Big Ten: Damon Bullock

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
5:00
PM ET
You've got questions, I've got answers. Let's move along to the Big Ten mailbag ...


Josh Moyer: Let's see here. Heisman-worthy candidate? Check. Two solid wideouts? Check. Best defensive player in the conference when healthy? Check. But there are a few things Nebraska needs to tweak, or sustain, to really put together a solid run. Let me give you my three key points. For one, the Huskers need to find ways to gain more turnovers. They have just one so far -- and it was an interception against McNeese State on a Hail Mary to end the game. Nebraska is dead-last in the nation in creating turnovers. So it needs to continue to take care of the ball but find ways to get that ball back, especially when it's on the road. Two, Tommy Armstrong needs to continue to make smart decisions -- but he has to understand he can't rely on the big play as much as before. This team is really living and dying on those big plays, instead of constructing sustained drives, so it'll have to adapt against better defenses. And three, if there's a part of the defense that hast to step up, it's the linebackers. They need to be more active and create more plays. If Nebraska does those things, I think you'll be seeing the Huskers in the B1G title game.

Andy from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, writes: My biggest concern is that Jake Rudock is one of the leading rushers for Iowa. That's not a good thing! My impression is that he is taking off running on passing plays way too often. Is this a problem of the receivers not getting open or is it Rudock not giving the play enough time to develop?

Josh Moyer: There are all sorts of problems on Iowa's offense, but I don't think quarterback Jake Rudock is even close to being near the top of those concerns. He's completing 68 percent of his passes and has thrown one pick in 117 attempts. The offensive line bears some of the blame, but these issues also have to do with the play-calling. Opponents are loading the box against Iowa and, rather than airing it out or making opponents pay for that, offensive coordinator Greg Davis has opted to stick with a horizontal passing attack. Iowa's offensive gameplan is predictable and conservative, and that seems to be a big reason this offense is so out of whack. Rudock is simply taking off when he sees an opening, and he's done a relatively good job of that. You could argue he's taking off too much, but his unscripted running plays are more effective than the scripted runs: Rudock is averaging 4 yards a carry, more than a yard better than Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. So you're right, it is concerning that Rudock is one of the leading rushers. But that's more a product of the concerning offense, rather than a concerning Rudock.


Josh Moyer: Realistically, I feel as if the most likely Penn State outcome is still an eight-win regular season, give or take a victory. But you specifically asked about the ceiling -- about the best-case scenario -- so I'll put that at 10. Yes, the Big Ten is down as a whole. And, yes, outside of Michigan State, there are really no "unwinnable" games. But as James Franklin said Saturday, winning tends to minimize issues while losing magnifies them. And Penn State still has quite a few issues -- namely the young offensive line. If you could substitute Wisconsin's offensive line here, I think PSU could realistically go 11-1 or better. But left tackle Donovan Smith appears to be the only above-average lineman, since center Angelo Mangiro really struggled Saturday against Rutgers. Christian Hackenberg has no time in the pocket, and there's virtually no run game of which to speak. I said this before and I'll say it again: Penn State's ceiling is capped by its offensive line. Ohio State should give PSU plenty of problems, and Michigan's defense is much more aggressive compared to last season. PSU fans should approach this conference season with cautious optimism.

Leland Buss rom Burlington, Wisconsin, writes: Why is Wisconsin trending downward? I thought the loss to LSU was a good loss. Am I wrong? The win against Western Illinois was solid if not spectacular, so why are they now being dismissed as contenders in the West?

Josh Moyer: Leland is referring to our Big Ten power rankings, where we dropped Wisconsin to No. 5 this past week. And it's a good question. But the Badgers' move had less to do with Wisconsin and more to do with how the teams above them performed. Nebraska dominated Fresno State, and Penn State turned in another solid defensive effort. Both teams are undefeated, and they deserve credit for that. Michigan State is the easy No. 1 and the Buckeyes ... well, their loss to Virginia Tech looks worse now than before. But Ohio State's passing game gives me a lot less pause than Wisconsin's. No one's discounting Wisconsin as a division contender. Iowa has looked pretty bad so far, and it sure seems as if the race in the West is between Nebraska and Wisconsin. If the Badgers can shore up their passing game, they'll be back near the top in no time.

Big Ten morning links

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
8:00
AM ET
A tip of the cap to the Big Ten for staying ahead of the curve. For sticking its collective conference neck out there.

Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.

That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.

On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.

The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?

And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.

Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.

But it’s about more than money.

Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.

“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.

His program receives $2 million for the game.

Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.

These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.

Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.

Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?

Keep thinking big, Big Ten.

One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…

East Division
West Division
Bonus links
  • Who said Penn State would go back to nameless jerseys? Not James Franklin. In fact, he's not saying anything.
  • Johnny Manziel weighs in on Miller, J.T. Barrett the Ohio State quarterback situation.
  • A little fun with Kevin Wilson after practice at Indiana.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM ET
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:

 

Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.

