Big Ten: Drake Dunsmore

When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeaki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 30, 2012
4/30/12
12:00
PM ET
For lunch: codfish, Heinz beans and links. With a Shirley Temple, since we're tapering.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

April, 26, 2012
4/26/12
3:15
PM ET
I'm in full rest mode as I get ready for another half-marathon on Saturday. But I'll exert a little bit of energy answering your emails.

Johnny from East Lansing, Mich., writes: One of you recently wrote an article or reply about out-of-conference scheduling and how Wisconsin could increase their difficulty level, my question is why should they? Mark Hollis recently stated that football differs from basketball in one key aspect, basketball teams get rewarded by the selection committee for strength-of-schedule, football teams get rewarded on wins. I think it's safe to assume that if any B1G/SEC/PAC12 team went undefeated, you would have a hard time keeping them out of the national championship game. Wisconsin got a lot of criticism for their schedule last season, but if it wasn't for a couple of hail mary plays, they would have been playing LSU. If the only way to elevate your program is to compete for championships, why shouldn't you take the safest route to get there?

Brian Bennett: You make some valid points, Johnny. Win a power league and go undefeated, and odds are you'll be in pretty good shape. The problems arrive if there are two or more other undefeated teams from power leagues who did play at least one strong opponent in the nonconference schedule. Then you've set yourself up to be left out -- see Auburn in 2004. And with the new four-team "event" that seems inevitable, who knows what the criteria will be for inclusion? There seems to be some desire to include strength of schedule in whatever criteria is used.

There's no question Wisconsin's nonconference schedules have been pretty soft of late. Not all of that is the Badgers' fault. Oregon State, which was on last year's and is on this year's schedule, just happened to go in the tank before the games were played. Wisconsin also has future games with Virginia Tech (2016 and 2017) and Washington ('17 and '18). I asked Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez about scheduling when I was in Madison this week. Here's what they had to say:
Bielema: "It's tough to get a home and home with good teams, because they don't want to play [at Camp Randall Stadium]. We've gone three years now and we haven't had a loss at home, and I've lost five games in nine years here. Football people know how tough we are, and for that reason people don't want to go home and home with us. We've
tried to bring in some really elite teams, and they just won't do it."

Alvarez: "We've had had issues with that. It's been hard to match up people. We've got to have a minimum of seven home games, and occasionally get an eighth one in there for our budget. To get somebody to go home and home, sometimes we have problems with that, so we end up buying somebody for a year. I know [the schedule] has been one of the criticisms of our fans, and I'm sensitive to that. I was very encouraged with our Pac-12 agreement that puts another quality opponent on our schedule."

Trotter from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Thank you to both bloggers in helping me keep my sanity at work. I always have the B1G blog open in a link all day. Anyways, it has been a great week for Iowa recruiting. Now I'm not saying the guys we picked up are all stars or anything, but at this point last year Iowa had one recruit, and already this year they have 6! Would you say this is due more to the unforced coaching changes made this last year, the new facility being built in Iowa City, or the fact kids are starting to realize you have a better shot then at most places of making it to the professional level? I know all 3 of these play their own part, but which do you think is the biggest reason?

Brian Bennett: We're always happy to diminish the productivity of the American work force, Trotter. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about the early commitments, which appear to be a record for the Hawkeyes at this time of the year, this week. He had this to say:
"I think it's just a sign of the times. A couple of years back, it really became commonplace for prospects to be out visiting places in June and July, to some extent. But, and I think all we've seen now, and this is kind of national, it's translating into March and April now. I think that's just how the recruiting is going. It's driven by social media, and it's become a real industry. ... I think it's just a reflection of that. We're not doing anything differently, other than hosting more prospects than we used to."

Ferentz is right in that the recruiting calendar has really sped up. It's a good sign for Iowa that he and his staff are keeping up with the new reality.


Michael from St. Louis writes: There's a lot of talk about how Michigan and Ohio State are already landing top-rated recruits. Isn't it possible that these recruits are rated highly in part *because* they're committing to big-name schools early? (I think this would explain how Texas can consistently land "top 5" classes without delivering on the field.) Come on, Bennett - give us non-Ohio State/Michigan fans some hope.

Brian Bennett: Michael, I would say that might have been the case a few years ago, when any time a player committed to Notre Dame or a big-name school, his status was automatically increased (and vice versa, if a player signed with a lesser brand name school). But I don't think that's true now, because as Ferentz mentioned, recruiting has become such an industry. Players are now evaluated and rated by scouting services and web sites by the time they enter their junior year. So when a prospect commits early, he already has a rating attached to him.

You want hope? Well, part of the reason it seems Texas has dropped off is because the Longhorns finish so much of their recruiting on junior day, and then a lot of those players either get complacent or don't develop as hoped. That's a concern when you lock up recruiting so early. Michigan's Brady Hoke, who has been gobbling up players before their senior year, told me that "sometimes you get a guy committed ... and he kind of feels like he's made it and he doesn't do the job he should do for his high school." Michigan State is a school that has success waiting on guys to develop. So there are many different ways to get it done.


Willie the Wildcat from Boston writes: With the NFL Draft approaching, I'm getting my costume in a bunch trying to discern where my beloved fellow wildcats might end up. What do you think the draft will hold for Dunsmore, Mabin, Persa, Peters, and Ebert? Is Dunsmore the best bet for an early round pick? Who do you think will roll the dice on Persa?

Brian Bennett: Our Scouts Inc. guys didn't have any Northwestern players going in their seven-round mock draft. However, while I respect their efforts, it's nearly impossible to predict that much of the draft with accuracy, and it only takes one team to like a player for him to get drafted. I believe Drake Dunsmore has the best chance of being selected, and Jeremy Ebert has an outside shot after putting up good numbers at his pro day. But the rest will likely have to go the free agent route.


Andrew F. from Fremont, Ind., writes: I'm a bit disappointed with the release of the primetime schedule. As a Purdue fan, it seems odd that bottom feeder Indiana has three primetime games and we have none. Now I realize we don't play anyone of note in the non-conference at home unless you count Marshall, but you would think hosting Michigan or Wisconsin would warrant an appearance. After all Indiana has Indiana State and MAC "heavy-weight" Ball State in prime-time; that seems odd, unless they want to show Ball State manhandle Indiana again or Indiana State slap the Hoosiers around like they did Western Kentucky last season. My question is why did Purdue get the short end of the stick? I guess I should get used to lots of more noon kickoffs.

