Big Ten: Drew Basil

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
10:30
AM ET
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: The No. 7 Buckeyes.

Offense: A-

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller proved to be nearly unstoppable in the running game.
A somewhat sloppy final exam brought down the overall grade, but it's hard to find fault with the most prolific scoring attack in the Big Ten and one of the most explosive offenses Ohio State has ever had in its decorated history. The rushing game was close to unstoppable, clear strides were evident when the football was in the air and the offensive line proved itself to be one of the best units in the country as the Buckeyes rolled their way to more than 46 points per game.

For all the talk about trying to balance out the spread offense this season, though, the Buckeyes weren't quite able to trust the passing game when it mattered most against the best defense they faced all year. Michigan State made them pay in the Big Ten title game as Braxton Miller struggled with his accuracy and his receivers put a few catchable throws on the ground, making rushing lanes harder to come by down the stretch and ultimately building to a failed fourth-down rush with a chance to play for the crystal football hanging in the balance.

But, obviously, the Buckeyes had 12 wins on the resume before that, and Carlos Hyde's wildly productive senior season finally gave Urban Meyer a 1,000-yard running back. Despite missing three games due to suspension to open the year, Hyde still led the Big Ten in rushing yardage during league play and finished with 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground as the Buckeyes bullied through the regular season thanks to his terrifying partnership with Miller in the backfield.

Defense: B-

At their best and fully healthy, the Buckeyes appeared to be on their way to living up to the high standards of the Silver Bullets and ranking among the nation's best defenses with a developing front, a game-changing linebacker and a veteran secondary filled with playmakers. Without the full complement of starters and against some solid offensive game plans, the Buckeyes at times looked completely lost and were exposed in the back end, particularly late in the season as injuries revealed the lack of depth at critical positions.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoey Bosa had a stellar freshman season with 6.5 sack and six QB hurries.
The good certainly outweighed the bad for Ohio State, as it showed a knack for regrouping and making critical adjustments after some shaky starts, notably against Iowa and Northwestern. Ryan Shazier came up short in his bid for a couple of individual trophies, but the junior linebacker sent his NFL stock soaring with another stats-stuffing season that was downright spectacular at times. After needing to replace the entire defensive line, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett all proved more than capable of wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield and will return next season.

But much, much more was expected of the secondary with Bradley Roby returning for at cornerback to team with senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. The loss of Bryant in September to a fractured ankle was a blow the Buckeyes were never able to truly recover from, and finishing No. 11 in the Big Ten in pass defense is never going to be acceptable at a program with so much defensive pride. Those issues were balanced out by a stout rush defense and an opportunistic unit. While there are certainly programs that would be happy with a grade like this on defense, Ohio State isn't one of them.

Special teams: B+

Freshman Cameron Johnston turned out to be an invaluable recruiting pickup late in the game a year ago, bursting on the scene with his powerful leg and a unique ability to dial it back when needed to switch field position. A coverage unit stocked with starters willing to lend a hand in the kicking game certainly didn't hurt, either.

The Buckeyes also made life miserable on opposing punters, a calling card of an Urban Meyer team, with Roby blocking a pair and Doran Grant throwing in another. Drew Basil was solid kicking the football, though Ohio State didn't call on the senior all that much has he attempted just 10 field goals, making nine.

There was a spark missing on kickoff and punt return, which will no doubt frustrate Meyer heading into next season. Dontre Wilson broke a 51-yard kickoff return and Philly Brown had a long of 65, but neither was able to break a touchdown.

Overall: A-

Everything was set up for the Buckeyes to make a run at the national championship, and despite all the hand-wringing about the BCS standings and OSU's schedule, all the dominoes had fallen into place ahead of the conference title game. And while that loss to the Spartans left them one game short of playing for the national crown, the Buckeyes still won 12 and are headed to the Discover Orange Bowl, which is a respectable consolation prize in what should again go down as a successful season.
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
Finally, we had a close game in fantasy. But it didn't go the way I wanted.

After a series of back-and-forth blowouts, our two Big Ten fantasy teams -- Adam's Trombone Shorties and my The One Who Knocks -- played a tight, high-scoring battle in Week 8. Adam's team emerged victorious by a count of 164-140, our closest matchup of the season. The Shorties got 48 points from Jeremy Gallon's record-setting day, 32 from Melvin Gordon and 27 thanks to Michigan State's shutout. I had the week's high scorer, as Devin Gardner put up 54 big points, while James White added 29 and Carlos Hyde 26. But my free agent pickups of Connor Cook and Ohio State's defense (six points each) fizzled and ultimately cost me.

