Big Ten: Chase Daniel

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 3

September, 13, 2010
9/13/10
9:00
AM ET
The Big Ten had a good week overall, aside from a predictable loss in Tuscaloosa and a stunning one in Minneapolis.

Ohio State and Iowa have separated themselves so far, while Wisconsin needs to put together a complete performance this Saturday against Arizona State. Michigan makes another mini jump after a dramatic win against Notre Dame, although I still want to see a little more from the Maize and Blue. Penn State gets a pass this week, but there won't be any more. Minnesota pays the price in the rankings after crumbling on defense against South Dakota.

And away we go ...

1. Ohio State (2-0): The Buckeyes once again showed why turnover margin is so important, as they picked off Miami quarterback Jacory Harris four times and committed no major mistakes on offense. The formula helped Jim Tressel's squad overcome two uncharacteristic special-teams meltdowns and some inconsistency from quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Ohio State easily could have beaten Miami by 25 points, but the Buckeyes will take the win and move on.

2. Iowa (2-0): No Big Ten team has looked more dominant in the first two weeks than the Hawkeyes. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi is avoiding mistakes, Adam Robinson is sparking the run game and the defense is performing like we all expected. Iowa gave in-state rival Iowa State no chance Saturday, storming out to a 35-0 lead. Things get much tougher this week at Arizona, but the Hawkeyes appear ready for the challenge.

3. Wisconsin (2-0): The Badgers haven't been in any real danger of losing a game so far this season, but their victories are leaving everyone a little unsettled. Running back John Clay is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate in my mind, but there have been too many turnovers on offense, and the Badgers missed several chances for more points against San Jose State. Wisconsin needs to clean things up in a hurry as Arizona State visits this week.

4. Penn State (1-1): There's little shame in losing to top-ranked Alabama on the road, especially with a true freshman quarterback (Rob Bolden) making his first career road start. But Penn State won't be getting any more passes from me. The Lions need to get Evan Royster and the run game going beginning this week against Kent State. Bolden will get better and better, but if Penn State's offensive line can't create room for Royster, the Lions are no better than an eight-win team.

T-5. Michigan (2-0): In Denard they trust. Quarterback Denard Robinson has been nothing short of brilliant for the Wolverines, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. Michigan still has some issues with a young secondary -- the Kyle Rudolph touchdown was a major breakdown -- and the Wolverines must identify more weapons on offense to help Robinson. But two quality wins have lifted spirits in Ann Arbor, and Michigan once again is off to a great start.

T-5. Michigan State (2-0): The Florida Atlantic game raised some red flags on defense, as the Spartans struggled to finish the Owls and get off the field on third down. But the rushing attack, led by sophomore Edwin Baker, has been spectacular so far this season. Spartans backs are finding open space and making big plays. Kicker Dan Conroy and the overall special-teams play also looked good Saturday. The defense needs to step up this week against Notre Dame.

7. Northwestern (2-0): After letting an inferior Vanderbilt team hang around in Week 1, Northwestern left no doubt Saturday against Illinois State. Besides Michigan's Robinson, Wildcats junior Dan Persa has been the Big Ten's most impressive quarterback so far this season, completing 38 of 44 passes (86.4 percent) for 462 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Linebacker Quentin Davie led a strong defensive effort, while the run game, despite showing signs of life, remains a concern.

8. Purdue (1-1): The Boilers evened their record and might have found an answer at running back in Dan Dierking (102 rush yards, 2 TDs), but the win against Western Illinois came at a cost. Purdue will have to survive without leading receiver Keith Smith, which puts pressure on Cortez Smith, Justin Siller and others to answer the bell. The Boilers also need to shore things up on defense after allowing 406 yards to WIU. I still like how the schedule sets up for Purdue.

9. Illinois (1-1): Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini learned from their mistakes in Week 1 and delivered an impressive performance against a good FCS opponent (Southern Illinois). Scheelhaase limited mistakes and displayed impressive accuracy (14-for-18 passing) and got help from running back Mikel LeShoure (115 rush yards, 2 TDs) and receiver A.J. Jenkins (114 receiving yards, TD). Illinois' defense also is showing legit improvement from 2009.