Brian Bennett: I can understand why Purdue fans would be disappointed, Andrew. Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium doesn't have permanent lights, which might have played a small factor in the decision. When the Boilers played Notre Dame last year at night, for example, ESPN brought in and paid for temporary lights. But the school has had night games in the past few years, so if there was a matchup that TV deemed appealing enough to put in primetime, then it would happen. Purdue is going to need to win more games and raise its profile to become more attractive to television. And the Boilermakers will kick off at 4 p.m. against Michigan on Oct. 6, so that game should end past sundown, and will break up all the noon starts.


Kyle G. from Madison, Wis., writes: Another factor as to why the Wisconsin-Michigan State isn't a night game is its the same day as the big Halloween Party on State Street, Freakfest. The university has an informal agreement in place with the City of Madison to not have both events to occur at the same time. The police force, emergency services, etc simply don't have the manpower to handle a Badger football game and the party on State Street.

Brian Bennett: Oct. 27 will be quite a day in Mad-town. Where do I sign up?


Kevin from Ann Arbor writes: After seeing the Buckeye defense during the spring game, I think it is going to be a long season for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer wasn't joking when he said they lack speed. They do. They are going to have a hard time getting to seven wins with their schedule and that defense.

Brian Bennett: Trolling from Ann Arbor, perhaps? I'm not too worried about the Ohio State defense. The front four should be great, with John Simon, Jonathan Hankins, Michael Bennett and all those talented freshman coming in to provide depth. Three potential starters in the back seven didn't play in the spring game because of injuries, so don't read too much into that exhibition. And the Buckeyes have a very manageable nonconference schedule, so seven wins should be very much attainable.


Kyle W. from Chicago writes: I've been in favor of rewarding the top two teams in the nation when it comes to a playoff. Assuming that it's a four-team playoff and on-campus semifinal games are off the table, what do you think about rewarding the higher seed with more tickets to the game for fans? Possibly a 65-35 split. The team gets a set amount of days to sell their allottment, then it opens up for the other if they aren't capable of selling them all.

Brian Bennett: That might work, although in these kinds of events you might have a heavy corporate/neutral presence. And the NCAA basketball tournament doesn't give higher-seeded teams more tickets. That event does reward higher seeds by keeping them closer to home, which could be a possible consideration in football. Let's say there are neutral sites for semifinals outside of the bowls, and a Midwest location like Indianapolis or Detroit has a game. If a Big Ten team finishes in the top two, let it play its semifinal in that region. I'm just spitballin' here, and who knows what will ultimately come out of these meetings with all the different agendas in the room. At least we can be happy that a four-team playoff is actually going to happen.


Pat from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I was just reading Adam's article about how proximity is important to the B1G for any playoff system. I was wondering why the B1G is in favor of on-campus games, and the SEC et al. is not? It seems like their home game atmosphere is just as much an advantage for them as it would be for us.

Brian Bennett: Come on, Pat. You don't really think the SEC wants to play up north when it's cold, do you?
The NFL draft is a little more than 24 hours away, and our analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have come out with their final mock drafts.

(Let's pause here for a moment of silence for the 2012 mock draft process. May it rest in peace. But never fear, the 2013 mocks are just around the corner!).

There's not a ton of change in Kiper's final first-round mock Insider. Iowa's Riley Reiff is still the top Big Ten player off the board, now at No. 18 to San Diego. Kiper has Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus one spot behind Reiff, to the Bears. The only other Big Ten player he has going in the first round is Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler, at No. 30 to San Francisco.

McShay, along with Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl from Scouts Inc. have undertaken the massive enterprise of mocking the entire seven rounds of the draft Insider. Whew. Here's where they have Big Ten products heading:

Round 1

No. 13: Reiff
No. 25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
No. 28: Mercilus
No. 30: Zeitler

Round 2

No. 34: Jeff Allen, OT, Illinois
No. 35: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
No. 43: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
No. 44: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
No. 47: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
No. 51: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
No. 63: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois

Round 3

No. 89: Mike Martin, DT, Michigan

Round 4

No. 96: Mike Daniels DT, Iowa
No. 97: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
No. 99: Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
No. 106: Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
No. 118: Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
No. 120: Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
No. 121: Markus Zusevics, OT, Iowa
No. 123: Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin
No. 126: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
No. 132: Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska

Round 5

No. 137: David Molk, C, Michigan
No. 150: Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
No. 161: Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
No. 163: Michael Brewster, C, Ohio State
No. 165: DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State

Round 6

No. 207: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

Round 7

No. 211: B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
No. 216: Aaron Henry, S, Wisconsin
No. 219: Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
No. 221: Derek Dimke, K, Illinois
No. 223: Tyler Nielsen, LB, Iowa
No. 231: Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska
No. 244: Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
No. 247: Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
No. 248: Kevin Koger, TE, Michigan

A few notables not listed on this seven-round mock: Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert, TE Drake Dunsmore, and QB Dan Persa; Penn State WR Derek Moye; Minnesota WR Da'Jon McKnight, Michigan DE Ryan Van Bergen, Wisconsin OT Josh Oglesby.

How accurate are these mock drafts? It is almost time to find out. Let's do this for real.
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Pat Fitzgerald doesn't deny the hard evidence, but he also feels there's more to Northwestern's case.

Yes, the Wildcats have seen their wins total drop in each of the past three seasons, from nine in 2008 to eight in 2009 to seven in 2010 to six last fall. After back-to-back 5-3 marks in Big Ten play in 2008 and 2009, Northwestern has seen its league record flip in each of the past two seasons.

It doesn't take a mathematics major at Northwestern to see where things are going and ask the question: Has the program lost momentum?

"You can nitpick everything you want, but there has never been more positive momentum in the history of our program," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "If you're going to choose one thing to make it be whether or not you have momentum, that's unrealistic. But we've got to win football games and we've got to finish games better than we did a year ago.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident that his program is on the right track.
"The program's definitely getting better. You can analyze that one area of wins and losses, which obviously I understand is critically important, but the difference between one or two games is not very much. We could have easily had six wins when we won nine. There's such a fine line."

