Big Ten: Duane Bennett

In late June, a group of Minnesota offensive linemen passed Matt Limegrover in the hallway of Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex and did double-takes.

"Coach?" they asked Limegrover, the Gophers' offensive coordinator and line coach.

"Yeah," he replied. "It's me."

Limegrover started losing weight in January and had dropped 40-50 pounds by the time spring ball ended. But the players didn't notice a change until they went several weeks without seeing him.

"They got a big kick out of that," he said.

As of Thursday morning, Limegrover had shed nearly 120 pounds from his frame -- "It's like 119.8," he reported -- and often draws double-takes when spotted on campus.

Part of his motivation for the weight loss came from how he felt during the 2011 season.

"I felt so run down didn't feel like I was at my best, and felt like that was unfair to the kids I was coaching and the team in general," he said. "I feel like a million bucks out there now, 10 times better than I did at any point the last couple years.

"Now I'm not saying it'll help us win some games, but it can't hurt."

While Limegrover has slimmed down considerably, his offense could be fattening up this fall.

Minnesota struggled offensively in 2011, the first season of the Jerry Kill era, finishing last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg), and 11th in passing offense (150.3 ypg). The Gophers failed to score 30 or more points in a game and had 17 points or fewer in half of their contests.

A big reason for the futility: no identity.

Brandon Green
Rick Osentoski/US Presswire The Golden Gophers expect Brandon "Mr. Dependable" Green to be a leader in the receiving corps.
"We just weren't sure of who we were as an offense," Limegrover said. "That hurt us because we tried too hard to do all the things we had been doing at Northern Illinois, and this was a different group. It's Year 1 at Minnesota, not Year 4 at Northern Illinois."

Year 2 at Minnesota promises to bring greater production, and Limegrover is encouraged by what he's seen in the first few practices of fall camp. The best signs come from the running backs, a mostly anonymous group in 2011 that loses Duane Bennett (639 rush yards).

Junior college transfer James Gillum, who turned heads this spring, continues to display excellent vision and the power to run between the tackles. Sophomore Devon Wright and freshman K.J. Maye provide speed threats on the edge, while Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb both are healthy and ready to contribute. All the backs have shown a greater grasp of the scheme and the versatility to help in multiple areas.

"Those kids have lifted the energy level of the offense," Limegrover said. "They've given us a spark. They're hitting holes and they're doing things on the perimeter. They're picking up their assignments in the pass game. It's really been a bright spot for us because that's an area I know a lot of people have questions."

The same holds true for the wide receivers. Minnesota loses Da'Jon McKnight, who accounted for 51 of the team's 134 receptions in 2011. No returning player had more than 15 catches a year ago.

Brandon Green, a fifth-year senior who Limegrover calls "Mr. Dependable," leads the group and likely will be quarterback MarQueis Gray's top target. Devin Crawford-Tufts has filled out a bit and "can still run like a deer," Limegrover said. Speedster Marcus Jones is back from a knee injury, and incoming freshmen Andre McDonald and Jamel Harbison are already showing the ability to contribute right away. Tight end John Rabe should have a much bigger role in the passing game after recording two touchdown catches last fall.

"We're looking more like a Big Ten receiving crew and Big Ten running backs," Limegrover said. "We've worked to get our tight end position more involved. And especially in the O-line, we're a year bigger and more physical, even though we're still young."

About the only Gophers offensive player who doesn't spark skepticism is senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. He carried the unit for much of the 2011 season, rushing for 966 yards on a team-high 199 carries, and making strides as a passer.

Limegrover is thrilled with Gray's offseason, calling him a "papa bear" for Minnesota's younger players. But Limegrover knows the Gophers must give their signal-caller more help.

"It isn't like basketball where LeBron James, you just clear a side of the floor and let him do his thing," Limegrover said. "We've got to be able to have great support around him. The worst thing we could do for our offense and for this program and for MarQueis Gray is to sit back and go, 'Well, we're going to put it all on his shoulders and we’ll only go as far as he'll take us.' That would be lazy and shortsighted. Every day, we get a little bit closer to everybody feeling good about those other spots.

"That's by far our biggest goal, to get to where we don't have just one bullet in our gun."
Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).
The Big Ten postseason position rankings march on with the running backs. The running back rankings evaluate the entire position group, although superstar players affected the placement, too. Certain groups of running backs ran behind better offensive lines than others, and we took that into account when compiling the rankings.

Check out the preseason running back rankings here.

Onto the rundown ...