It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.


Alex from New Orleans writes: Brian, I know there's been a lot of talk about Michigan's struggles from last year, and how they might continue to struggle again this year. Rightfully so. But rather than talk about the team's floor and how far it will sink, as so many people want to do, what do you think Michigan's ceiling is as a team this year? Let's just say everything comes together from the O-Line to the Pass Rush. They've got two very good coordinators, and a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A lot of young talent, yes, but talent nonetheless. Jabrill Peppers, though a freshman, may not be of this world. I know this team won't go undefeated, but at the same time, I don't think there's one game on the team's schedule that it can't win. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.

But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: Should the Illini erect a Dick Butkus statue on the opposite side of Memorial Stadium from the iconic Red Grange statue? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.


David L. from Chicago writes: Last week, Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, asked who wouldn't make the Playoff in an imaginary world where every major conference produced one undefeated team, using Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor as examples. Great question, but I want to add a wrinkle to it: What if Ohio State, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor go undefeated and Alabama has one loss. Who are the four playoff teams then? (remember the media loves the SEC).

Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.

Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.


Chris from Castle Rock, Colo., writes: Why do you suppose Iowa running backs (namely Mark Weisman) were left off the Doak Walker Award watch list? Is this a way of tricking the AIRBHG for another season?

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
4:30
PM ET
Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin QB Joel Stave will serve as the backup to Tanner McEvoy as the Badgers open Big Ten play.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
Two years ago, Iowa had a simple goal with its running backs: just get somebody on the field.

An unusual stretch of misfortune -- handed down by AIRBHG or some other dastardly entity -- had crippled Iowa's once-formidable running back room. So when a 240-pound sledgehammer named Mark Weisman essentially came out of nowhere and grabbed the football, Iowa simply jumped on his back for as long as it could. Weisman recorded 98 carries during a four-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October in 2012. He opened the 2013 season with 85 carries in Iowa's first three games.

[+] EnlargeJordan Canzeri
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJordan Canzeri ranked third in carries for the Hawkeyes but first in average yards per carry (6.5).
If Weisman records a similar workload early this season, something has gone very wrong for the Hawkeyes. One of the many luxuries Iowa enjoys entering the 2014 campaign -- along with a favorable schedule, a stable quarterback situation and solid line play on both sides of the ball -- is depth at running back. Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock might not be known names around the Big Ten, but both have started games and add to Iowa's backfield mix.

Weisman likely will enter the season as Iowa's lead ball-carrier, but his workload should be much more manageable. The goal is to keep all the backs fresh for the stretch run, which includes late November home games against West Division challengers Wisconsin and Nebraska.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use everybody in a smart way," coach Kirk Ferentz told ESPN.com. "It's a good mix for us."

Although Weisman looks and at times performs like a workhorse back, he has a point of diminishing returns. In 2012, he recorded 673 yards and eight touchdowns during the 98-carry stretch between Sept. 15 and Oct. 13, but he suffered an ankle injury in the final game against Michigan State. He had just 14 carries the next two contests before sitting out two weeks to heal.

Weisman had 100 yards or more in four of Iowa's first five games last fall, while accumulating 119 carries in the process. But another foot injury, also against Michigan State, limited him both in practices and in games for about a month. He had no more than 13 carries in the five games between Oct. 5 and Nov. 9.

"We've kind of seen it for two years," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "As the season goes on and his carries begin to mount, there comes a point where he's not quite as effective as he was early. Though Mark would never say a word, I’ve got to think his body's getting beaten up."

Canzeri's emergence late last season suggests a better carries balance for Iowa's backs. As Weisman healed, Canzeri had 332 yards on only 43 carries in Iowa's final four regular-season contests, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He produced runs of 43 yards against Wisconsin and 37 yards against Nebraska and contributed as a receiver in wins against both Nebraska and Michigan.

Iowa improved from 101st nationally in rushing in 2012 to 50th last year.

Two springs ago, Canzeri had positioned himself as Iowa's likely starter before tearing his ACL. Despite a quick recovery, he sat out the 2012 season and worked on pass protection, among other things.

"I just knew it was a time to get stronger, get faster and get better," Canzeri said. "It was fortunate that it was during the 4-8 season that no one really wants to think about. Before I was confident, but I was smaller and my speed was my main attribute. Now I've gained another year and gotten stronger and more mature and have built into a more complete football player."

Ferentz looks at Canzeri differently than he did a year ago, expressing "total confidence" in the junior to contribute significantly. Bullock actually has more career carries (263) than Canzeri but likely will be used as a third-down back because of his strong pass-blocking and pass-catching skills (39 career receptions).

Each back has his own style, as Ferentz notes, but their differences aren't as stark as they were two springs ago. Sophomore LeShun Daniels, at 215 pounds, adds another power option, and Ferentz said the team's depth at fullback with Adam Cox and Macon Plewa is the best it has been in his tenure.

