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Big Ten preview, Part II

Editor's note: Our friends at American Sports Analysts, based out of Big Ten country, are on top off all the Big-Ten action, all the time. Click here for ASA's season pack, featuring weekly Big Ten plays with expert analysis.

Click here to read Part I of ASA's Big Ten preview.

Michigan State Football Notes

**        One of the biggest questions going into the 2004 season will be who is going to replace Jeff Smoker as the starting QB?  MSU does have an experienced QB in senior Damon Dowdell who only threw 12 passes a year ago, but started five games under center as a sophomore.  While he had a pretty good spring, he will not be battling for the starting QB spot until he improves academically.  Head coach John L. Smith is not happy with Dowdell’s work in the classroom and basically said that until he shows him something in the classroom, he won’t be considered for the starting job.  That leaves redshirt freshman Stephen Reaves as the front runner.  Reaves took the majority of snaps with the first teamers last spring.  The 6 foot 1, 200 pounder was 15 of 26 for 184 yards during MSU’s spring scrimmage.  Also keep an eye on sophomore Drew Stanton.  He was considered the top QB in MSU’s freshman class a year ago but only played on special teams.  Odd that a coach would play a potential prize QB on special teams as a true freshman, however that shows the kind of athlete Stanton is.  He actually injured his knee in the Alamo Bowl at the end of last year on a special team’s play.  If he can get back to full strength for this year, he will make a strong run at the starting job.


**        In John L. Smith’s previous three stops as a head coach at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville, his team’s won a conference championship by his third year as the head man.  This will be his second season at MSU and he feels the Spartans are on a similar course.  “I think it’s realistic,” said Smith, “but I hope to challenge now, too.  We have to come out of the blocks strong (in 2004).”  MSU opens the season @ Rutgers before coming home to face Central Michigan and Notre Dame in the non conference portion of the schedule. 


**        You don’t see this scenario very often (if ever).  Smith wanted to shore up his defensive backfield for the 2004 season and he did it by moving his TOP TWO running backs from last season to the stop unit.  Jaren Hayes (609 yards last year) and Tyrell Dortch (279 yard a year ago) have both been moved from RB to the defensive backfield (Dortch will also be tried at LB).  Despite returning all four starters in the defensive backfield, Smith sent a message that no position is safe by moving his top RB to corner.  He obviously knows that pass coverage was a weak point for the Spartans a year ago as they gave up 255 YPG through the air.  That leaves the RB position thin and inexperienced with senior DeAndra Cobb (192 yards last year) and freshman Jehuu Caulcrick to battle for the starting job in the fall. 


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING MICHIGAN STATE:  Play on the Spartans when they host Notre Dame on September 18th .  This will be MSU’s first really big game of the season.  Expect them to be “jacked” up as high as can be for this home game.  They are catching the Irish is a very good spot.  Notre Dame will be coming off their huge home game vs. Michigan and then traveling to less heralded MSU.  As we know, ND is putting huge emphasis on their home game with Michigan the week before (see Michigan’s pointspread play above).  There is no way they won’t have a letdown here.  The Irish have failed to cover the spread the game after playing Michigan in 4 of the last 5 years.  Add to that the fact that MSU has dominated ND as of late winning 6 of the last 8 and covering 7 of the last 8, and we have to side with the motivated home team here.


Minnesota Football Notes:

**            Minnesota’s offense was phenomenal a year ago shattering nine school records.  It’s not often that a school breaks their all time record in a certain category, but nine in one season, just on offense is nearly unheard of.  Here are the school records that now sit with the 2003 Minnesota Gophers.  Most points in a season (503), most touchdowns (66), most rushing touchdowns (46), total offense (6,430), most rushing yards (3,759), most first downs (326), completion percentage (61.3%), yards per play (6.6) and most games over 500 total yards (7).


**        The only question mark on offense will be at QB where starter Asad Abdul Khaliq and back up Benji Kamrath both have graduated.  Bryan Cupito won the job in the spring and will be #1 in the fall until someone beats him out.  Cupito was poised and ran the team very well during spring ball.  The problem with him (and all of the Gopher QB’s) is experience.  He has thrown a grand total of ONE pass in his college career.  JC transfer Adam Ernst will be hot on his heels in the fall.


**        The Gophs return two 1,000 yards RB’s in Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.  They will be running behind an experienced offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters.  Expect Minnesota’s rushing offense to be among the best in the nation again this year.


