Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VI

Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Purdue Boilermakers

Tidbits … Purdue has won at least a share of six Big Ten titles in its history, however, only once did the Boilermakers not share the title – 1929. Purdue is one of 16 schools to play in a bowl game in nine of the last ten seasons. Since 1997, only Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin have won more Big Ten games than Purdue.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th), Insight / 8-6, 5-3 (T-4th), Champs
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Outback / 5-6, 3-5 (8th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Outback / 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 9-4, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 6-6, 4-4 (T-4th

Returning Starters: 9 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Curtis Painter, WR Dorien Bryant, WR Greg Orton, WR Selwyn Lymon, TE Dustin Keller, RB Kory Sheets, C Robbie Powell, RG Jordan Grimes, RT Sean Sester, DE Cliff Avril, LB Dan Bick, SS Justin Scott, CB Terrell Vinson, P Jared Armstrong

Key Losses: LG Uche Nwaneri, LT Mike Otto, DE Anthony Spencer, LB George Hall

Looking Back ... 2006 really went according to script, well, my script for the Boilermakers anyway. Purdue had to replace seven defensive starters and both kickers and was still trying to solidify the offense. Everything started off according to plan, with a pretty easy stretch to open the season but after winning four straight, Purdue came back to earth, losing four of five. The gold and black ended with three wins in a row before the dreaded trip to Hawaii where seemingly no Big Ten team leaves unscathed. The season was capped off by a bowl loss, but that bowl berth got the Boilers back on track after seeing an eight year streak snapped in 2005.

On the bright side of a rather up and down campaign was the success of the aerial attack. Curtis Painter looked like Drew Brees at times and the Purdue offense its old self. The problem was a rather bad defense and a horrid kicking game (8 of 20 on field goal tries). Still, 2006 gave the coaching staff a chance to rebuild its defense for a run in 2007. The trouble is, Ohio State and Michigan are back after they were not on the slate the past two years, so things don’t really get any easier for the Boilermakers. Last season I spoke of it getting close to do or die time for Joe Tiller. It would be tough to run out a coach who has had such sustained success, but Purdue fans have to be antsy. After all, the Boilers are pretty consistently a .500 or so team in league play and that means limited opportunities to hit the national spotlight with marquee bowl games.

Outlook - Offense ... A season ago, two current Boilermakers (Curtis Painter and Dorien Bryant) led four individual offensive categories in the Big Ten. The offense as a whole was fifth in scoring (26.0 ppg), first – by far and away – in passing offense (291.6 ypg), and first in total offense (415.7 ypg). The only negative was the rushing attack. The Purdue ground game was more or less grounded at 124.1 ypg – good for tenth in the conference. So, what does that mean for 2007? A lot. Minus the left side of the offensive line, every single starter is back. Key depth returns. The passing attack might only get better. The ground game should definitely improve. It’s back to basketball on grass in West Lafayette and Boiler fans everywhere have to love the prospects heading into fall…

When a baby faced sophomore named Curtis Painter took the reigns of the offense midway through a forgettable six-game losing streak back in 2005, who would have thought that he would be the next great passer to don the old gold and black? Well, he has certainly become a force to be reckoned with and perhaps one of the most oft overlooked signal callers in the Big Ten, if not college football. The senior led the Boilermakers to the sixth best aerial attack in the nation a year ago and led the Big Ten in passing average (284.6 ypg) and total offense (292.3 ypg). He has a boatload of weapons returning and is primed to battle Chad Henne for honors as top quarterback in the league this fall.

Talent wise, there is little drop off from Painter, but when it comes to experience, the stable of QBs is quite green. Joey Elliott saw some mop-up duty last fall and has plenty of potential, but is not as mobile as Painter and will be pushed for the second string role by star recruit Justin Siller. Siller, a 6-4 true freshman with a bevy of tools if not the polish to match (yet), may be employed in other ways with the offense as well but given what Purdue returns, don’t be surprised to see the coaching staff try and put a year between the super recruit and Elliott.

No highly productive quarterback can get to the top without an NFL-caliber go-to receiver. Purdue has at least one of those in Dorien Bryant. The 5-10 senior is the best receiver in America that you’ve never heard of (outside of Big Ten country). The guy can fly. He has amazing hands. He runs his routes with fantastic precision. And he flat out produces, game in and game out. He snared 87 passes for 1,068 yards last season, both tops in the Big Ten. He has 205 catches over his first three seasons and while he doesn’t sniff the end zone as often as one might like, he is a player. Perhaps what makes him even better is the fact that he is surrounded by other weapons. Junior Greg Orton is a big target with reliable hands. His 58 receptions would have been tops on several teams last fall and he will see more of the rock this fall. The return of Selwyn Lymon rounds out the best trio of receivers in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Lymon caught 33 passes a season ago, and is blessed with great size (6-4, 215) and speed. Really, any in this trio would star for any team in the country. What a great conundrum for the Purdue coaching staff to face.

Purdue has some decent depth at wide receiver as well. Desmond Tardy turned some heads this spring and will spell Bryant when/if he needs some down time. Jake Standeford is no where near the receiver his brother John was but he has field smarts and experience with the program and can fill in for Lymon as needed. Former JUCO transfer John Whitest is extremely fast but has little to show so far statistically. Still, he can provide some punch off the bench too if he is called upon. Finally, what makes the receiving corps for Purdue so dangerous is the caliber of pass-catching tight ends that the program continually churns out. Senior Dustin Keller is a former wide out turned tight end. Keller caught 56 passes a season ago and rounds out an incredible group of pass catchers. While not the best blocking tight end around, he is a weapon and a great one at that. Sophomore Kyle Adams might be a more prototypical TE and as he continues to get better, will see plenty of the field as well. So, this all begs the question, how can’t you put up staggering numbers as a quarterback with a group like this?

The biggest weakness for the offense last season was the running game but that wasn’t due to a lack of talent. Juniors Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor combined for 1,457 yards and 15 touchdowns last season – numbers that if put up by a single back would gain a lot of attention. Those are tempered, however, by the fact that the Boilers played 14 games a season ago. When you boil it down, the per game average was second worst in the conference. Heading into 2007, one can assume that Joe Tiller will try to balance things a bit more even with the cache of receiving weapons at his disposal. That means more carries for the duo and possibly even more two back sets, if for no other reason, because that means Purdue would have five of its top offensive threats on the field at any given time. Another name to watch for is freshman Malcolm Harris who is a total package back with speed to burn. He may struggle to see time initially with Sheets and Taylor firmly entrenched, but he should eventually see the field, even if it means a few less carries for WR Dorien Bryant and QB Curtis Painter. No doubt, the talent and experience is there for Purdue. With a little more focus on balance, Purdue could have the best all-around attack in the Big Ten this fall.

The only position group that took a personnel hit was the offensive line. Now, that’s not to be overlooked, but given the array of skill players returning, and that three of the five starters up front come back, this is but a small concern for the Purdue coaching staff. Granted, losing the left side of your line when you have a right-handed thrower standing in the pocket isn’t totally inconsequential, but the Boilers have able-bodied – and big-bodied – replacements in line to take over for Mike Otto and Uche Nwaneri. Senior transfer Elliot Hood received a special waiver from the NCAA to skip the typical year of sitting that comes with a transfer (he came to Purdue to be closer to home as his mother has cancer) and is in line to supplant junior Garrett Miller who had been slated to take on Otto’s duties at tackle. Hood saw a lot of time in his first three years at Vanderbilt, though mainly on the right side of the line. Miller battled a bum shoulder all spring but has potential and has great size, at 6-8, despite being a little light (275). Eric Hedstrom is due to breakout. He was highly touted as a recruit and brings some heft up front (6-6, 305 lbs). The sophomore also battled the injury bug this spring but this duo should be able to help the returning starters – Jordan Grimes, Sean Sester and Robbie Powell – maintain two very impressive stats for any offensive front: tops in the NCAA in tackles allowed behind the line of scrimmage and 22nd nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.43 or one very 27.1 pass attempts).

The only true weakness in this unit may be the depth. Senior Dan Zaleski has been a good reserve throughout his career and stepped in nicely for Miller during spring practice. If Hedstrom, the “x-factor” slips, Justin Pierce is waiting in the wings. Pierce is the biggest road grader up front and is a terrific run blocker. Cory Benton, a former tight end rounds out the experienced depth. He will back-up Powell at center but can also play some tackle. The key here is simple, but carrying it out is far from simple – staying healthy is paramount. Purdue can run seven or eight legitimate contributors in the rotation but is generally thin here outside of that group. If the playing group stays healthy and strong, look out, Purdue could have the best offensive attack in the country this fall…

I’m hesitant to crown this team anything other than what it has been for the past several years – consistent and above average. However, the components are here for the Purdue offense to be as good as ever: A veteran quarterback with the ability to pull it down and run in addition to his good arm and bevy of receiving options. A pair of tailbacks that can grind things out or break the big play. An offensive front that has a chance to be really good. If Purdue can bring the ground game up to snuff, maintain some of the more impressive statistics and cut down on turnovers (29 lost – second worst in the Big Ten), watch out.

