NCF Nation: Nate Stupar
Not surprisingly, Linebacker U takes the top spot, though it was a very close call. Depth helped the top two teams on this list, while star power marked spots Nos. 3 through 5. After that, it's a bit of a dropoff.
Away we go ...
2. Michigan State: We wondered in the preseason how the Spartans would replace stars Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. The answer: very nicely, thank you. Sophomores Denicos Allen and Max Bullough emerged as fierce playmakers, especially on the blitz, and Chris Norman provided steady play on the weak side. All three return in 2012 to give Penn State a run for its money as the best group in the league.
3. Wisconsin: Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were finally healthy in the same season, and what a difference that made. They were a terrific pair, combining for 293 tackles and becoming the only Big Ten duo to average more than 10 tackles per game each. Taylor in particular made great strides. Kevin Claxton was overshadowed a bit as the third Badgers linebacker, but that's understandable given the amount of plays Borland and Taylor made.
4. Illinois: The emergence of Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 for loss) as fire-breathing pass-rusher made this unit better than we projected in the preseason. Ian Thomas also had a good season at the position with 85 tackles, and Trulon Henry rounded out a strong crew before he missed time late following a shooting incident. The Illini defense stayed consistent throughout the team's struggles.
5. Nebraska: Depth was not a strong suit for the Huskers by any means, but there was no better linebacker in the league and few better in the nation than All-American Lavonte David. He had 133 tackles and countless big plays. Will Compton came on as the season wore along to provide a good complement to David. Finding consistent play elsewhere at the position was a challenge for Nebraska.
6. Ohio State: We pegged the Buckeyes at No. 3 in our preseason linebacker rankings, but it wasn't a vintage year for a group that struggled down the stretch drive. Andrew Sweat led the way with 72 tackles despite missing two games because of injury, and Etienne Sabino had a decent season (62 tackles, 6.5 for loss) if not the breakout season many had predicted. Freshman Ryan Shazier announced himself late in the year as a potential star in the making.
7. Michigan: The Wolverines' defense surprised everyone in 2011, though the defensive line was clearly the vanguard on that side of the ball. Kenny Demens led the team with 94 tackles, while freshmen Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan made an immediate impact as starters. This wasn't an overwhelming group, but it was one that mostly did its job.
8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes had a hard time keeping everybody healthy and consistent, but this spot might have been the best part of their defense. James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 tackles each, while Tyler Nielsen added 73 stops while battling some nagging injuries. The Iowa defense overall was disappointing, however.
9. Purdue: Danny Hope usually knew what to expect from week to week out of his linebackers: solid, consistent play. Joe Holland, Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas each had between 82 and 94 stops as the top three tacklers on the team. Lucas and Holland also recorded double-digit tackles for loss. The chief complaint here is that the Boilermakers gave up some big point totals during the season.
10. Minnesota: The Gophers struggled up front and in the secondary, but linebacker was their most experienced and reliable defensive position, as expected. Veterans Gary Tinsley, Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper played in every game, and were among the most consistent players on the team. Tinsley led the way with four sacks. Florida transfer Brendan Beal was expected to make an impact, but missed the season with a knee injury.
11. Northwestern: It wasn't a very good year overall for the Wildcats' defense, and linebacker was no exception. David Nwabuisi ranked third on the team with 84 tackles, while Bryce McNaul was right behind with 76. But Northwestern's starting trio combined for just 2.5 sacks and didn't come up with enough difference-making plays throughout the season.
12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers was that Jeff Thomas was the best player on defense in 2011, finishing with 80 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. The bad news is that he was a senior. Besides Thomas, Indiana was forced to go young at the position, playing freshmen Chase Hoobler, Mike Replogle and Mark Murphy, a safety/linebacker hybrid, at times during the season. Kevin Wilson hopes the experience makes them better in '12, but this is yet another position that needs vast improvement going forward.
When Joe Paterno announced his retirement to the team Wednesday morning, it wasn't a firm goodbye.
He would be seeing his players for practice later this week. He would address them in the locker room before Saturday's home finale against Nebraska. He would be with them 'til the end, in some bowl game -- perhaps the Granddaddy of Them All.
Paterno wasn't gone yet.
"It seemed pretty much that Joe was going to coach for the rest of the season and retire after the season," safety Drew Astorino said.
Penn State's board of trustees had other ideas. Around 10:15 p.m. ET Wednesday, the board announced Paterno had been terminated as Nittany Lions coach.
“After 46 seasons and 548 games, the Joe Paterno era is over.
Right now, I'm not the football coach, and that's something I have to get used to.” -- Joe Paterno told a group of students at his home, according to the Associated Press
Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will be Penn State's acting head coach for the remainder of the season.
"Right now, I'm not the football coach, and that's something I have to get used to," Paterno told a group of students at his home, according to The Associated Press, after the trustees' announcement.
He's not the only one. His players must get used to this reality, too. It hit them hard Wednesday night.
