Big Ten: 2011 midseason team reports

Midseason report: Illinois

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
11:30
AM ET
Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)

Some teams benefit from an advantageous schedule. Still, it's up to the team to make the most of that advantage. Illinois has definitely done that. Thanks in large part to an ultra-friendly slate that kept them at home for the first five weeks before a road game at struggling Indiana, the Illini are off to their best start since the 1951 team began 7-0. But let's give Ron Zook's team some credit beyond the schedule as well. Like it was at the end of last year, the Illinois offense is a balanced, well-oiled machine, averaging almost the same amount of rushing yards (226) as passing yards (221). Sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as a passer and remains a strong running threat, while senior A.J. Jenkins has blossomed into the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten. They're augmented by a deep backfield (Jason Ford, Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard) that has made up for the loss of Mikel Leshoure. Maybe more impressively, the defense absorbed the loss of NFL draft picks Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson without much problem. Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan have harassed opposing quarterbacks from their defensive end spots, and linebacker Jonathan Brown -- when he isn't kneeing players in the groin -- comes flying at ball carriers in all directions. Illinois has also showed a fighting spirit, winning three straight games by exactly three points. Of course, it helped that those all came at home. But the Illini have maximized that assistance so far this season.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. It's hard to go against Scheelhaase, who is putting together a terrific season and who has accounted for 14 touchdowns throwing and running this year. But Jenkins has been superb as Scheelhaase's favorite target. He ranks fifth nationally in receiving yards and leads the Big Ten with 46 catches for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.


Defensive MVP: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus. The junior has looked unblockable at times while leading the Big Ten in sacks (8.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and forced fumbles (four). Not bad for a guy who had started only two career games before this season.

Midseason report: Indiana

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
11:00
AM ET
Indiana Hoosiers

Record: 1-5 (0-2 Big Ten)

No one ever said Kevin Wilson's job would be easy. The first-year IU coach earned goodwill among the fan base in the preseason with his bold talk and recruiting prowess. But success on the field has been slow to follow. The Hoosiers' only victory came over FCS opponent South Carolina State, and they suffered an embarrassing loss at North Texas. The problems are what you might expect: Indiana is not strong enough in the trenches to stop or generate a rushing attack. Wilson is an innovative offensive coach, but his team has struggled to move the ball consistently while starting two different quarterbacks (sophomores Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel) and working in true freshman Tre Roberson in the last game against Illinois. Every step of potential progress (a big second-half comeback against Virginia, a closer-than-expected 16-10 loss to Penn State, a 10-0 lead over Illinois) seems to be answered by another hole that needs plugging. Wilson has already played 16 true freshmen, and first- and second-year players can be found all over the depth chart. A full-scale rebuilding project is under way; nobody said it would be easy.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Ed Wright-Baker. There's really not a lot to choose from on this offense, and Wright-Baker has had his ups and downs. But he was the quarterback during IU's lone victory, and he threw for 925 yards and four touchdowns before missing the past two games with injuries.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Jeff Thomas. The fifth-year senior has been one true anchor for the defense. He leads the team with 48 tackles, including eight for loss. The Hoosiers need more like him.

Midseason report: Iowa

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
10:30
AM ET
Iowa Hawkeyes

Record: 3-2 (0-1 Big Ten)

After losing six players to the NFL draft and several other standouts to graduation, Iowa entered the season with a young but talented team. The Hawkeyes have looked the part in the first half, flashing their potential but also enduring growing pains on both sides of the ball. A Week 2 loss to in-state rival Iowa State showed that Iowa no longer had the stout defense of 2008-10. On the ropes a week later against Pittsburgh, the Hawkeyes mounted the largest comeback in team history as junior quarterback James Vandenberg and his receivers came of age during a wild second half. Vandenberg turned in a brilliant five-quarter stretch against Pitt and Louisiana-Monroe, and Iowa's no-huddle, pass-heavy offense delighted fans tired of watching the same movie each fall. But Vandenberg and the offense flatlined Saturday in Happy Valley, as Iowa failed to record a touchdown for the first time since 2007 and scored its fewest points since 2005. The loss reinforced that it's a process for this team and young players like Vandenberg, RB Marcus Coker, and LBs James Morris and Christian Kirksey. Iowa can't win games exactly like it did the past two and a half seasons. The Hawkeyes still have a fairly favorable schedule, but could be in for a roller-coaster ride.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback James Vandenberg. Despite a rough day at Beaver Stadium, Vandenberg turned in a solid first half in his first meaningful game action since he relieved the injured Ricky Stanzi late in the 2009 campaign. The junior ranks second in the Big Ten in passing (252.8 ypg), tied for second in touchdown passes (10) and fifth in passer rating (141.8). He led the furious comeback against Pitt and recorded 432 pass yards and six touchdowns during a five-quarter span. Vandenberg still has room for improvement, but he can be a special pocket passer for the Hawkeyes. WR Marvin McNutt merits a mention here.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Christian Kirksey. No obvious choices here, but Kirksey has emerged alongside Morris and made plays for an up-and-down Hawkeyes defense. He has recorded 49 tackles, including a team-high 30 solo stops, as well as two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a sack. Defensive backs Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde also merit mentions.

