NCF Nation: MiQuale Lewis
The Mountain West is the only league in the country with four teams ranked in the Top 10 for fewest sacks allowed. Utah is tied for second with Oregon with three through eight games. San Diego State is tied for seventh with Army (four). Air Force and TCU are tied for ninth with five.
TCU has allowed opponents to convert just 23.9 percent of third downs, best in the nation, but it is the Utah defense that is best on third-and-short. With 3 yards or fewer to go, opponents are converting on Utah at a rate of 38.1 percent.
Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs two rushing touchdowns to break the school record of 53 held by Chris Lemon. He is five passing touchdowns away from the school record of 78, held by Eric Beavers.
Utah State will honor the 10-year anniversary of Emmett White’s NCAA single-game all-purpose yards record at halftime against New Mexico State, the same school that White set his record against 10 years ago. White had 578 yards against New Mexico State, rushing 34 times for a school-record 322 yards, while adding 134 yards on seven receptions, 2 yards on one punt return and 120 yards on four kickoff returns. He also had four touchdowns in the win.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of UNLV’s Las Vegas Bowl victory, the entire 2000 Rebel football team will be honored during next week’s game against Wyoming. Representatives of the team will serve as honorary captains, and the entire squad will take the field to be recognized between the first and second quarters.
The team, coach by John Robinson, was the last one from UNLV to make a bowl game. That fall, the Rebels won their last three games of the regular season in dramatic fashion to earn a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl, where they beat Arkansas 31-14 to finish 8-5.
UCF now has the third-longest active winning streak in conference play among FBS schools. The Knights have won their past 10 C-USA matchups, trailing only Boise State (19) and TCU (14). UCF is also ranked in the NCAA’s top 15 nationally in all four major team defensive categories, leading Conference USA in all but one (rushing defense). The unit is ninth in total defense (279.8 ypg) 11th in scoring defense (16.5 ppg) 13th in rushing defense (100.9), while placing 15th in pass defense (177.5 ypg).
Ball State senior running back MiQuale Lewis is approaching the school career rushing record. Lewis has 3,659 career yards and needs 344 yards rushing to break Marcus Merriweather’s mark of 4,002 yards. There are three games left in the season for the Cardinals, who host Akron on Saturday.
Temple has posted consecutive shutouts against Buffalo (42-0) and Akron (30-0) for the first time since 1971 (at Connecticut and vs. Xavier).
ULM quarterback Kolton Browning has thrown for more than 200 yards in seven straight games -- the longest streak at the school since Robert Cobb’s seven-game streak in 1993. His 1,741 passing yards are the most through eight games since Raymond Philyaw had 1,762 in 1996. Browning has thrown a touchdown pass in seven of ULM's eight games this season; the Warhawks are 4-3 in those games.
Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey needs 62 yards for his first 1,000-yard rushing season. Rainey has rushed for no less than 64 yards in a game this season.
Here’s a look at this week’s spring starts and the biggest issues each teams faces:
East Carolina, March 22
Biggest issue: With several senior lettermen gone, new head coach Ruffin McNeill is basically starting from scratch, but he does have a good foundation upon which to build. The Pirates will spend the spring transitioning from a pro-style offense to a spread under the direction of new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Tulane, March 22
Biggest issue: There are several issues Tulane has to deal with the spring, but the biggest will be replacing the production of running back Andre Anderson. Anderson accounted for 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards and scored eight of the team’s 10 rushing touchdowns.
Idaho, March 23
Biggest issue: The Idaho offense was quite good last season, but the defense cost it some games. The defense allowed 433.23 yards per game and 36 points per game. It returns 11 players with starting experience, which should help. The Vandals also have to replace four starters on the offensive line.
New Mexico, March 23
Biggest issue: With three-year starter Donovan Porterie gone, sophomore B.R. Holbrook and juniors Tate Smith and Brad Gruner will compete for the starting quarterback spot. However, the winner of that competition will have to fend off top recruits Tarean Austin and Stump Godfrey in the fall.
Northern Illinois, March 23
Biggest issue: Starting quarterback Chandler Harnish will miss spring football, which opens up the quarterback position. A.J. Hill, DeMarcus Grady, Jordan Lynch will be vying for time, but a lot will be expected from junior college transfer Casey Weston in the fall.
