NCF Nation: Kyle Theret

A new Rose Bowl access rule could prevent the traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup Jan. 1 in Pasadena, but at least the two leagues will get to know one another very well on Saturday. Three Big Ten-Pac-10 games are on the slate, as No. 18 USC visits Minnesota (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), Arizona State visits Wisconsin (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) and No. 9 Iowa visits No. 24 Arizona (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET).

Bloggers Ted Miller (Pac-10) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) break down the three matchups.

[+] EnlargeJohn Clay
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCan Arizona State's defense stand up to Wisconsin running back John Clay?
Adam Rittenberg: Ted, it's been too long, my friend. The Rose Bowl seems like decades ago, although they're still celebrating in Columbus. Given the likelihood of Boise State or TCU crashing the party in Pasadena this year, it's nice to have some Pac-10-Big Ten flavor this Saturday. Let's start off with Arizona State-Wisconsin. The name Steven Threet still makes people shudder in Madison after he led Michigan to a historic comeback against Wisconsin in 2008, triggering the beginning of the end for the Badgers that year. It also turned out to be the beginning of the end for Threet in a winged helmet. He seems to be settling in very nicely so far in Tempe. What should Wisconsin expect from Threet and the Sun Devils on Saturday?

Ted Miller: An offense with extraordinary firepower! See an average of more than 500 yards and 47.5 ppg. Oh, wait. The Sun Devils played not one but two FCS foes. Hmm. And according to this box score, they rushed for just 56 yards on 29 carries against the hearty Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona. Double-hmm. Still, the early returns are fairly positive on Threet and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's spread attack. The Sun Devils' offense was so bad last year that merely being mediocre would be a huge improvement. A bigger issue than Threet: the offensive line. It wasn't consistent against FCS foes, so you'd think the Badgers front-seven might pose a problem. But, to me, the more interesting matchup is a fast Sun Devils defense versus an experienced, physical Badgers offense. What's your take?

Rittenberg: Totally agree that the game likely will come down to Arizona State's dynamic defense and Wisconsin's power run game, led by John Clay. He's the Big Ten's version of Toby Gerhart, except bigger. Clay has looked great this year, but Wisconsin needs to clean up some sloppy play on offense against the Sun Devils. The Badgers already failed on three red-zone scoring chances, matching their total from all of the previous season (53-for-56), and they've committed three turnovers inside the red zone. They have little trouble moving the ball and boast what I believe to be one of the nation's most balanced offenses, but they're not good enough to survive these mistakes much longer. Arizona State will have its hands full with Clay and a mammoth offensive line, but if the Sun Devils can use their speed and force turnovers, they'll have a shot in this one.

Let's move on to the other afternoon affair, USC at Minnesota. The Trojans haven't exactly been dominant this year, but at least they haven't lost to South Dakota. At home. Giving up 41 points and 444 yards. Yeesh. Your thoughts?

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
AP Photo/Eugene TannerMatt Barkley will try to exploit a Minnesota defense that gave up 258 yards to South Dakota
Miller: Here are two teams that are muddling along, though the Trojans surely feel better about 2-0 -- no matter the way they got there -- than the Gophers do with 1-1, including the loss to a team from the Dakotas. Adam, I have no idea about the Trojans. They still look great getting off the bus. They still have NFL prospects at every position. In Week 1 at Hawaii, the offense looked great, the defense terrible. In Week 2 at home versus Virginia, it was mostly the opposite. Is it a question of fire and focus in the face of NCAA sanctions? I think we won't really be able to answer that question until the Pac-10 schedule starts. As for this one, I think the Trojans are going to roll. But I wrote that the previous two weeks and ended up being wrong. So what do I know?

What's your take?

Rittenberg: This is an odd matchup. In some ways, USC is just asking to get beat. But how can Minnesota take down Troy if it can't keep South Dakota to fewer than 40 points? The Gophers defense obviously is a major question mark, and I fully expect Matt Barkley to attack downfield a lot on Saturday. Minnesota gets a boost as safety Kyle Theret returns from suspension, giving the defense one returning starter from 2009. The other thing here is if things go back for Minnesota at the start, any sort of home-field edge will disappear. They're not too pleased with coach Tim Brewster right now in the Twin Cities. Minnesota's only chance is to control the clock with Duane Bennett and its power run game, and keep Barkley and Dillon Baxter off the field. A huge challenge.

OK, we've saved the best for last: Iowa at Arizona. Both teams look great so far. Iowa won last year's game, but trips out West haven't been kind to the Hawkeyes lately. What happens in Tucson?

Miller: First off, it's a great offense-defense matchup, with Nick Foles and an experienced UA offense taking on one of the best defenses in the nation. The cautionary tale for Wildcats fans is that also seemed like the case heading into the Holiday Bowl versus Nebraska, which became a complete disaster. Foles has a good offensive line, but the Hawkeyes have an NFL defensive front. If the Wildcats can get any sort of running game -- and Nic Grigsby is an explosive guy who can make a big play out of a small crack -- then things will be far easier for Foles and a quick-hit passing game. Foles is extremely accurate and he has a deep receiving corps. Yet to me the game turns on the Wildcats' rebuilt front seven. The unit replaced both tackles and all three linebackers and has played better than expected, but Iowa is a different sort of beast. If the Hawkeyes can run power effectively, then the Wildcats will be in trouble. If Iowa has to throw, I like the Wildcats secondary's chances versus Ricky Stanzi, who as you well know, Adam, hasn't always been the manzi.

What do you see from this one?

[+] EnlargeAdrian Clayborn
Icon SMICan Arizona's offensive line contain Adrian Clayborn?
Rittenberg: Should be a great one in the desert. Iowa knows Arizona has come a long way since last year's meeting in Iowa City, when Foles hadn't yet emerged as the starter. The game could come down to whether Arizona can get Grigsby going and protect Foles against the Hawkeyes, who boast arguably the nation's best defensive line. Star defensive end Adrian Clayborn has been a bit quiet so far this season, but he usually plays his best in big games. Arizona typically has some outstanding defensive backs, but don't underestimate The Manzi, who has yet to throw an interception this year. So love it or leave it, pal! Iowa can stretch the field with receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, and the run game has looked good so far with Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton. The Hawkeyes won in State College, Madison and East Lansing last year, but they haven't fared well historically in these trips out West. Arizona definitely has some built-in advantages.

