Big Ten: Brian Peters

Earlier this week, I asked you to identify the Big Ten's strongest position group. Not surprisingly, running back ran away from the competition with 53 percent of the vote.

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's weakest position group entering the season?

  •  
    59%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,366)

Can't blame you there. The Big Ten returns its top three running backs from 2011 -- Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead and Penn State's Silas Redd -- along with a group of others (Michigan's Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell) who should be very good. While it's a little surprising cornerback didn't receive more votes (9 percent), the results went mostly as expected.

Now it's time to select the position where the Big Ten is lacking the most. This vote could be a bit closer, although I have an idea of which position will pull away. Graduation losses and departures to the NFL hit certain positions harder than others. Some position groups, like safety, lacked star power in 2011 and might be a bit weak again this season.

The accompanying poll includes four choices. To refresh your memory, I've made a brief case for why each position could be the weakest in the league.

Wide receiver: League loses top seven pass-catchers from 2011, including first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins (Illinois) and all first- and second-team All-Big Ten selections (Jenkins, Iowa's Marvin McNutt, Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham, Northwestern's Jeremy Ebert and Wisconsin's Nick Toon).

Offensive tackle: Not the strongest position in 2011, and league loses Iowa's Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick, as well as Ohio State's Mike Adams and Illinois' Jeff Allen, both second-round picks. Also gone are Wisconsin's Josh Oglesby, Purdue's Dennis Kelly and Northwestern's Al Netter.

Safety: Arguably the Big Ten's weakest position in 2011, and the league loses first-team all-conference selections Trenton Robinson (Michigan State) and Brian Peters (Northwestern). Penn State's Nick Sukay and Wisconsin's Aaron Henry also are among those departing the league.

Center: The Big Ten loses Rimington Trophy winner David Molk of Michigan, as well as Wisconsin's Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick. Also gone are Nebraska's Mike Caputo and Ohio State's Mike Brewster, who shared second-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.
Northwestern's struggles in the secondary are well documented and hardly exclusive to the 2011 season. After losing three starters, including first-team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, the group is a ginormous area of concern entering the season.

The Wildcats got some help Monday by adding Quinn Evans, a graduate transfer from Stanford, to their roster. Evans, a cornerback for the Cardinal, will be eligible for the 2012 season because he'll complete his sociology degree at Stanford later this month. He has one year of eligibility remaining.

A native of Chandler, Ariz., Evans played just two seasons for the Cardinal. He redshirted in 2009 and missed all of last season because of injury. Evans played mostly on special teams in 2009 and 2010 -- he started one game at cornerback in 2009 -- and recorded a total of 13 tackles and two pass breakups. He'll begin pursuing his master's degree at Northwestern.
"I am extremely excited about the opportunity to finish my college football and academic careers at Northwestern," Evans said in a prepared statement. "My visit to campus and the relationships I've developed with Coach [Pat] Fitzgerald and other members of the Northwestern football program have left no doubt that NU is the right fit for me at this time. I'm looking forward to meeting my new teammates at the start of camp and contributing any way I can to our success this season."

Northwestern obviously needs Evans to stay healthy and contribute more than he did at Stanford, but there's no downside to this move, as the roster lacks experience and many upperclassmen at the cornerback or safety spots. This isn't Danny O'Brien stepping in for Wisconsin, but Northwestern's need in the secondary mirrors that of Wisconsin's at the quarterback spot.

Fitzgerald in April called the graduate transfer rule "one of those rules that doesn't make a lot of sense," but added that if it's there, coaches should use it.

Northwestern is still awaiting word on another Pac-12 transfer, Kyle Prater, the former USC wide receiver who hopes to earn a waiver that would make him eligible for the 2012 season. The NCAA is reviewing Prater's paperwork, and a decision could come anywhere from later this month to sometime in August.

Northwestern spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 3-5 (fifth, Legends Division)
Returning starters: offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Kain Colter, WR Demetrius Fields, WR Christian Jones, G Brian Mulroe, C Brandon Vitabile, DE Tyler Scott, LB David Nwabuisi, S Ibraheim Campbell

Key losses
QB Dan Persa, WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, LT Al Netter, CB Jordan Mabin, S Brian Peters, DT Jack DiNardo

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Kain Colter* (654 yards)
Passing: Dan Persa (2,376 yards)
Receiving: Jeremy Ebert (1,060 yards)
Tackles: Ibraheim Campbell* (100)
Sacks: Vince Browne, Jack DiNardo and Quentin Williams* (3)
Interceptions: Brian Peters (5)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line makes strides: Northwestern's pass rush has been absent for the past two seasons, but things could soon be shifting. The defensive line turned in a strong spring as several unproven players stepped forward, including freshman end Deonte Gibson and sophomore tackle Chance Carter, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the spring game. Tyler Scott could be primed for a breakout season, and the Wildcats should be able to ratchet up their pressure with the front four.

2. On target: They might not be household names, but Northwestern's receivers performed very well this spring and form by far the deepest posttion group on the squad. Demetrius Fields provides a veteran presence, and sophomore Christian Jones brings size to the slot position. Speedster Tony Jones returns from injury, and Cam Dickerson emerged as a reliable option this spring. Even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play this season, Northwestern will have plenty of options in the pass game.

3. Nick of time: The struggles in the secondary are well documented, and the Wildcats lose three starters from 2011, including first-team All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters. They'll need several players to grow up quickly and cornerback Nick VanHoose obliged this spring with a strong performance. VanHoose, who redshirted last season, put himself in position to secure a starting job and showcased good speed and ball skills.

