Big Ten: Daniel Jones

We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday.

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venric Mark's ankle injury was serious enough to sideline him for the final six-plus games in 2013 -- and earn him a chance to return this fall.

The injury also will keep Northwestern's star running back/returner sidelined for the spring.

Mark is one of 11 Wildcats players out for spring ball following winter surgeries. Northwestern opens practice on Wednesday.

Other notables sitting out include defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) and defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder) and Deonte Gibson (shoulder), all potential starters this fall. Cornerback Daniel Jones and running back Stephen Buckley both are recovering from knee injuries sustained during the 2013 season.

Last spring, Northwestern lacked bodies along the offensive line because of winter surgeries. It altered practices and arguably cost the Wildcats during the season. This year, the defensive line will be thin as McEvilly, Odenigbo, Gibson and tackle Max Chapman all are out for the spring session.

"Our numbers will be down there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "Would you notice watching practice? Maybe not. We'll probably take more breaks during scrimmage days. It's kind of the reverse of last year, so we'll have to do a better job than a year ago.

"The depth is good; I don't think the depth is great in spring. That's going to be an area we're really going to have to improve in camp."

Season report card: Northwestern

December, 18, 2013
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: Northwestern.

Offense: D-minus

After several big performances in non-league play and a 437-yard output in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, Northwestern's offense slid significantly and became a liability for most of the fall. A new-look line struggled to protect, quarterback Trevor Siemian made costly mistakes and the rhythm and occasional explosiveness that defined the unit for years disappeared. Northwestern finished 11th in the league in both scoring (26.2 ppg) and sacks allowed (36), and it committed 20 turnovers.

Injuries played a significant role in Northwestern's struggles. Venric Mark, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, played only one full game because of myriad injuries. Quarterback Kain Colter also was banged up throughout the season, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald revealed after the season that Siemian played through a heel injury during the Big Ten slate. The injury bug hit the running back spot especially hard as Stephen Buckley suffered a season-ending injury against Nebraska, and Treyvon Green also was slowed.

Northwestern operated with a limited playbook and never showcased the scheme that propelled it to 10 wins in 2012. The unit struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone -- a strength from the previous season -- and couldn't overcome costly penalties. Ultra conservative play calls also cropped up in Big Ten games, and a unit that had sparked Northwestern since 2000 became hard to watch.

Defense: B-minus

In most seasons, Northwestern's defense would have been good enough to help the team to at least eight wins. The Wildcats have had an offense lean since installing the spread before the 2000 campaign, while their defense had been a liability, especially against the pass. The defense held up in most games, although it could have secured wins against both Nebraska and Iowa with one more stop.

Northwestern was extremely opportunistic, recording 23 takeaways, including four for touchdowns. The Wildcats finished fifth in the league in sacks, thanks to effective rushers Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo. The unit struggled against elite running backs like Carlos Hyde, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, and fell victim to some big pass plays, most notably the Hail Mary at Nebraska. Northwestern missed cornerback Daniel Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

The defense can't be absolved from the team's failure this season, but it put the offense in position to win all but two Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State). If Northwestern had been slightly more efficient in scoring points, it finishes 7-5 or 8-4. This is a unit that returns most of its key players in 2014 and could be pretty good.

Special teams: C

Jeff Budzien proved to be Northwestern's most consistent offensive threat, connecting on 23 of 25 field-goal attempts and all 35 of his extra-point tries en route to winning his second consecutive Big Ten kicker-of-the-year award. The coverage teams also were satisfactory, but Northwestern really missed Mark, who was an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern only attempted nine punt returns all season and didn't get anything special from its kick returners. Punter Brandon Williams struggled and was replaced late in the season.

Overall: D

Northwestern fell significantly short of expectations, as it returned the core from a 10-win team and has a realistic shot at the Legends Division title. The team was snakebitten with injuries and bad luck and easily could have won three-to-four more games, but it repeatedly couldn't make the key plays in close contests. Personnel losses along both lines, especially the offensive front, cost Northwestern during Big Ten play, as the Wildcats endured their longest losing streak (seven games) since the 1998 season. Fitzgerald and his staff have a lot to evaluate in their first extended offseason in six years.

More report cards

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Bye week to-do list: Northwestern

September, 26, 2013
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Northwestern's record is a perfect 4-0, but the Wildcats haven't exactly been perfect. They enter the bye week after an unconvincing 35-21 win over FCS school Maine, and they'll try to regroup in time for their next big test -- against No. 4 Ohio State on Oct. 5. Here are a few things they'll have to focus on to improve in time for the conference season:

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Tony Ding/AP PhotoNorthwestern running back Venric Mark hasn't played since making 11 carries in the Wildcats' opener at Cal.
1. Get tailback Venric Mark up to speed. Northwestern's option just hasn't been the same without Mark, who hasn't played since Week 1 because of a leg injury. He returned to practice Tuesday, however, and Pat Fitzgerald labeled him "day to day." The Wildcats' rushing attack has fared well in his absence, but Northwestern sure could use the running back who rushed for 1,366 yards and a dozen scores last season. Northwestern needs its best players for its best opponents, so Mark's progress here is paramount. This bye week is crucial to him healing.