North Texas, March 23
Biggest issue: This is a pivotal season for Dodge and his staff, and the key to turning the Mean Green’s fortunes around is getting the defense to play better. North Texas allowed 412.33 yards and 35.58 points per game last season, and also averaged just one sack per game.
Utah State, March 23
Biggest issue: With running back Robert Turbin sidelined with a knee injury, the Aggies will have to find a running back to fill his shoes. Turbin accounted for almost 60 percent of the team’s rushing yardage.
Akron, March 24
Biggest issue: Ianello enters his first spring, and the top priority will be to find playmakers on offense. Akron, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2005, averaged just 19.25 points per game last season.
Ball State, March 24
Biggest issue: The Cardinals will look to replicate the type of offense they had during their 12-win season in 2008. Last season the run game was OK, but the passing game struggled. All of the quarterbacks are healthy this spring and running back MiQuale Lewis returns for a sixth season.
TCU, March 24
Biggest issue: The Horned Frogs didn’t lose much from last season’s 12-win team, but they did lose their top defensive performers in defensive end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington. Replacing those players, as well as adding depth in the secondary, will be the focus this spring.
UAB, March 24
Biggest issue: David Isabelle has the unenviable task of replacing do-it-all quarterback Joe Webb, who was essentially all of the Blazers' offense for the past two seasons. Isabelle does bring a strong arm as well as rushing ability to the quarterbacking position, which might help other players get involved in the offense.
Colorado State, March 25
Biggest issue: The Rams will once again look for a new starting quarterback this spring, and all eyes will be on early enrollee Pete Thomas, who is the favorite to win the job. Senior Jon Eastman, junior T.J. Borcky and redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri also will compete for the starting role.
UTEP, March 25
Biggest issue: Former UNLV defensive line coach Andre Patterson takes over as the defensive coordinator, and he’ll do away with the 3-3-5 defense installed by Osia Lewis. The Miners have consistently been bad on defense, which has stopped them from competing for the C-USA West title. But if Patterson can get the defense moving in the right direction, the Miners become a dangerous team.
Houston, March 27
Biggest issue: New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart inherits a young group with a lot of talent and will need to show some sort of defensive turnaround this spring. The defense was part of the reason the Cougars didn’t cap the perfect season they started.
The university announced Friday that Lewis, the team’s leading rusher each of the last two seasons, has been granted a medical waiver from the NCAA.
Lewis suffered a torn ACL in 2007 that caused him to miss most of the season.
Lewis told the Ball State Daily News in January that he’d received the extra year of eligibility, but Ball State had not yet gotten official word from the NCAA.
In 2008, Lewis rushed for a Ball State record 1,736 yards and 22 touchdowns. Last season, Lewis broke the school record for most yards in a game with 301 against Eastern Michigan.
He is the third leading rusher in Ball State history with 3,334 yards and is a two-time All-Mid-American Conference selection.
Ball State begins spring practice on March 24.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
" New head coach Rob Ianello takes over an Akron squad that hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. The Zips struggled last year averaging 19.25 points per game on offense and gave up 28.75 points per game on defense. This spring's goal will be to find playmakers to bring both sides of the ball on par with the rest of the league.
" The Zips had a running back by committee system last year, but none of their backs had more than 250 yards. Two of the team’s top three rushers are gone and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. Ianello signed five tailbacks in his first class.
" The defense struggled to put pressure on the quarterback as the Zips finished with 11 sacks. Opponents scored touchdowns on 66 percent of opportunities inside the red zone. Shoring up the defensive line and the linebackers will be an emphasis this spring.
Ball State Cardinals
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
" Sophomore quarterback Kelly Page tries to regain the starting role after missing the second half of the season with thumb surgery. The Cardinals were winless with him in the lineup, but he improved as the season progressed. Redshirt freshman Aaron Mershman will vie for the role in the spring before highly-touted recruit Keith Wenning joins the competition in the fall.
" Running back MiQuale Lewis and tight end Madaris Grant are both awaiting word from the NCAA about a possible sixth season. Both are team leaders and are the top players at their respective positions.