"It's messed up they are doing this to a man who is a big reason Penn State is what it is today," senior wide receiver Derek Moye said on Twitter.
"Can't even shake my own head coach's hand wen I run out into beaver stadium for the last time...yall dk how much this man has done," senior defensive tackle Devon Still tweeted.
"Wake me up...this is a nightmare!" senior linebacker Nate Stupar tweeted.
The shock value certainly will be there in the coming days and hours. Although Paterno's direct involvement with the team had been reduced in recent years, his presence on Saturdays, even in the press box, was significant for his players. I remember a 2009 game at Michigan where Paterno, sensing his team needed a jolt, started jumping up and down in the tunnel to fire up the players before they took the field. His departure will stir emotions throughout the team, particularly with the seniors.
But Paterno's exit also makes it all about these players and this team, which it should be. It's not about Joe anymore. It's about the 2011 Penn State Nittany Lions, trying to win a Big Ten championship and reach the Rose Bowl.
As Astorino said earlier Wednesday, "The 125 guys on this team didn't have anything to do with what happened 10 years ago." He's right. Penn State's players didn't do anything wrong.
The players have the right to push forward. The seniors have the right to enjoy their final home game. For 46 years, Penn State football has been all about Joe. On Saturday, it will be all about the players. Bradley should reinforce this to the team, and I'm sure he will.
Saturday will be a tough day. There will be emotions. It will be hard to remain focused. Penn State could play inspired football against Nebraska. It also could perform like a team emotionally exhausted by the week and rattled by all the distractions. Tough to tell at this point.
The process should get easier, perhaps when Penn State hits the road next week at Ohio State. The firestorm will die down a bit. Not having Paterno could direct the focus more toward the team and its task at hand.
Joe Paterno is gone. The players aren't. This is their program now.
Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans notched their fourth consecutive victory against chief rival Michigan, sending their seniors out without ever having lost to the Wolverines. They also became the new Legends Division favorites with another intimidating defensive performance. Can they keep it up this week against Wisconsin?
Biggest play: Isaiah Lewis' 39-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan with 4:31 left in the game. That gave Michigan State a 28-14 lead that would hold up as the final score and extinguished Denard Robinson's Heisman Trophy campaign. And Lewis wasn't shy after the game. "We knew already he wasn't a good passer," Lewis said of Robinson. "Our DBs were looking for interceptions." They only got one, but it was a big one.
Best call: Ohio State fans might criticize offensive coordinator Jim Bollman for his conservative philosophy, but getting back to Woody Hayes football got the Buckeyes back on the winning track. Ohio State ran 55 offensive plays on Saturday at Illinois and only threw the ball four times. Braxton Miller attempted just one pass in the second half -- and it went for a touchdown. With windy conditions all over the Big Ten, Bollman banked on his offensive line and the return of running back Dan Herron to get the job done while the defense held down the fort. That was good enough for a 17-7 win that ensured Ohio State won't go 0-for-October.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. The junior ran for 142 yards on 14 carries against Indiana, including touchdown runs of 45, 35, and 54 yards. He also had some fun by throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Russell Wilson on a trick play. Ball now has 32 total touchdowns in his past 12 games. And let's not forget Ball's prescient NLCS prediction last week.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Ohio State defensive tackle John Simon. The junior made a career-high eight tackles in the win against Illinois, including two sacks and four total tackles for loss as the Buckeyes allowed just seven points. Are there any defensive tackles in America playing better than Simon, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Penn State's Devon Still right now?
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. The Nittany Lions' punter/kicker converted on his three field-goal attempts despite heavy wind gusts, and placed three punts inside the Purdue 20. The last one was a 69-yarder that Penn State downed at the Boilermakers 2-yard line with 2:36 left in the game.
Worst hangover: Northwestern. The Wildcats are now 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten. They couldn't beat Iowa, a team which they had held the upper hand against in recent years. They sure couldn't stop Iowa as the Hawkeyes rolled up 24 points once Northwestern tied the score at 17 in the third quarter. Pat Fitzgerald's team still gets to play Indiana, Minnesota and Rice this season, so some more wins should come. But gaining bowl eligibility for a fifth straight year is no guarantee.
Best scene: Props to Iowa fans, who not only pulled off a neat-looking "stripe the stadium" black-and-gold color scheme at Kinnick Stadium but also used card stunts to honor both America and America's farmers. You can see it in this excellent time-lapse video by the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Brian Ray and also in this YouTube video. I can't even fathom the coordination that goes into that type of thing (what if too many people in one section had to go to the bathroom, for instance?). It was all very cool.
- Penn State LB Nate Stupar: The veteran recorded two interceptions against Purdue and added seven tackles and a pass breakup as Penn State improved to 6-1 off a 23-18 win. Stupar's second interception helped the Nittany Lions run out the clock. Linebacker Gerald Hodges (3 tackles for loss) also merits a mention.
