Big Ten: Briean Boddy-Calhoun

Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. As you can imagine, there was a lot of debate between the six of us over who should make the team and who should get left off. Let's discuss some of our toughest choices and omissions:

Austin Ward: Thanks in large part to all the dirty work he was doing at the start of the year, Michael Bennett didn’t pile up the type of numbers that build a rock-solid case as an all-conference performer. But when it mattered most over the final month of the season, there probably wasn’t a defensive player in the league having a greater impact than the Ohio State senior as he made life miserable in the trenches in the most important games of the season for the Big Ten champs. Dating back to the road trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, Bennett closed the season with 5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles down the stretch, looking every bit the All-American he was expected to be in the preseason.

[+] EnlargeKurtis Drummond
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThree cornerbacks made ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team, which meant a deserving player in Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond didn't make the cut.
Brian Bennett: The toughest single position to choose was at defensive back. You may have noticed our team did not include Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond, who was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. That's no slight against Drummond, who's an outstanding player, but we felt like we had to go with three cornerbacks, given the play of Maryland's Will Likely, Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Drummond's own teammate, Trae Waynes. In fact, Ohio State's Doran Grant had a strong case for inclusion as well, and we wanted to recognize what Wisconsin's Michael Caputo contributed to the league's best defense, statistically, during the regular season. Defensive back was a loaded position, and there wouldn't be much difference between the first- and second-team selections there.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't have a major beef with our selections this year, although it would have been nice to find a place for Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah on the offense. Melvin Gordon told me Wednesday that if Abdullah hadn't sustained a knee injury in early November, he also would have reached the 2,000-yard plateau. Imagine if the Big Ten had three 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. Safety wasn't the strongest position in the league this year, while cornerback turned out to be surprisingly good.

Dan Murphy: It's too bad we can't field an entire offense out of running backs because the Big Ten had almost enough of them worthy of filling out an all-conference roster. Minnesota teammates and cousins David Cobb (running back) and Damien Wilson (middle linebacker) both were left of the list after great years for a surprising Gophers team. Cobb would have made the team in most other years, and Wilson was a narrow miss. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek also deserves some recognition, but there's a good chance his name will pop up here in the next few years.

Josh Moyer: Cornerback was relatively strong this season, so we decided to go with three corners and one safety on our team. As a result, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond was the odd man out, and he’s a player who definitely deserves some recognition. He struggled a few times this season -- missing open-field tackles against Purdue and not faring well against Ohio State -- but he was still named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. We thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo played better, but Drummond was still solid and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media. He helped keep Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone together, while leading the team in tackles (65), interceptions (4), pass breakups (11) and pass deflections (15). He just missed the cut.

Mitch Sherman: I'm not sure we picked the right defensive lineman from Iowa. Louis Trinca-Pasat enjoyed an outstanding year, outperforming fellow tackle Carl Davis, who was more highly regarded before the season. But what about Drew Ott, the disruptive end who collected eight sacks, 12 tackles behind the line, scored a touchdown against Nebraska, forced a fumble and picked off a pass? Ott is just as deserving as Michigan State's Calhoun, though I doubt there's room for two linemen from an Iowa defense that ranked firmly in the middle of the Big Ten. So with the variety of defensive looks employed around the league, I'd take three ends and one tackle, like the coaches and media teams, inserting Ott in place of Trinca-Pasat.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 12, 2014
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The Big Ten unveiled its official all-league teams last week, but we have our own thoughts and choices. Here is the ESPN.com All-Big Ten team for 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.

RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.

OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.

G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.

G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.

DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.

DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.

LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.

DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.

DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."

DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.

Specialists

K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.

P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt

PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.

All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.
A little bit ago, we gave you the full list of 2014 All-Big Ten teams and the individual award winners (outside of the four major individual trophies, which will be announced on Tuesday night).

For the most part, these selections seemed very dead on. It helped that there was not a lot of controversy over the top picks for many awards. But that's not to suggest that there weren't some interesting/debatable choices.

Thoughts:

Individual awards

It's tough, quite frankly, to argue with many of these. J.T. Barrett is the obvious choice for quarterback of the year after his record-breaking season, and he will no doubt be the Big Ten freshman of the year on Tuesday night (He'd trade it all to be able to play Saturday, for sure). Similarly, Melvin Gordon deserved the running back of the year award and will be the league's offensive player of the year. There's also no doubt about Joey Bosa, Tony Lippett, Maxx Williams, Mike Hull or Brad Craddock for their honors.

I do wonder a bit about Iowa's Brandon Scherff as the offensive lineman of the year. He's a terrific player and a future first-round draft pick. But I didn't think he was dominant all year long and, at times, he got visibly beat (most notably in the Maryland game). Yet his reputation is very strong among coaches and he was an Outland Trophy finalist. I'm not so sure that others, like Michigan State's Jack Conklin and Ohio State's Taylor Decker, didn't have a better year.

Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond is a fine choice for defensive back of the year, though you could have just as easily gone with Maryland's Will Likely or Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun. As we've seen, though, coaches tend to favor seniors (remember Chris Borland over Ryan Shazier last year?). Ultimately, though, there's not a lot in these awards to get upset about.

All-Big Ten

These are, again, mostly strong and very defensible choices. But I do think there are a couple of highly debatable selections by the coaches (and no one here at ESPN.com voted on the media selections, so we're not patting ourselves on the back).

  • Kenny Bell on the coaches' first team at wide receiver? I love Bell's game and think he's an even better person. But he finished eighth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and wasn't even in the Top 10 in receiving yards. Yes, he's a great blocker, but that's not enough to warrant his selection over Rutgers' Leonte Carroo, who had 1,043 receiving yards. The fact that he's only honorable mention by the coaches is an absolute joke, and I wouldn't blame Rutgers fans for being furious.
  • And Illinois' Mike Dudek was arguably the best wide receiver in the league down the stretch, but he didn't make either first or second team by the coaches? Instead, the coaches went with Stefon Diggs and Devin Funchess on the second team, both of whom disappeared at key times. It's like the coaches based their picks more on pure talent and preseason reputation than actual production, which should be the gauge.
  • Similarly -- and I swear I'm not picking on Nebraska here -- Randy Gregory is as special a player as it gets from a talent standpoint. But he had all kinds of trouble staying healthy, and the Huskers' defense was simply not good at all in the team's biggest games. I don't see him as a first-team performer based on his 2014 production. I'd rather go with a second tackle like Louis Trinca-Pasat or Carl Davis from Iowa or Maryland's Andre Monroe as a third defensive end. Those guys were consistent performers all season long.
  • I would have voted Boddy-Calhoun over Doran Grant at cornerback, as the media did instead of the coaches, and I would have found a way to get Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo on the first team. He was such an anchor for the league's best defense.
  • Michigan State finished 10-2 yet didn't have a player win a Big Ten player of the week award until this week when R.J. Shelton was co-special teams player of the week (an obvious bone thrown toward the Spartans' way, since Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El was so special on punt returns). Michigan State did get several first- and second-teamers here, but running back Jeremy Langford couldn't make the first or second team despite his streak of 15 straight 100-yard games in Big Ten play. That tells you how deep this running back group was in the conference, as Langford is the most notable snub from both coaches and media. But Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb couldn't even make the first team, though they would in pretty much any other league in America.
  • I'm struggling to come up with much else to criticize, which is unusual for these selections. So that tells me the league's coaches and media did a pretty good job. Stay tuned for tomorrow's major award announcement, where coach of the year is the only one really in doubt.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 13

November, 26, 2014
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The Big Ten individual awards will be revealed next week. But if you've been following us here all season long, you should know exactly who the favorites and top contenders are.

This is our last one of the season, and since we've pretty much exhausted all the competitive bonus categories, we've added a special holiday-themed one to get you ready for tomorrow.

Away we go ...

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): When Wisconsin absolutely needed Gordon to come through in the fourth quarter at Iowa, he did just that. Not much more left to say about this special player and his historic season.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The records keep falling for the Buckeyes' redshirt freshman, who'd probably be a runaway winner if Gordon had been born a couple of years earlier or later. Barrett will likely settle for the quarterback of the year trophy -- not a bad consolation prize.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He's 94 yards away from 2,000 for this season. Unbelievable season, but again, just bad timing for a major award.

4. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: He showed his heart by rushing for 98 yards despite a bad knee and shoulder vs. Minnesota. I think he would have made a run at 2,000, too, if not for those unfortunate late-season injuries.

5. Minnesota RB David Cobb: He injured his hamstring in the second half at Nebraska and is questionable for the finale at Wisconsin. The Gophers need their workhorse back.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Simply the most destructive defensive player in the Big Ten all season. He'll be back as a true junior for the Buckeyes next season, which is scary.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: On pace for a 130-tackle regular season, Hull has been as consistently good as it gets from the linebacker position.

3. Michigan LB Jake Ryan: He was named a finalist for the Butkus Award on Monday. Hull has had a better season overall, but Ryan has still been outstanding as a senior.

4. Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel: One of the Badgers' "Chevy Bad Boys," Biegel leads the Big Ten's top defense with 14.5 tackles for loss.

5. Minnesota CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun: The Big Ten co-defensive player of the week, he has a been a big-play machine all season, including his forced fumble and recovery to seal the win at Nebraska.