Outlook - Defense ... Eighth. Tenth. Eleventh. Eleventh. Sixth. That’s really all you need to know about this defense and what it needs to do heading into 2007. Purdue gave up 26.7 ppg (8th), 241.2 passing yards per game (10th), 191.2 rushing yards per contest (11th), 432.4 total yards per game (11th) and had a minus one turnover ratio (6th). It’s simple – improve upon these very un-Purdue like numbers and the wins should pile up. Yes, football is a sport that has equal importance in three areas, but really, what good is an offense like Purdue’s if the defense gives right back what the offense picks up? With nine of eleven starters returning lack of improvement will be inexcusable.

For the Boilermakers to improve, it is going to first and foremost happen on the defensive front. The question that remains – how will that happen when one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten from last season has taken his game to the NFL? Anthony Spencer was an extremely active defensive end. He led the league in tackles for loss with 26.5, had 10.5 sacks and a solid 93 total tackles. Replacing him is probably the biggest task for the coaching staff heading into fall.

The good news is, Cliff Avril returns. Avril racked up 84 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss a season ago, but was that a result of the attention being paid Spencer? We’ll find out in a hurry this fall when Avril becomes “the man.” The other end is a bit in flux. It could be manned by Mike McDonald or the versatile Ryan Baker, although Baker is more likely at this point to start at tackle, where he started 11 games last season. Alex Magee is penciled in to start inside with Baker but could be pushed by sophomore Mike Neal. Neal is a very good pass rusher but needs to prove his long term worth as a reliable run stopper. In fact, the same can really be said for the entire line. There is ample quickness and great athleticism, both of which make the Boiler front four a force against the pass, but plain and simple, this defense needs to be better at stopping the run. Jermaine Guynn (Jr.) might be the best run-stopper of the bunch and will see plenty of time off the depth chart this fall. Senior Eugene Bright has the looks of a good pass rusher but his production has been limited over the course of his career. So, the key questions are: can Avril make fans forget about Spencer, will the run defense be spotty or dependable and generally, can the defensive front set the tone for an improved Purdue defense?

The only other personnel hit the Boilermakers take is at linebacker, where fourth-leading tackler George Hall has left a vacancy. Hall was a solid player in the middle and his leadership will be missed. Don’t think though that Purdue is in dire straights at the position. Starters Dan Bick and Stanford Keglar return and Bick has experience both in the middle and on the weak side. Bick will likely bring his team high tackles back to the middle, where he started off last season, but he will have to shake the rust of a neck injury that sidelined him this spring. He isn’t an eye-popping linebacker in the mold of the more memorable players to field the position over the years, but he has good sideline-to-sideline range and is a sure tackler. Keglar is a fifth-year senior and is big, fast and athletic. Despite being built more like a smallish DE or middle linebacker, he is penciled in to take over on the weak side. That Keglar and Bick are interchangeable is a nice advantage for the coaching staff as well. Taking on the final starting slot is former running back Anthony Heygood. The junior struggled in making the transition last fall but is fast, has great athleticism and toughness. He has versatility as well and can play the strong or weak side.

The depth chart isn’t teeming with potential starters per se, but there are a few more versatile performers that give the defensive coaching staff options. Josh Ferguson filled in for Bick in the middle during spring practice while overcoming his own injury – a broken hip in game seven a season ago. He brings some bulk to the middle. Sophomore John Humphrey came in as a touted recruit and will get a chance to turn some heads. He will push Keglar on the weak side and has tremendous speed with great pass-rushing instincts. The strength of the linebacking corps is the fact that multiple guys can plug and play at all of the positions. That means less bodies are needed over the course of the year, which in turn means more continuity and hopefully, a better performing defense. The linebackers undoubtedly need to get better at taking opposing offenses to task as they were far too reactive as a unit last season. Shore thing up here and Purdue will get more stops and win more games.

Yikes. That’s what most Purdue fans probably say when asked to consider, in one word, the contribution (or lack thereof) of the secondary over the past few seasons. A word that more readily comes to mind for me is horrible. As in, the Purdue secondary has been horrible of late. The pass defense ranked 104th in the nation last fall. The scary part? There was a statistical improvement from 2005!

Now that I’ve painted a bleak picture, let’s get to the details. On the bright side, all four starters return. There is decent depth. Things can’t get much worse. On the negative side, sometimes the hope for improvement for a fully in tact returning unit is too optimistic and it ends up being what it is – i.e. a woefully average playing group. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the group will be much better than the past two seasons. It helps to have playmakers and Purdue really has six or seven of them in the mix. Senior Terrell Vinson and sophomore Royce Adams hold down the corners. Vinson is not all that great with run support but came in as a JUCO transfer last year and made some things happen. Adams is a potential star and will continue to get better with experience. Strong safety Justin Scott was the consistent player of the unit last year and brings senior leadership and experience. His athleticism makes him a threat to create big plays for the defense all game long. Brandon Erwin had a fair true freshman campaign and should be able to take what he learned and build on it for 2007.

The depth chart should be led by Torri Williams, but it all depends on how he handles himself after off field issues and a couple of big injuries dating back to 2005. He is a safety with a world of talent, but will it be put to use? Sophomore David Pender is a fast corner back with good size that could also make an impact. Finally, Aaron Lane is a somewhat limited but game junior that plays the corner. He is smart and tough but needs to stay healthy to help this pass defense get better. In Purdue’s glory days with tough as nails defenses, it started with the secondary. The same needs to happen this year. If the D hopes to be more than average and keep the potent offense on the field, it needs the secondary to make plays and make them often.

Let’s be frank – the Purdue defense was abysmal last season. Was it an aberration or is it a trend? This year will provide the answer. Two seasons in a row is working towards a trend. Three is a trend. The defense needs to shape up or the potent offense will be standing on the sidelines. That gets you nowhere. Need proof? Just call former MSU signal caller Drew Stanton. He’ll tell you all about what it means to have a porous defense. Purdue has potential in all three playing groups. No one needs to turn into a top five draft pick, but everyone needs to step it up a notch. Do that and the season will become a rousing success…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Both kickers return for Purdue this fall. On one hand, that’s good. Punter Jared Armstrong was a God-send. He led the conference in average yards per kick, landed 16 inside the 20, had a strong and accurate leg. On the other hand, you have sophomore Chris Summers. Summers has a great leg but he was an almost unforgivable 8 for 20 last season. The big problem here is confidence, or a lack thereof. That means Tim Dougherty will continue to get a chance to fight for the job. If no one emerges, the battle will continue all season long. The return game is not near where it needs to be at this point, especially given the talent in the fold but in general, Purdue should hopefully see some improvement in this oft overlooked third phase of the game.

9/1 – at Toledo
9/22 – at Minnesota
10/13 – at Michigan
10/20 – IOWA
11/3 – at Penn State
11/17 – at Indiana

Key Games: 9/29 – Notre Dame, 10/6 – Ohio State, 10/13 – at Michigan, 10/20 – Iowa, 11/3 – at Penn State, 11/17 – at Indiana

Prediction ... On paper, I really like this team. The problem is, I have said that in the past, over-predicted and been burned. The schedule gets tougher with Michigan and Ohio State coming back while Wisconsin and Illinois rotate off. The out of conference slate is actually a bit tougher than it looks. MAC teams are never cupcakes and to start out on the road at Toledo could be tough. Still, I expect Purdue to take advantage of a fairly soft OOC slate and to muscle to four wins over a tough Big Ten slate. The Sporting News says Purdue has the third toughest conference schedule and I agree. It is well balanced though, with an equal number of tough home and road games. There will be a late stumble in Bloomington that will be the only real glitch in an otherwise solid season.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 4-4 (wins over Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State)
Overall: 8-4, 6th in the conference, Alamo Bowl berth

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews - Part V

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

6/26 update: Troubled defensive tackle Bobby Jones will transfer to Nebraska-Omaha, ending a tumultuous "tenure" with MSU. That leaves the Spartans even thinner at a position of concern.

Team: Michigan State Spartans

Tidbits ... Michigan State is one of only three programs not to win at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade. In fact, the last shared title for MSU was 1990 (4-way tie) and the last outright title was 1987. The Spartans’ last stretch of three (or more) consecutive losing seasons occurred from 1979 to 1983 – well before most anyone on the current roster was born.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 5-3 (5th), Champs / 4-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 5-3 (4th), Sun / 5-6, 2-6 (9th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Sun / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 6-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 8-5, 5-3 (T-4th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 7-5, 3-5 (T-8th)

Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: RB Javon Ringer, RB Jehuu Caulcrick, WR T.J. Williams, TE Kellen Davis, LT Mike Gyetvai, LB Kaleb Thornhill, LB SirDarean Adams, FS Otis Wiley, K Brett Swenson

Key Losses: QB Drew Stanton, WR Kerry Reed, WR Matt Trannon, C Kyle Cook, DT Clifton Ryan, LB David Herron Jr., LS Brian Bury, P Brandon Fields

Looking Back ... Two words sum up the 2006 campaign in East Lansing: train wreck. If you left civilization during the third quarter of the Notre Dame game last September and didn’t come back until just now, you would probably be floored to know that somehow Michigan State managed to blow a seemingly bank vault safe fourth quarter lead and then managed but one win the rest of the season. Then again, this is Michigan State we’re talking about. If you witnessed the carnage and the rest of the mess that ensued, all you had to do was hearken back to 2005, even 2004 to realize this was more of the same from the Spartans – the derailment just happened a little earlier than in those seasons.

