NCF Nation: Larry Caper

Michigan State's Nick Hill has dealt with the labels for years.

Too small. Scat back. Not every-down material. The fact he's trying to replace one of the biggest, baddest and most productive backs in the country, Le'Veon Bell, certainly doesn't make the size questions go away.

"I've been hearing that for a long time," Hill told ESPN.com earlier this week. "I think that's making me a better player, people saying that me being small, I might not be an every-down back. I look at it as a challenge."

[+] EnlargeNick Hill
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State running back Nick Hill hopes to see his role on offense expand in 2013.
The 5-foot-8 Hill knows he's not Bell, who has 6 inches and about 40 pounds on him. Bell logged more carries (382) than any FBS back in 2012, rushing for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns. He eclipsed 25 carries nine times and surpassed 30 carries seven times, doing so in each of Michigan State's last four games. Not surprisingly, Bell opted to skip his final season in East Lansing and enter the NFL draft.

The epitome of a power back, Bell racked up 922 rush yards after contact, the most in the FBS. Hill, who backed up Bell along with Larry Caper but had just 21 rushes for 48 yards and a touchdown, admits it wasn't easy to get on the field.

"They put me in some different packages here and there like jet sweeps," Hill said, "or if [Bell] came out, I went in. He was the best back we had, so it was tough, but I competed every day."

Hill is competing these days for the top running back spot. He opened the spring as the starter and has been sharing first-team reps with Jeremy Langford through the first few practices. Nick Tompkins also is in the mix, and the race likely will spill into preseason camp, as three freshmen arrive on campus.

"I look at it as competition, guys looking to be the best we can be," Hill said. "At the same time, I'm No. 1 on the chart."

Hill's speed has never been an issue -- he has been MSU's primary kick returner the past two seasons and also returned 13 punts -- but he made power a priority in the offseason, mindful of the increased carries load he hopes to have. He put on 10 pounds, checking in at around 195.

Michigan State strength coach Ken Mannie and Hill put together a power plan for Hill's winter workouts. The results: Hill increased his squat to 615 pounds and his bench press to 420.

"By me gaining more muscle and more power in my legs, and more weight," Hill said, "it will allow me to drive through the linebackers and through the hole."

While some view Hill's size as a disadvantage -- Hill thinks it turned off some teams during his college recruitment -- the Spartans junior thinks it can give him an edge, even in a league like the Big Ten. In fact, some of Michigan State's defenders have told him they struggle to locate him after he takes the handoff.

"Offensive linemen are about 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, and I'm 5-8," he said, "so hiding behind them and using my speed and my quickness to make cuts, they have a hard time [finding me].

"And by that time, I'm already at the next level."

Michigan State has a history of big backs, from Lorenzo White in the 1980s to more recently T.J. Duckett, Jehuu Caulcrick and Bell. But Javon Ringer also starred as a featured back for the Spartans despite his 5-9, 202-pound frame. Ringer led the nation in carries (390) in 2008 and earned All-America honors.

Hill occasionally exchanges text messages with Ringer, who has told him: When people on defense underestimate you, make ‘em pay.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio described Hill as "confident" so far this spring. But there's still a lot to prove, as Hill needs to show speed, power, shiftiness, durability and ball security, which has been a bit of an issue for him on returns.

"I can do a lot of things Le'Veon can do," Hill said. "The difference is, obviously, he's 6-2 and I'm 5-8. But other than that, I think I can bring a lot of good qualities to the table with my speed, pass pro, catching the ball out of the backfield and helping the team win."
Le'Veon Bell's surroundings have changed at Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell is expecting 15-20 carriers per game this season as the Spartans' starting running back.
The quarterback who handed him the ball the past two seasons, Kirk Cousins, is gone. The wide receivers who sparked the passing attack -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- also have departed, along with top tight end Brian Linthicum. Bell's top backfield competitor, Edwin Baker, made an early jump to the NFL draft.

When it comes to Michigan State offensive skill players who made contributions last season and remain on the roster, Bell's name is at the top of a very short list. The junior was the Spartans' top rusher in 2011 with 182 carries (no returning player has more than 30). He was the Spartans' third-leading receiver in 2011 with 35 receptions (no returning player has more than 12).

With so many unknowns elsewhere, Bell will be the focal point of an offense based more around one of the team's mottos: pound green pound.

"I definitely feel like we'll be more of a running team this year," Bell told ESPN.com. "We've got me and Larry [Caper] in the back, an experienced offensive line, not proven receivers yet, so we've got to get those guys more comfortable. We have a lot of things on our shoulders."

Bell and Caper, the team's leading rusher in 2009, will receive the bulk of the carries this fall. Michigan State used both backs on the field more toward the end of last season. Given Bell's versatility and significant question marks at receiver, the pattern should continue this fall.

"We need to get our best guys on the field," Bell said, "having two running backs out there, splitting me out because I can come out of the backfield and catch the ball, too, or line me up in the slot. I feel real comfortable with it. I get the chance to really showcase what I can do."

Bell has recovered from an offseason hamstring injury that caused his listed weight (244 pounds) to be a bit higher than his actual playing weight (236). His sturdy frame seems to lend itself to being a bell-cow back, but Bell hasn't logged more than 20 carries in a game and expects 15-20 carries per game this season.

While that number might sound low to some Spartans fans, when factored in with Bell's increased role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, it should be sufficient. Unlike Baker in 2011, Bell isn't setting any specific statistical goals, but he'll have a chance to record some big numbers.

"I'll get a lot of touches," Bell said.

Although Bell is entering only his third year in the program, he recognizes the added responsibility on his shoulders. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio appeared to call out Bell early this spring for a complacent approach. Bell quickly rectified his situation, and Dantonio shouldn't have to worry this fall.

"I'm helping out younger guys at the position and make sure everyone knows the plays," he said. "I have to learn every position this year, so when I'm out at receiver or wherever I may be, I know what I'm doing.

"I've got to be a leader."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A funny thing happened to Michigan State on the way to Indianapolis last year.

The Spartans finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yet came within a running-into-the-punter penalty of potentially going to the Rose Bowl. Teams aren't supposed to win big in the Big Ten without a powerful running attack.

But Michigan State did things a different way last season, relying on a seasoned quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and two senior receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) to make up for a subpar ground game. Mark Dantonio's team doesn't have the luxury of experience in the passing game in 2012, but the Spartans could lean on a more effective running game this season.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesRunning back Le'Veon Bell (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) is a load for defenders to take down.
"I definitely feel like that will happen," lead tailback Le'Veon Bell said.

