Big Ten: 2011-final-team-reviews

Season recap: Illinois

December, 7, 2011

Record: 6-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Even the most cynical observers and Ron Zook disbelievers couldn't fathom Illinois being in its current predicament back on Oct. 14. The team was off to a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. Illinois boasted one of the nation's top passing combinations in quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and receiver A.J. Jenkins, and defensive end Whitney Mercilus was living up to his surname. The consistency that had eluded Illinois for the better part of the past two decades finally seemed to be in place.

And then it all disappeared. Illinois dropped its final six games, becoming the first FBS team to start 6-0 and finish the regular season at 6-6. A once-potent offense flat-lined, failing to score in a half of each of the final six contests. It spelled the end for Zook, the team's seventh-year coach, who was fired Nov. 27, a day after his team's uninspiring performance against 3-8 Minnesota.

Things began to go downhill during an Oct. 15 home game against struggling Ohio State, which won 17-7 despite completing just one pass and attempting four. Illinois' offensive backslide came as a surprise to just about everyone. Scheelhaase struggled and lost snaps to backup Reilly O'Toole, while the offensive line took significant steps back and opposing defenses began taking Jenkins out of the equation.

Illinois' defense continued to play well, particularly in an agonizing loss at Penn State, and Mercilus and others put up impressive numbers. Yet it wasn't enough to save Zook or a once-promising season.

Offensive MVP: Jenkins. The senior had a blistering start, racking up 815 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 46 receptions through the first six games. Jenkins' yards production declined after defenses realized he was Illinois' only consistent offensive weapon, but he still had six or more receptions in four of the final six regular-season contests. Jenkins was the Big Ten's only semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

Defensive MVP: Mercilus. Like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan in 2010 and Michigan's Brandon Graham in 2008, Mercilus' individual production was somewhat overshadowed by his team's subpar record. The junior had one of the more dominant seasons of any defender in college football, leading the nation in both sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (9), the latter mark setting a new Big Ten record. Mercilus led the Big Ten and tied for fifth nationally in tackles for loss (19.5). Linebacker Jonathan Brown (102 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks) also merits a mention.

Turning point: The Ohio State game. Illinois came in at 6-0 and was expected to handle the slumping Buckeyes at Memorial Stadium. Instead, Ohio State held Illinois scoreless for more than 53 minutes and prevailed 17-7 despite completing just one pass. It began a troubling trend for Illinois, which failed to score in a half of each of its final six games, all losses.

What's next: First-year athletic director Mike Thomas is looking for a head coach, which he hopes to name soon. The Illini will head to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco later this month to face UCLA, which also fired its head coach (Rick Neuheisel). Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been tabbed to serve as head coach in the bowl, although offensive coordinator Paul Petrino already has left the team and other assistants could follow. The new coach probably can't arrive soon enough.

Season recap: Indiana

December, 7, 2011

Record: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)

After two seasons of flirting with the postseason, Indiana slipped back into rebuilding mode in 2011. While the team's Big Ten struggles are nothing new to IU fans, the Hoosiers also stumbled in nonconference play and were the only major-conference team in the country not to defeat an FBS opponent this year.

Rough first season for coach Kevin Wilson? You bet. But better days should be ahead.

Indiana's offense struggled early as inconsistent play an injuries prevented Wilson from identifying the team's top quarterback. True freshman Tre Roberson eventually emerged to provide a play-making spark in the backfield, along with running back Stephen Houston, but by then the defense was in free-fall. The unit that has plagued Indiana for more than a decade took another step back, finishing the season 109th or worse nationally in four major statistical categories (total defense, rush defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense). Indiana's defense surrendered an average of 46.5 points during the final seven games.

Wilson and his staff ended up playing 16 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen, more than any team in the country. While it resulted in plenty of growing pains this year, the moves could pay off down the line as so many young players got a taste of game action. Indiana's ongoing recruiting efforts will be critical, and while losing one-time quarterback commit Gunner Kiel stings, the bigger concern for the Hoosiers remains on defense.