**        Head coach Glen Mason has stated that this year’s defense will be by far the fastest he has ever had at Minnesota.  The Metrodome’s new track may slow them down a bit as they installed new field turf (more like grass) in the off-season replacing the hard Astroturf from past years.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING MINNESOTA:  Go against the Gophers on November 6th when they head to Wisconsin.  What a bad spot for the Golden Gophers.  This will be their fourth road game in five weeks.  Wisconsin, on the other hand, will be well rested and prepared with two full weeks off to prepare for this game.  We look for Minnesota to be out of gas in this one against a very tough and motivated opponent.  Last year Minnesota beat Wisconsin in the Metrodome, 37-34 on a last second field goal.  These two play each year for “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” and the Badger players vividly remember the Gophers storming their sideline after the win to steal the prize.  Not only that, this will be “senior day” for the Badgers as this is their final home game.  UW has won 7 of the last 9 straight up and the home team has covered 8 of the last 11.  Everything sets up for a Wisconsin win and cover in this one.      


Northwestern Football Notes

**        The Wildcats will be an experienced team in 2004.  They have 19 starters back, however they have 28 players who have started in the past.  All but one of those 28 players have at least 3 starts under their belt.  Of those 28 players, 16 are on defense with a combined 232 starts and 12 are on offense with a combined 148 starts.


**        The biggest loss on offense for the Cats is All Big Ten RB Jason Wright who rushed for just under 1,400 yards.  They do return RB’s Noah Herron and Terrell Jordan who combined for 992 yards.  Despite the loss of Wright, NU’s offense should be pretty good with their QB (Brett Basanez) and all five starters on the offensive line returning.


** Head coach Randy Walker’s main goal last spring was to tinker with and improve a passing game that averaged just 163 YPG a year ago.  Walker was hoping that last year’s starter, Brett Basanez, would get his confidence back and improve this spring.  He did just that.  Basanez is the clear cut starter entering 2004 as Walker said following spring ball, “He’s spent more time than anybody getting stronger and becoming a more intelligent QB.  I believe he is going to have a great season.”  That wasn’t always the belief as Basanez struggled big time a year ago throwing 12 interceptions and just 4 TD’s.  He also averaged just 145 YPG passing. 


**        Look for redshirt freshman Kim Thompson to be Northwestern’s #1 receiver in 2004.  After sitting out last year, the 6’4, 200 pound Thompson bring the speed and skill that NU needed at the WR position.  He had a breakout spring and should be the Wildcat’s top receiver this year.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING NORTHWESTERN:  Go against the Wildcats in their season ender @ Hawaii on November 27th .  It’s always tough for a team to travel to Hawaii for a football game.  Make that even tougher for a Midwestern team, going from the cold weather to the warmth of the islands after playing a full season of physical Big Ten football.  You think the Northwestern players aren’t already viewing this as a vacation.  We do.  We can’t imagine the Cats being completely focused on this game after playing the likes of Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State, Michigan and in-state rival Illinois the five weeks leading up to this one.  Hawaii, on the other hand, will view this as one of their bigger games of the season getting to play a Big Ten team at home.  The Rainbows are always tough to beat at home as they have won 21 of their last 25 straight up as a host leading up to the 2004 season.  This is just a bad spot for NU.      

Ohio State Football Notes:

**        As with most Big Ten teams this season, the biggest loss for OSU could be at the QB position where Craig Krenzel has graduated.  Often criticized for not always putting up big passing numbers, all Krenzel did was win.  He was 24-3 as a starter for the Buckeyes.  Look for sophomore Justin Zwick to take over as signal caller.  He had big time credentials coming out of high school and some OSU insiders felt he would give Krenzel a run for his money as a true freshman.  It didn’t happen, however Zwick is very talented.  He just doesn’t have the experience as he has thrown just 8 passes in his career.  Junior Troy Smith will also get a shot.


**        With the success also comes loss.  Due to their success, the OSU coaching staff lost three key coaches from last year            .  They include defensive coordinator, Mark Dantonio, RB’s coach Tim Spencer and recruiting coordinator Bill Conley.  Dantonio took over as head coach at the University of Cincinnati.  Taking his spot as DC for the Bucks is Mark Snyder, who was the LB coach a year ago for OSU.  Spencer was hired as the RB coach for the Chicago Bears.  To replace him, head coach Jim Tressel hired his brother, Dick who was the associate director of football operation for the Buckeyes.  With the majority of hiring coming from within, not much will change for the Bucks.