That's more than just the usual spring optimism. The Spartans struggled to produce rushing yards early last season in large part because of an inexperienced offensive line that was plagued by injuries. It was easier to get that group to pass block for a few seconds, which was all the time Cousins needed to unload the ball.

Those early 2011 troubles, though, have led to an advantageous 2012 situation for the offensive line. Six players who started games last year are back and healthy this spring, allowing the unit to concentrate more on run blocking.

"We want to show everyone that we can run the ball and be a great O-line, one of best in the Big Ten," senior guard Chris McDonald said. "So we're trying to focus on that and put it on our shoulders. If we can do that, our running backs can do great things."

Michigan State has runners who are capable of greatness. Even with Edwin Baker unexpectedly leaving early for the NFL, the backfield is in good hands with Bell, senior Larry Caper and sophomore spark plug Nick Hill. Bell's potential in particular gives reason for excitement.

He got off to a strong start as a freshman before fading down the stretch and reversed that curve as a sophomore. Bell took over as the Spartans' primary back late last season, running for at least 86 yards in five of the last eight games, including a 106-yard effort against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. He led the team with 948 yards on the season.

Baker's departure cleared the way for Bell to be the unquestioned starter this spring, but Dantonio raised eyebrows earlier this month with comments about "complacency" when asked about his junior running back. Dantonio told ESPN.com that his remarks were misinterpreted, but they sure made their way to Bell's ears no matter the intent.

"I definitely took that as motivation," Bell said Thursday. "Coach D doesn't really direct his words toward anyone, but he makes sure people know they don't have a starting job locked up. I don't want to be complacent, and I see myself as a leader of the running backs."

By all accounts, Bell has turned up his play in recent days. Teammates were buzzing about his performance in Thursday's practice, in which they said he ripped off several long runs.

"Le'Veon is juking people out of their shoes and jumping over people," tackle Dan France said. "It's pretty impressive to watch."

His moves are especially impressive given his size. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said the 6-foot-2 Bell is up to 242 pounds this spring, though Bell said that measurement came "after a big dinner." He plans to play more in the 235-pound range. Still, that is a load to bring down in the open field.

"I don't know how he does it, to be that big and move like that," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "He's just gifted."

Roushar said Michigan State will have the capability of putting both Bell and Caper, a 211-pounder who was one of the team's top rushers in 2009, in the backfield together at the same time. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Hill can offer a change of pace with his quickness.

"We've got to get our tailbacks touches this season," Dantonio said.

And if so, the Spartans should finish higher than 11th in the league in rushing.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

January, 31, 2012
1/31/12
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Earlier today, we took a look at the recruiting needs of every team in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Now it's time to turn our attention to the Legends Division and see what positions each team needs to restock before next week's signing day:

Iowa

Running backs: Iowa's problems with keeping running backs in school has been well documented, and the Hawkeyes lost leading rusher Marcus Coker and backup Mika'il McCall after off-the-field problems last season. The team really needs some more depth in the backfield, and don't be surprised if incoming freshman Greg Garmon pushes for playing time immediately.

Defensive linemen: Iowa had three defensive linemen drafted off the 2010 team and now loses its top two guys up front in departing seniors Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. That's an awful lot of talent to replace in a couple of years, and the Hawkeyes can't expect to improve their defense without doing so. Finding some more pass rushers off the edge will be key.

Wide receivers: Marvin McNutt had a wonderful senior season, but the passing game often stalled whenever he couldn't wiggle free. Now he's gone, leaving a void at the position. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis have shown promise, but James Vandenberg could use some more weapons. Iowa has secured commitments from three receivers in this class.

Michigan

Wide receiver: The loss of Darryl Stonum, who was dismissed following another run in with the law, created a void at receiver, especially with top pass-catcher Junior Hemingway out of eligibility. The Wolverines will have to hope Roy Roundtree can bounce back with a big season, because all other wideout options are unproven at this point. Three receivers are committed to Brady Hoke in this class.

Defensive line: Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were key cogs in Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl title in 2011, and they have both moved on, along with starter Will Heininger. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart and will want to grab as many difference makers as they can at that key position. Ondre Pipkins, a 325-pound tackle, is the highest rated defensive lineman in the Wolverines' class right now.

Offensive line: While the Wolverines should be fine on the O-line in 2012, even without Rimington Trophy winner David Molk and starting right tackle Mark Huyge, they signed only four offensive linemen total in the past two classes. Since linemen are often slow to develop, they need to refill the cupboard now. Michigan has four offensive linemen committed in this class, including standout Kyle Kalis.

Michigan State

Offensive tackles: Thanks in large part to injuries, Michigan State had to move a defensive lineman (Dan France) to tackle last summer and plug in a junior-college transfer (Fou Fonoti) into the other tackle spot. That the Spartans won the Legends Division title despite that is kind of amazing in retrospect. France will be a junior in 2012 and Fonoti will be in his final year of eligibility. They need more depth at the position, and they've got commitments from two offensive tackles so far in this class.

Wide receivers: Two of the most successful receivers in school history are gone as Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham finished off wildly productive careers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is seeking a waiver to play immediately and will help the future even if he has to sit out a year. Michigan State is looking to sign three other receivers in this class to fill out the future two-deep.

Running back: Edwin Baker's early entry to the NFL draft came as a surprise. Michigan State is still in good shape at tailback for 2012 with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. But after not signing a running back in last year's class, Mark Dantonio could use at least one more option in the backfield.

Minnesota

Defensive backs: It was no secret that Minnesota's pass defense was brutal at times in 2011, and top tackler Kim Royston leaves a hole at safety with his graduation. Getting Troy Stoudermire back for an extra year helps, but Jerry Kill needs to upgrade the talent in the secondary. That's why he has signed three junior-college defensive backs and secured commitments from four high school safeties so far.

Defensive tackle: One of the reasons the pass defense was so bad was a lack of pass rush applied by the front four. The Gophers had only 19 sacks this season, a year after registering just nine. Making matters worse, both starting tackles were seniors this season. Kill signed a junior-college defensive tackle and has two prep tackles committed. He needs to find guys who can find their way to the quarterback.

Overall talent and depth: Kill has said there are gaps in the Gophers' classes, and depth issues could plague the team during his rebuilding efforts. Including six junior-college players signed to help right away, Minnesota has a class of 28 right now. Minnesota simply needs more bodies everywhere.

