Big Ten: D.L. Wilhite

Brock VereenAP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.
Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.

But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.

The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.

But any of those players would be the wrong answer.

"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.

"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."

Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.

"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.

"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."

Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.

The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.

"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.

Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.

But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.

"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.

The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.

"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"

More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.

"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.

"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."

A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.

Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.

"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."

Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.

"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."

Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.

"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."

Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.

If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.

"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
5:00
PM ET
Let's get to it ...

Radi from Bangkok writes: Hey Adam, If the B1G wants to to expand to 18 teams, create 3 divisions and play 5 divisional games, with 2 cross-over games with each of the other 2 divisions, then invite Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech to join the B1G East Division, then offer Notre Dame to join this same division, that the Irish would be foolish to not join on these conditions?

Adam Rittenberg: Radi, I see what you mean about the Notre Dame appeal because ND still could showcase its product in "ACC country" through Georgia Tech, UNC and Virginia. Notre Dame is trying to maintain its brand in regions other than the Midwest, and perhaps a widened Big Ten would pique the interest more in South Bend than a true Midwest league. Ultimately, Notre Dame wants to remain as independent as possible and continue to play games in other regions like the West Coast (USC, Stanford) and even in Big 12 territory. Your proposed schedule would give Notre Dame only three nonleague games to maneuver. Would that be a deal-breaker? Who knows. It really comes down to whether Notre Dame will be forced to join a league. If so, ND could have a decision between a potentially weakened ACC and a broadened Big Ten. That's interesting.




Stephen from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: I'm just curious why Gerald Hodges didn't make the list. I realize that Mauti had a larger impact overall as a leader, but I think that Hodges also contributed overall to keeping the 2012 PSU team together and was an irreplaceable cog in that machine.

Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, I agree that Hodges had a big role in Penn State going 8-4 this past season. Along with Purdue DT Kawann Short and Nebraska WR Kenny Bell, Hodges was one of our final cuts from the rankings. You certainly can make a case that he should be there, but we already had six linebackers, the largest contingent of any position. Mauti certainly overshadowed Hodges, and Hodges wasn't a huge factor during nonleague play. Again, he had a great year and certainly could have been in the rankings, but we felt the other linebackers were more deserving.




John from La Crosse, Wis., writes: do you think that this Wisconsin team can have a better year than last year's even with a new coaching staff? I know that many times a new staff comes in the team is in turmoil, but this team just came off a third straight B1G Championship, and though it is losing key guys like Ball, Wagner, Taylor, and Shelton Johnson, but they do keep a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. If they get solid play from QB, another receiver steps up, and the secondary can fill its holes, do you think that they can make another run at B1G title and compete with Ohio State as well?

Adam Rittenberg: There are a lot of issues to address, John, combined with the potential growing pains of a new staff, as you point out. But you can't discount a culture of success, and that's what Wisconsin has established in recent seasons. Those players know how to win and what it takes to be champions. I think the defense will be solid, and perhaps even a bit improved under the new coaching staff. The secondary is a big concern, and Wisconsin also needs to develop a game-changing pass-rusher again. But Chris Borlandis a superstar and a great leader at linebacker. The quarterback race also is fascinating because the candidates are so different. It's too soon to tell how things will shake out and after last year, I would be a bit wary of some hiccups early in the season. The schedule also is challenging, and Ohio State is a more complete team right now. But you can never count out Wisconsin.




FredCox from Minnesota writes: No D.L. Wilhite? Oh, well...I'm gonna wager there will be 2-3 Gophers on this list next year, do you agree?

Adam Rittenberg: It's certainly possible, Fred. Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman certainly is on our radar entering the 2013 season. If he plays to his potential, he'll have a great chance to make the postseason top 25. Aside from Hageman, though, Minnesota doesn't have too many obvious potential stars. If quarterback Philip Nelson builds off of his bowl performance, he'll be a player to watch. The Gophers need more difference-makers at the offensive skill spots, and they lose two big pieces in the secondary with Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. The biggest reason to think Minnesota will have more representation is Jerry Kill's track record in Year 3 of his previous coaching stops. His teams typically make big strides.




Mochila from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Putting aside Short's snub (I still disagree with your evaluation which penalizes players on weak teams), what does Allen Robinson's inclusion at #11 say about the league this past year? Last year you guys left out Jeremy Ebert whose stats were slightly better than Robinson's this year. Obviously WR was a far weaker position across the league, but was the league in general lacking in big time players thus benefiting a good, but inconsistent Robinson?