2. Shore up the secondary. Pat Fitzgerald was thrown a curveball when cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, and the Wildcats' secondary just hasn't been able to rebound. Teams are targeting Jones' replacement, Dwight White, and Northwestern will have to find a way to neutralize opponents' passing games. The numbers just haven't been pretty so far. Northwestern ranks No. 115 in pass defense, allowing 308 yards a game, and that issue has caused problems elsewhere. Opponents are converting more than 44 percent of their third downs, which puts NU at No. 94 in that area. And their red-zone defense has been atrocious. Opponents, which include the likes of Maine and Western Michigan, have combined to score on all but one of their 14 trips to the red zone. Those aren't numbers expected of a Big Ten title contender.

3. Limit the turnovers. It's difficult to point too many fingers at an offense that's scored at least 35 points in four consecutive games. But turnovers have stalled too many Wildcats drives. They've committed seven turnovers already -- four interceptions, six fumbles (three lost) -- when they had just 15 all last season. In just the last three games, Kain Colter fumbled twice (neither lost) and threw two interceptions on 35 passing attempts. He has to protect the ball better or this trend could turn into a bigger problem. Northwestern was ranked within the top 15 last season when it came to limiting turnovers. This season? Tied for 82nd.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald knows football fans in Chicago spend their Sundays watching a defense fixated on takeaways. As a Chicago Bears fan, he's one of those people.

[+] EnlargeIbraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Ben MargotIbraheim Campbell is leading Northwestern's charge for more turnovers having picked off passes in five straight games.
Fitzgerald hopes the same folks see the same thing on Saturdays as they tune in for Wildcats' games. So far this season, "Chicago's Big Ten team" has embraced the takeaway trend trademarked by Chicago's NFL team.

After topping the Big Ten takeaways chart last season with 29, Northwestern is tied with Michigan State for the league lead with eight through the first three games (tied for sixth nationally). All eight Wildcats takeaways have been interceptions, which leads the FBS, and they've converted them into 45 points.

Northwestern has 17 interceptions in its last six games, stretching back to last season, and junior safety Ibrahaim Campbell has picked off passes in each of the past five contests, a new team record. Linebacker Collin Ellis recorded two interceptions Aug. 31 in the season opener at, returning both for touchdowns and claiming national defensive player of the week honors.

"I don't know, maybe it's just a Chicago thing," Fitzgerald said following Tuesday's practice. "We're definitely inspired by [the Bears'] defense and really, we’ve pulled a lot of their plays off and given them as examples to the players."

The Bears led the NFL with 44 takeaways last season and were among the league leaders for much of former coach Lovie Smith's tenure. Even though Smith is gone, the Bears already have six takeaways in their first two games, tied for the second-most in the NFL.

Football coaches are known to go far and wide to find effective teaching tools for their players. Northwestern's staff simply looked "down the road," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, at what the Bears have been doing for years.

Last season, Northwestern defensive backs coach Jerry Brown had players watch video of Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman forcing fumbles with his "Peanut punch" move. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles last season and boasts 39 for his career.

"We took some highlights off TV and showed how they’re always punching at the ball," Hankwitz said. "And we did cause some fumbles. [Former safety Jared Carpenter] caused one, punching the ball out. Ibraheim caused two, punching the ball.

"Now that they see that it works, we're starting to build a little more of a takeaway culture."

Northwestern had at least one forced fumble in nine games last season, jarring the ball loose three times in wins against Vanderbilt and Minnesota. Campbell and three defensive linemen -- Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt -- all recorded multiple forced fumbles.

Hankwitz also started to mix coverages more as the season went along. The different looks, combined with increased pressure from the line, led to a surge of interceptions, including four in the Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State.

"Like anything in life, you achieve what you emphasize," Fitzgerald said. "I don't want these high school coaches to think we're doing some magical turnover circuit or rubbing on the ball with some magic stick and all of a sudden it comes to us. It's just emphasizing it and making our guys aware up front to the quick game of, 'If you're not necessarily going to get home, get your hands up,' being aware of route progressions and where a quarterback may go."

Hankwitz credits Northwestern's linemen for getting their arms in passing lanes, noting that three interceptions this season stemmed from deflections, including both of Ellis' pick-sixes against Cal. Scott and fellow linemen Dean Lowry and Chance Carter already have combined for eight pass deflections.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Campbell has been the face of the team's takeaway surge. Although Hankwitz has coordinated defenses since 1982, he can't remember another one of his players recording interceptions in five straight games.

Campbell attributes the streak to simply maximizing his playmaking opportunities.

"With the time I’ve been playing, the game has slowed down tremendously," said the junior, in his third year as a starter. "I know what to look for more, and it's paid off a lot."

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe "Peanut Punch," a favorite weapon of the Bears' Charles Tillman has caught on at Northwestern.
Northwestern has become a more opportunistic defense in recent games, but it remains vulnerable in certain areas, surrendering 442.3 yards per game, including 319.3 pass yards, second most in the Big Ten. Hankwitz notes that most of the yards stem from a few big plays. Several have come against redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White, who stepped in for injured starter Daniel Jones against Cal and quickly became a target for opposing quarterbacks.

There's no doubt that takeaways can cover up yards allowed -- turnover margin is the game's most important metric -- but Campbell wants to tighten things up before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Ohio State.

"If we have explosion plays going against us, a takeaway isn't going to make that go away," he said. "Those are still things we need to fix, but it obviously helps because you can’t have an explosion play if you don't have the ball."