**        Tressel has to be a bit concerned about his offense.  While they struggled last year averaging only 332 total YPG, they were experienced.  Now they lost most of their experience and should have trouble moving the ball again.  In fact, during the spring game, the starting offense only scored one TD vs. the second team defense.  Even worse, the second team offense did not score and was held to under 50 yards of total offense by the #1 stop unit.  Not a good sign.  That is unless the OSU defense is simply dominating which might be the case again this year.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING OHIO STATE:  Go against the Buckeyes on November 13th when they travel to Purdue.  This is Purdue’s year to finally top OSU.  We know that the Buckeyes are 16-3 vs. the Boilers since 1980, however not this year.  Purdue will have the best offense in the Big Ten going into the season with an experienced top notch QB in Kyle Orton.  PU has been “this close” to knocking off Ohio State the last few years losing by just 3 @ OSU last year and by 4 at home in 2002.  The Bucks will have played at Michigan State a week earlier making this their second straight road game.  If OSU is a road favorite, we like this play even more.  Purdue is very tough to beat at home and are rarely getting points.  In fact, since the start of the 1999 season, the Boilers have been home dogs just 4 times covering 3 of them.  We think this is Purdue’s year to get by mighty Ohio State.

Penn State Football Notes:

**        With a stable of inexperience, yet talented linebackers and a small defensive line, PSU defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, has made a change in his scheme for 2004.  He will use a stack 4-3 rather than a base 5-2.  This will move his young, athletic linebackers off the ball freeing them up to run around and make plays.  The players seemed to adapt well to the new scheme during the spring. 


**        Starting defensive ends Lavon Chisley and Matt Rice were suspended by the university in April for off-season incidents.  Ed Johnson, a part time starter at defensive tackle was also suspended by the university.  Rice and Johnson were suspended for their part in an on campus fight.  Chisley is suspended pending a review by judicial affairs for an alleged sexual assault on campus.  Head coach Joe Paterno expects all of them to be back in the fall, however there is no guarantee that will happen.  All three were key contributors last year as Chisley finished with 41 tackles and 4 sacks, Rice has 32 tackles and Johnson had 26.


**        Joe Pa has decided to “revamp” some key spots on his staff to try and get his once potent offense jumpstarted.  PSU finished last in the Big Ten in total offense a year ago.  He hired Galen Hall to be PSU’s new offensive coordinator.  Hall comes with a wealth of experience (and ideas) as he was most recently the running back’s coach for the Dallas Cowboys.  He has also been a head coach in NFL Europe, the head man at the University of Florida from 1984-89 and the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 1966-1983.  Hall should have a decent cast to work with including two veteran QB’s in Zack Mills and Michael Robinson.  Paterno was happy with the progress of the offensive line in the spring and the WR’s seemed to be more focused.  We don’t expect the Lions to finish last in the conference in total offense this season.  Look for a drastic improvement.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING PENN STATE:  Play on the Nittany Lions at home on October 9th when they host Purdue.  This is just a bad spot for the Boilers.  This will be their 3rd road game in three weeks after traveling to Illinois and Notre Dame the previous two Saturdays.  This will be PSU’s conference home opener.  Also expect the Lions to put a huge emphasis on this game as it is possible they could already be 0-2 in the Big Ten after traveling to Wisconsin and Minnesota in the first two weeks of conference play.  PSU also has a bye the week following Purdue so they have nothing to look ahead for.  Purdue, on the other hand, has home dates against Wisconsin and Michigan coming up the next two weeks so if PSU is struggling at this point in the season, the Boilers could be peeking ahead.  Paterno’s crew had beaten Purdue six straight times before losing 28-14 last year in West Lafayette.  We expect them to get that one back this year.  Take the Lions as a dog or small favorite it this one.


Purdue Football Notes

**        Unlike most of the other Big Ten teams, Purdue is definitely squared away at QB where senior Kyle Orton returns after throwing for 2,885 yards last season.  His back up, Brandon Kirsch, redshirted last year but played in a number of games the year before as a freshman.  The return of Orton, along with three offensive lineman, their top three RB’s and two solid WR’s in Taylor Stubblefield (850 yards last year) and 6’9 Kyle Ingraham (169 yards receiving in the spring game) should give Purdue perhaps the most potent offense in the conference this year.