Fall questions

1. Colter's arm: Kain Colter is the best athlete Northwestern has had at quarterback since installing the spread offense in 2000, but his passing skills remain under scrutiny. He made velocity a chief priority during the offseason after completing 55 of 82 pass attempts in 2011, and while he showed promise in practices, he looked shaky in the spring game. Northwestern's offense doesn't stretch the field that often, but the Wildcats quarterbacks must make high-percentage throws to the outside and keep the chains moving. Colter's running skills are special, but he must continue to make progress with his throwing arm.

2. Defensive playmakers: The Wildcats are in desperate need of difference-makers on defense after recording just 20 takeaways (T-77th nationally), 17 sacks (T-106th) and 59 tackles for loss (104th) last season. While the defensive line's play this spring is encouraging, Northwestern needs more from all three levels of the defense, particularly a linebacking corps that returns all three starters. Peters' presence in the secondary will be missed, and when fall camp kicks off in August, the coaches will be looking for players who can fly to the ball and change the game.

3. Offensive line/run game: It's essential for the line to build better chemistry during preseason camp after mixed results this spring. Northwestern hasn't produced an elite featured running back since Tyrell Sutton graduated, and the physical run blocking simply hasn't been there on a consistent basis. The line also struggled in the spring game, surrendering six sacks and eight tackles for loss. While Colter's mobility should help out the front five, the group needs to elevate its play for the offense to keep producing at a high rate.

Big shoes to fill: Northwestern

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We're nearing the conclusion of our series looking at two departing stars players from each Big Ten team whose shoes need to be filled this spring. Today we focus the lens on Northwestern, which started spring drills over the weekend. We already know that Kain Colter is the top choice to replace the large void left by quarterback Dan Persa, so we'll take a look at two other spots.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ebert
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeremy Ebert accounted for 137 receptions and 2,013 receiving yards for Northwestern over the past two seasons.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Jeremy Ebert, WR

Why: Ebert was the Wildcats' leading receiver and one of the best in the Big Ten each of the past two seasons. He caught 75 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011.

Replacement candidates: Christian Jones (6-3, 225, Soph.); Demetrius Fields (6-0, 210, Sr.); Tony Jones (6-0, 185, Soph); Rashad Lawrence (6-2, 185, Jr.); Kyle Prater (6-5, 215, Soph-Tr).

The skinny: The big X-factor here is Prater, the USC transfer who is hoping to gain immediate eligibility for this season. He will enroll March 26 and will have to wait for an NCAA ruling this summer. Christian Jones played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman, catching 16 passes for 195 yards. He's got the physical tools to be a No. 1 receiver. Fields had a career-best seven catches in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, perhaps signaling he's ready to take off. Tony Jones sat out last year because of injury but has a lot of speed. Northwestern has a lot of depth here, but can anyone produce at a consistently high level like Ebert?

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Brian Peters, S

Why: Peters was one of the leaders of the Wildcats' defense, a three-year starter who had 92 tackles and five interceptions last season. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media.

Replacement candidates: Hunter Bates (5-10, 180, Sr.); Jared Carpenter (6-0, 205, Sr.); Davion Fleming (5-10, 200, Jr.); Matt Carpenter (6-2, 200, R-Fr.); Jimmy Hall (6-2, 205, Soph.); Terrance Brown, (6-1, 195, incoming freshman); Traveon Henry (6-1, 200, incoming freshman); Joseph Jones (6-1, 200, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Bates has learned as Peters' backup and should be ready to challenge for a starting spot this spring, though he struggled at times in 2011. Jared Carpenter served as the backup at the other safety spot, which will be manned by sophomore Ibraheim Campbell, but Carpenter is injured and won't go through spring drills. Fleming and Hall are promising athletes who just need more experience. Defensive back in general is a concern for the Wildcats this spring after a subpar 2011 on pass defense and the loss of both Peters and top cornerback Jordan Mabin. Several young players could earn playing time with strong performances in practice.
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.

Spring previews: Legends Division

February, 17, 2012
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The 2012 Big Ten season doesn't kick off for six-and-a-half months, but spring football is just around the corner. All 12 Big Ten squads will hit the field next month for the first of 15 spring practices. There are plenty of new faces, as the winter months brought an unprecedented number of coaching changes to the Big Ten. Should be a fun and exciting spring around the conference.

Let's take a quick look at the Leaders Division:

IOWA

Spring practice start date: March 24
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New coaching flavor: For the first time in the Kirk Ferentz era, Iowa will welcome new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Phil Parker isn't exactly new, having served as Iowa's defensive backs coach throughout Ferentz's tenure, but he now takes charge of the defense for the first time. Will he continue running Norm Parker's scheme or shake things up? Iowa also will have a new offensive coordinator (yet to be named) and several new position coaches, including Reese Morgan, who moves from offensive line to defensive line.
  • Running back auditions: Iowa once again needs to identify a featured back after Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook in January. Coker basically was the team's rushing attack in 2011, accounting for 77.3 percent of the rushing yards and 61.9 percent of the carries. Jordan Canzeri and Jason White will compete with several other unproven players this spring. The good news is Iowa has had little trouble developing backs. Keeping them is another story.
  • Reloading the defensive line: The running backs might get more attention, but defensive line is Iowa's most pressing need entering the spring. The Hawkeyes lose three starters from last season's squad, including NFL prospect Mike Daniels at defensive tackle. While D-line historically has been a strength for Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't had so much uncertainty in quite some time. Morgan, who hasn't coached on the defensive side, has his work cut out this spring.
MICHIGAN