OK, prediction time. Who wins in the three Pac-10-Big Ten matchups?

Miller: Somehow I knew you were going to ask that.

I think USC will handle Minnesota fairly easily: Trojans 41, Gophers 20.

I think Arizona State will be competitive at Wisconsin but the Sun Devils will struggle to score -- and possess the ball -- and the defense will wear down: Wisconsin 27, Arizona State 17.

As for Arizona-Iowa: I go back and forth, but I'm going to risk the ire of the Wildcats faithful and pick Iowa 28, Arizona 24. I just don't think the Arizona defense will be able to hold up all night, and that will allow the Hawkeyes to take a lead at some point in the second half and then play keep-away with the run game.

So, for what REALLY is going to happen... Ladies and gentlemen, Adam Rittenberg.

Rittenberg: Why thank you, good sir.

The Gophers save face a bit against USC and hang around for a while before Barkley and his receivers prove too much for a young defense. Trojans win 35-23.

Wisconsin controls the clock as always and cleans up some of its mistakes in the red zone. Threet leads two first-half scoring drives before the Badgers take control and win 30-20.

Iowa-Arizona should be a great one. The elements will be tough for the Hawkeyes, and they'll fall behind early. But I've got to go with the better defense and the more battle-tested team. Iowa wins 26-21.

So we agree. We'll have to fight over the Rose Bowl pick this year. I've got Boise State!

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 16, 2010
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Ten items to track as you watch every Big Ten squad in action Saturday.

1. Hawkeyes head west: History doesn't favor Iowa -- or any Big Ten team, for that matter -- when it comes to early season road games out west. Iowa has dropped its past six games west of the Rockies, and as columnist Mike Hlas points out, the Hawkeyes have lost their past three road games against Pac-10 members by an average of 28 points. Fortunately for Iowa, it boasts a senior-laden team that should be able to handle the difficulties of a time change, a late kickoff time, the absence of defensive coordinator Norm Parker and some potentially steamy weather in Tucson against No. 24 Arizona (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET). This is a chance for Iowa to showcase itself on the national stage and beat a solid Wildcats team. The elements will be tough, but Iowa is a tough team that won in tough places last fall.

[+] EnlargeRicky Stanzi
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRicky Stanzi and Iowa take aim at a rare road win over the Pac-10.
2. Spartans' secondary put to the test: Michigan State's secondary was the team's No. 1 concern entering the season. We should get an excellent read on whether the Spartans have taken a step forward or not Saturday night against Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and the Notre Dame offense (ABC/ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). Floyd is a handful for any secondary, and Rudolph showed once again against Michigan that he's not a typical tight end. Michigan State needs strong performances from safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Chris L. Rucker and others, and it'll be interesting to see if All-American linebacker Greg Jones provides a lift in coverage, a point of emphasis for him in returning to school.

3. Big Ten reunion of sorts: When Wisconsin began watching tape in preparation to face Arizona State on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), coach Bret Bielema made sure to include a clip of a Michigan quarterback leading a historic comeback against the Badgers in 2008. That quarterback was Steven Threet, who will lead the Arizona State offense into Camp Randall. Threet is one of several former Big Ten players reunited with foes from their old league Saturday. Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, formerly of Michigan State, faces Iowa, while Rice running back Sam McGuffie, formerly of Michigan, faces Northwestern. And let's not forget about Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who goes up against his alma mater.

4. Minnesota picks up the pieces: This could go one of two ways for Tim Brewster's crew. Minnesota either will let Matt Barkley and USC go nuts Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET) and increase the calls for a coaching change. Or, the Gophers will use last week's inexcusable loss to South Dakota as a rallying cry and play good football against a USC team asking to get beat. Obviously, Minnesota needs to take a huge step with a young defense, which will regain the services of senior safety Kyle Theret. Overshadowed by the Dakota Debacle were the strong performances of Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber and running back Duane Bennett, who need even better days against the Trojans.

5. Michigan's quarterback rotation: Unless we see an Appalachian State re-run, Michigan should be able to rest sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson for part of Saturday's game against Massachusetts. If and when Robinson leaves the game, it should get interesting. Will coach Rich Rodriguez continue to call on true freshman Devin Gardner before last year's starting signal caller, Tate Forcier? How will they perform? Forcier seemed to be in better spirits last week at Notre Dame, and you know he's itching to play and show what he can do in a game.

6. Penn State running on E: E as in All-Big Ten running back Evan Royster, who needs a strong performance very soon after racking up only 72 rush yards in the first two games. Whether it's Royster's weight gain, the offensive line or a limited playbook, Penn State hasn't gotten much from No. 22. Saturday provides an interesting challenge as Penn State faces a Kent State team (ESPN2, noon ET) that leads the nation in rush defense (11 ypg allowed). The Golden Flashes certainly aren't Alabama, but they did a nice job of holding Boston College's ground game in check last week. This is a good chance for Royster to show he's still got it and make a move in his pursuit for the school's career rushing record.

7. Purdue behind the 8 ball: Life without No. 8 (Keith Smith) begins for Purdue, which must identify a new top target for quarterback Robert Marve. Smith was an outstanding possession receiver, and the Boilers will look to Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, Cortez Smith, Gary Bush, O.J. Ross and others to help fill the void beginning Saturday against Ball State. Purdue also can't also lose sight of the need to identify a deep threat. Through two games, Marve has completed 54 passes for only 391 yards (7.2 yards per completion). Siller seems like a good candidate to stretch the field.