"Whoever's out there can do all those same things," Canzeri said, "which is good because when the person who has the hot hand is getting tired, the next person that comes in isn't just filling in but someone who can get the job done just as well.

"It's really cool to see."

It should lead to a fresher and faster group of backs, especially when Iowa needs them most.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The tempo trend sweeping through college football has, for the most part, skipped over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While teams such as Oregon and Baylor operate at a breakneck pace, Iowa continues to shape its offense around power and play-action, ball control and sustained drives. Huddling is still encouraged.

In 2012, the Hawkeyes ran fewer offensive plays than any Big Ten team. In 2011, an Indiana team that played 12 games ran more plays (870) than an Iowa team that played 13 (866). In 2010, Iowa ran 136 fewer plays than Big Ten-leader Northwestern in the same number of games.

But a shift began taking place last season. Iowa eclipsed 900 plays in 13 games. The offense ramped up the tempo late against LSU in the Outback Bowl, leading some to question whether the Tigers were faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes. Process that for a minute: LSU's defense trying to slow down Iowa's offense.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa are joining the trend toward a faster tempo on offense.
But tempo at Iowa is here to stay. In fact, it's getting ramped up even more this spring.

"We would like to be able to play fast with any group, be it two backs, two tight ends, three tight ends, three wide receivers," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "We played at a faster tempo last year than the year before, and we're playing at a faster tempo this spring than last year."

Iowa isn't going to turn into Auburn by Aug. 30. That's not Davis' intent. He recognizes the perils of pushing the tempo. At times, he wants his quarterbacks to have enough time to survey the defense before the ball is snapped.

More than anything, however, he wants defenses to be unsure about Iowa's pace.

"We're just trying to kick it up another notch," tackle Brandon Scherff said. "Once we get used to it, it'll be a good advantage for us."

Davis' ultimate goal is more explosion plays. Iowa averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 6.8 yards per pass play last season, ranking 10th in the league in both categories. There were some flashes, such as Tevaun Smith's spectacular catch and run for a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan.

But the Hawkeyes need more and could have the personnel to get it done. There are more options at receiver with veteran Kevonte Martin-Manley, Smith and Jacob Hillyer, along with Damond Powell, who averaged 24.3 yards per reception in limited action in 2013. Several redshirt freshmen are emerging this spring, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Derrick Willies.

"If you don't have explosive plays, it's tougher to get the win at the end of the day," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "Every team needs to have those, whether it's running or whether it's passing."

Although running back will be a strength -- bruiser Mark Weisman returns alongside Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and exciting sophomores LeShun Daniels and Barkley Hill -- the pass game should be enhanced this fall. Iowa returns two quarterbacks with game experience (Rudock and C.J. Beathard), depth at receiver and tight ends Jake Duzey and Ray Hamilton. Iowa will miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz's blocking, but Duzey is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling as a pass-catcher, as he showed with 138 receiving yards against Ohio State last fall.

"The ball's going to be in our hands more. I feel like they're going to call our number," Martin-Manley said. "A few more plays downfield, and we've also been adding new plays to get us open and use the tools we have at receiver."

After starting every game last season, Rudock has done nothing to harm his standing this spring, showing greater comfort with the scheme, the signals and a leadership position. But that coaches also like Beathard, who should have a role even if Rudock tightens his grip on the starting spot.

"He has a little more lateral quickness than Jake," Davis said, "so the discussion [among coaches] could carve out a package for him, a little more zone-read. At the same time, he can really spin the football."

The skill position depth is there, especially if the receivers keep making strides. Scherff's return to the line is huge, and Davis likes the starting five, which includes veterans Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal. Sean Welsh has emerged this spring as the starting left guard.

Line depth is a significant concern, Davis said, but beyond that there's a lot to like about an offense that will operate faster and should put more points on the board.

"The first year, new system, last year, new quarterback," Davis said. "We have more than we have in the past. I feel better about this spring than I have in any spring. We have the opportunity to be the best offense we've been in the three years I've been here."

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Season report card: Iowa

December, 27, 2013
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The regular season is all wrapped up, and we're passing out grades to each Big Ten team for offense, defense, special teams and overall performance. Iowa didn't post its 2012 report card on the refrigerator but can feel much better about its marks this fall.

Here's how Kirk Ferentz's crew fared.

Offense: B-minus

The Hawkeyes offense received a failing grade last season and had plenty of its fans dropping F-bombs, but the unit made tangible strides this fall. Iowa wasn't a juggernaut, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in yards and ninth in points, but it found an identity behind second-year coordinator Greg Davis. The running backs finally managed to stay healthy and formed a nice power game behind a good offensive line. Sophomore Jake Rudock stabilized the quarterback spot despite taking no game snaps before the season kicked off.

