Big Ten: Bill Nagy

The preseason position rankings march on with the offensive lines. Team rankings are below, and we'll take a look at the individual rankings for tackles, centers and guards early next week.

Looking at the league landscape, offensive line could be a major strength throughout the Big Ten this season. Although standout players such as Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and All-American Stefen Wisniewski depart, I see improved depth for several teams as well as quite a few multiyear starters.

Honestly, there aren't any bad lines in the league; just some with more question marks than others.

Let's get to the rundown.

1. Wisconsin: Talk about an ability to reload. The Badgers lose All-Americans Carimi and John Moffitt, plus the versatile Bill Nagy, and they still shouldn't take any steps backward. Injuries have allowed Wisconsin to build depth the past few seasons, and four of the five spots look extremely solid. Tackle Ricky Wagner, center Peter Konz and guard Kevin Zeitler lead a group that will block for the league's top running back tandem. Wisconsin's track record up front is impossible to ignore, and this year's line should continue the trend.

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
David Purdy/Getty ImagesWill arm length be an issue for former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff in the NFL?
2. Iowa: The line is undoubtedly Iowa's biggest strength and should be one of the nation's elite units in 2011. Iowa returns starting experience at all five positions and should have decent depth. Left tackle Riley Reiff, projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, will enter the fall as a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy. James Ferentz is one of the league's top centers, and Markus Zusevics is poised for a big year at right tackle.

3. Ohio State: Depth is the only reason the Buckeyes' line isn't higher in the rankings. Ohio State boasts arguably the nation's top center in Mike Brewster, and first-team All-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams will be back after a five-game suspension to begin the season. The Buckeyes need big things from tackle Andrew Norwell during Adams' absence, and tackle J.B. Shugarts must play like a veteran. After struggling to put two sets of capable linemen on the field this spring, Ohio State has to find more depth in preseason camp.

4. Michigan: This is another group that could climb up the rankings by season's end. Center David Molk is a terrific piece to build around, and if gifted players like Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh continue to develop, Michigan's line will be a major strength. The concerns are Molk's ability to stay healthy and an adjustment to a new offensive system under Al Borges. The line did an excellent job of protecting Denard Robinson in 2010, allowing a league-low 11 sacks.

5. Illinois: The Illini flat-out punished opponents at the line of scrimmage on several occasions last season, and I really like the potential for the front five in 2011. The biggest reason? Left tackle Jeff Allen, one of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen. Allen and center Graham Pocic will contend for All-Big Ten honors, and if Corey Lewis gets healthy, this should be one of the league's top offensive lines.

6. Purdue: Expectations are high for a line that coach Danny Hope thinks will be Purdue's strength in 2011. Left tackle Dennis Kelly is an All-Big Ten candidate with NFL potential who has started the past 24 games. Center Peters Drey and tackle Nick Mondek help anchor the group. The big question is whether mammoth guard Ken Plue, a multiyear starter, can get out of Hope's doghouse to help lead the way. Plue will be pushed by James Shepherd this summer. The combination of experience up front and the return of running back Ralph Bolden bode well for the Boilers.

7. Northwestern: The Wildcats boast the nation's second most experienced line (137 combined career starts), but experience must start translating to production. This group still must prove it can spark a decent rushing attack after several years of decline. Left tackle Al Netter is an All-Big Ten candidate and center Ben Burkett enters his fourth season as the starter. If Northwestern gets more consistent play from right tackle Patrick Ward and others, it should be a solid group.

8. Penn State: This is a big year for Penn State's O-line, which has heard the criticism and has vowed to erase it in 2011. The tackle spots look solid with Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but Penn State needs to shore up the interior after losing Wisniewski, a mainstay for the past four seasons. If veterans like Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell step up and turn in consistent performances, the line should hold up nicely.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers ranked ninth nationally in rushing last season but have quite a few question marks up front. Center Mike Caputo is a building block and sophomore tackle Jeremiah Sirles is a returning starter, but Nebraska has little proven experience. The Huskers will benefit from a healthy Marcel Jones at right tackle, and Yoshi Hardwick adds depth. This could turn out to be a decent group, but the experience issue combined with a scheme change creates some uncertainty.

10. Michigan State: Not to put too much pressure on the line, but arguably no position group will have more influence on Michigan State's season. The Spartans must replace both starting tackles and their starting center, never an easy task. All-Big Ten guard Joel Foreman returns to lead the group, but Michigan State needs immediate contributions from unproven players. The coaches feel they've upgraded the athleticism up front by moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell over from the defensive side.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers boast a mix of veterans and youth, and it'll be interesting to see whether the group comes together this fall. Hopes are high for young tackles Eric Olson and Jimmy Gjere, but they'll need help from seniors like Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders on the interior. Minnesota needs to regain its swagger as an elite rushing offense, and it starts up front this fall. This is a group that certainly has a chance to make strides.