Spring practice start date: March 17
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Defensive line rotation: It's a good thing coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison focus so much on the defensive line. The unit needs some extra attention this spring after losing standouts Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. The defensive tackle spot will be particularly interesting. A lot of eyes will be on Will Campbell to see if the big man can finally blossom. Quinton Washington and others are in the mix.
  • Receiving orders: Michigan needs to develop more options in the passing game this spring. The team loses top wideout Junior Hemingway, and Darryl Stonum was dismissed from the squad in January following another legal issue. Roy Roundtree needs a big spring as he looks to re-establish himself as the team's No. 1 wideout after a production drop-off last season. Tight end Kevin Koger also departs, creating an opportunity for others.
  • Al Borges' offense, Take 2: The new offense had some highs and lows in Year 1, and Michigan will be looking to establish greater consistency this season. It'll be interesting to see how a full year in the system impacts quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson must cut down on his interceptions after tossing 15 last season. The Wolverines also are looking for an offensive line anchor following the departure of All-American center David Molk.
MICHIGAN STATE

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Take it to the Max: Andrew Maxwell's time has arrived as he steps in for three-year starter and three-time captain Kirk Cousins at quarterback. It's a tall order, but Maxwell has been groomed for this moment and has shown good potential in practices. He'll be working with a new set of leading receivers, including Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who hopes to be cleared to play for the upcoming season. Maxwell must establish himself as a team leader this spring.
  • We're not Worthy: All-American Jerel Worthy is gone, and Michigan State needs a replacement for the standout defensive tackle. While Anthony Rashad White returns at the other D-tackle spot, the Spartans don't have much overall depth at the position. It'll be interesting to see what the coaches do with Micajah Reynolds, who has bounced between defensive line and offensive line during his career. It's a big spring for Vanderbilt transfer James Kittredge and a host of players who redshirted last season, including Damon Knox.
  • Receiving orders: Arnett seemingly would be Michigan State's No. 1 receiver if he's ruled eligible by the NCAA, but there are no guarantees and the Spartans must identify other options this spring. Bennie Fowler showed promise in 2010 before being slowed by a foot injury last season. He needs a strong spring. Michigan State also is moving Tony Lippett back to receiver from cornerback, where he started several games last season. Lippett is an excellent athlete who can provide a boost on the edge. The Spartans also will be looking for more from tight end Dion Sims.
MINNESOTA

Spring practice start date: March 22
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The search for a pass rush: Minnesota should be improved on offense in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era, but the team could sink or swim depending on the defense. It starts up front with a defensive line that hasn't generated much pressure for several years. Coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be aggressive, but can he find difference-makers? The Gophers haven't had an elite pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.
  • Supporting cast on offense: Although quarterback Marqueis Gray had his ups and downs last season, he accounted for most of Minnesota's offense, leading the team with 966 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Gray needs more help if the Gophers intend to take the next step this season. Minnesota will be looking for a featured running back this spring, as Donnell Kirkwood and others are in the mix. The Gophers also need more options at receiver after losing Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Troy Stoudermire: Stoudermire turned heads last spring with some big hits from the cornerback spot. After receiving an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA in January, he'll look to deliver more punishment. Minnesota desperately needs leaders and playmakers to emerge in the secondary, and Stoudermire's return could be huge after he missed most last season with a broken bone in his forearm.
NEBRASKA

Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Star search on defense: No Big Ten defense loses more star power than Nebraska, which must replace linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, the league's top performers at their respective positions. David's departure is especially critical, as Nebraska lacked depth in its defensive midsection last season. Although Nebraska played most of the past season without defensive tackle Jared Crick, it needs some difference-makers to emerge in all three levels of the defense this spring.
  • Papuchis takes over: Like Iowa, Nebraska promoted a position coach to defensive coordinator, as John Papuchis takes control of a unit that fell short of expectations last season. Papuchis is young and energetic, and his rapid rise mirrors that of his boss, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini. Although no system overhaul is expected, it will be interesting to see how Papuchis puts his imprint on the defense this spring.
  • Taylor Martinez's maturation: Despite two years as the starter and the support of his coaches, Martinez enters a pivotal spring. Although Martinez remained healthy last season and showed improved decision-making at times, he also completed just 56.3 percent of his passes and didn't break off as many long runs. A full year in Tim Beck's offense could pay off for Martinez this spring, but he needs to continue to make strides. It will be interesting to see if the coaches even entertain the possibility of a competition, or if backup Brion Carnes gets more reps.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring practice start date: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Colter and the QB race: Northwestern will have a quarterback competition this spring as it looks for Dan Persa's replacement, but the hope among many is for Kain Colter to take control. Colter stepped in for Persa last season and emerged as the team's best all-around offensive weapon. But he needs to improve his arm strength and his accuracy and show he can be a more complete quarterback at this level. Although Colter will be on the field no matter what in the fall, he has the opportunity in spring ball to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.
  • Young defenders: The defense has been a big problem for the past year and a half, and Northwestern needs to identify more playmakers before September. The good news is the Wildcats played a lot of young players last season, particularly late in the season. Northwestern needs its youth to mature, beginning in the spring. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Tyler Scott, safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and cornerback Daniel Jones. Northwestern needs several of them to take the next step.
  • Spotlight on the secondary: Few Big Ten units struggled more than Northwestern's secondary did last season. Making matters worse, the Wildcats lose three starters, including All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jordan Mabin, a four-year starter. If Northwestern ever intends to turn the corner as a program, it needs to build better depth in the secondary, whether it's through recruiting or from moving players from other positions. It'll be interesting to see how the group performs this spring.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

