Big Ten: Big Ten team overview 102009

Midseason review: Wisconsin

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
5:40
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin Badgers

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

After its wins total dropped in each of the last two seasons, Wisconsin appears to have the arrow pointed up again. The Badgers won their first five games and nearly cracked the national rankings before backsliding a bit against Ohio State and Iowa. Still, Wisconsin appeared at No. 21 in the initial BCS standings and remains in good shape for a top-tier bowl game. Despite some struggles in his last two games, junior Scott Tolzien looks like the long-term answer at quarterback. He manages the game well and can execute play-action passes to complement Wisconsin's bread-and-butter rushing attack. Sophomore tailback John Clay leads the Big Ten in rushing (102.3 ypg), and Nick Toon leads an improved wide receiving corps. An opportunistic defense also is performing better than many expected. Defensive end O'Brien Schofield has been one of the Big Ten's surprise players so far, leading the nation in tackles for loss (16.5) and ranking 19th in sacks (6.5). Wisconsin must do a better job of limiting mistakes, putting away teams when it has the chance and executing on special teams, but the Badgers' remaining schedule looks favorable.

Offensive MVP, RB John Clay -- It's a close call between Clay and Tolzien, but the sophomore running back gets the nod after leading the Big Ten in rushing and averaging 5.2 yards a carry. Clay manhandled Minnesota in the second half of an Oct. 3 victory,and he rebounded well after losing his starting job to Zach Brown in preseason camp. Honorable mentions go to Tolzien, tight end Garrett Graham and Toon.

Defensive MVP, DE O'Brien Schofield -- Schofield is certainly saving his best for his senior season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss and has recorded multiple tackles for loss in five of Wisconsin's seven games. Schofield's speed creates problems for any offensive line, and his aggressive style epitomizes the change with the Badgers' defense this season. Honorable mentions go to linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, and safety Chris Maragos.

Midseason review: Purdue

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
4:55
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Purdue Boilermakers

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

The tone of this review is much different than it would have been a week ago, before Purdue's huge victory against Ohio State. Regardless of how the second half goes, Purdue owns a signature win and its first triumph against a ranked opponent since 2003. The Ohio State game also proved that Purdue is a better team than its record indicates. The Boilers outplayed Oregon in Eugene, had Notre Dame on the ropes and built a 21-3 lead against Northwestern, but they dropped all three games. Purdue has four losses by a combined 18 points and could easily have a winning record. Turnovers are the Boilers' Achilles' heel, as they rank 119th nationally with 23. The giveaways have overshadowed strong offensive performances by quarterback Joey Elliott, wide receiver Keith Smith and others. The defense has made steady progress and received a huge performance from end Ryan Kerrigan against Ohio State. If Purdue can build on the Ohio State win and continue to make strides, it could be a dangerous team down the stretch.

Offensive MVP, QB Joey Elliott: After three seasons as Curtis Painter's backup, Elliott has made the most of his lone season as the starter. He leads the Big Ten in passing (265.1 ypg), total offense (287.7 ypg) and touchdown passes (14). Elliott also has done a great job as a co-captain, keeping team morale high despite so many near misses. Honorable mentions go to wide receivers Keith Smith and Aaron Valentin and running back Ralph Bolden.

Defensive MVP, LB Jason Werner: Werner has finally stayed healthy and showed why he can be one of the league's best linebackers. The senior ranks second in the league and fifth nationally in tackles for loss (14), a total that includes four sacks. Werner leads Purdue with 55 tackles and has an interception and a forced fumble. Honorable mentions go to Kerrigan, cornerback Brandon King and defensive tackle Mike Neal.

Midseason review: Penn State

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
3:45
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 6-1 (2-1 Big Ten)

It's tough to get an accurate read on Penn State midway through the season. The Lions have faced only one ranked opponent (Iowa) and left Happy Valley only one time to face the Big Ten's worst team (Illinois). The defense also hasn't been at full strength as standout linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee have barely played together. It's safe to say the offense is making steady progress, especially up front, and wide receivers Derek Moye and Chaz Powell are doing a nice job of filling the graduation losses. Penn State's defense has been extremely stingy, not allowing a first-half touchdown and rising to second nationally in points allowed (8.7 ppg). Bowman has been dominant since his return from a groin injury, and fellow linebacker Josh Hull has blossomed in a starting role. Then again, the Lions haven't faced an FBS offense ranked in the top 70 and played four units ranked 99th or worse. Bottom line: We'll learn a lot more about Penn State in the second half, beginning Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Offensive MVP, QB Daryll Clark: He might not be as sharp as he was last season, but Clark carried the offense through the first few weeks while the line jelled. Clark ranks second in the league in both pass efficiency (144.3 rating) and passing touchdowns (13). He struggled against Iowa but has bounced back nicely the last three weeks. Honorable mentions go to Moye and running backs Evan Royster and Stephfon Green.