Fitzgerald's goal is to have a defense built on "the complete and total commitment to taking the ball away." The Wildcats aren't there yet. Although takeaways for points seemed to rescue Northwestern at Cal, Fitzgerald was disappointed that the Wildcats couldn't corral three Cal fumbles. Western Michigan coughed up the ball last Saturday at Ryan Field, but Northwestern couldn't recover it.

Wildcats players will continue to think turnover, just like the Bears do.

"They’re great tacklers and everything like that, but they're excellent at taking the ball away," Campbell said. "That's something we're trying to create here.

"We’re right down the street from Chicago, so it would be a great thing to establish in the city."

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 11, 2013
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It's Wednesday. Business time. So let's get down to the business of your e-mails:

Adam from D.C. writes: After two weeks down, I have a couple questions/observations. First, Michigan should top the power rankings after putting down Notre Dame. OSU has yet to really impress/dominate their weak scheduled opponents. This was really evident when Baylor hung 70 points and put up 781 yards on the same Buffalo team that OSU only scored 40 on and put up 460 yards. Is Michigan really the B1G team to beat and should they be on top of the power rankings? Secondly, we all know the Nebraska defense is still having issues. But Northwestern has actually given up the most yards of all the B1G teams so far and is second-to-last in points per a game allowed. You could argue they had to play Cal, but then Cal just barely beat Portland State. So who has the worst defense in the B1G?

Brian Bennett: Adam and I had the Michigan-Ohio State power rankings debate on Saturday night. If you go only by what the two teams have on their 2013 résumés, then the Wolverines deserve to be on top. They are, after all, the only Big Ten team to defeat a ranked opponent. However, Ohio State hasn't had the opportunity to do the same, and we were convinced all offseason that the Buckeyes were the best and most talented team in the conference. Are we really going to abandon that notion simply because their wins over Buffalo and San Diego State (by a combined score of 82-27, by the way) weren't otherworldly beatdowns?

The other thing to consider here is that Urban Meyer has yet to play with a full deck. Carlos Hyde remains suspended, Bradley Roby and Rod Smith missed the opener, Braxton Miller missed most of last week's game, Corey Linsley has been recovering from an injury, etc. I still think Ohio State at full strength is the Big Ten's best team, but it sure would be nice to actually see that total lineup go against a strong opponent. Guess we'll have to wait for the Wisconsin game. Also: Two games are in the books. Let's not get too hung up on rankings just yet.

As for Northwestern, the defense hasn't put up terrific stats, but the Wildcats easily have played the toughest schedule in the first two weeks. They are the only team in the league who has opened against a pair of AQ teams, and whatever you want to say about Cal, that team is going to score a whole bunch of points this year. Syracuse really only moved the ball effectively in the second half after Northwestern had built a huge lead and might have been coasting a bit. The loss of cornerback Daniel Jones hurt in the Cal game, and freshman Dwight White needs to make some major improvements before Big Ten play. But I like the playmaking ability of that defense, which has come up with seven interceptions in the first two games.

It's impossible to judge Northwestern's defense statistically against a team like Wisconsin, which has pitched a pair of shutouts against FCS quality teams. The title of worst defense in the Big Ten still belongs to Indiana until proven otherwise.




Quinn from Moline, Ill., writes: Michigan came off a huge win recently, but Notre Dame hadn't completely proven themselves as a really good team, in my opinion. As well, Northwestern just dismantled Syracuse, but Syracuse isn't nearly as good as Notre Dame is. Who has more momentum going into Week 3?

Brian Bennett: Let's not take anything away from Michigan's win. Notre Dame is very, very good, and I believe that will be shown throughout the season. I can't believe how many people want to dismiss the Irish and seem to be completely forgetting that they still have many of the same players as last year's team that played for the BCS title.

Northwestern, to me, has been wildly impressive. You can't overstate how tough it was to start on the road in Pac-12 country, fly across two time zones and back, and then play a physical (if perhaps not offensively gifted) Syracuse team. And the Wildcats won both games by double digits without basically anything from Venric Mark. They deserve accolades right now, and if you don't think this is a legitimate conference contender, you're not paying attention.

As far as momentum? I'm not sure it matters. Both teams might be a little beat up, emotionally and physically, after these early season challenges. And Michigan plays Akron and UConn next, while Northwestern gets Western Michigan and Maine.




Mike from San Diego writes: Brian, I know the Badgers have played inferior competition so far this year, but I have never been more optimistic for a game against OSU. In Week 1, OSU didn't look too sharp against Buffalo (granted they were missing a few players due to alleged criminal activity). I don't expect the Badgers' defense to throw a shutout against the Buckeyes, but Wisconsin did hold them to the fewest amount of points in regulation last year. Let's say a glimpse of last year's defense shows up to the game and Wisconsin running backs run like they are capable. Stave is healthy (he was injured last year), and Miller already has a few bumps and bruises. Under those assumptions how do you like Bucky's chances? Personally, I am more worried about Northwestern the following week.

Brian Bennett: More worried about Northwestern at home than Ohio State on the road? That might be a first. Wisconsin has looked great the first two weeks -- who's had a better early honeymoon than Gary Andersen? -- but the competition was so weak that it's hard to know what that means. Bret Bielema's teams used to steamroll inferior competition at home all the time. The Badgers did play very well defensively against Ohio State last year. Miller might have been a bit banged up, but that Wisconsin defense did a great job of taking away his runs, gumming up the middle of the field and making it a slog. That could happen again, as we don't know yet how healthy Miller will actually be in two weeks with that MCL sprain. On the other hand, the Buckeyes are much better at receiver this year and have more weapons on offense, including Dontre Wilson and a healthy Jordan Hall. Plus, Carlos Hyde will be back that week with presumably fresh legs.