Offensive MVP: Roberson. Indiana's offense was going nowhere until Roberson provided a spark in his first career start -- and the first by a Hoosiers freshman quarterback -- against Iowa on Oct. 22. Although he had some ups and downs, he showcased explosive speed and has some potential as a passer. Roberson finished as the team's second-leading rusher (426 yards). Houston also merits a mention after an impressive first season (802 rush yards, 8 TDs).

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Jeff Thomas. Not many choices here but Thomas led the team in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5) after finishing second in tackles a year ago. He added a sack, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Defensive lineman Adam Replogle merits a mention after leading the team with four sacks and finishing second with seven tackles for loss.

Turning point: After notching its first win against South Carolina State, Indiana went to North Texas with an excellent chance to even its record at 2-2. North Texas entered the game with three blowout losses on its record, but the Mean Green dominated Indiana on both sides of the ball, surging out to a 24-0 lead before the Hoosiers decided to wake up. It signaled bad things ahead for Wilson's squad, which didn't win another game.

What's next: Indiana misses a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season, but this is a critical time for Wilson and his assistants to scour the recruiting trail. The Hoosiers need significant upgrades, particularly on defense, and likely will sign a large recruiting class in February. It's also an important time for the many freshmen who played this season to take steps in their physical development before spring ball begins.

Season recap: Iowa

December, 7, 2011

Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Iowa fans hoping for improvement over the 2010 season instead got nearly a carbon copy.

For the second straight year, the Hawkeyes went 7-5 in the regular season and 4-4 in the Big Ten, and for the second straight year they're heading back to the Insight Bowl. But whereas last year's team started off hot and collapsed down the stretch, this one reached the finish line after a series of starts and stops.

Well, maybe we shouldn't use the word "stops" with this particular team. Iowa turned in one of the most inconsistent defensive efforts of the Kirk Ferentz era, as the loss of three defensive linemen to last April's NFL draft took its toll. The Hawkeyes also were a much worse team on the road, losing at Iowa State and Minnesota. Their only road win came late in the year at Purdue.

The bright spot was an offense that was as productive as any in the league when the team's Big Three were rolling. James Vandenberg excelled for a first-time starting quarterback, tossing 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions while piling up more than 2,800 passing yards. His favorite target was Marvin McNutt, who blossomed into the Big Ten's best receiver. And after a slow start, sophomore Marcus Coker put up the kind of numbers people expected of him, gaining 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Unfortunately, that offense failed to fire in losses at Penn State and Nebraska. That mirrored the team as a whole, which never could sustain any momentum this season. Iowa is just two years removed from winning the Orange Bowl, but fans are grumbling and will want to see some real improvement next year.

Offensive MVP: McNutt. Vandenberg and Coker had standout seasons, but McNutt could change a game like no other player. The Big Ten receiver of the year had 78 catches for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the school's all-time leader in career touchdown catches.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker James Morris. There's no obvious choice here, really, which tells you everything you need to know about Iowa's 2011 defense. Morris led the team with 105 tackles in just 11 games. Defensive backs Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde were solid, too, and defensive lineman Mike Daniels came on late in the year to lead the team with six sacks.

Turning point: Hard to say there was any real turning point, since the team's only back-to-back wins in conference play came against Northwestern and Indiana at home. But the 24-16 win over Michigan was a high-water moment, as the defense finally delivered and the Hawkeyes beat a ranked team for the only time all season. That it came after the disappointing Minnesota loss and clinched bowl eligibility made it that much more important.

What's next: Iowa is a heavy underdog in the Insight Bowl against Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 1 in the country for most of September. But the Hawkeyes have been very good in bowl games under Ferentz. McNutt will be gone, but Vandenberg and Coker give the offense a nice nucleus for 2012. The defense simply must get tougher.

Season recap: Michigan

December, 7, 2011

Record: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)

It's hard to imagine the Brady Hoke era getting off to any better start than it did.

Mired in mediocrity -- at best -- during Rich Rodriguez's three years, the Wolverines made one of the biggest leaps in the country this year, getting to double-digit wins and back to a BCS game for the first time since the 2006 season. And it wasn't just that Michigan won more games or made it to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, because you could argue the home-friendly schedule helped and the at-large BCS bid should have gone elsewhere. It was how Hoke did it.