Nebraska

Linebacker: Lavonte David leaves some rather large cleats to fill. Not only was he Nebraska's leading tackler the past two seasons, he was the only linebacker who played at a consistently high level. The Huskers' starters at the other two linebacker spots will be seniors this year, and depth is thin behind them. So it's little wonder why Bo Pelini has used four spots so far in what is expected to be a small class to fill that position, led by four-star prospect Michael Rose.

Tight end: Three of the top four options at tight ends will be seniors in 2012, leaving very little behind them. Sam Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton and younger brother of current Huskers tight end Ben, is on his way to help.

Quarterback: Taylor Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into his junior year, and Nebraska never had to worry about playing Brion Carnes in a big spot this year after Bubba Starling opted for baseball. Still, it's dangerous to not have depth at quarterback, and so the Huskers need to add at least one signal caller in this class.

Northwestern

Defensive backs: The Wildcats were burned repeatedly in the passing game in 2011, and their best defensive back (safety Brian Peters) won't be around next season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has commitments from three safeties in this class already.

Defensive playmakers: Northwestern was shockingly short on guys who could blow up another team's offensive play in 2011, so Fitzgerald's main mission had to be finding more guys who played like he did in college. That aim got a big boost when stud defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo committed to play in Evanston. That's a good start.

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. Of course, it is a rematch of their Oct. 22 meeting, won by [spoiler alert!] the Spartans 37-31 in one of the best games of the college football season.

In order to understand all the storylines and key matchups of this week's game, it's crucial to know exactly what happened the first time. So I decided to go back and watch that initial encounter and, with apologies to Bill Simmons, provide my thoughts and observations in a retro diary. You can follow along through the magic of ESPN3.com here. Or you can just read.

This first installment will cover the first half of the game. I'll be back later on today with the second-half diary. Wonder if anything cool will happen late in the game?

Pregame

  • Kirk Herbstreit says, "This is what we've all wanted to see for a number of weeks." I think the same line could be used Saturday night.
  • Michigan State's Keith Nichol is one of the first Spartans to come out of the tunnel for introductions. I've got a hunch he could play a role in this one somehow.
  • I don't know how good the audio quality is on my replay, but it sounds extremely quiet when Wisconsin takes the field. No boos, just silence. Someone who was there will have to tell me if that's how it really went down at Spartan Stadium. If so, I think that's the best way to taunt an opponent; just ignore them. I recommend this for all home fans from here on out.
[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWisconsin will be dangerous on the ground again in 2012 with Montee Ball and James White returning.
First quarter

  • 15:00: Wisconsin wins the toss and takes the ball first. The first play of the game is a handoff to Montee Ball, who runs 8 yards before plowing into Isaiah Lewis's shoulder. Lewis goes down and has to leave the game. Remember, Lewis gave the Badgers some major bulletin board material the week before after beating Michigan, saying the Spartans defense "was going to hurt" Russell Wilson. You think Ball remembered that as he slammed into Lewis?
  • 12:03: Russell Wilson throws his first pass -- complete to Jacob Pedersen -- after four straight Ball runs have softened up the defense. Lewis comes back in.
  • 8:48: On third-and-4, Wilson play-fakes to Ball and throws a touchdown pass to a wide-open Pedersen with Anthony Rashad White and Marcus Rush bearing down on the quarterback. That was the second straight completion off play-action for Wilson, as Michigan State's safeties and linebackers are biting hard on the run. It's a textbook, 80-yard Wisconsin style drive with almost perfect balance. The game could not have started off better for the Badgers. 7-0, Wisconsin
  • 8:33: Uh-oh for Sparty. Tailback Edwin Baker fumbles on Michigan State's first offensive play, thanks to a hit from linebacker Mike Taylor. The officials review whether or not Wisconsin's Marcus Cromartie touched the ball first while coming from out of bounds on the recovery, but the play stands and the Badgers take over.
  • 7:42: Wisconsin needs only three plays to cash in the fumble, as Ball rushes up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. 14-0, Wisconsin. Wilson completed another pass off play-action immediately before. It was not a good series for Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, who was fooled on the play-fake and then broke the wrong way before unsuccessfully trying to arm tackle Ball. Hey, the Badgers might win this game in a blowout!
  • 3:47: Michigan State picks up a pair of first downs but can't convert a third-and-14 and has to punt. At least its defense got a little bit of a breather, but if Wisconsin goes in for another score this one could get out of hand early.
  • 0:33: And we have our first Badgers mistake. After the offense drove to midfield, Wilson throws an interception to -- guess who? -- Robinson. It's only the second interception of the year for Wilson, who threw his other one on a meaningless play late in the Northern Illinois blowout. But I don't put this one entirely on him. Receiver Nick Toon appears to break the wrong way on the route, and he doesn't even start to look for the ball until it's nearly over his head. Remember that Toon missed the previous game with a foot injury he suffered two weeks earlier against Nebraska. He looked a little rusty/anxious, especially as he drew an uncharacteristic false start penalty later in the half. But the play was set up by a loss of 1 yard by James White on first down. The second-and-long prompted offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to put Wilson in the shotgun and not use play-action, allowing the safeties to stick in pass coverage. Even if Wilson and Toon had been on the same page, it was a low-percentage throw into double coverage, and that's not Wisconsin's game.
  • 0:26: I love, love, love the fact that Wilson sprints down the field and actually makes the tackle on Robinson, even though his form could use a little work.
  • 0:18: Michigan State, which has negative-9 rushing yards to this point, finally gets something going on the ground. The Spartans wide receivers blow up the right side of Wisconsin's defense, and Le'Veon Bell rushes 32 yards behind tackle Fou Fonoti, who's dying to find someone to block. Momentum seems to be changing.
[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Keshawn Martin
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREMichigan State's Keshawn Martin scores a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin.
Second quarter

