Big Ten: Big Ten team 0808

Midseason report: Wisconsin Badgers

October, 16, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

WISCONSIN (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten)
Wisconsin got the start it wanted by routing its first two opponents and escaping Fresno State with a huge road win. But Big Ten play has brought big problems for the Badgers and coach Bret Bielema, who faces adversity for the first time in his brief head-coaching career after three consecutive losses. After inexplicably blowing a 19-point halftime lead at Michigan, Wisconsin has seen its dominance in home night games disappear with losses to Ohio State and Penn State, the latter in embarrassing fashion. Quarterback play and injuries have been major concerns for Bielema, and the Badgers are getting outscored 64-13 after halftime during the losing streak.

Offensive MVP: There are not many options here, but redshirt freshman running back John Clay has elevated hope for 2009 with some impressive play. Playing behind starter P.J. Hill, Clay averages 6.2 yards a carry and has scored four touchdowns. Though he could have been used more in losses to Michigan and Ohio State, Clay is earning more playing time each week and affirming himself as the team's back of the future.

Defensive MVP: All three starting linebackers have had their moments, though senior DeAndre Levy owns the lone truly dominant performance of the season. Levy earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording four tackles for loss an interception in Wisconsin's win at Fresno State. The senior co-captain leads the team in tackles for loss (6) and ranks second in overall stops (35). Fellow linebackers Jaevery McFadden and Jonathan Casillas also deserve to be recognized.

What's next: The Top 10 ranking is gone and so are hopes of a BCS run, but Wisconsin can still reach a decent bowl game with a strong finish. Signs are pointing to a quarterback switch this week, as Dustin Sherer likely will replace Allan Evridge at Iowa. Limiting mistakes from that position and generating a better passing attack will be paramount down the stretch. The defense must play better in the fourth quarter and limit damage against spread-offense teams like Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

PURDUE (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten)
Joe Tiller's legacy is rooted in the innovative spread offense he brought to the Big Ten in 1997. But as Tiller wraps up his coaching career at Purdue, his trademark offense has lost some steam. The Boilermakers rank 10th in the league in scoring (21.7 points-per-game) and last in rushing (109.3 yards-per-game) through the first six games. Senior quarterback Curtis Painter has struggled, throwing more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5) and being replaced in the fourth quarter of a loss to Penn State. Painter continues to put up big numbers, but the Boilers often struggle in the red zone (8 touchdowns on 15 attempts). A difficult schedule hasn't helped matters, but the defense has stepped up, keeping Oregon in check, limiting Penn State to 25 points below its season average and holding Ohio State without an offensive touchdown last Saturday.

Offensive MVP: The preseason loss of Jaycen Taylor put Kory Sheets in a featured role, and the senior running back has stepped up. Sheets ranks second in the league in all-purpose yards (156 ypg) and fourth in scoring (8 ppg), making contributions as a rusher, a receiver and a kickoff return man. He has moved the chains 34 times on runs or receptions, and he became Purdue's all-time leader in touchdowns scored with a game-winning 46-yard scamper against Central Michigan.

Defensive MVP: Purdue's linebacker depth has hurt the defense at times, but senior Anthony Heygood continues to step up. The team's top tackler in 2007 is well on his way to doing so again, racking up 56 stops in the first six games to tie for third in the league in tackles average (9.3 tackles-per-game). Heygood has tallied 11 or more tackles in three games to go along with an interception and a forced fumble. Other notables include defensive tackle Ryan Baker and cornerback Brandon King.

What's next: The schedule gets a bit easier, though Purdue needs a road win against Northwestern, Michigan State or Iowa to give Tiller any chance at a final bowl appearance. The defense has been reliable in the red zone, and if the offense starts making big plays and finding the end zone, a turnaround is possible. Tiller has stayed loyal to Painter for the most part, but continued struggles could prompt a change. Purdue's defense will get a big boost if and when linebacker Jason Werner returns from a back injury.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

PENN STATE (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten)

After an offseason dominated by off-field problems and questions about coach Joe Paterno's future, Penn State has turned the spotlight back to where it belongs -- the field. The Nittany Lions have been the most dominant team in college football, winning all seven of their games by 14 points or more and four by 40 points or more. A new offense better tailored to Penn State's big-play personnel has surged behind first-year starting quarterback Daryll Clark, and a defense that lost its best player (Sean Lee) in the spring and several others during the summer leads the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed (259.3 ypg). A hip injury has forced Paterno to coach games from the press box, where he has watched Penn State become a national title contender.