It's Fitzgerald's job to look at the entire picture, and he notes some of Northwestern's recent accomplishments: four consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history; the winningest departing senior class in the program's history; a team GPA of 3.14; a 2012 recruiting class rated by many as the best in Fitzgerald's tenure. The school is also working on a facilities plan that could be a game-changer for the football program, which lags behind most of its Big Ten brethren.

Still, college football is a bottom-line business, and if Northwestern can't reverse the won-loss trend, its bowl appearances streak will end this season.

"Have we achieved our goals? Absolutely not," Fitzgerald said. "Are we hungry to do that? Absolutely. Are we working diligently to tweak the areas we need to improve? Absolutely."

Northwestern will try to make upgrades with a younger roster -- only 11 total starters return on offense and defense -- but quite possibly a more talented one. The team must fill several gaps, none more significant than Dan Persa's at quarterback, and hopes to do so by having what it believes to be stronger recruiting classes begin to pay dividends.

It's no secret the defense needs help after backsliding sharply in the past year and a half. Since a 6-2 start in 2010, Northwestern has surrendered 30 points or more 11 times. Last fall, the defense couldn't get off of the field (114th nationally in third-down defense at 50 percent conversions), fell victim to explosion plays and generated barely any pressure (106th in sacks, 104th in tackles for loss).

"You've got to make 'em earn everything," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "If they make great throws and great catches, you can live with those things. But we had some situations last year where we busted a coverage because of communication or we didn't have anybody back there. They didn't have to make the perfect throw or the perfect catch.

"We can execute better, no question."

The challenge is to improve communication and execution with a group heavy on youth. Although Northwestern returns all three starting linebackers, it will use young players in all three sections of the defense, including redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose, sophomore linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and redshirt freshman defensive end Deonte Gibson.

Consider that Ibraheim Campbell, a redshirt sophomore safety who led the team with 100 tackles in 2011, is viewed as the clear leader of the secondary.

Communication has been a focal point this spring, as players are taking extra measures to ensure they're on the same page.

"When I yell out a call to the D-line, the only way I know they got it is if they tap their hip," linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "We started forgetting about little stuff like that [in 2011]. Now when I make a call, if the D-lineman doesn't tap his hip, I keep on yelling at him until he does. Same thing with DBs to linebackers."

Communication shouldn't be an issue for Kain Colter, who started three games at quarterback in place of the injured Persa last season and evolved into arguably the Big Ten's most versatile offensive weapon (654 rush yards, 673 pass yards, 466 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns). Colter is the best athlete to call signals at Northwestern since the team implemented the spread offense in 2000, but to maintain the program's recent run of top-shelf quarterbacks, he needs to become a more polished passer.

The junior emphasized velocity and arm strength during the winter -- he tore the labrum and the biceps in his throwing arm as a high school senior -- and expects to execute the high-percentage passes that drive the Wildcats' offense this fall. He'll have plenty of weapons as Northwestern boasts most likely its deepest receiving corps ever, even if USC transfer Kyle Prater can't play right away.

"My timing's getting a lot better, my arm strength's a lot better," Colter said. "I feel like I can make all the throws on the field. That hasn't been a problem this spring."

Northwestern loses four-year starters on both sides of the ball, an NCAA record holder in Persa, two-time All-Big Ten honoree Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, the inaugural winner of the Kwalick-Clark Award as the Big Ten's top tight end. Fitzgerald likened the personnel turnover to a shift change at a factory and acknowledges the team dynamic is different.

Given the declining wins total, though, some new blood might not be a bad thing, and the coaches feel the team's overall talent level is on the uptick.

"There's better talent than people think," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "The cupboard's not bare. We've got guys who can play football. They just haven't had the experience yet.

"It's just their time. Let's go play."

B1G post-weekend combine update

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
9:00
AM ET
Spring practice is just around the corner, but there was plenty of action on the field at the NFL combine this weekend in Indianapolis.

While the evaluations continue today and Tuesday, several position groups have completed their testing. Let's take a look at the top performances from Big Ten players. Some standouts in the workouts: Michigan WR Junior Hemingway, Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins, Michigan State WR Keshawn Martin, Iowa G Adam Gettis and Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson.

Before looking at position groups, we'll examine the top overall performers to date.

OVERALL PERFORMANCE (through Sunday)

40-yard dash
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for fourth (4.39 seconds)
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for 13th (4.45 seconds)
Bench press
  • Michigan C David Molk ranked second with 41 repetitions of 225 pounds
  • Michigan DT Mike Martin tied for third with 36 repetitions
Vertical jump
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for fifth at 39.5 inches
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for ninth at 38.5 inches
Broad jump
  • Michigan WR Junior Hemingway tied for 10th at 10 feet, 4 inches
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for 10th at 10 feet, 4 inches
3-cone drill
  • Michigan's Hemingway ranked second at 6.59 seconds
  • Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore tied for fourth at 6.73 seconds
20-yard shuttle
  • Michigan's Hemingway ranked second at 3.98 seconds
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore tied for fourth at 4.03 seconds
  • Ohio State RB Dan Herron ranked sixth at 4.04 seconds
  • Iowa WR Marvin McNutt ranked ninth at 4.07 seconds
  • Wisconsin's Wilson ranked 10th at 4.09 seconds
60-yard shuttle
  • Michigan's Hemingway tied for third at 11.16 seconds
  • Michigan State's Martin tied for third at 11.16 seconds
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore tied for 14th at 11.47 seconds

Now onto the position groups ...

