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July 28, 2009

Big Ten offenses may struggle again

CHICAGO - Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thought about the question for a moment during a roundtable session at the Big Ten Media Days: Why haven't the Big Ten offenses kept up with the rest of the nation?

"I think it's because of the defenses in our conference," Fitzgerald said. "I think the way we play defense gets lost in all of the hype [over some of the offensive struggles]. That's why you see the lower numbers.

"We have a good variety of offenses in this league that provide a great deal of challenges. Minnesota has decided to go with a pro-style offense. Let's see where Michigan State goes with its offense and athletic quarterbacks. Wisconsin is smash-mouth, Iowa is smash-mouth. Penn State does a bit of everything. Then you have the spread guys, us and Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Danny will keep the spread at Purdue."

Fitzgerald may be on to something. Last year, the Big Ten had five defenses that ranked among the top 50 in the nation and two more that ranked 58th or higher. That may have been a reason why the Big Ten boasted just four offenses that ranked among the top 50 in the nation - Penn State (14), Illinois (19), Wisconsin (37) and Purdue (48).

Offense could be difficult to come by again this fall. Once again, the Big Ten looks to have some of the better defenses in the nation. Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State and even Northwestern - yes, Northwestern - look primed to have good defenses. And count on Michigan's defense being better with Greg Robinson now the coordinator.

Further complicating the tasks of Big Ten offenses is the fact many schools have glaring needs at quarterback and running back.

The Big Ten returns just six starting quarterbacks. And among those, the only ones who approach elite status are Penn State's Daryll Clark and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor, who for all intents and purposes still is a work in progress.

"I still think we will have a strong offense," said Clark, who arguably was the top quarterback in the Big Ten last season when he completed 192 of 321 passes for 2,592 yards with 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions. "I know we will have a new set of receivers and our line needs to come together, but I am confident."

Minnesota also is in good shape with Adam Weber back, while Illinois may have the top dual-threat option in Juice Williams. Iowa's offense stabilized when Ricky Stanzi took over.

"[Weber] has taken every snap for the past two years and gives us tremendous leadership at the quarterback position," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. "He's absolutely vital for our success."

Other Big Ten schools aren't as fortunate to have seasoned passers. Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan all will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks. And while Dustin Sherer started seven games at Wisconsin in 2008, his job could be in peril as he continues to get pushed by exciting redshirt freshman Curt Phillips.

"I think we have a strong group of quarterbacks," said Indiana QB Ben Chappell, who with Kellen Lewis transferring to Valdosta State is primed to be the Hoosiers' No. 1 man after playing in 11 games and starting three last year.

Of all of the new quarterbacks, perhaps none will face more scrutiny than at Michigan State. The Spartans were picked to finish third in the Big Ten at media days, making them the team with the greatest expectations and most uncertainty under center.

In a Rush
Several Big Ten teams are looking for starting quarterbacks, but there are more questions at running back entering the 2009 season. Here's a look at Big Ten schools looking to fill voids at running back and the players who may be able to fill them.
Indiana: Bryan Payton
Shifty runner who needs to amp up what has been a poor ground attack.
Iowa: Jewell Hampton
Showed signs of big things as a true freshman but is coming off an offseason injury.
Michigan: Brandon Minor
Finally may put it all together after an uneven career.
Michigan State: Ashton Leggett
One of several backs looking to gain a foothold.
Northwestern: Stephen Simmons
A diminutive runner who is similar to Tyrell Sutton.
Purdue: Jaycen Taylor
Returns to action after missing 2008 with a knee injury.
Who will be the starter? With nothing decided in the spring, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio will have Keith Nichol (a transfer from Oklahoma) and Kirk Cousins compete during camp. And if that still doesn't decide it, then don't be shocked if each plays in games throughout the season.

"Our quarterback situation, I think, is very strong, but it's inexperienced," Dantonio said. "Kirk Cousins had some limited experience last year. We played him in the bowl game by design to put pressure on him in those situations. Keith Nichol is another young player.

"Both are sophomores. They're outstanding athletes. They're outstanding players already. Both of them performed very, very well in the spring, particularly in the spring game, and it'll be interesting to watch as they continue on."

The running back situation has even more questions to answer with five of the top six rushers from 2008 gone in Iowa's Shonn Greene, Michigan State's Javon Ringer, Ohio State's Beanie Wells, Purdue's Kory Sheets and Wisconsin's P.J. Hill. And Northwestern lost a strong veteran in Tyrell Sutton. Greene, the Doak Walker Award winner, Wells and Hill all turned pro early.

The top returning rusher is Penn State's Evan Royster, who ran for 1,236 yards last season and may be the most talented offensive player in the conference. Wisconsin has big plans for John Clay, who rushed for 884 yards and nine scores last fall. And Minnesota hopes DeLeon Eskridge can build on a great debut, while Illinois will look to Daniel Dufrene to take the next step.

But after that, the Big Ten running backs are more about potential than proven production for a league that is looking for some offensive pop.

"I think we have a nice mix of offenses," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I got a chance to see the Big 12 last year, and it seems most of them were in the spread with three and four receivers. And they were good at it, passing the ball everywhere.

"I watched SEC film in getting ready for our bowl game [against South Carolina]. And they have a more diverse collection of offenses like us - Florida in the spread, Georgia and Alabama more conventional. In the end, I think we'll be OK. You'll see some strong, nationally ranked offenses from our league. Look at Penn State last year. Our league has that potential again."

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