- Ohio State's defense: The Buckeyes need their defense to play at an elite level to win Big Ten games, and the unit delivered against No. 16 Illinois in a 17-7 victory. Individual standouts included linemen John Simon (4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Johnathan Hankins (team-high 9 tackles, 2 tackles for loss), safety Tyler Moeller (forced fumble, pass breakup) and linebacker Storm Klein (forced fumble, fumble recovery, tackle for loss). But the collective effort lifted Ohio State, which was physical, fundamentally sound and opportunistic (3 takeaways).
- Michigan State RB Edwin Baker: For the second consecutive year Baker shredded the Michigan defense as Michigan State beat its archrival at Spartan Stadium 28-14. The junior racked up 167 rush yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. He eclipsed 100 rush yards for the first time this season and now has 314 rush yards in two games against Michigan.
- Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: All the man does is score touchdowns -- and, now, pass for them. Ball had 14 carries for 142 rush yards and three touchdowns, including a 54-yarder late in the third quarter, in the Badgers' 59-7 win over the Hoosiers. He also showed off his throwing arm on a 25-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Russell Wilson.
- Iowa RB Marcus Coker: The Hawkeyes' bruising back was far too much for the Northwestern defense, especially in the second half. Coker carried 22 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the 41-31 win.
Purdue has to feel encouraged with its performance and very disappointed not to be ahead in this game. The Boilers outplayed Penn State for most of the half, holding a 224-155 edge in total yards and displaying good offensive balance. Running back Ralph Bolden (7 carries, 58 rush yards) has found some room to roam, and Purdue hit on big pass plays to Justin Siller (50 yards) and Antavian Edison (20 yards).
The problem? Purdue can't reach the end zone, thanks in large part to Penn State's defense. Lions star defensive tackle Devon Still made a huge play on third-and-1 inside the red zone, timing the snap count perfectly to record a tackle for loss and force a field-goal try. It has been bend, but don't break for Penn State today.
While Purdue has some talent, it still makes far too many major mistakes. Case in point: quarterback Robert Marve made an ill-advised throw just before halftime, which Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar intercepted. Tack on a Purdue personal foul penalty -- the Boilers' fifth of the half -- and Penn State received a gift-wrapped field goal. We've seen far too much of this from Purdue in 2011.
Penn State's quarterback competition is getting even more confusing. After being outplayed the past few games, sophomore Rob Bolden led Penn State's only scoring drive and completed 2 of 4 passes. Matthew McGloin hasn't been sharp, completing just 2 of 8 passes in the half. The Lions seem to be missing top receiver Derek Moye (foot). It will be interesting to see if Bolden plays more after halftime.
Can Penn State's defense carry the team to another win, or will Purdue pull off the upset?
Although Florida prevailed 37-24, Penn State held the Gators to 279 yards. Penn State was stout on third down (Florida converted just 4 of 15 opportunities), forced two takeaways and received strong performances from tackle Devon Still (3.5 tackles for loss), cornerback D'Anton Lynn (tackle for loss, interception, fumble recovery) and other players who would return for the 2011 season.
"You could just see different spurts of talent, different spurts of fire in people's eyes," said Hodges, who recorded 1.5 tackles for loss in the bowl game. "And then you see who was coming back."
Seven defenders who started the bowl game were set to return for 2011, as well as key reserves like Hodges, fellow linebackers Glenn Carson and Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill. All the familiar faces allowed the unit to build confidence during the winter, spring and summer.
"We don't have to worry about coming out for each and every mistake," Hodges said. "Our coaches are more relaxed, letting us just play ball."
The coaches are loving what they're seeing right now. Penn State's defense has carried the team to a 5-1 mark, 2-0 in Big Ten play and on the brink of re-entering the AP Top 25 rankings.
The Lions rank fourth nationally in total defense (250.8 ypg) and fifth nationally in both scoring defense (10.5 ppg) and pass defense (157.7 ypg). They have allowed 10 points or fewer in five of six games and last week held Iowa to three points, marking the first time in four years the Hawkeyes had failed to reach the end zone in a game.
"I've got a little history growing up in that part of the country, and they've been pretty good on defense since the late '60s, maybe longer than that," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They've got good players, they're very well coached and Saturday they played very hard, it didn’t seem to matter who's in there.
"When they have a good defensive team, it's not a big surprise to me."
Penn State didn't have a great defense in 2010, ranking 50th in points allowed and 74th against the run. The typical guarantees weren't there, especially up front as Penn State didn't generate much of a pass rush and finished 101st nationally in sacks.
Still, coach Joe Paterno saw the number of returning players and thought the defense would be improved.
"We've got some depth," he said.
It has shown in the first six games. Although Michigan State ranks higher in the defensive statistics, no Big Ten unit has been more heroic than Penn State's defense, which has had to overcome key injuries and the Lions' own offensive woes.
"We have a lot of people on defense that care about one another," linebacker Nate Stupar said. "That’s what makes a great defense, that connection with one another and knowing the person next to you can do all he can to do his best.
