Thursday, February 28, 2013
Spring a key time throughout the Big Ten
By Brian Bennett
Spring ball officially opened in the Big Ten on Wednesday when Northwestern hit the practice field. The Wildcats did so wearing the numbers "5:03" on the back of their practice jerseys, which was Pat Fitzgerald's way of reminding his team how close his team was to going undefeated in 2012.
They won't be the only league team cognizant of time this spring. A sense of urgency should permeate the Big Ten the next two months, as so many programs -- and the conference as a whole -- feel the need to, um, spring forward.
After all, 10 full seasons have passed since a Big Ten team last won a national title. The league has one Rose Bowl victory in the past 13 years and none since 2010. After last year's dreadful nonconference showing, the Big Ten should be thankful for the renewing spirit of spring.
Ohio State fans have been crossing off calendar days since the end of November, waiting for the 2013 season to arrive. If the Buckeyes followed Northwestern's lead, they could put "0:00" on their practice shirts, because they were the only team in the country to finish undefeated last year. Of course, they couldn't go bowling because of probation, but now they look like a legitimate title contender under Urban Meyer, who has always operated ahead of schedule. Improving the team's passing game, and the throwing mechanics of Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller, is high on the agenda this spring in Columbus.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke measures time -- and success -- by Big Ten titles, and for him it's unacceptable that the Wolverines haven't claimed a league championship since 2004. After an 11-2 season in Hoke's first year as head coach, Michigan weathered an 8-5 campaign last year while losing to four teams that finished in the top eight. Denard Robinson has left Ann Arbor, which means Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges can move forward with their plan to implement a truer pro-style attack. But the biggest issue for the Maize and Blue this spring is if several young offensive linemen can mature quickly.
Ohio State's Braxton Miller passed for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 1,271 yards and 13 TDs rushing last season.
Another year passed without a conference championship for Nebraska, which still hasn't won a league title since 1999. The Huskers have won either nine or 10 games during all five of Bo Pelini's seasons as head coach, but fans keep waiting for him to get the program over that last hurdle to greatness -- and to avoid ugly losses like last year's 70-31 thumping versus Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska should have one of the most potent offenses in the country, but Pelini has to fix the defense this spring -- and do so with eight starters gone from last year.
Speaking of droughts, Michigan State is still seeking its first Rose Bowl berth since 1988. Mark Dantonio had built the team into an annual contender before last year's disappointing 6-6 regular season. The Spartans will have an open quarterback competition this spring and a new offensive coordinator, hoping they can find a way to score enough points to complement what should be another outstanding defensive unit.
Penn State still faces four more years of harsh NCAA sanctions and will have to deal with the first season of a 65-scholarship limit this season. Bill O'Brien did amazing work last year in State College, but his toughest tests likely still lie ahead.
Wisconsin has gone to three straight Rose Bowls but saw coach Bret Bielema bolt for Arkansas in December. The Badgers don't want to cede momentum now, especially with Ohio State appearing to take off, so new coach Gary Andersen and his staff need to hit the ground running. Purdue also underwent a coaching change, and the Boilermakers are banking on Darrell Hazell to inject some excitement and turn around evaporating ticket sales. Indiana improved from one to four wins in Kevin Wilson's second year and now must take the next step toward getting back to a bowl game. There's no secret where the team needs to focus this spring: on its defense, which was last in the Big Ten two years running.
Year 3 has been good to Jerry Kill in his previous head-coaching stops, and Minnesota fans hope he's on the same schedule with the Gophers after leading them to a bowl game in 2012. Iowa would like to turn back the clock to a few years ago when it was a Big Ten power and forget last year's 4-8 disaster. Kirk Ferentz isn't going anywhere because of his contract, but fans are rumbling. The clock is already ticking on Tim Beckman at Illinois after a 2-10 debut. If the Illini don't show improvement this season -- which would be hard not to do, because they were one of the worst teams in the country in just about every statistical category last year -- he may not get to coach a third year in Champaign.
And then there's Northwestern, which broke through last season with its first bowl win since 1949 and returns the nucleus of that team. The Wildcats will look to reach the next level this year, hoping to contend for a Legends Division title and even more. The 5:03 serves to remind them of how much more work they have left to do.
"We've taken the attitude that we'll find a way to make that up in the offseason," Fitzgerald said.
The rest of the Big Ten should take a similar mindset this spring. There's no time to waste.