  • 14:15: Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper can't quite connect for a screen pass on third-and-6, which was set up perfectly and might have resulted in an easy touchdown. The Spartans have another empty possession. But Bell's big run has flipped field position, leading to ...
  • 14:04: Mike Sadler punts the ball out of bounds at the Wisconsin 5. We didn't mention Sadler when we talked about freshmen of the year candidates in the Big Ten, but he has been a valuable weapon for Mark Dantonio all year long.
  • 13:58 to 13:10: Disaster strikes for Wisconsin. First, Jerel Worthy finally makes his presence felt, stuffing Ball for a 3-yard loss back to the 2. Then Wilson is called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure from Denicos Allen. That's a safety, and it's now 14-2, Wisconsin. Chryst dialed up play-action again and looked to be going for a big throw over the top. But the call actually helped Michigan State, because the linebackers darted up field to stop the run. Ball has had an amazing season, but he whiffed on Allen to let "The Waterboy" get right to Wilson, who had little choice but to throw it away. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, there was no receiver on the side of the field where Wilson could get rid of the ball.
  • 11:22: Razzle, meet dazzle. After a beautiful throw from Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar dials up some trickery. The Spartans line up in the I-formation. Cousins fakes a handoff to Bell, then hands it to receiver B.J. Cunningham on a reverse. Cunningham then pitches it to Keshawn Martin coming the other way. Wisconsin blitzed to the side Martin is now running toward, leaving no one left to tackle the Spartans' speedster except safety Aaron Henry. And he's sandwiched by three blockers. Martin scores from 34 yards out to make the score 14-9, Wisconsin. Martin has been on fire the latter part of this season.
  • 8:41: Wisconsin's offense mounts a good drive in response, and receiver Jared Abbrederis takes a jet sweep 21 yards. It's no coincidence that Abbrederis runs to the side where suspended defensive end William Gholston would have been. The Badgers have been attacking his replacement, Denzel Drone. Gholston's return is a big factor in this week's game.
  • 7:49 to 7:22: A tough sequence here for Ball. First, he misses another block, allowing cornerback Johnny Adams to blow up a play when he tackles Wilson from behind. Then he takes a Robinson shoulder to the head after a 7-yard run. Ball gets up from the tackle and then falls back down in a scary scene. He's escorted off the field and is given concussion tests on the sideline as Wisconsin fans hold their breath. Ball has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown when he goes out.
  • 6:42: On third-and-short from the Michigan State 14, White is stopped shy of the first down when Kyler Elsworth sheds a Pedersen block and makes the tackle. Great defensive play. No disrespect to White, but it makes you wonder if Ball would have gotten the extra few feet had he been in the game.
  • 5:55: Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal try is blocked by Darqueze Dennard, who ran in free from the left end. I'm not sure if Welch would have made the kick anyway, because Brad Nortman bobbled the snap, which disrupted the timing of the play. Wisconsin converted 62 of 65 trips in the red zone into points this season, second best in the FBS. But it comes up empty in a big spot here.
  • 1:40: Michigan State moves the ball down the field, but Baker is tackled for a loss to set up fourth-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35. Dantonio doesn't hesitate to go for it, and Roushar calls a great, if somewhat risky, play. Cousins waits for Cunningham to find a hole behind the linebackers in a long-developing route. But Wisconsin doesn't get any pressure on Cousins, and he hits Cunningham in the middle of three Badgers defenders. Taylor misses a tackle in a difficult matchup for him, and Cunningham is off for a touchdown to make it 16-14, Michigan State. It's the second straight year that Cunningham catches a fourth-down touchdown pass in a key spot. Think Wisconsin will know where he is if a big fourth down comes up again Saturday? The game's final play got all the attention, but this was just as big.
  • 0:45: Complete catastrophe for the Badgers. A fired up Spartans defense forces a three and out at Wisconsin 45, and then backup linebacker Ellsworth makes his second huge play of the game. He blocks Nortman's punt, and Bennie Fowler recovers the ball in the end zone to make it 23-14 Michigan State. The Spartans brought four defenders untouched up the middle against Wisconsin's three-man punt protection unit, and Ellsworth flew right by Robert Burge. In Burge's defense, middle protector Ryan Groy was slow to pick up his block, and Burge looked like he couldn't decide whether to chip Ellsworth or help on Kurtis Drummond right up the gut. "It was nothing special we haven't seen on film," Bret Bielema will tell Erin Andrews at halftime. "We've just got to block all four."
  • 0:00: The half mercifully ends for Wisconsin as Spartan Stadium is rocking. In a 15-minute span from the end of the first quarter to the final score of the half, the Badgers threw an interception, gave up a safety, had a field goal blocked, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, allowed a touchdown pass on fourth down and surrendered another score on a trick play. In basketball terms, it's a 23-0 spurt. Things can't get any worse for Wisconsin, or better for Michigan State. Can they?
Michigan State rebounded well from last week's blowout loss at Notre Dame, thumping Central Michigan to ruin the return of former assistant and quarterback Dan Enos.

Let's take a look.

Michigan State 45, Central Michigan 7: Last fall, the Spartans' secondary lived by the motto MAP -- Make A Play -- and they've carried it over into this season. Michigan State recorded four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, in a romp against Central Michigan. Defensive backs accounted for three of the four picks, as safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond both recorded their second interceptions of the season, with Lewis racing 37 yards to the end zone. Aside from a few moments, Michigan State's defense has played really well this season and clamped down against the run again today.

The Spartans needed a rebound performance from their offensive line and rushed for 198 yards while holding the ball for 38:12 against the Chippewas. Le'Veon Bell stated his case to be the featured back with three first-half rushing touchdowns, although both Larry Caper and Edwin Baker remain in the mix. Coach Mark Dantonio really wanted to re-establish the run today, and he had to be pleased with what he saw. Michigan State's offense faces a much tougher test next week at Ohio State.

Spartans begin defining road stretch

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
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It's only fitting that Michigan State's first road game takes place in the state of Indiana.

Like every Big Ten team, Michigan State wants to reach Indianapolis on Dec. 3 for the inaugural conference championship game. And after claiming a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 20 years last season, the Spartans possess the pieces to get to Naptown. They have veteran leadership in fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, excellent depth at the offensive skill positions and a defense that flexed its muscles Saturday by holding Florida Atlantic to one first down, 48 total yards and zero points.

But the Spartans' route to Lucas Oil Stadium is a potentially treacherous one, beginning this week at Notre Dame Stadium and weaving through Columbus, Lincoln, Iowa City and Evanston. Their road opponents -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern -- all went to bowl games in 2010 and had a combined record of 45-21.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Al GoldisKirk Cousins and the Spartans will be tested on the road Saturday at Notre Dame.
Among major-conference teams, Michigan State might have the most taxing road schedule in the country.

And while Spartans fans might disagree, that's the beauty of this year's schedule. We'll know exactly where the Michigan State program stands when December rolls around. Tough road games are the best barometer of whether a program can go from good to great.

"A lot of away games in challenging environments," Cousins told ESPN.com in August. "So we're going to find out what we're really made of."

Michigan State won a team-record 11 games last season, including three -- Notre Dame, Northwestern and Purdue -- in dramatic fashion. But the Spartans' two losses, both away from home and by a combined score of 86-13, prevented them from claiming a spot among the nation's elite.

