Big Ten: Anthony Santella

Fresh faces: Illinois

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
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The fresh faces series resumes with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Here's a look at three true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or returning players likely to step into bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Donovonn Young, RB, freshman, 6-0, 215

Young and classmate Josh Ferguson have generated plenty of buzz during preseason practice. Not only have they pushed No. 1 back Jason Ford, but they've put themselves in position to rack up carries this fall. Young could be the total package of size, speed and power. Coach Ron Zook joked that it's too early to start the Heisman campaign, but Young impressed everyone who watched the recent workouts in Rantoul, Ill. The Illini will use multiple backs and he'll spell Ford at times this fall. Need another reason to like Young? His jersey number -- 5. The last two Illini players to wear it: star running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.

DEFENSE: Ralph Cooper, LB, freshman, 6-1, 230

There's an opportunity for young linebackers like Cooper, as Illinois must replace two players -- Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey -- selected in April's NFL draft. Ian Thomas will be the starter at middle linebacker, but Cooper has looked good during camp and will be part of the rotation in the defensive midsection. He boasts good size and speed and should help Illinois stuff the run. The Illini had the Big Ten's No. 4 rushing defense in 2010, but must replace three NFL draft picks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Duvernois, P, freshman, 6-1, 190

Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Santella and will turn to Duvernois, who has a big leg and hails from one of the nation's top high school programs (St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida). Duvernois became the top option after Matt Eller left the team. Consistency will be a focal point for Duvernois, but he has the ability to be successful at this level.

More Fresh Faces
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
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Illinois

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LT Jeff Allen, WR A.J. Jenkins, C Graham Pocic, CB Tavon Wilson, S Trulon Henry, LB Ian Thomas, DT Akeem Spence, K Derek Dimke

Key losses

RB Mikel Leshoure, G Hugh Thornton, T Ryan Palmer, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson, LB Nate Bussey, DE Clay Nurse, P Anthony Santella

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards)

Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,825 yards)

Receiving: A.J. Jenkins* (746 yards)

Tackles: Martez Wilson (112)

Sacks: Corey Liuget (4.5)

Interceptions: Trulon Henry* (3)

Spring answers

1. Scheelhaase takes next step: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino seemed extremely pleased with the way quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase built on his first season as the starting quarterback. Scheelhaase proved himself as a runner last season, but he upgraded his passing skills this spring, displaying a quicker release and better decision-making. The redshirt sophomore should be a dangerous dual-threat signal-caller this fall.

2. Secondary steps up: Illinois must replace several standouts in the defensive front seven, but it should be very solid in the secondary this season. Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Tavon Wilson were among the defensive backs who stood out in spring ball. Illinois boasts depth at both safety and cornerback, as Supo Sanni returns from injury and Trulon Henry enters his second year as a starter.

3. Lankford provides depth: Top receiver A.J. Jenkins and projected contributor Darius Millines both missed spring practice after offseason surgeries, so the coaches were looking for options at wideout. Sophomore Ryan Lankford answered the bell with a very impressive spring, showing good hands and run-after-catch ability. Lankford capped the session with five receptions for 64 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Running back: Injuries prevented the coaches from getting much of a read on the group this spring. Senior Jason Ford, a likely successor to Mikel Leshoure, missed most of the spring with a bruised knee, and Petrino said he needs to see more from Ford this summer. Troy Pollard had some good moments before suffering a concussion in a scrimmage. The starting job is open heading into the fall, and there's opportunity for an incoming freshman like Donovonn Young to make a splash.

2. Linebacker leadership: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't sound too pleased with the linebackers midway through the spring, although the group picked up its play toward the end. Illinois still must replace two productive players (Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey) and identify leadership at the position. Senior Ian Thomas seems like the obvious choice to take the reins, while talented younger linebackers like Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Brandon Denmark must continue to make progress.

3. Punter: Illinois loses a field-position weapon in Anthony Santella, who ranked 14th nationally in punting average (44.8 ypp) and placed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line in 2010. Backup kicker Matt Eller worked as a punter this spring and Lankford auditioned as a rugby punter, but Illinois likely will see what incoming freshman Justin DuVernois can do before settling on a starter.
College football's ultimate all-or-nothing program finally had a season that ended up right in the middle.

After a decade that featured two BCS bowl appearances and eight losing seasons, Illinois rebounded from a 3-9 disaster in 2009 to go 6-6 in the regular season. The coaching staff overhaul seemed to pay off as coordinators Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense) orchestrated improvement on both sides of the ball. Illinois rivaled Michigan State as the Big Ten's top squad in the kicking game, as specialists Anthony Santella and Derek Dimke both earned All-Big Ten honors.

The thing that still doesn't sit well with the Illini is their inconsistency. Illinois held its own in the first half of the season and improved to 5-3 with impressive wins against Indiana and Purdue. But after losing a 67-65 triple-overtime shootout to Michigan, the Illini looked flat in their home finale against 1-9 Minnesota. Illinois responded the next week at Wrigley Field against Northwestern but once again came out flat in Friday night's loss to Fresno State.

The talent is in Champaign and the future looks good, especially if several key players return for their senior seasons. But there are still questions about whether coach Ron Zook can foster the consistent play and consistent improvement Illinois needs to avoid decades like the last one.

Offensive MVP: Mikel Leshoure. The junior was undoubtedly the Big Ten's top running back this season and one of the best in the country. Leshoure finished the regular season ranked eighth nationally in rushing average (126.1 ypg). He recorded eight games of 100 rush yards or more, including a team-record 330-yard explosion against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. A physical back with breakaway speed, Leshoure is the total package. Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase should be acknowledged here as well.

Defensive MVP: Martez Wilson. The former blue chip recruit finally blossomed this season and earned All-Big Ten honors for his efforts. Wilson led Illinois in tackles (105), tackles for loss (10.5) and sacks (4). He added three forced fumbles, four quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, an interception, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Nate Bussey merit mentions here.

Turning point: Illinois showed it had turned a corner Oct. 9 by winning in State College for the first time in team history, and doing so in very impressive fashion. The Illini surged to a 33-13 win and received big performances on both sides of the ball, especially from a defense that held Penn State to seven first downs and 235 total yards. A second turning point arrived at Michigan as surging Illinois lost a historic shootout in overtime and had a hangover the next week against Minnesota.

What's next: The Illini head to a non-BCS bowl for the first time since 1999 as they take on Baylor in the Texas Bowl at Houston's Reliant Stadium. A victory secures Illinois' first winning season since 2007 and just the team's second under Zook. A loss certainly would raise questions about Zook's leadership going forward, although he'll be back in 2011. Illinois could be very good next fall if players like Leshoure, Wilson and Liuget return for their senior years.
You've seen the official All-Big Ten teams. Now comes Phil Steele's version.