With the win, Adam cut my season lead down to 5-3 with six weeks remaining. It will once again be a busy week on the waiver wire thanks to those daggone double byes. To the free agent heap:

Brian adds Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg and drops Michigan State QB Connor Cook

Rationale: My gambit on taking Cook last week totally backfired, so I'm turning back to the Nittany Lions wunderkind in hopes that he can take advantage of the Ohio State secondary.

Adam adds Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and drops Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld

Rationale: I recognize the risk here as Martinez might not play much or at all, but I think he returns to the field against Minnesota and puts up some decent numbers against the Gophers.

Brian adds Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah and drops Wisconsin RB James White

Rationale: With White on a bye, I'm more than happy to pick up the guy who has been the second best back in the Big Ten so far this year.

Adam adds Iowa RB Mark Weisman and drops Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Rationale: Weisman's lack of touchdowns make him a questionable fantasy choice, but there aren't many other options out there at running back. Northwestern has been vulnerable to power backs, and Weisman certainly fits that description.

Brian adds Nebraska's defense and drops Ohio State's defense

Rationale: The Blackshirts paid off big time when I took them against Purdue. Going against a light-scoring Minnesota offense at home should pave the way for another nice scoring day, in theory.

Adam adds Ohio State WR Corey "Philly" Brown and drops Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon

Rationale: I hate to lose Gallon, but he won't get me any points on a bye and I can't concede weeks at this point in the season. Brown has big-play potential and could find room against a vulnerable Penn State secondary.

Brian adds Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa and drops Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis

Rationale: I was going to hold on to Abbrederis, even through the bye week. But since Adam is dropping superstars left and right, I know there will be lots to choose from on the waiver wire next week. So I'll play for now and go with the Huskers wideout who's been a scoring machine this season.

Adam adds Nebraska WR Kenny Bell and drops Michigan TE/WR Devin Funchess

Rationale: Bell has a big game or two left in him, and perhaps this is the week for a breakout performance. He'll benefit big time if Martinez is back on the field.

Brian adds Northwestern's kickers and drops Michigan's kickers

Rationale: Need some new kicks with the Wolverines on a bye. I'll cast my lot with Jeff Budzien, especially since Northwestern has had trouble locating the end zone of late.

Adam adds Ohio State's kickers and drop Michigan State's kickers

Rationale: The Buckeyes score way more than Michigan State does, and while Drew Basil gets limited chances for field goals, he has plenty of extra-point opportunities. I expect another high-scoring performance from Ohio State against Penn State.

Our complete rosters for Week 8:

The Trombone Shorties (Adam)

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Ohio State WR Corey Brown
Ohio State kickers
Michigan State defense

The One Who Knocks (Brian)

Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdulla
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde
Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa
Penn State WR Allen Robinson
Northwestern kickers
Nebraska defense
The Big Ten postseason position/unit rankings wrap up with the specialists. This list considers kickers, punters and returners, as well as coverage teams.

Here's how the Big Ten stacked up before the season. If you missed any of our postseason position/unit rankings, check 'em out.

Let's get started ...

[+] EnlargeJeff Budzien
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJeff Bundzien made 95 percent of his field goals and converted all 50 of his extra point attempts in 2012.
1. Northwestern (preseason ranking: 10): Northwestern fans never thought they'd see this day, but the program has improved markedly in the kicking game in recent years. Jeff Budzien was the Big Ten's most consistent kicker in 2012, connecting on 19 of 20 field-goal attempts (lone miss was a 53-yarder) and all 50 of his extra-point tries. Northwestern also led the league in punt return average (16.5) thanks to All-American returner Venric Mark, who had two runbacks for touchdowns. Northwestern ranked 19th nationally in punt coverage.

2. Nebraska (preseason ranking: 1): Brett Maher had a few hiccups but still made 20 of 27 field-goal tries and all 59 of his PATs, and averaged 41.8 yards per punt. He and Budzien shared the Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year honors in the Big Ten. Ameer Abdullah had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, and Nebraska had three solid options on kick returns (Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner).