Also receiving votes: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel; Minnesota LB Damien Wilson

[+] EnlargeThanksgiving
ThinkstockStuffing or turkey for Big Ten dish of the year?
Pilgrim-Pocahontas Thanksgiving Dish of the Year

1. Stuffing (four first-place votes): That's right. It's almost Thanksgiving, so we're ranking the best dishes on Turkey Day. And in perhaps a slight upset, preseason favorite turkey did not come in first. Stuffing pulled off a J.T. Barrett-like surprise. Because it is awesome. Especially my grandma's.

2. Turkey (two first-place votes): It is the featured back, if you will, of the entire Thanksgiving attack. Says Josh Moyer: "You guys haven't lived until you've tried it deep-fried."

3. Pumpkin pie: Dessert is kind of like the special teams of Thanksgiving meals; you can't win with it alone but it can't be forgotten, either. Pecan pie also received one vote (from Dan Murphy), though I'd argue it's too sweet unless part of a Derby Pie. Austin Ward voted for "any kind of pie." I like where his head's at.

Also receiving votes: Mashed potatoes, grilled potatoes, potatoes au gratin and any kind of potatoes.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 24, 2014
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Time has somehow almost completely run out on the regular season, which can only mean one thing.

The Big Ten has actually been pretty fun this season after all.

The calendar has flown by, particularly since those rough couple weeks at the end of August and start of September, but this last weekend offered yet another reminder of why the conference has been so enjoyable for the most part and almost universally underrated for what it has brought to the table nationally.

[+] EnlargeJalin Marshall
Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireOhio State's Jalin Marshall scored four consecutive second-half touchdowns Saturday to lead the Buckeyes to a come-from-behind win over Indiana.
The West Division round-robin tournament was compelling theater, and it will now include a play-in game to the Big Ten championship between Wisconsin and Minnesota on the last Saturday of the regular season after both teams pulled out gutty wins on the road this weekend.

There continues to be a legitimate threat to not only qualify for the College Football Playoff, but -- with Ohio State continuing its resurgence from the early loss to Virginia Tech -- perhaps Urban Meyer’s team has become one that nobody would want to face in the postseason. And look out if the Buckeyes could cut down on the turnovers, because that’s about the only thing keeping some of the scores close recently.

Meanwhile, a handful of Big Ten Heisman Trophy candidates are making cases to appear in New York City, with Melvin Gordon again shining down the stretch, J.T. Barrett accounting for four more touchdowns and Tevin Coleman submitting one more eye-catching performance for an Indiana team that has no other credible weapon aside from the dynamic running back.

There have been some low points, sure. But take a moment before the end of the regular season sneaks up on Saturday to appreciate what the Big Ten has provided this season -- before football is gone again for the interminable offseason.

Team of the week: After a 28-24 win at Nebraska, Minnesota is halfway through the closing two-week gauntlet on the road with the West Division title on the line, and its dreams of winning the West and setting up a rematch with Ohio State remain intact. The Gophers even stared down a little extra adversity with running back David Cobb getting injured, but that wasn’t enough to slow down a program that has proved several times this season that it has capable backups ready and waiting for a chance to step in and contribute to a victory.

Biggest play: A hard-nosed, opportunistic defense has been the true calling card for the Gophers this season, and the defense solidified its reputation when Briean Boddy-Calhoun ripped the ball away from Nebraska’s De'Mornay Pierson-El at the 2-yard line with just more than a minute left. The turnover was absolutely critical for Minnesota, and it set the stage for one of the biggest Axe games ever against Wisconsin next weekend.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): After coughing up a pair of fumbles the week before and then becoming the target of social-media scorn, Jalin Marshall left no doubt about why Meyer and the Buckeyes were standing so firmly in his corner. Starting with an electrifying punt return, the redshirt freshman almost single-handedly saved Ohio State’s season with four consecutive second-half touchdowns -- and one of his three scoring catches literally only required one hand.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Essentially an afterthought as recently as two weeks ago, Northwestern has charged back into postseason consideration with consecutive wins, the latest spurred by another veteran effort from a freshman linebacker. Anthony Walker helped pin down Purdue with sideline-to-sideline work that included nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The Wildcats face a bowl-or-bust battle with Illinois on Saturday.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): Marshall’s game-changing punt return makes him a worthy candidate, but Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston had previously pinned Indiana on its 1-yard line to help set up the situation, and he was invaluable in a game that didn’t include Ohio State’s best offensive or defensive efforts this season. Johnston was called on five times in all Saturday, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt with three of them downed inside the 20-yard line.

Biggest face-plant: There’s no question it would have been asking a lot for Rutgers to go on the road and upset a fired-up Michigan State squad on Senior Day, but the first-year Big Ten member once again was completely steamrolled when it stepped on the field with one of the league’s best in a 45-3 laugher. The Scarlet Knights deserve credit for earning bowl eligibility this season, but lopsided losses to Ohio State (56-17), Nebraska (42-24), Wisconsin (37-0) and now Michigan State show how far they have to go still.