1. Wisconsin: Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball built on a strong finish to 2010 and took his game to another level in 2011. The Big Ten offensive player of the year headlined a Wisconsin rushing attack that led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally. While James White had a reduced role this past season, he still averaged 5.1 yards a carry and racked up 713 rush yards and six touchdowns. Ball also contributed in the passing game with 24 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireRunning back Rex Burkhead proved to be a workhorse for Nebraska this past season.
2. Nebraska: Rex Burkhead wore an "N" on his helmet, but it might as well have been an "S" on his chest. The player nicknamed "Superman" triggered a Nebraska rushing attack that ranked 15th nationally. Burkhead racked up 284 carries for 1,357 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. Although the Huskers didn't show a ton of depth at the position, young players like Ameer Abdullah have bright futures.

3. Ohio State: Although a quarterback (Braxton Miller) led the pass-averse Buckeyes in rushing, Ohio State had several capable ball carriers this past season. Carlos Hyde contributed early in the season and finished with 566 rush yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries. Dan Herron provided a spark after returning from suspension, averaging five yards a carry. Jordan Hall also tallied 100 carries and averaged more than four yards per rush.

4. Michigan: The coaches entered the season looking for a featured back and got one as Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged midway through the season. Toussaint racked up 120 yards or more in four of Michigan's final five regular-season games and displayed superstar potential at times. Although Toussaint and quarterback Denard Robinson had the bulk of the carries, reserves Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both averaged more than six yards per carry.

5. Penn State: Much like Ohio State, Penn State relied heavily on its ground game to account for a shaky passing attack. Sophomore Silas Redd shouldered the burden, particularly during the month of October, when he led the FBS with 703 rush yards, including five 100-yard games. Redd finished with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, and Stephfon Green stepped up later in the season and had six rushing scores. Burly sophomore Curtis Dukes averaged 5.8 yards a carry.

6. Purdue: The Boilers had a featured back in Ralph Bolden but also had very good depth at the position. It showed up in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which Bolden missed with a torn ACL. Akeem Shavers led the way and others contributed, too. Purdue finished the season with two 500-yard rushers in Bolden and Shavers, while freshman speedster Akeem Hunt averaged 8.7 yards on 33 carries.

7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were a bit of a dichotomy in 2011, as they finished last in the Big Ten in rushing but had the league's top rusher for part of the season in Marcus Coker. Despite being suspended for the Insight Bowl, Coker finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,384) and 15th nationally in rushing average (115.3 ypg). He had 281 carries, while no other running back had more than 31, so it was a one-man show for Iowa in 2011.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans' rushing production went down in 2011, as Michigan State went from 64th nationally in rushing to 78th. MSU ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the season and finished 11th. But the team's struggles had more to do with a new-look offensive line than the running backs. Le'Veon Bell came on strong late in the season and rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Edwin Baker's numbers went down, but he added 665 rush yards and five scores.

9. Illinois: Here's another team that had a quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase) as its leading rusher, but Illinois also featured multiple options at running back. Although Jason Ford had an up-and-down season, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young proved to be capable ball carriers. Young averaged 5.2 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns, while Pollard averaged 7.2 yards a carry and had 488 rush yards and two scores.

10. Indiana: Although the Hoosiers have plenty of issues to address going forward, the running back spot appears solid. Stephen Houston started the final eight games and established himself as the featured back with 802 yards and eight touchdowns on 151 carries (5.3 ypc). Houston was productive in Big Ten play and a nice complement to quarterback Tre Roberson. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez both added four touchdowns.

11. Northwestern: Echoing a common theme, Northwestern's top rusher was a quarterback (Kain Colter). While the offense has been productive the past few years, the Wildcats haven't found an elite featured back since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Jacob Schmidt was solid for stretches, and young backs Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith contributed at times. Mike Trumpy might still be the best of the bunch, but his season was cut short by a knee injury.

12. Minnesota: Although quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well (966 rush yards, 6 TDs), Minnesota needs more from the running back spot going forward. Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood both averaged less than four yards per carry, and the Gophers had only two 100-yard rushing performances from a running back.

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 15, 2011
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It's time to pass out grades for Minnesota's 2011 season.

OFFENSE: D

The Gophers showed a few promising flashes down the stretch, but they struggled offensively for most of the season. They ranked last in the Big Ten in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and total offense (310.3 ypg) and never scored more than 30 points in a game. Quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well at times but struggled as a passer, completing barely half of his attempts with as many interceptions (8) as touchdown strikes. To be fair, Gray was transitioning to quarterback after a year at wide receiver and had to adjust to a new system. He should be better in 2012. The key will be developing weapons around him as several young players, including receivers Malcolm Moulton and Marcus Jones, got their feet wet this year.