Adam Rittenberg: Robinson at No. 11 underscores the lack of elite wide receivers in the Big Ten. The fact we only considered two other wideouts for the top 25 -- Nebraska's Bell and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis -- confirms it as well. I disagree, though, with your claim that Robinson was inconsistent. He had five or more receptions in 10 of 12 games and eclipsed 50 receiving yards in nine contests. Those numbers might not jump out in most leagues, but in the pass-challenged, receiver-strapped Big Ten, they're pretty consistent. The receiver depth was much better in 2011, which contributed to Ebert being left out despite some solid numbers. But leaving him out entirely might have been an oversight on our part.




IrrationalIowaGuy from Iowa writes: Marc Morehouse of the Gazette in the above article lists the Iowa recruits from the state of Florida since the 1999 class. There have been exactly 2 good recruiting classes, both over 10 years ago, which have panned out from Florida. The rest have transferred, dropped out, got AIRBHG'd, or rode the bench. You don't have to recruit every state, Rit, you can only have so many guys on your roster. Missouri, East Coast, Ohio/Michigan, and Illinois account for around 12-15 recruits, Iowa accounts for 4-6 recruits. Add Texas and that's a full class.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree you don't have to recruit every state, but there are certain states where you should invest, especially with limited in-state talent, and Florida is one of them. Again, there are two arguments here I don't understand. The first is the either-or argument. Big Ten teams don't have to invest their recruiting resources in Texas or Florida. They can recruit both states. Most programs around the country do just that. I understand that many of Iowa's new assistants have ties to Texas, which is great. But I also think Kirk Ferentz had an opportunity -- with so many recent staff vacancies -- to hire someone who could recruit Florida as well.

The other argument is the one you present, that just because Iowa's recruiting efforts in Florida haven't panned out means it's time to switch gears to other states/areas. Isn't that more of an Iowa problem than a Florida problem? There are countless examples of Florida recruits who have panned out, and not just the nationally elite guys but players who have come to the Big Ten and excelled in recent years. Look at James White at Wisconsin or Corey Liuget at Illinois or Trevor Siemian at Northwestern or Josh Johnson at Purdue -- and maybe Jake Rudock at Iowa. It's about finding the right players and the right fit for your team, and in my opinion, Iowa can and should find recruits from Florida to help. Every Big Ten team should invest time in that state.

B1G postseason position rankings: DL

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
1:00
PM ET
Our postseason position rankings wrapped up the offensive side of the ball Wednesday with a look at the offensive line. Now it's time to switch to the other side of the ball. We'll stay in the trenches with our rankings for the defensive lines.

This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.

Here we go ...

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesOhio State defensive end John Simon tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last season with nine.
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 1): It took a while for this group to live up to expectations, but once it got going in the second half, you saw why the Buckeyes earned the No. 1 preseason ranking. Defensive end John Simon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Run-plugging tackle Johnathan Hankins should be an early first-round draft pick in April. Nathan Williams shook off injuries to contribute in a big way down the stretch. Freshmen Noah Spence and, in particular, Adolphus Washington helped with the depth, though the starters played a lot of downs.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.

4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.

6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.

7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.

9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.

Best and worst of 2012: Minnesota

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
10:00
AM ET
We're borrowing an idea from the Big 12 blog and starting a new series today breaking down the best and worst moments of the season for each Big Ten team. Let's begin with the Minnesota Golden Gophers:

Best moment: Getting bowl eligible

The Gophers' 17-3 win at Illinois on Nov. 10 was neither their best victory nor top performance of the year. That honor probably goes to either the win over Syracuse or the unexpected rout of Purdue. But beating a bad Illini team still ranks as the top moment because of its significance. Minnesota clinched postseason eligibility that day and eventually played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas for its first bowl appearance since the 2009 season. It was also the first Big Ten road victory under Jerry Kill. The game wasn't pretty to watch, especially after the first half ended in a 3-3 tie. But the Gophers came up with some key defensive stops and just enough offense, mostly by Donnell Kirkwood (152 rushing yards, two scores) to go bowling. "We had two long, hard years of struggling," defensive end D.L. Wilhite told the St. Paul Pioneer Press afterward. "So it means a lot for the program moving forward."

