Big Ten: Baker Steinkuhler

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Only twice in its illustrious history has Nebraska averaged 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season.

Only once – last season – has it reached 250 rushing and 200 passing.

Through six games this fall, the Huskers sit at 285 rushing and 205 passing. Granted, three of the Big Ten’s top four rushing defenses – Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan – await Nebraska in November, and the other top unit against the run, Ohio State, might well be there for the Huskers in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 if things go as planned in Lincoln.

Regardless, credit the Nebraska offensive line, whose members talked in August of ranking as a vintage Huskers group. That’s a mouthful at a school that won six Outland Trophies and 13 NCAA rushing titles in the 1980s and 1990s alone.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Long
Reese Strickland/US PresswireSpencer Long will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, forcing a shift on the Nebraska offensive line.
These guys have held their own, though, allowing a FBS-low three sacks in the season’s first half.

Now they meet their biggest challenge, the test the Nebraska linemen hoped they would never face: the loss of Spencer Long. How they respond will define the way they are remembered.

“From here on out, we’re playing for Spencer,” said junior Mike Moudy, Long’s likely replacement at right guard next Saturday when Nebraska visits Minnesota. “We’ve got the drive to compete for him. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. But everyone’s just taking that in stride and saying we’re going to give our all to Spence.”

Long meant so much to his teammates. He was a throwback to the great linemen of Huskers past – a walk-on from Elkhorn, Neb., who toiled on the scout team, earned his scholarship, then all-conference honors and a recognition as a captain in his fifth-year senior season.

He started 33 games. He remains a top student, majoring in pre-med. He’ll probably be a doctor, even if the NFL delays his continued studies.

He went down on the fifth play from scrimmage last week in the Huskers’ 44-7 win at Purdue. Long was hustling around the backside of a rush by Imani Cross and fell over the legs of defensive end Ryan Russell. Long’s left knee buckled.

Coach Bo Pelini was among the first to reach him on the ground. Long underwent surgery Thursday to repair a torn MCL. Don’t bet against his return in time to work for NFL scouts ahead of the May 8-10 NFL draft.

“What happened to Spencer sucks,” senior left tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “There’s no way around it. His career got cut short here at Nebraska, but a lot of young guys have got great opportunities now.

“We’re going to honor Spencer with our effort. We’re going to honor Spencer with the way we play, because he was our captain. We followed him.”

Who will they follow now? Perhaps Sirles, a veteran of 34 starts, fellow seniors Andrew Rodriguez at right tackle and center Cole Pensick. With Moudy and junior Jake Cotton at left guard, the offensive line is still a seasoned group.

Coaches have talked this week of shifting Pensick, using untested Ryne Reeves or Givens Price or even pulling the redshirt from junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo.

It will work best if Moudy sticks. He fits the pedigree at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, another top student who has worked in the program for four years. As recently as last season, Moudy spent time on the scout team. Pelini said he noticed a big jump in the spring.

What happened?

“Probably just wanting to play, “Moudy said. “The desire to play. I kind of got tired of sitting on the scout team. I had to take another step mentally.”

Long, with Cotton and offensive line coach John Garrison, aided Moudy in his ascent.

He began to prove himself at Purdue. Moudy allowed one sack but otherwise played well.

The other linemen chided him for the mistake.

“He did a great job,” Sirles said, “but he’s going to held to the same standard Spencer was held to. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s not fair.' But we all hold ourselves to a high standard. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing.”

Injuries such as this one are all too common over the past two seasons at Nebraska. Senior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler went down last year during the Huskers’ regular-season finale against Iowa.

The defense did not respond well as Wisconsin and Georgia gouged Nebraska for 115 points in subsequent games.

I-back Rex Burkhead, a leader and motivational figure in the same vein as Long, missed six games of his senior year with a knee injury last season. In his place, the Huskers found a new star, Ameer Abdullah, and hardly missed a beat.

Which path will the offensive line take over the next six weeks? It figures to define their legacy.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 30, 2013
Spring, is that really you? Nah, just teasin'.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 15, 2013
Wishing you a great weekend. To the emails ...

Glenn from Randolph, N.J., writes: Adam - Love the analysis of rivalries. The challenge I see is that aside from Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland have no natural or historical rvialries with the existing B1G teams. When the new divisions are aligned and a nine or ten game scheule developed, is it possible that some schools may have protected games and some may not? This would allow the new schools to rotate through all of the "western" schools more frequently but allow a couple of historical games to remain on the schedule annually.

Adam Rittenberg: Glenn, it's very possible the Big Ten will change its use of crossover games in the new alignment. League commissioner Jim Delany actually told me this Monday. There's really no reason for each team to have a crossover game. You want to create as much rotation as possible, especially for the new Big Ten members. The protected crossovers should only be used to preserve the top rivalries, really those in the untouchable category. By prioritizing geography, the Big Ten can do a better job of maintaining more rivalries with this division alignment so that it won't have to use too many crossovers. The athletic directors and the league office get it.

Charlie from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, coming from a Husker fan, how the HECK did you rank us 8th in the B1G for defensive line?! Take out a few of Eric Martin's sacks and they literally did absolutely nothing all year. I love my Huskers and I'm optimistic for the future (Bo supporter all the way), but the DL was absolutely terrible last year. Please re-rank and move them down.

