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October 9, 2008

Big Ten: Michigan State right in title mix

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

Can Michigan State running back Javon Ringer win the Heisman? Forget that. A more interesting question: Can Michigan State win the Big Ten? It hasn't happened since 1990.

It could happen this season. The Spartans (5-1) have it all in front of them, beginning with Saturday's game at Northwestern (5-0). The Wildcats had a bye last week, and they're off to their best start since 1962. Let's go ahead and call it the most unlikely meeting of ranked teams this season.

"We don't want to be one-and-done (in the polls)," said Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, whose team is second in the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-7. "So we are just going to keep playing, and play one play at a time, and if we can do that, we've got opportunities."

After the game with the Wildcats, Michigan State still has contests against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn State.

All of this is unfolding in Dantonio's second season in East Lansing. He went 7-6 and delivered a bowl in his debut last season, ending a three-year postseason drought. Now, Dantonio has the Spartans poised to be a Big Ten spoiler.

More than anything, Dantonio has brought much-needed discipline to a program that lacked it under previous coach John L. Smith. On the field, there's no denying Dantonio's influence on the defense, bringing consistent effort and attention to detail in assignments. The stats don't reflect it yet the Spartans are ninth against the run in the Big Ten (128 ypg), 10th in sacks (1.7 spg) and seventh overall (345.7 ypg) but the change in coaching is noticeable.

Under Dantonio, the defense funnels the ball within the scheme, takes on blocks, communicates and tackles well. Those elements were missing under the previous regime, which also relied too much on junior college talent on the defensive line.

While the defense continues to develop and improve, the offense has taken care of business thanks to Ringer, the unlikely Heisman contender.

Ringer leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the nation in rushing (164.7 ypg) and is tied for the national lead in rushing touchdowns (12). Ringer also has been the ultimate workhorse, pacing the nation with 212 carries. No one else has more than 179 carries. That has been key, because quarterback Brian Hoyer has been average. He is just the ninth-rated passer in the Big Ten, completing just 47.7 percent of his passes for 1,145 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Saturday is the first big step for Michigan State in what could be a season of glory.

"I think you have to look down the road at those other people and know that we have to play them," Dantonio said. "But from the standpoint of looking forward, we'll always approach it just one game at a time. So many things can change from week to week, whether it's injuries, the performance of your last game and those types of things."

    Minnesota at Illinois, noon
    Iowa at Indiana, noon
    Toledo at Michigan, noon
    Michigan State at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m.
    Purdue at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m.
    Penn State at Wisconsin, 8 p.m.
    Wisconsin's offensive line vs. Penn State's defensive front. This is a must-win for the Badgers, who are coming off consecutive losses to Michigan and Ohio State. Wisconsin's best hope to get on track is to control the ball with its strong line and killer corps of backs (P.J. Hill, John Clay and Zach Brown). That will allow the Badgers to keep the ball away from a Penn State offense that leads the Big Ten and ranks ninth in the nation (488.7 ypg). The Badgers' ground game ranks third in the Big Ten (210.6 ypg). The Nittany Lions have the No. 1 defense against the run (80.2 ypg), yielding 2.5 yards per carry and only four rushing TDs.

  • Wisconsin quarterback Allan Evridge. The Badgers' passing game has been pedestrian at best, and Evridge has been hampered by a lack of production from the wide receivers. David Gilreath is the Badgers' top receiver, grabbing 14 passes for 167 yards (11.9 ypc) and a touchdown. That puts Gilreath 21st in the Big Ten. No other Big Ten squad's leading receiver has as few catches or yards. Wisconsin's passing attack ranks ninth in the Big Ten (185.0 ypg). The only schools lower are Michigan (10th), which is breaking in a new offense, and Ohio State (11th), which starts a true freshman at quarterback.