" Losing defensive coordinator Doug Graber is a blow to the Cardinals. Although he was only with the team for a season, the defense was one of the team's bright spots and got better as the season progressed. The Cardinals have yet to name a replacement.
Bowling Green Falcons
Spring practice starts: March 19
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
" Replacing quarterback Tyler Sheehan will be one of the biggest chores since he took 95 percent of the snaps for the past three seasons. Aaron Pankratz was the backup last year and the leader heading into spring. But redshirt Matt Schiltz, walk-on Kellen Pagel and December enrollee Caleb Watkins will all be in the mix.
" Freddie Barnes was the Falcons best offensive weapon and it will be hard to find a replacement. Overall, the Falcons lose three of their top five receivers, and one of those returning is running back Wille Geter.
" Rebuilding the defense will be a priority after losing seven players, including the entire line backers corps and three-fourths of the secondary. There is a lot of young talent waiting, it is just a matter of gelling during spring ball.
Spring practice starts: March 20
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
" Losing quarterback Zach Maynard, who decided to transfer last month, hurt their offense. He would have been the starter heading into the season, but now sophomore Jerry Davis and redshirt freshman Alex Dennison will duke it out this spring before two freshmen arrive in August.
" The Bulls have to replace top receivers Naaman Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin and have several candidates to do so. Juniors Terrell Jackson, Marcus Rivers and Ed Young, and redshirt freshmen Fred Lee and Alex Neutz will compete for playing time.
" New head coach Jeff Quinn is going to install a more wide-open offensive system at Buffalo, however finding the right guys to play it will be a challenge. There are athletes remaining at Buffalo, but the loss of players such as Maynard and Roosevelt will make the transition slower.
TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, Houston receiver James Cleveland and Boise State running back Jeremy Avery will be among nine returning players to receive the Touchdown Club of Columbus' Award of Distinction during their awards banquet on Feb. 6.
Dalton led the Horned Frogs to a 12-1 season and the school’s first-ever BCS bowl berth. Padron, a true freshman who stepped into the starting role in the middle of the season, helped the Mustangs to their first bowl game since 1984 and threw for a school-record 460 yards and two touchdowns in the Hawaii Bowl. Cleveland, Houston’s top receiver, ranked third in the country in receptions per game and eighth in yards per game. He finished with 104 catches for 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season in the FBS. Avery was the Broncos leading rusher with 209 carries for 1,150 yards and six rushing touchdowns. It was his first 1,000-yard season in his first full year as the starter.
Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin, and Ohio State linebacker Brian Rolle, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, and receivers DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher also received the award.
The Touchdown Club of Columbus was spot-on with its awards of distinction a year ago, naming both Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore and Houston quarterback Case Keenum among the players to watch. Both had out standing seasons and finished in the Heisman voting. Ball State running back MiQuale Lewis, who also received the award last year, was one of the bright spots on a losing team with 871 yards and five touchdowns.
Lewis told the paper Wednesday that he plans on returning next season, but the university said the process has not been confirmed by the NCAA.
Ball State said it is still waiting for an official letter from the NCAA.
Lewis has been Ball State’s leading rusher the past two seasons, his first two completely healthy seasons after missing most of his freshman and sophomore years with injuries. Lewis rushed for 871 yards this season and set the school record for rushing yards in a single game with 301 at Eastern Michigan. Lewis ranks third all-time in career rushing yards and touchdowns at Ball State.
DETROIT -- The perfect season is in some serious jeopardy.
Buffalo returned two fumbles for touchdowns to take a 28-17 lead into the fourth quarter. The two fumble recoveries for touchdowns ties an NCAA record set by USC in 2003.
And early it looked like Ball State was going to take a 10-point lead.
It started with James Starks fumbling his second ball of the game. Ball State took its drive to the 2-yard line before Ball State quarterback Nate Davis tried to do his best Sam Bradford flying-through-the-air-at-the-goal-line impression and fumbled the ball. It was picked up Mike Newton and run back 92 yards for a Buffalo touchdown.
On Ball State's next series, Ball State center Dan Gerberry snapped the ball before Davis was ready and it was picked up by cornerback Sherrod Lott and returned 74 yards.