10. Indiana (1-0): The Hoosiers were idle Saturday as they have an unusual 16-day break between games. We know less about Indiana than any Big Ten team to this point, and I'm not sure a soft upcoming schedule will reveal much more. All-Big Ten wideout Tandon Doss is expected back this week at Western Kentucky, where Indiana must clean up some things on defense.

11. Minnesota (1-1): You lose to South Dakota at home, you pay a price, especially when your defense allows 41 points and 444 yards. I recognize that Minnesota had to replace nine starters on defense this year, which isn't easy, but to let South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren do what he did was simply unacceptable. Gophers quarterback Adam Weber and running back Duane Bennett did their part, but the defense let them down. Up next: USC.
The Illinois-Missouri series goes on hiatus after Saturday's clash in St. Louis. For the men wearing orange helmets, it seems like the break can't come soon enough.

Illinois has opened its season against the rival Tigers five times since 2002, including each of the past three years. All five games have produced the same result for the Fighting Illini: 0-1.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Miller/US PresswireRon Zook had a few surprisingly good recruiting classes in his first years at Illinois, but they haven't equaled wins for the Illini.
Many forecast another opening loss for Ron Zook's crew Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Translation: there's no better time for the Illini to step up and get some revenge.

If Illinois wants to make a statement that things are turning around, the Missouri game provides the perfect platform.

"They're all important, but this one has an awful lot of importance on it," Zook told ESPN.com. "Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against them."

The Missouri game has been a buzzkill for Illinois in each of the past two seasons. After a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, preseason No. 20 Illinois entered the dome to face No. 6 Missouri in one of the more anticipated matchups of the 2008 opening weekend.

Game result: Missouri 52, Illinois 42

Illinois season result: 5-7

Optimism had been restored by the time Illinois made the trip to St. Louis last year. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn had returned, linebacker Martez Wilson seemed on the brink of a huge season and the team had gone through a very successful preseason camp. Plus, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin were no longer on Missouri's roster.

Game result: Missouri 37, Illinois 9

Illinois season result: 3-9

"We were healthy, we were fresh, no one was beat up, we put a big emphasis on it," Zook recalled. "And we get over there and the second play of the game, it was like somebody threw a blanket over us."

Benn and running back Jason Ford both went down with injuries. Wilson suffered a neck injury in the first quarter but remained in the game, only to learn days later that he needed season-ending surgery.

The team never fully recovered, plummeting to a 1-6 start.

As Zook prepares his team for another tough opener against Mizzou, he doesn't stiff-arm what has taken place the past few years.

“Traditionally, Missouri’s probably played if not their best, one of their best games of the year against us," Zook said. "That's the one thing we've tried to stress to our guys. You look at Missouri in the first game of the year, you look at them in the end, and they're not the same team.

"We've got to match the way they're playing."

Illinois isn't as healthy as it was a year ago, as two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, will miss the game. Missouri will play without running back Derrick Washington, but the Tigers still have quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who torched the Illini for 319 pass yards and three touchdowns last year.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase makes his first career start for the Illini, who debut a new offense under coordinator Paul Petrino.

"I'm like everyone else, I want to see him play, too," Zook said. "I'm not going to say he’s going to be perfect, but he’ll learn from his mistakes and he'll do a great job."

After last year's loss, Zook and his players lamented that something happened on the bus ride from Champaign to St. Louis. No one could pinpoint the problem, but it zapped Illinois' mojo from a strong camp.

Saturday is a chance to get the momentum back.

"We all have something to prove," defensive end Clay Nurse said. "You can dwell on what your season was like last year, but I'm not one to dwell on that.

"I'm just ready to go out here and show people we can produce and be successful."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Three predictions for each Big Ten team in 2009, starting with Illinois.

1. Arrelious Benn will double his career touchdown receptions total and then bolt for the NFL -- Benn's lack of touchdown receptions mystifies even him, but the odd trend will change this season. Illinois boasts the Big Ten's best receiving corps, and opponents will be unable to double-team Benn as much as they'd like. Jarred Fayson, Jeff Cumberland and others will open up more opportunities for Benn in the red zone. He'll catch 10-12 touchdown passes and then surprise no one by entering the NFL draft.

2. The Illini will finally beat Missouri -- After dropping four straight in the series, Illinois breaks through this fall behind a superior offense. Missouri's offense has lost key pieces like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, while Illinois returns all of the key pieces around quarterback Juice Williams. Not surprisingly, the game will feature plenty of points, but the Illini prevail in the Edward Jones Dome.