12. Indiana: I like some of Indiana's individual pieces, but as a group, the Hoosiers must show they can create space for the running backs. Indiana switched to the pistol offense in hopes of sparking the ground game but produced barely 100 rushing yards a game in 2010 (112th nationally). The line allowed only 12 sacks and must continue to protect its unproven quarterbacks this fall, but getting the run game going is paramount. Returning starters Will Matte, Justin Pagan and Andrew McDonald give Indiana hope.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 2, 2011
5/02/11
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What a Sunday night in America, and Big Ten students were part of the celebration here and here.

Big Ten NFL draft wrap-up

May, 2, 2011
5/02/11
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The 2011 NFL draft is in the books, and it's time to take a look back at how the Big Ten fared in the selections. In case you missed it, check out my breakdown of the six Big Ten players who heard their names called in the first round.

All in all, 29 Big Ten players were drafted this year. New Big Ten member Nebraska had seven selections.

Let's start off with a rundown of the picks. I'll have some quick thoughts after each round.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft this year.
First round

Quick thoughts: The Big Ten had its largest first-round output since 2007, and several players look like good fits for their teams. Chicago had to be thrilled Carimi was still available, and San Diego felt the same about Liuget, projected by many as a top-15 pick. Kerrigan likely needs to contribute immediately for the Redskins, while Clayborn and Heyward enter situations where they can ease into the transition.

Second round

Quick thoughts: Mouton's selection was a surprise for many folks, but it's a testament to a good player who impressed the scouts despite playing for a lousy defense in 2010. Wisniewski enters a good fit in Oakland, where his uncle, Steve, is an assistant offensive line coach. I really like Leshoure in Detroit, where he'll enter a competitive situation at running back.

Third round

Quick thoughts: Wilson, who entered the draft after his junior season, might have been a bit disappointed to fall to the third round. But he enters a good situation in New Orleans and should have some time to develop.

Fourth round
Quick thoughts: Ballard reportedly tested positive for marijuana use and likely paid a price as he dropped down at least a round. Still, the Iowa standout should help the Vikings early in his career. I really like the Doss fit in Baltimore, which can use more playmakers at receiver. It'll be interesting to see how quickly Chekwa sees the field in Oakland.

Fifth round
Quick thoughts: What a round for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Although Stanzi waited a little longer than expected, he joins a team in Kansas City that has a lot of connections to the New England Patriots, the squad many thought would draft the Iowa quarterback. Klug is a solid player who can play either line position. I'll be interested to see how he fares with the Titans.

Sixth round

  • Penn State RB Evan Royster, Washington, No. 177 overall
  • Michigan State LB Greg Jones, New York Giants, No. 185 overall
  • Michigan State CB Chris L. Rucker, Indianapolis, No. 188 overall
  • Ohio State LB Brian Rolle, Philadelphia, No. 193 overall
  • Iowa S Tyler Sash, New York Giants, No. 198 overall
  • Ohio State LB Ross Homan, Minnesota, No. 200 overall
  • Michigan G Stephen Schilling, San Diego, No. 201 overall
Quick thoughts: This marked the Big Ten's biggest round as seven players heard their names called. Jones, the former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, went a little later than expected, and Sash also dropped down a bit after entering the draft after his junior season. Homan, who missed some time last season with a foot injury, could end up being an excellent addition for the Vikings. Really like that pick.

Seventh round

  • Illinois LB Nate Bussey, New Orleans, No. 243 overall
  • Wisconsin G/C Bill Nagy, Dallas, No. 252 overall
Quick thoughts: While I was surprised several other Big Ten players didn't get drafted, both Bussey and Nagy are deserving. Both players played integral roles in their teams' success last fall, and both were overshadowed by other draftees (Liuget and Wilson for Bussey, Carimi and Moffitt for Nagy).

NEBRASKA'S DRAFTEES

Husker fans, I didn't forget you or your team. Nebraska actually had more draft picks (7) than any Big Ten team, and here they are.

  • CB Prince Amukamara, New York Giants, No. 19 overall (first round)
  • RB Roy Helu Jr., Washington, No. 104 overall (fourth round)
  • K Alex Henery, Philadelphia, No. 120 overall (fourth round)
  • DB Dejon Gomes, Washington, No. 146 overall (fifth round)
  • WR Niles Paul, Washington, No. 155 overall (fifth round)
  • OT Keith Williams, Pittsburgh, No. 196 overall (sixth round)
  • DB Eric Hagg, Cleveland, No. 248 overall (seventh round)
Quick thoughts: Think there might be a few "Husker Power!" chants at Redskins games this season? The Mike Shanahan-Bo Pelini connection likely played a role in the three Nebraska players heading to the nation's capital. Henery soon will succeed David Akers in Philadelphia, and the Giants had to thrilled that Amukamara still was on the board at No. 19.

