NCF Nation: Obi Ezeh

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
1:55
PM ET
What's up? What's down?

STOCK UP

Michigan's defense: As amazing as it sounds, Michigan would have lost to Purdue if not for the play of its defense. It wasn't simply that the Wolverines bottled up a banged-up Purdue offense, but they limited damage after Denard Robinson and the offense committed five turnovers for the second straight game. Linebacker Obi Ezeh, defensive end Craig Roh and others stepped up as Michigan won a sloppy game.

Ohio State's second-half production: The Buckeyes have been exceptional in the second half all season, outscoring their opponents 159-46 in the final two quarters. Their latest explosion came against Penn State, as they rebounded from a lackluster first half to outscore the Nittany Lions 35-0 in the third and fourth quarters. Ohio State's offensive line imposed its will, and an opportunistic defense recorded two pick-sixes.

Northwestern's offensive line: I've criticized this group for much of the season, but it stepped up in a come-from-behind win against Iowa. Northwestern held Iowa's talented defensive line in check on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, allowing quarterback Dan Persa enough time to make some big throws. Although Iowa recorded four sacks in the game, Northwestern's offensive front held the edge when it mattered.

Wisconsin's offensive efficiency: Pretty obvious here, but you don't score 83 points without being near perfect in the critical categories. Wisconsin went 7-for-10 on third down and 10-for-10 in the red zone. It scored on its first drive for the seventh time this season and scored on its first drive after halftime for the eighth time in 10 games. The Badgers avoided a turnover for the fifth time this season.

Minnesota's red-zone offense: Finishing drives has been a major issue all season for Minnesota, which has produced just 19 touchdowns on 32 trips to the red zone. But things changed last Saturday at Illinois, as the Gophers scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone opportunities and rallied for their first Big Ten victory of 2010.

STOCK DOWN

Illinois' defensive line: After some dominant performances in October, the Illini are slipping a bit up front. Illinois recorded only one sack against Minnesota and couldn't stop Gophers running back DeLeon Eskridge (3 rush TDs) near the goal line. "We’re not playing with the same intensity we’ve played the first eight ballgames," coach Ron Zook said.

Iowa's fourth-quarter poise: The Hawkeyes haven't been the same team in crunch time this season, and it shows in their 7-3 record. Fourth-quarter struggles have surfaced in all three losses, most recently at Northwestern, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi and his receivers struggled and the defense looked gassed in allowing two scoring drives. Iowa has outscored its opponents by only four points (66-62) in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes own a 242-88 edge in scoring in the first three quarters.

Indiana's resolve: Football is a game of response, and Indiana didn't respond to losing starting quarterback Ben Chappell to a hip injury in the second quarter. The Hoosiers melted down on both sides of the ball and couldn't record a single stop in 10 chances against the Wisconsin offense. "As a football team, we did not handle him leaving the game," Indiana coach Bill Lynch said of Chappell. "As a result, we had no offensive production."

Penn State's defensive line: The Nittany Lions' signature unit on defense has been too inconsistent this season. After a strong second half the week before against Northwestern, Penn State produced only one sack and two tackles for loss against Ohio State, which dominated the line of scrimmage and sprung running back Dan Herron for 190 rushing yards. The Lions are tied for ninth in the Big Ten in sacks with just 14 this season.
Let's take a look back at Week 11 before spinning it forward to Week 12.

Team of the Week: Northwestern. There are two guarantees with Northwestern football in the last decade or so. Every season, the Wildcats drop a game they shouldn't and pull off an upset, usually against Iowa. After stumbling against short-handed Purdue in early October, the Wildcats continued their trend by upsetting then-No. 13 Iowa on Saturday. Northwestern blew an early lead, which is nothing new this season, but this time Pat Fitzgerald's crew rallied in the fourth quarter behind star quarterback Dan Persa and others. Persa led two fourth-quarter scoring drives and Northwestern held on to beat Iowa for the fifth time in the teams' last six meetings. The victory ensures that Northwestern will record three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1958-60.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNorthwestern quarterback Dan Persa rallied the Wildcats to a win over Iowa before leaving the game with a season-ending injury.
Best game: Iowa at Northwestern. The Wildcats controlled play for the first half but led just 7-3 at halftime as both defenses stepped up. Iowa surged throughout the third quarter as the Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and twice reached the end zone. But an interception by Northwestern's Brian Peters changed momentum and gave the home side new life. Northwestern ran its up-tempo offense to perfection behind Persa on two scoring drives, and Iowa's veteran defenders seemed to wear down at the end. The final minutes featured plenty of drama as Persa fired the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left but ruptured his Achilles' tendon on the play. Iowa had one final chance but couldn't get the ball in the end zone. Northwestern celebrated a bittersweet win, as Persa underwent season-ending surgery Saturday night. The Minnesota-Illinois game also deserves a mention as the Gophers rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to snap their nine-game losing streak.