All night there's been something off about Ball State, but it looked there was some semblance of rhythm early in the third quarter. That's gone now, and the Cardinals find themselves in unfamiliar territory, down 11 heading into the fourth quarter. The Cardinals have not faced a fourth-quarter deficit this large this season.
And Buffalo know how to close out game and play to close endings. Buffalo has played in four overtime games this season and is 3-1. It's played three games with point differentials of a field goal or less.
Ball State was in a tight fourth quarter game against Central Michigan and won late. Otherwise, it hasn't had much competition beyond the third quarter.
While I thinking about it, there have been a couple records set during this game:
- Buffalo quarterback Drew Willy became the first Buffalo quarterback to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. The threshold was broken on the second touchdown pass to Naaman Roosevelt.
- Ball State running back MiQuale Lewis set the single-season rushing record when he hit 1,625 in the third quarter. He has over 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
- Ball State receiver Briggs Orsbon has 11 catches, which is a new MAC Championship record.
DETROIT -- A week ago, I thought Western Michigan would ruin Ball State's perfect season because of the diversity of the offense and strength of the defense. Obviously, that didn't happen. But as I've watched Buffalo through the first quarter of the MAC Championship, it is playing out the way I thought Western Michigan would a week ago.
The Bulls have been able to successfully move the ball on the ground and in the air and it has been efficient on defense. Nate Davis has had a lot of time to throw, but the coverage has been fantastic. Davis went deep once and he failed to connect.
A fumbled snap between Davis and center Dan Gerberry forced Ball State to turn the ball over at the Ball State 25, which resulted in the only score of the quarter -- a two-yard fade from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt.
The touchdown was huge for Buffalo because the Bulls have proven to themselves that Ball State is not invincible. Had Ball State scored first, this might be a lopsided game.
The only problem for Buffalo has been two key false start penalties, including one on a third-and-9 situation that stopped a potential scoring drive.
Davis hasn't played poorly, but he hasn't been the Davis we've seen most of this season. If he was sick earlier I guess you could blame it on that or nerves, but he'll need to pick it up against an inspired Buffalo team.
After tonight, the argument that Ball State hasn't played anyone will no longer be valid.
The Cardinals square off against Central Michigan, the two-time defending Mid-American Conference champion and the team currently in first place with Ball State in the MAC West. The Chippewas are 8-2 this season including a 6-0 mark in MAC play.
But this game has more than just conference ramifications.
Ball State, at 10-0 this season, is hanging on to the slim hope for a BCS bowl. The Cardinals are ranked 17th in the most recent BCS standings behind four other non-BCS teams. They would need some losses by their non-BCS brethren to have a shot at a BCS bowl, but that won't matter if they don't get through the final two games on their schedule -- CMU and Western Michigan -- which are considered to be the toughest games of their season.
"This is a great football game between two great football teams, who have very good players on their teams, and it's going to be a lot of fun," Ball State coach Brady Hoke said, trying to downplay the importance of the game. "We've just got to go out there and play our best football, and execute, and have fun doing it."
Ball State has played just two teams with winning records this season -- Navy and Northern Illinois. The game against Navy was actually the closest the Cardinals have played, winning by a measly 12 points. Ball State has defeated its opponents by an average of 22 points this season.
But Central Michigan presents a different challenge. Not only do the Chippewas have the experience of being the frontrunner for the MAC title, but they've also owned the Cardinals in past seasons. Ball State has not beaten Central Michigan since 2003, but up until last year's 58-38 debacle, the Cardinals had not lost by more than 11 points, including a 1-point loss in 2004.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Arizona running back Keola Antolin is thickly built and, well, dinky. He looks like a weeble.
And he played like one against California, refusing to fall down after first contact from hulking defenders on his way to 149 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Wildcats 42-27 victory.
Antolin said after the game he was "5-foot-7 1/2," though he immediately laughed after saying so.
Recall that the last time an unranked team defeated a ranked opponent in a Pac-10 game it was Jacquizz Rodgers gashing USC for 186 yards on the ground.
Rodgers is 5-foot-6, 180 pounds.
