NCF Nation: Marcus Freeman
Minnesota's historic upset of Nebraska provided the major shake-up in this week's rundown. The Gophers, who were No. 11 two weeks ago, have turned around their season with upset wins against both Northwestern and Nebraska. They've guaranteed a second consecutive bowl appearance and can make some noise in the Legends Division down the stretch. Iowa also looks like it will be going back to the postseason after an overtime win against Northwestern.
Michigan State moves up to No. 3 after pulling away from Illinois in Champaign, while Iowa moves up after its overtime win against slumping Northwestern. Penn State's historically bad night at Ohio State bumps the Lions down a few pegs.
Let's take one last look at the Week 8 rankings.
Now, for the fresh rundown:
1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): There was no need for a second-half surge as Ohio State throttled Penn State from the get-go, picking up an easy win and the style points it has looked for in Big Ten play. After his near benching at Northwestern, quarterback Braxton Miller has performed like a Heisman Trophy candidate, picking apart Penn State's defense for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State racked up its highest-ever yardage total (686) against a Big Ten foe. The Buckeyes' defense recorded three takeaways. Ohio State now visits Purdue, a recent trouble spot.
2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): The nation continues to sleep on the Badgers, but at some point the credit will come if Gary Andersen's crew continues to win. Wisconsin's second open week came at a good time as star linebacker Chris Borland had some extra time to heal from a hamstring injury. Borland should be good to go for this week's trip to Iowa, as Wisconsin reunites with its longtime rival for the first time since 2010. Andersen likes the way quarterback Joel Stave is progressing, and this week's game should provide a nice gauge.
3. Michigan State (7-1, 4-0; last week: 4): After a one-year hiatus, Michigan State is back in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten defeat and can take a huge step toward Indianapolis by beating rival Michigan this week. Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense got on track against Illinois, racking up 42 points and 477 total yards. When Cook is in rhythm, Jeremy Langford finds running room and the offensive line controls play, Michigan State is tough to beat. But the challenges will get tougher now.
4. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): Who are these Wolverines? The young, talented group that beat Notre Dame in September or the shaky, flawed squad that hasn't looked very impressive since Sept. 7? We'll finally get some real answers as Michigan begins a challenging November stretch this week at Michigan State. Devin Gardner and the offense scored at will against Indiana but face an exponentially tougher challenge against the Spartans' nationally elite defense. A second Big Ten loss would make it tough for Michigan to reach Indianapolis, given the remaining schedule.
5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2; last week: 7): After struggling against Northwestern's Kain Colter last year, Iowa's defense stepped up in a big way, shutting out the Wildcats for a half and recording six sacks, its highest total since the 2008 season. The linebacking corps was terrific, and so was Drew Ott. Quarterback Jake Rudock wasn't great but made the big throw when it counted to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime. Iowa is a win away from becoming bowl eligible as rival Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium this week. The Hawkeyes get the edge against Minnesota for the five spot after dominating the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.
7. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 3): A four-spot drop in the rankings for one loss might seem harsh, but Nebraska invalidated any perceived progress since the UCLA game by struggling in all three phases in a loss at Minnesota. Despite his big-game flaws, Bo Pelini's teams typically had won the games they should win, but the Huskers fell apart after building a 10-0 lead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked very rusty and the defense couldn't stop Minnesota's ground game. Nebraska tries to get well against slumping Northwestern this week in Lincoln.
8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2; last week: 6): There will be better nights for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Penn State, which fell behind quickly at Ohio State and never challenged the Buckeyes in the ugliest loss of the Bill O'Brien era. Penn State's defensive issues are very real, though, as the Lions have allowed more than 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1899 (!). Hackenberg's health will be a storyline this week as Penn State faces Illinois. At least the Lions don't have any more open weeks.
9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): It's still all about fixing the defense for Indiana, which had no answers for Jeremy Gallon, Gardner and Michigan in Week 8. The IU offense can strike and strike quickly, regardless of whether Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld is playing quarterback. Kevin Wilson's crew enters a critical home stretch against Minnesota and Illinois. IU likely needs to win both to have a chance of going bowling this year.
10. Northwestern (4-4, 0-4; last week: 10): Halloween arrives Thursday, but the nightmare has lasted four weeks for the Wildcats, whose October woes have reached a new low under Pat Fitzgerald. All of Northwestern's hallmarks -- great ball security, limited penalties, being great in the clutch -- seem to be going out the window. Fitzgerald has blamed himself and his staff for the recent struggles, and it's hard to disagree after the ultra-conservative decisions late in Saturday's loss to Iowa. Northwestern heads to Nebraska this week, as misery loves company.
11. Illinois (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): The Illini's fast start seems like a distant memory now as they've been swallowed up in Big Ten play. Illinois' second consecutive home blowout loss makes a bowl game highly unlikely, and there are issues to address on both sides of the ball. A young defense is getting exposed by power running teams, as Michigan State had its way with the Illini. Bill Cubit is a creative play-caller, but Illinois needs something more against Big Ten defenses. Illinois had a meager eight first downs and 128 total yards against Michigan State.
12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): The Boilers entered their second bye week feeling a bit better than they did entering their first. A stout defensive performance against Michigan State, particularly by Bruce Gaston and his fellow linemen, provides Purdue something to build on before the stretch run. Purdue now needs to get something going on offense. Ohio State comes to town this week, which should be special for Purdue coaches Darrell Hazell and Marcus Freeman.