Offensive MVP -- Few first-year starting quarterbacks have had as positive an impact as Daryll Clark has in Penn State's first seven games. He has answered questions about his passing ability (10 TDs, 64.4 percent completion ratio), limited major mistakes (2 INTs) and provided another rushing threat in the backfield (6 rush TDs). But Clark's intangibles have been his biggest strength. The junior brought a swagger to the offense and immediately gained the trust of his teammates. Other notables include Evan Royster and Derrick Williams.

Defensive MVP -- If everything had gone according to plan, Aaron Maybin would have played a backstage role this season. Penn State was stacked along the defensive line, and the sophomore end didn't appear to be a major factor. But dismissals, suspensions and injuries created a void up front, and Maybin has filled it in a big way. He leads the Big Ten and ties for sixth nationally in sacks (8) and ties for seventh nationally in tackles for loss (1.79 per game). Linebacker Navorro Bowman and defensive end Josh Gaines also deserve recognition.

What's next -- The game looks easy on paper, but Penn State can't afford a letdown against Michigan, a team that owns a nine-game win streak against the Lions. Up next is a trip to Columbus, where Penn State has never won as a member of the Big Ten. Penn State also must travel to Iowa and hosts streaking Michigan State in the regular-season finale. The Lions are a complete team, and the only lingering concern is how they'll respond in a close game, which they're bound to face down the stretch.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

OHIO STATE (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten)

Few teams have gone through as much drama and change as Ohio State in the first half of the season. Star running back Chris "Beanie" Wells went down in the opener, and the saga regarding America's most famous toe began. Wells went from probable to doubtful to out of the mega matchup at USC, and Ohio State once again stumbled in the national spotlight. Next came a quarterback change, as Terrelle Pryor, the nation's No. 1 recruit, became the first freshman to start under center for the Buckeyes since 1978. The Pryor-Wells backfield added a new element to the offense, but repeated struggles in the passing game have increased frustration among players. Almost forgotten is the fact Ohio State still has a shot at winning an unprecedented third consecutive outright Big Ten title.

Offensive MVP -- It hasn't been a great season for this unit, but Wells is doing his part. Ohio State hasn't lost a game with Wells, who averages 119.8 rush yards and a whopping 6.7 yards a carry in limited action. When Wells hurt his toe, most knew the Buckeyes had lost their best player, but they also lost their best on-field leader. Wells generates confidence among his teammates and has helped Pryor with his transition into the starting role.

Defensive MVP -- As one of several seniors who stiff-armed the NFL for one final run in Columbus, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins has only further boosted his pro stock. Jenkins leads the Buckeyes in pass breakups (5) and ranks second in the league in interceptions (3), including a clinching pick Oct. 4 at Wisconsin. Last week he blocked a punt that led to Ohio State's only touchdown against Purdue. Other notables include linebackers James Laurinaitis (league-high 67 tackles), Marcus Freeman and Ross Homan.

What's next -- Two huge games, a trip Saturday to No. 20 Michigan State followed by a home contest against No. 3 Penn State. Win both, and Ohio State will be in position for another Big Ten title. But the offense will have to be sharper, especially against Penn State, for the Buckeyes to keep their BCS hopes alive. Pryor hasn't lost a game as the starter, but he looks his age at times and needs to throw the ball away when the plays aren't there to be made. The run defense needs to be solid down the stretch as Ohio State faces players like Javon Ringer, Evan Royster, Daryll Clark and last year's nemesis, Juice Williams.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

NORTHWESTERN (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten)

It has already been a year of milestones for Northwestern, which swept its nonconference slate for the first time since 1963 and started 5-0 for the first time since 1962. The Wildcats made dramatic improvements on defense thanks to first-year coordinator Mike Hankwitz, and their aggressive style better reflects head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the team. The defensive surge obscures some problems on offense, as Northwestern continues the big-yards, little-points pattern that took place the last two seasons. Despite fading in the national spotlight against Michigan State, a decent bowl run remains likely.