FIRST TEAM


Offense

QB: Dan Persa, Northwestern
RB/All-Purpose: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
WR: Tandon Doss, Indiana
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Jeremy Ebert, Northwestern
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: David Molk, Michigan
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Justin Boren, Ohio State
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: Mike Adams, Ohio State
KR: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota
PR: Keshawn Martin, Michigan State

Defense

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DE: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
DT: Corey Liuget, Illinois
DE: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Antonio Fenelus, Wisconsin
S: Tyler Sash, Iowa
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State

SECOND TEAM

QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
RB: Edwin Baker, Michigan State
RB: Dan Herron, Ohio State
WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa
WR: Damarlo Belcher, Indiana
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Charlie Gantt, Michigan State
C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
G: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
T: Jeff Allen, Illinois
KR: David Gilreath, Wisconsin
PR: Jordan Hall, Ohio State

Defense


DE: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DT: Karl Klug, Iowa
DT: Mike Martin, Michigan
DE: Vince Browne, Northwestern
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
LB: Chris Colasanti, Penn State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Shaun Prater, Iowa
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
S: Marcus Hyde, Michigan State
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Ryan Donahue, Iowa

THIRD TEAM

Offense


QB: Kirk Cousins, Michigan State and Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: James White, Wisconsin
RB: Adam Robinson, Iowa
WR: Da'Jon McKnight, Minnesota
WR: Roy Roundtree, Michigan
WR: Mark Dell, Michigan State
TE: Allen Reisner, Iowa
C: Graham Pocic, Illinois
G: Stephen Schilling, Michigan
G: Julian Vandervelde, Iowa
T: Al Netter, Northwestern
T: James Brewer, Indiana
KR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
PR: Colin Sandeman, Iowa

Defense


DE: Colin Neely, Michigan State
DT: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Ollie Ogbu, Penn State
LB: Ross Homan, Ohio State
LB: Jeremiha Hunter, Iowa
LB: Jonas Mouton, Michigan
CB: Jordan Mabin, Northwestern
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Brian Peters, Northwestern
S: Niles Brinkley, Wisconsin
K: Devin Barclay, Ohio State
P: Anthony Santella, Illinois

A few notes:
  • Steele takes an interesting approach with Michigan's Denard Robinson, listing him as a first-team selection at the "running back/all-purpose" position. The Big Ten coaches tabbed Robinson as their Offensive Player of the Year but didn't list him as the first- or second-team quarterback. I think people need to start accepting that "Shoelace" is a quarterback and start listing him as one.
  • It was nice to see Corey Liuget get some love on the first team. He was the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive tackle this season and really blossomed for an improved Illinois defense.
  • Steele gives Terrelle Pryor more love than the Big Ten voters, listing him as the second-team quarterback ahead of both Scott Tolzien and Kirk Cousins. Ricky Stanzi's stock continues to plummet despite dramatically improved statistics, as the Hawkeyes' signal caller doesn't make Steele's rundown. Pretty stunning.
  • Selections I really liked: Joel Foreman as second-team guard, Jeff Allen as second-team tackle, Da'Jon McKnight as third-team receiver, Graham Pocic as third-team center, Kawann Short as third-team defensive tackle, Collin Wagner as second-team kicker.
  • Selections who should be higher up: Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan and Illinois punter Anthony Santella. I also was surprised not to see Iowa tackle Riley Reiff on the list.
  • Some of the specialist selections left me puzzled. I know the Big Ten is loaded at punter this year, but Santella should be no lower than the second team. I also was surprised to see Michigan State's Dan Conroy left off the list.

Overall, a solid job from Steele, as usual.
Let's take a look back at Week 12 before looking ahead to rivalry week.

Team(s) of the Week: Wisconsin and Illinois. Both teams get the nod for different reasons. The Badgers overcame their Michigan misery and won in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1994. After Wisconsin's red-hot offense surged out to a 24-0 lead, the Badgers survived a mini scare in the third quarter before steamrolling Michigan with 28 consecutive designed run plays. Running backs James White and Montee Ball combined for 354 rush yards and six touchdowns in the win. Speaking of the ground game, no back in America had a bigger day than Illinois' Mikel Leshoure, who racked up a team-record 330 rushing yards against Northwestern. Behind Leshoure's brilliance, Illinois piled up 519 rush yards and claimed a must-win game against Northwestern at Wrigley Field to become bowl eligible.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor
Reese Strickland/US PresswireOhio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor overcame a pair of interceptions to lead the Buckeyes to a win.
Game of the Week: Ohio State at Iowa. The game featured three lead changes and an exciting fourth quarter defined by big plays on both sides of the ball. Both defenses came to play, and only one touchdown was scored in the first half. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor overcame two interceptions to lead a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives. After Buckeyes receiver DeVier Posey dropped a wide-open touchdown pass in the end zone with the Buckeyes down 17-13, Pryor saved the day with a 14-yard scramble on fourth-and-10. Ohio State scored the go-ahead touchdown moments later and its defensive line stepped up down the stretch. Iowa's season of heartbreak continued, while Ohio State kept its streak of Big Ten titles intact.

Biggest play: Three immediately come to mind. Pryor's scramble on fourth-and-10 likely saved Ohio State's season. Michigan State's Denicos Allen blocked a Purdue punt late in the fourth quarter to set up the game-winning touchdown as the Spartans rallied from a 28-13 deficit. And Penn State's Andrew Dailey and James Van Fleet teamed up for a punt block and a touchdown return that broke a 24-24 tie against Indiana at FedEx Field.

Specialist spotlight: The two punt blocks by Michigan State and Penn State loomed large in both teams' victories. Michigan State punter Aaron Bates had another big game, averaging 43.4 yards per punt and placing three inside the Purdue 20-yard line. After not attempting a punt the week before against Indiana, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman made the most out of his only chance against Michigan, pinning the Wolverines at their 1-yard line. Ohio State's Devin Barclay kicked a clutch field goal against Iowa for the second straight year, this time a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter. Both punters looked comfortable at Wrigley, as Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 53.5 yards per punt and Northwestern's Brandon Williams had a 45.2-yard average. Northwestern's Venric Mark had a 58-yard punt return that set up a Wildcats touchdown against Illinois.

Best sign: The Big Ten's last-minute decision to primarily use one end zone at Wrigley Field became the top story in college football heading into Saturday. But just in case players from Northwestern and Illinois didn't hear about the rule changes, a fan sitting behind the dreaded East end zone provided a reminder. He held up a sign that read: "Wrong Way!" Nice.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Penn State QB Matt McGloin: The sophomore racked up a career-high 315 pass yards and two touchdowns against Indiana, completing 22 of 31 attempts in the win. His 315 pass yards tie for the 10th most in team history.
  • Illinois LB Martez Wilson: The Chicago native sparkled in his hometown Saturday, recording three tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in the win against Northwestern.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: He completed his first 13 pass attempts against Michigan and showed good toughness, absorbing several hits before releasing the ball. Tolzien finished the game 14-for-15 for 201 yards and an interception.
  • [+] EnlargePenn State quarterback Matt McGloin
    AP Photo/Nick WassPenn State quarterback Matt McGloin had a career day in a win over Indiana.
    Michigan State WR Mark Dell: Dell made Senior Day a memorable one by recording eight receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. The senior receiver hauled in scoring passes of 24 yards and nine yards to match a career high for touchdowns.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: He started slowly against Wisconsin but came on strong in the second half. Robinson racked up 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, breaking the FBS single-season record for quarterback rushing. He also had 239 pass yards and two touchdowns with an interception.
  • Purdue CB Ricardo Allen: Any postseason awards list of top freshmen should include Allen, who recorded his second pick-six in as many weeks against Michigan State. He tied Mike Rose's single-season record for interceptions returned for touchdowns. Allen now leads Purdue with three interceptions this season.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: The junior played through pain and overcame an early miscue to record four touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) and 276 pass yards. Cousins completed passes to 10 different receivers in the come-from-behind win against Purdue.
  • Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor: It's not how you start in football, and Pryor finished extremely strong against Iowa. He led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, racked up 78 rush yards against a stout Iowa defense and passed for 195 yards.
  • Indiana WR Tandon Doss: The dynamic junior led Indiana in both receiving yards (90) and rushing yards (61) against Penn State. Doss had seven receptions and five rushes on the day. He also shined as a return man and finished the game with 293 all-purpose yards, tied for the seventh-best effort in team history.