But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.
"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."
The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).
The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.
The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.
Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.
Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).
The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
- Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
- All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
- Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
- Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
- The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
- Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
- Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.
The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
Two coaching tidbits to pass along:
- There's no official announcement from Purdue, but Hazell reportedly will hire Florida State assistant Greg Hudson as the team's defensive coordinator. Hudson recently completed his third season as the Seminoles' linebackers coach. He has Big Ten experience after serving as Minnesota's defensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach from 2002-04 under Glen Mason. Hudson was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at East Carolina from 2005-09. We'll have more on Hudson once the hire becomes official. Hazell also is expected to bring several Kent State assistants, including linebackers coach Marcus Freeman, the former Ohio State player, with him to Purdue.
- Wisconsin will name Auburn assistant Jay Boulware as its new tight ends coach. Boulware has coached tight ends and special teams at Auburn since 2009. He and Andersen coached together at Utah from 2005-2006, when Boulware served as the Utes' tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. Boulware will be making his Big Ten coaching debut with the Badgers, although he has coached in the Midwest before at Northern Illinois (1997-2000) and Iowa State (2007-08). He has been a special teams coordinator for nine of the past 10 seasons, so there's a good chance he retains the title with Wisconsin. Andersen has just one assistant left to hire. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he's targeting Utah receivers coach Aaron Roderick for the same position with the Badgers.
He'd likely have a few more awards listed below his mug shot in the media guide. Who knows, he might even have his own promotional Web site, like this one.
Gordon easily could be the Greg Jones of another team. But he's much happier being Jones' teammate at Michigan State, which is ranked No. 7 in the BCS standings and off to its first 7-0 start since 1966.
When told that Jones gets a few more tackles than just about everyone in college football, Gordon laughs and says, "Yeah, just a few more."
Gordon is the latest Big Ten linebacker to flourish a role previously occupied by players like Ohio State's Marcus Freeman and Penn State's Brandon Short. Both Freeman and Short were outstanding linebackers who played in the shadows of more decorated teammates: James Laurinaitis in Freeman's case, LaVar Arrington in Short's. Neither Freeman nor Short fully got the credit they deserved, but their accomplishments didn't go unnoticed.
The same holds true for Gordon, who has started 43 of his 45 career games for the Spartans, including each of the past 34 contests, a streak that ties him with Jones for the longest on the team. "Gordo," as he's known on the team, ranks 18th among active FBS players with 285 career tackles and has recorded 26 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and 8 pass breakups.
"He’s been around a long time," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said of the 6-foot, 232-pound fifth-year senior. "He's been an extremely productive player for us. He has great speed and great power and great ball skills."
Gordon's career tackles total ranks second among active Big Ten players.
Take a wild guess at who ranks first.
No one has had a better view for Jones' evolution than Gordon, who has played next to No. 53 for three plus seasons. Gordon considers Jones one of his best friends, and they both know how far they've come from the 2007 season.
"We always laugh whenever we see film of us," Gordon said. "We weren’t the smartest guys on the field. We just kind of lined up. We watch it and we ask each other, ‘What the hell we were doing?’"
It's certainly not the case any more, as Jones and Gordon are two of the more assignment-sound linebackers in college football. Jones gets most of the accolades -- consensus All-America honors, 2009 Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year, 2009 and 2010 Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year -- but Gordon is right by his side.
"He's so consistent, he's instinctual and physical, he can run sideline to sideline," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's been such a good player because of how consistent he's been."
Fitzgerald was the Greg Jones of Northwestern in the mid-1990s, although he'll never admit it. "Comparing my athleticism to Greg Jones is an insult to Greg," Fitzgerald said Monday. As a two-time National Defensive Player of the year, Fitzgerald garnered most of the attention, while Northwestern's other good linebackers like Danny Sutter -- "One heck of a player for us," Fitzgerald said -- were overlooked.
"[Jones] gets talked about a lot and he should because he’s a great player, but I enjoy watching Eric Gordon, too," Fitzgerald said. "He's one heck of a football player. Those two guys have been side by side now for a number of years, and they just do a tremendous job of playing the position."
Dantonio sees Gordon as the perfect complement to Jones, both as a blitzer and as another sure tackler in space.
"We've been together since Day 1 of actually playing," Gordon said. "He's always been next to me. Our communication is great. We understand each other and I just think we work together great. It's been an honor.
"I've learned so much from him. I hope he's learned a little from me."
A 5-foot-11, 218-pound middle linebacker? Maybe in the Sun Belt, but never at Ohio State, a program rich in linebacker tradition that can hand pick the players to put in the center of its defense.
This is the team that produced Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, James Laurinaitis and other prototype middle linebackers. Why would the Buckeyes settle for less?
"I suppose if you plug him into the computer, Brian Rolle doesn't fit," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said. "But he sure can play football."
Rolle's résumé speaks for itself. After two seasons as a special-teams standout, Rolle stepped into a starting role in 2009 and recorded 94 tackles, seven for loss, with an interception, a fumble recovery and a rare defensive PAT after picking off a pass on a two-point conversion attempt and racing 98 yards to the end zone.
He opened his senior season with a bang Thursday night, recording his first career pick-six, a 30-yard interception return to the end zone in a 45-7 rout of Marshall.
Rolle might lack ideal middle-linebacker size, but he has all the other tools to excel at the position.
Let's start with his voice, which can be heard just about any time on the practice field or during a game.