After starting hot and finishing in the tank for the third season in a row, John L. Smith was shown the door. A once promising marriage of Smith’s quirky, gunslinger style with Michigan State’s tradition ended with an in-season firing two weeks after State mustered the biggest second half comeback in D1 history, overcoming a 38-3 deficit at Northwestern to win 41-38. Lost in the debris was the fantastic career of quarterback Drew Stanton who tried in vain to do it all by himself for three years as the Spartans sputtered in consecutive stretch runs (5-16 in October & November). Out with Smith and in with Mark Dantonio. Spartans everywhere area holding out hope that after two consecutive head coaching failures, that Dantonio can restore the pride and winning ways that have been missing for far too long…

Outlook - Offense ... Another quarterback era has faded away in East Lansing. For the past three years, Drew Stanton tried to carry the Spartans on his back – sometimes with eye-popping success and other times with limited results. That seems to have been the case at Michigan State of late, as before Stanton, there was Jeff Smoker who had similar ups and downs. Truth be told, MSU’s offense has historically been at its best with a good – not great – quarterback at the helm. Someone steady, consistent and heady. Might that someone be the new man to step under center this fall? Brian Hoyer certainly won’t have to do it himself in an offense that reverts back to more of a pro-style attack, with emphasis on run first – not pass, as it had been under Smith – and strong use of the tight end. There are some nice weapons despite the loss of five starters. It all depends on how well the team continues to adjust to the new offensive sets.

The biggest loss on the offense was the departure of Drew Stanton to the NFL. Stanton was a gamer and gave the Spartans a chance to win in every game. Junior Brian Hoyer steps into the spotlight after biding his time as a serviceable backup to Stanton. The fourth-year player from Ohio has a stronger arm than Stanton, if not the uncanny ability to turn broken plays into head-shaking wonderments with his legs. All he needs to do is be consistent and keep the mistakes in check. The good news is that it isn’t as if he is totally green. He played in most of the second to last game in 2006 – after Stanton suffered a concussion – and nearly led the Spartans to their first win in State College in decades. He had a nice spring, until he fell flat in the Green & White game, but then again, half of his line and his best weapons played on the other side so I wouldn’t read too much into that.

It really comes down to Hoyer playing sound football and making good decisions. He has some nice weapons in his cache and shouldn’t have to do it all – all the time. The real concern here is with the depth. The transfer of Dom Natale to Rutgers last season will be felt in 2007 if Hoyer gets hurt. Heading into August, the Spartans have a walk-on (Clay Charles), redshirt freshman Connor Dixon and two true freshmen – Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles – in the fold to back Hoyer up. The prized recruit for 2007 – Lowell, MI signal caller Keith Nichol – rescinded his verbal last November and might well start for Oklahoma this fall. If he can start there, what might he have done for the Spartans? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Cousins and Foles are going to get a good shot to push Dixon and Charles for the second and third string roles. Cousins is a very cerebral quarterback that could be a sleeper. Foles was a late signee after rescinding his verbal to Arizona State amid a coaching change. My money is on Foles to step in and push Dixon for back-up duties but no matter who steps up, if Hoyer goes down, the Spartan offense will likely be in for a long season.

The biggest strength for the Michigan State offense, bar none, is in the backfield. That’s tremendous news as the Spartans look to be much more of a force running the ball this season than at any time under John L. Smith. Javon Ringer is the game-breaker and perhaps the most unheralded back in the Big Ten. He has tremendous speed and good power for a smaller tailback. He returned late last season from what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury and appears stronger than ever heading into fall camp. He should eclipse the 1,000 yard mark for the green and white this season.

The strength beyond Ringer is in the numbers. Jehuu Caulcrick showed his stuff as a freshman in a huge upset of Wisconsin and then again last year early in the debacle against Notre Dame. He is a change of pace guy with tremendous power and better-than-you’d-expect speed. He is an ideal short yardage guy and has a nose for the end zone. A.J. Jimmerson was a highly touted recruit and enters his third year with the program. The redshirt sophomore has been prone to the fumble early in his career and has struggled to pick up all of his blocking assignments, but he should see some time this fall. Incoming freshmen Andre Anderson and Ashton Leggett may also push for time, but with the depth ahead of them, could redshirt and keep the stable of running backs full. In addition to the tailbacks, MSU will go back to utilizing a fullback with the new offensive system. The position is in a state of flux since the former regime did not employ a fullback, so until a couple of true fullbacks are brought in, the offense will opt to use converted linebacker Jeff McPherson or former tight end Dwayne Holmes in the role.

Aside from the loss of Stanton, the wide receiver position took the biggest hit in terms of personnel losses heading into this year. All three starters from a season ago have departed, and with them went 376 career receptions, 4,685 yards and 28 scores. Don’t cry for Hoyer though because as I mentioned, he has plenty of weapons in his cache. In fact, there really isn’t a lapse in the talent pool at all heading into 2007. The best of the best is probably sophomore T.J. Williams, a 6-3, 185-pounder with fantastic hands. He still needs to mature on and off the field, but has a world of talent and could be the go-to-guy for the Spartans aerial attack this fall. Senior Terry Love is the most experienced wide out and another one with loads of potential. He has shown flashes over his career and now gets a chance to shine. Juniors Devin Thomas and Deon Curry have been with the program even if they haven’t seen a ton of playing time as of yet. Thomas turned some heads in the spring though and also has great size. Others to watch are David Williams, a smaller, speedy receiver with the ability to make yards after the catch, Ryan Allison – a junior who has seen time on and off during his career, and incoming freshmen B.J. Cunningham, Mark Dell and Chris Rucker. The bottom line is with less emphasis on the passing game, this unit can survive the loss of Trannon, Reed and Scott and more than likely never miss a beat. Heck, with the talent of the two Williams and Thomas, MSU might not miss the trio of starters that much anyway…

With the introduction of a new, more balanced offensive attack comes a far more important role for the tight ends. We’ve heard throughout his career, and even seen glimpses of, Kellen Davis’ talent and ability as a game changing receiver. Now we will see some consistent use of that talent. The Don Treadwell offense calls for much more use of the tight end than the previous staff’s. That bodes well for Davis and senior Eric Andino, who have become solid blockers but will now get the opportunity to impact the game in a different way. If either of them fails to provide consistency, redshirt freshman Charlie Gantt showed some promise during spring ball and will be right there to push for time. In addition, the new staff brought in three tight end recruits who may vie for time – Garrett Celek, David Duran and Kevin Pickelman. With more focus on the tight end, Hoyer has another viable weapon in his arsenal and the Spartans’ offense yet another option in its attack.

Michigan State returns four starters up front this fall, another situation that – on paper – bodes well for Brian Hoyer and the offense. The problem is the unit wasn’t very reliable last season as it suffered myriad injuries. Then again, that may be of benefit heading into the 2007 campaign. Why? Simple, several players got looks at multiple positions, which means depth and experience abound. The overall concern might be the adjustment to a different blocking scheme and style. This group needs to get much more physical than it was required to be under Dave Baldwin’s offense.

The biggest question up front is at the center position, where Kyle Cook has moved on and no one really stepped up in the way the coaches had hoped during spring practice. John Masters is the most likely candidate to take on the starting role and he saw ample playing time last fall, but he never separated from the pack in spring ball. A big key will be finding a reliable backup or contender for Masters at center. The rest of the line is fully in tact and, as aforementioned, has ample experience. Left tackle Mike Gyetvai is solid but sat out spring practice and the majority of the latter part of last season with a shoulder injury. He needs to stay healthy as he is a key to the continuity of the line. Left guard Pete Clifford can also play tackle and also brings a fifth year of experience to the fray. The right side was in flux during the spring, as neither returning starter shined as brightly as the new staff hoped. Jesse Miller is the most likely starter at right tackle, with the once highly touted Roland Martin returning at guard. The hope is that Martin in particular will burst onto the scene as he was expected to when he shunned Oklahoma for MSU a few years ago. The depth chart brings experience as well. Kenny Shane can plug in at guard and Rocco Cironi saw time as a true freshman last fall at the toughest spot on the line – left tackle. Jason Diehl, Tom Kaczmarek and Mike Bacon might also factor in, though Diehl and Kaczmarek have been injury prone and Bacon is a walk-on. The staff brought in four linemen with the 2007 signing class, but all four are more than likely candidates to redshirt.

The Spartans lost four highly skilled weapons on offense but really shouldn’t skip a beat in 2007. An offense that was middle of the pack (6th) in scoring, third in passing and ninth in rushing should be very well balanced overall and far better on the ground, again with a renewed focus on running the rock. If the injury bug bites at quarterback or even up front, it could be a different story, however. Don’t expect 40-point outbursts as often this season, but do expect more ball control and a sound all-around attack.