Big Ten picks by team

  • Nebraska: 7 (players competed in the Big 12)
  • Iowa: 6
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Wisconsin: 5 (four picks in first three rounds)
  • Illinois: 4
  • Michigan State: 2
  • Indiana: 2
  • Michigan: 2
  • Penn State: 2
  • Purdue: 1
  • Northwestern: 0
  • Minnesota: 0
By position (excluding Nebraska)

  • DL: 7
  • OL: 7
  • LB: 6
  • DB: 4
  • RB: 2
  • WR: 1
  • TE: 1
  • QB: 1

Nebraska had three defensive backs, a running back, an offensive lineman, a wide receiver and a kicker drafted.

Draft snubs

Quite a few Big Ten players didn't hear their names called during the weekend, and they'll enter the shaky world of free agency. I was absolutely stunned no one drafted Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. He was the Big Ten's top receiver last fall and brings a combination of football IQ and toughness that should appeal to football people not overly obsessed with measurables.

Wisconsin running back John Clay was the Big Ten's only non-senior who entered the draft but didn't get selected. Clay struggles with weight and his ankle problems might have contributed to him slipping through the draft.

Other Big Ten draft snubs include: Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, Ohio State guard Justin Boren, Iowa tight end Allen Reisner and Purdue receiver Keith Smith. Nebraska's Pierre Allen and Ricky Henry also will go the free-agent route.

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 22, 2011
4/22/11
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Wisconsin wraps up its spring practice session Saturday with the annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers will put the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense and the second-string offense against the second-string D.

Let's take a quick look at what's happening in Madtown.

The vitals: 1 p.m. CT Saturday (2 p.m. ET) at Camp Randall Stadium; tickets are $5 (first year Wisconsin is charging), parking in Lots 16, 17 and 18 is $10 and free in Lots 51 and 60.

More details: Wisconsin will hold a kids sports fair in the McClain Center from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. CT and other events. Click here for more information.

Three things to watch

1. Jon Budmayr: After backing up Scott Tolzien in 2010, Budmayr has the inside track to land the starting job this fall. He has had some good moments this spring but still must cement himself as the top option or face a potential challenge from Curt Phillips in preseason camp. Wisconsin asks its quarterbacks to be efficient and limit mistakes. Budmayr has a big arm and can do some things Tolzien couldn't, but he must limit turnovers. A strong performance in the spring game should give Budmayr some confidence heading into a big summer.

2. Defensive end: Besides Tolzien, Wisconsin's biggest loss comes at defensive end as All-American J.J. Watt departs. Watt contributed in so many ways and will be impossible to replace with just one player, but Wisconsin needs to identify its primary pass rushers. Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both boast experience at the end spot, and Brendan Kelly is healthy and performing well this spring. Wisconsin has shuffled the line at times this spring and used 320-pound Beau Allen on the outside. Pat Muldoon and others also are in the mix. Who will step up Saturday and put pressure on the quarterbacks?

3. Leadership: No Big Ten team lost more stars than Wisconsin, which said goodbye to four All-Americans in addition to team leaders like Tolzien, linebacker Culmer St. Jean and safety Jay Valai. Fans at the spring game should watch for who is taking charge on both sides of the ball. Is Budmayr taking command of the offense? Who has stepped up along the offensive line, which loses Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy? Free safety Aaron Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym seem like natural leaders on defense, but who will help them? Saturday's game should provide some clues.
The 2010 Big Ten postseason player rankings continue with ...

No. 14: John Moffitt, G, Wisconsin, Sr., 6-5, 323

[+] EnlargeJohn Moffitt
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireJohn Moffitt earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive season.
2010 numbers: Started all 13 games at left guard after splitting time between guard and center in 2009 and starting the entire 2008 season at center; named a first-team AP All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and the media; named Wisconsin's co-Offensive Player of the Week against Michigan after the Badgers' dominant rushing performance.

Preseason rank: No. 15 in the preseason Top 25 players

Why he's here: Moffitt and classmates Gabe Carimi and Bill Nagy anchored a dominant Wisconsin line that helped the offense set record-setting numbers in 2010. The Badgers ranked 12th nationally in rushing, fifth in scoring, 21st in total offense and 18th in sacks allowed. Moffitt played a significant role in opening up-the-middle rushing lanes for backs John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. He delivered one of his best performances Oct. 16 against then-No. 1 Ohio State, as Wisconsin manhandled a formidable Buckeyes defensive front en route to a historic victory that led to the program's first Big Ten title in 11 seasons. Moffitt earned first-team All-America honors from the AP, CBSSports.com and Rivals.com and earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second consecutive season. His 42 starts for Wisconsin and his versatility at both guard and center should serve him well at the next level.

ESPN.com's 2010 All-Senior Big Ten team

January, 24, 2011
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As we gear up for the Senior Bowl, I wanted to piggyback off of an excellent post by colleague Chris Low from last week.

It's time to identify an All-Big Ten team comprised only of seniors. There were easy picks like Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, but several positions created some tough choices.

Reminder: This team includes only fourth-year or fifth-year seniors, not redshirt juniors.