"Last year, it didn't seem like a team defense, but this year, it definitely is."
Penn State didn't have divisions within its defense, but it became difficult to build cohesiveness with a core group.
"We really didn't have people set in stone last year with positions," Stupar said. "A lot of things were still up in the air. ... It was more of worrying we were going to make a mistake than actually going out there and playing and competing. This year, they're trusting us more."
The Lions are making it easy on their coaches. Still is having an All-America type season, recording nine tackles for loss in the first six games. Fellow tackle Hill has solidified the interior line, while Hodges, Carson and safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay also have stood out.
Penn State has showed greater willingness to blitz and has been better at generating turnovers. The Lions already boast 13 sacks, four shy of their total from 2010, and 14 takeaways, three shy of their total from 2010.
Perhaps most impressive is that the defense hasn't backslid at all despite losing Mauti to a season-ending knee injury. Lynn has been out since Week 4 with a head injury. Freshman Adrian Amos has stepped in at cornerback, while Penn State's depth at linebacker has helped in Mauti's absence.
"It says we have a lot of depth," Hodges said. "It says we have a lot of confidence. It says we have the willpower to win."
Here are 10 items to track during a 12-pack of games Saturday.
1. The Big House in prime time: Michigan has played 520 games at Michigan Stadium, but none has kicked off at night. History will be made Saturday at the Big House as Michigan takes on Notre Dame under the lights. It should be an electric atmosphere at Stadium and Main as more than 110,000 fans will watch two of the game's iconic programs, who will honor the occasion with retro uniforms. Trust me, they're better than Maryland's.
3. Coker tries to rebound: Iowa running back Marcus Coker entered the season with a lot of hype but fumbled twice in the season opener, earning him a trip to the bench. Coach Kirk Ferentz remains confident in the sophomore and was pleased Coker didn't use the lousy weather conditions as an excuse. Coker gets a great chance to redeem himself on the road against in-state rival Iowa State, which last week surrendered 204 rush yards to FCS Northern Iowa.
4. Bauserman's building blocks: Joe Bauserman took a step toward securing Ohio State's starting quarterback spot in the opener, completing 12 of 16 pass attempts with three touchdown strikes to tight end Jake Stoneburner. Although freshman Braxton Miller remains very much in the mix and should see time Saturday against Toledo, another strong performance from Bauserman should establish the senior as the team's top option before a Week 3 trip to Miami.
5. Linebacker U. vs. Trent Richardson: Penn State will lean heavily on its defense, and particularly its linebackers, as it aims for the upset against Alabama. Linebacker U appears to be back as the Lions boast excellent depth in the defensive midsection with Michael Mauti, Nate Stupar, Glenn Carson, Khairi Fortt, Mike Hull and Gerald Hodges, who got hurt last year in Tuscaloosa but could be a difference-maker Saturday. The linebackers must contain one of the nation's top running backs in Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson.
6. Huskers' offense under the gun: Nebraska scored 40 points in its opener but left plenty of questions on the offensive side. Coordinator Tim Beck is looking for fewer mental mistakes and better execution Saturday night against a Fresno State team that surrendered 36 points and 417 yards to Cal last week. Quarterback Taylor Martinez must show greater accuracy as a passer, while an offensive line dealing with youth and injuries needs to show it can control the line of scrimmage before the competition level gets tougher.
7. Gophers, Hoosiers look for first wins: Minnesota and Indiana were the only Big Ten teams to lose last week, although the teams came away feeling differently about their performances. The Gophers never quit at USC and nearly stunned the Trojans. They return home to TCF Bank Stadium and look for a strong effort against a New Mexico State squad that lost its opener 44-24 to Ohio. Indiana faces a much tougher challenge in Virginia and looks for better play up front on both sides of the ball, not to mention more enthusiasm, as it makes its home debut at Memorial Stadium.
8. The Denard Show, Act II: Quarterback Denard Robinson carried Michigan to a dramatic victory last year with a record-setting performance at Notre Dame Stadium. Can "Shoelace" replicate his heroics Saturday night against the Irish? He'll face what looks like a stronger Notre Dame defense, and he's still transitioning to a new offensive system. But Robinson also works behind a strong offensive line and finally appears to have some help at running back with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw. It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame can contain a Michigan quarterback after being flummoxed by Robinson and Tate Forcier the past two seasons.
9. Backup QBs try to maintain winning ways: Northwestern's Kain Colter and Purdue's Caleb TerBush both recorded victories in their first career starts at quarterback last week. Colter, filling in for the still-rehabbing Dan Persa, showed improved passing skills to complement his running ability against Boston College. He needs to limit hits and build more confidence against FCS Eastern Illinois. TerBush made big throws in clutch situations against Middle Tennessee but must limit mistakes on the road at Rice. Purdue's Robert Marve also could return to the field.