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, rough assessment, Charlie, although you're hardly the only Huskers fan who feels this way. The defensive line has been on the decline since 2010, although injuries like Jared Crick and, to a lesser extent, Baker Steinkuhler haven't helped matters. Purdue's defensive line underachieved more than Nebraska's, which is why we put the Boilers at No. 9. Illinois also had more talent than it showed. Iowa's and Indiana's defensive lines both stumbled down the stretch. Defensive line will be a major emphasis point for Nebraska this spring, particularly the thin defensive tackle spot.

Misplaced Gopher from Fargo, N.D., writes: The Little Brown Jug is expendable? I disagree in very strong terms. There's a great history behind that trophy; unlike most traveling trophies it began with a genuine rivalry between two football superpowers and it grew organically. It wasn't a gimmick. I belong to a significant contingent of Minnesota fans who would rather beat Michigan than Wisconsin or Iowa. Michigan fans may disagree, but I'm confident that WHEN Minnesota retakes its place at the top of the college football hierarchy in the next few years, that dormant rivalry will explode.The expendable trophy game for Minnesota is the Governor's Victory Bell, which goes to the winner of Minn-Penn State. You neglected to even include the bell in your list. But that's okay, because most people don't even know that The Victory Bell exists.

Adam Rittenberg: I completely agree with you about the Jug's history, and also about the irrelevance of the Victory Bell. I realized after the post published that we left off that "rivalry," but as you point out, no one will miss it. As for the Jug game, while the history is terrific, the competitiveness for a long period of time just hasn't been there. The league has to make some tough choices with division alignment, and not every rivalry game can be saved. Minnesota has a lot of rivalries and a lot of trophy games. As you mention, you're in the minority with wanting to beat Michigan more than Wisconsin or Iowa. The Big Ten has to deal more with what the majority wants since it can't preserve every single rivalry. Now if Minnesota makes the rise you envision and starts beating the Big Ten's elite every year, including Michigan, maybe we'll reconsider.

Andrew from Laingsburg, Mich., writes: My concern with increased penalties for "helmet-to-helmet hits" is that the B1G officials have been comparatively quick to call those penalties. There seemed to be one or two called in every B1G conference game but I didn't see any called (with non-B1G officials) in the B1G bowls. For example, I think the Clowney-on-Smith hit from the Outback Bowl would have been penalized by a B1G officiating crew.

Adam Rittenberg: Andrew, some good points here. Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo has made high hits and player safety major priorities with his crews. I'll look into whether they're calling those penalties more than crews from other conferences, but you might be right. The key thing with this proposal is the replay component because the replay official can overturn an ejection if he feels there is conclusive evidence. If replay does its job, the right decisions ultimately will be made. Yet as we saw during last season in the Big Ten, replay officials make mistakes, too. But I'm very interested to see how that element factors into the new rule.

Bill from Streeterville writes: I was a little surprised to see Nebraska-Ohio State as a rivalry you "would keep if possible," but no mention of Nebraska-Michigan. Not only do OSU and NU roll off one another's schedules for the foreseeable future, but the NU-UM match-up has had significance in divisional play for the Huskers' first two years in the B1G. Is it the Pelini-Ohio connection you're promoting? Or is OSU-NU better for the B1G for other reasons?

Adam Rittenberg: Both games are potential showcases for the Big Ten, the types of games that could command national television audiences in primetime. We could have included Nebraska-Michigan as well, but I do like the Pelini connection to Ohio State and the fact both schools have some tradition of hosting night football (Michigan just recently entered that realm), as their games more often than not should be held under the lights. But there isn't much separating the two games in my mind. It's likely that Michigan joins Ohio State's division in the new alignment, so Nebraska would only play the Wolverines and the Buckeyes on a rotational basis unless protected by a crossover, which is currently Penn State. I actually like keeping the Nebraska-Penn State game on an annual basis and rotating Michigan and Ohio State onto Nebraska's schedules from the other division.

John from DeForest, Wis., writes: Adam - Maybe the B1G can capitalize on a 9 game conference schedule to lock up that elusive scheduling agreement with another conference. Since several major conferences are already committed to 9 game conference schedules, they are hurting from the schedule imbalance too. Why not use the non-conference tie-in to balance it? When a team has only 4 conference home games, then their tie-in non-conference game would be home. It might not balance the conference aspect of things, but I think it would help to balance everything else.

Adam Rittenberg: John, several folks have brought this up, and Jim Delany told me Monday that despite the collapse of the Pac-12 alliance, he remains interested in forming partnerships with other conferences, whether it's for scheduling or bowl tie-ins. The Big Ten certainly doesn't want to get burned again, and it would need strong assurances from another conference that all of that league's members would be on board. The ACC would make the most sense as a partner -- I don't think the SEC would ever go for it -- as it also soon will have 14 teams and will play nine league games. The Big Ten-ACC alliance in basketball has worked out well. You have to wonder whether any tension from Maryland's departure to the Big Ten -- or the rumors about the Big Ten targeting other ACC programs for expansion -- would turn off ACC commissioner John Swofford. But it's something to monitor and would be a nice complement to a 9-game league slate.