Bowl performance is included in this rundown, if applicable.

In case you forgot, my All-Big Ten team included only 12 seniors, all of whom will appear below. I also selected 14 underclassmen.

Without further ado ...

OFFENSE

QB: Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
RB: Dan Dierking, Purdue
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
WR: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Iowa
TE: Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
C: Bill Nagy, Wisconsin
T: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
T: D.J. Young, Michigan State
G: John Moffitt, Wisconsin
G: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

DEFENSE

DL: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
[+] EnlargeEric Gordon
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEric Gordon narrowly edged out Ross Homan for a spot on the All-Senior Big Ten team.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DL: Karl Klug, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Brian Rolle, Ohio State
LB: Eric Gordon, Michigan State
CB: Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
CB: Chris L. Rucker, Michigan State
S: Jermale Hines, Ohio State
S: Brett Greenwood, Iowa

SPECIALISTS

K: Collin Wagner, Penn State
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Returns: David Gilreath, Wisconsin

Some thoughts:

  • I really struggled with the quarterback spot. Tolzien ultimately made fewer mistakes than Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, who had superior statistics and had fewer weapons surrounding him. You can make a good case for Stanzi or Indiana's Ben Chappell, but Tolzien gets a slight edge.
  • No disrespect to Royster or Dierking, but the Big Ten really struggled to produce many decent senior running backs this season. Perhaps that's a promising sign for the future, but typically there are more experienced ball-carrying options. Royster was the only senior ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 rushers. I thought about Ohio State's Brandon Saine, but Dierking did more as a ball carrier.
  • The No. 3 linebacker was a really tough call between Gordon and Ohio State's Ross Homan. Ultimately, Homan missing time with a foot injury and Gordon displaying remarkable consistency alongside Greg Jones made Gordo the pick.
  • Another tough call was DJK ahead of Indiana's Terrance Turner, who had 21 more receptions but fewer yards and seven fewer touchdown catches.
  • The deepest position among Big Ten seniors (by far): offensive guard. I went with Moffitt and Carimi, but players like Ohio State's Justin Boren, Michigan's Stephen Schilling, Iowa's Julian Vandervelde and Illinois' Randall Hunt all were good options.
  • Five teams didn't produce selections: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern. Is that a good omen or a bad one for 2011?
Selections by team: Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (5), Michigan State (5), Iowa (4), Penn State (3), Purdue (2)
LOS ANGELES -- At some point on the night of April 28, Gabe Carimi will hear his name called in New York's Radio City Music Hall.

Carimi will collect a bunch of money, a new address and countless other perks that go along with being a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireGabe Carimi anchors Wisconsin's stellar offensive line.
But he'll also lose something that night. Carimi will never be a part of an offensive line like the one he anchors at Wisconsin.

"It won’t happen again," he said. "I was guaranteed to be with these people for five years. How it is with the next level, people get traded and stuff, so I'll never have that tight bond that we have here."

Like all great offensive lines, Wisconsin's group aces the chemistry test. The Badgers' linemen not only have worked together for years on the field, but they enjoy each other's company away from it.

The physical gifts are also there. Wisconsin's size up front is well documented -- its top six linemen average 319.7 pounds; center Peter Konz is the runt at 313 -- and the line's athleticism is significantly underrated.

But the line's best trait is its work ethic. Rarely does a unit enter the season tagged as the nation's best and exit the season with the same label. Preseason hype and offensive linemen mix about as well as garden salad and offensive linemen, but Wisconsin's players were well aware of the expectations.

But the talk didn't deter them from the action it took to be great.

"It comes down to the performance on the field," Badgers O-line coach Bob Bostad said. "It comes down to your work ethic, how hard you’re straining. Are you doing those things? Are you executing?

"Talking and all those things, that's great, but go out there and do it on the field."

Wisconsin's offensive line made its biggest statements between the lines in helping the team reach the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

No offensive line in America has credentials like Wisconsin's:

  • The line blocked for three 800-yard running backs, the most in the nation this season.
  • Wisconsin ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring (T-4th, 43.3 ppg); red zone touchdowns (2nd, 80 percent); fewest penalties (1st, 2.9 per game); fifth in red zone scoring (5th, 90.8 percent); third-down conversions (8th, 50.8 percent); possession time (7th, 32:39 average); rushing touchdowns (2nd, 46); and rush yards per carry (8th, 5.52 ypc).
  • The Badgers averaged 45.2 points in Big Ten play, the second-highest mark in league history.
  • Wisconsin attempted just one pass after halftime against Michigan and finished off a 48-28 win with 29 consecutive run plays (not counting two kneel-downs) that racked up 171 yards.

"We all kind of expected them to do great things this year because they didn't talk, they were doers and they worked and worked and worked," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "We knew we had a lot of guys coming back on the line, but that's all on paper.

"We're where we are today because of them."