DEFENSE: D

The unit entered the season with question marks and didn't provide many answers until the final five contests, two of which resulted in victories (Iowa and Illinois). Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in all the major defensive statistical categories. Despite some experience at linebacker and an excellent safety in senior Kim Royston, the Gophers' youth showed up front and in the secondary. The good news is Minnesota saved its best performance for the final game -- allowing just seven points and 160 yards to Illinois -- and should carry a bit of momentum into a crucial offseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

The kicking game was one of Minnesota's strengths this season. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage and third in punt coverage. The Gophers were nonfactors on punt returns but finished fifth in the league in kick return average (23.4 ypr) and had a league-high two touchdowns as Jones and Duane Bennett both reached paydirt. Jordan Wettstein was perfect on field goals after relieving Chris Hawthorne, while the punting was average.

OVERALL: D

Minnesota looked like the nation's worst major-conference team until its breakthrough win against Iowa (the Gophers happily turned the title over to fellow Big Ten member Indiana). First-year coach Jerry Kill had a tough year both on the field and with his health issues, but both he and his players kept fighting. The Gophers did some nice things down the stretch and built a bit of momentum for the offseason. There's a chance to improve as players will be more familiar with Kill and his staff, but after back-to-back 3-9 seasons, Minnesota has a long way to go.

Season recap: Minnesota

December, 7, 2011
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MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Record: 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten)

Halfway through the year, with the team sitting at 1-5, I wrote that Minnesota's 2011 was already mostly a lost season. And though the Gophers didn't storm back in some sort of Cinderella story to reach bowl eligibility, they certainly ended the season on a higher note.

First-year coach Jerry Kill's health scares had to affect the team, and Minnesota got blown out of the water in its first three Big Ten games. It seemed a safe bet to say the Gophers wouldn't win any conference games. But on Oct. 29, they rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to stun Iowa 22-21. They played eventual Legends Division champ Michigan State down to the wire in East Lansing the following week. And they stomped struggling Illinois 27-7 at home in the finale to take something positive into the offseason.

Quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was benched at times earlier in the year as he made the transition from starting wide receiver, gradually improved as the season wore on and should be much better with experience next year. The offense still lacked playmakers, and Minnesota never really developed much of a defense, allowing 31.7 points per game. At least there were some moves in the right direction.

"We're taking baby steps," Kill said. "But I do think we're making progress, and if I didn't think we were, I'd tell you."

Offensive MVP: Gray. Though erratic at times, Gray had some nice games down the stretch. He passed for 193 yards and ran for 62 in the win over Iowa. He threw for 295 yards and three scores at Michigan State. And he ran for over 160 yards in each of the final two games, showing his ability to be a dangerous dual threat.

Defensive MVP: Safety Kim Royston. The sixth-year senior finished second in the Big Ten in tackles with 123 and had eight games with 10 tackles or more. As the last line of defense, he was often needed to make stops or else. He did his job well.

Turning point: The bye week after a 45-17 loss at Purdue. Kill said his players finally started practicing the way he wanted them to during the break, and though they would lose 41-14 to Nebraska the next time out, they competed well for much of the game. That momentum would carry over the following week with the win over Iowa.

What's next: Though Minnesota doesn't get the benefit of extra bowl practices, that time off allows Kill and his staff to hit the recruiting trail hard in search of more difference-makers and depth. The Gophers lose some valuable seniors like Royston and running back Duane Bennett, but they also threw a lot of kids into the fire this year. An easier nonconference schedule could help them make a run at bowl eligibility in 2012. "I'll be disappointed if we don't move it forward," Kill said.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 13

November, 29, 2011
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I started Big Ten play with three perfect weeks, while Brian Bennett finished the league slate by posting an unblemished mark. Bennett's 6-0 record in the final week of regular-season picks puts him two games ahead in the season standings. Fortunately, the Big Ten has 10 bowl-eligible teams, so there's still some chances for me to catch him.

Here are the Week 13 predictions.

WEEK 13

Brian Bennett: 6-0

Adam Rittenberg: 5-1

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 73-24 (.753)

Adam Rittenberg: 71-26 (.732)

It's rewind time ...

