eight quarters. Mercy. He now takes aim on an Indiana defense that has allowed 42 points or more in three of its last four games. Williams already has eight completions for 50 yards or more this season -- the most for any FBS quarterback -- and Indiana's secondary is susceptible to the big play.

7. Jim Tressel vs. Mark Dantonio -- Tressel and his former defensive coordinator square off for the third consecutive season, and though their teams are the bigger story this time, it will be interesting to see the two coaches match wits. Both men admit they don't enjoy facing one another, but Dantonio and Michigan State can take a major step forward by beating Tressel and the three-time defending Big Ten champions. "I sort of enjoy playing Ohio State," Dantonio said. "I always did when I was here before. I don't enjoy playing people that are close friends, I guess, but I enjoy playing against a football team that is from where I grew up."

8. Indiana's quarterback situation -- Kellen Lewis sat out practice this week and is listed as questionable for the Illinois game with a high ankle sprain. Indiana trusts sophomore Ben Chappell, who has shared the field with Lewis at times this season. But Lewis remains Indiana's biggest threat, and the Hoosiers will need more playmakers to develop if the junior is limited or unavailable against the high-powered Illini.

9. Penn State and the trap game -- Lions players insist they're not concerned about the losing streak to Michigan or the psychological effect such a slide could have on Saturday. But if Michigan somehow jumps ahead, it will be interesting to see how Penn State responds. These teams aren't comparable on paper, but college football always has some surprises and Penn State has a huge game next week at Ohio State. As Penn State coach Joe Paterno said recently, "I don't know what an upset is any more."

10. Do-it-all backs in Evanston -- Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets don't get the same attention as Ringer, Wells, Shonn Greene and Evan Royster, but there aren't two more versatile running backs in the conference. Sutton is quietly averaging 100.5 rush yards per game and ranks third on the team with 24 receptions. Sheets ranks second in the Big Ten in all-purpose yards (156 ypg), accounting for 34 first downs (29 rushing, 5 receiving) this season.

Big Ten picks for Week 5

September, 25, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten play finally arrives for 10 of the 11 teams, and some intriguing opening matchups are on tap Saturday. Last week brought another solid record, but I underestimated the strength of several Big Ten defense. It won't happen this time around.

Not an easy slate of games, and recent history is working against favorites like Penn State (1-7 in its last eight Big Ten openers) and Wisconsin (hasn't won at Michigan since 1994). Here's how I see things shaking out.

Michigan State 30, Indiana 21 -- The Hoosiers allowed Ball State's MiQuale Lewis to rush for 166 yards last week. That's not a good sign as Javon Ringer, the nation's second-leading rusher, comes to Bloomington. Ringer could record his third straight 200-yard rushing performance, but this is an important game for Brian Hoyer to finally get going. The Spartans senior quarterback faces a depleted Indiana secondary. Kellen Lewis makes some plays for the Hoosiers, but Michigan State has the stronger defense.

Ohio State 35, Minnesota 17 -- The return of running back Chris Wells provides the emotional lift Ohio State has lacked the last three games. Wells might not put up huge numbers, but his presence sparks quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offense. I haven't lost faith in Minnesota, but the timing just isn't right for an upset. And unlike previous Gophers opponents, Ohio State will actually bother to cover star wide receiver Eric Decker with All-America cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

Iowa 20, Northwestern 17 -- A really tough call here. Iowa hopes it finds a quarterback in sophomore Ricky Stanzi, but Northwestern's defense looks greatly improved and the Hawkeyes' offense really hasn't done much the last two games. The difference comes at the line of scrimmage, where Iowa's defensive front overpowers Northwestern's new-look offensive line and neutralizes Tyrell Sutton. The game could come down to special teams or a fourth-quarter turnover, but Iowa holds on at home.

Wisconsin 27, Michigan 17 -- Like two years ago, the game stays close for the first half, but this time Wisconsin pulls away behind its power run game. Michigan's offense will be improved coming off the bye week and running back Sam McGuffie will force the Badgers to tackle in space. But Wisconsin knows how to grind out victories, and in the fourth quarter the Badgers will control the clock with P.J. Hill and force a mistake or two from Wolverines quarterback Steven Threet. Michigan's streak of 22 consecutive wins in Big Ten openers comes to an end.