Wisconsin returned all five starters up front this season and welcomed back valuable lineman Bill Nagy, who missed all but three games last season after suffering several incidents in a moped accident. The Badgers boasted depth, talent and experience up front, but the line didn't surge out of the gate.

"It was like trying to start an engine," Bostad said. "We were winning, but I just didn’t think we were where we needed to be."

Bostad didn't think the linemen got caught up in their hype, but they needed a jolt. Unfortunately for the Badgers, one arrived Oct. 2 in the Big Ten opener at Michigan State.

The Spartans limited damage from Wisconsin's run game and flustered Tolzien, who completed only 11 of 25 passes in a 34-24 loss.

Bostad called the setback "an eye-opener." He could have called it a "hole opener" because that's all the Badgers' line did the rest of the regular season.

"A couple times I've stutter-stepped just because the holes are so big," running back John Clay said. "I didn’t know if it was real or not."

Two weeks after the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin upset top-ranked Ohio State in a game clearly won at the line of scrimmage. Cameron Heyward and the celebrated Buckeyes' defense was no match for Carimi, John Moffitt & Co., as the line created huge lanes and racked up 184 rush yards and three touchdowns.

The best part?

"We didn't do a damn thing different," Bostad said. "We jumped out ahead of them and kept moving. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to do that or be committed to that. Either they’re intimidated by it, they don’t believe in it, they just don’t feel kids can dominate like that anymore."

Wisconsin's offensive line has clear leadership in the senior triumvirate of Carimi, Moffitt and Nagy, who each bring their own style.

Carimi is the natural, the Outland Trophy winner, the future first-round pick. He doesn't say much because he doesn't need to. Others can learn simply watch and learn.

Moffitt is the vocal one, providing superb sound bites away from the field but words of inspiration during practices and games. His speech before Wisconsin's road win against Iowa still resonates.

Nagy has provided versatility, filling in at center, both guard spots and even tight end, where he started two games in Wisconsin's jumbo personnel package.

"Gabe is very talented, Moffitt’s very tough and Bill Nagy’s selfless," Bostad said. "Those are three great things to have."

The ingredients have helped Wisconsin's line fuel the push to Pasadena.

"The coolest part about it is they’ve put in the work," Tolzien said. "It's not something just given to them and it’s not just based on natural talent. It's based on how hard they’ve worked, the scheme that was put together and guys buying in and just doing their jobs."
CARSON, Calif. -- Wisconsin ended the regular season as arguably the nation's hottest team.

The Badgers not only won their final seven regular-season games but did so in dominating fashion. They won six of the seven contests by 13 points or more, each of their final four by 20 points or more and exploded for 201 points in their final three games.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Michael ConroyScott Tolzien and the Badgers scored 201 points in the final three games of the regular season.
A five-week break between the end of the regular season and the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO could be seen as a major buzz kill for a team like Wisconsin. But the Badgers don't view things that way.

"There was a gap?" linebacker Culmer St. Jean asked me during our interview Sunday. "Nah, I really didn't notice the gap."

It helps that the Badgers didn't take their foot off of the gas during the break between games.

Wisconsin had its first-team offense go against its first-team defense for chunks of bowl practices. The Badgers even did a bit of scrimmaging Monday during their workout at the Home Depot Center.

"It's just the way we work," offensive lineman Bill Nagy said. "The way we kept that going was just competing every day in practice. We've got such good talent on both sides of the ball. Going against each other, it's real competitive and that helps us a lot."

Nagy sees similarities between the Badgers' pre-bowl approach and what they did during their bye week in the regular season. Although the open date fell on Oct. 30 and Wisconsin had endured several injuries the previous game against Iowa, the team didn't ease up in practice.

After the bye, Wisconsin outscored its final four opponents by a combined tally of 235-84.

"It's fun," Nagy said of the Badgers' approach. "At first, right after the game, you get a little time off, but then coming back and scrimmaging against each other, it keeps you fresh."
Wisconsin's offense isn't new. It's just better. A lot better.

The Badgers have been rooted in the same offensive principles for years: the power run, bruising line play, an effective play-action game, efficient quarterbacking, tight ends and receivers who catch (passes) and throw (blocks).

"When we go recruit these guys, they know who we are," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst told me this week. "We haven't changed."

What has changed this season are the results. Wisconsin's offense has gone from pretty good to virtually unstoppable.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe efficient play of Scott Tolzien is one reason the Wisconsin offense has been on a roll this season.
The numbers don't lie (thanks to the Wisconsin sports info staff for these notes):

  • Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally in scoring at 40.9 points per game. The Badgers will easily eclipse the team single-season scoring record of 34.3 points per game set in 2005.
  • The Badgers are even more potent in Big Ten play, averaging 41.7 points. Since 1936, only four Big Ten teams have averaged at least 40 points per game for an entire conference season. Wisconsin has scored on 45 of 71 possessions (63.4 percent) in league play, not including five possessions on which it ran out the clock to end the half or a game.
  • During its current six-game winning streak, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents by more than 22 points per game (44.7-22). The Badgers have averaged 240.7 yards on the ground, while quarterback Scott Tolzien has completed 78.6 percent of his passes. Wisconsin has converted 54.1 percent of its third downs (33-of-61) and scored touchdowns on 83.9 percent of its red zone opportunities (26-of-31).
  • Wisconsin ranks second nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (79.3 percent). In Big Ten play, the Badgers have converted 28 of their 33 red zone trips into touchdowns (84.8 percent). Wisconsin ranks ninth nationally in red zone scoring (91.4 percent) and has gone 41-for-42 in its last eight games.
  • The Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 10th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (51.3).
  • Wisconsin already has set a team record with 41 rushing touchdowns

How has this happened? Here are three reasons.