January, 24, 2012
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Earlier today, we took a look at the recruiting needs of every team in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Now it's time to turn our attention to the Legends Division and see what positions each team needs to restock before next week's signing day:

Iowa

Running backs: Iowa's problems with keeping running backs in school has been well documented, and the Hawkeyes lost leading rusher Marcus Coker and backup Mika'il McCall after off-the-field problems last season. The team really needs some more depth in the backfield, and don't be surprised if incoming freshman Greg Garmon pushes for playing time immediately.

Defensive linemen: Iowa had three defensive linemen drafted off the 2010 team and now loses its top two guys up front in departing seniors Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. That's an awful lot of talent to replace in a couple of years, and the Hawkeyes can't expect to improve their defense without doing so. Finding some more pass rushers off the edge will be key.

Wide receivers: Marvin McNutt had a wonderful senior season, but the passing game often stalled whenever he couldn't wiggle free. Now he's gone, leaving a void at the position. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis have shown promise, but James Vandenberg could use some more weapons. Iowa has secured commitments from three receivers in this class.

Michigan

Wide receiver: The loss of Darryl Stonum, who was dismissed following another run in with the law, created a void at receiver, especially with top pass-catcher Junior Hemingway out of eligibility. The Wolverines will have to hope Roy Roundtree can bounce back with a big season, because all other wideout options are unproven at this point. Three receivers are committed to Brady Hoke in this class.

Defensive line: Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were key cogs in Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl title in 2011, and they have both moved on, along with starter Will Heininger. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart and will want to grab as many difference makers as they can at that key position. Ondre Pipkins, a 325-pound tackle, is the highest rated defensive lineman in the Wolverines' class right now.

Offensive line: While the Wolverines should be fine on the O-line in 2012, even without Rimington Trophy winner David Molk and starting right tackle Mark Huyge, they signed only four offensive linemen total in the past two classes. Since linemen are often slow to develop, they need to refill the cupboard now. Michigan has four offensive linemen committed in this class, including standout Kyle Kalis.

Michigan State

Offensive tackles: Thanks in large part to injuries, Michigan State had to move a defensive lineman (Dan France) to tackle last summer and plug in a junior-college transfer (Fou Fonoti) into the other tackle spot. That the Spartans won the Legends Division title despite that is kind of amazing in retrospect. France will be a junior in 2012 and Fonoti will be in his final year of eligibility. They need more depth at the position, and they've got commitments from two offensive tackles so far in this class.

Wide receivers: Two of the most successful receivers in school history are gone as Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham finished off wildly productive careers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is seeking a waiver to play immediately and will help the future even if he has to sit out a year. Michigan State is looking to sign three other receivers in this class to fill out the future two-deep.

Running back: Edwin Baker's early entry to the NFL draft came as a surprise. Michigan State is still in good shape at tailback for 2012 with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. But after not signing a running back in last year's class, Mark Dantonio could use at least one more option in the backfield.

Minnesota

Defensive backs: It was no secret that Minnesota's pass defense was brutal at times in 2011, and top tackler Kim Royston leaves a hole at safety with his graduation. Getting Troy Stoudermire back for an extra year helps, but Jerry Kill needs to upgrade the talent in the secondary. That's why he has signed three junior-college defensive backs and secured commitments from four high school safeties so far.

Defensive tackle: One of the reasons the pass defense was so bad was a lack of pass rush applied by the front four. The Gophers had only 19 sacks this season, a year after registering just nine. Making matters worse, both starting tackles were seniors this season. Kill signed a junior-college defensive tackle and has two prep tackles committed. He needs to find guys who can find their way to the quarterback.

Overall talent and depth: Kill has said there are gaps in the Gophers' classes, and depth issues could plague the team during his rebuilding efforts. Including six junior-college players signed to help right away, Minnesota has a class of 28 right now. Minnesota simply needs more bodies everywhere.

Nebraska

Linebacker: Lavonte David leaves some rather large cleats to fill. Not only was he Nebraska's leading tackler the past two seasons, he was the only linebacker who played at a consistently high level. The Huskers' starters at the other two linebacker spots will be seniors this year, and depth is thin behind them. So it's little wonder why Bo Pelini has used four spots so far in what is expected to be a small class to fill that position, led by four-star prospect Michael Rose.

Tight end: Three of the top four options at tight ends will be seniors in 2012, leaving very little behind them. Sam Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton and younger brother of current Huskers tight end Ben, is on his way to help.

Quarterback: Taylor Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into his junior year, and Nebraska never had to worry about playing Brion Carnes in a big spot this year after Bubba Starling opted for baseball. Still, it's dangerous to not have depth at quarterback, and so the Huskers need to add at least one signal caller in this class.

Northwestern

Defensive backs: The Wildcats were burned repeatedly in the passing game in 2011, and their best defensive back (safety Brian Peters) won't be around next season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has commitments from three safeties in this class already.

