NCF Nation: Otis Wiley

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.

Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.

Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.

Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.

Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.

Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.

Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.

Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.

Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.

Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
  Scott A. Miller/US Presswire
  Iowa running back Shonn Greene's production will not be easy to replace.

As we continue to preview Big Ten spring football, which begins March 14 at Michigan, it's time to look at five key replacements around the conference.

The Big Ten took the biggest hit at running back with the departures of Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells, P.J. Hill, Tyrell Sutton and Kory Sheets, among others. There also were key losses on both lines (Mitch King, A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Maybin, Willie VanDeSteeg) and in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Otis Wiley), though the quarterback crop returns mostly intact.

The league's lone head-coaching change was pre-planned, as Danny Hope takes over for Joe Tiller at Purdue. But several key assistants depart the league, creating some holes to fill.

Here's a look at five sets of shoes to fill before Sept. 5.

Big shoes: Iowa running back Shonn Greene

The replacement: Sophomore Jewel Hampton

All Greene did last fall was win the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top back, set Iowa's single-season rushing record (1,850 yards) and eclipse 100 yards in all 13 games. As the team switched quarterbacks, identified playmakers at wide receiver and jelled up front, Greene was the constant. Hampton earned high marks as Greene's backup, rushing for 463 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman, but he'll take on a much bigger load this fall. The 5-9, 200-pound Hampton lacks Greene's brute strength and size, but he provides a different look for an Iowa offense that will always be based around the run game.

Big shoes: Penn State center A.Q. Shipley

The replacement: Junior Stefen Wisniewski

The defending Big Ten co-champs lose the undisputed leader of the league's best offensive line in Shipley, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last year. Wisniewski started at guard in 2008, but he's expected to shift to center and replace Shipley in the heart of the Lions' line. Expectations will be high for Wisniewski, a talented junior whose father and uncle both were star offensive linemen for Penn State.

Big shoes: Michigan State running back Javon Ringer

The replacement(s): Senior A.J. Jimmerson, sophomores Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett, freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper

No running back in the country had a heavier load than Ringer last fall. He led the nation with 390 carries and tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. Michigan State benefited from his tremendous durability, but the coaches didn't develop a reliable backup. The competition to replace Ringer features several young players, including two heralded incoming freshmen. The Spartans could use more of a committee system in 2009, blending speed (Anderson, Caper, Baker, Jimmerson) with size (Leggett). The freshmen should help the situation, but head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn't mind if Anderson, Jimmerson or Leggett emerged in spring ball.

Big shoes: Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley

The replacement: Mike Schultz

Not only was Locksley one of the best recruiters in the country, but he had a strong bond with quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Arrelious Benn and other key members of the Illinois offense. Despite a very disappointing 5-7 season, Illinois still led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense. Schultz comes from a program (TCU) known for defense, but his system produced several standout quarterbacks and running backs. He needs to gain Williams' trust right away and maintain the explosiveness Illinois featured at times last season. There also will be pressure for Schultz to bring in top high school players from Texas and other areas.

Big shoes: Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins

The replacement: Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa

Some will point to the oft-injured Wells or hyped linebacker James Laurinaitis as Ohio State's biggest losses, but Jenkins was the team's most consistent performer the last two seasons. Shutdown corners don't come around very often, and Jenkins' play-making skills helped him win the Thorpe Award last year. Chekwa beat out Donald Washington for a starting job in 2008 but will take on a greater load this fall as he'll be assigned to mark top opposing wideouts. He had an interception and four pass breakups last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The recruiting classes are in, several underclassmen are out (preparing for the NFL draft) and coaching changes have been made. It's time to re-examine the Big Ten power rankings, which project forward to the 2009 season but take into consideration the way a team finished up 2008.

1. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lost juniors Chris "Beanie" Wells, Brian Hartline and Donald Washington to the NFL draft and said goodbye to a large senior class, but they performed well in the Fiesta Bowl and brought in the league's best recruiting class. The youth movement has begun in Columbus, and Ohio State likely will surround Terrelle Pryor with more dynamic skill players on offense. There are some holes in the defensive two-deep, but Ohio State rarely misses a beat on that side of the ball.

2. Penn State -- The somewhat surprising early departures of defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans create questions in an area where Penn State dominated last season. Linebacker should be a major strength, but Penn State must replenish the secondary and find a stud pass rusher or two. Wide receiver should be the most interesting position to watch during the spring and summer, and if Penn State avoids a drop-off on the offensive line, it should be in good shape for another league title push. A large recruiting class will play a key role in the Lions' quest to repeat.