Shawn from Oshkosh, Wis., writes: Adam, I respectfully disagree with your analysis of teams that have a chance to have a 1,000-yard rushers, 1,000-yard receiver and 2,000-yard quarterback. As you stated no Badger QB eclipsed 1,200 yards passing but Stave only played in 7 of the 14 games and in 2 of those 7 he played in he didn't play the full game. Aside from Stave, Phillips/O'Brien combined for over 1,000 yards in their 7 games; given the opportunity for a UW starter to play a full season it will be very possible for a 2,000-yard passing season. Next year, I expect much more continuity at the QB spot and thus Wisconsin should be among those with an expected 2,000-yard passer. At RB, White had 806 yards and Gordon 621, all while splitting carries with each other and Montee so at least one of those guys will get 1,000. At WR, Abbrederis had 837 yards and with more continuity at QB I expect this number to rise. I appreciate your blog and enjoy all of your(and Brian's) thoughts. Do you think what I'm saying is a fair assumption or am I just overly optimistic?

Adam Rittenberg: Shawn, I think you misunderstood the post. It points out that from a statistical standpoint, the Big Ten has few teams that return elite triumvirates -- quarterback, running back and wide receiver. You don't need to sell me on Jared Abbrederis or on the two running backs. But you're assuming one of those quarterbacks is going to produce. I could assume the same thing about the other returning quarterbacks who didn't come close to 2,000 pass yards. The post deals in absolutes -- who put up numbers and who didn't. I think it's telling that the Big Ten has only three teams bringing back a quarterback, a running back and a receiver who all put up big numbers in 2012.

Matt from Stamford, Conn., writes: Adam - I have just finished listening to your colleague Ivan Maisel discuss and interview Don Van Natta Jr. regarding the Freeh and Paterno reports. I think it would be a great option to add the podcast to the B1G Blog for everyone to listen to. It provides an excellent analysis and summary of where things stand with the Sandusky situation, while most other articles I've read or interviews I've heard are strictly for or against each report.

Adam Rittenberg: Good call, Matt, and I should have linked the podcast earlier this week. Ivan and Don did a great job. You can listen to it here, and be sure and bookmark our podcasts page.

Video: B1G shoes to fill -- Nebraska

February, 15, 2013

This spring, Nebraska must address the loss of defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler at a position with little depth, and it must find a replacement for do-it-all specialist Brett Maher.

B1G postseason position rankings: DL

February, 14, 2013
Our postseason position rankings wrapped up the offensive side of the ball Wednesday with a look at the offensive line. Now it's time to switch to the other side of the ball. We'll stay in the trenches with our rankings for the defensive lines.

This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.

Here we go ...

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesOhio State defensive end John Simon tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last season with nine.
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 1): It took a while for this group to live up to expectations, but once it got going in the second half, you saw why the Buckeyes earned the No. 1 preseason ranking. Defensive end John Simon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Run-plugging tackle Johnathan Hankins should be an early first-round draft pick in April. Nathan Williams shook off injuries to contribute in a big way down the stretch. Freshmen Noah Spence and, in particular, Adolphus Washington helped with the depth, though the starters played a lot of downs.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.

4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.

6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.

7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.

9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 26, 2012
We're back with another report card, as we're doubling down on these in order to finish before the New Year's Day bowls. Nebraska, come and get your grades for the 2012 regular season:

Offense: A

The Huskers led the Big Ten in total offense and ranked second in the league in scoring at 35.1 points per game. It all started, not surprisingly, with an outstanding rushing assault that averaged more than 254 yards per game, good for eighth-best in the nation. What made that even more impressive was that Rex Burkhead missed most of the season with a knee injury, yet the offense hardly missed a beat as Ameer Abdullah topped 1,000 yards. Give the offensive line a lot of credit, especially All-American guard Spencer Long. But it wasn't all about the running game this year for Nebraska, as quarterback Taylor Martinez took his performance to a higher level. While he didn't reach his lofty preseason goal of a 70 percent completion rate, he did connect on a respectable 62.2 percent of his throws while going for 2,667 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He led the Big Ten in total offense while nearly running for 1,000 yards. A deep and multi-talented group of receivers and tight ends, paced by blossoming star Kenny Bell, made the Huskers dangerous all over the field, and coordinator Tim Beck wore opposing defenses out with his high-paced play calling. The only reason the offense doesn't earn an A-plus was a frustrating lack of ball security; Nebraska lost 32 turnovers this year, more than all but five teams in the country. That the Huskers nearly always found a way to overcome such sloppiness was a testament to their explosiveness.

Defense: C

If you go simply by the numbers, Nebraska's defense had a strong year. The Huskers led the nation in pass defense and were the No. 22 overall defense in the country. Ah, but we did watch the games. And there's simply no way to excuse some of the massive defensive breakdowns that led to three losses this season: giving up over 650 yards to UCLA, surrendering 63 points to Ohio State and of course the 70-point fiasco in the Big Ten title game. There were some success stories, like the excellent play in the secondary by guys like Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans, Will Compton's leadership at linebacker and Baker Steinkuhler plugging up the middle of the line. But a Bo Pelini-coached defense should never be routed as many times as these Huskers were, and a No. 95 national ranking against the run shows some weaknesses up front. When Nebraska's defense was good, it was pretty good. When it was bad, it was about as bad as it's ever been in program history.

Special teams: B

Kicker/punter Brett Maher was the star of the show on special teams again, but he proved less consistent than he was in his excellent 2011 campaign. He still could make clutch, long kicks and boom punts, but he struggled a bit early with his field goal accuracy and had a few too many shanks in the punt game. Abdullah led the Big Ten in punt return average. Nebraska was a mediocre on kickoffs.

