A look around the Big Ten

Updated: July 19, 2005, 6:02 PM ET
By Teddy Greenstein | Special to ESPN.com

Should Ohio State QB Justin Zwick be looking over his shoulder? Who will replace Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions, along with looks at the surprisingly deep Northwestern lines, JoePa's grudge against Pitt and more.

Illinois
Defensive linemen Chris Norwell and Charles Myles give the Illini hope that their defense won't give up nearly 40 points per Big Ten game, as it did last season. Norwell, a former offensive lineman, and Myles, a 320-pound sophomore who didn't qualify academically as a freshman, have stood out in practice.

  • Jon Beutjer better not stand near a tree during a lightning storm. Beutjer, the sixth-year QB who spent much of the last 10 months rehabbing after back surgery, injured his knee in July after a golf cart he was riding in slammed into a tree stump. Beutjer feared the worst but was OK after doctors used 15 stitches to close a leg wound.

  • Sophomore tailback E.B. Halsey will get a ton of touches Saturday against Florida A&M. Halsey, who finished 19th in the nation last season with 142.8 all-purpose yards per game, will be the fastest player on the field.

    Indiana

    Matt LoVecchio
    APMatt LoVecchio may be the key to Indiana's season.
    Coach Gerry DiNardo is no longer desperate for warm bodies -- just good ones. At one point last season, he had three linebackers on scholarship. Now he has 11.

  • QB Matt LoVecchio, now three years removed from Notre Dame, must improve for the Hoosiers to become respectable. "He's making more of a conscious effort to be a leader in the locker room," tailback Yamar Washington told the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. DiNardo plans to call more plays that highlight LoVecchio's mobility.

  • In either a sign of desperation or creativity, the Hoosiers have moved third-string kicker Troy Grosfield to cornerback. Grosfield, who played both positions at Chatfield (Colo.) High School, made five tackles on kickoffs last year.

    Iowa
    Cornerback Jovon Johnson will get plenty of attention Saturday when the Hawkeyes host Kent State. Johnson verbally committed to Kent State and was set to become the centerpiece of the school's recruiting class. Then Iowa stepped in and snagged him.

  • Iowa is accustomed to having senior quarterbacks, but that won't be the case this year. Coach Kirk Ferentz knows he'll have to be patient with sophomore quarterback Drew Tate. "He'll make some stupid mistakes, probably," Ferentz said, "but we're all confident he'll settle in and do a good job."

  • Iowa lost Outland Trophy winner Robert Gallery, but it might be equally tough to replace kicker Nate Kaeding, who converted 20-of-21 field-goal tries in '03.

    Michigan
    Coach Lloyd Carr finally named Matt Gutierrez the starting QB for Saturday's game against Miami of Ohio. But while Gutierrez, who performed well as a backup last year, will start, strong-armed Clayton Richard figures to get a look, and so might true freshman Chad Henne, a Wyomissing, Pa., native who used spring break of his senior year to learn the Wolverines' offense and observe practice.

  • Senior David Underwood will get the first chance to replace 1,674-yard rusher Chris Perry. Does Underwood feel the urgency? "I would hope so," Carr said. "Time is running out."

  • Michigan's defense is shooting for its best performance since 1997, when the co-national champs limited opponents to 222.8 yards a game. Cornerback Marlin Jackson, who reluctantly switched to safety last season, is thrilled to be going head-to-head with receivers again.

    Michigan State
    The Spartans needs to replace QB Jeff Smoker, and coach John L. Smith wants it to be Drew Stanton. But Stanton had to miss some practices last week because of swelling in his surgically repaired right knee. Smith hasn't settled on an alternative -- the talented but erratic Stephen Reaves or fifth-year senior Damon Dowdell.

  • Smith was wise to move running backs Jaren Hayes and Tyrell Dortch to defense. With an unsettled situation at quarterback, the Spartans need their defense to carry them early in the season.

  • Smith doesn't expect kick returner DeAndra Cobb to get many chances after he led the Big Ten with a 27.2-yard average and returned three for touchdowns. "Those guys kicking the ball off, don't look for them to be totally stupid," Smith said.