3. Iowa -- Shonn Greene surprised absolutely no one by declaring for the NFL draft, and the Doak Walker Award winner leaves a major void in production. But backup running back Jewel Hampton showed promise last year, and Iowa has fewer question marks on offense than most Big Ten teams. Arguably the bigger questions come at defensive tackle, where four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. Avoiding a major drop-off in the interior line is crucial, but Iowa returns most of its key players from a 9-4 team.

4. Michigan State -- Several key seniors depart, including running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley, but Michigan State brings back most of its key contributors and adds its best recruiting class in recent memory. The competition at both running back and quarterback will set the course for the 2009 season, but the Spartans should be deeper and better on defense.

5. Northwestern -- Much like Michigan State, Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield for the 2009 campaign. Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback after a solid junior season, but there will be plenty of competition at both running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be much improved, and as long as star defensive end Corey Wootton recovers from knee surgery, the Wildcats will boast one of the Big Ten's best defenses.

6. Illinois -- As expected, cornerback Vontae Davis entered the NFL draft, leaving some questions in an Illini secondary that struggled at the safety spot in 2008. Improving the defense will be Illinois' top priority entering the fall, especially with so much talent back on the offensive side. Ron Zook's recruiting class drew mixed reviews after several committed prospects went elsewhere, but Illinois held onto wide receiver Terry Hawthorne and addressed several of its needs.

7. Minnesota -- The Gophers welcome two new coordinators (Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove) and a different offensive approach heading into spring practice, but they bring back most of the pieces from a 7-6 team. Tim Brewster continued to improve the defensive secondary with his recent recruiting haul, and both lines return virtually intact. If Minnesota can adjust to the changes in coaching and scheme, it should take another step forward in 2009.

8. Wisconsin -- Underappreciated running back P.J. Hill surprised some by declaring for the NFL draft, and Wisconsin also said goodbye to a large senior class. John Clay looks more than capable of becoming a featured back for the Badgers in 2009, but unless some significant progress is made at the quarterback position, it's hard to see improvement. A very solid recruiting class featuring quarterback Jon Budmayr and wide receiver Kraig Appleton could bolster the passing attack and move Wisconsin up the rankings.

9. Michigan -- Despite a 3-9 season, Michigan landed a top 10 recruiting class that features several players likely to contribute right away. Brandon Graham stayed for his senior year, giving the Wolverines a dominant pass rusher. The Wolverines very well could make a major move up this list, but they first must find a solution at the quarterback spot and fill holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. The recruiting class provides a major boost, but the program remains in a transition phase.

10. Purdue -- The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's mystery team, as they welcome a new head coach (Danny Hope) and most likely a different type of player. Hope landed 14 recruits from Florida in hopes of upgrading Purdue's speed and athleticism, and he also must replace starters at all the offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). If the defense avoids a drop-off and Hope's recruits contribute immediately like he thinks they will, the Boilers will be a much-improved team.

11. Indiana -- Wide receiver Andrew Means declared for the NFL draft, but Indiana doesn't lose a whole lot from last year's team, which could be good or bad. Head coach Bill Lynch didn't make any staff changes, hoping that continuity and improved health will lead to better results in 2009. Indiana boasts two experienced quarterbacks (Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell), two proven pass rushers (Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew) and some promising young players, but if the defense doesn't improve, it could be another long season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten probably wants to forget this postseason after going 1-6 in bowls. But several players stood out, even in defeat, and they deserve recognition. Let's hand out helmet stickers for the final time this season, beginning with the one Big Ten team (Iowa) that actually won its bowl.

Iowa running back Shonn Greene -- Playing in what would be his final collegiate game, the Hawkeyes' junior went out with a flourish, racking up 121 rushing yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Greene eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 13 games and set a single-season school rushing record with 1,850 yards.

Iowa strong safety Tyler Sash -- South Carolina was in a giving mood (five turnovers), and Sash capitalized with two interceptions, raising his season total to five. Sash, a redshirt freshman who became one of the team's top playmakers, picked off Stephen Garcia's first pass of the game and had interception returns of 45 and 29 yards.

Iowa cornerback Bradley Fletcher -- The senior recorded an interception and a forced fumble in his final game in a Hawkeyes uniform. With Iowa up 14-0, Fletcher squashed any chance of a South Carolina rally by intercepting a Garcia pass in the end zone for a touchback. He also forced a fumble on South Carolina's first play of the second half.

Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman -- He hadn't taken significant snaps since September but gave Ohio State a big lift in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Texas. The offense was sputtering until Boeckman found Brian Robiskie for a 48-yard completion on the first play of the fourth quarter. Boeckman later threw a touchdown to fellow quarterback Terrelle Pryor and nearly helped Ohio State to a big upset.

Ohio State's defense -- Colt McCoy and Quan Cosby had the final word in Glendale, but Ohio State held the high-powered Texas offense well below its season scoring average. The Buckeyes racked up three sacks and nine tackles for loss and limited big plays until Cosby's 26-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.

Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher -- Bacher ended an up-and-down senior season with arguably his best performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri in a 30-23 overtime loss. Bacher threw only one interception and spread the ball well to his veteran targets.

Northwestern's senior wide receivers -- Rasheed Ward, Ross Lane and Eric Peterman combined for 19 receptions, 261 yards and three touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl. All three had scoring receptions of 20 yards or longer, highlighted by Lane's circus catch in the back of the end zone late in the third quarter.

Penn State linebacker Navorro Bowman -- The Rose Bowl was a rough one for Penn State's defense, but Bowman certainly did his part with five tackles for loss and a sack. Bowman finished the season with 106 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. Next season he'll form the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem with Sean Lee.

Michigan State safety Otis Wiley -- Wiley and his fellow defenders held Georgia to three first-half points in the Capital One Bowl and gave the Spartans offense a chance to create some distance on the scoreboard. Michigan State eventually caved against Matthew Stafford, but Wiley had a forced fumble and seven tackles to go along with 87 return yards in his final collegiate game.

Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- Decker returned from knee surgery and an ankle injury to boost the Gophers in the Insight Bowl with eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. The junior set Minnesota bowl records for receptions and receiving yards and will return in 2009 as one of the Big Ten's top targets.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't help his conference in the never-ending Big Ten-SEC debate when he provided his scouting report of Georgia's offense to head coach Mark Dantonio.

  

"Their skill guys, their receivers, their running back, their quarterback, it's like the Big Ten All-Star team that we get to play against," Narduzzi told Dantonio.

Georgia wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi matched or surpassed any pass-catching combo Narduzzi saw in Big Ten play this year. Bulldogs quarterback Matthew Stafford trumped first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark of Penn State.

And while Narduzzi, like everyone associated with the Spartans football program, thinks the world of Javon Ringer, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno isn't too shabby. If Georgia has a weakness on offense, it's the offensive line, and that's largely because of youth.

"It's obviously going to be a challenge for our defense," Narduzzi said. "Everybody's got to step up. Certainly, if you're looking at something that might be their weakness, you look at their O-line. I don't know what they see as our weakness, but obviously pressure on the quarterback and pressure at the line of scrimmage by our linebackers and defensive line is going to be a key in the game."

Narduzzi's unit lacks the headliners of Georgia, but it has helped Michigan State to nine wins and a Capital One Bowl appearance Thursday against the preseason No. 1 team (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

This fall, the Spartans held eight teams to 24 points or fewer, including two bowl champions (Notre Dame and Florida Atlantic). What happened in the other four games, though is a cause for concern.

Michigan State struggled against elite offensive competition, allowing a combined 94 points in losses to Ohio State and Penn State.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

At first, it sounds like Mark Dantonio is putting down his Michigan State team, which will earn the school's first January bowl berth since 1999 -- and possibly much more.

 
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have their sights set on a share of the Big Ten title.

"We have a group of overachievers," Dantonio told ESPN.com on Sunday night.

Being called an overachiever isn't a slight to Javon Ringer, Otis Wiley or the rest of the Spartans. Listen to how Dantonio describes Ohio State's 2002 national championship team, for whom he served as defensive coordinator.

"We overachieved," Dantonio said. "Any great team, any team that's winning right now, has got a bunch of overachievers, regardless of the talent level. There's so much parity in college football, there's so many things that can pop up and go wrong throughout the season, that you better be at your best and you better be a little bit past your best."

Michigan State certainly has exceeded the threshold many set for it before the season. Sure, the Spartans were the chic pick to be the Big Ten's surprise team in 2008. Some labeled them this year's Illinois, which came out of nowhere to reach the Rose Bowl last fall.