Defensive playmakers: Northwestern was shockingly short on guys who could blow up another team's offensive play in 2011, so Fitzgerald's main mission had to be finding more guys who played like he did in college. That aim got a big boost when stud defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo committed to play in Evanston. That's a good start.

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
The offseason is upon us, and earlier today Brian took a look at the to-do lists for each team in the Leaders Division. Let's now turn the attention to the Legends Division and what teams need to accomplish during the next seven-plus months.

As a reminder, these items aren't recruiting needs, which we'll address in the near future, but rather areas each team needs to repair or restock before Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.

Iowa
  • Reverse the RB curse: Iowa's inability to retain promising running backs is well documented, and the Hawkeyes now must replace prolific sophomore Marcus Coker, who led the Big Ten in carries per game last fall (23.4 a game). The team has shown it produces capable backs, and several players either already on the roster or entering the mix could emerge. But it's critical that Iowa develops multiple options in the backfield in case injuries crop up or the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God) decides to strike again.
  • Replenish the defensive line: A year after replacing three NFL draft picks from the defensive line, Iowa once again has to restock in its front four. The team loses three starters, including standout tackle Mike Daniels, and has very little proven experience back in the fold. Defensive line historically has been an area of strength for Iowa, but the team's new defensive coordinator (yet to be named) and the staff must make the front four a focal point as they try to identify difference-makers.
Michigan
  • Shore up the middle: Baseball general managers talk about the need to build a team up the middle. The same theory applies to football as teams that are strong in the center of both lines typically fare well. Michigan must replace two of the nation's best interior linemen in center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and defensive tackle Mike Martin. Both are NFL prospects and will be missed. The Wolverines need Will Campbell, Quinton Washington and others to emerge at defensive tackle. The center spot could be even more critical as coordinator Al Borges relied so heavily on Molk in 2011.
  • Tightening "Shoelace": Michigan won 11 games and a BCS bowl this past season despite enduring "good Denard, bad Denard" fluctuation at the quarterback position. Looking at the Wolverines' daunting 2012 schedule, they'll have no such luxury when September rolls around. They need Denard Robinson to perform like a senior and show good consistency and improved comfort in the offense. He'll need to cut down on turnovers and deliver more performances like the one we saw against Ohio State on Nov. 26.
Michigan State
  • Develop Andrew Maxwell: Michigan State returns the league's most dynamic defense and should be improved in the run game, too. The big question is whether or not the Spartans can replace quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. Andrew Maxwell has been groomed for the role and, barring a surprise, will lead the offense in September. It's a big offseason for Maxwell to establish himself in his own way and build chemistry with his teammates, particularly a new-look receiving corps.
  • Take line play to next level: Head coach Mark Dantonio understands that Big Ten success is tied to excellent play along both lines. The Spartans' defensive line looked elite at times in 2011, particularly when William Gholston and Jerel Worthy decided to dominate. Worthy is off to the NFL, and the Spartans will be looking to build more depth in the interior alongside Anthony Rashad White. More important, Michigan State must take a big step on the offensive line, a unit that lacked experience in 2011. The Spartans can't expect to win 11 games again with the nation's 78th-ranked rushing offense. They've established their identity on defense; it's time to return to their roots on offense and pound green pound.
Minnesota
  • Establish a defensive identity: Gophers coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to have an aggressive, pressuring defense, but the team had only 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss in 2011. Those numbers need to increase and Minnesota must identify more playmakers along a defensive line that returns mostly intact. Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis will lead the linebackers, but Minnesota's defense needs a new quarterback after the departure of productive safety Kim Royston.
  • MarQueis to the max: We've seen snippets of brilliance from quarterback MarQueis Gray, but at other times he looks lost and fails to complete most of his passes (50.7 percent for the season). Minnesota needs to lean on Gray in 2012, not just as a difference-maker, but as a consistent leader every Saturday. Gray enters his second offseason in the system, and his days of splitting time between quarterback and wide receiver are in the rear-view mirror. He's the leader of this football team, and he needs to make the necessary strides to elevate his game.
Nebraska
  • Star search: Nebraska's defense loses two of the nation's best in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The Huskers don't necessarily need their replacements to be stars, but they need difference makers to emerge on a unit that fell short of expectations in 2011. Defensive line figures to be a very strong area for Big Red, and players like Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith will be called upon to lead the way. Nebraska also must make some adjustments to better handle the big, physical offenses in the Big Ten. Linebacker is one position that could use a makeover.
  • Maturity on offense: Running back Rex Burkhead is exempt from this, as he figures to have a huge senior season after making big strides in 2011. But Nebraska's offense has plenty of players that need to mature for the unit to reach its potential this coming season. The offensive line was green at spots and should benefit from another offseason in Tim Beck's system. Nebraska has young talent at wide receiver with Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. If the wideouts can grow up, they'll be dangerous weapons in 2012. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also fits in here. He showed some good things in 2011, but must perform more like a third-year starter next fall.
Northwestern
  • Find playmakers on defense: Northwestern lacked difference-makers on defense this past season and loses one in All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, who led the league with five interceptions. This might never be a shut-down defense, but it needs to identify more players who can influence games. Northwestern returns nine defensive starters and will look to players like defensive end Tyler Scott and safety Ibraheim Campbell to take their game to the next level. The Wildcats recorded a league-low 17 sacks in 2011 and ranked 104th nationally in tackles for loss (59).
  • Figure out the quarterback situation: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has been masterful in turning inexperienced quarterbacks into All-Big Ten players at Northwestern. His next major project likely will be Kain Colter, who filled in admirably last season, but looked limited as a passer, and at times seemed better suited to play wide receiver. Colter will compete with Trevor Siemian and Zack Oliver for the starting job this spring. If he can make a similar jump as his Wildcats predecessors, he could be one of the division's most dangerous players in 2012.