Along with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Hoke taught these Wolverines to actually play some defense. Michigan ranked 110th in total defense and 108th in points allowed in 2010. Using mostly the same players, the defense ranks 18th and seventh, respectively, in those categories this season.

That stunning defensive improvement came without reeling in the explosive offense Rodriguez had built. Though Denard Robinson had his ups and downs while adjusting to new offensive coordinator Al Borges' style, he finished the year strong and still had more than 1,100 yards rushing. Borges eased the burden on Robinson by finding another weapon in running back Fitz Toussaint, who went over 1,000 yards rushing himself.

Eight of Michigan's victories came by double digits, and the other two were instant classics against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Hoke fulfilled a promise by beating the team he calls "Ohio," snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Wolverines' most bitter rival. That was the icing on a near-perfect regular season, and a helping of Sugar awaits in the new year.

Offensive MVP: Denard Robinson. "Shoelace" struggled mightily with his passing at times this year, and he split reps at quarterback in many games with Devin Gardner. Fans were calling for Gardner to take over full time until the end of the season, when Robinson bounced back with terrific performances in the final two games. No one in the country had a better pair of games than he turned in against Notre Dame (446 total yards, five touchdowns) and Ohio State (337 and five). But the real story of the season was that Robinson didn't have to do it all alone.

Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Mike Martin. In a fortunate convergence, Hoke and Mattison -- two defensive line coaches at heart -- inherited a defense that was strongest up front. The Wolverines proved tough to run against, especially in short-yardage situations, and Martin was a main reason for that. His numbers (54 tackles, 5.5 for loss) don't tell the full story of how much he meant to the defense, on and off the field. Defensive end Ryan Van Bergen and cornerback J.T. Floyd were among many others who flourished under the new staff's tutelage.

Turning point: Following a 24-16 loss at Iowa on Nov. 5 in which Michigan came up empty on four cracks near the goal line at the end, the Wolverines could have gone into another November tailspin. Instead, they finished with a bang, beating Illinois by 17 on the road, blowing the doors off Nebraska in a 45-17 win at home and then finally getting past Ohio State in a 40-34 shootout. That put the team in position for an at-large BCS bid.

What's next: The Big Easy could turn into Big House South as Michigan heads to the French Quarter to take on Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Despite ranking behind the Hokes, the Wolverines likely will be favored against a team that played a very soft schedule. Hoke must find replacements for Martin, Van Bergen and Rimington Trophy finalist David Molk, but he's got Robinson for another year and some blue-chip talent on the way in recruiting.

Season recap: Michigan State

December, 7, 2011

Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)

Just about everything was great about the Spartans' season, except for the ending.

The 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game put a damper on what was one of the best seasons in school history. Instead of going to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years, Michigan State again got shut out of the BCS despite raising a Big Ten banner (this time, for the Legends Division crown) for the second straight year. Worse, hated rival Michigan is going to the Allstate Sugar Bowl even though the Spartans beat the Wolverines by two touchdowns and finished a game ahead of them in the division standings.

Hey, life's not fair. But that shouldn't take away from what Mark Dantonio and his team accomplished in 2011. The Spartans' second consecutive 10-win season was a first in school history. Many counted Michigan State out this year because of a brutal road slate and a schedule that included games at Ohio State, vs. Michigan and Wisconsin and at Nebraska in October alone. The team won the first three of those before getting blown out at Nebraska, when it was likely mentally and physically drained from the previous three weeks. That would be the only loss in Big Ten regular-season play.

The defense finished fifth nationally in yards allowed, embracing coordinator Pat Narduzzi's aggressive style by punishing opposing quarterbacks. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy was the star up front at defensive tackle, but there wasn't a weak link on that side of the ball. On offense, the Spartans had to replace three linemen from last year and dealt with some injuries in that unit early in the year. Predictably, it took a while for everything to jell. But the O-line improved rapidly, and the offense was humming as well as anyone's down the stretch. Michigan State averaged 38.6 points in its final five games, with quarterback Kirk Cousins hitting his targets, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin giving defenses fits and Le'Veon Bell emerging as a hard-charging, go-to running back.