Biggest play: Several come to mind, including Persa's 20-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields to give Northwestern the lead for good. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire gave his team new life in the fourth quarter with a 90-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown. But my pick took place at The Shoe. Ohio State led Penn State 17-14 early in the fourth quarter when Terrelle Pryor heaved a deep pass to receiver DeVier Posey, who couldn't haul it in but tipped the ball. Fellow wideout Dane Sanzenbacher swooped in to grab the deflection for a 58-yard touchdown. Ohio State went on to a 38-14 romp.

Specialist spotlight: Minnesota's much-maligned special teams units deserve credit after Saturday's win. Stoudermire's kick return was huge, and the Gophers also got a 45-yard field goal from Eric Ellestad and three punts placed inside the Illinois 20-yard line by Dan Orseske. Northwestern and Iowa both were brilliant on kickoffs and punts, as Stefan Demos and Michael Meyer combined for eight touchbacks and Brandon Williams and Ryan Donahue combined to place four punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Both teams finished with zero return yards. Purdue's Carson Wiggs continued his strong season by going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, while Wisconsin's Philip Welch went 2-for-2. Punters Anthony Fera of Penn State and Ben Buchanan of Ohio State both had good performances at Ohio Stadium.

Power surge: Wisconsin turned in a historic offensive performance in crushing Indiana on Saturday. The Badgers' 83 points marked the most against a Big Ten team in team history and the highest total in a game during the modern era. It was the most since the Badgers defeated Marquette 85-0 on Oct. 8, 1915. The 83 points scored tied the Big Ten record for scoring in the modern era, as Ohio State put up 83 against Iowa in 1950.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Wisconsin DEs Louis Nzegwu and J.J. Watt: It wasn't all about the Badgers' offense Saturday, as Nzegwu and Watt combined for four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack against Indiana.
  • Ohio State CB Devon Torrence: After getting picked on in the first half, Torrence responded with a pick-six in the third quarter to give Ohio State its first lead against Penn State. He had six tackles, one for loss, in the game.
  • Minnesota QB Adam Weber: It hasn't been an easy road for the Gophers senior quarterback, but he had a big role in snapping the team's losing streak Saturday. Weber threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions at Illinois. Also meriting a mention is running back DeLeon Eskridge, who rushed for three touchdowns.
  • Michigan LB Obi Ezeh: It has been a bumpy road for Ezeh the last two seasons, but the senior stepped up along with several other Michigan defenders at Purdue. Ezeh recorded a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack against the Boilers.
  • Northwestern S Brian Peters: After some struggles in recent weeks, Peters made several big plays against Iowa, none bigger than an interception early in the fourth quarter that set up Northwestern's rally. He led the Wildcats with 10 tackles and recorded a forced fumble and two pass breakups.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: The running backs always get top billing at Wisconsin, but Tolzien was nearly flawless against Indiana, completing 15 of 18 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure: The talented junior running back continues to do his part for the now-slumping Illini. After recording five touchdowns last week at Michigan, Leshoure racked up 141 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries against Minnesota.

Now here's a quick look at Week 12.

[+] EnlargeIndiana head coach Bill Lynch
AP Photo/Morry GashPerhaps no coach in the league needs a win like Indiana's Bill Lynch.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-6, 0-6) at Landover, Md.: Embattled Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch could really use a win right about now, but the schedule does him no favors. Lynch signed off on moving this home game to FedEx Field, but he and his team have to anticipate a road-game atmosphere as Penn State fans will pack the place. Indiana must win to maintain hope of becoming bowl eligible, while Penn State tries to ensure a winning season.

Purdue (4-6, 2-4) at No. 12 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1): After an open week, the Spartans resume play with a chance to reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999. It marks the final home game for All-American linebacker Greg Jones, who will take aim at a patchwork Purdue offense. Two of the Big Ten's top defenders share the field in Jones and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, whose team must win its final two games to become bowl eligible.

No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1, 5-1) at Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Badgers are riding a five-game win streak and put up 83 points in their last game, but they have really struggled in the state of Michigan and especially at the Big House. Wisconsin hasn't won in Ann Arbor since 1994 and hasn't won in the state since beating Michigan State in 2002 at Spartan Stadium. Michigan has won back-to-back games but needs a much cleaner performance in all three phases to record the upset.

Illinois (5-5, 3-4) vs. Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) at Chicago: Football is back at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1970 and the Illini and Wildcats will play the first college game at the Friendly Confines since 1938. The pageantry takes center stage Saturday, but Illinois still needs a win to become bowl eligible and turn down the heat on coach Ron Zook. Northwestern redshirt freshman Evan Watkins makes his first career start at quarterback.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-1, 5-1) at No. 20 Iowa (7-3, 4-2): The Buckeyes must win out to give themselves a chance at a record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. To do so, they must play better on the road after losing at Wisconsin and struggling at Illinois. Iowa gave Ohio State all it could handle last year in Columbus, and this time the Hawkeyes will have starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi available. It's Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa aims for a signature win to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.

Bye: Minnesota (2-9, 1-6).
Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen enjoyed the Denard Robinson Show as much as anyone.