"Most people think I'm talkative, but it's just if I have something to say to somebody, I'll say it," said Rolle, one of six co-captains for the Buckeyes this fall. "I’m the quarterback of the defense, so I feel like I'm obligated to make all the calls and tell guys where they need to be and where they line up.
'There's more weight on my shoulders to do things right, and as a senior, I know I'm going to have guys looking up to me even more."
Rolle's loquacious personality stands in stark contrast to the man flanking him on most plays. Ohio State standout outside linebacker Ross Homan is more of a silent assassin, and Rolle jokes that those who don't know Homan well "would think he was a mute or something."
Added Rolle: "The only thing I really hear him say during the game is, 'B-Rolle, what's the call?'"
Despite their differences, Rolle and Homan mesh well together. Both were preseason All-Big Ten selections by most media outlets.
And after playing behind Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman for several years, Rolle and Homan have a vision for their own legacy.
"We saw how great James and Marcus worked together," Rolle said. "I was thinking, me and Ross, if we continue to do what we're doing and we go in with our heads on right and lead like seniors are supposed to, in the years to come, the coaches will be able to talk to the young guys about how great we were our senior year in leading this team hopefully to a national championship."
The next step toward that goal arrives Saturday, as No. 2 Ohio State hosts No. 12 Miami (ESPN, 3:40 p.m. ET).
For Rolle, this one's "personal."
He grew up in Immokalee, Fla., a football hotbed in South Florida. His cousin Antrel Rolle was an All-American cornerback for Miami who played in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
Needless to say, Brian Rolle was all about the U.
"Growing up, that was the only thing that mattered in college football," he said. "Being from South Florida, you either were a Gator fan or a Cane fan, and I was a Cane fan. Miami was my first love."
As Rolle moved up through the high school ranks, he pictured himself wearing a Miami jersey.
"There was no doubt in my mind," he said. "My sophomore to senior year, I just knew I was going to play at Miami. But I didn't get that offer I wanted."
Miami went through a coaching transition during Rolle's senior year. Despite numerous overtures to the program, Rolle never got a chance to be a Cane.
"I took a lot of unofficial visits there, went up to a bunch of games, talked to a bunch of coaches," he said. "In the end, I was sad about it, but now I'm at Ohio State, it's my senior season, and I feel blessed to be here now."
The Buckeyes feel blessed to have Rolle directing their defense -- all 5-11, 218 pounds of him.
"Brian is unique," Tressel said. "He's probably not as big as some of the guys we've had, but he's got tremendous instincts and fabulous leadership skills. He's an excellent tackler, he plays the pass very well, loves the game, loves to prepare for the game.
"Glad he's on our side."
While a large portion of Spartans freshman can be penciled in as redshirts for 2010, head coach Mark Dantonio has made it clear that neither Gholston nor Bullough will sit out this fall. Michigan State boasts excellent depth at linebacker, led by All-American Greg Jones, but barring a snag between now and Sept. 4, both Bullough and Gholston will be part of the mix.
Dantonio's words resonate with the two freshmen.
"It's an indescribable feeling to know that I have the opportunity to play as a freshman," Gholston told me Wednesday. "That's very seldom. It was rare for a freshman to play five, six years ago, so to have an opportunity, it’s great."
Why are the expectations so high for these two?
Both were decorated high school prospects with advanced physical skills and good family history. Bullough's father and two uncles played for Michigan State, and his grandfather, Hank, played for the Spartans and later served as the teams defensive coordinator. His other grandfather and another uncle played for Notre Dame. Gholston's cousin is New York Jets defensive end Vernon Gholston, the former Ohio State star who visited him this summer and provided a pass-rushing tutorial.
Gholston arrives at Michigan State as the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit, according to ESPN Recruiting, which listed him as the nation's No. 3 defensive end in the 2010 class.
A unique physical specimen who can play both end and linebacker, Gholston stands 6-foot-7 and has increased his weight to around 255 pounds in camp. He even got above 260 for a portion of practice, a major change after being listed at 237 on National Signing Day.
"I was at 265, didn’t know it and I ran like an ox," Gholston said, laughing.
The 6-3, 235-pound Bullough also drew strong reviews in high school -- ESPN Recruiting rated him as the nation's No. 4 inside linebacker in 2010 -- and helped himself by enrolling this spring and going through practice.
"In the spring, everything comes faster because it's mostly veterans out there," Bullough said. "Every day, I'd be thinking, 'What do I do here? What do I do on this play?' Now everything comes second nature to me. I'm trying to learn to play fast, play more aggressive, play meaner."
The mean part shouldn't be a problem, as classmate Tony Lippett found out in a recent practice.
Gholston didn't practice this spring, but he was a fixture at the football complex, attending almost all of the team's 15 workouts. The many trips from Detroit to East Lansing helped him absorb the defense, which will incorporate more 3-4 elements this fall.
"It's fun having Will out here finally," Bullough said. "I feel like I've been here forever, waiting for Will to get here. We're trying to work together and teach each other."
Added Gholston: "Most of the learning, I grasp that part. It’s just applying what I learned. I've got little spurts where I do the right thing. I need to do the right thing every single time."
Although they're in the same class, Bullough is doing most of the teaching so far.
"Max is a very smart player, very physical and very tough," Gholston said. "I've never seen a freshman, a football player the same age as me, have so much knowledge about the game and be so consistent in everything he does."
The Big Ten has had its share of outstanding linebacker tandems in recent years: Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, Penn State's Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor and Iowa's Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, to name a few.