Iowa played to its strengths, namely a talented group of tight ends led by red-zone threat C.J. Fiedorowicz. Rudock spread the ball well, and backs Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri all had their moments. The Hawkeyes lacked explosiveness at times but didn't beat themselves as much as they did in 2012.

Defense: A

[+] EnlargeChristian Kirksey
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa's defense was built around a strong linebacker group that included Christian Kirksey (20).
A rock-solid defense led by one of the nation's best linebacker groups helped Iowa flip its record from 4-8 to 8-4 this fall. The unit's gains weren't as dramatic as those on offense, but Iowa improved to No. 7 nationally in total defense, 11th in both points allowed and pass yards allowed, and 17th in rush yards allowed. Iowa tied with No. 1 Florida State in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (5) and fewest plays of 20 yards or longer allowed (30).

Senior linebackers James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens led the way, combining for 10 takeaways. Each ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 tacklers. They played behind a defensive line that Ferentz called the team's most improved unit. Senior cornerback B.J. Lowery led the secondary with three interceptions and 16 pass breakups.

Special teams: B-minus

Punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley sparked Iowa's kicking game with two touchdowns and a league-leading 16.2-yard average. Otherwise, the Hawkeyes' special teams were decent but not spectacular. Kicker Mike Meyer connected on 16 of 21 field-goal attempts but missed three tries inside the 40-yard line. Fake punts continue to burn Iowa as Michigan State successfully executed one, leaving Ferentz to consider scrapping the punt return team altogether.

Overall: A-minus

Iowa had a lot to smile about this season after a forgettable 2012 campaign. The Hawkeyes went 5-1 in Legends Division play, regained their crunch-time mojo in wins against both Northwestern and Michigan and restored some of the principles that characterized Ferentz's best Iowa teams. Their losses all came against ranked opponents, and they competed well in every game. Much like the 2008 team, these Hawkeyes got Iowa back on track and have set the program up for even better things next season.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
Illinois
Purdue

Bowl could springboard Iowa offense

December, 24, 2013
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After a season in the wilderness of transition, Iowa's offense found itself this fall. The next step is to find out what it could be.

The possibilities are exciting for a unit that will lose only three starters and bring back valuable pieces at running back, line and quarterback. While Iowa's offense might not make as dramatic a jump as it did this season -- when it vaulted from 114th nationally to 79th -- it certainly could move into the top half of the Big Ten.

"We have a good understanding of what the identity is," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com this week. "We're a zone, slant team with the tight ends that tries to use play-action. The players understand how we need to play, and that's how we try to go about game-planning."

Davis had three objectives for the offense entering the fall: play faster by incorporating a no-huddle element; maximize the strength at tight end by using two or three on the field together in many sets; and create more explosive plays.

Although few would confuse Iowa with Baylor, the Hawkeyes achieved the first objective by improving their tempo. Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz became the team's top red-zone threat (six touchdown catches), while Jake Duzey emerged during Big Ten play with 16 receptions and Ray Hamilton had eight. Iowa recorded 41 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer, including eight passes of 40 yards or longer, though Davis admits, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJake Rudock stepped in as starting quarterback and provided stability, if not eye-popping numbers.
But the Hawkeyes created some progress after floundering in Davis' first season at the helm. The outlook was bleak for a unit that finished near the bottom of the FBS in so many categories, couldn't keep its running backs healthy and had no quarterbacks with game experience on the roster. Sophomore Jake Rudock performed the best in practices, but as Davis knows, things change when the hitting begins.

"He's an extremely bright person, he takes courses I can't spell the name of," Davis said of Rudock, a microbiology and premed major. "We ask a lot of our quarterback at the line. We thought he would handle all that, but we didn't know for sure. There's still that apprehension going into the year."

Rudock's numbers hardly jump off the page (2,281 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 60.2 percent completions), but he steadied the ship and helped the Hawkeyes more than he hurt them. Although Rudock left the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a knee injury, he'll be ready for next week's Outback Bowl clash against LSU.

"He's a real even-keeled guy," Davis said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if he threw an interception or a touchdown. That serves him well playing quarterback."

Iowa's offense in 2012 essentially consisted of two ball-carriers in Mark Weisman (159 attempts) and Damon Bullock (135 attempts) and three pass-catchers in Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions), Keenan Davis (47) and Fiedorowicz (45). The touches were spread around much more this season.

Four Hawkeyes have more than 60 rushes, including Jordan Canzeri, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Seven players have 12 or more receptions, including Tevaun Smith, who led Iowa in catches during conference play with 21, and Damond Powell, a junior-college transfer who averages 24.2 yards per reception.

"The more guys you can depend on, the harder it is for the defense," Davis said. "That's what we've tried to do."