In any other year, the regular-season results would have been enough to send the Spartans to Pasadena. They came up just short in a rematch with Wisconsin. But this program proved that it's ready to compete for the league title every year.

Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. Receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin were fantastic, but Cousins was the leader who made everything go. The fifth-year senior completed better than 67 percent of his passes in the final five games, with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He finished as the Big Ten's top passer with a career-best 3,016 yards. He was in line to be the Big Ten title game MVP had Michigan State won, but a running-into-the-punter penalty prevented him and the offense from getting the ball back for one last drive.

Defensive MVP: Jerel Worthy. There were many noteworthy performances on the Michigan State defense, including defensive end Will Gholston, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullogh, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Trenton Robinson, among others. But Worthy was the catalyst, disrupting things in the middle of the line of scrimmage. He was also the team's fiery, emotional spark plug.

Turning point: Wisconsin's Hail Mary-esque, 36-yard completion on fourth-and-6 late in the Big Ten title game. That allowed the Badgers to go in for the game-winning score, and the Rose Bowl bid that seemed so close started to slip away.

What's next: An Outback Bowl matchup against SEC East champ Georgia in what should be a competitive game. The Spartans will look to win their first bowl game under Dantonio, an important next step. Losing Cousins, Cunningham, Martin, lineman Joel Foreman, Robinson and likely Worthy (if he goes pro) will create some major holes. Narduzzi also is likely to get a head coaching gig. But the majority of the roster returns, meaning the Spartans should be a factor again in the 2012 league race.

Season recap: Minnesota

December, 7, 2011

Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)

Halfway through the year, with the team sitting at 1-5, I wrote that Minnesota's 2011 was already mostly a lost season. And though the Gophers didn't storm back in some sort of Cinderella story to reach bowl eligibility, they certainly ended the season on a higher note.

First-year coach Jerry Kill's health scares had to affect the team, and Minnesota got blown out of the water in its first three Big Ten games. It seemed a safe bet to say the Gophers wouldn't win any conference games. But on Oct. 29, they rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to stun Iowa 22-21. They played eventual Legends Division champ Michigan State down to the wire in East Lansing the following week. And they stomped struggling Illinois 27-7 at home in the finale to take something positive into the offseason.

Quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was benched at times earlier in the year as he made the transition from starting wide receiver, gradually improved as the season wore on and should be much better with experience next year. The offense still lacked playmakers, and Minnesota never really developed much of a defense, allowing 31.7 points per game. At least there were some moves in the right direction.

"We're taking baby steps," Kill said. "But I do think we're making progress, and if I didn't think we were, I'd tell you."

Offensive MVP: Gray. Though erratic at times, Gray had some nice games down the stretch. He passed for 193 yards and ran for 62 in the win over Iowa. He threw for 295 yards and three scores at Michigan State. And he ran for over 160 yards in each of the final two games, showing his ability to be a dangerous dual threat.

Defensive MVP: Safety Kim Royston. The sixth-year senior finished second in the Big Ten in tackles with 123 and had eight games with 10 tackles or more. As the last line of defense, he was often needed to make stops or else. He did his job well.

Turning point: The bye week after a 45-17 loss at Purdue. Kill said his players finally started practicing the way he wanted them to during the break, and though they would lose 41-14 to Nebraska the next time out, they competed well for much of the game. That momentum would carry over the following week with the win over Iowa.

What's next: Though Minnesota doesn't get the benefit of extra bowl practices, that time off allows Kill and his staff to hit the recruiting trail hard in search of more difference-makers and depth. The Gophers lose some valuable seniors like Royston and running back Duane Bennett, but they also threw a lot of kids into the fire this year. An easier nonconference schedule could help them make a run at bowl eligibility in 2012. "I'll be disappointed if we don't move it forward," Kill said.