3. Michigan (preseason ranking: 7): Here's another team that has made major strides in the kicking game in recent years. Kicker Brendan Gibbons was Captain Clutch, converting 16 of 18 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner against Michigan State, as well as all 45 PATs. Dennis Norfleet provided a boost on kick returns, and Will Hagerup led the league in punting average (45 ypp) despite limited attempts (33).

4. Michigan State (preseason ranking: 4): The Spartans' sputtering offense gave Mike Sadler plenty of work and he delivered, averaging 43.3 yards on 79 punts. MSU finished second in the league in net punting. Dan Conroy led the Big Ten in both field goals made (23) and field goals missed (9), but he hit the game-winner against TCU in the bowl game. Michigan State struggled on kick returns, but both Nick Hill and Andre Sims averaged more than eight yards on punt returns.

5. Iowa (preseason ranking: 9): Mike Meyer improved on his 2012 performance, connecting on 17 of 21 field-goal tries and all 25 of his extra-point attempts. Iowa also performed well on returns, as Jordan Cotton led the league in kick returns (28.2 ypr) and Micah Hyde averaged 7.4 yards on 16 punt returns. Punting was a weak spot as Connor Kornbrath averaged only 37.9 yards per boot.

6. Purdue (preseason ranking: 2): The Boilers definitely missed Carson Wiggs, as their kickers connected on only 9 of 14 field-goal tries this season and missed five extra-point attempts. But there were bright spots elsewhere like punter Cody Webster, who averaged 42.3 yards per punt. Purdue led the Big Ten in kickoff returns, thanks to Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert.

7. Ohio State (preseason ranking: 3): It was a mixed bag of big plays and big breakdowns for Ohio State on special teams in 2013. The Buckeyes had a league-high three punt returns for touchdowns but also had three punts blocked and surrendered a kick return for a touchdown against Purdue. Kicker Drew Basil was used sparingly (8 of 11 on field-goal attempts), while Ben Buchanan averaged 41 yards per punt. New special teams chief Kerry Coombs has some things to sort out.

8. Wisconsin (preseason ranking: 5): The kicking game continues to be a little inconsistent for the Badgers. Punter Drew Meyer had a solid season, averaging 41.5 yards on a league-high 80 punts. But Wisconsin kickers Kyle French and Jack Russell combined to convert only 10 of 18 field-goal attempts. Kenzel Doe led Wisconsin's multi-pronged kick return attack, which ranked third in the Big Ten, while Jared Abbrederis was decent on punt returns.

9. Indiana (preseason ranking: 11): The Hoosiers had a so-so season in the kicking game. Kicker Mitch Ewald connected on 15 of 20 field-goal attempts and missed only 1 of 43 PAT tries. Tevin Coleman tied for second in the league in kick returns, while Shane Wynn provided another option there. IU's punters didn't wow with their numbers, but the Hoosiers finished fifth in net punting.

10. Illinois (preseason ranking: 12): You know it's a rough season when you hang your hat on net punting, a statistic where Illinois led the Big Ten (39.2-yard net average). Sophomore Justin DuVernois had a heavy workload and still finished fourth in the league in punting average (41.9 ypp). Illini kickers connected on 8 of 12 field-goal tries, but the return game once again struggled mightily (118th nationally in punt returns, 107th in kick returns).

11. Minnesota (preseason ranking: 6): Troy Stoudermire became the NCAA's all-time kick return yards king and Jordan Wettstein connected for the game-winning field goal in the opener against UNLV, but the Gophers had few other special teams highlights. Wettstein finished the year just 14 of 22 on field goals, and Minnesota ranked last in the league in net punting (34.4 ypp). The return game was mediocre but Minnesota fared OK in kickoff and punt coverage.

12. Penn State (preseason ranking: 8) Sam Ficken's finish nearly kept Penn State out of the basement. Ficken connected on his final 10 field-goal tries, including the game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin. The Virginia game still stings, though, as he finished 14-for-21 for the season. Penn State struggled with its punting (11th in league in net average) and finished last in the league in kick returns (18.1 ypr). There were coverage breakdowns and muffed punts. The lack of depth following the NCAA sanctions seemed to hurt Penn State the most in the kicking game, especially early in the season.