Overall: B

The embarrassment of the Big Ten title game loss lingers, but this team still won 10 games and captured the Legends Division this season. The Huskers lost only one league game during the season, though it was another bad blowout in Columbus. They beat Wisconsin (in the regular season) and Michigan after losing to both teams last year and staged some thrilling comebacks to win at Northwestern and at Michigan State. Only fans who have been spoiled by decades of success could complain about a 10-3 season. Yet it's impossible to ignore the feeling that this team was capable of so much more this year, especially with the Rose Bowl bid right there for the taking against a 7-5 team in Indianapolis. Given the expectations and the firepower of the offense, this season can't rate as much higher than a "B" level.

Previous report cards:

Michigan State Ohio State

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

December, 6, 2012
Pretty boring week, eh?

Phil H. from Vancouver, Wash., writes: Now the Coach B is gone we have been hearing and reading a lot about Wisconsin having to hire a Wisconsin guy. What are your thoughts about trying to get a big name coach who can pull in some top recruits? Some ESPN top 100 4 and 5 star guys. Ohio State picked up Coach Meyer why can't we?

Brian Bennett: Simple answer: There just aren't many Urban Meyers out there waiting to be hired. What big-name coaches could Wisconsin possibly get? Recruiting is always going to be somewhat of a challenge because of the location, and the Badgers are not going away from their bread and butter of strong running games and powerful offensive lines. Bret Bielema wasn't a big name before he took the job, and he did pretty well. Guys like Iowa State's Paul Rhoads or Miami's Al Golden aren't necessarily "big" names but could be very good hires.

Mike from Minneapolis writes: Do you think there is any possibility Jim Tressel would join Darrell Hazell's staff at Purdue? They seem to be good friends and respect each other a lot. It could also be a good way for Tressel to take care of all his NCAA sanctions in a more below the radar role. I'm thinking QB/assistant HC role. If he plays nice at Purdue for a few years he could have all the heat off his back and be ready to move on to a new head coaching job.

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting thought. There's no doubt Hazell sees Tressel as a mentor. He said he talked to Tressel three different times the night he decided to take the Purdue job. Boilermakers athletic director Morgan Burke also spoke to Tressel and said he had great respect for the former Ohio State coach. The issue remains whether any school would want to deal with Tressel's five-year show cause penalty from the NCAA. In essence, Tressel's only real penalty would be that he would have to miss the first five games and the bowl for whatever school that hired him. Still, no coach with a show-cause penalty has ever been hired by a school. Tressel has publicly said he's happy in his job at Akron as an administrator, but he might be itching to get back into coaching. I think he'd be more interested in being a head coach, but it wouldn't shock me if Hazell at least considered that idea.

(Read full post)

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 3, 2012
With just one game during the weekend, we'll dispense with the usual categories and do things a little differently with the rewind. Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.

The good: Good doesn't begin to describe Wisconsin's running game. The Badgers piled up 539 rushing yards, the most ever yielded by a Cornhuskers defense, and it was hard to single out one guy. Montee Ball had 202 yards and three touchdowns. James White ran for more than 100 yards and had five total touchdowns, including a touchdown pass. Melvin Gordon, who came into the game with 354 rushing yards the entire season, finished with 216 yards on just nine carries. Wisconsin used him to devastating effect on jet sweeps, and he became an effective decoy on plays where he didn't get the handoff.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Richard Mackson/USA Today SportsMontee Ball focused on his production after contact this season. Wise move. He enters the Rose Bowl with 21 TDs.
Overall, the Badgers just looked faster than they had all season, surprising us all by taking better advantage of the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium than Nebraska did. They also ran to the outside more than we had seen all season.

"They were on the edge most of the game," Cornhuskers linebacker Will Compton said. "They weren't the up-the-middle, pound-and-pound team. They had got outside plays and really stuck with it, and then when that stuff works, why get away from it?"

Wisconsin stayed with it most of the night, throwing only 10 passes yet scoring 10 touchdowns.

The bad: The announced attendance for Saturday's game was just 41,260, or about 23,000 fewer fans than at last year's inaugural title game. Whole sections in the upper end zones and corners of Lucas Oil were empty, especially on the Wisconsin side. The Big Ten anticipated a smaller crowd than last year because of the unusual circumstances of the Badgers' season, but the league was hoping to cross the 50,000 mark through strong walk-up sales. By comparison, the ACC title game Saturday -- usually the butt of bad-attendance jokes -- drew 64,778.

That said, Indianapolis again proved to be an excellent host, and it sure didn't hurt that it was 60 degrees on Saturday. The streets were packed with red Friday and Saturday, and the Big Ten fan fest was packed before the game. The small crowd had some wondering whether the league should move the game to Chicago, where there are more casual Big Ten fans, or play it at home sites. But there's no guaranteed way to attract more fans. The Pac-12 title game between UCLA and Stanford was held Friday at Stanford. The announced crowd: 31,622.

We really can't judge this game until there's a team involved that has a chance to play for a BCS title or a spot in the forthcoming four-team playoff. Or if Ohio State or Michigan are in it. Then we'd probably see a whole different atmosphere.