8. A family affair for Poseys: Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey squares off against his older brother, Julian, a defensive back for Ohio, on Saturday in Columbus. It's one thing for brothers to play on opposing teams, but the Poseys likely will be matched up directly against one another. DeVier Posey has been excellent so far this season, recording eight receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. But Julian Posey can hold his own -- three pass breakups and a 38-yard fumble return to the end zone this year for the Bobcats -- and he knows his little brother better than anyone. Said Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel: "I told DeVier, 'If big brother shuts you down, it's going to be a long lifetime for you.'"

9. Illini aim to own the state: Illinois is 12-0 all-time against public schools from the state, a streak it tries to continue Saturday against Northern Illinois. It's only Week 3, but this is another must-win for Ron Zook's team, which looked very good last week against Southern Illinois. After the NIU game, Illinois has a week off before opening Big Ten play with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. So this is crucial. Linebacker Ian Thomas and an improving Illinois defense faces a Northern Illinois team favored to win the MAC West but struggling a bit so far this season. NIU also could be without ailing coach Jerry Kill for the game.

10. Wildcats, Hoosiers hit the road: Northwestern and Indiana both are favored to win Saturday, but September road games always are tricky. The Wildcats head to Houston, which will be a homecoming for several players, but provides some unique challenges, namely the weather. Rice held its own in the season opener against Texas and should test on-target quarterback Dan Persa and his NU teammates. Remember Indiana? It seems like the Hoosiers haven't played for eons (actually Sept. 2), but they're back at it Saturday afternoon at Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers top this week's Bottom 10, but they'll be excited to face a Big Ten squad in their house. Indiana's defense must perform better than it did in the opener.
We knew going into the season that Minnesota had to replace nine defensive starters, more than any other Big Ten squad.

Make it 10. And possibly all 11.

Safety Kyle Theret is suspended for Thursday night's opener at Middle Tennessee, head coach Tim Brewster announced Tuesday. Theret continues to serve a penalty for his drunken-driving arrest in March, although he practiced with the team in preseason camp. Veteran offensive lineman Dom Alford, a projected starter, also is suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Ed Olson will start in Alford's spot.

Minnesota really could use Theret, who led the team in interceptions (3) last year and recorded 73 tackles and seven passes defended. The team's only other returning starter on defense, safety Kim Royston, also could miss the game as he continues to rehab a broken leg suffered in spring practice.

Brewster said there's only "a small chance" Royston will play, adding, "I don't want to put him out there until I'm 100 percent certain that he's ready."

If Royston sits, Minnesota will take the field with 11 new starters on defense. Good thing Middle Tennessee will be without star quarterback Dwight Dasher, suspended for the game.

Get to know names like Christyn Lewis, James Manuel, D.L. Wilhite, Mike Rallis and Michael Carter. They're just some of the new starters Minnesota needs to step up Thursday night against the Blue Raiders.
The position rankings march on as I take a look at the top five secondary units in the Big Ten this fall.

1. Iowa: Playmaker extraordinaire Tyler Sash leads a group that boasts good experience but must fill a major void following the departure of All-Big Ten cornerback Amari Spievey. Sash has recorded 11 interceptions in his first two seasons and already holds the team record with 350 interception return yards. His heroics overshadow the very solid play of fellow safety Brett Greenwood, who has started for two and a half seasons and owns seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career. Shaun Prater is a returning starter at corner, and Iowa also has Jordan Bernstine, Micah Hyde, William Lowe and others.

[+] EnlargeTyler Sash
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa's Tyler Sash will be one of the leaders of the Big Ten's No. 1 secondary.
2. Penn State: The Lions are always solid in the front seven, but the secondary might lead the unit in 2010. Starting safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay both return, and cornerback D'Anton Lynn takes on an enhanced leadership role after recording five pass breakups last fall. Penn State also has high hopes for cornerback Stephon Morris, who recorded 30 tackles and an interception as a freshman in 2009. Converted receiver Chaz Powell should add depth at the corner spot. Opponents completed just 54.1 percent of their passes against Penn State last fall.

3. Ohio State: There are some question marks here after the departures of All-Big Ten standout Kurt Coleman and veteran safety Anderson Russell, but Ohio State almost always finds a way to survive in the back four. The return of Tyler Moeller definitely helps, and safety Jermale Hines could have a big year after recording two interceptions in 2009. Is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a shut-down corner in the Big Ten? We'll find out. Also keep an eye on athletic corner Devon Torrence and safety Orhian Johnson.

4. Wisconsin: This isn't a shut-down secondary -- evidence: 55th in pass defense in 2009 (217.5 ypg) -- but there are playmakers and hard-hitters, specifically veteran safety Jay Valai, among the group. There's good depth at cornerback with returning starter Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Marcus Cromartie, who has stood out in camp so far. Chris Maragos is a significant loss at safety, and it remains to be seen whether Aaron Henry can regain his pre-injury form as he moves from cornerback to safety.

5. Minnesota: I'm taking a little leap of faith here again, but if safeties Kim Royston and Kyle Theret are on the field together, good things will happen. The two combined for 159 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in 2009, and finished with an outstanding performance in the Insight Bowl. I also like talented young cornerback Michael Carter, while Ryan Collado brings experience to the other corner spot. Minnesota expects juco transfer Christyn Lewis and redshirt freshman Kenny Watkins to add depth at safety.

Up next: Offensive line

More rankings ...
Who are the most irreplaceable players in the Big Ten? These aren't necessarily the best players, but the guys who teams really can't afford to lose.

Let's take a team-by-team look at who they are:

Illinois: Offensive tackle Jeff Allen. Illinois already has lost one starting offensive tackle to injury in Corey Lewis (ACL), placing a major burden on Allen to protect a young starting quarterback. Allen has started two seasons and should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He drew praise from the coaches this spring for absorbing Paul Petrino's new offense, and he'll anchor the line at weak-side tackle. If he goes down, Illinois likely will turn to Craig Wilson, who has played mostly special teams in his career.

