Big Ten: Big-Ten-report-cards-11

Season report card: Illinois

December, 27, 2011
The season report card series wraps up with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Time to pass out grades.


The unit was an utter failure in the final six games, not scoring a point in a half of each contest. The downward spiral began with a near shutout loss at home against an Ohio State team that completed just one pass, and Illinois never recovered following a 17-7 defeat. There was a time when Illinois moved the ball well, when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins formed the Big Ten's most dangerous passing connection. Illinois scored 33 points or more in four of its first six games. But there were troubling signs, like an inconsistent run game, and once defenses figured out how to fluster Scheelhaase and contain Jenkins, the unit fell off of the map. Illinois' offensive line underperformed and the team didn't get enough from its running backs. It will be interesting to see where the unit goes under the new coaching staff.


The amazing thing about Illinois' collapse is the defense had very little to do with it. The unit struggled for a half against Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin, but Illinois would have had chances to win if the offense had shown a pulse. Illinois' defense fueled a Sept. 17 win against Arizona State and finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed, pass yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss. Junior Whitney Mercilus earned All-America honors and the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, and the defense also received strong performances from linebacker Jonathan Brown, Michael Buchanan and others. The run-stopping effort wasn't great, especially down the stretch, but Illinois shouldn't put the blame for its disappointing season on coordinator Vic Koenning and the defense.


Illinois had a rough year in the kicking game. The punt return team was painful to watch, and Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in both punt returns and kick returns despite boasting some talented athletes. The coverage teams weren't great, either, and freshman punter Justin DuVernois endured some predictable growing pains. While kicker Derek Dimke had another nice year in limited work, his only missed field-goal attempt proved costly against Penn State, a game where Illinois' special-teams woes stuck out.


Illinois had a golden opportunity for a breakthrough season and seemed well on its way to taking advantage of the situation with a 6-0 start, its best since 1951. The Illini had a playmaking defense led by a superstar in Mercilus and an offense with the potential to rack up big chunks of yards. It's stunning how dramatically things fell apart. As Mercilus recently told me, "A lot of guys were like, 'Wow, can't believe this really happened.'" The collapse meant the end for coach Ron Zook, and Illinois will try to bounce back under new boss Tim Beckman following the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Other report cards

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 26, 2011
It's time to pass out grades for the Ohio State Buckeyes.


Uncertainty surrounded the unit heading into the season after the departure of starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the suspensions of three other starters. But the Buckeyes' offensive struggles reached new lows in the first half of the season before freshman Braxton Miller emerged at quarterback. Ohio State looked lifeless in losses to Miami and Michigan State, nearly suffering its first shutout at home since 1982. The Buckeyes won a game at Illinois despite completing just one pass and attempting only four. Coordinator Jim Bollman infuriated fans with ultra-conservative game plans, even though Miller, the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year, raised hope for the future with his play-making ability. An inexperienced receiving corps struggled mightily, the offensive line was inconsistent, but the backs performed decently, especially when Dan Herron returned from suspension. But Ohio State ended up 107th nationally in total yards and 117th in passing. Not good.


The defense kept the Buckeyes in several games and won one against Illinois to spark a three-game win streak. But the typical dominance associated with the unit didn't show up nearly as much in an atypical season. Ohio State had good players in all three levels of the defense -- lineman John Simon, linebacker Andrew Sweat, safety C.J. Barnett -- but lacked the all-around depth that's normally a given in Columbus. The defense struggled for chunks of games -- the second half at Nebraska, the first half at Purdue, the first half against Penn State -- and had no answers for rival Michigan in the regular-season finale, a 40-34 loss. While much was made about the offensive stars involved in the tattoo parlor scandal, Ohio State lost a ton of defensive production from the 2010 team, and it showed. The unit still finished 24th nationally in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed.


After a shaky season on special teams in 2010, the Buckeyes rebounded for the most part this fall. They ranked in the top 25 nationally in both punt coverage and kickoff coverage. Specialists Ben Buchanan and Drew Basil were, for the most part, pretty solid, and Jordan Hall had a decent year on returns. Still, it's impossible to look past the extra-point attempt Ohio State had blocked against Purdue that would have given the Buckeyes a 21-20 lead in the final minute (Ohio State went on to lose in overtime).