Offensive MVP -- Other Big Ten running backs have better numbers, but none is more versatile than Wildcats senior Tyrell Sutton. He continues to be a major factor in the passing game, ranking third on the team in receptions (24), and still averages more than 100 rushing yards a game. Northwestern entered the season wanting to get Sutton between 20-25 touches per game, and though the back has missed parts of two games, he averages 22.3 touches and 133.8 all-purpose yards.

Defensive MVP -- Northwestern knew Corey Wootton could be special when he arrived on campus, and Hankwitz's scheme has finally allowed the defensive end to blossom. Wootton has 8 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on a defense that is tied for the Big Ten lead in that category (19). He also plays a big role in Northwestern's run defense, which allows an average of only 33 rush yards in the final two quarters. Other notables include Malcolm Arrington and Vince Browne.

What's next -- The Wildcats can't afford a Michigan State hangover as they face two struggling teams (Purdue, Indiana) before hosting an Ohio State squad that has dominated the series. As good as the defense has been, senior quarterback C.J. Bacher will need to elevate his play for the team to reach a decent bowl game. Bacher continues to struggle with interceptions after throwing 19 last season. If he limits mistakes and Northwestern executes better in the red zone, eight or nine wins is certainly within reach.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

MINNESOTA (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten)

It was reasonable to expect improvement from Minnesota, especially with a defense that set team records for ineptitude in 2007. But few could have foreseen the Gophers winning six of their first seven games to become bowl eligible on Oct. 11. Tim Brewster is the clear choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year at this point, and if a Coordinator of the Year award could be handed out, it would go to defensive guru Ted Roof. The Gophers' secret can be found in their turnover margin. They lead the nation in takeaways (20) and rank second nationally in average margin (plus-1.71) after finishing 114th last fall (minus-1.25).

Offensive MVP -- Eric Decker has become the Big Ten's top wide receiver and one of the best in the country. He ranks third nationally in receiving yards (111.7 ypg) and fourth in receptions (11.47 rpg). As Brewster frequently reminds reporters, Decker's tremendous blocking skills have sparked Minnesota's rushing attack. Decker has five or more receptions in every game and has eclipsed 80 receiving yards in all but one contest this fall. Quarterback Adam Weber also deserves to be recognized.

Defensive MVP -- Willie VanDeSteeg's wrist has healed, and opposing ball-carries are paying the price this fall. The senior defensive end headlines a much-improved Gophers defense with 11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. He turned in one of the nation's top single-game defensive performances last Saturday at Illinois, forcing two Juice Williams turnovers that sealed the Gophers' win. Junior college arrivals Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons also merit mentions here.

What's next -- The team already has exceeded expectations, and with three of the final five games at home, a decent bowl berth is certainly within reach. Minnesota's bye week comes at a good time because of some lingering injuries, but teams have struggled following the off week and the Gophers need another strong performance against struggling Purdue on Oct. 25. Minnesota finishes with rivalry games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa and would love to add a jug, an axe or a bronze pig to its trophy case.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

MICHIGAN STATE (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten)

The Spartans were the chic pick to be this year's surprise team in the Big Ten, but their track record of failing to meet expectations generated some justifiable skepticism. A six-game winning streak, disciplined performances and a newfound mental toughness has made Michigan State a team to trust. The team reflects the no-nonsense personality of second-year coach Mark Dantonio, who has instilled greater toughness on defense and reaffirmed a run-first offensive philosophy based around star Javon Ringer. The Spartans find themselves in the thick of the league title mix with Ohio State coming to town this weekend.

Offensive MVP -- Few non-quarterbacks have meant more to their team than Ringer, who exploded onto the Heisman radar with 897 rushing yards in his first five games. Ringer's workload is unmatched in college football -- he has 68 more carries than any other FBS back -- and his humility and leadership make him a favorite among his teammates. The senior's ability to take punishment and wear down defenses in the fourth quarter make him arguably the nation's best running back.

Defensive MVP -- After a disappointing junior season, safety Otis Wiley has regained the form he showcased as a sophomore, when he led Michigan State in tackles (94) and pass breakups (10). Wiley leads the Big Ten and ties for 14th nationally in interceptions (4), and he also has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and seven pass breakups. Other defensive notables include linebacker Greg Jones and safety Dan Fortener, who has stepped in nicely for Roderick Jenrette.