[+] EnlargeBen Chappell
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesBen Chappell finished last season with 17 touchdowns and almost 3,000 yards.
Indiana: Quarterback Ben Chappell. History shows that for Indiana to have a chance at a bowl game, it needs to put up a lot of points. The running game has been inconsistent the past few years, but Chappell is poised to have a big senior season through the air. The Big Ten's third-leading passer in 2009 will have a bunch of weapons at his disposal, led by first-team, all-conference wide receiver Tandon Doss. Indiana has virtually no experience behind Chappell and would turn things over to a redshirt freshman (Dusty Kiel or Edward Wright-Baker).

Iowa: Quarterback Ricky Stanzi. This isn't a knock against backup James Vandenberg, who certainly proved himself last fall at Ohio State. But Iowa is simply a different team with Stanzi on the field, drawing confidence from him through his ups and downs. You could see how much Stanzi meant to his teammates on offense after he went down against Northwestern last November. Although offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive end Adrian Clayborn or safety Tyler Sash certainly can make their case to be in this spot, Stanzi is the player who shapes Iowa's success more than any other player. He's got the 'it' factor.

Michigan: Cornerback Troy Woolfolk. Woolfolk provides leadership and some experience in a Wolverines secondary that looks pretty shaky even with him on the field. The thought of Woolfolk being out would certainly raise the anxiety level among Michigan fans. Woolfolk had some good moments last fall and has a chance to be a very solid Big Ten cornerback this year. He also can play safety in an emergency. Given Michigan's lack of depth in the defensive backfield, Woolfolk's presence is crucial.

Michigan State: Linebacker Greg Jones. This one is pretty obvious. Not only has Jones led Michigan State in tackles in each of his three seasons on campus, but he's the undisputed leader on defense. Without Jones' tackling and play-making ability in the offensive backfield, an average Michigan State defense would be a lousy one. Although the Spartans boast some depth at linebacker with Chris Norman, Eric Gordon and incoming freshmen William Gholston and Max Bullough, Jones is the one guy the coaches are counting on for a ton of production.

Minnesota: Safety Kyle Theret. There's not an obvious choice for the Gophers, but the team's defense lost some major experience after safety Kim Royston broke his leg this spring. Theret, who was suspended during spring ball but should return, has started 32 games at safety. He ended the 2009 season on a strong note with two interceptions and a tackle for loss in the Insight Bowl. If Royston can't return or is limited, Theret will have to lead a young Gophers' secondary.

[+] EnlargePersa
Jerry Lai/US PresswireDan Persa is the only Wildcats quarterback with any game experience.
Northwestern: Quarterback Dan Persa. Persa hasn't even started a game for Northwestern, so how can he be labeled as irreplaceable? First off, no other Wildcats quarterback has game experience, while Persa appeared in 10 contests last fall. Backup Evan Watkins remains a bit raw, and Northwestern will have a true freshman, most likely Trevor Siemian, as its third-stringer this season. Persa already has established himself as a team leader, and he would create problems if he went down.

Ohio State: Quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Another easy choice, as Pryor has started 22 of Ohio State's past 23 games at quarterback. Although the Buckeyes have won games without major contributions from Pryor, the offense will be shaped around him more this fall. He'll need to build off of what he showed on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Backups Joe Bauserman and Kenny Guiton lack game experience, and Ohio State would need everyone else to step up around the quarterbacks to survive without Pryor.

Penn State: Running back Evan Royster. An experienced running back can be a young quarterback's best friend, and Royster certainly qualifies as a veteran. He has started the past two seasons for the Nittany Lions, racking up 2,405 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Penn State needs big things from Royster this fall as an inexperienced signal caller takes over for Daryll Clark. Backup running back Stephfon Green has shown flashes, but he lacks Royster's consistency.

Purdue: Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. We'll find out if running back Ralph Bolden is replaceable this season, but Purdue doesn't want to see anything happen to Kerrigan. The senior is one of the nation's top pass rushers, and he's the most experienced member of a defensive line that loses standout tackle Mike Neal. Kerrigan led the Big Ten with 13 sacks last fall and will make life easier for those around him. Aside from Gerald Gooden, Purdue looks a little thin at D-end.

Wisconsin: Quarterback Scott Tolzien. If Tolzien's value wasn't known after the 2009 season, it became even clearer during spring ball after backup Curt Phillips tore his ACL. Tolzien led the Big Ten and ranked 22nd nationally in pass efficiency (143) last season, completing 64.3 percent of his passes. He limits major mistakes and spreads the ball around well to his receivers. Redshirt freshman Jon Budmayr has talent but lacks game experience and looked shaky this spring. Wisconsin would much rather let Budmayr have more time to prepare.

Who will break out in the Big Ten?

February, 11, 2010
2/11/10
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Perhaps the best part about spring practice is projecting the handful of players who will turn heads and raise expectations heading into the fall. Most of these players have provided hints of bigger things to come.

So who will become a breakout player in the Big Ten? Here are a few names to watch.

Penn State CB Stephon Morris: Morris made a name for himself in Penn State's nickel package as a true freshman. He recorded 30 tackles, had an interception, a sack and two passes defended. Look for him to improve and become a major factor in Penn State's secondary.

Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin: He is already the Big Ten's most dangerous kickoff returner and could become one of the league's top wide receivers this year. Martin led Michigan State last season in yards-per-reception (22.8) and yards-per-carry (12.2). Look for the Spartans to find more ways to get the ball to Martin, who is a legitimate big-play threat.

Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks: Kendricks certainly looked like Wisconsin's tight end of the future in the Champs Sports Bowl, where he recorded seven receptions for a career high 128 receiving yards in the win against Miami. Garrett Graham's graduation opens up the top spot for Kendricks, who could have a monster season in 2010 working alongside quarterback Scott Tolzien.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Minnesota will lean heavily on its safeties in 2010, and Royston looks ready for the added responsibility. The Wisconsin transfer finished the 2009 season on a very strong note: He recorded a career high 15 tackles (14 solo) and forced a fumble. Royston and Kyle Theret could form the league's top safety tandem.

Iowa RB Jewel Hampton: He's baaaack. Younger teammates Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher filled in nicely for Hampton in 2009, but Hampton still has the best chance to become Iowa's featured back. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns in 2008 as Shonn Greene's backup and can be very effective if his knee gets back to 100 percent.