Season recap: Nebraska

December, 7, 2011

Record: 9-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

It was in many ways an odd first year of Big Ten play for Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers came over from the Big 12 both expecting and expected to do big things. Instead, they proved wildly inconsistent. The good included a marvelous rally to beat Ohio State, a three-touchdown victory over Michigan State, a win in difficult circumstances at Penn State and a manhandling of Iowa in the first "Heroes Game." The bad included blowout losses at Wisconsin and Michigan in which the Huskers seemed ill-equipped to compete and a stunning upset at home to Northwestern.

The defense played the main role in that inconsistency. One week after starters received their traditional Blackshirts for shutting down a good Michigan State offense, Northwestern sliced right through Bo and Carl Pelini's defense. A week after recording key stops at Penn State, the defense had no answer for Denard Robinson and Michigan. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick missed most of Big Ten play with a torn pectoral muscle, and lockdown corner Alfonzo Dennard didn't really get going until midway through the year after a preseason leg injury. Nebraska lacked depth and bulk up front and at the linebacker spot, something that will have to be remedied in order to contend in the rugged Big Ten.

Offensively, the Huskers averaged 30.5 points per game and ran the ball very effectively behind a star-making season by I-back Rex Burkhead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez made strides as a game manager and leader, but the team stalled whenever opposing defenses forced Nebraska to rely heavily on the passing game. Martinez's funky mechanics and a young receiving corps could be quite unpredictable. Just like the whole team this year.

Offensive MVP: Burkhead. We found out why Burkhead's nickname is "Superman." He ran like his next meal depended on it while piling up 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. That included seven 100-yard games in his final 10 outings. Just when you thought he might be wearing down under a heavy workload, Burkhead erupted for 160 yards on a school-record 38 carries in the season finale against Iowa. He'll enter 2012 as one of the Big Ten's brightest stars.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Lavonte David. Whenever there was a key play to be made on defense, David seemed to be right in the middle of it. His fourth-down stuffing of Penn State's Silas Redd sealed that game. His 122 tackles ranked third in the Big Ten. And given how the Huskers disappointed elsewhere on defense, no player meant more to his team than David.

Turning point: The 28-25 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 5. Nebraska looked like the team to beat in the Legends Division after dominating Michigan State a week earlier. But the Huskers lost control of their destiny when Kain Colter and the Wildcats picked them off in Lincoln. Though the team would bounce back to win at Penn State, the Northwestern loss ensured that this would merely be a good, and not special, first season in the Big Ten.

What's next: Nebraska faces No. 9 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl in what looks like one of the best non-BCS postseason matchups. With Carl Pelini gone to Florida Atlantic, his brother will have to find a new defensive coordinator. Burkhead, Martinez and a host of skill players return for what should be a powerful offense in 2012. But the Huskers must replace Dennard, David and Crick on defense and find more elite-level players overall.

Season recap: Northwestern

December, 7, 2011

Record: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

Northwestern's chances of making a fourth straight bowl game were in serious doubt in late October. A 2-5 start, marked by an extremely porous defense and the on-again, off-again health status of quarterback Dan Persa, did not offer much optimism.

But then the Wildcats responded with four straight victories, the highlight of which was a 28-25 upset at then-No. 10 Nebraska that nobody saw coming. A defense that head coach Pat Fitzgerald said had to go through some "growing pains" finally started to grow into, if not a dominant unit, then at least a competent one. Northwestern allowed an average of 38.6 points in its first five Big Ten games; over the team's final four games of the season, that number dropped to 18.8.

The Nebraska win still looks like an outlier on a résumé that includes victories over Indiana, Minnesota, Rice, Eastern Illinois and Boston College. But the Wildcats became a tougher opponent once Persa finally healed from last year's Achilles' tendon injury. He passed for an average of 278 yards over the final three games with eight touchdowns, and his 74.2 completion percentage actually bettered last year's record-breaking 73.5 percent mark. Kain Colter was an excellent understudy and jack-of-all-trades weapon, while no one enjoyed Persa's return more than receiver Jeremy Ebert (71 catches, 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns).