Now let's look ahead to rivalry week.

Michigan (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) at No. 8 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1): If the Buckeyes win, they will tie a Big Ten record with their sixth consecutive league title (won or shared). They also aim for their seventh consecutive win against their archrival. Michigan can spoil it all for Ohio State and take the heat off of third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but a Wolverines win would qualify as a major upset. Pryor takes aim at a Wolverines defense that ranks 99th nationally in points allowed (33.6 ppg).

No. 10 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) at Penn State (7-4, 4-3): A special season for the Spartans comes down to this, the biggest game in recent team history. Michigan State can record a team record for wins if it beats Penn State, and a victory ensures the Spartans of at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990. McGloin and the Nittany Lions look to spoil the party and end the regular season with wins in five of their final six games.

Indiana (4-7, 0-7) at Purdue (4-7, 2-5): For the second straight year, the Bucket game will be played with just pride and bragging rights on the line. Neither Indiana nor Purdue will be going bowling this season, but both teams want to end 2010 on a good note. It could be a pivotal game for Hoosiers coach Bill Lynch, who has recorded just two Big Ten wins since his Hoosiers beat Purdue in 2007 to clinch a bowl berth.

No. 24 Iowa (7-4, 4-3) at Minnesota (2-9, 1-6): Iowa has shut out Minnesota in each of the last two seasons, and the Hawkeyes will come in angry after dropping back-to-back games. The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, come off of an open week after an uplifting win against Illinois and look for their first home victory of the season. It'll be the last game for quarterback Adam Weber, the other Minnesota seniors and probably most of the coaching staff. Iowa has won eight of the teams' last nine meetings.

Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) at Wisconsin (10-1, 6-1): The Badgers are playing for a share of their first Big Ten title since 1999 and most likely their first Rose Bowl appearance since that year. Barring an Ohio State loss, a Badgers win likely punches their ticket to Pasadena. Wisconsin's offense has been sensational as of late, and starting running back John Clay should be back in the fold. It likely spells bad news for Northwestern, which had no answer for Illinois' rushing attack at Wrigley.

Bye: Illinois (6-5, 4-4)
Illinois' Anthony Santella and Iowa's Ryan Donahue are among the 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's top collegiate punter.

Santella led the nation in punting for part of the season and ranks eighth with an average of 46.2 yards per boot. He has had 16 punts of 50 yards or longer and placed 12 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Donahue ranks 19th nationally in punting average (45 ypp). He has 10 punts of 50 yards or longer and a whopping 16 punts placed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

The notable omission here is Michigan State's Aaron Bates, or, as I like to call him, the Most Famous Punter in America. Not only does he rank 15th nationally in punting average (45.4 ypp) with 10 punts placed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but he boasts a passer rating of 475 after connecting on "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap," two fakes that led to Michigan State touchdowns.

It's really a shame not to see Bates on the list.

Three finalists will be announced Nov. 22, and the Ray Guy Award winner will be named Dec. 9 as part of the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards Show.
It's time to take a look back at Week 10 before peeking ahead to Week 11.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines are at least the Big Ten's "one-third of a team of the week" after a historic offensive performance against Illinois. Rich Rodriguez's crew racked up 67 points, 676 offensive yards and 33 first downs Saturday, and it needed all of it to outlast Illinois 67-65 in three overtimes. More amazing is the fact that Michigan overcame five turnovers and a minus-4 turnover ratio to snap its three-game losing streak. Penn State also deserves some love after rattling off 35 unanswered points to record the biggest home comeback under coach Joe Paterno and give the 83-year-old his 400th coaching victory.

Best game: Illinois at Michigan. This likely will be the game of the year in the Big Ten when all is said and done. The Big Ten doesn't see many offensive shootouts like this, and some folks say it was the most exciting Big Ten regular-season game since Northwestern and Michigan combined for 105 points in 2000 (a 54-51 Northwestern win in regulation). The 132 combined points were the most ever scored in a game involving Michigan. The teams also combined for 1,237 offensive yards. The game featured two 100-yard rushers, two 100-yard receivers and a 300-yard passer.

[+] EnlargeHenignway
AP Photo/Tony DingJunior Hemingway's touchdown in the second overtime kept Michigan in the game.
Biggest play: Junior Hemingway's juggling catch on a pass nearly picked off by Illinois helped Michigan tie the score in the second overtime. If Illinois intercepts the ball, the game ends and Michigan's season teeters. Hemingway also wrong-footed several Illinois defenders on an electrifying 45-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The single best catch of the day came from Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore, who made a one-handed grab at full extension and managed to get his foot down in the back of the end zone for a touchdown at Beaver Stadium. Marvin McNutt's 52-yard touchdown reception late in the Indiana game gave Iowa the lead for good, while Brett Brackett's leaping touchdown catch with three seconds left in the first half gave Penn State a huge lift against Northwestern.