Purdue 27, Notre Dame 24 -- For the second straight season Notre Dame can't run the ball, and the Irish will be forced to stretch the field with young wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The plan could work well, but Purdue's secondary has improved and picks off a pass or two. Curtis Painter put up big numbers (398 pass yards) in his last trip to Notre Dame Stadium, and Purdue's offense looks more balanced with running back Kory Sheets. The Boilers win on a last-minute Chris Summers field goal.

Penn State 38, Illinois 24 -- The Lions face adversity for the first time this season, but ultimately their offense is simply too powerful for Illinois. Illini quarterback Juice Williams has proven he can win in tough environments, but unless Arrelious Benn steps up his play, the offense doesn't have enough firepower to keep pace with Penn State. Lions quarterback Daryll Clark makes an early mistake but recovers, and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green wear down the Illini defensive line.

Byes: None

Season record: 35-4

Big Ten power rankings

September, 22, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

A bit of shuffling this week despite three teams -- Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan -- that had byes. There's still a lot of mystery after the top three or four squads, and we'll know much more in five days as league play finally begins.

1. Wisconsin -- The bye week came at a good time for the Badgers, who are still dealing with some key injuries (Travis Beckum, Jonathan Casillas, Aaron Henry). It might sound wacky, but Saturday's game at 1-2 Michigan could be a trap game for Wisconsin, which can't look ahead to mega matchups with Ohio State and Penn State the next two weeks at Camp Randall Stadium.

2. Penn State -- The Lions beat Temple 45-3 and called their performance sloppy. Impressive is a better term to describe a team that has capitalized on weak competition and looked great on both sides of the ball. Penn State finally gets a test this week as Illinois visits Happy Valley. Another convincing win could give the Lions the top spot.

3. Ohio State -- The Terrelle Pryor era is under way in Columbus, and the freshman turned in a record-setting performance in his first career start. But the Buckeyes once again didn't look impressive against an inferior opponent, and they'll have to be much better in league play to reclaim the top spot in the rankings.

4. Michigan State -- It's a little unfair to drop Illinois after a bye week, but the Illini don't look like an improved team, while Michigan State does. Running back Javon Ringer has been the Big Ten MVP through the first four games, and the defense is displaying the physical style that head coach Mark Dantonio demands.

5. Illinois -- The good news for the idle Illini is they have a chance to make a huge statement Saturday at Penn State and vault up the list. The offense and defense rarely have played well at the same time, and Illinois will need both units to be clicking in Happy Valley. A veteran defensive front seven faces a huge test in the Spread HD offense, and Juice Williams tries to replicate his big-game road heroics.

6. Northwestern -- At this point in the season, the Wildcats are usually lamenting a bad nonleague loss and a leaky defense. Instead, they find themselves 4-0, thanks to a dominating defense shaped by coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The offense has been the problem so far, and Northwestern will need a lot of improvement from senior quarterback C.J. Bacher to keep this spot.

7. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes have found a running back (Shonn Greene) and several young playmakers on defense, but football still comes down to the quarterback position, and Iowa remains a mystery there. It seems like whoever comes off the bench -- Jake Christensen or Ricky Stanzi -- outplays the starter. Coach Kirk Ferentz might need to just pick a guy already because the rotation isn't working.

8. Purdue -- Staring straight at another crushing loss, the Boilermakers came up big against a solid Central Michigan team. Senior running back Kory Sheets continued to show he can handle the featured role by rushing for the game-winning touchdown. Purdue's playmaking secondary has become one of the team's strengths. A road win against Notre Dame would move the Boilers higher.

9. Minnesota -- I kept the Gophers in the basement after three wins, but a 37-3 win against Florida Atlantic made me a believer. Coordinator Ted Roof has ignited the nation's worst defense in 2007, as an influx of junior college transfers and several holdovers have meshed so far. Minnesota is forcing turnovers on defense and limiting mistakes on offense. Quarterback Adam Weber has been fabulous so far.

10. Michigan -- I'll be surprised if the Wolverines end up here at the end of the season, but it might be awhile before they move up. Wisconsin and Illinois visit the Big House the next two weeks, and Michigan needs an upset to keep its bowl hopes alive. A defense that struggled against Notre Dame must step against Wisconsin's power run game, and both Steven Threet and Sam McGuffie need to take another step forward.