Fitzgerald still needs to install some more toughness in the program, especially on the defensive end where he excelled in college. But at least while he's trying to recruit that toughness, he can point to the accomplishment of four straight bowl games.

Offensive MVP: Kain Colter. Persa and Ebert may have more impressive numbers, but nobody did more for the team than Colter. He kept the offense together when Persa couldn't play, most memorably leading the charge to victory in Lincoln. Arguably the best athlete on the team, Colter led the Wildcats in rushing (589 yards and eight touchdowns) and was their third-leading receiver (40 catches for 454 yards and three scores). Defenses never knew quite what to expect when he was on the field.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. There weren't a lot of standouts on the Northwestern defense this year, but Peters provided an anchor. He had four interceptions, including one in the end zone against Minnesota despite wearing a cast on his broken left hand. He also made 85 tackles and forced two fumbles. Fitzgerald credited Peters with being one of the senior leaders who helped the defense improve down the stretch.

Turning point: Nov. 5. The win over Nebraska continued Northwestern's recent trend of knocking off at least one good opponent on the road. More than that, it provided hope that the team could get to six wins and gave some much-needed confidence to the defense. The Wildcats' only loss after Oct. 29 came in the finale against Legends Division champion Michigan State.

What's next: A date with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Houston is an important recruiting area for Fitzgerald, so this game provides great exposure. More importantly, the school is still looking for its first bowl victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl, so beating an A&M team that fired its head coach is top priority.

Season recap: Ohio State

December, 7, 2011

Record: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

After the offseason from hell, Ohio State entered the year with new faces, new roles and new uncertainty. The team that had dominated the Big Ten for the past decade found itself with many questions on both sides of the ball and on the sideline. No Jim Tressel. No Terrelle Pryor. No Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Mike Adams for the first five games (and, as it turned out, longer in Posey's and Herron's cases).

How tough would the season be for the Scarlet and Gray? Tougher than almost everyone imagined. Not only did Ohio State see its streak of Big Ten titles end, but the Buckeyes finished with their worst record since 1999 and dropped more league games this year than they had in the past six seasons combined (excluding the vacated wins from 2010). Ohio State lost to archrival Michigan for the first time since 2003 and nearly was shut out at home for the first time since 1982.

The offensive struggles were expected with the departures and suspensions, but Ohio State couldn't produce much in the first half of the season until freshman Braxton Miller emerged at quarterback and Herron added another dimension in the run game. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked 107th nationally in total offense and 116th in passing, and their defense wasn't quite as dominant as normal.

Luke Fickell, tabbed to replace Tressel, handled a difficult situation with class, but his inexperience showed at times on game days. The sting of a subpar season was tempered by the hiring of Urban Meyer, who should get Ohio State back to the top of the Big Ten soon.

Offensive MVP: Miller. He was one of few bright spots for a unit short on experienced players and imaginative play-calling. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year led Ohio State in rushing with 685 yards and seven touchdowns on 144 carries. He completed just 50 percent of his passes but fired 11 touchdown strikes and only four interceptions in limited work throwing the ball. Running backs Herron and Carlos Hyde also merit mentions.

Defensive MVP: Defensive lineman John Simon. He was Ohio State's most dominant and most consistent defender throughout the season, leading a young unit that had its ups and downs. The junior recorded seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss, leading the team in both categories. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches for his efforts.

Turning point: There are two. After starting Big Ten play at 0-2, Ohio State upset Illinois in Champaign to spark a three-game win streak. Entering a seemingly manageable closing stretch, the Buckeyes dropped their second consecutive game at Purdue as a potential game-winning extra-point attempt was blocked with 55 seconds left in regulation. Ohio State went on to lose in overtime and drop its final two games to Penn State and Michigan.

What's next: Urban Mania. It's all about Meyer and his plan to get Ohio State back among the nation's elite. First, the school will learn its punishment from the NCAA infractions committee, which could come in the next few days. The Buckeyes finish the season in the Gator Bowl, where they'll face Florida, the team Meyer led to national titles in 2006 and 2008 before retiring last year.