What's next -- The national spotlight will be on the Spartans this weekend, and a win against Ohio State would further validate the program's rise under Dantonio. Michigan State is on track for a New Year's Day bowl at the very least, but it must avoid the losing streaks that have plagued the program since Nick Saban left. Another important step is beating Michigan, something the Spartans haven't done since 2001. They have an excellent opportunity to do so Oct. 25 in Ann Arbor.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

MICHIGAN (2-4, 1-1 Big Ten)

Rich Rodriguez knew Year 1 wouldn't be easy, but the coach likely didn't anticipate the gravity of Michigan's struggles, particularly on offense. The loss of top personnel and the difficulty of learning Rodriguez's dramatically new system has resulted in an offense that ranks 100th nationally or worse in scoring (18.8 points per game), passing (160.8 yards per game), total yards (291.5 ypg) and giveaways (19). After teasing its fans with a come-from-behind win against Wisconsin, Michigan has backslid, bottoming out with its first-ever loss to a MAC team (Toledo). Barring a stunning turnaround, the Wolverines will endure their first losing season since 1967.

Offensive MVP: Not many choices here, but true freshman running back Sam McGuffie deserves credit for transitioning well to the college game. The YouTube legend has eclipsed 100 rushing yards twice in the first six games, including a 131-yard performance at Notre Dame. When Rodriguez's offense finally gets on track, the speedy McGuffie and classmate Martavious Odoms will be integral components.

Defensive MVP: The defensive front seven has performed well for most of the season, and end Brandon Graham leads the way. Graham leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.1 per game) and ties for ninth in sacks (1 sack per game). He has at least one stop for loss in all five games he has played, and Michigan ranks 21st nationally in rush defense. Other notables include Graham's line mate, defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, and linebacker Obi Ezeh.

What's next: Things likely will get worse before they get better, as Michigan visits No. 3 Penn State, which has lost nine straight to the Wolverines and could get some revenge in dominating fashion. The Wolverines then face surging Michigan State, which bookmarked a trip to Ann Arbor before the season after dropping six straight in the in-state rivalry. A bowl game is likely a pipe dream, so it's important for Michigan to make strides on offense and identify the personnel that can help the most in 2009.

Midseason report: Iowa Hawkeyes

October, 14, 2008
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten)

The Hawkeyes have been the Big Ten's biggest enigma for much of the season, though it appears they're figuring things out. Despite meeting football's two most important requirements for success -- running the football and stopping the run -- Iowa split its first six games, with the three losses coming by a combined nine points. Head coach Kirk Ferentz took too long to settle on sophomore Ricky Stanzi as his quarterback, and fan criticism increased for both Ferentz and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe. But Saturday's blowout win at Indiana could signal the start of a strong second half as Stanzi and his teammates gain greater confidence.

Offensive MVP -- Running back Shonn Greene has been the Big Ten's biggest surprise on offense, surging into the national rushing rankings after spending a year away from football to improve his academics. Greene is the only FBS running back to eclipse 100 rushing yards in each of the first seven games this season. He ranks second in the league and sixth nationally in rushing average (133.9 ypg), and his yards-per-attempt average (6.2) leads FBS backs with at least 150 carries. Greene provides a steadying force on an offense that has endured some fluctuation under center.

Defensive MVP -- As one of the Big Ten's most experienced and dependable defensive lineman, Mitch King is continuing to produce at a high level. The senior defensive tackle leads Iowa in both tackles for loss (9) and sacks (3) and anchors the nation's 18th-ranked rush defense (98.3 ypg allowed) and fifth-ranked scoring defense (10.9 ppg allowed). King eclipsed 200 career tackles last week against Indiana and has a tackle for loss in all but one game this season. Linebacker Pat Angerer (2 INTs, 46 tackles, 3 QB hurries) also merits a mention.

What's next -- Don't be surprised if Iowa ends up in the top half of the Big Ten standings by the end of the season. The Hawkeyes have found their quarterback in Stanzi, and if he limits mistakes and keeps feeding the ball to Greene, good things should happen. King and fellow defensive tackle Matt Kroul anchor a defense that should only get stronger as the season progresses. Iowa needs to continue its momentum against sputtering Wisconsin and inconsistent Illinois before hosting national title contender Penn State on Nov. 8.