Michigan State hopes Gholston and Bullough mold a similar legacy together. The first steps begin this fall.
Bullough isn't taking the opportunity for granted.
"It is nice to hear," he said. "It’s all based on assuming -- I can only speak for myself -- I keep getting better each and every day. It's on my shoulders right now."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Penn State dominated the recent Big Ten player rankings, boasting six players in the top 30, two more than any other team in the league. The Nittany Lions had four players in the top seven and five in the top 12, while no other Big Ten team had more than one.
But when it comes to preseason predictions, Penn State gives way to another team. Ohio State has been ranked ahead of the Lions in almost every preseason poll and publication, including my latest power rankings. Colleague Mark Schlabach had Ohio State three spots ahead of Penn State in his way-too-early Top 25.
What gives? How could a team so stocked with star power not get the nod as the league's preseason favorite?
After all, Penn State and Ohio State shared the league title last year -- the Lions won the head-to-head meeting Oct. 25 in Columbus -- and both teams lost sizable senior classes that included national award winners (A.Q. Shipley, Malcolm Jenkins). The fact Penn State returns more proven stars but sits behind Ohio State in the 2009 forecast seems a bit incongruous, as many of you have pointed out.
Edwin from Dayton, Ohio, writes: I find it interesting that you have (as do most experts) Ohio State a better team and the chosen team to win whe Big Ten even with an away game at Happy Valley. But when I look at your player rankings you have 6 Penn State players you your top 30, and 4 in the top 12. This would lead me to believe that Penn State is the better team. (Although I know this is not the case) how do you justify them having the perenial players in the big ten and them not being the best? Are you just playing devils adovocate to the lion share of people that think The Ohio State is the best Big Ten team?
This points to the fundamental matchup of the 2009 Big Ten season -- Penn State's star power vs. Ohio State's depth.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Midway through an interview Thursday, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel received a text message from former Buckeyes star James Laurinaitis.
|Leon Halip/US Presswire|
|Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knows it's not the name that wins championships.|
"He threw me under the bus," Tressel joked. "Now they're in the playoffs, so now he wants to go. I'm going to ignore him for a couple hours."
Laurinaitis had to suffer for a while, but he'll probably get his wish from Tressel. After everything he gave to Ohio State during the last five seasons, the linebacker deserves it.
Tressel's current players don't share the same sense of entitlement as Laurinaitis.
Ohio State got a lot younger during the offseason, and the spring depth chart is filled with underclassmen. Though the Buckeyes have won or shared the last four Big Ten titles and maintain the same expectation for 2009, championships don't just magically appear by wearing scarlet and gray.
"If we've got a room full of guys that think, 'Well, that's what you do. You come to Ohio State and you're Big Ten champs,' if that's the reality in their mind, then we're going to have a problem," Tressel said. "Because it is hard. People that know just how hard it is are gone. Because they're the ones that traversed that mountain.
"It's our job to get guys to understand how difficult it's been. It's not, 'Wish upon a star and I'm entitled to that.' That's the fun of raising kids up, helping them understand that goals are wonderful, but the plan and the action taken toward those goals it what it's all about."
Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has never seen a problem with work ethic during his tenure at Ohio State. But to hammer home the importance of going to work every year for a goal, he tells the defenders to simply look around.
"This year, it's easy," Heacock said. "You lose Malcolm [Jenkins] and you lose James [Laurinaitis] and you lose Marcus [Freeman], big production guys. You lose the key, main names that everybody has been hearing.
"And you end up with a group of guys, you had to use the cliché, no-names, but guys that don't have quite the reputation. This group is a very young group, but boy, they're energetic and they're anxious to learn."
Some other notes from my conversation with Tressel (who wore a pullover fleece, not a sweater vest), Heacock and several Buckeyes players.
- There has been a lot of buzz about Ohio State overhauling the offense in Year 2 of the Terrelle Pryor era, but Tressel downplays the changes. Though a player like Pryor challenges the coaches to be more flexible, the Buckeyes won't look like a completely different offense in 2009. Running back Dan "Boom" Herron smiled and shook his head when I brought up the Wildcat offense, but he admitted the team continues to run some plays out of the pistol formation, which Ohio State used last fall.
"With Terrelle, you're tempted to say, 'Hey, I wonder if we can do this or that,'" Tressel said. "But you reign it back in and say, 'OK, let's look at the whole group. What are the things the whole group can be best at.' What is it that [Dane] Sanzenbacher does best? What it is that [DeVier] Posey does best? But we haven't gotten crazy."
- Senior tackle Jim Cordle said the offensive line is ahead of where he thought it would be at this point after a "disappointing" 2008 performance. Cordle, a former center and left guard, is working at both tackle spots this spring but likely will line up on the right side. Former right tackle Bryant Browning moves to right guard, and Michigan transfer Justin Boren has all but locked up the left guard spot. Despite sophomore starting center in Mike Brewster and sophomore Mike Adams working at left tackle, the group is playing with more of an edge.
"Fights will break out and those types of things, but that's just how we compete now," Cordle said.
- Heacock said Andre Amos is the frontrunner in the competition for the starting cornerback spot opposite Chimdi Chekwa, but Devon Torrence also has had a good spring. Safety Anderson Russell singled out redshirt freshman cornerback Travis Howard and safety Orhian Johnson for their performances this spring.