3. Martez masters the middle, but the defense will take time to jell -- Martez Wilson's move to middle linebacker should be a catalyst to get consistent production out of the supremely talented junior. After a rough 2008 season both on and off the field, Wilson will show increased maturity and take a leadership role on defense. But without Brit Miller, Vontae Davis, Derek Walker, Will Davis and others, the unit will struggle early on, much like it did last season.

Big Ten mailbag

April, 28, 2009
4/28/09
5:41
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Everett the G from Philly writes: Adam, now that the incessant hype of the NFL Draft has concluded for 2009 can we marvel at the spectacle that the draft has become? While some would argue that its popularity is due to America's insatiable appetite for all things NFL, I would counter that the reason the draft is such a big event is because this is the one event where NFL and college football fans find a common ground. NFL fans want to see how their teams gets better and to learn about players from smaller schools they may not be aware of, while college fans want to see where their favorite players end up, how high they were drafted, and how that can be leveraged when trying to lure new 5 star recruits into their system. As a Big 10 fan, I certainly did notice that system QBs like Chase Daniel and Grahm Harrell weren't drafted, yet players in traditional pro style offenses like Troy Smith, Chad Henne, Curtis Painter have all been drafted. I can understand why a Terrelle Pryor chooses Ohio State over Oregon or other gimmicky (albeit effective) offenses if he wants to play on Sundays.

Adam Rittenberg: It's certainly a tough market out there for spread offense quarterbacks like Harrell and Daniel, though Painter also operated in the spread at Purdue. In general, the Big Ten's style of play translates well to the next level. All the draft hoopla this year reminded me a lot of national signing day, and I think it speaks to a new phenomenon among football fans. It seems like people are more interested/obsessed with what might be than what actually is. Fans love to speculate about which recruits/picks will pan out, while the issues with the current team kind of take a backseat. It's almost like the future is more interesting to them than the present. I agree that the draft brings pro and college fans together.


Jon from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Some reporters in the West have pointed out that Ohio State fans should get a life. Is it a bad thing to draw 95,722 for a Spring Game? Is this jealousy by some in college football for the tremendous support Ohio State has? If USC had drawn 95,722 for its Spring Game, would it be a different tone from the West?

Adam Rittenberg: I'll write more on this in Wednesday's blog, but I think it has everything to do with location. Ohio State is Columbus' pro team, and if you practice inside a huge stadium on a beautiful day with a bunch of new, exciting players at key positions, people are going to show up. The Blue Jackets were already out of the NHL playoffs. Though I didn't expect such a huge crowd at The Shoe, you can't criticize Buckeyes fans for supporting their team. It's different in L.A. -- a lot more sporting options, especially right now with baseball and the NBA playoffs. This might be the Northern Californian in me talking, but L.A. sports fans should never be the standard when judging devotion to a team.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After examining what makes each Big Ten team turn green with envy, our St. Patrick's Day celebration turns to the entire league.

Competition between conferences has escalated in recent years, particularly among fans, and each league has something the other leagues covet.

Once the envy of all other conferences, the Big Ten finds itself on the other side after several subpar seasons. Despite boasting tradition-rich programs and an always-relevant brand name, the Big Ten has dropped six consecutive BCS bowls and five consecutive Rose Bowl matchups.

The prolonged struggles have made Big Ten Nation turn red with anger, and green with envy. Here are three reasons why.

The Big Ten envies the Big 12's quarterbacks: Arguably no factor has driven the Big Ten's downturn more than quarterback play, and the Big 12 boasts a surplus of talented signal-callers. Five of the nation's top 10 passers from last season came from the Big 12, including Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Heisman finalist Colt McCoy of Texas. The Big 12 easily could have had another Heisman finalist in Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, and Missouri's Chase Daniel entered the season as a Heisman candidate. Seven Big 12 quarterbacks finished ahead of the Big Ten's top-rated passer, Penn State's Daryll Clark.

The Big Ten envies the SEC's recruiting base: Speed trumps size in today's college football, and there's much more of it to be found in the South and Southeast. Big Ten coaches are racking up more frequent-flier miles these days, but they're competing against SEC schools located much closer to the talent source. The speed argument at the skill positions is overblown, but it's hard not to notice the differences in line play between the Big Ten and the SEC. Speed and cold-weather football can mix, but it's a tougher sell for the Big Ten, especially given the two league's recent BCS bowl results.