Defensive MVP, LB Josh Hull: Considering both Bowman and Lee have missed time with injuries, Hull has been invaluable to the Big Ten's top defense. He leads Penn State and ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 69 tackles, including five for loss and a sack. Hull also has two interceptions and four passes defended. Honorable mentions go to Bowman, defensive end Jack Crawford and defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu.

Midseason review: Ohio State

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
3:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ohio State Buckeyes

Record: 5-2 (3-1 Big Ten)

After being top dog in the Big Ten for most of the decade, Ohio State has some work left to maintain its title as the league's premier program. The Buckeyes have spent the first half riding a dominant defense and winning games in spite of an offense that lacks a true identity. The formula worked decently until Saturday's trip to Purdue, where Ohio State coughed up the ball five times and lost to a 1-5 Boilermakers squad. Ohio State hoped Terrelle Pryor's progress at quarterback could offset the losses at both running back and wide receiver, but Pryor has seen his turnovers total increase with added responsibility. The run game has been average, and aside from the big play, the offense lacks a staple. The defense, meanwhile, has been nothing short of brilliant, especially the front seven. Linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan have emerged, and linemen Cameron Heyward and Thad Gibson are consistently disruptive. Safety Kurt Coleman has improved his draft stock with a tremendous senior season. The national title is off the table for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes must win out to continue their streak of winning or sharing the Big Ten crown.

Offensive MVP, WR Dane Sanzenbacher -- Ohio State's offensive production consists almost entirely of big plays, and Sanzenbacher has been the primary beneficiary. The fearless junior averages 20.4 yards per reception and has scored four touchdowns, including a 76-yarder. An honorable mention goes to wide receiver DeVier Posey.

Defensive MVP, S Kurt Coleman -- There are many more candidates on this side of the ball, and Coleman tops the list with a superb first half. He has recorded a team-high three forced fumbles and two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown against Wisconsin. Coleman also has a sack and a fumble recovery. Honorable mentions go to Rolle, Homan, Heyward, Gibson and safety Jermale Hines.

Midseason review: Northwestern

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
2:05
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 4-3 (1-2 Big Ten)

As head coach Pat Fitzgerald has said several times this season, it hasn't been a yellow-brick road so far for Northwestern. Despite a favorable schedule and eight starters back from a defense that carried the team in 2008, the Wildcats have struggled to meet expectations. Standout defensive end Corey Wootton isn't the same player after returning from ACL surgery, and injuries have hit the defense in other key spots at inopportune times. The skill-position losses on offense are taking a toll, as Northwestern ranks 10th in the league in rushing (116.9 ypg), although senior quarterback Mike Kafka has been terrific for the most part. Northwestern might not be able to build on the momentum it carried over from 2008, but the Wildcats can still reach back-to-back bowls for just the second time in team history. They need to get the run game going in the second half and get a bit luckier with injuries to major contributors.

Offensive MVP, QB Mike Kafka -- Kafka has carried the offense with his precision passing, completing a league-best 67.8 percent of his throws. He ranks second in the Big Ten in both passing (250.7 ypg) and total offense (270.9 ypg), and he's second in quarterback rushing touchdowns with four. Honorable mentions go to wide receiver Zeke Markshausen and superback Drake Dunsmore.

Defensive MVP, CB Sherrick McManis -- Northwestern would probably be 5-2 had McManis been on the field Sept. 19 against Syracuse. The senior is a difference maker in the secondary, recording three interceptions and seven passes defended in only five games. Honorable mentions go to linebacker Quentin Davie and safeties Brad Phillips and Brian Peters.