Outlook - Defense ... I’d like to think that one of the biggest reasons that Michigan State pursued and landed Mark Dantonio as head coach was his prowess as a defensive coach. He played a prominent role in coaching the secondary under Nick Saban’s watch, coordinated a defense that won the national title for Ohio State in 2002 and built Cincinnati on defense first. He brought with him a great, young, up and coming coordinator in Pat Narduzzi and will almost certainly change the face of this very reactive defense to a proactive, attacking group. Something needs to happen. Part of the problem for Drew Stanton was that he could never fully trust the defense to make stops. Last year’s group was average – at best. That needs to change in this transition year if the Spartans are to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2003.

The first and foremost area that needs to be shored up is the defensive front. Starting tackles Clifton Ryan and David Stanton have moved on, leaving a sizeable hole in the middle. Ryan was one of those versatile linemen who gave it his all no matter his health or where he played on the line. Stanton was a JUCO guy that provided some spark, but he can be more easily replaced. The trouble is, there just isn’t much depth up the gut and what is there is relatively inexperienced. The best candidates to get the starting nod inside are junior Justin Kershaw, who moved to defensive tackle from defensive end in the spring, and either Ogemdi Nwagbuo (Sr.) or John Stipek (So.) at nose tackle. Kershaw has a great motor, Nwagbuo is a space eater and Stipek is a bull-nosed, wrestler-strong athlete that reminds Dantonio of former Buckeye Tim Anderson. Others that may be called upon to provide time in the middle are Bobby Jones (not the golfer) and J’Michael Deane.

There is a little more depth on the outside where Ervin Baldwin returns and looks to have a Julian Peterson type of year as a pass rusher. The pass rush has been absent since John L. Smith’s first year, when the team racked up nearly 50 sacks (2003). On the other side junior Brandon Long and fifth year senior Jonal Saint Dic are in a heated battle for the starting slot. Both will see significant time this season regardless of who gets the starting nod. Patrick Rigan and Reggie Graham are inexperienced but provide the depth at defensive end.

When push comes to shove, there are really four to six proven, reliable players in the mix and a bushel basket full of question marks. The new staff did manage to land some solid recruits for the defensive front, and that means any of the foursome of Ryan Wheat, Antonio Jeremiah, Ishmyl Johnson and Oren Wilson can be expected to see the field early. Not an ideal situation at a position where an extra year of strengthening, adding weight and adjusting to the pace of college ball can really pay dividends long term. But, it is what it is and the Spartans will have to make do. If the group can be above average, that will help the defense make some sound improvements over last year.

The position that will be interesting to watch is linebacker. David Herron Jr. has departed and he leaves a void, but two seniors return in Kaleb Thornhill and SirDarean Adams. Thornhill sat out spring ball to mend a bum knee and shoulder but has a ton of experience at middle linebacker. Adams might finally be ready to live up to his high school billing after his best winter and spring yet. He is also solidly entrenched at linebacker, whereas he was more of a hybrid defensive back/linebacker in the former scheme. If he can continue to attack rather than stay back and wait for the play to come to him, he will be a solid playmaker. The vacancy at SAM will be filled by either Adam Decker (So.) or Jon Misch (R-Fr.). The duo is young and relatively inexperienced but show great promise. Andrew Hawken (So.) and John Rouse (So.) are another pair of sophomores who will see the field this fall. The pair split time in the middle in place of Thornhill in the spring and bring good athleticism to the mix. Redshirt freshman Eric Gordon backs up Adams and has a load of potential as well. This might be the deepest the linebacking corps has been in some time and the youth will serve it well for the next few seasons to come. The key will be for the inexperienced players to gel well with Thornhill and Adams and to take advantage of a defense that is much more proactive than reactive.

To borrow a line from Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Live fame, “hear me know and believe me later.” The secondary – yes, the same secondary that has been a veritable patchwork of transplanted tailbacks and receivers for years – might actually be the strength of this defense. And no, not just because the defense is that bad. It simply has to do with the fact that some key components from last year that were unable to play due to injury – namely cornerback Ross Weaver – is back and really shores up that position. He will team up with Kendell Davis-Clark who had a nice season last year and is poised to step it up a notch in 2007. Most of the reason for optimism stems from the return of starting safeties Otis Wiley and Nehemiah Warrick. Wiley has been perhaps the steadiest contributor on defense since day one and Warrick is a big hitter with a better understanding of where to be and when to be there after getting a year under his belt. Toss in former walk-on Travis Key, who also has a knack for making plays, and State is in great shape at the safety position. The question heading into fall camp might be who fills out the depth chart, but again, for a change, there is some legitimate depth available, even if it might be on the younger side. Sophomores Roderick Jenrette and Dan Fortener have some ability at safety and another pair of sophomores – Ashton Henderson and Jeremy Ware are making some noise at the corner position. Freshman Chris Rucker will also likely get a shot at some playing time this fall. The depth is a little limited in general, but there are some true defensive backs in the mix for the first time in a long time and with any push from the front seven, this group might be able to force turnovers and turn the tide on the recent trend of October/November swoons…

The defense was better in 2006 than in 2005, but still did not do its part often enough or with enough consistency. The new staff hopes the system it has implemented will help rid the team of said issues. One thing is for sure, the communication problems and general look of ineptitude should be a thing of the past. The defense will be far more aggressive this year and while that may mean a big play surrendered here and there, it will also mean more sacks, more turnovers and more success. In particular, the difference in coverage preferred by this staff should make a secondary with some talent into one of the better groups in the league.

Outlook - Special Teams ... It’s really too bad that Brett Swenson isn’t a year older. Why? He would have been around to save MSU’s butt in games it lost due to the lack of a kicker in 2005! Alas, he is only a sophomore but one of the better kickers in the Big Ten. He nailed 15-19 tries last fall and is a great weapon to have when/if the offense stalls inside the 30. His range should be better this year as he has a year under his belt but really, so long as he matches last year, that will be a win for the special teams. Todd Boleski returns to handle kickoff duties – an important job now that kickoffs will come from the 30. The question in the kicking game is, who replaces Brandon Fields? Fields had one of the best careers of any punter in the Big Ten – ever. Spring ball showed no promise at this position, which means all the eggs are basically in the Aaron Bates basket. Bates comes in as a touted recruit this fall. The return game should be sound with plenty of speedy players to pick from.

9/1 – UAB
9/22 – at Notre Dame
9/29 – at Wisconsin
10/13 – INDIANA
10/20 – at Ohio State
10/27 – at Iowa
11/10 – at Purdue
11/17 – PENN STATE

Key Games: 9/15 – Pittsburgh, 9/22 – at Notre Dame, 9/29 – at Wisconsin, 10/20 – at Ohio State, 11/3 – Michigan, 11/17 – Penn State

Prediction ... The Spartans have a flat-out brutal schedule in 2007. MSU faces eight bowl teams from last season, misses Illinois and Minnesota, while picking up road games at Iowa and Wisconsin. The front of the schedule should allow for some wins, but per the last few seasons, October and November are fraught with peril. UAB and Bowling Green are not the cupcakes they appear to be and while Pittsburgh and Notre Dame also replace quarterbacks, they will be no picnic either. The saving grace is that the first three are at home and South Bend has been Spartan Stadium south since 1997. It goes from tough to tougher for a week when the Spartans head to Wisconsin, then it eases a bit before a downright nasty five game stretch to end the season. In reality, anything more than six wins should means Coach of the Year honors for Dantonio. But, this team has arguably more talent than the 2003 team that John L. Smith turned around, and easily a better coach. MSU will play in December this year, but only by a hair.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Notre Dame)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Northwestern, Indiana and Penn State)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Insight Bowl berth

Monday, June 18, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part IV

6/19 update: Coach Terry Hoeppner has passed away. A tremendous loss for Indiana and college football. Thoughts and prayers to his family as well as the IU family.

Head Coach Terry Hoeppner has died of complications from a brain tumor.
Coach Hoeppner was a beacon of light...

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Indiana Hoosiers

Tidbits … Indiana’s last bowl berth was the Independence Bowl in 1993. The Hoosiers’ last winning season came in 1994 and that capped seven seasons out of nine with a .500 or better final record. IU is one of only three programs not to win at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-6th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (11th) / 4-7, 1-7 (10th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Kellen Lewis, RB Marcus Thigpen, WR James Hardy, WR James Bailey, OG John Sandberg, OT Charlie Emerson, DT Greg Brown, LB Will Patterson, CB Tracy Porter, PK Austin Starr

Key Losses: WR Jahkeen Gilmore, OL Chris Mangiero, C Justin Frye, DE Kenny Kendal, S Will Meyers, P Tyson Beattie

Looking Back ... 2006 was another step in the right direction for Indiana football. In fact, it marked the third straight season with one more win than the previous campaign and was the first time that the Hoosiers’ were in a legitimate fight for a bowl berth since 2001. IU had five wins with three games remaining on the schedule but fell flat in three attempts to get to magic number six. The funny thing is, they would have been bowling for the first time since 1993 had they taken care of business against 1-AA Southern Illinois or Connecticut – both games they had a chance to win.