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
10:00
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We're continuing to hand out grades for every Big Ten team's 2012 season. We'll be doubling up on these to finish them up before Jan. 1. Once again, we're judging each team's offense, defense, special teams and overall performance.

Up next: Ohio State

Offense: A-minus

The scariest thing about Ohio State's season is that the Buckeyes seemed barely to be scratching the surface of their offensive potential. And yet they led the Big Ten in scoring at an average of more than 37 points per game. Most of that came courtesy of a dominant running game, led by quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and the league's best offensive line. The Buckeyes ranked 10th nationally in rushing yards per game. And yet they can go so much higher in the passing game, where they had only the No. 101 pass offense this season. Corey "Philly" Brown developed into a steady receiver, but Devin Smith faded down the stretch after making some huge highlight plays early. Miller is already a superstar who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, mostly because of his legs and the flair for the dramatic. If he can become a consistent, accurate thrower, the rest of the league is really going to be in trouble.

Defense: B

If only Ohio State's season were on a semester system, the grades would be dramatically different for each half of the year. The defense looked lost at times in the first six weeks, giving up big plays and showing poor fundamentals. Urban Meyer did not hide his displeasure at the way his defense played in September and much of October. But Meyer said the unit played at a championship caliber in the second half, and he was right. Linebacker Ryan Shazier led the charge, as he stopped overrunning plays and started blowing up opponents' game plans on a regular basis. Bradley Roby was the Big Ten's best cornerback, while John Simon was named the league's defensive player of the year and Johnathan Hankins was a huge space-eater in the middle. Those early struggles hurt the grade here a little, but Ohio State aced the second semester.

Special teams: C

Here's an area which could certainly stand to improve next year. The Buckeyes had way too many breakdowns in their punt-protection unit and were merely average in kick returns and punting. Brown did an outstanding job on punt returns, though, scoring two touchdowns. Kicker Drew Basil didn't get much work but made eight of his 11 field goal attempts.

Overall: A-plus

You can criticize Ohio State's performance in a few areas, but the only number that really matters is 12-0. Every week, the Buckeyes found a way to win, even if it wasn't always pretty at times. They showed a remarkable resiliency, best evidenced by the comeback in the final minute to tie the game against Purdue when Miller was in the hospital and backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the charge. Ohio State blew out Legends Division winner Nebraska and beat Big Ten champ Wisconsin on the road. The Buckeyes were unquestionably the league's best team and one of only two undefeated teams in the country. If that's not worth an A-plus, nothing is.

Previous report cards:

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Michigan State
Our 2012 preseason position rankings come to a close today as we wrap up with the special-teams units.

When looking at special teams, you have to rely on what teams did last year and who they bring back, as it's extremely difficult to get a read on new kickers and punters during preseason practice. So teams that rank the highest on this list have reliable kickers and return men back in the fold. While the top and the bottom are fairly easy to sort out, the middle is pretty indistinguishable.

Let's specialize ...

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Dave WeaverNebraska return man Ameer Abdullah could be contained a bit with the rule changes for kickoffs this season.
1. Nebraska: The obvious and really only pick for the top spot, as the Huskers bring back star kicker/punter Brett Maher and return ace Ameer Abdullah. Special teams should once again be a strength in Lincoln.

2. Purdue: The Boilers lose strong-legged kicker Carson Wiggs but return national kick return leader Raheem Mostert and punter Cody Webster, who finished just behind Maher in yards per punt.

3. Ohio State: Drew Basil turned into a very dependable kicker, and the Buckeyes also bring back punter Ben Buchanan. Jordan Hall is a top-flight returner when healthy, and Ohio State has other options there.

4. Michigan State: The Spartans have reliable place-kicker Dan Conroy back, along with punter Mike Sadler and kickoff return man Nick Hill. They will need to replace Keshawn Martin on punt returns.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers' star is Jared Abbrederis, who's outstanding at returning both kicks and punts. But they need to replace both their kicker and punter. Kyle French has handled some field goals in the past, and Drew Meyer appears set to take over at punter. The punt protection unit must not allow breakdowns that cost the Badgers in big games last year.

6. Minnesota: Getting record-setting returner Troy Stoudermire back should help a team that did pretty well without him on returns a year ago. Jordan Wettstein made all six of his field goal tries after taking over the job late in the season. The Gophers need more consistent punting.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines made steady improvements on special teams, as Brendan Gibbons shored up the place-kicking situation. There is still a competition going on at punter between Matt Wile and Will Hagerup. Michigan's coverage was solid last year, but it can do better on returns.