Worst moment: Losing the pig

Minnesota entered its Floyd of Rosedale rivalry game with Iowa on a roll, having gone 4-0 in the nonconference season. Hopes were high for a third straight win over the inconsistent Hawkeyes. Instead, the Gophers got turned into shredded pork. Iowa rolled up a 24-0 halftime lead as Mark Weisman ran all over Minnesota's defense for 177 yards, and the normally buttoned-down Kirk Ferentz offense even pulled off a flea flicker for a 47-yard touchdown. Max Shortell, filling in for the injured MarQueis Gray, threw three interceptions. The Hawkeyes went on to win 31-13 and would earn only one more victory the rest of the season. But they wrested the pig back away from the Gophers, whose nonconference buzz quickly evaporated.
Three keys for Minnesota in tonight's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas game against Texas Tech:

1. Get creative offensively: The Gophers had major trouble finding the end zone for large parts of the season. Injuries at quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line kept the Minnesota offense stuck in neutral; it averaged just 13.3 points per game in every Big Ten game except an outlying 44-point outburst against Purdue. The month off has given time for those nicks and bruises to heal and should help senior quarterback/receiver MarQueis Gray be as effective as he was early in the season. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover needs to maximize ways to use the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray along with true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and lead tailback Donnell Kirkwood. The Gophers are still limited at receiver, with A.J. Barker quitting and Andre McDonald suspended. Limegrover must be creative in finding ways to move the ball and somehow keep up with Texas Tech's wide-open offense.

2. Control the skies: Texas Tech had the No. 2 passing attack in the country, averaging 362 yards per game in the air this season. That's no surprise, given the recent history in Lubbock. The good news for Minnesota is that defending the pass is the Gophers' strength -- they had the No. 11 pass defense in the country this season. Cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire must turn in great games, along with safety Derrick Wells, against standout receivers Eric Ward and Darrin Moore. That won't be enough against a team likely to line up four and five wide receivers every snap, so defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite will have to get pressure on Seth Doege and find ways to disrupt his rhythm. At the very least, the Gophers must take a bend-but-don't-break attitude and force the Red Raiders to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

3. Do all the little things right: Let's be honest: Minnesota is a huge underdog in this game and would probably be playing a much easier opponent if Ohio State and Penn State were bowl eligible. It's a tough matchup for a team that doesn't score a whole lot in what is almost a road game. But the Gophers still have a chance against a Texas Tech squad that lost four of its final five and saw its head coach bolt for Cincinnati after the season. They just have very little margin for error. Special teams have to come up big. They can't afford many penalties. And they absolutely must win the turnover battle and keep the Red Raiders offense off the field as much as possible. They're going to need some luck and to play nearly a perfect game. The good news: Minnesota should be far more excited to be in this game than the Red Raiders.

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
11:00
AM ET
We're back for another round of report cards today as we put every Big Ten team's regular season under the microscope. Minnesota plays its bowl game tomorrow. But first, the Gophers get their grades.

Offense: D

Things looked promising early in the year, as MarQueis Gray began to fulfill his potential as a dual-threat quarterback and some more options emerged in the passing game. But the Gophers' offense quickly crashed back to earth as Gray got hurt, leading to his eventual move to receiver to make way for true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. Other injuries on the offensive line and particularly at receiver, where leading pass-catcher A.J. Barker quit the team after a dispute over his rehab, left offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover searching for duct tape to hold his group together. Minnesota exploded for 44 points against Purdue on Oct. 27, but that proved to be an aberration; the Gophers averaged a measly 13.3 points per game in their seven other Big Ten contests and failed to score more than 17 points in eight of their final nine games. They finished 111th nationally in total offense. Running back Donnell Kirkwood rushed for 849 yards but was practically invisible in the final two games.

Defense: B-minus

The improvement in Minnesota's defense over 2011 was obvious. The Gophers finished fifth in the league in total defense while allowing fewer than 24 points per game, and they ranked No. 11 nationally in defending the pass. Ra'Shede Hageman became a major impact player at defensive tackle, and end D.L. Wilhite had 8.5 sacks, good for second in the Big Ten. Michael Carter blossomed into one of the league's top cornerbacks as a senior, while safety Derrick Wells played great early in the year. Minnesota was not a dominant defense and gave up too many points to some of the better offenses in the league (Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska). But the unit became more than respectable this season and helped carry the team through its offensive struggles.

Special teams: C-minus

The return of Troy Stoudermire didn't really do much to improve Minnesota's kick return game, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten. The Gophers also didn't fare too well in punting (99th nationally in net punting), and Jordan Wettstein missed eight of his 21 field goal attempts. Without a lot of room for error, this team needs to find more ways to be effective in the kicking game.