Specialist spotlight: Not a ton to choose from this week, but Iowa freshman Michael Meyer connected on four field-goal attempts in the win against Indiana. Meyer hit two 27-yarders and a 23-yarder in the first half before converting a career-long 42-yarder in the fourth quarter to cut Iowa's deficit to one. Illinois punter Anthony Santella continued his stellar season, averaging 47 yards on six attempts at Michigan. Punters Brad Nortman of Wisconsin and Cody Webster of Purdue both had nice games at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Most memorable moment: Easy one here. I'll never forget being on the field at Beaver Stadium when Paterno recorded his 400th career victory. Penn State players carried Paterno on their shoulders to midfield, a gesture he surprisingly enjoyed. The school then held a short ceremony that included a video montage of Paterno through the years and a crystal football presented to JoePa to commemorate No. 400. Paterno briefly addressed the crowd of 104,147, all of whom stayed to witness history. "People ask me why I've stayed here so long," the 83-year-old said. "Look around!" Just an amazing moment.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Michigan QB Tate Forcier and WR Junior Hemingway: Remember all the buzz about Forcier transferring? Michigan is very fortunate he stuck around. Forcier once again relieved an injured Denard Robinson and led Michigan to a huge win, completing 12 of 19 passes for 114 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He got a ton of help from Hemingway, his favorite target in 2009, as the receiver caught six passes for 104 yards and two scores.
  • Penn State RBs Evan Royster and Silas Redd: The senior and the freshman spurred Penn State's rushing attack against Northwestern, getting plenty of help from an improving offensive line. Royster and Redd combined for 265 rush yards and a touchdown on 36 carries. They became the first Penn State tandem to both eclipse 130 rush yards in a game since Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell did so against Iowa on Sept. 25, 1971.
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: I can't say enough about how much Ball has meant to Wisconsin the past two games. After coming up big late in the Iowa win, he relieved an injured John Clay against Purdue and rushed for a career-high 127 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones and S Marcus Hyde: Jones did his thing with a team-leading nine tackles, including 2.5 for loss, in the win against Minnesota. Hyde bounced back from a rough day at Iowa to record an interception, which he returned 41 yards, and two pass breakups. Jones now ranks second in team history in career tackles for loss with 44.5.
  • Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase and RBs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford: These three certainly did their part to help Illinois' cause at the Big House. Scheelhaase recorded 211 pass yards and three touchdowns to go along with 101 rush yards and a score. Leshoure added 120 rush yards and three touchdowns, and he also recorded two touchdown receptions. His five total touchdowns are tied for fourth most in Big Ten history. Ford had 101 rush yards and a score on only 10 carries.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: His team melted down in the second half, but Persa earned a ton of respect from Penn State with his gutsy performance. A week after a concussion, Persa racked up 109 rush yards and two touchdowns to go along with 201 pass yards and a touchdown against Penn State. "If you give me 22 Dan Persas, I'll show you ... a national champion," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
  • [+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Big Ten named Michael Mauti the Co-Defensive player of the week for his performance against Northwestern.
    Penn State LB Michael Mauti: After a slow start, the sophomore is starting to hit his stride for the Nittany Lions' defense. Mauti set career highs in both tackles (11) and tackles for loss (3) and recorded a sack in the win against Northwestern. He has recorded career bests in tackles in each of the last two games.
  • Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt once again showed why he's one of the Big Ten's best deep threats, hauling in a 52-yard touchdown with 2:50 left against Indiana. The junior finished with six catches for 126 yards in Iowa's win.

Deep breath. Now let's take a look ahead at Week 11.

No. 13 Iowa (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) at Northwestern (6-3, 2-3): The Hawkeyes' late-game fortunes turned in Bloomington, as Damarlo Belcher's drop in the end zone kept Iowa alive for the Big Ten title. Only one hurdle remains between Iowa and its Nov. 20 showdown against Ohio State, but this is always a tricky game. Northwestern has won four of the teams' past five meetings, although just one of those has come in Evanston.

Indiana (4-5, 0-5) at No. 7 Wisconsin (8-1, 4-1): After a mini scare at Purdue, Wisconsin returns to Camp Randall Stadium, where it is 41-4 since the start of the 2004 season. The Badgers should have running backs John Clay and James White healthy for an Indiana defense that allows 166.1 rush yards a game. Indiana still needs two wins to get bowl eligible but gave Wisconsin a tough game last year, mounting a late before falling 31-28.

Michigan (6-3, 2-3) at Purdue (4-5, 2-3): Rodriguez and the Wolverines finally are bowl eligible, and a win Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium likely ensures the coach will return for a fourth season in 2011. Robinson is expected to return after injuring his head against Illinois, while Purdue's quarterback situation remains fluid with Sean Robinson, Rob Henry and possibly Justin Siller, who led the Boilers to a win against Michigan in 2008.

Minnesota (1-9, 0-6) at Illinois (5-4, 3-3): The Illini take a second stab at becoming bowl eligible against last-place Minnesota. Watch out for Scheelhaase, Leshoure, Ford and the Illinois rushing attack to have a big day against a Minnesota defense that has slipped to 106th nationally against the run. MarQueis Gray finally got a shot at quarterback for the Gophers on Saturday, and it'll be interesting to see how many snaps he takes against an angry Illinois defense.

Penn State (6-3, 3-2) at No. 9 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1): This year's matchup lacks the hype of the previous two meetings, but Penn State's recent surge has added some intrigue to the rivalry. The Nittany Lions come in on a three-game win streak and are getting better play from an offense led by quarterback Matt McGloin and Royster. Ohio State is rested after an open week and begins its quest for another Big Ten title in its signature month under coach Jim Tressel.

Bye: No. 11 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1)
Illinois has been arguably the nation's biggest surprise this season, but the Illini will never be confused with a bunch of overachievers.

Coach Ron Zook has recruited too well for that label to apply, signing decorated classes pretty much every February during his tenure in Champaign. ESPN Recruiting rated Illinois' 2007 class (current seniors or redshirt juniors) at No. 12 nationally, while the 2008 class (current juniors and redshirt sophomores) ranked No. 16 and the 2009 crop (current sophomores and redshirt freshmen) rated in the top 40 according to several recruiting services.

Throughout Zook's tenure, most opposing coaches have started their assessment of Illinois the way Michigan's Rich Rodriguez did Tuesday.

"Extremely athletic," said Rodriguez, whose Wolverines host Illinois on Saturday.

But extremely good?

Ron Zook
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIRon Zook is in the midst of one of his most successful seasons since coming to Illinois.
That tag rarely has applied to Zook's Illini. Aside from the 2007 season, when Illinois went 9-4 and reached the Rose Bowl, Zook's Illini teams have the following records: 2-9, 2-10, 5-7 and 3-9.

Translating talent to on-field success has been a challenge, to say the least.

"It's the biggest challenge," Zook told ESPN.com this week. "You get good guys and you get them all playing for the same thing, that's hard to do. You can look at a lot of different teams that are successful or are not successful that are talented.

"A lot of it is maybe a little thing here, a little thing there, where they're not all on the same page."

The Illini certainly are on the same page this year, and they're writing a new chapter for a coach on whom many had closed he book after a 3-9 disaster in 2009. Illinois might be the best 5-3 squad in the country as its losses have come against three top-15 squads -- No. 11. Ohio State, No. 12 Missouri and No. 14 Michigan State -- that boast a combined record of 23-3.

With its toughest stretch in the rearview mirror, Illinois should have no trouble ending a two-year postseason drought and has a very realistic shot of playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game.

How did the Illini turn things around?

It started days after the 2009 season. Zook was spared but overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators (Vic Koenning for defense, Paul Petrino for offense) and several new position coaches.

The Illini players had to learn two new systems and philosophies, but they picked it up and bonded in the process.

"It's a hard thing to accomplish, to get everybody on the same page and trying to help each other," Zook said. "You don't know for sure until you do it, but the coaches have done a great job of doing the things our players can do well. To me, it's coaches being flexible, players being flexible and everybody buying into the same thing.

"It's a pretty close-knit group, and they're trying to do something that no one thinks they can do."

Illinois has made its biggest strides on defense and special teams. The Illini rank in the top 10 nationally in both net punting and kickoff coverage, while punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both are in the mix for national awards.