8. Penn State: The losses of punter/kicker Anthony Fera and punt returner Justin Brown to transfers hurt. Sam Ficken will handle field-goal duties, though the punting competition remains open. No word yet on who will return punts.

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are still searching for a punter, and former quarterback John Wienke is in the mix. Mike Meyer was just 14-of-20 on field goals last year. Iowa's kickoff coverage a year ago was subpar.

10. Northwestern: Venric Mark leads a very strong punt return game. Kicker Jeff Budzien made only six field goals, though he was 50-of-50 on PATs.

11. Indiana: Kicker Mitch Ewald was a bright spot, but the Hoosiers' kick return game was terrible a year ago. IU will also break in a new punter.

12. Illinois: Things can only get better for the Illini, who were brutal on special teams last year. A new coaching staff should help, as well as transfer Tommy Davis, a former star return man at Northern Illinois. They must replace kicker Derek Dimke, however.
Our preseason position rankings have reached the end of the line. We've looked at the entire offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Now it's time to focus on that often neglected one-third of the game: special teams.

First, we'll examine the top returning individual specialists in the league. Later on, we'll take on the more difficult task of ranking special-teams units, many of which will have new names few of us know.

But for now, these guys are pretty special:

1. Brett Maher, P/K, Nebraska, senior: Maher led the Big Ten in punting average (44.5 yards per attempt) and tied for first in most field goals made (19, out of 23 attempts). He was named the Big Ten's punter and kicker of the year. Yeah, he's pretty good.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Raheem Mostert, KR, Purdue, sophomore: Mostert led the FBS in kick return average at 33.5 yards per try and had a touchdown in the Little Caesars Bowl. Purdue hopes it can put his speed to work on offense as well this season.

3. Jared Abbrederis, KR/PR, Wisconsin, junior: He ranked third nationally in punt return average (15.8 yards per attempt) and was sixth in the Big Ten in kickoff returns. Abbrederis set a school record with 201 return yards in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon.

4. Ameer Abdullah, KR/PR, Nebraska, sophomore: Abdullah finished ninth nationally in kickoff return average (29.3), including a 100-yarder against Fresno State. His 211 return yards in that game set a Huskers record.

5. Drew Basil, K, Ohio State, junior: Basil led the Big Ten in field goal percentage (16 of 19, 84.2 percent), including a streak of 12 straight at one point last season. Six of his makes came from 40 yards out or longer.

6. Jordan Hall, KR/PR, Ohio State, senior: Knocked down this list a peg or two because of his foot injury, Hall is a dynamic return man when healthy. He ranked fifth in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (26.3 ypa) and sixth in punt returns (5.8 ypa) a year ago.

7. Dan Conroy, K, Michigan State, senior: Conroy ranked third in the league in field goals made last year with 17, out of 23 attempts. He showed he was good under pressure by knocking home two tries in overtime of the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

8. Cody Webster, P, Purdue, junior: Webster ranked just behind Maher in punting average (42.9 ypa), including a 66-yarder versus Minnesota. The big-legged Boilermaker had 13 punts sail over 50 yards.

9. Venric Mark, KR/PR, Northwestern, junior: Mark averaged 22.9 yards per kickoff return and 15.9 yards on punt returns, the latter of which would have ranked him ahead of Abbrederis had he made enough returns to qualify. He'll try to use his playmaking skills as a running back as well this year.

10. Nick Hill, KR, Michigan State, sophomore: Hill ranked fourth in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (26.3 ypa). He had five returns of 40 or more yards and a long of 67 against Indiana.
Nebraska's Brett Maher ended the 2011 season as the consensus selection for first-team All-Big Ten kicker and punter.

While Nebraska fans certainly weren't asking, "Alex, who?" Maher did a tremendous job of filling the void left by All-American do-it-all specialist Alex Henery.

Not surprisingly, Maher appears on preseason watch lists for both the Lou Groza Award (nation's top kicker) and the Ray Guy Award (nation's top punter) that came out Wednesday. Maher is the lone Big Ten punter on the Guy Award watch list, while seven Big Ten kickers made the Groza Award list.