Facts and numbers to know: Barrett added Ohio State’s single-season records for both total offense (3,507 yards) and passing touchdowns (33) to his growing collection. ... In the losing effort, Coleman established a new record for Indiana by pushing his season total to 1,906 rushing yards. His 90-yard touchdown was the longest for the Hoosiers since 1912. ... Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford rushed for 100 yards or more for the 15th consecutive game against a Big Ten opponent, the longest streak by an FBS player in the last 10 seasons.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Minnesota stopped a streak of 20 consecutive road losses to ranked foes that dated to 2000, coming from two touchdowns behind to upset Nebraska 28-24 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The victory keeps the Gophers in control of their destiny in the Big Ten West and secures a second straight eight-win season for just the second time in 50 years.

Nebraska lost center Mark Pelini and receiver Kenny Bell to injuries on the opening drive. Minnesota tailback David Cobb left with an injury in the fourth quarter, but coach Jerry Kill’s club made plays to win at the end.

How the game was won: Minnesota cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun stripped Nebraska freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El of the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line after the freshman receiver grabbed a 28-yard third-down pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 1:19 to play. The Gophers ran out the clock to earn their first victory in Lincoln since 1960.

Game ball goes to: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who carried a heavy load before and after Cobb left with an apparent leg injury. The sophomore completed 8 of 17 passes for 135 yards and rushed 22 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner from 3 yards out with 3:25 left. Leidner led the decisive 80-yard, 10-play march, highlighted by his 38-yard strike to KJ Maye on third down to the Nebraska 25.

What it means: Another long week ahead for the Cornhuskers, who are mired in a second straight troublesome November. A year ago, Iowa piled on at the end. The mood this time around might grown even more ugly in Nebraska as speculation figures to grow about Bo Pelini’s job security. For the Gophers, it's another landmark moment in Kill's fourth season.

Best play: Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry used a convoy of blockers to go 85 yards after Randy Gregory blocked a Ryan Santoso 30-yard field goal attempt with five minutes to play in the first half. The touchdown put the Huskers ahead 21-7.

video What’s next: It only gets more difficult for the Gophers (8-3, 4-2), who close the regular season next week at Wisconsin. With a win, Minnesota would earn a rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) visits Iowa on Friday.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
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Handing out some sticky hardware for the Big Ten’s best performances on Saturday.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: In three quarters worth of work, Gordon ran for more yards (408) than the country’s worst rushing team (Wake Forest) has picked up all year. Had he played the fourth quarter he probably would have topped Washington State (436) as well. He fumbled twice early in the game, but setting a new FBS record for yards in a single game while scoring four touchdowns will make it easy to forget those mistakes. The Badgers’ entire offensive line probably deserves stickers, too. Gordon will have to share.

Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: You’ve got to feel for Coleman, who ran for a head-turning 307 yards against Rutgers but was overshadowed by Gordon’s big day. Coleman carried 32 times and added a 67-yard score. Not only did Gordon steal his thunder, but the Hoosiers also lost their chance at bowl eligibility. Coleman’s only consolation prize is a well-earned helmet sticker.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The rookie has taken up permanent residence on this list. He ran for 189 yards in a win at snowy Minnesota, including an 86-yard touchdown sprint. He also threw for three scores, which brings his season total to 38 touchdowns -- an Ohio State single-season record.

Minnesota DB Briean Boddy-Calhoun: An interception and a forced fumble courtesy of Boddy-Calhoun helped the Gophers keep pace with Ohio State during the first half. The redshirt junior returned Barrett’s one mistake 56 yards to set up Minnesota’s first touchdown. His fumbled robbed the Buckeyes of a touchdowns shortly after.

Illinois WR Mike Dudek: Dudek remains as a rare bright spot for the Illinois football program this fall. The freshman caught six passes for 80 yards and both of the Illini’s touchdowns in a 30-14 loss to Iowa. His first catch on a fade route was a reminder of the bright future ahead of him during the next few years.

Northwestern K Jack Mitchell: The hero of Northwestern’s upset at Notre Dame hit game-tying and game-winning kicks in less than ideal conditions. Mitchell, who came to Northwestern as a baseball player and started 21 games in the outfield last spring, hit a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. He iced the victory with a 41-yarder to finish his day 4-for-5.
October has arrived, which means Big Ten conference play is in full swing. And that's when the best players step up.

Expect the races for individual awards to be fully shaped in the next few weeks. But we're keeping track of where they stand on a week-to-week basis. We've been looking at the offensive and defensive player of the year races since the start of the season, and with more data in the books, we'll be adding a bonus category from here on out.

Away we go ...

