Michigan Wolverines: Dan Persa

Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

I sat in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night and watched McGloin pick apart what had been a pretty salty Iowa defense. McGloin had complete command and tremendous awareness of his receivers and tight ends. He made correct reads and confident throws. McGloin's mobility is, well, limited, but one of his best plays came in the first quarter, when he evaded the rush and spotted tight end Jesse James on a deep crossing route to set up Penn State's first touchdown. As I tweeted at the time, McGloin is simply a different quarterback.

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The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
12:44
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Ten items to track Saturday as a five-pack of Big Ten games is on tap.

1. A Legendary rivalry: Pardon the pun, but Michigan and Michigan State meet Saturday at Spartan Stadium with more than bragging rights on the line. The winner has to be considered the frontrunner in the Legends division. Michigan can improve to 7-0 overall, 3-0 in Big Ten play and, most important, 2-0 in division play with both wins coming on the road. Michigan State arguably has more on the line as Saturday marks one of just two Legends division home games. The Spartans still must travel to Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern, so defending their home turf against Michigan is critical.

2. Desperate Buckeyes hope to avoid history: These are tough times for Luke Fickell and the Ohio State Buckeyes, who are in an unfamiliar spot at 3-3 after last week's meltdown at Nebraska. A loss Saturday at No. 16 Illinois would drop Ohio State below .500 for the first time since 1999 -- and for the first time this late in the year since 1988, the Buckeyes' last losing season. After months of disappointing news and heightened criticism for Fickell and the coaching staff in recent weeks, Ohio State desperately needs something good to happen.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesWill Denard Robinson be able to break loose against Michigan State, or will the Spartans bottle him up again?
3. Denard vs. the Spartan Swarm: "There's no way to stop that kid," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this week, referring to Michigan star QB Denard Robinson. While no team has slowed down "Shoelace" this season, Michigan State put the brakes on Robinson in 2010. The Spartans were the first team to stifle Robinson last fall in a 34-17 win, picking off three of his passes and holding him to just 86 rush yards on 21 carries. Michigan State has an even better defense this year, a unit that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed (173.4 ypg) and ranks third in points allowed (10.2 ppg). It'll be strength vs. strength Saturday as Robinson goes up against the Spartans' defense.

4. Must-win game at Kinnick: Night games at Kinnick Stadium are always electric, but the intensity level might go up a few notches Saturday as Northwestern comes to town. Both Northwestern and Iowa are winless in Big Ten play and in danger of moving closer to the league's bottom-feeders than the lead pack. Throw in the fact that Northwestern has won three straight at Kinnick and five of the past six against Iowa, and Hawkeyes fans will be geared up. They hope their team displays better energy after a lackluster performance at Penn State. One squad will walk out of Kinnick with some momentum.

5. The scoreboard at Camp Randall: Last year Wisconsin hung 83 points on Indiana, the third-highest total scored in a Big Ten game and the most ever allowed by the Hoosiers. The Badgers' offense is arguably more dangerous this year with Russell Wilson at the helm, and Indiana ranks 11th in the Big Ten in total defense (421.5 ypg). Will Bucky Badger eclipse his 573 push-ups from last year on Saturday, or will Indiana's defense respond and make Wisconsin work for its points? It should be interesting to see how Wisconsin looks following a bye week, and how Indiana performs at a place where it was embarrassed last year.

6. Penn State's never-ending QB competition: The biggest mystery in the Big Ten isn't who should start for Penn State at quarterback, but why it's taking Joe Paterno and his staff so long to reach a decision. The numbers point to Matthew McGloin over Rob Bolden, and Penn State's offense has consistently operated better with McGloin calling the signals. But Paterno isn't budging, saying he's not convinced one quarterback is better than the other. Perhaps Saturday's game against Purdue provides a resolution under center. McGloin can help himself with a completely clean performance after tossing an interception in the end zone last week against Iowa. Also worth watching: how Purdue uses quarterbacks Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve.

7. Illinois' Mercilus defense vs. Braxton Miller: Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has pulled the right strings for most of the season, mixing fronts and formations and maintaining an aggressive style from week to week. You can bet Koenning will turn up the heat on Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who left the Nebraska game with a sprained right ankle but will play against Illinois. Keep an eye on Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks (8.5) and leads the Big Ten in both tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (4). Illinois also gets linebacker Jonathan Brown back from suspension. Ohio State must protect Miller and find the gaps in Illinois' defense, as it did for the first two and a half quarters at Nebraska.

8. Rushing the field in East Lansing: It's all about the ground game in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. The team with more rushing yards has claimed 38 of the teams' past 41 meetings. Michigan State has outrushed Michigan 613-274 during its current three-game win streak in the series, but Michigan boasts the nation's No. 7 rushing offense, led by Robinson, the Big Ten's leading rusher (120 ypg). Michigan State is No. 3 nationally against the run, but the Spartans also must get their own run game going. Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker gashed Michigan last year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan State's green offensive line is still building chemistry and faces an improved Michigan defense.

9. Boom is back: You could see the difference in Ohio State's offense with left tackle Mike Adams back on the field from suspension at Nebraska. The Buckeyes regain another key piece as running back Dan "Boom" Herron returns from suspension at Illinois. Herron gives the Buckeyes another option in the backfield, which should allow Jordan Hall to be utilized in different ways. Herron is Ohio State's most seasoned skill player and a guy performed well in Big Ten games last year (876 rush yards, 11 TDs in eight games). With Miller likely not 100 percent, Herron could play a big role for the Buckeyes' offense.