1. Experience and depth


The Badgers aren't lacking in any area of their offense.

They have three senior starters along the offensive line in left tackle Gabe Carimi, left guard John Moffitt and center Bill Nagy. Carimi, an Outland Trophy finalist, and Moffitt have combined to start 87 games in their careers.

The receiving corps also boasts experience with tight end Lance Kendricks, a fifth-year senior, as well as receivers David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, who have combined for 67 starts.

Top running back John Clay has started for two seasons. Same goes for Tolzien.

The Badgers also have had plenty of players step up when others go down, whether it's running back Montee Ball, receiver Jared Abbrederis or tight ends Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen.

"The neat thing about it is it takes everyone to be a part of it," Chryst said. "Everyone can really take ownership for what's happening."

2. Running back depth

Most teams would be in trouble if they lost the league's offensive player of the year for a few games. Not Wisconsin.

Clay's knee injury hasn't slowed down the Badgers' run game one bit. In fact, Wisconsin is putting up even better numbers without him -- not a knock against Clay, just a fact -- by rushing for 695 yards and 12 touchdowns in wins against Indiana and Michigan.

Wisconsin is the only FBS team to have three backs with at least 600 rushing yards: Clay (929), freshman James White (895) and Ball (686). All three players have recorded 13 rushing touchdowns this season.

While White has emerged as the Big Ten freshman of the year front-runner, Ball has provided the biggest lift. An afterthought in the first half of the season, Ball stepped in after injuries to both Clay and White and has 467 rush yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games.

"Montee was a big part of what we were doing in the second half of last season, and Montee has continued to improve," Chryst said. "You've got to give him a ton of credit for not getting caught up where he is on the depth chart and keeping his focus."

3. Scott Tolzien

Wisconsin has mass-produced elite offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends in recent years, but the quarterback position has been more of a headache.

Tolzien came out of nowhere to win the starting job in 2009, and he has taken his game to another level this fall. The senior leads the nation in completion percentage (73.9) -- he completed 24 consecutive passes before an interception last Saturday -- and has completed 78.6 percent of his passes during the current win streak.

Tolzien is on pace to set team records for career pass efficiency (151.2 rating) and career completion percentage (68.2). He has done his best work in clutch situations, completing 23 of 27 passes with 12 touchdowns and only one interception in the red zone, and completing 40 of 57 passes for 492 yards on third down (rating of 150.8).

"He's playing his position as good as anybody in college football," head coach Bret Bielema said. "What he's done in the red zone, it's just unbelievable. And ball-security wise, being able to come through in clutch situations, has been really unparalleled by anything I've ever witnessed."

Big Ten mailblog

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
6:00
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Fire away.

Lance from Bedford, Pa., writes: Hi Adam, I am happy to see JoePa coming back in 2011. Even though I am not sure he has it left in him, I think he deserves one more run at a national championship. He has always run a clean program and won football games the right way. Most of all, I am not quite ready to see the end of an era, a certain style of football, the black shoes, the khakis, the college football aura that follows him around. Having said all of this, I have my reserves about what happens when he does step down. I hope the administration goes away from JoePa football and looks outside for a replacement. The staff currently at PSU has been great, but by now their minds have to be so saturated with Paterno-ball that it would be tough for them to change. They would be constantly compared to JoePa and it would be as if nothing changed, it would still be 'three yards and a cloud of dust'. Not that this is the worst thing in the world, but if you are a premier program with a chance to attract almost any head coach, why not evolve your program? I want to see it. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Agree wholeheartedly on Joe Paterno. He's great for the game and I hope he coaches forever. But when he does step down, Penn State has to conduct a national search. It's too big of a job with too much invested to simply promote from within without gauging what else is out there. A lot of Penn State fans share your view about Joe Paterno's assistants -- they're too much like him, they won't evolve enough. While I'd like to see guys like Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson Sr. get some consideration for the job, Penn State has to open it up to the outside. When you're a big-time program, you need to act like one.