The ugly: Nebraska's defense, obviously. This was as bad a defensive performance as you could see on a big stage, and the Cornhuskers for some reason looked completely unprepared. They took lousy angles to the ball and settled for arm tackles instead of trying to wrap up ball carriers. While coach Bo Pelini rightly said that the absence of injured defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler was only a tiny factor, it's also true that Wisconsin's offensive line took advantage of a smallish defensive front featuring guys like 250-pound Eric Martin and 260-pound Cam Meredith. And as the game began to slip away, so did Nebraska's effort on defense, highlighted by some comical attempts at tackling Ball on his 57-yard touchdown run.

"What is defensive football?" Pelini said (and no, he wasn't asking for advice, smart aleck). "It's play your gaps. Handle your responsibility. Be where you're supposed to be and make tackles when you're there. We did none of the above."

The continual defensive lapses by this program on the road under a defense-first coach make you wonder. The Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon offered this stat Monday: In the Huskers' past 17 games away from home, they are giving up an average of 30.3 points and 400 yards per game. Record in those games: 8-9. (The offense isn't helping much, either, as Nebraska has an unfathomable minus-27 turnover margin and 40 giveaways in those 17 games.)
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Big Ten championship game ended and both teams went to the middle of the field to shake hands, Nebraska safety P.J. Smith stayed back a few yards.

Hands on his hips, Smith simply stared at the Wisconsin players celebrating a 70-31 victory and a league title. It was almost too much for the senior to process.

"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," he would say a few minutes later in a news conference. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."

As a group, the Cornhuskers clearly appeared dumbfounded by this result. They went into Saturday's game having won six straight games to cap a 10-2 regular season. After a humiliating 63-38 loss at Ohio State in early October, the team bonded together and got its defense back to playing at a level worthy of the Blackshirts label.

Then came this nightmare of a performance, as Wisconsin ran for 539 yards, the most rushing yards ever surrendered by a Nebraska defense. The Badgers had 42 points at halftime. When they scored their ninth touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Huskers coach Bo Pelini turned his back to the field and threw his play sheet in the air.

"Shock doesn't even begin to ... shock doesn't even begin to explain it," he said.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's P.J. Smith
AP Photo/Michael Conroy"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," Nebraska's P.J. Smith said. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."
So what in the heck happened? Pelini said the Huskers practiced against "99 percent" of what Wisconsin used on offense. But the Badgers showed several new wrinkles and a handful of trick plays. While Nebraska was worried about the interior of its defensive line because of an injury to starting tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the Badgers spent more time than normal running outside. Their three terrific tailbacks repeatedly beat Nebraska defenders to the edge and then turned the corner for huge gains.

"They were bouncing runs to the outside to get us in space," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "We've had some struggles with that this year, and they exposed us with that tonight."

Wisconsin dictated play with its offensive line, which has improved immeasurably since the Huskers' 30-27 win against the Badgers in Lincoln on Sept. 29. Nebraska contributed to its own demise by continually missing tackles and losing leverage. The most embarrassing moment in a night full of them for Big Red came when Montee Ball spun out of an arm tackle from Jason Ankrah and raced down the sideline, where cornerback Ciante Evans had the angle on him. But Ball stiff-armed Evans to the turf and scooted in for another touchdown.

"They controlled us up front, and when they do that, you don't have a chance," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "It just got out of hand, and there wasn't a whole lot we could do to help. That's bad when you're a coach, because they're looking toward you. And I didn't have an answer."

The blowout loss was wildly disappointing on so many levels for Nebraska.

The program still hasn't won a conference title since 1999 and likely won't ever have a better opportunity than this championship game presented, against a five-loss team that finished third in the Leaders Division. Ohio State looks like it is building toward dominance and could be a formidable opponent in Indianapolis for years to come.

The defeat also raises familiar, uncomfortable questions about Pelini's ability to get this team over the hump. Pelini is 49-19 in Lincoln and has won at least nine games every season. But the Huskers have had some notable defensive disasters under a coach known for his knowledge of that side of the ball. In their three losses this season, they have allowed 653 yards to UCLA, 498 to Ohio State and now 640 to Wisconsin. They thought they had it fixed after the Ohio State game. They were wrong.

"Hell, we were the No. 15 [total] defense even with the UCLA and Ohio State game on top of us," senior linebacker Will Compton said. "We killed it at practice last week. I'm at a loss for words right now. I'm embarrassed. It's just awful."

These humbling setbacks shouldn't be happening at the end of Year 5 under Pelini. So the Nebraska fan base will debate again whether he can get the program over the hump or whether he's taken the Huskers as far up the mountain as he can. It sounds silly to say Pelini will be on the hot seat, but Huskers fans demand championships.

A bleary-eyed Pelini opened and closed his news conference with an apology to Nebraska fans everywhere. But he bristled when asked whether Saturday's loss showed cracks in his foundation.

"You can try to put a big thing on it," he said. "It's on me. Put it on me."

The Cornhuskers hadn't suffered this type of loss with so much on the line since Colorado beat them 62-36 in the final regular-season game of 2001. That Nebraska team still somehow found its way into the BCS national title game. This one just went from a potential Rose Bowl appearance to a possible spot in the Outback Bowl.

"This was it for us," Compton said. "And we blew it."

All that's left is another painful search for answers.