[+] EnlargeRyan Van Bergen
AP Photo/Tony DingDefensive end Ryan Van Bergen calls the Michigan defense "a work in progress."
Watching Robinson and the Wolverines offense go up and down the field last week against Connecticut also served as motivation for Van Bergen and the defense.

"Definitely feel like we're strides behind the offense in getting everything down," Van Bergen told ESPN.com this week. "We had some glimpses Saturday, and I think we'll be able to seal some things up and hopefully keep improving.

"We'll get to that level eventually."

Led by Robinson's record-setting performance, the Michigan offense overshadowed a pretty solid defensive effort against Connecticut.

The Wolverines allowed only one touchdown and held UConn scoreless in the second half. Take away a juggling 47-yard reception by Michael Smith, and Connecticut had only 296 yards in the game.

To be fair, the Huskies missed several opportunities to attack Michigan's young secondary, particularly in the first half. Connecticut had its moments, but so did Michigan's defense, none bigger than J.T. Floyd's forced fumble and Obi Ezeh's recovery near the Wolverines' goal line late in the third quarter.

"We're certainly still a work in progress, but I was really pleased to be able to limit UConn to 10 points," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We played pretty well assignment-wise, we tackled pretty solidly. We gave up a couple big plays, but we also made a couple big plays defensively."

And the defense could have made more.

"We had two interceptions hit guys right in the hands," Van Bergen said. "There were some plays Saturday that if we sealed up, our numbers on defense would have spoken even bigger."

The challenge for Michigan's defense should get tougher Saturday at Notre Dame (NBC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Although Michigan beat the Irish last year 38-34, the defense had little to do with it.

Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Armando Allen pretty much had their way with Michigan, piling up 490 yards and 27 first downs.

Clausen and Tate are gone to the NFL, but Floyd and Allen are back, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, one of the frontrunners for the Mackey Award. They're operating in a new spread offense under first-year coach Brian Kelly, and a new quarterback, Dayne Crist, will be calling the signals.

"I would call this team significantly different," Van Bergen said. "Notre Dame did a lot more drop-back, seven-man protection for Clausen with two guys in routes. This is a bit more of a spread attack, using more receivers.

"They have a developed quick game, and it’s something we’ll have to prepare for."

Both Van Bergen and Rodriguez identified tackling as an area Michigan must improve after Week 1. With so many young players, especially in the secondary, Michigan allowed "some leaky yardage," Van Bergen said.

That can't happen against Notre Dame, which operates at a rapid pace and makes it tough to reach Crist.

"They like to up-tempo you," Rodriguez said. "They’re going to put it out in space, whether it's to their tight end or their backs or their receivers, and we've got to get them on the ground quickly. Because if not, they'll go up and down the field on you.

"We had a hard time stopping them last year, and even though it's a different scheme, this scheme may be even more difficult to stop."

One way to do it is control the line of scrimmage. Michigan failed to record a sack last week, but end-linebacker Craig Roh and others applied pressure to quarterback Zach Frazer.

Notre Dame's offensive line is supposedly better, but Michigan boasts more experience up front with Van Bergen, Mike Martin and others.

"Having our experience won't hurt us," Van Bergen said, "and their youth, they might be more inclined to get frustrated if things start not going their way. It'll be interesting to see how that develops."

Vote: Capital One Impact Performances

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
12:22
PM ET

Who had the Capital One Impact Performance of the week? Check out this video and be sure to place your vote.

Here are the nominees:
  • Jacksonville State's 30-yard touchdown pass on fourth down in the second overtime against Ole Miss.
  • TCU quarterback Andy Dalton's two touchdown runs against Oregon State.
  • Jamell Fleming's interception late to preserve Oklahoma's win over Utah State
  • Michigan’s Obi Ezeh recovers a UConn fumble at the 3-yard line.

This is a new feature you will find each Monday, so remember to keep coming back to vote.
I'll be providing brief recaps of all 11 Big Ten spring games during the next few weeks. Let's get started with Michigan, one of five teams to hold its spring game on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeRobinson
AP Photo/Tony DingDenard Robinson seems to be more comfortable in the Rich Rodriguez offense during the spring game.
As expected, the Wolverines' quarterbacks were in the spotlight at the Big House, and sophomore Denard Robinson rose to the occasion. Robinson, who last year couldn't complement his fast feet with consistent passing, showed excellent zip on the ball and connected for several big plays, none bigger than a 97-yard touchdown strike to Roy Roundtree. He seemed to be making better reads instead of forcing things like he did last season. Clearly, a full offseason has paid off for Shoelace.

Robinson took the field first and led the offense to touchdowns on five of six possessions against the second-team defense. Forcier worked mainly against the first-team defense and led three scoring drives in six possessions. So Foricer had the tougher assignment overall.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez said Robinson and Forcier will enter fall camp neck-and-neck for the starting job, with true freshman Devin Gardner a bit behind them, but Robinson has the momentum entering the summer.