- Ohio State has been relatively injury-free this spring. Pryor is fine after overworking his throwing arm, and safety Kurt Coleman returned to practice Tuesday after an ankle problem. Sanzenbacher has a high ankle sprain.
- Before our interview Heacock was watching film of NFL defenses scoring touchdowns and planned to make a highlight tape for his players. He also has a sign in his office that reads: "No Ohio State team has defeated Michigan 5 times in a row," with the 5 crossed out and replaced by a 6. Interesting.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Ohio State's impressive effort Monday night came up short, and a forgettable 2008 Big Ten season is over. Today's links have a Scarlet and Gray tinge to them.
- After two blowout losses in the national title game, Ohio State's narrow defeat Monday is easier to swallow, Bob Hunter writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
"The Buckeyes badly needed to play well in this one. Their national reputation was in tatters. Against a Texas team that many think belonged in the national championship game, few considered the possibility of an Ohio State win.
It didn't happen, but it at least restores some lost respect. The Buckeyes' high-profile failures no longer seem so conclusive; instead, they blend back into a wider range of big games under [Jim] Tressel that show the Buckeyes both winning and losing their share."
- No one likes the prevent defense, but Ohio State's decision to keep the pedal down might have cost it against Texas, Doug Lesmerises writes in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"On the final touchdown, linebacker James Laurinaitis blitzed, linebacker Marcus Freeman stepped to the line like he was blitzing then dropped into coverage, but not far enough to help on [Quan] Cosby, and then [safety Anderson] Russell was alone. Cosby caught the ball only 6 yards past the line of scrimmage, but that was enough."
- Running back Dan "Boom" Herron scored the apparent game-winning touchdown Monday and is ready to step in if and when Chris "Beanie" Wells bolts for the NFL, Tim May writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
- Illinois offensive line coach Eric Wolford is leaving for South Carolina, where he will coach the line and coordinate the run game, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
- With Shonn Greene gone, Iowa's offense will be the hands of quarterback Ricky Stanzi, The Gazette's Marc Morehouse writes in his blog.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's a beautiful day here in Wisconsin, and Camp Randall Stadium should be cranked up tonight, even without the Wisconsin marching band. Before settling in for an interesting three-pack of early games, here's a quick look around the Big Ten.
- A great piece by the Chicago Sun-Times' Herb Gould on Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn and his older brother, who is turning his life around after serving time in prison.
- Is Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis overrated? The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises and Bill Livingston debate the Buckeyes star.
- Running backs Javon Ringer and Shonn Greene carry the load for Michigan State and Iowa this season, Marc Morehouse writes in The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.
- Ohio State's music mix at Thursday practices -- to prepare for Saturday crowd noise -- doesn't include any country tracks, much to the dismay of wideout Brian Hartline, Teddy Greenstein writes in the Chicago Tribune.
- Minnesota's DeLeon Eskridge was born to run, and his mother had a tough time keeping up with him at an early age, Kent Youngblood writes in the Star Tribune.
- Penn State coach Joe Paterno could be in the press box again today with a sore leg, The Altoona Mirror's Cory Giger reports from Ross-Ade Stadium.
- Purdue enters a season-defining stretch and needs its defense to rise to the occasion, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier.
- Michigan would like quarterback Steven Threet to find his inner juice, as in Juice Williams, Mark Snyder writes in the Detroit Free Press.
- Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman is proud of his heritage (African-American and Korean), but it wasn't always that way, Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A great weekend of Big Ten games is on tap, and not just the big one at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). I expect all of you to gain a few pounds sitting on your couches throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning. Anything less will be unacceptable. I get a rare Friday night at home -- fiancee is happy -- before hitting the road early Saturday to watch Purdue and No. 16 Oregon go at it (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
A quick disclaimer about this post because I've gotten a lot of nasty e-mails. These are the best 10 things to watch on a given Saturday, not the best thing to watch for each team. There often will be two items for a marquee game -- like the one in L.A. -- and multiple teams won't make the rundown, especially those playing weak competition. That's how it works.
Here are 10 things you don't want to miss:
1. Beanie watch ends: Ohio State running back Chris "Beanie" Wells is listed as doubtful for the matchup against top-ranked USC, but nothing will be settled until kickoff. Coach Jim Tressel doesn't want to risk further injury to Wells in September, but if the Heisman Trophy candidate can contribute, the Buckeyes will use him. If not, get ready for a guy (Dan Herron) nicknamed "Boom." Unfortunately, that's also the sound Rey Maualuga makes when he connects with ball carriers.
2. Pryor restraint: Buckeyes freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor will play a role against the Trojans. How significant a role largely depends on Beanie Wells' availability. If the offense stalls like it did last week without Wells, Pryor could get extended time in an effort to throw off the USC defense. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound freshman is a special talent, but can he handle the spotlight of such a marquee game?
3. Badgers hit the road: Wisconsin has survived slow starts against inferior opposition, but it can't afford to drag against Fresno State. Keep your eyes on Badgers quarterback Allan Evridge, who makes his first road start since 2005. Coach Bret Bielema gets two big pieces -- tight end Travis Beckum and linebacker Jonathan Casillas -- back on the field following injuries, but both players could be a bit rusty.
4. 'Hell' with the victors: Michigan players saw Charlie Weis' words around their training room this week. The Wolverines head to South Bend hoping to hand Weis and Notre Dame a third humiliating loss in the last three years. Quarterback Steven Threet gets the start and needs to show greater consistency, but he'll get help from a veteran defensive line that swarmed Jimmy Clausen last year.