Still, given the program's knack for fast starts and faster collapses, for inflating and deflating expectations in a matter of days or weeks, it was tough to fully buy into the Spartans. Yet here they are, ranked No. 15 nationally and heading to No. 8 Penn State on Saturday to play for a share of the Big Ten championship (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

A Michigan State win, combined with an Ohio State loss would send the Spartans to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988. The Spartans haven't claimed a share of the league title since 1990.

"To do something that hasn't been done in 18 years makes it very, very special, not only to Michigan State and its fans, but to the players that are playing," Dantonio said. "Penn State's an outstanding football team, great talent, they're extremely well coached. But we're coming to play."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Reading is fundamental. 

Big Ten midseason report

October, 15, 2008
10/15/08
12:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before the season, the Big Ten landscape looked fairly straightforward.

Best team: Ohio State

Heisman candidate: Chris "Beanie" Wells

The rest: Did anyone really care?

Midway through the season, the scene looks quite different.

Ohio State lost Wells in the opener to a right foot/toe injury, which became the dominant story of college football the next two weeks before the star was ruled out of the much-anticipated USC game. The Buckeyes had another mainstage flop, and the 35-3 disaster had consequences. Senior quarterback Todd Boeckman lost his job, wunderkind Terrelle Pryor stepped in and Ohio State tweaked its offense, with limited success. Four wins have followed, but the Buckeyes are no longer the team in the spotlight.

That would be No. 3 Penn State, which has stormed onto the national title radar in dominant fashion, winning its first seven games by an average of 34.3 points. The Spread HD offense has been a smashing success, as first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark and his arsenal mass-produce touchdowns and big plays. An underrated defense survived suspensions, injuries and dismissals, and the team's success has added to the drama surrounding 81-year-old coach Joe Paterno, whose coaching future beyond the season is unknown. A hip injury has forced Paterno to walk with a cane and coach from the press box, but his team looks like it runs on autopilot.

With Wells sidelined, Michigan State running back Javon Ringer has emerged as the league's top Heisman candidate. Ringer's incredible workload is almost as impressive as his production, and he leads a Michigan State team that backed up its preseason hype with a 6-1 start, its best since 2003. The Spartans find themselves in the league title mix along with Ohio State and Penn State.

The league has had its share of disappointments and surprises. Wisconsin went from a top 10 team on Sept. 27 to 0-3 in the league. The transition at Michigan has been tumultuous, as Rich Rodriguez's offense ranks 109th nationally and the Wolverines are on pace for their first losing season since 1967. Illinois has backslid despite impressive play from quarterback Juice Williams. The Big Ten also features arguably the nation's biggest surprise in Minnesota, which went from 1-11 last fall to bowl eligible and 6-1 after last Saturday's win at Illinois. Northwestern also made history with a 5-0 start, its best since 1962.

The next two weeks should reveal a lot, as Ohio State visits Michigan State before hosting Penn State. The Lions' BCS title hopes and Ringer's Heisman candidacy will dominate the headlines heading into the home stretch.

Biggest surprise -- Minnesota

No one outside the Twin Cities thought the Gophers would be bowl eligible by Oct. 11, not after a 1-11 season dragged down by the nation's worst defense. But an influx of junior college players on defense and, more important, the improvement of several returning players (Willie VanDeSteeg, Adam Weber, Marcus Sherels) has spurred Minnesota's renaissance behind second-year coach Tim Brewster. An aggressive defense leads the nation in takeaways with 20, and Weber and Eric Decker have formed one of the nation's top passing combinations.

Biggest disappointment -- Wisconsin

It's easy to pick on Michigan, especially after last Saturday's disaster against Toledo, but we knew the transition would be tough in Ann Arbor. Wisconsin entered the year with BCS hopes, a veteran-laden defense and a powerful rushing attack. But after inexplicably blowing a 19-point halftime lead to the flawed Wolverines, Wisconsin has flat-lined, dropping three straight to fall out of the BCS mix and Big Ten title contention. After a blistering start, coach Bret Bielema is just 7-7 in his last 14 games, and merely getting bowl eligible could be a challenge for the Badgers.

Midseason Offensive MVP -- Javon Ringer

Michigan State makes no secret about its intentions on offense. The Spartans feed the ball to Ringer until somebody stops him. So far, no one has. The senior running back ranks second nationally in rushing (158.9 yards per game) and tied for third in scoring (12 points per game). He has 68 more carries than any other FBS back and does much of his best work in the fourth quarter, where Michigan State is outscoring its opponents 57-34. Daryll Clark, Shonn Greene and Juice Williams also deserve to be mentioned.