From The Detroit News:

"Tate and Denard are a little bit ahead of Devin, because they have a little more experience," Rodriguez said. "And Denard, overall in the spring, has probably had a few better practices than Tate has."



I saw most of Michigan's scrimmage on the Big Ten Network, and Robinson looked like the most confident quarterback out there. I wouldn't count out Forcier, who has more experience and still made some nice plays, but he'll need to match Robinson in August to retain the starting job for the season. He seemed really disappointed after a holding penalty negated a touchdown during the overtime session, brushing past a teammate on the sideline. Rodriguez has challenged Forcier throughout the spring, and he'll need to step up.

Other nuggets:

  • Michigan's defense still needs a bit of work, though linebacker Obi Ezeh had a nice scrimmage, intercepting a pass from Gardner, who showed some freshman nerves. It would have been nice to see the first-team defense go more against the No. 1 offense, but Michigan has done more of that during closed practices this spring.
  • The kicking game could be a real adventure for Michigan, which really needs incoming freshman punter Will Hagerup to provide a boost. Keep in mind that punting has been arguably Michigan's greatest strength the last two years with All-American Zoltan Mesko booming kicks, so field position likely will change this fall.
  • The Wolverines will play more than one running back this season, and they seem to have decent depth there. Michael Shaw enters the summer with a slight edge, but both Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint showed some good signs during spring ball. Michigan's most intriguing running back prospect might be 236-pound freshman Stephen Hopkins, who brings some size to the backfield. Vincent Smith rejoins the mix in August.
  • Starting cornerback Troy Woolfolk missed the spring game after breaking a finger in practice while breaking up a Gardner pass. According to the Detroit Free Press, the bone broke through the skin but Woolfolk, who now goes by T-wolf, didn't cry.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A public-service announcement to Big Ten fans: the area code around here hasn't changed to 335.

Those three numbers have dominated the discussion about Michigan ever since the Wolverines began using the alignment more during spring practice. In recent weeks just about everyone has weighed in on the 3-3-5: who will go where, who fits the scheme and whether it will help the Wolverines' defense rebound from two subpar seasons.

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
Eric Bronson/Icon SMIMichigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson says it's not the scheme, but fundamentals that will determine the success of the Wolverines this fall.
Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has some advice about the 3-3-5: don't get too bogged down with it.

"It's not about the schematics," Robinson told me Thursday. "It's about fundamentals. The fundamentals have got to improve. To the average fan, they want to know the schematics because that's Madden football. But wait a minute. Anybody can say they play two-deep coverage or anybody can say they're running the zone dog. But the fundamental techniques and all those things -- how you tackle, how you defeat a blocker -- that's what it's about."

The truth is Michigan will run the 3-3-5 at times in the 2010 season. The Wolverines will also use four-man fronts and bring extra linebackers to the line of scrimmage. Hybrid players like Craig Roh will play integral roles this fall, just like they did last year.

An alignment won't fix Michigan's defense unless the players can execute a lot better.

"It's work," Robinson said. "There's work ahead of us. The best thing is if we can get these young people to understand that. Can we get there? Yeah, if we work really hard at it, we will get there. But don't think that it's just like a magic wand.

"It's hard work to get good."

A few quick takeaways from Robinson:

  • The competition at middle linebacker is really heating up between Obi Ezeh and Kenny Demens, who has come on strong this spring. "This is a dogfight," Robinson said. "And I like it. It's amazing when you have competition, how much the improvement comes."
  • Like everyone else, Robinson praised the play of safety Cameron Gordon (more on Gordon next week) and also singled out safeties Thomas Gordon and Teric Jones for their play this spring. He also likes the improvement cornerback J.T. Floyd has made from last fall. Robinson expected Vladimir Emilien to return to practice Thursday after suffering a knee injury early in spring ball.
  • The defensive line has been dealing with injuries this spring, and Robinson said defensive tackle Renaldo Sagesse is the latest player to get banged up a bit. "We're hoping we can get him back [before the end of the spring]," Robinson said. "Because if we can really count on him as a guy that's in the constant flow, that's good."
  • Robinson started talking about William Campbell, pointing out that the sophomore defensive tackle needed to keep growing and developing. Then he caught himself. "He doesn't have to keep growing," Robinson said. "He's got to keep developing." Campbell checks in at 6-5 and 324 pounds this spring. "That's a never-ending battle," Robinson said of Campbell's weight and conditioning, "and he's realizing that. He's maturing. God, he was a 12th grader here last year at this time. God forbid what I was like back then."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan fans had a good reason to be optimistic entering the season despite the team's 3-9 disaster in 2008.

 
 AP Photo/Tony Ding
 Michigan hasn't made the leap many were expecting in coach Rich Rodriguez's second year.
Rich Rodriguez's track record as a head coach usually featured first-year struggles followed by second-year rebounds. He went 3-8 in his first year at West Virginia but improved to 9-4 in Year 2. Clemson went from 6-6 in Rodriguez's first year as offensive coordinator to 9-3 in his second go-round. Tulane went from 7-4 to 12-0 with Rodriguez calling the plays in Year 2.