Few first-year assistants in the country have had a more positive impact than Koenning, as the defense has gone from 91st nationally in 2009 to 15th this year. Linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive linemen Corey Liuget, two top prospects from Zook's decorated recruiting classes, are blossoming this season, playing at first-team All-Big Ten levels.

"He's a great teacher," Zook said of Koenning. "He's been flexible, he's looked at things differently. We're not doing things the same as he's done everywhere else. It's like, we've got good players, so let's get them in the right positions to make plays."

Petrino's offense also seems to be hitting its stride, as redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is evolving into a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. The Illini even dealt with claims of running up the score in last Saturday's 44-10 win against Purdue, which hasn't happened in a while.

Zook hasn't had much time to sit back and enjoy the ride, but he likes where things are headed.

"There are still questions out there," he said. "But as long as we continue in this same direction, we'll continue to improve."
Time to press the rewind button on Week 9 before looking ahead to this week's games.

Team of the week: Iowa. After two close losses filled with what-ifs, the Hawkeyes left nothing to chance Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa obliterated Michigan State from the opening kickoff, storming out to a 30-0 halftime lead. The Hawkeyes did it with offensive execution, as quarterback Ricky Stanzi put himself on the Heisman radar, completing 11 of 15 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns. They also did it with opportunistic defense, recording three interceptions against the typically poised Kirk Cousins, returning one for a touchdown. Iowa received major contributions from many players and avoided a special-teams miscue. The win tightened the Big Ten race heading into November.

Evan Royster
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State running back Evan Royster ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan.
Best game: Michigan-Penn State. It was a Saturday of blowouts around the Big Ten, but two traditional powerhouses provided an entertaining offensive shootout at Beaver Stadium. Michigan's Denard Robinson had another huge night, rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 190 passing yards and a score. But "Shoelace" got upstaged by Penn State's Evan Royster and Matt McGloin. Royster, the former All-Big Ten running back who entered Saturday with just one 100-yard rushing performance in seven games, went for 150 rushing yards and two scores. McGloin sizzled in his first career start, passing for 250 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Michigan rallied late to cut Penn State's lead to seven points before the Lions answered. The teams combined for 72 points and 858 offensive yards. Northwestern-Indiana also had some late drama before the Wildcats held on to win 20-17.

Biggest play: Iowa led Michigan State 10-0 late in the first quarter, but the Spartans had entered Hawkeyes territory and had first-and-10 from the 41. Safety Tyler Sash read Cousins perfectly and made an easy interception on a pass to B.J. Cunningham. The exciting part came next, as Sash ran six yards before lateraling the ball over Cunningham's head to teammate Micah Hyde. Hyde raced 66 yards and dived inside the pylon for a touchdown. Iowa went up 17-0 and never looked back. "It's like the point guard that pulls up from 40 feet deep and shoots a 3-pointer," said Sash, a former basketball star in high school. "If he makes it, it's alright. But if he misses it, what are you doing?"

Specialist spotlight: Penn State's Collin Wagner went 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 42-yarder that gave the Lions a 10-point cushion in the fourth quarter. He also ran seven yards on a fake field goal to seal the victory in the final minutes. Northwestern's Stefan Demos has had an up-and-down senior season, but he came up huge at Indiana with two field goals, including a 45-yarder to make it a two-score game with 6:51 left. Both punters in the Michigan State-Iowa game performed well, as Iowa's Ryan Donahue placed three punts inside the 20-yard line and Michigan State's Aaron Bates averaged 48.5 yards per boot. Ohio State recorded a special-teams touchdown as Jonathan Newsome blocked a Minnesota punt and Zach Domicone recovered in the end zone. The Buckeyes also had a 70-yard punt return by Jordan Hall. Illinois' Anthony Santella averaged 43.7 yards on seven punts, and teammate Clay Nurse blocked a Purdue punt.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams who didn't receive helmet stickers)

  • Ohio State's Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Terrelle Pryor: All three turned in big performances as Ohio State blew out Minnesota. Herron continued to establish himself as the Buckeyes' No. 1 running back with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Pryor once again was efficient, completing 18 of 22 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Posey had six catches for 115 yards and a score.
  • Iowa DL Mike Daniels: It's probably a combination of Daniels' emergence and the way opponents are double-teaming Adrian Clayborn, but the junior continues to have a huge season. He recorded two more tackles for loss against Michigan State, bringing his season total to 10.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa and WR Jeremy Ebert: They've formed one of the Big Ten's top passing connections and hooked up five times for 98 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana. Persa completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, and he added 19 rush yards before being shaken up late in the game.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Robinson single-handedly kept Michigan alive at Penn State with 191 rush yards and three touchdowns and 190 pass yards and a score. He accounted for 381 of Michigan's 423 offensive yards at Beaver Stadium.
  • Indiana DE Darius Johnson: Johnson applied steady pressure to Persa and consistently beat Northwestern's offensive line for 11 tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle: With fellow 'backer Ross Homan still sidelined by injury, Rolle stepped up against Minnesota with 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the win.

Now let's spin it forward and look at Week 10.

No. 16 Iowa (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-4, 0-4): The Hawkeyes are riding high after their dominant win against Michigan State, but they'll have to take care of business on the road the next two weeks before the Ohio State showdown. Indiana dominated Iowa last Halloween for three quarters as Stanzi threw five interceptions. But it was all Iowa in the fourth, as the Hawkeyes exploded for 28 unanswered points. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell will throw the ball a ton, so Iowa's defensive linemen will have their ears pinned back for this one.

Minnesota (1-8, 0-5) at No. 14 Michigan State (8-1, 4-1): Despite Saturday's ugly loss, the Spartans remain very much alive in the Big Ten title race and can get well against the league's worst team. Look for Michigan State to reignite its ground game against a Minnesota team that allows a league-worst 201.8 rush yards per game. Minnesota's Adam Weber torched Michigan State for 416 pass yards and five touchdowns in last year's wacky game in Minneapolis, but he'll face a much tougher challenge this time around.

Illinois (5-3, 3-2) at Michigan (5-3, 1-3): Don't be fooled by the matching records; these teams are headed in opposite directions. Illinois is surging after back-to-back blowout victories and looks for its third consecutive win against the Maize and Blue. Michigan has dropped three consecutive league contests as its defense and special teams continue to regress. Embattled coach Rich Rodriguez needs this one in a big way, and the winning team will be bowl eligible.

No. 9 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1) at Purdue (4-4, 2-2): After an open week, the Badgers return to action against a Purdue team coming off of back-to-back ugly losses. Speaking of one-sided games, Wisconsin crushed Purdue 37-0 last year in Madison. This game features Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year front-runners Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue and J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. The two defensive ends have combined for 12.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss this season.

Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) at Penn State (5-3, 2-2): A pretty obvious story line here as Joe Paterno goes for win No. 400. The Nittany Lions' legend would be just the third college coach to record 400 victories -- John Gagliardi and Eddie Robinson are the others -- and the first to do so in Division I-A/FBS. Standing in the way of history is Northwestern, which brings a 4-0 road record this season to Happy Valley. Wildcats star quarterback Dan Persa returns to his home state for the game.