Quarterback
  • Wisconsin's Wilson ranked second in 40-yard dash (4.55 seconds); sixth in vertical jump (34 inches); fourth in broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches); fifth in 3-cone drill (6.97 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.09 seconds)
  • Michigan State's Kirk Cousins ranked 12th in 40-yard dash (4.93 seconds); 14th in vertical jump (28.5 inches); tied for ninth in broad jump (9 feet, 1 inch); seventh in 3-cone drill (7.05 seconds); 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.5 seconds)
Running back
  • Michigan State's Edwin Baker tied for 10th in 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds); tied for 12th in bench press (20 reps of 225 pounds); tied for 12th in vertical jump (35 inches); and tied for 14th in 20-yard shuttle (4.31 seconds).
  • Ohio State's Dan Herron ranked seventh in bench press (22 reps of 225 pounds); tied for 12th in vertical jump (35 inches); tied for 12th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches); sixth in 3-cone drill (6.97 seconds); second in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); and fifth in 60-yard shuttle (11.6 seconds).
  • Wisconsin FB Bradie Ewing tied for fifth in vertical jump (36.5 inches); tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet); tied for 14th in 3-cone drill (7.14 seconds); tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.16 seconds); and seventh in 60-yard shuttle (11.81 seconds).
Wide receiver
  • Illinois' Jenkins tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds); tied for seventh in vertical jump (38.5 inches); and tied for eighth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches).
  • Michigan State's Martin ranked 11th in 40-yard dash (4.45 seconds); tied for fourth in vertical jump (39.5 inches); tied for 14th in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches); tied for eighth in 3-cone drill (6.85 seconds); tied for 10th in 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds); and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (11.16 seconds).
  • Michigan's Hemingway tied for third in bench press (21 reps at 225 pounds); tied for eighth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches); ranked first in 3-cone drill (6.59 seconds); tied for first in 20-yard shuttle (3.98 seconds); and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (11.16 seconds).
  • Wisconsin's Nick Toon ranked 12th in bench press (18 reps at 225 pounds) and ranked 12th in vertical jump (37.5 inches).
  • Iowa's Marvin McNutt tied for 13th in vertical jump (37 inches); ranked fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); and ranked 12th in 60-yard shuttle (11.62 seconds).
  • Ohio State's DeVier Posey tied for 10th in broad jump (10 feet, 3 inches) and tied for 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).
Tight end
  • Northwestern's Dunsmore ranked fifth in 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds); tied for fifth in bench press (21 reps at 225 pounds); fifth in vertical jump (35.5 seconds); seventh in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches); first in 3-cone drill (6.73 seconds); first in 20-yard shuttle (4.03 seconds); and third in 60-yard shuttle (11.47 seconds).
Defensive line (workouts take place Monday)
  • Michigan's Martin tied for second in bench press (36 reps of 225 pounds)
Offensive line
  • Iowa G Adam Gettis ranked third in 40-yard dash (5 seconds); tied for third in vertical jump (31.5 inches); second in broad jump (9 feet, 4 inches); tied for ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.65 seconds)
  • Iowa T Riley Reiff tied for eighth in 40-yard dash (5.23 seconds);
  • Illinois T Jeff Allen ranked 15th in 40-yard dash (5.28 seconds); tied for 14th in broad jump (8 feet, 6 inches)
  • Michigan's Molk ranked first in bench press (41 reps at 225 pounds);
  • Wisconsin G Kevin Zeitler tied for third in bench press (32 reps at 225 pounds); tied for 14th in vertical jump (29 inches); eighth in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds)
  • Penn State G Johnnie Troutman tied for eighth in bench press (31 reps at 225 pounds)
  • Ohio State C Mike Brewster tied for 13th in bench press (29 reps at 225 pounds); ranked 15th in 3-cone drill (7.73 seconds); tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.6 seconds)
Our postseason rankings of each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season took a short hiatus last week as signing day madness placed its grip on all of us.

Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.

We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.

4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.

5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.

6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.

7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.

8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.

10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.

12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.

Season report card: Northwestern

December, 23, 2011
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It's time to pass out grades for the Northwestern Wildcats.

OFFENSE: B+

If you're looking for reasons why Northwestern fell short of preseason expectations, don't blame this unit. The offense did its part, finishing second in the league in yards per game (432.8) and leading the league in passing (256.6 ypg) despite operating under difficult circumstances. Star quarterback Dan Persa missed the first three games and chunks of several others, but dynamic sophomore Kain Colter emerged to steady the ship. Colter developed into one of the best all-around weapons in the Big Ten -- 589 rush yards, 660 pass yards, 454 receiving yards -- and led Northwestern to its signature victory at Nebraska on Nov. 5. Persa wasn't quite the same player when he returned from injury but still put up impressive numbers, completing 74.2 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Receiver Jeremy Ebert and superback Drake Dunsmore also stepped up. The unit had a miserable day at Army, and the running backs and offensive line left much to be desired for long stretches. But for the most part, the offense produced.

DEFENSE: D-

The defense could attribute last season's late collapse to Persa's morale-crushing injury, but the unit had no excuses this year. Northwestern seemed to take a step backward on defense, finishing 10th or worse in the league in most major statistical categories and dead last in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of their attempts. The secondary had no answers against decent to great receivers, the line generated a league-low 16 sacks and the linebackers were mediocre at best. A handful of stops likely would have equaled two to three more wins, but Northwestern's defense hardly ever came through in the clutch. Aside from All-Big Ten safety Brian Peters, the Wildcats lacked dynamic playmakers. Pat Fitzgerald is living proof that Northwestern can play good defense, but his team certainly didn't reflect its coach this season and hasn't since 2008.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-


Northwestern made significant strides in the kicking game in 2010 but took a few steps back this fall. There weren't many major breakdowns, but the Wildcats didn't excel in many areas, either. They finished ninth in net punting and made a league-low six field goals on 10 attempts as first-year starter Jeff Budzien had some growing pains. Northwestern finished second in the league in punt-return average (12.8 ypr) but had only six runbacks. Returner Venric Mark wasn't quite as dynamic as he was in 2010.

OVERALL: C-

The overall grade would have been lower if not for a late-season surge in which Northwestern captured four of its final five games. Perhaps it's a sign of progress at Northwestern when 6-6 is considered a disappointment by players, coaches and fans, but the team expected much more and should have with a large senior class. Persa's injury situation likely cost Northwestern at least one win, but the breakdowns on defense coupled with the lack of playmakers or development with the unit can't be ignored as Fitzgerald assesses his program. Northwestern still can record an important milestone -- its first postseason win since 1949 -- if it upsets Texas A&M on Dec. 31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
In case you missed it, Brian and I released our 2011 All-Big Ten team on Friday.