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has been the best offensive player in the Big Ten so far this season.
1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (six first-place votes): Abdullah had another 200-yard day against Illinois as his fantastic season continues. He has run for more than 100 yards in each of the last two years against this week's opponent, Michigan State.

2. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: The Hoosiers are incredibly inconsistent, but Coleman is not. He leads the FBS in rushing at 172.8 yards per game.

3. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He was able to hit the showers early again against Wyoming, but Cook leads the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in pass efficiency while completing better than 69 percent of his throws.

4. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: After a slow first half against South Florida, Gordon came out firing in the second half for another big performance. He's on pace for more than 1,900 yards this season.

5. Minnesota RB David Cobb: Our panel all agreed on the top five offensive candidates right now, though in different orders. Cobb has a strong argument for player of the year consideration because he's basically carrying the Gophers' offense. His 124 carries are the most in the FBS, and he's making the most of them.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (five first-place votes): Bosa takes over first place this week thanks to his playmaking ways. He has forced three fumbles this season, all of which have led to Buckeyes touchdowns.

2. Maryland CB William Likely (one first-place vote): Likely may not be very tall, but he makes big plays. He leads the Big Ten in interceptions with three, including a pick-six.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: The Nittany Lions interior disruptor drops a couple spots after his team lost to Northwestern. But he's still having a heck of a season, with seven tackles for loss.

4. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: Welcome back, Mr. Gregory. He was all over the field against Illinois, and after missing some time with injury he now leads the league in sacks per game.

5. Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch: He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game, and Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Tuesday that Landisch has been the best player on what is the best statistical defense in the conference right now.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Minnesota CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun; Penn State LB Mike Hull; Iowa DE Drew Ott

Thompson–Randle El Freshman of the Year

1. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett (three first-place votes): Braxton who? OK, let's not go that far. But guess who leads the Big Ten in total offense? It's the Buckeyes redshirt freshman, who just keeps getting better.

2. Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton (three first-place votes): There were questions about who would catch the ball for the Nittany Lions this season, and Hamilton has provided a nice answer. The redshirt freshman leads the conference in total receiving yards (502) and receptions (36) and is well on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

3. Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: He's basically a pass-rushing specialist, but his specialty sure is, uh, special. Turay has five sacks already this season, tops in the Big Ten and more than all but seven players in the FBS.
 
It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
Our preview of each position group in the Big Ten reaches its final stop on the defensive side: the secondary.

The two best secondary players from last season both were drafted in the first round this spring: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. New stars are sure to emerge this season. Let's take a look at where things stand:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the FBS in pass defense last season, though the "No Fly Zone" lost two key members in Thorpe Award winner Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Still, Kurtis Drummond might well be the best safety in the Big Ten, and Trae Waynes is ready for his star turn at cornerback. Darian Hicks will hold down the other corner spot, with a spirited competition for time at the other safety slot. With the combined brain power of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Harlon Barnett, we expect Michigan State to keep the title of the league's top secondary.

Next up: Penn State

There's lots of strong returning experience here, with corners Jordan Lucas -- a leading All-Big Ten candidate -- and Trevor Williams, plus safety Adrian Amos, who appears on the cusp of stardom. Ryan Keiser started five games at safety last year, too. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's background is in coaching the secondary, so we're excited to see what he can do with this group.

Sleeper: Minnesota

Safety Brock Vereen is on the Chicago Bears now, but underrated corner Eric Murray is back along with veteran safety Cedric Thompson. Derrick Wells, who has bounced between safety and corner, should stick at the other cornerback spot, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from injury. The Gophers believe they are as deep as they've been in the secondary under Jerry Kill, and that could lead to good results this fall.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

It's hard to label this as anything but a problem right now, given how the Buckeyes struggled down the stretch in pass coverage last year before losing Roby a year early to the draft. Yet there is still a lot of reason for optimism. New secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is remaking the unit into what should be a more athletic bunch. Doran Grant anchors the group at corner, while Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell should add speed and length at safety. If young players come through here, Ohio State's defensive backfield could make a huge leap forward. Until we see that happen, though, it remains a concern.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
Minnesota had a grand total of one defensive player drafted between 2009 and 2013. Earlier this month, the Gophers had two defenders, tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen, selected in the first four rounds.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Al GoldisMinnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he'll be disappointed if the Gophers don't improve on defense in 2014.
Those departures would would suggest some type of a drop off for Minnesota's defense, but coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks it will be just the opposite in 2014. In Claeys' mind, the Gophers are just getting started.

"We should be better than we were a year ago," Claeys told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've improved every year we've been there, and I'll be disappointed if we don't improve more. We have the talent and the kids that want to put in the work.

"I'm excited about this coming fall."