Midseason report: Michigan

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
10:00
AM ET
Michigan Wolverines

Record: 6-0 (2-0 Big Ten)

The Brady Hoke era is off to a sparkling start, as Michigan reaches the halfway point with a perfect record and a team that can improve in several areas. Michigan has capitalized on a favorable early season schedule, sweeping its first five games at home before rallying for a win Saturday night at Northwestern. Although the competition level will increase in the second half, beginning Saturday at No. 23 Michigan State, Michigan is in good shape to challenge for the Legends division title. The biggest reason for optimism is a defense that has made strides after reaching historic lows the past three seasons. Michigan has allowed 10 points or fewer in four of its six wins, and it blanked Minnesota 58-0 to open Big Ten play. The defense is far from a finished product, but the influence of Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison seems to be showing as the unit displays toughness and takeaway ability and adjusts well during the course of games. Michigan has reduced the major breakdowns that surfaced far too often in recent years. Offensive coordinator Al Borges has done a good job of blending his vision with the talent he inherited, namely star quarterback Denard Robinson. Although Robinson's passing has been shaky and likely will hurt Michigan in future games, his upside as a runner and a playmaker makes up for his miscues. Robinson's brilliant fourth quarter against Notre Dame helped secure a wild win, and he rebounded from three first-half interceptions in the Northwestern game with a huge second half.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Denard Robinson. Who else? The 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year hasn't been quite as dominant as he was in the first half of last season, although he's not far off. Robinson leads the Big Ten in rushing (120 ypg) and total offense (308.3 ypg), ranking fourth and eighth nationally, respectively, in those categories. The junior has eclipsed 100 rush yards in four of six games and has recorded three or more touchdowns in each of the past five games. Robinson has to trim his interceptions (9), but he hasn't let the picks get him down.

Defensive MVP: Safety Jordan Kovacs. There isn't an obvious choice, and Mattison's coaching has been the most valuable addition for Michigan, but Kovacs has played a big role in the defense's first-half renaissance. The former walk-on has been effective on blitzes, recording a team-leading three sacks. He has four tackles for loss, an interception, a forced fumble and 36 total tackles. Linebackers Brandin Hawthorne and Jake Ryan, and defensive tackle Mike Martin merit mentions as well.

Midseason report: Michigan State

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
9:30
AM ET
Michigan State Spartans

Record: 4-1 (1-0) Big Ten

Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, a polished public speaker, put it best when talking about the 2011 campaign: The Spartans will be defined this year by how they play on the road. The early return on their demanding road schedule is a 1-1 record, but at least they won the one that really matters. A disappointing 31-13 loss at Notre Dame in Week 3 didn't inspire confidence, especially since the rest of the nonconference schedule was so soft. But the Spartans regrouped and beat Ohio State 10-7 in their Big Ten opener, notching their first victory in Columbus since 1998. One thing they have counted on all season long is their suffocating defense, which led the FBS in fewest yards allowed heading into last week's bye week. Led by Jerel Worthy up front, Max Bullough in the aggressive linebacker corps and a ball-hawking secondary, Michigan State might have its best defense under Mark Dantonio. Ohio State wouldn't argue that point after allowing nine sacks in the loss. The road schedule is still difficult (at Nebraska, at Iowa, at Northwestern) and the next two against Michigan and Wisconsin at home will tell us a lot about this team. But at least the Spartans have one elite unit that should keep them competitive every week.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham. The Spartans' running attack hasn't been as powerful as hoped, especially against the good teams on the schedule. That most likely owes to a rebuilt offensive line which has already had to replace some injured starters. But Cunningham has picked up the slack with a terrific season as Cousins' go-to guy. Early in the year, he set the school's all-time record for receptions, and he ranks second in the Big Ten with 38 catches for 582 yards, plus two scores.