    Minnesota
    The Gophers don't regret moving Matt Spaeth from defensive end to tight end a year ago. Spaeth caught 12 balls last year but drew more attention for his blocking. "Unbelievable player," assistant coach Mitch Browning told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

  • Look for the Gophers' two star tailbacks, Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney, to be on the field together. Said coach Glen Mason said: "I've been asked 1,000 times how I'm going to keep both those guys happy. They have to worry about keeping themselves happy. We plan to use them both, but if one eases up, he won't play as much as the other guy."

  • Even if "The U" goes undefeated in the Metrodome this season, Mason will continue to lobby for an on-campus stadium. Mason knows while the Metrodome is a great facility, nothing beats an on-campus stadium for a home-field atmosphere.

    Northwestern
    Every starting lineman returns -- on both sides of the ball. But highly acclaimed DE Loren Howard seriously injured his left ankle last week in practice and might be lost for the season. Howard led NU last year with eight sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

  • The burden of replacing 1,388-yard runner Jason Wright falls to senior Noah Herron, who came to Evanston as a shifty, shake-and-bake runner. Now he's more north to south.

  • QB Brett Basanez bulked up after getting sacked 22 times last season. Said Basanez: "(The coaches) told me: 'Eat what you see, man.' And they finally showed me where the weight room was."

    Ohio State

    Justin Zwick
    APOhio State's Justin Zwick is the starter, but is it permanent?
    Don't be surprised if Cincinnati puts a scare into Ohio State on Saturday. UC was a dropped pass or two away from beating the Buckeyes last year, and the Bearcats' new head coach is Mark Dantonio, OSU's former defensive coordinator. Dantonio took three OSU grad assistants with him to Cincinnati.

  • New QB Justin Zwick will be looking over his shoulder Saturday. While Zwick will start, coach Jim Tressel said he plans to play both Zwick and the more athletic Troy Smith against UC.

  • Lydell Ross needs to shake the injury bug that has hampered his career. The senior tailback can't afford another turf toe or strained hamstring. But he says he's in the best shape of his career and his teammates elected him captain, so they must believe in him.

    Penn State
    Tailback Tony Hunt has a slight edge over fellow sophomore Austin Scott, a prep superstar who ended up on the bench much of last season. Coach Joe Paterno said Hunt "may be a little more persistent and consistent than the other kid. But the other kid will be fine."

  • Zack Mills was doomed last season by his receivers' lousy play. Look for Ryan Scott and Gerald Smith to show improvement this year.

  • Paterno has exasperated some Pennsylvanians by stonewalling a revival of the Pittsburgh-Penn State revival. Some say Paterno's grudge against Pitt goes back to 1982, when the Panthers wouldn't join the Nittany Lions in an all-sports Eastern conference. The teams haven't met since 2000.

    Purdue
    Just three starters return from the conference's third-best defense, but the Boilermakers say the young whippersnappers won't disappoint. "Although we're young, everybody's really athletic," said returning tackle Brent Grover.

  • With senior QB Kyle Orton at the helm, Purdue might return to its freewheeling roots. That doesn't mean Orton will attempt 83 passes in a game, as Brees did in 1998 against Wisconsin. But Orton and receiver Taylor Stubblefield are too good to shackle. Purdue's 57-to-43 run-to-pass ratio last season might be more like 50-50 this year.

  • Purdue's reshuffled offensive line could be vulnerable Sunday against Syracuse. Left guard Matt Turner moved under center and sophomore Uche Nwaneri took his place by converting from defensive tackle.

    Wisconsin
    Wisconsin coaches have pulled out Georgia Tech game tapes from the late '90s to prepare for Saturday's game with Central Florida. The reason? UCF coach George O'Leary, who coached Tech from 1994-2001.

  • Backup tailback Dwayne Smith, who led the Badgers in rushing last season, will likely have to give up football after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the heart ailment that led to the early deaths of Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers. The Badgers announced he would no longer play for Wisconsin.

  • Wisconsin quarterbacks have been sacked 83 times in the last two seasons, an average of 3.1 per game. So what's the best way to keep new QB John Stocco alive? Have him hand off to tailback Anthony Davis, a potential 2,000-yard rusher.

    Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.

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