5. Track meet at Ross-Ade -- Purdue has marveled at Oregon's team speed all week, and the Boilers have to find a way to keep pace Saturday afternoon. This will be the first of several defining games for Purdue senior quarterback Curtis Painter, who will set plenty of records but needs signature wins to complete his resume. The Boilermakers' back seven has improved but will play without speedy linebacker Jason Werner. Oregon's Jeremiah Johnson could capitalize.
6. Backer bonanza: NFL scouts will be drooling as arguably the nation's best linebacker tandems take the field at the L.A. Coliseum. Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman hope to continue their takeaway trend against Mark Sanchez, while the "scary" Maualuga and Brian Cushing bring the pain to the Buckeyes offense.
7. State pride on the line: This is more than a rivalry game for Iowa. Iowa State provides the first significant test for the Hawkeyes, who have looked dominant against shoddy competition. Sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi has a grasp on the starting job and the support of Iowa fans, but he'll need to continue to make progress against the Cyclones. The home team has won the last four Cy-Hawk trophies, a good sign for Iowa.
8. Rush hour in East Lansing: Michigan State's defensive line has yet to break out, and Saturday would be a fine time to do so. Sun Belt champ Florida Atlantic and standout quarterback Rusty Smith come to town, and the Spartans need to apply pressure to avoid problems. With uncertainty in the secondary, Michigan State needs big things from end Trevor Anderson and tackle Justin Kershaw.
9. Illini D-line under the gun -- Illinois ranks 101st nationally in rush defense (201 ypg), a troubling sign as Louisiana-Lafayette's dynamic quarterback Michael Desormeaux comes to town. Can veterans like Will Davis, Derek Walker, Doug Pilcher and David Lindquist shore up the defensive front? This would be a perfect time as Illinois inches closer to a tough opening stretch in league play.
10. Orange could be feeling blue: What was once a great rivalry could get ugly Saturday at the Carrier Dome as Penn State's high-powered offense faces the worst BCS team in the country. Syracuse should be pumped for the game: coach Greg Robinson desperately needs a positive showing: but Daryll Clark, Evan Royster and the 17th-ranked Nittany Lions should put up some ridiculous numbers in this one.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Marcus Freeman had 109 tackles for the Buckeyes last season.|
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They certainly didn't plan it that way, but the tag-team interception by James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman last Saturday encapsulated what has been a profitable long-term partnership at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes led Ohio 19-14 in the fourth quarter when Freeman, the team's somewhat unsung strongside linebacker, read quarterback Boo Jackson's eyes and tipped a pass with both mitts. Laurinaitis, the award-winning All-American, adjusted to the ball and dove for his eighth career interception.
As usual, most of the credit for the takeaway went to Laurinaitis, whose superb skills, speed, toughness, tattoos and compelling back story -- if you've been in Azerbaijan for the last 20 years, his dad was "The Animal" of pro wrestling fame -- make him Ohio State's obvious front man. Following Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, A.J. Hawk and others in a line of dominant Buckeyes 'backers, Laurinaitis already owns a Butkus Award, a Nagurski Trophy and a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.
But Laurinaitis attributes much of his success to Freeman, who lent a hand during a difficult time in 2005. Freeman was next in line for Ohio State's linebacker rotation after playing as a true freshman the previous season, but he tore his meniscus in the season opener and had to redshirt. When starter Bobby Carpenter broke his fibula against Michigan, Laurinaitis, a true freshman, stepped into a spot seemingly reserved for Freeman.
"He could have sat there and said, 'Man, that could have been me out there,'" said Laurinaitis, who appropriately wore a gray "I Am Grateful" wristband as he answered questions. "He didn't do that at all. He took the approach of, 'I'm going to coach this young guy up and make sure he does the best possible he can do.' I really respected that and I really appreciated it. That's what really made us closer."
The two linebackers don't reminisce much about 2005. They have other things on their minds, namely how to stop No. 1 USC on Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
The mega matchup marks the 29th time Laurinaitis and Freeman will line up alongside one another. Neither player would have things any other way.
"Me and James will be friends for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens here at Ohio State or in the NFL," Freeman said. "I'm always proud of him and he's proud of me."
The two players are separated by a year in school, but not much else.
"We're always coming in at the same time, we're doing workouts two times a day at the same time, eating lunch," Laurinaitis said. "It's like you can't go anywhere without one another."
|Stephen Dunn/Getty Images|
|Laurinaitis already has a Butkus Award and a Nagurski Trophy.|
Laurinaitis has built his reputation on tremendous lateral speed, endurance and the ability to play a role on almost every play. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior has averaged 8.9 tackles in his last 28 games, stretching back to the start of 2006.
He's most effective in pass coverage, recording five interceptions in his sophomore season.
"He's in the right spot all the time," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "He's the heartbeat of their defense."
Throughout the week Laurinaitis has been compared with his USC counterpart Rey Maualuga, But unlike Maualuga, arguably the nation's top linebacker coming out of high school, and fellow Trojans star Brian Cushing, Laurinaitis came to Ohio State with limited fanfare.
"James came a long way from them throwing him into the Michigan game [in 2005] and nobody knowing really who he was to blowing up," said Buckeyes cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, another overlooked prep prospect. "Now he's a household name."
The growing fame hasn't sidetracked his focus. On a team with multiple senior standouts, Laurinaitis was voted a captain for the second straight year, becoming just the seventh Ohio State player to serve two terms.