Iowa at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 28, Iowa 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 31, Iowa 24
  • Actual score: Nebraska 20, Iowa 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected much more from the Iowa offense, which failed to score in the first half for the first time since 2007 and went nearly 57 minutes before getting on the board. Bennett correctly predicted a big game for Huskers I-back Rex Burkhead (team-record 38 carries, 160 rush yards, 1 TD), while QB Taylor Martinez fell three touchdowns shy of my prediction for him.
Michigan State at Northwestern
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 34, Northwestern 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 27, Northwestern 21
  • Actual score: Michigan State 31, Northwestern 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: We weren't too far off on our score predictions and would have been closer had Northwestern finished several promising drives. I correctly predicted Michigan State WR B.J. Cunningham would produce late in the game, although he had two second-half touchdowns, not one. Brian's prediction that the Spartans' physical style would eventually overwhelm Northwestern also proved true.
Ohio State at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 24, Ohio State 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 27, Ohio State 13
  • Actual score: Michigan 40, Ohio State 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: Count both of us among those who were surprised by Ohio State's offensive awakening behind dynamic freshman QB Braxton Miller, who accounted for 335 yards of offense and three touchdowns. Michigan QB Denard Robinson more than doubled Bennett's prediction of two touchdowns with five, while I correctly pegged Wolverines RB Fitzgerald Toussaint for another 100-yard rushing effort (he had 120).
Purdue at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Purdue 35, Indiana 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Purdue 34, Indiana 24
  • Actual score: Purdue 33, Indiana 25
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both nearly pegged Purdue's score exactly, and my Indiana prediction wasn't far off, either. Bennett's correctly forecast a big day for Purdue RB Ralph Bolden (54 rush yards, 63 receiving yards), while Boilers WR Antavian Edison came through for me with a touchdown, although not of the breakaway variety (5-yard run). Purdue also only forced one turnover, not two.
Illinois at Minnesota
  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 21, Illinois 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 24, Minnesota 20
  • Actual score: Minnesota 27, Illinois 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: This was the only game on which we differed, and Bennett's Gopher pick worked out brilliantly. We both still expected more from Illinois, which once again looked lifeless on offense for most of the game. Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray came through for Bennett with 252 total yards and three touchdowns (2 rush, 1 pass), while Duane Bennett had a quieter day (57 rush yards). My prediction of a big day for Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins fizzled as he had only four receptions for 30 yards.
Penn State at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 28, Penn State 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 31, Penn State 20
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 45, Penn State 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected a more competitive game and didn't give Wisconsin enough credit for its track record of eviscerating the opposition at Camp Randall Stadium. Badgers QB Russell Wilson tossed two touchdown passes in the first half, not the second, as I predicted. Bennett correctly pegged a Matthew McGloin interception to turn the tide, as Wisconsin converted the miscue into the go-ahead touchdown and never looked back.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 13

November, 23, 2011
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The final full week of Big Ten action kicks off Friday in Lincoln, and, with the Thanksgiving holiday arriving Thursday, the predictions are coming at you early. Hope you're ready.

Bennett reclaimed the top spot in the season standings with a 5-1 performance in Week 12. Rittenberg is only a game behind, and there are several intriguing matchups on the slate this week.

It's pick time.

IOWA at NO. 21 NEBRASKA (FRIDAY)

Brian Bennett: Nebraska needs a hero in the Heroes Game to avoid a dispiriting finish to the season, and I think it will be the guy who gets called Superman. Rex Burkhead goes off for 150 yards and a couple of TDs as the Huskers stalk it to their neighbors. ... Nebraska 28, Iowa 20

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska plays better with a chip on its shoulder, and the edge is back after last week's humiliating loss at Michigan. Iowa's high-powered offense makes this very interesting as RB Marcus Coker racks up two touchdowns, but Huskers QB Taylor Martinez has been very good at home this season and comes up with four touchdowns (2 rush, 2 pass) as the Huskers prevail. ... Nebraska 31, Iowa 24

NO. 14 MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Adam Rittenberg: It's tough to know how Michigan State will respond after clinching the division last week. I like Mark Dantonio's approach, though, and although Northwestern will be geared up, the Spartans match up well with the Wildcats. Spartans WR B.J. Cunningham scores a late touchdown as Michigan State wins in Evanston. ... Michigan State 27, Northwestern 21

Brian Bennett: This isn't baseball, so the Spartans won't rest their starters. I sense that it's really important to this team to get to 10 wins, and Dantonio's offense is playing with a lot of confidence. Northwestern keeps it close, but Michigan State is a little too physical for the Wildcats. ... Michigan State 34, Northwestern 27

OHIO STATE at NO. 15 MICHIGAN

Brian Bennett: The streak ends. These two teams are trending in vastly different directions, and Ohio State's offense does not match up well with a Michigan defense that's playing lights-out right now. The Wolverines get off to a quick start behind two Denard Robinson touchdowns and start dreaming about the Sugar Bowl. ... Michigan 24, Ohio State 14

Adam Rittenberg: Sorry, Luke Fickell, but it is about talent, and Michigan, for the first time in a while, has more this season. It's also about motivation, and the Wolverines seniors want this game real bad after being embarrassed against their archrival. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen lead a strong defensive effort, and Fitzgerald Toussaint turns in another 100-yard rushing performance. ... Michigan 27, Ohio State 13