Defensive MVP: Tackle Jerel Worthy. Just about everybody on the Michigan State defense is playing great and a case could be made for several Spartans here. But Worthy gets things started up front by disrupting the interior of the opposing offense. He was hardly blockable against Ohio State and spent as much time in the Buckeyes' backfield as Braxton Miller. Worthy is showing why many project him as a first-round NFL pick whenever he chooses to leave East Lansing.

Midseason report: Minnesota

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
9:00
AM ET
Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 1-5 (0-2 Big Ten)

About the best thing Minnesota can say for the 2011 season right now is that at least it's halfway over. Not much was expected out of the Gophers this year, but hardly anybody thought they would be quite this bad. After playing USC tough on the road to open the year, just about everything went wrong. First-year head coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the sidelines near the end of a loss to New Mexico State in the home opener, and Kill has had to be hospitalized twice to deal with the issue. Marqueis Gray has experienced some rocky moments while making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback, and the team has needed true freshman Max Shortell to take over under center during key stretches. The defense still lacks a legitimate pass rush and is one of the worst in the country against the pass. Minnesota's only victory came against Miami of Ohio, which was quickly erased a week later by a loss to FCS opponent North Dakota State. The Gophers were outscored 103-17 in their first six quarters of Big Ten play and look a long way from competing in the league. Kill will need to use the second half of the season to coach up his young players and identify leaders for next year. The 2011 season is already mostly lost.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight. There's not much to highlight from the Big Ten's lowest scoring offense. Gray is a special athlete but has suffered his share of growing pains at quarterback. The running game has been below average. McKnight (25 catches, 316 yards, one touchdown) remains one of the better receivers in the league. Minnesota just needs to find more ways to get him the ball.

Defensive MVP: Safety Kim Royston. Much like on the offensive side, the Gophers don't have many all-star candidates on defense. Royston, who was granted an unexpected sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, leads the team in tackles with 51 and is among the tops in stops in the Big Ten. Of course, it's often a bad sign for your defense when the safety leads the team in tackles.

Midseason report: Nebraska

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
8:30
AM ET
Nebraska Cornhuskers

Record: 5-1 (1-1 Big Ten)

In the preseason, we debated whether Nebraska winning the Big Ten in its first year as a member would reflect badly on the league. Up until the third quarter of last week's game against Ohio State, Huskers fans might have wondered whether they should have stayed in the Big 12. This proud program marched into the conference, confident it could compete with the Big Ten's best thanks to its defense. But the 2011 Blackshirts have intimidated people about as much as Seinfeld's Puffy Shirt so far, allowing more than 27 points per game and getting rolled for 48 in a 31-point loss at Wisconsin. Head coach Bo Pelini and brother/defensive coordinator Carl Pelini still are seeking answers, though the group showed signs of life in the second half of that season-saving comeback victory over the Buckeyes. Defensive tackle Jared Crick, No. 1 in our Big Ten preseason player rankings, hasn't lived up to advance billing (a head injury against Washington definitely didn't help), and the defense needs to improve up front. The offense has flashed serious big-play potential while averaging 37 points per game. But first-year playcaller Tim Beck seems to still be figuring out the best way to employ speedy quarterback Taylor Martinez, who drew heavy criticism after his three-interception disaster at Wisconsin. Running back Rex Burkhead has provided a steady presence both on and off the field for the Huskers, who also might boast the league's best group of special-teams performers. Nebraska is not the juggernaut import we thought it might be, and now we can consider this team as one of merely several that could win the Legends Division. The Huskers will still have a lot to say about how the 2011 season plays out, however.

Offensive MVP: Running back Rex Burkhead. He tops all Big Ten running backs with 635 yards, while averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Burkhead's play powered the comeback win against Ohio State. Good things seem to happen when Nebraska feeds him. Burkhead has also showed strong leadership in the locker room, keeping the team together as Martinez faced a storm of criticism from fans.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Lavonte David. Several Huskers defensive players have failed to perform up to their potential, but not David. A tackling machine, he got the Ohio State rally started with a key forced fumble. He leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 58, plus two sacks and an interception. Nebraska came into the season with three well-publicized stars in Crick, David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; David has clearly been the best of the bunch.