Laurinaitis' demeanor impressed Maualuga when the two met up at the Playboy All-America photo shoot this summer.
"You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person," Maualuga said. "But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."
Laurinaitis is lauded for his ability to contribute in multiple areas, but he might be Ohio State's second most adaptable linebacker. Freeman has played both outside linebacker spots, collecting 196 career tackles and 13 pass breakups.
USC coach Pete Carroll noted that Ohio State accentuates the athleticism of its linebackers in the defensive scheme, allowing players to cut loose on the field.
"When you have a guy as versatile as Marcus is," Laurinaitis said, "with the ability to say, 'Hey, when you're in this, go to [strongside linebacker], go to the outside, and then when we go to this package, come back into the middle and play on the weak side,' that benefits not only himself, but the whole defense."
Whoever stepped in as Ohio State's third starting linebacker this season was going to be overshadowed by Laurinaitis and Freeman, but sophomore Ross Homan is holding his own so far. The 6-foot, 229-pound Homan leads the Buckeyes in solo tackles (6) after redshirting last season with turf toe.
"You know he's going to be where he needs to be," Laurinaitis said. "His work ethic is unbelievable and his steady ability is unbelievable. I have all the confidence in the world in the guys all around me."
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
|Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images|
|Rey Maualuga had 10.5 tackles for a loss last year.|
LOS ANGELES -- The term comes up more than a few times during this highly charged week: "scary."
Such as, "Coach Tressel, is Rey Maualuga scary?"
Jim Tressel, Ohio State's coach, doesn't want to bite on the loaded word, not completely anyway. "I don't look at it as scary because I don't have the ball."
USC defensive end Kyle Moore almost seems bothered that folks refer to his good friend, his soft-spoken friend, his newly svelte friend (down 26 pounds from his Rose Bowl MVP weight to 247), Rey Maualuga, as "scary."
"Rey's not scary," Moore said. "It's just the way he plays on the field that gets him perceived as scary."
"We're all kind of fiery at times but Cush is nonstop, no holds barred, all out -- that, 'I'm going to give it to you before you give it to me,'" he said. What puts Cushing over the top, though, is this: He's from Jersey.
Cue the music from the "Psycho" shower scene.
"He's got that little accent," Moala says with a grin that suggests that, oh, just maybe that characteristic comes up every once in a while during locker room jesting.
In a week of hot topics -- hey, did you know No. 5 Ohio State is visiting No. 1 USC on Saturday? -- the comparison of the linebacking corps has been scorching.
The Buckeyes boast James Laurinaitis, whose trophy case features the 2007 Butkus and 2006 Nagurski awards, and Marcus Freeman, who was second-team All-Big Ten. The Trojans counter with Maualuga and Cushing, both preseason All-Americans.
All four are going to make a lot of money playing on Sundays, but first they have to endure endless questions about the opposing unit and how they match up.
"It doesn't match up at all because we're not going to be on the field at the same time," Maualuga reasonably points out.
Still, this exciting, Rose Bowl-like showdown features an extraordinary amount of talent, especially at linebacker.
"It's a really cool opportunity for people to watch these guys on both sides of the ball," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It's rare that you would have this many guys who would have big futures, big upsides as you see in this game."
Cushing, Maualuga and Laurinaitis got acquainted this summer at the festivities surrounding their selection as Playboy All-Americans. Photos that circulated on the Internet suggested they all got along famously.
"Besides being a great linebacker, [Laurinaitis is] a great person, he's got a great personality," Maualuga said. "You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person. But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."
Added Cushing, "He's a good kid."
Cushing has battled injuries throughout his career, but became a national figure when he won the 2007 Rose Bowl MVP after recording 2.5 sacks in the victory over Michigan. He's 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and carries as much body fat as a petrified tree.
Maualuga, whose combination of size and speed and Samoan heritage makes it impossible to not introduce Junior Seau comparisons, was the Trojans leading tackler a year ago and earned All-Pac-10 honors for a second-consecutive year. He had 10.5 tackles for a loss and became a YouTube sensation for his numerous blowup hits.
"[Maualuga] brings a presence," Laurinaitis said. "He's a tremendous blitzer. Quarterbacks know they better watch out where 58 is. He does a great job running to the ball. If you're a ball carrier, you know where he is, because if you don't and he catches you off guard, you're going to be on ESPN."
Carroll sees differences in the tandems. He describes the Trojans "classic" linebackers as physical, tough and capable in space and tight areas.
The Buckeyes unit is a smaller and, Carroll intimated, perhaps quicker. It's also clear that Laurinaitis is a player Carroll can't help but appreciate.
"Laurinaitis can do everything; he's an extraordinary player," Carroll said.
There's an oh-by-the-way here, too. As Tressel pointed out: "Don't discount 43 either -- he gets after it."
No. 43 would be USC's third linebacker, senior Kaluka Maiava, who led the Trojans with six tackles at Virginia from his weakside spot. Also, Clay Matthews, listed as a defensive end, plays a hybrid position -- the "elephant" -- that's closer to a linebacker than a pure, hand-on-the-ground end.
For Ohio State, the weakside 'backer is Ross Homan, whose 10 tackles in the Buckeyes first two games is not far behind the pace of Laurinaitis (14) and Freeman (12).
Both groups of linebackers have spent the week discounting Saturday as a showdown of the nation's top two units on its top two defenses. It's all about team, they say.