Bye: No. 11 Ohio State (8-1, 4-1)

Big Ten stock report: Week 9

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
3:00
PM ET
Who moves up? Who moves down?

Let's take a look.

STOCK UP

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: Despite losing the backup job to James White and seeing his carries decrease, Ball waited his turn and came up big against Iowa. He caught a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-4 to keep Wisconsin's game-winning drive alive and finished things off with two 8-yard runs, the second a powerful burst that reached the end zone.

Illinois' special teams: Punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both have been great all season, but the kicking game got another boost against Indiana as Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked punts, one resulting in a safety. It marked the first time Illinois has blocked two punts in a game since Sept. 11, 1976, against Iowa.

Ohio State's defensive line: Humbled the week before by Wisconsin, the Buckeyes' front four responded with authority against Purdue. Each starter recorded at least one tackle for loss, and ends Cameron Heyward and Nathan Williams both notched sacks as Ohio State held Purdue to nine first downs and 30 rush yards.

Penn State QB Rob Bolden: Before leaving the Minnesota game with a head injury, Bolden was on fire, completing 11 of 13 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. The bye week clearly benefited the freshman, who settled into a nice rhythm. Hopefully, he's not out too long with an apparent concussion.

STOCK DOWN

Iowa's special teams: The indelible image from Iowa's magical 2009 season was Adrian Clayborn's punt block and return for a touchdown at Penn State. This year has been blighted by special-teams blunders, from the blocked punt and kick return touchdown against Arizona, to having an extra point try blocked and allowing Wisconsin to convert a fake punt in last Saturday's loss.

Indiana QB Ben Chappell: The senior has been outstanding in Indiana's four victories and its loss to Michigan, but it's been a different story on the road against above-average Big Ten defenses. After throwing two interceptions in a Week 6 loss to Ohio State, Chappell was picked off three times at Illinois, and the Illini returned one for a touchdown.

Northwestern's fourth-quarter defense: Everyone is still talking about the fake punt Northwestern allowed early in the fourth quarter, but it wouldn't have mattered if the Wildcats had made a stop on Michigan State's 88-yard scoring drive. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz took his foot off of the accelerator and didn't bring pressure, and Kirk Cousins picked apart a shaky secondary. Northwestern has allowed late scoring drives in each of its past two games.

Purdue's defense: The Boilers upgraded their play on defense in wins against Northwestern and Minnesota, but things went downhill from the get-go at The Shoe. Ohio State did pretty much as it pleased in a historic first half, piling up 42 points and 415 total yards, the highest-total for a half in the Jim Tressel era (2001-present). Ryan Kerrigan and his crew must do better this week at Illinois.
Let's press the rewind button on Week 8 before fast-forwarding into Week 9.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWisconsin's Scott Tolzien made some clutch throws in the fourth quarter at Iowa.
Team of the Week: Wisconsin. The Badgers get the nod for the second consecutive week after their second consecutive signature win, this time on the road against rival Iowa. Bret Bielema's squad had to overcome several key injuries -- running back James White, tight end Lance Kendricks -- and a red-hot Ricky Stanzi, but thanks to a gutsy fake punt call from Bielema, some clutch play by quarterback Scott Tolzien and the emergence of third-string back Montee Ball, Wisconsin rallied for a 31-30 victory. Wisconsin still needs some help to reach a BCS bowl, but it has survived the toughest part of its schedule and will be favored in its final four contests.

Best game: I give a slight edge to Wisconsin-Iowa, but Michigan State-Northwestern also provided plenty of drama. Both games featured fake punts with fun names -- "Mousetrap" and "Chain" -- that led to come-from-behind victories by the road team. We saw tremendous quarterback play in both contests -- Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Northwestern's Dan Persa in Evanston, Iowa's Stanzi and Wisconsin's Tolzien in Iowa City -- and surprising players stepping up in the clutch (Wisconsin's Ball, Michigan State's Bennie Fowler). A ton of good stuff in both games.

Biggest play: The two fake punts are the obvious choices here, especially Wisconsin's on a fourth-and-4 from its own 26-yard line with about six minutes to play. But there were others as well. Tolzien made a huge throw to Ball for a 7-yard completion on fourth-and-5 in the closing minutes, and Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham came up huge on the game-winning touchdown, which he caught after Northwestern safety Brian Peters deflected the ball.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State punter Aaron Bates and his Wisconsin counterpart Brad Nortman have received plenty of credit, and deservedly so, for executing the fake punts Saturday. Illinois continued to shine on special teams as punter Anthony Santella averaged 45.6 yards on five punts, Derek Dimke added two more field goals and Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey both blocked Indiana punts. Penn State punter Anthony Fera was outstanding, averaging 45.2 yards a punt with four placed inside the Minnesota 20-yard line. Purdue punter Cody Webster had another big day (six punts, 46.7-yard average), and Iowa's Ryan Donahue had a 71-yard punt. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos rebounded with two field goals against Michigan State.

Game balls:

  • Michigan State DE Tyler Hoover: Hoover gave Northwestern's offensive line all sorts of trouble, recording two sacks and a forced fumble and tying Greg Jones for the team lead in tackles with nine. He tied a career high in tackles and set a personal best in sacks as he continues to blossom for the unbeaten Spartans.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: The junior is making a serious push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. He followed up a dominating performance against Ohio State with five tackles, including two for loss and a sack, and a huge blocked extra-point attempt that proved to be the difference in the game.
  • Illinois defenders Corey Liuget, Justin Staples, Terry Hawthorne, Patrick Nixon-Youman and Jonathan Brown: They'll have to share one game ball, but I doubt they'll mind after teaming up to shut down Indiana. Liuget recorded a sack and five quarterback hurries, while Staples had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nixon-Youman and Brown both recorded pick-sixes, and Hawthorne had an interception and a tackle for loss in his first game back from injury.
  • Penn State CB D'Anton Lynn: Lynn stepped up in a big way at Minnesota, recording a game-high 10 tackles and a 58-yard interception return that turned the momentum in the second quarter.
  • Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Anyone who hadn't seen Persa before Saturday gained a ton of respect for the Wildcats' junior quarterback. He repeatedly sacrificed his body and made plays when they seemingly weren't there, recording three rushing touchdowns in the game.
  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Despite not having one of his top passing targets in Kendricks, Tolzien led Wisconsin to a huge road victory. He did have an ugly interception, but was otherwise brilliant, completing 20 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
  • Ohio State WRs Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey: One of the nation's top receiving tandems teamed up Saturday for eight receptions, 170 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Sanzenbacher had a 57-yard reception as he continues to improve his stock for the Biletnikoff Award.
  • Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight: The next Gophers coach will inherit a nice piece in McKnight, who continues to evolve as a go-to receiver. McKnight recorded eight receptions for 103 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State.
  • Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi: I put the poor clock management at the end of the game on the coaching staff, not Stanzi, who delivered another tremendous performance. The senior completed 25 of 37 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin.

Now let's spin it forward for a quick look at Week 9.