It's always interesting to look back where the selections ranked as recruits coming into college. I took a look at the ESPN Recruiting database to check out where each all-conference selection stacked up. I've listed their scouting grade, which is explained here, along with where they ranked nationally overall (if applicable), by position and within their region. I also list quotes from recruiting analysts about the prospects at the time.

The first post takes a look at offense. The second will examine defense and special teams.

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin (began career at NC State), Class of 2007 -- Scout Grade of 73, rated as nation's 104th best quarterback. Analysis: "He has one of the quickest releases we have seen over he last two years. The ball comes out in a hurry. He is a great little athlete -- a true dual-threat -- but clearly a passer first. ... The problem is that he is short and lacks a great arm. Arm strength is adequate, but not powerful."

RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin, Class of 2009 -- Scout Grade of 77, rated as nation's 74th best running back, 131st best player in Midlands region. Analysis: "At times Ball appears physically superior to his competition on film and could struggle maintaining his current yards after contact at the next level. With that said, you can't argue with his production and he is certainly built to carry the load and wear down a defense in a heavy power-running scheme."

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, Class of 2009 -- Scout Grade of 78, rated as nation's 44th best athlete, 61st best player in Midlands region. Analysis: "Burkhead is one of those junk yard dogs that makes your roster meaner and tougher and we love that about him. He's a warrior, throwback type of player that will fight, scrap and sellout to get the job done and make the play. ... He does show some stiffness to him and is not overly fluid in the hips. Has very good speed, but we would not term him to be a burner. He has an overachiever element to him that adds a chip on his shoulder."

WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa, Class of 2007 -- Scout Grade of 77, rated as nation's 38th best quarterback. Analysis: "McNutt is an exceptional athlete who happens to be a pretty darn good passer with the upside to develop into an excellent passer. He is a true dual-threat quarterback who is a passer first, runner second. He is a dangerous spread offense, read-option guy with excellent speed and quickness. ... He is dangerous on the perimeter -- once he gets in space, look out."

WR: B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State, Class of 2007 -- Scout Grade of 70, rated as nation's 145th best wide receiver. Analysis: "Cunningham has very good size and leaping ability and flashes some big-play skills on jump balls downfield. However, he is the definition of a possession receiver in terms of speed and quickness. Builds speed as he goes and works the intermediate routes like curls, comebacks and digs very well."

TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, Class of 2007 -- Scout Grade of 77, rated as nation's 20th best tight end. Analysis: "He will need to add bulk to his frame and has adequate height, but if he can physically develop, he has the tools to be a productive college tight end. He impresses you with his in-line blocking ability. ... As a receiver, he can be productive. He catches the ball with his hands and does a good job of adjusting to bad balls and making the catch."

OL: David Molk, Michigan, Class of 2007 -- Scout Grade of 78, rated as nation's sixth best center. Analysis: "Molk is an offensive tackle in high school but will project to either the guard or center position in college. His build along with him having some experience makes him a good candidate to be a college center. ... There will be some adjusting for Molk, and you would like to see him continue to add bulk. He does play with tenacity and has good tools. Should be able to develop into a good center at the college level."

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin, Class of 2008 -- No Scout Grade and unranked among guards. No extensive analysis.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin, Class of 2008 -- Scout Grade of 75, rated as nation's 71st best offensive tackle. Analysis: "Konz is a blue collar type player in the trenches. He has good size and displays good versatility. He plays both tackle and guard and could project as a right tackle in college or as a guard. He is a tenacious run blocker. He delivers a good initial blow. ... He slams into a defender and is able to drive an opponent off the line of scrimmage in the run game. He has a good motor in the run game and will run a path hitting whatever is in his way."

OL: Joel Foreman, Michigan State, Class of 2007 -- No Scout Grade and unranked among guards. No extensive analysis.

OL: Reilly Reiff, Iowa, Class of 2008 -- Scout Grade of 74, rated as nation's 91st best defensive end. Analysis: "He is a big kid at the end position with the ability to get bigger. He has a good get-off and can come out of his stance and shoot his hands. He has the ability to punch and separate. He needs to work on placement, as he can wind up with his hands on the outside of a blocker's frame and let him into his chest. He flashes the ability to play with leverage and hold his ground. He is a tall kid and needs to focus on staying low."

Thoughts: No truly elite recruits appear among the offensive All-Big Ten selections, as Michigan's Molk and Northwestern's Dunsmore were the highest-rated players at their respective positions. The two guards, Michigan State's Foreman and Wisconsin's Zeitler, appear to be the biggest surprises as neither was rated coming out of high school. Both Iowa honorees were listed at different positions as recruits, and both received evaluations that indicated they could succeed elsewhere. The analysis of Burkhead appears spot-on, while players like Cunningham certainly exceeded the perception coming out of high school.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 12

November, 17, 2011
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The Big Ten division races could be decided Saturday. As for the Big Ten blogger predictions race, it's far from over.

Rittenberg takes a one-game lead on Bennett into Week 12, but Bennett, being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, knows all about erasing deficits to win championships. Several intriguing matchups are on the slate this week, so let's get to the predictions ...

MINNESOTA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: The Wildcats have won three in a row and won't stop now that they're this close to bowl eligibility. Minnesota's shaky pass defense will lead to a big day for Dan Persa, who throws two touchdowns to Jeremy Ebert and three overall. ... Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern might be peaking at the right time, but the Wildcats can't let up against a Minnesota team that should play better than it did a week ago. A healthy MarQueis Gray makes plays, but Persa finds Ebert, Drake Dunsmore and Kain Colter for touchdown passes against the leaky Gophers' D. ... Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21

INDIANA at NO. 15 MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State needs to keep its emotions in check on Senior Day, and the Spartans must avoid a Minnesota-like performance against an Indiana team with a potent offense. But the Spartans sense what's ahead of them and take care of business, receiving big performances from running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. ... Michigan State 35, Indiana 17

Brian Bennett: The winningest class in Michigan State history isn't going to lose on Senior Day to a 1-9 Indiana team. The Spartans defense lives in the Hoosiers backfield and Kirk Cousins throws for 300 yards in an easy win. ... Michigan State 38, Indiana 14