Mark Dantonio has guided Michigan State to postseason appearances in each of his first four seasons as coach. He has provided stability to a chronic underachiever and has elevated the program's profile in several areas.

But there are two items that remain on Dantonio's checklist: bowl victories and signature road wins.

Michigan State is 10-9 in true road games under Dantonio, a very respectable mark. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to historic road wins like last year's triumph at Penn State, Michigan State's first since 1965 -- the year before Joe Paterno took over as Nittany Lions coach.

But Dantonio is just 1-6 at Michigan State against ranked teams in road or neutral-site games. The Spartans likely will face at least two ranked opponents on the road -- Ohio State and Nebraska -- while Iowa and Northwestern could be ranked by the time Michigan State comes to town.

Saturday's road opener at Notre Dame has no direct bearing on whether Michigan State reaches its desired destination of Indianapolis. But the game provides an opportunity for the Spartans to build their mettle away from the comforts of home.

They'll be facing a Notre Dame team desperate for a win after confounding losses to both South Florida and Michigan. The Irish average 510.5 yards of offense per game and, at times, have displayed improvement on the defensive side.

A loss drops Notre Dame to 0-3, ruins any expectations of a breakthrough season and potentially makes Brian Kelly's head explode.

Dantonio has won in South Bend before -- Michigan State crushed a horrendous Irish team 31-14 in 2007 -- but only one of his current players, fifth-year senior nose tackle Antonio Jeremiah, was on the field that day. Two years ago, the Spartans fell 33-30 at Notre Dame Stadium as Cousins overthrew a wide-open Larry Caper in the end zone for the potential game-winning touchdown and then tossed a loss-sealing interception moments later.

Saturday marks a chance for redemption. It also marks a chance to set the tone for tougher road tests ahead.

The Spartans hope their first trip to the Hoosier State won't be their last in 2011.
Beginning today, we're going to start ranking each position group in the Big Ten. These rankings will reflect the overall strength at each position, so depth matters as well as individual star power. Following each group ranking, we'll also give out our list of the top individual players at that position.

Let's start out with a look at the running back groups across the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball and James White
AP Photo/Morry GashMontee Ball and James White did a lot of celebrating last season, as the duo combined for 32 TDs.
1. Wisconsin: No surprise at the top. Even with John Clay gone and Zach Brown transferring, the Badgers are loaded at tailback. They've still got junior Montee Ball, who finished four yards shy of 1,000 last season with 18 touchdowns, along with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White, who ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. Throw in senior fullback Bradie Ewing and redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, and the Badgers should be powerful on the ground yet again in 2011.

2. Michigan State: Other than Wisconsin, the Spartans have the best collection of experience and talent in the backfield. First-team All-Big Ten performer Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last year. Le'Veon Bell, a 237-pound bruiser, complemented him as a true freshman with 605 yards and eight scores. Larry Caper is a capable veteran, and fifth-year senior Todd Anderson starts at fullback. The Spartans are deep and versatile in their rushing attack.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes might have earned a higher ranking if Dan Herron were eligible to play a full season. But with Herron (1,155 yards and 16 scores in '10) suspended for the first five games, Ohio State will need some youngsters to fill his shoes. The good news is that there are plenty of talented candidates. Jaamal Berry is the leading returning rusher outside of Herron, and he averaged 8.3 yards per carry in a limited role last season. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also battle for more playing time, while redshirt freshman Rod Smith could emerge as the No. 1 tailback after an impressive offseason. Zach Boren is back at fullback. Things may be in flux in Columbus, but you can almost always count on a good running game from the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's Rex Burkhead
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJunior Rex Burkhead averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven TDs.
4. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 247.6 yards per game on the ground, good for ninth in the FBS. Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. is gone, but junior Rex Burkhead returns after a 951-yard campaign. He will occasionally line up at receiver or take snaps in the Wildcat. The Cornhuskers lack experience behind him but are expecting big contributions from incoming freshmen Aaron Green and Amer Abdullah. ESPN Recruiting ranked Green as the No. 11 player overall in the Class of 2011.

5. Penn State: Yes, the school's all-time leading rusher has moved on, as Evan Royster graduated. But the Nittany Lions still feel confident about their running game, which should be led by sophomore Silas Redd. He ran for 461 yards and 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman, showing a physical style. Senior Stephfon Green will be asked to take on a larger role, and Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are productive players at the fullback spot.

6. Purdue: The Boilermakers' stock in this chart could go up if Ralph Bolden successfully returns from injury. So far, so good for Bolden, who was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2009. Rob Henry led the team in rushing last year with 547 yards, but fullback Dan Dierking graduated. Junior college transfer Akeem Shavers got a lot of carries this spring and should contribute, and Reggie Pegram also is in the mix.

7. Iowa: Running back depth is a serious issue for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Adam Robinson, who would have been the leading returning running back in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, was dismissed from the team following a December arrest. Marcus Coker could emerge as a superstar, however, after starting four of Iowa's final five games as a true freshman. He was the offensive MVP of the Insight Bowl with 219 rushing yards on 33 carries and has drawn comparisons to former Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene. There's virtually no proven experience behind him, though, and three-year starting fullback Brett Morse is no longer around.

8. Michigan: If only we could count Denard Robinson as a running back. Brady Hoke plans to cut down on Shoelace's carries, which means the Wolverines' tailbacks will get more of a chance to shine. The question is who will step up. Senior Michael Shaw and junior Vincent Smith split time as starters last season, while Stephen Hopkins and Michael Cox are in the mix for more carries. Can celebrated recruit Justice Hayes contribute right away?

9. Illinois: Mikel Leshoure's dash to the NFL left the Illini with uncertainty at running back. Senior Jason Ford, the most likely successor, sat out much of spring ball with a hurt knee, while Troy Pollard's promising spring was cut short by a concussion. Incoming freshman Donovonn Young will get a look this fall.

10. Northwestern: Like Nebraska and Michigan, Northwestern relied on its quarterback -- in this case Dan Persa-- for a heavy chunk of the rushing yards. Mike Trumpy came on late in the year as a freshman and solidified his starting spot with a strong spring. Sophomore Adonis Smith, senior Jacob Schmidt and junior Tyris Jones will fight for carries behind him.

11. Minnesota: There was healthy competition at tailback this spring with a mixture of veterans and fresh faces. DeLeon Eskridge led the team last year with 698 rushing yards, while Duane Bennett added 529. They're being pushed by redshirt freshmen Donnell Kirkwood and Lamonte Edwards. New coach Jerry Kill will look to improve on the Gophers' paltry 3.6 yards per carry average last season. This is a group that could make a major move up the rankings.