Purdue (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (4-3, 2-2): Purdue might have to start another new quarterback after Rob Henry's hand injury, and the timing doesn't favor the Boilers, as the Illinois defense is on fire. The game features two of the Big Ten's top pass-rushing groups, as Ryan Kerrigan leads Purdue, while Corey Liuget looks to keep his stellar season going. The winner moves one step closer to bowl eligibility.

Northwestern (5-2, 1-2) at Indiana (4-3, 0-3): This matchup features two similar teams dealing with similar senses of urgency. Northwestern aims to stop a two-game slide on the road, where it has been at its best under Pat Fitzgerald. Indiana probably needs to win this one to keep its bowl hopes alive, and the Hoosiers look to bounce back from a mistake-ridden performance at Illinois. The game also pairs two excellent quarterbacks -- Dan Persa and Ben Chappell -- and two vulnerable pass defenses. Expect a lot of points.

No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) at No. 18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1): If the Spartans can get out of Iowa City with a victory, they can really start thinking about a run to the national title game. Michigan State certainly has the magic that Iowa had last year but is lacking this year after two fourth-quarter letdowns. Two outstanding quarterbacks meet in the Spartans' Kirk Cousins and the Hawkeyes' Ricky Stanzi, and the game also features defensive stars like Adrian Clayborn and Greg Jones. Iowa can't afford to lose and stay in the Big Ten race.

No. 11 Ohio State (7-1, 3-1) at Minnesota (1-7, 0-4): This one could get ugly. Ohio State's offense has carved up weak defenses all season, and Minnesota ranks 90th nationally in yards allowed (406.4 ypg) and 100th in points allowed (31.9 ppg). Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is licking his chops. Minnesota will need a huge performance from quarterback Adam Weber to keep pace against a banged-up Buckeyes defense that rebounded last week.

Michigan (5-2, 1-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2): Simply put, this is the biggest game of Rich Rodriguez's Michigan tenure. Rodriguez and the Wolverines come off of a bye week and need a win to stem talk of a 2009 redux. Penn State got the win it needed at Minnesota, but surrendered 433 yards. The Lions will be tested by Denard Robinson and co., while their quarterback situation remains unsettled after Rob Bolden's apparent concussion.

Bye: No. 10 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1)

Big Ten lunch links

October, 15, 2010
10/15/10
12:00
PM ET
I know that this isn't a symbol for the crossroads of ideas. I now know it's a butt.

Big Ten stock report: Week 7

October, 13, 2010
10/13/10
5:00
PM ET
Invest wisely.

STOCK UP

Purdue's coaching staff: Danny Hope and his assistants deserve a ton of credit for their work during the bye week. Purdue's defense looked a lot better against Northwestern and put pressure on Dan Persa with multiple rushers. Offensive coordinator Gary Nord did a great job crafting a game plan that fit redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry in his first career start.

Michigan State's secondary: This unit has taken some heat in the past, but the Spartans are showing much better playmaking ability this fall. Michigan State had six interceptions all of last season; the Spartans already have nine this fall after picking off Denard Robinson three times in Saturday's victory. Cornerback Chris L. Rucker recorded his first interception of the season, and corner Johnny Adams and safety Trenton Robinson both have two picks. Michigan State ranks 23rd nationally in pass efficiency defense (110.8 rating) after finishing 101st last season.

Illinois' specialists: The kicking game had been a weak spot for Illinois in past seasons, but punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke are off to strong starts this fall. Santella ranks second nationally in punting average (47.9 ypp), and Dimke went 4-for-4 on field goal attempts in the Penn State win to earn Big Ten co-Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Dimke is 10-for-11 on field goal attempts this season and a perfect 12-for-12 on PATs.

Ohio State DE Nathan Williams: Williams has provided a nice jolt for the Ohio State pass rush the last few weeks. After being slowed by a knee injury sustained in preseason camp, Williams has recorded 22 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in his last three games. Wisconsin had better pay attention to No. 43 on Saturday night.

Wisconsin's team discipline: The Badgers haven't committed a turnover since the third quarter of a Week 2 win against San Jose State, a span of more than four games. Wisconsin is tied for second nationally in fewest turnovers with just four all season. Bret Bielema's crew also is avoiding the dreaded yellow hankie. Wisconsin is tied for the national lead in fewest penalties with just 20 through the first six games. The Badgers rank fourth nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (30.8).

Illinois' red zone offense: While keeping Penn State out of the end zone for most of Saturday's win, Illinois continued to capitalize on its opportunities near the goal line. The Illini are 16-for-16 on red zone chances this season with nine touchdowns and seven field goals. They are one of only three FBS teams (East Carolina, Memphis) perfect in the red zone.

STOCK DOWN

Minnesota's starts to halves: The Golden Gophers have held their own in the second quarter (47-47) and the fourth quarter (59-56) this season, but they really struggle to begin both halves. Tim Brewster's crew has been outscored 49-27 in the first quarter and 42-24 in the third quarter this season. Wisconsin outscored the Gophers 14-0 in both quarters on Saturday.

Northwestern's special teams: The kicking game costs Northwestern dearly in at least one loss per season, and it happened again Saturday against Purdue. Northwestern had two fumbled punts (losing one), a blocked field goal attempt and a badly missed field goal in the final minutes. Senior kicker Stefan Demos has struggled this year, going just 8-for-13 on field goal attempts and 15-for-18 on PATs. Coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn't see the need for a special-teams coordinator, but the third phase remains an area that must be upgraded.

Penn State's team leadership: This applies to Joe Paterno, his assistants and team captains Brett Brackett and Ollie Ogbu. After having a players-only meeting last Monday, Penn State played its worst game in recent memory and then had some finger-pointing in the postgame interviews, including this comment from running back Evan Royster: "I wish I could get in there and play every position and play with the desire some people don't have." Royster might want to worry about playing his own position better, and Penn State needs to take a long look in the mirror during a much-needed bye week.

Denard Robinson: Robinson did some good things against Michigan State, but you just can't throw interceptions, and the Michigan quarterback had three of them after throwing just one in his first five games. The sophomore showed some indecision on several passes, including one that Trenton Robinson picked off in the end zone. His desire to make big plays is tremendous, but Shoelace also must learn that it's OK to throw the ball away at times.

Indiana's pass rush: Coach Bill Lynch admitted Tuesday that the Hoosiers used more of a "controlled rush" against Ohio State to keep Terrelle Pryor from breaking contain, which makes sense. Except that Pryor wasn't 100 percent after his quad injury and picked apart a poor Hoosiers secondary with plenty of time to throw. Indiana has only seven sacks through the first five games and really misses Jammie Kirlew up front.
It's time to look back at the first Saturday of Big Ten play before peeking ahead at Week 6.