Midseason report: Northwestern

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
8:00
AM ET
Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 2-3 (0-2 Big Ten)

The first half of Northwestern's season has mirrored its performances in recent games: things start off great, only to take a nosedive. After a school-record three consecutive bowl appearances, Northwestern entered the fall with high hopes and a Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Dan Persa. But Persa's surgically repaired Achilles' injury prevented him from playing in the first three games -- the senior had a setback in June, although it didn't stop the school from launching a Heisman campaign -- and likely cost Northwestern a Week 3 win against Army. The season still began with promise as backup quarterback Kain Colter led Northwestern to a road win against Boston College. But Colter struggled mightily in the Army game, and though Persa has performed well since his return for the Big Ten opener against Illinois, Northwestern is mired in a troubling trend. The Wildcats have blown double-digit second-half leads in each of their first two Big Ten games and gone on to lose. The second-half collapses mirror what we saw last year in losses to Michigan State and Penn State. The offense will produce with Persa on the field, but Northwestern's defense is a huge concern. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. The Wildcats can't get off of the field -- opponents are converting third downs at a 54.8 percent clip -- and their secondary has major holes. An inability to put together complete performances has hurt Northwestern, which might struggle to continue its streak of bowl appearances.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Kain Colter. While Persa has been terrific since his return, Northwestern is 0-2 with their leader on the field. Colter led the Wildcats to their only two victories, racking up 180 rush yards and four touchdowns against Boston College and Eastern Illinois. While his struggles against Army showed he hasn't arrived yet, he stepped up during Persa's absence. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert (26 receptions, 5 TDs) also merits a mention.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. As poorly as Northwestern's secondary has performed, it would be even worse without Peters. The senior has recorded two interceptions, including a nifty grab in the end zone against Illinois, and added a forced fumble, two pass breakups, a sack and 35 tackles. Linebacker Bryce McNaul merits a mention here.

Midseason report: Ohio State

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
7:30
AM ET
Ohio State Buckeyes

Record: 3-3 (0-2 Big Ten)

The Big Ten's flagship program for the past decade has been brought to its knees in the first half of the season. While it's not a total surprise after a tumultuous spring and summer that brought the departures of head coach Jim Tressel and starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes and their fans aren't used to this. First-year coach Luke Fickell has been dealt a difficult hand from the start, particularly on offense, as Pryor's departure and the suspensions of three other multiyear starters have taken a toll. Ohio State had two of its worst offensive performances in recent memory in losses to Miami and Michigan State, the latter nearly marking Ohio State's first scoreless effort at home since 1982. QBs Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller struggled through the first five games, but Miller emerged Saturday night against Nebraska, displaying his athleticism as Ohio State surged to a 27-6 third-quarter lead. On the brink of a breakthrough win, things fell apart as Miller left the game with an ankle injury and Ohio State melted down in a 34-27 loss. It capped a lousy weekend where Ohio State learned top receiver DeVier Posey would be suspended five more games. Meanwhile, Ohio State awaits a bigger decision from the NCAA's infractions committee. The second half doesn't get much easier for Fickell and the Buckeyes.

Offensive MVP: Running back Carlos Hyde. The offense struggled mightily in the first half, but Hyde emerged as a bright spot in the backfield. Filling in for two suspended projected starters -- Jordan Hall and Dan "Boom" Herron -- Hyde has recorded 400 rush yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. He has eclipsed 75 rush yards in three games and racked up 104 yards and two touchdowns, including a 63-yarder, on Saturday night at Nebraska.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Andrew Sweat. Sweat is the team's only returning starter at linebacker, and he has looked like it in the first half. He leads Ohio State in both total tackles (43) and tackles for loss (5), and he has added three passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble. Linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins and safety C.J. Barnett also have stood out.

Midseason report: Penn State

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
7:00
AM ET
Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 5-1 (2-0 Big Ten)

Penn State hasn't settled on a starting quarterback. The Nittany Lions have scored 16 points or fewer in four of their six contests. Coach Joe Paterno has spent the majority of games watching from the press box. Grumbling from fans about the program's direction has grown louder and louder. And despite it all, Penn State sits at 5-1 and tied for first place in the Leaders division. Penn State has its share of concerns, but thanks to a superb defense, it remains in a favorable position in a very vulnerable Big Ten. The team's only loss came in Week 2 to Alabama, a bona fide national championship contender. Penn State reaches the midpoint on a four-game win streak highlighted by Saturday's 13-3 triumph against longtime nemesis Iowa at Beaver Stadium. Tom Bradley's defense has been exceptional, overcoming key personnel losses (LB Michael Mauti, CB D'Anton Lynn) and Penn State's own offensive struggles to stifle the opposition. Devon Still has led the way at defensive tackle, and the overall depth throughout the defense has shown up week after week. Penn State has needed its defense to perform as the offense struggles to find an identity. Rob Bolden and Matthew McGloin continue to rotate at quarterback despite McGloin's superior numbers. The offensive line has been spotty, and Penn State's red zone offensive woes from 2010 have carried over. Still, Penn State has to like its position, and if the offense can make strides, the Lions will be dangerous down the stretch.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver Derek Moye. Slim pickings with this unit, but Moye has done a good job in the rare moments when the offense is clicking. The senior ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards (80.8 ypg) and sixth in receptions (4.7 rpg) with three touchdown catches and a 17.3 yards-per-catch average. Moye is a bona fide NFL prospect who can stretch defenses. Penn State must find ways to get him the ball more often in the second half.

Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Devon Still. Other Big Ten defensive tackles received more hype in the preseason -- Jared Crick, Jerel Worthy, Mike Martin -- but none has played at a higher level than Still. The 6-5, 310-pound senior ranks second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (9) and has recorded two sacks, 30 tackles and a fumble recovery. Still and fellow tackle Jordan Hill anchor a defense that ranks fourth nationally in yards allowed and fifth in points allowed.

Midseason report: Purdue

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
6:30
AM ET
Purdue Boilermakers

Record: 3-2 (1-0 Big Ten)

Change a blocked field goal attempt into three points, and Purdue's season could look a whole lot different. In both directions. The Boilers began the year by blocking a field goal at the end of the game to slip past Middle Tennessee, followed by a loss at Rice in which their own late three-point try was turned away. Those two games spoke of potential mediocrity for this team, one that it hasn't yet rebuffed. Purdue got geeked up for a showdown with Notre Dame at home in prime time, only to get pounded 38-10. It rebounded to blow out Minnesota 45-17 in the Big Ten opener, but the Gophers are going to make a lot of teams look good. At least Danny Hope's crew finally has avoided a rash of injuries, except for loss of starting quarterback Rob Henry in preseason camp. The Boilers have a strong rushing attack led by Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, averaging over 215 yards per game on the ground. But a lot of those stats were compiled against less-than-stellar opposition. Penalties have been a major problem, and the defense hasn't shown that it can shut down a decent offense. The schedule gets much tougher in the second half, and Purdue still must prove that it's more than mediocre.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Caleb TerBush. He's not the second coming of Drew Brees by any means, but TerBush solidified the quarterback situation in what could have been a difficult time. Henry went down in August with a season-ending knee injury, and Robert Marve's own surgically repaired knee kept him sidelined. So Purdue had to turn to the inexperienced TerBush as its starter, a job he's held onto even as Marve has returned to play the occasional series. TerBush is completing 64 percent of his passes with a 5-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he's a credible runner. It's not superstar material, but he's giving his team a chance to compete.

Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Kawann Short. The 310-pound junior is playing at a high level as a monster in the middle of the defense. He leads the team with six tackles for loss and is commanding double teams by opposing offenses. With star Ryan Kerrigan gone, Short has taken over as the leader of the defensive front.

Midseason report: Wisconsin

October, 11, 2011
10/11/11
6:00
AM ET
Wisconsin Badgers

Record: 5-0 (1-0 Big Ten)

Wisconsin entered the season as one of the two favorites to win the Big Ten. Now the Badgers have their sights set even higher, aiming at a BCS national title. No one can argue against their sheer domination thus far this season. They've outscored opponents 242-51, ranking in the top three nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Many questioned their nonconference schedule, but critics quickly hushed up when Wisconsin hammered the other supposed Big Ten favorite, Nebraska, by 31 points in the conference opener for both. Russell Wilson has been even better than advertised at quarterback, putting himself squarely in the Heisman Trophy discussion despite not even joining the team until this summer. The running game remains a steamroller, and tailback Montee Ball is on pace to smash the league record for touchdowns in a season (he's already got 14 of them). The defense, meanwhile, has looked better than most expected, though some depth concerns remain, particularly in the secondary. The Badgers are now the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten, and if they keep up this level of play throughout the second half, they could be doing even more than that.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Russell Wilson. Don't just take into account Wilson's ridiculously good numbers -- he's completing nearly 75 percent of his passes, with a 13-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio while leading the Big Ten in passing yards. Also remember that the guy who was pegged as the starting quarterback after spring practice, Jon Budmayr, had to undergo a second surgery on his throwing elbow. If Wilson hadn't transferred in from NC State this summer, the Badgers would be playing an unproven freshman at quarterback instead of a savvy, fourth-year starter. So, yeah, that worked out pretty well.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Mike Taylor. The junior has already won two Big Ten player of the week awards, including one for his 14-tackle, one-interception performance against Nebraska. He leads the team in tackles with 44, or 14 fewer than he made all of last season. Along with middle linebacker Chris Borland, who has successfully returned from a shoulder injury that cost him last year, Taylor has helped anchor a Wisconsin defense that has allowed a little more than 10 points per game so far.

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