The bowl game is a final exam of sorts, and Iowa faces an LSU defense ranked 20th nationally despite having only three seniors on the two-deep. Davis went against LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis during the early to mid 1990s when Davis coached in the SEC and calls the Tigers a "huge challenge."

It's also a huge opportunity for Iowa, not just for now but for the future. Aside from Fiedorowicz, guard Conor Boffeli and right tackle Brett Van Sloten, Iowa returns every other starter, including standout left tackle Brandon Scherff, who recently announced he's passing up the NFL draft for one more year in Iowa City.

"With two years under their belt," Davis said, "we have an opportunity to take another step going into 2014."

Tale of the tape: LSU-Iowa

December, 10, 2013
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These programs gave us one of the most memorable finishes in bowl history nine years ago, and now they return to sunny Florida on New Year's Day for the Outback Bowl. Let's take a closer look at the matchup between No. 16 LSU (9-3) and Iowa (8-4) when they meet at 1 p.m. at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

Who's under center?: This was something of a question for both teams before their coaches cleared it up in the last few days. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Jake Rudock should be “absolutely fine” to play against LSU after leaving the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a right knee injury. Meanwhile, LSU's Les Miles said freshman Anthony Jennings will take over for the injured Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter. Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in the finale against Arkansas, but Jennings came on to complete the Tigers' comeback, hitting Travin Dural with the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play.

When last we met: Iowa fans will never forget how the 2005 Capital One Bowl ended, when Drew Tate hit little-used receiver Warren Holloway with a 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired. That 30-25 loss marked an ugly end to Nick Saban's LSU tenure, as he left to coach the Miami Dolphins immediately afterward. Within hours of the game's end, Miles was named as Saban's successor.

What's at stake: Not much, really. Fresh off an awful 4-8 record in 2012, Iowa started the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. But it's certainly possible that Ferentz's Hawkeyes can finish the season as a ranked team if they beat LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers have already bid farewell to Mettenberger and could be featuring some of their top draft-eligible skill players for the final time as well. A win in the bowl would give LSU its fourth straight season with at least 10 wins, a school record.

Hit the ground running: It would not be a surprise to see this become a run-heavy game. Without Mettenberger -- who was one of the nation's most effective passers -- LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might opt to lean heavily on Jeremy Hill (1,185 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Terrence Magee (614-8) against the Hawkeyes. The problem there is that Iowa's defense is no pushover. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense (303.2 ypg) and are 17th against the run (120.8 ypg). On the other hand, all Iowa wants to do is run. The bruising Mark Weisman (937-7) and slippery duo of Damon Bullock (467-1) and Jordan Canzeri (451-2) take most of the carries for Iowa, which ranks 41st nationally in rushing (188.6 ypg).

Back to the Outback: This will be LSU's second visit to the Outback (formerly Hall of Fame) Bowl, having last played in Tampa at the end of the 1988 season when it lost 23-10 to Syracuse. Iowa has played an SEC club in this bowl three times in the previous 11 seasons, beating Florida 37-17 in 2003, losing 31-24 to the Gators in 2005 and blasting South Carolina 31-10 in 2008.

Best wins: It didn't seem like much at the time, but LSU was the only team to beat No. 2 Auburn, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and winning 35-21 on Sept. 21. LSU also posted a memorable 34-10 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M near the end of the season. Iowa closed with a three-game winning streak to secure its first winning record (5-3) in league play since 2009. That run included a 24-21 win over Michigan and a decisive 38-17 victory at Nebraska to conclude the season.

Worst losses: Iowa's four losses are all respectable, particularly since three of the teams that beat the Hawkeyes -- Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State -- finished with 12-1 records, and the other was to 9-3 Wisconsin. LSU's worst loss was certainly its 27-24 defeat against Ole Miss, although the 38-17 loss at Alabama also felt like a low point.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith LSU's Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury, Iowa has the edge at QB with Jake Rudock.
Offensive stars: He doesn't generate as many headlines as Rudock or the running backs, but All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff certainly ranks among Iowa's most valuable players. Scherff announced on Monday that he will return for his senior season. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (57 catches, 1,117 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (75-1,172, 10 TDs) will both go down as two of the most dangerous wideouts in LSU history.

Defensive stars: All-Big Ten linebackers Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFLs) are the headliners for Iowa's stingy defense along with defensive back B.J. Lowery (55 tackles, three interceptions, 16 pass breakups). Linebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU's defense with 86 tackles, while defensive linemen Anthony Johnson (32 tackles, 7 TFLs) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) lead the defensive front and safety Craig Loston (51 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Jalen Mills (61 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) anchor the back end of the defense.

X-factor: Even if both teams run and run some more, quarterback play could be the determining factor. Jennings will surely need to get the ball to Beckham, Landry and company -- and do so without many costly turnovers -- to force the Hawkeyes to respect the pass. And Rudock will have to prove he can get the job done against a strong opponent. In Iowa's eight wins, he hit 64 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in the Hawkeyes' four losses -- against the only four ranked teams on their schedule -- he completed 55 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and six picks.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 11

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
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Our Week 11 picks were identical, and we both fell short of perfection following Nebraska's late rally against Michigan. Brian Bennett retains a 1-game lead in the season standings with three weeks to go. The loser pays for dinner in Indy.