Of course, we also need to see how that young Silver Bullets defense will handle Wisconsin's powerful running game. We'll have a much, much better handle on the Badgers after this week's Arizona State matchup, which I think will tell us a lot more about Wisconsin's chances vs. Ohio State.




Steven from Ann Arbor writes: It has come up regarding Devin Gardner and the Michigan quarterback depth situation a couple times, and I apologize if it has already been addressed, but there is a significant amount of data that suggests running quarterbacks aren't nearly as injury-prone as we all (me included) naturally feel they would be. This link is a quick sample of what I could find off hand, and there is more, but, as unnatural as it seems, every additional Gardner run does not necessarily magnify his injury risk. With the example of Denard fresh in our memories from last year, this gets lost. I'm sure there are several factors, but one would probably be that hits at the end of a QB run are much more well prepared for than a blindside sack. It clearly isn't as simple as "more runs = more hits = more injuries."

Brian Bennett: Steven, we may overrate the injury risk of running quarterbacks, since there are plenty of those in college football and they're not getting hurt every week. Knowing how to slide and avoid contact at the end of a run is huge. But the anecdotal evidence on the other side is pretty strong, too. Just look at Braxton Miller, who had to leave Saturday's game against against San Diego State after spraining his MCL when he got sandwiched at the end of a run. Miller also got hurt last year vs. Purdue after taking a hit on a long run. Northwestern's Kain Colter suffered a concussion on the second play at Cal when he was smacked on a run. Quarterbacks can get hurt staying in the pocket as well -- just ask Wisconsin's Joel Stave, who suffered a broken collarbone when he was sacked last year by Michigan State. But I feel pretty good about Devin Gardner's blind side as long as Taylor Lewan is protecting it. I don't have a problem with Michigan running Gardner, because that's a big weapon and they have to play to his strengths. But I find it hard to believe that there isn't added risk of injury there.




Matt E. from Southern MD writes: Brian, thanks for all the work you and Adam do to entertain us B1G faithful. Why no love for Penn State in "What We Learned in the Big Ten: Week 2" though? We obviously have some growing to do and need to establish some consistency, but I thought there were a number of positives to take away from this past weekend.

Brian Bennett: Matt, the title of that post is "What We Learned in the Big Ten," not "Giving Love to Teams in the Big Ten" or "Here Are Some Positives to Take Away." We're taking a big-picture approach there, trying to assess the big themes and league-wide revelations from each game day. We do only five items per week. With 12 teams in the Big Ten, odds are we're not going to hit on every team in great detail, especially during a nonconference weekend that includes some pretty lopsided games. As for Penn State, what did we really learn about the Nittany Lions? Christian Hackenberg had some highs and lows, the running game looked much better and the defense continues to shine. But it was Eastern Michigan. Penn State should beat Eastern Michigan 45-7. We learned much more about Penn State in Week 1 against Syracuse, a game I covered in person, and we'll likely learn more this week against UCF.




Dave from Kansas City writes: Do you think Kirk Ferentz is in as much danger of losing his job as Mack Brown or Lane Kiffin?

Brian Bennett: It's actually an interesting comparison, because Brown and Kiffin are among the handful of coaches who make as much or more per year as Ferentz. The Kiffin similarities end, however, when you consider he's only under contract until 2015, at a reported $4 million per year. While eating two more years at that price would be painful, USC can afford it.

Brown's situation is closer to Ferentz, contract wise. Texas has him signed through the 2020 season -- the same length as Ferentz's deal -- with a $5.2 million annual salary and $100,000 raises each year. But, ESPN's Darrell Rovell has reported that Brown's buyout right now is only (maybe I should say "only") $2.75 million. For a school that has more money than Walter White buried in the desert, that's pocket change. Iowa would owe Ferentz around $18 million if it fired him this season, a figure that is still crazy to wrap your head around. And the program isn't nearly as rich as Texas.

Of course, the Hawkeyes are coming off a win, so let's be optimistic here. Iowa really needs to beat Iowa State this week to calm down this talk about Ferentz and to position itself for a potential return to a bowl game this year.




Jesse from Plymouth, Mich., writes: Part of me thinks MSU (and its fan base) should take the patient approach with Damion Terry -- allow him to learn the playbook, create chemistry with his teammates, etc. Besides, if we play him and he ends up finishing it out, you can pretty much guarantee Cook, O'Connor and Maxwell won't be on the roster next year. That's a scary thought knowing we won't have any backup QBs besides true freshmen. However, the other part of me wants to see him on the field badly. Everyone keeps pointing to the fact that he doesn't know the playbook as well and that would hinder the play calling. After seeing pro set, read option, Wildcat, pistol, abracadabra ... maybe that would be a good thing, going back to basics and returning to a more simplified scheme for the time being?

Brian Bennett: Well, first off I can guarantee you that Andrew Maxwell won't be on the roster next year because he's a senior. Let's also acknowledge the mythical, magical qualities that fans associate to the backup quarterback. The thrill of the unknown is always so much better than the guy you've seen on the field struggling. Fact is, almost nobody has actually witnessed Terry perform in a Michigan State uniform in practice besides the coaches and a few media members. I trust Mark Dantonio's coaching staff to know whether he's ready to go.