Illinois CB/WR Terry Hawthorne: One of the few bright spots for Illinois last season, Hawthorne recorded 30 tackles, intercepted a ball for a 44-yard touchdown and had six passes defended as a true freshman. He can play both cornerback and wide receiver for the Illini, who are desperate for playmakers on both sides of the ball. Hawthorne provided a spark for Illinois last year, but he could be a star in 2010.

Ohio State LB Brian Rolle: Cameron Heyward and Ross Homan will be the headliners for Ohio State's defense in 2010, but watch out for Rolle as well. Rolle already "broke out," in a sense, with 95 tackles (seven for loss) and an interception in 2009. But he could truly explode for the Buckeyes this coming fall.

Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore: Anyone who saw Dunsmore run through several Auburn defenders for a 66-yard touchdown in the Outback Bowl recognizes his immense potential. The junior might be NU's top NFL prospect and offensive coordinator Mick McCall loves to get him involved. Dunsmore will be one of the top targets for new starting quarterback Dan Persa.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
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A strong Big Ten bowl season leaves me with some tough choices for the All-Bowl team. We can certainly debate some of these, but here are my selections.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Harry How/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor acccounted for more Rose Bowl yards than Oregon's team did.
QB Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
He came of age in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, delivering a complete performance as both a passer and a runner. Pryor accounted for 338 total yards; Oregon had 260.

RB John Clay, Wisconsin
Clay gave Miami a taste of Big Ten football by bulldozing the Hurricanes for 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the Champs Sports Bowl.

RB Brandon Wegher, Iowa
It seemed like no running back could stay healthy for Iowa this year, but Wegher came up huge in the FedEx Orange Bowl. The true freshman had 113 rush yards on 16 carries, including the clinching 32-yard touchdown run with 1:16 left.

WR DeVier Posey, Ohio State
I saw a future NFL receiver when I watched Posey in the Rose Bowl. He had eight receptions for 101 yards, including a leaping 17-yard touchdown that all but sealed Ohio State's victory.

WR Andrew Brewer, Northwestern
Brewer saved his best game for last, hauling in eight receptions for 133 yards and scoring on receptions of 35 and 39 yards in the Outback Bowl.

TE Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern and Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
Dunsmore had nine receptions for 120 yards, including an electrifying 66-yard touchdown dash through the Auburn defense. Garrett Graham might be the first-team All-Big Ten selection, but Kendricks stole the show in the Champs Sports Bowl with seven receptions for 128 yards.

C John Moffitt, Wisconsin
Moffitt moved back to center because of a teammate's injury and helped the Badgers overpower Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin racked up 430 total yards and held the ball for 39:15.

G Justin Boren, Ohio State
Boren led a big and nasty Buckeyes line that generated push for the run game and helped Pryor attempt a career high 37 passes in the win against Oregon.

G Joel Foreman, Michigan State
The Spartans' offensive line stepped up nicely in the Valero Alamo Bowl, helping to generate 148 rush yards and allowing only one sack against a Texas Tech team that rushes the passer extremely well. Foreman, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, deserves some props.

OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
Bulaga showed why he's jumping to the NFL draft with a terrific performance against Georgia Tech star defensive end Derrick Morgan in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

OT Dennis Landolt, Penn State
Landolt and his linemates did a good job against LSU's blitz and protected Daryll Clark on a muddy field in Orlando. Penn State allowed only one sack and rushed for 124 yards.

DEFENSE

DL Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn was an absolute beast in the Orange Bowl, recording nine tackles (all solo) and two sacks as he disrupted Georgia Tech's triple option attack.

DL J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
Watt led an aggressive Badgers defensive front with a sack, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery against Miami.

DL O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
Schofield was disruptive all season and showed it in the bowl game, recording two sacks and forcing a fumble that led to a crucial field goal in the fourth quarter.

DL Thaddeus Gibson, Ohio State
The Buckeyes defensive front made life miserable for Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and Gibson stepped up with two tackles for loss in what proved to be his final collegiate game.

LB Navorro Bowman, Penn State
Bowman had a game-high nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and forced LSU into a critical penalty in the final minute as the Lions preserved a Capital One Bowl win.

LB Ross Homan, Ohio State
Homan ended the season as one of the Big Ten's top linebackers and turned in a terrific performance in Pasadena with 12 tackles and an interception that set up a field goal just before halftime.

LB Pat Angerer, Iowa
The triple option will test a middle linebacker, but Angerer stepped up for Iowa with a game-high 10 tackles, including one for loss, against Georgia Tech.

DB Kyle Theret, Minnesota
Theret was the Gophers' MVP in the Insight Bowl, recording seven tackles (all solo), two interceptions, a tackle for loss and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt that set up the team's first touchdown.

DB Ross Weaver, Michigan State
The Spartans' secondary struggled against Texas Tech, but Weaver recorded a team-high seven solo tackles and had a forced fumble and an interception that led to 10 Michigan State points in the second half.

DB Kim Royston, Minnesota
Royston recorded a career-high 15 tackles, tying the Insight Bowl record, including 14 solo stops against Iowa State. He also forced a fumble that turned into a Minnesota field goal.

DB Sherrick McManis, Northwestern
McManis made plays throughout his career and finished it in typical fashion with an interception and a fumble recovery, both occurring in Northwestern's end of the field.

SPECIALISTS

K Collin Wagner, Penn State
The horrible field conditions didn't bother Wagner, who went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts and drilled the game winner with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

P Blake Haudan, Minnesota
Haudan averaged 49.6 yards on five punts and completed a 40-yard pass to Theret on a well-timed fake in the third quarter.

Returner Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
Martin blossomed as the Big Ten's most dangerous kick return man this fall and averaged 24.8 yards per runback with a long of 36 against Texas Tech.