Season recap: Penn State

December, 7, 2011

Record: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Penn State spent the first two months of the season winning ugly and struggling to gain national respect. Nittany Lions players, coaches and fans long for those days right now.

The sex-abuse scandal that broke in early November forever changed Penn State football and Penn State University. Eleven days after Joe Paterno broke Eddie Robinson's Division I coaching victories record, Paterno was fired by the school's board of trustees, triggering an outpouring of emotion in State College during an unforgettable week. Although the Lions played no games between Oct. 29 and Nov. 12, their program endured historic changes and scrutiny.

On the field, Penn State won eight of its first nine games and surged to the top of the Leaders Division. Despite a befuddling quarterback rotation, the Lions racked up victories behind a stifling defense, workhorse running back Silas Redd and solid special teams play. Penn State's defense overcame a season-ending injury to standout linebacker Michael Mauti and received tremendous performances from tackle Devon Still, linebacker Gerald Hodges and others.

Needing two wins in its final three games to secure a division title and a trip to the championship game, Penn State lost an emotion-charged game against Nebraska. More tough news arrived the next week as Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer. The team rebounded with a win at Ohio State and vowed to put a Post-it note on the Big Ten championship trophy, which no longer bore Paterno's name. But Penn State's title dream vanished in Madison as Wisconsin overwhelmed the Lions.

No team in America endured a month like Penn State did in November. While Penn State's record more or less matched preseason expectations, there was nothing ordinary about this season.

Offensive MVP: Redd. The sophomore emerged as one of the Big Ten's best running backs, especially during the month of October when he led the FBS with 703 rushing yards and averaged 140.6 yards per game. Although Redd's 133 carries during the month took its toll on his body, he showed he's much more than the shifty runner we saw in 2010. He really reinvented himself and showed he can be Penn State's featured back for years to come.

Defensive MVP: Still. An easy choice here as Still earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year honors. He recorded 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his numbers don't truly show how much he impacted games as a disruptive presence on the interior. In a league filled with outstanding defensive lineman, Still rose to the top. Hodges merits a mention at linebacker.

Turning point: The final three games would have been tough for Penn State no matter what, but the situation became even more challenging following the scandal and Paterno's firing. Penn State's players endured a range of emotions and the coaching staff had to make quick adjustments. The Nebraska loss snapped a seven-game win streak and Penn State dropped two of its final three games.

What's next: Several bowl games passed up Penn State for teams with fewer wins that the Lions defeated, and PSU dropped all the way to the TicketCity Bowl. Some Lions players were upset by the snub, and it will be interesting to see how motivated they'll be to face Houston at Cotton Bowl Stadium. A coaching search is under way as Penn State looks for a leader to guide the program through a turbulent and uncertain period.

Season recap: Purdue

December, 7, 2011

Record: 6-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Life hasn't been easy for Purdue in recent years, as the team struggled on the field and received no luck on the injury front. Not surprisingly, the 2011 season brought some hurdles for Danny Hope's crew, but the Boilers punched their ticket to a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

Purdue learned weeks before the opener that its projected starting quarterback, Rob Henry, would miss the season with a torn knee ligament. It forced the coaches to shuffle signal-callers, and the Boilers played two quarterbacks, Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve, throughout the fall. The offense slowly shaped its identity behind a stable of running backs and a short passing attack, and the unit had some good stretches.

The Boilers went .500 in league play for the second time in Hope's three seasons and secured nice wins against both Illinois and Ohio State, beating the Buckeyes for the second consecutive time at Ross-Ade Stadium. Defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen highlighted the defense. But inconsistency and major mistakes haunted a team that never won consecutive games all season. The Boilers had chances to win two more league games (Penn State and Iowa) but committed a combined seven turnovers in the losses. They were the ultimate two-steps-forward-one-step-backward type of team.

Where is Purdue headed under Hope? Detroit is the team's short-term destination as Purdue faces Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. But it's relevant to ask the question in the larger sense. While Purdue took steps this season -- two more victories, its first bowl in four years -- it's important for Hope to show tangible progress and greater consistency going forward.