Minnesota won't have a player with Hageman's freakish frame and ability, or Vereen's versatility to play both secondary positions at an All-Big Ten level. But the unit's overall depth should improve. Perhaps more important, Claeys and his staff are no longer newcomers.

The foundation is in place. The defense improved from 93rd in scoring defense in 2011 to 45th in 2012 and 25th last season. It was extremely salty in the red zone, allowing just 26 touchdowns on 52 opponent trips inside the 20-yard line.

These days, Claeys and his staff are enhancing their system rather than teaching it.

"It's not what you know as a coach; it's what those kids know," he said. "It's nice to be going into our fourth year and have a system in place to where a lot of the kids, they know those adjustments already. With knowledge comes confidence, and to be good on defense nowadays with all the spread stuff and the hurry-ups, you have to be confident."

Although Vereen started games at both safety and cornerback last season, Claeys expects the secondary to be Minnesota's strongest group in 2014. Cornerback Eric Murray has All-Big Ten potential, and Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun both are playmakers who will be healthy by the start of fall camp. Boddy-Calhoun started the first two games at cornerback last fall before tearing his ACL, and Wells, who had 10 pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012, battled injuries all season.

Safety Cedric Thompson has emerged as the leader of the defense after learning alongside Vereen. Antonio Johnson, who had 69 tackles in 2013, also returns at safety.

Claeys also has high hopes for the linebackers. Although only one starter is back in Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell logged significant time last season and Jack Lynn should have a greater role following a strong spring. Wilson, a junior-college transfer who led Minnesota with 79 tackles in 2013, is taking charge of the group.

"We need Damien to step up into more of a leadership role," Claeys said. "That's one thing that's hard on junior-college kids, the leadership in their first year. I think he'll be better at that."

Minnesota has reached consecutive bowl games and held its own in Big Ten play last season. To continue the trajectory, the Gophers must navigate a challenging schedule, establish more balance on offense through the passing game and keep the pedal down on defense.

Claeys doesn't expect his unit to let up despite the two big pieces it loses.

"I'll be disappointed," he said, "if we don't play better than we did a year ago."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

Eric Murray manning up for Minnesota

November, 20, 2013
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Any credible list of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks starts with Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, moves on to Ohio State's Bradley Roby and then typically branches off in several directions.

Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste would appear third on some ballots, as would Michigan's Blake Countess, Iowa's B.J. Lowery and Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Wisconsin freshman Sojourn Shelton also is getting noticed for his recent play.

One name no one's talking about is Eric Murray, although Minnesota's coaches could filibuster for days about the sophomore cornerback. Murray's problem: Unlike the other aforementioned corners, he has yet to intercept a pass this season. Interceptions equal attention, especially the pick-six variety.

[+] EnlargeEric Murray
Zumapress/Icon SMIEric Murray has hounded receivers such as Penn State's Allen Robinson throughout the Big Ten season.
The irony is that Murray's lack of picks can be attributed, at least in part, to how much confidence the coaches have in his game.

"He doesn't play a lot of zone," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com "He's pretty much a man-to-man guy, and a lot of it's press-man. It's hard to get a lot of interceptions when you play as much press-man as he does.

"But we feel like he can get people stopped when we need to get 'em stopped."

It's why Minnesota often has Murray mark the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has lined up across from Penn State's Allen Robinson, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Indiana's Cody Latimer, Northwestern's Tony Jones, Nebraska's Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa, and San Jose State's Chandler Jones, the nation's No. 7 wideout. The 6-foot, 194-pound Murray has the length to defend bigger receivers and the speed to pace smaller ones.

Every receiver struggled to match his typical production against Murray, whose next assignment is Wisconsin star Jared Abbrederis on Saturday, when the 19th-ranked Badgers visit No. 25 Minnesota in the most anticipated Axe game in years.

Robinson, the Big Ten's top wideout, was targeted five times with Murray guarding him and recorded just two receptions for 18 yards. Enunwa didn't record any receptions in the nine plays he went against Murray.

"Our staff, we think Darqueze Dennard's the best corner in this conference," Sawvel said. "I know Roby gets a lot of publicity, and we think he's really good, too.

"But outside of those two, we wouldn’t trade Eric for anybody in the conference."

After playing mostly special teams as a freshman in 2012 -- cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire started every game -- Murray had a strong offseason, leaving Sawvel optimistic about his potential for this fall.

Still, Sawvel wondered how the young cornerback would handle failure, and how often he would fail. The answer came Oct. 26 against Nebraska. On the fifth play from scrimmage, Bell beat Murray on a post for 42 yards to the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up a touchdown.

"His reaction when he came back to the sideline was, 'I'm gonna kick his ass the rest of the game,'" Sawvel said. "It was not, 'Boy, he's tough to cover.' It wasn’t any of that. There was no self-doubt. He was mad about it, but he was like, 'I got this.' And he did."