The Big Ten envies the Pac-10's premier program and Rose Bowl proximity: If it wasn't for USC and the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten's national reputation would be a lot better these days. USC's rise has signaled bad news for the Big Ten, which has dropped eight consecutive games to the Trojans, including four Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl. Many Big Ten fans now regard the Rose Bowl as a virtual road game and wonder how their teams can adjust their playing style after competing in poor weather in October and November. USC's success and proximity to the Rose Bowl feeds the argument that the Big Ten will always be at a major disadvantage in the postseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It was one of the more heart-wrenching moments of the Big Ten bowl season, a star player sprawled in pain after his right knee buckled on the Alamodome carpet.

Northwestern's Corey Wootton led a stingy defensive effort against heavy favorite Missouri in the Alamo Bowl, recording an interception and a sack against Chase Daniel. But the standout defensive end injured his knee on a noncontact play late in the fourth quarter, and Northwestern went on to lose 30-23 in overtime.

Wootton wants to make sure the painful moment doesn't define his college career. He underwent surgery Jan. 16 and is immersed in rehab, targeting July as a return to full strength. A first-team All-Big Ten honoree last season, Wootton recorded 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The 6-7, 280-pound senior will enter 2009 as an All-America hopeful and a Lombardi Award candidate, but his knee remains a concern. In his first public comments since the Alamo Bowl, Wootton addressed the injury and his outlook for his final season.

First off, how are you feeling overall with the knee?

Corey Wootton: I'm feeling great. The rehab is going well. I'm doing it every day, just trying to get my leg better and get back into shape.

Had you ever had an injury like that?

CW: No. This is the first time I've had anything wrong with my knee. Pretty much my whole life, my knees have been good.

What was the injury, ACL, MCL?

CW: It was an ACL injury, a full tear.

That's obviously a scary injury. What did they tell you as far as recovery time?

CW: I wasn't too worried about it. I know a lot of people have come back from ACL injuries. If this was 20 years ago, my career would have been done. But the way surgeries are today and the way physical therapy is, I'll be back in six months, no problem, and stronger than before.

You were having such a great game before the injury. How tough was that for you, and did you know something was wrong right away?

CW: Oh yeah, I heard a pop. I knew it was something bad. I actually thought I broke my leg, the way it sounded. I didn't know it was my ACL. I thought I broke my leg in half or something.

Obviously, you'll be sitting out for spring practice, but do you have a target date to be back at full strength?

CW: I'm supposed to be cleared by July, and then back for [preseason camp in August].

What has the rehab been like?

CW: I've been doing a lot of pool rehab, getting the range of motion back in my knee, strengthening the muscles surrounding my knee: quad, hamstring.

There had been some talk of you turning pro after last season. Was that on your mind much before the injury, or did you always expect to come back?

CW: I was always kind of leaning to come back. I love college here and everything, and my goal has always been to win a Big Ten championship. I wanted to come back in my fifth year and try to accomplish that.

(Read full post)

Early schedule snapshot: Illinois

February, 9, 2009
2/09/09
10:42
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The book is closed on 2008, and as part of our look ahead at 2009, it's time to take a team-by-team look at the schedules. The analysis begins with Illinois, one of two teams without a fully finalized nonconference slate. This marks the final Big Ten season without a bye week, which returns for good in 2010. 

Here's what we know right now about the Illini:

NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Missouri (at St. Louis)
Sept. 12 Illinois State
Nov. 21
Fresno State
Nov. 28
TBA

My take: An Illinois spokesperson last week was unable to confirm a fourth nonconference game at Cincinnati on Nov. 28, but the two schools have been talking and could sign a contract soon. Should the Illini add the Bearcats, they would have a strong case for owning the Big Ten's toughest non-league slate. Missouri loses several key pieces (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman) but always shows up to face the Illini, who haven't beaten the Tigers since 1994. A season-opening win would be huge for quarterback Juice Williams and Illinois, who don't have many sure things this fall.