Three keys for Northwestern in Meineke

December, 30, 2011
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Here's a look at three keys for Northwestern during Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas A&M:

1. Protect Persa: One thing the Aggies do as well as anyone is get to the quarterback. They tied for the national lead in sacks per game this season, paced by junior linebacker Sean Porter. Northwestern's offensive line, which allowed 34 sacks this year, needs to hold the fort for quarterback Dan Persa. If he has time, he should be able to exploit a very shaky Texas A&M pass defense. Several quarterbacks had huge days against the Aggies in 2011, including Arkansas' Tyler Wilson (a school-record 510 passing yards), Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (a school-record 438 passing yards), Baylor's Robert Griffin III (a school-record 430 passing yards) and Kansas State's Collin Klein (281 passing yards and 103 rushing yards). A fully healthy Persa and his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, can put up similar big numbers if Persa is not running for cover.

2. Pass coverage: Good luck trying to get pressure on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as his offensive line allowed only eight sacks all season. That's tied for fewest in the nation. So the Wildcats' defense is going to have to excel in pass coverage, which won't be easy without injured starting cornerback Jordan Mabin. Northwestern allowed way too many big plays in the passing game all season even with Mabin, and freshman Daniel Jones got torched when he was pressed into service in the season finale against Michigan State. That puts more pressure on players like corner Jeravin Matthews and safety Brian Peters. The Aggies have a balanced offense that's one of the most explosive in the country, and the Wildcats will have to figure out how to take something away.

3. Just hang around: One way to beat Texas A&M is just to weather the early storm and wait for an Aggies collapse. They led Oklahoma State by 17 points in the first half and lost. They led Arkansas by 18 points and lost. They led Missouri by 11 points and lost. And they led Kansas State by 10 points with six minutes left and lost. If Northwestern can keep this game close in the second half, then you have to wonder about the Aggies' psyche, especially as they're playing for an interim coach. The Wildcats have come up just short in their past couple of bowl games. This time, they just might have the advantage if the game goes down to the wire.

2011 Big Ten Super Seniors

December, 29, 2011
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Borrowing an idea from our friends at the SEC blog, I wanted to recognize some of the best seniors in the Big Ten in 2011.

To spread the love around, the following list features one senior from each Big Ten team. I really looked for guys who saved their best for last, took their game to the next level and performed consistently all season. There are obviously more standout seniors than the ones mentioned below, but these players all deserve some recognition.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Mike Carter/US PresswireSpartans receiver B.J. Cunningham is one of several of ESPN.com's Big Ten Super Seniors.
Here's the list, in alphabetical order:

Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham: He took the step from good (50 catches, 611 receiving yards, 9 TDs) to great (72 catches, 1,240 yards, 12 TDs) this season. He eclipsed 100 receiving yards in both games against Wisconsin and went for 154 yards on nine catches against Ohio State. His 17.2 yards-per-reception average was tops among the Big Ten's leading receivers. Cunningham became a very hard player to contain on the outside.

Nebraska LB Lavonte David: He played only two seasons in Lincoln but won't soon be forgotten. David didn't match his team record tackles total from 2010 (152) but still had 122 stops, the third-highest total in the Big Ten. He also become more of a difference-maker, making the critical plays for the Huskers in wins like Ohio State. David led Nebraska in tackles for loss (11) and finished second in sacks (3.5). He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins: The Illini offense disappeared in the second half, but Jenkins' accomplishments shouldn't go unnoticed. He went from a decent receiver to one of the best in the Big Ten, recording a league-best 82 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. Although Jenkins did much of his damage in the first six games, he still recorded six or more receptions in nine games and at least four catches in all 12 regular-season contests. He accounted for 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards, the most nationally by eight percent.

Purdue LT Dennis Kelly: The offensive linemen deserve some love on this list, and Kelly stabilized Purdue's front five in his third season as a starter. Kelly started every game for the third consecutive season, giving him 37 career starts, and anchored a Purdue line that helped the team rank fifth in the league in rushing (181.6 ypg) and third in first downs (20.5 per game). Kelly finished his career as a bowl champion as Purdue captured the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Tuesday night.

Iowa WR Marvin McNutt: McNutt had been a productive pass-catcher for Iowa, but he took his game to the next level this season. The Big Ten's best receiver recorded 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard receiving performances and four games with multiple touchdown catches. McNutt also made the best catch of the Big Ten season against Michigan State on Nov. 12.

Northwestern S Brian Peters: It was a very rough year for the Wildcats' secondary, but it would have been even worse without Peters' contributions. He made by far the most big plays for the unit, recording four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Peters finished second on the team in tackles (85) and had four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a sack.