Overall: C-plus

After a 4-0 start, Minnesota went just 2-6 and was barely competitive in three of its final four games. Yet this team easily earns a passing grade simply by winning enough games to make it to its first bowl since 2009 in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. There was undeniable progress, and perhaps the Gophers could have done even better than 6-6 with some better health luck on the offensive side. They had to juggle three starting quarterbacks, but getting Nelson starting experience should prove valuable down the road. The second half of the season pointed out a glaring need for more skill position players, but the building process appears to be on schedule in Minneapolis.

Previous report cards:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Nebraska

B1G bowl primer: Meineke Car Care Bowl

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
10:00
AM ET
Our snapshots of each bowl featuring a Big Ten team continue.

MEINEKE CAR CARE BOWL OF TEXAS

Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Where: Houston, Reliant Stadium

When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT)

TV: ESPN

About Minnesota: The Gophers return to a bowl game for the first time since the 2009 season after doubling their wins total from 2011 in coach Jerry Kill's second year. Thanks to an improved defense, Minnesota surged to a 4-0 start before struggling in Big Ten play. Injuries forced Minnesota to use three different starting quarterbacks: senior MarQueis Gray, sophomore Max Shortell and freshman Philip Nelson, who lost his redshirt midway through the season and started the final six contests. The Gophers finished 11th nationally in pass defense and bolstered their pass rush behind senior end D.L. Wilhite and junior tackle Ra'Shede Hageman. Nelson showed some flashes of potential in a home victory against Purdue, but injuries piled up for the Gophers' offense, which scored just 54 points in the final four games.

About Texas Tech: Like Minnesota, the Red Raiders saw most of their gains in the first half of the season. They won their first four games and six of their first seven before dropping four of their final five. The poor finish combined with mounting criticism led to the somewhat surprising departure of coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati following the regular season. Texas Tech acted quickly in naming rising star Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, although offensive line Chris Thomsen will coach the Red Raiders in the bowl. The passing tradition at Tech is alive and well as Seth Doege triggers the nation's No. 2 pass offense (361.9 yards per game), and the Red Raiders also rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense. The defense performed well through the first half, shutting down then-Heisman Trophy favorite Geno Smith and West Virginia, but the unit struggled late, surrendering more than 50 points in four of the final six contests.

Key players, Minnesota: Gray is set to play his final game in a Gophers uniform, and as has been the case for much of his career, his position is somewhat of a mystery. Gray started at quarterback last season and opened this fall as the team's top signal-caller, but knee and ankle injuries forced him to wide receiver. The extended break before the bowl has allowed Gray to get healthy, and both he and Nelson are practicing at quarterback. Although running back Donnell Kirkwood has been good at times, Minnesota lacks offensive playmakers. Senior cornerback Michael Carter headlines the secondary after recording two interceptions and 14 pass breakups this fall. Wilhite tied for second in the Big Ten with 8.5 sacks.

Key players, Texas Tech: Doege ranks 14th nationally in pass efficiency (156.6 rating) and ninth in total offense (331.1 ypg), having eclipsed 300 pass yards in nine of 12 games with a 499-yard effort against West Virginia and a 476-yard performance against Kansas. He has two excellent targets in wide receivers Darrin Moore and Eric Ward, both of whom rank in the top 20 nationally in receptions and in the top 30 nationally in receiving yards. Junior defensive end Kerry Hyder triggers Texas Tech's pass rush with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Senior safety Cody Davis leads the unit in tackles (91) and interceptions (3), and ranks second in pass breakups (7).

Did you know: The teams' only previous meeting was a memorable one, as Texas Tech made a huge comeback to force overtime and eventually beat Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl. The blown lead led to Minnesota's firing of longtime coach Glen Mason two days later. ... Texas Tech is bowl-eligible for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons. ... Minnesota will be looking for its first bowl win since the 2004 Music City Bowl, when it defeated Alabama 20-16. ... Minnesota is 5-9 all-time in bowls and has dropped four straight. ... Texas Tech makes its third appearance in what's now known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Texas Tech played in the inaugural game in 2000 (then named the galleryfurniture.com Bowl) at the Astrodome and again in 2003 (then named the EV1.net Houston Bowl) at Reliant Stadium. Texas Tech's last appearance resulted in a 38-14 win over Navy on Dec. 30, 2003.

Ra'Shede Hageman to stay at Minnesota

December, 17, 2012
12/17/12
12:45
PM ET
Ra'Shede Hageman has a realistic view of himself. And that's good news for the 2013 Minnesota football team.