In a sense, the pattern has continued, as Michigan already owns two more victories (5) than it did all of last season. But the jump many expected the program to take isn't happening. The Wolverines are in danger of finishing with a worse Big Ten record than they did a year ago (1-7 vs. 2-6), and the defense is performing just as poorly as last year, if not worse.

Did Michigan present greater challenges in Year 2 than Rodriguez's other coaching stops?

"I think every situation is a little different," Rodriguez said. "There's always a lot of factors that go into each season, whether it's the second season, the first, the fourth or what have you. We've certainly have had some different challenges this season from the beginning of August camp all the way until now, but as a coach and as players, you expect you're going to face adversity."

Rodriguez acknowledged that youth remains a problem for the Wolverines, particularly at key positions. Everyone knows about freshmen quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, but Michigan could start six freshmen or sophomores on defense against No. 20 Wisconsin if sophomore Kevin Leach once again gets the nod over senior Obi Ezeh at middle linebacker.

Several veterans haven't progressed this fall, but there weren't that many in the mix for serious playing time to begin with.

"We have to make sure we know what our problems are and we try to fix them as quickly as we can but not sacrifice anything for the future," Rodriguez said. "We've got to make sure we're building the program the right way, so when we get it right, it stays right."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- You might not see an uglier sequence of plays than Michigan had after being backed up deep in its own end.

Taking possession at its own 8-yard line, Michigan drew three penalties before David Moosman snapped the ball through the end zone for a safety. Moosman had replaced David Molk, who got hurt on the opening drive after returning from a broken foot that kept him out since Sept. 19. Quarterback Tate Forcier didn't expect the snap and had no time to react.

Penn State capitalized on the favorable field position it received following the safety, as Daryll Clark found a streaking Andrew Quarless for a 60-yard touchdown. Quarless beat linebacker Obi Ezeh on the play. The Lions now lead 19-7.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Greetings from Kinnick Stadium, site of Iowa's homecoming clash tonight against Michigan (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

There were snow flurries this morning, but the sky is clear right now as clouds have moved out of the area. It should be clear for the rest of the night, but extremely cold with temperatures in the high 30s. The wind shouldn't be too big of a factor, unlike last year's Iowa-Penn State game.

As far as injuries, Michigan will be without leading rusher Carlos Brown, who didn't make the trip because of a concussion suffered this week in practice. Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki will try to play after missing the last three games with an ankle injury.

THREE KEYS FOR MICHIGAN

1. Get creative -- Rich Rodriguez needs to push the envelope on offense and try some new tricks against a stingy Iowa defense. Michigan can't simply expect Tate Forcier to bail out the team in the closing minutes. The Wolverines need to establish other weapons, whether it's Brandon Minor, Denard Robinson or someone else.

2. Rattle Ricky Stanzi -- Stanzi has kept Iowa's opponents in games with mistakes, and Michigan needs to disrupt his rhythm early in the game. The Wolverines are far from a finished product on defense, but they do have some playmakers in Brandon Graham and Obi Ezeh.

3. Win the field-position battle -- Punter Zoltan Mesko can be an extremely effective weapon for Michigan in tonight's game. If Michigan's offense can limit mistakes and play most of the game on Iowa's side of the field, the Wolverines should have a good shot.

THREE KEYS FOR IOWA

1. Handle Michigan's speed -- The Wolverines will be the fastest offense Iowa has faced this season, and the Hawkeyes need to be aware of all the playmakers on the field. Iowa is extremely assignment-sound on defense, but it will need to make good open-field tackles in this game.

2. Limit turnovers -- If Stanzi can get through the game without a turnover, Iowa shouldn't lose. Michigan's defense will give up yards and points, but Iowa has let teams hang around because of giveaways.

3. Pressure and contain Tate Forcier -- Without Forcier's late-game heroics, Michigan would be a 2-3 team right now. Iowa needs to pressure the freshmen with Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard but keep him in the pocket as much as possible.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

We've already looked at players to watch and spring surprises. Now it's time to look at the guys who didn't do much during spring practice but will play vital roles for Big Ten teams this season.

Who needs to step up for each team?

Donsay Hardeman, S, Illinois -- Neck surgery sounds pretty scary, but Hardeman likely will return to the field this fall after undergoing the procedure during the offseason. He can provide experience at the all-important safety spot after recording 44 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last fall.

Deonte Mack, DT, Indiana -- Any number of players could fit in this spot for the injury-plagued Hoosiers, but Mack, who missed spring ball following hip surgery, must provide leadership at an extremely thin position. Pass-rushers Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew will only be effective if opponents have to worry about the interior line.

Tony Moeaki, TE, Iowa -- It's hard not to pull for Moeaki, a heralded prospect who has endured injury after injury with the Hawkeyes and was on crutches during spring ball. He's expected to return this summer and possibly fill a key role after Iowa lost first-team All-Big Ten tight end Brandon Myers.