Here's the full Big Ten contingent on the Groza watch list:
Fera, Maher and Meyer all were Groza Award semifinalists in 2011, while Conroy was a semifinalist in 2010. The Big Ten once again looks strong at place-kicker, and the best story of the group is Gibbons, who made just 1 of 5 attempts as a freshman before connecting on 13 of 17 attempts last season, including the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime at the Sugar Bowl (the "brunette girls" boot).

It's a bit surprising not to see more Big Ten punters on the Guy watch list. Fera, who like Maher handles both kicking and punting duties, averaged 42 yards per punt in 2011. Purdue's Cody Webster and Michigan State's Mike Sadler also would have made sense for the watch list. Fortunately, the Guy Award will reveal an expanded list of candidates Oct. 26 and announce its 10 semifinalists on Nov. 9. Three finalists are revealed Nov. 19, and the winner will be announced Dec. 6 during the Home Depot College Football Awards.

The Groza Award announces 20 semifinalists Nov. 5 and three finalists Nov. 19. The winner will be announced Dec. 6

The Big Ten hasn't had a Groza Award winner since Ohio State's Mike Nugent in 2004. Ohio State's B.J. Sander is the last Big Ten player to win the Guy Award (2003).
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
10:30
AM ET
It's time to pass out grades for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

OFFENSE: D

Uncertainty surrounded the unit heading into the season after the departure of starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the suspensions of three other starters. But the Buckeyes' offensive struggles reached new lows in the first half of the season before freshman Braxton Miller emerged at quarterback. Ohio State looked lifeless in losses to Miami and Michigan State, nearly suffering its first shutout at home since 1982. The Buckeyes won a game at Illinois despite completing just one pass and attempting only four. Coordinator Jim Bollman infuriated fans with ultra-conservative game plans, even though Miller, the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year, raised hope for the future with his play-making ability. An inexperienced receiving corps struggled mightily, the offensive line was inconsistent, but the backs performed decently, especially when Dan Herron returned from suspension. But Ohio State ended up 107th nationally in total yards and 117th in passing. Not good.

DEFENSE: C+

The defense kept the Buckeyes in several games and won one against Illinois to spark a three-game win streak. But the typical dominance associated with the unit didn't show up nearly as much in an atypical season. Ohio State had good players in all three levels of the defense -- lineman John Simon, linebacker Andrew Sweat, safety C.J. Barnett -- but lacked the all-around depth that's normally a given in Columbus. The defense struggled for chunks of games -- the second half at Nebraska, the first half at Purdue, the first half against Penn State -- and had no answers for rival Michigan in the regular-season finale, a 40-34 loss. While much was made about the offensive stars involved in the tattoo parlor scandal, Ohio State lost a ton of defensive production from the 2010 team, and it showed. The unit still finished 24th nationally in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

After a shaky season on special teams in 2010, the Buckeyes rebounded for the most part this fall. They ranked in the top 25 nationally in both punt coverage and kickoff coverage. Specialists Ben Buchanan and Drew Basil were, for the most part, pretty solid, and Jordan Hall had a decent year on returns. Still, it's impossible to look past the extra-point attempt Ohio State had blocked against Purdue that would have given the Buckeyes a 21-20 lead in the final minute (Ohio State went on to lose in overtime).