The junior defensive tackle told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he's not ready to play in the NFL and that he would come back for his senior season with the Gophers.

"I feel like I need to get one more year under my belt," he told the paper. " I did OK, in my opinion, but I've definitely got a lot of things to improve on. Getting another year means I've got another spring ball to work hard, get a little bit stronger, so I can be a dominant player in the Big Ten."

Hageman already has an NFL body at 6-foot-5 and over 300 pounds. But this was the first year he became a major contributor, after spending time earlier in his career at tight end and defensive end. He had five sacks and 6.5 TFLs on a much-improved Minnesota defensive front.

But Hageman said he can still improve in stopping the running game and playing with a higher motor. Plus, he'd like to get his degree.

"Five years ago, I was a knucklehead," he told the paper. "I really didn't care [about academics]. But in my five years here, I've definitely matured."

Hageman said he'll put his name in with the NFL draft advisory board, but unless that group comes back with an unexpectedly high draft grade, he'll be back next year.

That will be a big boost to the Gophers' defensive front, which will lose sack leader D.L. Wilhite but returns everyone else on the two-deep.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
9:00
AM ET
Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.

Previewing the Big Ten 3:30 p.m games

November, 24, 2012
11/24/12
1:25
PM ET
Two more games remain on the Big Ten's last full Saturday. Here is what is on tap for the 3:30 p.m. ET games:

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2): We know Penn State will be fired up and emotional on senior day. What about Wisconsin? The Badgers don't need this win and are going to the Big Ten title game regardless. Watch how the game starts, as Penn State is a fast-starting team anyway, and whether the Nittany Lions can sustain their energy throughout, unlike some previous emotional games for them this season. Wisconsin's Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record. How much running room will he find against a terrific Lions front seven?

Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5): Spartans coach Mark Dantonio issued a non-guarantee guarantee this week and wants his team thinking positively as it heads into a do-or-die situation for a bowl. Minnesota is already guaranteed a bowl spot, but would like to end its regular season on a high note. But the Gophers are dealing with a bunch of injuries and will have to match Michigan State's physicality. Will the A.J. Barker controversy prove a distraction? Players and coaches said no this week. Andrew Maxwell will need to have a big game for the Spartans; D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman will be coming after him.
A few injury-related notes from around the league ...
  • Wisconsin could be without its top defensive playmaker against Ohio State as junior linebacker Chris Borland could miss the game with a hamstring injury. Borland, who sustained the injury last week against Indiana, isn't running at full speed but will test the hamstring in pregame warm-ups. Sophomore Marcus Trotter will start at middle linebacker if Borland can't go. Borland leads the Badgers with 4.5 sacks, is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles and has 82 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
  • Northwestern will be without its top corner for the third straight game as Nick VanHoose will sit out against Michigan State with a shoulder injury. VanHoose's absence has proved costly as teams have attacked Demetrius Dugar and the secondary. Reserve linebacker Collin Ellis also is out with an undisclosed injury.
  • Minnesota top wideout A.J. Barker (ankle) will miss his third straight game Saturday at Nebraska. The Gophers also will be without defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee) and reserve linebacker Lamonte Edwards. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite, tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with 7.5, is listed as questionable on the team's injury report but also remains the starter on the depth chart. Center Jon Christenson, injured last week at Illinois, also is questionable.
  • Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (knee) will be a game-time decision against Minnesota, coach Bo Pelini said Thursday. Burkhead, who twice has aggravated the knee in Big Ten play and has missed the past three games, tested out the knee this week in practice. Wide receiver Tim Marlowe also is a game-time decision.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
2:00
PM ET
With two weeks left in the regular season, let's check in again on how the individual awards races stand:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Off last week, Miller faces arguably his two biggest challenges in the final two weeks, at Wisconsin and vs. Michigan. Two big performances could make him a Heisman Trophy finalist.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: Captain Comeback did it again last week against Penn State, totaling 171 yards passing, 104 yards rushing and a touchdown.

3. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Back in the picture while putting together a strong finish. Ball had 198 yards and three touchdowns last week, and could carry the Badgers to a Leaders Division title.


4. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: McGloin threw for 240 yards and a touchdown (should have been two) at Nebraska, but he also had another costly interception in a high-profile loss.

5. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Mark had his seventh 100-yard rushing day of the season last week at Michigan. He's been more consistent than Le'Veon Bell and a big reason why Northwestern has had a chance to win every game this season.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: Mauti had 10 tackles and forced a key fumble at Nebraska last week. Can somebody knock him off this perch in the final two weeks?

2. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan: Ryan had a quiet -- by his standards -- game last week against Northwestern, but has been a beast this season for the Wolverines with 12 tackles for loss.

3. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Another sack last week at Illinois gave him 7.5 for the season, tied with Nebraska's Eric Martin for most in the league.

4. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin: Just three tackles last week at Indiana, but Taylor is still among the league leaders in tackles and tackles for loss.

5. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State: Hodges continued his outstanding play during conference season with 14 stops at Nebraska last week.

Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year

1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: The sophomore has already tied the school record for most receptions in a season (63) with two games left. He leads the league in catches, yards (786) and touchdowns (eight), and should win this award going away.

2. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis has been slowed by injuries and quarterback shuffling, but he ranks just behind Robinson in receiving yards per game (689 yards in nine contests), with five touchdowns.

3. Kenny Bell, Nebraska: Bell (35 catches for 653 yards and six TDs) has been the Huskers' big-play guy in the passing game. He's an excellent blocker, as well.

4. Cody Latimer, Indiana: The Hoosiers are blessed with several good receivers, including Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes. Latimer leads the way with 707 receiving yards, plus five touchdowns.

Previewing the Big Ten 3:30 p.m. games

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
1:20
PM ET
The action in the Big Ten today concludes with a pair of 3:30 p.m. ET games. Here's what is left on tap:

Penn State (6-3, 4-1) at No. 16 Nebraska (7-2, 4-1): I am here in Lincoln and will have a full preview and game coverage coming your way shortly.

Minnesota (5-4, 1-4) at Illinois (2-7, 0-5): Why should you care? Well, the Gophers can clinch postseason eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season with their first conference road victory of the year. The Illini have been brutally bad but did show a little spark on offense last week at Ohio State; can Tim Beckman get this team to build something positive, much in the same way Jerry Kill did late in his first season at Minnesota? Rookie Philip Nelson makes his second road start and will not have top wide receiver A.J. Barker, who is injured. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has taken a beating this season and now will have Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite coming after him.

Big Ten lunch links

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
12:00
PM ET
Phone! I bet that's Mama. I was just dreaming it was raining chickens.

Midseason report: Minnesota

October, 16, 2012
10/16/12
9:00
AM ET
MINNESOTA

Record: 4-2, 0-2 Big Ten

If Minnesota does not win another game all season, it still will have improved on last year's 3-9 record. Not that anyone around the Golden Gophers would be OK with that.

This is a team that has a bowl game in its sights for the first time since the 2009 season, and it would register as a disappointment now to fall short. Minnesota has shown much improvement during Jerry Kill's second year in overall playmaking ability on offense, in the trenches and in defending the pass. Those strides led to a 4-0 start. But that progress stalled once Big Ten play arrived, as the Gophers were blown out at Iowa and lost at home to Northwestern.

There's no secret as to what has gone wrong in the losing streak. Kill's defense has been unable to stop the run, allowing 390 rushing yards combined the past two games. And the injury to starting quarterback MarQueis Gray has robbed the offense of its main threat. Gray was able to return from a high ankle sprain and play during the Northwestern game, and he gave the team a spark with his rushing ability. But Gray was re-injured during that game, and his status going forward is cloudy.

While Max Shortell is a capable passer, defenses are left guessing whenever the mobile Gray is on the field. The Gophers need him back and healthy, and they need to figure out why they've been so easily gashed by the ground game in Big Ten play. Kill's health -- he suffered another seizure after the Northwestern game last week -- is unfortunately also an issue again.

There is still plenty of time for Minnesota to get to six wins, if not more, and games against Purdue at home and Illinois on the road look highly winnable. But as they say in baseball, hardest three outs to get are the last ones. The Gophers hope getting the last two wins this year doesn't prove too big a challenge.

Offensive MVP: WR A.J. Barker. Gray would likely be the team MVP had he stayed healthy. The offense desperately needed a big-play threat in the receiving game, and walk-on junior Barker surprisingly provided that. His 22 catches and 406 yards are more than double the amount of any other Gopher, and he's added four touchdowns. Barker is averaging 18.5 yards per catch.

Defensive MVP: DT Ra'Shede Hageman. The 6-foot-6, 301-pounder has finally blossomed into a force for the Gophers defense. Defensive end D.L. Wilhite has also been good, giving the team a much-needed pass rusher off the edge, while safety Derrick Wells has helped stabilize the secondary. But there's no replacing an effective interior defensive lineman.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

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