Jonas Mouton, LB, Michigan -- Michigan's improvement on defense must start with the linebackers, and Mouton returns to the mix after shoulder surgery kept him off the field this spring. Mouton finished second on the team in tackles last fall (76) and could form a solid linebacker tandem with Obi Ezeh.

Jeremy Ware, CB, Michigan State -- One of several contributors in the Spartans' secondary to miss spring ball with injuries, Ware will be a key name to monitor during the summer. He emerged nicely last season, recording an interception and six pass breakups.

Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota -- Decker wasn't hurt this spring, but he spent the time playing center field for the Gophers' baseball team. There's little doubt he's one of the nation's best receivers, but he must absorb a new offensive system installed this spring and re-establish rhythm with quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray.

Corey Wootton, DE, Northwestern -- How Wootton recovers from ACL surgery could shape Northwestern's defense this fall. The All-Big Ten selection missed spring ball but is ahead of schedule on his recovery and expects to practice this summer. With questions on offense, the Wildcats need Wootton to return to top form.

Dane Sanzenbacher ,WR, Ohio State -- A projected starter in the slot, Sanzenbacher missed the latter part of spring practice with a high ankle sprain. He might be Terrelle Pryor's most dependable target heading into the fall, so a strong summer will be vital for the junior.

A.J. Wallace, CB, Penn State -- The secondary remains the biggest question mark for Penn State, and Wallace can ease some of head coach Joe Paterno's concerns with a strong preseason camp performance. Hamstring problems once again slowed Wallace this spring, but the Lions sorely need his speed in pass coverage.

Jaycen Taylor, RB, Purdue -- Taylor has by far the most experience of any Boilermakers running back, so his return this summer from a torn ACL looms large. Ralph Bolden put himself in the mix for the starting job with a stellar spring, but Taylor gives new head coach Danny Hope with a proven ball-carrying option.

Louis Nzegwu, DE, Wisconsin -- Unlike a year ago, the Badgers avoided many major injuries this spring, but they'll certainly be watching Nzegwu during the coming months. The immensely gifted sophomore improved his body and impressed the coaches early on during spring ball until sustaining a torn MCL on March 31.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The learning curve is accelerated at Michigan this spring, and not only on the offensive side of the ball. 

Granted, the offense remains young and thin at quarterback, but most players are in their second year running Rich Rodriguez's spread. Wolverines defenders, meanwhile, are installing a new system under new coordinator Greg Robinson. 

 
  Chris Livingston/Icon SMI
  Obi Ezeh is looking forward to defensive coordinator Greg Robinson's blitz-heavy scheme.

"They're a little bit ahead of us," linebacker Obi Ezeh said of the offense.

Before Tuesday's practice, the defense needed to catch up.

So less than 30 minutes before taking the field, Robinson unveiled three or four brand-new blitz packages for his defenders. Then he gave Rodriguez the green light to move forward with the offense.

"They were like, 'Learn this stuff and then let's go out and run it,'" Ezeh said. "We started off real shaky, but toward the end of practice, everybody started coming together and it looked really good. So I like the attitude, that never-quit attitude that we're trying to develop here."  

Ezeh senses a renewed attitude for a unit that, despite some solid performances in September and early October, ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (28.9 points per game) and ninth in yards allowed (366.9 yards per game). Michigan's offensive futility under Rodriguez drew most of the attention last fall, but the defense turned in one of its worst statistical performances in team history.

Coordinator Scott Shafer resigned after only one year and took the same job at Syracuse, where Robinson served as head coach for four years before being fired and coming to Ann Arbor. Robinson is Michigan's third defensive coordinator in as many years, but his plan for the unit isn't totally foreign to the players.

"It resembles a lot of the stuff we were doing with coach [Ron] English, so some of the older guys did it before," Ezeh said, referring to Michigan's defensive coordinator from 2003-07. "I got the feeling that it's going to be blitz-heavy, so I'm excited for that."

(Read full post)

Big Ten lessons in Week 2

September, 7, 2008
9/07/08
10:31
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten achieved perfection in Week 2, winning all 11 games, all but one by 10 points or more. But there were some interesting moments along the way, particularly in Columbus, where Ohio State nearly squandered its national title hopes the week before the big one at the L.A. Coliseum.

Penn State has joined the mix of Big Ten power players after blocking out distractions to rout Oregon State in Happy Valley. Wisconsin continues to raise some concerns, both on the injury front and on the field, but the Badgers flexed their muscles with 51 unanswered points against Marshall. Michigan still has some issues on offense, while Minnesota has closed the book on 2007 with a 2-0 start and an impressive road win against Bowling Green.

We'll know much more about this league in Week 3, as Ohio State (USC), Wisconsin (Fresno State), Purdue (Oregon) and Michigan (Notre Dame) play showcase games. But first, here are five revelations from Saturday's games.