12. Indiana: New Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a challenge in figuring out this group. Three of the top candidates for the starting tailback job, Darius Willis, Antonio Banks and Xavier Whitaker, all suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2010 and missed spring practice. IU's leading rusher last season finished with just 352 yards. Nick Turner and Matt Perez got the bulk of the reps in the spring. Perhaps Wilson's high-tempo offense will improve the stats for Indiana ball carriers.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Several days after Michigan State's disheartening loss in the Capital One Bowl, running back Edwin Baker turned his focus toward the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan State's Edwin Baker finished with 1,201 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Baker always has motivated himself with tangible goals, and the coming season would be no different.

In high school, Baker set the bar at 1,000 rushing yards per season. He racked up 1,295 yards as a prep junior and finished with 863 yards as a senior despite missing four games with a hyper-extended knee. Before last season, he once again targeted 1,000 rushing yards and finished with 1,201 to go along with 13 touchdowns.

But Baker really raised the stakes for himself in 2011. His magic numbers are 2,000 rush yards and 21 touchdowns.

"It's definitely a big difference," Baker said. "But if I want to be an elite player, I have to make elite goals."

Baker's goals aren't totally random. He knows that Michigan State has had only one 2,000-yard rusher in a season, as Lorenzo White racked up 2,066 yards in 1985.

The 21 touchdowns would tie Baker for second on Michigan State's single-season list with former bruiser Jehuu Caulcrick. Former Spartans All-American Javon Ringer holds the record with 22 scores in 2008.

Baker understands the lofty goals mean nothing unless he backs them up this fall. And it'll take a lot of work to come close to his magic numbers.

The 5-foot-9, 208-pound Baker always has stood out in the weight room, earning the nickname "Rock" for his physique. His body hasn't changed, but Baker spent much of the offseason working on his mind.

"I've been watching a lot more film, trying to get my football IQ up," Baker said. "I'm trying to read defenses with [quarterback] Kirk Cousins, and I'm picking up more and more every day at practice. Just trying to become a complete football player."

Despite Baker's production as the team's featured back in 2010, Michigan State's spring depth chart showed three co-starters in the backfield: Baker, sophomore Le'Veon Bell and junior Larry Caper, Baker's roommate. Bell was extremely impressive in the first half of the 2010 season, while Caper looked like the team's running back of the future in 2009.

Coach Mark Dantonio calls the running back situation "very competitive," but Baker has only helped himself this spring.

"He gained a lot of confidence a year ago in his play," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said of Baker. "He has a whole other level of maturity. He's going into his third season here, and it's showing in the way he's playing."

Several ex-Spartans now in the NFL have spent time around the Skandalaris Football Center this spring, including Ringer. Baker has latched onto the former Michigan State star, who had 390 carries and 1,637 rush yards in 2008.

"I always want to know, what can I do to get better?" Baker said. "He says, 'Go out there and be you. Play hard and run hard and don't try to make things that aren't there.' Like [running backs coach Brad] Salem always says, 'You've got to get four [yards] to get 44.' The big plays are going to happen."

Baker will need plenty to reach his goals this fall.

"I reached my goal last year," he said. "Now I'm going to reach for a much bigger goal."

Michigan State running back Edwin Baker isn't the type of player who needs a depth chart to motivate him.

But it can't hurt.

Coach Mark Dantonio's depth chart entering spring practice included four positions with multiple players listed as possible starters. Some of the logjams could be expected, like at center, where the Spartans lose John Stipek, and at receiver, where the team loses Mark Dell. The chart also listed players with limited experience or production in 2010 as solo starters (defensive end William Gholston, safety Jairus Jones, punter Mike Sadler).

[+] EnlargeEdwin Baker
Jerry Lai/US PresswireEdwin Baker rushed for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
At running back, three players are listed as potential starters: Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. Baker is coming off of a season where he started 12 of 13 games, finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,201 yards and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.

"I'm fine with it," Baker told me recently. "The coaches know best. They're going to put the right person at the right time in any game situation, so whatever they put out, it's for the best of the team."

Baker, the Big Ten's top returning rusher at running back, looks at the depth chart as another reminder that he can't take his position for granted.

"Playing running back, there's always someone trying to take your spot," he said. "Larry, he's my roommate and he's been second to me. Knowing that he's right there on my heels, any little mistake that I do, he can take my spot."

Caper looked like Michigan State's top back of the future in 2009 as he led the team in carries (120), rushing yards (468) and rushing touchdowns (six) as a true freshman. Baker, meanwhile, got off to a slow start because of injury.

The roles reversed in 2010 as Baker emerged and Caper missed time early in the season with a hand injury. Bell, meanwhile, surged with 549 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the first six games before his production slowed in the second half (56 rush yards in the final seven games).

"He made some runs against Notre Dame that were like, 'Wow,' very impressive for a true freshman," quarterback Kirk Cousins said of Bell. "And he, like a lot of true freshman, kind of ran out of gas. You've got to make sure he's getting his carries and touches, you can't write him off. And Larry Caper had a great freshman year. The biggest thing is to not let any of those three guys feel like they're playing second fiddle and taking a backseat.

"I think the coaches are trying to say, 'Hey, all three of you guys are top-notch players and we're going to rely on all three of you if we want to go somewhere.' While Edwin obviously had the most outstanding season last year, you've got to believe and encourage all three of them."

Baker gained a bit of weight in the offseason -- he's 208 pounds "on a good day" -- and hopes to have greater durability this fall. New offensive coordinator Dan Roushar has made no secret of his desire to run the ball more, and Baker is ready to be a big part of the game plan.

"He wants to get back to the old style of Michigan State football," Baker said of Roushar. "Michigan State was always known to run the football, pound green pound. That's what we plan on doing this season."

Cousins knows Baker isn't the type of player to think he has arrived.

"Edwin's a guy who's going to be motivated," Cousins said. "The minute he accomplishes something, he'll look to the next thing. He's going to keep looking to the next mountain to climb and be I think one of the best running backs to ever play here."
Can you feel the love?

It's Valentine's Day, and the celebration is on here at ESPN.com. As some of you scramble for those last-minute gifts, I'm going to pass out Valentine's Day cards to each Big Ten squad.

The cards represent a reason why each team should feel warm and fuzzy heading into the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIllinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase has a promising future.
ILLINOIS: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He showed a ton of promise in his first season as the starter and made significant strides with his passing between the end of the regular season and the Texas Bowl. Scheelhaase boasts the maturity, poise and confidence to lead the Illini offense for the next three seasons. It also helps that he's a perfect fit for Paul Petrino's offense.