Midseason report: Indiana Hoosiers

October, 14, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

INDIANA (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten)

After a breakthrough bowl appearance, Indiana appeared to find the formula to keep momentum on its side. The Hoosiers scheduled eight home games, including four nonleague contests against non-BCS foes. Dynamic quarterback Kellen Lewis returned from suspension and reclaimed his starting job. National sacks leader Greg Middleton would lead an experienced defense. But the approach has backfired, and Indiana sits in a familiar spot at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Two cupcake opponents didn't adequately prepare Indiana for a surging Ball State team and the Big Ten schedule, and the Hoosiers have dropped four straight. Penalties and turnovers have plagued the offense, and the heat is rising on head coach Bill Lynch.

Offensive MVP -- Slim pickings here, but senior running back Marcus Thigpen has contributed in several areas. He has showcased his big-play ability with four touchdowns of longer than 60 yards (two rushing, two receiving), and he remains a threat on kickoff returns (20.6 yards per return). Thigpen also has two 100-yard rushing performances, doubling his total from the previous three seasons. He joins Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Purdue's Kory Sheets as the only players to rank in the league's top 10 in all-purpose yards, scoring and kickoff returns.

Defensive MVP -- Middleton's production has dropped this fall, likely because of increased attention, but junior Jammie Kirlew is filling the pass-rushing void at the other defensive end spot. Kirlew is tied for ninth nationally in sacks (1 per game) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (1.83 per game). He has two multisack performances and 8.5 tackles for loss in three league games. Safety Nick Polk also deserves a mention after factoring in four of the team's eight takeaways this season.

What's next -- Indiana failed to capitalize on having five of its first six games at home and now needs to steal a road win, most likely against Illinois or Purdue, to have a chance at getting bowl eligible. Ball security and better overall discipline will be focal points going forward, and Indiana needs to find its identity on offense after using quarterbacks Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell on the field together. Though Lewis has struggled at times, he's still the team's most dangerous weapon. Lynch's job security will be questioned if the losing continues, but with no athletic director and big money being paid to both Tom Crean and Kelvin Sampson, a change seems unlikely.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

ILLINOIS (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten)

Despite the nation's biggest turnaround last season and loads of talent back on the roster, Ron Zook cautioned against claims that Illinois is back. It would take more top-notch recruiting, more player development and more consistent winning to complete the program's resurrection. Unfortunately for Zook, his misgivings have proven true. Illinois is off to a 3-3 start, rarely playing well on both sides of the ball and showing its explosive capabilities only in spurts. The schedule has been tough, with a neutral-site game against Missouri and a trip to Penn State, but aside from a three-quarter stretch at Michigan, the Illini haven't played to their potential. Quarterback Juice Williams has taken the next step in his evolution, but a defense that lost several cogs is struggling.

Offensive MVP -- Williams has embraced his role as the focal point of the offense, putting up huge numbers week after week. In his last two games, he set the total offense records at both Michigan Stadium (431 yards) and Memorial Stadium (503 yards), becoming the only active player to hold two such marks. He ranks fourth nationally in total offense (353.7 ypg), averages a whopping 15.7 yards per completion and remains a rushing threat with 445 yards.

Defensive MVP -- The unit has been a disappointment so far, but senior linebacker Brit Miller is a consistent producer. Shifting to middle linebacker after the loss of All-American J Leman, Miller leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (10.2) and ranks second nationally in tackles for loss (2.3 per game). He had a fumble return for a touchdown in a too-close-for-comfort win against Louisiana-Lafayette and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after the Michigan victory (4 TFLs, 2 sacks).

What's next -- A BCS repeat is extremely unlikely, and bowl eligibility should be Illinois' top goal in the second half. The Illini haven't looked sharp at home and need a confidence-building performance this week against Indiana. A road win against free-falling Wisconsin would be big, and Illinois has given Ohio State trouble lately and could steal a win Nov. 15. Run defense is the team's top priority after ranking next to last in the Big Ten (152.5 ypg) despite a veteran line that Zook called the team's strength before the season.

The Big Ten at the midpoint

October, 14, 2008

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The 2008 season has reached its halfway point, and this week we'll assess each Big Ten team as well as the league before the stretch run. Here's the schedule for team-by-team reports for the next three days. 

Today: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa

Wednesday: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern

Thursday: Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

There also will be a conference overview on Wednesday, where several awards (most surprising team, most disappointing team, midseason MVP) will be handed out and I'll tell you which teams are going bowling. 

Check back later this morning for the first team reports.