10. Persa vs. Vandenberg: The Northwestern-Iowa game could be a high-scoring affair, and quarterbacks Dan Persa and James Vandenberg will have opportunities to showcase their talents. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in total defense (439.4 ypg) and pass defense (263.8), so Vandenberg and his receivers should regain their swagger after a rough outing at Penn State. Persa shredded Iowa's defense in the fourth quarter of last year's game in Evanston, firing the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left and rupturing his Achilles' tendon on the play. The senior has been sharp since his return and faces an Iowa team allowing its opponents to complete 64.7 percent of their passes.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 7

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
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Big Ten play has been no match for us so far, as we're 21-for-22 in predictions for league games (Bennett's miss on Iowa-Penn State being the only blemish).

But Week 7 certainly has the potential to trip us up. It's by far the most difficult set of games we've had this season. The teams, the locations, winning/losing streaks, rivalries and other factors all could play into what takes place Saturday afternoon and evening. There are at least three potential toss-up games on the Week 7 slate.

Let's get picky ...

NO. 11 MICHIGAN at NO. 23 MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Denard Robinson's mistakes finally catch up to him against a nasty Michigan State defense, which comes up with three turnovers. Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham hook up early and often, and the Spartans make it four Bunyans in a row. ... Michigan State 24, Michigan 20

Adam Rittenberg: Four Bunyans? Sounds nasty. I wrestled with this one all week, as there are so many interesting subplots, all of which could go by the wayside because it's a rivalry game. Although Michigan is undefeated, I think this game has greater significance for Michigan State. The Spartans do enough to slow down Robinson and get enough from running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. Michigan State rallies in the fourth quarter and wins on a last-minute field goal. ... Michigan State 23, Michigan 21

PURDUE at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will hang around in this one, but the Boilers make too many mistakes (8.6 penalties per game) to win in a place like Beaver Stadium. Penn State's defense bends but doesn't break, and the Lions' offensive line builds on its performance from last week as Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes both reach the end zone. ... Penn State 24, Purdue 13

Brian Bennett: The Lions could have a little letdown after an emotional win over Iowa last week. But Purdue just doesn't have enough playmakers to puncture that Penn State defense. Devon Still introduces himself to Caleb TerBush a couple of times, and the formula of defense and just enough offense gets it done for JoePa again. ... Penn State 20, Purdue 7

INDIANA at NO. 4 WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: Not quite 83-20, but it's still ugly. A struggling IU team is no match for the Badgers' freight train. Four more touchdowns for Montee Ball in a Wisconsin laugher. ... Wisconsin 58, Indiana 17

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, I can't see Wisconsin hanging 83 on Indiana again (or the Hoosiers lying down like they did last year). The Badgers won't be sweating this one out, as Ball adds to his touchdowns total and James White reaches the end zone twice. Russell Wilson has a short day, as Wisconsin can start gearing up for the Michigan State showdown. ... Wisconsin 54, Indiana 10

OHIO STATE at NO. 16 ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: Upset special! Yes, Ohio State is fragile and Illinois is rolling. But the Buckeyes are desperate, and Illinois hasn't paid for some of its miscues (turnovers, penalties, forgetting the score). It catches up to the Illini this week. Dan Herron scores two touchdowns in his return, and Ohio State's defense does just enough to slow down Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins. ... Ohio State 21, Illinois 20

Brian Bennett: What? No love for the Zooker, Adam? I agree this will be a tough test for the Illini, but I'm not convinced Braxton Miller will be able to move effectively on his sprained ankle. And if he can't elude Whitney Mercilus, Jonathan Brown and the rest of Vic Koenning's defense, it will be another long day for the Buckeyes' offense. ... Illinois 17, Ohio State 14

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I went with history with last week's Iowa-Penn State pick and it let me down. But I was a history major in college. So I'll try it again and say Northwestern continues its dominance in this series. The Wildcats look close to breaking through, and Dan Persa tortures the porous Hawkeyes defense in an Iowa City shootout. ... Northwestern 38, Iowa 35

Adam Rittenberg: History was one of my majors, Bennett, but this is the Year of the Opposites -- Penn State beats Iowa, Iowa beats Northwestern, you're amazingly beating me in picks. Both defenses will struggle, but James Vandenberg and his receivers get well against a Northwestern team that can't stop anyone. Iowa feeds off the home crowd and rallies in the fourth quarter for a win. ... Iowa 27, Northwestern 24

BYE: Nebraska, Minnesota

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 46-11 (.807)

Rittenberg: 44-13 (.772)

Quick look at MSU QB Kirk Cousins 

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
12:44
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It seems as though Michigan coach Brady Hoke praises every quarterback Michigan faces.

He said, “I’d like to see who’s a better quarterback in the midwest than that kid,” about Western Michigan’s Alex Carder. He’ll praise a kid’s talent or his arm, but when it comes to his quarterback, Denard Robinson, he just says, “I like him.”

So unsurprisingly, Hoke is impressed with Michigan State’s redshirt senior quarterback Kirk Cousins.

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