INDIANA: A demanding coaching staff led by Kevin Wilson. Mediocrity no longer will be tolerated in Bloomington, and while it might take some time to get things fully on track, Wilson is going to change the culture around the program. He comes from a big-time program (Oklahoma), has orchestrated a big-time offense and carries big-time expectations for the Hoosiers.

IOWA: Young playmakers on both sides of the ball. Iowa didn't win the Insight Bowl because of its seniors. It won because of a record-setting performance by freshman running back Marcus Coker and a pick-six by sophomore cornerback Micah Hyde. Quarterback James Vandenberg returns to the spotlight after impressing a lot of folks in 2009. Outside expectations likely will be tempered, but the future looks promising for Iowa.

MICHIGAN: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Coach Brady Hoke hit a home run with his choice to rebuild an historically bad defense. Mattison boasts an impressive track record at the college and pro levels, and his recruiting prowess speaks for itself. Although Michigan's defense faces significant challenges in 2011, it no longer will be held back by coaching.

MICHIGAN STATE: A restocked offensive backfield. Most Big Ten teams lose their top quarterback or running back from 2010, but the Spartans bring back all of their leading men. Kirk Cousins enters his third season as the starting quarterback, making him the league's second-most experienced signal caller. He'll be joined by talented running backs Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.

MINNESOTA: Quarterback MarQueis Gray. Not only is Gray back at his preferred position of quarterback, but he'll be operating in an offense that best suits his talents. It likely will take some time for things to click, but Gray should eventually thrive in a system that values a dual-threat quarterback.

NEBRASKA: The return of three key defenders. Sure, the Huskers lose their share of defensive standouts, but to get defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard all back for their senior seasons is huge. Crick will be the Big Ten's most decorated defensive tackle heading into 2011, and he and the other two form a very solid nucleus for Carl Pelini's unit.

OHIO STATE: No juniors departing to the NFL. The silver lining in the suspension saga is Ohio State returns all of its juniors for the 2011 season. If the Buckeyes can survive the first chunk of their season, they'll welcome back some of the league's more proven offensive performers. Ohio State also got a big boost when center Michael Brewster, who isn't among the suspended players, opted to return for his senior season to anchor the offensive line.

NORTHWESTERN: Dan Persa's work ethic. It's not easy to recover from a ruptured Achilles', but no player will work harder in his rehab than Persa, who already is well ahead of schedule. The quarterback had established himself as the team's hardest worker before the injury, and although time will tell if he reclaims his All-Big Ten form, you have to like his chances.

PENN STATE: A stockpile of offensive skill players. Whoever emerges as Penn State's starting quarterback will be surrounded by plenty of weapons in 2011. Derek Moye leads a receiving corps filled with playmakers, and Silas Redd and Stephfon Green give Penn State two home-run threats at running back. Devon Smith and Justin Brown both should see increased touches this coming season.

PURDUE: An offseason to get healthy. No college football team in America needed a healing period more than Purdue, which could be extremely explosive on offense if several players return at full strength. Quarterback Robert Marve, running back Ralph Bolden and receivers Keith Smith and Justin Siller are among the Boilers on the mend. Reserve quarterback Caleb TerBush also is expected to be back this fall.

WISCONSIN: Running backs Montee Ball and James White. Normally, a team losing its starting quarterback, its most experienced running back and two All-American offensive linemen would have reason to be concerned. But the emergence of both Ball and White plus tremendous depth along the offensive line should put Wisconsin in good shape entering the fall. The quarterback question is a valid one, but the Badgers will be able to run the ball effectively.

Capital One Bowl keys for Spartans

December, 30, 2010
12/30/10
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Here are three keys for Michigan State in its Capital One Bowl showdown against Alabama:

1. Run to set up the play-action: Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins has had time to get healthy and can do some damage in the play-action pass game. But to help Cousins, Michigan State must establish the run with Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. The Spartans' ground game struggled in the second half of Big Ten play, although it looked decent in the regular-season finale at Penn State.

2. Special teams: Arguably no team in the country has made more critical plays on special teams than the Spartans. From "Little Giants" to "Mousetrap" to Denicos Allen's blocked punt against Purdue, Michigan State has stepped up in the kicking game. Alabama is dangerous in the return game but Michigan State could have the edge on special teams.

3. Make plays in the secondary: The Spartans' defensive backs have been playmakers all season, as the four starters boast a combined 12 interceptions and 30 pass deflections. Alabama will try to attack downfield with Julio Jones and Marquis Maze, and it's important for the Spartans' cornerbacks to limit damage and get their hands on the ball. Like many games, the Capital One Bowl could come down to turnovers, so the MSU secondary will be a major factor one way or another.
A perfect 10 today: 10 items to track in Week 10 in the Big Ten.

1. JoePa goes for No. 400: The all-time coaching wins leader in major college football can reach another milestone if Penn State beats Northwestern on Saturday. Joe Paterno can join John Gagliardi and Eddie Robinson as the only college football coaches to record 400 career victories, and he can become the first man in Division I-A/FBS history to do so. This is a moment likely never to be seen again, as the 83-year-old Paterno, in his 45th year as Penn State's coach, is truly one of a kind. A win Saturday also would make Penn State bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Pat LittleJoe Paterno can reach 400 career victories by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
2. Michigan's D tries to stop the bleeding: The Michigan Wolverines have been one-third of a team for most of the season, excelling on offense but stumbling repeatedly on both defense and special teams. Michigan's defense seemed to regress after the bye week, bringing more heat on head coach Rich Rodriguez and coordinator Greg Robinson. Rodriguez shot down talk of defensive staff changes, but he's taking on a greater role with the defense as Michigan tries to end its three-game Big Ten slide. The Wolverines on Saturday face an Illinois offense beginning to surge.

3. Endgame in West Lafayette: Two of the front-runners for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year meet Saturday at Purdue's Ross Ade Stadium. Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has been simply unstoppable this season, cementing himself as a first-round draft pick in April with 7.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Kerrigan leads the Big Ten in both categories, but not far behind sits Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, who boasts five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss to go along with six pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and two blocked kicks. There's plenty of mutual respect between the two stars. Kerrigan goes up against Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi, another likely first-round pick.