Turns out that five of the nation's top-10 rushers tip the scales at under 190 pounds, according to their official weights.
Only two are taller than 5-foot-11. Only two weight more than 210.
Recruiting powers like LSU (221-pound Charles Scott), USC (215-pound Stafon Johnson) and Penn State (212-pound Evan Royster) will continue to haul in prototypical backs with size as well as speed, but it seems a lot of non-traditional powers and mid-level teams are stocking their rosters with undersized guys who have two things in common.
They are short. And they produce.
Besides Antolin and Rodgers, Cal uses a pair of sub-200 pounders in Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Antolin displaced Nic Grigsby from the lineup last week, but the 178-pound Grigsby has scored nine touchdowns and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Arkansas' Michael Smith is 5-7, 173 pounds and is averaging 132 yards per game. Would Ball State be nationally ranked without MiQuale Lewis, who's listed at 5-7, 175? Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher tips the scales at 175 pounds yet averages over six yards per carry.
Michigan State workhorse Javon Ringer weighs 202 pounds, but that's because he's packed his 5-foot-9 frame with a freakish about of muscle over his four-year career (how does this guy find a pair of pants that fit?).
Perhaps the secret of the dinks is out and there will be a big run on little running backs working their magic off the radar of the national recruiting scene where measurables are so important.
"I don't think there will be any more than normal," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "I think it's just a matter of good players. And I really believe they come in all different packages. If you are short or smaller, what are your compensating factors? These guys obviously have compensating factors to not being 6-feet tall."
Fact is, there are some advantages to being small. We snarked about USC's players claiming they couldn't find Rodgers, but Rodgers and Antolin both said they use their lack of size as an advantage.
"I hide behind the linemen all day -- just like [NFL players] Darren Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew," Antolin said after the Cal game. "It's the exact same. I stay low and hide and explode through the hole."
Score one -- or a few -- for the little guys.
|MiQuale Lewis is on pace to break the Ball State record for most rushing yards in a season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
If the StepMill is running in the gym about 30 minutes before practice, it's a safe bet that junior running back MiQuale Lewis is on it.
It's a warmup before the warmup before practice to ensure there isn't a part of Lewis' body that won't be ready for the two-hour beating he'll receive as Ball State's starting running back.
It's taken two years and two major injuries for Lewis to become a stickler when it comes to warming up and stretching before practice and icing and stretching after practice. Last weekend's win over Toledo -- the sixth game of the season -- matched the longest stretch Lewis has gone without injury.
"A lot of injuries, things that happen to you, are freak, you can't do anything about them, which both of his, the past couple years, have been," Ball State running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. "I can tell you he's taken every precaution that he possibly could to keep healthy... All it really takes is for the doctor to say, 'OK, you're ready to go,' and he goes out there and he plays full bore. Part of that is the reason why he gets hurt. He plays so reckless in a lot of ways and physical that it ends up being a detriment."
As a freshman, Lewis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the sixth game of the season. Last year, it was four games before suffering a season-ending ACL tear against Nebraska.
And each year, Lewis showed the potential to be one of the best running backs in the Mid-American Conference, if not the country.
This year, Lewis already has made his mark as the top back in the Mid-American Conference and the eighth-best running back statistically in the country. Lewis has rushed for 802 yards this season, 200 more than the next closest running back in the conference. He's rushed for 100 yards in every game but the first, in which he ran for 95. He has 12 total touchdowns and has scored in every game but one.
"It's just being more experienced and watching more film," Lewis said. "It's knowing the tendencies of the defense and what they're going to do so you can make the plays before they even get to do something. I'm a student of the game now."
Faulkner said he knew MiQuale was the right running back for Ball State's system after watching him play at Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., but he hesitated to offer him a scholarship because he was, at the time, about 5-foot-4.
"I remember visiting his school because I was recruiting a couple other kids from there, and then leaving, sitting in my car and thinking, what am I doing? This kid's got all that we want," Faulkner said. "I was hesitant to pull the trigger because he's too short. I'm being the same way as the other schools that passed on him are being. So, I went back into the school and offered him. We were his only scholarship offer."
The gamble on the now 5-foot-6, 184-pound Lewis is paying off in a big way.