After dominating the Big Ten for the better part of Jim Tressel's tenure as coach, the Buckeyes faced unique and difficult circumstances this season. Players and coaches both were thrust into new and challenging roles. Still, even the more pessimistic prognosticators figured Ohio State would win more than six games. The Buckeyes lost more Big Ten games this season than they had in the previous six combined. That's a precipitous drop. While there's hope for the future with Miller and Urban Meyer, Ohio State would just as soon forget this season.

Season report card: Northwestern

December, 23, 2011
It's time to pass out grades for the Northwestern Wildcats.


If you're looking for reasons why Northwestern fell short of preseason expectations, don't blame this unit. The offense did its part, finishing second in the league in yards per game (432.8) and leading the league in passing (256.6 ypg) despite operating under difficult circumstances. Star quarterback Dan Persa missed the first three games and chunks of several others, but dynamic sophomore Kain Colter emerged to steady the ship. Colter developed into one of the best all-around weapons in the Big Ten -- 589 rush yards, 660 pass yards, 454 receiving yards -- and led Northwestern to its signature victory at Nebraska on Nov. 5. Persa wasn't quite the same player when he returned from injury but still put up impressive numbers, completing 74.2 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Receiver Jeremy Ebert and superback Drake Dunsmore also stepped up. The unit had a miserable day at Army, and the running backs and offensive line left much to be desired for long stretches. But for the most part, the offense produced.


The defense could attribute last season's late collapse to Persa's morale-crushing injury, but the unit had no excuses this year. Northwestern seemed to take a step backward on defense, finishing 10th or worse in the league in most major statistical categories and dead last in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of their attempts. The secondary had no answers against decent to great receivers, the line generated a league-low 16 sacks and the linebackers were mediocre at best. A handful of stops likely would have equaled two to three more wins, but Northwestern's defense hardly ever came through in the clutch. Aside from All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, the Wildcats lacked dynamic playmakers. Pat Fitzgerald is living proof that Northwestern can play good defense, but his team certainly didn't reflect its coach this season and hasn't since 2008.


Northwestern made significant strides in the kicking game in 2010 but took a few steps back this fall. There weren't many major breakdowns, but the Wildcats didn't excel in many areas, either. They finished ninth in net punting and made a league-low six field goals on 10 attempts as first-year starter Jeff Budzien had some growing pains. Northwestern finished second in the league in punt-return average (12.8 ypr) but had only six runbacks. Returner Venric Mark wasn't quite as dynamic as he was in 2010.


The overall grade would have been lower if not for a late-season surge in which Northwestern captured four of its final five games. Perhaps it's a sign of progress at Northwestern when 6-6 is considered a disappointment by players, coaches and fans, but the team expected much more and should have with a large senior class. Persa's injury situation likely cost Northwestern at least one win, but the breakdowns on defense coupled with the lack of playmakers or development with the unit can't be ignored as Fitzgerald assesses his program. Northwestern still can record an important milestone -- its first postseason win since 1949 -- if it upsets Texas A&M on Dec. 31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Season report card: Wisconsin

December, 22, 2011
It's time to pass out season grades for the 2011 Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers.


The record-setting 2010 Badgers offense left a tough act to follow, but this year's unit maintained the production and added elements Wisconsin hasn't seen before. Most of those new elements came from quarterback Russell Wilson, who transitioned seamlessly after transferring from NC State and earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. Wilson completed 72.4 percent of his passes and ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. His ability to extend plays and attack defenses helped a unit that needed greater balance this year. Wilson shared a backfield with Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, who led the nation with 38 touchdowns (32 rush, 6 receiving), one shy of Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Ball and Wilson had the best combined running back-quarterback season in Big Ten history, and Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in scoring. Center Peter Konz led the offensive line and the receivers had big years working with Wilson.


The unit wasn't quite as dominant as its numbers indicate, although it's notable that Wisconsin finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. The Badgers lacked a superstar like All-American J.J. Watt in 2010 but received production from several sources, namely linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, and defensive backs Aaron Henry, Shelton Johnson and Antonio Fenelus. Wisconsin once again showed play-making ability on defense and recorded 24 takeaways, the third-highest total in the league. The Badgers held 10 opponents to 17 points or fewer and only seemed to struggle in the two games against Michigan State, which boasts tremendous speed on the edges, as well as with Ohio State's rushing attack led by Dan Herron and Braxton Miller.