My take on it has been and remains that if the coaches think Terry is ready, or that there's a better than average chance he could offer an improvement on the other quarterbacks the Spartans have, then he needs to play. Because there is no sense in saving a guy's redshirt when it's possible that he could help you win now. This Michigan State team is built to win this year with its defense and its schedule. You worry about next year next year. Whether Terry is in fact an upgrade, no one really knows. I do know that if the receivers, offensive line and play calling don't all also get better, whoever is playing quarterback for the Spartans will have a difficult time succeeding this year.
Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 2:

1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.

2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.

3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.

4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.

5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesQuarterback Devin Gardner was 10-of-15 passing for 162 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Michigan's season-opening rout of Central Michigan.
6. Roby watch in Columbus: After playing nine new defensive starters in last week's opener against Buffalo, Ohio State regains a very big piece in All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who returns from suspension. Coach Urban Meyer wanted Roby to re-prove himself as a starter this week in practice, but it's only a matter of time before the junior distinguishes himself. Ohio State is looking for a cleaner performance in all three phases against struggling San Diego State, and it will be interesting to see how Roby performs.

7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.

8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.

9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.

10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.
Northwestern was among the nation's healthiest teams in 2012. According to Phil Steele, the Wildcats only lost five total starts because of injuries last fall.

Pat Fitzgerald's squad isn't as fortunate this season.

Fitzgerald announced Monday that starting cornerback Daniel Jones will miss the season after suffering a left knee injury late in the first half of Saturday's opener against California. Jones, who had to be carted off of the field after a play in the end zone, will undergo surgery.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Jones started seven games last season and recorded 33 tackles and four pass breakups. He beat out challengers Dwight White and C.J. Bryant to start opposite standout Nick VanHoose. Jones used his redshirt season in 2010, so he would need to get NCAA approval to get this year credited back.

Although Northwestern has more secondary depth now than in past years, Jones' loss certainly stings as pass defense always is a concern for the Wildcats. Cal's Jared Goff passed for 445 yards against Northwestern in his college debut, often picking on White, who replaced Jones.

The news isn't as bad about Northwestern's starting offensive backfield of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. Both are day-to-day for this week's home opener against Syracuse. Colter left the Cal game on the first series after suffering an apparent concussion. Mark played sparingly as a running back and not at all on returns. Fitzgerald said Monday that Mark has a lower-body issue and wasn't 100 percent coming out of preseason camp.

Northwestern's offense will be fundamentally different when Colter and Mark get healthy. We'll see if they're on the field together Saturday night against Syracuse.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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Exhale.

You wait nearly nine months for the return of college football, to see players and coaches that have been endlessly analyzed all offseason, and then it all spills out on opening weekend. So of course the natural inclination is to make immediate judgments on what you’ve seen, and to find instant reasons to panic.

Nebraska’s defense is going to be historically bad! Michigan State’s offense is somehow worse than last year's! Ohio State is wildly overrated! Purdue and Iowa might not win a game in the conference besides the one against each other!

Some concerns obviously are valid. But remember that it was just opening week. Teams and players are still figuring things out, learning who and what they are. In Week 1 last year, for example, Michigan State beat a ranked Boise State team, Michigan got destroyed by Alabama, Minnesota needed triple-overtime to put away a bad UNLV team, Penn State lost at home to Ohio and Illinois rolled over Western Michigan. Those outcomes hardly defined the season for those teams.

Or better yet, look back to Iowa’s win over Northern Illinois in the first game of the 2012 season. Who would have guessed then that the victorious team would wind up 4-8 and that the loser would go to the Orange Bowl?

Many of Saturday’s games were also played in extreme heat, a stark contrast to the unseasonably cool August temperatures most teams trained in during the preseason. That’s not an excuse, because Big Ten opponents had to deal with the same conditions. But the league race will be decided in October and November in much different weather, and probably by teams that will look a whole lot different.

It’s a coach’s cliché that teams make their biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. So it’s not time to panic yet. At least not for another Saturday.

Take that and rewind it back:

[+] EnlargeTreyvon Green
AP Photo/Ben MargotTreyvon Green rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Cal.
Team of the week: Northwestern. The Wildcats went to Pac-12 country, where Big Ten teams have had little success in recent years. They lost starting quarterback Kain Colter to injury on the second play against Cal, star tailback/returner Venric Mark spent more time on the exercise bike than the field, and cornerback Daniel Jones went down with a knee injury right before halftime. Meanwhile, Cal threw some haymakers and seemed to seize the momentum in the third quarter. Yet Northwestern -- which had some trouble holding onto late leads last year -- prevailed 44-30.

The win didn't come without controversy, as Cal fans and coaches thought Wildcats players were faking injuries in the second half to slow down the Bears' high-tempo offense. During one Cal drive, Northwestern players went down to the turf after three consecutive plays. Some players, such as linebacker Damien Proby, went down more than once. Cal coach Sonny Dykes threw up his hands in frustration at one point, while Bears fans booed, which was pretty funny, given Cal’s own history with faking injuries against a high-tempo offense.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team wasn't up to any hijinks.

“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs,” he said in the postgame news conference. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”

Worst hangover: The Boilermakers got outscored 35-0 in the second half of their 42-7 loss at Cincinnati and might have gotten shut out if not for a botched Bearcats punt return late in the first half. Purdue was a mess in just about every area and was neither physical nor disciplined, two traits that Darrell Hazell has made priorities.