He's currently on pace to break the Ball State record for most rushing yards (1,618) set by Marcus Merriweather in 2002. Through six games that year, Merriweather had 693 yards. Merriweather also holds the record for the most 100-yard games (8). Other records that Lewis could break this year include most rushing touchdowns (19) and consecutive 100-yard rushing games (6).
And it's a long shot, but Lewis could have a shot at the MAC rushing record of 1,928 set by Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe in 2006.
"A lot of people and a lot of teams in this conference downgrade our running game," Lewis said. "We've suffered that for two years. It's nice to keep the defenses off-balance and it's helping the team play a lot better."
It's not shocking that Ball State's running game hasn't been feared because, other than Lewis, it's been lackluster the last couple of seasons. In 2006, the Cardinals rushed for 1,103 -- as a team. Last year it gained 1,936 yards on the ground, but 237 of those yards were from quarterback Nate Davis and 447 of those yards were gathered by Lewis in only four games.
Lewis' presence on the field is keeping defenses honest and keeping Ball State in the win column.
"He plays with a passion," Faulkner said. "That's why he's productive. He goes out there and he plays fast and he plays reckless. And I think he's going to continue to be that way. You don't really make a guy into being tough, it's kind of in their make up and Quale's got that."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Ritttenberg
The curtain raises on Big Ten play this weekend, and you don't want to miss the show. Penn State attempts to validate its impressive start against a respectable opponent. Wisconsin tries to end a streak at Michigan, while the struggling Wolverines want to keep one going. Beanie's back in Columbus, but how much of a boost will he provide? Northwestern and Minnesota enter league play at 4-0, and no player is hotter than Michigan State's Javon Ringer.
Here are 10 things to keep track off Saturday:
1. Penn State HD-ready -- The Lions' new Spread HD offense has earned straight A's so far, but it has yet to take a real exam. Illinois' defense should provide one Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Penn State has showcased myriad weapons and had unparalleled production, but it will be interesting to see how first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark performs under pressure. Ron Zook called Illinois' defensive line the team's strength. It's time to prove it.
2. Going streaking in Ann Arbor -- No, not me. But I'll be on hand to see if Michigan can win its 23rd consecutive Big Ten home opener. The Wolverines are underdogs against Wisconsin, which tries to snap its own streak, a four-game slide at the Big House. The Badgers are stronger and more experienced, but they went 1-3 in league road games last season and suffered their only loss of 2006 at Michigan.
3. All is Wells again at Ohio State -- The Buckeyes haven't been the same team since star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells injured his right big toe in the season opener. After three tortuous weeks without the onetime Heisman Trophy candidate, Ohio State will get Wells back in the mix for its league opener against Minnesota. Wells probably will be limited to 15-20 carries, but he could provide the emotional spark Ohio State's offense has lacked.
4. Ringer goes for another 200 -- Running back Javon Ringer is the first player in Michigan State history to record consecutive 200-yard rushing performances. He aims for another big day against Indiana, which couldn't contain Ball State back MiQuale Lewis last week. Ringer will get his carries -- he always does -- but it's important for Indiana's front seven, led by end Greg Middleton and linebacker Matt Mayberry, to make Brian Hoyer beat them.
5. Boilers secondary on alert -- Notre Dame doesn't want to abandon the run, but the Irish were much more effective against Michigan State when operating in a shotgun, pass-happy offense. Expect more of the same against Purdue, which needs another strong performance from an improved secondary. Wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will stretch the field, putting pressure on Purdue's solid safety tandem of Frank Duong and Torri Williams.
6. Minnesota and Northwestern on the defensive -- The Big Ten's two worst defenses last season have stepped up big behind new coordinators Ted Roof and Mike Hankwitz. An influx of junior college talent has sparked Minnesota to a league-leading 13 takeaways, and Northwestern tops the Big Ten's sacks chart with 15, three behind its season total from 2007. Both defenses can validate their strong starts by stifling Ohio State and Iowa.
7. Lions D-line gets a boost -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno said defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma probably will play against Illinois after being suspended the last three games. Both players could be a bit rusty, but they give a depleted defensive line a big lift. Evans could be the league's most dominant pass rusher, and he'll help chase Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.