The kicking game was Wisconsin's Achilles' heel this season, and major mistakes surfaced in both regular-season losses. Wisconsin had punts blocked against both Michigan State and Ohio State, both of which led to touchdowns. And if Michigan State isn't flagged for running into the punter in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin might have lost after allowing a long return by Keshawn Martin. The Badgers had some bright spots, such as punt returner Jared Abbrederis, who ranked third nationally (16.1 ypr), and punter Brad Nortman. But it's hard to look past the two breakdowns.


Wisconsin began the season as the Leaders division favorite and elevated expectations with its blistering start. Anything less than a Rose Bowl appearance would be considered a significant disappointment. A handful of players in East Lansing and in Columbus prevented Wisconsin from having a truly special season, but the Badgers rebounded in November and outlasted Michigan State in Indianapolis despite being outplayed most of the game. Wisconsin is making consecutive Rose Bowl appearances for the first time since 1998-99, but the Badgers need a win to validate themselves as nationally elite.

Season report card: Purdue

December, 20, 2011
It's time to pass out season grades for the Purdue Boilers.


After major injuries ravaged the offensive depth chart in 2010, Purdue found greater consistency this season but didn't put up many "wow" numbers. The Boilers ranked in the middle of the Big Ten in total offense (seventh), scoring offense (seventh), rushing offense (sixth) and pass offense (sixth). They kept a quarterback on the field for an entire season in Caleb TerBush and also used Robert Marve under center quite a bit, including in the signature home win against Ohio State. Coordinator Gary Nord used a lot of personnel as seven players recorded 20 or more rushes and eight players recorded 11 or more receptions. The unit really lacked star power but got the job done for the most part. Put simply, Purdue had an average offense, which is a step up from 2010.


The defense certainly missed star end Ryan Kerrigan, who showed how good he is this season with the NFL's Washington Redskins. Kawann Short stood out at defensive tackle with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, but Purdue didn't get enough from the edges and recorded only 21 sacks, down from a league-high 33 last season. The run defense also was a bit of a disappointment. Purdue had more experience in the secondary and some veterans at linebacker but didn't show great playmaking ability, recording just 14 takeaways all season, the second-lowest total in the league. The unit had some good moments in wins against Illinois and Ohio State and had some nice individual pieces in Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen.


Purdue was truly a mixed bag on special teams this season. The Boilers excelled in both punting and punt coverage. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the Big Ten in kick return average (31 ypr) and bionic-legged kicker Carson Wiggs booted 16 field goals, six from 40 yards or longer with a long of 53. But Wiggs also had a potential game-winning kick blocked at Rice, the Boilers struggled on kickoff coverage, and special teams miscues proved costly in a 23-18 loss at Penn State. Then again, a special teams play arguably saved Purdue's season as Bruce Gaston Jr. blocked an extra-point try by Ohio State that could have secured a Buckeyes victory. Overall, there was more good than bad here.


Purdue was an average football team this season, but average equals bowl berth, which the Boilers will gladly accept for the first time in four seasons. The offense didn't get derailed by Rob Henry's preseason injury, and the defense and special teams made some key plays at key times. It's fair to ask where Purdue football is headed under coach Danny Hope, and the team's performance against Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl will help determine the direction heading into a pivotal 2012 campaign.

Season report card: Michigan

December, 19, 2011
It's time to pass out grades for the Michigan Wolverines.


Michigan returned the core pieces from a record-setting offensive unit but also welcomed a new coordinator (Al Borges) with a new system. It resulted in a unit that took some time to find its identity. Borges went with the spread at times and also mixed in some elements from the West Coast offense. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson started strong, struggled midway through the season and then finished with a flourish against Nebraska and Ohio State. Fitz Toussaint emerged at running back and Rimington Trophy winner David Molk led the offensive line. Michigan committed too many turnovers (21) and Borges got too cute at times with his play calls, but the offense produced at a high rate and rated among the Big Ten's best in points and yards.