It didn’t help that Indiana had the distraction of an in-season emergency surgery for head coach Terry Hoeppner. It also didn’t make matters easy to play all of the big boys (except Penn State). Nonetheless, the five wins was the most for the program since Antwaan Randle El led a fun to watch attack in 2001 and it has the Hoosiers very much on track to get back to a bowl game and winning ways soon. Along the way last year, IU developed a great young quarterback – wide receiver tandem in Kellen Lewis and James Hardy and became generally more consistent and reliable with each game. Will that pay forward to 2007? Time will tell, but this is as good as it’s looked for Indiana heading into a season in well over a decade.

Outlook - Offense ... If you think Kellen Lewis to James Hardy when you think about the Indiana offense, you probably think yards, points, big plays. Well, you’d be partially right. That duo was excellent and will only get better. Trouble is, Indiana didn’t exactly light up the statistics columns last season. Try this on for size: 8th in scoring offense, 11th in rushing offense, 10th in total offense (saved only by the 4th in passing offense). The Hoosiers’ task for 2007 is to get consistency on offense. An upper tier passing game is great, but teams will find a way to slow down the Lewis to Hardy connection. IU needs to get better at running the ball, controlling clock and turning good drives into points on the scoreboard. Do that and the sky is literally the limit...

Heading into 2006, Indiana was in pretty good shape at quarterback. After all, the Hoosiers had fourth-year junior Blake Powers back at the helm with some decent talent budding around him. We knew that Kellen Lewis would push him, but really, who knew that Lewis would be so good so soon that Powers would not even be a quarterback heading into his final campaign? Anyone who missed his ascension to the top missed out on the beginning of what should be a special run in Bloomington. Lewis is gifted with tremendous athleticism, a great arm and a knack for knowing where to go and where to be. He’ll only get better with polish and that bodes well for the future of Indiana football – after all, he is only a sophomore. As with many teams going through a building phase, the key will be to keep Lewis healthy. There is some talent on the roster, but with Powers moving to tight end, the talent is very inexperienced. Ben Chappell, a redshirt freshman, will likely serve as the backup, and he also has some star potential in his game. Junior Dustin Haas rounds out the playing group at quarterback.

Perhaps the biggest weakness for the Indiana offense is the running attack. It ranked dead last in the conference a season ago, squeezing out a measly 113.8 yards per game. Lewis was the leading rusher, which is okay but not ideal if you want him to keep optimal health. That means returning starter Marcus Thigpen (junior) needs to step it up a notch, or two or three. For that matter, so do the other four backs who saw time a year ago. If Indiana can push the combined totals of Thigpen and sophomore Demetrius McCray from just over 700 yards and four scores to 1,000 yards plus and closer to ten touchdowns, it will mark a vast improvement. The real conundrum is that the pair is on the small side – both less than 6-feet tall and under 190 pounds. The good news is that fifth year senior fullback Josiah Sears has plenty of experience, bulk and ability to offer a change of pace. Mark my words, if Indiana is to continue on the road to improvement, the running game needs to move from worst to at least middle of the pack. If not, it will be a lot of the same old same old at Memorial Stadium and the likelihood of Kellen Lewis getting dinged up for having to carry too much of the load will increase exponentially.

If the backfield is the big question mark heading into 2007, the most comfort comes from knowing that Indiana has arguably the next great receiver in college football in James Hardy. Heck, he’s already great. It’s just time for the rest of the country to see it. With a little more success, that will come to fruition. Hardy is a 6-7 freak of nature with the hands of Jerry Rice to go along with the speed and size to match now Detroit Lion Calvin Johnson. He snagged 51 catches in ten games last season, abusing the Michigan State and Iowa secondary’s as if they were manned by middle-schoolers. What might he do with a now seasoned signal caller and perhaps a halfway decent ground game? Unthinkable…

Even better than having one phenom running routes and catching passes? Indiana has a bevy of talented, game-breaking wide outs. The only reason James Hardy might not snag upwards of 75 passes this fall is because James Bailey is bound to match at least the 40 he had last season, if not improve on that tally. Bailey will also almost certainly find the end zone, something he failed to do a season ago. At 6-2, the junior also has great size to go with speed and hands. He gives Indiana’s receiving corps a defensive coordinators nightmare. Not to be forgotten is sophomore Nick Polk. He was the third leading receiver on the team last year and will get catches galore as teams try to slow down the “James gang.” Ray Fisher and Andrew Means also combined for 44 catches a season ago and will get some quality field time. Like I said, this corps is a D.C.’s horror show. There is size, speed, athleticism … you name it. Look for the Indiana passing game to be second to none when the season is done.

Tight end is probably the area with the least total experience, although the penciled in starter is former quarterback Blake Powers. He has good size and should certainly know the routes and schemes but it will be key for him to become a reliable safety valve to keep the offense balanced. Nick Sexton returns and brings a few past starts with him and there are also some sophomores in the mix, which means depth isn’t a real concern. In Indiana’s offense, the tight end doesn’t need to do much, but if the cream and crimson are to take the next step, each and every position needs to be at the top of its game.

Indiana must replace three seniors – one a mainstay among the starters – up front this fall. The versatile Justin Frye leaves a void in the starting lineup and the departures of Scott Anderson and Chris Mangiero will also be felt as well. The good news is that the Hoosiers have stockpiled plenty of depth in the trenches. There is a nice mix of veteran experience coming back to go with a quintet of redshirt freshmen. Seniors John Sandberg and Charlie Emerson will anchor the right side of the line, with sophomores Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon handling the left side in addition to junior Kyle Thomas who returns from injury. The vacated center position will more than likely be filled by senior Ben Wyss. The five second year freshmen that will vie for time are James Brewer, Cody Faulkner, Alex Perry, Jarrod Smith and Mike Stark. Injuries seem to have plagued the Indiana offensive line in each of the past few seasons. They good news is the depth. The not so good news is that while there is talent and skill on the depth chart, it is green – very green. The ideal situation will be for the Hoosiers to stay relatively healthy up front, ride the experience of the returning starters and veterans and start to develop the depth that the youngsters provide. If it all holds together, much like Illinois’ situation – look out. Indiana might be one of the more explosive teams in the Big Ten.

Indiana has ample talent on offense. Kellen Lewis should leave Indiana in a few years as the best to ever take snaps for the boys in crimson. James Hardy has Calvin Johnson like size and skills. If the running backs can give more consistent performances, the offensive line holds up well and some of the role players step up – look out. We could see the most improvement from one season to another that we’ve seen in quite some time…

Outlook - Defense ... Let’s cut to the chase. Indiana’s 2006 defense was nothing short of abysmal. Sure, there were some individual playmakers and even a few games where it all came together, but let me throw a few stats at you – because as we all know, the stats don’t lie! 35 points surrendered to Southern Illinois. 159 total points given up in three of the Big Ten losses. Ouch. 63 to Minnesota alone. Last in scoring defense (32.8 ppg). Eighth in pass defense, tenth in run defense, ninth in total defense and eighth in turnover margin. Had enough? I’m sure the returning players have had enough, but we’ll see if that changes anything in 2007.

I hate to beat the same old drum, but I truly believe that a defense will only be as good as its front four. Indiana returns three starters but loses a decent playmaker in Kenny Kendal. Defensive end Jammie Kirlew had a strong debut as a freshman last year and should only be better and more reliable with a year of experience behind him. Greg Brown is a junior tackle that is coming off an outstanding ’06 campaign. Nose guard Joe Kremer brings senior leadership to the trenches and has the size to help bottle up the run, but the agility to get after a bit as well. The fourth starting slot will be filled by either senior Brian Faires or sophomore Keith Burrus with Fabiene Boone also figuring into the mix. The depth is provided by a mix of fairly inexperienced players. Sophomores Emile Bass and Greg Middleton and redshirt freshman Deonte Mack make up the depth chart of what looks on paper to be the biggest weakness for the defense. Given my lead in, Indiana might have to count on winning with basketball-like scores in 2007…

The news that helps offset the predicted struggled up front on defense is that the Hoosiers’ return a wealth of talent from last year’s linebacker corps. Fifth year senior Adam McClurg is a steady force in the middle while junior Geno Johnson roams the strong side. Toss in sophomore Will Patterson and Indiana has a nice starting lineup in the middle of the defense. In total, the top five returnees here tallied 175 tackles a season ago. With a potentially weak front four, it will be imperative that the linebackers step up and make plays to keep the pressure off of the secondary. Of the trio, expect the most from Patterson who really did a bang up job as a true freshman last fall. Outside of the top three, there is some drop off. Mandela Roberts and Matt Mayberry are a pair of sophomores who saw some time last season and will need to be ready to step in and make a difference this year if anyone in the starting group gets hurt. Really it all comes down to how much of a steadying influence this seasoned group can bring to the defense as a whole. The line is a bit of a question mark so this unit needs to step up if Indiana wants to improve on the ghastly numbers from a season ago.

