- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The postseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. No position group is evaluated more as a collective unit, and the Big Ten had a mix of strong offensive lines and shaky ones. There were some individual standouts, such as Michigan center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and Wisconsin center Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler, who earned AP All-America honors.
It was important to consider quarterback rushing when evaluating the offensive lines, as most Big Ten teams had signal callers who could take off and run. The ones who didn't paid the price in some statistical categories, even though the line play wasn't too bad.
Let's get to the list:
1. Wisconsin: No surprise here as the Thick Red Line keeps steamrolling the opposition. Despite losing three starters and two All-Americans from the 2010 unit, Wisconsin's offensive line once again delivered as the unit put up huge numbers once again. The Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense. Although pass protection was an issue at times, and the unit missed Konz down the stretch, there's little to complain about. Four starters earned league or national honors.
2. Michigan: Although the defensive line got more attention for its boost under Brady Hoke, Michigan's offensive line turned in a strong 2011 campaign. Molk led the charge at center as Michigan finished second in the league in both scoring and rushing and third in total offense. The Wolverines also allowed just 18 sacks, the third-lowest total in the Big Ten. Michigan's linemen seemed to embrace the transition to a more pro-style, downhill offense.
3. Nebraska: Despite injuries and inexperience, the Huskers' line held together pretty well in 2011, especially when you consider they operated in a new offensive system. Nebraska finished third in the league in rushing, as the front five paved a path for Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. Nebraska did a decent job limiting sacks and tackles for loss and kept Martinez healthy for the season.
4. Iowa: It's tough to know what to make of Iowa's offensive line in 2011. The Hawkeyes had a future top-10 NFL draft pick at left tackle in Riley Reiff, who surprised no one in January by forgoing his senior season to turn pro. Iowa also had some solid pieces in Adam Gettis, Markus Zusevics and James Ferentz. The big knock is that Iowa ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing, although the team had a nearly 1,400-yard rusher in Marcus Coker. Iowa allowed 29 sacks but only 59 tackles for loss, and the team passed the ball well. Still, it's fair to expect more from this group.
5. Penn State: The Lions' line has taken a lot of heat in recent years, and the offense's overall struggles in 2011 would seem to suggest another rough season. But we believe Penn State's biggest problems occurred immediately behind the line rather than along it. The line helped sophomore running back Silas Redd turn in a strong season. Penn State allowed the fewest sacks (14) and fewest tackles for loss (49) in the league.
6. Michigan State: The Spartans had a similar profile to Iowa, which isn't surprising as neither team had a rushing threat at quarterback. Michigan State ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the year and ended up 11th, ahead of only Iowa. But the Spartans protected Kirk Cousins well, allowing only 16 sacks, and they finished 34th nationally in tackles for loss allowed with 72. And while All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman led the way, Michigan State dealt with injuries and inexperience for most of the season.
7. Purdue: Danny Hope branded the offensive line as the team's strongest unit entering the season, and at times it looked that way. Purdue used multiple running backs and finished fifth in the league in rushing. The Boilers ranked sixth in passing, and the line finished in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed. Purdue had too many negative-yardage plays overall, finishing 101st nationally in tackles for loss allowed (89).
8. Northwestern: One of the nation's most experienced offensive lines once again showed it can excel in pass blocking and struggles to generate push in the run game. Although Northwestern finished in the middle of the league in rushing offense, the unit remained passing-centric. The Wildcats allowed 43 sacks, and while some could be attributed to a quarterback (Dan Persa) who wasn't 100 percent and held the ball too long, it's still too many. The line had its moments, like the Nebraska win, but looked leaky at times.
9. Indiana: The Hoosiers might not have been dominant up front in 2011, but they improved as the season went along. After a rough start to Big Ten play, Indiana racked up 200 rush yards or more in four of its final six contests. The line looked strong against both Iowa and Northwestern, although the team lost both games. Indiana allowed too many negative-yardage plays and needs to be more consistent with its run-blocking going forward.
10. Ohio State: This unit undoubtedly would be higher had left tackle Mike Adams been eligible all season. Adams sparked the Buckeyes after returning from suspension and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media despite missing the first five games. Things were brutal up front early on, especially in losses to Miami and Michigan State. Ohio State surrendered a league-high 46 sacks and 90 tackles for loss, which ranked 104th nationally.
11. Illinois: It was a disappointing season for an Illinois line that entered the year with high hopes. While many are to blame for the offense's decline in the second half of the year, the struggles up front seemed to be the most surprising. Illinois eclipsed 200 rush yards in four of the first six games and then failed to do so the rest of the season. The Illini surrendered 36 sacks and 89 tackles for loss. Despite some talented individuals like tackle Jeff Allen, the line as a whole fell short of expectations.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers simply need to get a lot better at a position where they've thrived for much of their history. Minnesota scored a league-low 14 rush touchdowns, four fewer than any other Big Ten squad, and finished last in the league in both scoring and total offense. The Gophers did a nice job limiting negative-yardage plays, but they need to move the ball forward with greater efficiency. The good news is several promising young linemen return in 2012.