10. Receiving orders: Week 1 was huge for Big Ten wideouts, as five players eclipsed 100 receiving yards in the opening games. Illinois continues to look for big things from A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines this week against South Dakota State. Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham needs one catch to become the team's all-time receptions leader. Other receivers like Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Indiana's Damarlo Belcher try to build on impressive opening performances.
Michael Mauti has inherited that mantel for the Nittany Lions. And he's embracing it rather than running from it.
"It's more like an incentive to me," he said. "I take that as a compliment, at a prestigious linebacker school such as this. It's an incentive to work toward that. They can compare you to whoever they want, but if you don't produce and be as good as those guys, then you're not going to be as good as a no-name. You've got to go out there and make a name for yourself."
Now injury free, Mauti is projected for big things as a redshirt junior and leader of a deep and talented Nittany Lions linebacker corps.
"This spring, he was much more vocal," assistant coach Jay Paterno said. "You could see a little different demeanor out of him.
"He's a guy who can really, really knock you. He has secondary-type speed, but he's also a 230-pound linebacker. We think he could have a really, really big year."
Mauti calls this an important year for him personally and believes he's finally due for a little luck in the injury department. But he won't tone down his aggressiveness.
"It's not like I could do anything about those injuries except for working hard in the weight room, rehabbing and getting my muscles stronger and more flexible," he said. "I will go out and play as long as I can like I know how to play, and I can't worry about anything else."
The Linebacker U. tradition could be in full force this year with Mauti, Glenn Carson, Nate Stupar, Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt among the expected contributors. One positive from Mauti's injuries was that it allowed younger players to gain experience.
"I think we have big-play ability and momentum-changing ability," he said. "It's just a matter of execution."
There's a good chance Mauti, a preseason Butkus Award watch list nominee, will be in the middle of everything the Nittany Lions do on defense. He's ready to take on the title of Penn State's next great linebacker.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to make plays on a big stage," he said. "That's why I came to Penn State."
As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.
Away we go:
2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.
3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.
4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.
5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.
7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.
9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.
10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.
11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.
12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.
Team of the week: The scoreboard operators around the Big Ten. These folks had a very busy Saturday as two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin) eclipsed 70 points and another (Michigan) surpassed the 60-point mark. The Big Ten combined for 428 points, 55 touchdowns and 5,212 total yards. According to Big Ten Network stats guru Chris Antonacci, the 42.8 points-per-game average is the highest for a week in nonconference play since at least 1996. No Big Ten squad scored fewer than 20 points, and only three teams -- Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota -- failed to record 30 points or more.
Best game: Temple at Penn State. Al Golden brought a good Owls team to his alma mater and surged out to a 13-6 lead. Penn State led by only two points entering the fourth quarter and gave Temple several chances to pull off a historic upset. But Tom Bradley's stifling defense shut down a one-dimensional Owls offense, and freshman quarterback Rob Bolden led an impressive 12-play, 96 yard touchdown drive that sealed the victory and allowed Nittany Nation to exhale.
Specialist spotlight: Senior kicker Collin Wagner has been Penn State's most valuable offensive weapon so far this season. He tied a team record with five field goals Saturday against Temple, converting attempts from 45, 42, 32, 32 and 21 yards. Wagner had a chance to set the record, but missed from 32 yards out in the fourth quarter. Wagner is tied for the national lead with 10 field goals this season and ties for second nationally in field goals per game (2.5). Northwestern defensive tackle Jack DiNardo merits a mention after blocking a PAT attempt and a field-goal attempt in a 30-25 win against Central Michigan.
Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):
- Indiana QB Ben Chappell: The senior signal caller has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He put up huge numbers for the third consecutive game, completing 23 of 33 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-20 win against Akron. Chappell leads the Big Ten in passing average (296.7 ypg), boasts nine touchdown passes and no interceptions and ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency (179.04 rating). He'll share the ball with receiver Terrance Turner (6 receptions, 121 yards, 1 TD).
- Iowa DL Mike Daniels: Daniels likely would start on any other defensive line in the country, and he showed why Saturday against Ball State. The junior recorded four tackles for loss, including a sack, as Iowa blanked Ball State and held the Cardinals to 112 total yards. Iowa loses three starting defensive linemen after the season, but there's hope as Daniels and Broderick Binns both return.
- Northwestern QB Dan Persa: He made his first mistake of the season -- an interception in the red zone -- but was spotless the rest of the game against Central Michigan. Persa completed 23 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. The junior leads the nation in completion percentage (80.2) and ranks third in pass efficiency (186.3 rating).
- Penn State S Nick Sukay and LB Nate Stupar: Both men stepped up for a Penn State defense that totally shut down Temple in the second half Saturday. Sukay recorded two interceptions, bringing his season total to three, and Stupar recorded an interception and a sack, part of his seven tackles on the day.
- Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: It was important for Michigan State to continue to show offensive balance Saturday, and Cousins answered the challenge. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 14.5 yards per completion against Northern Colorado.
- Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Like Cousins, Tolzien faced weak competition Saturday, but any time a quarterback completes 15 of 17 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, it's worth noting. After a few hiccups in the first two games, Tolzien has settled down nicely, completing 34 of 42 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in the past two games. Tolzien shares this with tight end Lance Kendricks (6 receptions 103 yards, 1 TD).
- Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher: I mentioned No. 12 in helmet stickers, but he deserves a game ball of his own after hauling in four touchdown passes from Terrelle Pryor. Sanzenbacher had nine catches for 108 yards in the rout of Eastern Michigan. The senior leads the Big Ten in touchdown receptions (5) and ranks fourth in the league in both receptions (5 rpg) and receiving yards (79 ypg).
- Michigan WR Roy Roundtree: Roundtree is starting to distinguish himself as a reliable weapon for the Michigan offense. He recorded nine receptions for 118 yards, including a 36-yarder against Bowling Green.
OK, enough on Week 4. Let's look ahead to the start of Big Ten play Saturday!
No. 2 Ohio State (4-0) at Illinois (2-1): The Buckeyes hit the road for the first time this season and face an Illinois team that will be healthier following a bye week. Two improved units clash as Pryor and the nation's No. 8 offense go up against an Illinois defense that has made strides under new coordinator Vic Koenning.
Northwestern (4-0) at Minnesota (1-3): Standout quarterback Dan Persa and the Wildcats aim for their third road win of the season, which would make a 6-0 start very realistic. Minnesota is in desperation mode after dropping three consecutive home games. Coach Tim Brewster is under fire, and he needs to get things turned around fast against a team the Gophers beat last year.
No. 19 Michigan (4-0) at Indiana (4-0): I'm not a betting man, but I'd take the over in this matchup. Both offenses rank in the top 15 nationally in scoring, and both defenses have struggled to stop people this season. Michigan's Robinson should be fine following his knee injury Saturday, and he'll try to outshine Indiana senior signal caller Chappell, the Big Ten's leading passer (296.7 ypg).
No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0) at No. 24 Michigan State (4-0): This is the most fascinating matchup of the day in the Big Ten. You've got two potentially explosive offenses and two defenses with some individual talents (J.J. Watt, Greg Jones) and some question marks. I can't wait for the matchup between Jones and Badgers running back John Clay, who needs a big game to boost his Heisman hopes. And we still don't know whether or not Mark Dantonio will return to the Spartans' sideline.
No. 22 Penn State (3-1) at No. 17 Iowa (3-1): In each of the past two years, an unranked Iowa team has stunned a Penn State squad ranked in the top 5 nationally. The roles reverse on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium, as Penn State will be the underdog against the Hawkeyes, who have looked very impressive aside from the first half at Arizona. Can the Lions pull off the upset, or will Adrian Clayborn and Iowa's defensive line gobble up freshman quarterback Bolden?
Bye: Purdue (2-2)
Tom Bradley's unit has shut down the Temple offense in the second half so far, and with running back Bernard Pierce out, the Owls have a tough challenge ahead of them. Defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Nate Stupar combined for an excellent quarterback pressure (Massaro) and interception (Stupar) to turn momentum.
Penn State has regained the lead at 15-13, but the Lions have some major issues in the red zone. They just can't get the ball in the end zone and have had to settle for five Collin Wagner field goals. Quarterback Rob Bolden seems to be struggling with his decision-making in the red zone, and the offensive line hasn't created enough running room for Evan Royster and the other backs.
Can Penn State hold on in the fourth quarter or will Temple rally? Should be an exciting finish.
(And then there's Purdue, which didn't include a depth chart in its game notes for Notre Dame. Ugh.)
I've had the chance to review depth charts from those programs that released them today -- two-deeps from Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota are coming soon -- and I checked in on several coaches' news conferences.
Here's what stood out:
- Even though Indiana will shift to a 3-4 defensive alignment this year, the depth chart lists a 4-3 with Darius Johnson and Fred Jones as the starting ends and Chad Sherer and Tyler Replogle flanking junior college transfer Jeff Thomas at linebacker.
- Interesting to see several veteran offensive linemen like Justin Pagan and Cody Faulkner listed as backups rather than starters. Junior Andrew McDonald steps into some big shoes at left tackle as Rodger Saffold departs to the NFL.
- The backup quarterback job remains open, as Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker are both listed as No. 2 behind Ben Chappell.
- Indiana expects big things from redshirt freshman Duwyce Wilson, listed as a starter at wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner.
- Sophomores Micah Hyde and Greg Castillo are listed as the starting cornerbacks. Shaun Prater doesn't appear on the depth chart after dealing with a leg injury in camp. Prater hasn't been officially ruled out for the Eastern Illinois game, but I wouldn't expect to see much of him on Saturday.
- James Ferentz is listed as the starting center, a spot where Iowa might be a little thin following Josh Koeppel's motorcycle accident Monday morning.
- Starting defensive end Broderick Binns is suspended for the opener, so Christian Ballard is listed as a possible starter at both end and tackle. Mike Daniels and Lebron Daniel are the next options behind Ballard.
- Sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner are listed as co-starters at quarterback. Head coach Rich Rodriguez reiterated Monday that Gardner won't redshirt this fall.
- Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters at running back, with Michael Cox behind them.
- True freshman Carvin Johnson is listed as the starter at the spur position (safety/linebacker). Pretty big surprise here, and a testament to Johnson's work in camp.
- Senior James Rogers steps into Troy Woolfolk's starting cornerback spot opposite J.T. Floyd.
- Receivers Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady clearly showed enough in camp to be listed as starters or possible starters against Connecticut.
- Sophomore running back Arby Fields returned to practice Monday and wore a no-contact jersey after being sidelined with a shoulder problem. He's listed as a co-starter at running back with Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons. Northwestern wanted a clear No. 1 running back to emerge in camp, but Fields' injury changed the plan.
- Junior Bryce McNaul is listed as the third top linebacker alongside returning starters Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. McNaul won the job in camp.
- Venric Mark is the only true freshman listed on the depth chart, both as a backup wide receiver and a co-starter at punt returner. I'll go out on a huge limb (sarcasm) and predict Mark will be the man on returns for the Wildcats very shortly.
- Junior defensive end Nathan Williams, a projected starter, will miss the Marshall game with a knee injury. He should be back shortly thereafter. Solomon Thomas will start in Williams' spot Thursday night.
- Starting cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) is questionable for the Marshall game, but corner Devon Torrence (hamstring) should be fine.
- Sophomore C.J. Barnett's strong performance in camp lifted him ahead of Orhian Johnson on the Week 1 depth chart. Johnson missed a chunk of camp with an injury.
- Start salivating, Buckeyes fans, because running backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry likely will handle kickoff returns against Marshall.
- Sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and freshman Robert Bolden are listed as co-starters at quarterback for the Youngstown State game.
- Sophomore Devon Smith's strong camp landed him a starting spot at both receiver and kick returner, and a backup role on punt returns.
- Redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam is listed as the starting tight end, as Andrew Szczerba likely will miss the opener with a back injury. Penn State obviously is thin here after losing Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.
- Veterans Nate Stupar, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting linebackers, with promising younger players like Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges right behind them.
- After a very impressive camp, freshman running back James White appears at No. 3 on the depth chart behind both John Clay and Montee Ball. White also is the No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath. His emergence likely will result in veteran Zach Brown redshirting the season.
- Senior Blake Sorensen likely will start at outside linebacker, as Mike Taylor continues to rehab after undergoing a second procedure on his knee in camp. Culmer St. Jean and Chris Borland are listed as the other starting linebackers.
- The starting cornerback spots remain open, as Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith will compete in practice this week.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes boast two of the Big Ten's top 10 linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and they also have good depth. Homan might have been the league's most underrated defender in 2009 after tying for fourth in the league in interceptions (five) and finishing eighth in tackles (8.3 per game). Rolle makes up for his lack of size with speed and explosiveness. Ohio State's supporting cast includes Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Dorian Bell and others.
2. Michigan State: Back-to-back Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones enters the season as the frontrunner to win the Butkus Award. But he's not alone on what should be a loaded linebacking corps. All-Big Ten candidate Eric Gordon has played a ton of football alongside Jones, and the coaches were pleased with Chris Norman this spring. Hopes are extremely high for true freshmen William Gholston, the Big Ten's top-rated recruit, and Max Bullough. It's clear to see why the Spartans are moving closer to the 3-4.
3. Wisconsin: Health remains a concern, as Mike Taylor's knee problems will linger and Chris Borland comes off of shoulder surgery, but Wisconsin has plenty of talent here. Borland is a rare, do-everything player who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. Taylor likely would have contended for the same award if not for a torn ACL against Iowa. The Badgers also bring back Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen.
4. Northwestern: As a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves the look of this group. Senior Quentin Davie is a bona fide NFL prospect who has consistently reached the offensive backfield throughout his career. Middle linebacker Nate Williams enters his third year as the starter, and the coaches have solid options in Bryce McNaul, Ben Johnson and David Nwabuisi. Fitzgerald says this is the most linebacker depth Northwestern has had in his tenure.
5 (tie). Iowa and Penn State: These teams combine to lose five All-Big Ten 'backers from 2009, including first-team selections Pat Angerer (Iowa) and Navorro Bowman (Penn State). But both have historically reloaded at linebacker, and this year should be no different. Iowa's Jeremiha Hunter returns for his third year as a starter, and Jeff Tarpinian and Tyler Nielsen are primed for bigger roles. Troy Johnson and Bruce Davis are two other names to watch, and hopes are high for freshman James Morris. Penn State loses all three starters, but Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu have played a lot of football. Michael Mauti's return from an ACL injury and Penn State's strong recruiting at linebacker also elevate hope for the group.
Next up: Secondary
More rankings ...