Honorable mention -- WISCONSIN: QB Scott Tolzien, RB Montee Ball, P Brad Nortman, LB Chris Borland, TE Garrett Graham, starting offensive line. MINNESOTA: WR Da'Jon McKnight, LB Lee Campbell. NORTHWESTERN: QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Sidney Stewart, CB Jordan Mabin, LB Quentin Davie. PENN STATE: QB Daryll Clark, RB Stephfon Green, TE Andrew Quarless, LB Sean Lee, DT Jared Odrick, CB A.J. Wallace, starting offensive line. OHIO STATE: DE Cameron Heyward, DT Doug Worthington, RB Brandon Saine, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, K Devin Barclay, K Aaron Pettrey, P Jon Thoma, starting offensive line. MICHIGAN STATE: RB Edwin Baker, WR Blair White, P Aaron Bates, LB Greg Jones, starting offensive line. IOWA: QB Ricky Stanzi, TE Tony Moeaki, P Ryan Donahue, DT Karl Klug, LB A.J. Edds, DE Broderick Binns, starting offensive line.

Best of the Big Ten bowls

January, 11, 2010
1/11/10
1:00
PM ET
After a successful Big Ten bowl season, let's take a look back:

Team of the postseason: Ohio State. The team everyone loves to hate silenced its critics with a terrific performance on both sides of the ball against a favored Oregon team in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi. Ohio State snapped the Big Ten's six-game slide in BCS games and the league's six-game slide in the Rose Bowl.

Best game: The Outback Bowl. It didn't result in a Big Ten win, but arguably no bowl game had more plot twists as Northwestern made a furious comeback against Auburn. Wildcats quarterback Mike Kafka set an NCAA record for most plays by one player (98 -- 78 pass, 20 rush), and Auburn had to win the game three times in overtime before finally prevailing 38-35 after Northwestern's trick play on fourth down didn't reach the end zone.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
Jeff Gross/Getty Images Jake Ballard's catch on third-and-13 helped keep Oregon's offense off the field.
Biggest play: Terrelle Pryor's 24-yard pass to a leaping Jake Ballard on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl. Ohio State led by only two points at the time, and Ballard's catch kept the drive alive, as Ohio State eventually went in for a touchdown.

Best drive: Two really stand out to me. Ohio State marched 81 yards in 13 plays and burned 6:01 off of the clock in the fourth quarter against Oregon Pryor hit DeVier Posey for a 17-yard score to cap it all off. Penn State trailed 17-16 in the fourth quarter when Daryll Clark led a 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with the game-winning field goal and burned 5:57 off of the clock.

Offensive Player of the Postseason: Ohio State's Pryor. He finally turned in the complete performance we've all been waiting for, and he did it on a huge stage. Pryor set career highs in both completions (23) and passing yards (266) as he fired two touchdowns against Oregon. He also had a game-high 72 rushing yards. Pryor earned Offensive Player of the Game honors.

Defensive Player of the Postseason: Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. As we mentioned countless times during Virtual Pressbox, Clayborn was a beast against Georgia Tech. Clayborn recorded nine tackles and two sacks in Iowa's FedEx Orange Bowl victory and helped derail Georgia Tech's triple option offense. He was named Orange Bowl MVP.

Special Teams Player of the Postseason: Penn State kicker Collin Wagner. The horrible field conditions at the Capital One Bowl were a major story, but they didn't bother Wagner, who went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts in Penn State's victory.

Coach of the postseason: Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker. The veteran defensive guru rendered the triple option offense totally ineffective for most of the game. Parker had his players prepared for Georgia Tech, and it showed in a dominant defensive performance. Honorable mentions go to Ohio State defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren.

Surprise performance: Everybody knew about Garrett Graham, but it was another Wisconsin tight end, Lance Kendricks, who stole the show in the Champs Sports Bowl. Kendricks became Scott Tolzien's go-to receiver, recording a career-high 128 receiving yards on seven receptions. He had the second most receptions by a Wisconsin player in a bowl game, behind only Pat Richter's 11 in the 1963 Rose Bowl.

Bowled over: Fortunately, Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray and Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos will have other opportunities to step up for their teams. But the postseason will sting both men for a while. Gray fumbled deep in Iowa State territory as Minnesota was driving for the potential game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter of the Insight Bowl. Speaking of field goals, Demos missed three, including the potential game-winner, plus an extra-point attempt in the Outback Bowl.

Best calls: They didn't result in victories, but I loved Michigan State's fake field goal and Minnesota's fake punt call. Michigan State's fake to Charlie Gantt went for 18 yards and set up the go-ahead touchdown on the next play. Minnesota punter Blake Haudan passed to safety Kyle Theret, who had a monster performance in the Insight Bowl. The play went for 40 yards and Minnesota scored its first touchdown moments later.

Second guessing: I'm still somewhat in shock about Iowa's decision to run a fake field goal midway through the fourth quarter when it led Georgia Tech by only three points. The decision didn't end up hurting the Hawkeyes, who forced a turnover on the ensuing possession, but it could have been disastrous. Also, Michigan State seemed to lose the momentum in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech when it ran the ball on third-and-long to set up a field-goal try. Yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins had struggled and left tackle Rocco Cironi was out, but field goals weren't going to beat the Red Raiders.

Craziest stat line: Northwestern's Kafka completed 47 of 78 passes for 532 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He added 30 rush yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. He had thrown 117 consecutive passes without an interception until his first pick in the opening quarter.

Memorable post-game quote: After an odd question about Iowa representing the heartland, quarterback Ricky Stanzi, standing on the victory podium, replied, "Of course. There's nothing better than being American. So, this is the greatest feeling. If you don't love it, leave it! USA, No. 1!"

Fresh faces: Two freshmen running backs stood out in their postseason debuts. Iowa's Brandon Wegher had 113 rush yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the Orange Bowl, while Michigan State's Edwin Baker went for 97 rush yards and a score on just 12 carries in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Minnesota's second-half rally fell short as a mistake-prone offense made one too many in the closing minutes. The Big Ten fell to 1-1 in bowls with three more teams in action New Year's Day.