OVERALL: D+

After dominating the Big Ten for the better part of Jim Tressel's tenure as coach, the Buckeyes faced unique and difficult circumstances this season. Players and coaches both were thrust into new and challenging roles. Still, even the more pessimistic prognosticators figured Ohio State would win more than six games. The Buckeyes lost more Big Ten games this season than they had in the previous six combined. That's a precipitous drop. While there's hope for the future with Miller and Urban Meyer, Ohio State would just as soon forget this season.
Peel off the back and affix to hat. Time to recognize the stars who shined brightest in the Big Ten on Saturday.
  • Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert: Ebert had a huge day in the 28-6 win over Rice, recording 7 catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. That included a 90-yard strike from Dan Persa that was the second-longest play in school history. Persa had a big game, too, throwing for 372 yards and four touchdowns, with a pair of interceptions.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: The Spartans needed a spark after averaging just 67 rushing yards in their first three road games, and Bell provided it with help from his offensive line in a 37-21 victory against Iowa. Bell racked up a season-high 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.6 ypc). He also added two receptions for 49 yards, including a 45-yarder on third-and-8 midway through the fourth quarter.
  • Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: The senior continued his assault on the record book, completing his first 16 pass attempts in Wisconsin's blowout win against Minnesota. Wilson finished the game 16-for-17 passing for 178 yards and four touchdowns. RB Montee Ball (166 rush yards, 2 rushing TDs, 1 receiving TD) and WR Nick Toon (8 receptions, 100 yards, 2 TDs) also merit mentions.
  • Purdue DL Bruce Gaston: He gets a sticker simply for making one play, but it was enormous. Gaston blocked Drew Basil's extra-point attempt after Ohio State had tied the score at 20 with 55 seconds left, keeping the Boilermakers alive and giving them a chance to eventually win the game 26-23 in overtime.
  • Nebraska P/K Brett Maher: A secret weapon for the Huskers, Maher proved to be very important in a 17-14 win at Penn State. He averaged 45 yards on eight punts and put five inside the Nittany Lions' 20, including a 61-yarder late that pinned Penn State deep in its own territory. Maher also made a 41-yard field goal in his only attempt.
  • Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint: The Wolverines offense has some issues right now, but the running back spot isn't one of them. Toussaint has established himself as the team's top back. After recording 170 rush yards two weeks ago against Purdue, Toussaint racked up a career-high 192 rush yards and a touchdowns on 27 carries in Saturday's 31-14 win at Illinois. DT Mike Martin (9 tackles) merits a mention after leading a suffocating effort against the run.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

Opening camp: Ohio State

August, 6, 2010
8/06/10
5:00
PM ET
Schedule: Ohio State's first preseason practice takes place today in Columbus.

What's new: Not that much. Jim Tressel's staff remains intact, and Ohio State returns 16 starters, including 10 on offense. The only spot that sees a decent amount of turnover is safety, as the Buckeyes lose both Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell. They also will have a new look along the defensive line, although Cameron Heyward is a familiar face, one opposing offensive linemen won't be happy to see.

Sidelined: Ohio State is healthy entering camp, although the Buckeyes are down a running back as Jermil Martin will transfer. The Scarlet and Gray will have incoming freshman running back Rod Smith on the field after Smith met his academic requirements.

Key battle: Let's start at kicker, a position that always means a lot to a Tressel-coached team. Aaron Pettrey departs, and Devin Barclay needs to rebound after struggling at times this spring. Punter Ben Buchanan and freshman Drew Basil are possibilities if Barclay can't hold down the top job. The other key battle takes place at left tackle, as junior Mike Adams tries to lock up a starting spot ahead of Andrew Miller and others.

New on the scene: Ohio State isn't deep at wide receiver and could find room for James Louis and Corey Brown. Defensive back Christian Bryant will have a chance in the secondary, and linebacker David Durham also might make an early impact. Carlos Hyde could work his way into a crowded mix at running back after enrolling a year later than expected. Basil will be a factor on special teams.

Back in the fold: Tyler Moeller is cleared for full contact after suffering a head injury last summer as an assault victim. Moeller played linebacker early in his career, but was on track for a possible starting job at safety in the spring of 2009. As Ohio State looks to replace Coleman, Moeller might be the answer.

Breaking out: Everyone is raving about sophomore defensive lineman John Simon, a weight-room superstar who saw some action last season. There also was some buzz this spring about linebacker Etienne Sabino, who should join Ross Homan and Brian Rolle in the starting lineup. Ohio State needs a No. 3 wide receiver, and watch out for redshirt freshman Chris Fields.

Quotable: "We're a very capable team. I think we should be a team that's being targeted. I know we'll be a team that's being targeted. And we'll always get everyone's best shot. And with that in mind, we better make sure our best shot's ready each Saturday. But it's just part of the deal." -- head coach Jim Tressel

Fresh Faces: Ohio State

July, 19, 2010
7/19/10
3:00
PM ET
My look at three newcomers to watch for each Big Ten team in 2010 continues with Ohio State.

OFFENSE: Chris Fields, WR, Fr., 6-0, 185

I considered going with one of Ohio State's young running backs (Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde), but the coaches really like what they see from Fields, who plays a position of need for Ohio State. The Buckeyes boast two solid options at receiver in DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, but they need a No. 3 target after Duron Carter left school. Taurian Washington is a veteran option, but Fields should get ample playing time this fall. Fields added some weight during the offseason and boasts excellent speed.