Let's take a look at how we fared.

Week 11/Season record

Brian Bennett: 4-1/64-13
Adam Rittenberg: 4-1/63-14

Here's one final look at the Week 11 predictions from us and our guest picker, Adam Miller from Los Angeles.

It's rewind time ...

Penn State at Minnesota
  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 24, Penn State 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 31, Penn State 24
  • Actual score: Minnesota 24, Penn State 10
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed Minnesota's score and pegged the Gophers' ground game for another big day. Penn State had two turnovers, not the three he predicted. Minnesota RB David Cobb (139 rush yards, TD) came close to my prediction (150 yards, 2 TDs), and the Gophers held Allen Robinson and the Penn State offense in check more than I thought they would.
Iowa at Purdue
  • Bennett's pick: Iowa 38, Purdue 3
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 31, Purdue 7
  • Actual score: Iowa 38, Purdue 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett goes 2-for-2 on winning teams' scores, and correctly pegged Iowa QB Jake Rudock for two touchdown passes. I would have had Purdue's score right if not for a long touchdown in the final minute. Mark Weisman had a touchdown run for the Hawkeyes, but it was Jordan Canzeri, not Weisman or Damon Bullock, who truly sparked the ground game with 165 yards.
Illinois at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 38, Illinois 35
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 45, Illinois 41
  • Actual score: Indiana 52, Illinois 35
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett once again nailed a score prediction here, although both of us underestimated Indiana's offensive clout in the second half. Hoosiers RB Tevin Coleman (215 rush yards, 2 TDs) exceeded the lofty rushing prediction I had for him (180 yards, 3 TDs), and Indiana actually overcame a 450-yard passing effort from Nathan Scheelhaase, not a 300-yarder.
Nebraska at Michigan

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 27, Nebraska 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 38, Nebraska 31
  • Actual score: Nebraska 17, Michigan 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: Big swing and a miss here, as we expected Michigan's offense to show up (and Nebraska to score more than it did). Huskers RB Ameer Abdullah (105 rush yards TD) came somewhat close to my prediction (150 yards, 2 TDs), but Michigan QB Devin Gardner struggled again. Bennett's concerns about a hangover effect for Gardner and the Wolverines proved true.
BYU at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 28, BYU 24
  • Rittenberg: Wisconsin 34, BYU 26
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 27, BYU 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett wrapped up a strong week of score predictions by nearly getting Wisconsin's total on the number. I was a bit closer on the Badgers' margin of victory, although RBs James White and Melvin Gordon combined for three touchdown dances, not four. Bennett correctly had Wisconsin's run defense stepping up, as the Badgers held BYU to 10 points in the first 56 minutes.
You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to check on how Adam fared.

Penn State 28, Minnesota 24
Iowa 27, Purdue 14
Indiana 41, Illinois 21
Michigan 34, Nebraska 27
Wisconsin 34, BYU 17

Adam finished 3-2 as he missed on both Minnesota and Nebraska. His score predictions weren't great, but he came close on victory margin in several games.

Want to be this week's guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice for Week 11 here and here (be sure to put "GUEST PICKS" in the body of your post).

Last week's predictions came down to a Hail Mary in Lincoln, Neb. What does Week 11 have in store?

Brian Bennett has rallied to take a one-game lead in the season standings. If he can hold on, he'll be chowing down on Adam Rittenberg's dime at St. Elmo in Indianapolis. But there's a long way to go, including five games this Saturday.

Let's get started …

PENN STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: I might pick Penn State here if it the game were in State College, Pa., where the Lions seem to have all of their mojo. But Minnesota has something special going and I'm done doubting the Gophers. Ra'Shede Hageman causes havoc on defense as Penn State turns the ball over three times, and Minnesota's ground game wears down the Nittany Lions defense. … Minnesota 24, Penn State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Gophers fans probably won't like this, but I'm picking Minnesota after being burned the past two weeks. A balanced offense takes advantage of Penn State's leaky defense and a team that struggles away from home. David Cobb goes for 150 rush yards and two scores, and Philip Nelson adds two more touchdown passes. Allen Robinson has another big day for Penn State, but it's not enough as Minnesota wins its fourth consecutive Big Ten game for the first time in 40 years. … Minnesota 31, Penn State 24

IOWA at PURDUE

Rittenberg: The Hawkeyes need this one to become bowl eligible, and they'll play with a purpose at Ross-Ade Stadium. Iowa finishes a touchdown drive on the first possession behind a Mark Weisman run and controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Linebacker James Morris adds another takeaway as Iowa pulls away in the third quarter behind Weisman and Damon Bullock. … Iowa 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: Iowa won't need to score in the second half of this game in order to win, but the Hawkeyes will do so anyway. There's just not much to like about the way Purdue is playing right now, and I think Jake Rudock will throw a couple of touchdown passes in the second quarter to put this away early. … Iowa 38, Purdue 3.