How the game was won: The teams combined for six turnovers, and Iowa State had four of them, but Minnesota committed the most damaging giveaway in the closing minutes as backup quarterback MarQueis Gray fumbled in the red zone. Minnesota's defense turned in a terrific performance, and quarterback Adam Weber had some nice moments at times, but the offense squandered too many scoring opportunities. Iowa State rode running back Alexander Robinson and a stout red-zone defense to victory.

Turning point: After taking over at its own 1-yard line, Minnesota drove downfield behind a revived offense. Coordinator Jedd Fisch effectively mixed personnel and play calls, and Gray had been stepping up as both a quarterback and a wide receiver. But on first-and-10 from the Iowa State 17-yard line, Gray coughed up the ball and the Cyclones recovered with 4:03 left. Iowa State then ran out the clock.

Stat of the game: Minnesota had seven drives reach Iowa State territory but only scored three times (one touchdown, two field goals).

[+] EnlargeKyle Theret
AP Photo/Matt YorkKyle Theret had two interceptions and a 40-yard reception on a fake punt.
Player of the game: For Iowa State, Robinson went for 140 rush yards on 23 carries. But I've got to give this to Minnesota safety Kyle Theret, who recorded two interceptions and had a 40-yard reception on a fake punt in the third quarter. The senior really stepped up in his final collegiate game.

Best call: Trailing 14-3 in the third quarter, Minnesota called a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from its own 37-yard line. Punter Blake Haudan found Theret, who raced 40-yards. The Gophers scored their first touchdown on the next play, as Weber found Nick Tow-Arnett.

What it means: Minnesota drops to 6-7 on a season that began with elevated expectations and an experienced roster. Athletic director Joel Maturi said earlier this week that Brewster is safe and will receive a contract extension. And though the team didn't look great on offense at times, it's not Brewster's fault that Gray fumbled. On the other hand, Mike Leach is available, right? The Gophers head into the offseason with questions on offense, and Weber and Gray will compete for the starting job this spring. There will be pressure on Brewster and his staff to win more than six games in 2010.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

 
  Jamie Sabau/Getty Images and Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 With Chris Wells, left, and Terrelle Pryor in the same backfield, the Buckeyes can utilize the power running game or the spread offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When Ohio State guard Jim Cordle discusses the team's new-look offense, he finds himself posing several rhetorical questions.

Cordle is happy he's not the one who needs to find the answers.

One of the questions came to Cordle in the second quarter of last Saturday's game against Minnesota. He had sealed off his man and caught a glimpse of Buckeyes running back Chris "Beanie" Wells hurdling Gophers safety Kyle Theret.

"He obviously can push off that foot now," Cordle said of Wells. "And what are [defenders] going to do? Are they going to go high and he'll run 'em over or go low and he'll hurdle 'em? We obviously think he's the best running back in college football."

Ohio State's offensive linemen also think highly of their new leader, freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who leads the team in rushing (292 yards) and averages 6.2 yards a carry. The backfield of Wells and Pryor allows the Buckeyes to go traditional with the power run game or look to the future with the spread and the read option.

With both players on the field at the same time, opposing defenses have to prepare for either scheme.

"Beanie in there is the key because we can do so many different things," Cordle said. "A defense can't key on the spread necessarily, especially with the zone read now. Who are you going to key on, the quarterback or the running back? And then you still have to be prepared for a downhill running attack from Beanie Wells."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No one would have blamed Tim Brewster or his players for turning their attention to Ohio State as soon as they left the Metrodome field Saturday afternoon.

The way the Gophers dominated Florida Atlantic, they could have started scheming for Terrelle Pryor and the possible return of Chris "Beanie" Wells early in the fourth quarter of a 37-3 romp.

 
 AP Photo/Paul Battaglia
 Marcus Sherels is part of a secondary that has racked up six interceptions and 23 pass deflections.

But Minnesota wasn't just another BCS team polishing off a fairly negotiable nonconference slate before getting its first major test in league play. In four weeks, the Gophers quadrupled their wins total from all of last season, Brewster's first as head coach.

The nation's worst defense in 2007 has become an opportunistic bunch of talented junior college transplants and holdovers who have upgraded their play. The offense has surged behind quarterback Adam Weber and Eric Decker, limiting mistakes and putting up points in Year 2 of the Spread Coast system.

For the Gophers to gloss over these accomplishments, regardless of the competition, would be a disservice to their fans and themselves.

"As coaches and players, we don't do a good enough job of savoring victory," Brewster said Monday. "We had a great victory over a really good football team on Saturday, and I wanted to make sure our players savored the victory."

So Minnesota celebrated Saturday before reconvening Sunday. Players went through their running and lifting. Then they studied the Florida Atlantic film and made corrections.

"Once we had all of that done," Brewster said, "we started talking about Ohio State."

The Gophers open Big Ten play on Saturday with a visit to the 14th-ranked Buckeyes. But before breaking down the matchup, here's a look at the reasons behind Minnesota's 4-0 start after a 1-11 clunker in 2007.

IMPROVED TURNOVER MARGIN

The Gophers were far too generous last season and ranked 114th nationally in average turnover margin (minus-1.25). This fall, Weber and the offense have safeguarded the football. More important, the defense is consistently taking it away.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten had more image-shaping games in Week 3, but Saturday revealed plenty about the league. Entering the season, quarterback play looked to be a strength of the Big Ten, while several teams looked weak on the defensive side. But four games into the fall, teams like Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue have shown obvious improvement on defense. Meanwhile, several of the league's veteran quarterbacks -- Todd Boeckman, C.J. Bacher, Brian Hoyer, Jake Christensen -- have had some struggles.

There was plenty of history in Week 4. Joe Tiller became Purdue's all-time winningest coach. Terrelle Pryor had the best debut for a freshman quarterback in Ohio State history. And Northwestern finally swept its non-league schedule to start 4-0 for the first time since 1962.