BIG TEN SCHEDULE

Sept. 26 at Ohio State
Oct. 3 Penn State
Oct. 10
Michigan State
Oct. 17
at Indiana
Oct. 24
at Purdue
Oct. 31
Michigan
Nov. 7
at Minnesota
Nov. 14
Northwestern
Byes:
Iowa, Wisconsin

My take: The start to league play is brutal, making a 2-0 start to non-league play all the more important for Illinois. The good news is that Illinois has won in Columbus, and an upset Sept. 26 could set the stage for a major push. Illinois' road schedule other than Ohio State isn't too bad, so if it can defend the turf at Memorial Stadium and pick up a marquee win or two, a solid season certainly is within reach. The Illini could be 1-3 when Michigan State comes to town, but a 3-1 start will set them up for some pretty big things. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten took a beating this bowl season, but rather than gripe about unfavorable locations and matchups, it's time to acknowledge a fact about the league.

The quarterback position stinks.

And in this age of college football, that equals competitive suicide.

All it took was a look across the field during bowl season to realize how far the Big Ten must progress at the quarterback spot.

The list of quarterbacks the Big Ten faced included:

  • Texas junior Colt McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist who ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and ninth in passing yards.
  • USC junior Mark Sanchez, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency and 20th in pass yards.
  • Georgia junior Matthew Stafford, who ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency and 14th in pass yards.
  • Missouri senior Chase Daniel, who ranks fourth nationally in pass yards and fifth in total offense.
  • Kansas junior Todd Reesing, who ranks eighth nationally in both passing yards and total offense.

Of the Big Ten quarterbacks competing in bowl games, only one, Penn State's Daryll Clark, ranks among the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency (Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor did not qualify). Minnesota's Adam Weber had the most passing yards (2,761), which ranks 35th nationally.

Granted, the Big Ten's best statistical passer, Illinois' Juice Williams, didn't reach the postseason, but this league is losing the arms race.

The Big Ten had by far the best stable of running backs in the country this season, boasting three of the nation's top six ball carriers (Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells).

Who cares?

College football has become a quarterback's game, and the Big Ten has fallen way behind. For the Big Ten to restore its place among the nation's top conferences, the fix must begin under center. It takes more than adopting the spread offense, which most Big Ten teams have done. Quarterbacks must be better developed in this conference.

And despite the league's sagging national reputation, there is hope.

The quarterback spot figures to be stronger in 2009 than it was in 2008.

(Read full post)

Big Ten mailbag

January, 7, 2009
1/07/09
11:23
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A day late, but better than not at all ...

Krag from Phoenix writes: I was at the Fiesta Bowl, so I saw this live and was wondering if you could clear something up for me. On Texas' final drive, on the first-down immediately before the touchdown throw, the clock didn't stop. Why? I thought the clock stopped after EVERY first down. At first, I thought it was going to be bad for Texas (not having enough time to score) and then it hurt the Buckeyes since there was :16 seconds left, rather than the :20-:25 there might have been had it stopped. Any explanation would be helpful. Maybe I'm missing something here.

Adam Rittenberg: The clock stops so the officials can reset the chains, but then it winds again. Ohio State took a timeout with 38 seconds left. Texas then completed a 14-yard pass to the Buckeyes' 26, setting up the final play. Though the clock stopped around 25-27 seconds, it moved after the chains were reset. I was a little surprised Texas didn't take a timeout, but the Longhorns ended up managing the clock perfectly.


Ryan from Waukee, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam! Enjoyed reading the blogs all season long and looking forward to next season. As the season is now ever so close to wrapping up, I am looking forward to the 2009 season. I think the Big Ten has a lot to prove next season (where have I heard that before?) and think it could be strong even with some of the big names leaving. Clearly, OSU will be favorite but who could contend with them next season? I don't want to sound biased but Iowa should be a team to look out for. I know Greene, Olsen, Kroul, King and Fletcher leave but we have a lot of young talent with quality PT and a decent group of recruits that will fill in nicely. What do you think about Iowa next season? Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State could enter 2009 ranked higher than Ohio State and likely will be tabbed the Big Ten preseason favorite. Your Hawkeyes will be right there as well. Shonn Greene is a big loss, but I really liked what I saw from Jewel Hampton. The bigger losses, honestly, are Mitch King and Matt Kroul. Iowa usually has good defensive linemen, but it will be impossible to replace what King and Kroul brought to the table. I project Iowa at 8-10 wins in 2009. If the road schedule wasn't so difficult, I'd put the Hawkeyes in the league title mix, though they could get there with a few breaks.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern outplayed Missouri for most of the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats had a tremendous game plan, made big plays on both sides of the ball and kept Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman from lighting up the Alamodome scoreboard, which seemed like a guarantee entering tonight's contest. As the biggest underdog of the 68 FBS bowl teams, Northwestern has nothing to be ashamed about after a 30-23 overtime loss to the Tigers in a thrilling contest.