The secondary takes a hit with the departures of last year’s two leading tacklers – Will Myers and Troy Grosfield – but returns one very good corner in second team All Big Ten performer Tracy Porter and a pair of corners who saw some productive time in ’06 as well in Chris Phillips and Leslie Majors. But back to the safety positions. There are some large shoes to fill. Given the fact that Indiana didn’t exactly get after the quarterback that much last year and lost a decent pass rusher in Kenny Kendal, that means undue pressure on the defensive backfield. Whomever steps up at safety better be ready. At this point, that looks to be J.T. Owens and Austin Thomas. The pair have a little of experience but are young and must step up fast to avoid a 2006 like season for the defense. Joe Kleinsmith is versatile enough to play corner or safety and will be a part of the main playing group as well. Others of note include Jerry Williams and Rayshun Calhoun.

The defense was awful in 2006 and the top two playmakers are gone. That means the linebackers are going to really have to step it up a notch to catch what the line misses and to save the butts of a young and rather untested secondary (as a whole). If the Hoosiers can at least manage an average pass rush, limit the big plays and keep the safeties off of islands, the unit could be serviceable. If not, look for more 40, 50 or 60 point games this fall and another year of home for the holidays…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Indiana must replace its punter but returns Austin Starr, who was a steady 12 for 15 last season. Going into 2006, all-world kick returner Lance Bennett was the man to watch. He was left off the team though and Tracy Porter made us all forget the freakishly good returns that Bennett provided. Porter brings speed to the punt return game and was in fact the leading punt return man a season ago. Tailback Marcus Thigpen was even more electrifying with the kickoffs, taking three to the house. Special teams can be a huge weapon for the Hoosiers this fall, but only if Michael Hines or someone else is able to step in and keep things honest in terms of the field position game.

9/8 – at Western Michigan
9/15 – AKRON
9/29 – at Iowa
10/13 – at Michigan State
10/20 – PENN STATE
10/27 – at Wisconsin
11/10 – at Northwestern
11/17 – PURDUE

Key Games: 9/8 – at Western Michigan, 9/22 – Illinois, 10/13 – at Michigan State, 10/27 – at Wisconsin, 11/17 Purdue

Prediction ... Indiana is due to go bowling. The offense is some role players that step up from being fantastic. The defense needs help but the special teams provide a dangerous weapon. Get used to Lewis to Hardy or Lewis to Bailey as those tandems will rack up some points. The trip to Kalamazoo is a big early season battle. WMU is good and has bitten Big Ten teams before. Indiana has by far and away the easiest total slate in the Big Ten, and plays no BCS conference foes. In fact, if Indiana isn't at least 5-1 to start the season, something may be terribly amiss. Michigan and Ohio State rotate off the slate as well. This team could easily go .500 in conference and should get to a bowl for the first time since the Indiana freshmen were 4 and 5 years old. Then again, with the recent revelation that Coach Hoeppner is undergoing chemo and radiation therapy and is not being counted on to coach this season – maybe ever again – the distractions could be too much. I’ll stick with the former and the hope…

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Western Michigan)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Motor City Bowl berth

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part III

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Northwestern Wildcats

Tidbits … The Wildcats are one of eight different teams to claim at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade (2000). Northwestern won two of its last three games in 2006.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 4-8, 2-6 (T-8th)
2005 Prediction/actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd) – Sun Bowl
2004 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (9th) / 6-6, 5-3 (4th)
2003 Prediction/actual: 3-9, 0-8 (11th) / 6-7, 4-4 (T-7th) – Motor City Bowl
2002 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-6th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th)

Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense, 0 kickers

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Bachér, QB Mike Kafka, All-Purpose Andrew Brewer, WR Ross Lane, RB Tyrell Sutton, C Trevor Rees, OT Dylan Thiry, DE Corey Wootton, LB Adam Kadela, SS Brendan Smith

Key Losses: RB Terrell Jordan, WR Shaun Herbert, OG Joe Tripodi, LB Nick Roach, CB Marquise Cole, PK Joel Howells

Looking Back ... 2006 might have been the toughest year in Northwestern football history. Not because of the results on the field, but because of the sudden, shocking grief off the field. When Randy Walker passed away so unexpectedly in early summer, nothing going forward (that season) really mattered. Still, Northwestern stayed home and hired the young and full of fire Pat Fitzgerald to pick up the pieces. Given time, he is as likely to succeed as any young coach in the game.

On the field, 2006 had plenty of ups and downs. It started with an emotional season-opening win against Miami-OH, the program Randy Walker left for Northwestern. 1-AA New Hampshire brought the ‘cats back to earth by smashing them in the home opener. The loss at Nevada was a tough one, but showed that this very young and unpolished team had some future potential. That loss started a six game losing streak that made the season even tougher, culminated with the biggest stumble in D1 history – a 41-38 loss to Michigan State after leading 38-3 in the second half. Still, the season ended strong, with a nice performance at Michigan, a win at Iowa and a win over rival Illinois to close out the season. The young offense got a chance to improve and the defense got better as the year wore on as well, leaving Northwestern in decent shape heading into 2007…

Outlook - Offense ... 2006 was a year of transition for the Northwestern offense. In part, the death of Randy Walker was a factor, but more than that, it was the youth at quarterback. Teams could – and did – key on Tyrell Sutton and force the Wildcats to pass. The result? Northwestern ranked dead last in scoring and passing offense and struggled to eighth best on the ground, despite having one of the more electrifying, multi-talented tailbacks in the conference. The good news is that the growing pains suffered in 2006 should mean more consistency and success for the entire offense in 2007.

Leading into 2006, it was a question of who would man the quarterback position, when that new signal caller would emerge as a consistent threat, and how that QB would lead the team. There are far less questions as we enter 2007, even if three youngsters took turns handling the reigns a season ago. One, the athletic and immensely talented and versatile Andrew Brewer, will see the majority of his time spent at wide receiver. That means it is a two horse race (maybe) to see who gets to lead the charge this fall.

Junior C.J. Bachér was solid at the end of the ’06 campaign and would get the nod if the season started today. He has a better grasp on the aerial attack at this point than Sophomore Mike Kafka. Kafka’s strength is toting the rock. He was second on the team in rushing yards last season and brings a nice change of pace. The two can’t rest on last year’s experience however. Redshirt freshman Joe Mauro has size and a very promising all-around game and with a great August, could unseat Kafka, and maybe even Bachér. Regardless of who gets the nod, Northwestern’s passing game needs to be more consistent this fall if the Wildcats are to get back to a bowl game this holiday season.

The biggest strength of an otherwise generally inept offense in 2006 was the ground game. Tyrell Sutton is perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated tailback in the Big Ten. He is shifty, fast and durable. He has great hands out of the backfield and can break long runs on any play. His vision is something you cannot teach. And his work ethic has improved by leaps and bounds since he burst onto the scene. In two seasons, he has already amassed nearly 2,500 yards rushing and his best football seems to be ahead of him.

The key will be finding a reliable back-up, or perhaps a change of pace guy. Last season that was Terrell Jordan. Jordan has moved on, however, leaving a wide open race for the remaining carries. The odds on favorites might well be senior Brandon Roberson and junior Omar Conteh. The pair had some solid battles in spring ball and it will be the guy who can perform with consistency that will get the call. If Sutton stays healthy, look for him to rack up numbers closer to his freshman campaign and for the Northwestern offense to improve greatly.

A position that needs to see some growth might be one of the most loaded on the team. Northwestern’s offense calls for multiple wide receivers to step up with good hands, great route running and solid play-making. The leading receiver from ’06 – Shaun Herbert – has departed and that means it’s time to find a new go-to guy. It could be Ross Lane, Eric Peterman or Rasheed Ward – the third - fifth leading receivers a season ago. It might be experienced senior Kim Thompson, the biggest target of the lot. Or the speedy Jeff Yarbrough. Coach Fitzgerald also likes what he sees in “rookies” Sidney Stewart, Lee Coleman and Carl Fisher.

For my money though, the guy to watch is converted quarterback Andrew Brewer. Brewer started four games at quarterback last fall and understands things from a signal caller’s perspective. He should have a leg up on truly knowing where to be and when. His athleticism and overall talent make him a huge threat with star potential at wide out, not to mention special teams. The bottom line is simple; there is ample opportunity for three or four guys to see the ball 40 or more times this season. It just remains to be seen which players are up to the challenge and can bring this passing game from worst to respectable this season.