But it doesn't take too much prodding for them to admit there's a little bit of extra juice to the matchup.
"Seeing [Laurinaitis] across the field and knowing who we are playing is going to bring a little more out of me," said Cushing, who's not allowing hip and wrist injuries to keep him off the field.
If it brings a little more out of the crews on both teams, it could make it a long afternoon for both offenses.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Relief isn't usually the sentiment that surfaces when a team studies the USC offense.
|Geoff Burke/US PRESSWIRE|
|USC's Mark Sanchez isn't likely to beat the Buckeyes with his feet.|
But when Ohio State begins learning the names and numbers of the Trojans' seemingly endless list of rushing threats, defenders can take some comfort in knowing quarterback Mark Sanchez isn't among them.
Loaded with talent around him and a bionic right arm, Sanchez can pick apart opposing defenses in many ways, but running the ball is rarely his method of choice. He has only 23 career rushing yards on 19 carries, an average of 1.2 yards per rush.
Sanchez still moves around decently in the pocket, but he doesn't fall under the label of mobile quarterback, and that could be a good thing for No. 5 Ohio State heading into this week's matchup at the L.A. Coliseum (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Several mobile quarterbacks have caused problems for the Buckeyes' otherwise sound defense, which led the nation in fewest points and fewest yards allowed last season.
Trace back to the 2007 BCS national championship, when Florida freshman Tim Tebow did his thing against Ohio State, rushing for a touchdown and setting up others with his feet.
Illinois' Juice Williams flustered Ohio State last November at Ohio Stadium, rushing for 70 yards and throwing four touchdown passes in a 28-21 upset. Williams' running ability particularly stung in the fourth quarter, as he converted a fourth-and-1 and two third downs of seven yards or longer as Illinois drained the final 8:09.
The Buckeyes also struggled to contain Ohio backup quarterback Boo Jackson in Saturday's underwhelming 26-14 victory. Jackson had 55 rushing yards on just seven carries in the game.
On third-and-13 early in the second quarter, he evaded the rush and found Taylor Price for a 30-yard completion. Three plays later, Jackson converted a third-and-7 by scrambling for 10 yards. Jackson later scrambled for 20 yards on third-and-10.
"Those little mistakes we made today, versus USC, we may not win the game," Ohio State defensive end Lawrence Wilson said. "So we have to work on the little things, show some discipline."
Added linebacker James Laurinaitis: "We have somebody in our grasp, we've got to bring him down. If you're containing, you've got to keep containing."
The less-mobile Sanchez provides a new challenge this week.
"Completely different offenses," Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said, "but at the same time, football is football. You've got to tackle. That's something we didn't do well [Saturday] and we're going to need to improve on for [this] week."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
First things first. James Laurinaitis isn't a podiatrist and doesn't know when his Ohio State teammate Beanie Wells will return to the field. The Buckeyes star linebacker and two-time team captain is more focused on leading a dominant defense featuring several potential All-Americans. Laurinaitis, the reigning Butkus Award winner and former National Defensive Player of the Year, was among the Buckeyes stars who passed up NFL money for a final shot at the national title.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Linebacker James Laurinaitis passed up NFL money for a final shot at a national title.|
After recording 236 tackles, nine sacks and seven interceptions the last two seasons, Laurinaitis headlines a unit that led the nation in both total defense and scoring defense last fall but once again got gashed in the BCS national championship game. Ohio State started off strong in Week 1, keeping Youngstown State behind the midfield stripe until the game's final play. A much larger test looms Sept. 13 against USC as Ohio State tries to improve its national reputation against an elite opponent.
Laurinaitis, the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the year, sounded off on Wells, the defense and dealing with expectations in an interview this week.
First off, I've got to get your take. How is Beanie and do think he'll play this week or next week?
James Laurinaitis: I don't know. I'm not just blowing smoke, but I really don't know what's going on with Chris. He's feeling good. He seems like he's doing well. They do a good job of keeping it under wraps, how he is. I think he'll be a day-by-day thing, but to me, he looks good and he looks like he's getting after it in the rehab room. We don't know his diagnosis, so we don't know really what his plan is or what his timing is, but I know one thing about Chris: If he has the slightest chance to play, he'll play because he's an extremely tough kid.
Have you see him walking around at all in practice? Is he moving OK or struggling?
JL: I walked by him a few times in the locker room and he seems like he's doing OK. He's just trying to get better. Most of the time, he's in the training room and whenever he's not around the practice field or lifting, he's trying to get rehab on it or something. I really haven't seen him all that much.
You're obviously going to be facing some tougher teams later on, but what did you get out of that first game against Youngstown?
JL: With a first game like that, it's harder because you don't know what to expect, so to speak. We knew Youngstown was going to have a new quarterback and things like that and you go into a Game 1 against anyone, teams are going to try something new. They had tendencies, when they're in this formation, they're only going straight downhill. Well, they didn't go straight downhill. They went outside with it. Just reacting and seeing little things that we maybe messed up on scheme-wise and just getting something on film to evaluate, that's the important thing.
What are some of the things you'd like to see improve personally and as a unit?
JL: There's certain things where someone scrambles, they left their guy to go try get the quarterback and then there's an open receiver. Just making sure everyone does their job. When someone tries to go out of their way to make a play, that's where there's openings for a hole to be hit. Just really focusing on scheme stuff, stuff that we can control and trying to improve. Obviously we have to try and improve on turnovers. We had a fumble recovery but we dropped an interception.