Midseason Defensive MVP -- Aaron Maybin

Joe Paterno wishes Maybin could put on more weight, but Big Ten quarterbacks are getting a steady diet of the Penn State sophomore defensive end. Thrust into a major role because of suspensions, dismissals and injuries on the defensive line, Maybin has stepped up to lead the Big Ten in sacks (8) and tie for the lead in tackles for loss (12.5). Other mentions go to Illinois linebacker Brit Miller (12.5 TFLs, 10.2 tackles per game, 2 forced fumbles) and Michigan State safety Otis Wiley (4 interceptions, 11 pass breakups).

Top newcomer -- Traye Simmons

This award really should be shared by several of the junior college players that have helped boost Minnesota's defense. Simmons leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in passes defended (13), and he's one of three Gophers defenders with two interceptions this season. His teammate Tramaine Brock (team-high 42 tackles) also deserved to be mentioned. Terrelle Pryor has shown great poise as Ohio State's starting quarterback, but the unit's struggles to score are becoming a major concern.

Midseason Coach of the Year -- Tim Brewster

Brewster arrived with big dreams for Minnesota, and the team is on its way to achieving them in his second season as head coach. He made a great hire in defensive coordinator Ted Roof and successfully blended a group of junior college players with the returnees on defense. After finishing 114th nationally in turnover margin last year, Minnesota now ranks second. That's a testament to the head coach. Paterno and Mark Dantonio also merit recognition.

Bowl bound: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Your Monday midday reading begins with the giddiness in Gopher country, as Minnesota has closed the book on its disastrous 2007 with inspired defensive play.

Head coach Tim Brewster and Joel Maturi missed on their post-game high-five attempt at Illinois, but the Gophers are hitting their mark just about everywhere else, Jim Souhan writes in the Star Tribune.

Maturi attempted a high-five. They missed, hugged and ran off celebrating the biggest victory of Brewster's tenure. Minutes later, Brewster grabbed a lectern and hollered, "We've got kind of a philosophy: 'Why not us? Why not now?' "

In previous years, the answer was obvious: Because your defense stinks. ...

The defense earned what Brewster called a "program-changing'' victory, creating three vital turnovers, keeping dynamic Illini quarterback Juice Williams from winning the game with his legs, and stopping Illinois on a fourth-and-goal from the 1.

Big plays win football games, and the Minnesota defense produced the biggest plays of the game.

Other must-reads include:

Big Ten internal affairs

October, 8, 2008
10/08/08
11:49
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time for our weekly look inside five Big Ten teams.

Illinois -- Judging solely by his size -- 6-foot-5, 250 pounds -- Jeff Cumberland should be a tight end. But after seeing the junior struggle with blocking and other trench duties in 2007, Illinois coach Ron Zook moved Cumberland to wide receiver. The switch worked last week as Cumberland, who missed time earlier this season with a foot stress fracture, had a 77-yard touchdown on his first reception of the fall. "He just wasn't doing the job down in the briar patch like we wanted him to do in terms of blocking and so forth," Zook said. "He's a very athletic guy that we knew we needed to get on the field so we talked to him about moving to the outside."

Iowa -- Redshirt freshman quarterback Marvin McNutt is auditioning at wide receiver, a spot where his athleticism could be better utilized this year. McNutt wasn't a major factor in the quarterback competition ultimately won by Ricky Stanzi, but he continues to take some snaps should an emergency arise. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound McNutt welcomed the change but has taken time to adjust. "His legs are trying to catch up a little bit," Ferentz said. "He's been through two years of inactivity as a quarterback, so he's got sore feet, sore knees, sore everything else right now."

Michigan State -- The Spartans likely will be without starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker against Northwestern, but their secondary gets a big boost with the return of cornerback/safety Kendell Davis-Clark. Boasting 15 career starts, Davis-Clark has been out of action since sustaining a shoulder injury in the season opener at Cal. A major key Saturday will be the health of safety Otis Wiley, the Spartans' defensive catalyst who left last week's game against Iowa with a lower leg injury. Wiley leads the Big Ten in both interceptions (4) and passes defended (11) and ranks second in punt return average (11.9).