8. Hill back at the Big House -- Two years ago, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill went to Michigan as the league's leading rusher and was held to 54 rushing yards on 20 carries. Hill ranks ninth nationally and second in the league in rushing average this fall (126.3 YPG) as he returns to the Big House. His ability to wear down Michigan's veteran defensive line could give Wisconsin the edge.
9. Stanzi back on center stage -- Iowa desperately needs a starting quarterback, and sophomore Ricky Stanzi gets another shot to fill the role. Hawkeyes fans were infuriated when coach Kirk Ferentz stuck with struggling junior Jake Christensen in the second half of last week's loss at Pitt. Stanzi will have the support of the home crowd as he faces a much-improved Northwestern defense.
10. Indiana under pressure -- It's still September, but Indiana needs to rebound after a 22-point home loss to Ball State. The Hoosiers' opening schedule sets them up for a repeat bowl run, but another setback could sidetrack things. Quarterback Kellen Lewis faces an aggressive Spartans defense led by Big Ten interceptions leader Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Big Ten play finally arrives for 10 of the 11 teams, and some intriguing opening matchups are on tap Saturday. Last week brought another solid record, but I underestimated the strength of several Big Ten defense. It won't happen this time around.
Not an easy slate of games, and recent history is working against favorites like Penn State (1-7 in its last eight Big Ten openers) and Wisconsin (hasn't won at Michigan since 1994). Here's how I see things shaking out.
Michigan State 30, Indiana 21 -- The Hoosiers allowed Ball State's MiQuale Lewis to rush for 166 yards last week. That's not a good sign as Javon Ringer, the nation's second-leading rusher, comes to Bloomington. Ringer could record his third straight 200-yard rushing performance, but this is an important game for Brian Hoyer to finally get going. The Spartans senior quarterback faces a depleted Indiana secondary. Kellen Lewis makes some plays for the Hoosiers, but Michigan State has the stronger defense.
Ohio State 35, Minnesota 17 -- The return of running back Chris Wells provides the emotional lift Ohio State has lacked the last three games. Wells might not put up huge numbers, but his presence sparks quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offense. I haven't lost faith in Minnesota, but the timing just isn't right for an upset. And unlike previous Gophers opponents, Ohio State will actually bother to cover star wide receiver Eric Decker with All-America cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
Iowa 20, Northwestern 17 -- A really tough call here. Iowa hopes it finds a quarterback in sophomore Ricky Stanzi, but Northwestern's defense looks greatly improved and the Hawkeyes' offense really hasn't done much the last two games. The difference comes at the line of scrimmage, where Iowa's defensive front overpowers Northwestern's new-look offensive line and neutralizes Tyrell Sutton. The game could come down to special teams or a fourth-quarter turnover, but Iowa holds on at home.
Wisconsin 27, Michigan 17 -- Like two years ago, the game stays close for the first half, but this time Wisconsin pulls away behind its power run game. Michigan's offense will be improved coming off the bye week and running back Sam McGuffie will force the Badgers to tackle in space. But Wisconsin knows how to grind out victories, and in the fourth quarter the Badgers will control the clock with P.J. Hill and force a mistake or two from Wolverines quarterback Steven Threet. Michigan's streak of 22 consecutive wins in Big Ten openers comes to an end.
Purdue 27, Notre Dame 24 -- For the second straight season Notre Dame can't run the ball, and the Irish will be forced to stretch the field with young wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The plan could work well, but Purdue's secondary has improved and picks off a pass or two. Curtis Painter put up big numbers (398 pass yards) in his last trip to Notre Dame Stadium, and Purdue's offense looks more balanced with running back Kory Sheets. The Boilers win on a last-minute Chris Summers field goal.
Penn State 38, Illinois 24 -- The Lions face adversity for the first time this season, but ultimately their offense is simply too powerful for Illinois. Illini quarterback Juice Williams has proven he can win in tough environments, but unless Arrelious Benn steps up his play, the offense doesn't have enough firepower to keep pace with Penn State. Lions quarterback Daryll Clark makes an early mistake but recovers, and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green wear down the Illini defensive line.