ILLINOIS at INDIANA

Bennett: I guess somebody's got to win this one, eh? Don't expect a whole lot of defense from either side. Indiana has a few more playmakers on offense, and that, plus the home-field advantage, should be enough. But barely, as the Hoosiers rally from an early 10-point deficit to win on the Mitch Ewald field goal they should have kicked last week. … Indiana 38, Illinois 35

Rittenberg: Both of these teams had brutal losses last week, so which one bounces back? Although I liked much of what Illinois did at Penn State, but the Illini's struggles against the run still concern me. Tevin Coleman goes for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner, as Indiana overcomes a 300-yard passing performance by Nathan Scheelhaase and wins a shootout. … Indiana 45, Illinois 41

NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN

Rittenberg: The Hail Mary didn't do much to change my opinion of Nebraska, and while Michigan also has its problems, the Wolverines are a different team at home under coach Brady Hoke. Quarterback Devin Gardner continues his season of extremes with a big performance, passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns and adding another on the ground. Ameer Abdullah keeps the Huskers in this one with 150 rush yards and two scores, but Michigan uses a big second half to record the W. … Michigan 38, Nebraska 31

Bennett: No outcome here would surprise me because these are two of the most inconsistent and flawed teams we've seen all season. I'm worried about whether Gardner has PTSD from last week's Michigan State beatdown. But Nebraska has to win one of these big games on the road before I will pick it, and I think the Huskers' offense is a little too beat up right now to win in Ann Arbor, Mich. … Michigan 27, Nebraska 17

BYU at WISCONSIN

Bennett: I'm tempted to pick BYU because the Cougars have been on a roll and have the ability to put up points fast. Wisconsin is also pretty beat up right now. I'll stick with the Badgers because their run defense is very stout and the Camp Randall Stadium edge is just too much. It will be awfully close, however. … Wisconsin 28, BYU 24

Rittenberg: This is a sneaky-good game as both teams are better than their 6-2 records indicate, and both coaching staffs have a lot of familiarity from Gary Andersen's time in the state of Utah. Taysom Hill puts BYU on top early with some big plays, but Wisconsin's defense stiffens and the Badgers get strong performances from Melvin Gordon and James White, who combine for four touchdown dances on the day. … Wisconsin 34, BYU 26

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

This week's guest is Adam Miller from Los Angeles. Adam, the floor is yours …

Long time reader, first time writer, hoping to be your next guest picker! As a recent Penn State grad living across the country in Pac-12 territory, I need all the B1G I can get, and your blog does a lot to help with that (even though I'm still adjusting to 9am 'Lunchtime Links'). I'm even traveling from SoCal to Minneapolis this weekend with college buddies to watch my Nittany Lions taking on a surging Minnesota squad. Pretty excited for a short work week capped off with a great football weekend. Hope to hear from you guys. Keep up the good work -- Adam, PSU Class '13


Here are Adam's Week 11 picks:

Penn State 28, Minnesota 24
Iowa 27, Purdue 14
Indiana 41, Illinois 21
Michigan 34, Nebraska 27
Wisconsin 34, BYU 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 62-12
Adam Rittenberg: 61-13
Guest pickers: 57-17

Big Ten predictions: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
9:00
AM ET
Trick or treat, everyone. Ready for the scariest set of Big Ten predictions you've ever seen? What's truly scary is the fact that this marks the first week since Week 3 that all 12 league squads are playing. It's a full slate of Big Ten action, and with the predictions race all tied up, this is a big week.

At steak: dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis.

Let's begin ...

ILLINOIS at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The last time Illinois coaches came to State College ... OK, that's old news by now. Both defenses are really struggling right now, but the Fighting Illini have even more issues than Penn State. And I expect the Nittany Lions to be much better at home than on the road the rest of the way. Allen Robinson scores three times in a big Penn State win. ... Penn State 42, Illinois 20


Adam Rittenberg: The Lions get well this week against an Illinois defense that hasn't stopped anyone lately. Bill Belton racks up 130 rush yards and two scores in establishing himself as the Lions' top back. Penn State's tight ends get more involved in the pass game as the Lions pull away early in the third quarter. ... Penn State 38, Illinois 21

WISCONSIN at IOWA

Rittenberg: It's great to have this rivalry back on the slate, and I expect an extremely physical game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumps ahead early on a Damon Bullock touchdown run, but Wisconsin's offense kicks into gear after another long scoring run by Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave finds wideout Jared Abbrederis for a fourth-quarter touchdown that proves to be the difference. ... Wisconsin 28, Iowa 21