Northwestern -- The bye week gave the Wildcats a chance to get healthy, particularly on the offensive line. Right tackle Kurt Mattes will return from a knee injury, and guard Keegan Grant also could return from an ankle injury. Both players were projected starters heading into the season, and offensive line coach Bret Ingalls will have some playing-time decisions to make for Saturday's game against Michigan State (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET). Junior Desmond Taylor has played well at both right tackle and right guard, and Northwestern is tied for fifth nationally in fewest sacks allowed (two in five games). Then again, the Wildcats aren't running the ball like they'd like to and could benefit from a greater rotation of linemen.

Penn State -- Head coach Joe Paterno hoped to play speedy junior A.J. Wallace at both cornerback and as a reserve wide receiver before the season, but a hamstring injury before the opener changed the script. For Wallace, the setback might have been a blessing in disguise, as he started at right cornerback last week at Purdue and has been elevated to a co-starter with Lydell Sargeant on this week's depth chart. "Sargeant, [Wallace] and [Tony] Davis, they're three good corners and they all should play, keep them fresh," Paterno said. "Nowadays, when you have to be ready for a lot of spread, you need that extra defensive back."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Ritttenberg

The curtain raises on Big Ten play this weekend, and you don't want to miss the show. Penn State attempts to validate its impressive start against a respectable opponent. Wisconsin tries to end a streak at Michigan, while the struggling Wolverines want to keep one going. Beanie's back in Columbus, but how much of a boost will he provide? Northwestern and Minnesota enter league play at 4-0, and no player is hotter than Michigan State's Javon Ringer.

Here are 10 things to keep track off Saturday:

1. Penn State HD-ready -- The Lions' new Spread HD offense has earned straight A's so far, but it has yet to take a real exam. Illinois' defense should provide one Saturday night at Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). Penn State has showcased myriad weapons and had unparalleled production, but it will be interesting to see how first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark performs under pressure. Ron Zook called Illinois' defensive line the team's strength. It's time to prove it.

2. Going streaking in Ann Arbor -- No, not me. But I'll be on hand to see if Michigan can win its 23rd consecutive Big Ten home opener. The Wolverines are underdogs against Wisconsin, which tries to snap its own streak, a four-game slide at the Big House. The Badgers are stronger and more experienced, but they went 1-3 in league road games last season and suffered their only loss of 2006 at Michigan.

3. All is Wells again at Ohio State -- The Buckeyes haven't been the same team since star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells injured his right big toe in the season opener. After three tortuous weeks without the onetime Heisman Trophy candidate, Ohio State will get Wells back in the mix for its league opener against Minnesota. Wells probably will be limited to 15-20 carries, but he could provide the emotional spark Ohio State's offense has lacked.

4. Ringer goes for another 200 -- Running back Javon Ringer is the first player in Michigan State history to record consecutive 200-yard rushing performances. He aims for another big day against Indiana, which couldn't contain Ball State back MiQuale Lewis last week. Ringer will get his carries -- he always does -- but it's important for Indiana's front seven, led by end Greg Middleton and linebacker Matt Mayberry, to make Brian Hoyer beat them.

5. Boilers secondary on alert -- Notre Dame doesn't want to abandon the run, but the Irish were much more effective against Michigan State when operating in a shotgun, pass-happy offense. Expect more of the same against Purdue, which needs another strong performance from an improved secondary. Wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will stretch the field, putting pressure on Purdue's solid safety tandem of Frank Duong and Torri Williams.

6. Minnesota and Northwestern on the defensive -- The Big Ten's two worst defenses last season have stepped up big behind new coordinators Ted Roof and Mike Hankwitz. An influx of junior college talent has sparked Minnesota to a league-leading 13 takeaways, and Northwestern tops the Big Ten's sacks chart with 15, three behind its season total from 2007. Both defenses can validate their strong starts by stifling Ohio State and Iowa.

7. Lions D-line gets a boost -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno said defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma probably will play against Illinois after being suspended the last three games. Both players could be a bit rusty, but they give a depleted defensive line a big lift. Evans could be the league's most dominant pass rusher, and he'll help chase Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.

8. Hill back at the Big House -- Two years ago, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill went to Michigan as the league's leading rusher and was held to 54 rushing yards on 20 carries. Hill ranks ninth nationally and second in the league in rushing average this fall (126.3 YPG) as he returns to the Big House. His ability to wear down Michigan's veteran defensive line could give Wisconsin the edge.