Bielema, Pelini preview B1G title game

November, 30, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema met with the media on Friday on the eve of the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are a few highlights and notes from each coach's media session:

  • Pelini declined to name a starting center between Mark Pelini and Cole Pensick. Both competed for the job this week after Justin Jackson got hurt in the Iowa game. "You're going to see both of them," he said. " You're going to see a mix of guys that go through there both at the left guard spot, and the center spot."
  • Nebraska will also be without starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, but Pelini isn't expecting any drop-off. "I feel like we have our full gamut, everything that we want, offensively, defensively at our disposal," he said. "And I have a lot of confidence in the guys that are going to be playing."
  • One plus on the health front: Pelini said running back Rex Burkhead, who returned last week in the second half at Iowa, is 100 percent healthy and that he "knocked the rust off" last week. For the first time since the Sept. 29 game against Wisconsin, Nebraska will have a healthy Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah ready to go in its backfield. "Having Rex back for us, I think, is big," he said. "We're going to have a whole other option there as far as somebody to carry the football. I think that will make Ameer that much more effective. "
  • The Huskers have some extra motivation to win their first conference championship since 1999. This is Tom Osborne's final year as athletic director, and taking him to the Rose Bowl would be a great sendoff. "It would be pretty special to be able to present Coach with a trophy," Pelini said. "It means a lot to me."
  • Pelini guaranteed that Nebraska fans would show up for Saturday's game, even though ticket sales have been sluggish. "I'm sure there will be a great atmosphere," he said. "I know Wisconsin travels well. Nebraska travels well. [But] I don't care if there are 10 people in the stands -- it's going to be a heck of a football game."
  • Linebacker Chris Borland, who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who suffered a head injury late last week at Penn State, are both full go and have practiced since Wednesday, Bielema said. Getting Borland back will make a big difference. "He makes you a really good head coach in a short amount of time," Bielema said. "We were doing what was supposed to be a halfspeed kicking drill on Thursday. And No. 44 decided to go full speed, and was very disruptive, shall we say. Really good players make players in the huddle better around them. And No. 44's that kind of guy."
  • Wisconsin has experience in this game, but not starting quarterback Curt Phillips. The senior did not make the trip to Indianapolis last year as he was recovering from his third knee surgery. But Phillips got to go through Friday's walk-through at Lucas Oil Stadium (Nebraska declined to do a walk-through), and Phillips got a special extra treat at the Colts' home field. "He's a [Peyton] Manning fan growing up, so we put him in his [Manning's] locker," Bielema said. "What used to be his locker, we were told. Gave him his own spot there. He was like a king bee sitting in there today."
  • As the home team this year (the Legends team got the home designation last year), Wisconsin is enjoying the perks of having the Colts locker room. "It is different," Bielema said. "You walk into that pro locker room, and it's bigger. I've got a head coach's office in there, and I could bring 15 of my buddies and we could have a heck of a good time. There is more room in there than you could ever think of."
  • The Badgers have dealt with a lot of tough losses this year, including overtime defeats in three of their past four games. Bielema said this team deals with adversity as well as any group he's had. But the coaching staff still had to be cognizant of the players' mindset. "It's very important for us to not brow beat our guys," he said. "You have to be hard on them, but on the same account you can't lose them. We did some things in practice that curtailed that, but also just physically backed off them a little bit, to make sure you weren't taxing them, because everybody is human. You have a breaking point that's there."
  • Wisconsin would probably like to import some of the wind and cold that slowed down Nebraska's offense last week in Iowa City. Instead, the Huskers will play under perfect conditions indoors, and the turf play to the benefit of a speedy team. "It's very, very clear that they're probably one of the fastest teams, if not the fastest from A to Z, that we've played this year," Bielema said. "I tried to get them to put in a longer turf out there, but nobody bought into it. So we're going to play on the fast track out there. But we've got some speed, too. We've got some guys that can run. I think our guys are gassed up and ready to play."
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a big one: Wisconsin vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten championship.

Here are four things to watch Saturday night at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium:

[+] EnlargeBall
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin's Montee Ball has rushed for five touchdowns over his past three games.
1. Ball and Burkhead: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead occupied the top two spots on our preseason countdown of the Big Ten's top players. Many considered Ball the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, while Burkhead also was in the mix. The season hasn't gone as expected for either back, as Ball suffered a concussion and ran behind an inconsistent line, while Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the opener, twice aggravated it in October and played only one full contest (against Wisconsin on Sept. 29). Both men will be on the big stage at Lucas Oil. Burkhead returned to action last week against Iowa and turned in a strong second half, and Ball has been surging as of late, having racked up 500 yards and five touchdowns over his past three games.

2. Down to the wire: Both Nebraska and Wisconsin are accustomed to close games this season, although the squads have had very different results. Wisconsin's five losses have come by a total of 19 points, including a 30-27 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln that marked the first of several furious Husker comebacks this season. Three of the Badgers' defeats have come in overtime (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin). Nebraska is 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer this season, with all five victories coming in Big Ten play. The Huskers have rallied from a double-digit deficit four times in the second half this season -- tied for the second highest total in the FBS since 1996. "You look at Wisconsin, and they could just as easily be 10-2, just like we are," Nebraska tight end Ben Cotton told "We know how good of a football team they are."

3. Back home again in Indiana: Aside from hosting the league title game at Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin wouldn't want to play anywhere besides the Hoosier State this week. Wisconsin is 8-0 under coach Bret Bielema on Indiana soil, including last year's dramatic win against Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The Badgers actually have won nine straight in the state, and their eight wins under Bielema have come by an average margin of 23.8 points. Wisconsin played its two best games on Indiana soil this season, thrashing Purdue and Indiana by a combined score of 100-28 and racking up a combined 1,031 rush yards and 11 touchdowns. Nebraska obviously poses a much tougher test than Purdue or Indiana did.