Note: I've adjusted the Game Balls section to include players from losing teams who deliver exceptional performances. Helmet stickers will continue to go to players only from winning teams -- that's been my policy since Day 1 -- but the game balls section is a way to recognize guys who stepped up even though their teams didn't get the job done. You really need to do something special to make the list if your team loses, but it's now possible.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioKirk Cousins and the Spartans overcame early mistakes to knock off the Badgers.
Team of the Week: Michigan State. The Spartans overcame three first-half turnovers and the absence of head coach Mark Dantonio to record a convincing win against then-No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday. A program that has struggled with adversity and mental toughness in the past demonstrated plenty of it throughout the Wisconsin game. Kirk Cousins grew as a quarterback, Don Treadwell grew as a playcaller/future head coach and Michigan State grew into a Big Ten title contender. The Spartans ended John Clay's 10-game streak of 100-yard rushing performances, and their third-down execution was sharp on both sides of the ball. The fake field goal against Notre Dame provided an emotional lift, but Michigan State will draw a lot more confidence from a 15-play, 84-yard drive to seal the Wisconsin win.

Best game: Michigan at Indiana. The game played out as many had forecast, as both quarterbacks surged and both defenses struggled to stop anyone. Quarterbacks Denard Robinson (Michigan) and Ben Chappell (Indiana) both produced historic numbers, and the teams combined for 77 points and 1,142 offensive yards. Neither team led by more than a touchdown and the game featured five ties before Robinson scored the game-winning touchdown from 4 yards out with 17 seconds left. Northwestern at Minnesota also produced some drama as the Wildcats rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter to win 29-28.

Biggest play: Robinson provided several possible selections with both his legs and his arm, but I'm going with Jeremy Ebert's 25-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter for Northwestern against Minnesota. Northwestern trailed 28-20 at the time and faced third-and-7. Quarterback Dan Persa already had committed two turnovers in the red zone and appeared to make another ill-advised throw on Ebert's touchdown. But Ebert wrestled the ball away from Minnesota's Ryan Collado on the jump ball and Northwestern ended up rallying for the win. Another play worth mentioning is Cousins' fourth-down touchdown pass to B.J. Cunningham to put Michigan State up 10 points with 2:43 left. Cousins had wanted to run the play in two other games, only to be turned down. "I guess this was the moment to have it," he said afterward.

Specialist spotlight: Michigan State's Keshawn Martin made the biggest special-teams play around the league Saturday when he returned a Brad Nortman punt 74 yards to the end zone. Wisconsin led 10-6 in the second quarter before Martin's electrifying runback. Martin, who ranked in the league's top five in both kick returns and punt returns last season, appears to be the league's top return man. Iowa punter Ryan Donahue had a nice night, placing three punts inside the Penn State 20-yard line with a long of 53 yards. Illinois punter Anthony Santella continued his stellar season (47-yard average against Ohio State), and Michigan punter Will Hagerup made the most of limited opportunities at Indiana. Northwestern's Stefan Demos converted the game-winning 27-yard field goal.

Coolest image: Iowa fans deserve a shoutout after making Kinnick Stadium look like this Saturday night. The black and gold stripes were well coordinated and well executed.

Game balls (given to players not selected for helmet stickers):

  • Indiana QB Ben Chappell: Chappell set school records with 45 completions, 64 attempts, 480 pass yards and 475 yards of total offense against Michigan. He became just the second Indiana player to eclipse 400 pass yards in a game and tied for the third most completions in Big Ten history. Chappell set a team record with his sixth career 300-yard passing performance and tossed three touchdowns to extend his streak of games with multiple touchdown passes to eight.
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones: A week after recording the first two interceptions of his college career, Jones returned to his blitzing role against Wisconsin and recorded three tackles for loss, eight total tackles and a quarterback hurry in the 34-24 win.
  • Ohio State DE Nathan Williams: The Buckeyes' defense showed up in a big way in the second half at Illinois, and Williams recorded nine tackles, including 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss. He also had a quarterback hurry as the Buckeyes pressured Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • Iowa CB Shaun Prater: Prater recorded his fourth career interception against Penn State and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to make any thought of a Penn State rally obsolete. He shares the game ball with fellow defenders Tyler Nielsen (four passes defended), Karl Klug (two tackles for loss) and James Morris.
  • Michigan WRs Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway: The Wolverines wideouts share a game ball after combining for eight receptions, 255 yards and two touchdowns against Indiana. Roundtree had a 32-yard touchdown grab and a 74-yard gain, while Hemingway recorded a 70-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter.
  • Indiana WR Tandon Doss: The junior recorded career highs in both receptions (15) and receiving yards (221) in the loss to Michigan. He had the fourth-highest receiving yards total in team history and set a career high in all-purpose yards with 363, which included 111 on kick returns.
  • Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt: Watt continued his push for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors Saturday in East Lansing. He was all over the field and recorded a game-high 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a tipped pass that wound up as an interception for teammate Devin Smith. Watt has been a beast this season.
  • Minnesota CB Michael Carter: The Gophers didn't deliver a great defensive performance against Northwestern, but Carter came up with several huge plays. He recorded a team-high 11 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble near the goal line and a tackle for loss.

OK, deep breath. Now let's take a quick look at Week 6.

Indiana (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) at No. 2 Ohio State (5-0, 1-0): It'll be strength vs. strength as Indiana brings the Big Ten's top pass offense against the league's top pass defense in Ohio State, which begins life without safety/linebacker Tyler Moeller. Chappell and his receivers provide a very good test for the Buckeyes defense, while Ohio State's running backs should gain some confidence against an Indiana D that can't stop the run.

Illinois (2-2, 0-1) at Penn State (3-2, 0-1): This game looks a little more interesting than it did before the season. Illinois has upgraded its defense under new coordinator Vic Koenning, while Penn State's offense continues to struggle with inconsistency and red zone inefficiency. After falling out of the national rankings, Penn State can't afford another step back. Keep an eye on the matchup between two promising young quarterbacks, Illinois' Scheelhaase and Penn State's Rob Bolden.

Minnesota (1-4, 0-1) at No. 20 Wisconsin (4-1, 0-1): The coolest trophy in college sports is at stake, which adds to an otherwise uninspiring matchup. Minnesota's season is on life support after failing to claim a game pretty much handed to it by Northwestern. An upset victory in a trophy game would mean a lot for coach Tim Brewster and seniors like Adam Weber. Wisconsin must rebound from a poor road showing against Michigan State and get more from its experienced offensive players.

No. 17 Michigan State (5-0, 1-0) at No. 18 Michigan (5-0, 1-0): I'm so excited for this one. The in-state rivalry is spicy enough, but this year's meeting brings new storylines like two top-20 rankings, Heisman Trophy candidate Robinson and the health situation involving Dantonio. Michigan State aims for its first three-game win streak in the series since 1965-67. Robinson faces his biggest test of the season with Jones.

Purdue (2-2, 0-0) at Northwestern (5-0, 1-0): After surviving a mistake-ridden game at Minnesota, Northwestern will be favored to record its first 6-0 start since 1962. The Wildcats face an injury-ravaged Purdue team that turns to redshirt freshman Rob Henry at quarterback. The Boilers come off of a much-needed bye week but will need a strong performance from Ryan Kerrigan and the defense to slow down Persa and the Wildcats' attack.

Bye: No. 15 Iowa (4-1, 1-0)

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