9. Stanzi back on center stage -- Iowa desperately needs a starting quarterback, and sophomore Ricky Stanzi gets another shot to fill the role. Hawkeyes fans were infuriated when coach Kirk Ferentz stuck with struggling junior Jake Christensen in the second half of last week's loss at Pitt. Stanzi will have the support of the home crowd as he faces a much-improved Northwestern defense.

10. Indiana under pressure -- It's still September, but Indiana needs to rebound after a 22-point home loss to Ball State. The Hoosiers' opening schedule sets them up for a repeat bowl run, but another setback could sidetrack things. Quarterback Kellen Lewis faces an aggressive Spartans defense led by Big Ten interceptions leader Otis Wiley and linebacker Greg Jones.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- We could be in for a defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium, as Michigan State leads 3-0. The teams have combined for just six first downs and 149 yards of offense.

Both defenses have looked impressive so far, and both quarterbacks are struggling to find a rhythm. The Fighting Irish wisely are stacking the box against Spartans star running back Javon Ringer, forcing Brian Hoyer and his receivers to beat them down the field. Hoyer has had some opportunities, but wayward throws, dropped passes and a touchdown-saving deflection by Notre Dame's Raeshon McNeil have stymied the offense. Irish linebacker Brian Smith continues to impress, stripping the ball from Ringer after a Jimmy Clausen interception.

Michigan State safety Otis Wiley has definitely returned to his 2006 form, when he led the team in tackles and pass breakups. Wiley already has an interception in the end zone and earholed Notre Dame running back James Aldridge on a third-down run. Notre Dame simply has to get Golden Tate more touches. The sophomore is a threat every time he has the ball in his hands. Clausen looks shaky under pressure but can throw the deep ball and has the weapons to capitalize. Michigan State's front seven have dominated the line of scrimmage, and linebacker Greg Jones continues to make plays.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is moving gingerly on the sidelines and wearing athletic pants over his injured knee. Strength coach Ruben Mendoza is flanking Weis wherever he goes. Probably a good idea.

Big Ten: What to watch in Week 4

September, 19, 2008
9/19/08
10:35
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Only eight games on the slate this week, but there's no shortage of subplots, especially on the defensive side.

Let's take a look:

1. Ringer vs. the world: Notre Dame will do all it can to stop Michigan State's Javon Ringer on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Ringer likely can expect to see eight or nine men in the box, as the Fighting Irish dare Brian Hoyer to beat them. The overloading still might not be enough, as Ringer has racked up 417 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in his last two games.

2. Pryor's coronation in Columbus: Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman will split snaps for Ohio State against Troy, but this game is a chance for the freshman to take control of the offense. If Pryor continues to show good poise and playmaking ability, he'll continue to be featured when the Buckeyes enter Big Ten play. Boeckman will get his opportunities as well, but with the top goal off the table for the Buckeyes, they have to look toward the future.

3. Iowa D takes on real McCoy: The Hawkeyes have already collected eight takeaways without allowing a touchdown this season, but they face their first major test in Pitt running back LeSean McCoy. Expect McCoy to run away from Iowa star tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, which will put pressure on less proven players to step up.

4. Indiana on the defensive: I've already heard from several furious Hoosiers fans about my upset pick of Ball State against their unproven team. Let's see if an improved Hoosiers defense proves me a fool when it faces dynamic quarterback Nate Davis and FBS receiving leader Dante Love. There's no doubt Kellen Lewis will make plays for Indiana, but the team's fate, as usual, rests with the defense.

5. Northwestern chases history: Nonconference losses have been Northwestern's biggest bugaboo, even during the program's renaissance in the mid-1990s. The Wildcats can sweep their nonleague slate for the first time since 1963 by beating Ohio at home. It won't be easy, as the Bobcats are much better than their record indicates and athletic quarterback Boo Jackson spells trouble for an improved Northwestern defense.

6. Tiller gets record: Joe Tiller already should be Purdue's all-time winningest coach, but his team lost another winnable big game last Saturday against Oregon. Tiller sets the record this week as Curtis Painter and the Boilermakers pick apart a Central Michigan defense that looks overmatched against BCS foes. Dan LeFevour makes the game interesting for a while, but Purdue beats the Chippewas for the third straight time.

7. Gophers secondary tested: No one would mistake Minnesota's nonleague schedule for, say, Washington's, but the Gophers deserve a ton of credit if they go 4-0 after winning one game all of last season. Standing in their path is Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith, who will perform much better than he did in the rain last week in East Lansing. Minnesota's new-look secondary of Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret have shown good playmaking skills so far and need continued progress against the Owls.

8. Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen: Coach Kirk Ferentz seems to be telling Christensen, "Take the job already, will ya?" The junior gets a great chance to do so on the road against a desperate Pitt team already knocked off its preseason perch. Christensen steadied the offense in the clutch last week against Iowa State but will need to make more pressure plays against the Panthers.

9. Penn State's defensive line: Coach Joe Paterno admits his team hasn't faced any adversity so far this season, at least on the field. Temple quarterback Adam DiMichele should be a good challenge for Penn State's defensive linemen, who have held together nicely despite injuries, dismissals and suspensions. Paterno also should address the status of linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma after the game.

10. Michigan State safety Otis Wiley: Wiley once again looks like the guy who led the team in tackles (94) and pass breakups (10) as a sophomore in 2006. The Spartans need him at his peak against Notre Dame because of lingering personnel issues in the secondary. Fighting Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will look to stretch the field with Golden Tate, and it's up to Wiley to limit the damage.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

No case of the Mondays today. The best week of the Big Ten's nonconference slate is officially under way. Despite an 11-0 mark in Week 2, the Big Ten still has plenty of work to improve its national reputation, and this is the time to do it. Matchups against top-ranked USC, No. 16 Oregon, No. 21 Fresno State and an always-spotlighted Notre Dame team provide the Big Ten the chance to change public opinion.

Quarterback questions linger at Iowa and Michigan, while injuries are piling up around the league. Here's a look:

 
 Icon SMI
 Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have high expectations for the upcoming season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The best evidence that Michigan State is on the brink of something special this fall might not stem from the games it won last season, but from the ones it lost.

Behind first-year coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans won seven games and reached a bowl for the first time since 2003. The exciting thing is they could have done so much more.

All six of their losses came by seven points or fewer, including two in overtime. So many near-misses suggests a lack of poise, but Michigan State players and coaches point to another trait, one that has been missing in East Lansing for some time.

"Every game we gave 'em a battle," safety Otis Wiley said. "We're a team of hard workers. We might not have all the stars in the Big Ten, but all the people on the field will play hard."

That hasn't always been true for the Spartans. They've been arguably the biggest tease in college football, a team famous for starting fast and infamous for what happens next.

From 2000-2006, Michigan State went 21-9 in games before Oct. 1 and 17-36 afterward. The on-cue collapses usually started with a heartbreaking loss and then quickly spiraled out of control, casting doubt about Michigan State's leadership and mental toughness. Of those 36 post-Oct. 1 losses, 19 came by 13 points or more.

Last season followed a familiar pattern, as the Spartans started 4-0 before dropping five of their next six games. But they never got blown out. They rallied in the fourth quarter to tie games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa. They held a 10-point lead against Michigan with 7:40 left.

Their persistence eventually paid off, as Michigan State used a 17-point fourth quarter to beat Purdue on the road. The next week, the Spartans scored two late touchdowns to rally past Penn State and clinch a bowl berth.

"We know, and everybody else knows, that we can play with anybody in our conference," running back Javon Ringer said. "That's the only big difference. None of us are really getting into that whole, 'We could be the surprise team of this year in the Big Ten or the Illinois of [this] year.' Actually, that would be great if we could be like Illinois. Who wouldn't want to go to the Rose Bowl?"

Michigan State is the chic pick to become the Big Ten's surprise team, and its string of close losses last season is a big reason why.

There are other factors, namely an all-senior offensive backfield of Ringer, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, and quarterback Brian Hoyer, who should improve in crunch time. The Spartans' defense has depth up front and in the secondary, and some newcomers, including defensive end Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, are expected to make an impact.

The forecast looks sunny -- not rosy, yet -- but at Michigan State, everyone is always on the lookout for storm clouds.

"We have to break that curse," Wiley said. "We have to start it now. We're under new leadership, under new coaches. We trust our coaches that they know what it takes."

Dantonio doesn't recoil from talk of Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances, saying it would be a disservice to his team not to discuss those goals. But he also acknowledges the program's history: Michigan State hasn't reached consecutive bowls since 1996-'97 and hasn't produced consecutive winning seasons since 1989-'90.

The opportunity to change the trend is here, and the Spartans must seize it.

"We won seven football games, but could have won nine, 10, whatever it is," Dantonio said. "So again, the difference between winning and losing is like that. If you blink, you may miss it."

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