We’re going streaking: Thanks to Iowa’s loss and Illinois’ escape against Southern Illinois, the Hawkeyes now have the Big Ten’s longest current losing streak, at seven games. That’s tied for the fifth-longest losing streak in the FBS and second-worst among AQ teams, behind only Kansas, which was idle last week. The good news is that Iowa should finally get back in the win column this week versus Missouri State, and its Week 3 opponent, Iowa State, lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Yes, the Michigan State passing attack was as bad as it looked against Western Michigan. Through Sunday's games, the Spartans rank second-to-last among all FBS teams in yards per pass attempt (3.14) and percentage of completions that went for at least 10 yards (17.6). ... No team gave up more first downs in Week 1 than Nebraska, which allowed Wyoming to move the chains 35 times. The Huskers were also one of only two AQ teams that gave up more than 500 yards of offense to a non-AQ team in regulation. Oregon State was the other. ... Michigan’s Devin Gardner threw two interceptions, but he had the Big Ten’s top QBR score and was No. 15 nationally in Week 1. ... Wisconsin averaged 8.9 yards per rush against UMass and ranks third nationally in that stat. ... Penn State is last in the FBS in third-down conversions after going 1-for-16 against Syracuse. Of course, third down is often only a prelude to the next play for Bill O’Brien.

Point-ing up: Indiana leads the nation in scoring after putting up 73 against Indiana State on Thursday. The schedule really helped, but offense was up throughout the Big Ten. Eight of the 12 league teams scored at least 37 points and the conference scoring average after one week is 39.5 points per game. Compare that to last year, when the league averaged 26.7 points per game in Week 1. Again, many of the opponents weren't great last week, but the simple eyeball test tells you that several Big Ten teams look more comfortable and have more playmakers on offense. With a couple of notable exceptions.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Sure, it was against an FCS team, which is why we excluded him from our helmet stickers. But let's recognize Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for a carer-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in Bill Cubit's new offense. In one game, Scheelhaase accounted for more than 30 percent of his entire passing yardage in the 2012 season.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis helped save the day, er, night at Cal with a pair of pick-sixes.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Tons of big special teams plays this weekend, including kickoff returns for scores by Minnesota's Marcus Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley and a punt return TD from Indiana's Shane Wynn. Michigan's Joe Reynolds scored on a blocked punt by teammate Dymonte Thomas. But how about Penn State's Sam Ficken? The kicker who was such a liability early last season has turned into a strength, and he made all three of his field goals -- including a career-best 46-yarder -- in the Nittany Lions' 23-17 win over Syracuse.

Best play: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond's one-handed interception against Western Michigan. Now, can he play receiver?

Looking ahead: The “GameDay” crew will be at Notre Dame-Michigan, and the Big Ten had better hope for a good showing in this spotlight game. That’s because there’s nothing much else of interest going on in Week 2. Two Big Ten opponents -- South Florida (at Michigan State) and San Diego State (at Ohio State) -- were blown out by FCS squads in their openers, while another, Southern Miss (versus Nebraska) lost to Texas State. Northwestern-Syracuse is probably the week’s second-best game, and the Orange are 0-1 after losing to Penn State.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 22, 2013
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On this day in 1851, the United States won its first ever America’s Cup. And for winning it all, you get a silver trophy. Oh, yachting.

Northwestern season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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Northwestern finally shredded the monkey Jan. 1 and won its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose, recording its 10th win in the process. Pat Fitzgerald's crew returns the core pieces from that team, but faces a tougher schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Can Northwestern take the next logical step and reach the Big Ten title game, or will it backslide in 2013?

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Rich Barnes/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has a lot of returning talent, but faces a difficult 2013 schedule.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (50-39, seven seasons at Northwestern and overall)

2012 record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key losses: G Brian Mulroe, OT Pat Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

Key returnees: RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, C Brandon Vitabile, TE Dan Vitale, DE Tyler Scott, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman cornerback Dwight White had an excellent spring as he makes a push to start opposite Nick VanHoose. White, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound speedster, has good ball skills and brings a playmaking threat to a secondary that, while improved, needs more difference-makers. White will push Daniel Jones and others for playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats face plenty in Big Ten play, starting with the league opener Oct. 5 against Ohio State. If Northwestern and Ohio State both come in undefeated -- a good possibility -- it'll be Northwestern's biggest home game in Fitzgerald's tenure. Another big game follows Oct. 12 at Wisconsin, and Northwestern opens November with three Legends division tests, as it visits Nebraska (Nov. 2) and hosts Michigan (Nov. 16) and Michigan State (Nov. 23).

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Northwestern must shore up its line play on both sides of the ball after losing valuable veterans to graduation. Three starting spots must be filled on the offensive line, including right tackle, as Jack Konopka is expected to slide over to the left side. Several likely starters missed spring ball after offseason surgeries, which gave players like Shane Mertz and Ian Park added reps.

Northwestern also must find a space-eater or two on defense after losing Brian Arnfelt. The team has better depth at defensive end than tackle, where it needs more from veterans Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly.

Outlook: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Evanston after Northwestern recorded just the second 10-win season in team history and could have easily won more games. Many of the building blocks remain, including the dynamic backfield of Mark and Colter, who executed the zone-read game to perfection last fall. Northwestern has upgraded its recruiting efforts, especially on defense, and should boast more speed, athleticism and depth than it did in 2012.