In the Northwestern spread offense, there is not a true fullback or even really a tight end. In Evanston, it’s all about the superback – a combo fullback/tight end, or sort of “jack of all trades” sort of guy. It isn’t a position of glory as the most called upon duty is blocking when an extra body is needed in short yardage or true blitzing situations. The trio competing for this unheralded but vitally important role in the Wildcats offense are sophomores Mark Woodsum and Brendan Mitchell and senior Nathan Shanks. You won’t see electrifying plays from this position, nor gaudy stats. But if the NU offense is moving the ball in the aforementioned situations, you’ll be able to look to this position as a key reason for the success…

While not the deepest position at this point, the offensive line is full of experienced starters. With a still young quarterback calling the shots, it is imperative that he have a trustworthy group in front of him. Northwestern has quietly been churning out some very high quality offensive linemen and this season looks to be similar. The center position as well as the left side of the line returns in tact, with three solid seniors ready to go out as winners holding down the fort. Trevor Rees is a very good center with a chance to be among the best in the conference. Mammoth left tackle Dylan Thiry is far and away the best NFL prospect of the trio. Left guard Adam Crum will be a full time starter this fall despite being smallish for a guard. The key will be how the right side fills in and what kind of depth Northwestern can develop given the age of the left side. Junior Joel Belding is slated to start at right guard and he got some good experience in 2006. Right tackle is a little up in the air, but it appears that sophomore Kurt Mattes will take on that task. The real worry here again is depth. There are bodies, but only one is a junior (third string right guard Alex Rucks) and the rest are sophomores or redshirt freshmen. In some of the early season contests, look for the staff to try and develop players like right tackle Mike Boyle, right guard Ramon Diaz, center Keegan Grant, left guard Desmond Taylor and left tackle Tyler Compton. It is always important to have seven or eight guys that you can plug in to the lineup and not skip a beat. If Northwestern gets there this year, there should be vast improvement on last year’s woeful offensive performance.

This still won’t be the glory days of the Northwestern offense but the potential is there to be far better than last season and much more respectable in general. There is more experience returning than a season ago, namely at quarterback. Northwestern could surprise, but only if the offense holds up its end of the bargain.

Outlook - Defense ... You can’t really blame the defense for the shaky 2006 season. Was it as good as it needs to be? Not even close. But hey, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the unit that took the field in 2005. Northwestern was a mid to bottom of the pack, but semi-respectable seventh in scoring defense and total defense with a better pass defense (fifth) than run defense (ninth) and a so-so at best turnover margin (ninth – 22 forced). It does need to get better in 2007 though if the Wildcats are to put up a winning record. The good news? One of the best ever to play “D” for the purple and black runs the show…

It all starts up front. Sound familiar? The same can be said about any defense at any level. As repetitive, even cliché as it may be, it’s true and needs to be reiterated. All four starters return from last year’s team, led by sophomore defensive end Corey Wootton. As a freshman, the rangy end tallied 4.5 sacks and was seventh in tackles. Impressive for a first year starter. As he gets bigger and stronger, he should only get better, which is a scary prospect for opposing quarterbacks. The other end position has two viable starting candidates in senior Mark Koehn and junior Kevin Mims. Toss in senior end David Ngene and another youngster in Corbin Bryant (looked good early in 2006 and then got a medical redshirt) there is plenty of experience, depth and talent on the outside.

The men in the trenches have become some of the better up-the-middle guys in the Big Ten. Three in particular got early playing time in their careers and are poised to break out in 2007. John Gill, Adam Hahn and Keegan Kennedy will really solidify the middle of the Wildcats’ defense and help shore up the shaky run defense. Marshall Thomas and Tanner Highlen round out the playing group at tackle. With four starters returning and several with quality minutes in the book, this should be a strength for the defense where it was perhaps the weakness a season ago. In a league full of talented tailbacks, no team will have success without a very good front four and Northwestern is capable of putting that foot forward.

It’s a good thing Northwestern has some strength up front, because aside from fifth-year senior Adam Kadela, the NU linebacking corps is the weakness of the defense. Don’t get me wrong, there are some potential playmakers waiting in the wings, but the unit as a whole is light on experience. As noted, the bedrock is Adam Kadela. Kadela led the team with 80 tackles last fall and will be busy again this year, as a leader of the defense and as a teacher of the up and coming linebackers. Senior Eddie Simpson and junior Mike Dinard are slated to flank Kadela and do have experience, but are they ready to be every play defenders in a conference full of play-making offenses? As many as seven others will compete for playing time at linebacker this fall. Malcom Arrington (Jr.), Chris Malleo (Sr.) and Prince Kwateng (Jr.) will be called upon to contribute and must do so or the advantage gained up front will quickly get lost in the shuffle. Others to keep an eye on are Quentin Davie, Nate Williams, Chris Jeske and Rejaie Johnson – the latter two return from injuries.

The secondary takes a bit of a hit with the departure of Marquise Cole, a good, experienced cornerback but returns two senior starters to go with the anchor of the group, junior strong safety Brendan Smith. Smith led the team in interceptions a season ago and was second in tackles. Free safety Reggie McPherson, a 6-1 senior returns to hold down the other spot. With the departure of Cole, the task of lockdown corner will likely falls to senior Deante Battle. Sophomore Sherrick McManis has been penciled in as the replacement for Cole, but there is some decent depth here as well that should come into play. At the corners, those players are redshirt freshman Justan Vaughn and junior David Oredugba. Oredugba has great size (6-2) and could be key against the bigger receivers in the nickel or dime packages. At the safety position, senior Ben Rothrauff had a solid off-season and provides some relief for McPherson. Sophomore Brad Phillips could make a name for himself as the backup to Smith. The facts here are: there is depth, some experience and a solid returning core from a pretty good pass defense a year ago. The question is, with what appears to be a very weak group of linebackers in front of them, how will the secondary fare? That is the million dollar question…

The defense was fair in 2006 no better and not much worse. It only surrendered 17 points to a potent Michigan offense on the road and seven to Iowa but 54 to Ohio State and more concerning, 41 to Michigan State. The offense will be better, no doubt about it. Can the defense hold up its end of the deal? I’m not completely sold – yet.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Both kickers from what was an average – at best – unit are gone and that doesn’t bode well for a still young team that needs to be good in all phases of the game to rebound to a winning season. After spring ball, it appears that it could be a one man show for all kicking duties. Redshirt freshman Stefan Demos has a slight edge right now, but will be challenged by junior Amando Villarreal for place-kicking responsibilities and junior Kyle Daley for punting duties. Whomever wins these oft over-looked jobs holds a rather important key to the success of the Northwestern Wildcats. The good news is that the return game is solid. Andrew Brewer will likely be a large contributor with Sherrick McManis and Brendan Smith also in the mix.

9/8 – NEVADA
9/15 – DUKE
9/22 – at Ohio State
10/6 – at Michigan State
10/20 – at Eastern Michigan (Ford Field)
10/27 – at Purdue
11/3 – IOWA
11/10 – INDIANA
11/17 – at Illinois

Key Games: 9/22 – at Ohio State, 9/29 – Michigan, 11/3 – Iowa, 11/10 – Indiana, 11/17 – at Illinois

Prediction ... Northwestern is yet another team in this conference that could go a long way to proving me dead wrong. The thing is, I am usually pretty close on my predictions for the boys in purple. There is some good young talent and the team will be better than last year, even if the record doesn’t show that so much. The out of conference slate might be the easiest (aside from Minnesota) in the Big Ten, with the only real test coming from Nevada. NU misses Penn State and Wisconsin this year, but starts Big Ten play with Ohio State and Michigan. A bowl game is not out of the question, but in my opinion, if Northwestern gets to .500 or better, that means Pat Fitzgerald should garner Coach of the Year honors.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Nevada)
B10: 2-6 (wins over Minnesota and Indiana)
Overall: 5-7, 9th in the conference

Friday, June 01, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part II

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Illinois Fighting Illini

Tidbits … The Illini last won a Big Ten crown in 2001, also the last season in which Illinois had a record better than .500. Linebacker J Leman led the Big Ten in tackles and tackles for loss in 2006.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (8th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-10th)
2005 Prediction/actual: 4-7, 2-6 (10th) / 2-9, 0-8 (11th)
2004 Prediction/actual: 4-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 3-5 (T-7th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2002 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction/actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-2, 7-1 (1st)

Returning Starters: 9 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB Juice Williams, RB Rashard Mendenhall, OG Martin O’Donnell, C Ryan McDonald, WR Kyle Hudson, DT Chris Norwell, LB J Leman, CB Vontae Davis, S Kevin Mitchell, PK Jason Reda

Key Losses: RB Pierre Thomas, RB E.B. Halsey, OG Matt Maddox, CB Alan Ball

Looking Back ... Year two of the Ron Zook era was utterly forgettable. Sound familiar? It should, that was my opener last year. However, the eternal “glass is half full” side of me says that you have to look deeper than the surface to see that the Illini really did improve last season. Despite just one win over a division one program, that lone victory came in conference play, on the road. Given that the orange and blue are 2-30 in league play since 2003, that one win is something to hang a hat on. That and the emergence of the next star quarterback in the Big Ten – Isiah “Juice” Williams.