NO. 16 NEBRASKA at NO. 18 MICHIGAN

Brian Bennett: Nebraska is playing very well, but the Huskers have been banged up on both lines and just played a very physical game at Penn State. A second straight win in a tough road spot is too much to ask. Denard Robinson bounces back with a pair of touchdown passes as Michigan helps out rival Michigan State in the Legends' race. ... Michigan 20, Nebraska 17

Adam Rittenberg: Tough one to call, as plenty is at stake for both teams. Both teams can run the ball and play a little defense, but someone is going to make Michigan pay for the mistakes it makes on offense. Nebraska records three takeaways, two against Robinson, and gets a big performance from Rex Burkhead to rally for another big road victory. ... Nebraska 24, Michigan 21

NO. 17 WISCONSIN at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: The Badgers have new life in the Leaders Division, while Illinois and embattled coach Ron Zook look like they're on life support. I actually think Illinois comes to play in this one, especially on defense, and hangs around for a while. But the Illini can't slow down Wisconsin, which gets three more touchdowns from Montee Ball and pulls away. Illinois will score in the first half, but won't outscore the Badgers. ... Wisconsin 35, Illinois 24

Brian Bennett: Zook will want to walk away from this one. Illinois simply can't score any more, and Wisconsin can't be stopped. Even on the road, the Badgers cruise behind three TDs from Russell Wilson. ... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14

IOWA at PURDUE

Brian Bennett: The Boilers are on a high after knocking off Ohio State and Iowa hasn't won on the road all year. But Purdue has had trouble staying consistent, and I think the Hawkeyes' balanced offense creates problems. A late Marcus Coker TD run seals it. ... Iowa 28, Purdue 24

Adam Ritenberg: Although Purdue hasn't followed up any of its previous four wins with another victory, the Boilers end the trend this week. Danny Hope's squad has been good at home, and Iowa has had its struggles away from Kinnick Stadium. Purdue contains Coker and records a special teams touchdown to get bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. ... Purdue 27, Iowa 21

NO. 21 PENN STATE at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Tough game to predict as both teams have had issues offensively and Ohio State has been somewhat inconsistent on defense as well. Penn State's seniors will ensure the team remains focused in its first road game since the scandal, and the Lions take an early lead. But Ohio State comes back behind Braxton Miller and DeVier Posey, and the defense rebounds a bit against a banged-up Silas Redd. ... Ohio State 16, Penn State 14

Brian Bennett: I can't pick Penn State to win on the road after all the team has been through, especially not in the Horseshoe on Senior Day. It will be a physical, at times unsightly game, but Boom Herron makes the difference. ... Ohio State 14, Penn State 10

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 63-22 (.741)

Brian Bennett: 62-23 (.729)
Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen and Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore are among the eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. The Big Ten is the only conference with multiple semifinalists.

Pedersen, a sophomore, has had a huge year for Wisconsin, recording 27 receptions for 323 yards and eight touchdowns, which ties WR Nick Toon for the team lead. Pedersen has been a major target for QB Russell Wilson in the red zone.

Dunsmore, a senior, leads Big Ten tight ends with 40 receptions for 426 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks second on the team in all three categories. Dunsmore has recorded 40 or more catches in each of the past three seasons.

Finalists for the Mackey Award will be named Nov. 21.

There are no obvious snubs in the Big Ten. Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has six touchdown catches but only 12 total receptions on the season.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 31, 2011
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What a crazy weekend in the Big Ten. It's worth a second look.

Team of the week: Nebraska. The Cornhuskers made an emphatic statement with their 24-3 pasting of Michigan State in Lincoln. They now control their own destiny in the Legends Division race and are the league's highest-ranked team. If they can keep playing defense like they did Saturday, look out. Honorable mention to Ohio State and Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBraxton Miller and Ohio State pulled out a thrilling win against Wisconsin.
Game of the week: Ohio State 33, Wisconsin 29. For the second straight week, Wisconsin was involved in a thriller. For the second straight week, the Badgers didn't like the outcome. The Buckeyes, who had only three points at halftime, rallied for 30 points in the final two quarters, including the game-winning pass with 20 seconds to go. That overshadowed, for the second straight week, what had been an excellent fourth-quarter comeback by Wisconsin, which trailed 26-14 with 4:39 left but took a 29-26 lead a little more than three minutes later.

For the second straight week, Bret Bielema committed the sin that gets you beat in video-game football: scoring with too much time left. On Saturday, the Badgers left 1:18 on the clock for Ohio State, a week after giving Michigan State 1:26 to get in position for the Hail Mary. Wisconsin needs to work on taking a knee in the red zone late in games. Kidding, of course, but if Badgers fans can't laugh, they'll probably cry.

Biggest play: Braxton Miller's 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith for the win against Wisconsin, obviously. The true freshman somehow had the presence of mind in that situation to keep his eyes downfield while scrambling and to let the heave go just before he crossed the line of scrimmage. The Badgers' coverage broke down to leave Smith ridiculously open in the end zone, but the defense had to react to Miller's running ability. Amazingly, in the previous win against Illinois, Miller had completed only one pass for 17 yards.

Best call: Jerry Kill's decision to go for an onside kick with 8:22 left in the game against Iowa. Minnesota had just scored to cut the lead to 21-16, and Kill thought his defense needed a break. What made the call even gutsier was that walk-on kicker Jordan Wettstein was in the game in place of injured regular kicker Chris Hawthorne. But the Gophers are well-schooled on this particular play."I actually wrote a paper about how we teach it," Kill said after the game. "We've been doing that particular onside kick for 13 years. We've practiced it every day since I got here."