Few units in college football made a more dramatic improvement than Michigan's defense did in 2011. Under coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison, the Wolverines went from a fundamentally flawed, breakdown-prone unit that couldn't get off of the field to one that ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards allowed and in the top 10 in points allowed. The defense repeatedly rescued Robinson and the offense, and, despite having no first-team All-Big Ten performers, held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer. Hoke and Mattison focused on the front four and received strong play from Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and others. Several young linebackers emerged and a secondary that couldn't get out of its own way the previous three seasons significantly cut down mistakes. At times, the defense carried Michigan, something few would have envisioned before the season.


After receiving a failing grade in 2010, the Wolverines' kicking game saw some improvement this year. Michigan made 10 of 14 field-goal attempts and ranked fifth in the league in punt returns. The team struggled with its punting, ranking last in the Big Ten in net average (33.7 ypp) and was so-so with its coverage units. Jeremy Gallon ranked third in the league in punt returns (10.1 ypr).


Michigan made significant strides in Year 1 of the Hoke area, improving its regular-season win total by three and rescuing the defense from the depths. The offense was a work in progress but seemed to hit its stride late in the season, which should bode well against Virginia Tech in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. While Michigan's schedule wasn't overly daunting, the Wolverines took care of business and have themselves in position to cap an uplifting campaign with a BCS bowl win.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 19, 2011
It's time to pass out season grades for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Just as a reminder, the overall grade isn't an average of the three categories as I put more a bit more weight on offense and defense than special teams.


Rex Burkhead was one of the league's top offensive weapons, and while sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez drew criticism at times, he took steps in his development and performed more consistently than he did in 2010. The offensive line and an unproven group of receivers endured some ups and downs, but Nebraska still finished in the top half of the league in total offense, scoring offense, rushing offense and red zone offense. Coordinator Tim Beck had a tough night in Madison on Oct. 1 but seemed to find himself as a play-caller as the season went along. If Husker fans want to blame a group for the team falling short of a Legends division title, they should look elsewhere.


Nebraska entered the season with the most decorated defense in the Big Ten, a unit that fully expected to build on its strong performances from 2009 and 2010. Aside from a few exceptions, the defense struggled to meet its preseason hype. There were standouts like linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, but a lack of depth in several areas showed and most offenses found ways to move the ball against the Huskers, who finished seventh in the league in both total defense (350.7 ypg) and scoring defense (22.8 ppg allowed). Nebraska lost star tackle Jared Crick midway through the season, but there were other issues beyond his absence. We saw how good this unit could be against Michigan State and Iowa. We didn't see it nearly enough.


Nebraska excelled in most areas of special teams and struggled in only a few. Brett Maher was the Big Ten's top specialist as the junior led the league in both punting and field goals. Dynamic kick returner Ameer Abdullah also stood out for Nebraska. The Huskers weren't great on coverage teams and had a special teams meltdown in a Nov. 19 loss to Michigan.


Nebraska's first Big Ten go-round ended with a 9-3 regular-season mark and nice wins against Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa. Bo Pelini's crew had two very bad days in Madison and Ann Arbor and had a hiccup at home against Northwestern, so the overall grade can't be too favorable. The defense fell short of expectations, while the offense performed much like I thought it would. A Capital One Bowl matchup against South Carolina largely will determine how successful Nebraska's season will be viewed.

Season report card: Penn State

December, 16, 2011
The grading continues today as it's time to distribute Penn State's season report card.


The unit slogged along for most of the season, and Penn State won nine games largely in spite of its offense. Penn State used a confounding quarterback rotation of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden and had eight games with fewer than 200 pass yards and four games of fewer than 120 pass yards. If not for heroic sophomore running back Silas Redd, who emerged as a workhorse and one of the Big Ten's top ball-carriers, Penn State would have had a real struggle putting up points. The offensive line seemed to make strides as the season progressed and a creative game plan against Ohio State led to good results, but Penn State underachieved on offense much of the fall.


No unit in the Big Ten carried a team more than Penn State's defense, which was simply fabulous this season. All-American tackle Devon Still led the way as arguably the nation's most disruptive interior lineman. Penn State overcame the loss of standout linebacker Michael Mauti and received big contributions in the midsection from Gerald Hodges, Glenn Carson and Nate Stupar. The Lions held nine of their 12 opponents to fewer than 20 points and ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. There's no way Penn State would have started the season 8-1 without huge contributions from its defense.


