Big Ten: Elijah Hodge


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After Wednesday's practice, Wisconsin defensive end O'Brien Schofield was having a hard time charging his cell phone.

"Aw, man, terrible," Schofield said. "You know phone chargers these days die out real fast."
 
 David Stluka/Icon SMI
 Changing positions from linebacker to defensive end has worked out for O'Brien Schofield (50) and the Wisconsin Badgers.


Fortunately for the Badgers, the same can't be said for Schofield. His battery is fully charged this season, and he provides a major jolt to the Wisconsin defense every time he steps on the field.

After a fairly quiet career, Schofield has been the Big Ten's biggest surprise on defense this fall, not to mention one of the nation's true breakout performers. The senior from Great Lakes, Ill., leads the nation in tackles for loss with 14.5, 2.5 more than any other defender, and leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, 2 more than anyone else. Schofield has recorded at least 2.5 tackles for loss in four games and could challenge Tom Burke's amazing single-season school record of 31.5 tackles for loss in 1998.

Not bad for a guy who entered the season with only five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in 31 games during his first three seasons.

"Did I expect it? Yes. Did I know it was really going to happen? Didn't really know until we saw the bullets start flying," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "He's playing as high a level as anybody that I've been around since I've been here at Wisconsin.

"To be leading the nation in tackles for loss, that doesn't just come about by luck. He worked very hard to get there."

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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten football is here!

If you could see me right now, I'd be doing my happy dance. On second thought, it's probably better you don't see me.

Anyway, after this Sahara of an offseason, I'm excited to start blogging about actual games again.

Here's a quick rundown of what's on tap for the opening weekend in the Big Ten:

THURSDAY

Eastern Kentucky at Indiana, 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Indiana debuts the pistol offense against FCS Eastern Kentucky, a team that enjoyed good success under current Purdue head coach Danny Hope from 2003-07. Keep an eye on the Hoosiers' running back race, as three or four backs, including dynamic redshirt freshman Darius Willis, are expected to get carries. Coming off a 3-9 season, Indiana needs a strong start from its defense, who will face Colonels quarterback Cody Watts, a converted wide receiver who led the team in touchdown receptions (5) last season.

SATURDAY

Towson at Northwestern, noon ET, Big Ten Network

The Wildcats shouldn't have much trouble with Towson, a team that went 3-9 last season and still hasn't decided on its starting quarterback. But this will be a chance for Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka and a new crop of starting skill players to get comfortable and gain confidence. Star defensive end Corey Wootton returns to the field after recovering from a torn ACL, and true freshman running back Arby Fields likely will see a lot of work.

Montana State at Michigan State, noon ET, Big Ten Network

All eyes will be on the Spartans' offensive backfield, where position battles at both quarterback and running back have intensified. Quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both are expected to play a lot, but who creates separation will be key. Michigan State coaches told ESPN.com last week that running backs Caulton Ray, Larry Caper and Edwin Baker likely will enter the season as the top ball carriers. Montana State also remains unsettled at quarterback with Mark Iddins and Cody Kempt competing for the top spot.

Navy at No. 6 Ohio State, noon ET, ESPN

Before a much anticipated rematch with USC, Ohio State must get past Navy, which always provides a challenge but doesn't appear to be as strong as it is in most years. Terrelle Pryor's progress from Year 1 to Year 2 will be interesting to watch, and I'm also very curious about the left tackle position. Will Andrew Miller or J.B. Shugarts emerge as the answer to protect Pryor's blind side?

Akron at No. 9 Penn State, noon ET, Big Ten Network

Whether it's fair or not, everyone expects a blowout here, and Penn State needs to deliver. The Lions' schedule forces the team not only to win, but win in very impressive fashion. Penn State can build confidence at wide receiver and offensive line against Akron, which ranked 90th nationally in total defense last fall. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain is pretty solid and will provide a good test for a new-look Penn State secondary.

Minnesota at Syracuse, noon ET, ESPN2

What is it about Minnesota and dome stadiums? The Golden Gophers thought they had rid themselves of domes for good by moving out of the Metrodome last fall, but they head indoors again to face Syracuse. Emotions will be high in the Carrier Dome as the Doug Marrone era begins and former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus starts at quarterback. Minnesota is the better team here, and as long as the Gophers keep their composure and don't struggle too much with their new pro-style offense, they should be fine.

Toledo at Purdue, noon ET, Big Ten Network

The Danny Hope era begins in West Lafayette as Purdue takes on Toledo, which also welcomes in a new coach (Tim Beckman). It will be interesting to watch how much the Boilers offense has changed under coordinator Gary Nord. Running back is arguably Purdue's deepest position, and backs like Jaycen Taylor, Ralph Bolden and Frank Halliburton all should get work. Boilers quarterback Joey Elliott needs to be aware of Toledo star safety Barry Church, a Nagurski Award candidate.