So why is there a hesitation to buy into the Wildcats, who most are picking to finish third or fourth in the Legends division?

There's the Northwestern factor, as some still can't separate the program's current state from its pathetic past in the 1970s and 1980s. A more valid reason for concern is the schedule, as both Ohio State and Wisconsin return, and Northwestern skips the Indiana schools. There won't be many easy games during Big Ten play, and getting back to 10 wins will pose a significant challenge.

Northwestern once again will employ a quarterback rotation of Colter and Trevor Siemian, a big-armed junior who can spark the passing game. The receivers had a somewhat underwhelming season, but could be a bigger threat this season as almost everyone returns. Tight end Dan Vitale blossomed down the stretch in 2012 and will attack the deep middle along with wideout Christian Jones.

The defense generated 29 takeaways in 2012 and hopes to continue its playmaking ways with more explosive athletes at all three levels. Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best defensive backs, and VanHoose made a huge difference when healthy. Northwestern needs linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo to continue smothering the football, and for speedy down linemen like Dean Lowry to complement Tyler Scott on the pass rush.

Special teams was a huge factor for Northwestern's success in 2012, and must continue its upward trajectory. The Wildcats also hope to stay healthy after losing only five starts to injury -- the fewest in the Big Ten -- last season.

"To have the number of young men we have coming back in '13 from a starting standpoint," Fitzgerald said, "gives us great confidence we'll hopefully be able to take the next step."

On paper, this is a better Northwestern team than the 2012 version, but the tougher schedule will make it difficult to match or exceed last season's win total.
2012 record: 10-3
2012 conference record: 5-3 (third in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Venric Mark, QB Kain Colter, QB Trevor Siemian, C Brandon Vitabile, WR Christian Jones, TE Dan Vitale, S Ibraheim Campbell, CB Nick VanHoose, DE Tyler Scott, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, K Jeff Budzien

Key losses

G Brian Mulroe, T Patrick Ward, DT Brian Arnfelt, LB David Nwabuisi, DE Quentin Williams

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Venric Mark* (1,371 yards)
Passing: Trevor Siemian* (1,317 yards)
Receiving: Christian Jones* (417 yards)
Tackles: Damien Proby* (112)
Sacks: Tyler Scott* (9)
Interceptions: David Nwabuisi and Nick VanHoose* (3)

Spring answers

1. Secondary options: Northwestern has had major issues in the secondary during the past 15 years or so, but the group took a step forward in 2012 and should take another one this fall. Improved recruiting efforts throughout the defense are starting to pay off, and it showed up at both the cornerback and safety spots this spring. Young players such as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Dwight White had strong springs, and the Wildcats are able to go at least four deep at both spots. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

2. Depth emerging at WR, RB: The Wildcats bring back almost every offensive skill player from 2012, but they saw depth at both wide receiver and running back improve this spring. Fitzgerald and his offensive staff were pleased with the spring performances of veteran receivers Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence. Jones and sophomore tight end Dan Vitale should boost the passing game in the middle of the field. The Wildcats also have plenty of insurance behind All-Big Ten running back Venric Mark. They can go four deep at the position as redshirt freshmen Stephen Buckley and Malin Jones both showed flashes this spring.

3. Living on the edge: Like the secondary, Northwestern's defensive line made progress last season, especially with the pass rush. There's a chance to make more this season, especially at the defensive end spot. Tyler Scott returns after tying for the Big Ten sacks lead, and the Wildcats boast three young speed rushers -- Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo -- who had some impressive moments this spring. Lowry is the furthest along in his development, but both Gibson and the ultra-athletic Odenigbo will be part of the rotation.

Fall questions

1. Walk that line: Offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for Northwestern entering the season. Several projected starters missed spring practice following postseason surgeries, which allowed younger players like tackle Shane Mertz and guard Adam DePietro to get a bunch of reps in practice. The Wildcats are set at left tackle (Jack Konopka) and center (Brandon Vitabile), but there will be plenty of competition at the other three spots in preseason camp. Northwestern needs to set its starting rotation fairly early and then build that all important chemistry before the season kicks off.

2. Filling gaps on defense: There's more overall depth on defense entering 2013, but Northwestern has to fill gaps in all three areas of the unit. Henry likely locked up a starting safety spot this spring, but the cornerback spot opposite Nick VanHoose will feature plenty of competition in camp between White, C.J. Bryant and Daniel Jones. Northwestern also needs a third starting linebacker, where Drew Smith and Collin Ellis will compete. And defensive tackle might be the team's thinnest spot on defense. It'll be important to see some progress there in camp.

3. Shaping the offensive identity: Northwestern seemed to run two or three different offenses in 2012 and endured a midseason identity crisis that, in my view, cost it at least one game and maybe two. That's the danger of using a two-quarterback system, which will remain for the 2013 campaign. Northwestern is looking for a bit better run-pass balance as it has enough weapons at receiver and tight end to attack defenses more through the air. Fitzgerald thinks he can win a Big Ten title with both Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian at quarterback, but figuring out exactly what the offense will be remains a challenge that continues in preseason camp.

Big Ten's best moments from 2012

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
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The Big Ten had a mostly forgettable season in 2012, and most are anxious to turn the page to 2013. But the fall did provide some memorable moments around the league.