But when you're a massive underdog and you face a more talented opponent, you need to execute the little things. Details matter more than ever. For Northwestern, the little things came on special teams, and in that area, Pat Fitzgerald's team failed miserably.

Northwestern had no business being tied with Missouri at halftime after dominating the opening 30 minutes. But a poorly executed punt, one that should have gone out of bounds, allowed Maclin to race 75 yards for the tying touchdown with a minute left before the break.

That's seven points right there. At worst, Northwestern should have been up 10-3 at the half.

The Wildcats then opened the second half with a brilliant scoring drive capped by a 46-yard Rasheed Ward touchdown catch. But in a scene Northwestern fans are all too familiar with, kicker Amado Villarreal missed on the extra point attempt. The conversion would have forced Missouri to score a touchdown in the closing minutes rather than settle for a field goal. Northwestern's defense did a great job of keeping Missouri out of the end zone, so a stop was likely.

Eight points on special teams likely doomed the Wildcats, and that's not even counting a missed field goal in the opening half. In a game where Northwestern did so many things right, the special teams details really stung.

The program's first bowl win since 1949 would have been huge, but Northwestern made a strong statement tonight, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats held Missouri's offense to three first half points and picked off Daniel three times. Though Missouri ultimately made the plays when it mattered, Northwestern's defense was one of the bright spots in the Big Ten and should only improve in 2009.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher and wide receivers Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Ward played arguably their best games of the season, and running back Tyrell Sutton came off a wrist injury to rush for 114 yards. Northwestern's problems along the offensive line came back to haunt the team late, and some questionable play-calling gave Missouri the time to rally and force overtime.

The 34-year-old Fitzgerald has Northwestern headed in the right direction. It's critical that this program sustains success, something it did not do after Fitzgerald finished playing in 1996. Those who dismiss Northwestern because of its pre-1995 history are simply uninformed, but the program still needs to get over the hump in bowl games.

Fine-tuning the details on special teams is a good place to start.

Valero Alamo Bowl preview

December, 29, 2008
12/29/08
9:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After an embarrassing start, the Big Ten resumes postseason play tonight as No. 23 Northwestern faces No. 21 Missouri in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). Here's a quick look at the matchup.

WHO TO WATCH: Northwestern's offensive backfield of quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton plays its final game after three patchy seasons. Bacher has had several monster games in his career, and he might need another to keep pace with Missouri's high-powered offense. But the senior struggles with mistakes, throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions in each of the last two seasons. Sutton, the Wildcats' best all-around player, returns to the field for the first time since Oct. 25.

WHAT TO WATCH: A Wildcats defensive line that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) needs to put pressure on Missouri senior quarterback Chase Daniel, who ranks fifth nationally in total offense and completes 74 percent of his passes. Defense has been Northwestern's calling card this season, and standout end Corey Wootton has to step up for the Wildcats to have a shot at the upset.

WHY TO WATCH: A bowl victory is the one objective Northwestern hasn't achieved despite fielding a very respectable program since 1995 (three Big Ten titles, six bowl appearances). The Wildcats are heavy underdogs, but they've exceeded expectations this season and arguably have more to play for than a Missouri team that entered the fall with BCS bowl hopes. Tonight marks the final game for Daniel, tight end Chase Coffman and most likely dynamic wide receiver/return man Jeremy Maclin.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Barring a surprise setback in the next few days, running back Tyrell Sutton and defensive end Vince Browne will suit up for Northwestern on Monday against Missouri in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Sutton missed the final four regular-season games after suffering a dislocated left wrist Oct. 25 against Indiana. Browne sustained a knee injury on a noncontact play Nov. 1 against Minnesota and missed the final three games.

"I fully anticipate both guys playing, and we'll go from there," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald told me this afternoon from San Antonio. "How much and all that will be dictated by game plan and how the game goes."

Sutton will wear a brace on his left wrist, but he is fully participating in practice. The senior leads Northwestern with 776 rushing yards and six touchdowns and ranks fourth on the team in receptions with 30.