Season record: 35-4
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
A bit of shuffling this week despite three teams -- Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan -- that had byes. There's still a lot of mystery after the top three or four squads, and we'll know much more in five days as league play finally begins.
1. Wisconsin -- The bye week came at a good time for the Badgers, who are still dealing with some key injuries (Travis Beckum, Jonathan Casillas, Aaron Henry). It might sound wacky, but Saturday's game at 1-2 Michigan could be a trap game for Wisconsin, which can't look ahead to mega matchups with Ohio State and Penn State the next two weeks at Camp Randall Stadium.
2. Penn State -- The Lions beat Temple 45-3 and called their performance sloppy. Impressive is a better term to describe a team that has capitalized on weak competition and looked great on both sides of the ball. Penn State finally gets a test this week as Illinois visits Happy Valley. Another convincing win could give the Lions the top spot.
3. Ohio State -- The Terrelle Pryor era is under way in Columbus, and the freshman turned in a record-setting performance in his first career start. But the Buckeyes once again didn't look impressive against an inferior opponent, and they'll have to be much better in league play to reclaim the top spot in the rankings.
4. Michigan State -- It's a little unfair to drop Illinois after a bye week, but the Illini don't look like an improved team, while Michigan State does. Running back Javon Ringer has been the Big Ten MVP through the first four games, and the defense is displaying the physical style that head coach Mark Dantonio demands.
5. Illinois -- The good news for the idle Illini is they have a chance to make a huge statement Saturday at Penn State and vault up the list. The offense and defense rarely have played well at the same time, and Illinois will need both units to be clicking in Happy Valley. A veteran defensive front seven faces a huge test in the Spread HD offense, and Juice Williams tries to replicate his big-game road heroics.
6. Northwestern -- At this point in the season, the Wildcats are usually lamenting a bad nonleague loss and a leaky defense. Instead, they find themselves 4-0, thanks to a dominating defense shaped by coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The offense has been the problem so far, and Northwestern will need a lot of improvement from senior quarterback C.J. Bacher to keep this spot.
7. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes have found a running back (Shonn Greene) and several young playmakers on defense, but football still comes down to the quarterback position, and Iowa remains a mystery there. It seems like whoever comes off the bench -- Jake Christensen or Ricky Stanzi -- outplays the starter. Coach Kirk Ferentz might need to just pick a guy already because the rotation isn't working.
8. Purdue -- Staring straight at another crushing loss, the Boilermakers came up big against a solid Central Michigan team. Senior running back Kory Sheets continued to show he can handle the featured role by rushing for the game-winning touchdown. Purdue's playmaking secondary has become one of the team's strengths. A road win against Notre Dame would move the Boilers higher.
9. Minnesota -- I kept the Gophers in the basement after three wins, but a 37-3 win against Florida Atlantic made me a believer. Coordinator Ted Roof has ignited the nation's worst defense in 2007, as an influx of junior college transfers and several holdovers have meshed so far. Minnesota is forcing turnovers on defense and limiting mistakes on offense. Quarterback Adam Weber has been fabulous so far.
10. Michigan -- I'll be surprised if the Wolverines end up here at the end of the season, but it might be awhile before they move up. Wisconsin and Illinois visit the Big House the next two weeks, and Michigan needs an upset to keep its bowl hopes alive. A defense that struggled against Notre Dame must step against Wisconsin's power run game, and both Steven Threet and Sam McGuffie need to take another step forward.
11. Indiana -- Saturday marked the first chance for us to learn something about Indiana, and it wasn't promising. Two cupcake games didn't prepare the Hoosiers for a formidable Ball State team. Indiana's defensive front couldn't stop MiQuale Lewis, and Hoosiers quarterback Kellen Lewis had a rough night throwing the ball. The Hoosiers have a chance to move up by beating Michigan State at home on Saturday, but they deserved to drop.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
BYU defense: After suffering some criticism against Washington two weeks ago, the BYU defense has responded to hold its last two opponents to no points. The Cougars forced six Wyoming turnovers and returned two of them for touchdowns.
MiQuale Lewis, RB, Ball State: Rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-20 win over Indiana. It was the first-ever BCS win for Ball State and the team's first four-game winning streak since 2001.