11. Indiana -- Saturday marked the first chance for us to learn something about Indiana, and it wasn't promising. Two cupcake games didn't prepare the Hoosiers for a formidable Ball State team. Indiana's defensive front couldn't stop MiQuale Lewis, and Hoosiers quarterback Kellen Lewis had a rough night throwing the ball. The Hoosiers have a chance to move up by beating Michigan State at home on Saturday, but they deserved to drop.

Big Ten helmet stickers

September, 20, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

It has been a strange, entertaining and revealing day in the Big Ten. Time to recognize some of the men who made it memorable.

Michigan State RB Javon Ringer -- Ringer continued to perform despite an insane workload, becoming the first Michigan State player to rush for 200 yards or more in consecutive games. His 201 rushing yards Saturday marked the most ever by a Spartans player against Notre Dame. In the last two weeks Ringer has 483 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 82 carries.

Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor -- The most anticipated recruit in program history backed up the hype in his first career start, throwing a freshman-record four touchdown passes in a win against Troy. The first true freshman quarterback to start for Ohio State since Art Schlichter in 1978, Pryor completed 10 of 16 passes and added 66 rushing yards.

Northwestern's defense -- Put simply, the Wildcats would be 2-2 instead of 4-0 without superlative defensive play. Coordinator Mike Hankwitz has transformed the unit, which held Ohio to a single-game school-record four rushing yards in a 16-8 victory. The Bobcats had 14 plays for negative yardage as Northwestern forced four turnovers and blocked two field-goal attempts. Redshirt freshman defensive end Vince Browne led the way with three sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

Purdue coach Joe Tiller -- Tiller became Purdue's all-time winningest coach, passing Jack Mollenkopf with his 85th victory with the Boilers. Few of his wins were more dramatic than Saturday's, as Kory Sheets ran for the game-winning touchdown with a minute left after Central Michigan took a 25-24 lead on a gutsy two-point conversion call by Butch Jones.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten is at the quarter pole, and the favorite has fallen back in the pack. After the first truly revealing weekend of the season, let's see what's happening around the league. 

"When we walked in at halftime, nobody was saying anything," tackle Alex Boone said. "I mean, what the [heck], we're Ohio State -- we should be screaming and swearing and saying everything evil you can think of. And guys are hanging their heads, and you don't know what to say to them. You try screaming, and they just put their head down even more. We can't play like that, and if we play like that the rest of the season, we won't be anything."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Oregon defensive end Will Tukuafu first heard the phrase from his junior college coach, Ken Giovando.

As Oregon backslid in the first half Saturday, making "enough mistakes to last the rest of the season," according to head coach Mike Bellotti, Tukuafu began to repeat the line: Adversity introduces a person to himself.

"Things aren't always going to go our way," Tukuafu said. "But when those things don't go our way, how are we going to react? I think we reacted pretty well today."

More than a few things haven't gone Oregon's way during the last month, but the 16th-ranked Ducks continue to find a way.

Consider the stumbling blocks and the Ducks' response:

  • After losing projected starting quarterback Nate Costa to a season-ending knee injury, Oregon put up 110 points in its first two games behind Justin Roper.
  • Left tackle Fenuki Tupou was suspended for the season opener for receiving improper benefits from an agent, but Oregon pounded Washington, 44-10.
  • When the offense couldn't find the end zone for the better part of three quarters Saturday, the defense put up a wall at its own 40-yard line and wouldn't let Curtis Painter and Purdue cross it.
  • As starting running back Jeremiah Johnson played with a recently separated right shoulder, backup LeGarrette Blount stepped up with 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in the second overtime.
  • When Roper went down with a sprained left knee in the first overtime, freshman Chris Harper led the winning touchdown drive.

"We got as close as you could get to losing, but still we got a victory," offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. "In the end, you're 3-0 and in January and February, no one's going to talk about the Purdue game."

Most of Oregon's mistakes Saturday stemmed from Kelly's unit, but the defense faced its own hurdles. Purdue's Kory Sheets gashed the Ducks for an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and put his team up 20-3 on the first play of the second quarter.

But from that point, the Ducks' defense locked down. Purdue consistently got good field position but didn't advance past Oregon's 38-yard line on its next 11 possessions. The Boilermakers racked up just 22 yards on 17 plays in the second quarter.

"I challenged the defense to shut them out, and they did," Bellotti said. "They put the momentum on our side."

As Blount walked over to Kelly outside the visitors' locker room after the game, the coach embraced the 229-pound junior and said, "I'm proud of you."