DEFENSE: Melvin Fellows, DE, Fr., 6-5, 249

Cameron Heyward doesn't have to worry about his job security, but Fellows is the latest in a line of dynamic young Buckeyes defensive linemen. He worked his way into the two-deep with an impressive performance this spring and forms a very exciting young nucleus with John Simon, Nathan Williams, Solomon Thomas and others. Fellows isn't an every-down player yet, but he gives Ohio State the ability to be flexible with a guy like Heyward.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Ben Buchanan, P/K, So., 6-0, 195

Special teams are a bit of a concern entering the season, but Buchanan could put a lot of folks at ease with his play. He takes over the starting punter spot after averaging 42.8 yards on four attempts in 2009. Ohio State finished 41st nationally in net punting last fall, a stat Jim Tressel would like to see improve. Buchanan also likely will handle long field goal attempts for Ohio State and might move into a featured role at kicker if Devin Barclay or Drew Basil doesn't nail down the job.

Ohio State spring wrap

May, 5, 2010
5/05/10
7:30
AM ET
2009 overall record: 11-2

2009 conference record: 7-1 (1st)

Returning starters

Offense: 10, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 0

Top returners

QB Terrelle Pryor, RB Brandon Saine, RB Dan Herron, WR DeVier Posey, LG Justin Boren, C Michael Brewster, DL Cameron Heyward, LB Ross Homan, LB Brian Rolle, DE John Simon

Key losses

OL Jim Cordle, DE Thaddeus Gibson, DT Doug Worthington, LB Austin Spitler, S Kurt Coleman, S Anderson Russell, PK Aaron Pettrey, P Jon Thoma

2009 statistical leaders (*-returners)

Rushing: Pryor* (779 yards)

Passing: Pryor* (2,094 yards)

Receiving: Posey* (828 yards)

Tackles: Ross Homan* (108)

Sacks: Cameron Heyward* (6.5)

Interceptions: Ross Homan* and Kurt Coleman (5)

Spring answers

1. Pryor ready for expanded offense: Ohio State fans have wanted the offense to open up, and they finally should get their wish this fall. Pryor built on his Rose Bowl performance with a solid spring, displaying improved footwork and rebounding nicely from some struggles in the jersey scrimmage to complete 8 of 12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

2. Sabino steps up: Ohio State returns two All-Big Ten linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, but it needed a third player to step up and Etienne Sabino answered the call this spring. He spent the entire session with the first-team defense and finished things off with a game-high seven tackles and a forced fumble in the spring game.

3. Guiton provides insurance at QB: Pryor played through pain toward the end of last season and has proven to be durable at quarterback, but every team needs a backup plan and Ohio State might have found one with Kenny Guiton. He wasn't the Buckeyes' first choice for the 2009 recruiting class, but Guiton showed some promise in the spring game by tossing two touchdowns. Guiton certainly will push Joe Bauserman for the backup quarterback spot.

Fall questions

1. The kicking game: It seems sacrilegious to question the specialists on a Jim Tressel-coached team, but Ohio State has some legitimate concerns here. Devin Barclay couldn't separate from freshman Drew Basil, and the place-kicker competition will continue in fall camp. Ben Buchanan should lock up the starting punter spot, but he struggled a bit in the spring game.

2. Left tackle: Ohio State opened up the competition this spring and seemed to narrow it down to Mike Adams and Andrew Miller, with Adams as the frontrunner entering the summer. The competition will continue for some time, but the hope is the gifted Adams can finally step up and lock down a starting spot. Ohio State returns its other four starters up front and likely would rather have J.B. Shugarts stay at right tackle.

3. No. 3 pass-catching option: Some folks don't think this is a big deal in Tressel's offense, but if Ohio State really wants to open things up, Pryor needs a third target after Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher. Wideout Taurian Washington made a good case in the spring game with 83 receiving yards and a touchdown, and he'll compete with Chris Fields and most likely Duron Carter this summer. Tight end Jake Stoneburner also should be a much bigger part of the passing attack this season.

4. Running back rotation: I couldn't resist and had to toss in a fourth question for the fall. Brandon Saine and Boom Herron are two proven options, but Ohio State has plenty of depth and only one football to go around. Can Jaamal Berry, Jordan Hall or Carlos Hyde challenge the top two?

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