1. Spread HD stands for Huge Difference -- Penn State's new offense has racked up 111 points in the first two games, and quarterback Daryll Clark looks more than capable of leading the explosive unit. Clark's versatility showed against Oregon State, as he accounted for 276 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) in Saturday's 45-14 win. Redshirt freshman speedster Stephfon Green got all the preseason buzz, but sophomore Evan Royster is proving to be the team's top running threat. Royster had 141 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Beavers, becoming the first Penn State player to score six touchdowns in the first two games of the season since Lydell Mitchell in 1971.

2. Minnesota is turning the corner: Last year, the Gophers were the ones throwing away games. Against Bowling Green on Saturday night, they were the ones capitalizing on mistakes. Minnesota's much-maligned defense forced four second-half turnovers, and the offense converted all four into touchdowns. Quarterback Adam Weber (233 pass yards, 3 TDs, rush TD) continued to show he's the perfect fit for Mike Dunbar's Spread Coast offense, and both running back Duane Bennett and wideout Eric Decker showed their versatility in the 42-17 win.

3. Pryor not ready for clutch situations: Ohio State trailed or barely led for 54 minutes of Saturday's game against Ohio, but heralded freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor got on the field for just three plays during that span. The coaches are still hesitant about putting the amazingly talented Pryor in pressure situations, which likely will limit his availability next week against USC. He could play a role as a running quarterback in special packages, but if the game is close, which it should be, Ohio State will go with Todd Boeckman.

4. Iowa offense is much better: The competition has been weak and much like Indiana, a wait-and-see approach seems appropriate, but the Hawkeyes' offense no longer appears to be a major liability. Coach Kirk Ferentz received good performances from both of his quarterbacks Saturday, though Ricky Stanzi's poise in his first career start could be the difference for Week 3. Whoever takes the snaps has plenty of help from running backs Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton, who combined for 184 rushing yards in the 42-0 win against Florida International.

5. Wolverines D must shoulder the load: Rich Rodriguez received better play from freshman running back Sam McGuffie against Miami (Ohio), but the quarterback position remained an adventure. Backup Nick Sheridan out-performed Steven Threet on Saturday after Threet graded higher in the opener. The bottom line is an improved Wolverines defense will have to keep games close until the offense finds some sort of rhythm. Linebacker Obi Ezeh continues to make plays and the defensive line picked up three more sacks in Saturday's 16-6 victory.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State and Ohio State will be without All-Big Ten players Saturday, but for very different reasons. And while Beanie Wells' health beyond this week is a concern, the bigger problems are in Happy Valley.

Week 2 is just around the corner, and here's what's happening around the league.

Big Ten picks for Week 2

September, 4, 2008
9/04/08
11:11
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

My editors don't know it yet, but this will be my last blog post for ESPN.com. I'm taking the fiancée, moving to Vegas and setting up shop. C'mon, did you see last week's picks? Sure, there were only three or four true toss-up games, one of which I got woefully wrong. But a 9-1 record with five near-perfect score predictions tells me I'm in the wrong line of work. In all seriousness, I highly doubt I'll have another week like that all season, so please don't mortgage your house on what you read below. However, this should be another Saturday to pad the season record before things get much tougher in Week 3.

Here we go:

Ohio State 45, Ohio 7 -- No Beanie, no problem for the Buckeyes, who have the chance to showcase their creativity on offense before the USC game. Running backs Dan "Boom" Herron, Mo Wells and Brandon Saine have big games as the Buckeyes roll. Ohio has some speed threats in wideout Taylor Price and return man Donte Harden, but the Buckeyes defense stands tall again.

Wisconsin 40, Marshall 13 -- Quarterback Allan Evridge and the Badgers should iron out the kinks in the red zone against the Thundering Herd. Evridge will find a healthy Travis Beckum for the first of many touchdown passes this season. Like Akron, Marshall could present some first-half trouble with with Dariuses (Marshall and Passmore), but ultimately the Badgers will be too strong.

Illinois 52, Eastern Illinois 3 -- There are several factors working against the Panthers. Illinois unveils its renovated stadium and welcomes back the program's greatest living players to Champaign. The team wears Dick Butkus-era throwback jerseys. And the Illini are ticked off after the Missouri loss. The Illinois defense forces at least three turnovers and Juice Williams continues to surge.

Michigan State 42, Eastern Michigan 14 -- Expect a big day for Spartans senior Javon Ringer, both at running back and kickoff returner. Quarterback Brian Hoyer finds his rhythm and another wide receiver follows Mark Dell's performance with a big game. Eagles quarterback Andy Schmitt and tailback Terrence Blevins test a still-iffy Spartans defense, but Michigan State pulls away in the third quarter.

Michigan 27, Miami (Ohio) 6 -- The Wolverines offense won't look quite as bad with Steven Threet most likely at the helm, and a running back -- don't know which one -- steps up big against Miami. Linebacker Obi Ezeh and the Michigan defense builds off the second-half performance against Utah and shuts down a turnover-prone RedHawks offense.

Iowa 44, Florida International 10 -- I won't make the same mistake twice after doubting the Hawkeyes' offense last week. Iowa's run game continues to prosper behind Shonn Greene, and junior quarterback Jake Christensen finally cements himself as the clear-cut starter with a strong performance. Aside from return man T.Y. Hilton, FIU doesn't have much to scare the Hawkeyes.