Here are a few …

Miller's mastery: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller put himself on the Heisman Trophy radar with dazzling moves and long runs, but his most memorable play covered only a yard. Facing third-and-goal, Miller looked like he would be stopped on a zone-read play, but he executed a video game-like juke, scooted past Penn State All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges and leaped into the end zone for the touchdown. The score gave Ohio State a 21-10 lead, and the Buckeyes went on to win 35-23.

Barry's back: After Bret Bielema surprisingly left Wisconsin for Arkansas three days after winning the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers needed a coach for the Rose Bowl, and the seniors knew where to turn. They asked former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez to lead the team, and Alvarez quickly agreed. Alvarez provided several great moments during his month as coach, including a ridiculously entertaining news conference in which he delivered the quote of the year in the Big Ten: "I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me." The return tour culminated with Alvarez strolling the sideline at the Rose Bowl, just like old times.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell's hurdle was one of the few bright spots in Michigan State's season.
Penn State punctuates season: Few expected much from Penn State after a turbulent summer that brought severe NCAA sanctions and a mini exodus that included star running back Silas Redd. But first-year coach Bill O'Brien and a steadfast senior class kept the team on track. Following an 0-2 start, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish in second place in the Leaders division. The season culminated in an emotion-charged senior day in State College, as Penn State honored the seniors on the stadium facade and the Lions outlasted Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime. Fittingly, kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles led to Penn State's Week 2 loss at Virginia, hit the game-winning field goal from 37 yards out.

Roundtree to the rescue: Michigan found itself in serious danger of dropping its first home game under coach Brady Hoke as it took possession at its own 38-yard line with no timeouts and 18 seconds left. Needing a field goal to tie Northwestern, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved the ball downfield toward senior receiver Roy Roundtree, who amazingly faced only single coverage. The pass appeared to be too far, but Roundtree battled defensive back Daniel Jones, tipped the ball in the air and then made an amazing catch at the Northwestern 9-yard line. Michigan went on to win in overtime and keep alive its hopes for a Legends division title.

Buckeye backups rise: Ohio State recorded the sixth undefeated, untied season in team history, but it wouldn't have happened without some huge performances from little-used players against Purdue. The Buckeyes were on the ropes, trailing Purdue 22-14 with 47 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at their own 39-yard line. Quarterback Miller was in the hospital getting his neck examined. Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the offense downfield and found a diving Chris Fields for a touchdown with three seconds left. Fields' first touchdown grab set up a 2-point conversion, and Ohio State went on to win in overtime.

Ball becomes touchdown king: Montee Ball's senior season didn't start off well, as the Wisconsin star was the victim of an assault this summer and struggled in September. But Ball provided his typical late-season surge and put up excellent numbers in Big Ten play (1,168 rush yards, 16 TDs). He set several records down the stretch, none more significant than the NCAA's all-time touchdowns record, which he secured on a first-quarter scoring run Nov. 24 at Penn State. Although he didn't make it back to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.

Osborne leads Nebraska out of tunnel: Tom Osborne announced his retirement as Nebraska's athletic director in September, and the team honored its living legend before its final home game Nov. 17 against Minnesota. Osborne, who coached the Huskers from 1973-97, joined the team for its famous tunnel walk and led the Huskers onto the field before an adoring crowd at Memorial Stadium. Although Osborne certainly isn't going anyway, the emotional tribute allowed Nebraska fans to recognize him one final time.

Northwestern's bowl bonanza: Bowl games are no longer rarities for Northwestern, but the program's inability to win a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl cast a shadow over its recent accomplishments. The Wildcats finally got the bowl monkey off of their backs by thumping Mississippi State 34-20 on Jan. 1, setting off an emotional celebration for Pat Fitzgerald and his players. In a jubilant locker room the team tore apart the stuffed monkey that had symbolized its postseason futility. The victory gave Northwestern just its third 10-win season in team history, and made Fitzgerald the program's all-time winningest coach (50 victories).

Bo knows: After Ohio State humbled his Nebraska team Oct. 6 in Columbus, coach Bo Pelini calmly delivered a statement that would carry the Huskers to a Legends division title. "We need to win out," Pelini said. "We have six weeks. And we need to win the next six football games. Get to Indianapolis." And indeed they did, as Nebraska shook off the blowout loss and became Team Comeback, rallying to beat Northwestern and Michigan State on the road and Penn State at home. The Huskers embraced the urgency of the situation and made it to Indianapolis for the league title game.

Le'Veon's leap: Michigan State didn't have many memorable moments, and neither did the Big Ten during nonleague play, but Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell provided one in the season opener against Boise State. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound junior hurdled a Boise State defender on Michigan State's third play from scrimmage, delighting the Spartan Stadium crowd. It became somewhat of a signature move for Bell, who racked up 266 yards on a whopping 44 carries against the Broncos in the first of many workhorse-like performances this season. Michigan State won the game 17-13, giving the Big Ten one of few solid nonleague victories.

Iowa's Weis-man: Like Michigan State, Iowa fell short of expectations this season and struggled to generate offense. And like the Spartans, the Hawkeyes could hang their hat on a big, bruising ball-carrier, although one few anticipated would do much this season. Fullback Mark Weisman, a walk-on who transferred from Air Force, announced himself with a 113-yard, three-touchdown performance in a Week 3 win against Northern Iowa. Weisman racked up 623 rush yards and eight touchdowns during a brilliant four-week stretch before being slowed by injuries.

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