**        When most people think of Purdue football, they immediately this offense.  However, PU’s defense was among the best in the nation last year giving up just 17 PPG.  That may be tough to duplicate this year as the stop unit lost eight players to graduation including three first team all conference players in Stuart Schweigert, Shaun Phillips and Niko Koutouvides.  This year, unlike last season, Purdue will have just ONE senior starter that has starting experience and that is DB Antwaun Rogers.  So while the offense looks potent, the defense will have to prove it belongs among the Big Ten’s best again this year.


**        Keep a close eye on junior tight end Charles Davis.  At 6’6, 265 he is a huge target that Tiller expects to use quite often next fall.  Davis has been used mainly as a blocker catching just 16 total passes in his first two years at Purdue.  If his role in the spring game is any indication, watch for him to explode next fall.  Davis had 10 catches for 136 yards in the spring game.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING PURDUE:  Go against the Boilers on October 30th when they travel to Northwestern.  This game simply cries out letdown for the Boilermakers.  They are heading to Evanston after HUGE home games against Wisconsin and Michigan.  Not only that, they travel to Iowa the week after this tilt.  If there was ever a game that Purdue would overlook, it’s this one.  They definitely don’t want to do that, especially if they are a road favorite.  NU has been tough as at home getting points.  They have a spread record of 19-11 (63%) their last 30 times in that role.  The Wildcats will be in the midst of a three road game in four week stretch with this being their only home tilt.  Their road games during that sequence will be @Wisconsin, @ Penn State and @ Michigan.  Thus their only home game vs. Purdue will be a very big one for them to get.  Take the Wildcats as a home dog. 

Wisconsin Football Notes:

**        For the first time in 10 seasons, the Badgers will have a new defensive coordinator.  Bret Bielema takes over after coming over from Kansas State where he was the co-defensive coordinator the last two seasons.  He led Kansas State to the #8 overall defense in the country last year giving up just 285 YPG.  Bielema takes the place of Kevin Cosgrove who took over as the defensive coordinator at Nebraska. 


**        Head coach Barry Alvarez has also officially become the athletic director.  Alvarez took over for Pat Richter last spring.  Alvarez has said he will re-evaluate his situation each year to make sure his workload isn’t taking away from his job as a head football coach.


**        They say games are won and lost in the trenches.  If that is the case, the Badgers should be OK.  Wisconsin returns their entire starting offensive and defensive lines in tact for the 2004 season.   


**        UW expects RB Anthony Davis to be 100% and ready to go this fall.  He was held out of contact last spring after injuring his ankle during the 2003 season.  Davis is already the third all time leading rusher in Wisconsin history and needs just seven yards to move into second place behind Ron Dayne who is college football’s all time leading ground gainer.  Here is an impressive stat on Davis, he enters the 2004 season having gained 3,703 yards rushing in his last three seasons which puts him third nationally.  What’s impressive about that is he missed 5 full games last year and much of 4 more due to his ankle problems.  He still ended the 2003 season with 682 yards on just 116 carries (5.87 YPC).


**            Sophomore John Stocco has entrenched himself as the starting QB.  He had an excellent spring and barring injury, he will be under center when the Badgers host Central Florida to open the 2004 season.  Stocco played in three games last year completing 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards.  The 6’2, 200 pounder has a very strong arm and good mobility in the pocket.


ASA’s 2004 POTENTIAL POINTSPREAD PLAY INVOLVING WISCONSIN:  Go against the Badgers when they travel to Arizona on September 18th .  Wisconsin could be a bit “over confident” in this one after opening the season at home with Central Florida and UNLV.  This will be their first road game and they should be 2-0.  This will also be the first road start for new QB John Stocco which is always tough.  Expect Arizona to be a different team this season.  Last year they quit on their head coach John Mackovic.  This year it will be Mike Stoops in charge.  Stoops was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and will have his team putting forth a top notch effort, unlike last year.  The Badgers will most likely be favored and in a tough spot with the Big Ten home opener just a week away vs. Penn State.  The weather could also play a factor here as it should still be VERY hot in Arizona which will have an effect on the Wisconsin players.  UW has also faired very poorly vs. non conference foes going just 5-14 ATS the last 19.  If Arizona is getting points at home, we’ll side with them.

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