Browne bolsters a defensive line that helped Northwestern lead the Big Ten in sacks this season (33). With four sacks to his credit, Browne gives the Wildcats another pass rusher against Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel.

Fitzgerald said he was optimistic about Sutton's status when the back returned to practice last week. Sutton underwent surgery on the wrist Oct. 28 and wore several hard casts during the rehab process. Though it took a few days to get used to catching passes with the brace on, Sutton has adjusted.

"I feel pretty good," Sutton said. "A lot of guys are trying to keep me healthy by not trying to hit the hand [in practice], but I told a couple guys on the defensive side, 'Don't worry about me. I'll be alright. Missouri's not going to take it easy to me, so I might as well get acclimated to the hits I'll be taking in the game.'"

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As a defensive coordinator for the last quarter-century, Northwestern's Mike Hankwitz has a mad scientist quality about him.

If given enough time in the lab, he'll probably concoct something pretty powerful.

Hankwitz has had several weeks to form a plan for the Missouri Tigers, who Northwestern will face Monday in the Valero Alamo Bowl (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). But after spending hours watching Missouri's innovative offense in the lab, er, film room, Hankwitz admits it isn't easy to craft a formula for success.

"They do more than anybody we've played," Hankwitz said. "They give you more exotic formations, trick plays. ... There will be eight or 10 trick things or unique things [per game], and they don't always give them a big play, but it's just the threat of them.

"One or two of those things is not a big deal, but then you start adding that and this and this and this, pretty soon, it's a whole bunch of other crap that you're working on."

Hankwitz and the Wildcats have fared decently against other versions of the spread this season, and Missouri's offensive tempo won't be completely foreign to them. But the combination of a huge playbook and first-class personnel -- quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, tight end Chase Coffman, running back Derrick Washington -- create some headaches.

"If we had to prepare for these guys in a week, holy cow," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "You can see why they're able to put up the numbers they do."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to forecast the first three Big Ten bowl games. I finished the regular season with a record of 71-17 (80.7 percent), but the bowls provide a much tougher challenge.

CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL -- Wisconsin 27, Florida State 25

This would constitute an upset, given Florida State's purported edge in speed and the game's Seminole-friendly location (Orlando, Fla.). Wisconsin will have its hands full trying to contain dominant pass rusher Everette Brown, star safety Myron Rolle and the Seminoles defense, and the Badgers' offensive line needs to play its best game of the season. But I liked the way Wisconsin's offense played down the stretch behind quarterback Dustin Sherer, and running backs P.J. Hill and John Clay could wear down Florida State. It certainly could go the other way, but I'm not sold on Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. The Badgers' secondary can make plays, and Ponder commits a key turnover that lifts Wisconsin to a much needed win.

VALERO ALAMO BOWL -- Missouri 38, Northwestern 27

Northwestern ended the season playing its best football and continued to make major strides on defense. But this just isn't a good matchup for the Wildcats, who haven't faced an offense resembling the high-powered unit led by Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman. Now there is a legitimate question about Missouri's mind-set. How motivated will the Tigers be after a fairly disappointing regular season? Northwestern will be prepared and if the Wildcats have the mental edge, they could pull off a significant upset. Senior quarterback C.J. Bacher has one final chance to recapture the form he showed midway through the 2007 season, when he racked up 990 passing yards in a two-week stretch against Michigan State and Minnesota. Missouri's secondary is a joke, but Bacher won't be able to avoid interceptions. The Wildcats come up short despite the return of running back Tyrell Sutton.

INSIGHT BOWL -- Kansas 41, Minnesota 24

Teams certainly can make progess during bowl preparation, but Minnesota will have to take a major leap forward after dropping its final four regular-season games. Wide receiver Eric Decker returns to the mix after knee surgery and will provide a nice boost, but Minnesota won't be able to mask its problems against a more experienced Kansas team. It'll be interesting to see how the offensive line responds to new coach Tim Davis, but Minnesota's inability to run the ball and its over-reliance on quarterback Adam Decker make it tough to see the Gophers keeping up with the Jayhawks. Minnesota's upset hopes hinge on a defense that led the Big Ten in takeaways (30). If a Gophers secondary filled with playmakers causes Todd Reesing to make mistakes, Minnesota should hang around in this one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

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