4. Huskers' men in the middle: Baseball managers always talk about being strong up the middle, and the adage applies to football, too. Nebraska faces some challenges Saturday after losing starting center Justin Jackson and starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler to injury. Both Jackson and Steinkuhler have started all 12 games for the Huskers this season. Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini shared reps this week in practice at the center spot, and Nebraska will use a group effort to fill the void at defensive tackle, including moving ends like senior Cameron Meredith inside. Sophomore Chase Rome replaced Steinkuhler last week against Iowa, and Thad Randle also should see a lot of time in the interior line. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin can exploit the injury with its run game.
The regular-season predictions race is over, and Brian Bennett is still choking on Adam Rittenberg's dust. Fortunately for Mr. Bennett, the postseason brings new hope for bragging rights.

One final Big Ten game remains on the schedule, and it's for the right to go to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. Nebraska faces Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Here's how we see things shaking out:

No. 12 Nebraska versus Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska is three games better than Wisconsin in the win column, but the teams are fairly evenly matched, as we saw Sept. 29 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Wisconsin has been in every game this season and, with a few bounces here and there, could have the same record as Nebraska. The championship game ultimately will be a microcosm of both teams' seasons. Nebraska starts sloppily and commits two first-quarter turnovers, one of which Wisconsin converts into a Montee Ball touchdown run. The Badgers attack the middle of Nebraska's defensive line effectively in the first half and lead 14-10 at halftime. But Nebraska makes the right personnel adjustments and turns in a big third quarter behind Rex Burkhead (120 rush yards, 2 TDs). Wisconsin's defense stabilizes in the fourth, and Curt Phillips leads a late scoring drive to tie things up and send it to overtime. In the extra session, Nebraska's defense holds Wisconsin to three points, setting up a game-winning touchdown run by Taylor Martinez. Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 24 (OT)

Brian Bennett: Overtime, eh? I see you're predicting a long night for us at Lucas Oil Stadium. Wisconsin wouldn't want to see an extra period, since the Badgers are 0-3 in overtime games this season. Every Badgers game is close, but I don't see a lot of ways that they can upset Nebraska, which has gotten a lot better on defense since Sept. 29. The Huskers fell behind big early in that one primarily because of turnovers, which are always a concern for Bo Pelini's team. I don't think Nebraska will be as sloppy with the ball in this one, but I could see the Huskers coming out a little tight as the favorites with more to lose. A Ball touchdown run puts the Badgers up early as Wisconsin pounds the ball at a defensive line missing Baker Steinkuhler. Ultimately, though, Nebraska's speed and depth wear down a very good Wisconsin defense on the turf with its endless array of sweeps and quick-hit passes. Martinez throws for two touchdowns and runs for another, and Burkhead breaks off a long scoring run against a tiring Badgers D in the second half. Curt Phillips and the Wisconsin passing game struggle against what has become one of the nation's best pass defenses, and Ciante Evans shows All-Big Ten voters what they missed with a key interception. Nebraska pulls away late and celebrates with roses. Nebraska 28, Wisconsin 20

Final regular-season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-20 (.792)
Brian Bennett: 71-25 (.740)

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

Donnell Kirkwood: The Minnesota running back is somewhat quietly putting together a strong season. The sophomore ran for a career-best 152 yards and two touchdowns last week against Illinois, his third 100-yard game of the season. Kirkwood now has 819 rushing yards on the season and has a great shot at going over 1,000 for the year, especially with the Gophers reaching a bowl game. Minnesota's last 1,000-yard back was Amir Pinnix in 2006 (1,272).

Michigan's passing game: There's no doubt the Wolverines' passing game has improved with Devin Gardner at quarterback, which has seemed to raise the level of play of the receivers. Senior Roy Roundtree had 139 yards receiving last week against Northwestern and 64 yards the week before; Roundtree's previous season high was 33 yards. Jeremy Gallon had seven catches for 94 yards last week and four grabs for 72 yards the week before. Gallon hadn't caught more than three balls in a game since catching four in the season-opening loss to Alabama. As Kyle Meinke points out, Michigan has 520 passing yards the past two weeks under Gardner, compared to 482 in five previous Big Ten games from Denard Robinson.

Stock down

Indiana's rush defense: Well, this one is fairly obvious after the Hoosiers surrendered 564 yards on the ground to Wisconsin. That won't help your stats, and Indiana now ranks 118th nationally -- out of 120 FBS teams -- in allowing 244 rushing yards per game. What's most disappointing about last week's effort is the Hoosiers knew Wisconsin would have a first-time starter at quarterback, so the Badgers were going to try to run the ball as much as possible. Knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different things.

Iowa's running game: Focus on the failures in the passing game if you want, but Iowa's real problems are in its bread and butter: the running game. During the Hawkeyes' current four-game losing streak, they are averaging just 78 rushing yards per game and a mere 2.5 yards per carry. Offensive line injuries and the rotating cast at running back have played a large role.