Minnesota S Kim Royston: Talk about a player who made the most of his final opportunity. Granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, Royston turned in a terrific season, leading Minnesota and finishing third in the Big Ten with 123 tackles, 36 more than any other Gophers defender. Royston had an interception, two pass breakups and a sack. He recorded double digits in tackles in eight contests and provided leadership for a unit that needed it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswirePenn State defensive tackle Devin Still was more than a handful for opposing blockers in 2011.
Penn State DT Devon Still: Brian and I look like fools (yeah, it happens a lot) for leaving Still off of our preseason top 25 player rankings. But he wasn't nearly the same player in 2010 as he turned out to be this fall. The Lions star put it all together to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. A disruptive force that put strain on every opposing offensive line, Still recorded 17 tackles for loss, tied for fourth in the Big Ten. He had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and his stats hardly tell the full story. No Big Ten player better fits the definition of Super Senior.

Ohio State LB Andrew Sweat: It wasn't a typical year for Ohio State's senior class, as several key players missed chunks of the season because of suspensions. Sweat stepped up his play for a mostly young defense, though, and contributed 68 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception and three pass breakups. The Buckeyes sorely missed him in their final two games, when he sat out with head and elbow injuries.

Indiana LB Jeff Thomas: Youth was served all season at Indiana, which played more young players than any FBS team this season. But Thomas did his part on a flawed defense, leading the squad in both tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10.5). He added three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery. The junior-college transfer has been one of few bright spots for Indiana's defense the past two seasons.

Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen: Many Wolverines defenders benefited from a new coaching staff and a new scheme, but perhaps none more than Van Bergen. He led the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (5) and finished second with three fumble recoveries. Van Bergen finished the season playing his best football, recording seven tackles for loss in the final three games.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: He came to Madison as a senior and turned in one of the more memorable offensive performances in team history. Although Wilson had put up big numbers at NC State, he became a much more efficient quarterback with the Badgers, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 284 attempts. He ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Wilson earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors.

Season report card: Northwestern

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

OFFENSE: B+

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

DEFENSE: D-

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

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-


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

OVERALL: C-

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

Podcast: Breaking down the Big Ten

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
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Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett discuss Illinois' new head coach and talk with Northwestern safety Brian Peters.

Season recap: Northwestern

December, 7, 2011
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NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS


Record: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

Northwestern's chances of making a fourth straight bowl game were in serious doubt in late October. A 2-5 start, marked by an extremely porous defense and the on-again, off-again health status of quarterback Dan Persa, did not offer much optimism.

But then the Wildcats responded with four straight victories, the highlight of which was a 28-25 upset at then-No. 10 Nebraska that nobody saw coming. A defense that head coach Pat Fitzgerald said had to go through some "growing pains" finally started to grow into, if not a dominant unit, then at least a competent one. Northwestern allowed an average of 38.6 points in its first five Big Ten games; over the team's final four games of the season, that number dropped to 18.8.

The Nebraska win still looks like an outlier on a résumé that includes victories over Indiana, Minnesota, Rice, Eastern Illinois and Boston College. But the Wildcats became a tougher opponent once Persa finally healed from last year's Achilles' tendon injury. He passed for an average of 278 yards over the final three games with eight touchdowns, and his 74.2 completion percentage actually bettered last year's record-breaking 73.5 percent mark. Kain Colter was an excellent understudy and jack-of-all-trades weapon, while no one enjoyed Persa's return more than receiver Jeremy Ebert (71 catches, 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns).

Fitzgerald still needs to install some more toughness in the program, especially on the defensive end where he excelled in college. But at least while he's trying to recruit that toughness, he can point to the accomplishment of four straight bowl games.

Offensive MVP: Kain Colter. Persa and Ebert may have more impressive numbers, but nobody did more for the team than Colter. He kept the offense together when Persa couldn't play, most memorably leading the charge to victory in Lincoln. Arguably the best athlete on the team, Colter led the Wildcats in rushing (589 yards and eight touchdowns) and was their third-leading receiver (40 catches for 454 yards and three scores). Defenses never knew quite what to expect when he was on the field.

Defensive MVP: Safety Brian Peters. There weren't a lot of standouts on the Northwestern defense this year, but Peters provided an anchor. He had four interceptions, including one in the end zone against Minnesota despite wearing a cast on his broken left hand. He also made 85 tackles and forced two fumbles. Fitzgerald credited Peters with being one of the senior leaders who helped the defense improve down the stretch.

Turning point: Nov. 5. The win over Nebraska continued Northwestern's recent trend of knocking off at least one good opponent on the road. More than that, it provided hope that the team could get to six wins and gave some much-needed confidence to the defense. The Wildcats' only loss after Oct. 29 came in the finale against Legends Division champion Michigan State.

What's next: A date with Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Houston is an important recruiting area for Fitzgerald, so this game provides great exposure. More importantly, the school is still looking for its first bowl victory since the 1948 Rose Bowl, so beating an A&M team that fired its head coach is top priority.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 21, 2011
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Saw you so much clearer, once you were in my rear-view mirror.

Team of the week: Michigan. The Wolverines flexed their muscles and blew out Nebraska 45-17 in their best performance and arguably biggest win of the season. Michigan is now the Big Ten's best hope for an at-large BCS bid. Michigan State sure liked what happened in Ann Arbor this week, too.

Game of the week: Penn State 20, Ohio State 14. Ultimately, this game had no bearing on the Big Ten title race, but try telling these two teams that. In a week without many thrillers, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes played an old-school, physical game that featured no second-half points but plenty of hold-your-breath moments. Given the backdrop of what Penn State had been dealing with back home, it was far from meaningless.