The Lions had some bright spots in the kicking game, such as punter Anthony Fera and kickoff returner Chaz Powell, who averaged 28.3 yards per runback with a touchdown. Penn State was mediocre on kickoff and punt coverage and missed more field-goal attempts (8) than any Big Ten team (the Lions also attempted a league-high 24 field goals). Special teams played a key role in wins like a 24-18 triumph against Purdue.


Penn State exceeded most outside expectations with an 8-1 start and put itself in position to win the Leaders Division. The defense undoubtedly carried the team and had only one poor performance (at Wisconsin). We'll never know how Penn State's season would have ended if the sex-abuse scandal hadn't surfaced and Joe Paterno hadn't been fired, but the closing stretch always appeared daunting. There are many unknowns going forward for the Lions, but they have an excellent foundation on the defensive side of the ball.

Season report card: Iowa

December, 16, 2011
It's time to pass out season grades for the Iowa Hawkeyes.


Iowa leaned heavily on its offense for much of the season and received tremendous production at home until the final Kinnick Stadium contest against Michigan State. The Hawkeyes' big three of running back Marcus Coker, wide receiver Marvin McNutt and quarterback James Vandenberg all were among the most productive Big Ten players at their respective positions. Iowa averaged 36.7 points at home through its first six contests. The unit's problems occurred away from Iowa City as the Hawkeyes scored just three points at Penn State and seven at Nebraska, while failing to capitalize on Coker's huge performance in a second consecutive loss to Minnesota. McNutt capped a record-setting career with an exceptional senior season, but the unit's inconsistent performances mirrored those of the team.


After losing three linemen to the NFL draft plus two multiyear starters at safety, Iowa's defense appeared to be very much in rebuilding mode this season. The Hawkeyes finished in the lower half of the Big Ten in points allowed, yards allowed and rush yards allowed, and last in pass defense. Linemen Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels had their moments and several defensive backs made big plays, but Iowa had nowhere near the depth and consistency it needed to make strides on defense this season. A new coordinator will step in following the Insight Bowl as Norm Parker retires, and players in all three levels of the defense will need to make strides.


Iowa has had better years in the kicking game, although there were some bright spots like the punting unit, which finished second in the league in net average (38.2 yards). Kicker Mike Meyer connected on 14 of 20 field-goal attempts, and Iowa finished in the lower half of the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, kickoff returns and punt returns. Jordan Bernstine averaged 24.4 yards on kick returns.


Iowa's inconsistent season reflected a team trying to rebuild after losing a talented core of players from the 2010 squad. Despite the personnel losses, the Hawkeyes had a favorable schedule and were pegged by many to win eight or nine games. The team's struggles away from home resulted in a second consecutive 7-5 campaign, although this season wasn't nearly as disappointing as 2010. Iowa tries to finish with its fourth consecutive bowl win as it faces Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 15, 2011
It's time to pass out grades for Minnesota's 2011 season.


The Gophers showed a few promising flashes down the stretch, but they struggled offensively for most of the season. They ranked last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg) and never scored more than 30 points in a game. Quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well at times but struggled as a passer, completing barely half of his attempts with as many interceptions (8) as touchdown strikes. To be fair, Gray was transitioning to quarterback after a year at wide receiver and had to adjust to a new system. He should be better in 2012. The key will be developing weapons around him as several young players, including receivers Malcolm Moulton and Marcus Jones, got their feet wet this year.


The unit entered the season with question marks and didn't provide many answers until the final five contests, two of which resulted in victories (Iowa and Illinois). Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in all the major defensive statistical categories. Despite some experience at linebacker and an excellent safety in senior Kim Royston, the Gophers' youth showed up front and in the secondary. The good news is Minnesota saved its best performance for the final game -- allowing just seven points and 160 yards to Illinois -- and should carry a bit of momentum into a crucial offseason.


The kicking game was one of Minnesota's strengths this season. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and third in punt coverage. The Gophers were nonfactors on punt returns but finished fifth in the league in kick return average (23.4 ypr) and had a league-high two touchdowns as Jones and Duane Bennett both reached paydirt. Jordan Wettstein was perfect on field goals after relieving Chris Hawthorne, while the punting was average.