PURDUE at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: It wouldn't shock me if Indiana pulled off the upset in the Bucket game, as Purdue has been maddeningly inconsistent. But the Boilers seniors will step up in this one as they finally become bowl-eligible. The defense forces two second-half turnovers and Antavian Edison records a breakaway touchdown as Purdue prevails. ... Purdue 34, Indiana 24

Brian Bennett: If Purdue can't win this game, even on the road in a rivalry game, maybe it should be considered Hope-less. But the Boilers are much better than the 1-10 Hoosiers and will ride Ralph Bolden and a bunch of screen passes to the Bucket and bowl eligibility. ... Purdue 35, Indiana 17

ILLINOIS at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Upset special. Illinois has lost five straight and has no confidence right now, and Minnesota has nothing to lose while playing at home on Senior Day. MarQueis Gray and Duane Bennett have big days as the Gophers notch their second Big Ten win. ... Minnesota 21, Illinois 17

Adam Rittenberg: This wouldn't be that much of an upset, considering the way Illinois has performed recently. This one certainly could go either way, but Ron Zook is correctly making it about the players, not himself, this week as Illinois tries to end on a good note. The Illini have faced some pretty good teams during their losing streak, and Minnesota is not a good team. A.J. Jenkins turns in a big performance against a vulnerable Gophers secondary as Illinois ends its slide. ... Illinois 24, Minnesota 20

NO. 19 PENN STATE at NO. 16 WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin averages 52.3 points at Camp Randall Stadium, but it hasn't faced a defense nearly as good as Penn State's. Devon Still and the front four make the Badgers work for their points, but I just don't have enough confidence in the Penn State offense, even with the Wild-Lion, to reach the end zone enough. Russell Wilson throws two second-half touchdowns as Wisconsin wins the Leaders Division. ... Wisconsin 31, Penn State 20

Brian Bennett: If only Penn State could have saved its offensive surprise for this week. I'm not sure what else Tom Bradley and his staff can concoct to manufacture points, which any team going to Madison needs plenty of to have a chance. The Penn State defense does as well as can be expected, but Matthew McGloin throws a costly interception to turn the tide. ... Wisconsin 28, Penn State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 67-24 (.736)

Adam Rittenberg: 66-25 (.725)

Final: Northwestern 28, Minnesota 13

November, 19, 2011
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Northwestern is bowl eligible, and the Wildcats might be the hottest team in the Big Ten.

Pat Fitzgerald's crew won its fourth consecutive game to get above .500 (6-5) for the first time since Oct. 1. The Wildcats can secure a bowl berth by beating Michigan State next week, but they're in good shape after a 28-13 win against Minnesota.

Once again, Northwestern's defense triggered the effort and bought enough time for the offense to get going in the fourth quarter. Minnesota moved the ball against the Wildcats -- quarterback MarQueis Gray (147 rush yards) and running back Duane Bennett (127 rush yards) because the first Minnesota quarterback-running back pair to eclipse 100 rush yards in the same game since 2003 -- but Northwestern kept the Gophers out of the end zone and made big plays. The biggest came from safety Brian Peters, who caught a deflected Gray pass in the end zone for an interception. Gray showed he can be dangerous on his feet but still has a long way to go as a passer (9 of 21 for 124 yards and an interception).

Northwestern's offense scored three touchdowns in the first 12:31 but disappeared in the second and third quarters, as Minnesota took the unit out of its rhythm. The Wildcats recovered late with an impressive 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a Jacob Schmidt run. Schmidt (13 carries, 69 yards, TD) had a very nice fourth quarter, and Persa, while not playing his best game, had two touchdown strikes and 216 pass yards.

The bigger story is a defense that has rebounded nicely the past three weeks after a miserable start to Big Ten play.

It wasn't the prettiest win, but Northwestern will take it and move on. After starting the season 2-5, Northwestern is in position to go bowling again.
After a blistering start by Northwestern's offense, this game has settled down a bit as Minnesota regained momentum late in the half.

Northwestern looked unstoppable in the first quarter, scoring touchdowns on each of its first three possessions. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa fired touchdown passes to Demetrius Fields and Kain Colter, and Treyvon Green added a touchdown run as Northwestern's offensive line dominated play. But Minnesota turned things around when safety Kim Royston intercepted a Persa pass early in the second quarter.