The Gophers gave no indication before the kick that they were going for the onside try, and Wettstein executed it perfectly. Kim Royston recovered and Minnesota went in for the winning score to notch its first Big Ten victory. Iowa was not prepared for the trickery, even though the Gophers had nothing to lose. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz called Kill's gamble "not totally surprising," yet he didn't think it was worth putting his hands team in the game at that time. In large part because of that play, the Gophers had their hands on Floyd of Rosedale after the game.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern tight end Drake Dunsmore. He set a school record with four touchdown catches against Indiana, finishing with a total of seven catches and 112 yards. Plus, Drake Dunsmore is a fun name to say. Special shoutouts to Rex Burkhead and Braxton Miller for their performances as well.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges. He earns his second straight player of the week award after recording 19 tackles, a sack, two pass breakups and a forced fumble against Illinois. Linebacker whew. It was a big week for big tackle numbers in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's Mike Taylor had 22 against Ohio State, and Michigan State's William Gholston recorded 15 stops while returning from suspension.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Minnesota's Jordan Wettstein. We already talked about the onside kick, and Wettstein also made a field goal in his first career attempt.

Worst hangover: Iowa fans aren't feeling that great right now, a fact made obvious as I listened to the Hawkeyes' postgame call-in show on the drive from Lincoln to Omaha on Saturday evening. (And the fact that the first caller was"Randy on a tractor" made it priceless). But Wisconsin gets the nod for the starring role in "The Hangover: Part II."

It's not just that the Badgers lost on a long pass in the final minute for the second straight week, though that certainly is a punch in the groin. And it's not just the little what-ifs that accompany each loss -- what if, for instance, Dan France doesn't recover that fumble for Michigan State, or Wisconsin doesn't let two punts get blocked or Miller takes one more step before releasing his throw ...

No the real downer in this situation is how well the season would have been set up for a Wisconsin title run. Clemson and Kansas State became the latest unbeatens to go down over the weekend, and the Alabama-LSU duel will reduce the number further. Oklahoma State still must play Oklahoma, while Stanford has to get past Oregon. It's quite possible that the Badgers would have been in prime position for spot in the BCS championship game had the past two games lasted only 59 minutes in regulation.

I know Halloween is a big event in Madison, but Badger backers must be feeling a little cursed this Oct. 31.

Strangest moment: Let's just go ahead and say the entire Illinois-Penn State game was just plain weird.

First, there was the freakish snow storm on Oct. 29 that turned Beaver Stadium into a whiteout without any help from the fans.

Then we had a game that was 0-0 until midway through the third quarter.

Penn State trailed 7-3 with three minutes left and had done nothing in the passing game. Matt McGloin was 5-for-22 for 40 yards at that point. Yet McGloin then completed four passes for 58 yards to lead the team on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Receiver Derek Moye, who wasn't supposed to play because of a broken foot, came into the game for the first time on the final drive. He made a catch and drew a pass interference penalty on fourth down.

Illinois tried to answer, but Derek Dimke's field goal attempt as time expired hit the right upright and bounced away, while students ran through the snow-packed stands and threw snowballs. Dimke hadn't missed a field goal all year.

It was all a little crazy, even to the man who earned his Division I record-breaking 409th win.

"To all the fans out there, thank you for sitting through that today,"Joe Paterno said."You've got to be nuts."
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

After an absolutely wild Week 9 in the Big Ten, we have a new No. 1 team for the third consecutive Monday. Nebraska rises to the top of the rankings after its impressive win against previous No. 1 Michigan State. Penn State, the only unbeaten team in Big Ten play, also makes a move as it prepares for the schedule to get much tougher in November.

In an effort to avoid confusion, these rankings match how both of us will vote in the ESPN.com Top 25, so season performance is taken more into consideration.

Let's get to it ...

1. Nebraska (7-1, 3-1): Bo Pelini's team delivered its most complete performance of the season and sent a message to the rest of the Legends division by beating up surging Michigan State. Nebraska's defense finally looked worthy of the Blackshirt label, flustering Kirk Cousins and a going-nowhere Spartans attack. Junior I-back Rex Burkhead continued to enhance his legend with one of the gutsiest performances of the Big Ten season.

2. Penn State (8-1, 5-0): Style points they lack, but these Lions know how to win this season. Thanks to stout defense, blossoming running back Silas Redd, a mistake-prone Illinois team and a heroic drive led by junior quarterback Matthew McGloin, Penn State improved to 8-1 entering the bye week, with its only loss to No. 2 Alabama. How much longer can the Lions keep this up? We'll learn much more during a daunting November stretch (Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin).

3. Michigan (7-1, 3-1): There won't be a second-half slide this season in Ann Arbor. Could there be a push for a Legends division title? We'll find out in the coming weeks as Michigan starts a challenging November schedule (Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State). The Wolverines figured out their running back against Purdue as Fitzgerald Toussaint went for 170 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Denard Robinson had his ups and downs, but Mike Martin and the defense performed very well following the bye week.

4. Michigan State (6-2, 3-1): What had been an incredible month for Mark Dantonio's squad ended with a thud in Lincoln. Michigan State was unable to put a stranglehold on the Legends division and created a wild race during the month of November. The Spartans haven't been overly impressive on the road this season, and Cousins and the offense must bounce back this week against Minnesota before visiting Kinnick Stadium, where Michigan State lost 37-6 last season.

5. Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2): What looked like a dream season for Bret Bielema's team has turned into a nightmare. For the second consecutive week, Wisconsin suffered a heartbreaking loss on the road after making a dramatic comeback. For the second consecutive week, Wisconsin endured a crucial breakdown in the kicking game and couldn't stop a long pass in the final minutes. Wisconsin might still be the Big Ten's most talented team, but it simply isn't the same squad away from Madison. The Badgers now must win out and get some help just to make it to Indianapolis.

6. Ohio State (5-3, 2-2): The Buckeyes had so much on the line Saturday night, and they came through in all three phases. A physical defense held Wisconsin to 10 first-half rushing yards and just 89 for the game. Ohio State received several huge plays on special teams, including a Ryan Shazier blocked punt that set up a touchdown. And freshman quarterback Braxton Miller came of age in the clutch, making the biggest throw of his young career -- and Ohio State's season. The Buckeyes have no margin for error the rest of the way, but they also enter November with plenty of momentum. Although they just beat the team ahead of them in these rankings, we still like Wisconsin's overall body of work a little better.

7. Illinois (6-3, 2-3): After a 6-0 start, Illinois is headed in the wrong direction. The Illini leaned on their defense against Penn State and nearly got a huge win, but they failed to get one final stop and suffered a heart-wrenching loss. Talent isn't the problem for the Fighting Illini, but a slow-starting offense and repeated problems in the kicking game have cost Ron Zook's team dearly. A bye comes at a good time before Illinois plays two tough home games against Michigan and Wisconsin.