Midseason review: Minnesota

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
1:15
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 4-3 (2-2 Big Ten)

It has been a bit of a mixed bag so far for Minnesota, which continues to search for consistency from its offense to complement an improved defense. There's certainly a new buzz around the program as football returned to campus and outdoors for the first time since 1981. The Gophers opened the year with hard-fought wins against Syracuse and Air Force and stayed close with Cal until the fourth quarter. Since then, there have been good performances against both Northwestern and Purdue, a missed opportunity against Wisconsin and an anemic offensive showing in a 20-0 loss at Penn State. The transition from the spread offense to a pro-style system has been a struggle, and Minnesota needs more production from the run game and quarterback Adam Weber down the stretch. The defense has made obvious strides under new coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee, and the Gophers boasts one of the Big Ten's best linebacking corps.

Offensive MVP, WR Eric Decker: It's not a stretch to suggest that Decker was the Gophers offense through the first few games. He made eight or more receptions in each of Minnesota's first five contests and continues to find openings even though opponents know exactly what's coming from the Gophers. There's not a tougher wide receiver in the country than Decker, who ranks 10th nationally in receiving yards (104.4 ypg).

Defensive MVP, LB Nate Triplett: This award could go to any of the Gophers' top three linebackers, but Triplett has truly emerged as a major playmaker. He ranks second on the team and third in the Big Ten in tackles (10 tpg) and has recorded two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six passes defended. Honorable mentions go to fellow linebackers Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence, and cornerback Traye Simmons.

Midseason review: Michigan State

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
12:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State Spartans

Record: 4-3 (3-1 Big Ten)

It feels like Michigan State has already had two seasons crammed into the first seven games. The Spartans stumbled out of the gate, dropping three of their first four games. A supposedly strong secondary crumbled against Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, and a sky-is-falling attitude developed among Spartans fans who had seen it all before. But the players have since showed they're not the same old Spartans, recording an emotional win against archrival Michigan and following it up with two more victories. Michigan State can throw its hat in the Big Ten title ring by knocking off No. 6 Iowa on Saturday night (Big Ten Network, 7 p.m. ET). Junior linebacker Greg Jones, the Big Ten's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, has been fabulous with a nation-high 85 tackles. Both the secondary and the line have made progress, and sophomore Kirk Cousins has emerged as the answer at quarterback.

Offensive MVP, WR Blair White: The former walk-on easily could be in dental school right now, but he capitalized on playing-time opportunities last year and figured he'd stick around for another go-round. Michigan State is extremely grateful, as White ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring (5.1 ppg), fourth in receiving yards (90.7 ypg) and fifth in receptions (6.4 rpg). Honorable mentions go to Cousins and true freshman running back Larry Caper.

Defensive MVP, LB Greg Jones: An obvious choice here, as Jones leads the nation with 85 tackles and continues to make big plays with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. The junior has recorded 37 more tackles than any of his teammates. Honorable mentions go to linebacker Eric Gordon and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Midseason review: Michigan

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
11:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan Wolverines

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

There haven't been many dull moments around Schembechler Hall this fall, as the national spotlight has locked on Michigan and second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. There were the preseason allegations of NCAA time-limit violations that led to an emotional news conference by Rodriguez and an internal investigation by the school. When the season began a week later, Michigan pounded Western Michigan and showed obvious improvements on the offensive side. Rodriguez's spread system has started to click, and true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier showed impressive fortitude in leading game-winning drives against both Notre Dame and Indiana and rallying the team from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Michigan State. The offense remains young but dynamic, and the defense has been prone to breakdowns but also tremendous performances from cornerback Donovan Warren and end Brandon Graham. After a 4-0 start, the Wolverines dropped consecutive games and Rodriguez drew some criticism for pulling Forcier late against Iowa. Michigan likely won't challenge for a league title this year, but there still will be plenty of excitement in Ann Arbor down the stretch.

Offensive MVP, QB Tate Forcier -- Without Forcier, Michigan likely would have a losing record right now and the heat would once again be rising on Rodriguez. The true freshman was brilliant down the stretch in wins against Notre Dame and Indiana and even in the loss to Michigan State. He has played through pain and shows an unusual fearlessness on the field despite a small frame. Honorable mentions go to running back Carlos Brown and backup quarterback Denard Robinson.

Defensive MVP, CB Donovan Warren -- It's a close call between Warren and Graham, but the junior cornerback has carried a very suspect secondary on his back. Warren is tied for the league lead in passes defended (10) and ties for second with three interceptions. Graham certainly deserves some love with 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and a forced fumble. Honorable mention goes to walk-on safety Jordan Kovacs, who ranks second on the team in tackles (45).