[+] EnlargeJustin DuVernois
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireIllini punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Wisconsin's Conor O'Neill after a game-changing fumbled snap Saturday.
Biggest play: Illinois led Wisconsin 14-0 in the second quarter when punter Justin Duvernois dropped the ball after catching the snap. The Badgers' Conor O'Neill tackled him at the 2-yard line to set up a Montee Ball touchdown run and finally give Wisconsin some momentum. Who knows how the game would have unfolded differently had the Illini taken a 17-0 lead into half instead of 17-7. And for a team that had special-teams breakdowns in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was good for Wisconsin to get one back in the kicking game.

Best call: Lions turning into Wildcats. Interim coach Tom Bradley and his staff decided to use Curtis Drake and Bill Belton in the Wildcat formation against Ohio State, something Penn State hadn't shown much of all season. By the time the Buckeyes adjusted to it, Penn State had piled up 254 yards and 20 points in the first half. The defense did the rest in the second half. Question: Would the Nittany Lions have used that kind of creativity if Joe Paterno was still the head coach?

Toughest call: Robert Marve's touchdown-no-fumble near the end of the Purdue-Iowa game. The Boilers quarterback scrambled and dived for the end zone with 1:27 left in the game, losing the ball just as he hit the pylon. The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, which would have cut the lead to 31-27 with an extra point giving Purdue a chance to get within a field goal. But after a review, the play was ruled a lost fumble in the end zone, which gave the ball to Iowa and basically ended the game.

Boilermakers coach Danny Hope brought a still picture of the play to his Sunday media briefing, saying it showed Marve's hand hitting the pylon and the ball out of bounds. Other angles and replays seemed to validate the replay officials' ruling. You can watch the video of it here at the 1:40 mark. Either way, Purdue simply made too many mistakes in the game to be whining about one call, no matter how crucial it was.

Big Men on Campus (Offense): Wisconsin's Ball and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Ball had career highs in rushes (38) and yards (224) and scored three more touchdowns, becoming just the fifth player in FBS history to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Robinson bounced back from a couple of rough outings to account for four touchdowns and 263 total yards of offense against Nebraska. He has now won six Big Ten player of the week honors, third-most in league history.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland. The sophomore made a career-high 16 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles against Illinois. His second forced fumble gave the Badgers a short field to set up their second touchdown, and he helped lead a defensive effort that shut out the Illini in the second half and forced four turnovers. A special shout out also goes to Northwestern's Brian Peters, who forced and recovered a fumble and made an interception despite wearing a cast on one arm against Minnesota.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Penn State's Anthony Fera. He made a 43-yard field goal and a 46-yarder at the end of the first half to account for the margin of victory in the Nittany Lions' 20-14 win against Ohio State. He also had three punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one on the 3-yard line. How good has Fera been this season? This is third Big Ten weekly honor of the season.

Strangest moment: It's not often you see an offensive guard taking a handoff and running a sweep. But Michigan State's Joel Foreman did just that on Saturday in a nice gesture from Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were up 48-3 on Indiana when Foreman lined up at tight end and came around the left side for a three-yard gain. Dantonio said he thought of the idea in practice Thursday as a way to honor Foreman, a fifth-year senior who has started 46 career games at left guard.

"That was for every big guy out there who ever wanted to run the ball," Foreman told reporters. "I'm averaging three yards a carry, broken tackle. I think that's more than [quarterback] Kirk [Cousins] has, so I'm doing all right."

It was a particularly appropriate way to end the home season for Foreman, who let cancer survivor Arthur Ray Jr. begin the game in his place in the season opener despite his consecutive starts streak. After Foreman's run, he jogged to midfield with the ball under his arm, saluted and then came out of the game. Ray was one of the first players to greet him.

"He got the game ball for that," Dantonio said of Foreman. "He took it, as a matter of fact."
Time to recognize the best and brightest from the Big Ten in Week 12:
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson: It was a vintage "Shoelace" performance against Nebraska. Robinson ran for 83 yards on 23 carries and threw for 180 yards while scoring four touchdowns in a 45-17 win. Robinson accounted for three more total yards than the Huskers' entire offense.
  • Iowa's triplets: No one in the Big Ten has a more productive trio than Iowa's combination of quarterback James Vandenberg, receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker. All three showed up in a big way in a 31-21 road win at Purdue. Vandenberg completed 22-of-32 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. McNutt caught two of those scores and had 151 receiving yards on nine total receptions. And Coker rumbled for 139 yards and a score on 30 carries.
  • Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: It was another big day for "MoneyBall," and the Badgers needed it to avoid an upset. Ball carried 38 times for 224 yards and two scores and caught a touchdown pass. He became just the fifth player in FBS history to score 30 touchdowns in a season.
  • Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins: In his final home game, the Spartans senior completed 16-of-23 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-3 shellacking of Indiana. His two favorite targets, B.J. Cunningham (six catches for 132 yards and two scores) and Keshawn Martin (8 receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown, plus a 19-yard scoring run) also had big days as Michigan State clinched the Legends Division crown.
  • Northwestern S Brian Peters: The senior had 11 tackles, intercepted a pass in the end zone and forced a fumble that he recovered as the Wildcats got bowl-eligible with a 28-13 win over Minnesota.
  • Penn State P/K Anthony Fera: Fera played a huge role in Penn State's win against Ohio State. He kicked a career-long 43-yard field goal in the first quarter and then bested it with a 46-yarder to close the half. He also placed three of four punts inside Ohio State's 20-yard line, including one that went out of bounds at the 3-yard line.

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