Offensive MVP: TerBush. Thrust into a very difficult situation, TerBush gave Purdue a capable quarterback who could stay on the field and provide continuity. Despite appearing in just one college game entering the season, TerBush started the opener because of Henry's injury and Marve's lingering knee issues. TerBush wasn't flashy but limited mistakes, throwing twice as many touchdown passes (12) as interceptions (six). Wide receiver Antavian Edison (43 receptions, 561 receiving yards, 124 rush yards, five total touchdowns) also merits a mention.

Defensive MVP: Short. Overshadowed in a league filled with outstanding defensive tackles, Short quietly turned in a superb junior season. He tied for fourth in the league in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (17) and added two blocked kicks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Much like Ryan Kerrigan in 2009, Short earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in Purdue's win against Ohio State (three sacks).

Turning point: Purdue really had a season of them, both positive and negative, but the Ohio State win boosted the Boilers after back-to-back blowout losses on the road. The victory put Purdue in good position to secure a bowl berth and helped Hope, who needs more signature wins to show his program is headed in the right direction.

What's next: The Boilers face Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, site of Purdue's last bowl appearance and last bowl win (the game was known as the Motor City Bowl back then). Purdue can secure a winning season and some momentum for a pivotal 2012 season by beating the Broncos. A loss would continue the team's disturbing pattern (win-loss-win-loss) and raise more questions about Hope's leadership.

Season recap: Wisconsin

December, 7, 2011

Record: 11-2 (6-2 Big Ten)

As coach Bret Bielema said afterward, the inaugural Big Ten championship game mirrored Wisconsin's season.

The Badgers started fast, scoring 21 points in the first 12 minutes (the team surged out to a 6-0 start, winning by an average margin of 40.5 points). Next came a disastrous second quarter (akin to back-to-back heartbreaking road losses that blotched the middle of Wisconsin's season). The end of the game brought out the best from quarterback Russell Wilson, arguably the biggest reason why Wisconsin is heading back to the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin took another step toward becoming a Big Ten power by securing its second consecutive league title and back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances for the first time since 1999 and 2000. The team was dominant on its home field, winning all seven games by 31 points or more, and overcame setbacks at both Michigan State and Ohio State to win its final five contests. Still, it's fair to wonder what might have been had Wisconsin prevailed in both East Lansing and Columbus.

Wilson seamlessly transitioned after transferring from NC State, earning co-captain honors and helping the offense remain one of the nation's most dangerous units. He received plenty of help from junior running back Montee Ball, who leads the nation in rushing yards (1,759) and has scored 38 touchdowns, one shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season FBS record. Ball, named a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Wilson produced the best combined quarterback-running back effort in Big Ten history.

Helped by an opportunistic defense, Wisconsin now has an opportunity to redeem itself at the Rose Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Ball and Wilson. It's unfair to separate them because they both meant so much to Wisconsin's offense. Ball has been arguably the nation's best running back for the past year and a half and took his game to another level this season, recording multiple touchdowns in every game and eclipsing 100 yards nine times. Wilson led the nation in pass efficiency for most of the fall and finished second with a rating of 191.6. He completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 2,879 yards with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Mike Taylor. Much like with the Badgers' offense, it's extremely close between Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland, who had more impressive numbers (18 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles). But Taylor was consistently excellent throughout the season and led the squad with 137 tackles to go along with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Turning point: Wisconsin faced a 17-7 halftime deficit on Nov. 19 at Illinois after looking lifeless for the first 30 minutes. A loss would have eliminated them from Big Ten title contention and branded the Badgers' season as a disappointment. But Wisconsin rallied behind Ball, outscoring Illinois 21-0 in the second half. Another turning point arrived late in the championship game as Wilson rallied the team in the closing minutes.

What's next: Wisconsin faces Pac-12 champion Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO on Jan. 2. The Badgers fell short against TCU in the previous Rose Bowl and used the loss as motivation throughout the offseason. There should be plenty of offensive fireworks in Pasadena as the game pairs the nation's No. 3 and No. 4 scoring offenses. If Wisconsin wants to truly brand itself as elite, it must win a game like this.



Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12