The Gophers' defense seemed to get Northwestern out of its rhythm a bit, and Northwestern failed to score in the second quarter despite having the wind at its back. Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray is struggling to throw the ball for the second straight week, although he has found some running room. Duane Bennett turned in a nice half for the Gophers with 34 rush yards on seven carries. If Gray can limit turnovers and Bennett continues to run the ball well, this could be a close one down the stretch. Northwestern's defense is settling down a bit, as cornerback Jordan Mabin had a nice pass breakup in the end zone.

Week 12: Did you know?

November, 18, 2011
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Some notes and nuggets to hopefully make you smarter as you watch your favorite Big Ten team in action Saturday afternoon. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for several of these.
  • Penn State and Ohio State have met 22 times since 1975. At least one team was ranked in 20 of the 22 meetings, with the higher-ranked team prevailing in all 14 games prior to 2005, when No. 16 Penn State beat No. 6 Ohio State 17-10. Prior to 2005, the last time the lower-ranked team had won was in 1964, when the unranked Nittany Lions stunned the No. 2 Buckeyes 27-0 in Columbus.
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez have nearly identical numbers on designed runs this season, but Martinez seems to have slowed down a bit in recent weeks. Martinez is averaging only 4.3 yards per carry on designed runs in his past four games and hasn't had a 20-yard rush on such attempts since Week 3 against Washington. Both men have nine touchdowns on designed runs and five carries of 30 yards or longer. Robinson averages 6.4 yards on designed runs, while Martinez averages 6.3 yards.
  • Michigan State has finished the regular season strong under coach Mark Dantonio. Since Dantonio took over in 2007, Michigan State is 11-3 in the month of November, including five consecutive victories. The Spartans were 5-19 in November from 2000-06.
  • Purdue has seen 17 different players rush with the ball this season and not a single runner has lost a fumble on 388 carries. Two of the Boilers' three lost fumbles this season have come after receptions; the other was on a punt return.
  • Indiana's underclassmen have accounted for: all of the team’s 15 rushing scores; all of the team’s 179 completions, 2,104 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns; 3,731 of the team’s 3,735 total yards (99.9 percent); 1,627 of the team’s 1,631 rushing yards (99.8 percent); 419 of the team’s 421 rushing attempts (99.5 percent); 993 of the team’s 999 kick-return yards (99.4 percent); 223 or the team’s 229 points (97.4 percent); nine of the team’s 10 receiving touchdowns (90.0 percent); 4,291 of the team's 4,831 all-purpose yards (88.8 percent); 1,610 of the team's 2,104 receiving yards (76.5 percent); 132 of the team's 179 receptions (73.7 percent).
  • Under offensive coordinator Mick McCall, Northwestern has found a way to move the chains efficiently on third down. The Wildcats have been successful on exactly 50 percent of their third-down attempts (69 of 138), the ninth-best average among FBS teams. Northwestern has finished in the top 20 nationally in that category each of the past two years.
  • Ohio State players have intercepted a pass against Penn State and returned it for a touchdown seven times since 2002. The Buckeyes won all five games where they recorded a pick-six. They recorded two pick-sixes against Penn State last season, as both Devon Torrence and Travis Howard had scoring returns.
  • Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson has thrown 101 touchdown passes in his career. That trails only Houston's Case Keenum (144) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (130) for the most among active FBS players. Wilson leads all current major-conference players. He became just the 13th quarterback in FBS history, and just the fifth from a BCS conference, to pass for 100 TDs.
  • Nebraska’s defense has been stingy lately, especially in the first half. In the Cornhuskers' past four games, they have allowed a total of 10 points in the first half (Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern, Penn State).
  • Duane Bennett’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Saturday's loss to Wisconsin was the second kickoff return for a score this season by Minnesota; Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 92 yards at Purdue earlier this season. It is the first time Minnesota has had two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the same season since 1997.
  • Iowa's 37-21 loss to Michigan State last Saturday marked the first Iowa loss by more than 10 points in 53 games, dating back to a 31-6 loss at Purdue on Oct. 20, 2007. Iowa did not lose a game by more than a touchdown in 43 consecutive games, between a 28-19 loss to Western Michigan on Nov. 17, 2007, to the 13-3 loss at Penn State on Oct. 8 this season.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 4, 2011
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Scanning the web so you don't have to ...