Not only does Williams carry a cool moniker, he might well be the most exciting signal caller to take the field since Antwaan Randle El carried the Hoosiers on his back for four years. The difference? Randle El had to be a one man show. Williams shouldn’t have to be as the supporting cast improved more than it would appear (on paper) between ’05 and ’06 and there is ample talent in key spots heading into 2007. We all know Ron Zook can recruit. He built Florida’s national title team. And he’s doing it in Champaign too. Don’t anoint the Illini just yet, but take my advice – catch a game this season. Juice Williams is as fun to watch as any quarterback in the country, he’s only a sophomore and only getting better…

Outlook - Offense ... Call 2006 a season of growing pains. Coach Zook ditched the short term for the long term future and put a freshman under center. The offense struggled – mightily. The Illini were tenth in scoring offense, last in passing offense, last – by a mile – in turnover margin (35 giveaways), and ninth in total offense. The only saving grace was the ground game, and Pierre Thomas is no longer around. Success in 2007 depends greatly on an offense with talent but no results to tout just yet…

I’ll lead into the quarterback situation by drawing on my observations last summer: “Isiah Williams is a highly touted recruit who might be just what this program needs to rise from the cellar of the Big Ten. We all know that potential doesn’t always pan out, but in today’s win now, not later world, Zook’s hand may be forced earlier than planned. The thing is we all might take notice if and when that happens…”

Okay, so I’m not always 100-percent accurate in these predictions but I think it is fair to say I nailed that one. Thing is, Juice Williams has a chance to be the next Michael Vick. He has speed, size, mobility and an arm – albeit one that was utterly inaccurate last fall (39-percent completion rate). Williams already owns the single season record for most touchdown passes over 60 yards and will look to add to that, while getting better with accuracy. Illinois could have a major problem on its hands if Juice goes down as the only other player that returns and has thrown a pass in a game is WR DaJuan Warren. Eddie McGee and Billy Garza serve as the clipboard holders.

Last year, the unquestioned strength of this offense was the running game. The trio of Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall lead the Illini to the best rushing average in a conference full of great running backs. The issue for 2007 is replacing Thomas and Halsey. Mendenhall was tenth in the conference in rushing yards last season, and is a solid anchor to build around. In fact, between Williams and Mendenhall, Illinois should have 1500 plus yards available. Still, it is vital to have a solid backup or two. The most likely candidate to tote the rock is Rashard’s brother Walter. While relatively untested, Walter is bigger and offers a change of pace. The fullback position is anchored by rock solid Russ Weil. A couple of names that could emerge as the season wears on are newcomers Deries Hodge and Troy Pollard, as well as JUCO back Daniel “Don’t call me Andy” Dufrene. Just as it is with the quarterback position, development of depth is a key to success for the Illinois offense this fall.

An area with tremendous potential and the true strength of the attack is the receiving corps. Illinois returns the three leading receivers from 2006; six in all who saw significant time a season ago and most notably, All-America recruit Arrelious Benn. Benn was a star of the spring game, nabbing five passes for 145 yards for a not-too-shabby 29 ypc average! It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be starting out of the gate, regardless of what the post spring depth charts say, but he does have some talented receivers around him. Kyle Hudson led the team last fall with 30 catches and has blazing speed. His knock is the lack of size and consistency. He could be more of a get it and go guy this year with the much bigger and equally as fast Benn there to garner a defense’s attention. DaJuan Warren gives the Illini a starting cast that rivals any in the league – based on potential. Like Benn, he too has size and talent; he just hasn’t let it all loose yet.

On the bench are the likes of Chris James and Joe Morgan as well as the second leading returning receiver Jacob Willis. A stockpile of others will vie for time as well, though mostly on special teams. The good news is that the Illini are equally as stocked at tight end where three with experience return. Jeff Cumberland was third on the team in receptions and is a great safety valve for a signal caller that is still learning on the fly. Michael “Who’s your mamma” Hoomanawauni is in the mold of today’s great tight ends – big, fast, a receivers hands with good blocking technique. The key here? Juice has to up his completion percentage to 55-percent and this group can then take over a game…

With all of the potential at the skill positions, the spotlight is on an offensive line that returns four starters and brings in a highly touted transfer. Running backs can’t break off long runs, quarterbacks can’t find open receivers and offenses cannot have success without a good front five. Guard Matt Maddox is the only player to depart a line that boasts three senior starters and a junior. Left guard Martin O’Donnell has the most experience (32 starts) but former Oklahoma transfer, left tackle Akim Millington might be the best of the lot. Charles Myles (RT), Ryan McDonald (C), and Jon Asamoah (RG) round out the starting five, but there is plenty of young and hungry talent waiting in the wings. Brandon Jones and Ryan Palmer will be fixtures soon enough and if the line struggles with pass protection as it did in 2006, that time could come sooner than later.

I will predict right now that Illinois will only be as good as the offense allows them to be. There are oodles of talented players all around but that needs to translate into consistency, a dual threat and ultimately, points on the board.

Outlook - Defense ... You can’t blame the defense for the woeful 2006 campaign in Champaign. It made great strides from year one of the Ron Zook era. Improvements aside, it can – and must – get better if 2007 is to be a giant leap forward in the wins department.

A good defense starts with a rock-solid front four. Three of the four starters from last year return, with tackle John Norris the only departure. The line is led by junior tackle Chris Norwell. Norwell was among the best in the conference in racking up tackles for loss (12.5) and simply knows how to get it done inside. He might be the most unsung defensive lineman in the conference. He will be joined inside by junior David Lindquist, who saw a lot of time off the bench last fall and led the team in fumble recoveries. The outsides will be manned by Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher. Pilcher and Walker are a bit on the inconsistent side but have put together some good games in the past and must do so this year with plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Evidence of a couple of solid recruiting classes is starting to show when otherwise entrenched starters are being pushed. Newcomer D’Angelo McCray is a highly touted recruit that is overcoming an injury but will push for time on the inside. Antonio James, Will Davis, Clay Nurse and Jerry Brown will vie for time at end. The bottom line is simple; a decent line needs to get good – really good – if the Illini are to contend for anything this fall.

Dick Butkus will be proud. Illinois is flat out stacked at linebacker heading into the ’07 campaign. All three starters return and there is depth coming out of the woodwork. If you’re going to focus on one player, that guy is – hands down – J Leman. Leman led the Big Ten with 12.7 tackles per game last fall and has gone from an under the radar guy to a legitimate contender for All America honors. He’s not alone though. Antonio Steele made a nice splash after joining the team as a JUCO transfer last fall and Brit Miller is also solid on the outside. Sam Carson and Anthony Thornhill provide some good, experienced play off the bench, but the next player to watch has to be incoming recruit Martez Wilson. He has great size and speed and will likely see time here and as a pass rushing end when the situation calls for it. Don’t put it past Rodney Pittman or Rahkeem Smith to push for PT as well. Any way you slice it, the strength of the Illinois defense is at linebacker. If the line can hold its own, moving the ball against this front seven could be a nightmare for the first time in a very long time…

The secondary takes a slight hit with the loss of Alan Ball but don’t linger on that one for too long. Freshman All American Vontae Davis is back and will be even better. Three safeties with starting experience also return to this fall: Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders. The only question is who will take Ball’s place at the vacated corner? There was a heated battle for the rights to start all spring and it will carry into fall practice. Dere Hicks, Chris Duvalt and Antonio Gully are engaged in that battle and again, position battles mean there is quality depth available as well. Others to watch at the safety position are Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers. The Illinois pass defense was second only to Wisconsin in 2006 and appears to be getting deeper and better. With a good to potentially great front seven, look out.

The defense was a pleasant surprise in 2006 and should be a big contributor to any great improvements this fall. Chris Norwell, J Leman and Vontae Davis are bona fide stars. The depth has improved. The talent pool is getting deeper. Time will tell…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Kyle Yelton was no Steve Weatherford last season, but he was serviceable and returns with a year of experience behind him. He needs to improve on his per kick average, which put the Illini dead last in the category - in the Big Ten and the nation. If he isn't better, he'll lose his job to Utah transfer Anthony Santella who had a solid spring. Of comfort is the return of PK Jason Reda. Reda has a ton of experience and was third in the conference last fall making 15 of 19 tries. He’ll be among the best in the conference again this fall. The return game should be solid as waves of athletes have been joining the team since Ron Zook took over.

9/1 – at Missouri (St. Louis)
9/15 – at Syracuse
9/22 – at Indiana
10/13 – at Iowa
10/20 – MICHIGAN
10/27 – BALL STATE
11/3 – at Minnesota
11/10 – at Ohio State

Key Games: 9/1 - at Missouri, 9/22 – at Indiana, 10/6 – Wisconsin, 10/20 – Michigan, 11/17 – Northwestern

Prediction ... As bad as Illinois was last year, and really has been the several seasons, I truly expect to see some strides in Champaign this fall. I am, however, a little wary to predict a total turnaround. Last year I had Illinois getting five wins and they were no where close. There are some great players but youth is still an issue. I see Syracuse as a make or break game in the OOC slate. I went back and forth on that one. Mizzou is a tough start, as are Penn State and Wisconsin early in Big Ten play. Indiana will be no picnic either. A win there might be a great springboard, however. I want to say this team could squeeze out six wins and go bowling, but the past results tell me otherwise. I.E. guilty until proven innocent!

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Missouri)
B10: 1-7 (win over Northwestern)
Overall: 4-8, T-10th in the conference