Bennett: Very excited for this one and tempted to pick Iowa, whose three losses are to teams that are a combined 23-1 this season. But I also saw how Northwestern shut down the Hawkeyes' offense after the first drive last week, and that scares me away from choosing the home team. Stave has a nice game and throws for three touchdown passes after Iowa stacks the box defensively. ... Wisconsin 30, Iowa 20


OHIO STATE at PURDUE

Bennett: Can you say cruise control? That's what Ohio State will be on after scoring 21 points in the first 10 minutes on Saturday. Carlos Hyde has four touchdowns in the first half of a romp. ... Ohio State 56, Purdue 13


Rittenberg: Like they say at Harry's Chocolate Shop, this one will go ugly early. Although Ross-Ade Stadium usually brings out the worst in Ohio State, I expect another big game from Braxton Miller, who picks apart Purdue's secondary for three touchdown passes. Purdue's offense looks better than it did against Michigan State as Danny Etling connects with B.J. Knauf for a touchdown, but it's way too much Ohio State in this one. ... Ohio State 48, Purdue 10

MINNESOTA at INDIANA

Rittenberg: Minnesota's recent surge has been incredibly impressive, but I just don't like the matchup here for the Gophers. Indiana is playing for its bowl life and must win this game at home coming off of a bye. Unlike Minnesota's past two opponents, Indiana is healthy on offense and will strike with big-play threats Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn for some early scores. Minnesota's run game shows up again, but the Hoosiers use a big fourth quarter to get the W. ... Indiana 35, Minnesota 31

Bennett: Does Vegas know something here? Indiana is a solid favorite despite how well Minnesota is playing. Seems weird. But ... maybe the wiseguys are on to something. Indiana has had two weeks to prepare and figure out something defensively, and this will be one of the best offenses the Gophers have seen. I predict a big day for Tre Roberson as the Hoosiers temporarily halt Minnesota's nice run. ... Indiana 33, Minnesota 30.


MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Bottom line here is I know what I'm getting from Michigan State. I have no real idea what to expect from either side of the ball from Michigan. The Wolverines could come out and play great or turn the ball over a bunch of times. I'll side with the elite defense and the home team. The Spartans will force three turnovers, including a pick-six from Denicos Allen, and they will emerge as the leaders of the Legends. ... Michigan State 17, Michigan 14


Rittenberg: Michigan needs this game more than Michigan State. It could be the most important game in coach Brady Hoke's tenure to date. But Mark Dantonio is masterful in getting Michigan State in the right mindset to play Michigan, and the Spartans defense is the best unit on the field. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard records a key fourth-quarter interception against Devin Gardner, and the Spartans get two more rushing touchdowns from Jeremy Langford to rally for a win. ... Michigan State 21, Michigan 17

NORTHWESTERN at NEBRASKA

Rittenberg: Both teams seem fragile at the moment, and it's hard to confidently pick one over the other. This is a better matchup for Northwestern's offense to finally get on track, and Kain Colter has given Nebraska problems before. Colter takes the team on his back and scores three second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute. Nebraska wastes another 150-yard rushing performance from Ameer Abdullah as Pelini Watch really begins. ... Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24

Bennett: Northwestern has given Nebraska trouble the past two seasons, but the Wildcats don't seem able to get out of their own way right now. Taylor Martinez sits this one out and the Huskers rely heavily on the run game, overcoming two costly fumbles to win on a late field goal. ... Nebraska 24, Northwestern 21.


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

This week's guest is Andrew Schout from Kansas City, Mo. Andrew, the floor is yours.
I am a Michigan State grad who just happens to be getting married the same day as the biggest football game of the year. As a football fan, I know the frustration/annoyance of missing a game due to a wedding. Now I'm the guy causing those feelings in others. On what's sure to be a big day, for more reasons than just the game, I'd enjoy the chance to be your guest picker! Thanks, Andrew S., Michigan State University, Class of 2005.

Congrats, Andrew! Here's a prediction from us: "Twist and Schout" will play at your wedding. And we might crash the reception.

Here are Andrew's Week 10 picks:

Penn State 34, Illinois 24
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17
Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
Indiana 41, Minnesota 38
Michigan State 27, Michigan 16
Nebraska 26, Northwestern 20

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 57-11
Brian Bennett: 57-11
Guest pickers: 52-16
Adam has a one-game lead in the standings, and we've got five interesting league contests to forecast this week.

Without further ado, the crystal ball says …

PENN STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-16 against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. … Penn State 42, Indiana 34

Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. … Penn State 38, Indiana 27

ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 31

Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 28

MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. … Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.

Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. … Iowa 20, Michigan State 17

MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. … Michigan 31, Minnesota 13

Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. … Michigan 28, Minnesota 14

OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. … Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. … Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31

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

This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."

How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10

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