Aaron from Dallas writes: Just wondering how you justify ranking Penn State over Iowa. I know they're improved and that Iowa dropped two in a row but Iowa beat penn state by three TDs, played ohio state to the gun, throttled MSU and have 4 losses by 15 total points, 3 to top 25 teams, all lost in the final minutes. Iowa has been tied or had a lead in the 4th quarter of every game. PSU has lost 4 by a total of 86, 3 to top 25 teams. They just got beat by 4 scores at ohio state less than two weeks ago.Who have they beat? Their signature win is Michigan. They haven't even played two of the top 3 in the big ten. I just don't see how you feel that PSU is a better team. They've lost 8 of 9 to Iowa, do you think they beat Iowa if they line up this week? Interested to hear your rationale and keep up the great coverage.

Adam Rittenberg: The power rankings aren't about who is the best team when the season is over. They're about who is playing the best at the moment. This has been stated oh, I don't know, 100 times during the season. Otherwise, there would be almost no fluctuation and there would be little point in doing them. Everyone brings up the head-to-head argument, which is fine, but in today's college football, beating someone six weeks ago might as well be six years ago. Penn State is playing a lot better than it did on Oct. 2, while Iowa has, by any measure, struggled since mid October with three Big Ten losses, a very fortunate win at Indiana and one excellent performance against Michigan State.


Brian from Des Moines writes: How has there been nothing from the league about Hines? It's fine to go headhunting two of Iowa's best players and knock one out for several weeks? I guess I'm just going to have to hope karma inflicts on him what he decided to inflict on others. Nice job singling him out for a helmet sticker. Guess we know where you stand on dirty players.

Adam Rittenberg: Funny, Brian, but I didn't give Jermale Hines a helmet sticker. I gave them to Brian Rolle, Cameron Heyward and John Simon. Read the blog a little more carefully next time before tossing out accusations. I asked Kirk Ferentz about the play and he saw nothing wrong with the hit. While there might have been a pass-inference foul, Ferentz called it "an aggressive football play." So let's move on.


AA from San Francisco writes: Adam,I'm curious why MSU is considered such a distant third in this race to the Big 10 title. This Spartan team has nothing to apologize for if they pull out a victory in Happy Valley this weekend. (Big if for sure)Is Wisconsin's performance really that dominant? Running it up to 83 on Indiana doesn't say much about anything other than BB's character. Beating Michigan by 20 on the road... MSU did that too. Great home win over OSU. The Iowa win was equally impressive and Sparty laid a complete egg there. I would argue however that this is balanced out by the solid 10 point win they have over the Badgers HEAD-TO-HEAD. (It doesn't matter when it happened)Speaking of head-to-head, Why hasn't anyone brought this up? MSU beat UW, UW beat OSU, OSU beat neither. A true three team tie break is when the participants all beat each other. That is not the case here. At the end of the day, I don't have a problem with a three team co-championship, but Michigan State has as much right to it as any of the other participants. They would be an 11-1 team with victories over 7 likely bowl teams. That is no fluke of a resume. A couple close games and one nightmare day at Iowa shouldn't change that.

Adam Rittenberg: AA, no one is saying Michigan State has less of a right to call itself the Big Ten champ if it wins Saturday. The Spartans absolutely deserve the trophy as much as Wisconsin and Ohio State do. While I hate the co-champs thing, we have to live with it this year and Michigan State will earn the crown if it wins at Penn State for the first time since 1965. Regarding the head-to-head win, unfortunately it does matter when it happened. As Kirk Cousins told me this week, it matters when you lose a game. Michigan State's loss in late October hurt more than the setbacks by Wisconsin and Ohio State earlier in the month. I also disagree about how a three-team tiebreak should be determined. If two of the teams don't play, the record within the group shouldn't be used.


Jacob from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: In Bret Bielema's press conference, he alluded to stopping Michigan's defensive "tactics" by pointing to a chop block penalty in the second quarter, saying that it "sent a message." As we all know very well, a chop block is an extremely dangerous action that can easily injure a player and ruin a young man's career. Any coach who orders his players to cause an injury should rightly be reviled by any and all sane individuals. Why is there no outcry from the media that a coach ordered a chop block, against an already injured player, no less? Why can a coach willingly endanger a student athlete merely to "rectify" a perceived disadvantage with no repercussions? Does the media lack a soul?

Adam Rittenberg: Nope, but the media gets things wrong sometimes, and this is one of those times. Bielema never used the phrase "send a message" when discussing the chop block penalty on John Moffitt. I even asked the coach about it again today, and he replied, "Absolutely not. I prefer it didn't happen. No message being sent." There was no ordering of a chop block. John Moffitt expected Mike Martin to be disengaged when he went low, but Martin was still tied up with Bill Nagy. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said today that he wants to get more clarification on plays like this one but also mentioned that Michigan has been called for defensive holding a few times. It was an unfortunate play, but let's not blow this out of proportion.
Montee Ball appreciated the honesty in the summer, and he does so even more these days.

Ball knew when he signed up to play running back at Wisconsin, he would be in a constant competition. Badgers running backs coach John Settle simply doesn't do entitlement.