Purdue 41, Northern Colorado 0 -- Given what's coming up next, the Boilers need a strong start and get one from quarterback Curtis Painter and running back Kory Sheets. At least three receivers catch touchdown passes as coach Joe Tiller samples what he has besides Greg Orton. Purdue's improved secondary will shut down a Northern Colorado team that averaged just 11.3 points a game last fall and is picked last in its league.

Penn State 38, Oregon State 30 -- The Beavers secondary looks strong, but will it matter if the front seven can't stop the run? If Stanford racked up 210 yards against Oregon State, just think what Penn State will do with Evan Royster, Stephfon Green and mobile quarterback Daryll Clark, who will be on the move much more this week. Quarterback Lyle Moevao presents some problems for Penn State's secondary, but the Lions pull through at home.

Indiana 45, Murray State 10 -- Quarterback Kellen Lewis breaks another long run or two, but the Hoosiers get more help from their running backs against a Murray State team that was tied with Lambuth early in the second half of last week's victory. Hoosiers defensive end Greg Middleton picks up two or three sacks as the walk down easy street continues.

Northwestern 30, Duke 21 -- Several factors could hurt Northwestern: the weather, an improved Duke team, mobile quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and the emotions after last season's embarrassing loss in Evanston. Here's another factor: running back Tyrell Sutton, who missed last year's game with an ankle injury. Sutton will be the best player on the field Saturday night and help Northwestern escape with a win.

Bowling Green 38, Minnesota 34 -- There's still too many problems on the Gophers defense, and Falcons quarterback Tyler Sheehan will capitalize in a big way. I could see a mini-letdown for Bowling Green after the Pitt win, but the Falcons are hosting their first Big Ten opponent since 1966 and should prevail. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber ha
s another big game, but it's not enough.

Bye: None

Season record: 9-1

Big Ten power rankings

September, 2, 2008
9/02/08
9:50
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There's minimal shuffling in the ratings after some good performances, some bad ones and some impact injuries. Beanie or no Beanie, Ohio State remains at the top and should stay there for a while, but Illinois and Michigan State missed opportunities to move up.

1. Ohio State: Sure, it was Youngstown State, but the Buckeyes were sharp on both sides of the ball. A star-studded defense didn't let the Penguins cross midfield until the game's final play, Terrelle Pryor turned in a solid debut and starting quarterback Todd Boeckman was steady.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are barely hanging onto this spot, mostly because of health concerns on defense. P.J. Hill and the run game looked superb against Akron, but several key defenders are banged up, which could hurt in Week 3 at Fresno State.

3. Penn State: Playmakers abound for the Nittany Lions, as overmatched Coastal Carolina found out Saturday. New starting quarterback Daryll Clark should get plenty of help from wideout Derrick Williams and a run game that produced 334 rushing yards Saturday.

4. Illinois: The Illini deserved to drop after a poor defensive performance against Missouri, but both Michigan and Michigan State lost and no one else beat a decent team. Quarterback Juice Williams did all he could against the Tigers, but a defensive line that was billed as the team's strength fell short.

5. Michigan State: How do the Spartans move up after a loss? They inspired more hope than Michigan and received excellent performances from wide receiver Mark Dell (202 receiving yards) and running back Javon Ringer (200 all-purpose yards) on the road against Cal.

6. Michigan: There's a ton of work to do on offense, and the transition at quarterback will take time to click. But the Wolverines' defense dominated Utah in the second half Saturday and should keep games close until the offense gets on track. Linebacker Obi Ezeh's play was particularly encouraging.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to beat a BCS foe, though Syracuse barely qualifies anymore. Still, Northwestern received the boost it sought from a much-maligned defense, which produced a touchdown and a safety in a 30-10 victory. Running back Tyrell Sutton also looked in top form.

8. Iowa: A 4-0 start seems very possible for the Hawkeyes after Pitt's loss, and a mostly unproven group of running backs looked superb against Maine. Iowa still needs more consistency from quarterback Jake Christensen, but linebacker A.J. Edds is developing into a star and will boost a decent defense.

9. Indiana: Quarterback Kellen Lewis can take this team a long way and got off to a strong start after reclaiming his starting job in camp. Defensive end Jammie Kirlew had a nice game, but I'm still not sold on that unit until it faces a sterner test (Ball State on Sept. 20).

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers are hurt a bit by not playing, but more by the season-ending loss of running back Jaycen Taylor. With uncertainty at wide receiver, it would have helped if Curtis Painter could count on two backs instead of only Kory Sheets, who has had fumbling problems. Linebacker depth is a major concern, but an improved secondary could vault the Boilers up the list.

11. Minnesota: Kudos to the Gophers for matching last year's win total in Week 1, but they were seconds away from a home loss to Northern Illinois. The secondary remains susceptible to big plays, which won't cut it this week against Bowling Green and Tyler Sheehan.

SPONSORED HEADLINES