8. Purdue (4-4, 2-2): The Boilers backslide after a beat-down in Ann Arbor. After three decent-to-good performances to begin Big Ten play, Purdue struggled mightily in the final 58 minutes. Although quarterback Caleb TerBush was OK, the offense wasted opportunities and failed to make Michigan pay for turnovers. The defense, meanwhile, missed countless tackles and had no answer for Toussaint, Robinson and the Wolverines' rushing attack. Things don't get much easier this week as Purdue travels to Madison.

9. Iowa (5-3, 2-2): Saturday's loss seemed to defy general football law. Iowa had 269 rushing yards (252 by Marcus Coker alone), 21 first downs and 446 total yards. And yet the Hawkeyes couldn't beat Minnesota, a team many regarded as the worst major-conference squad in the country. Iowa dropped its second consecutive game to the Gophers, and this loss could sting for a while. The schedule gets much harder in November for Kirk Ferentz's crew, which needs to rebound badly.

10. Northwestern (3-5, 1-4): Who needs a defense when the offense can't be stopped? Northwestern turned in one of the most efficient offensive performances in team history at Indiana, reaching the end zone on eight of its first 10 possessions and racking up 616 yards (317 rush, 299 pass). Led by quarterback Dan Persa, quarterback/receiver Kain Colter and tight end Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern recorded its highest point total since 2000 (59). The problem: The Wildcats struggled to slow down Indiana and now must travel to Nebraska.

11. Minnesota (2-6, 1-3): No one's questioning the timing of Jerry Kill's new contract anymore. After three noncompetitive performances in Big Ten play, Minnesota took its play up several notches to beat Iowa and retain the beloved Floyd of Rosedale. The Gophers received terrific performances from quarterback MarQueis Gray and running back Duane Bennett, and while their defense surrendered yards, it came up with critical plays, including a sack and a forced fumble that turned momentum in the third quarter.

12. Indiana (1-8, 0-5): The Hoosiers discovered their offensive backfield in quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Stephen Houston, who combined for 272 rush yards and three touchdowns against Northwestern. Now, as for the defense? Indiana has been looking for one for more than a decade, and the search continues this season. The young and undermanned Hoosiers had no answer for Persa and the Northwestern offense, which had its way Saturday. Things don't get easier in the coming weeks as Indiana visits Ohio State and Michigan State.
Let's decorate some hats on Halloween weekend. Time to recognize the best and brightest from around the Big Ten in Week 9:
  • Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint: It's safe to say Michigan found its running back. Toussaint was brilliant in the Wolverines' runaway 36-14 win against Purdue, racking up 170 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. His 59-yard scoring dash late in the third quarter was one of the best plays of the Big Ten season. Defensive tackle Mike Martin merits a mention after forcing a momentum-turning safety and two sacks.

  • Northwestern TE Drake Dunsmore: Dunsmore highlighted a banner day for Northwestern's offense with four touchdown catches on four consecutive possessions as the Wildcats crushed Indiana 59-38. Dunsmore finished the game with a team-high seven receptions for 112 yards. He shares the sticker with QB Dan Persa and QB/WR Kain Colter, who both were fabulous.
  • Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead showed against Michigan State why he's one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten. Nebraska fed No. 22 early and often, and Burkhead responded with 130 rush yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries in the 24-3 victory. He also had a 27-yard touchdown reception.
  • Penn State LB Gerald Hodges: The defenses dominated Saturday's game in Happy Valley, and no individual shined more than Hodges, an emerging star for Penn State. He recorded a career-high 19 tackles in the 10-7 win against Illinois and had a forced fumble, a sack and two pass breakups. Fellow defender Devon Still (3.5 tackles for loss, sack) merits a mention.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: The freshman continues to grow before our eyes, and he had his best games yet in the 33-29 upset of Wisconsin. Miller ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, and while he only passed for 89 yards, he threw the 40-yard game-winner with 20 seconds left. Special mention also goes to Buckeyes running back Dan Herron, who had 160 yards rushing on 33 carries.

Final: Northwestern 59, Indiana 38

October, 29, 2011
10/29/11
3:20
PM ET

This time, Northwestern held onto a halftime lead. The Wildcats simply couldn't be stopped on offense.

Northwestern didn't exactly slow down Indiana, but it didn't need its defense today in a 59-38 victory, its first in Big Ten play and its first since Sept. 10 against Eastern Illinois. The Wildcats piled up 616 yards (317 rush, 299 pass) and reached the end zone on eight of their first 10 possessions (they scored a field goal on another drive). A veteran offensive line imposed its will on a young Hoosiers defense and gave QB Dan Persa and his playmakers plenty of time to work their magic.

Persa had a terrific performance (16-for-20 passing, 261 yards, 3 TDs), but he was overshadowed by teammates Kain Colter and Drake Dunsmore. Colter continued to show why he's one of the Big Ten's top all-purpose players, recording 38 rush yards, 115 receiving yards and two touchdown passes on three attempts. Dunsmore, a tight end, recorded a career-high four touchdown catches and finished with 112 receiving yards on seven receptions.

Northwestern didn't punt the ball until 11:35 remained in the game.

The Wildcats needed all the offense as their defense continued to struggle mightily, missing tackles and playing out of position. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is trying everything personnel-wise, but Northwestern can't prevent big plays or get off of the field. There's a lot to work on before next week's game at Nebraska. Northwestern allowed 488 yards.

Indiana can't expect to win games if its defense plays so poorly, although the Hoosiers had some chances in the second half. Penalties continued to plague Kevin Wilson's squad, which was flagged nine times for 148 yards and helped one Northwestern touchdown drive stay alive with a pass interference penalty on third down. Indiana is playing a ton of freshmen, but it must start displaying better discipline.

At least the Hoosiers have found their offensive backfield in QB Tre Roberson and RB Stephen Houston. The two combined for 272 rush yards and three touchdowns, and Roberson hit on several nice pass plays. But they got absolutely no help from the defense.

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