4. Spartans rushing to rebound: Despite what he called an "embarrassing performance" at Iowa, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio maintained that "the sky is not falling around here." He's right, too, as the Spartans still are very much alive for the Big Ten title and a possible trip to the Rose Bowl. Michigan State can get well Saturday against last-place Minnesota, and it would be well served to reignite a rushing attack that has gone cold the past three weeks. Minnesota allows a league-worst 201.8 rush yards a game and will miss starting defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey because of a suspension. Spartans backs Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper need a big day.

5. Iowa faces trap game: Everyone in Iowa City wants to fast-forward to Nov. 20 and the Ohio State game, but the Hawkeyes first must take care of business on the road against two teams that give them trouble. Up first is Indiana, which dominated Iowa for the better part of three quarters last year and picked off Ricky Stanzi five times before the Hawkeyes rattled off 28 fourth-quarter points. Indiana beat Iowa in 2006 and 2007 and boasts a passing attack that will challenge the Hawkeyes' secondary. It's important for Iowa to keep the pedal down in Bloomington.

6. The joy of six: Three Big Ten teams -- Michigan, Illinois and Penn State -- enter Saturday's games with five victories, needing one more to become bowl eligible. One team will reach the magic number in Ann Arbor as Michigan and Illinois lock horns. The Wolverines would remove a lot of pressure by beating the Illini and virtually ensuring the end of their postseason drought. Like Michigan, Illinois hasn't been to a bowl since after the 2007 season and can continue its surprising surge with a victory. Teams like Indiana and Purdue also can inch closer to bowl eligibility with upset wins Saturday.

7. Persa back in Pennsylvania: Dan Persa was a high school star in Pennsylvania, but he barely got a sniff from Penn State in the recruiting process. He landed at Northwestern and has been the biggest reason for the Wildcats' 6-2 start. Persa, whose mother and sister went to Penn State and who grew up attending Nittany Lions games, heads back to his home state to try and spoil Paterno's 400 party. The Northwestern junior is cleared to start after suffering a concussion last week. While Persa heads home, Northwestern is at its best on the road, winning six consecutive games stretching back to last season. The Wildcats also fare well in November under coach Pat Fitzgerald, compiling a 9-4 record, including a 6-1 mark the past two seasons.

8. Scheelhaase takes aim at shorthanded secondary: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has put himself in the mix for Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, and he gets another chance to shine Saturday at the Big House. Scheelhaase, who last Saturday completed 16 of 20 passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns, faces a struggling Michigan secondary that lost starting cornerback J.T. Floyd to a season-ending ankle injury this week in practice. True freshman Courtney Avery starts in Floyd's spot opposite James Rogers, the Wolverines' lone non-freshman cornerback. Illinois is a run-first offense, but don't be surprised if Scheelhaase takes to the air against the vulnerable Wolverines.

9. Penn State's quarterback situation: Freshman Rob Bolden might be Penn State's future, but sophomore Matt McGloin has been on the field at the end of back-to-back Nittany Lions victories. Bolden has fully recovered from a concussion suffered Oct. 23, and the coaches let the two quarterbacks compete for the starting job throughout practice this week. McGloin performed well in his first career start last week against Michigan, but quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno indicated after the game that Bolden still held the top job. Joe Paterno mentioned he might play both quarterbacks against Northwestern, so it'll be interesting to see how things play out.

10. Purdue turns to Robinson: Purdue expects to start its third quarterback this season as true freshman Sean Robinson gets the nod against Wisconsin. Robinson played most of the Illinois game last Saturday, completing just 7 of 20 passes for 52 yards and a touchdown. The Boilers will use Rob Henry if his throwing hand improves, but Robinson is their top option. "If he was an immature freshman, didn't have some of the same intangibles, we could be in some real trouble," coach Danny Hope said. "This guy can come over and make a commitment from a maturity standpoint to become a quarterback we can win with."

It's game day at Ryan Field

October, 23, 2010
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Greetings from still-dry Ryan Field, where No. 7 Michigan State defends its unblemished record for the first time outside the state against a Northwestern squad coming off of a bye.

Good atmosphere around the parking lots today, as plenty of tailgates are going on. Spartan Nation certainly is here.

The rain hasn't started yet, but we're supposed to get hammered right around kickoff. Weather will be a major factor today.

Ryan Field has a natural grass surface rated among the nation's best, so we'll see how it holds up. The rain should favor Michigan State, which boasts a far superior rushing attack to Northwestern -- No. 26 nationally vs. No. 71 nationally -- and the three-headed monster of Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. Northwestern's short passing attack relies on timing and good footwork by both Dan Persa and his receivers, so it'll be interesting to see how they handle a slick track. On the other hand, Michigan State has more team speed, which could be neutralized a bit.

Northwestern enters the game pretty healthy, although junior superback Drake Dunsmore (ankle) is a game-time decision. Michigan State starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker will miss his second straight game with a suspension. Freshman Darqueze Dennard held up well last week, but Northwestern is the best passing offense the Spartans have faced since Notre Dame, which threw for 369 yards against the Spartans on Sept. 18.

Michigan State has won the past two matchups rather comfortably, but the series has featured some wild games. In 2006, the Spartans mounted the biggest comeback in NCAA history, rallying from a 35-3 deficit to beat Northwestern 38-35 in Evanston. A year later, Northwestern rode a record performance by quarterback C.J. Bacher to a 48-41 overtime victory in East Lansing.

I doubt we'll see that many points today, but you never know. Michigan State has looked every bit like a top-10 team, executing extremely well in all three phases. The Spartans aren't a dominating team, but they make fewer mistakes than their opponents, especially on defense, where they've already doubled their interceptions total (12) from last year.

Northwestern started the season 5-0 but looked more like a 3-3 team. The Wildcats have struggled to run the ball and execute on special teams, and penalties are a new bugaboo. They'll have to play a lot cleaner today and possibly shake things up on offense to have a chance to upset Michigan State.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Denard Robinson might be the nation's leading rusher, but Michigan State has the best rushing attack in the Big Ten.

The Spartans also might have the best offensive coordinator.

After Robinson's second red-zone turnover, Michigan State marched 93 yards in 10 plays, mostly on the ground in bruising fashion. Spartans backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker softened up the Michigan defense, and Larry Caper finished the drive with an 8-yard run as he carried several Wolverines into the end zone.

You had to love the creativity from Treadwell on the end-around, pitch-back to Cousins, who found former quarterback Keith Nichol for a 42-yard gain. Treadwell is having himself a year, folks. Someone needs to hire this guy.

Michigan State has shown tremendous offensive balance today: 213 pass yards, 185 rush yards. Mark Dantonio has to be loving this.

Very impressed with the Spartans, who lead 31-10.

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