Did you know? Big Ten in Week 10

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
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Some notes and nuggets to hopefully make you smarter as you watch Big Ten football this weekend. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info for several of these.
  • Michigan State has allowed 22 plays of 20-plus yards this season, the fewest in the Big Ten and tied for ninth fewest in the FBS.
  • Nebraska finished the first half of its regular season at 5-1 for the second consecutive year. In each of Bo Pelini’s first three seasons as head coach, Nebraska has equaled or bettered its first-half record during the second six games of the regular season. Overall, Nebraska is 17-7 in the first half of the regular season under Pelini, and 17-3 after the midway point during Pelini’s first three seasons, including 2-0 this season.
  • Iowa and Michigan are tied for 27th in the nation in red zone offense (88 percent conversions), with both teams scoring points on 29 of 33 red zone possessions. Michigan leads the nation in red zone defense (59 percent, 13-for-22), while Iowa is tied for 16th at 72 percent (26-for-36).
  • Russell Wilson completed 61.5 percent of his passes of 15-plus yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in Wisconsin's six wins. He completed 36.8 percent of his passes (7-19) with two touchdowns and two interceptions in Wisconsin's two losses.
  • Minnesota running back Duane Bennett has cracked the team's top 15 for all-time career rushing yardage. He has rushed for 1,893 yards in his career. Last week’s total of 101 yards pushed him to the No. 18 spot on the chart. He needs 107 yards to become just the 13th Gopher to rush for 2,000 career yards.
  • Through the first eight games of the season, Purdue has lost only three fumbles (only two on offense). Purdue has seen 16 different players rush with the ball this season and not a single runner has coughed it up on 317 carries.
  • In the past three games, Indiana has averaged 253.0 rushing yards, 47 attempts and 5.3 yards per carry to move into a tie for fifth in Big Ten games with 182.8 rushing yards per game. In its first six games of the season, Indiana averaged 118.8 rushing yards.
  • The month of November has been kind to Northwestern in recent seasons, with the Wildcats posting a 7-4 mark in the final month of the regular season since the start of 2008. That includes a 4-2 record on the road in November.
  • Ohio State running back Dan Herron had his 13-game streak with a rushing touchdown snapped in last week's win over Wisconsin. That was the longest streak by a Buckeye since Pete Johnson ran for at least one score in 13 consecutive games from 1975-76. Keith Byars ran for at least one rushing TD in 21 straight games during the 1983-84 seasons. Ohio State is 21-3 in the 24 games in which Herron has scored a rushing touchdown.
  • With 268 yards of total offense per game, Michigan QB Denard Robinson tries to become the first player to lead the conference in consecutive years in total offense since Purdue's Drew Brees led the Big Ten from 1998-2000. At 17.0 points per game, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball would average the most points per game since at least 1970 and become the first player since former Indiana running back Anthony Thompson in 1988-89 to lead the conference in points per game two years in a row.

Big Ten stock report: Week 10

November, 2, 2011
11/02/11
3:00
PM ET
Meet me at the stock hop.

Stock up

Fitzgerald Toussaint: Michigan coach Brady Hoke finally named a starting running back on Monday, not that there was any doubt left after the Purdue win. Fitzgerald Toussaint's name sounds like a 19th-century French impressionist, and his 59-yard touchdown run Saturday was a work of art. He tallied 170 yards and two scores in all last week, and it looks like the Wolverines have finally found a consistent complement to Denard Robinson.

Tim Marlowe: The Nebraska junior receiver has been getting a lot more playing time and nearly took a 39-yard reverse to the house against Michigan State. He's slight -- just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds -- but has drawn praise from his coaches for the way he plays the game. Marlowe is getting more run right now than highly-regarded freshman receiver Jamal Turner.

Braxton Miller: The Ohio State freshman quarterback is growing up quickly. His unwavering confidence at the end of the Wisconsin game was truly remarkable for a guy his age, and he appears to be getting better each week. If he can become a more polished passer, Miller will be a terror on opposing Big Ten defenses for the next three-plus years.

Silas Redd: We've written a lot of nice things about Redd in the blog lately, but what he did in October can't be said enough. He had 703 rushing yards in the month and continued his workhorse ways the past two games while dealing with a stinger in his shoulder. If anybody earned a bye week this week, it's the Penn State rising star tailback.

Duane Bennett: Inspired by the Iowa rivalry, the Minnesota tailback ran for 101 yards in last week's win. It was his first 100-yard day since the second game of last season and the first by a Gophers tailback this season. Bennett overcame a costly early fumble and minor knee injury to help Minnesota keep the pig.

Stock down


Big Ten teams on the road: Road teams are just 8-18 on the road in conference play, and some teams seem to be completely different outfits away from home. Michigan State has scored just 26 points total in three road games, while the Spartans are averaging more than 36 per game at home. Iowa has lost five straight road games, and it would be six if not for a dropped Indiana touchdown pass last year. Purdue has fallen six straight times on the road. Do we need coach Norman Dale to break out the measuring tape and show these guys that a football field is still a football field, no matter where it is?

Damarlo Belcher: Belcher should be celebrating his achievement of setting the all-time Indiana receptions record right about now. Instead, the senior who skipped on a chance to enter the NFL draft last year got himself dismissed from the team, just two catches short of the record.