Midseason review: Iowa

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
11:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa Hawkeyes


Record: 7-0 (3-0)

Iowa has been the guiding light for a league that most national observers still shove to the backdrop. The Hawkeyes own the nation's second-longest win streak (11 games) and are off to their best start since 1985. They're the Big Ten's only remaining realistic contender for the national title. Despite significant graduation losses, injuries to key contributors, a brutal conference road schedule and some in-game mistakes, Iowa has survived it all and kept winning. Iowa has won games with back-to-back blocked field goals (Northern Iowa), an incredible performance from the defensive line (Penn State), the return of an oft-injured star (Tony Moeaki vs. Michigan) and a dominant second half in all three phases (Wisconsin). Iowa will be tough to beat down the stretch if quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the offense continue to limit mistakes.

Offensive MVP, TE Tony Moeaki -- Moeaki has shown that when healthy, he's one of the best tight ends in the country. Despite missing three games with an ankle injury, Moeaki leads Iowa in receptions (20) and receiving touchdowns (4). Honorable mentions go to Stanzi, running back Adam Robinson and wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.

Defensive MVPs, S Tyler Sash and DE Adrian Clayborn -- It was an extremely tough decision so I decided to include both players. Sash is leading the Big Ten in interceptions (5) for the second consecutive season and showing he does more than pick off passes by ranking 15th in the league in tackles (7.4 tpg). Clayborn made arguably the biggest play of Iowa's season when he blocked a punt and returned it to the end zone at Penn State. Honorable mentions go to linebacker Pat Angerer, defensive end Broderick Binns and safety Brett Greenwood.

Midseason review: Indiana

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
10:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Indiana Hoosiers

Record: 4-3 (1-2 Big Ten)

As a near consensus last-place pick before the season, Indiana has exceeded expectations in the first half. The Hoosiers already eclipsed last year's wins total (3) and nearly added a signature win at Michigan before falling in the closing minutes. After injuries totally decimated the roster last fall, Indiana has had better luck on the health front and seen playmakers emerge on both sides of the ball. Junior Ben Chappell has proved to be the answer at quarterback, and sophomores Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher form one of the Big Ten's top young wide receiver tandems. Seniors like Jammie Kirlew and Matt Mayberry are stepping up for a defense that has forced 15 turnovers. The Hoosiers still have some work left to reach a bowl game, but head coach Bill Lynch appears to have things headed in the right direction again.

Offensive MVP, WR Tandon Doss: Doss is an emerging star for the Hoosiers, who have relied heavily on their passing attack in the first half. The sophomore ranks third in the Big Ten in both receptions (6.9 receptions per game) and receiving yards (96.6 yards per game) and second in all-purpose yards (134.7 ypg). Honorable mentions go to Chappell, Belcher and do-it-all junior Mitchell Evans.

Defensive MVP, DE Jammie Kirlew -- Kirlew is no one-year wonder, and he's putting up All-Big Ten numbers for the second consecutive season. The senior leads Indiana and ranks third in the Big Ten in both sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (12.5) and leads the league with five forced fumbles. Kirlew also has two fumble recoveries. Honorable mentions go to Mayberry, safety Austin Thomas and defensive end Greg Middleton.

Midseason review: Illinois

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
9:45
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois Fighting Illini

Record: 1-5 (0-4 Big Ten)

How did it get so bad so fast? It is a question being asked throughout the Illinois program, from head coach Ron Zook to the assistants to the players. Despite a very disappointing 2008 season, Illinois returned the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback in Juice Williams, seemingly one of the nation's best wide receiving corps and a defense with several exciting playmakers. But things have gone downhill since the season opener against Missouri, and the Illini still haven't reached rock bottom. Illinois' five losses have come by an average of 19.8 points. Williams already has been benched and reinserted as the starter, but the offense doesn't resemble the unit that shined at times last season. The defense also has fallen on hard times and lost starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson to a season-ending neck injury after Week 1. Two more losses will eliminate Illinois from postseason contention for the second straight year after the Rose Bowl run of 2007.

Offensive MVP, RB Jason Ford -- No one really deserves this distinction, but at least Ford has produced when healthy. The sophomore is averaging 8.2 yards a carry but still doesn't get the carries of a featured back.

Defensive MVP, DE Clay Nurse -- The Illini defense isn't immune from the struggles, but Nurse has done his part in the first half. The junior leads Illinois with five tackles for loss to go along with a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. Honorable mentions go to defensive linemen Doug Pilcher and Corey Liuget and cornerback Tavon Wilson.

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