Nebraska targeted Bell three more times with Murray on him but completed zero passes, as Minnesota rallied for a 34-23 win.

"Whoever's in front of me, it doesn't matter," Murray said. "I just have to be comfortable in myself. If you think negative, negative things will happen."

Murray's positive outlook and drive helped him get to the Big Ten despite being largely overlooked in recruiting. After Murray's junior year at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, his coach took him to three camps -- Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Murray worked mostly as a receiver during the Gophers' camp, but head coach Jerry Kill wanted to see if his athleticism translated better at corner.

Days later, Murray returned to Minnesota for a second camp, where he worked one-on-one with Sawvel for 2 1/2 hours.

"Sometimes you get fortunate in recruiting," Kill said. "You've got to go with what you see."

The coaches liked what they saw then, and what they continue to see from Murray.

"Sometimes you have to motivate people to go to work, but not him," Kill said. "He loves playing football, and he takes what he does very seriously.

"He's one of those kids who really tries to master his craft."

Murray spends at least 30 minutes a day watching film of opposing receivers, charting their tendencies and the routes they most often run. He prefers man coverage to zone, where a cornerback must expand his vision rather than simply shadow the receiver.

Murray also watches other cornerbacks, like Dennard, a potential first-round draft pick who plays in an aggressive scheme where the corners are left to fend for themselves. Minnesota uses its corners similarly.

"He presses a lot, and I feel like that's more of my style," Murray said. "I would rather press more than anything."

Even if it means fewer interception opportunities. Murray has come close, as he came down out of bounds following a pick against UNLV and had an end zone interception against Penn State nullified by an offsides penalty.

"I really don't mind it," he said. "As long as my guy doesn't catch the ball, I'm all right. It'll feel really good to get my first one, but I'm not putting too much pressure on myself."

Instead, he'll keep pressuring his opponents. Next up is Abbrederis, whom Sawvel calls "the biggest challenge in the conference.

Murray won't be the only Gophers defensive back dealing with Abbrederis, but the two will see plenty of one another.

"You've got to match strength with strength," Sawvel said. "Where Darqueze Dennard and those people are, that's what Eric Murray will be in the next year or two.

"This is a guy who's going to be as good as it gets in this conference."

Big Ten predictions: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
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Three weeks in and we're all square in the season standings. Get ready for a tightly contested race most of the way.

The Week 4 slate isn't nearly as appetizing as its predecessor, although there are a few sneaky good games on the docket. Big Ten play officially begins at Camp Randall Stadium and 11 league squads are in action (Illinois is off).

Let's begin …

SAN JOSE STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Mitch Leidner could start at quarterback for the Gophers as Philip Nelson is questionable with a hamstring injury. That's not good news against a San Jose State team led by a future NFL draft pick in David Fales. The Spartans are the best team Minnesota has played, and I say they pull off the road upset. … San Jose State 24, Minnesota 20


Adam Rittenberg: A tough one here as the Gophers haven't been tested and San Jose State's Fales could stress a secondary already down one starter (Briean Boddy-Calhoun). There's some uncertainty on offense at quarterback, but I like the fact the Gophers have a full stable of running backs. Minnesota racks up 200 rush yards and three touchdowns to survive with a win. … Minnesota 27, San Jose State 24

FLORIDA A&M at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: The scoreboard operator will be busy as Buckeyes backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde combine for six touchdowns. The quarterbacks don't have to do much in this one as Ohio State rolls on to 4-0. … Ohio State 59, Florida A&M 7

Brian Bennett: This is a ludicrous matchup. Buckeyes can name their score. … Ohio State 63, Florida A&M 10


WESTERN MICHIGAN at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Oh boy. We get to watch Western Michigan take on a Big Ten team for the third time in four weeks. The first two times didn't go well for the Broncos, and Mark Weisman will add to their misery with 150 yards rushing. … Iowa 35, Western Michigan 7


Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern ran roughshod on Western Michigan and Iowa will do the same. Coach Kirk Ferentz gives Weisman a bit of a breather and spreads the ball around, as both Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri reach the end zone. Iowa pulls away in the third quarter. … Iowa 31, Western Michigan 10

MAINE at NORTHWESTERN

Adam Rittenberg: Expect another vanilla offensive game plan from Northwestern as the coaches save the goods for Week 6 against Ohio State. Five different Wildcats rush for touchdowns, including true freshman Warren Long, in the team's final tune-up before Big Ten play. … Northwestern 48, Maine 13

Brian Bennett: Please don't feed the Black Bears! Ibraheim Campbell makes it six games in a row with a pick as the Wildcats roll. … Northwestern 45, Maine 17