Minnesota looked like the nation's worst major-conference team until its breakthrough win against Iowa (the Gophers happily turned the title over to fellow Big Ten member Indiana). First-year coach Jerry Kill had a tough year both on the field and with his health issues, but both he and his players kept fighting. The Gophers did some nice things down the stretch and built a bit of momentum for the offseason. There's a chance to improve as players will be more familiar with Kill and his staff, but after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Minnesota has a long way to go.

Season report card: Indiana

December, 14, 2011
The season report cards march on with the Indiana Hoosiers.


The emergence of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Stephen Houston boosted a struggling unit down the stretch of Big Ten play. Indiana scored only 37 points in its first three conference contests until Roberson took the reins at Iowa and consistently moved the offense. Houston also emerged as a weapon and led IU with 802 rush yards and eight touchdowns. The wide receiving corps, pegged to be the team's biggest strength, endured injury issues and inconsistency. Former All-Big Ten wideout Damarlo Belcher played in just six games before being dismissed from the team. Indiana also shuffled its offensive line quite a bit. Coach Kevin Wilson will look for steadier production in Year 2, and Roberson and Houston provide a nice foundation.


Indiana once again failed to field a competitive defense this season. While the Hoosiers played an inordinate amount of young players and should improve defensively in 2012, it's impossible to sugarcoat the struggles this season. Indiana allowed nearly six points per game more than any other Big Ten squad and more than 51 yards per game more than any conference competitor. After allowing just 16 points in an encouraging Big Ten opener against Penn State, the Hoosiers surrendered an average of 46.6 points in their final seven league contests. There were some bright spots like young safety Mark Murphy, but the unit has a long, long way to go.


Place-kicker Mitch Ewald turned in a nice season, connecting on 13 of 16 field-goal attempts. Indiana also was decent on punt coverage and received a kick return touchdown from freshman Shane Wynn. The Hoosiers weren't great overall on returns and struggled on kickoff coverage, ranking 91st nationally. A so-so season in the kicking game all around.


Indiana was the only major-conference program that failed to defeat an FBS opponent as Wilson endured a rough first season in Bloomington. The good news is Indiana played a bunch of young players who should improve with time and a full offseason under Wilson and his staff. There's little doubt the offense will be productive in the near future, but Indiana's biggest issues remain on the defensive side. Until the defense makes significant strides, IU will struggle to win Big Ten games.

Season report card: Michigan State

December, 14, 2011
It's final exam season on campuses around the Big Ten, and we here at the Big Ten blog have some grades to hand out, too. Brian and I will be grading each Big Ten team -- offense, defense and special teams -- before the bowl season kicks off.

First up, the Michigan State Spartans.


Michigan State had to reinvent itself on offense in 2011 as a revamped offensive line made it tough to consistently rush the football. Thanks to senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and his array of weapons, the Spartans still ranked among the league's top five in both scoring (30.8 ppg) and total yards (390.4 ypg). Michigan State was a pass-first unit for much of the season and had success, and the run game emerged late behind Le'Veon Bell, Edwin Baker and a line that gained confidence and built chemistry. While it's amazing that the Spartans won a division title with the league's worst rushing offense, they really seemed to put the pieces together after a poor performance against Nebraska on Oct. 30. Coordinator Dan Roushar had a great scheme in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.


It became clear early on that Michigan State had great potential on defense, and the unit was among the nation's elite for much of the season. Despite losing two four-year starters at linebacker (Greg Jones and Eric Gordon), the Spartans actually improved in the front seven. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy anchored the crew, and dynamic young players like William Ghoslton, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Marcus Rush contributed. Johnny Adams was arguably the Big Ten's top cornerback and safeties Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis combined for eight interceptions. Michigan State displayed excellent depth for much of the season. If not for a few struggles against Wisconsin, the unit would have received an A.


The Spartans weren't bad in the kicking game and had some strong points, particularly on returns with dynamic senior Keshawn Martin. Kicker Dan Conroy was solid and punter Mike Sadler performed decently in his first season. But Michigan State ranked in the middle of the pack in both net punting and kickoff coverage, and special teams played a role in two of the team's three losses. MSU allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown against Notre Dame, and Lewis was flagged for running into the punter in the Big Ten championship, effectively ending the game.


Michigan State had another strong season and took a step closer to becoming a Big Ten power. If not for a few plays against Wisconsin, the Spartans would be heading to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years. It was a very good season that nearly became great.



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