Wisconsin special teams: That's two straight weeks now that the Badgers have had a punt blocked that either resulted or directly led to a touchdown. Bret Bielema says there have been breakdowns in punt protection that he will try to fix. Wisconsin also had a field goal blocked at Michigan State and gave up a long kickoff return to Ohio State that helped set up the winning touchdown. Those mistakes were just as big as the long passes that got the Badgers beat.

Illinois special teams: Wisconsin isn't the only team struggling in the kicking game. The Illini have also had punts blocked in each of the past two weeks. And in the Penn State game they lost by three, they botched one field goal attempt and had another hit off the upright. That's no way to stop a three-game losing streak.

Iowa's defensive front: Not that much has gone right anywhere for the Hawkeyes defense, but the lack of stoutness up front was truly telling in the Minnesota loss. The Gophers came in as one of the worst rushing teams in the Big Ten but were able to gash Iowa in the fourth quarter. Kirk Ferentz's defense isn't getting many tackles for loss (99th in the country) or sacks (83rd), which are signs of weakness up front. Losing three defensive linemen from last year's team to the NFL has taken a heavy toll.
At 60 yards long, 25 yards wide and shaped like a football, the home locker room at TCF Bank Stadium is one of the largest and nicest in all of college football.

In other words, it's not a bad spot for a party.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers held quite the bash there early Saturday night.

"It was like a huge nightclub," Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray told ESPN.com on Monday. "Guys were running around, screaming, taking pictures with the pig. We just couldn't believe it would be there another year."

[+] EnlargeFloyd of Rosedale
Vincent Muzik/Icon SMIThe Minnesota Golden Gophers had plenty of reasons to celebrate on Saturday.
The Gophers weren't the only ones. Other than a handful of positive-thinking Minnesota fans, no one outside the locker room gave the Gophers any chance to keep the pig, which, for those who don't know, is the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.

Minnesota hadn't merely lost its first three Big Ten games. The Gophers weren't competitive, getting outscored 144-31. Opponents outscored Minnesota 48-0 in the first quarters of those games, each of which was essentially over at halftime.

It's why Saturday's 22-21 victory against Iowa was so special to the Minnesota players, coaches and fans. The Gophers had endured one of the more miserable two-month stretches in team history. They had been labeled -- by this blog and other outlets -- as the worst major-conference team in America, with little evidence to the contrary.

But after hanging around in the first half, the Gophers rallied from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win. Gray's fourth-down touchdown run with 2:48 proved to be the game-winner.

Not long after, Gray posted a picture of himself and Floyd on his Twitter page.

"It was a great win for us," Gray said. "Very positive. Couldn't have happened at a better time. Hopefully, it can turn around our season."

The first sign that Saturday's game would be different came at the end of the first quarter. Minnesota hadn't scored (not unusual this year) but wasn't trailing (very unusual).

"I knew then," Gray said, "that we had a shot."

Minnesota's defense continued to keep Iowa off of the scoreboard, despite a huge performance from Hawkeyes running back Marcus Coker. But the Gophers' offense wasn't doing anything, either.

After Minnesota running back Duane Bennett fumbled in Iowa territory early in the second quarter, Gray gathered the offense. The mild-mannered junior, who prefers to lead by example, spoke up.

"I started expressing my feelings to them," Gray said. "I can't say exactly what I was saying. It wasn't the best choice of words. I felt like the defense was playing their hearts out and the offense, we were just shooting ourselves in the foot."

Gray led a touchdown drive late in the half and came alive in the fourth quarter. He finished with 193 pass yards, 61 rush yards and two touchdowns.

The Gophers' sideline erupted with every big play in the second half. Someone tuning into the action might have thought Minnesota had won the game several times, judging by how players reacted to each positive moment.

This had been a long time coming. Especially for coach Jerry Kill.

Kill not only had endured the bad losses but twice was hospitalized for seizures in the first month of the season. He has been tough on his players and candid about the long road to respectability ahead for Minnesota.

But for one night at least, he could enjoy himself.

"He's still a hard-nosed guy, but you could tell he's very excited we won that game," Gray said. "He expressed a joyful sense of humor with us. His family was in there. Everyone was just so happy about bringing back the pig."

The celebration won't last long as Minnesota faces ranked opponents the next two weeks (No. 17 Michigan State and No. 20 Wisconsin).

But the Gophers hope Saturday's win is the starting point for bigger and better things.

"It makes us feel great," Gray said. "Having that win, it lets us know we can beat anybody on any given day."

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 31, 2011
10/31/11
12:00
PM ET
Best. October. Ever.

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