Here are five revelations from the week:

1. Upgrades on defense -- For all the talk of the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten, this is turning into a defensive league. Michigan State nearly shut out an opponent for the second consecutive game as a hard-hitting defense continues to reflect head coach Mark Dantonio. Minnesota, the nation's worst defense last season, held Florida Atlantic to three points and increased its takeaways total to 13, which ties for third in the nation. Northwestern bailed out its sputtering offense with one of the best defensive efforts in years -- a school-record four rush yards allowed, four takeaways and two blocked field-goal attempts against Ohio. Penn State kept Temple out of the end zone for the second straight year, and Purdue's secondary continued to make big plays.

2. Ringer on the Heisman radar -- Michigan State senior running back Javon Ringer didn't get much preseason hype for the Heisman Trophy, so it's taken awhile for the country to recognize how good he is. Fortunately, Ringer provided more evidence against Notre Dame, rushing for 201 yards on 39 carries to become the first Michigan State player ever to rush for 200 yards or more in consecutive games. Few players in the country are more valuable to their teams than Ringer, whose workload is unmatched. He ranks second nationally in rushing average despite 30 more carries than any other FBS back.

3. Pryor ready for the spotlight -- Maybe none of us should be surprised that Pryor has become Ohio State's starting quarterback four games into his career. The heralded freshman threw a record four touchdown passes in leading the beleaguered Buckeyes past Troy on Saturday. He's far from a finished product and faces much tougher tests down the line -- an Oct. 4 trip to Wisconsin comes to mind -- but Pryor has shown a beyond-his-years presence, avoiding major mistakes and showcasing his obvious physical skills. He has earned Jim Tressel's trust as a true freshman, which isn't easy to do.

4. Penn State fools us with "sloppy" blowout -- Quick, name a team that has been more impressive in the first four games than Penn State. The Lions have outscored their opponents 211-40 and rank in the top 10 nationally in nine major statistical categories on both sides of the ball. Their latest display of domination came against Temple, but players and coaches called the 45-3 win "sloppy." Penn State started slow but still put up 31 points in the first half, allowing ailing coach Joe Paterno to spend the second half in the press box. If Penn State keeps this up, Paterno could coach from his couch.

5. Minnesota is league's biggest surprise -- Few expected another 1-win season in the Twin Cities, but a 4-0 start for Minnesota? It seemed unlikely at best. But the Gophers have repaired a disastrous defense with junior-college transfers and the emergence of several holdovers (Kyle Theret, Marcus Sherels, Willie VanDeSteeg). A new-look secondary continues to come up with big plays, as Minnesota has eight interceptions and 33 pass deflections this season. The offense continues to roll behind quarterback Adam Weber and wideout Eric Decker, and Minnesota heads into league play with plenty of momentum.

Big Ten: What to watch in Week 4

September, 19, 2008
9/19/08
10:35
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Only eight games on the slate this week, but there's no shortage of subplots, especially on the defensive side.

Let's take a look:

1. Ringer vs. the world: Notre Dame will do all it can to stop Michigan State's Javon Ringer on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Ringer likely can expect to see eight or nine men in the box, as the Fighting Irish dare Brian Hoyer to beat them. The overloading still might not be enough, as Ringer has racked up 417 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in his last two games.

2. Pryor's coronation in Columbus: Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman will split snaps for Ohio State against Troy, but this game is a chance for the freshman to take control of the offense. If Pryor continues to show good poise and playmaking ability, he'll continue to be featured when the Buckeyes enter Big Ten play. Boeckman will get his opportunities as well, but with the top goal off the table for the Buckeyes, they have to look toward the future.

3. Iowa D takes on real McCoy: The Hawkeyes have already collected eight takeaways without allowing a touchdown this season, but they face their first major test in Pitt running back LeSean McCoy. Expect McCoy to run away from Iowa star tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, which will put pressure on less proven players to step up.

4. Indiana on the defensive: I've already heard from several furious Hoosiers fans about my upset pick of Ball State against their unproven team. Let's see if an improved Hoosiers defense proves me a fool when it faces dynamic quarterback Nate Davis and FBS receiving leader Dante Love. There's no doubt Kellen Lewis will make plays for Indiana, but the team's fate, as usual, rests with the defense.

5. Northwestern chases history: Nonconference losses have been Northwestern's biggest bugaboo, even during the program's renaissance in the mid-1990s. The Wildcats can sweep their nonleague slate for the first time since 1963 by beating Ohio at home. It won't be easy, as the Bobcats are much better than their record indicates and athletic quarterback Boo Jackson spells trouble for an improved Northwestern defense.

6. Tiller gets record: Joe Tiller already should be Purdue's all-time winningest coach, but his team lost another winnable big game last Saturday against Oregon. Tiller sets the record this week as Curtis Painter and the Boilermakers pick apart a Central Michigan defense that looks overmatched against BCS foes. Dan LeFevour makes the game interesting for a while, but Purdue beats the Chippewas for the third straight time.

7. Gophers secondary tested: No one would mistake Minnesota's nonleague schedule for, say, Washington's, but the Gophers deserve a ton of credit if they go 4-0 after winning one game all of last season. Standing in their path is Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith, who will perform much better than he did in the rain last week in East Lansing. Minnesota's new-look secondary of Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret have shown good playmaking skills so far and need continued progress against the Owls.

8. Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen: Coach Kirk Ferentz seems to be telling Christensen, "Take the job already, will ya?" The junior gets a great chance to do so on the road against a desperate Pitt team already knocked off its preseason perch. Christensen steadied the offense in the clutch last week against Iowa State but will need to make more pressure plays against the Panthers.

9. Penn State's defensive line: Coach Joe Paterno admits his team hasn't faced any adversity so far this season, at least on the field. Temple quarterback Adam DiMichele should be a good challenge for Penn State's defensive linemen, who have held together nicely despite injuries, dismissals and suspensions. Paterno also should address the status of linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma after the game.

10. Michigan State safety Otis Wiley: Wiley once again looks like the guy who led the team in tackles (94) and pass breakups (10) as a sophomore in 2006. The Spartans need him at his peak against Notre Dame because of lingering personnel issues in the secondary. Fighting Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will look to stretch the field with Golden Tate, and it's up to Wiley to limit the damage.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Two-a-days are in full swing, and I'm beat.

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