Northern Iowa at No. 22 Iowa, noon ET, Big Ten Network

This isn't your run-of-the-mill FBS vs. FCS beatdown. It could turn out that way, but Northern Iowa is pretty good and Iowa has some issues at running back. Former walk-on Paki O'Meara likely will get the start at running back for the Hawkeyes. Former Wisconsin linebacker Elijah Hodge, whose brother Abdul starred for Iowa, is making his debut with Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has won the last 14 meetings in the series stretching back to 1898.

Western Michigan at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

There's plenty of intrigue here, and I'll be on hand to watch it. Michigan tries to win its first opener since 2006 and close the book on a disastrous 2008 season. The Wolverines could use three quarterbacks (Nick Sheridan, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson) in the game, and they must try to contain a really good signal-caller (Tim Hiller) on the other side. Perhaps the biggest question is how Michigan will come out after the allegations from players about NCAA rule violations within the program. Can Michigan keep it together for a critical opener?

Illinois vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), 3:40 p.m. ET, ESPN

Easily the best matchup of a pretty bland opening weekend, Illinois and Missouri meet in what is usually an extremely entertaining game. Illinois returns more experience on offense and really needs a win to start a tough opening stretch. A key matchup pairs Illini quarterback Juice Williams and Missouri star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who recently Tweeted he'd "squeeze the pulp out of Juice." Williams set the total offense record at Edward Jones Dome in his last appearance against Missouri and needs a repeat performance.

Northern Illinois at Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Week 1 wraps up with a night game at Camp Randall Stadium, where Wisconsin's surprise starting backfield of Scott Tolzien and Zach Brown takes on Northern Illinois. The Badgers likely will play both Tolzien and redshirt freshman Curt Phillips at quarterback, but Tolzien will have the first chance to create some separation. Versatile NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish provides a good challenge for a Wisconsin defense replacing five starters in the front seven.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Taking a spin around the league:

  • Wisconsin announced the departures of three players, including reserve quarterback James Stallons, who will seek a transfer, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times. Former starting linebacker Elijah Hodge also won't be back in 2009.
  • Excellent news about former Wisconsin wide receivers coach Henry Mason, who is returning to the staff as director of football player personnel and external relations. Mason suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2007.
  • In case you missed it, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett is blogging from prison, Bob Hunter writes in The Columbus Dispatch.
"The athlete's ego is still there -- Clarett can't magically erase all that adulation from memory -- but his writings aren't the ramblings of a loser who can't seem to fathom why the world won't give him a break. He is taking courses from Ohio University and candidly admits surprise that he is enjoying them so much, and he professes a deep desire to help others avoid his fate."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern media day has come and gone, and I learned that at least one Big Ten coach (Pat Fitzgerald) has read the blog. Only 10 more to go.

The schedule is shaping up a bit for next week. I'll be spending Wednesday at Camp Rantoul with the Illinois Fighting Illini, before heading over to Purdue for media day on Thursday. There could also be some surprises along the way.

Here's your daily diet of links:

  • If you're just waking up, Ohio State defensive backs Donald Washington and Jamario O'Neal have been suspended for the first two games of the season. Not a major blow, given that they'll be back for USC, but it could shake up the dynamic in the secondary.
  • Oh, and some guy named Terrelle Pryor spoke with reporters at Ohio State media day. He was a pretty popular man, Paul Schofield writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Items of note: Pryor rooms with starting quarterback Todd Boeckman, gets a lot of reps in practice and likes hanging out with the older players.
  • More on Ohio State media day from The Columbus Dispatch's Buckeye Blog. Left tackle Alex Boone knows how to roundup the linemen -- "If you're big and fat, let's go" -- a group that includes Michigan transfer Justin Boren.
  • Wisconsin star tight end Travis Beckum sat out Thursday's practice with "tightness in his lower body," but it doesn't appear to be too serious, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times. Also, defensive lineman Brandon Hoey's career is over after lingering back problems.
  • The Badgers seem pretty solid at outside linebacker, but the middle is a concern. Enter Jaevery McFadden, who could unseat incumbent Elijah Hodge for the job, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus writes in the Badgers Blog.
  • Apparently Akron doesn't like its chances to upset Wisconsin on Aug. 30. The school gave back some of its allotted tickets, so get 'em while they're available.
  • Strong defense is a given at Penn State, but a strong season hinges on whether the offense can make up ground, Jeff Rice writes in the Centre Daily Times.
"Penn State has scored a total of six points in its last two trips to Camp Randall Stadium, where it faces Wisconsin on Oct. 11. It has scored a total of 23 points in its last three visits to Ohio Stadium, where it will face the Buckeyes on Oct. 25."

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