When Settle called Ball into his office in preseason camp, he told the sophomore what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. Despite being the backup to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay in 2009, Ball had been bypassed on the depth chart, by a true freshman (James White), no less.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMontee Ball's role in Wisconsin's offense is rapidly expanding.
"That's a good thing about here, the coaches are very honest with you," Ball said. "They'll tell you how it is. If you're not producing, they'll let you know, and if you are, they'll most definitely put you pretty high on the depth chart. That lets you know where you're at, and it tells you you're not preparing hard enough.

"That's what I took it as when I was third string; I wasn't preparing hard enough. So I made sure I got on top of it."

Ball never stopped preparing despite the demotion, and his patience has paid off for the Badgers in their last two wins. After coming up big on Wisconsin's game-winning drive at Iowa, recording a fourth-down reception and an 8-yard touchdown run, Ball took on an even larger role last week against Purdue.

The 5-11, 236-pound sophomore relieved the injured Clay and rushed for a career-high 127 yards and two touchdowns as Wisconsin rallied for a win to keep the Rose Bowl in its viewfinder.

"I just kept preparing during practice, kept my head up and just kept fighting," Ball said. "I knew my number was going to be called, and I wanted to be able to produce. I didn't want to let my team down."

Ball remembers the preseason conversation with Settle, who tried to gauge how the news would affect the running back. Ball's response: I’m not going anywhere. I'm here to stay.

He upgraded the way he prepared for games, spending more time in the film room. Ball took things to a new level last week as he knew White wouldn't be able to play because of a sprained knee.

"Like coach [Bret Bielema] always says, when you ask a player what they did this week to play well, the player says they watched more film than they ever have," Ball said. "That’s what I did the week before Purdue. I knew that I was second string going into that game, and I knew for sure I was going to get a lot of carries, so I made sure I prepared.

"Once John got a little nicked up, I knew that the team's going to look at me to carry the load. I wasn't surprised at all because I prepared well that week."

Ball is one of several Wisconsin offensive reserves who has stepped up when needed this season.

Jared Abbrederis filled in for Nick Toon at receiver. Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen filled in for Lance Kendricks at tight end. Bill Nagy has filled in along the offensive line, most recently after starting center Peter Konz hurt his ankle at Purdue.

Ball saw how his teammates prepared for bigger roles and did the same.

"He understands that for him to have success, he needs to come to work every day," Bielema said. "Montee knew that James was getting those reps because of the production he was having on the field. ... Now Montee has earned his own and probably is poised to make his first start of the season this week."

Big Ten lunch links

November, 9, 2010
11/09/10
12:00
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Be sure to follow me on Twitter during the Big Ten coaches' teleconference, which begins right now.
John Moffitt liked my suggested nickname for Wisconsin's offensive front: The Thick Red Line.

"That's a good one," the Badgers' All-Big Ten guard said, laughing. "I like that a lot, yeah!"

Moffitt has heard plenty of other submissions as Wisconsin approaches the 2010 season.

[+] EnlargeJohn Moffitt
David Stluka/Icon SMIJohn Moffitt (74) is one of five returning starters on Wisconsin's offensive line.
"Someone came to me and said the Red Shed, which I thought was pretty clever," he said.

Moffitt enjoys the nickname ideas, but there's one description he and his linemates are trying not to read: Best Offensive Line in College Football.

The label is being used a lot by preseason forecasters, and for good reason.

Wisconsin returns all five starters up front, including two first-team All-Big Ten selections in Mofftt and left tackle Gabe Carimi, who already is being pegged as a likely top 20 pick in April's NFL draft. Despite some health issues, the line performed very well in 2009, as Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring (31.8 ppg), rushing (203.8 ypg) and total offense (416.9 ypg). The line paved the way for tailback John Clay to earn Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors.

The Badgers are very big, very physical and likely deeper up front, as guard Bill Nagy returns to the mix and center Peter Konz has recovered from blood clots in his lungs. Injuries throughout 2009 forced Wisconsin to use quite a few linemen in games. The payoff should come this year.

For those reasons and more -- Wisconsin's history along the offensive line speaks for itself -- the B-word can and should be used when describing the Badgers' front five.

Just don't mention it to players.

"That's a dangerous thing to let settle into your head," Moffitt said. "It can make you rest on your laurels more. That's not something we're trying to repeat to each other or even something we're trying to mention."

Line coach Bob Bostad plays an important role in snuffing out any signs of overconfidence. According to Moffitt, the line started training camp a bit rusty, and Bostad "never misses an opportunity to correct a guy; doesn't matter if he's a senior or a freshman."

Chemistry shouldn't be a problem with Wisconsin's experienced group, and neither should complacency.

"At O-line, it's not just handed over to you," Moffitt said. "Despite the experience and the accolades, we still have to continue working."

Big Ten lunch links

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
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I don't like tests, that's why I didn't go to college. Don't test me, 'cause I will fail a majority of the time.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 17, 2010
8/17/10
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Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods ...

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