As expected, the quarterback competition took center stage at Beaver Stadium, and the early returns weren't too promising. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin both struggled, while true freshman Paul Jones, seemingly an afterthought in the race before Saturday, had the best performance. Jones twice found classmate Shawney Kersey for 18-yard touchdown passes and finished 5-of-8 passing for 67 yards.
Although the quarterbacks didn't get much help from the offensive line (concerning) or the wide receivers (less concerning), Penn State's offense remains a major question mark entering the summer. To be fair, star running back Evan Royster didn't play Saturday.
"I would rate my performance as we've got a lot of work to do," Newsome said afterward. "We've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of work to do. We're just going to keep working."
"A lot of eyes were on us today," McGloin said. "We didn't perform maybe up to par, maybe up to what people expected to see."
Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said after the game that it's wrong to eliminate Jones from the race, and then added, "I checked my e-mail afterwards, and people are telling me Paul should be the starter. So it doesn't take long for people to make the decisions."
Paterno and the other coaches have more time to make the ultimate decision, and they'll look for improvement from all three signal callers by the time preseason camp rolls around.
Other nuggets from the Blue-White Game:
- The offensive line's struggles can be attributed in part to the shuffling that went on this spring. It takes time to build chemistry, and Penn State has moved around several linemen, including first-team All-Big Ten selection Stefen Wisniewski. "Obviously, there's that chemistry we need to have,'' right tackle Lou Eliades said. "I think we're only going to get better in time. Chemistry will develop. I think, by September, we'll be ready to go.''
- Nate Stupar sometimes gets overlooked when folks size up Penn State's linebacking corps for 2010, but he had a very nice performance Saturday. Stupar recorded seven tackles (six solo) and an interception.
- Defensive ends Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham both found their way into the offensive backfield, and Latimore recorded two sacks in the game. Penn State's defensive line once again should be the team's strength, as end Jack Crawford and tackle Devon Still should have big seasons.
- While backup running back Stephfon Green (4 carries, 10 rush yards) didn't do much, I liked what I saw from freshman Silas Redd, who recorded a 16-yard run and a 10-yard reception. Redd brings a nice combination of size and shiftiness.
- Penn State brings back several proven veteran receivers, but Kersey and sophomore Justin Brown, who recorded a game-high four receptions for 35 yards, could work their way into the mix. Freshman Brandon Moseby-Felder led the White team with three receptions for 31 yards.
- Wide receiver Brett Brackett, linebacker Bani Gbadyu and offensive tackle Quinn Barham received awards from the coaching staff for their performances this spring.
Then, in classic Paterno fashion, he muttered, "I'm here. Unfortunately, so are you."
Yes, we missed you, JoePa.
- There's no timetable on a decision to name a starting quarterback. Paterno is open to modifying the offense so it fits the players' strengths. "We want to get them comfortable, see what they can do, and not do more than what they can handle," he said.
- Paterno reiterated that former walk-on Matt McGloin is very much in the mix at quarterback, while wide receiver Brett Brackett hasn't been working with the signal callers this spring. Paterno is making the rounds in spring ball and hasn't seen much of early enrollee Paul Jones. JoePa is happy with the way Kevin Newsome handles himself in the huddle, saying Newsome "has made a lot of progress."
- Wide receiver Chaz Powell is getting a look at cornerback this spring. Powell ranked fourth on the team in receptions with 28 last fall. He also served as the team's primary kickoff return man and finished second in all-purpose yards (67.8 ypg). Powell played both defensive back and wide receiver in high school and was a standout on special teams. "I'm not sure Powell's going to be a corner," Paterno said. "Obviously, Powell's a good athlete. He could play offense or defense."
- Asked about the situation at offensive tackle, Paterno jokingly asked reporters if they had a big sheet of paper with them. Penn State is auditioning several players at the tackle spot, including DeOn'tae Pannell and redshirt freshman Eric Shrive. "We argue every morning, can so-and-so handle the pass protection?" Paterno said. "For me to make any kind of statement on where guys will play is ridiculous right now."
- Starting safety Drew Astorino (shoulder) and linebacker Michael Mauti (knee), who many project as a starter in 2010, are out for the spring with injuries. Reserve running back Brandon Beachum (knee) will only do some light running this spring. Paterno didn't sound too concerned about the linebacker position and likes what he has with Bani Gbadyu, Nate Stupar and Chris Colasanti.
- Paterno doesn't expect starting running back Evan Royster to do too much this spring, as he has little to prove to the coaches. Backup Stephfon Green and Shaine Thompson, a former walk-on who recently received a scholarship, will be in the spotlight there.
- The jury is still very much out on defensive tackle Brandon Ware, who has struggled with academic issues and weight problems. "I think he's still a little too heavy," Paterno said. "But he's got a long road to go academically before I'm going to think about him playing."
- Doug Klopacz is back for a fifth year and will back up Stefen Wisniewksi at center. Running back Brent Carter and defensive tackle Tom McEowen are no longer with the team.