Johnson insisted his shoulder was fine, but Bellotti acknowledged the back wasn't 100 percent. The Ducks needed Blount to step in, just as Roper did for Costa and Harper eventually did for Roper.

Though Jairus Boyd's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter was undeniably the game's turning point, Blount changed field position and ignited the offense with a 72-yard dash from his Oregon's 4-yard line.

"He's one of a kind," Johnson said of Blount. "That's my boy. When I went out, he came in and did an excellent job today."

The heroics from Blount, Boyd and others helped Oregon survive a multitude of mistakes in all three areas of the game. Roper had two passes intercepted in Purdue territory, Oregon lost the turnover battle 4-3 and committed several costly penalties. The Ducks' inability to handle a short kickoff into the wind set up a Purdue touchdown.

Late in the third quarter, Bellotti slammed his headset to the turf after the defense was nearly whistled for illegal substitution on consecutive plays.

"I can't think of a game anywhere that we played that poorly," Bellotti said.

"We weren't nearly as focused," Harper said. "I don't think we had the same intensity we had for Washington or some of those other games. We came out sluggish."

They'll have to be better starting next week against Boise State, and more adversity awaits. Roper is expected to miss the game, meaning Harper or Jeremiah Masoli will start at quarterback.

Relief was the general sentiment after Saturday's win, but there were lessons, too.

"It makes me want to work harder," said Tukuafu, who had two sacks and recovered a fumble. "We want to understand the mind-set now. We faced a little adversity and our mind-set changed. Our work habits, all those things, increased a lot more this week."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Joe Tiller always will been known for bringing the spread offense to the Big Ten and turning Purdue into a point-producing machine.

But Tiller is 30 minutes away from becoming Purdue's all-time coaching wins leader because of the Boilermakers defense. Oregon's speed and offensive creativity is as advertised, but the Ducks have repeatedly hurt themselves in Purdue territory throughout the first half. The Ducks have outgained Purdue 254-195 but went 2-for-4 in the red zone.

Part of the problems stem from quarterback Justin Roper, who showed his youth on two poor decisions that led to interceptions in Purdue's end of the field. But the Boilermakers' defensive line has shut down the run and put Roper under pressure. Roper isn't getting much help from his receivers, who have dropped several passes, but the Boilermakers secondary continues to fly around and make things hard for the Ducks. Purdue defensive tackle Ryan Baker and safeties Torri Williams and Frank Duong have been particularly disruptive. Give a ton of credit to defensive coordinator Brock Spack.

Purdue should be slightly concerned about its offense, which did next to nothing in the second quarter after Kory Sheets rushed for his second touchdown. Despite three possessions with favorable field position, the Boilers couldn't convert. The strong northeasterly wind might be bothering quarterback Curtis Painter, who completed just 6 of 16 passes in the half and made a very un-senior-like decision in the final minute, forcing a throw that Jairus Byrd picked off. But once again, the defense came up big in the red zone, holding Oregon to a field goal.

I'll give it to the Ducks. They play it bold. Going for a fourth-and-10 at Purdue's 41-yard line with a 17-point deficit might signal desperation to some, but coordinator Chip Kelly is confident in his offense. There's still plenty of time left for an explosive unit, but Oregon must be sharper in every aspect of the game.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue all but admitted having a speed and talent deficit going into today's clash against No. 16 Oregon. That could still be the case, but the Boilermakers are making big plays in all three facets of the game.

Joe Tiller couldn't have scripted a better start, as running back Kory Sheets showed he's got some decent wheels, too, zooming 80 yards on the second snap from scrimmage. Quarterback Curtis Painter isn't known for his mobility but several times has beaten the Ducks' supposedly quick defense with his feet.

The most encouraging sign for the offense is a newfound creativity. Tiller's decision to put sophomore running back Justin Siller at quarterback for a play surprised many up here in the press box, and Siller's improvisation on an option play worked smashingly, as he followed Painter's block for a 21-yard gain.

Oregon's offense is moving the ball but has little to show for it. And as good as Justin Roper has been early on in his tenure, he made a terrible decision on a rollout that led to Brandon King's momentum-swinging interception.

Even the wind, thought to be a major disadvantage for Purdue's passing attack, has so far benefited the Boilermakers. After fielding two short kickoffs into the wind, Oregon foolishly left its return men too far back on another short kick. Purdue recovered at the Ducks' 23-yard line and retained the momentum. Good teams don't make mistakes like that.