MICHIGAN STATE at NOTRE DAME

Brian Bennett: The Spartans finally have a bit of confidence and stability at quarterback, but Connor Cook still has a ways to go and this is a tough road spot. The Irish jump out early on a special-teams touchdown and manage to hold on in a defensive struggle. … Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 10


Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State's renewed offense comes in with confidence and scores early. But reality begins to set in on the road, and the Spartans stall midway through the second quarter. The defense keeps it close as always, but Notre Dame rallies late behind Tommy Rees and his receivers. … Notre Dame 19, Michigan State 16

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: The Huskers rest top quarterback Taylor Martinez (toe), and backups Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong both play and combine for three pass touchdowns. Imani Cross sparks the rushing attack in the second quarter and Nebraska fans can smile a little after a brutal eight-day stretch. … Nebraska 59, South Dakota State 14

Brian Bennett: The Jackrabbits are just what Nebraska needs right now. The Huskers get off to a sluggish start without a healthy Martinez, but Randy Gregory forces a fumble for a defensive score and the running game is too much for SDSU to handle. … Nebraska 38, South Dakota State 10


KENT STATE at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: I think the Penn State defense comes out mad after last week's performance, and Kent State has had a tough time scoring so far this season. Zach Zwinak scores twice and the defense comes up with three turnovers. … Penn State 28, Kent State 10


Adam Rittenberg: Unless Blake Bortles secretly suits up for the Golden Flashes, Penn State should be OK in this one and takes control in the second quarter. Chalk up two more touchdown passes from Christian Hackenberg to Allen Robinson, and defensive end Deion Barnes finally shows up for the Lions. … Penn State 31, Kent State 20

PURDUE at WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: No officiating blunders in this one as Wisconsin starts a bit slowly before getting Melvin Gordon and the run game going in the second half. Gordon records his first 20-carry performance and racks up 180 yards and two touchdowns. Purdue jumps out to an early lead but once again struggles in the fourth quarter. … Wisconsin 34, Purdue 21

Brian Bennett: Purdue hasn't been able to stop the Wisconsin running game the past couple of years, and it's no different in this one. Gordon and James White each eclipse 100 yards and the Badgers take out some frustration on the Boilermakers. ... … Wisconsin 42, Purdue 14


MICHIGAN at CONNECTICUT

Brian Bennett: The Wolverines haven't been quite the same team on the road as they have been at home for Brady Hoke, but Rentschler Field ain't exactly the Horseshoe. UConn doesn't have enough offensive talent to do much damage, and Devin Gardner bounces back with four total touchdowns and just one turnover. … Michigan 38, Connecticut 9


Adam Rittenberg: Last week's near disaster against Akron will heighten Michigan's focus. So, too, will a road game under the lights (even if it feels more like a home game). Gardner delivers a turnover-free performance, and Fitz Toussaint has a big game on the ground (130 rush yards, 2 TDs). … Michigan 35, Connecticut 17

MISSOURI at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: This should be the most entertaining game of the day, as both offenses will put up points. Maybe I'm buying into Indiana too much after last week's impressive performance, but I like what I saw from the defense, which does just enough against Mizzou and records a game-ending takeaway. Expect another balanced offensive performance as Tevin Coleman rushes for two more touchdowns. … Indiana 41, Missouri 37

Brian Bennett: I expect a wild shootout where the punters can probably chill out on the sidelines. Ultimately, I don't have enough faith in the Hoosiers’ defense and think James Franklin and Henry Josey will be too much to overcome. But take heart, Indiana fans: I've been wrong on your team each of the past two weeks. … Missouri 48, Indiana 42


You've heard from us. Now it's time to see what this week's guest picker has cooked up. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

We felt a little sorry for this guy after what happened last week in Tempe, Ariz. Garret Olsen from Madison, Wis., the floor is yours:
I am a born-and-raised Wisconsin fan and 2010 University of Wisconsin Grad in complete shock this week. I'm in need of a win. I attended my first Badger football game with my grandparents when I was 5 years old and have attended many more Badger games over the years with them. I never missed a home game during my time as an undergrad and traveled to many of the B1G stadiums and followed the Badgers to Indy and Pasadena. Each week my former Mifflin Street college roommate and I have a friendly pick-off between us and I can proudly report that I have beaten him the last two years. The blog is a daily read for me and I would be honored to pick alongside you and Adam and I promise not to botch any last-second pick situations.

Here are Garret's Week 4 selections:

San Jose State 35, Minnesota 34
Ohio State 45, Florida A&M 7
Iowa 28, Western Michigan 14
Northwestern 55, Maine 10
Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 10
Nebraska 42, South Dakota State 21
Penn State 33, Kent State 24
Wisconsin 49, Purdue 17
Michigan 34, Connecticut 13
Missouri 42, Indiana 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 31-5
Brian Bennett: 31-5
Guest pickers: 27-9

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

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