Illinois' offensive line: The Illini struggles up front on offense aren't exactly new, but they're not getting any better, either. Illinois is last in the Big Ten with 21 sacks allowed through 10 games. That ranks the team 114th nationally. Tim Beckman will not get this program going until he first solves the issues on the O-line. "We've had tremendous problems protecting Nathan [Scheelhaase] or Reilly [O'Toole]," Beckman said. "We've got to continue to improve in those categories and get our young players going. We need to get ourselves in the weight room and get stronger and get much more physical."

Penn State's finishing kicks: No Big Ten team has been better at jumping out to an early lead than the Nittany Lions. But Penn State's second halves leave something to be desired. The team has either led or has been tied at halftime in all four of its losses, including last week when it lost 32-23 at Nebraska after taking a 20-6 lead into the break. "That's probably more of a discussion for after the season," coach Bill O'Brien said. "So in the offseason, we're going to dive into this thing and scout ourselves and see if we can improve. But over the next two weeks we need to make sure we do a better job of coming out after halftime."

Big Ten lunch links

October, 4, 2012
Debate these links.

Big Ten stock report: Week 6

October, 3, 2012
The NASDAQ and the Nikkei got nothing on this market.

Stock up

Penn State's Killer Zs: Zach Zwinak was no better than the fifth-string tailback for the Nittany Lions this summer. But in the last two games, the 230-pound sophomore has rushed for 94 yards against Temple and an even 100 versus Illinois. "He's got good speed, but he's not a scat back," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's a physical, downhill guy that likes to press the line of scrimmage." Penn State's second-leading rusher is Michael Zordich, a senior whose 30 carries this year are just five shy of his previous career total. Don't sleep on these Zs.

Jordan Cotton: The Iowa receiver came to campus as a well-regarded in-state recruit but spent two years doing not much of anything after a redshirt season. Cotton is finally emerging, with four catches in the Hawkeyes' last two games, including a 47-yard touchdown grab on a flea flicker last week against Minnesota. Cotton is averaging 20.2 yards per catch this season.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Zach Zwinak
Bradley Leeb/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak has rushed for a combined 194 yards in Penn State's past two games.
Ohio State's offensive line: A maligned group most of the offseason and even early in the year, the Buckeyes' offensive front exerted its will last week at Michigan State. Ohio State ran for more than 200 yards against a Spartans defense that was leading the Big Ten and was among the best in the nation against the run. What's more, they closed out the 17-16 win by churning out yards and first downs in the final minutes when Michigan State knew the run was coming. Urban Meyer named his five starters the offensive MVP after the game. "Those five guys are locked and loaded," he said. "That's the group right now that I'm most pleased with."

Nate Sudfeld: The Indiana quarterback didn't arrive on campus until this summer but looks like he should be starting going into Week 6. Sudfeld replaced an injured Cameron Coffman against Ball State and led a rally that nearly won the game for the Hoosiers. Last week, after IU fell behind Northwestern 20-0 in the first half, Sudfeld came on right before halftime and gave the offense a spark, leading a comeback that ultimately came up short. Sudfeld is still competing in practice with Coffman for the starting job, but his needle is definitely pointing up.

Blackshirts' seniors: When Nebraska needed to make a defensive stand after falling 17 points down to Wisconsin last week, its seniors stepped up. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler and linebackers Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher combined for eight tackles for loss and two sacks to stymie the Badgers and lead the comeback effort. Compton in particular had a terrific game. The Huskers veterans haven't always performed at an elite level, and they'll need to carry that Wisconsin effort over to this weekend and beyond in order to win the Big Ten.

Stock down

Minnesota's safeties: Jerry Kill said one big reason his team couldn't stop the Iowa running game last week is that his safeties missed too many tackles in run support. Even Derrick Wells, who's had a fantastic season, turned in a poor performance, Kill said. The Gophers will spend much of the bye week working on improving that with their safeties, and getting Brock Vereen back fully healthy should help.

Michigan's road production: As Kyle Meinke writes, the Wolverines are averaging 20.9 points per game on the road the past two seasons, compared with more than 40 at home. This year, Michigan has scored just 20 total points in its two games away from Ann Arbor (albeit against outstanding defenses in Alabama and Notre Dame). Denard Robinson's numbers are much worse away from the Big House as well. It's an issue the team must resolve before going to Purdue this week

Ex-Iowa running backs: The grass isn't always greener, even if it's FieldTurf. As Mike Hlas points out, former Hawkeyes running backs Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall aren't exactly flourishing after leaving Iowa City. Coker is the second-leading rusher on his team at FCS Stony Brook and ranks 66th in the division in rushing yards. McCall has 8 fewer yards than Coker at Southern Illinois. Neither of them have come close to walk-on Mark Weisman's 507 yards, which he's accomplished in a mere three games. So maybe it's not the player, but the system.

Peace, love and understanding between Spartans, Buckeyes: Mark Dantonio wasn't the biggest fan of Urban Meyer during recruiting season last winter. Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said before last week's game that he would try to rip Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell's head off. Hankins nearly had his eyes gouged out by the Spartans in a scrum. And defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi complained that the Buckeyes didn't send over the proper game film. Can't we all just get along?

Illinois' offense: Weren't the Illini supposed to be more explosive with Tim Beckman's spread attack? The team ranks 97th in the country in scoring at just 22.6 points per game and 96th in total offense. And those totals include a stat-padding 44-0 win over a truly awful FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Not much has gone right for Illinois this year, but if the program wants to start building interest among its fans, scoring some points would be a nice way to start.