  • Michigan State lost its opener at Cal but has won five in a row and is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2005. The Spartans are ranked 21st in AP and 23rd by the coaches. Illinois' 45 points at Michigan were the most by a conference visitor to the Big House since Ohio State hung 50 on the Wolverines in 1961. Illini QB Juice Williams' 431 total yards tied for the most ever by a Michigan opponent. Minnesota WR Eric Decker tied a school-record with 13 catches in a 13-7 win over Indiana. Decker leads the Big Ten with 50 catches and 696 yards, and also has four TDs. No other Big Ten receiver has more than 30 catches. Decker leads the nation in receiving yards per game at 116. Northwestern is ranked in the coaches' poll; it's the first ranking for the Wildcats since 2005. Illinois LB Brit Miller leads the Big Ten in tackles (10.6 per game) and tackles for loss (2.3 per game). Penn State QB Daryll Clark continues to impress, pacing conference passers in efficiency. Clark has thrown just one pick in 124 attempts. Illinois' Williams leads the Big Ten in TD passes with 11.

  • Michigan has fumbled 16 times in its past three games, losing 10. After opening with three victories, Iowa has lost three in a row to Pitt, Northwestern and Michigan State by a combined nine points. Wisconsin's home loss to Ohio State ended the Badgers' 16-game home winning streak, which was the second-longest in the nation. Penn State and Michigan State now have the longest home winning streaks in the Big Ten at five. Purdue QB Curtis Painter was benched for the last series of a 20-6 home loss to Penn State. Backup Joey Elliott came on and engineered the Boilermakers' only scoring drive. Coach Joe Tiller says Painter will start this week at Ohio State. But Tiller has decided to change kickers, benching Chris Summers for Carson Wiggs. Summers missed from 45 and 36 yards, and also blew an extra point against Penn State. Indiana averages 58.6 yards in penalties (29 for 293 yards) per game, the most in the Big Ten. Michigan has made a league-low three field goals.

  • "I am surprised, especially with (Painter's) experience." Purdue's Tiller on benching Painter, a fifth-year senior, last week.

    "You can run full speed and still be soft. It's a physical ballgame, and there comes a point in time where you have to play physically. You can't catch people. You can't allow them to block you. You've got to want to block them. To me, it's not that they're not trying. They sometimes don't realize it. Unless we become a tougher football team mentally and physically, we'll have a lot of problems." Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on his team's soft play.

    "Outside of head coach and quarterback, I would say that coordinators are next, and given our circumstance right now, I would say offensive coordinator. But he was the same guy who was coordinator here in 2003 and '04, and he is coaching pretty much the same way, like I am." Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, on criticism directed at offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe.

    "Actually, as far as making a significant contribution to the strategy side and on the tactical side, you're better off upstairs. You can see more. You can talk to everybody on the sideline with the one microphone and the one set of earphones, and they can all talk to me. So I think that's an advantage. But the disadvantage is you like to be on the field. You like to be down there, get a feel for what's going on. If somebody's gotten a little bit out of whack and you want to sit them down and say, 'Come on, forget that last one, let's do this one,' and so forth." Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on coaching from the press box, which he'll do for the second week in a row because of a leg injury.

  • ETC.
  • Northwestern has won six of its past 10 meetings with Michigan State. The past two games have been great theater. Last fall, the Wildcats pulled out a 48-41 overtime triumph in East Lansing. Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher threw for a school-record 520 yards with five TD tosses. The last time the schools met in Evanston, Michigan State rallied from a 38-3 third-quarter hole to claim a 41-38 victory. The 35-point comeback win is the biggest in NCAA history. This will be Minnesota coach Tim Brewster's first trip to Illinois, his alma mater. Behind a prolific offense and improved defense led by first-year coordinator Ted Roof, Minnesota is 5-1. One more win, and the program will be bowl eligible. Brewster who went 1-11 in his debut last season notched his first career Big Ten triumph last week against Indiana. Penn State kicker Kevin Kelly needs eight field goals to pass Ohio State's Mike Nugent to become the Big Ten's career leader. Purdue hasn't won at Ohio State since 1988. Iowa and Indiana both have lost three in a row. Michigan will play Toledo for the first time. The Wolverines are 24-0 against teams currently in the MAC. Penn State has lost its past two trips to Wisconsin, last winning 34-31 in 2002. Purdue's Painter needs 12 passing yards to reach 10,000 yards in his career.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | SEC

    Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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